Monday, May 31, 2010

Canada Lynx

The Canada Lynx (Lynx canadesis) is the only wild cat found in Alaska. This initially surprised me, since I assumed Mountain Lions made it up there as well, but their range stops just south of the state. This leaves the 20lb Lynx as Alaska's top (and only) feline predator. They are very elusive animals and avoid human contact. Seeing one in the wild is a rare treat!

Image from Center for Native Ecosystems
Lynx are primarily nocturnal, and dwell only in forested areas, where their prey is abundant and where they can build their dens. Like many feline species, Lynx are solitary creatures. They travel and hunt alone, and come together during the March-April mating season. Young Lynx (kittens!) remain with their mother for a year, learning how to hunt. Lynx have exceptional adaptations -long legs, huge paws- for hunting snowshoe hare, which makes up most of their diet. The Lynx and the Hare populations are closely linked. Every ten years the Hare population peaks, and the number of Lynx also rises. The same is true for population decreases. There is concern that global warming will have a huge negative impact on this predator/prey relationship. As less snow falls, the snow on the ground is prone to freezing. This creates a hunting climate unfavorable to Lynx, who use their large paws to hunt in deep, soft snow and gain the predatory advantage over other hunters such as coyotes.

Canada Lynx are listed as threatened in the lower 48 states according to the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set up a recovery plan for the species, which includes designating recovery zones. However, according to the IUCN Red List, Canada Lynx are of least concern, as their populations in Canada (except New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) and Alaska are still quite abundant. Lynx can be legally hunted in various areas of Alaska.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Let's start off Alaska Week (which is now starting to look like Alaska Week-and-a-half based on all the suggestions I've been getting) with a Bird! The lovely bird that is one of our Alaska Week logo mascots- the Ptarmigan. Now, there are actually three species of Ptarmigan that share the genus Lagopus, which in turn shares its taxonomic family with grouses. The three species are the Willow Grouse (also known as the Willow Ptarmigan), the Rock Ptarmigan (which is often just called Ptarmigan), and the White-Tail Ptarmigan, which thankfully only as one common name. From here on out here I'm just going to refer to them as Willow, Rock and White-Tail.

All three species inhabit Alaska, with the Willow found pretty much everywhere, the Rock living everywhere but the flat tundras near the Western and Northern coats, and the White-Tail inhabiting the rocky uplands. When all three species live in a close area, the Willows live at the lowest altitudes, the Ricks take the middle slopes, and the White-Tails inhabit the higher ridges.

They like to hide around rocks and bushes, and though they are able to fly, they prefer to walk around. Their nests are on the ground, and they lay eggs in clutches of 4-7 in the summer. In Autumn and Winter they become nomadic, moving from place to place for shelter. In spring massive flocks can be found moving back to their breeding grounds.
Ptarmigan have two different colorations depending on the time of year. In winter they are entirely white, and in summer they are brown with white flecks. These colors help to camouflage them with their ground surroundings. Unfortunately their coloration is not uncommon in the rest of the arctic world, as some of their major predators, including owls and foxes, also change color seasonally. This helps them to hide from their prey.

The Willow Ptarmigan is the State Bird of Alaska!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Przewalski's Horse

The Przewalski's Horse was extinct in the wild for over 30 years. Also known as the Asian Wild Horse and Mongolian Wild Horse, it is a true wild horse, the only one left after the complete extinction of the Tarpan over 100 years ago. Other seemingly "wild" horses, like the North American mustangs and Australian brumby, are feral populations. This means they descend from domesticated individuals. The Przewalski's horse is completely untouched by human domestication, and even posess two more chromosomes in their genetic makeup than domesticated horses.

Przewalski horses have short, stocky bodies and large heads. They stand about 13 hands (hand = 4 inches) at the shoulder and weigh between 550 and 750lbs. They are characterized by their brownish dun bodies and white underbellies, with dark muzzles and tails and a short, upright mane with no forlock (forehead hair). Visually they appear similar to the horses depicted on the walls of the Lascaux Caves which are around 17,000 years old.

Images from the Smithsonian
The horses went extinct in the wild due to interbreeding, hunting, and loss of habitat. There are now roughly 1,500 captive Przewalski Horses in the world, with cooperative breeding programs that work to manage the most genetic diversity possible, as all of the current living horses actually descend from about 15-20 individuals.They are one of 115 species that have ongoing Species Survival Plans under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Reintroduction efforts have been ongoing for the past 20 years, with successful herds now appearing in Mongolia and China. Captive herds are also thriving, with one of the largest interestingly being kept in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where wildlife reintroduction has been doing exceptionally well. Another captive herd, kept at the Calgary Zoo's Devonian Wildlife Conservation Center, recently welcomed three new foals to the group. (And they are currently running a contest to name them)

Friday, May 28, 2010

One Whole Month!

