Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #20

cat opener
IT’S ALL ABOUT CATS … Today’s Treasure Hunt is about an animal that is both always elusive, and relatively rare on More Mesa, a true American native, the Bobcat. Although there were a few sporadic sightings on western More Mesa from 2008 through 2015, we have not seen one in the last 5 years. However, we are happy to report a verified Bobcat sighting on the west side of More Mesa a few weeks ago, and another last week in a neighborhood near the east side of More Mesa!

But before I launch into the mysteries of the Bobcat, I thought it would be both fun and interesting to look at “American” cats in general.

Mountain Lion on moss covered rocks during spring timeMountain Lion: The largest of the cats found in the U.S. is the Mountain Lion, also known as a Cougar. Although originally, they may have been more evenly distributed across the United States, their populations are currently highest in the western states. This distribution is the result of eastern Mountain Lions being systematically eliminated by early settlers and subsequently declared extinct. (Remember we talked about Mountain Lions still being around in the west but not in the east. That was part of the issue on the Western Fence Lizard and Lyme Disease?) However, clever western Cougars are now migrating eastward and occupying territories previously home to their long-gone eastern cousins; specifically, they are showing up in the mid-west and along the east coast.

Mountain Lions, oddly enough, live in the mountains above Santa Barbara and you might even be lucky enough to see one on the San Antonio Creek Trail out of Tuckers Grove. One was even reported on the east side of More Mesa in 2015. Despite weighing 150 lbs (on average) and being called a Mountain Lion, this animal is not a member of the genus Panthera (Lions, Tigers, Leopards and Jaguars) and is more closely related to the domesticated cat than it is to Lions.

Domestic Cat: By far the most numerous cat we have in the United States is not a native, but the common house cat … the second most popular pet in our country. Cats were domesticated in America when settlers arrived from Europe, bringing cats with them across the Atlantic. These were not your “lay on your lap and purr” cats, these were “working cats”; kept around to catch mice and other rodents on ships. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of keeping felines as pets really flourished. Currently, Americans lead the world in cats, with 94 Million of them as pets and another 57 Million feral. (Unhappily, 69% of songbird deaths are attributed to feral cats.) Outdoor cats are also believed to be the biggest human-caused threat to other wildlife; specifically, they are responsible for the decline of 27 mammal species and extinction of 123 different bird species. By all means, love your cat but … Please spay it and keep it indoors.

north america cat rangeBobcat: The American “wildcat” we are featuring in this issue is the Bobcat, a native animal that is, for the time being anyway, a species of “Least Concern”, and is in the genus Lynx (short-tailed cats). The Bobcat has the largest range and is the most abundant of any wildcat in North America. Its population numbers between 750,000 and 1 Million animals.

Life spans for all the cats we’ve talked about are similar, and relatively short. Mountain Lions, live between 8 and 13 years. Pampered and protected house cats (aided and abetted by vets) last 13-17 years. Bobcat lifetimes top out at about the same as their wild brethren; 10-12 years.


Anatomy … Well Equipped

canatomyThe Bobcat weighs in between 11 and 30 pounds; about twice that of the average house cat … although I have known some domestic cat owners who have overindulged their pets to the point of tipping the scales at more than 30 pounds. Bobcats are between 26 and 41 inches long, not including the tail. They have long legs, large paws and black-tufted ears. Their name derives from their short (4-7 inches), black-topped tail which appears to be “bobbed” or cut off. (More on this at the end of the Bobcat story.) Predictably, Northern Bobcats are stockier and have thicker coats to help them survive in colder temperatures.

Bobcats may look cute and cuddly, but they are actually fierce predators. Not only can they run 25-30 mph, but like Superman, they can leap as far as 12 feet to capture prey. Indeed, they have been known to take down animals much larger than they are; such as young deer! Bobcats can also swim, but they would rather not. In addition to running and leaping, they also have some skills similar to domestic cats. For example, they use their whiskers like fingertips to feel around habitats to determine whether an opening is big enough to fit through. Their great night vision is critically important as you will see below.

Habitat … Everywhere

Why are Bobcats the most widely distributed cat in North America? The answer is that they have adapted to living in a variety of different habitats; mountain woodlands, coniferous forests, swampland, deserts and even in suburban areas (as we found out). They are so versatile that the “exact” appearance of the Bobcat coat depends on its habitat. That is, the colors of its coat and spot patterns allow an individual animal to remain as camouflaged as possible in its surroundings. The historical range of the Bobcat once extended right across North America, but hunters eager to acquire the soft Bobcat fur, and loss of its natural habitat has led to its disappearance in some areas.

