Critters of Guam

Animated gif of a running gecko.
by Brenna Lorenz

    What kinds of creatures live on our island? This page is devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to the land animals. There are plenty of books out there dealing with fish and coral. These are the animals you are likely to meet if you live on Guam.


Brown Tree Snakes

    Guam is more famous for its brown tree snakes than for anything else. You may have seen the articles and documentaries that portray Guam as simply seething with snakes. If everything on Guam were to disappear except for the snakes, the shape of the island would still be clearly visible in the form of snake bodies. We have millions of snakes for every person on Guam. When they come out on the roads at night, it is like driving on a squishy washboard. And those aren't seed pods hanging by the thousands from all the trees -- they're snakes. During our frequent typhoons, snakes are blown out of their trees by the powerful winds, and their bodies fill the air as if someone had dumped a giant potful of overcooked brown spaghetti into a fan. Afterwards, it looks like the aftermath of an explosion at a Chef Boyar-Dee factory. People have to spend days scraping dead snake remains off their homes and cars. Oh, yes, and little kids learn how to kill snakes before they can walk. On the playgrounds, kids tie several snake bodies together to use as jump ropes, or play snake tag, where the child who is "it" has to whack another kid over the head with a dead snake, which is swung around like a bolo.
    Everyone else is telling snake fables; that is mine.
    Some people seem to be plagued with snakes, and other people, like us, never see them. Since 1991, we have only seen one in the wild. We have been told that if you have cats, you won't have snakes. We have four cats, but only once did they bring home a snake body. Our neighbor says that the cats don't usually kill the snakes, they just harass them until they decide to go somewhere more peaceful.

    The Guam Power Authority has blamed snakes for power outages so often that it has become a joke. The snakes, who are arboreal, climb utility poles and fry their buns on the power lines. The GPA guys got so tired of people saying, "Yeah, right" to their snake stories that they started producing snake bodies as evidence. It has been suggested that the snakes are attracted to electromagnetic fields.
    Everyone has heard about how the snakes go after babies. People say that they can smell the milk on a young mammal. The bite of the snake can be very dangerous to babies, but we are told by experts that brown tree snakes are not technically venomous. They don't have venom sacs, but simply some weird chemicals in their saliva that can cause a bad reaction in some people. Researchers tell me that the snake is of interest because they think that snake venom in other species evolved this way, from saliva.
    In addition to biting babies, snakes have also been known to bite the protruding parts of sleeping people, such as fingers, toes, noses, upper lips and... well, Guam men, if they're wise, sleep with underwear on. People also claim that snakes enter the plumbing of their homes via the vent on the roof and surface in the toilet, where they can bite the unwary on their nether ends.
    Brown tree snakes are so muscular that they can stand straight up for most of the length of their bodies, supporting themselves on just a short length of tail. For this reason, it is hard to build a wall high enough to keep big snakes out of an area. Not only do they have a good reach, but they can use fairly minor irregularities on the surface of a wall to gain a ... well, not a foothold, exactly. They can even use bagworms for this, and it is hard to keep bagworms off a wall.
    Because they are so muscular, brown tree snakes make lousy eating. No matter how they are prepared, their flesh is like rubber bands.
    One morning recently we found a dead baby brown tree snake on our doorstep, left there by our cats. Usually a dead animal is covered with red ants in minutes. But the dead snake wasn't touched by ants or flies or anything else for the entire day that it remained in front of our house.  That's how bad they taste!
    The muscularity of the snake may also account for the snake story I was told by a friend. He was driving down the back road to Anderson one night, and he went over a speed bump. He was puzzled because there had never been a speed bump there before. Looking in his rear-view mirror, he saw an enormous snake crawling off the road, unfazed by having been run over.
    Another snake story we've heard is about the snake who was determined to go yachting. The owner found the snake on the boat and flung it overboard. It swam back and climbed on up. The owner tossed it away. The snake returned. This continued until the yacht owner executed the snake.
    People commonly report having snakes drop on them when they open doors.
    That is the kind of rotten snake this is!

Photograph of John Quenga with brown tree snake, by staff of the Pacific Daily News.

John Quenga with a large brown tree snake in a photo by Pacific Daily News staff. Used with permission.


    The bagworm is a festive little caterpillar that has decided to act as a year-round Christmas ornament. Bagworms decorate houses, trees, dead cars, and just about anything that doesn't get up and walk away. We were once fortunate enough to have a metal garbage can lid that was fringed with bagworms. We called it our bagworm sombrero.
    Bagworms live in a bag of plant debris. They can crawl around in the bag, or fasten themselves to a surface by a few threads of silk and just hang there.
    Sad to say, these little caterpillars lead tragic lives. There are few fates worse than coming into this world as a little girl bagworm.
    All the little bagworms spend their childhood in the bag. Then they go through caterpillar puberty. When insects do this, we say they are pupating. This is the stage in which a caterpillar retires to a cocoon or a chrysalis (or stays in the bag), before entering adulthood. Dr. Buyce, a famous geologist, once remarked that the reason why insects are so successful is that their teenagers can't move.
    Everyone knows what happens next: the young insect emerges as a beautiful butterfly! (Or, if more humble, a beautiful moth.) The boy bagworm comes out of his bag as a little dusty-blue moth. We see these guys fluttering around in the grass when we walk across a lawn or field.
    But the girl bagworm? She goes through puberty, and SHE IS STILL A BAGWORM. She stays in the bag. She never gets to come out. She never gets to fly.
    And as if that weren't bad enough, she soon finds herself pregnant. She lays her eggs (in the bag, of course), and when her little ones hatch, their first meal is THEIR MOTHER.
    There is certainly a moral here.


