Velvet Worm Identification

March 24th, 2011 - 6:20 PM | Filed under Featured Photos | 1 Comment

30mm | January 18, 2011 | Gandoca-Manzanillo NWR, Limon Province, Costa Rica

As mentioned in my previous posts about the velvet worm above, I researched a bit before traveling to increase my chances of finding one. Only after the trip, when I started thinking about identifying it, did I realize I didn’t know what characters are important in identifying Onychophorans.

Undaunted, I started searching the internet for someone that might be able to help me identify it. I started with Julián Monge-Nájera. Julián explained that he writes about Onychophoran ecology. He put me in touch with a taxonomist coauthor, Bernal Morera Brenes. Both were extremely helpful. Not only did they give me access to some of their relevant articles, they gave me permission to publish those articles here.

Initially, just based on some overview photos I provided, they thought I might have photographed an undescribed species. Bernal even jokingly chided me for not keeping it, but we both know I couldn’t do that because I found it within a national wildlife refuge. After I started mining my photographs to try and discover identification characters though, it became much more likely that this is in fact a described species, one that has been collected not far from where I found this one.

First, we know the family is Peripatidae. All Central American onychophorans belong to that family, as shown by this handy wikipedia map.

Bernal first asked me how many legs it has. Turns out I had only a few pictures showing the whole specimen, and none provided a clear count. My best guess was 28. Before I could even reply, I received another query that turned out to be more relevant. How many pedal papillae does it have and how are they arranged? Specifically, are there two on one side and two on the other, or two and one? Thankfully, he provided this helpful illustration.

Counting pedal papillae

That turned out to be easy to answer, being two anteriorly and one posteriorly. Here’s some photos I sent for confirmation.

Head to the left

Head to the right

Head to the right

Bernal also asked how many antenna rings there were. I sent the following photo, but I had no idea how to count them.

How many rings? Beats me. Where does one start and end?

I don’t think the antenna rings mattered, because the pedal papillae were enough to identify this specimen as belonging to the Caribbean group, a collection of five genera. To narrow it down further it was necessary to look at something called spinous (or creeping) pads and a nephridial tubercle. Unfortunately the combination is visible only on the fourth and fifth pair of legs. I sent a photo that I thought might have captured that, and Bernal sent it back annotated, below.

Spinous pads and nephridial tubercle

With that, Bernal declared this to be Epiperipatus isthmicola or a very closely related (undescribed) species.

Here’s another look at the underside of a foot, showing the spinous pads and pedal papillae.

Spinous pads and pedal papillae

Bernal congratulated me for having found a live onychophoran in the field, something he claims very few biologists have even done.

If you’re lucky enough to find one yourself, hopefully this post will give you an idea what to make note of if you hope to identify it.

Muchas gracias to Bernal and Julián for helping me out and for allowing me to post the following articles here.

Morphological and physiological characteristics of two species of Epiperipatus from Costa Rica (Onychophora: Peripatidae), by Julián Monge-Nájera and Bernal Morera B. (PDF)

A new giant species of placented worm and the mechanism by which onychophorans weave their nets (Onychophora: Peripatidae), by Bernal Morera-Brenes and Julián Monge-Nájera (PDF)

Parturition in Onychophorans: New Record and a Review, Bernal Morera B., Julián Monge-Nájera and Roger Sáenz (PDF)

More Velvet Worm Photos

March 20th, 2011 - 4:51 PM | Filed under Featured Photos | 2 Comments

30mm | January 18, 2011 | Gandoca-Manzanillo NWR, Limon Province, Costa Rica

This post is a follow-up to the last identification challenge. There, I challenged readers to identify what turned out to be the velvet worm shown above. As I explained in the reveal, it was no accident that I encountered one of these onychophorans. I had researched ahead of time to increase my chances of finding one. Even prepared, I only found this one individual.

Attempting to wedge into a hiding spot

This post was delayed in part because I went a bit camera crazy when I found it. It took me awhile to sort through all the photos I took. It was shy at first, remaining frozen where it had been exposed beneath a small piece of wood. That didn’t make for a nice photo at all, so I eventually prodded it and got it moving about. Once moving though, it wouldn’t stop!

Despite my prodding and constant corralling, it never felt threatened enough to slime me. By that, I mean it never squirted slime from special glands located in modified limbs, one of which is visible in the second photo below. The slime is used both to immobile prey and for defense.

On the move

Slime gland visible to right of eye

The body surface is covered with papillae, giving it a velvety appearance (hence the common name). This one has a noticeable mid-dorsal line. That line is broken by what might be a healed wound, visible towards the left of this photo. Compare the length of the antennae below with the next photo. They really have a lot of range!

Note dorsal wound and antennae flexibility

The antennae can really stretch out

I flipped it over a few times to try and get some shots of the underside. Here’s one of those.


I have one more post planned from this encounter. There, I’ll talk about identification characters for onychophorans and a determination for this individual.

More to come in a later post

Identification Challenge #9 Reveal

March 2nd, 2011 - 8:06 PM | Filed under Identification Challenges | 5 Comments

Kudos to all commenters on Identification Challenge #9. They all correctly determined that this was a closeup of an Onychophoran, commonly called a velvet worm.

January 18, 2011 | Gandoca-Manzanillo NWR, Limon Province, Costa Rica

These strange creatures have their own phylum, Onychophora, the name of which literally means “claw bearers”. You should be able to see those claws above, at the tips of their stubby little legs.

Wikipedia tells us there are only two surviving families, Peripatidae and Peripatopsidae, geographically separate. The range for Peripatidae includes Central America and tropical South America, making this a member of that family.

One of my main goals for this trip was to find one of these. I read up on them ahead of time, learning about where I might expect to find them. I succeeded on my second day, but sadly I only found this one.

Here’s a shot of how I found it, after turning over a small log.

Velvet worm, as found beneath a rotting log.

I’ll have more information and photos of this interesting critter in a separate post. For now though, check out its unusual hunting style in this brief clip from BBC’s Life in the Undergrowth.