Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Trick or Trick? Halloween Creature Contenders

by Sam Matchette

Halloween. Even at the mention of it, I’m sure a good number of you are picturing a vast array of beasts, ghouls and monsters – or any other blood-sucking demon from hell. Entangled in this net of horror are a number of animals; all of which have developed a special, cult relationship with the day. For example, black cats, wolves, bats and spiders all receive the ‘Halloween treatment’ – mostly because they all seemingly do well in a witch broth or two. However, in true cliché breaking fashion, I am convinced that nature can offer a far more blood-curdling spectrum of unlikely beasts (in their own right) than stereo-typically portrayed. Let’s explore the often (and literally) over-looked contenders…

Surprisingly, the first is typically only an inch long, but will undoubtedly send shivers through at least half the people in the room. Native to the amazon basin, the Candiru Fish is a translucent, eel-like fish with catfish barbels at its anterior end. Parasitic by nature, Candirus follow the water flowing out of gill flaps of other larger fish. It then dives in and grasps to the inner layer of the gill cavity. Here, it can open up its sharp, umbrella-like spines to lock itself in position whilst vigorously suckling the host’s blood. Once full, they unhook and sink to the river floor to digest the meal - whilst eying the next passing blood bonanza. The Candiru fish is even also called the Vampire fish for this very reason. But, of course, this process isn’t limited to fish – brace yourselves. A suitable flow of liquid for the Candiru can include the flow of urine from an organism’s urethra. Thus, an unsuspecting tourist caught short on the amazon may well get a very, very nasty shock – allowing the fitting title of ‘willy fish’ to be adopted. Naturally, the pain is said to be indescribable. As far as Halloween costumes go, this may not make the obvious choice; for ‘Fright Factor’ however, the Candiru fish certainly has my vote.

Along a similar line as the Candiru fish, our next contender is exceptionally frightening when considered from the prey’s viewpoint. Winner of one of the coolest names in the animal kingdom, the Antlion (or Sand dragon) is exactly what it says on the tin; a golden-hair covered beetle-like insect that feeds on ants or other unsuspecting morsels. It is in fact the predatory larvae of the ‘antlion lacewing’, but has adopted its own title as ‘antlion’ due to its ability to remain in the larval form for many years. The antlion builds a self-built conical hole in very fine sand and waits patiently at its centre – picture George Lucas’ Great Pit of Carkoon. A careless slip into the hole leaves an insect doomed: fighting a far too literal uphill battle to escape the large grabbing mouth appendages of the antlion. Inevitably, exhaustion takes over and the insect is quickly speared and dragged alive into the sand, to be drained of its bodily fluids. This animal is not only scary in appearance, but also plans the world’s scariest surprise party - a Halloween must-have!

Horned 'Toad'
No Halloween beast can be without a gory element; whether it is being a blood-sucker, blood-covered or down-right bloody scary. This next organism, however, can go one step further. The Horned Toad is a small, squat lizard found in the arid lands of North America. The nickname of toad refers to its rounded body and stumped tail. However, unlike the toads in the traditional witch stories, this ‘toad’ won’t be boiled so easily. As a very last resort of predator-defence, this lizard reveals its dark side; by restricting the blood leaving the head, blood pressure builds to such an extent that the blood vessels surrounding the eyes burst. A remarkably accurate blood stream then erupts from the corner of the eye and can travel up to five feet. Being acrid tasting (and just plain messy), the predator understandably reels giving the lizard time to escape. Re-enacting this gory trauma would definitely be a winner – needing only a squeezy bottle of ketchup and very understanding friends.

Alternatively, some other organisms choose another anti-predator defence: toxins. However, the culprits are not who you would expect. The Pitohui, Little Shrikethrush and the Blue-Capped Ifrita - all originating from New Guinea – are the only known genera of bird that are poisonous. The said toxins are batrachotoxins: obtained from Chloresine beetles that make up part of their insectivorous diet. They make look like innocent songbirds, but these birds pack a punch – just handling them bare-handed can cause numbness and tingling. That’s frightening enough, let alone imagining the state a poor predator would be in after slipping one of these in to its mouth.

Ichnuemon Wasp
The last organism could be the worst of the bunch. Famously despised by Charles Darwin himself, the Ichnuemon Wasp family are renowned for their torturously wicked ways. Targeting primarily larvae or pupa, the adult female will inject (using a very long, sharp ovipositor) her eggs in to a host body – they have even been known to drill through wood known to be sheltering located larvae. As well as the eggs, the adult also delivers a toxin leaving the host larvae paralyzed. Unfortunately for the larvae, from this point on, it is quite spectacularly doomed. The eggs inevitably hatch within the larvae and begin to eat; and eat and eat. Starting with the non-essentials; fat cells, muscle cells and non-vital organs, the wasp larvae aim to keep the host larvae alive for as long as possible. Yes, you read right: the host larvae, kept fresh and alive by the paralyzing toxin, get literally eaten alive from the inside-out. It’s no wonder really where the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien came from. The seemingly agonizing ordeal for the host larvae ends with the wasp larvae consuming the vital organs; and then erupting out of the husk to spread more joy elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the ichneumon wasp would make an excellent fear bringing Halloween hero, but regretfully do not win the ‘best-way-to-bring-up-offspring’ award.

These were just a handful of organisms, from many conceived by nature, with a horror story that I believed was worthy of ‘Halloween treatment’. So if you’re looking for inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume or party, just remember these gruesome mercenaries and the nasty ‘tricks’ that they have up their sleeves. You may just fancy a ‘treat’ instead.