Chasing Critters — a story of two boys’ ongoing fascination with arthropods

Given the current COVID-19 situation, the author would like to encourage children to avoid going outdoors, especially if they share their home with senior citizens. Wherever you live, please follow government regulations and wear a mask when you go out. All the activities described in this article took place before March 2020.

In Liloan, about 23 kilometers north of Cebu City in the Philippines, live two brothers: Reef and Nemo. On many accounts, they are like most little boys their age. They have heaps of energy, they roughhouse with each other, climb on furniture, build pillow forts in the bedroom, their tummies are little black holes for food and snacks, and, of course, they often get in trouble with their mum and dad. However, there is one thing about these lads that is rather unusual — they spend a great deal of time outdoors, observing and learning about terrestrial arthropods: insects, spiders, and other little invertebrates that live on land. I have the great privilege of being their father. 

Photographs of two boys exploring the outdoors with their parents
Reef (fig. 1 with me) and Nemo (fig. 2 with mum) love looking for insects and spiders. They have done this since before they learned to walk!

Whenever they can, Reef and Nemo go on long walks in our neighborhood with mum and me. Sometimes, we go further into the mountains of Liloan and Consolacion, find a nice green spot, and start to explore. They walk slowly, stopping every few feet to examine streetside plants for insects and spiders. Any find is excitedly pointed out to me; I tell them what I know about it and take a few pictures. 

Photographs of two boys looking for insects and spiders with their father
Reef and Nemo look for insects and spiders along neighborhood streets, under my guidance. I take a camera along to document our finds. 

In the semi-rural part of Cebu where we live, there is much life to be observed in the greenery. Among grass, weeds that grow on fences, and on trees and decorative plants lining neighborhood homes, some of the most common encounters are with caterpillars and spiders. 

A pale green Telamonia jumping spider a hairy yellow black and orange tussock moth caterpillar
Telamonia jumping spiders (fig.1) and Tussock Moth caterpillars (fig. 2) are quite common in disturbed habitats such as houseyards and farms.

These two preschoolers have been doing this since even before they began to walk,  and they have learned to easily spot tiny animals that are hidden or well-camouflaged. They carefully look through leaf litter on the ground, and scrutinize tree trunks and the undersides of leaves. Reef and Nemo learned early on that deception is very common in nature — many creatures are not what they seem. Camouflage, or crypsis, is crucial to many animals’ survival; it enables them to blend into their surroundings or even mimic other animals or plants.

A leaf-mimic katydid blending into a leaf
This katydid mimics a leaf perfectly, from curvature down to the veins and brown spots on its wings. 

For instance, many animals that live on trees look like, well, parts of a tree! Some, like the katydid above, look and behave most convincingly like leaves. Others, like the Poltys spider below, have a rough, bumpy, wood-like form. 

A tree stump spider that resembles a woody knot
Reef found this Poltys spider on a barbed-wire fence. These are commonly known as Tree Stump Spiders and often resemble leaves, twigs, or woody stumps.

Tree trunks are home to a surprising number of cryptic little beasties, like this cute jumping spider with pom-poms and puppy eyes. The degree of detail that is seen in these examples of camouflage is baffling. 

A trunk-dwelling jumping spider blending into the bark of a tree
Many animals, like this adorable jumping spider, rely on camouflage — patterns, colors, and forms that resemble their surroundings — to help them escape predation or to enable them to catch unsuspecting prey.

Sometimes, Reef and Nemo find a pair of mating insects. At first, this seemed rather comical and strange to them. Look, daddy, there’s a bug riding on its friend’s back! Mum and I have not quite discussed the matter of the birds and the bees in human terms with the lads, but we told them that the mummy and daddy insects were making babies, and explained that soon, the mummy would wander off and lay eggs in a safe spot. After the first several such encounters, the boys learned to recognize when bugs were “making babies”.

two mating pairs of orange and black Amata moths
“Look, daddy, their tails are stuck together!” — Amata moths perch on low grass and weeds while “making babies” 

Children are naturally inquisitive and do not typically have the biases and irrational fears that adults do. Nature walks are fantastic activities; they not only satisfy natural curiosity, but provoke it further. And the questions never stop! Mummy, what’s this called? What’s it doing? Why does it look like that? Are those its eyes? Does it bite? Does it sting? And of course, one that many parents dread: Can I touch it? Mum and I do not have all the answers, but try our best to deal with them in a healthy manner that answers their questions and nudges them to deeper thought and inquiry.

Photographs of spiders on fingertips
“Can I touch it, daddy?” — These photographs were taken on Reef and Nemo’s fingers. The important rule of thumb here is, “if you don’t recognize it, observe but do NOT touch it.” This crab spider (fig. 1), sac spider (fig. 2), and these jumping spiders (fig. 3, 4) are harmless and were handled under my supervision, with great care. 

In general, mum and I do not allow Reef and Nemo to handle the animals they see. The boys’ advantage is that I have spent over ten years studying these incredible little creatures, and can tell what animals may be handled. An indispensable part of these nature walks is to teach respect and appreciation, not fear. Many jumping spiders are curious, and will often jump onto a hand or a camera if it comes close. They are also not bitey; in the extremely rare event that they do bite, it would only cause minor irritation that would disappear after a few days. 

