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Posts Tagged ‘eldritch horrors’

Hyposmocoma is not the only unusual group of moth caterpillars I failed to observe in Hawai`i. Oh no precious, they are not.

Everyone knows what an inchworm looks like. Inchworms are the caterpillars of a family of moths called, appropriately, geometer moths. They tend to be well-camouflaged, resembling twigs. They eat plants, like most caterpillars, and some are serious agricultural pests.

A handful of Hawaiian species of the genus Eupithecia decided to break with tradition and become carnivores. They take advantage of their camouflage to fool unsuspecting insects into stepping on them. Then they suddenly reach back, grab the interloper with their talon-shaped legs, and eat it.

What’s especially cool is that they are not visual hunters. One species, in fact, hunts in the dark. Instead, they respond to touch: sensitive hairs on their backs tell them when prey is within striking distance. An insect walking on the caterpillar’s head or the front two thirds of its body will be unharmed.

It has been suggested, but not tested, that carnivorous Eupithecia‘s prey capture technique evolved from the “strike response” seen in some herbivorous caterpillars. The behaviour is best studied in the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), the larva of a large sphinx moth. When something brushes against it, it reaches back and sometimes rasps its mouthparts against its skin. This behaviour could serve to startle birds that attempt to eat a hornworm, or to remove parasitoid wasps that would lay their eggs on it (and whose larvae would then eat the caterpillar alive).

By this point you should be dying of curiosity. You want to see these caterpillars in action, don’t you? Well fortunately, the BBC has delivered this nightmarish footage. And io9’s got your animated gif needs covered. Wicked, eh?

I’m going to end this post on a somber note, though. Carnivory by Hawaiian Eupithecia was discovered in the 1970s. The discoverer, Steven Montgomery, described a later foray to the site where he first found a caterpillar chewing on a fly. His report struck a chord with me, calling to mind my own impressions of the Hawaiian rainforest—and this paper is from 1983.

I recently returned to the volcanic cone on the Big Island where I first learned that Hawaii’s caterpillars were insect killers. After 10 years, I was keen to see if the endangered lobelia-like plants still found sanctuary in the steep cinder cone, because a carelessly set fire had destroyed the only other clump of these stately wonders. As I climbed the steep slope, I was stung on the head by a yellowjacket, a recently arrived pest that apparently stole into the Islands with cargo from the mainland. Rounding the top, I searched in vain for the lobelias. With them, half of the native forest plants had disappeared, and signs of rooting by pigs were frequent. Suddenly, a large European boar charged from under the koa tree and fled. I found no caterpillars that day, and heard few native birds. For this place, a conservation opportunity has passed, but on behalf of other Hawaiian forests, it teaches us what is at stake.

These species are not listed as endangered, but their habitat is dwindling; like many endemic Hawaiian species, their days may be numbered.

References
Montgomery, Steven L. (1983). Carnivorous caterpillars: the behavior, biogeography and conservation of Eupithecia (Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in the Hawaiian Islands GeoJournal, 7 (6), 549-556 DOI: 10.1007/BF00218529
van Griethuijsen LI, Banks KM, & Trimmer BA (2013). Spatial accuracy of a rapid defense behavior in caterpillars. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216 (Pt 3), 379-387 PMID: 23325858

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It’s that time of year when nameless horrors prowl the ancient cobblestone streets in the city of my forefathers…I mean, when I re-read some H. P. Lovecraft to escape the saccharine horrors of holiday shopping malls. “The Festival” is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories; it captures the picturesque loneliness of a bleak winter night in a dilapidated town before it plunges into the usual putrescent monstrosities. The opening paragraph is beautiful; the way the story then transitions into your typical Lovecraftian tale seems almost like self-parody:

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me. In the twilight I heard it pounding on the rocks, and I knew it lay just over the hill where the twisting willows writhed against the clearing sky and the first stars of evening. And because my fathers had called me to the old town beyond, I pushed on through the shallow, new-fallen snow along the road that soared lonely up to where Aldebaran twinkled among the trees; on toward the very ancient town I had never seen but often dreamed of.
It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

Read the rest, and be glad that whatever holiday family gatherings you’ll enjoy/endure this season won’t be nearly so horrifying. Season’s greetings, earthlings!