It's been an entire month since Animal A Day began... which probably doesn't seem like a whole lot, but hey, something to celebrate! Thanks to everyone who has been giving great comments and suggestions, it has been a huge help :)

Next week we'll be doing our first theme in honor of this (sort of) momentous achievement, so stop back on Sunday and check out Animals of Alaska!

Angora Rabbit

Angora is not simply one breed of domestic rabbit, it is many. French, English, Giant and Satin are all recognized by the American Rabbit Breeder's Association and are bred for the fine hair that they produce. A 5th breed, the German Angora, is recognized in other places, and was bred specifically to create a high yield, high density wool that could be harvested commercially. 

The English Angora is the one most commonly kept as a pet, and is the smallest of the breeds. It is characterized by large tufts of fur on the entire face save the nose, which is a trait that is more of less unique to that breed. Facial trimmings, as they are called, are found in other breeds, but not to the extent as in the English.

The history of the Angora Rabbit dates back to the 18th century, when it was believed to be imported to France from Turkey. (Ankara, the capital of Turkey, was called Angora from 1073 until 1930. This also the origin of Angora Cats and Goats) The rabbits appeared in the encyclopedia in France for the first time in 1765, and the French were the first to really capitalize on the rabbits commercially. Angoras soon became prized for their lovely hairs which can be easily harvested either with scissors, or by simply plucking out strands during their natural molting. Despite their long history in Europe, they didn't appear in the United States till the early 1900s.

All images from PlusPets
Unsurprisingly, Angora Rabbits require a lot of care and grooming to keep their coats in top condition. If you're up to that challenge, they do make very sweet and mellow pets, and are apparently pretty low cost to keep. (once you take out all of the grooming requirements) There are several sites out there about the care of these rabbits, as well as all kinds of information on their fibers and what you can do with it.

Thanks Austin for the suggestion!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Muscovy Duck

So ugly its cute? Or just plain ugly? Moscovy ducks (not actually from Moscow) are recognized by their signature bald faces and protruding caruncles (the bumpy looking things). The baldness and caruncle coverage is more pronounced in the males than in the females. Overall, Muscovy Ducks with smooth heads are frowned upon by the Standard of Perfection set forth by the American Poultry Association. Bumpy (well, uniform bumpiness) = Better.

No one is really sure why the Muscovy Duck was given its name, as its origins come from no where near Russia. It is also interestingly known as Barbary Duck... and it isn't from the Barbary Coast either. One thought on the name origin comes from the Muscovy Trading Company, which traded the birds, but even that is just a theory. Wild Muscovys actually come from South and Central America, and had already been domesticated for hundreds of years when first European contact was made. There are remaining wild flocks in their native habitat, but in their domesticated form, Muscovy ducks can be found all over the world. They have a strangely high tolerance to both heat and cold, despite coming from tropical climates. Unfortunately, feral populations can cause problems for the native species. In Florida for example, the ducks produce large quantities of dropping that damage the water supply, aggressively pester humans and other species, pass diseases on to the native, wild ducks, and interbreed with the other duck species, damaging the gene pool. In short, don't set your non-native ducks free in the wild!

From a farming and culinary standpoint Muscovy duck are popular because of their large size, beef-like tasting meat, and the fact that they are one of the few types of duck that don't quack. The males make a sort of hissing sound, while the females coo. Muscovy Ducks are also the only domesticated duck not descended from mallards! While we're on the topic of descendants, they are a really interesting example of how evolution is driving by reproductive habits. In short, females are able to select their mates, but if a male is rejected, they can basically force copulation with a female anyway, which is why the female duck anatomy has evolved to become a barrier against male advances... and why the males have subsequently evolved to get at the females, and back and forth.. I'll just let you read this article....

Thanks Hannah for the suggestion and the excellent pictures!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Red Footed Tortoise

Popular as pets, the Red Footed Tortoise originally hails from South America, where export permits are required to take them out of the individual countries. Most tortoises now found in captivity were captive bred. The Red Footed Tortoise is of least concern on the IUCN list.

Tortoises at the Lincoln Park Zoo
They are a medium sized species, growing up to 14 inches in length, though the males are typically longer and heavier than the females. Red Footed Tortoises are primarily herbivores, consuming grasses, fruits and mushrooms, though they will sometimes consume carrion. They are also attracted to red and yellow flowers.

Red Footed Tortoises are quite colorful... for a tortoise.  They have red, yellow and orange colorations on their legs and heads, and their shells range from brown to black with lighter patches. An interesting feature of their anatomy is that as they age, their top shells (known as carapaces) become slightly concave on the sides, giving them a "waist."

Tortoise courtships coincides with rainy weather. Their mating ritual involves a male tortoise approaching another tortoise, standing side by side with them, and then bobbing his head back and forth in a series of jerking motions. If the other tortoise is male, he will respond with similar motions, and perhaps some shoving around. If the other tortoise is female, however, she will do nothing, and mating might commence. Red Footed Tortoises are also very picky about head coloration, and may not breed with other individuals who do not match their desired colors.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Image from Wikimedia Commons
Male Topis are tricky little guys. According to some new findings reported by National Geographic, the males deliberately trick females into sticking around by issuing warning signals. The entire mating system is lek based, which I mentioned in the feature on Kakapo parrots. Males have a small section of land that they fight for a defend, and the females come and go throughout them to decide whom to mate with. If a female in heat appears to be wandering off, the male will begin to snort and stare and act as if a predator is near so that the female will want to stay by him. Tricky indeed!

