Explore nature's dark side

Brace yourself for blood-curdling screams, a mind-controlling fungus and blood-squirting lizards

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


It’s spooky season, and some of our local flora and fauna aren’t just playing the part — they are downright spooky all year long. These species might seem ripped from the script of the latest horror film, but they are real species living here and elsewhere in the world.

Some look like Halloween decorations or props, and some engage in behaviors that seem too scary or freaky to be anything but the stuff of make believe. All are real, however.

Read on to learn more about these species that represent the dark side of nature and seem to fit right in at this time of year.

Vampire bats

Two vampire bats hanging upside down with their mouths open.

Bats vant to suck your blood, right? Most of the bats in the world want nothing to do with your blood, or the blood of any other creatures for that matter, but vampire bats do actually exist. Of the more than 1,300 bat species in the world, only three are vampire bats, PBS reports.

These blood-eating bats live primarily in Central and South America, but they have been recorded in extreme southwest Texas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. You won’t find them as far north as Illinois, though. And they don’t’ suck blood; they drink it. They use their front teeth to make small incisions and then lap up the blood, like a dog drinks water.

Even in places where vampire bats are known to live, humans aren’t a favorite target. They mostly feed from cows and horses, National Geographic reports. They don’t drink enough blood to harm their animal hosts, but they can transmit diseases and cause infections.

A haunting owl scream

A barn owl in flight illuminated by sunlight in an autumn forest..

The hoot of an owl might catch you off guard if you hear it in the night, but there are other owl sounds that are decidedly more spooky than the innocent hoo-h-hoo-hoo-hoo of a great horned owl. Barn owls have a call that could only be characterized as a haunting scream, and it is definitely enough to stop you dead in your tracks on a dark night.

Males call more often than females, and they use their shrieking screams to communicate with other owls and to try to keep predators and other threats at bay, according to the American Bird Conservancy. Barn owls also hiss at animals that try to intrude on their nests.

In addition to their blood-curdling scream, barn owls have a softer, less intimidating call that is called a purring call. Both males and females purr, but for different reasons. Females purr to beg for food from a male, while males purr to invite a female to check out a potential nesting site.

Freaky fungus

Dead man's fingers fungus emerging from wood.

Some of the fungi we find popping up each fall look like they were invented as Halloween decorations. Probably the best example of this is dead man’s fingers, which look exactly like they sound — like black or gray fingers growing up from decaying wood, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. These finger-like fungi typically begin growing in summer, but as they grow they begin to look more and more like dead man’s fingers, eventually drying up.

Dead man’s fingers aren’t the only freaky fungus we see locally. Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms proclaim their Halloween-like appearance right in their name, but that’s not all. They also sometimes glow a greenish color in the dark, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. What could be more Halloweeny than a pumpkin-looking fungus that glows in the dark?

And let’s not forget about bleeding tooth fungus, which is also called devil’s tooth fungus and sometimes a less sinister sounding strawberries and cream fungus. When it’s a fully mature adult, bleeding tooth fungus is just an ordinary-looking beige mushroom. But while it grows, it looks as though it is bleeding from its pores, with a red fluid oozing out, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A bloody defense

Two greater short horned lizards - one looking at the camera - on a rock.

Plenty of animals have unusual defense mechanisms. Opossums play dead, and skunks have a potent weapon at their disposal. Neither of these familiar creatures resorts to as drastic a measure as the greater short horned lizard, which is native to deserts and other arid habitats in North and Central America. These lizards can shoot blood from ducts in the corner of their eyes to keep predators from attacking, the National Park Service reports.

They can shoot the blood distances of up to 3 feet by letting blood pressure build up behind their eyes, the park service reports. As you might expect, the squirting blood is a pretty successful defense mechanism and keeps many predators at bay.

The squirting blood gimmick isn’t the only trick they have, though. Their blood contains a chemical noxious to coyotes and wolves, so even if the squirting effect isn’t a deterrent, the canids have learned to stay away. They can also puff themselves up to twice their size, and they are known to play dead as well.

Zombie ants

A 'zombie ant'

Zombies might just seem like the stuff of science fiction movies and TV shows, but so-called zombie ants do exist thanks to a fungus that is capable of infecting the insects and taking over their behavior, National Geographic reports. Lucky for us here in Illinois, this fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, only lives in tropical forests.

The fungus is thought to attach its spores to an ant’s exoskeleton. Once it makes its way into the ant’s body, it can slowly begin to control its behavior, according to National Geographic. Eventually, the ant will leave its nest to move into a more humid spot that benefits the fungus.

Once inside the ant, the fungus eats its innards, eventually killing the insect. After it dies, the fungus can send its fruiting body out of the ant’s head, allowing it to release its spores in hopes of finding new ants to turn into zombies.

Cannibalistic creature

A black widow spider in its web.

Black widow spiders seem to fit right in during Halloween season, but some of creepy things we think we know about these spiders might not be entirely true. It’s been widely circulated that female black widow spiders eat their mate after mating, but this isn’t universal. It does happen, but not all the time and not with every species of black widow spider, according to the Burke Museum.

Black widows are a group of spiders, not one specific species. Three black widow species live in the United States, including two, the northern black widow and southern black widow, that live in Illinois, according to the University of Illinois. The black widow species that live here do not commonly practice cannibalism, although it is common in another species that lives in the southern hemisphere, the Burke Museum reports. Our local black widow may sometimes practice cannibalism, but it’s more the exception than the rule.

Black widows aren’t the only cannibalistic creatures out there, but, again, oftentimes it’s an exception and not the rule. Some praying mantis species also eat their mates, as do some beetles, crickets and grasshoppers, according to PBS.

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