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Maryland / DC

The Coolest and Ghoulish: Halloween Species

Every day is Halloween if you know where to look in nature.

By: Lindsay Renick Mayer with Deborah Landau

Conservation Ecologist Deborah Landau spends much of her time out in nature on the more than 30 Nature Conservancy preserves in Maryland. This time of year, however, some of the common critters she encounters during her treks through the woods seem especially well-positioned to conjure up the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve. In honor of the holiday, we sat down with Deborah this week to find out which species—plant and animal—on our preserves are among the coolest and the ghoulish.

Phantom Forests

Our Eastern Shore preserves are full of ghosts—or at least what appears to be dozens of tiny ghosts that start swaying or wiggling to spook you away when they sense you’re nearby. But rather than miniature versions of the dead stuck in limbo, these are boogie woogie aphids, also known as the beech blight aphid. The boogie woogies are actually translucent blue, but covered in white waxy fluff that deters predators from eating them. They live in groups on American beech trees, giving the branches a fluffy appearance. Like other aphids, the boogie woogies secrete honeydew, a sticky and sweet excrement that is exclusively associated with a fungus called “sooty mold.” The fungus turns tree branches black, adding a spooky ambiance to the forest. “So these white ghosts of the woods leave behind this black ghoulish goo,” Deborah says. “They’re cool little remnants of the forest and especially fun to see around Halloween, before they disappear for the winter.”

Check out these little guys in action (YouTube video)

What Does the Fox Say?

You’ve probably heard that song once or twice recently and according to Deborah, it’s not so far off for the red fox, a species that lives on all of Maryland’s preserves. “Nothing’s creepier than hearing a fox make all these super crazy sounds in the middle of the night,” Deborah says. “They’ve got this extensive vocabulary of strange calls. They’re commonly misidentified at night because nobody associates these blood-curdling shrieks with a beautiful, cunning red fox.”

What does the fox actually say? Animalist on YouTube explains (video)

Feed Me

An unassuming plant called the pitcher plant lives in the dark, wet, acidic bogs that were once found throughout the Eastern Shore. For insects looking for a place to land in all the muck, the plants seem the perfect oasis. But unfortunately for the unsuspecting invertebrate, these beautiful plants have evolved a unique feature to survive in an otherwise inhabitable environment for flora—they are carnivorous. “These beautiful, sweet-smelling, attractive-looking plants just lure insects in,” Deborah says. “As soon as they land, the bugs slip and slide in, are pulled downward by hairs and end up in a pool of digestive enzymes. Then they are slowly digested.” And if the flesh-eating plant doesn’t get the insect, then the spiders living at the opening of the pitcher plant and stealing food from it will. “It’s a different form of ghoulish death,” Deborah says. “Either way, as soon as the insects land, it’s just doom.”

Move Over, Honey Badger

A new kind of ferocity is in town: Fishers are aggressive weasels that live on The Nature Conservancy’s Cranesville Swamp Preserve and that eat everything—frogs, crayfish, mice, small birds, anything they can get their paws on. “They’re these little dark flowing bodies in the night, pouncing on unsuspecting critters,” Deborah says. “If you’re a small animal, you don’t stand a chance. Nothing fazes them.” And if you think that’s scary, they’re one of the few species with the brass to attack and eat a species that is not only larger than them, but that is best known for its natural defense: the porcupine.

Holy Nature, Batman!

As creatures of the night, bats are obvious Halloween favorites. In addition to protecting two bat caves, the Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter protects interior forest that harbors four species of bats when they’re not overwintering—the little brown bat, the big brown bat, the eastern pipistrelle and the northern long-eared bat. “Bats live by throwing off sonar frequencies, so they see the world through sound,” Deborah says. “And you have to love that they’re just flying around all night eating the bugs that suck our blood and eat our crops.”

What’s really scary is the bats’ devastating disappearing act over the last few years. A disease called white-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 5.5 million cave-hibernating bats in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and Canada. The disease has a mortality rate of 90 to 100 percent in little brown bats and populations of the northern long-eared bat in the Northeast have declined by 99 percent since 2006. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the northern long-eared bat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Masters of Disguise

Something with the name flannel moth might evoke images of comfort and warmth during the winter months. And as caterpillars they certainly don’t look like they could cause anyone much discomfort—they look like cute little fuzzy huggable (yes, huggable!) bugs. But according to Deborah, the caterpillars more closely resemble the terror of the fictional tribbles on Star Trek than innocent aspiring moths. Each of the caterpillar’s hairs has venomous spines that cause a stinging, painful rash and welts when anything—or anyone—comes in contact with them. Deborah learned this firsthand. “I rarely get scared in the woods, but I thought something was attacking me,” she says. “I’ll never forget it. This is the forest ghoul I’m most scared of.” Flannel moths are common throughout this region and feed on deciduous trees, such as oaks.

The Hunchback of Nassawango

Black-crowned night herons also live throughout this region and haunt the woods in their own special way. They appear to wear a dark cloak and sit sort of hunched over, waiting for small fish, crayfish, and frogs to swim by in the middle of the night, terrorizing the usual nightcrawlers. Night hikes and camping can quickly turn creepy when these birds call—according to Deborah, they make a jarring noise that sounds like “quark” and pierces the quiet of night.

Listen to their twilight call here (YouTube video)
 

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