So beyond that tomfoolery, what is a Topi? A Topi is a mid-sized antelope that lives in Savannah and floodplain areas of Africa. Females and their young live in small groups, while males are mostly solitary, though they sometimes form small bachelor herds when young. Migratory herds with members int he thousands are also seen. Topis consume grasses as their primary food source, can go for days without water, and can run at speeds of up to 44mph, making it one of the fastest mammals in the world!

Topis have several predators in the wild, including lions, leopards and hyenas. Young calves can also fall victim to smaller predators, including eagles!

The term Topi is actually a blanket term for a handful of subspecies of  Damaliscus korrigum. Korrigum is also a common name for one of the subspecies - Damaliscus korrigum korrigum.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cape Thick Knee

Continuing on with South African wildlife, (completely unintentional, really) we have the Cape or Spotted Thick Knee. These guys are one of the 9 members of the Burhinidae family, birds who are typically nocturnal insectivores who inhabit tropical and sometimes temperate zones. The Cape Thick Knee resides in southern areas of the African continent, including the South African Cape, with the "thick knee" part coming from, well... their thick knees.

These birds are sedentary, meaning that they do not normally migrate. As already stated, they eat all kinds of invertebrate species, but they will also make meals of small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and will also dine on the eggs and chicks of the White-Fronted Plover.The primary predators of Cape Thick Knees are other birds, such as eagles and owls. If a predator is after one of a Thick Knee's chicks, the chick will lie motionless while the adults will pretend to have a broken back or wings in order to draw attention away.
Cape Thick Knees are very monogamous birds. Not only do they stick to one breeding partner for a breeding season, they will stick with that partner for life.(Upon the death of one mate,the other will seek out a new one) Nests are just a scraping in the ground, through twigs and stones are sometimes used for lining. Each breeding pair may have multiple groups of young during the August to April breeding season. Both parents care for the chicks, and in years were multiple broods are laid, a older group of young will leave about ten days after the younger group hatches.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Green Protea Beetle

Image from Natural Solutions
The Green Protea Beetle is one of 30,000 members of the scarab beetle family which is distinguished by heavy-bodied oblong figures, and who feed primarily on plant materials (though the Dung Beetle  side has slightly different tastes). The Green Protea Beetle is the common named for Trichostetha fasicularis, a remarkable little pollinator. They reach about 25mm in length and have a smooth black and green topside, but what drew me to them was their underside. It is covered in little brownish hairs that are used to help propagate another species - the Protea plant... which is also its namesake. (And the namesake for both goes back to Mythology yet again)

There are actually numerous types of Protea plants spreading through Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. In the country of South Africa, especially around the cape, there are numerous species of Protea, which, like many plants, require outside help to pollinate. This is where the beetle comes in. Green Protea Beetles live exclusively in the South African cape areas, and feed on the nectar of the plants. When they land on them to feed, pollen gets dusted on to their fluffy looking bellies, which then gets carried to the next meal site and dusted off... only to get more pollen brushed on, etc. etc. Other species should also get major credit for Protea pollinating, but with as many as 2,000 beetles being found on one flower head, the Green Protea Beetles definitely make an impact.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


In North America they are called Moose, but in Europe they are referred to as the European Elk. Either way, Alces alces is one huge deer, the largest in the Cervidae (deer) family!

Adorable Moose from LA Times Article
On Tuesday, the LA Times posted a story about two adorable moose babies born at the Berlin Zoo, Hagen and Finn. Moose have an eight month gestation period, and the calves stay with their mother for roughly a year after birth, which is about the time she gives birth to her next offspring. Twins are very common in moose, and triplets can also occur as well. Calves weigh around 30lbs at birth, and as adults can hit 1,600lb as males, and 1,300 as females. These weights (and the fact that a bull can reach 7 feet tall at the shoulder) tie Moose for first place in the world's-largest-deer-ever contest. Their co-champion, the extinct Irish Elk, was of similar height and weight, though they sported antlers that were over 160 inches from tip to tip. The largest Moose recorded was about half that. Moose have antlers, not horns, which means that they do in fact lose and regrow them each year. Antler size reaches it peak by around age 10, and they rarely live longer than 16 years.

Image from Moose Learning Zone
Moose are, like all deer, are herbivores, and they feed mostly on branches. They have a handful of predators in the wild, specifically bears and wolves, who will take out both calves and adults alike. Cougars and Tigers will also hunt moose, as will Killer Whales, who wills sometimes snag moose who swim to coastal islands. Hunting seasons also exist for moose, as their habit for multiple offspring and their relatively frequent breeding cycles can cause fast overpopulation.