    Guam does not stand out when it comes to mosquitoes. There are no more and perhaps fewer here than one tends to find in other parts of the world. Anyone who thinks the mosquitoes on Guam are bad should try spending a summer in northern Canada.
    Guam mosquitoes tend to be small, fast, quiet and low-flying. You usually don't know they are there until your ankles start itching.
    There are a couple of places on Guam, however, where the mosquitoes are abundant and audacious. One of these places is the Asmafines River in southern Guam, the little stream that runs down next to the Sella Bay overlook.
    The Asmafines River is famous on Guam for its so-called Velcro waterfall. The stream does not have a slippery bottom and you can walk right up the waterfall. It doesn't look at all like this should be possible, but it is.
    People will tell you that the waterfall is easy to ascend because stromatolites give the stream a non-skid surface. Stromatolites are layers of rough calcium carbonate (limestone) secreted by cyanobacteria living in the stream. That's what people say. But that's only half the story.
    The other half of the story is that when you approach the waterfall, thousands of mosquitoes come down, pick you up, and half carry you up the waterfall to a place where they can eat you in greater comfort.
    Just how many mosquitoes are there along the Asmafines River? Enough so that macho young ("Mosquitoes never bother me!") men, who wouldn't  be caught dead owning something as wimpy as mosquito repellent, are actually willing to beg for the stuff in public, in front of females.

 Black Flatworms

     The United States has Johnny Appleseed. He's the guy who wandered across the country planting apple trees. Guam has Johnny Flatworm.
    Johnny Flatworm decided that what Guam needed was black flatworms, so he imported some from Malaysia, and distributed them around the island.
    Some people swear that Johnny Flatworm is a real person. Other people say he is a myth. Either way, whether a deliberate or an accidental import, the flatworms have come to Guam to stay.
    If you dig a few holes, or look under some rocks, or pull up some roots, you'll eventually locate some of these interesting animals. They are terrestrial members of the phylum Platyhelminthes, most of whom are aquatic or parasitic.
    It is definitely not cool to say that an animal is ugly. If you love nature, you realize that no animal is truly ugly because life is beautiful and fascinating in all its forms. If you are religious, you know that all of God's creatures have a touch of the divine and are therefore beautiful.
    Try keeping this in mind when you are looking at a black flatworm.
    If you hold one in your hand (and Megaera actually did this), it scrunches around and raises up the front part of its eyeless body, waving its gaping mouth around as if seeking something. What it is seeking will be divulged to you shortly.
    They look like something alien from a monster movie. They look like something that a villain from a Star Trek episode might slip into your ear. They look distinctly sinister.
    We tried feeding one to a baby monitor lizard once. The young lizard looked at us as if to say, "You people have got to be kidding." In the process of trying to entice the lizard, we handled the flatworm too much and it fell apart into slimy little bits. The things don't hold up well at all. Of course, the lizard never ate this thing, and we don't think any creature would have, with the possible exception of a boonie dog. But this is an experiment we haven't tried.
    So what is the flatworm seeking? The flatworm is seeking the anus of a snail.
    This is what we are told: The flatworm is a carnivore. It eats snails. It crawls into their anal opening and eats them alive from the inside out.
    The legendary Johnny Flatworm brought these things to Guam to eat the Giant African Land Snail. The Giant African Land Snail had been brought to Guam to be eaten by the Japanese. The big snails had gotten out of control here, we are told, and existed in such enormous numbers that their slimy crushed remains would cause cars to slide off the road.
    As of now, the big snails are down, but not out. And another imported land snail, a little round brown and white striped one from the Philippines, is ignored by the flatworm. The flatworm has decided that these outsider snails are not nearly as tasty as the native Guam snails. So the flatworm has eaten up almost all of our own land snails, causing some of them to become extinct. It's too bad.

Giant African Land Snails

Photograph of three giant African land snails on a wall with snail poop.    Maybe my standards are too high, but Giant African Land Snails just don't look all that gigantic to me. They're pretty big, but the biggest ones I've seen have shells that are only about 10 cm. long. Maybe they're called "giant" because of what they look like when they come out of their shells. Whatever size the shell is, the snail looks much bigger. It looks like there's too much snail to stuff back into the shell, and that's not including whatever must be still inside to keep the shell from falling off.
    The snails have attractive, mottled, striped brown and white shells, smartly coiled in an ascending cone. The snail itself is a rather drab brown. They have four eyestalks, a single nostril on the right side of their mantle, and they carry their tails curled up behind them in a jaunty fashion.
    For some reason, they share the slug's fondness for the University of Guam campus, making our college a regular mollusk hang-out. The slugs occupy the sidewalks and the snails hang out on the walls of the buildings. Our walls are covered with masses of snail droppings. The droppings resemble dead and desiccated earthworms. The photograph shows a cluster of three smallish snails surrounded by snail poop on the wall of the College of Arts and Sciences Lecture Hall at the University of Guam.
    The snails I have met seem to be mentally healthy. Unlike their cousins, the slugs, they show no tendencies toward public nakedness or suicide.


    Here in the ecological disaster area known as Guam, the only land slugs we ever see are an introduced species, a moderately attractive brown and yellow slug. They are fairly flat as slugs go, closer to the ground than most, with a nicely patterned, leaf-shaped mantle covering their entire foot. They are right-nostrilled slugs; that is, they have their nostril on the right side of their bodies. They are approximately 5 to 8 centimeters long.
    The sad thing about these guys is that they are suicidal.
    They commit suicide in two different ways.
    One way they do it is to crawl out onto the blazing hot sidewalks and parking lots at the University of Guam and fry themselves in the cruel tropical sun. Other slugs, elsewhere, only venture out onto the sidewalks at night or on rainy days. These guys hit the pavement at high noon. As a result, one finds their desiccated bodies at the ends of their slime trails all over campus, but their favorite place to die is behind the Computer Center.
    Their second method of dying is much more striking.
    We saw it last summer, when we were out at Gun Beach measuring notches in the limestone cliffs with some students. As soon as we came down to the beach we smelled a particularly horrible smell. Now it isn't uncommon for Gun Beach to have a certain miasma. People party there, and leave behind rotting meat, soiled diapers, and puddles of urine and beer in pockets up in the limestone notches, up above the high water line, but this was something different. We then noticed that the beach was littered with hundreds, no, thousands, of dead slugs. Then we saw that the water was full of dead and dying slugs, floating gently back and forth in the surf. Then we took note of an odd plopping noise, coming from the direction of the cliff. Upon investigating, we discovered that slugs were hurling themselves from the edge of the cliff, to freefall some 50 meters into the salty ocean below. Upon impact, they curled themselves up and began to die, slowly and gruesomely.
    One of the students suggested that maybe they belonged to a cult. Another theory was that they wanted to be nudibranchs, because marine slugs get more respect. Or maybe, as in the Gary Larson cartoon, they had been misled into purchasing a Surf 'n Sun vacation package.


