Summer Encounters – Around the House

Green Anole on ti plant
Creative Commons License photo credit: mannyh808

Summertime in Houston has been very exciting for me. This is my second summer living here and each year I discover new animals.  Last year, I was thrilled to learn about Anoles, Mediterranean House Geckos, and of course, American Alligators. My first job at the Museum was to assist in teaching field camp during the summer for our Xplorations program.  I quickly became familiar with the wildlife of Houston’s surrounding areas along with learning how to survive the heat and humidity while hiking.  My previous experiences with animals in Oregon and New Mexico did not prepare me for the entirely different array of wildlife here in the South.

Tersa Sphinx caterpillar
Tersa Sphinx caterpillar

My first encounter with a new animal this summer happened in my own back yard. On my small butterfly bush, I happened accross a very large, brown, spotted caterpillar.  Since childhood I have had a fascination with these lovely little insects and so I promptly ran inside to get my camera to document my find.  I later had the caterpillar identified by one of the Museum’s entomologists, Laurie.  She quickly ID’d my caterpillar to be a Tersa Sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  I was amazed at the size of this butterfly larva.  After enduring the bites of the huge zebra-striped mosquitoes and now seeing this large caterpillar, I was once again reminded that everything’s bigger in Texas.

On the other hand, last month we were asked to identify a tiny, writhing, worm-like creature.  It was found near our office which added to the curiosity of this animal.  It was only about 2 inches long, very smooth, not slimy, and appeared to have scales with a pointy tip for a tail.  Was it a type of worm?  The diminutive size and shape suggested worm, but it was somewhat hard to the touch, a bit shiny, and without any of the mucous normally occuring with worms.  Could it be a caecilian?  No, those don’t live in Texas and would definitely be slimy.  Could it be a very tiny snake baby?  Aha! Perhaps we were getting somewhere.

Texas Blind Snake
Texas Blind Snake, Leptotyphlops dulcis

After consulting with my friend who’s an herpatologist by hobby (thanks, Ira!), we discovered that we did indeed have our hands on a tiny snake.   Judging by its size & character, this itty-bitty critter was a juvenile Texas Blind Snake, Leptotyphlops dulcis.  I was reassured of this animal being a snake when I noticed it would occasionally stick out its tongue.  This small serpent would only grow to be about 8 inches in length, by far the smallest snake I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.  Many Texans may come across this snake in their gardens under logs or bushes, mistaking it for a worm.   It emerges from its hiding place in the soil to feed on termite and ant larvae, making it a welcome hunter to any gardener.  Like many other native species, it has been adversely affected by the red imported fire ant

Update. The BBC has published an article on 8/4/08 about the world’s smallest snake, Leptotyphlops carlae, found in Barbados.  This smaller relative to the Texas Blind Snake will only reach 4 inches at maturity, half the size of our native Leptotyphlops dulcis.

The final animal I’d like to share today is the first new mammal I’ve seen in Houston.  Much to my dismay, my dogs (Sasha & Dione) like to dig holes in our backyard.  Dione is quick enough to catch any unfortunate animals that may happen to find themselves in her territory.  As fas as I can tell, she is more interested in playing with the animals than eating them.  One evening, she finally managed to dig up an Eastern mole, Scalopus aquaticus.  I’m sure she’s been hunting them for a while, hence all the holes in our yard.  I rescued the poor mole from the dogs and brought it inside to investigate as I’ve never seen one until now.  It was covered in slobber so I wasn’t able to enjoy the silky smooth coat that is a normal characteristic of moles.

Mole
Eastern Mole, Scalopus aquaticus

The most amazing feature of this mole were its feet.  The front feet are very large, broad, paddle-shaped feet with webbing between the toes - perfect for digging.  In comparison, the hind feet were very small, similar to those of a mouse.  The mole’s eyes, ears, and nose also indicated a subterrestrial life.  We were unable to see any eyes or ears through its fur.  There really isn’t much to see underground and protruding ears would simply get in the way of digging. The nose was long and sensitive, great for smelling prey in the dark.  One type of mole, the Star-Nosed Mole, has an extremely sensitive sniffer.  It has even been found to sniff underwater.  Our Eastern Mole may not be able to smell underwater, but they do consume a great many invertebrates that can be potentially damaging to plants.

If you have crossed paths with an unfamiliar Texas animal, please share with us as we enjoy hearing about other people’s experiences.  Look for Summer Encounters – Brazos Bend State Park as my next blog post when I share some of my adventures in hiking around BBSP roasting alligators and hunting marshmallows….oops.  Well, you know what I mean.

7 thoughts on “Summer Encounters – Around the House

  1. I presume the green critter at the top of the page is an anole. That is a beautiful looking caterpillar. What does the butterfly look like? I don’t suppose we have any tiny worm-like snakes in OR, huh. On to the next installment.

  2. Yes, the brilliant green lizard at the top is an Anole, found all over Houston. If you click on the Tersa Sphinx link, it will take you to a photo of the adult form of the moth. According to Wikipedia, the genus Leptotyphlops are the only Blind Snakes in North America. Unfortunately, they don’t make it that far North! They like the warm states down South. Thanks for the great questions, Mom!

  3. I love the little mole. I wish our puppies would dig holes in the yard to catch our mole that is tearing up our backyard. Maybe I should borrow Dione for a while. :p The mounds that the moles leave here are about 4 -5 in. in diameter. How big do you think my elusive mole could be and any suggestions to catching it since my dogs are not good mole catchers?

  4. I work at Sanchez Elementary in Houston and we have discovered our butterfly bush filled with Tersa Sphinx caterpillars. We are very thankful for your website in helping us to identify what type of caterpillar we had in our habitat.

  5. Joy,
    I’m so glad that we were able to help out your class! It really makes me happy to hear that I can share my knowledge (even if it’s newly found out!) to help teach others about our natural world. I hope your class was able to enjoy the wonderful transformation from caterpillar to moth.

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