Oh, and don't make moose angry. They can easily harm each other during rutting season fights, and depending of the situation, can become pretty aggitated and charge humans... which entails kicking with their front feet. Did I mention they can run at about 35mph? They also really don't like dogs.

Edit: My parents, who are currently on vacation in Alaska, insisted that I add the following information: Moose are actually more dangerous to humans than bears, AND if you think you are going to hit a moose with your car, don't slow down. If you hit it fast it will roll right over the car, but if you slow down, you get upwards of 1,500lbs going right through your windshield.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Did you know that a cuttlefish is not actually a fish? It's a mollusk! They are actually more closely related to snails then they are to fish. Like squids, octopi, and nauteluses, the cuttlefish is a cephalopod. Members of class cephalopoda have been dated back 500 million years!

There are currently 120 species of cuttlefish recognized, all of which live in shallow tropical and temperate waters around Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. Cuttlefish have a pretty interesting mechanism built in to their bodies: the cuttlebone. Made primarily of aragonite, these structures act as buoyancy mechanisms, enabling the cuttlefish to float at a steady, desirable level. The existence of this bone is also what prevents the cuttlefish from surviving at deep depths, as they will implode when there is too much pressure. Cuttlebones are very rich in calcium, and are often given to caged pets like parakeets and reptiles as supplements.

Cuttlefish have the ability to change their skin color in order to blend in with their surroundings. They do this with help from three special types of skin cells: chromatophores, iridophores, and leucophores, all of which reflect light in different ways to cause the camouflaged effect. With their stealthy camouflage in place they are  able to ambush their prey, which is caught using their eight arms and two tentacles, all of which possess a pad at the end which is covered in powerful suckers.Their diets consist of fish, crustaceans, and even other cuttlefish. They also make use of their color changing skills in mating displays and to hide from predators. Cuttlefish have one of the largest body size to brain ratios among invertebrates, and are considered to be one of the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Their cleverness and thinking skills are pretty astounding when you realize that many of their mollusk relatives don't even possess brains!

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Meet the world's heaviest, rarest, longest-lived parrot - the Kakapo. Found on only a few small islands off the coast of New Zealand, (sounds familiar?!?) they also have the distinction of being nocturnal and flightless. Oh, and there are only 123 of them alive. One hundred and twenty three. Because of their rarity and unique traits, an extensive conservation program has been underway. One of the major efforts of the program was to actually relocate the birds to those aforementioned small islands, because they were being preyed upon by feral cats and mustelids on the South Island (they went extinct on North Island by the 1920s)

Image from Kakapo Recovery Programme
Kakapo are pretty unique birds, though they are herbivores like most other parrots. Besides the natural, heavy and flightless traits, they are also the only flightless bird to take part in a lek mating system. The system entails a group of males coming together on high ridges and hilltops, with each males having its own bowl-shaped court. From that area, they will emit low sonic booms using an air sac in their chests that can carry up to 5km away. They will continue to produce these sounds for up to eight strait hours, sometimes emitting over 1000 in one night, and females will find them and mate with them. Male Kakapo do not in any way assist with chick rearing. After mating, they stay in their little bowls, booming and waiting for the next female to come along.

Because they cannot fly, Kakapo must find other ways to get around. They are excellent climbers, and can use their wings to slow them down when jumping. Another interesting tidbit is the fact that Kakapo may be the longest lived birds in existence. It is estimated they can live up to 90 years, though no one is sure. Since the recovery programs were begun in the 1980s, not a single bird discovered has died from old age, and many were already adults when they were found. They have very slow lifestyles; females don't start breeding till the age of six and chicks are only produced every few years.

The Kakapo Recovery Programme has been working to breed and sustain the existing population. They have spent years tracking down the remaining Kakapo and monitoring their activities. Because of the low numbers, inbreeding has been an issue and has caused high percentages of infertile eggs. The KRP has been doing genetic testing to maximize genetic diversity, and they have also been working with artificial insemination to increase the fertility of females (who tend to lay fertilized eggs more successfully if they mate more than once).

This is the best YouTube Video ever.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crocodile Monitor

New Guinea is an island of roughly 300,000 square miles, while the total surface area of the planet is about 57,000,000. That means New Guinea constitutes less than 1% of all the land on Earth, yet the island is home to nearly 10% of the planet's vertebrate species. Yesterday, new agencies around the world were abuzz with images of new species discovered in the Foja Mountains of New Guinea. These new creatures include the world's smallest wallaby, a black and white butterfly, a giant, woolly rat, and a long nose frog. While I would love to cover some of these fascinating new creatures, there simply isn't enough material out there yet, so instead I'm going to cover another one of New Guinea's interesting species, the Salvadori's or Crocodile Monitor.

