Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Red-Capped Manakin.

Everyone seems to be tributing Michael Jackson these days, so I thought I'd hop on board, Animal of the Day style. You might think, what does this bird have to do with Michael Jackson? I'll get to that.

First, this animal is pretty common in C. America (specifically its forests) and doesn't do well around people -- they're pretty fragile birds in a pretty fragile ecosystem. But their population is going strong.

Second, its the only bird able to beat its wings faster than a hummingbird. It doesn't do this while flying, so the hummingbird still carries its own with how fast they can beat their wings to keep themselves afloat. These things just do it as a mating call (the sound it makes when they beat them together really quickly). As you can see, they're sexually dimorphic - the female doesn't look very much like the male (male = top 2 pictures, female = bottom). This goes to show how many birds are named as well -- after the male counterpart, when there is dimorphism. At least we recognize the male better, on average (Did you ever think why we refer to 'peacocks' as 'peacocks' and not 'peafowl'? There are peahens, too, you know...).

Anyway, the real reason I posted this. Its relation to MJ. It has a wonderful mating dance, which will be evident from this tacky video. I wish you could easily take out the clips of the ornithologist dancing around, too, because she is incredibly annoying, but sit through her to watch it, it'll be worth it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Prevost's Squirrel.

Just a small post today... These squirrels live in SE Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia) and are very similar to ours here in the states.. eat nuts, fruits, occasionally bird eggs, live in trees... the usual.

In their habitat they have been credited with helping expand forest boundaries, since they tend to take nuts and seeds far away from where they find them. This spreads the seeds quickly and since the squirrel sometimes hides its finds in the dirt, it essentially
plants them if they are not retrieved quickly enough. So in a place where forests are at a crossroads with deforestation and preservation, this is certainly an animal that will be important to maintaining any sense of a natural order.

Obviously its striking feature is its coloration. This is used to fend off predators (the color red is associated with toxins for most animals, even though these contain no poison) and also as a mating display.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Colossal Squid.


Easily the most terrifying known animal, in my opinion. In fact, it's in my list of greatest fears and has been for several years. I didn't enjoy looking for these pictures, but if I take a step back, they truly are amazing and the fact that we know so little about them is eye-opening considering how large this thing is. You just sort of assume that the big things have been found, but this goes to show that we could be missing quite a bit.

So about the squid, it's NOT the same as a 'giant squid'. Though also large in size (the colossal is the largest known invertebrate in the world). It's not terribly longer than a giant squid, because it has shorter tentacles. But it's mantle size is MUCH larger. So it's heavier and bulkier. Also, they aren't really closely related to giant squid (they're both squid, yes, but they do not share the same genus), surprisingly. They're both large, but there's convergent evolution for you. It's a niche a squid can apparently fill well. These guys live in the Antarctic waters. And this one in the first picture was caught alive, but wouldn't let go of the rope so was pulled in, frozen, and donated to a natural history musem in New Zealand for research and exhibition. It's the largest one ever caught, though based on beak sizes found in stomachs of whales, they can grow to be much larger.

Here are the descriptions of pictures:
1. Colossal Squid: Caught.
2. A diagram of my favorite description of how large it is.
3. Tentacle hooks.
4. Beak
5. Deflated Eyeball

What makes them more terrifying than giant squid:
1. Its tentacles. Most squid tentacles aren't fun to look at, but they have a standard structure... long tentacles with little suckers on them to grip on to prey, rocks and whatever else it wants. Occasionally, you'll get some with razored suckers so they can dig into things as well. These, however, have sharp HOOKS! They puncture things.

2. Their attack. they generally eat fish and smaller squid -- not really in a place where we'd be threatened since it's so deep and we wouldn't withstand the pressure, so we're ok. But they sit in a 'cockatoo' stance (point their tentacles up, and keep them together so they look smaller), and wait. Their eyes (which I will get to in a second) have biolumenescent (think: glow in the dark) spots in them, attracting animals to it, thinking it's a small biolumenescent fish. When it's near; doomsday. The poor fish think they're getting fed, while instead they are attacked by a large squid with sharp hooks. They have giant beaks to crush almost anything that it can catch.

3. Eyes. Their eyes are up to 30 cm in diameter (about 1 foot!)! That's all I have to say about that one.

End of the day, while freaky, certainly fascinating. If you want to learn more, there's this site that includes animated videos of all these things I'm talking about, more pictures, and more research. It's crazy for me to think that while I'm typing this post, these things exist in the antarctic depths either preying or waiting to prey. We know so little about our world.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mediterranean Jelly.