Solitary hunters by nature, bobcats lay claim to an area of land that can be anywhere from 1 to 18 square miles, with males having larger territories than females. Moreover, they will defend their territory against individuals of the same sex.

While Bobcats stake out at least two or three different shelters, the most frequently used is the “natal” den (nursery), which is often a cave or rocky, cave-like opening that the cats fill with dead plants for bedding. Additional dens can take the form of anything from bushes to hollow logs.

Dinner … Hunt at Dawn and Dusk

cat huntingBobcats are carnivores and crepuscular hunters; that is, they are active at both dawn and dusk. Specifically, they wake up about an hour before dawn, hunt and then go back to sleep in the early morning. Then about three hours before sunset, they wake up again, hunt, and resume sleeping at midnight. An hour before dawn the whole cycle repeats itself. From this, you can see why Bobcats are rarely seen by humans.

Wonderfully equipped for hunting, the Bobcat has excellent hearing because its long ear tufts act like hearing aids; enabling the Bobcat to pick up on the soft footsteps of prey. When it is running at 25-30 mph, it places its back feet into the same spots where their front feet stepped; a strategy to reduce any noise that might alert prey. Their widely varied diet depends on the food sources near them. Though the bobcat prefers rabbits and hares, it also hunts mice, squirrels, insects, deer, geese and other birds and chickens … the later getting  the Bobcat into a lot of trouble!

Social Life … Limited to Reproduction

Bobcats are loners, except when it comes time to breed, sometime between December and April. The large territories of the males overlap with those of many females, and even to some extent those of other males. A male will “court” a receptive female and then breed with her many times over a period of 1-2 days. When they are done, he will move on to the next female that is signaling her readiness to mate. Like the spiders, the males play no role in rearing the young.

bob kittensBobcat gestation is 8-10 weeks and produces a litter with up to 6 kittens, but more likely 2-3. The tiny kittens weigh 10-12 ounces and will nurse until they begin consuming meat. The young will be born in a “natal den”, but mother bobcats move their kittens from one den to another on a regular basis. This helps throw predators off the little ones’ scent. The “absentee dad” issue presents a big problem and a potential threat to the whole Bobcat population. That is, when mother goes off to hunt, the tiny newborn kittens are not only extremely vulnerable but even blind until they are six days old. Coyotes and Owls, among other predators, take bobcat kittens. Young will remain with their mother for about 8 months and learn how to hunt independently. Females reach sexual maturity at about one year and tend to have a single liter a year.

Bobcats … Only to be Admired

Bobcats do not attack people … ever. However, under no circumstances should anyone attempt to touch or handle a wild bobcat, or her kittens. If you are lucky enough to meet one, keep your distance, protect your pets, back away slowly, take a photo and be ever so grateful that you got to see such a beautiful and elusive creature!

Threats … Other Animals and Us

bobcat treeThe Bobcat is itself, a fierce and dominant predator in its natural habitat. Therefore, adult Bobcats are only threatened by a few animals, the biggest concern to them being Mountain Lions and Wolves.

By far the biggest threat to Bobcats is humans! Because of the beauty, softness and density of their fur, Bobcats were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 20th century. Although they rebounded to almost 4 million strong, there are now only about 1 million left. The reason for this large decrease includes both loss of habitat by encroaching human populations and hunters. They are killed, both legally and illegally, for sport and their valuable pelts. Unhappily, due to the Bobcat’s penchant for eating chickens, they are regarded as a nuisance and are often shot by farmers.

Folklore … Fun

bob catroglyphsRock art often gives us clues to the lives of early people. For example, I found this photo (by Doug Sherman) of an Arizona petroglyph that does look an awful lot like a bobcat. In addition, we do know that the bobcat plays both negative and positive roles in Native American mythology. For example, in Hopi stories he is greedy, selfish and acts badly toward women, but in Zuni stories, Bobcat was believed to have hunting medicine.

A Blackfoot legend tells how the Bobcat came to look as it does. The story begins by telling us that a Lynx ate all the roasted squirrels belonging to an Old Man who was sleeping. The old man was so angry when he awoke, that he grabbed the Lynx by the ear and shortened his head by banging it into a stone. Then he pulled out the long tail, and after snapping it in half, he stuck the brush part in the Lynx’s rear. Finally, he stretched the legs and the body of the Lynx until they were long and skinny. Then the old man threw him on the ground and said “You Bobcats will always have a bob tail, you will always be short of breath and you will never run very far.”

