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Planet Bug

by Juan-Pablo Pina

Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash


326 million years ago, Carboniferous...


The stench of rotting wood and swampwater was nearly intoxicating while the oxygen-rich atmosphere fueled this alien world. The chirps, hums, and trills of distant animals filled the air while the strange trees cast long and frightening shadows. This may look like a familiar swamp, but I wouldn’t blame you if you thought it was an alien world once you looked a little deeper.

On the banks of a bog, set deep in the wet and sinking mud, was a club moss. It looked almost like a green version of a tiny, leafless pine. Unremarkable as they may seem, club mosses are just one of the many plants that helped to build the foundation of an ecosystem so bizarre that it would mark this time as a new era: the Carboniferous.

Surrounding the bog’s mucky shores was a short yet dense undergrowth made up of horsetails and ferns. The plants were both bright as emeralds and dull as the color of dying grass. But the ones near the bog’s bank were covered in tiny water droplets, making them shine and twinkle in the golden light of the Carboniferous sun that also illuminated the swirling spires of mist and fog. These plants are related to another Carboniferous arrival: cycads. These plants, often confused with palms, work alongside club mosses, conifers, ferns, and horsetails to create a truly green planet. You would be rather hard-pressed to try and find any barren land that wasn’t a beach or a mountain. Even Antarctica, a place notorious for being an icy desert, is a green paradise. And this was an image that applied to much of the newest supercontinent: Pangea. Our world was now “one” again. However, so much greenery ends up producing so much oxygen that the atmosphere would be nearly poisonous to us. But so many plants end up fossilizing that, in certain places around the world, so many fossilized plants are found that they are mined as coal to become fuel and are given the name “fossil fuels” (to clarify, coal is what we usually refer to as “fossil fuels”, not the liquified remains of dinosaurs). That was the inspiration for the naming of this period: the “Carbon”-“iferous”. But back to the point of the oxygen, there is a certain group of animals that thrives in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. And with the intensity and immense duration of the Carboniferous, the arthropods were finally having their day. This was now a world of jungle, oxygen, and bugs. Lots, and lots of bugs. What’s more, they got very, very big. Nightmarishly big.

The car-sized animal moved through the undergrowth with unnerving silence, its body low to the ground while its legs let it tread over the debris of the forest understory. It was a male and was adorned with red ridges and black and yellow striping. This behemoth was none other than an Arthropleura, a car-sized relative of millipedes. And this male was searching for a mate. Easier said than done, especially considering that the vision of an Arthropleura is comparable to that of a rhinoceros.


The male millipede bumped into a mossy log, a small shiver subtly running down its many segments. He knew he was on the right track, though his sight was certainly a handicap. He knew that his route was true because of pheromones, essentially chemical signals used by many animals. And these pheromones told him that there was a nearby female who was ready to mate. Slowly, the male scuttled his way over the log and carried on his way, gradually flattening the short plants in his way while his legs carried his body forward like the treads of a tractor. The air was balmy and hot and was filled with the distant grumbles and songs of hundreds of animals. Just as mammals became the dominant megafauna in the Cenozoic and non-avian dinosaurs in the Mesozoic, arthropods assumed the megafaunal role in this Carboniferous hothouse. This was a world where bugs were the biggest and loudest terrestrial animals on the planet, making this new period theirs for the taking. And it showed as beasts like the eurypterid Campynocephalus were representing the last of their kind while the vertebrates, thus far evolution’s part-time underdogs, were on the rise. However, it would be a long time until vertebrates got big enough to go toe-to-toe with beasts like Arthropleura. But Arthropleura was an herbivore. Not applicable for the animal watching him.

Hiding in the shadow of a massive conifer was a huge beast the size of a dog. Its body was jet black while its tail and appendages were a blazing orange like a Mexican red knee tarantula. This deadly creature was a fully grown female Plumnoscorpius. This massive arachnid, related to mites and spiders, was on the larger end of the spectrum when it came to individual size and it showed as her appendages and tail were a bright orange that can only be attained by surviving long enough. She had borne many young before, each coming into the world in a huge writhing clump of babies on the mother’s back. But now her time was nearing, and she would soon die of old age. But she still had some fight left in her in the form of powerful claws and a sting that, though nowhere near as deadly as the sting of something like the deathstalker scorpion, could induce fatigue and fever. But she was not hungry now, and even if she was, neither her sting nor her claws could do anything to the massive Arthropleura. So she let him pass, staying hidden in the shadow of the conifer.

Eventually, the male millipede came to the base of a young conifer. Sensing it with his antennae-like feelers, he began to scale the base of it and slowly climbed onto one of the branches. Once he was there, he sensed that it was not a long branch. However, this higher vantage point could help him track the female better. But it also put him in the way of the rulers of the Carboniferous skies.

Suddenly a massive animal the size of a falcon zoomed over the head of the Arthropleura, its many wings making a sound like a helicopter’s as the creature soared over the undergrowth. It was decorated with black and blue stripes and its eyes were a deep red. At the end of its tail was a small appendage like the blossoms of a flower or the extendable tentacles of a gangis moth. This absolute whale of an insect was the famous dragonfly Meganeura. And this individual, a young male, was also caught up in romantic affairs. But while Arthropleura have elegant and nomadic mating rituals, Meganeura seem to have taken a page right out of Maverick’s book of flight.

