Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pitohui

I feel like I've been writing a lot about poison and neurotoxins lately, but hey, interesting! Pitohuis (pronounced pit-oo-eey) are the six species found within the genus Pitohui. (clever) They are all brightly colored songbirds endemic to New Guinea. They are also among the most toxic birds in the world. One species, the Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) takes the top prize as the most poisonous bird on earth! (It is also interestingly the first poisonous bird ever discovered)

Hooded Pitohui from Smithsonian
Pitohuis do not actually produce their own poison. They consume beetles of the Choresine genus, who themselves produce high amounts of batrachotoxins (BTX), a type of neurotoxin. This is the same substance that makes Poison Dart Frogs so dangerous, and the word batrachotoxin itself comes from the Greek for "Frog" and "Poison." Anyway, after beetle consumption the toxin then finds its way into the skin and feathers of the Pitohuis, and serves to detract predators. The toxin is pretty dangerous, it "depolarizes nerve and muscle membranes by binding and activating voltage-dependent sodium channels." (SOURCE)

The man who first discovered the toxicity of these birds actually did so because he got scratched and bit by a specimen, and then put his finger in his mouth.... and then his tongue and lips went numb. Just touching the feathers of a Hooded Pitohui can cause eye irritation and sneezing. A rather interesting study was done on Pitohuis and Chewing Lice (the source I linked to above) that shows lice prefer to live in feathers that do not contain the toxin. So not only does it protect from larger predators that may want to eat the bird, but it protects them for parasites as well.

But now enough about the poison and on to some other information. As previously mentioned, Pitohuis consume beetle, though they also consume other insects, and will also eat fruits and seeds. All six species are brightly colored, typically with various shades of orange, red, and black. They lay 1-2 eggs at a time, and grow up to about 24cm in length.

Thanks again to Jon for the suggestion!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Portuguese Man Of War

The Portuguese Man Of War, found in the world's warm water oceans,  is a very interesting animal indeed. First off, it is not a jellyfish. Even though it may look like a Jellyfish, and sting like a Jellyfish, (more on that later) it is a siphonophore, an animal that is actually made up of multiple organisms working together. How does this work exactly? Well, the Man Of War consists of four distinct parts, a gas-filled bladder (the pneumatophore), the tentacles which can detect and capture prey, a polyp containing digestive organs, and a polyp for reproduction.

Image from ImageQuest
The Man Of War takes its name from part #1- the gas-filled bladder. This polyp rests atop the water and has a sail like appearance ala a Portuguese battleship. This polyp can reach up to a foot in length and extend 6 inches above the water. The Man of War is only able to float and has very little control over its movements, which is why they tend to wash up on shore. The other three polyp types rest underneath the float. The long tentacles can reach lengths of 165ft, and are covered with nematocystic structures that sting and paralyze prey. Following that, muscles in the tentacles draw the meal up to the digestive polyps, which then cover and digest. The fourth polyp, as previously mentioned, relates to reproduction. The Man Of War (Men Of War?) fertilize externally, releasing the sperm and eggs into the sea.

The stingers of a Man Of War can be dangerous to humans, though are not often fatal. A sting causes immediate redness and burning pain followed by a string of lesions appeared at the sting site. Treatment for a sting involves the careful removal of any remaining tentacle pieces, rinsing with salt water, and the application of topical ointments. It can sometimes take 6-8 weeks for symptoms to fully disappear and more dangerous symptoms, including increased heart rate and difficulty breathing, can arise.

But enough of the scary stuff! The Portuguese Man Of War does have predators despite its nasty sting. Loggerhead Turtles have a fondness for them, as their skin is too thick to be affected by the stingers. There are also a handful of fish that are immune to the venom. This allows them to either eat the Man Of War, or to use it as a safe heaven to hide from other predators.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Binturong

The Binturong (Arctictis binturong) also has an equally awesome alternate common name, the Bearcat! However, it really isn't much of a bear OR a cat. While it is true that it is part of the Feliforma suborder, it is not a member of family Felidae. Binturongs are a part of their own family, Viverridae, which is shared with Civets, Linsangs, and Genets. There are six subspecies of Binturong, all of which have slight differences based upon location and habitat. Binturongs range in body size from 60-100cm in length, (not including their tail which has roughly the same length) and weigh between 20 and 30lbs.