WOW … he was really mad!!

bob cat closer

Stay safe … Valerie

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #19

spider kids


The plan was to have PART II of the story about spiders to appear on Halloween. Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, what was the problem? As you probably know, Constant Contact has been sending our More Mesa Updates for many years. For all of those years we used their template; one that worked very well for us. Enter the Smart Phone! Because much of its material is being read on Smart Phones, Constant Contact decided to retire the original template and substitute a new one designed to work especially well for the Smart Phone. My excuse … it took me several days and several desperate calls to Constant Contact staff to learn how to work with the new template. I rest my case. Pretend it’s Halloween and enjoy Part II.

Why are Humans Afraid of Spiders?

grass spiderDespite the enormous benefit spiders are to us, humans are ambivalent about spiders. Fear of spiders is mostly cultural and not hard-wired into our DNA, as is the fear of snakes. (We talked about this in an earlier Treasure Hunt.) Also fear of spiders is definitely not universal. In warm countries, spiders are welcomed and appreciated since they rid households of less welcomed insects like cockroaches, flies and earwigs … all year long. Colder countries have the fall-winter change we’ll talk more about below. And, some of these colder countries also have less welcome species like Black Widow Spiders and a dangerous species of Funnel Spiders. (In the event you read Part I of Spiders very carefully, be assured that the species of Funnel Spiders on More Mesa is completely harmless. The one from Australia is the one to watch out for.)

Fear of spiders, known as arachnophobia, is so common that it is on the “top ten” list of phobias around the world. Some people think spiders are “creepy” because of their large number of legs (eight) and their habit of scuttling around in dark corners. They do that because dark corners are where they find food; food consisting of other critters you don’t want in your home anyway. Indulge me in another plea for spiders. They rarely bite, and all but a very few are harmless to humans. Yes, in our area, the Black Widow should be avoided, but even a bite from dreaded large Tarantulas produces only slight irritation. Granted they are definitely not cuddly, but maybe you could cut them some slack … given all the they do for us.

Why are Spiders Associated with Halloween?

halloween clip artHere are some current explanations:

    • during the Middle Ages belief in witches was rampant; as was the belief that they were at the height of their power in the fall. Somehow spiders became the sidekicks of witches and the same superstitions about witches were attached to spiders as well.
    • The colors of fall are typically orange and black and many spiders are black. So, with some sort of crazy logic, spiders were then considered representatives of fall … when Halloween is celebrated.
    • An associated legend had it that spiders were thought to have magical powers because they could spin webs.

What’s really going on? Fall is a time when spiders produce young. But more importantly, late fall is a critical time of year for many insects. They are searching for safe and warm havens in which to spend the winter … like your house. When that happens, your house becomes a veritable grocery store for spiders. Not as exciting as witches, magic and supernatural stuff, but more of nature doing what it has to do to adapt to changing weather conditions.

Spider Lifeways Are All About Females

Transitioning from the supernatural to more practical issues, spiders have to make a living, keep from getting eaten and ensure that the species persists. That is where we go from here. So, I started studying about webs, a fascinating subject. But as I learned more and more about webs, I noticed that the pronoun “she” was always used. Then I learned that the world of spiders is all about females and the tremendous amount of hard work they do. All of this was strangely familiar! Following is a typical “To-Do” list for a female spider.

Food Shopping

big webIn Part I you might have seen some hints about procuring food when you are a Crab Spider, but when it comes to spider grocery shopping, most of us think of webs. Since spiders are carnivores, webs become perfect butcher shops; places to procure protein; whether it walks in, flies in or otherwise.

A web spider has virtual rope factory inside her. The spinneret glands, located in her abdominal region, squirt liquids that solidify immediately into several different kinds of silk. The tensile strength of spider silk is comparable to that of steel wire of the same thickness. However, as the density of steel is about six times that of silk, spider silk is correspondingly stronger than steel wire of the same weight. Web silk’s unmatched combination of strength and toughness allows it to survive the strongest winds as well as the most frantic attempts of captured prey to escape. And if you are not impressed with the above comparisons, I recalled back in my youth learning that the Norden bombsight used Black Widow silk for the crosshairs … that’s how strong it is!