This jellyfish as you probably notice is a bit of a standout with its polka-dot tentacles. They're also known as 'fried egg jellies' for obvious reasons.

Other than the fact that I haven't covered Jellies before, what makes this one unique is that it has the ability to move easily without the need of a current pushing it along. If you think of the cap of a jellyfish as a wheel at the the top of an arrow, the 'wheel' can only contract its rim (it is a circular muscle) pushing it only in the direction that it is pointing to. So it can't control direction. This one can, however.

Other general jelly facts are the fact that offspring attach to rocks, and for a while feed on passing nutrients and particles. This is their 'polyp' stage. Eventually they're free from surface and look like what you and me would consider a jellyfish (though they aren't fish).

The colors on this one supposedly lure prey so it can grab fish and other small creatures passing through.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rock Dove.

As you can tell, pigeons won the vote. So now comes my challenge in convincing you that they aren't boring. And... go.

OK, so these doves from a purely biological stance are unique in its mating in one particular way. They tend to be monogamous. In a weird way. They attempt to mate with others but stick around with whichever female best convinces the male it is his chicks he is caring for. It's not totally understood how they do it, but displays are likely the answer.

One thing, like it or not, is that they are sure to stick around. Unlike most animals that decline in population around people (because of interrupted or damaged ecosystems or corridors), this one seems to adapt. And adapt well. Though traditionally known to roost on rocks and cliffs (hence its name), it has transferred a sense of a 'cliff' to a building ledge. Similar topography. They also have stopped migration in most places, finding warmth in street vents and heat rising from roads. And because of that, its annual behaviors have become less defined. For example, they mate all year round, versus just specific times of the year. There might be peaks in spring and summer, but there is no significant definition of mating season for them.

Personally, I think this is kind of awesome. Sure they can be annoying and they are everywhere, but it's a reminder that wildlife is actually everywhere, and as much as we want to think of our urban environment as separate from an ecosystem, it's really not. It's just a terribly modified and typically inhospitable one for most species other than ourselves.

On a totally different note, they've also been helpful to people when domesticated. To the point of earning medals of honor during the World Wars. I'm not lying. You remember homing and carrier pigeons, right? They were bred to return home went sent somewhere else. Soldiers would attach messages to its leg and were sent off -- missions people couldn't do since no one is likely to waste a bullet on a pigeon. Not only that, they would use specific pigeons. Cher Ami of France won a prestigious award for heroic contributions to WWI. And the US awarded several pigeons awards during WWII. Homing pigeons have been used since about 1150 CE in Baghdad and were used by Genghis Kahn. Military posts would regularly be decorated with pigeon posts. And you might be familiar with the name "Paul Reuter" who founded the Reuters news agency? He used to deliver headlines in the 19th century using a fleet of piegons. Long story short, they can be credited for saving thousands of human lives and delivering news when headlines may not have been quite so accessible.

Moving to a similar subject, people throughout time have been intrigued by its breeding capabilities. Like dogs, pigeons were bred for specific functions or fanciful fulfillment. Some bred for unique colors, some for body shape and feather ornamentation, some for function (homing pigeons), and some I'm not really sure for what. Dozens of varieties exist, each with a unique cultural context. I've posted a few of them above.

There probably isn't too much terribly fascinating information for you in here, but I think they are a bit more unique and interesting from a human standpoint than one might typically think.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Purple Frog.

This purple frog (which lives in the Western Ghats of India) is a pretty bizarre one. Officially discovered in 2003, but known well to locals before then, they have been an intriguing frog for sure. They spend most all year underground, but emerge for only 2 weeks of the year for mating, then return to the ground. Which is why it took so long for science to describe it -- people didn't think to look underground for frogs.

They are also considered to be a living fossil -- an animal that hasn't changed very much in the history of its existence. It is closely related to frogs originally found on the island of Seychelles and Madagascar (when those two and India were attached in one landmass) and seems to have changed very little ever since.

And before watching the video, a reminder that today is your last day to vote for an animal for me to post tomorrow. Right now, the pigeon is winning.

Here's a video of a purple frog:

Monday, June 22, 2009


The Gannet family is broken into 3 species -- Northern Gannets, Cape Gannets and Australian Gannets (north atlantic, south africa and australia, respectively). There are a few shared traits about these birds, the first being their colonies. The last picture is actually a picture of thousands of nesting gannets (they always colonize rock cliffs). Chicks learn to fly by jumping off of these cliffs and flying before hopefully hitting the water, so obviously cliffs lend themselves to more injury if failed, but more time to figure out the whole flight thing before it crashes. And being seabirds, there aren't many other opportunities for land to still get the feed they prefer.

