Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Squid Worm

Image by Laurence Madin
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Two miles deep, down in the waters between Indonesia and the Philippines, there lives and animal so unusual that on first glance, no one knew what it was. Was it a squid? Was it a worm? What is this thing? After a few years of study, we now know. It is, in fact, a Squid Worm, a member of the earthworm and tube worm filled Annelid phylum.

Squid Worms (Teuthidodrilus samae) are interesting because they are remarkably abundant, and are relatively large for a deep sea creature. They measure about four inches in length. The name comes from the ten tentacles that protrude outward from the head. The Squid Worm also has iridescent bristles that run down the length of their body, aiding in movement. They feed off of plankton and small floating debris.

Another notable fact about the Squid Worm is that it might be a transitional species; and animal that stradles the line between species that reside on the sea floor, and those that swim openly. Such transitional species are important in understanding evolutionary history.

Monday, November 29, 2010

South American Bushmaster

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Lachesis muta is the largest viper in the world, and the longest venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. They can reach lengths of over nine feet, with large specimens growing several more feet on top of that. The South American Bushmaster can be found in tropical forests in the north and central parts of the continent, including the countries of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia. They are also found on the island of Trinidad and in some areas of Central America. Overall, they are a very widespread species.

The South American Bushmaster is venomous, and its bite can kill a human. They have long fangs that sink deep into their target, injecting the venom far in. The venom is not as strong as that of other snakes, but it is hemotoxic; causing organ degeneration and loss of red blood cells. Luckily, they are nocturnal snakes and do not frequently come into contact with humans, so the total number of bites is relatively low. There is an anti venom available, but it must be administered quickly.

South American Bushmasters feed primarily on rodents, amphibians, and small reptiles, which they detect with powerful heat sensors. These sensors are where pit vipers get their names from. They are small "pits" located between the eyes and nose.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Like the Kakapo, the Takahe is a colorful, flightless bird endemic to New Zealand. Also like the Kakapo, Takahe are on the brink of extinction, with less than 200 birds remaining. They were even believed to be extinct previous to 1948, as no one had seen them in decades. The population is now divided between a handful of protected, predator-free areas.

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Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) are the largest members of the family Rallidae, measuring up to two feet in length and weighing 5-9lbs. As mentioned, they are flightless, and have small wings that are used for displays of both aggression and courtship. They are primarily blue in color, with green on the back and bright pink beaks and legs. Young birds are born almost completely black, including on the beak. They can their color as they age, and reach sexual maturity around three years old. Both parents care for their chicks for the 30 day incubation and three months of feeding, though usually only one of the 1-3 chicks that hatch will survive their first winter. Takahe can live up to twenty years.

Why are Takahe so threatened? They evolved to be flightless in an environment that had few ground predators or large competitors for food. Introduction of deer, dogs, and other non-native animals had detrimental effect on the population. Habitat loss and hunting have also played a part, and because Takahe reproduce slowly, bringing back their numbers can take a very long time. Breeding itself is even difficult because loss of genetic diversity has created infertile birds.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Maned Wolf

Maned Wolves are the largest Canids in South America, standing nearly three feet tall on extremely long legs. It is the lone member of genus Chrysocyon, and their common named comes from a strip of hair that runs down the back of their heads and shoulders. The Maned Wolf is not especially close with Wolves or Foxes (despite looking quite fox like.) Their closest relatives are Bush Dogs.

C. brachyurus is an omnivorous species. They feed off of birds and rodents, and sometimes get in to trouble with farmers for eating domestic chickens. Maned Wolves also have a fondness for lobeira, a tomato-like fruit. They are nocturnal and do all of their hunting at night.

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Maned Wolves are solitary, unlike true wolves which live in packs. A pair mates for life, but they are only actually around each other during the breeding season. Other times, they share an overlapping territory that they both defend. It was long believed that only the female cares for the pups, but in captivity males have been observed grooming, feeding, and defending pups, so old beliefs may need to be reevaluated.

Maned Wolves are dwindling in number due to habitat loss and hunting. Many peoples believe that the Wolves have mystical properties, and they are killed for their magical body parts. Maned Wolves are listed as near threatened, with around 20,000 remaining.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Mamba

We got Turkey for Thanksgiving, and now a deadly, venomous snake for Black Friday. Though did you know that the Black Mamba isn't really black? Their bodies are actually grayish-brown; the name comes from the color of their mouths, which they open and display when threatened.

