Spotting an unexpected pair of tiny beady eyes glowing in the dark when you’re taking an after-dusk stroll near a wooded area can be scary. Even though you know those eyes belong to the generally harmless and skittish raccoon, the nighttime makes them seem more fearsome than they normally would. Our city parks are full of creepy critters that play important roles in the health of our region’s green spaces and streams. From slimy creatures found in streambeds, circling turkey vultures with keen senses of smell, to bats diving for insects in the moonlight, there are plenty of scary animals to be found in our parks and surrounding region to put you in the Halloween spirit.
One of the most rarely-spotted scary creatures in the Pittsburgh region is the Hellbender salamander. While they are hard to spot because they live at the bottom of deep, fast-moving streams, if you do see one it is a good sign because they can only thrive in very clean water. The Hellbender can grow to a size of up to two feet in length, are flat, and mud brown in color. Larger Hellbenders will have wrinkled folds of skin along their sides, adding to their nerve-rattling appearance. Mottled spots help them blend in with stones at the stream’s bottom, and light-sensitive sensors – in addition to their beady eyes – along their body and tail that help them keep aware of their surroundings. As if their name were not good enough already, the Hellbender is also commonly referred to as a mud puppy, devil dog, or Allegheny alligator.
The turkey vulture circling the woods can seem like an ominous sign. Often seen flying in a circular pattern with one wing tilted upward, they can spot their dinner from hundreds of feet in the air. But they can find food even if it is not visible. Indeed, the turkey vulture has an acutely keen sense of smell that enables it locate dead animals even if they are hidden from sight. They thrive on carrion (decaying flesh of deceased animals), and can play a key role in keeping disease-carrying bacteria out of food and water supplies. The closer you get to a turkey vulture, the more imposing it can seem. They can be up to three feet long, with a six-foot wingspan covered in black feathers. Add to that a bare reddish-colored head, yellow bill, and yellowish gnarled clawed feet, and it’s clear that nature’s clean-up crew is not a pretty sight to behold.
Our city’s mountainous wooded geography means we share our greenspaces with a host of mammals, including ground hogs, foxes, coyotes, and opossum. While all can seem scary in the dark, of these you are most likely to encounter an opossum at night. They are the only marsupials – their reproduction includes a pouch not unlike that of kangaroos – found in North America north of Mexico. Their babies will stay in the pouch for about 10 weeks before climbing onto their mother’s back for another 30 to 90 days, eventually walking on the ground on their own. Their beady eyes – which seem to glow red when caught in the beam of a flashlight or car headlights – can be imposing, and when frightened they will curl up and pretend to be dead. Add these attributes to their small pink-tipped claws, pink snout, and sharp teeth, and the relatively harmless opossum can be a scary sight at first glance.
No oft-seen animal is more associated with Halloween than the bat. While most animals that fly are birds, the bat is the only mammal naturally capable of sustained flight. Their forelimbs have long, spread-out digits covered with a thin membrane, and these finger bones are extremely flexible, allowing them to quickly fold, extend, or wrap their wings around their body. Bats play a vital role in the health of our city parks. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy environmental educators keep an eye on bat boxes (flat, thin, roofed houses on poles that give bats a safe place to stay) found in Frick Park, as it is important to keep our city’s bat population healthy. While bats’ vampire-like teeth, tiny eyes, and nighttime swooping in the moonlight make them appear scary, they play a critical role in our ecosystem. Bats thrive on mosquitoes and crop-destroying insects, which lowers the amount of insect pesticides that populated areas must use, they help pollinate fruits and nuts, and they spread the seeds of plants and trees.