A social behavior of theirs that is unique is mating pairs. They pair for several seasons (but not for life) and each time greet each other by raising their bills and tapping them together, like in picture 2. They might remind you of emperor penquins.

Feeding: Perhaps the coolest, and you'll see why in a minute, is their eating behavior. Since they travel in flocks of thousands, it's a spectacle in itself, then add in the fact that they dive into the water at high speeds to catch fish underwater. It's built a relationship with other species also attacking the fish, like dolphins, sharks, etc. that create bait balls.

And now, let's blow your mind:

Finally, a reminder to submit your vote for an animal you think is boring but actually isn't.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Banana Nudibranch.

This sea slug, Notodoris minor, lives in the South Pacific (often found in the great barrier reef). They're not endangered, and there aren't many striking characteristics to it beyond the usual nudibranch behaviors and anatomy (for example, as the name suggests, it has an uncovered respiratory system; 'nudi'=nude and 'branch'=bronchioles). This one stands out because of its bright yellow color. It also contains ultraviolet coloration, suggesting that they see in color spectrums beyond ours, or perhaps their predators do. To read more on nudibranchs, I'll just redirect you to my previous posts (there'll be more of these in the future, I think they're beautiful):

Finally, remember to vote for an animal for me to do next Wednesday.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


This Marine Mammal lives in the Arctic. I realized I hadn't done a whale, let alone much that lives up there. Plus I watched a Jacques Cousteau film last night.

As you can see, they're pretty magical looking creatures. Thought to be the basis of 'unicorns' their tusks are distinct among whales (and any other living thing, for that matter). It's actually a large tooth (think: elephant tusk). And on some occasions, narwhals will grow two horns. They travel in pods of 10-100. And they are closely related to beluga whales.

They've been used in myths, apothecaries, meat and decoration. Which means its threats from humans is pretty significant.

Its scientific name, Monodon monoceros means 'one tooth, one horn.' which reminds me of the One-Eyed One horned Flying Purple People Eater. Good movie. It was originally described by Carl Lennaeus, known for his taxonomical contributions to biology. He's known as the father of it, in fact, organizing names and categories. He wasn't very good, based on this one, I'd say. "nar" is old Norse for "corpse" and was apparently described as such because of its grey skin. And whal, that means whale of course. So, of all things that stood out, it was the grey skin? really?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vote for an animal.

Your first thought might be, "Rosh, these are not all the same animal, you can't trick me!" You're right, they're not.

But a one CAIT SMITH gave me a challenge that has racked my brain for weeks now. The challenge: Post the 'most boring, average animal ever.' And I think that's a nearly impossible task for me. So perhaps I can cop out and twist it a little bit? I've posted 4 animals, all of which many people call 'boring' or 'unexciting' or 'annoying.'
So in the comments, vote for which you think is the most boring, and in a week I'll post about the animal with the most votes and hopefully change your mind on whether or not its boring. I'll still try to think about an average animal, so don't worry, Cait, i haven't given up.

Your choices:
01. Rock Dove (Pigeon)
02. Horsefly
03. Grey Squirrel
04. Bullfrog

So. Take your vote. Sorry I'm not just posting a boring animal. I think if an animal is boring, we just don't know enough about it.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of snowball the dancing cockatoo:

(I had to fit this in somewhere!)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hispaniolan Solenodon.

If ever there was an animal that looked like a who from whoville, it'd be this one.
It's found, you guessed it, in Hispaniola (The island split by DR and Haiti). Though it is not closely related, it is sometimes described as a shrew because of its long and mobile nose.

Their defense is essentially a strong odor and a venomous bite -- one that even its own species is not immune to (most poisonous animals are immune to its own poison). They also scare easy, clumsily run around (they're nocturnal, so eyesight during the day isn't so fantastic), and threaten to bite.

Though they are one of the few native mammals left in the island, the landscape has changed so drastically with the arrival of people, that their adaptations can't protect them from predators (for example, an Asian mongoose). So their numbers are extremely low.

