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Backyard Habitats – Lesson 4

Well…

We have looked under leaf litter and garden mulch – and we have looked under logs searching for critters who may be using our yard for habitat.  Today we are going to look at another “under” place that you may or may not have in your yard – rocks.

Rocks make great habitat for small creatures in our yard.

Rocks?

In the Florida panhandle you have rocks?

Yea, if you bought them 😊

In south Florida they do have limestone rock and actually in the western panhandle we have what is called “iron rock”.  It is more common in the north end of the county.  But we do have some at our home in Pensacola that we use for landscaping, and some of the wildlife do like it.

 

In the past two lessons on leaves and logs, we discussed the process of succession.  Over time both the leaves and logs will breakdown (“cook”) creating a different type of habitat as they do.  At first, there is not much to offer animals, and the “pioneer community” begins to establish a place.  These creatures change the habitat so that other creatures can inhabit there, eventually a climax community is formed.

 

With rocks there is not much breakdown or “cooking” going on.  I will say though – the longer you do not turn them over, the richer the soil becomes, the more humid the environment, and the more critters you see.

 

This is a favorite past time for my grandsons when they come over – turning over rocks to see what is there.

What is there?

 

Everything we find here is small, and mostly insects.

However, we have found skinks and the Brahminy Blind Snake on numerous explorations – these are my grandsons favorites.

 

Skinks are basically small-flat lizards.  Just a few inches long.  Ours are dark brown and too fast to get a good photo.  We have found them under the leaf litter as well.  They feed on some of the insects that are there – so if the rock has not been sitting long enough, there may not be enough for them to eat – give it some time.

The small, blue “Flowerpot” snake in the right hand of this backyard explorer.

I have mentioned the Brahminy Blind Snake in past lessons.  This is a very small snake, only a couple of inches long, and is a dark blue-black color.  It is often confused with a worm, but it has scales and is actually a snake.  It is not from this part of the world and is considered by many to be invasive.  I am not sure what harm it does, so I am not sure how invasive it is – but they are not native.  They are spread through the gardening world and are often called “Flowerpot Snakes”.  They are blind and very cool.

 

Roly-Polies are very common and another grandson favorite.  These pill bugs are members of the arthropod phylum and have hard exoskeletons.  You can see the segments of this exoskeleton, along with their numerous legs.  The legs tend to make people think they are millipedes, but they are actually crustaceans – related to the creature that crawls across the rocks by the beach we call “rock roaches” (which are not roaches at all).  Crustaceans generally have 10 legs, while insects have six – and only one set of antenna, while insects have two sets.  When you pick up a pill bug they will roll into a ball – pretty cool.

The famous “roly-poly” or pill bug.

Spiders are also very common here.  Spiders are not insects either but in a group called arachnids – they have eight legs instead of six.  They lack antenna all together.  This group would also include the scorpions, ticks and chiggers – I have never found any of these in my yard, but they do live in our area.  DO NOT PICK UP THE SPIDERS.  All spiders have some form of venom and can leave a nasty bite.  Some can hurt pretty bad – some can put you in the hospital – let’s just not touch them 😊

They are predators, eating other insects like the skinks do.  Not all spiders build webs.  Many of these that live under rocks will dig burrows in which they live.

Have you ever been “spider hunting”? It is fun and I will include it in todays activity.

In the center of this photo you can see a small earwig.

Earwigs are very common under these rocks.  These long insects have a big pincer (“claw”) at the end of their body.  They really do not hurt, but they look like they could.  They are another predator living in this world.  There must be a lot of hunting going on when we can’t see them.  Bugs chasing bugs – bugs trying to eat other bugs – bugs fighting off so they are not eaten – lots of things must be going on under the rocks.

 

Millipedes and centipedes are also found here.  The millipedes have two sets of legs for every segment and the centipedes only one.  The centipedes are much faster, and much larger, than the millipedes and – yep – they are hunters.  They have a mild toxin in their bite and can hurt – so leave them alone.  Millipedes are fine.

The slow, nontoxic millipede.

And finally, the ants.  EVERYONE knows what ants can do.  NO ONE wants to get bit by a bunch of ants – but they are here under these rocks and you should be careful not to get your hand in a bunch of them.  Actually, when ants bite, they release a small amount of toxin.  No one dies from ant bites (maybe somebody has but it is VERY RARE) but it sure hurts – and itches.  These guys are very social and there has been a lot written about ant colonies and how they work.  Have you ever seen the cartoon/movie “Ants”?  Pretty good one – and worth watching on a rainy day.  There are probably some good YouTube videos on ant colonies online – check them out.

This is a large species of any we find under our rocks.

OKAY – let’s go out and explore our backyard habitats!

 

ACTIVITY

          You may not have rocks in your yard – but maybe some cinder blocks or bricks – works just the same.  As always – BE CAREFUL turning over rocks (bricks) there are biting bugs there. 

          SPIDER HUNTING: Here is how you do it… First, you have to do this at night.  Go outside after dark tonight with a flashlight.  Place the flashlight in the middle of your forehead (like a camper’s lantern – though I have tried this with a camper’s lantern, and it did not work as well).  Hold the light in the middle of your forward and look around in the yard.  You will see what look like “jewels” in the grass.  Most of them are blue in color and twinkle at you – maybe white.  Keeping you the flashlight on your forehead – move towards the “blue jewels” – get as close as you can – you will see they are spiders.  The “jewels” are their eyes reflecting light back at you!  They have eight eyes by the way.  This is great fun and can be addictive 😊

          Spend some time “googling” the creatures you find to learn more about them. 

HAVE FUN AND STAY SAFE.