Binturongs are nocturnal animals native to the rain forests of South East Asia. The species range spans through several countries including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. They are tree dwelling mammals, and have fully prehensile tails that basically double their body length and can be used to cling to the trees or to grasp food. Binturongs are phenomenal climbers, and can even move upside down from branch to branch and rotate their back ankles to assist in grasping. However, they are quite awkward when it comes to ground movement, and tend to amble from side to side a bit like a bear. They are omnivores and will eat fruits, leaves, rodents, insects and even carrion. Binturongs are important to their habitat because their digestive system is able to break down tough strangler fig seed shells. Once the seeds pass through and are defecated they are capable of being planted.


I feel that one of the most interesting things about Binturongs is their smell. They smell like buttered popcorn. Their scent is produced by glands under the tail, and is left behind on the things that they climb over. The purpose of this scent is to mark territory, which can either help in finding mates, or act as an alert to trespassers. Another interesting fact is that the Binturong is one of only a few mammal species capable of delayed implantation. This means that they can breed year round, but time the birth of their young to favorable conditions. They have a gestation period of 91 days, and usually have litters of 2-3cubs. January through March are the peak months for giving birth.



Thanks again to Jon for the suggestion!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blue Tongue Skink

Tiliqua scincoides consists of three subspecies of reptile native to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats ranging from rain forests to deserts to grasslands. One of the subspecies, the Northern Blue Tongue Skink,  are the largest members of the skink family, and are capable of reaching lengths of 24 inches.

Image from Animal Pictures & Dictionary
Blue Tongue Skinks are identifiable by their -you guessed it- blue tongue. And when I say blue, I mean really blue. They are omnivores and use their tongue, strong teeth, and extremely powerful jaws to crush insects and snails. They also consume fruits and flowers. They also ingest small stones, which help in their food digestion. Blue Tongue Skinks also have the interesting anatomical feature of a transparent lower eyelid that helps the desert dwelling skinks to keep sand and dust out of their eyes. They are also capable of shedding their tails when threatened. It takes roughly a year for a new tail to grow back in.

Blue Tongue Skinks are diurnal creatures, and are mostly solitary. They live alone until the fall breeding season when the males come together and fight each other over the females. Skink babies are born via live-birth, and they are on their own almost immediately. Blue Tongue Skinks can live up to 20 years. They are also relatively popular reptiles to own as pets. They can be found in captivity worldwide.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Brazilian Wandering Spider

Brazilian Wandering Spider is a blanket term for the eight species contained within the genus Phoneutria. There are actually relatively few species of spider that pose serious threats to humans.... and these are some of them. Members of this genus are responsible for more human deaths than any other spiders. But remain calm! All members of the genus are native to specific forest and rainforest areas in Central and South America. (Though one did show up in some fruit packaging in Tulsa last year...) They are relatively large spiders on top of being incredibly venomous. Leg spans of the species range between 4 and 5 inches, and body size is 1-2in.
Image from Really Good Magazine

Brazilian Wandering Spiders get their name because they actually move about and hunt actively on the forest floor, rather than residing in nests or webs. This is one of the reasons why they are dangerous to humans. They are nocturnal creatures and thus need a place to hide out during the day. This sometimes leads them to human populated areas, where they may bite if startled.

