It was a sunny morning late last week, and I had just ducked under a branch to reach our next transect. Standing up straight, I had a sudden feeling that there was something very large hanging off the back of my shirt, and walking up towards my neck. So I called over a friend on our field crew and asked, as calmly as possible, if there was something on me. His immediate response was unpublishable, which didn’t restore my confidence in the situation.
We see a lot of spiders in Panama. They are found on the ground, on trees, and in the water. Here is a Dolomedes sp. fishing spider, about four inches long, waiting to catch a frog and then kill it with a venom that causes liquefaction from the inside out. Generally having a spider on you is likely to end in anything from a neutral to a very unpleasant experience.
Orb-weaving spiders are also very common. Their bodies are colorful, perhaps as a warning to potential predators. Here are two individuals of different species, perhaps in the Argiope or Actinosoma genus (please comment if you know).
Walking into spiders and their webs is inevitable. My first thought was that I had entangled myself with a golden-orb weaver, whose webs span at least a meter in diameter. These spiders have been observed (Nyffeler et al. 2013) to successfully catch and eat bats. Here you can see one eating a Morpho sp. butterfly, with iridescent blue wings.
But I didn’t see a orb-weaver’s web, and the thing on me felt far too big to be one of these spiders – big enough to make my shirt sag. It kept walking, and I soon found myself with an insect of the Phasmatodea order on my neck. Fortunately these, the stick-insects, are very friendly and completely harmless – I had not seen it camouflaged against a tree and dislodged it from its perch. The relief was immediate. I do like spiders, but I like stick-insects more! This one was the largest I’d ever seen before – bigger than my outstretched hand by far.
There are many kinds of stick-insects, but this one might be Metriophasma iphicles. Please comment if you know any better. A frightening morning became a fun adventure playing with one of the largest and nicest insects I’d ever seen.
The insect wouldn’t stay still while it was on me, and was equally restless while walking all over Colby’s face. But as soon as we put it on a branch, it extended its left front leg parallel to its body, tucked in its antennae, and became quite still and stick-like.
I glanced in the other direction, and when I turned back, it had already disappeared back into the thousands of branches of our forest.