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Black Mambas can be found in Southern and Eastern Africa. They live in a variety of habitats, but are most common in grass and scrubland areas. They are the longest venomous snakes on the continent, with average lengths of over nine feet, and some individuals reaching up to fourteen. Because of their long size, they can strike from four to six feet away, and they tend to strike multiple times.

Before their was an anti-venom, Mamba bites were 100% fatal. There is now an anti-venom, but because it kills so quickly there are still human deaths in many remote areas. Black Mambas are slowly loosing their habitat to farmland, which puts them in close proximity to humans. Their nervous demeanor allows them to get easily scared and defensive, especially when surprised or cornered. When threatened, they open their black mouths and spread a cobra-like hood on the sides of their neck.

Black Mambas feed off of rodents and birds, though they are capable of devouring prey much larger due to their flexible jaws. Aside from habitat loss, the only real threat to the Black Mamba is the Mongoose, though due to the snake's size the Mongoose preys only on eggs and young.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wild Turkey

Come on, how could I write about anything else on (American) Thanksgiving? Turkeys are absolutely central to the holiday, as both the main meal and as an icon for the season. But rather than talk about the domestic bird that gets eaten, we're going to talk about their wild cousin, the feathered friend that Benjamin Franklin described as "a... respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America." Due to reintroduction and transplanting of wild populations, Wild Turkeys are now found in every U.S. state except for Alaska.

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Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are natively found throughout North America in six different subspecies. Turkeys were domesticated by the Aztecs, and by other native groups around the same time, and are one of only two bird species to be domesticated in North America (the other being the Muscovy Duck). It was once believed that the South Mexican subspecies was the wild ancestor to the domestic birds, but that has now been ruled out. The true identity of the original birds is still unknown.

Wild Turkeys are smaller than their domesticated brethren, and exhibit sexual dimorphism. Females reach weights of around 12lbs, while males around are 25. They are a polygynous species, with males mating with more than one female during each breeding season. The "Gobble" that is most associated with Turkeys is actually a mating call to attract females. After breeding, males take no part in the care of the chicks. Chicks follow their mother, and quickly learn how to feed themselves. In the wild, turkeys have a very short life expectancy of around two years, though captive birds have lived well over ten.

Did you know that Wild Turkeys are omnivores? They feed mostly on seeds, leaves, and nuts, but they do also eat insects and small vertebrates like lizards. Young Turkeys and Eggs have numerous predators, including Raccoons, Birds, and Skunks, while adults are preyed upon by larger predators such as Coyotes and Bobcats.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

American Coot

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I injured my back a few days ago and spent a lot of time on the sofa watching nature documentaries. I finished up Great Migrations and in the process noticed a neat looking little bird that apparently lives (for at least part of the year anyway) right in my proverbial back yard, though I've never seen one. I really feel like I need to take up bird watching. Hmm.

Anyway, the species in question is the American Coot (Fulica americana), a gregarious waterbird of the Rallidae family that can be found in just about every part of North America during some part of the year. Birds that reside in the Western United States and Mexico are residential, while other populations are migratory, heading up to Eastern Canada, the Midwest, and the American Northeast in order to breed.

American Coots spend their lives on or near water, though interestingly, they do not have webbed feet like ducks do. They swim and dive for their food, and they are very opportunistic feeders. American Coots eat both plant material, as well as other animals such as snails, tadpoles, and fish.

Young Coots are precocial, which means that they are able to swim and feed themselves very quickly after hatching. Parents build nests that float on the water, and females lay 6-11 eggs that are incubated by both the mother and father. They may build multiple nests, which are then used by the family to roost.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Moon Jellyfish

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Aurelia aurita is an exceptionally abundant species of Jellyfish that can be found throughout the oceans of the Northern Hemisphere. Moon Jellyfish range in size from 5 to 40cm in diameter, and are most easily recognized by their translucent bodies (the top part is known as the medusa) and four, horse-shoe shaped gonads visible in the dome.

Interestingly, Moon Jellyfish have no real respiratory parts. Instead, it obtains oxygen by passing it from the water through its membrane. They also have no excretory or circulatory systems as we commonly known them. They do however, have distinct males and females, who reproduce sexually.
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Moon Jellyfish feed primarily on zooplankton, including small mollusks and crustaceans. Their tentacles have venomous nematocysts on them, which help to capture and trap food on their mucus-covered exterior. Their tentacles then push the food along eight different canals which run into the stomach. These canals are unique to the species.

Moon Jellyfish swim by making pulsing movements with their medusa. The main purpose of swimming is not to move about, but to keep them near the surface in order to feed. They depend on the tides and currents for most of their movement.

