Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.


I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!


This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:


While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.


This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…


How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 


You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.


Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.


The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!


To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.



Ghosts in the Trees

Last night, I was reminded of how unusual some of the insects we raise here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center are to most people. I had set up a table in the grand hallway of the museum to promote our outreach program, cleverly titled “Bugs on Wheels.” As soon as I left the Butterfly Center’s doors, I had drawn a crowd that didn’t seem to subside for the entire evening!

I think what grabs most people’s attention are our exotic walking sticks, which we have been displaying for several years. As soon as people see our giant prickly stick, they commence with “what on earth is that?” type of comments, and I love to educate them!

Walking sticks belong to the insect order Phasmatodea or Phasmida. This name comes from the Latin word phasma, which means ghost. It refers to their amazing camouflage skills, which in the right setting, can make them vanish right before your eyes! These insects are all herbivorous and harmless, having no venom or large mandibles for biting. This makes them an easy target for insectivores! So they have come up with some pretty fantastic ways to protect themselves from predators. These insects have simple metamorphosis, so the immature nymphs, look like tiny versions of the adult. Here at the butterfly center, we raise 5 different species of exotic walking sticks. I’d like to share a little about each one with y’all!

Blog 027

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
an immature female

The Giant Prickly Stick, or Extatasoma tiaratum, is one that really draws the crowds! The females are very large, 6 to 8 inches in length, and very fat! They range in color from light peach to dark red-orange. They are often – almost all the time, actually – mistaken for a scorpion. This is no accident, this species is native to Australia, the venom-capital of the world! They spend their entire lifetime hanging in eucalyptus trees feeding on the yummy foliage and easily folding themselves to resemble a dried up leaf.

If they are spotted by a potential predator, they will curl their abdomen to look remarkably like a scorpion. This warns predators that if they don’t want a nasty sting, they should stay far away. What a clever defense! Since they are, of course, completely harmless. They have a very soft exoskeleton which keeps them confined to the safety of the tree tops. If they need to do anything like lay an egg, they drop it to the leaf-covered ground. The females have small vestigial wings, but are incapable of flight. They can lay up to 1,000 eggs in their lifetime and can live a little over a year. The males are quite a bit smaller, very thin, and excellent fliers. They are equipped with much longer antennae than the female, which they use to sniff out a mate.

BOW 024
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Spiny Devil

The Spiny Devil (Eurycantha calcarata), is a close neighbor of the prickly stick; they are native to New Guinea. These adorable stick insects have very different habits. They are equipped with a very hard exoskeleton that is covered in hard spines, especially the legs! Since they are a harder egg to crack, they are not as attractive to eager insect-eaters, plus, they put up quite a fight! They can use their legs as a weapon by squeezing with all of their strength. I can speak from experience and say, it hurts!

When threatened, they can put on quite a show, raising their abdomen and back legs. We like to call it “the handstand of pain!” Since the female has the freedom of reaching the ground, she uses the pointy tip of her abdomen (her ovipositor) to lay her eggs deep in the soil. The male and female look quite similar, both are wingless and they are nearly equal in size. Both sexes can live for about a year and a half as adults – not bad! The male does have one distinguishing characteristic, a single very large spine on his hind femur.

Blog 061
Creative Commons License photo credit:
emills1 Ouch!

They are very territorial and use this spine for fighting. They can seriously injure or even kill another male during combat. Still want to mess with these guys? Well, the males can also emit a very foul chemical that smells just like a skunk. However, they are usually pretty laid back.

The Phyllium celebicum or moving leaf insect is a breath of fresh air. These leaf mimics are petite, dainty, have no spines or smells, and are 100 percent cute! They inhabit the rain forests of Malaysia.

Blog 033
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Since they have no other defense mechanisms, their camouflage has to be absolutely perfect, and well, see for yourself! They also spend their entire lives in the canopy, dropping their eggs to the ground haphazardly. The female, pictured right, has larger wings than the Giant Prickly Stick, but their only function is camouflage. The male is half the size of the female and he’s an amazing flyer! These live a little under a year and we love to have them around.

I actually noticed something very interesting from observing them. The outer 1/2 inch of the female’s body is only a layer of skin, and all of the organs are arranged down the very middle of the abdomen. This is important because I started seeing a couple of them missing chunks of their abdomen, but they didn’t appear to be injured. I’m sure they get nibbled on by several herbivores in the wild – it’s a pretty cool adaptation.

Blog 043
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Sharing the same rain forest is the Giant Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). They are spectacular, very large and beautiful. The females are bright green and usually 7 inches in length with a wide abdomen. They have small wings which they rub against their bodies to produce a hissing noise. Their thorax, abdomen, and legs have rows of sharp spines. When disturbed they thrash around violently and they also do “the handstand of pain.”

They spend most of their time in the trees and only travel to the ground to lay their eggs. The male is brown and only about 4 inches long. They have bright crimson hind wings and are very showy. They are always very nervous and thrash around a lot! This species is harder than the others to raise. They need high humidity and they take a long time to develop.

Blog 057
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
a male

The eggs take around 17 months to hatch and the nymphs take over a year to develop into adults. This species can be very aggressive, but we always end up with a few that can be handled, they are very curious and active. 

The last resident of southeast Asia is the Annam stick insect (Baculum extradentatum). These look very similar to our native walking sticks. They are very slender and really resemble a twig. These are interesting little creatures. When disturbed, they will essentially go limp and flop to the ground. It’s really the only option for them since they are so defenseless.

The most interesting thing about this species is that they can be completely parthenogenic. This means that the females can reproduce without males. We do have males in our populations and it is a full time job making sure we don’t have too many individuals. They are egg-laying machines. Their life span is about a year and males and females look very similar, but the males are much smaller.

These walking sticks are some of the most amazing insects I’ve worked with. I’m so impressed with their diversity and beauty. Next time you see them in the Entomology Hall or in the Grand Hall, come by and see them, you’ll certainly be amazed!

Blog 041
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1