The giant continued to soar through the air, the appendage on the end of his tail releasing invisible “come hither” pheromones. But he was not the only one, as other males were also spreading pheromones. Suddenly another Meganuera, an older male, seemed to appear out of nowhere, barely stooping low enough to avoid crashing into his fellow dragonfly. In the simple mind of the young Meganeura, this action, though an accident, would be like driving by and giving him the middle finger. And that was not acceptable.

He began to pump out tons of pheromones, trying to outmatch those of his rival. The chase continued as the two insects flew through the forest, the helicopter-like sound of their wings reverberating slightly in the dense jungle. Though dragonflies were the first animals to ever fly, they were already incredibly sophisticated and able to fly in any direction. And when you have two horny dragonflies, you’re bound to eventually get what humans like to call a “dogfight”. The rivals chased each other through the forest, swooping high and stooping low and barrel-rolling between trees, the rapid flapping of their wings making the thinner branches sway while their leaves danced erratically. Eventually, the older male decided to fly high, an action that was quickly followed up by his younger assailant. After a few seconds of this higher flying, the pair found themselves just above one of the many streams and creeks that made up a lush and vast river delta.


Suddenly a massive object exploded out of the water and seized the younger Meganeura. It crashed back down, the impact with the water killing the bug instantly. This was not a colossal aquatic insect but instead a huge amphibian. Enter the kayak-sized swamp monster Anthracosaurus. This large male was covered in brown and green spots like an American bullfrog. The insect’s exoskeleton crunched and cracked as the teeth continued to crunch through hide and the squishy, slime-like innards slowly oozed into the amphibian’s throat. It was not so long ago that vertebrates finally came on land in the form of animals like Tiktaalik. However, you probably know it by its layman's name: the “walking fish”. But a walking fish is not a natural oddity. The mudskipper is a type of goby that burrows in the mud of coastlines all around the world and can stay out of water for two days. But there had never been a “fish” quite like these early tetrapods (four feet). Forced onward by the threat of competition and extinction, the descendants of creatures like Tiktaalik evolved into semiaquatic quadrupedal river monsters like Anthracosaurus. What’s more is that amphibians are one of the most diverse groups of animals alive today with almost 8 thousand species including frogs, newts, salamanders, and toads. But some fish never committed to the landlubber way of life.

The Anthracosaurus began to head back to the sandbank he was resting on before his hunt. He stopped when a huge fin, almost like the one that lines an eel’s tail, broke the surface before slowly diving back down, leaving only a few ripples on the water. This massive animal, as long as a bed and weighing in at nearly two tons was none other than the monstrous Rhizodus. To understand the singular nature of a Rhizodus, imagine a lungfish that was scaled up to the length of a bed, was given the face of a wolf eel, and was gifted with the agility and tenacity of a lemon shark. What’s more, they can walk on land. Sort of.

Juvenile Rhizodus live by hunting insects and primitive fish in the murky maze of mangrove roots and brown waterways. However, they will sometimes come onto land to escape a predator like an adult Rhizodus or Anthracosaurus. But this also brings them into the realm of beasts like Plumnoscorpios. Even adult Rhizodus still manage to get them by employing a similar hunting method to that of the orca. Adults will chase their prey onto the shoreline only to drag themselves onto land with the help of their lobed fins. However, this has put them in direct competition with the amphibious Anthracosaurus, giving the two species a rivalry like that of cape buffalo and lions. It was a clash of the swamp beasts that often ended in one of either side being mauled and gored. But back to the Arthropleura.

He crawled back down the trunk of the conifer and continued his search for the female. Eventually, he came to a small glade, and there, in the sunlit center, was the female. She was slightly larger than the male, though her colors were far duller. She lay curled up, resting as she awaited her insectoid “Prince Charming”. But she would have to wait as the male millipede was having a rather hard time finding her. He was still following the pheromones, though sensing where she is was different than sensing where she was. He circled the shallow hollow in which the female lay, sensing the air and ground. Once, twice, three times he circled the hollow, dutifully following the chemicals in a comical loop. “Aha!” he seemed to say as he finally began to scuttle his way down to the female. Finally, she was right there! This was his chance! All he needed now was to awaken the maiden with his love song.

Greenk! Greenk! Greenk! Greenk!

He ground the segments of his exoskeleton together, creating a chirp-like grinding sound. This was his love song, and it could travel for miles upon miles through the undergrowth depending on how much effort he put into it. But the female was right in front of him, so he only needed a low and soft melody. Slowly the female millipede unfurled her body, her legs wriggling as she felt around to see who had come to court her. The male gently stroked her carapace with his feelers, a reassurance of peaceful intentions while he continued his strange singing. Finally, the female began to let out approval pheromones. The male had done it! But…one last thing: how do you get two car-sized bugs to mate? By lining them up, of course!

In the same fashion as their ancestors, the two arthropods rose almost like cobras (Naja sp.). However, they leaned on each other, the male rising with the female. Their legs, wriggling and waving around, eventually interlocked, lining the two animals up almost perfectly while the male continued his song and the female continued to let out approval pheromones. Eventually, they would mate and they would go their separate ways. In time, the female would welcome a whole legion of tiny Arthropleura into their Carboniferous kingdom. And even though it may just be for a few more million years, “planet bug” would remain under the rule of those with mandibles and exoskeletons…

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