Friday, July 31, 2009

Pillar Coral.

I sort of arbitrarily picked this species of coral, just because I've never posted a coral. And they are probably among the most magnificent animal types that exist. Also, one of the most important for ecosystem health. People often forget they are animals, because they don't 'move.' They actually do -- they spawn, and on some occasion will extend tissue and eat other coral. Typically they just take in debris. They also have a polyp stage in life, similar to jellyfish. They attach to a surface eventually, and grow from there.

This specific species grows up to 8 feet tall and lives along the Atlantic coasts.
Perhaps most interesting about these (and other) corals is that they can produce sexually as well as asexually. They are also hermaphroditic. So they have both sperm and egg, and can also reproduce by just budding and creating a new coral pillar. Which is why they tend to cluster in large groups.

Unlike most animals, since corals form a geographical structure, they serve a function similar to that of trees in a forest -- they provide nooks for animals and homes for teaming wildlife. They also affect the amount of oxygen and carbon in the water, which is obviously important to any living creature around. And like plants, there are plentiful examples of fish that associate with specific types of coral, both in coloration and in behavior (think: bees or flowers and orchids). They also provide color - a visual masterpiece that compels us to love the seas.

Here's a video to help you learn more about coral reproduction:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dwarf Mongoose.

Typically between 18 and 25 cm long, these are Africa's smallest carnivores. They takeover large termite mounds and dig larger exit holes -- so you know when they're around. They live in groups of up to 30 individuals, and are headed by a dominant couple, and specifically, a dominant female. This female makes decisions of when to move, when to defend territory, and when to feed.

They have a mutualistic relationship with hornbills for hunting. They'll hunt at the same time -- though they might eat slightly different things, they each observe each other for signals of birds of prey (eagles, hawks, etc), since both must avoid them.

They're pretty common, and you'll likely see them scurry frantically if you ever are camping in sub-saharan Africa.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Emerald Tree Boa.

I've never posted about snakes, so I thought why not. This S. American boa is relatively common, but I think demonstrates the structure of a snake well. If you can get over your fear of them, it's a pretty elegant animal. They are distinctive for their positioning -- they rest on branches in the form seen in picture 2, and at night sit on low branches so it can attack small mammals by just reaching down and grabbing with its teeth. For a venomous snake, it has the largest proportioned teeth.

Depending on where in the continent they are, they have different features -- sometimes slightly different designs, different lengths (the longest are around 6 ft.) and slightly different colors. The last picture is actually of a juvenile -- they're born red and slowly turn green as it matures. Why? Perhaps because red is a color that predators avoid -- and as a baby, perhaps they are less coordinated and can be easily spotted, so this might keep others away. When older, it can move smoother and can easily blend in, thus having camouflage rather than warning signs. It's easier for hunting.

The juveniles eat glass frogs primarily, and for some reason change their diet to largely mammals later. Adults eat very rarely. Since their digestive system is so slow, it can be months between one meal and the next.

The last thing about that stands out is their reproductive system, which is actually similar to whale sharks. They are ovoviviparous, meaning the eggs are within the body and are hatched before leaving the mother's body, leaving as a live birth. This is unusual for a snake -- perhaps a development that came as the snake lived almost exclusively in trees -- the eggs are mobile this way and aren't easily crushed from a fall.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Satin Bowerbird.

There is a lot to say about bowerbirds. These Australian birds have perhaps the most complicated courtship ritual of any bird species. If new to you, it might also call into question your conception of art and creativity in humans.

Bowerbirds (male = picture 1, female = picture 2) build bowers (picture 3). Well, just the males do. Bowers are structures made from sticks, flower stems, rope... whatever is around. These structures form either dens or u-shape structures, and are not actually nests. Their only purpose is for mating displays. While most birds use feathers, calls and dances to attract females, this one adds an extra layer; design. Each species of bowerbird forms different shapes, but each individual designs their bower differently. They find objects from their surroundings (or steal them from other bowers) to decorate their bower. This can be by texture, color, shapes, you name it. And are arranged carefully to the point that it looks intentional. An individual's design might attract an individual type of female.