Image from BioLib
When you think about huge lizards, you normally think of the Komodo Dragon, right? Well, the Crocodile Monitor and the Komodo share the same genus, Varanus, and can grow to very similar lengths. The largest recorded Croc was 12 feet long, though there have been unconfirmed rumors of individuals reaching growing even larger. Their tail can make up an disproportionate amount of their entire body length compared to other lizards. They definitely have the length of a Komodo, but they don't have the weight, as they reach only about 200lbs. Komodo Dragons can reach twice that number. 

Crocodile Monitors inhabit coastal areas of New Guinea, including swamps, mangroves and coastal rain forests. Sporting smooth scales colored black with white and yellow spots, they also have long sharp teeth which they use to hold on to its prey while climbing up and down trees. The Crocodile Monitor eats mostly small animals - birds, other reptiles, and rats. They are also quite fond of carrion. They also have an adaptation found in all monitors that allows them to breathe easier when running as compared to other lizard types. 

Crocodiles are not an endangered species, though their habitats have been threatened by deforestation, and their numbers have been jeopardized by hunting and collecting as pets.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ethiopian Wolf

Despite looking quite foxy, the Ethiopian Wolf (or Abyssinian Wolf, Abyssinian Fox, Ethiopian Jackal, etc) is actually.. A wolf. Canus simensis in fact. They are endemic to only a few small mountainous pockets in Ethiopia. This canine has become seriously endangered with the rise of high altitude agriculture, which brings with it humans and domestic dogs, which compete for food and carry disease. 
Image from the EWCP

The disease issue has been especially troubling in recent years, with 90 wolves dying of rabies in 2003, and 40 dying to distemper in 2008. Another rabies outbreak also hit in 2008. Vaccination campaigns have been underway in order to save the species, which numbers only around 500 individuals. This is especially alarming when one finds out that not only have these wolves never been bred in captivity, but there don't seem to be any in captivity in the first place. Those 500-ish wolves are the only ones we've got.

Ethipian wolves differ in many ways from their Grey and Red Wolf cousins. First off, they are much, much smaller. This is one of the reasons why they were for so long considered to be a fox or jackel. Where Grey Wolves can easily weight upwards of 80lbs, with red wolves a bit smaller, Ethiopian wolves rarely exceed 45lbs. They also differ in their diets and hunting techniques. Where Grey Wolves work cooperatively to take down large prey, the Ethiopian Wolf hunts alone, feeding of a diet that is over 95% small rodent. (Red Wolves also hunt alone, but cooperation has also been documented) They have been limited to such small meals because there are simply no large prey animals to be found in their high altitude habitat.

The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme is working hard to protect this species by educating the locals, providing the aforementioned vaccinations, monitoring the number of individuals, preventing inbreeding with the domestic dog populations, and protecting their natural habitat. 

Monday, May 17, 2010


Pronounced Axe-oh-lot-ul, this salamander is native to only one small are of Mexico, Lake Xochimilco. Axolotl's differentiate themselves from other salamanders in that they retain their tadpole-like characteristics throughout their entire lives, specifically the external gills and tail.

Axolotl's are almost extinct in the wild, because, like the previously featured Texas Blind Salamander, their habitat is being threatened. Due to their natural homes being right next to Mexico City, the 2nd most populated city in the world, their watery homes are being used up and polluted. Interestingly though, they are used extensively for scientific research, and are kept as pets in multiple countries, ensuring that the species won't ever become truly extinct for a very long time, if ever.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Now, just why exactly are Axolotls being used for research? Because they can completely regrow their limbs! Unlike most creatures, who just have to deal with an arm being chomped off, the Axolotl can completely regrow it over time. They are also able to easily retrieve transplants from other specimens and receive full functionality from them. There is also documentation of them regrowing their vital organs, brain segments and spinal chord.

Also previously mentioned was their existence as household pets. I am no expert on their captivity requirements, so I'll just redirect to curious to, which seems to know what they are talking about.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Red Panda

Red Pandas don't look real. They look like muppets. Just watch this.

Too cute. So cute in fact that it won "World's Cutest Animal" in a contest held by the Houston Zoo. Just look at this entire photo gallery. Seriously.

Red Pandas were long though to be members of both the bear and raccoon families, but they are in fact the solo member of their very own taxonomic family, Ailuridae. This family in turn is a part of the super family Musteloidea, home to skunks, weasels, raccoons and otters, though nucleotide testing has shown that they are not especially close with any of those guys. Like the Tuatara, Red Pandas are considered by some to be living fossils. Their nearest fossil ancestors existed 3-4 million years ago and nothing else that is especially genetically similar to them still exists. It has been proposed that the red panda has existed for so long due to its remote habitat and solitary lifestyle. Members of the extinct Parailurus genus, one of the aforementioned fossil relatives, had a much larger habitat range, found in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Sleeping at the Milwaukee County Zoo
Red Pandas, like Giant Pandas, live off of a diet comprised mostly of bamboo, but they also consume fruits, mushrooms, bird eggs, small mammals and insects as well. Also like the Giant Panda, they are unable to digest cellulose, and as a result they must eat large quantities in order to meet their nutritional needs. Also like the Giant Panda, Red Pandas are solitary animals and usually only come together to breed. Interestingly, the Red Panda was the first panda documented by science, and is the origin of the word "panda" itself. Giant Pandas were discovered nearly 50 years later.

