Yesterday, while walking a couple of dogs around the park, I came across a small (14 inches or so) rattlesnake that had been run over. It reminded me that it is time to start being more aware of my surroundings, as it is the time of year that many of the creepy things that have been hiding through the winter are waking up and coming out to play. Not having spent much time in the desert prior to coming to West Texas, I found myself dealing with a significant amount of fear as to what might bite, sting or otherwise inflict pain and suffering upon me or my loved ones. I was surprised to find that some things I feared the most (tarantulas) are completely innocuous, while some things I gave the least amount of consideration (ants) could cause excruciating pain! Knowing that many of those coming to West Texas for work hail from very different climates, I decided now would be a good time to put together a little primer on some of the creepy things of the desert and how we can live peaceably with them…or not.
Tarantulas – Big, slow, hairy, and basically HARMLESS creatures - they're actually surprisingly fragile. And I’m sure they can really move if they’re chasing a meal, but when they’re looking for a girlfriend, not so much. They tend to make themselves known in this area in July, and last summer we had quite a lot of the males (they have the longer legs, like below left) wandering around, both night AND day. (They seem to really like the grass, just FYI.) Once you get over the ICK factor, they’re really just kind of an oddity - at least for a northerner. I mean, I don’t want to touch them or anything, but they’re on my live-and-let-live list.
For more interesting facts on tarantulas:
Black Widows – I’ve had a couple of these in my RV in the past few years - one in my bathroom and one in my closet; then, I had one hanging off my deck a few days ago, which my husband, Kevin, dispatched quickly, thank God. But it wasn’t until I researched them a bit that I realized just how dangerous these little things are. Black Widows have venom 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s! These things are NOT to be messed with, because they can really mess you up…and quickly! Fortunately, they tend not to be aggressive...
For more information on Black Widows:
...Speaking of Rattle Snakes – Prevention is the key when dealing with snakes. I’ve been told they will usually give you a warning “rattle” before striking, but not always. So, wear boots and heavy pants if you have to walk in tall grass or underbrush and do not reach into rocky crevices, under logs or rocks. (And watch where your pets walk, too!) Always, always, ALWAYS carry a light when walking around after dark – they love to soak up heat from roads and driveways when the sun goes down. They are especially active on warm nights and first thing in the morning, as they come out to warm up in the sun. If you see what appears to be a dead snake, DO NOT touch it! A snake can strike one hour or more after death – even after the head has been severed. Freaky, I know!!
If you find a snake in the park, please call Kevin or me immediately. Kevin has extensive experience working with poisonous snakes and will be able to remove it safely.
For more information about the snakes found in Texas:
Okay, back to our arachnids...
Scorpions – I have not personally been stung, although Kevin has been several times while working around the park. We’ve seen the most scorpion activity around, and in, the trees, so please watch children and pets closely if they are playing around the trees. The scorpions here in West Texas have comparatively mild venom and should produce only moderate reactions in most people because the poison has little effect on the nervous system. Anyone stung by a scorpion should be watched closely for adverse reactions, as allergic reactions are possible, especially for those with allergies to other insects, like bees.
For some interesting facts on scorpions:
Ticks – Ticks are a fact of life in West Texas, and they can carry a whole host of unsavory diseases - for you AND your pets. Check yourself, your clothing, and your pets regularly. If you find a tick, just pick it off with some tweezers (being sure not to leave any of it behind), drop it into a cup of soapy water (it will drown), then flush it down the toilet. (If any fever or flu-like symptoms develop, seek medical/veterinary care immediately.) Protecting pets from ticks is paramount to their health. Flea and tick preventatives can be purchased locally or online, but I haven’t found any better prices than at www.petbucket.com. (We use Nexgard Spectra, an oral medication for dogs that tastes like a treat and works GREAT for killing and preventing fleas and ticks, and even preventing heart worm!)
For some helpful information about ticks:
Almost done! But we really should cover a few….bugs!
Flies – Ugh, right? They’re gone for about three months in the winter, and then they’re back with a vengeance! And yes, they BITE, especially the little ones (Black Flies). The good news, however, is that after you’ve been in West Texas for a few years, you apparently start to smell/taste like a West Texan, and the flies, mosquitoes, etc. aren’t really that into you anymore. So there IS an upside to staying here long-term! In the meantime, I recommend something with DEET. A lot of it.
Ants – I am from western Washington State where an ant is just an ant. They don't even warrant a moment’s consideration. Well, not in West Texas! You had better be paying very close attention to those ants at all times. The tiny ones bite just to bite, but the pain disappears in just a second (which is fine as long as you’re not covered in them), and like the flies, they tend to lose interest in a year or so. The others, however, are the…
FIRE ANTS - And I am convinced they earned that name as they crawled up out of the Fiery Pits of Hell. These ants bite you just to hold on while they inject an alkaloid acid with their stinger! Imagine someone injecting acid in between your toes... Yep, I got one caught under the thong of my flip-flop shortly after arriving here, and he stung me between my first and second toes. I had no idea something so small could cause so much pain! I spent the next 4 hours writhing around, crying in pain, and holding ice to my foot while my dear husband laughed at me for being such a baby about an “ant bite.” (I seriously almost went to the emergency room over that “ant bite!”) Avoid these at all costs!
(Update 2021: My dear husband got stung between HIS toes last summer. He apologized profusely and repeatedly, and over several hours, for laughing at me!)
For more information on Fire Ants and how best to avoid them:
Tarantula Hawk – Don’t be alarmed when you see one of these giant wasps buzzing by. They really have no interest in humans at all. They are hunting tarantulas. No, they don’t kill them…at least, not right away. No, they paralyze them, lay a single egg on them, and bury them, so that when their egg hatches, the larva can feast on the paralyzed tarantula. (Hard to imagine feeling sorry for a spider, but I actually do.) I’ve only seen the orange-winged ones here in Texas, but I’ve seen the blue-winged ones in Arizona, and both are stunning!
For all the gory details and a rather disturbing video:
And, finally, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT ?!?!?!
It goes by several names: Wind Scorpion (although, it’s not a scorpion), Camel Spider (although, it’s not a spider), and in West Texas – Creature of the Night (or, alternately, Child of the Night, probably from the Spanish name for Potato Bug - "child of the earth" - which it also is not). It is, in fact, a hideously ugly, yet completely harmless, arachnid (neither spider nor scorpion). It is also the FASTEST hideously ugly creature I have ever not wanted to lose in my bedroom at night.
If you really feel like you need more information:
So, that’s about it (thank God) - the highlights of the Creepy Desert Creatures. There are, of course, a myriad of other strange bugs, lizards, snakes, etc. that will be unfamiliar to many of you if you happen upon them. My recommendation is not to touch anything unless you know for certain what it is. (And regardless of how cute and fuzzy you think the Red Velvet Ant is, I'm sure they call it a "cow killer" for a reason. Red Velvet Ant or “Cow Killer” (tamu.edu)).
And, again, ALWAYS have a light if you’re out after dark. Actually, the Creepy Desert Creatures do quite a fine job of enforcing our “Quiet Time” rule here in the park, since no one really wants to be outside in the dark with most of these things.... even WITH a light!
(This post was originally published 5/3/15.)