The Tricks of Tricky Nature

(The wily walking stick or “stick bug,” on a surface. From nwf.org.)

    Recently, after gingerly stepping over standing water in the upper part of our local park, Wildwood, where a swampy area and cattails abound, I noticed something that looked flipped over. It looked like it could have been brown lines bordering the off white background, perhaps a sectioned caterpillar. I flipped it over with my foot. I was tricked. Just a twig.

Stick Bug Camouflage

    Mother nature plays a lot of tricks on us that are, well, tricky. Take the insect called the walking stick, which I’ve only seen at a Hokie “Bugfest” festival at Virginia Tech. The bug looks just like the photo above, or maybe slightly browner. It’s a fantastic trick, looking like a stick off of a tree. Insect shapes can become their own camouflage so they don’t get eaten by something else. According to the San Diego Zoo, 3000 species of “stick insects” are found all over the world (except Antarctica). Some, that aren’t identical to tiny tree branches or leaves spray a noxious, smelly substance at oncoming predators so they can escape harm. They are from the order Phasmatodea, from the Greek for apparition or phantom. Small wonder. (Get it?)

    Where else can we find tricks?

     Viceroy butterflies have a color and pattern very, very similar to the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs don’t taste too good if eaten by a bird or other prey, so in that case they trick nature, not us.

Edible or Inedible Trick

    The other day someone asked me about wild carrot. There is another name for this wildflower: Queen Anne’s lace, a wild plant with a mostly flat topped, wide, white lacy flower that actually “looks” like lace a person would wear. And it has deeply grooved leaves. Some say it looks like water hemlock — except water hemlock or wild hemlock plants are highly, highly toxic (as in deadly to eat, so don’t). But Queen Anne’s lace has a root that looks like a carrot, and therefore its other name. With any wild plant, though, you need to look at a guidebook and better yet, attend an outdoor class where your instructor shows you the plant to eat. Don’t get tricked into eating something that will make you deadly ill, one reason I will not TOUCH a mushroom in the woods.

Another Trickster — The Mockingbird

    Do you hear it? The cheer-cheer-cheer of the cardinal, the caw-caw of the crow. But this bird doesn’t look like either one. The gray and white mockingbird tricks us with the calls of other birds. It’s a good imitation and good irritation to perhaps the other birds as well as people who are listening. We come to think that only the insects can be tricky. But I have noticed deer turning a darker brown the colder out it gets, like it is tricking us by blending into the woods more during hunting season. I guess it works for some.

      Nature’s tricks come in handy for some critters. It probably saves some of their short lives, for sure.

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