January 20, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Secret Animal Hideouts

Small animals can hide out in secret places, even in your own home.

Under the Snow

There’s a world of animals out of sight, living under the snow. Many have seen videos of coyotes hunting rodents in the snow, but there are many more that live in an amazing world called the subnivium—the habitat under the snow. PhysOrg peers into this habitat with artwork of this secret world, “unseen by most humans” and “barely explored” by scientists. Yet most animals on the planet, directly or indirectly depend on the white wilderness.

Amazing FactsSnow covers some 40 percent of Earth’s land masses year in and year out. And, as scientists are discovering, snow is critical to animals and plants that live in northern latitudes, as well as those in far southern latitudes like Patagonia at the tip of South America. It ensures their—and our—survival.

Without snow, plant and animal life would be completely different,” says biologist Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why is this? Ecological webs are interconnected. “Without fungi, wildflowers’ summer bloom in mountain environments wouldn’t happen,” for instance. “Fungi increase their metabolism as winter progresses, releasing nutrients from their by-products as snow melts in spring.” And without plants, much of the food web would break down.

Surprisingly, even some desert animals depend on snow. “Gazelles in the Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia rely on ‘snow mines,’ oases of water from melting snows buried beneath the sand.” And along with the mice under the snow, many other species of bugs, worms, rodents and even birds find refuge in the constant temperature provided by “nature’s igloo.”

In Your Home

The news media had fun announcing a new survey of arthropods (invertebrates with segmented bodies and jointed appendages) that live in human houses. Scientists at North Carolina State found a much greater diversity than expected:

For some homes it could be well over 500 species. They’re found in every room of the house: ants, flies, spiders, silverfish, crickets, beetles and more. Live Science posted a gallery of 15 common indoor dwellers, including gnats and daddy-longlegs. Homeowners had this reaction when the scientists showed them what they found: “The residents were really surprised and often horrified that we found so much, so we had to calm them down by saying it was normal.

Now you know why those cobwebs keep showing up between dustings. Thankfully, most of our uninvited house guests are harmless, and they generally try to remain out of sight. Some are even beneficial, the scientists said:

The carpet beetles and book lice do much of the clearing up, scavenging dead insects, moulds and algae, as well as polishing off food crumbs and detritus from our own bodies, including nail clippings, hair and dead skin. Some carpet beetles live on and consume spiders’ webs. [New Scientist]

They won’t hurt you, either, the researchers added. Although many of the species that Bertone and his colleagues found were predatory — like spiders, centipedes, wasps and beetles — they can’t bite people. In fact, some may actually help out around the house by consuming harmful species — the arthropod equivalent of pitching in with household chores. [Live Science]

So keep moving; nothing to see here.  “Just keep living your life how it is,” Bertone advised. “This has been happening for a long time.”

Add this to the fact that most of the cells you carry are not your own, although Nature busted the myth that we carry 10 times more microbes and bugs than our own cells; it’s more like 1:1. That’s a relief. They’re not all germs, of course; we all have tiny mites that live in our eyelashes and hair follicles, but that’s too disturbing to think about, so we won’t tell you about that.

We may as well accept the fact that we share our habitats, both indoors and outdoors, with other creatures. Instead of becoming horrified, we can learn to accept this as normal, unavoidable, and actually good—to a point. It’s OK to set out roach traps and wipe up the ant trails, but you don’t have to run around the house spraying everything with Raid. Live and let live. Parents, you can help your kids avoid paranoia by treating bugs matter-of-factly and not screaming at the sight of every spider or bee. Calmly teach them to look at it and learn about its way of life. Instead of stomping on it, show the kid how to take the little friend gently outside where it belongs. Correct the urban myths that come and go, like notions that everyone eats bugs and spiders during their sleep. Obviously, some pests that can cause disease (lice, fleas, bedbugs, houseflies) need to be controlled, but avoid calling arthropods “nasty vermin” and other dark, scary terms. Most are harmless, and all of them were harmless in the original good creation.

It can be disconcerting, though, to run into an unexpected arthropod. I remember laying in bed one night reading when [Warning: Do Not Tell This Story to Young Children] a big hairy mygalomorph (a large black spider like a tarantula) strolled into the bedroom. I jumped up, but before I could catch it, it ran under the bed. After several minutes trying to find it with a flashlight, I gave up and got back in bed. As I was reading, I dangled my hand down and then [cue scary music] felt the hairs of this “monster under the bed” brushing my fingers. Jumping up again, I was determined to get it this time, not wanting to risk having it wake me up in the dark or something. Finally, I caught it under a jar, and imprisoned it in a closed terrarium to show it who’s the king of this castle. (And also to observe and learn about it for science, of course.) Speaking of castles, the wise Agur said, “The spider skillfully grasps with its hands, and it is in kings’ palaces” (Proverbs 30:28). Some translations say it’s a lizard you can catch with your hands, but the point is that even lowly creatures can live like royalty. I don’t live like a king, actually. I can’t afford goldfish, so I just keep silverfish.

Small black ants in my part of the country are almost impossible to stop in the summer months (fortunately, cockroaches are less common, but we have black widows to watch out for). Ant trails can stretch clear across the house—that would be a long hike for a human! I marvel at how the scouts locate food and call the whole army within minutes. Spray their entrance, and they quickly find another way, even out of light switches and faucets. We also have Mormon crickets that hop faster than you can step on them. One will start chirping in another room, driving you crazy, but when you approach it, it stops, leaving you clueless where the little ventriloquist was hiding. I think we dislike bugs in the house partly because they outsmart us. If you want to see one of those tiny gnats that hover and dart about, Live Science has a magnified photo of one. Think of all the flight hardware packed into that tiny thing.

Speaking of crickets, one night working late in the home office I heard a grinding noise a few feet away under some equipment. This time I suspected what it was, and with a flashlight, there was a big ugly potato bug (also called Jerusalem cricket) doing its thing. Not reachable, I sprayed it with spider spray and it quieted down, but I never found the body. Hopefully some other friendly arthropods will work it over, and it will evolve into a dust bunny.

Share your story!  What animals live with you, besides pets?  Lizards have run into my house, and once a Cooper’s hawk flew in the front door with a rabbit in its talons! Some people have to worry about moose and bears wandering in. But we all have a story about arthropods, I’m sure.



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  • rdwelling says:

    My wife and I live in Arizona and are constantly finding baby geckos in our house. She hates them so I always try to catch and throw them outside. They are so small that they can probably insert themselves between the outside door’s weather stripping. We have separate closets and I once found a mature gecko crushed between the closet door and its frame. He was big! So I suspect he had been living in my closet for years, subsisting on carpet beetles, black widows and such. Please don’t tell my wife.

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