Reef and Nemo know never to destroy a spider’s web or retreat. Under my guidance, they sometimes collect an animal to observe it closely for a few minutes. I have taught them to always promptly return it to the exact spot where it was found. However, they are still very young, and allowances must be made for mistakes. Reef has inadvertently brushed against hairy caterpillars that left his arm red and itchy for a day or two. These experiences are good; they take my sons from hearing that some insects can hurt them to knowing it. This knowledge makes them more careful in the future. 

Photographs of spiny and hairy caterpillars
Some insects, like this Cup Moth caterpillar (fig. 1), Tussock Moth caterpillar (fig. 3), and many other hairy or spiny caterpillars, can cause skin irritation, itching, or even severe pain, and are best left alone. 

Taking photographs and videos, even with a mobile phone, helps us answer Reef and Nemo’s questions when they spot something we have never seen before. “I don’t know what this is, lads,” I say, “but let’s take some pictures of it and find out more when we get home!” There are several Facebook groups whose members help identify insects and spiders from pictures. After seeking their help, mum and I are armed with a name and can readily consult Google to answer the boys’ eager questions. 

a collage comparison of an ant-mimic jumping spider and the ant it mimics
This is an ant (fig. 1). There are some cleverly-designed jumping spiders that mimic ants, like this one (fig. 2, 3). Spiders do not have antennae, but these extend their two forelegs forward to mimic antennae; they even walk in a zig-zag, haphazard fashion like ants.

 While observing ants on a weed one afternoon, Reef exclaimed, “Look, daddy, that ant jumped!” Closer inspection revealed that the ant in question left little trails of silk as it moved from one leaf to another; this was not an ant, but a spider pretending to be one! I quickly took a few photographs of the spider and the ants nearby. When the boys returned home, I showed them videos of ant-mimic spiders from the Internet. We learned that there are two reasons why spiders mimic ants. In some cases, it is to fool predators into leaving the spiders alone; ants are often avoided because of their painful bites and/or stings. Other spiders mimic ants so that they can get really close to the ants without causing alarm — then grab an ant and eat it!

The brothers have also found that the most delightful discoveries are often the most unexpected. Although Cebu is one of the most heavily deforested islands in the Philippines, our nature walks with Reef and Nemo have led to some significant discoveries. My research showed that a few arthropods we happened upon are new species, including two stunningly beautiful species of jumping spiders; these had not been previously documented or described. 

A colorful iridescent new species of jumping spider from the Philippines
Our first discovery of a new species in the Philippines — a sleek, shiny jumping spider!

In 2018, we happened upon our first novel species in the Philippines: a jumping spider with an angular form, shimmering metallic hues and beefy forearms. I sought the help of a few arachnologist friends, and we learned that these dazzling colors are not a result of pigments in the spider. Instead, the spider’s tiny scales have fascinating nanostructures consisting of numerous layers. Due to these, the scales reflect varying wavelengths of light, causing the spider’s colours to change when viewed from different angles. This spider is still undescribed and does not have a name. 

A cute teal and rust-colored jumping spider, still unnamed
This cute jumping spider is also new to science, and is only ~3 mm in length! 

Our most recent discovery with Reef and Nemo was just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic. This miniscule jumping spider suffers from excessive cuteness, with shades of rust and teal, and a lovable, rounded body and “face”. This species, too, remains unnamed.

Reef is now 5 years old, and Nemo is 4; we have been in the Philippines for nearly three years. Mum and I are merely enthusiasts, not scientists. Nearly everything we know about arthropods is by dint of self-study. Both of us had regular jobs until shortly before COVID-19 hit. Bearing all this in mind, our discoveries beg the following questions: if two preschoolers and their parents could find such incredible creatures in their spare time, how many more such finds await the lovely people of Cebu? How much more might we discover if there were an organized effort to look for and document these little animals that pass largely unnoticed? Also, considering that these finds were made on the massively-deforested island of Cebu, does this not imply that the undiscovered biodiversity on other Philippine islands is far, far greater? And most importantly, how much longer do we have before most of it is wiped out by development and deforestation?

Reef and Nemo have been indoors for nearly six months now, but pray every night that they will soon be able to go back to the mountains to look for insects and spiders. Mum, too, misses the outdoors dearly. We hope that, not too long from now, we will be able to resume our nature walks. As for myself, I passionately desire that this article will inspire and compel others to go out and observe the astonishing critters that carry on around us, mostly ignored — living, breathing, making babies, and crying out to us that there is immeasurable beauty in Creation, that there is endless fun to be had observing it, and that there are invaluable lessons to learn from it. 


5 thoughts on “Chasing Critters — a story of two boys’ ongoing fascination with arthropods

  1. Well , with my limited knowledge& ideas , I felt amazed going through your collection of spiders & insects. I highly appreciate your endeavour. My humble request: you might try to collect more information on these subjects & publish books.


  2. Not sure if my original comment saved, but just wanted to say thank you for sharing this! Our two kids are the same — curious about insects, arthropods, birds, etc. So cool that you found those new, unnamed jumping spiders! Amazing!


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