    When we first moved to Guam and heard about carabao, we were confused. Isn't it supposed to be "caribou," and aren't they Arctic animals, some kind of reindeer? We now know that carabao is a genuine Chamoru word belonging to the Austronesian language family, but I often wonder if somewhere in the distant past there might be a connection between the two words. Anyway, the carabao is an animal that in English is called a water buffalo.
    At one time, carabao were of vital importance to life on Guam. Now they are considerably marginalized, more of a curiosity and a tourist attraction than anything else. You can find one in the little private zoo in Tumon, and there are several living in the Madog River in Umatac. There is a whole herd of them living on Naval Magazine, but one sees much more of their droppings than of them if you can get onto that military base.
    Carabao are enormous, with huge curved horns and a long, concave face with a flat, rectangular muzzle. They have funny, hairy lips. Once I suggested to some friends that we might transport a carabao in a pickup truck, and they gently laughed at me, explaining that a carabao weighs much more than a truck. With all of that, it is fortunate that they are placid, gentle animals. Their primary desire is for water and mud. If you know what you're looking for, it isn't too hard to spot a carabao wallow hole in a stream. Sometimes the carabao itself will come rising like a black mountain out of the wallow if you startle it.
Boys using carabao to plow a rice field in Sumba, Indonesia.    Whenever we have seen carabao following their own inclinations, they have just been just standing around, being carabao. Sometimes you can see a carabao pulling a carabao cart for tourists. We rode on one once in the Chamoru Village. Malachi and I sat in the cart, and Megaera sat on the carabao. After the ride, Megaera commented uneasily that the carabao's coarse, sparse hair was full of nits. We teased her for a long time thereafter about being a carrier of carabao lice, but fortunately the lice didn't transfer to Megaera.
    In Indonesia, people still use carabao in the old ways. In Sumba, we saw a group of boys plowing a muddy field by chasing a group of carabao around in it. It was a lot of work for the boys, because as soon as they stopped running, so did the carabao. We also saw a dramatic carabao race in Sumbawa. Each carabao's horns were richly decorated, and the carabao pulled a man behind it on a small sled. The man steered the carabao by pulling on reins attached to a ring in the animal's nose. The race took place in a muddy field (actually more of a pond). The idea was not only to be fast, but accurate: the driver had to get his carabao to run across the field, turn 180 degrees around a wooden figure sticking up out of the field (as close to the figure as possible without knocking it over), and then back.
    The carabao is still an important icon in Chamoru culture. The village of Yona has a carabao statue at its major intersection which they decorate nicely at Christmas. It used to have a calf, but that disappeared a few years ago. A new carabao statue was recently placed in a park in Mangilao, but it lost its horns almost immediately due to vandalism.


    We have a peculiar pack of dogs in our neighborhood. One of the dogs is a pig.
    He is a little black pig who started out as someone's pet. He lived in a pen, but got away pretty early on. Everyone figured that he would disappear into the jungle, but instead he joined a dog pack that includes himself and three adult male dogs. I don't see them very often, but my neighbor Pam does. She says that the dogs keep looking at the pig as if they are trying to figure out what kind of weird dog he is. And they lick the pig constantly. Pam thinks they're trying to make him smell like a dog.
    When the pig first joined the pack, he was just a little piglet, but now he is a large and lusty teenage pig, as big as and much smarter than his companions. He has become the pack leader, and he spends a lot of time mounting the dogs. As Pam says, if species doesn't matter, why should gender?
    We have a lot of pigs on Guam. Supposedly, there are two species, wild pigs and feral pigs. Also, supposedly, they have interbred, which goes against the definition of species.
    When we lived in Yigo, we used to see the big black feral pigs all the time. They would come out of the jungle and walk through our yard. Once a sow came through leading a line of piglets. She stopped and snorted when she saw me, and the piglets instantly froze in place. She turned to face me and lowered her head menacingly. When I didn't move, she and the piglets eventually went on through the yard and back into the jungle.
    My students and I met a friendly pig tied up next to Madog River in Umatac. He's a big pink pig who grunts and squeals when he sees us, and makes it clear that he appreciates attention. Benny, one of the students, tried to feed him some leaves from a nearby tree, but the pig wasn't interested. "What's the matter with you?" Benny asked the pig. "Don't you know that you're a pig? Pigs aren't fussy about their food!"
    The people at the Federal Wildlife Refuge in Ritidian are not at all fond of the pigs. They are too numerous and are destroying the seedlings and saplings of many tree species. That is why you never see any young breadfruit trees on Guam, they tell me. Once the old trees have died, there won't be any more breadfruit on Guam.