What's even more peculiar is that the females visit the bowers before seeing the males. They choose which they prefer, then later comes to the site when it is further to completion -- some decisions about the mate have been made entirely on the bower. Then the female returns when the male does calls, displays, etc. It is thought that this bird is especially unique because its physical attributes may be negated by its creations. So if it has bad feathers, it might be able to make up for that by having an exceptional display, or a refined call. Other birds can't do that -- they've just got to flaunt what they've got.

But why wouldn't the female use color to assess its mate? That seems to be the case in other bird species, and it can be telling of a birds health. In this case, the creativity in a bower might suggest its ability to acquire goods and hold territory better than other males; a valuable ability for sure.

The bower's functionality itself is still not entirely clear. The satin bowerbird's structure is somewhat understandable, in that it is essentially a contraption... during copulation, a female walking through the bower might not be able to fly away, since its wings cannot spread. This isn't the case for all bowerbirds though. And before you think this forced copulation seems aggressive, keep in mind that the female has chosen an individual based on the bower long before visiting the site and sometimes visits multiple times to hear its call and watch his display as well. So it seems the female has to let copulation occur -- maybe the structure is a remnant of a behavior its ancestor had when perhaps forced copulation was the norm? Who knows.

So why does this call into question our sense of art and creativity?
We often think most animals work mechanically, with the exception of us. They just "do" things and don't think about it. There's no control over its actions.

This might still be the case with this bird -- it might be a natural preference and each bird might have a gene that makes it get one color over another, or one shape over another. But the point is each is different and each artful display holds no functional value other than impressing the other sex (the fruits, flowers, seeds, shells, etc are never used for feeding, protection or health). Though we don't label our art quite so directly, when we do similar things, we say it's not to attract others (because that's what's favorable to others) and we say it comes from creativity that involves individuals thought. And we convince ourselves of this.

It's not to say we don't have individual preferences that require thought or creativity, but how are we any different than this species in that regard? Either our creativity is innate for validation or attraction or these birds have significantly more thought than we would like to think and don't give them credit. When we study other animals, it seems obvious that it's the first option and it seems like we just say that can't be the case for us because it makes us feel better and... uh-oh.... validate our creativity.

Regardless of your thoughts, it's an incredible display and I personally think it applies to people very well.

Here's a video feature the wonderful David Attenborough:

Spanish Moon Moth.

This moth, native to Spain and France looks like it came straight from a fairy-tail. For some reason, moth's don't get much credit, but butterflies do. It seems strange -- I guess most common butterflies seem more colorful than common moths for most people.

These live in almost exclusively in pine trees, and come in white and green forms. The thin lines and their color make it difficult for predators (birds) to find them, since they are surroundd by thin pine needles. And like other moths and butterflies, it has eyespots on its wings, so even if it is spotted, many animals would be scared of it, thinking it is an animal much more fierce and large than it actually is.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Whale Shark.

This wonderful giants are the largest of all living fish (it's not a whale). This shark is named so almost entirely based on its size. They can grow up to about 40 ft. and can weigh up to 15 tons (30,000 lbs!) and like elephants, they can live up to 60 - 70 years (reports estimate some might be over 100). Impressive, no?

Around the world, there are different names for them, most based on shapes on its back... in Kenya the story is someone threw shillings on its back, in other places the name literally means 'starts on its back' but my alltime favorite: "Ca Ong"... Vietnamese for "sir fish."