There are a bewildering array of webs, each species building a fixed pattern, with the talents of different species varying greatly. Webs are not only supermarkets but also serve as a safe retreat from enemies and sometimes as a residence as well. Some webs are crude and some extremely delicate, but the one web usually considered the most beautiful, and the most beloved, is the Orb Spider web. Although web building takes between one and two hours in real time, you can watch the tiny (half inch) Spiny Orb Weaver creating her 12 inch diameter web in a couple of minutes. During the build the spider will coat some of the fibers with a sticky substance that entraps any unwary meal, but leaves other strings of the web clear for her to traverse. If the spider gets tired of waiting for dinner to be collected by the web, and would like to sleep, she drops a single line to a convenient “bedroom location” and keeps it attached to one of her legs. When prey wanders into the dining room, the web will vibrate at specific frequencies that are associated with prey capture. At the call of this dinner bell, she will wake and hurry out to inject killing venom. In this video, watch how she packages up dinner in a silk bag and then enjoys it later.

spider treePreparing Dinner Unlike most humans a spider drinks its dinner. This means that before it can consume prey, it must convert a meal into liquid form. This is accomplished by injecting special digestive enzymes into the prey, waiting for liquification and then sucking up dinner. Its stomach can stretch to hold very large amounts of liquid, so the spider cannot really ever overeat. On the other hand, if times get bad, a spider can survive for extremely long periods of fasting … perhaps up to 1 ½ years.

Recycling And, since the Orb Spider is a tidy, thrifty critter and protein is expensive, she is also an avid recycler; i.e. the protein from the old web is never wasted. When the web is no longer usable, she eats and digests it. The web protein then goes back into the silk glands to be made into a new web. In this way, even if a spider misses a few meals, she can still go on spinning webs!

Taking Out the Garbage Like any good housekeeper the spider tidies up. Since dinner has been liquified and ingested, any prey body parts that are left over need to be cut out of the web and discarded. This same process is used for any extraneous and useless material that is blown into the web by accident … like leaves.

spider romanceRomance? In Part I we mentioned that female spiders have absolutely no interest in reproduction until their very last molt. As you will see, it is a completely different story for the males. Males are much smaller than the females, do not live as long as the females, are more heavily decorated than the females and have a much shorter “To-Do” list. It has one entry! Their entire lives revolve around a single aspect of their existence … depositing sperm. They are obsessed with this one thing and this one thing only. This singular drive is the reason their webs are messy and badly made. Why? … because males are not territorial and spend their lives moving around looking for girls. Under these circumstances building a good web would not make sense, since they will abandon it as soon as they have accomplished their purpose, and moreover, accomplished it with all the available females in the area. For the males, who are both nomadic, and somewhat dispensable, building a web is an exercise that is more like “pitching a tent” than building a home.

Courting human couples frequently go out to dinner. However to the contrary, males spiders try to make sure that the gals have already eaten. This tactic is imperative because if a female is hungry, she may just eat the potential suitor instead. Further, there is always that danger, even if she has already eaten. That is why the legs of the males are often longer than those of the female. In cases where the date is not going well, this anatomical difference gives the male a chance to escape. (In the photo notice how gingerly the male is approaching.)

A male spider will display several behaviors during courtship, hoping the female will accept his sperm. These behaviors include pulling on the web, rocking his body, pushing the female’s legs, vibrating his abdomen, tapping on the web, making rolling motions with his palps and tapping the female spider. (Reminds me of dance moves I have seen on T.V.) How the sperm gets to the right place is really complicated as I discovered in a really long and graphic article I waded through. (You probably really don’t want to know!

spider egg sacPregnancy At this point the female has both eggs and sperm in her body. Since she is so good at spinning, she spins a disc of silk and then deposits both eggs and sperm on that disc. This is when fertilization actually occurs. To protect the fertilized and hardening eggs she completes the task by spinning a cover over the disc to form an egg sac. In some species, she carries the sac with her everywhere, and in others she just deposits the sac somewhere safe and guards it, as is shown in the photo. One of the reasons females are so much bigger in some species is the need for her to carry around that heavy burden of the egg sac. Sacs can contain hundreds of eggs that will hatch into spiderlings in 2-3 weeks.

spider kids 2Looking After the Kids Just as mother guarded the eggs, she will guard the newly hatched babies. Once spiderlings fully emerge, they usually settle close to the nest area for several weeks before moving on and staking out their own territory.

spider head studyIntelligence And for something really unbelievable, we are discovering that the spider possesses genuine ingenuity and inventiveness in both its web design, as well as in many other areas. Recent studies published in National Geographic showed many species of Jumping Spider could plan out intricate routes and detours to reach their prey — a quality usually observed in larger creatures. And almost everything is much larger than the Jumping Spider! It is between 0.125 and 0.750 inches long. And its brain … it’s the size of a poppy seed.


spyder guyIt is all too clear that Stan Lee knew absolutely nothing about spiders when he created Spider-Man in the early 1960s. No self-respecting male spider would be wasting his time as a superhero when he could be mating with thousands of female spiders instead. I guess Lee probably didn’t care, since Spider-Man is often ranked as one of the most popular and iconic comic book characters of all time.