    Toads are wonderful. It's true that they pee on you when you pick them up, but then, so do many children we have known.
Megaera with Potpie, the toad.    You can have a lot of fun with a toad. Megaera found that she could get an interesting reaction if she left one sitting around on the couch on stage during the rehearsals of Frankenstein at the UOG Theater. Another time she and her little brother introduced some toads to Senator Bordallo. Megaera always names her toads the same thing: Rosie the Ribbiter. If you don't get that joke, ask your grandfather.
    People say that frogs and toads eat only live food. Our Guam toads, on the other hand, have been observed eating dog food and cat food. We've seen them do it ourselves.
    Guam toads are also more vocal than your average toad. They cuss you out if you handle them.
    The toads, when well-nourished on a steady diet of cat food, can attain a remarkable size. Some of them are as big around as the chicken pot pies they sell at Kentucky Fried Chicken. They get even bigger when picked up, because they inflate themselves. They grunt, chirp and hiss and shoot out a stream of urine that can reach respectable distances.
    Once we gave the cats a treat of tuna juice on their dry cat food. But a toad got there first and ate all the cat food, a prodigious amount for one toad. He ate so much that he got stuck between a cement block and the wall, and he looked like he had swallowed a softball. When Megaera picked him up, he inflated himself even further. When she released him and he hopped away, the impacts of his landings drove the air out of him and he farted with every hop.
    We read somewhere that toads have so little sexual dimorphism that even a toad can't tell by looking whether another toad is a male or a female. If a male toad sees another toad, he will get amorous with that individual. If the other toad happens to be a male, he will object by chirping. If the toad is female, she won't say anything. And that is how toads go about romance.
    Our toads grow to be such big bufos that it is hard to believe that when they first emerge from tadpolehood, they are about the size of a largish housefly. You can find swarms of these little housefly toads by Madog River in Umatac. We go there sometimes with students from the University of Guam. One of them, a person who does not share our love for toads, did a funny little toad dance when baby toads got on her foot.
    Toads do have a dark side. At Madog River it is not uncommon to find a big toad with someone else's legs hanging out of his mouth.
    I took Malachi to the Madog River when he was three years old. He was so intent on looking at all the tadpoles and toads that he didn't notice, when we came around a bend, that we were face-to-face with a carabao. When he finally did notice, he was alarmed. "Is that a dinosaur, Mama?" he asked.
    "No," I said, "It's a carabao."
    "Do he eat me?" he asked. Deja vu! Megaera had asked me the same question when we met up with George Bush when she was a toddler.
    You can click on the photo of Potpie and Megaera to see more toad pictures.


    Chickens can't help it. They are chickens because their parents were chickens.
    Chickens are everywhere on Guam. They are in every yard, by every roadside, and even downtown on the grounds of the Courthouse. We always get a laugh out of those letters to Dear Abby and Ann Landers in which people complain about their neighbor's crowing rooster. Imagine, living next door to just one rooster!
    Guam's chickens are truly beautiful. They are very close to the ancestral chicken, the Pacific jungle fowl. The roosters are black with a collar of golden neck feathers and an iridescent green tail. The hens are simply black, but are still very attractive. There are other chickens who have mated into this stock and produced some interesting variations. One of the nicest is a black and white checked hen.
    Guam chickens must be tough. They have survived brown tree snakes and boonie dogs.
    Our cat, Cat Calloway, has an interesting relationship with one of our neighbor's chickens. She is a tall, gangly white hen with a black tail. Most of our neighbor's chickens stay in their yard, but this hen frequently ventures into our yard. Cat Calloway always takes note of her visits, and stalks her. She goes about her chicken business, but when he moves toward her, she lifts up her head and tells him off. He sits up, looks around innocently, and washes his leg.
    Once we saw a hen and a yellow tabby cat sitting cuddled up together on top of a Dumpster.
    Most of the time, chickens have no idea what they are going to do in the next moment. They go through life more or less randomly, and without plan. That is why the old joke about the chicken crossing the street is so enduring. The idea that a chicken would have any reason at all for doing anything is just ridiculous.
    We actually saw her, here on Guam: the chicken crossing the street.
    She didn't simply drift randomly across the street, pecking here and there, crossing accidentally. She did it on purpose.
    She crossed Rt. 4 at the traffic light by Apusento Gardens. She waited patiently by the side of the road until the light stopped the traffic on Rt. 4. Then she quickly and deliberately crossed the street with the light, walking in a straight line.
    We don't know for sure why she crossed the street. Maybe it was just to get to the other side. But she was definitely a chicken with a plan.
    Over the years, we have come to realize that chickens are smarter than dogs. You see a lot more chickens than dogs alive next to the road, and a lot more dogs than chickens dead in the road.


    Megaera got lice her first month on Guam.
    We didn't realize it right away, although we should have. She told us that bugs were living in her hair. "Does your head itch?" we asked.
    "No, not really," she shrugged.
    "How big are these bugs?" She showed us with her fingers -- about half a centimeter. "Can't be lice," we concluded. "Lice aren't that big."
    Well, that's what we had always heard: lice are so small that you can't really see them. You just see their eggs, or nits. Boy, had we heard wrong!
    Furthermore, Megaera's teacher had inspected her for lice and hadn't found any.
    "I used to sit in class," Megaera told us later, "pulling bugs out of my hair and flicking them away." She probably transmitted lice to every kid in her class.
    Megaera finally was able to produce one of her bugs at home and show it to us. We stuck it onto a piece of Scotch tape and examined it. It certainly looked like a louse, only bigger. It was 6 mm long. We compared our captive with pictures of lice in our entomology book. It was a good match, but just to be sure, we took our specimen to the doctor's office.
    "I'm not sure what it is without looking at it under a microscope," said the doctor.
    "Oh, come on, doctor! That's a louse!" said all the nurses.
    We washed Megaera's hair with that awful louse shampoo and thought that we had taken care of the problem. Afterwards, she brushed her hair. She was wearing a pretty dress with a big, white bib collar. As she brushed her hair, lice rained down onto that white collar, and most disconcertingly, they were still moving.
    It was a long, hard road getting rid of all those lice. But we made the most of the opportunity. We all had fun looking at lice and nits under the microscope.
    Afterwards, Megaera could spot nits on a person at twenty paces. Everywhere we went, it seems, Megaera would poke one of us and whisper, "You see that lady over there? She has NITS!"
    "The guy who was standing in front of me at Taco Bell -- he had NITS!"
    "The girl who sits next to me in the Hans Christian Anderson play -- she has NITS!"
    Obviously having lice is one of those experiences that mold a person's world view.