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It takes a certain strange sort of imagination to put a plant at the centre of a horror story—the sort of imagination that not only sees the twigs brushing a window as tapping fingers, but that also assumes that the tree itself has hands.  In the spirit of my recent review of The Day of the Triffids, here is a brief, undoubtedly incomplete list of horror/weird fiction featuring botanical antagonists. Anyone with additions, please chime in in the comments. (All links are to free full texts when they’re available.)

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

As discussed in my previous post, this is an eerie dystopian book in which most of the population goes blind and is then preyed upon by mobile stinging plants. Subtle, unsettling, and deep.

The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

“It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us.”

Two friends go on a canoe trip down the Danube. When they stop to camp on a willow-covered island, strange things begin to happen. Things go missing, strange prints appear in the sand, and the canoe is mysteriously damaged. All the while the river is rising, and the tangled willows seem to have a mind of their own. In addition to being charged with suspense, this tale has some lovely descriptions of the riparian scenery.

The Man Whom the Trees Loved – Algernon Blackwood

“It really is extraordinary,” said a Woman who Understood, “that you can make that cypress seem an individual, when in reality all cypresses are so exactly alike.”

This Blackwood guy has a thing for evil trees. In this short story, an artist by the name of Sanderson has a knack for painting trees. And to him, each tree is indeed an individual, and they seem to know that he knows this. They seem to call to him, and he is drawn out into the forest around his house for longer and longer walks. It sounds incredibly cheesy, I know, but it’s phenomenally gripping, as the view shifts from that of the artists who really gets trees to that of his wife, who fears but can’t quite believe that the trees are after her husband.

Specimen 313 – Jeff Strand

It’s basically Little Shop of Horrors with an added love story—featuring not the gardener but the plant. And somehow, that’s adorable.

The Tree – H. P. Lovecraft

An old beekeeper tells the tale of an ancient, gnarled, sinister-looking olive tree, a tale of a competition between two skilled sculptors in ancient Greece. One of them sickens and dies, first instructing his friend and rival to bury olive branches by his head. As the surviving sculptor finishes his statue, an unusual tree grows above his studio. It’s far from HPL’s best work, but unusually understated; one that leaves you scratching your head.

The Tree on the Hill – H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel

Just your standard dimension-jumping cosmic horror tale. A man sits down under an odd-looking oak and glimpses an evil dimension. His learned friend hastily prevents humanity’s doom at the expense of his sanity. The usual, but not up to HPL’s best—I’ll blame Rimel.

The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

LotR has some classic nasty vegetation. The Ents, of course, are only horrific to Saruman’s lot, but Fangorn forest has an evil reputation. But when I first read the saga as a young’un, I was really creeped out by the Old Forest outside the Shire, which Frodo et al. have to cross as they flee towards Bree. The menacing trees trip people deliberately and gradually channel the travellers towards the river Withywindle, where they are nearly devoured by a sly old willow.

The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling

Vines…vines are great subjects for creepy stories, the way they twine around things and climb up walls. My memory of this is dim, but in Philosopher’s Stone, a trapdoor in Hogwarts hides a Devil’s Snare vine that tightens as its victims struggle. And, of course, the Whomping Willow (again with the willows!), introduced in Chamber of Secrets, has it in for anyone within reach of its bludgeoning boughs.

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She’s a stonefly (order Plecoptera), who came in to hang out on a loaf of bread one night at a friend’s house in the country. Note the bundle of eggs at the tip of her abdomen, which she’ll eventually deposit in water. The young are aquatic.

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…while you’re waiting for me to climb down the mountain and write another post (oh, and comment about, but it might take a bit for me to moderate):

Have a listen to A Nerd of Advice‘s wonderful episode about mansplaining among the geeks. They have some particularly thoughtful things to say about enjoying media that takes the occasional sexist/racist/what-have-you turn as well as some useful links.