And, of course you knew that I would mention one of the scariest monsters in Harry Potter, Aragog. This giant spider that sired a multitude of giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest, was the size of a small elephant and had legs 18 feet long. Apparently J.K. Rowling did not know much about spiders either, or she would have made Aragog a female.

Stay safe … Valerie

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #18


A New Class …

The next two Treasure Hunts will be about a creature which is found all over More Mesa and also epitomizes the month of October; the spider! Spiders are not insects. They are in an entirely different Class; the Arachnids. This Class owes its name to a famous story from Greek mythology, that goes like this. It seems that an upstart Greek maiden named Arachne thought she was such a superb weaver that she challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. This was a little presumptuous as, among several other things, Athena was known as a goddess of the arts. Athena however, accepted the challenge. When both weavers were done, Arachne’s weaving was so beautiful that Athena had to grudgingly admit defeat.

arachneHowever, given that she was also the goddess of warfare, she worked herself into a rage and destroyed Arachne’s work. Arachne, being a really sensitive artist was so upset that she hung herself. At this development the goddess calmed down at little, took pity on the weaver and loosened the rope. Then she turned the rope into a web and the maiden into a spider. Thus, we have the class Arachnida and the very first indication of the powerful role of females in the spider world.

spider diagramWhat is it Anyway? … Ask any kindergartener and they will tell you that spiders have eight legs, eight eyes, two body parts and are “way cool.” In the diagram you will see that the first body part, the cephalothorax, is where the eyes are located, legs are attached and most of the muscular structure is contained. The cephalothorax is actually the head and the thorax, but with a solid connection instead of a flexible neck; i.e. the head cannot rotate. The second body part, the abdomen, holds the digestive and reproductive organs and is usually the largest part of the spider. (It also holds the silk producing elements, the “spinnerets”, that you will read about in Part II.)

Legs – The eight legs of the spider are usually long and hairy. Hairs are used to pick up scents, sounds, vibrations and to detect air currents. Males usually have longer legs to keep the female at “arms length” during courtship. (More on this in Part II.)

Palps – There are a pair of palps on the front of the first body part. These are part of the complex mouth and seem to be used mainly as sense organs, perhaps for taste and odor. In male spiders the ends of the palps are modified into complex structures used during mating. (Believe me, it’s complicated!)

spider mouthMouth Parts – Spiders are carnivores. To facilitate hunting these hollow claw-like appendages contain venom glands that allow the spider to inject poison into the prey thereby killing it and allowing the spider plenty of time to wrap it up for a later meal.

spider eyesEyes – Spiders usually have eight eyes, but few have good eyesight. They rely instead on touch, vibration and taste stimuli to navigate and find food. (Only a few spiders, like the wolf spider, need good vision.) Of the eight eyes, the job of the two very large front eyes is to get a clear, color image and judge distance. And while they are large, these are simple, single lens eyes that are NOTHING like either human or insect compound eyes. The small side eyes, called ocelli, needed because the spider cannot move its head, detect when something is moving. You need a lot of them to get a 360 degree view in order to spot your dinner or an unwanted diner!

spider moltMolt – What the kindergartener won’t tell you is that the spider has an exoskeleton; a hard covering that is like a suit of armor to protect body parts and organs. The exoskeleton cannot grow, which means that the spider, like insects, must periodically crawl out of the whole outside of its body in order to grow larger. Needless to say, this is a complex process and one in which the spider is very vulnerable, wisely choosing to “hide out” until the molt is over.

Spiderlings will molt as often as once a month and adults about once a year. Bigger spiders have more molts than smaller ones, with the molt requiring from 15 minutes to 15 hours to fully harden, depending on the size of the spider. And while all the early molts are about growing into a larger body, the very last molt is one which also includes a “one-time only” interest in reproduction … and decidedly different from reproductive activities of mammals. (See Part II.)

Size – In most of the 45,000 species of spiders that we currently know are on earth, females are larger than males and sometimes incredibly larger than the males. Most of the largest spiders are from the Tarantula family. The largest spider known on earth is the Goliath Birdeater (12 inches) from South America and the smallest is the Patu Digua (male 1/5 the size of head of a pin) from Columbia.

Lifetimes – Most spiders live about a year, except really big ones. For example, some female Tarantulas live up to 40 years, while their male counterparts are only around 4 years or less. How do we know this … because some people keep them for pets. (Figure that!) Although giant spiders do not tend to be aggressive, they will (like smaller spiders) bite to defend themselves or their egg sacs.