Moon Jellyfish are preyed upon by fish like the Mola Mola, Seabirds, and Sea Turtles. Their lifespan is only a few months long.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wandering Albatross

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The Wandering Albatross is one of many Albatross species found within the family Diomedeidae. What makes them special? They have the largest wingspan, with a tip to tip range of up to eleven feet! They are a circumpolar species, and can be found flying over the southern oceans.

Wandering Albatrosses are truly remarkable birds. Their narrow wings allow them to utilize the ocean winds and glide with very little effort for hours and hours. They can even lock their wings into a position for an extended period of time, which reduces further energy expenditure. Wandering Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea, feeding off of fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. They will sometimes come to rest in the water, but floating in such a position puts them in danger of being prey upon themselves.

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Every other year the Wandering Albatrosses  come ashore in colonies in order to breed and care for their young. Pairs mate for life, which can be an exceptionally long time with a lifespan of over fifty years. The Albatrosses return to the same beaches they were born at, mate in November, and then lay a single egg which hatches around March. The young chicks take an additional eight to nine months to fledge, and will themselves return to breed when they are seven or eight years old.

Wandering Albatrosses are a vulnerable species, with an estimated 27,600 mature birds.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


This morning I had originally planned on another invertebrate, but I was more in the mood for something fuzzy and cute, which is why we're going to learn about the chipmunk!

Cliff Chipmunk
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There are actually twenty-five distinct species of Chipmunk, traditionally classified in one genus, though a three-genera organization is also floating around out there. Of all those species, only one, the Siberian Chipmunk, is found outside of North America. All species have striped patterns across their faces and bodies, and different species range in color from gray (like the Cliff Chipmunk) to reddish-brown. Chipmunks are the smallest members of the squirrel family overall, though the Eastern Chipmunk can reach sizes of over eleven inches.

Chipmunks are perhaps most notable for their giant puffy cheeks that they can carry food around in. Food collection is of vital importance to this tiny rodents; though they do hibernate, they don't store fat. Instead, they have to munch on their stored up food from time to time. They are actually omnivores; though they typically eat seeds, nuts, and berries, they will also consume insects and bird's eggs.

Eastern Chipmunk
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Chipmunks are also known for their calls- shrill chirps that serve two purposes. The first is to warn about danger, and the second is as a mating call. They are typically solitary mammals, but will come together during their two breeding seasons a year. Mating pairs are not monogamous. Females have a thirty day gestation period, and her young will remain with her for 6-8 weeks before going off on their own. Chipmunks have countless natural predators, and their average lifespan in the wild is only about one year.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


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Insects of the family Notonectidae are often known as Backswimmers because of the fact that they swim upside down, both on the surface, and under the water. There are eight total genera, with species commonly found ponds, lakes, and rivers across Europe and North America.

Backswimmers range in size between .5 to 1.5 cm. They have large eyes, back legs with log hairs that help them to swim, and a convex dorsum (back). Backswimmers also have wings that allow them to get up and find a new body of water to hunt in. Because it is difficult for them to actually distinguish between types of water, they are often seen in swimming pools.

Backswimmers prey on other insects and sometimes even small vertebrates, like tadpoles. As nymphs, they will consume each other. They are actually a quite beneficial group of insects because they consume mosquito larvae. So if you find one in your swimming pool, scoop it up and let it go!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Crowned Eagle

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Stephanoeatus coronatus  is the second largest Eagle in Africa, behind the slightly larger Martial Eagle. They are also sometimes referred to as the Crowned Hawk-Eagle. Their common name comes from a crest of feathers on their heads, and they have dark bodies with mottled undersides. They have short but powerful wings that are excellent for flying in wooded areas. Their distribution is patchy, but covers areas in Sub-Saharan and East Africa.

Crowned Eagles primarily hunt mammals, including monkeys, feral cats, and small antelope. They are able to take down animals that weigh up to 44lbs, using their long, powerful hind talons to break spines. The downside to larger prey is that they can't carry it with them, and so they will rip the meal up in chunks and carry it back to be stored in trees and consumed later. Mated pairs will sometimes hunt cooperatively.

Courtship for the Crowned Eagles involves a quite amazing display. The male will perform a series of ascents and dives, waiting at the top of each dive and calling out for the female. If she decides to join him, they lock talons and fall together, coming apart just before the ground. Nests can become massive structures that span over six feet in diameter, and the pair will use it year after year. Sadly, if two eggs are laid and hatched, the stronger (and usually older) chick will almost always kill its weaker sibling. Chicks grow their crests after two months, and fledge between three and four, but can remain dependent on its parents for over a year.

