|Better than Bats:
Seven Organisms that Deserve to be Halloween celebrities
For as long as the Western world has celebrated Halloween, the same set of animals
and plants have been associated with the season as mascots; it just wouldn't be
Halloween without pumpkins, spiders, black cats, sewer rats and vampire bats. Owls,
crows, toads, snakes and wolves also get in on the action, and Halloween marketing may
also feature such widely (but not necessarily fairly) despised creatures as cockroaches
All of these are animals that humankind has commonly or at least previously considered
frightening, otherworldly, weird or even disgusting, but in modern times, people generally
realize that black cats are not shape-shifted demons, most bats are quite harmless and
wolves are just plain awesome. More people are waking up to the fact that rats aren't so
bad when you get to know them, either...and is anybody still afraid of owls? The animals
of Halloween certainly earned their status and deserve to keep it...but maybe there are
species out there who deserve that same recognition; species so kooky and spooky, so
red and black and slimy green that they should have been available as hanging rubber
decorations all along...
Alright, so this isn't something that can come crawling after you or even something you
can carve a face in, but if withered, gnarled trees are a Halloween icon, there's no reason
a fungus can't be.
Stinkhorn fungi belong to the order Phallales, and while the order was named for the
more Freudian varieties, many Stinkhorn are distinguished by a vivid (and festive!) red
to orange coloration in shapes straight out of a Lovecraftian nightmare, with such
common names as Stinky Squid and Dead Man's Fingers.
Stinkhorns earn their name from the incredibly rancid odor of the sewage-colored scum
they secrete from their inner linings, actually laden with spores. Coupled with their
flesh-like coloration and texture, the goop serves as a lure for flies, carrion beetles and
other scavenging insects who inadvertantly disperse the sticky spores.
If all this wasn't weird enough, the fruiting bodies of most stinkhorns sprout up as whiteish
"eggs" before "hatching" the malodorous tentacles.
Resembling a cross between a bat, a rat and a Mogwai, Daubentonia
madagascariensis is actually a primitive species of lemur and the world's largest
nocturnal primate. Eerily tapping at trees with its amazingly long, bony middle fingers, it
carefully listens for wood-boring grubs and employs the same amazing fingers to drag
them from their tunnels. With its mangy-looking fur, hands like entire spiders and
dark-ringed yellow eyes, you already couldn't ask for a spookier mammal, but a ghoulish
appearance is just the half of it.
Like our aforementioned owls, toads and other creatures of the night, nature's hairy
hobgoblins have suffered heavily from a malevolent, supernatural reputation in local
culture; to Madagascan natives, the Aye-Aye is an evil demon of the forest, able to
condemn a man to death with the pointing of its spindly finger. Even today, locals flee in
horror from their ghostly gaze and villages kill the poor creatures on sight, pushing them
farther up the endangered species list. It is even claimed that an Aye-aye can sneak into
a home at night and drive its finger straight into the heart of a sleeping victim, killing them
without even waking the household.
Had these hunchbacked little bogeymen ever haunted English-speaking countries, there
should be no doubt that they would have inspired the same brand of dark legend as the
raven or snake, and already glare at us eerily from Halloween greeting cards.
Lizards already make the odd cameo appearance in Halloween merchandise, though
virtually never as the focal point; that honor is invariably reserved for venomous snakes.
Perhaps it's because lizards have never been famous for killing people. Perhaps it's
because they have the exact opposite of a snake's gothic, sophisticated grace.
Perhaps it's because they call Lucifer "the serpent" and not "the skink." Even
amphibians have a bigger seat at club Halloween, with frogs and toads long
considered a symbol of witchcraft.
What we really need is for some particular lizard to stand up and say "I'm creepy as hell!"
A lizard like, let's say, the Horned Toad, which has all the warty lumpiness of its
namesake with all the scaly scurriness of a reptile, devilish headgear and mean-looking
barbs. It's easily one of the creepiest, crawliest little lizards in the animal kingdom...now
all it needs is a disturbing mating ritual, hideous feeding habits or gruesome defense
mechanism to push it over the edge.
...like bleeding from its eyeballs on demand. Sure. That works.
When faced with a predator, certain species of horned toad will rapidly build blood
pressure in their heads until special vessels are ruptured around the eyelids, squirting
jets of blood into the face of the attacker. The foul taste of the blood sends a
long-distance message that the reptile wouldn't make an appetizing meal, saving both
animals from an unpleasant experience.
If a thorny, blood-weeping, toad-like lizard isn't twice as spooky as any toxic cobra, then
what does Halloween even stand for anymore?
