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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Miniature Monsters

Air Date: Week of

When it comes to the animal kingdom, most of us probably have our favorite species or two. For author Sy Montgomery, it’s the predators that hold her fascination.


CURWOOD: Who can think of a more peaceful scene than a summer day by the local pond? But for author and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery, it's the battle going on underneath the surface that attracts her to the water's edge.

MONTGOMERY: I’ve always loved creatures with spines, venom or fangs: nature red in tooth and claw. I write books on tarantulas and bears, and man-eating tigers. Even as a student reading Beowulf, I was rooting for Grendel.

And that’s one reason I’m drawn to the ponds near my house in New Hampshire. That’s where a real-life, sci-fi show is playing--starring a real-life, blood-curdling monster. You’ll see it at the edge of the pond, where the mud is soft and warm, where newts dart among the pickerel weed and frogs grin up from the shallows. A Volkswagon-shaped, brown beetle paddles gently along on blade-like legs.

But don’t be deceived by the benign appearance. Though no insect looks more gentle, none are more fierce or voracious. This is the domain of the predaceous diving beetle. Across the country, in ponds, in pools, in the side-waters of streams, legions of these beetles seize and gobble almost anything that moves. Not just other bugs. Salamanders! Fish! Tadpoles! Not even adult frogs are safe...from the predaceous diving beetle.

But wait—aren’t things with backbones, like fish and frogs—supposed to eat bugs, and not the other way around? Ah, but that is the glory of creatures like these. The predaceous diving beetle, like any good monster, is a super-power, breaking all the rules. It can fly as well as swim. It breathes through its back end. It carries its own underwater air supply: When it floats to the surface, it lifts its wing covers, collects a silver bubble of air, and dives again. There is only one predator in the pond more fearsome than an adult predaceous diving beetle. A baby predaceous diving beetle. The beetle’s larval form is called a water tiger—and with good reason. It looks sort of like a shrimp with a head borrowed from someone’s nightmare. Sickle-shaped, hollow jaws clutch its prey and funnel flesh-digesting drool into the victim. The water tiger literally sucks its prey dry.

Lucky for us, they aren’t any bigger. All they’re going to do if they get inside a bathing suit is nip. So, safer than we’d be in the presence of, say, a man-eating tiger, we can appreciate the predaceous diving beetle for what it is: a predator par excellence. Don’t get me wrong. My mother was a hunter, but I’m a vegetarian, for goodness sake. Yet, I deeply admire predators. And not just for their grace and skill. I admire their very ferocity. Ferocity and cruelty are often considered synonyms. And that might be true for ferocious people. But there is no cruelty to the water tiger’s bite—or the bite of a real tiger. Each predator is carrying out a survival plan that took millions of years of evolution to hone.

But there is a second definition of ferocity: “Extreme. Marked by unrelenting intensity.” This is what I love about predators. I think it is good for us—we who seem to seek only convenience and comfort—to see the life-and-death dramas of the natural world. This is the real world. And it is good to know that life itself is, or should be, intense—whether you are a tiger, or a beetle, or a person.

In our comfy, insulated lives, it’s easy to be anesthetized by simple routine. My antidote to that is at the pond. That’s where I’ll be this summer—rooting for the monster.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is author of “Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species.” And beginning in August, you can hear Sy read her book in daily installments at our web site, at livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org to hear “The Golden Moon Bear” in August.



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