The Battle of Tiny Titans

Broad-Headed Skink
(From Wikimedia Commons, photo credit Nvillacortabuer)

Seen up close, the contestants in this battle were impressive. One was a male Broad Headed Skink native to the Southeastern United States. The other was a male Minotaur Beetle. The insect contestant was plucked off a log in Atlanta, Georgia. The Broad Headed Skink was scooped off a red brick wall of a house in Waycross, Georgia. The Skink was fast, but not fast enough to avoid capture.

The Grandmother of the house warned me that the Skink was poisonous. After all, he had a red head. But in truth he wasn’t at all poisonous – he was simply a male, and his red head and broad, for a lizard, shoulders were apparently irresistible to female Skinks.

I moved that manly looking lizard to my office at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I’d converted a 10-gallon aquarium into a terrarium, and it made a nice lizard home. To give him a sense of security, I placed into the glass enclosure an 8-inch long section of used radiator hose, and closed off one end. He had, in effect, a little den; and he took to it immediately.

I fed him live crickets which were easily found in the adjoining woods, or bought from a bait store. Each of those insects, once placed in the terrarium had a very short life span — they were quite defenseless against the large and relatively toothy lizard.

And that is where the Minotaur Beetle came in.

Male Minotaurs have the appearance of a horned tank. They are armed with weapons on their head and thorax to fend off attackers, and a seemingly indestructible chitin armor. I simply could not resist wondering what would happen when these two creatures met, face to face.

Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus), Photo by Jacob Fahr, used under Creative Commons License. Click for original source.

And so it began, this pairing of impressive but small beasts.

By hand I placed the miniature triceratops into the terrarium. He was much too bulky and self-assured to be threatened by me, and  he seemed to accept that some God was placing him into a new world, a world to be conquered, and if possible, eaten.

He remained motionless for a moment, seeming to survey his new environment. Then he spied the dark tunnel which promised an interesting place to hide, and so he started lumbering towards it. I, of course, knew that a large Skink lay resting in the deepest recesses of that cave. Things were about to get interesting.

From a philosophical and historical standpoint, tunnels and caves have always been dual-natured. For humans they are a way into this life, and seemingly viewed by many on approaching the end of life. They provide safety and shelter, but are also a threat. One never knows what is lurking inside a newly encountered cave.

If the beetle was concerned, he didn’t show it; he headed straightway for the tunnel. Once his armored legs climbed into the radiator hose, they clicked with each step. Tic, tic, tic, – like the clicking of an old fashioned wristwatch. Tic, tic, tic, with about two clicks per second as each of the six legs carried him further into the cave.

After many dozens of tics I heard two reptilian hisses. I had never heard that Skink hiss before.

And then the fight began in earnest, with scratching, scraping, hissing and a general ruckus that lasted for five or ten seconds. Then silence  —  followed by tic, tic, tic, at a no more hurried or slowed pace than before.

The encounter was fought to a draw. The beetle vacated the hostile cave, and the much larger lizard chose not to pursue the well-armed intruder. The beetle emerged from the radiator hose unscathed with the exception of a couple of shallow teeth marks on its heavily armored carapace.

Nature had endowed that little beetle with the ability to repel assaults by creatures lurking in the dark, creatures twenty times longer than the beetle.

The beetle had earned its freedom, back to the same rotted log from which it was found. The Skink was also released into the wild shortly after, but not before those two combatants taught me a valuable lesson.

Actually, there were three participants in the lesson, if I count the crickets. As always, reproduction has something to do with it.

Crickets have no armament, but because they have no heavy armor they can jump and avoid some of their enemies. Because they advertise their presence by the chirping we associate with the essence of summer nights, they have a high probability of meeting a mate before they meet a predator.

In the experiment called life, the Minotaur is 180° out of sync with the cricket. They are slow and solitary, and have to be heavily armored to, on average, avoid  being eaten prior to reproduction. My little experiment proved, to me at least, the wisdom of their biological design.

My little experiment also proved to me that the story of David and Goliath, even on a miniature and non-human scale, can be immensely satisfying. Predictably, Goliath was not slain, but neither was the dark beetle with a propensity for inhabiting dark spaces; spaces filled with the giant monsters of baby beetle nightmares.











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