Crowned Eagles are listed as being of Least Concern by the IUCN.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cone Snail

Conus textile
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There are around 500 species of Cone Snail, marine gastropods that belong to the genus Conus. They live in tropical and subtropical waters around the world and vary in size depending on the species, with the largest measuring over 20cm in length. Cone Snails also look quite pretty. They have long, attractive shells that tend to have nice little patterns and designs on them, no wonder they are popularly used as jewelry!

But beware! Cone Snails have a extremely potent toxin (called Conotoxin), and they have to. They are tiny little guys who don't move very fast. Their toxin needs to paralyze their prey quickly, otherwise it'll get away. The toxin in these Snails has the ability to kill a human being, and there is no known antivenom. They attack via a barb that shoots out from their shell, and the type of paralysis is dependent on the species. When their prey is immobilized, they draw it back in to their shell, still attached to the barb. Cone Snails are carnivorous and predatory, and feed off of fish, worms, and other mollusks, depending on the specific species.

Interestingly, when some of the components of the toxins are isolated, they make an extremely potent painkiller. The drug Prialt is made from the toxin of Conus magnus, and new uses for the toxins are still being researched.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Marbled Polecat

They may look like abnormally cute ferrets, and while Vormela peregusna are Mustelids, and members of the same subfamily as Weasels, Martens, and Badgers, but they belong to a genus all their own. They are one of the rarer Mustelids of the world, though their range covers large parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Marbled Polecats can be found in open habitats like grasslands, and steppes.

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The Marbled Polecat gets its name from the interesting pattern that shows up on its back. Their face is black and white, but their body is a rich marbled combination of yellows, browns, whites, and reds. They have short muzzles, long tails, and powerful front claws that help them to dig and burrow. When threatened, Marbled Polecats hiss and fluff up their hair, making their bodies appear much larger. They also have some exceptionally stinky glands under their tail that release foul odors.

Normally solitary creatures, Marbled Polecats come together to breed during spring and early summer. At this time the coloration on males is more vivid. Marbled Polecats are one of the species that practices delayed implantation (embryonic dispause). They typically do not give birth for 8-11 months after mating, despite only have a 40ish day gestation period. Up to eight young are born at once, and they grow fast! Females are already at sexual maturity when they are three months old (males take long at about a year.)

Marbled Polecats feed on various rodents, insects, reptiles, and birds. Unfortunately their numbers have been on the decline due to the reduction of their prey, and due to habitat loss.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Puff Adder

It's not the longest snake, or the heaviest, but the Puff Adder is one of the most feared. Why? Because they kill more people on their home continent of Africa than any other species of snake. Though numbers are hard to track down, something around 60% of all bites come from Bitis arietans.

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Puff Adders only measure about three feet in length, and have very wide, sluggish bodies that rely on camouflage for hunting. However, don't let their girth fool you, they can strike extremely fast, and their venom can cause shock, unconsciousness, skin necrosis, and hemorrhages. They have long fangs and can inject the venom deep into their target, easily causing death if not treated. Though the threat to humans is there, Puff Adders normally go after and feed upon small rodents, reptiles, and birds. Human attacks typically occur when the snake is startled and confronted.

Puff Adders are (my favorite word!) ovoviviparous, and can give birth to several dozen live young at once. These young are independent from birth. They are a common species, and have not been evaluated by the IUCN. In the wild, Puff Adders actually have several enemies, including badgers, raptors, warthogs, and other snakes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

New Things!

New layout!

And I've added a handful of new things to the Bibliography, Links, and Glossary. Check them out!

... now I just need to get going on formatting the 400 photographs that I have laying around.


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National Geographic has been playing their Great Migrations series the past few weeks, and during one of last night's episodes they talked about the Pronghorn, and how it is a species with no close living relatives. This caught my interest, so here we go, Pronghorns!

Pronghorns are members of the order Artiodactyla- even-toed ungulates. From there, they also belong to the Infraorder Pecora,  which they share with antelope, cattle, goats, giraffes, etc. But that's were any taxonomic similarities to other living species ends. Pronghorns are the only extant species in the family Antilocapridae. There are nearly two dozen completely extinct genera in the family, and only Antilocapra remains.

Antilocapra americana has a number of different subspecies, all of which live in the Western United States and Canada. They stand about three feet at the shoulder, and both males and females have those characteristic backwards facing horns. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America, and can sprint at speed of nearly 60mph. Even more awesome is the fact that they are also build for long distance running, though the speed are not nearly as high. Pronghorns communicate by sight. They have excellent vision, and when danger is spotted, they signal by raising white hairs on their rump.

