Bereft of some of the more world-famous hunters such as lions, tigers and bears, New Zealand is lucky enough to have a predator that perhaps would be more at home in a science fiction film than in the undergrowth of our forests. Not bothering with such primitive adaptations as sharp claws and teeth to capture prey, this little hunter instead relies on a sticky net that it shoots out of turrets on its head.
I am talking about the fascinating and ancient peripatus or velvet worm. This amazing little animal is one of our least known yet most fascinating and can be found in many of our forests, coastlands, even in places like the remote Denniston Plateau. In fact the peripatus has been found in rocky habitat in Otago's western mountains at an altitude of about 1800 metres.
They're called velvet worms because they have so many little bumps and bristles on their skin that they feel velvety. They're also called "walking worms", which is a nice descriptor, hence the name peripatus - which essentially means to walk about.
Peripatus caused consternation with scientists in terms of where they fit in the big scheme of things, since they are long, fluid-filled wriggly creatures, but are not worms, and they have paired legs, but are not insects. They occasionally get described as a missing link, which isn't quite correct either - but they have been around for an extraordinarily long time. Our own "living dinosaurs", the tuatara, are mere babies compared to the far more ancient peripatus, whose ancestors were in the oceans more than 500 million years ago.
New Zealand is home to two genera of peripatus, and they can be found in many parts of the country (and have close relatives in other parts of Gondwana). Some of ours lay eggs, and some give birth to live young. All peripatus need damp habitats or they risk drying out, which kills them. The other main threat is habitat destruction.
Dunedin has been home to a "peripatus reserve" for 20y years - one that was recently put at risk by a proposed extension to SH1 that would see a four-lane highway driven right through the middle of this unique wildlife sanctuary. Submissions on the proposal defending the peripatus came from as far away as Costa Rica and Germany.
The coolest thing about the peripatus is probably their method of hunting. Nothing captures the imagination more than a creature that can shoot sticky webs out of it to capture prey (hence the popularity of Spider-Man films!). The New Zealand peripatus species can shoot their twin streams of sticky glue a few centimetres (impressive since they themselves only grow to 35mm), and overseas peripatus can shoot from their slime turrets an impressive 50cm!
Once ensnared in the sticky net, the weta, spider or other invertebrate is essentially toast. Using its impressive feelers to find their prey again, the peripatus injects its captive with a digestive enzyme that enables it to suck its innards out. I can't describe it any better than my all-time hero Sir David Attenborough, so I'll leave it to him (and the footage is amazeballs!).
I've seen peripatus once at the Caversham Forest & Bird/Dunedin City Council reserve. What about you guys? Have you seen them? Where was it? What did you think of that hunting footage?
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