Their life cycle is also interesting. Typically, you hear there are 3 birthing classifications of animals... monotreme (they lay eggs), marsupial (pouch... animals are born premature) and embryonic (matured by mothers nourishment in womb). Whale sharks have something similar to the first and last of these types. They are ovoviviparious... meaning they have eggs, but they remain in the body, are hatched and followed by a live birth. This is different than embryonic because they are nourished through yolk in a closed egg, versus being nourished through tubes connected to the mother. They can give birth to up to 300 pups (yes, shark babies are called pups).

As large as they are, they are known for being gentle. The only injuries they have ever incurred on people are from accidental hits from its tail fin. In fact, they're normally playful with divers.
The other similarity they have to whales is their feeding -- they are a type of filter feeding shark (only 3 species in the world), meaning they eat krill, phytoplankton and occasionally small squid or vertebrates. Apparently when things bigger than that are caught and line the filter, they have been seen to 'cough' as a mechanism to clean the filter. A shark coughing is a funny image. They also swim really slowly... average top speed: 3.1 mph. They have quite a lot of weight to move, so I guess that's fair.

You can find them all over the world in the tropics.... Carribean, India, Africa, Japan, Hawaii, you name it. And they come relatively close to the shore, so if you are a diver, you can see them somewhat often if you are looking specifically for them.

There are a few places you can see them in aquariums... Japan, Taiwan, and the Georgia Aquarium.

Here's a wonderfully relaxing video from Okinawa aquarium in Japan (featuring other fish, too):

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lychee Stink Bug.

Actually this 'stink bug' is not related to most stink and shield bugs, it's in a different family. But they have the same function, and resemble the others in shape. Like the others, if agitated, with release a pungent secretion (sounds gross, doesn't it?) to fend off predators and perhaps even trick a couple that its dead. And if you've been following my blog, you'll know that not all insects are bugs -- bugs are a specific type of insect. And this one is correctly named and is actually a bug.

Their colors are striking and are mostly to blend in with flora in the area (they can be found in Thailand). It is also used to trick birds into thinking their are poisonous. Not many terrestrial living things have blue colors (outside of birds) and red is typically a sign of poison of sorts (think: poison dart frogs). The first image is of a nymph (immature) and the second is matured -- the additional section of the bug is actually its wing case -- nymphs are flightless.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Calliostoma javanicum.

To be honest, I don't know much about them. I wasn't able to find a common name (it may not have one), but it is a sea snail hailing from C. America. But I do really lik their shells -- it's one of those things that seems like if a child drew it, you'd think, 'oh that's really organized, not likely to be found in the real waters.' But as you know now, you'd be wrong.

One thing worth noting, generally, about animals that build shells, is that studies in biomimicry turn to these types of animals to try to solve human problems. For example, each species precisely places calcium particles to build its shell, and understanding the chemical process could be helpful in cleaning large pipelines. If certain chemicals, for example, can build certain contained structures of calcium buildup, people can save millions of dollars a year in not needing to maintain pipes as often as they do today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Indian Peafowl.

You probably know them as 'peacocks.' Which would be halfway right... they're actually peafowls... peacocks are just the male counterpart (when you think about it, it makes sense). And the female is called, you guessed it, a peahen.

Before I get to anything else, I'd like to point out that oddly, this is one of the few national birds that is sex-specific. India specifically has the peacock as the bird, not the peafowl. So the national bird isn't even the full species. Strange. Perhaps because the peahen is not quit so pleasant on the eyes (picture 2), at least in comparison to the peacock (picture 1).

So on to the bird. It's obvious why everyone can recognize one -- they're large, showy and have beautiful colors. Which all fits into the the insight they offer to evolutionary theory. Why would a bird need to be that colorful and over-the-top? The ladies are choosy. It may seem like an abritrary guideline to pick based on looks, but its very telling about the mate. The larger the feathers, the more vulnerable the peacock is to predators and the harder it is for them to mobilize. So if one can survive to adulthood with larger and more colorful feathers than another, this means that its able to compensate for its handicaps, or else it wouldn't be alive. It can also tell a female how healthy a male is -- unhealthy males will have dull colors. It should be noted that their feathers are irredescent, meaning they reflect diffferent colors based on lighting, which is pretty awesome.