Enemies – Spiders have lots of enemies. They include birds, fish, lizards, Tarantula Hawks (these are actually wasps), spider wasps, centipedes, scorpions, other spiders and even, in the tropics, monkeys. But one of their worst enemies is the human race; and we don’t even eat them.  We use pesticides to destroy them (as well as all their food sources), we stomp them, drown them and some of us even vacuum them up. (Be sure to read Part II of Spiders to learn more about all our misconceptions about spiders.)

spider defenseDefense – The principal way that spiders try to escape their predators is to avoid being seen. Some of them live in burrows where a predator would have to do some major digging to find them. These underground dwellers also make sure they have well camouflaged doors. Spider mimics try to look like the background of where they live and still others mimic a dead leaf, a twig, a stem or even bird droppings! In the image on the right a crab spider has turned yellow and captured an unsuspecting bee for dinner. Only recently scientists have officially documented the camouflaging  capabilities of a crab spider. It is one of the few spider species that can reversibly change the color of their bodies to match the colors of the flowers where they hang out and stalk prey. Although it can take up to 25 days to change color, once changed they can largely remain unseen. What colors are on their pallet … white, yellow and green. See how this works for a clever crab spider. In the final analysis, a spider’s worst enemy is weather; in the form of drought, flooding or a long cold winter. Since these kinds of things happen to all the organisms in the population, things eventually sort out.

spider holeTypes of Spiders – There are many types of spiders living on More Mesa and in your house or garden.  Among these are the famous Orb Weavers that charm and delight us. (We will talk a lot about these in Part II.)  There are also Wolf Spiders, who are one of the few species with good eyesight. They have to catch prey by running it down. Their lives are hard, strenuous and dangerous; and actually, more like that of a cheetah than a wolf. Finally, on a foggy morning in More Mesa you may be able to see dozens of funnel that are the home of Funnel Spiders in the grasses.  Look for the hole in the funnel, she’s waiting for some unwary insect to drop in for lunch!
Let’s go back to that kindergartner again. Most adults would not agree with the kindergartner’s assessment of the spider as “cool”. They may shudder and use words like “heebie-jeebies.” However, spiders have intrigued humans since ancient times, and were often seen as mystical because of their ability to weave intricate webs. Much like the bat, cat, and the owl, spiders (as Halloween symbols and otherwise) are creatures considered to be endowed with supernatural qualities. And, like other creatures of the night, they were associated with witchcraft. More clinically oriented people will cite spider bites as a problem, but the reality is that spiders rarely bite and only a few species are dangerously poisonous, viz. the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse in the US. (Only one death has been reported in the last 20 years.) On the flip side, spiders are an incredibly powerful aid to the entire human race. It is the large numbers of insects, many of them pests, that are trapped by spiders, that make them invaluable to us and to the balance of nature. In fact, Spiders catch and eat more insects than all of the other insectivorous animals put together. They deserve our hearty applause!


It is hoped that when you finish reading all the different, yet strangely similar activities of spiders, you will be fascinated by the various ways they “make a living”. During the research for this Treasure Hunt I was both intrigued and amazed at these tiny creatures … and realized that they are not so spooky after all. While reading Part II (coming up soon), the women among our readers may recognize, as I did, some startling similarities between the lives of female spiders and all the things we do. Stay tuned for the rest of the tale of the spiders … and most of all …STAY SAFE … Valerie

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #11


Today’s Treasure Hunt is about snakes. Unhappily, snakes have a really bad reputation. To start with, the word “snake” is firmly embedded in our language and used by millions of people who have never even seen a snake! We call someone who is treacherous or worthless a snake, and when an individual is untrustworthy, that person becomes a “snake in the grass”. This story is about one of these amazing creatures, on and off More Mesa. At the end of the story you can discover why “snake” is a “bad word”.

Gopher Snake is a Pretty Big Snake … but Harmless

There are five different species of Gopher Snakes in California. In Santa Barbara we are at the northern edge of the range of the San Diego Gopher Snake. Even more interesting is that three of our Channel Islands are the only location for the Santa Cruz Gopher Snake … an endemic species found only on these islands. This Treasure Hunt will be devoted to the most abundant and conspicuous member of local snake fauna and the one most often found on More Mesa, the large San Diego Gopher Snake.

Recent anecdotal evidence indicates that Gopher Snakes seem to be in abundance on More Mesa this year. And they can be intimidating if you run across one, because Gopher Snake adult sizes range from 3 to 8 feet. Within their grassland habitats, these animals live a solitary existence in underground burrows, both during hibernation (October through March), and for a large fraction of the time when they are our and about as well.

