To be successful at mating, the Masked Tree Frog needs voice appeal

If you landed here after consulting Ms Google about a sexy night out in Drake Bay—gottcha!

Also, be forewarned. If you’re afraid of scorpions, snakes, spiders or frogs, this might not be your favourite nocturnal adventure. For us, it was total pleasure, thanks to Tracie Stice and her husband Gianfranco Goméz.

Everyday after dark, Tracie and Gian conduct their amazing two-and-a-half-hour Nightime Insect Tour. Passionate about their subjects, they’ve been doing it here for years, Tracie since 1997, earning the title “The Bug Lady” and prominence in guidebooks to Costa Rica.

Tracie has a degree in biology with an emphasis in entomology. She specializes in creatures with six legs, eight legs or more. Gian is a Costa Rican naturalist, a herpetologist who knows about reptiles and amphibians, plus he’s a great photographer. After travelling the world, he relocated to Drake Bay where they married in 2005. He finds the critters, she tells their stories. Together, they’re a dynamic duo.

The first thing you notice about Tracie is her voice, a lilt of curiosity intermingled with the modulation of an actress and exactitude of a good anecdotist. Naturally, she told us more about the nightlife around La Paloma Lodge than their erotic behaviours.

I’m partial to the Argiope Spider because it’s often called “The Writing Spider” and the shape of  its lacy web conjures up Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel.” Although artful, its silky web is dangerous and can totally encase a bat during the night.

 

Comparatively, since they reache sexual maturity at the age of eight months and only lives for ten years, Thomas’ Fruit-Eating Bats have a longer sex life than humans. They engineer their homes by chewing leaves into a form the shape of a tent. Is that where they do it?

 

The nocturnal Cat-eyed Snakes are named for their vertically elliptical pupils, which like those of felines, adjust for changing light conditions. The female has quite the adaptation, an advantage for a species with a low population density. If she doesn’t feel like getting pregnant just yet, the female can store sperm for up to four years.

 

“Can you imagine harvesting silk from the rear-ends of over a million spiders to create an incredible golden scarf?” Tracie has been quoted as saying.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum houses a cape woven from the natural yellow silk of 1.2 million Golden Orb Weaver spiders. The cape was created in Madagascar, the brainchild of an American fashion designer and British art historian and textile expert to revive traditional Malagasy weaving and embroidery skills and showcase the talents of people on the island. A team of 80 people collected female Golden Orbs (only females create silk) from their webs each day and harvested their silk before returning them to the wild. Four metres long and whisper-light, the cape is embellished with images of spiders, plants, and flowers that took 6,000 hours to embroider. “The cape itself is like an invisibility cloak, you almost wouldn’t know you were wearing it, and it has this mystical, ephemeral quality, just like a spider’s web, but also a permanence,” Godley told CNN.

Spider silk is stronger than steel, stronger even than Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof jackets. And flexible—a pound of it could stretch around the equator.

 

Most Stick Spiders are parthenogenic, which means the females can develop eggs without mating with a male. However, some females prefer copulating and even resort to bisexuality if there are too few males in their habitat.

 

Caligo Butterfly Caterpillars grow up to become Owl Butterlies (like the ones in last week’s post. Both sexes have similar wing morphology which accounts for their mating activity—males don’t have to go on an aggressive chase; they just perch and wait for receptive females.

 

“Wrauk,” the Masked Tree Frog calls out, trying to entice a female to join him in the pool at La Paloma Lodge and grab her around the armpits for a rendezvous.

Looks like a trophy row of mini skulls doesn’t it? Tracie describes the Trashline Spider, Cyclosa, as the ‘bone collector’ of the arachnid world—indeed, the ‘bones’ are the exoskeletons of its victims. By concealing itself among the ‘bones’ in the trash line, the Cyclosa hides from her prey and her enemies.

 

Gian describes the Tailless Whip Scorpion as “that beast looks like it was forged in the pits of hell!” But unlike some of their relatives, these guys have no venom glands and are completely harmless. “I like to think of them as the “kittens” of the arachnid world,” Tracie says. To find their prey, which they eat alive, they tap around with their antenna-like legs, then clamp onto “dinner” with their pair of spiny appendages.

 

The Derbid Planthopper has an odd shape: wings longer than its body and a severely compressed head. To protect those fragile wings, the Planthopper is often found in this position, nestling under broad leaves.

 

Orb Spiders, like this beauty, have sexual size dimorphism; in their case the female is 1.6 times larger than the male. She builds a new web everyday, a trap for prey and partners, which are sometimes one and the same. Mating occurs in two ways. The male slowly traverses the web to its hub, trying not to get eaten. Or, if he’s the more cautious type, he courts the female by constructing a mating thread outside the web, enticing her to join him there.

 

As Tracie explained while shining her ultraviolet flashlight on this critter, scorpions have a layer in their exoskeleton that when exposed to UV light fluoresces neon blue. The scorpion looks like a jewelled brooch doesn’t it?

 

Female Central American woolly opossums have it easy; they’re pregnant for only two weeks before giving birth to one to six youngsters so small that scientists call them “larvae.” Well maybe not entirely easy. Mom has to keep the larvae in her pouch for more than two months before she moves them all to a nest in the trees.

 

A Fire-Bellied Orb Weaver is sticky about where she deposits her eggs. These female spiders spin silk cocoons, weightless lacy baskets for their eggs. To catch their prey, starting at dusk they’re at “the loom,” weaving a web that’s two metres long.

 

To me this darling Net-winged Planthopper Nymph looks like a psychodelic helicopter, to Magellan a miniature peacock. She has an unusual method for protecting her eggs, covering them with wax plates she’s generated herself.