What's tricky is now that the landscape has changed, it's very difficult to find an argument to protect them from a conservation standpoint. There is the argument that there is an intrinsic and irreplaceable value in the natural world, but obviously not everyone agrees with that -- hence a current environmental catastrophe. Most endangered species can be tied to its ecology and suggest how the ecological landscape might change should a specific animal suddenly disappear. However, since there are so few of these solenodons left, and the landscape is totally different than when they were most prevalent, its hard to imagine that an ecosystem would go into even a mild chaos if they were extinct.

HOWEVER, we obviously are still learning a lot about ecosystem management, so it doesn't mean we should let them go extinct. They might play a more important role than we think, as the case may be for most animals in any ecosystem. Also, for me, it's like when people talk about people having to give up a local language or cultural identity on a level to conform to a larger movement. Sure, English might be the most practical language if everyone spoke it at this point, but it'd be depressing to wipe out peoples languages and rituals in the process. Such is the case with this. Its a part of the natural history on the island and losing it would be stripping the land of something that gives it individuality, even if we never find a functional value in them.

Sorry, there's my rant.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hibiscus Harlequin Bug.

Yes, the term 'bug' IS part of the name. Though many may not realize, bugs are a type of insect -- insects that have tubes instead of mouth parts. So some insects are not bugs. These are in the 'stink bug' category, since they emit a strong scent to repel predators. The bright colors also indicate that they smell / taste bad to potential predators. Because of this, there aren't a lot of predators. Wasps do the most damage to their population by taking eggs.

These bugs live in Hibiscus plants near mangroves forests. As you would guess, they drink nectar from hibiscus flowers. What's particularly unique is there is some level of maternal care -- they will lay eggs in a cluster, and guard the eggs until hatched.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Musk Ox.

Musk oxen are found around the artic regiosn of Canada, Greenland and US (Alaska). Though they are named oxen, they are more closely related to sheep and rams than to other ox species. One of the first things you notice is its hair. Man is that thing shaggy. When all is said and done, they typically weigh about 250 pounds -- not quite as much as you'd guess. That hair fools you. And keeps them warm. They travel in herds - male and female live together throughout the winter.

Then comes mating season (august). The males become instantly aggressive and compete the bulls fight off one another until one is left in a herd. The losers of these battles will join others who lost to form a herd of up to 10 to travel with in the tundra. And you don't want to mess with them. They are extremely aggressive and will charge anything, from birds to trees to small mammals. They also smell terrible (their 'musk'). This attracts females.

Another interesting thing about them is they, like elephants, form a ring around calves (See picture 3). They'll all face horns out to protect young from wolves, grizzly bears and polar bears. On the flip side, this makes them an easy target for humans and our stupid guns.

Picture 4 shows one molting, and Picture 2 just reminds me of something that would go on 'awkwardfamilyphoto.com'

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Grey Crowned Crane.

This bird can be found from pretty much Uganda to South Africa. It's not terribly uncommon, and it is the national bird of Uganda. They stand up to 3.3 feet tall and weigh about 8 lbs. I didn't really know about them until I went to E. Africa a few years ago -- these are some pictures I took.

There are a couple things striking about this bird:

1. It is one of only two crane species that roosts in trees. This is mainly so it doesn't fall prey to animals on the ground.

2. Its mating behavior. Cranes are known for its "Dance" which is essentially flapping its wings, jumping up and down, and bowing to the female. If done well, the female will mate.

This isn't a fantastic video, but from the first couple seconds, you get the idea:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thorny Devil.

This Australian lizard is named for, well, its thorns. When predators come, they'll dip their head down and show their horns (the devil part).

Its body is divided into ridges and can actually absorb water from any part of their body and then channel it to their mouth. A good thing for the desert, no?

Today's post is a simple one, so that's all I have for you today.
Back to work!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Giant Cuttlefish.

Let's start with the name. When hearing about this, sometimes people think 'cuddle.' But it's 'cuttle.' This supposedly derives from the Norwegian "koddi" meaning testicle. The literal described shape of these things. And fish.... they are not fish. They are molluscs (Squid, Octopus, Nautilus), as you probably guessed.

There are all sorts of cuttlefish all over the world, but this one in particular lives in Australia and its mantle grows to be about 20 inches long.

As you can see, this species can take different shapes, colors and textures. What's even cooler, is that they can all change colors and textures, its not just a variety of traits and one is born one way and one is born another. They has also have a striking ability to display color patterns for both mating and defending territory.

