Don’t judge a book – or creepy crawler – by its cover

By Sajida Malik

Warning: this will make your skin crawl! Check out 5 creepy crawlers that researchers in FIU’s Institute of Environment are studying.

1. Crustaceans

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The Heather Crab, Cancellus heatherae. Photo courtesy Heather Bracken-Grissom

The Bracken-Grissom Lab studies the evolution of marine invertebrates. One creepy looking deep-sea crustacean was even named after Heather-Bracken Grissom, assistant director of the Coastlines and Oceans Division in the Institute of Environment. The new species of hermit crab, a small orange bristly-looking crab with no shell, Cancellus heatherae, was discovered on an outer continental shelf bank in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

Carlos Varela, a graduate student in the Bracken-Grissom Lab has been working on identifying the larvae of many of these creepy little crustaceans including shrimp and lobster. Using deep sea forensics, Varela and Bracken-Grissom identified the larvae of 14 species and matched them to their adult counterparts, providing important insights on the mysterious world below that is the deep sea.

2. Frogs

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The glass frog.

FIU biologist Alessandro Catenazzi and a team of scientists discovered a rare species of harlequin frog in the Peruvian Andes rainforest. They’ve been studying a fungal disease that has been linked to the deaths of many of these frogs as well as other amphibians.

Instead of being afraid of these unique organisms, people should be more afraid of rainforests without them. Having been able to discover a new species despite the threat of this fungal disease is significant. It renews hope that these rare frogs can recover and survive the ecological challenges they face. Catenazzi’s work is helping further conservation efforts to protect these rare species.

3: Moths

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Moth. Photo courtesy Jamie Theobald

Biology professor Jamie Theobald and Ph.D. student Yash Sondhi seek to understand the effect that artificial light is having on moths. Their research aims to shed light on the ways moths respond to different light levels and if/how their behavior is altered.

“Too many people think moths are a dull, ghostly, nighttime version of butterflies, making unwelcome approaches to your porch lights at night,” Theobald said. “In fact, moths are a huge group of over 150,000 species that are colorful, strong flyers, performing crucial environmental services, such as nocturnal pollination. One of their biggest threats is artificial lighting, so turn off unnecessary lights and keep the night dark!”

4. Snakes

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Great plains ground snake. Credit: Chrystian Cox

FIU evolutionary biologist Christian Cox, and University of Michigan Ph.D. student John David Curlis, uncovered the evolutionary trait that allows the great plains ground snake to look like other snakes through the process of mimicry. This trait has allowed the species to evolve color variations that resemble other species they are not related to, sort of like a shape-shifter.

Understanding why these snakes use mimicry is crucial to understanding biodiversity among these species. Cox and Curlis’ work aims to engage the public and increase awareness of this evolutionary process. While the reason the great plains ground snake has these color variations is not well understood yet, this research provides an important perspective that can offer insight as to why organisms use mimicry across nature.

5. Spiders and Ants

Chris Baraloto, associate director of the Land and Biodiversity Division in the Institute of Environment,  and a team of researchers studied the relationship between trees and various species in the Amazon like fungi, earthworms, ants and spiders. The strongest relationship was found between trees and ants. The study reveals the important role ants play in the biodiversity of tropical forests.

“In some of our field sites in the Amazon, we encounter large populations of the Goliath birdeater tarantula spiders,” Baraloto said. “Some evenings, dozens of these enormous spiders covered in stinging hairs are crawling underneath our hammocks in our camps.”

Although these creepy crawlers can be scary to some, it is crucial to consider the critical role these organisms play in the ecosystems they inhabit. At FIU’s Institute of Environment, faculty and students are conducting important research to further society’s understanding of these organisms, so they can be protected and conserved for generations to come.

Learn more at environment.fiu.edu