by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits offers the facts on some weird and sometimes disturbing creatures that creep and slither.

Tapeworms are nothing to joke about. These horrid little parasites, which can reach lengths of 12 feet, can infiltrate your intestines, and drain the body’s nutrients for years without a person’s knowledge. They typically enter the body through raw or undercooked meat, most commonly beef, pork, and freshwater fish. A tapeworm’s head has suction cups and tiny hooks that attach to the lining of the intestines. While the most common symptoms are diarrhea, nausea, weakness, or a mild stomach ache, some people have no symptoms at all. Left untreated, the result can be anemia, vitamin B-12 deficiency, jaundice, chest pains, and even paralysis and seizures, and in some cases, death. It’s not just humans affected by tapeworms. Dogs, cats, birds, fish, hyenas, antelope, wolves, moose and even whales can get them.

    The leafcutter ant can lift 50 times its weight with its mouth. That’s the same as a human lifting a car with the mouth! The ant’s specially-adapted jaws enable it to saw leaves, flowers, and foliage with their chainsaw-like mandibles that vibrate 1,000 times per second. The colonies of the leafcutters can contain up to 10 million ants, with some nests as large as 6,460 square feet.

You don’t want to mess with the giant Peruvian centipede, the world’s largest centipede. These crawlies measure 12 inches (30 cm) long, with up to 23 body segments. They don’t inch along the ground as you would suppose, but are fast and aggressive creatures that easily overpower their prey of snails, worms, scorpions, tarantulas, and even small lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, and mice. They’ve been spotted climbing cave walls, where they hang upside-down from the roof by their back legs, and strike out at flying bats. All of this is accomplished by their two front appendages, which contain nasty claws filled with toxic venom. The carnivorous centipedes inject their prey, immobilizing it immediately. Although rare, the venom is capable of killing a human.

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The Goliath bird-eater spider could produce arachnophobia in anyone! This South American tarantula is the world’s heaviest spider and in second place for largest leg span. It measures nearly a foot wide and is covered in barbed hairs that are extremely painful when attaching to another creature. Their strong one-inch-long fangs can easily slice through flesh. When the prey fights to free itself, this arachnid releases toxic venom that paralyzes the victim. As the spider approaches its prey, it rises up on its hind legs as a means of intimidation. It then rubs its hairy legs together creating a hissing noise that can be heard 15 feet (4.6 m) away. Although its name implies that this spider’s main diet is birds, it mainly dines on frogs, insects, and rodents. Its venom is nontoxic to humans, although a bite can cause some pain and swelling. The Goliath has become a popular exotic pet, with a lifespan in captivity between 10 and 15 years, although some have been documented at 20 years.

There are more than 400,000 known species of beetles, nearly 40% of all insects and 25% of all known animal species. It’s estimated that there could be as many as 2 million total species. Of the 400,000, 5,000 of them are types of ladybugs, also referred to as ladybird beetles.    Not all ladybugs are red or orange with seven black spots. Some are striped or have no markings at all. The markings are to indicate to predators that they don’t taste good! When ladybugs are threatened, the joints in their legs release an oily, disgusting-tasting fluid. Ladybugs are carnivorous, capable of eating up to 5,000 insects in their lifetime. They’re an asset to farmers because they eat aphids and other crop-damaging pests. In fact, that’s how they got their name. Years ago, when European farmers were plagued by pests in their fields, they prayed to the Virgin Mary for relief. Ladybugs wiped out the infestation, and the farmers called them the “beetle of Our Lady.” The average lifespan of a ladybug is 2 to 3 years.

    Fireflies are also a type of beetle, with more than 2,000 different species of these tiny lightning bugs. Fireflies are bioluminescent, meaning they produce light, a process accomplished by an enzyme known as luciferase. A chemical reaction called chemiluminescence occurs in the firefly’s light organ when oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate, and the enzyme. Their colors vary according to species, and include yellow-green, orange, turquoise, and bright poppy red. The glow has several purposes – drawing in prey, attracting a mate, and warning off predators. People in the western United States might say there are no fireflies in their part of the country, but there are! Not all species have the ability to produce light, and glowing fireflies are seldom seen west of the Rocky Mountains.

    The bombardier beetle may be very small, less than an inch (2.5 cm) long, but it has no trouble keeping its predators at bay. When threatened, this unusual creature shoots its enemies with a jet of hot, stinging liquid. This defense mechanism is engaged when the beetle’s two abdominal chambers mix their natural chemicals in another chamber on its backside to produce a boiling spray of benzoquinone. This corrosive liquid is fired through the abdominal tip, with the ability to rotate 270 degrees to aim at foes. There are upwards of 40 different species of bombardier beetles in the United States.

    When you hear the loud chirp of a male cricket, it’s either establishing and defending its territory or trying to attract a female. The cricket is rubbing its wings together very fast to produce the sound. The warmer the temperature, the faster the chirp. The volume of a cricket’s chirp can reach up to 100 decibels. A male cricket can be quite aggressive with a rival, even reaching physical combat, including wrestling. If the cricket loses a leg during the battle, it has the ability to regenerate a new one. The cricket can leap 30 times its length, which would be the equivalent of a human jumping a football field.    There are 900 species of crickets worldwide, with some living up to a year. In China and Japan, they are a symbol of good luck and abundance.