Wild Vault

Microhabitats and Other Secrets of Life Under a Rock

The ground beneath an everyday rock can shelter a whole community of insects, reptiles, and amphibians in a microhabitat
Text & photos by Vineeth Mario Vincent
This treasure chest of wildlife enjoys the damp environment under a rock.

This treasure chest of wildlife enjoys the damp environment under a rock.

Venomous centipede fangs, unescapable scorpion claws, and sticky toad tongues have something in common. They belong to insects and amphibians that sometimes choose to live together. It might seem strange that these three predators that eat the same kind of food can live together in perfect harmony, but it is possible.

The first time I heard the word “microhabitat” was in August 2012, while on a trek in Tamil Nadu, led by an esteemed naturalist. Halfway through the walk, we stopped by an unassuming rock and were asked to gently turn it over. We were instantly overwhelmed with the life we found under that simple rock: a scorpion, a frog, a centipede, a cockroach, plenty of ants, and two species of spiders. These creatures mingling together underneath a rock were the perfect example of a microhabitat—a small specific home environment in which a few creatures live and thrive.

 A burrowing frog lives in harmony with its diverse burrow mates.

A burrowing frog lives in harmony with its diverse burrow mates.

The obvious question that springs to mind is that since frogs and toads eat insects, how can they live together? How can there be harmony between predators? The answer lies in the symbiotic relationships that exist in the natural world. Imagine a self-sustaining eco-friendly villa colony. The ants living under this rock represent the maintenance staff and gardeners. All leftover insect parts that the scorpion, centipede, and toad leave behind are swiftly and systematically cleared by them, and transported to underground storage areas, which also act as small pouches of nutrition for plants in the vicinity. Unsuspecting roaches and hoppers that pass the rock can be compared to fast food: the only difference being that the residents eat the delivery agent. The idea of having to go through a scorpion and a centipede to get to a toad is enough to deter any snake, and you’ve got villa security right there. The spider is the interior designer and small pest control manager, while the toads are the main construction crew.

The scorpion produces and stores venom in a bulb which ends in a stinger at the end of its tail. The stinger acts like a needle with which the scorpion stings and injects its enemy or prey.

The scorpion produces and stores venom in a bulb which ends in a stinger at the end of its tail. The stinger acts like a needle with which the scorpion stings and injects its enemy or prey.

All of these small amphibians and insects have more than a few predators they fear—birds, snakes, rats, mongoose etc. Deep burrows under this unassuming rock can double up as panic rooms when menacing hungry beaks or claws try to break in. These panic rooms are also the safest nurseries for young ones. The microhabitat we witnessed was home to four creatures that play a very important role in our ecosystem, the role of controlling our insect population.

Ever since I was introduced to the life that exists under rocks, I have turned over others in search of new findings and moments of awe. Sometimes, I felt that I was doing something wrong. However careful and gentle I was while turning the rocks over, I felt like I was still disturbing or damaging a microhabitat for my harmless viewing pleasure. Besides, one also has to be extremely careful when turning over rocks, as a threatened insect can attack or bite. Best to do this very carefully, to learn and educate ourselves and others of the wonder of nature that exists at every corner, under every rock.


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