Now to steer the discussion away from the mansplaining part and towards the “dealing with literature etc. that sometimes makes you cringe but is otherwise good”…you may have noticed that I have a slight obsession with one H. P. Lovecraft. I started reading Lovecraft about a year ago, and basically devoured the complete works in a few months. There’s something compelling about the wordy prose balanced by the shying away from overt description of unimaginable horrors, the total ownership of the word “eldritch”, the idea that too much knowledge is deadly and/or maddening. But here’s the thing: Lovecraft was super racist. In more than a “well people were more racist/didn’t know better back then” sort of way. I get the impression that if Shakespeare had been born in the late twentieth century his more misogynist and xenophobic edges would have been blunted. But Lovecraft? He just seems to have genuinely hated black people, truly thought they’re inferior. In his prose, this comes across infrequently, but his poetry (on top of being uniformly bad) is disgustingly racist. I feel like I have to deal with it in a different way than I deal with, say, the misogyny in Heinlein, which is basically to say “damn I like this guy’s writing; too bad he’s backwards about women”. In truth I haven’t decided how to deal with it.

Here are some SFF authors’ thoughts on the matter, collected by Nnedi Okorafor—a woman of colour who has won “The Howard”, the World Fantasy Award, which comes with a creepy bust of Lovecraft’s head. (Who wouldn’t want that in their living room?) (P.S. Let me slap a trigger warning on that link, because it quotes in full Lovecraft’s most disturbingly racist poem.) In sum: many lean towards just making H. P. roll in his grave by their very existences as successful non-white/non-racist authors. Nnedi herself, more charitably, suggests that Lovecraft is now a being of pure spirit who, having had his mind opened to things beyond the realm of human conception after his death, realizes the error of his ways. Neither approach really helps me as a reader of Lovecraft’s work, though. I have concluded that all I can do is change my Time Travel Priorities such that I would go punch Lovecraft in the face before I went off to find me some dinosaurs. (In short, feeble fist-shake to the cosmos.)

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it’s a male dobsonfly a.k.a. hellgramite! note that it’s sitting on big-sized bubble wrap. this dude’s almost as big as my hand, but actually its nasty-looking jaws are so exaggerated that it couldn’t properly bite you. i hope.

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ResearchBlogging.orgSometimes I think the biological literature needs more natural history reports. Sometimes I get to read such reports and I’m not sure that I wanted to know what they had to tell me.

To wit: there are two species of beetle, Epomis circumscriptus and E. dejeani, whose larvae eat frogs (and other amphibians). They do so in a rather unusual way: they don’t kill them and then chew them up, but rather attach to them like a leech and suck them dry. And they actively lure in their prey by twitching their antennae and mouthparts (in a manner that I assume mimics the movement of smaller insects like ants; at least, that’s what it looks like to me – see video S1 at this link). When the frog tries to chomp them—and frogs can move really fast—the beetle larva moves even faster and latches on to the  frog’s mouth or belly and just doesn’t let go. In fact, it has double-pronged mouthparts for doing so. The frog can’t get it off, and is just gradually sucked dry.

What is even more cool/horrifying is how resilient the beetles are. Many beetle larvae are soft-bodied; these, instead, are tough enough to endure the frog’s pawing at them and trying to swallow them. One, in fact, does get completely swallowed. And it stays alive, squirming in the frog’s belly for two hours, before the frog pukes it up. And then it eats the frog.

There’s a video of this (it’s video S4). I watched it twice in a row, and sat there with my mouth hanging open, unsure whether to shout “holy shit that’s cool!” or just whimper. I just watched it again and I still can’t decide.

Okay, deep breaths; serious science blogging time.

I am curious to know why the frogs (apparently) eventually stop trying to dislodge the larvae and just let themselves be drained. Are the larvae injecting them with some toxin (I’ve never heard of a beetle doing that)? Or just weakening them to the point where they can’t fight back? Or, in nature, do they usually drop off before the host dies?

Also, does this really constitute “role reversal” as the paper defines it? It seems to me that the beetle larvae are mimicking some other potential frog prey, and amphibians typically look for movement when hunting, whereas the larvae are only moving their mandibles and antennae. Although some of the frog species tested eat close relatives of Epomis beetles, perhaps this is not a case of a typical prey becoming a predator (if the ancestors of these two species are sit-and-wait predators that normally eat other creatures) but rather just of the origin of a new predatory behaviour. But right now there’s probably not enough information to evaluate either hypothesis, and regardless, I don’t mean to detract from this truly cool discovery. (Yes, I’ve come down on the side of amazement rather than horror in the end.)

Wizen, G., & Gasith, A. (2011). An Unprecedented Role Reversal: Ground Beetle Larvae (Coleoptera: Carabidae) Lure Amphibians and Prey upon Them PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025161

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