Some creatures make folks shriek “Eeek!” Maybe it’s their hairraising appearance or the way they scurry, skitter or slither. Perhaps it’s their bloodcurdling call or their fangs, stingers and teeth. Whatever it is that gives you goosebumps, it helps to remember that each of these creepy-crawlies has an important job in nature, and most go about their business without us knowing they’re around. Check out our ghoulish gathering of Missouri’s creepiest critters—if you’re brave enough.
Let’s set a few things straight. Bats are not flying rats, they’re not blind, they won’t fly into your hair, and they won’t turn into bloodsucking vampires. Bats are clean, shy, intelligent creatures. They’re the only mammals that can truly fly. And, they rid the skies of creatures that will suck your blood—mosquitoes. In fact, a little brown bat can eat 600 of the pesky pests in an hour! Who needs a bug zapper if you have a bat?
They’re big. They’re hairy. But, are they really scary? Missouri’s largest spider looks ferocious, but it’s actually quite shy and goes out of its way to avoid people. They prefer glades where they hide in silk-lined burrows until night falls. If you meet a tarantula, it’s not their fangs but tiny barbed hairs on their tummy that might cause you problems. When threatened, tarantulas rear up on their back legs and flick the hairs like daggers. They irritate the skin, eyes and nose, helping the tarantula get away.
Alligator gar are armed with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, bone-hard scales and camouflage that makes them look like a drifting log until they’re well within biting range. Plus, they get freakishly big. Think of a fish about as long and as heavy as your couch, and you’ve imagined how big an alligator gar can get. But fear not. These toothy predators prefer fish sticks for dinner. There isn’t a single case of an alligator gar attacking a person.
A mouse in the house sends some folks jumping on chairs. And, though they’re rarely welcome in places where people live, mice play an important role in the wild—protein. All kinds of animals eat mice, including snakes, hawks, owls, weasels, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and even shrews. Mice taste so nice, without these little walking cheeseburgers, lots of other critters would go hungry.
Although their name means “hundred feet,” most centipedes have far fewer limbs. These distant relatives of lobsters, shrimp and crayfish prowl under rocks, rotten logs, soil and leaves looking for insects to eat. To subdue their prey, centipedes are armed with venom glands and a special pair of legs that act like fangs. Biologists claim these fanglegs are fairly weak, and can pierce human skin only sometimes.
Striped scorpions seize prey with their plier-like pincers then stab it to death with their stinger-tipped tail. No wonder they creep folks out. Missouri’s only native scorpion prefers glades with lots of loose rocks to hide under during the day. They crawl out at night to hunt insects, spiders, centipedes and other scorpions. If you find yourself wandering barefoot through a glade in the dark—are you crazy?— take heart. This tiny scorpion’s sting is no worse than a bee’s.
Screech-owls are tiny owls with big voices. They hoot, bark and, yes, screech, but it’s their mating call that makes your skin crawl. When a screechowl calls to its mate, it lets loose an eerie, wavering whinny that sounds like a cross between a horse and someone screaming. If you’re ever out after dark and hear such a thing, don’t worry. It’s probably just a screech-owl.
Sometimes called a puff adder, the harmless hog-nosed snake does a good job of looking deadly. When it feels threatened, it hisses loudly and flattens its head like a cobra. It may even strike, though it keeps its mouth closed. If this bluff fails, the snake plays possum. It writhes about, rolls on its back and lets its tongue flop out, pretending to be dead. If left alone, the sneaky snake will slowly roll over, peak around to make sure it’s safe, then slither away to shelter.
Nichole LeClair Terrill