Sunday, January 23, 2011

It Really is a Jungle in There

Note: I originally wrote this piece for the newsletter that goes to our volunteers in the Butterfly Magic exhibit at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

I tend to think of the tropical greenhouse at the Tucson Botanical Gardens as home to the tropical plants and butterflies we propagate and import here, but something happened a few weeks ago to remind me again that we don’t always determine what lives and grows inside that hothouse.

I noticed a butterfly sitting awkwardly on that artificial tree in the center of the room. At first I thought it was a female Postman longwing laying eggs. There was what appeared to be a cluster of pale objects beneath her. On closer inspection it became clear that a little jumping spider had caught the colorful butterfly. I had figured that given their size, jumping spiders (family Salticidae) were rather benign predators in the greenhouse, and were providing mobile pest control services by nabbing flies, small cockroaches, and other nuisance bugs. I should have known better.

Jumping spiders have perhaps the keenest vision of all land invertebrates, and strength to match. I have seen them literally tackle flies that were larger than they were. Jumpers hunt “on foot” instead of spinning webs, actively stalking potential prey then pouncing. That jumper with the butterfly would be about equal to you hanging by your heels while holding a sofa.

Jumping spiders are not the only uninvited guests in our butterfly exhibit. I have seen these other organisms as well:

  • Acrobat Ants, genus Crematogaster
  • American Cockroach, Periplaneta Americana (boo!)
  • Cockroach Egg Parasitoid Wasp, Evania appendigaster (yay!)
  • Greenhouse Millipede, Oxidus gracilis
  • Marbled Cellar Spider, Holocnemus pluchei
  • Cobweb weaver spider, Theridion sp. (“sp.” means “species” when the species is unknown)
  • Feather-legged spider, Uloborus diversus (or a close kin, top picture above)
  • Woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare (aka “Roly-poly” or “Pillbug”)
  • Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (for an authentic jungle experience!)
  • Tropical House Cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus (pictured below)
  • Long-tailed Mealybug, Pseudococcus longispinus (most likely species anyway)
  • Pomace Fly, Drosophila melanogaster (aka “Laboratory Fruit Fly”)
  • Brown Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum
  • Webspinner, Oligotoma nigra

There are some creatures we still haven’t seen, but that we know inhabit the place. Take for example the “mystery creature” that for awhile was taking bites out of the giant hibiscus buds just prior to their blooming. Now it would appear the little rascal has switched to lapping up the honey water out of the butterfly feeders (and leaving its poop behind. How thoughtful).

All of this illustrates several principles we should take home with us: We can’t control or even “manage” nature, much as we would like to think we can. All creatures have their place, and while we might not like all of them we need to acknowledge their presence and accept their role as predator, herbivore, or decomposer. Life is abundant and diverse, and the more we practice patience, and hone our powers of observation, the more of it we can see.

1 comment:

  1. Where's it all happening these days? Why, the stuff under 2 inches long of course. Great article. Go to a botanical garden or nature center and sit down by a hedge row. Be still for an hour and watch what goes by.