Mom shouted from one of the storage sheds. Her voice came strident and immediate. So I rushed to her side, interested both in what she’d discovered and—more importantly—about her safety. For her to be so adamant about getting my attention, I knew she was facing something she’d rather not face alone.
In the unlit equipment shed, early afternoon sunlight not penetrating the dark, she stood some distance from a rather large creature moving casually from one wall to another. It was a creature I’d never seen before, and its size gave me pause because the play of shadow upon shadow made it look like a very large spider.
Oh, you know, with a body about 1.5 in/25 mm in length, its long legs making it twice that size.
Not that I’m scared of spiders, but if I don’t know what it is, I’m no fool.
But after I gave it a quick taste of light from the camera’s flash, the flavor of the beast became obvious. Well, obvious only insofar as I could tell it wasn’t a spider, but not obvious insofar as I didn’t have a clue what it was other than looking like a giant brown katydid.
So I snapped a natural-light picture when it paused mid stride—after the flash, of course, which lit up the shed like fireworks.
Having never seen this kind of insect before, imagine my surprise when I found several more throughout the same day. That was in May 2012.
And for months afterward? Let’s just say they represented a regular part of the natural world, found around the house and around the farm.
Some, like the female above, were at least 2.5 in/45 mm from ovipositor to mandibles—not including legs. As far as katydids go, these represented some of the largest and most robust I’d ever seen
With their abundance and size and general appearance, I came to understand Mom’s initial trepidation. She’s a go-getter when it comes to wildlife—except when it comes to crickets.
Consider this story: Whilst lying in bed one night watching a scorpion crawl along the ceiling above her, she casually asked of my father, “Honey, is that what I think it is?”
She handles arthropods with the skill of an entomologist. And with the requisite aplomb.
But this? In the dark? And considering it looked like a giant cricket? (Like every human who has ever lived, my mother has her Achilles heel: crickets. They are her kryptonite. Thus a giant cricket wandering about in the dark with her would certainly push her buttons.)
But these weren’t crickets. They weren’t even scorpions. So why be worried?
Well, her initial apprehension aside, research quickly identified these as southern protean shieldbacks (Atlanticus pachymerus). Shieldbacks have every reason to give you pause. You see, they’re omnivorous. More importantly, they’re predators of other insects.
But lacking a poisonous bite or a venomous sting, why be worried?
Like the hardwood stump borer I mentioned previously, shieldbacks are large and powerful. Even lacking toxic weapons, they nevertheless have power on their side.
Here’s the clue: BugGuide specifically states that shieldbacks are said “to be strong biters.”
After our first encounter in the equipment shed, I tested that theory—after having identified the critters.
Trust me when I say this: They hunt other insects, not to mention feeding on anything they find appealing, like plants and detritus and whatever.
But—Yo!—they eat other insects no matter if those insects are dead or alive. And how do they do that?
By chomping down on whatever looks tasty.
And given their general size, when a shieldback chomps down on something, it’s a potent bite indeed.
Again, trust me on this. I tested that theory. The little bugger taught me never to test it again.
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This is the fourth entry in my intermittent series of posts focused on arthropods that can be dangerous if mishandled. The first entry—about wheel bugs—is here, the second entry—about black widow spiders—is here, and the third entry—about hardwood stump borer beetles—is here.