What I find most fascinating is the relationship between the display and its immune system. Its very relatable to human behaviors:

The larger feathers, stronger colors and more active displays all require more testosterone than one without those attributes. More testosterone = weaker immune system. So how is this good? Like surviving against predators, it signifies to the female that though it weakens their immune system, their baseline health is better than others, or else the weaker immune system would weaken its chance of survival or their ability to compete. One with less testosterone doing the same display might have duller colors or die before maturity.

So the lesson is: looks do matter. Though it seems superficial, animals prefer certain looks over another because certain looks are associated with better health, better ability to hunt or provide for offspring, or any other set of criteria. Appearance is the culimination of all these things. Which explains why we as people tend to be largely attracted to the same types of features -- they might provide insight into their health or ability to provide, even if we don't conscientiously think about it in those terms. And no, I'm not saying we should use looks to base relationships because I think we define 'success' for ourselves and offspring as something else. And we have medical assistance to counter health problems, so it may not always necessarily be the most important to find someone who is naturally as healthy since we all depend on medical developments to counter shortcomings.

This is me rambling a little bit, but I think it's a good demonstration of the types of decisions people make and is a nice reminder of how we are animals and not in a totally separate set of rules. People who spend more money on cars, houses or whatever are telling others they can spend their money while still being able to have enough to provide for whoever it is they are trying to attract. A honda and a ferrari have the same function but one tells you more about the types of resources they have to 'waste.' I'm not saying its shallow or inappropriate. In fact I think I'm saying that there is evolutionary logic in explaining that behavior and that it's the same as we see in other animals, like peafowls.

Oh yea, and they have really annoying screams, so if you're ever in a place where there are a lot of peacocks, prepare to not sleep, they wine all night.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nomura's jellyfish.

This Jellyfish, living near the coasts of China and Japan, is tied to be the largest species of jellyfish (the other is the Lion's Mane Jellyfish). They can grow up to 2 meters across its diameter and can weigh up to 450 lbs. Crazy.

To my knowledge, they sting but are not known to be deadly stings. Perhaps the threat is the fact that they travel in swarms (see picture 1). Currently, these swarms are presenting a problem to Japanese fishermen, as they are expecting their 3rd large swarm of jellyfish in 4 years. This is a problem not because they are some sort of terrifying predator, but they ruin catches. Their weight and quantity break nets, allowing large catches to escape -- considering these nets can be up to 100 meters wide. So people intentionally try to catch and kill them to lower their population, but here comes their genius defense system:

Like all living things, the biological 'success' is to have offspring -- this jellyfish achieves this by releasing millions of sperm and eggs whenever it is attacked. Since they travel in swarms, that means their sperm and egg will likely meet other individual's sperm and egg. So while it in essence doesn't 'defend' itself, in the grand scheme of things, it does. If one wants to attack it, it will have more to deal with, hence not really being able to defeat the numbers. In the case of the fishermen, when they try to kill off jellyfish, they just form new polyps that will later return in larger numbers.

But the question remains, why are there so many suddenly showing to begin with? Here comes the catch-22 (this works as a pun, since it deals with catches): Overfishing. When people catch too many fish in an area, the ecosystem obviously will change a little bit (at the very least). Combine this with people killing sea turtles, and you have a jellyfish dilemma. The reduced number of fish means fewer fish are eating these jellyfish and their polyps, therefore actually managing the population (the polyps cannot defend themselves by dropping sperm and eggs as they are not fully developed). Turtles also eat the jellyfish farther out in the ocean, meaning that the polyps tend to stay away from the shores. However, since the swarms drift closer to shore since there is nothing killing them, we get large numbers of mature jellyfish and hence larger numbers of offspring.

