Critter names and critter myths

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I have always been interested in the variety of colloquial names applied to critters of all kinds, ranging from insects and other arthropods to fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and some mammals, and to the myths associated with some critters.

Take praying mantises for example. Most rural folks call them devil’s horses. When I was a youngster in Tennessee, I was told they would spit in your eyes, causing blindness. Dragon flies and damsel flies were sometimes called mosquito hawks, but most folks in middle Tennessee called them snake doctors. The slow-flying blue-winged damsel fly was a specialist, I was led to believe, and restricted its practice to water moccasins, so as youngsters, we were especially watchful when playing in the creek if we saw this particular snake doctor.

Centipedes and millipedes were called thousand-legs and in the presence of one of these, I’d keep my mouth shut, because it would attempt to count my teeth, and if successful, I would surely die.

Most species of salamanders were named according to where they occurred. Those found in springs and similar habitats were known as spring lizards. These found in muddy places were mudpuppies. If dug or plowed from underground, they were groundpuppies. The name “puppie dog” was applied to a salamander whose origin was unknown.

One exception was the hellbender, a large aquatic salamander that was once common in the Tennessee River and some of its tributaries. Some old timers called them walking catfish. Two other exceptions were eel-shaped aquatic species occurring in sluggish streams and swamps. They are sirens and amphiumas, which are often called Congo eels or ditch eels and mistakenly believed by some to be venomous.

Almost all lizards were called scorpions, and those having blue tails were believed to be poisonous.

I learned another interesting colloquial name for the green anole, the common lizard often called chameleon. I was asking an elderly man who was fishing in the Tennessee River if he had ever caught a hellbender, which I described. He said, “I ain’t caught one of them things in a long time, but there’s one critter in these parts you’d probably be interested in. We call it a changeable scorpion, because it can change its color from green to brown.”

An amphibian I’ve always wanted to see alive but which has eluded me is the barking frog, which lives in caves and crevices in the Balcones Escarpment in central Texas. It doesn’t require water to reproduce and seldom leaves its secluded habitat. On one of my Texas trips, I encountered an old gentleman whose home was close to the escarpment. I asked him if he was familiar with barking frogs and imitated the call. He said, “Them ain’t frogs you’re talking about, they’re bluff dogs, look like little Eskimo spitzes, and I hear ‘em barking from time to time.” He continued, “I ain’t never seen one, but other folk have. My uncle climbed up on that bluff one night and grabbed one of the rascals. It bit the hell out of him. I ain’t got no hankering to try to catch one.”

Crappie is pronounced like it’s spelled, with a short a, in central and southern Alabama, but in most paces in northern Alabama, “croppie,” with a short “o,” is the name applied. In southwest Georgia, the same fish is called white perch, and in Florida, it’s called speckled perch. In a few small streams in southwest Georgia, some fishermen call the crappie ‘government perch,’ because in the 1930’s some crappie were released in some of the area’s streams by a government agency.

I once encountered an elderly black gentleman fishing in Chickasawhatchee Creek not far from Albany, and I asked him if the fish were biting. He said, “I’d hoped to catch some catfish, but all I’ve caught so far is a few guv’ment perch and some assmechins.” The latter is a small fish commonly known as pirate perch. The name ‘assmechin’ is often applied because the fish’s anus is under its throat.

Brightly colored longear sunfish are often called sun perch, warmouth are goggle-eyes, paddlefish from the Tennessee River are locally known as shovel-bill catfish, and most species of bass are often called trout in Tennessee and north Alabama.

Old wives’ tales about snakes are numerous. Hoop snakes roll like hoops and have deadly stingers at the tips of their tails. Hognose snakes, called ‘spreadnatters’, have poisonous breath. People should avoid rattlesnakes not only because they are venomous but because they emit electro-charming beams from their eyes and release deadly dust from their rattling rattles.

In a future column, I’ll inform my readers about a mysterious, but seldom if ever seen, denizen of southeastern forests, the legendary hog bear.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also co-chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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