Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… Nature has given each and every critter whether they are predators or prey a means of defending themselves. As curious children and occasionally as curious adults we have experienced some of these defenses in an unpleasant way. As a child I couldn’t just look at an American toad, I had to pick it up and see it more closely. I was initially surprised when a toad peed on my hand and reluctantly put it down. Today if the children and I want to see a toad more closely we get on our hands and knees and observe it or I will hold it for them to see it more closely. I always keep hand sanitizer in my pocket whenever I am hiking. Sometimes the defenses come as a sting, a bite, a hiss, a gnarl, an odor or even something more disgusting. One of my favorite migratory birds, the Turkey vulture, if it feels threatened will regurgitate on the intruder and then fly away.
One of the most obnoxious defenses is that which is emitted by a Striped skunk. Skunks have two highly developed scent glands on either side of the anus. Each gland can hold a little more than one tablespoon of musk. This oily mixture of strong odorous musk when sprayed is a very effective defense. Spraying the fine mist is usually the last resort effort for a skunk; it will try to run away if possible. It may also stomp its front feet, hiss or growl. If that doesn’t detour the offender it will lift its tail while looking straight at the predator and bring the rear of its body around and begin to spray. The spray can travel a distance of fifteen feet or more. In addition to the foul odor, the mist can also cause temporary blindness, nausea, and vomiting.
Insects have numerous ways of defending themselves ranging from camouflage which is employed by many butterflies and moths which resemble tree bark when their wings are closed. Some insects have eyespots on their wings or use of mimicry. Both a katydid and a praying mantis closely resemble leaves while a walking stick looks like a twig. Other insects consume foods that are harmless to themselves but make them toxic to predators; this is true of all stages of a monarch butterfly life cycle. Some insects like honey bees will die in defense of the hive. The queen bee and the workers have stingers that are used when necessary to defend the hive. The honey bee stinger is barbed; both the stinger and venom sac will deliver venom as they are torn from the bee’s body as if flies away after using its stinger. If stung by a honey bee it is essential to quickly remove the stinger.
Some insects, snakes, and mammals will “play dead” as a means of defense. This is known as thanatosis and is apparently an effective defense. While trying to photograph a Stink Bug recently I picked it up to place it in a better light. It immediately flipped onto its back and remained immobile, feigning death. The Eastern Hog-nosed snake is known to effectively use thanatosis. It may try being aggressive at first, but if the ploy doesn’t work, it will flip onto its back with its mouth open and its tongue hanging out. The Virginia opossum which is nocturnal and seldom seen in our area is also well known for thanatosis. If threatened by a predator it actually faints. It is a type of paralysis brought on by shock that renders it to appear dead.
How many of you have picked up a grasshopper only to release it immediately after is “spits” on you? Not nice but not really harmful. There are many insects that should never be picked up to study or photograph. The Blister Beetle is definitely one that should never be handled without gloves. They are more visible in the fall and curious to observe because of their beautiful metallic coloring. They too will feign death, but beware of the golden fluid oozing from their bodies. Their defense when disturbed is to emit an oily secretion from their joints. It is known as Cantharidin which can cause painful blisters if it comes in contact with human skin.
Some are able to carry their safety from harm retreats with them such as the carapace (top shell) and plastron (bottom shell) into which a painted turtle can escape and elude most predators. The snapping turtle cannot completely withdraw into its shell as it designed differently from the painted turtle’s abode. However, the snapping turtle has sharp hooked snapping jaws and an extremely long neck which can strike lightning fast out or even around to its rear legs or over the top of the carapace.
Some animals use speed and agility as well as a retreat as their means of defense, such as White-tailed Deer. A snort and a white-tail up signals alarm while long leaps and steady fast pace through the woods or meadow may be their best life-saving measure. Deer are also equipped with sharp hoofs and can pommel a predator, in addition to the use of antlers seasonally, as a means of defense.
For birds, of course, one of their biggest defenses is escaping through flight. That is especially true for big strong fliers like Canada geese. What many people may not be aware of is the fact that Canada geese experience an annual molt each year. The old worn feathers are replaced with new feathers. Most birds have a sequential molt which means that their flight feathers are lost one at a time simultaneously from each wing. This allows them to still be able to fly throughout the process. The annual molt that Canada geese have occurs between early July and mid-August. They lose all their primary wing feathers at the same time. They are unable to fly and may be vulnerable to predators at this time. They stand watch and can alert each other to possible danger and the use of the strong wings and feet, as well as safety in numbers, helps at these times. Also, the mouth of a Canada goose is equipped for plucking grasses and cutting stems. Both the bill and tongue have serrated edges and can also be a defensive tool.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com