Getting around – dispersing, if you will – is one of the key ecological tenets of life for the vast majority of species on planet Earth. Many do it of their own accord, employing wings, legs, fins, and even torsos (think snakes) to make it from point A to point B, and beyond. Other less mobile species rely upon other modes of transportation, traveling at the whims of a variety of forces of nature. November is prime time to witness some of this latter group, particularly our pernicious prickly plants. Let’s take a look at some of our local Sky Islands hitchhikers.
One of my least favorite sets of clinger-ons are invertebrate parasites. Having grown up in Lyme disease country, I can attest to the fact that, relatively speaking, we have no ticks here. Yes, a few are around, but I’ve never had one on me. More often, though not frequently, I’ve been vexed by fleas – vagabond ectoparasites hopping my fleshy freight train. Most often these unceremonious “boardings” have occurred near skunk holes. Other invertebrates may use us and other animals for transport on occasion, though perhaps not so religiously as ticks and fleas, who use us not only for a lift, but also make a convenient meal of our hemoglobin.
A more benign animal-animal transport relationship involves two invertebrates. Pseudoscorpions are marginally mobile, stingless relatives of true scorpions. They are generally just a few millimeters long and mostly live in moist, dark places, and thus remain undiscovered, generally speaking. I’ve found them in damp plant parts at times. Occasionally, scientists have found pseudoscorpions hitching rides on the bodies of larger invertebrates. Beetles can be the bush pilots here, as the minute pseudoscorpions climb onto their elytra – the hard, outer wings of beetles – and await aerial transport. A Lilliputian world rarely glimpsed by us.
Many species travel with us, even if they’re not directly on our bodies. Various creatures move via our vehicles. Think mice, other rodents, a whole slew of invertebrates (the live ones, not the squished ones on your windshield), and no doubt even such larger species as ringtails and racoons. In 2021 a yellow-bellied marmot (a less famous cousin to the groundhog) was reported to have stowed away in a vehicle, traveling from its native Colorado to Glendale, Arizona, a 600-mile trip! We might just have to change the name of our state’s professional baseball team name to the Mighty Marmots! Boaters and fishermen also unwittingly transport aquatic species from one body of water to another via wastewater, creating ecological disasters by introducing species not native to their new “home.”
No offense to our cute marmot or other animal wayfarers, but it’s truly the plants that shine in the transportation department. One would think the opposite, given how they are generally rooted in one place. But flowering plants’ seeds are far from immobile. Anyone who has recklessly trod through a Sky Islands grassland in November can attest to the fact that our socks seem to be the perfect transport vehicles for a wide range of seeds. Some socks become so covered in them that you’re probably better off planting them than attempting to clean them! A diversity of grass seeds shine in this regard – poking, puncturing, and progressing at our expense. One grass flowering top – our native plains lovegrass – flies instead at the whims of the wind. Honorable mention to stickleaf, cocklebur, and bidens…
Perhaps my favorite hitchhiker is the devil himself. Devil’s claws, that is. Many a curved seed pod of this slick member of the unicorn plant family lurks in wait to spring its insidious trap on you. Step in the wrong place and – voila! You are suddenly the proud parent of a number of devil’s claw embryos stuck to your foot. Where these baby beelzebubs come off is up to you – extract by hand when desired. Don’t complain – it’s far better than being mugged by a jumping cholla joint, which (sorry to spoil the tall tale) do not jump. They do, however, rate as the most painful plant hitchhiker west of the Pecos.
So, next time you’re feeling a bit lonely, just go out for a November stroll and soon all sorts of friends will try to tag along.
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation 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 & biodiversity tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org