Red Pandas are a threatened species, with their numbers dwindling due to human encroachment, hunting, and deforestation. Conservations efforts have been made in many of their natural countries, and unlike those poor Giant Pandas, they seem to do very well breeding in captivity. And if you'd like to help out these absurdly cute little muppets, you can even "adopt" one!

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Yesterday NASA launched Space Shuttle Atlantis for its final mission. And while I sadly do not have any extra-terrestrial lifeforms to report about, I can talk about one of the creatures that inhabits the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a nature preserve that overlaps the Kennedy Space Center: The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). NASA's image of the day yesterday was of a family of these fellows who nest just outside of the vehicle assemblage building.

Image from the US Forest Service
Ospreys are large raptors that can be found in either migratory or permanent residences on every continent save Antarctica. 99% of their diet consists of fish, and their have special pads on their feet to help them hold on to their prey over large distances. In order to catch their meals in the first place they will slowly fly over bodies of water, and then dive in feet first from heights of up to 120 feet. Once a fish is caught, they readjust it in their claws so that it is moving head first, making it more aerodynamic. They are also capable of lifting off after landing in the water, something that Bald Eagles cannot do. Unfortunately, Bald Eagles can be major jerks and not only prey on young osprey, but steal the adults' food right out of their claws.

Their genus name comes (like that of many others) from Greek mythology. Pandion was an Athenian king whose daughters were turned into birds while they were being pursued by an evil husband with an axe. They are also the namesake of the Boeing V-22 Osprey, a United States military aircraft that is able to take off and land like a helicopter.

Edit: Osprey Cam!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Leafy Seadragon

The Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) is saltwater fish found off the coast of southern and western Australia. They are slightly smaller than the other species of sea dragon, the Weedy Sea Dragon, but are more  ornately decorated. Both species are able to camouflage themselves and hide among their surroundings, giving them few, if any, natural predators.They live off of a diet of small crustaceans, who they consume by sucking through their straw-like mouth. Unlike most crustacean predators, they have no teeth.

image from Dive Gallery
Leafy Sea Dragons swim very slow speeds because none of those leafy appendages are used for movement. Tiny little pectoral fins on the sides of their neck allow them to steer, while all propulsion comes from small dorsal fins that run down the spine. They also do not possess the ability to grasp with their tails, as sea horses can. This can result in them being washed adrift during rough waters. But like sea horses, Leafy Sea Dragon fathers play a huge role in the tending of their young. Females lay eggs on the males tail, where they remain until hatching about two months later.

Leafy Sea Dragons are the marine emblem of South Australia, and are protected there by law. Sea Dragons can be obtained as pets, but to do so legally can be a slow and expensive process, as the specimens must be captive bred. Collection of wild Leafy Sea Dragons for resale and for alternative medicines has been damaging to their wild numbers.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Monarch Butterfly

Images from Wikimedia Commons
If you live in the continental United States, you've probably encountered a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Their range literally covers the country and a large chunk of the rest of the continent as well. They've also made their way over to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand due to lucky wind systems and cross oceanic shipping.

The Monarch was one of the species initially classified by Linneaus in 1758's Systema Naturae, and its scientific name comes strait out of mythology. In short, Danaus was a king and had 50 daughters, while his brother, Aegyptus, had 50 sons. Aegyptus wanted the 50 sons to marry the 50 daughters but Danaus refuses until he gets forced into organizing a mass wedding. He then has his daughters kill their husbands, and all but one does. The remaining son gets revenge on Danaus, and he and the daughter become king and queen to a dynasty. See where all this royalty stuff comes from? (Oh, and the species name, plexippus, comes from a name of one of the sons) It has also been speculated that the "Monarch" name is to honor King William III of England (William the Orange in his Dutch Homeland). This is interesting because the butterfly was not called "Monarch" until 1874, while William III ruled 1689-1702, nearly two hundred years earlier.

Wintering Monarchs
Anyway, mythology/history lesson aside, the Monarch butterfly is of particular interest to many due to their migration. Butterflies west of the Rockies travel to the California coast in order to survive the winter. But Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains can travel upwards of 3,000 miles in order to arrive at congregation spots in Mexico. The generation that roosts all winter then lays its eggs on the return journey. It can take multiple generations to make the trip back to the original northern homeland, while it takes only one generation to make it to Mexico. Scientists and amateurs alike track and study these migrations each year.

And last but not least, Monarch Butterflys are poisonous. And where do they get that toxicity from? Their diets of course! They consume milkweed which gives them high concentrations of cardenolide, which is harmful to most predators.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Green Anaconda

Its head is somewhere in those plants...
The Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) is the largest snake in the world by weight. It can top the scales at over 500lbs and reach lengths of nearly 30 feet. It is not however, the worlds longest snake. That award goes to the reticulated python, which had one specimen top out at 33 feet. They live in slow moving river and swamp areas in South America.