Pronghorns also hold the second place title for longest migration of any North American land animal. Some herds (not all, some have enough food to stay in place year round) move 300 miles round trip between Wyoming's Green River Basin and Grand Teton National Park. This move now places the Pronghorn under multiple man-made threats, including cars and fences. The National Wildlife Federation is working to create Corridors to help these migrations.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mallard Duck

I apologize for the absurdly late post today, got a bit sidetracked with some other stuff. But one of those projects was a short trip to the zoo! In 40 degree weather! Not a whole lot was outside in that kind of climate, but there were loads and loads of Mallard Ducks. More Mallards than I've probably ever seen in one place, so tonight we're gonna dive into the wonderful world of ducks!

Mallards are the most widespread of all ducks, and are found in freshwater areas across the Northern Hemisphere, and have been introduced to many other locations. Mallards have become so widespread that some localized populations have changed enough to be considered their own separate species. Some Northern Mallard populations are migratory, while others remain in their location year round. Mallards can fly at speeds of up to 40mph.

Did you know that the Mallard is the ancestor of all the domestic ducks we have today, save the Muscovy Duck? When you think of the wild Mallard, and even many domestic variations, the bright green-headed male typically comes to mind. Females are far more drab in color. They are "dabbling ducks," which means that they do not dive for their food; they stay at the surface and feed off of plants, insects, and amphibians, occasionally dipping underwater.

Mallard Ducks form pairs during the breeding season, but the females are left by the males upon laying eggs (the males are very territorial up to that point). Between six and fourteen eggs are laid, and the chicks are able to swim and feed themselves right after hatching, but they will stay with their mother for about two months.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Red Bellied Piranha

When pop culture talks about tiny fish that swarm the water and devour everything in sight, they are almost always referring the the Red Bellied Piranha. But interestingly, the reputation of the Piranha as a bloodthirsty killer that will eat a man alive is more or less undeserved. Let's learn why!

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Red Bellied Piranhas (Pygocentrus nattereri) live in the Amazon and in other surrounding coastal rivers in South America. As their name might suggest, they have red coloration on their undersides, and a silvery top.

These Piranhas do have razor sharp, interlocking teeth, and they do sometimes have "feeding frenzies," where a school of them will consume prey and strip it to the bone. But their normal meals includes other fish, insects, crustaceans, and even algae! Don't get me wrong, Red Bellied Piranhas will sometimes feed on much larger creatures, but it's typically because they are sick or injured. In their native habitat, humans are not often bitten by Piranhas, and the Piranhas are often consumed as food!

And despite their aggressive reputation, Red Bellied Piranhas make pretty decent parents. The males and females will protect their nests, and then, after hatching, guard their brood of young for a period.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguins (pronounced jen-TOO) stand about 30 inches tall and are the third largest species of penguin, behind the Kings and Emperors. They also possess one of the widest distributions of all penguins, inhabiting the shores of Antarctica and numerous islands including the Falklands and South Georgia. Their genus, Pygoscelis, also contains the Chinstrap and Adeilie Penguins.
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Pygoscelis papua is identified by its vividly bright orange beak and feet. They also have a "cap" of white feathers that runs over their head from eye to eye. Gentoo Penguins are carnivorous, and consume crustaceans, small cephalopds, and fish. Hunting is done close to their breeding colonies. When hunting, the penguins are able to dive over 300ft, and can reduce their normally 80-100bpm heart rate down to only 20bpm. During a single day, an individual penguin may dive for food several hundred times!

Gentoo nests are typically found on rocky shores, and are built from a wide variety of materials, including grasses, feathers, and pebbles. Two eggs are typically laid, and the parents will care for both chicks equally, but in time of food scarcity only the strongest chick will usually survive. After about a month the chicks will form creches, which are groups of young penguins. They will continue to seek assistance from their parents until they are around 3 months old. Nesting sites do not remain the same from year to year, though many couples will retain long-term bonds.

At sea, the Gentoo Penguin has many predators, including Sea Lions, Seals, and Orcas. While on land they have more protection, though eggs and chicks are sometimes nabbed up by predatory birds. There are roughly 300,000 current breeding pairs, and they are legally protected from human hunting and egg gathering.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Duckbill Platypus

Oh Monotremes. You are so amazingly, incredibly bizarre. And as weird as the Echidna was, it's got nothing on the Platypus, a mammal so darn weird that British Naturalists actually believed it was a hoax stitched together by Chinese sailors. And you know what? I really don't blame them. How would you react to a weird, otter-like creature with webbed flippers, a beaver tail and a bird-like bill?