 

The Comb-footed Spiders (dressed in vermilion) are identifiable by their shiny hairs and pairs of stumpy spinnerets under or at the end of their bodies. Their spinnerets enable them to climb objects—a characteristic in their world shared only by baby tarantulas.

 

Not pretty or sexy but talented. “Leaf Katydid Nymphs are true masters at the art of deception and one of the finest examples of plant mimicry in the animal kingdom,” Tracie says. “Every detail of this insect’s body resembles a leaf.”

 

Definitely neither attractive nor erotic, the Smoky Jungle Frog is the largest of its species in Costa Rica, measuring up to 18 cm and able to eat a snake whole. Other than its partners and family, few will want to get close. That’s because its skin harbours a  nasty toxin, a powerful repellent for us and its prey.

 

The most venomous spider on the planet—Phoneutria bolilviensis—the Bolivian Wandering Spicer. But here’s the thing about its cousin, according to naturalist and academic, Jean-Luc Sanchez. “A toxin found in the venom of Phoneutria nigriventer, PnTx2-6, is known to lead to a spontaneous erection of the penis. Some researchers believe that this toxin could lead to a new cure for erectile dysfunction and even replace Viagra in the future.”

 

Deadly is the Ctenus Wandering Spider. Not only does it cannibalize other spiders, if this wanderer has an injured leg that’s bleeding, it will self-amputate. And suck the bloody juices from its lost leg to regain nutrients.

We’ve saved the best for last.

Apparently, discovering a Trapdoor Spider is on the Top 5 bucket list of every arachnophile.

The longest-lived spider in the world, it has feats of engineering, ingenuity and perseverance that are unsurpassed in its world.

Rather like us during COVID-19, Trapdoor Spiders hunker down behind closed doors. Unlike us (we hope), they spend their entire lives behind closed doors, unless there are external catastrophes, natural or accidental.

Never would we have found the doors, each the size of a stamp. The inside of the burrow white as the backside of a stamp.

Tracie opened a trap door, her key a chopstick-like skewer. She explained that the miniature black occupant detects by motion, “whether it should jump out and eat the invader or stay put to avoid being eaten.”

You’re probably wondering, like us: how do they do it, living alone? During humid weather, a mature male goes knocking on burrow doors. Usually he escapes being eaten by his first concubine and gets a chance with several females before succumbing to sexual cannibalism. (Because she’s hungry, because she can and because of “complex evolutionary reasons involving costs and benefits to the species, sperm competition and esoteric sexual selection schemes.”) The female lays her eggs several months after mating.

We are in the dark about so much.

Even more that night for Magellan and me. So many creatures. Such interesting info to absorb about their habits and sex lives while, at the same time, trying to get good photos in the dark.

Tracie and Gian recognize this. Their website flashed a light on many nightlife intricacies we’d forgotten. And if you ask, they’ll send you an “Encounters List.”

February 6, 2020 Encounters List

Encounters Species Name Common Name
1 Agalychnis callidryas Gaudy Leaf Frog
1 Phasmatodea Walking Stick
1 Clelia clelia Mussurana
1 Smilisca phaeota Masked Tree Frog
1 Artibeus watsoni Thomas’ Fruit-eating Bat
1 Nephila clavipes Golden Orb Weaver
1 Pristimantis ridens Pygmy Rain Frog
1 Nogodinidae Net-winged Planthopper Nymph
1 Leptodactylus savagei Smoky Jungle Frog
3 Paraphrynus laevifrons Tailless Whip Scorpion
3 Caligo sp. Caligo Butterfly Caterpillars
2 Eriophora fuliginea Fire-bellied Orb Weaver
1 Caluromys derbianus Central American Woolly Opossum
1 Eriophora nephiloides Orb Spider
Multiple Ummidia sp. Trapdoor Spiders
1 Derbidae Derbid Planthopper
1 Mimetica sp. Leaf Katydid Nymph
1 Chrysso sp. Comb-Footed Spider
1 Cyclosa sp. Cyclosa Spider
1 Conepatus semistriatus Striped Hog-nosed Skunk
1 Ctenus sp. Wandering Spider
1 Phoneutria bolilviensis Bolivian Wandering Spider
1 Leptodeira ornata Cat-eyed Snake
1 Ariamnes sp. Stick Spider
1 Argiope sp. Argiope Spider
2 Tityus ocelote Scorpion
UPDATE: May 5, 2020. A rare Trap Door Spider has been seen on Vancouver Island.

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Tracie and Gian have a wonderful website that’s worth a nightly visit. We thank them for sending us their photo and generously taking time to review this blog in advance to avoid an embarrassment of errors on our part.

If you want to see the cape spun by Golden Orb Spiders watch this YouTube and have a look at this CNN article.

Tracie and Gian conduct their tours on the grounds of La Paloma Lodge, a little hotel so perfect that one night it will have its own story on this blog.

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4 replies
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      We had no idea how lucky we were to see some of these critters. This from Tracie and Gian’s blog (http://www.thenighttour.com/blog/) eight years ago: ” We saw a Leaf Katydid (Mimetica sp.), an incredible brown and green morph that we had only seen one other time before, about ten years ago.” This couple is amazing. Their blog is definitely a fascinating place to visit during COVID-19.

      Reply
  1. Avatar
    Barry MacLeod says:

    So that’s what you two do, in the dark of night, down in Costa Rica, now we know.

    Very interesting how “Mother Nature” has created such a variety of shapes and colours to comply with the different environments around the world, truly remarkable how they all fit into the different classifications within their families and the associated abnormalities, or so we think, about how they live and reproduce, thought provoking, may be an understatement.

    Awesome pictures and storyline, well done.

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      As Tracie and Gian advertise on their website, their night tour of love potions, fatal attractions and bridal bondage is for mature audiences only.

      Reply

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