Gopher Snake and Gopher Hole on More Mesa Photo by Chris Brem
Gopher Snake and Gopher Hole on More Mesa
Photo by Chris Brem

Peak activity for adults (3 years and older) is early May and June. During this period, they reproduce by laying 10-20 eggs in loose soil or unused burrows. Decaying vegetation and warm soils will then incubate the eggs for about 80 days. During the period when they are eating,
Gopher Snakes prey on small mammals (rodents primarily, and aptly enough, gophers) as well as bird’s eggs. Therefore, as a species, they are extremely important in keeping the rodent populations in check and maintaining local ecosystems. These large snakes are not venomous, but “constrictors”. That is, they squeeze their prey by overwhelming the circulatory system and preventing blood from reaching the brain. The whole thing happens in seconds.

Leave Them Be

In keeping with their lifeway, you will see Gopher Snakes in summer, when they rest in the sun on More Mesa’s trails. In other areas they lie out on roads and are often run over by vehicles. Unhappily there are also many instances where closer snakehikers deliberately kill Gopher Snakes because they are mistaken for Rattlesnakes. (As far as I know there has never been a report of a Rattlesnake on More Mesa.) Both species have similar coloration, markings and large heads. In addition, they are both known to hiss loudly, vibrate their tails and flatten their heads when threatened … a set of defense mechanisms designed to ward off potential predators. In the case of the Gopher Snake, this display is a type of mimicry, where they, a harmless species, mimic a harmful species … a Rattlesnake. However, while mimicry may be helpful in keeping predators away, it can cause problems for Gopher Snakes. Humans decide to kill them thinking they are venomous Rattlers. Instead, those who come upon a snake should take a quick look. A few ways to tell the two species apart is that Gopher Snakes are much longer and slimmer. Further, even though they can make a repetitive sound with their tails, they don’t have rattles. If it is obvious that the snake, whether it is a Rattler or a Gopher Snake, feels threatened, the wisest and most humane course of action is to simply go away. Once it figures out that it is not being threatened, the snake will also just go away.

Bottom Line

snake head shotThere is no need to exterminate Gopher Snakes. These animals, while they can be intimidating because of their size and may look a bit like Rattlesnakes, represent no threat. Gopher Snakes are nonvenomous. However, if you provoke it, a Gopher Snake may bite and the bite may hurt. As for the big picture regarding venomous snakes in the United States, recent statistics show that five to six thousand people a year are bitten by them. Five of those people die because they did not seek medical care.

Shedding  … Donning a New Skin

Snakes shed their skin because they are just like all other animals. For mammals like us, this is an ongoing process, but for snakes it’s a bit more periodic, dramatic and noticeable, mainly because the skin comes off in one piece. If you look at the photo of the snake shed I found on More Mesa, you will see that it came off almost in one piece … inside out!snakeskin (This skin is in 2 pieces because I carried it in my jacket pocket to show More Mesa visitors and it received some rough treatment.) The shedding process is necessary to accommodate growth and to remove parasites on the old skin. Since the skin does not grow with the individual, as ours does, the snake has to do something entirely different. It starts by growing a new layer of skin under the old one. When the new layer is complete, the snake removes the old one. It’s just like taking off a sock. First it makes a small tear in the old skin, somewhere on the head area, by rubbing against something rough. Then it slithers out of the old skin and leaves it behind and it is usually inside out. Snakes shed their skin, on average, two to four times a year, varying with age and species. However, young snakes that are actively growing may shed every two weeks … compared to older snakes who may only shed twice a year.

Epilogue … Why Are We Afraid of Snakes?

snake-appleWhen I started researching this Treasure Hunt, I was intrigued by why it is that humans are afraid of snakes.  My first thought was to blame it on Adam and Eve. But it turns out, that it is in our nature to be afraid of snakes; that is, it is embedded in our DNA. Research over the past 10 years has given us some clues to the answer. In the beginning, early primates, and then humans, developed pattern recognition schemes for predators like lions, bears etc. But snakes don’t look like these kinds of predators … they look like sticks. Furthermore, they do not move like other predators … they slither. This would imply that the existing pattern recognition algorithms didn’t work. Then evolution took over, and humans who figured out they should fear snakes would have been at an advantage for both survival and reproduction. One clear indicator of this advantage was highlighted in a recent study. In that work, researchers found that both adults and children could detect images of snakes among a variety of non-threatening objects more quickly than they could pinpoint frogs, flowers or caterpillars. The implication is that we humans can identify snakes much more quickly than other things. This piece of our DNA is the reason that people who live in industrialized countries fear snakes … even when they have never ever seen one!