Photograph of a plain, sand-covered sea cucumber. I read about balates when I was a little land-locked kid back Stateside. They call them sea cucumbers in English. Of all the creatures in my animal books, the balate was the one that interested me the most. Here is an animal that is not much more than a living bag. Water goes in one end and out the other. Stuff in the water stays behind in the bag to nourish it.
    But if you mess with a balate, according to my books, it throws its guts at you! Its guts come spewing out and this scares away its enemies. The baffling thing about this form of self-defense is the question of how a balate could survive it.
    One of the most exciting things about coming to Guam was the opportunity to actually meet balates.
    There are so many different kinds. There are the common black ones that cover themselves with sand and look like turds. There are the other black ones that have little knobs all over them. When you pick them up and look at them closely, you see that they have a midnight purple sheen, and you can see their tube feet, like little strings, on the underside. Another dark kind is smooth and has a magenta belly. There are the brown ones who look just like the sand until you step on them and the white stuff comes out. There are the brown mosaic ones that look like works of art. And of course there are the long, skinny soft ones that look like vacuum cleaner hoses with tentacles on the ends. Some of these are black and some are striped with brown and white rings. These reach out from under rocks, gently sweeping their front ends back and forth, vacuuming up edible detritus from the sea bottom.
A group of balates (sea cucumbers) filter feeding from under a rock.    Every Guam kid knows what you can do with the little black balates. You can pick them up, hold them in front of your body in the appropriate location, and pretend to pee. Since the animal obligingly expels a squirt of water, the appearance is quite convincing.
    The brown ones that give out the white stuff are possibly the ones I read about as a kid. The white stuff is part of their guts, a part that is called the tubercles of Cuvier. This stuff is the stickiest stuff ever made. It is a glue that will stick to things even under water. In fact, it becomes a permanent part of anything it touches. The challenge, to me anyway, is to see if I can pick one up gently enough so that it doesn't spew. It is possible to do this most of the time.
    But maybe the vacuum cleaner hose balates are the ones I read about as a kid. I saw a man pick one up once. At least, he tried to pick one up. He ended up holding on to an empty skin. The guts slipped out as soon as he lifted it out of the water. The man was absolutely grossed out. We are told that the skin grows new guts and becomes a whole balate again. The fate of the guts we don't know.
    Balates are some of the most abundant animals on the reef. It is tricky to avoid stepping on them while snorkeling or walking on the reef, especially if they are the kind that cover themselves with sand or have the same color as the sand.
    Balates even have interesting poop. It comes out of them in a coiled, sandy ribbon with crenulated edges, making a pretty rosette on the sea floor that you can pick up. People always pick it up because it looks so pretty and unusual, and ask, "What is this thing?" Then they drop it fast when they are told that it's poop.
    Some people eat balates, but it isn't generally done on Guam. Some balates secrete a substance that is toxic to fish. Ancient Chamorus used to use it to catch fish, but that practice is illegal now.
    The balates are the most fun animals in the reef.

Boonie Dogs

    Mike Pulte says that boonie dogs couldn't have become so ugly by chance. It had to have been the result of a deliberate breeding program. Someone out there was selecting for ugly.
    You can't get much uglier than a dog with no hair and teats longer than its legs. When they trot, the teats swing up and smack them on the sides with every step.
    They are full of mange on the outside and hookworms on the inside. If you prick a boonie dog with a pin, it explodes in a shower of what looks like white noodles and gray dust: worms and their eggs. That's all they have inside. They certainly don't have any food inside.
    Generally speaking, Guam would be better off without boonie dogs. They do serve one useful purpose, however: they are useful in turning up murder victims. Every once in awhile, someone finds a boonie dog gnawing on a human body part by the side of the back road to Andersen.
    If you are foolish enough to jog or bicycle here on Guam (and these are truly high-risk behaviors here), you have to carry a big stick or a small rock hammer to fend off the dogs.
    For awhile, Yigo Elementary School had a steady visitor in the person of a dog that the children had named "the butt dog." This animal had a large growth the size of a grapefruit under its tail. The children regarded the butt dog with fascinated horror and spent a lot of time speculating about the cause of its condition.
    Such strange growths are common on boonie dogs. Some seem to have both testicles and teats, for example.
    Seeing boonie dogs with gangrenous body parts is commonplace. Once I saw one with the bones of its tail sticking out of the second half of its tail. The rest of the tail was gray and banded, like an armadillo tail.
    People can and do adopt boonie dogs. Given proper care and feeding, their looks can be improved dramatically, but most of them would still make a reasonable showing in an ugly dog contest. A common dog type has a relatively normal-looking dog body on extremely short legs, with a huge head and enormous bat ears. These dogs are inevitably fat and female, with long pendulous teats that never have time to shrink between litters.


