Local wildlife: Who knew?

Ben Riley


What if I told you that you could experience one of the most painful bug bites simply by stepping into Lake Michigan? These brown, flattened bugs lurk in freshwater habitat around the world, ambushing their prey and sucking it dry. They can also crawl on land and even fly. 

   There are some strange and surprising critters in the Holland area. You just have to keep your eyes open. 

   That painful bug bite comes from an insect called the giant water bug, also known as a toe-biter. In fact, Instructor Ken Strobel saw one washing in the surf at Lake Michigan this spring while on a walk with his wife. Strobel isn’t the only person at West Ottawa to see strange wildlife, as fellow instructor Dan Dennis and juniors Halle Pratt and Kate Roudebush have seen animals just as strange. Here are four accounts of some weird wildlife sightings. 

   “We saw a strange looking figure around six inches in length tumbling back and forth in the waves. It looked like a mix between a scorpion, some type of beetle, and a spider. Of course we had to know what it was, so when we got home we looked it up and were surprised to discover that what we saw was nicknamed a toe biter. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Strobel. 

   Toe-biters prey on a variety of aquatic life, and any organism many times their own size is fair game. Hidden just below the surface of the water, these bugs blend in with their surroundings resembling a dead leaf as they drift freely in the water. They breathe through a snorkel-looking appendage on the tip of their abdomen. When an unsuspecting victim swims by, toe-biters grasp on with their powerful front legs and inject venomous digestive saliva into their prey, and then suck out the liquefied insides. 

   Luckily, Strobel steered clear of the beast and didn’t get bit. Popular YouTuber Coyote Peterson reveals how painful the giant water bug’s bite really is. Around three years back, Peterson filmed a series where he captured various pests, and provoked them into stinging or biting him. 

   This time, Peterson took it upon himself to fulfill a request by his subscribers to show the internet what getting bit by a giant water bug felt like. It was not pretty. As soon the bug latched onto his big toe, drawing blood, Peterson hit the ground writhing in pain, claiming “that is worse than a sting.” 

   If Strobel’s sighting of the toe-biter isn’t already interesting enough, a trait unique to these bugs and only a handful of other species is the reversed parental care. The males carry the developing eggs they hatch. 

   Lake Michigan is an enormous body of water, and toe-biters are tiny in comparison. But find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could feel a bite you won’t ever forget.  

   Instructor Dan Dennis saw a not nearly as dangerous yet equally unusual softshell turtle in the swimming area of the Holland State Park beach while on a camping trip when he was younger. “I just decided to start walking along the beach and here’s this really large softshell turtle. I think this was the first softshell turtle I had seen in Lake Michigan, and I was shocked to see it. I gave it a wide berth and watched it swim away. It was probably the size of a dinner plate,” said Dennis. 

   Unlike most other turtles, their shells are flat, rubbery, and soft. There are upward of three dozen species of softshell turtles on the planet. The one Dennis saw was the spiny softshell, the only variety native to Michigan . 

   A lot of events have to happen at exactly the right time and place before someone actually manages to see one of these turtles. They prefer open habitats with some vegetation and a sandy bottom as well as a sandy nesting area. The described habitat matches well with the beach at the state park, however, spotting one is unlikely as when disturbed they will quickly retreat into the water and bury themselves in sand. Six months out of the year (October through April) softshells go dormant, already eliminating the time someone has to spot one by half. 

   Next, softshell turtles tend to stray away from people, so it is truly a shock that one was found roaming the beach at such a noisy location. 

   Then, for someone to even have the slimmest chance to spot one, they have to see it before it sees them. It is likely the one Dennis saw was too intent on nesting that it was unfazed by a human approaching. Dennis’s sighting was an unusual one.

   Dennis had another interesting sighting when he encountered a flattened animal on the side of the road near Byron Center. Upon closer examination, the roadkill was an American badger. “It was a bummer because I was in a hurry and I wanted to pick it up. Most people aren’t interested in picking up roadkill, but I’m a biology teacher and it interests me, and I’d never seen one. By the time I came back after work, it was gone,” said Dennis.

   Dennis saw two very interesting animals and in both situations, they were obscure to spot. Most people probably wouldn’t be able to correctly identify a steamrolled animal. It is likely that Dennis’s passion for biology has fueled his knack for picking out uncommon animals like the softshell turtle and American badger. 

   Jrs. Halle Pratt and Kate Roudebush were watching TikTok when they heard intermittent scratching coming from the walls and had no idea what it was. Later, they saw something poking behind the projector screen. 

   “We ran upstairs because we thought it was a bat, got my mom who came downstairs to look around, but didn’t see anything,” said Pratt. They suited up in winter gear and brought the cat to investigate. 

   “We went back upstairs and got Halle’s dad, but the creature followed us and poked his head out from under the gate at the top of the stairs. At first we thought it was a chipmunk, so I hid behind the couch,” Roudebush said. At least at that point they knew it was not a bat, so they could calm down some.

   “Kate named the mystery animal Jason. Jason fled back downstairs, so we came up with a plan to lure him into a bucket from a trail of food. That failed. When we saw him again in the basement, he was peeking out from behind the couch. My mom tried to catch him, but Jason was too fast and ran to the top of the fireplace where he jumped off, glided through the air, and ran back behind the projector screen. That’s when we figured out Jason was not a chipmunk, but a flying squirrel. He then ran to the Christmas tree and took a nap with one of the ornaments. While napping, we trapped him between a screen and a bucket and let him outside. From the time we heard the scratching to the time we let him outside, four hours had passed. If you are reading this Jason, you are missed,” said Pratt and Roudebush. 

   Two types of flying squirrels call Michigan home, the northern and southern. They inhabit the northern Lower and Upper Peninsula, and the southern Lower Peninsula, respectively. It is safe to assume that the one that crashed the girls’ sleepover was the southern flying squirrel.

   Flying squirrels are exclusively nocturnal, and hibernate in the winter, which is why they are tricky to encounter. They inhabit forests, and nest in tree cavities. Jason must have been confused and thought the chimney was a cozy tree hole to nest in.

   Often confused for bats, flying squirrels do not really fly. They have a floppy membrane of skin attached between their front and back legs. The membrane helps these squirrels glide from tree to tree. Flying squirrels are arguably the cutest animal on this list. 

   These four sightings are definitely outside the norm when it comes to wildlife sightings around West Ottawa. The giant water bug, spiny soft shell turtle, American badger, and southern flying squirrel are not only unique in their physical appearance, but also very elusive even when healthy populations exist in the wild. Who knew?