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Platypuses (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) are one of a kind, the only living members of the Monotreme suborder Platypoda. Other, now-extinct Platypuses exist in the fossil record as far back at 60 million years. (The first known Monotremes, while we're on this topic, are thought to have diverged from other mammals over 160 million years ago.) They are found exclusively in Australia, along the eastern edge of the continent and on the island of Tasmania.

All of the Platypus's features serve a purpose. Their bill is actually one long snout full of sensory organs used to locate and scoop up food underwater. The webbed feet assist in swimming, digging, and paddling, and their dense fur serves as insulation. The tail also helps in swimming, and provides fat-storage. Adult Platypuses do not have teeth, and they will collect gravel to help chew food, which primarily consists of insects and crustaceans.

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Like all Monotremes, Platypuses lay eggs. Two are typically laid at a time, and are insulted below the mother's tail. At birth the young Platypus is tiny and helpless, and will be cared for for several months.

On top of laying eggs and looking weird, the Platypus is toxic! Males have venom-injecting spurs on their rear feet. It is believed that this venom is significant during mating periods.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sea Cucumber

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There are over 1,200 known species of Sea Cucumber, invertebrate echinoderms of the class Holothroidea. All species are ocean-dwellers, living in waters throughout the world, including the frigid waters near the North and South Pole. They come in a variety of sizes and colors, with the largest (the appropriately named Giant Sea Cucumber) measuring up to several feet in length. Because of their soft bodies, Sea Cucumbers have not fossilized well, but we do have examples dating back around 400 million years to the Silurian.

Sea Cucumbers are scavengers, feeding off of plankton and debris that floats through the water. They draw meals in using tentacle-like appendages around their mouth, and then digest and expel the waste back into the water, where it becomes food for bacteria. Most Sea Cucumber species have very tiny tube-like feet that help them to move slowly.

One of the most interesting (and probably disgusting) habits of Sea Cucumbers is their ability to ward off threats. Many species will dispel their internal organs out of their anus, distracting the predators and making themselves smaller. They are then able to regrow those organs. Sea Cucumbers also have an an additional tactic up their proverbial sleeves. They can shoot out a sticky mucus that ensnares attackers.
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Sea Cucumbers reproduce both sexually and asexually, depending on the species. Sexual reproduction happens externally, with the sperm and egg intermingling in open water.

Some species of Sea Cucumber are harvested as delicacies in a fishing process known as Trepanging.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Golden Pheasant

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The Golden or Chinese Pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) is a rather interesting looking bird belonging to the Galliformes order and found natively in China. There are also feral populations in England and elsewhere.

To be perfectly honest, I chose this bird because of its absolutely spectacular looks. The males are simply gorgeous birds, with red, blues, greens, golds found throughout their color palette. The females are quite less stunning; they are a dull brown color which aids in camouflage. Even though the males are quite flashy, they live in very dense habitats and are not easily seen.

Golden Pheasants are omnivores, feeding on invertebrates, berries, grains, and other forms of vegetation. They are able to fly, but are  a bit clumsy, and are typically found on the ground.
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Golden Pheasants interbreed with Lady Amherst Pheasants, (also of the genus Chrysolophus) and many captive individuals are mixed breeds. Captive Goldens are bred for a variety of different colors, including Yellow and Cinnamon Goldens. They intermingle well with birds of other species.

Monday, November 8, 2010


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The Arapaima (Arapaima gigas) is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Measuring up to ten feet long and weighing 400 pounds, it is a true river giant. They are native to the Amazon River, where they and their descendants have been swimming since the Jurassic.

Arapaimas are air-breathers, meaning that they inhale their oxygen through the air rather than through the water. Because of this, they are typically found near the surface of the water, though they are able to hold their breath for 10-20 minutes.

The breeding cycle of the Arapaima is dependent on the seasons. Eggs are laid February-April, when the water is at its lowest, and hatch during the flooding season so that the young fish can thrive and feast on all of the organisms that are churned up. Male Arapaimas take an interesting role in the process, incubating the eggs in his mouth (mouthbrooding).

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Water birds beware! Though the Arapaima mainly eats fish, they will also gulp up birds that they find on the waters' surface. Surface proximity has caused problems for the Arapaima; it makes them much easier to fish for with nets or harpoons. Their meat, tongue, and scales are collected for food and jewelry. Hunting has been the main reason for their population decline, and they are now listed as Vulnerable.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I know that Famous Animals Week has ended, but yesterday saw the end of one of horse racing's greatest careers, and I just couldn't resist writing about this amazing horse.