    Before we moved to Guam, one of the things we were told is that Guam has lots of ticks. For our first several years here, we never set eyes on a tick, and we were beginning to believe that we had been misinformed. But now we know the reason that we never saw ticks is that we don't have a dog.
    Guam does indeed have ticks, and they are extremely host-specific. They are 99 percent loyal to dogs. The remaining 1% of their loyalty will be bestowed on humans or cats if a dog isn't around.
    If you have a dog, you will see plenty of ticks. If the dog is allowed inside your house, your house will be awash with ticks. We find it nerve-wracking to visit friends who have indoor-outdoor dogs because we spend all our time watching our feet to make sure we see the ticks before they get too far up our legs.
    We only saw ticks around our house when a neighborhood dog decided for awhile to spend her time sleeping next to the house. She would lean up against the house in a thin strip of shade, and her ticks, when satiated, would flood up the walls.
    People who own dogs spend a lot of time removing ticks from their dogs. For awhile, a woman who owns dozens of dogs made it a habit of bringing them all to the University of Guam and sticking them in the office of a sympathetic professor. There, this woman and her friends would have dog-deticking sessions. They would see how many ticks they could get into a paper cup from Wendy's before the ticks could crawl to the top and start escaping.
    Lots of dog owners take up smoking because a cigarette is such a convenient way of disposing of ticks after removal from the dog.
    Sometimes you can tell that a person owns dogs when you see ticks crawling out of his or her hairline. These people are obviously used to it. They simply pluck the tick off their forehead and toss it away without comment.


Mourning gecko, pencil drawing.The first year we lived on Guam, we met a Statesider school teacher who said she was going to leave Guam as soon as possible. "Why?" we asked. Because of geckos, she told us. Because geckos walk around on the ceiling at night, and she was terrified that one would fall off and land on her face while she was in bed.
    Actually, I have had geckos fall off things and land on me. Except for the fact that they have cold little feet, it's really not so bad. A monitor lizard landing on your face might do some damage. But a gecko?
    How can anyone hate geckos?
    The main complaint seems to be that they leave poop on the walls. The paint on the walls comes off much more easily than gecko poop does.
    But watching geckos is far more entertaining than watching television. For one thing, geckos can move from one place to another without occupying the space in-between, just like electrons. It's fun to watch them snapping up little flying things. Sometimes a big gecko will eat a little gecko. You see it sitting around with someone else's tail hanging out of its mouth.
    If you leave a bag of cold cereal or marshmallows or candy sitting out on the kitchen table, you may return to find several geckos in the bag, stuffing their faces with sweet stuff.
    What a pity that they don't eat ants!  People tell me that they do eat cockroaches, but I have never seen this happen.
    When geckos argue, they twirl their tails and make funny chirping noises.
    Not all house geckos are the same species.  The ones you usually see inside with the zigzag pattern are called mourning geckos, so-called because their mouths turn down and they look so sad. We have always thought that they looked cautious, perhaps, or curious, but not really sad.
    The interesting thing about mourning geckos is that they are almost all female. There are almost no boys at all. The females play at mating and they lay eggs and do all the things that geckos do, but without guys. There is a moral here, but we will let you formulate it for yourself.
    A pregnant gecko usually has two eggs in her, and you can see them clearly through her semi-transparent skin.
    If you hold a gecko egg in your hand while it is hatching, you'll have a chance to see the little gecko baby sitting there all rolled up with her hands on her knees and her tiny tail curled over her shoulder. The instant she figures out what she is looking at, she will bolt. She has no idea that your interest in her is not culinary.
    If you hold a gecko on your finger and look at her face-to-face, the first thing she will do is lick her eyeballs. The next thing she will do is jump onto your nose. Then she will bolt into your clothing and hide. Then you will do an interesting little dance.
    Of course, geckos are not the only lizards on Guam. We also have those huge monitor lizards, which people say are green, which they are not, and call iguanas, which they are not either. These big guys are actually black with yellow spots, and from a distance the black and yellow sort of run together and look greenish, especially if the lizard is a bit scruffy and ready to shed its skin. They are not the least little bit like iguanas. They are distant relatives of Komodo dragons, and in the early days of film, people used to use them as actors to play the parts of dinosaurs.
    Monitor lizards are excellent climbers. We had one living with us named Merrimac the Monitor. Merrimac managed to climb into our sink. We would love to have seen him do this, because we are still not sure how he did it.
    Then there are skinks. They are the rather plain brown lizards that you see running around on the sidewalks outside. Juan Fernandez says that skinks are suicidal. If you are mowing the lawn they get all upset and start running around. The first place they try to hide, he says, is under the lawnmower.
    We once saw a skink with two tails. You probably know that lizards are very casual about losing their tails. We figure that the two-tailed skink must have suffered an injury to the tail that did not result in total detachment. Its regenerative facilities went to work growing a new tail and the old tail healed.
    A newly imported lizard is the beautiful anole. When happy, the anole is a brilliant green. It turns brown when it gets upset, and gets black spots behind its eyes when it is really stressed out.
    Male anoles are particularly entertaining. If an anole sees another male, or thinks he does (if you hold up a mirror to him, for example), he will inflate a red pouch on his neck and do lizard push-ups.
    One final word about lizards. One friend of ours took a sip from a soda that had been sitting around for awhile. She felt something bump against her lips. It was the nose of a DEAD GECKO! On Guam, one should never, NEVER drink a canned soda that has been out of sight for more than a minute!


    At least our flies don't tend to bite. But they do love fiestas. The instant that the first cover is taken off the first food item, the flies appear from nowhere. If you are having your fiesta at the beach, you don't have to set the food up yourself. The flies take it out of the car for you, carry it to the picnic table and take the lids off themselves.
    After all the typhoons in 1992, Guam was overrun with these little flies that we called midges, and other people called swamp flies and other people called gnats. They didn't bite, thank goodness. But they covered surfaces with their little bodies. They are preserved between paper and glass in many office windows at the University of Guam. For awhile, it was impossible to copy an exam on the photocopier without getting midge silhouettes decorating every page.
    One time Megaera took a swig from an orange soda that had been sitting around for awhile. She bit down on a bit of something that she thought was pulp and felt a horrifying pop. You guessed it: the "pulp" was a fly. They could hear her screaming all the way to Rota. So I repeat: on Guam, one should never, NEVER drink a canned soda that has been out of sight for more than a minute!