Green Anacondas feed on all sorts of animals, ranging from small fish, reptiles and birds up to large mammals such as capybaras and even jaguars. Anacondas have even been known to consume one another. While young and smaller they do have several predators, though as adults they are rarely threatened. Green Anacondas are able to locate their prey by sight and smell, and with help from heat sensing pits near their mouths. They are not at all poisonous, they use their large size and constricting muscles to grab and suffocate their kills. Like all snakes, they have very flexible lower jaws that allow them to consume prey whole that is much larger than their normal head size. There have been a few documented attacks on humans, but overall they do not specifically hunt out people, they simply eat what they can get.

Green Anacondas demonstrate sexual dimorphism with the females being larger than the males. Their breeding practices involve multiple males coiling up around a single female and attempting to copulate with her. This entanglement is known as a "breeding ball," and can last for several weeks before one male is deemed the victor. Anacondas have a gestation period of 6 months, and give birth to live young.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Caribbean Flamingo

Flamingo Hop!

The Caribbean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is the most vibrantly colored of all flamingos, and the only species truly native to North America. Like all flamingos, this species gains it coloration from the existence of carotenoid pigments within the algae and tiny crustaceans that they ate. In captivity, flamingos exist on a special pellet diet that not only provides them with their required nutrients, but also gives them the pigmentation needed to maintain their snazzy colors.

In order to get at their food, flamingos feed with their heads upside down. They use their tongues to suck in water and everything that comes with it, and then using filters built in to the ridges of their beaks they are able to dispel the excess water.

Like many animals that I have discussed here, there is some argument surrounding the classification of the Caribbean Flamingo. Some consider it to be its own species, (though it is sometimes called the American Flamingo, due to the fact that it lives in the Galapagos Islands - well away from the Caribbean) while others consider it to be a subspecies of the Greater Flamingo. Those in the subspecies camp have given it the full name of Phoenicopterus ruber ruber.

Flamingos at the Milwaukee County Zoo
Caribbean Flamingos can live to be 40-50 years old and exist in large colonies with mating pairs that often change from year to year. The couples build cone-shaped nests out of mud that keep their single egg off of the ground. Chicks are born white, and then eventually turn grey, and then finally pink during their second year. They do not have the special filters in their beaks that the parents have, and must subsist off of "crop milk," a secretion produced by glands in the upper digestive tracts of both parents. Pigeons and some penguins also produce similar milks. After about two weeks, the young flamingos join a creche, a large gathering of juvenile birds.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Alligator Gar

Image from Diobas LTD.
The Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula) is North America's largest purely freshwater fish, and is identified by its long, slender body, alligator like snout, and interlocking scales. It's species name, spatula, is Latin for "a broad piece," which pretty much describes its snout, as well as our cooking utensils. They are a member of the class Actinopterygii, fish whose fins are held in place by bony spines, and whose earliest appearance in the fossil record dates back over 400 million years.

They weigh over 200lbs at adulthood and can reach sizes of 10ft. Alligator Gar can be fished for in certain states, and the largest specimens ever angled topped 300lbs. 
Interestingly, the Gar can live outside of water for up to two hours. They are also served up in restaurants and have a good number of recipes devoted to their preparation. Gar themselves feed on other fish, though they may also make meals out of birds and small reptiles. Full grown, they have very few predators besides man.
Alligator Gars have a pretty bad, but probably undeserved, reputation. There have been reports for decades that these fish are dangerous man-eaters, though there is very little evidence of attacks even happening. Jeremy Wade, from the Animal Planet show, River Monsters, hypothesizes that the reputation comes from being mistaken for actual alligators. It is unlikely that they devour people since they like to hold their food in their mouths and carry it with them, something difficult to do with humans.

Edit: I took a visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum today and what did I find right after I bought my ticket...
I apologize for the glass glare! But look at those teeth!

Sunday, May 9, 2010


My mom really likes Quaggas for some reason. I'm not sure why, but bring up extinct animals and she pipes up with the illustrious Quagga. Most people have never heard of this beast, and if it weren't for my mom, I probably never would've heard of it either. So happy Mother's Day! Have a Quagga.

