Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Aquatic Alien World

"Pond-Dipping"--using net and bucket to search for critters in a pond--is an activity that can win over virtually any child. For that matter, it can captivate most teenagers and adults as well. The miniature alien world (of insects, crustaceans, annelids, algae, and more) piques our curiosity and sense of wonder. Beneath the water's surface, strange creatures fight a life-and-death struggle for survival. Typically it all takes place apart from our notice. Like Dr. Seuss' hero Horton (of Horton Hears a Who!), we must open our senses to discover the hidden world. Running a net through the mud and plants also helps.

Damselfly Nymph

This week, I made two visits to Riverside Middle School in New Castle, Colorado, to guide pond dipping. Our discoveries included leeches, water striders, frog eggs, scuds and small crustaceans, dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, various fly larvae, duckweed, a dead salamander, a dead leopard frog... and two giant water bugs!

The giant water bug--five inches in length--is truly a giant next to most insects. The creature waits in the water, resembling a dead leaf. When prey wanders by, the ambush hunter springs into action. It snatches the victim with its front legs, paralyzes it with a poison bite, and feasts. With its size and power, the water bug's prey is not limited to other insects. Minnows, tadpoles, and small frogs fall to its merciless jaws. To these creatures, the giant water bug is a monster; insect and amphibian alike flee before it. To the giant water bug, the pond is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet. In turn, the bug is eaten by larger fish and birds.

Handling a giant water bug is not recommended, as its bite is reputed to be among the most painful of insect defenses. It can cause severe swelling, but typically does not do permanent damage.

For a time as a youth, I kept a giant water bug (whom I named Nosferatu) as pet. Now, I am glad to reconnect with these predators in the waters of Colorado.

Giant Water Bug Versus Minnow

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