Zenyatta was born in 2004, and purchased for a sum of $60,000, a relatively low amount in the world of thoroughbred racing. She was a late bloomer,  racing for her first time near the end of the 2007 season. But all that waiting paid off. Until yesterday, Zenyatta was undefeated in 19 starts, a record practically unheard of for any horse. She placed second in the Breeders Cup Classic, racing as both the only female, and the oldest horse on the field. She won the same race last year, becoming the very first filly to do so.

She is 17.2 hands and just over 1,200lbs, exceptionally large for a racehorse. Zenyatta has a personality and a demeanor that those around her describe as human-like.  She loves to dance and show off, and she loves a good, room-temperature Guinness. And even though her final race was lost by a nose, she will still go down in racing history as one of the greatest. Her final purse totaled $7.3 million.

Zenyatta will now enjoy a life of retirement and motherhood, though what stallion is worthy of her greatness? To quote her jockey, Hall of Fame Member Mike Smith, "They often talk about who they'd breed her to. And I've always said no one's worthy."

EDIT: Zenyatta was bred to 2006 Preakness winner and 3-year-old Male of the Year Bernardini in January, but in March it was announced that she was not in foal. She will be bred again.

If you'd like to read more about this amazing horse, check out some of these stories.
Taking Blame
Is Zenyatta the best Racehorse Ever?
The Legend of Zenyatta
Zenyatta is Looking Good

Images from here and here.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Black-capped Chickadee

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The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is a cute little bird that I'm sure many of us see each and every day. Chickadees are common across the Northern United states and Canada, and are found in forests, open woodlands, and in suburban areas.

The Black-capped Chickadee is characterized by its small body, short neck, and large head. The head is black with white cheeks, the back and wings are a light grey, and the underside ranged from cream to white. They have short beaks and long, (for their size) narrow tails. They are very active, social birds. They live in flocks that often intermingle with other species, and have a wide variety of calls that they use when communicating.

Black-capped Chickadees are monogamous birds, typically for life. They build their nests in pre-existing cavities, and lay 8-12 eggs which hatch nearly two weeks later. The female is the sole incubator, and the male provides food.

Insects and Seeds make up a majority of the Black-capped Chickadee's diet. They will hide seeds for later consumptions, placing them in secret spots that they come back to later. Chickadee's can remember thousands of different hiding spots!

Friday, November 5, 2010


We all know about Mustelids; otters, weasels, badgers. But have you heard about the Tayra? Tayras are the only species within the genus Eira and are found in tropical forests of Central and South America. They look quite weasel-life, with dark brown body hair, a lighter colored head, a body length of around 60cm, and a bushy tail. Tayras weigh up to 11lbs.
(Image Source)

Tayras (Eira barbara) are diurnal and solitary, and are both arboreal and terrestrial, often making their homes in hollow trees. Tayras are excellent swimmers and climbers. They are also omnivorous, and prefer to eat rodents, though reptiles, insects, and fruits are also consumed.

Tayras are different from some other mustelids in that they do not have delayed implantation during reproduction. After mating the females have a a 63-70 day gestation period before giving birth to 2-3 offspring. These young are weaned after 2-3 months.

Many wild Tayra populations are on the decline, due to habitat loss. The northernmost subspecies, found in Mexico, is listed as vulnerable.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Giant Tube Worm

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Giant Tube Worms (Riftia pachyptilalive in one of the most harsh and unpredictable habitats on earth - the sea floor. These invertebrates live in the deep parts of the Pacific Ocean, at an average of 5,000 feet down. Amazingly, they cluster near thermal vents that spew an array of harsh chemicals that are lethal to most other organisms. Giant Tube Worms use those chemicals to their benefit with help from their partners in symbiosis. Tube Worms have no mouths or digestive systems, instead, they have a beneficial relationship with their internal bacteria. The bacteria converts the chemicals from the vents into nutrients that sustain the worm.

These worms truly are gigantic, and can grow to lengths of roughly eight feet. They are characterized by their bright red "plume" which is actually a hemoglobin-rich organ that siphons chemicals to the bacteria. The outer tube of the worm is comprised of chitin, the same material that makes up the exoskeletons of crustaceans. When threatened, the plume will retract in to the tube.