So, while we don't want people to stop having an income (this is village fishing, not large industrial ships) so they can take care of their family, slowing down would help them maintain a fish population and will be able to catch more fish since fewer swarms of jellyfish will ruin their ventures. But it's difficult to expect struggling people to see this as a long-term issue when those who are doing well are struggling to do the same.

Here is a video from of a turtle feasting on one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Small-Spotted Genet.

This cat of Africa and now most of Western Europe is a wonderful one. Though common, they are hard to spot because they are nocturnal and elusive. They'll eat birds, small mammals, etc. and does this best at night, when few animals will be able to chase them.

This cat is unusual in that it retains an ancient feature -- an elongated nose. Most cats have flatter faces or broader noses, and this is thought to be a remnant of ancestral species. The top picture is from my last trip to Kenya, and he would sit in this tree all day. Which turned out to be a great teaching tool to the students. They could see him everyday, and while practicing photography skills, they were able to understand how to focus and the difference it makes (seeing as he would hide himself deep behind the branches). So, to you, genet, thank you.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Black Skimmer.

Black Skimmers can be found all along the Americas. They breed in the northern hemisphere, and migrate down to the south during fall and winter.

As you can guess from the pictures, I would hope, they are named for their behavior of skimming for fish. They have a large lower mandible (see last picture) that drags in the water. When it hits something, it flinches its neck down and closes its beak, hoping to catch something.

What's nice about it is, from an observation perspective, a lot of animals are hard to see performing certain behaviors. These, however, are pretty much seen always doing this, so it's fun to watch.

If you ever get a chance, take a boat out on the Atlantic coast of the Eastern Shore and watch them go to town.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Giraffes are divided into several subspecies because of their variety in geographic locations; Somali giraffs, Maasai Giraffes, Rothchild's etc. all live in distinct locations and rarely interact. You can easily tell them apart by spot color (some are darker than others) and the shape of their spots (some are large and round, others are small and jagged).

They stand as the world's tallest land animal and can grow to about 17 or 18 ft. tall.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of giraffes is their personality (realize the base 'person' so please don't equate this to how they actually feel or act) is similar to that represented in the movie Madagascar -- terrified and jumpy. When hiking, I would sometimes spot a giraffe in the distance, easily at least a mile away, sticking out above the trees. When spotted, the giraffe would stand still and wait, having a look as if it hadn't been spotted. If you then move, even a little bit, though you are a mile away, it'll sprint away. It's pretty amusing.

Wasp-Mimicking Tiger Moth.

So I don't really know much about these moths, but I'm always a sucker for mimicry. These Panamanian moth obviously takes the form of a wasp, which tricks other species that has the power to sting (though it doesn't). Since moths are a just a stage of life lasting no more than a couple weeks, and its only purpose is to mate, it is important that those couple weeks are well-spent. They do not have mouths, so this doesn't help them get food (moths do not eat), they just use this to not get instantly eaten by birds and can last long enough to mate.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Superb Lyre Bird.

This bird is one of the largest known passerine birds (songbirds) on the planet. And these native Australian birds are easily the champions of this avian category. While all birds have unique calls, this one goes above and beyond. Like a mockingbird, it can perform calls of other birds it might hear over the course of its lifetime. What's so unique about the lyre bird is that they mimic almost any sound it hears, not just birds. The larger the repertoire, the more impressive it is to a female. It's also telling of its lifetime experience, which is interesting from a research perspective. From its calls, you can tell how much interaction they've had with humans -- for example, they'll pick up sounds of bulldozers, chainsaws, cameras, car horns, you name it.

They are called "Lyre" birds because of their tail feather structure -- the ends curl out and form the shape of a musical lyre.

It also has awesome tailfeathers to shake around to impress the ladies.

Here's a video, featuring the one and only, David Attenborough.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

taking a break.

With my brother's wedding this weekend, I'll be taking a break on this blog for the rest of the week. In the meantime, enjoy this pod of California seals!

See you monday!