Another thing that makes the cuttlefish unique is its eyes. Thought to be some of the best developed eyes of any invertebrate, these creatures, these creatures develop full eyesight while still in the egg. To the point that it is thought that prey that it sees while IN the egg are the prey they prefer for the rest of their life. Even stranger, it is thought that their eyes developed completely independent of the evolution of human or other vertebrate eyes -- meaning convergent evolution led to the development of eyes more than one time.

To blow your mind, I HIGHLY recommend watching this. If that's too long for you to watch at work, here's another video:

Monday, June 8, 2009

African Elephants. Part 02: Parades, Enemies, Battles and Friendships.

To finish the post on African elephants, here's part 2. Unlike the last post, this one will cover several elephant issues and facts.

Let's start with the basics; gestation period (time pregnant) is 22 months -- useful trivia information, you'd be surprised how often that comes up. They are typically about 12 feet tall, and weight a ton. Well, 6 tons for males, and 5 1/2 for females (12,000 lbs and 11,000 lbs respectively). Their tusks are actually large teeth and yes, the trunk is its nose and no, it doesn't drink water through it. It sucks up water then sprays it in its mouth. The pictures came up a little out of order, but as you can see from the 3rd picture, they're standing in front of a car we were using (a large land rover) and it looks puny in comparison to the elephants.

Herds. Sometimes called "Parades" are built around a matriarch and contains several families -- the size varies throughout the year and depends on season and availability of resources like food and water. Sometimes they are as small as 5 or 10 elephants, but regularly can be 40 or 50, and occasionally upwards of 100. The matriarchal elephant is one of the most powerful animals that roam the plains. In most cases, no predator would dare mess with her, with a backing of dozens and dozens of other elephants. The herds are made of the adult females and their offspring up to juveniles (adult males leave the group). Though they are social groups, they primarily serve as defense and care of young. Infants are vulnerable alone and need several to intimidate predators. In most situations, the adults will surround all the young in a circle and face the predators, scaring them off. Also, the mothers provide warmth by surrounding young, preventing them from getting pneumonia as easily in cold nights. Males wander (picture 1) and basically tend to themselves. They'll interact for mating, but otherwise are independent and must find food and water alone while continually defending itself.

Picture 4 is of 2 males 'tusking' which is sort of an informal, symbolic fight. Perhaps for practice, perhaps to impress females, but they'll ram each other and tangle trunks in each others faces while jousting with their tusks.

Interactions with humans. There are lots of things I could talk about here but I'll keep it minimal. Long story short, elephants are relatively ok around people, unless they feel threatened. And with fewer resources for them to get because of development and increased droughts, they often feel more threatened in close quarters. So the relationship is becoming strained. The EU built several wells along migratino paths to try to build corridors for elephants, allowing development to occur out of the way of elephants so both could live without getting in each others way. Currently, when an elephant is speared, the other elephants of a herd pester villagers and sometimes trample homes or kill people (see picture 5). When this happens, people retaliate by killing another elephants. It keeps aggrevating people, and makes elephants more defensive and aggresive. So don't go killing one or be around people who have.

Some notes on seeing elephants in the wild:
It's ok to be near them in a car, as long as you aren't loud or in their face. If you get relatively close in a car, they'll sniff around, investigate, and carry on. If you listen to music, they pick up on low frequencies and react, sometimes violently. Maybe they associate low frequencies with threats. So don't do that. Sometimes they'll feel threatened, but they give you several warnings before charging your car. 1: they'll stare at you for a while. 2: they'll flap their ears and call sounds. 3: They'll walk up to you, within feet and flap ears. 4. back up, and sometime charge and stop near the car. 5. They'll charge you. So if they start doing a couple of the first ones, just peacefully leave. If they come up close to you, don't move. If they see movement, they might feel more threatened. I made the mistake of moving once. It was not a fun experience. Whoops!

Finally, how to make friends. If you're near elephants, sometimes they'll approach you. Not in defense, but out of curiousity. You'll know this because they'll smell for a while, then calmly walk to the car. They'll sometimes stick their trunk in the car, and feel around. If they touch you, it's ok. If their trunk is there for a few seconds, take its trunk and blow into it. It might seem stupid or scary, but they know scents well, and that's how it'll remember you. They'll remember you for about 6 years, in fact. It's true, elephants do have fantastic memory. If you swat it away, it won't be happy. It's like extending a hand for a handshake, and them slapping it away instead of shaking it. That's just rude. So either blow into it, or sit still. If you choose the former, assuming you don't piss it off by taunting it, you'll be bff. or bff6y (best friends for 6 years).

Hope you like the pictures!