    Guam has too many ants. Not only are there too many of them, but they all want to move in.
    First of all, there are those miserable red ants that bite. You can be sitting around in your own house, minding your own business, when some ant will come along and bite you in a tender place. They will also bite you if you stand in one place for too long outside. They attend beach fiestas also, although instead of going for the food, they go for the people. They have two kinds of workers: the little ordinary ones, whose bites hurt a lot, and the guards with heads half the length of their bodies, whose bites hurt even more.
    Like everyone else on Guam, we have led a continuous battle against ants, especially the red ones. We don't like to use poison in the house. Poison is even scarier than ants in one's bed. What we discovered works fairly well is spackling compound, that white stuff that you can buy in a hardware store. We find where the ants are coming in, usually through a crack at the base of the wall, and we spackle it. The ants then find a new crack, and we spackle that. This keeps going until the ants give up on cracks and start coming out of the outlets. Then we spackle around the edge of the outlet cover. The ants then start coming out of the outlet holes. You can't spackle those shut, so what we do is put duct tape over them. You can still plug things in through the duct tape, but it stops the ants. If the ants are coming in under the door or through the windows, the weapon of choice is slime fruit. This local plant is an ancient Chamoru ant repellent. You rub the juice of the slime fruit around the place where the ants are coming in and it stops them. By the way, slime fruit is the source of "Tahitian noni juice," and if you ever saw, touched, or smelled that fruit, you would not want to put its juice in your mouth!
    There are also those really tiny brown ants that chew their way into boxes of cold cereal. If your cold cereal contains fruit or marshmallows, these ants will get into the cereal before you even open the box. You pour the cereal into the bowl and add the milk. Then the ants start to float to the top. At first, you think that there are only two or three, so you pick them out and start to eat. After you take a spoonful, a few more float to the top. You pick them out and eat another spoonful. A few more float to the top. You start to worry about just how much insect matter you are consuming with this meal. After awhile, you realize that you might have a whole colony in there, and it just becomes more nerve-wracking than it is worth. Thank goodness for Tupperware. These ants also like to eat soup mix, especially the Chinese kind that comes in a Styrofoam bowl and you just add water. The little ants chew through the Styrofoam, leaving tiny holes in your bowl. If you don't happen to notice this, and you go ahead and add the water, you will end up with a flavored hot water sprinkler system.
    And then there are the roving colonies. They are small colonies of ants with no permanent home. You never know where they will turn up. You might pick up a napkin that has been sitting on your table, and surprise! There they are! Queen, eggs, pupae, workers, soldiers and all. Everybody grabs the babies and starts running. They go in all directions and disappear while you stand there freaking out. Later, when the fuss has died down, they reassemble somewhere else. Like in your shoe.


    Guam is blessed with a great many wasps that come in a wide variety of sizes, from the tiny ones that come out of some butterfly chrysalises instead of the butterfly, to those huge mud daubers nearly 5 cm long.
    We have so many mud daubers that their nests are everywhere. They particularly love to build on houses, doors and window sills. They build stacked urns of red clay and stuff them with little green caterpillars. We always have a wasp's nest or two on our screen door. When we go outside, the wasp hovers around us and we remind her that if she wants to stay, she has to put up with us. We haven't been stung yet.
    When we lived in our old apartment, the one with the balcony, the wasps really made pests of themselves. Their nests became so abundant on the balcony that we felt that they had gotten a little out of hand. That is when we discovered that it is fun to shoot wasps with a super-soaker water gun. The wasp comes in. We blast her. She flies away unhurt, so we don't even have to feel guilty.
    The hydrologists here tell me that mud daubers have prevented them from determining the sediment-carrying capacity of Guam's streams. When they set out sediment traps, the wasps rob them of mud so fast that almost nothing accumulates.