Giant Tube Worms reproduce through spawning; eggs are released into the water and are then fertilized. Young worms then eventually hatch and attach themselves within a worm community. No one is really sure how the young worms obtain their symbiotic bacteria, or how they find vents to attach themselves near. We do know, however, that Giant Tube Worms have remarkable growth rate, as they are able to reach a length of about five feet in roughly two years.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sacred Scarab Beetle

Ah... back to normal. Though I just might splice in some more famous animals into the daily routine, Animal A Day is pretty open ended after all.
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Anyway, today I present to you the Sacred Scarab Beetle, a curious little bug that was likened to a god. Scarabaeus sacer is one many, many species found within the Dung Beetle superfamily,  Scarabaeoidea. One of its families alone, Scarabaeinae, contains over 5,000 species.

But we're going to talk about just one! The Sacred Scarab is a dung beetle native to the Mediterranean region and central Europe. Like all dung beetles, Sacred Scarabs consume dung, locating it with their sense of smell. Oftentimes they will roll the dung into balls to transport it to burrows for safekeeping, and these balls can become larger than the beetle itself! Females will also lay their eggs within these dung balls, and the larvae will hatch and consume their "nest."

The Sacred Scarab's dung rolling and egg-hatching activities are what created the link between them and the gods. In Egyptian mythology, Kheperi, the god of the rising sun, rolls the rising and setting sun in the same way the beetle pushes the dung. Sacred Scarabs were further associated with rebirth due to their emergence from the dung as young.
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Sacred Scarabs are portrayed in Egyptian art, sculpture, heiroglyphics, and in jewelry.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I've had a really fun time putting together this theme week, and would like to end on a happy note with Ham the Astrochimp! The first ape in space!

Ham post-mission
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There had been several animals in space before Ham. Mice, Dogs, and Monkeys had all been launched, but the purpose of Ham's trip was to prove something beyond survivability. Ham was trained to perform commands, so that reaction times could be recorded and assessed.

He was born in Camaroon in 1956, and in 1959 was brought to Holloman Air Force base, which would be the inspiration for his name: Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. (He was originally named #65, and didn't obtain an actual name until after his successful mission) There were originally 40 animals in the program, but it was eventually whittled down to just six, including Ham. These six chimpanzees were placed in Mercury mock-ups and trained to pull levers when prompted by lights. If they performed the task correctly, they were given a banana pellet; incorrect answers resulted in a small electric shock to the feet.

On January 31, 1961, Ham was selected to be the test subject aboard Project Mercury capsule MR-2. The original plan was that he would travel to an altitude of 115 miles, and reach a speed of 4,400 mph. Technical difficulties resulted in an altitude of 157 miles, and a top speed of 5,857 mph. There was a temporary loss of pressure in the cabin, but Ham's suit protected him from harm. He was up for 16.5 minutes, including 6.6 minutes of weightlessness.

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Ham was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean later that day, and was found to be in overall good health, albeit fatigued and a bit dehydrated. The results of Ham's test showed that reaction time in space was only a bit slower than on earth, proving that tasks could be performed. A little more than three months later, the United States sent their first human being, Alan Shepard, into space.

Ham retired from space flight and went to live in the National Zoo from 1963-1980. He was moved to the North Carolina Zoological Park in 1980, where he lived until his death at age 26 in 1983. Ham's skeleton was retained by the Armed Forces for ongoing testing, and the rest of his remains were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. A plaque and a memorial garden mark the spot.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Alex the African Grey Parrot was one of the most extraordinary birds to have ever lived. In 1977, animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg started an experiment to test the intelligence of parrots, and her first subject was Alex, a one-year old bird from an ordinary pet shop in Chicago.

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Previous to this project, it was believed that the brain's of birds were not capable of complex problem solving and speech formation; that their words were only the result of mimicry. Alex proved all of that wrong. He had a vocabulary of 150 words, including 50 objects and quantities up to the number six. He was capable of understanding concepts like number, shape, material, and color, and could compose short phrases to express responses and wants. He was even able to express frustration, both with repetitive research tasks and with incorrect responses given by his fellow parrots in the project. Alex also remarkably had a basic understanding of the the concept of zero. When asked about the differences between two objects that were exactly the same, Alex would respond that there were none. The video below shows some of the skills that Alex came to learn.

Alex died suddenly and unexpectedly on September 6th, 2007 from arteriosclerosis. His health check earlier in the week had given him a clean bill of health and shown normal asper and cholesterol levels, making his death especially tragic and out of no where. Even more depressing is the fact that his last words to Pepperberg the night before were "You be good. I love you." Alex is survived by two other birds within the project, Griffen and Arthur, though they are much younger and less advanced.

Dr. Pepperberg published a memoir about Alex and his accomplishments, titled Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process in 2008.

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