JANUARY 8, 2022
YOUR WEEKLY DOSE OF WOWZERS AND WONDER FROM THE NATURAL WORLD
Today’s featured critter is very, VERY old.
In fact, they’re older than dinosaurs!
Thought to be the evolutionary link between worms and arthropods, they have some really Wowzerful characteristics.
But watch out, they pack a few surprises too!
Today, we’re getting slimy and squishy with velvet worms!
Image: Geoff Gallice
There are an estimated 200 species of velvet worms on Earth today!
They are spread across the globe but prefer the moist, tropical climates of the Southern Hemisphere.
They are essentially living fossils, with not much changing in their bodily make-up in more than 500 million years.
In fact, The fossilized velvet worms found in British Columbia’s Burgess Shale are nearly identical to today’s living worms!
While their exact length might vary between species and location, most velvet worms share a range of physical and biological traits.
Found in various colours—including red, blue, brown, orange, and grey—velvet worms often feature beautiful striped, spotted, or chevron patterns.
Their bodies are covered in sensitive hairs which stick up from the tiny bumps on their surface, known as papillae.
These bumps are made from overlapping scales which help the worms to repel excess moisture.
This is important because life as a velvet worm is one big watery balancing act!
While they want to repel some water, they also need to be near moisture at all times.
This is because they breathe through tiny holes and tubes in their bodies, known as tracheae.
They are unable to close these, so staying in a dry area for too long could lead to a very withered, and a very dead, worm.
Their soupy insides are essential for more than just staying hydrated, though. The liquid also acts as a skeleton!
Instead of hard bones like many animals have, velvet worms use pressure changes in their internal liquids and muscle control to move their legs, twist their bodies, and navigate the world around them.
They’re like walking, carnivorous water balloons!
This method of movement is especially Wowzerful when you consider that some species of velvet worm have more than 40 pairs of legs and can reach lengths of up to 20 cm!
The end of their little stubby legs features a moveable pad that they use as a foot.
When they need to grab on to something, there are a pair of retractable claws on each pad.
This is the reason for their scientific name, Onychophora or “claw bearers.”
While the velvet worm might not be super speedy, its flexibility and grippy paws make it a bit of a ninja when moving across difficult terrain or climbing.
And if all this wasn’t Wowzerful enough, we haven’t even talked about the two glue cannons on the front of their heads!
When threatened or stalking a meal, velvet worms shoot a fast-drying sticky slime out two floppy tubes on their face.
Want to see the slime-slinging action up close? Check out this video from bioGraphicMagazine.
While the spray is not very accurate, it covers a wide area and is very effective at pinning down bugs so the worm can catch up and go in for the kill.
Once they’ve trapped an unsuspecting beetle, termite, or other insect, they’ll saw into their shell or cut their skin using a knife-like fang and inject their prey with saliva.
This allows them to slurp up their meal without worrying about hands or a large mouth filled with teeth to break down the crunchier parts.
Spotting velvet worms is tricky because they’re small, slow-moving, and nocturnal.
They also don’t like light. Instead, they stick to damp, moist caves, leafy forest floors, and other places where you’re less likely to notice them.
So while they can be rare to spot, they are actually quite common.
They’ve been around for millions of years, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
If you happen to run across one while exploring the world, handle them with care and count yourself extremely lucky!
Your best chance of catching one out of hiding is on a rainy night—which is precisely when most people aren’t out exploring.
Euperipatoides rowelli, a velvet worm species native to Australia, hunts in packs and even has an alpha female that gets first dibs on meals!
Most velvet worms are ovoviviparous. They keep their eggs inside their body until they’re ready to hatch.
Velvet worms can’t see very well. Instead, they rely on chemical trails and air movements to detect nearby prey or socialize with other velvet worms.
Some cool stuff from around the web we think you and your kids will enjoy.
Make Your Own Mini Compost
Learn about the benefits of composting and how to make your own tiny composter!
Maddie Moate | YouTube
Who Knew Poop Could Be So Important?
Check out this research team’s efforts to see how whales help to keep oceans healthy… with their poop!
That’s A Lot of Beans!
See how a modern factory keeps the food on your shelf safe using heat, vacuum seals, and sterilization!
BBC Earth Lab | Youtube
One Curious Crustacean
Check out this one-in-a-million lobster caught off the coast of Maine in the United States.
Nature World News
— Anne Lamott
Why can’t pine trees sew?
Because they always drop their needles!
Today’s email was written by Joshua J. with contributions by Geoff W. and Branden S.
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