Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. New Arrivals

I try not to make my work the subject of too much of my writing. I feel that I should branch out, be more creative, pull information from outside sources. But we just get so many fascinating creatures in that I cannot help but be inspired by their miraculous adaptations, morphology and behaviours. Besides, only a little over a year ago, my work would have been an outside source of information for me. So what the heck – I’ll go for it and share a little about a couple of our newest arrivals.

Two animals seem to be busying my mind today. Each has absolutely nothing to do with the other from a phylogenetic perspective; but they both arrived on our doorstep from distant locales, each an unintentional stowaway on planes bound far from home. One – from the phylum Arthropoda – is a lovely example of the order Araneae, the spiders. While I know that many may tremble at the mere thought of these invertebrates, I actually happen to find them quite beautiful. From an aesthetic perspective, any close examination, any exploration into the intricacies of their make-up would intrigue even the most wary. And remember: if unperturbed, these animals are generally as interested in leaving you alone as you are in avoiding their presence.
This particular individual, who came in just four days ago on a shipment of bananas from South America, is a particularly striking specimen. Daddy-long-legs watch out. This lady makes no bones about the fact that she means business. Her bright orange mandibles (jaws) are a sure warning sign, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be the young predator testing out my ‘eat this one mom?’ instincts in her neighbourhood.

Bright colours almost invariably mean danger, and act as warning signs to would-be predators on the lookout for a tasty snack. It’s actually quite a kind gesture on the spider’s part if you think about it: Unless you’re blind, or just not the sharpest knife in the drawer, you’d have a hard time missing her message of ‘stay back, or else’. In this instance, a communication failure could have serious consequences – both for the eater and the eaten. The spider’s desire to avoid all possibilities of falling prey to a hungry predator help her, and those who might wish to make her their lunch. Both parties will be helped immensely by her clear warning: Nature has shown that her aposomatic colouration will go a long way in keeping her alive and well, and keeping predators from making some nasty mistakes.

The other creature often on my mind these days is a little Mediterranean Gecko. Tiny, green, relatively nondescript – this animal is not physically striking, as is our new spider-friend. But he’s got some great adaptations that one can’t help but admire; and by virtue of minuteness alone he is quite adorable. Part of the phylum Chordata, order Squamata, this little lizard, originally from Texas, is blessed with the spiderman-like skill of being able to scale sheer surfaces. With his adhesive toe-pads, he is able to nimbly climb the smoothest of surfaces. If you’ve ever hung out in the warmth of the southern sun, you will have seen a gecko. They are almost like flies on the wall at the summer cottage; every sunny southern restaurant (open to the air as they must be just to have a bit of air circulation) sports these little living, moving art pieces on the walls and ceilings.

Ubiquitous in southern locales, the gecko is in some ways the polar opposite of the spider above. With no warning colouration, and in fact not much to warn of, the gecko is at the bottom of the food chain in the ecosystems in which it is found. But this doesn’t indicate poor success in evolutionary terms. While their life span as individuals is no doubt quite brief, these animals have been slowly increasing their geographic range. The little one in our care arrived in someone’s luggage from Austin, Texas. Not part of its historical range, its presence in this location is just another sign that the Mediterranean Gecko is pushing the boundaries. Its range map shows a fanning out from the south to the north, east and west.

Of course, stowing oneself away in a plane bound for afar is a surefire way to rapid and effective dispersal. But I somehow don’t think that this little guy, or Ms. clear-communicator Arachnid, would have picked Toronto as their ideal destination. From the sunny south to blustery Toronto in one fell swoop: talk about culture shock for these little lost wanderers. If only a fear of spiders and lizards didn’t exist, we might have a line up of winter weary Canadians volunteering to take the stowaways home. Are you up for it?

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at zk_dalton@hotmail.com.

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