Instead of fearing them, watch snakes from afar (or near, if that is safe) and marvel at their coloration, how they move and, yes, how very beautiful many of them are. Then you also might be blessed enough to a carry a story like the one below in your memory banks.

pink rattlesnake
Pink Rattlesnake
Photo from NPS

Many years ago, at the end of a day on another glorious trip down the Colorado River, we reached camp and I jumped out to tie up the boat. “Over there” our guide suggested. He was pointing to one of the ubiquitous tamarisks. I hustled over and came to an abrupt stop about two feet away from the tie-up, completely stunned. I stared in disbelief at the biggest and most beautiful Rattlesnake I had ever seen! It was huge, pink, coiled around the tree, and had obviously been awakened by all our commotion. “Hurry up!” came the command from the boat. I announced the presence of our pink sleepyhead, retreated to “afar” and the guides took over. They dug out a “snake stick” from the hold of the boat, put the snake carefully in a sack and then released it into the water so it could find a quieter sleeping spot further down river. It was a day I will never forget!

If you see a snake, enjoy it, but behave as we must in our world today. That is … STAY SAFE!

More Mesa At Night (August-October 2018)

A Very Different Walk

Night Walk on More Mesa: Continuing with our “Walk on More Mesa” theme, a very different kind of walk presented itself in late September. Jennifer Stroh of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County invited me to an informal walk that was not only on the west side of More Mesa, but it was a night walk as well!  Since I had never experienced a night walk that focused on nocturnal animals, I was eager to participate.

Our leader was Ted Mullen, a Senior Biologist, graduate of UCSB, and currently a scientist with MRS Environmental, here in Santa Barbara. As soon as we headed out onto More Mesa, Ted launched our adventure with a lesson in listening … a key skill when there is little, or no, light; and especially important when one is trying to identify birds and animals that hunt at night. He talked about identifying all the various sounds (man made and otherwise) and then sorting them out from one another. And, although the man-made intrusions on More Mesa are somewhat limited, he pointed out two important ones:

  • The “drone” sound of freeway and other traffic, and how that background noise affects the ability of hunting animals to hear sounds that are vitally important to them; for example sounds of rodents and other prey moving through the grasses. We did note, however, that the “drone” was not as obvious, or even discernible, in all the parts of More Mesa that we visited.
  • The intrusion of street lights from neighboring communities, and how they would also affect the ability to hunt … especially for the owls that make their homes on the north facing side of More Mesa.

night walk map

At the beginning of the walk, on the northwestern edge of More Mesa, we heard three species of Owls: Barn, Great Horned and Screech. Then Ted surprised some of us by noting that Screech Owls did not screech at all, and proved it by playing several of their calls. We were also treated to the sight of an owl flying quite close to us.

great horned owl in flight
Great Horned Owl in Flight
Photo by Larry Friesen

One of the “owl” stories Ted told, and one that I got a big chuckle out of, concerned Great Horned nest building. The Great Horned, being a bigger bird, hunts larger animals, like rabbits and skunks. Moreover, skunks are regularly on their menu because, unlike the rest of us, the Great Horned is not bothered, at all, with the stench of skunk spray. Ever-vigilant parents, the Great Horned will therefore sometimes line their nest with skunk carcasses. This clever strategy prevents predators from being tempted to carry off the chicks … because most of the rest of the world is definitely not fond of skunk spray!

rare spotted bat
Rare Spotted Bat

As our walk progressed towards the coast, we saw and heard Spotted Bats and, at one point, we even heard a Towhee; a bird that should have been asleep. Maybe we woke it up … or something else woke it up?

The sky was brilliant and clear. Amateur astronomers had a blast and we even got to see all the lobster boats out on the first day of the season. It was an absolutely wonderful walk and I was privileged to be part of it.

How You Can Help

Our coalition very rarely solicits donations from our supporters, only in times of real need. While More Mesa is not in immediate jeopardy (no building plan has yet been submitted to planning), we spend additional funds to remain in a “ready state” for when the developers make their move.

That means continuing to build and maintain a database of supporters who can help us by contacting their elected officials, testifying at hearings, recruiting their friends, contacting the media and coming together for a show of community support. Lastly, we maintain a small contingency budget so that we can react quickly when the time arises.

Our immediate expenses for the next year are not large (unless things change with development plans), no more than $5,000. But without those funds to replenish our budget we could be flat-footed the day the development plan is filed.

I am sure that you support many other important causes; I just wanted to put in my request for the White-tailed Kites, the Great Horned Owls, the Red-tailed Hawks … and even the Spotted Bats of More Mesa. A gift of $50 or $100 to keep us in a ready state would be terrific.

Thank you so much, from all the critters of More Mesa.