Halloween is a holiday loved by many because not only do we get to do activities like carving pumpkins and dressing up in costumes, but it’s also a time to embrace the spooky and unknown. Literature, film and folklore have given us shape-shifters, fire-breathers, and creatures of all kinds of abilities to stoke the imagination. But, in real life we can find the shocking and macabre right in the midst of nature itself. Read below for five species found in “The Wild Wonders of Alabama” that showcase nature’s peculiarities.
Many people shudder when they see the turkey vulture, or “buzzard,” with its brownish black feathers and bare, red head. Not only does this species of bird prefer dead flesh, but to add to their already grim reputation, groups of perched turkey vultures are called a wake! Yes, this seems fitting for a species whose Latin name means “cleansing breeze.” With their acute sense of smell, they can detect carrion from over a mile away! Unlike raptors, turkey vultures can’t tear into their prey, so with larger animals they may often have to wait for some decay before using their powerful beaks to pull apart the dead body. While it may not be a topic to bring up at the dinner table, turkey vultures play an important role in the ecosystem by removing dead carcasses and keeping wildlife diseases in check.
What looks like an innocent flower, the bright yellow butterwort is actually a predatory plant that feeds on insects. Found in the Gulf Coast plain of the southeastern United States, it grows in acidic soils and must get its nutrients from other sources. Its special power comes from the tiny hairs on its stalks and leaves that secrete a sticky substance that resemble water droplets. This entices insects to land and become trapped! As the plant releases more fluids, its leaves curl up to digest the suffocating insect only returning to normal when the insect has ultimately dissolved.
Found along the Atlantic Coastal Plain, this brown to olive green toad is often a favorite meal by snakes, birds and other small mammals. However, the Fowler's Toad has a number of defensive measures to help ward off would-be predators like the ability to play dead or use its natural coloration to blend into its surroundings. Its most secret weapon though come from the warts on its back. When provoked by other animals, these warts discharge a toxic secretion that can irritate and possibly even poison the attacker if ingested!
Like the sirens of Greek mythology who used their bewitching voices to lure nearby sailors to their deaths, the whitetop pitcherplant uses its tubular shape and sweet-smelling nectar to trap its prey. Once the insects are inside its deadly pitfall trap, they are unable to escape the downward-facing hairs lining the tube. As the insects fall to the bottom, special digestive fluids convert the dead insects into the nutrients the plant needs to survive. Growing in poor soils, this predatory plant has cleverly adapted to its harsh environment by finding other means of getting energy.
Take a closer look! Though the greater bee fly may sound and look like a bumblebee with its buzzing sound and coloring, it differs from bees in that it has four long legs and does not feature a stinger. While the adults mainly feed on nectar, the larvae of bee flies are parasitic. Bee flies will mimic the bee in order to gain access to their host’s nest. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae will feed upon the host’s eggs and pollen right up to the next spring!