Colorful harvest festivals are one marker for the arrival of autumn, but for me the surest sign that fall is here is the number of days I spend mucking about in Island ponds.
It’s an almost daily occurrence in late September at Felix Neck. Third grade boys and girls step off yellow school buses wearing rubber boots, eager to grab nets and hike down to Elizabeth’s Pond where we will spend an hour searching through the muck for freshwater animals. Water boatmen, tadpoles and dragonfly nymphs are among the many living treasures of the pond that capture the attention and imagination of grade schoolers, but by far the most sought-after creature is the water scorpion.
It is no wonder such a fiercely-named insect would be so popular among seven and eight-year-olds. The word scorpion connotes images of a fierce predator with a venomous tail ready to sting at a moment’s notice. But the only threat posed by the water scorpions found in our freshwater ponds is to the water beetles and worms it eats. Nevertheless, its stick-like appearance and fear-inducing name make it a favorite pond discovery.
True insects, water scorpions are often confused with walking stick bugs. Like their terrestrial look-alikes, they use camouflage to protect themselves from predators. The scorpion name derives from two anatomical features that resemble the other, poisonous scorpion. The forelimbs of the water scorpion are elongated and built to grasp prey and look somewhat like the pincers of a true scorpion. The tail-like appendage that resembles a scorpion’s stinging tail is in fact a siphon, or breathing tube, that functions much like a snorkel. This siphon cannot sting, contains no venom and is only able to pivot at the base. As an ambush predator, the water scorpion lurks just below the surface of the water, head down, legs clinging to weeds, ready to sink its forelimbs into unsuspecting prey and using its siphon to maintain a supply of oxygen.
Though initially disappointed once they learn water scorpions lack venom, the third graders quickly become fascinated by the insect’s built-in snorkel, its ability to camouflage so well they even lose sight of it in their nets, and its designation as a so-called ambush predator.
But the water scorpion’s time in the spotlight abruptly ends when someone yells “Frog!” from across the pond. There are many more bugs to catch and frogs to chase, and I am reminded that there are few things better to do on a sunny September morning than to muck around in a pond.
Cristina Pereira is the education coordinator at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Gazette columnist Suzan Bellincampi returns next week.