A robberfly at Raven’s Nest Sanctuary. Photo by Vince Pinto

Jaguars, gray hawks, oak trees, various rattlesnakes, mule deer, Mexican poppies, Sonoran toads…These and many other charismatic flora and fauna populating the Sky Islands tend to register strongly on the Richter scale for many people in our region. But there are plenty of other species here in the Madrean Archipelago who tend to run under most people’s radar, but who deserve our attention, admiration and protection. Here’s a look at a few relatively obscure species that we might categorize as Sky Island skulkers.

Let’s start with a plant whose common name is Mala mujer, or “bad woman.” To my knowledge it’s the only local botanical name plagued by a misogynistic label. 

Mala mujer is not exactly rare, but it is uncommon enough to be easily missed by many, even those with a predilection for spending time in the wilds. If, however, you inadvertently happen to brush against this stout, bushy, and herbaceous plant, then the origin of the “mala” part of its name will become painfully apparent via stinging hairs releasing their potent toxins into your flesh. The maple-shaped leaves, the stems, and even the unripe seed pods all provide aggressive defense for Mala mujer, and as a sort of backup security system, she even exudes toxic, milky sap from any significant wound. Whew! Nevertheless, the seeds have a wonderfully nutty taste that I enjoy, one that I share with collared peccaries, who also dig up mala mujer’s deep tubers for food.

Another small set of species lost in our grand biodiversity shuffle are the grasshopper mice. The Sky Islands host three species of stout-bodied, short-tailed grasshopper mice – northern, southern, and Mearn’s. These tough mice are immune to scorpion stings, which helps when they feel like a bit of arthropod sushi. Other invertebrates, including various grasshoppers, also make their way down the gullets of grasshopper mice, as do other mice, which are pounced upon with the same ferocity of a cougar dispatching a deer. A hard bite to the neck can suffice to execute the other, weaker mouse. I once live-trapped a southern grasshopper mouse and placed it in a terrarium with a seven-inch long Clark’s spiny lizard, foolishly thinking them a benign pair. The next day I discovered the mouse, but no reptile – the little bugger had eaten it, bones and all! 

To top it all off, these murderous mice also have large territories which they defend in part by howling. I’ve heard them on rare occasion in the wild, thinking at first their high-pitched whistle was a sudden bout of tinnitus. 

Last in line in our list of little-known species is a type of robber fly – Archilestris magnificus. A fly? Yes, a fly… but not just any fly. This one is huge, the size of a small tarantula hawk wasp, and can grow to several inches long. They are renowned for their potent sting and bold coloration. In fact, the robber fly has evolved to mimic the coloration of wasps to avoid predation by birds, lizards, and other would-be predators. They are a bold red and black, which on the actual wasp warns of the sting, but in the case of the fly is a mere ruse. These behemoth flies consume a rather large list of invertebrate prey, including some wasps! 

I’ve witnessed this impressive feat several times in the wild. The fly, spotting a yellow paper wasp, zoomed out, caught its quarry with its long legs, then maneuvered it into place before delivering the final blow with its stilletto-like mouth. Fly 1, wasp 0.

This article was a tough one to write – who would make the cut, allowing me to share some fascinating natural history tidbits that might help shed light on these species, thus bringing them into your good favor? I could easily have written about the Madrean alligator lizard, northern beardless tyrranulet (a bird), white-backed hog-nosed skunk (one of four species here), any number of bat species, Arizona tree frog, elf (a butterfly), ball moss (Arizona’s only bromeliad)… Truth is, we’re collectively unaware of far too many species with which we share the Sky Islands and the planet in general. This does not bode well for their conservation with so many threats looming over their future. 

I entreat you, then, dear reader, to get outside and look for that which you haven’t seen or found before. Go on a wild scavenger hunt for species, even if you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. Make the acquaintance of new plants, animals and fungi, and enter into their world while they still manage to survive in ours.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure andvConservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding and biodiversity tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org