Quaggas were once native to what is now South Africa, and are called by their name after the sound that they, and other zebra species, are said to make. Only one Quagga was ever photographed alive, and that was this lady here. Due to over-hunting and planned extermination, (don't want them competing with the livestock!) Quaggas went extinct near the end of the 19th century. Only one hundred years earlier they filled the South African plains. An account from Thomas Pennant's History of Quadrupeds reads as follows:
"They keep in vast herds like the zebra, but usually in different tracts of the country, and never mix together... It is said to be fearless of the Hyena, and even to attack and pursue the fierce animal... They are used to the food which harsh dry pastures of Africa produce and are in no terror of wild beats, nor are subject to the epidemic distemper which destroys so many horses of the European offspring." That was published in 1793. By 1900, those vast herds were no more.
Interestingly, of all extinct animals, the DNA of the Quagga was the first to ever be analyzed. And it brought up some rather interesting results. In the past, scientists had believed them to be a separate species of zebra, due to their coat coloring and their skull size. The skull argument can be blown apart when one takes into consideration that many times taxidermists used skulls from horses and donkeys for the mounting, as it was cheaper to ship a hide than an entire Quagga skeleton. Anyway, genetic testing of samples from the world's mounted Quaggas broke the separate species theory all together, as the results proved that they are simply a subspecies of the plains zebra which posesses a different type of coloration. One argument about why Quaggas had less stripes in the first place relates to the tsetse fly. Some suggest that zebra stripes help to protect against attack by tsetse flies, which can not visualize stripes easily. Quaggas lived outside of the range of these flies and did not need such protections... or so one theory goes. 

 A project has been underway since 1987 to selectively breed Quaggas back into existence. It was begun before the subspecies revelation came out, and was certainly bolstered by such news. To begin the experiment, plains zebras were selected that exhibited lower stripe counts on their rumps and hind legs. In the past twenty years they have shown remarkable results, with each generation displaying fewer and fewer stripes, and even beginning to pick up brownish coloring. The picture here is of Henry, the most quagga-like foal born to date. Anyway, the project is going well, with hopes that soon herds of these proto-Quaggas can be released in preserves, (separate from zebras of course) so that visitors to South Africa can see them in a more natural habitat.

References! Whoa!
  • Parsons, Rochelle, Colleen Aldous-Mycock, Michael R. Perrin. "A Genetic Index for the Stripe-Pattern Reduction in the Zebra: the Quagga Project." South African Journal of Wildlife 37, no. 2 (October 2007).
  • Harley, Eric H., Michael H. Knight, Craig Lardner, Bernard Wooding, Michael Gregor. "The Quagga Project: Progress Over 20 Years of Selective Breeding." South African Journal of Wildlife 39, no. 2 (October 2009).
  • Pennant, Thomas. History of Quadrupeds. London: B&J White, 1793.
  • Drawing of "The Typical Quagga." Ridgeway, William. The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse. Cambridge: University Press, 1905. (available at Google Books)
  • Image from "The Quagga Project." The Quagga Project South Africa.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Texas Blind Salamander

The Texas Blind Salamander lives in only one location in the entire world. Guess where. Texas! Specifically the Edwards Plateau region, (#30 on the map) and more specifically then that, in an aquifer under San Marcos. They require a very clean supply of water, which is being threatened by city growth and pollution. As such, they are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, and the number of specimens in the wild is unknown.

The Texas Blind Salamander lives underground in its aquifer, and as such has evolved to the point of not really needing eyes or skin pigmentation. Those evolved traits are found in many other cave dwelling creatures as well. They obviously live in water, and have large sets of red gills on the sides of their head in order to draw oxygen from it. They grow up to 5 inches in length. Overall they are considered to be the most advanced troglobitic (cave dwelling) species of salamander known. They do not have a set breeding season, as evidenced by observations of young year round, and they feed on tiny blind crustaceans, snails and insects that themselves live off the nutrients in bat droppings. Not much else is known about them because of their underwater, underground habitat, and they are only ever found on the surface when the water pushes them up there.

image from the us fish and wildlife service

Friday, May 7, 2010


Alright, I had a different animal planned for today, but then a news story popped up that I simply could not ignore....

World's largest beaver dam. Located in a remote, basically inaccessible area of Alberta, Canada, this thing is almost 3,000 feet long and has likely been under construction for 40 years by multiple beaver families and generations. (Alberta is interestingly also the home of a 15 foot tall roadside beaver attraction!)

Beavers had a guest role in one of my posts last week, which mentioned their importance to local ecosystems. Beavers build dams for food storage and protection, but there are several valuable side effects that go along with them just trying to get away from some coyotes. These dams help to prevent erosion, help develop new wetlands, mitigate the damage cause by floods, provide spawning sites for salmon and help to adsorb excess sediments. These are only a few of the long and short terms benefits provided by beaver dams, and its no wonder other species have disappeared following beaver extinction in a certain area. Their homes hold a habitat together... provided it is the correct type of habitat. Beavers were introduced to an Argentinian island in the 1940's for fur farming purposes, but because the trees there were not meant to have submerged roots, they began to rot and the original habitat flooded and caused serious damage over time.

There are two species of beaver, the North American (Castor canadensis) and the European (Castor fiber). They have some differences in their physical characteristics, and they are not genetically compatible between species, but they are fairly similar in size, ranking as #3 and #2 respectively for the largest rodents in the world. (Capybara wins #1) It is not uncommon for them to hit 50 lbs! 

Both species once had vast habitat ranges through their respective continents, but where hunted to near extinction for their pelts and for a medicinal secretion called castoreum. Efforts to reintroduce them have been happening around the world.

image from Beavers in England
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