Also called "indian pipe," the two known species of the genus Monotropa are true plants
who apparently wish they were fungi; lacking chlorophyll, the eerie stalks are unable to
draw sustenance from sunlight and sprout up in dark, damp conditions inhospitable to
other flowering plants. They even bend over as they bloom, contributing to their dead,
...So where do these shadow-dwelling, pale-skinned specters get their nourishment?
Why, the same way all our favorite lifeforms get their nourishment; through parasitism!
Not just any parasitism, but myco-heterotrophy, meaning that their roots draw nutrients
from subterranean fungi which in turn draw their nutrients from the roots of normal,
photosynthetic trees, making the ghost flower a sort of vicarious vampire. Wasn't that the
title of a children's book? No? Well it should have been.
Such a sweet, precious, pudgy little birdie we have here. Laniidae? What does that
mean? Butcher? That's an awfully crude name for a roly-poly, fuzzy little...
...Laniidae or butcher-birds are also known as "Shrikes," a wickedly predatory name for
a wickedly predatory animal. While other tiny birds are hunting bite-size worms and
insects, Shrikes choose unusually large prey for their size, attacking toads, lizards,
rodents and even other birds. Once it has slaughtered its quarry, the Shrike finds a sharp
twig, thornbush or even barbed wire on which to impale the corpse, keeping it safe from
scavengers and tearing off small pieces at its leisure. A certain someone was famous for
doing something fairly similar to this. Someone who lived in a castle. A Romanian castle.
...If there were one and only one organism that ought to symbolize All Hallow's Eve, it is
my completely objective and unbiased opinion that this honor would go to insects of the
order Coleoptera, genus Nicrophorus.
Just on the surface, Nicrophorus are already nature's ultimate Halloween decoration;
most species are a stark black and orange, with markings like the jagged grimace of a
Jack O' Lantern leering from the darkness. What's more, they're usually crawling with
tick-like symbiotic mites; tiny arachnids that feed only upon the eggs of flies. And where,
one might ask, do they get the eggs of flies if they're living on a beetle? Therein lies an
even bigger reason why these animals are Halloween personified. Nicrophorus are also
known as "burying" or "grave-digger" beetles, so named for the gothiest family life this
side of Gomez & Morticia.
By the light of the moon, the male and female beetle seek out a stinking vertebrate
corpse of just the right size - such as a bird or rodent - and promptly consummate their
relationship right on top of it. The two lovers will then spend the rest of the night ferrying
the corpse to an ideal location, working it into a compact, de-boned ball of flesh and
digging soil out from under it until it is completely submerged. Once the grave is finished,
it's time to say goodbye, because daddy will spend the rest of his short existence
guarding the nest above ground while mommy gets buried alive with the body to raise the
larvae; the little ones will need her to pre-chew the rotting flesh.
When the offspring finally emerge as spooky pumpkin beetles in the spring, the first thing
they'll find is their loyal mother lying dead in the grave, her purpose complete. Science
isn't certain if these beetles also cut themselves and listen to Manson, but you sort of
want to just thinking about them.
....What's your opinion? What else in nature should symbolize the season, and why? What
sort of scary movies and merchandise would we see if these creatures were more
famous? Leave feedback already!
While they lack any explicitly "scary" habits, the three species of Death's Head Moth bear
such ghostly markings that they carry the scientific names Acherontia lachesis, Acherontia
atropos and Acherontia styx; in Greek mythology, Acheron and Styx are rivers of Hades,
Lachesis chose the life span of every mortal, and Atropos chose precisely how they would
die. The moths can be found in India, Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe, where they
were almost universally regarded as bad omens in ancient folklore.
It could be said that as far as moths go, the Death's Heads are certainly more sinister than
average; all three are sneaky bandits of the insect world, imitating the odor of honeybees to
freely enter their hives, drill into the larval chambers and drink their fill of honey. They are also
some of the only moths capable of "screaming" when attacked, a defensive sound audible to
human ears as a rodent-like squeaking. Like most moths and butterflies, the caterpillars have
a very limited diet, but it just happens to include plants of the infamous nightshade family.
Still need convincing? Think these are still just some funny-looking bugs? Alright, wiseass, try
this one on for size: in none other than Romania, birthplace of Dracula, these moths were
once believed to be the form commonly taken by the restless souls of vampires - long before
bats were ever popularized as their favorite disguise.
At least the Acherontia were given major props by at least one famous horror tale...but
how much have we heard from them since?
Those should be big, rubber moths dangling from strings at the Dollar Tree every fall.