(Drawing of cockroach by Brenna Lorenz)
Pencil drawing of a cockroach.Human beings have three instincts: acquisition of language, love of music, and hatred of cockroaches.
    Malachi, when he was three, knew that he hated cockroaches, but he wasn't sure that this was the right thing to do.
One day he found a dead cockroach on our stairs.
    "Is this cock-a-woats dead, Mama?" he asked.
    "Yes, it is."
    "How this cock-a-woats die?"
    "I killed it."
    "Why you kill it? Was it a bad cock-a-woats?"
    "Yes, it was."
    "Do you kill good cock-a-woatses, Mama?"
    "Why not?"
    "Because they are already dead."
    Now, at the age of ten, he still has ambivalent feelings about cockroaches. He goes after them with great gusto, and calls himself the roach buster. Then remorse sets in. "I killed that poor creature, Mama, and it wasn't doing anything to me."
    "Okay," I tell him. "Next time we find a cockroach, we'll catch it and let it go outside instead of killing it." He nods and agrees. But he usually kills them. When actually faced with one, his instincts take over.
    Even when released outside, they die because the cats get them. Cat Calloway has supplemented his diet with so many cockroaches that he has gotten fat.
    In the process of doing research for a cockroach project at his school, Malachi learned that cockroaches can live for a week without their heads. They only die after a week because, without a head, they can't drink water. They die of thirst. In other words, even though the cockroach has a brain, it doesn't need it to live. Does this sound familiar?
    By the way, if you dispose of cockroaches by flushing them down the toilet, they don't die. They simply take up residence in the sewer system. We had the opportunity once to watch some Rotor Rooter guys opening the manhole cover next to the drive-through of a popular fast food emporium in Hagatna. The inside of the sewer access tunnel was seething with millions of cockroaches. They came swarming out like something out of a horror movie, and the men stood there dancing a cockroach-squishing dance as they lowered their hoses down into the sewer.
    Everyone on Guam has cockroach stories. There's the story of one of my students... he may not want me to use his name, which sounds like an explosion, so I'll just call him Mr. Pop... Mr. Pop had been studying long hours and had fallen asleep at his desk, snoring with his mouth open, the way sleeping people do. When he woke up and closed his mouth, he felt something crunch. "Oh, please don't let that be what I think it is," he moaned. But it was.
    One time, we came home late, all tired and hungry. We went into the kitchen, turned on the light, and there was a great, big cockroach sitting on the counter.
    "I see you," I said to the cockroach, "but I'm too tired to do anything about you." That big cockroach stretched out its neck really long and looked right at me.
    I got some cold pizza out of the refrigerator, and the cockroach flew at me. I stepped aside and the big insect crashed into the refrigerator. As soon as it had recovered its footing, it stretched out its neck really long, and then flew at me again! I dodged and it missed me again.
     "Hey!" I objected, "You leave me alone! I wasn't bothering you!"
    Then it stretched out its long neck and flew at me again! This time it landed on my leg. I swiped it to the floor and dropped a laundry basket on it.
    After supper, Megaera and I were heading for our bedrooms, and as we walked down the hall, we saw another big cockroach. It stretched out its neck really long and flew at us. "Not again!" I grabbed Megaera, hauled her into my room, and slammed the door. We heard the thud of the roach's body as it crashed into the other side of the door.
    Later, in the middle of the night, we heard someone running the vacuum cleaner. "Will you listen to that," I said. "That big roach is vacuuming the living room!"
    When we told this story to the famous entomologists, Nafus and Schriner, they said that roaches stretch out their necks and fly when they are interested in mating.
    It is a very disconcerting thought, and not really all that flattering, to learn that one is considered sexy by a cockroach.
    Speaking of cockroach sex, we had a chance to witness it taking place on the ceiling of our bathroom. Malachi caught them in the act while he was taking a bath, and was most indignant. "They shouldn't be doing that in front of me," he protested. By the way, they do it tail to tail, like dogs, and if you chase them (we did) they run away still connected.
    Then we are told the story, by whom we cannot recall, of the very pulpy orange soda. The victim took a swig from an old orange soda. "I never knew that orange soda had pulp," he thought to himself as he chewed. He took another swig. "My goodness, but there really is an awful lot of pulp in this soda." Then came the horrible suspicion. He spat out some pulp, and yes, it was a whole bunch of little dead cockroaches! Never, never, never, NEVER drink a canned soda that has been out of your sight for more than a minute!
    A friend of ours known as Junior did a science fair project his senior year at high school that is still spoken of with awe by all who saw it. He had always heard that cockroaches would survive a nuclear holocaust, and he wondered if this were true. Since he didn't have access to nuclear warheads, he decided that the next best thing was to test their resistance to microwaving.
    His parents wouldn't let him use their new microwave. But luckily they still had the old one lying around, and they let him use that. "The smell of cooking cockroaches is unbelievable," they tell us.
    To Junior's surprise, the cockroaches didn't hold up particularly well in the microwave. In fact, they exploded. The record for cockroach survival in the microwave was about 20 seconds.  On the other hand, ants seemed virtually immune to microwaving. Junior consulted the famous entomologists, Nafus and Schriner. They told him that cockroaches are vulnerable to microwaving because they have so much body fat.
    Fat cockroaches? What a revolting thought! Imagine rendering them for lard. If you run out of vegetable oil, you can always deep-fry your chicken in cockroach oil.
    Anyway, Junior made a poster for the science fair at his school. Part of his exhibit was a sandwich bag containing the cockroach corpses, taped onto the poster. Junior won first prize at his school, and was sent on to the Islandwide Science Fair.  In the month between the two science fairs, ants broke into the sandwich bag and ate up all of his microwaved roaches. So Junior needed more. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he had cleaned out the roach population in his home and was despairing of where to find more.
    One day he was hanging around at University of Guam's planetarium. He had left a Coke sitting around in there for awhile. He came back and was about to take a swig when he heard a scrabbling noise coming from the can. He peered carefully into the can, saw what was there, and smiled with triumph. "Boy, am I glad to see you!" he said to the big roach in the Coke.
    Junior is the only person I have ever known who was actually glad to find a roach in his soda.
    Megaera once overheard two students at the University of Guam discussing the ethics of cockroach infestation. The first guy said, "Dude, like, you know, I was eating these, like, powder sugar donuts I had bought at the store, and like, they tasted funny, and when I looked in the box, man, I saw that they were like covered with these tiny cockroaches."
    The second guy exclaimed. "Dude, that's not right! That just isn't right!"
     And now for the ultimate cockroach story. Jim Miller tells the story of two guys who went scuba diving one day. One fellow had left his dive gear in the trunk of his car for some time. He didn't test his regulator out before getting all his stuff on and going into the water.
    When they were down 30 feet or so, a little cockroach ran out of the guy's regulator into his mouth.
    Now, some people absolutely hate to take the mouthpiece out of their mouths underwater. You have to do it a lot when you are taking scuba diving lessons. After that, many people won't do it. This guy was one of those people. He just let that little roach run around in his mouth.
    After awhile, the cockroach got bored running around inside this guy's mouth, and it decided to go exploring. It ended up in his nasal passages, and eventually came out of his nose and into his diving mask, where his dive buddy saw it.
    When they returned to the surface, the buddy said, "Do you know that you have a cockroach in your mask?"
    "Yeah, I know," sighed the guy.
    "Well, where did it come from?"
    "Out of my nose."
     And as if all that weren't enough, cockroaches bite. But Wayne Lumpkin tells us that in New Orleans, people actually pay money for chocolate-covered cockroaches and actually eat them. That seems fair to me.

Return to What's It Like to Live on Guam? Life on Guam, including typhoons!
Proceed to Tales of Guam for information about earthquakes, our weird plants, and descriptions of some of our beaches, or to More Tales of Guam for a look at another beach. Or read about more critters on Microscopic Critters of Guam!
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