Though they do not normally build webs, they still have the ability to produce silk, which is used to assist in climbing, to wrap prey, and to build egg sacs. The spiders feed on insects, small reptiles and mice. Their venom is a powerful neurotoxin and contains high levels of serotonin. The toxin shuts down primary functions, while the serotonin moves strait to the brain, causing pain and tremors. The bite also has the side effect of causing painful erections in men. This interesting development has led to pharmaceutical companies doing testing on the venom for ED treatments. There has been an anti-venom for the spider bites since 2004.

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Vacation

I'm off on vacation in South Carolina for the next week or so. I should have internet while there, and I have several posts written and already scheduled for publishing, so things will hopefully be running as normal... hopefully. Just a heads up!

Monkfish

Monkfish is a common name for species found within the genus Lophius. Goosefish, Anglerfish and Frogfish are also names sometimes bestowed upon these strange Lophiiformes. (Hey, that's two in one week! Go Lophiiformes!) The various species live in the benthic (ocean-bottoms) zones of the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. The discrepancy in common names comes from the locations in which the fish is found.

Image from Maryland Recreational Fisheries
Anatomically Monkfish have some interesting features. Their mouth is gigantic, and they are extremely opportunistic eaters. They'll eat fish, (including other Monkfish) crustaceans, mollusks and even seabirds. They can consume prey that is nearly as large as they are. Like many other anglerfishes, Monkfish have spines that can be bent forward to dangle in front of the fish's mouth to act as a lure for prey. There is some sexual dimorphism within the species. Females tend to be a few inches longer, (they can grow longer than 3 feet) and live a few years longer then the males. Males and females reach sexual maturity between 3 and 4 years of age and the eggs masses that are laid are buoyant and float on the ocean surface before hatching.

Monkfish were initially cast aside when they showed up in catches with cod and scallops, but it was discovered that their tails and livers were indeed edible. They are consumed as delicacies, and are sold under the names Anko and Ankimo when used within a sushi or sashimi context. Overfishing has severely damaged their populations, and while rebuilding plans have helped to recover some of their numbers, Seafood Watch still lists them as a species to avoid. They methods used in their fishing can also be damaging to ocean environments, as bottom trawls damage the sea floor and gillnets often catch other threatened species, like sea mammals and turtles.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whoops!

I actually wrote today's article about a week ago, and then it published it for that original write date rather then today. My fault! It's up and fixed now.

American Bullfrog

Rana catesbeiana is the largest frog native to North American, and has a range that covers the entire eastern half of the United States, up to about the Rocky Mountains. They extend well into Canada and parts of Mexico, and have even been found on other continents entirely. However, like many non-native species, they have become invasive and problematic. In South Korea they were brought in as a food source during the 1960s and have now multiplied to high levels and are devouring the native fish and insect populations.

Image from iFrog
You see, American Bullfrogs have an absolutely voracious appetite, and will consume just about anything that they can overpower and fit into their mouths. They'll eat rodents, insects, fish, invertebrates, turtles, birds and other frogs (including other Bullfrogs, those cannibals!). Their hunting technique is to ambush their prey. They will remain in a location and wait until something wanders by... and then lunge and attack. American Bullfrogs can grow up to 8 inches long, with an added 7-10 inches in long, powerful leg length. Females are just a tad bit larger than the males.

Not only do bullfrogs eat a whole lot, but they reproduce quite a bit as well. Breeding season lasts during the summer, and males will mate multiple times. Females will mate only once, but during that single incident she can lay up to 20,000 eggs! Bullfrog tadpoles take about two years to reach maturity, and they can live nearly a decade. In northern areas the frogs will burrow into the ground during the winter, and they remain active year round in warmer climates. Male bullfrogs are very territorial and will defend their turf from other challengers, wrestling them and sometimes even holding them underwater.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Musk Ox

The Muskox is actually one of the animals that did not make my Alaska Week final cut, but here they are now! By popular demand! Muskoxen are large arctic bovids that can be found throughout Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia. They live farther north than any other hoofed mammal. Despite the name they are actually more closely related to goats and sheep than they are to actual oxen.

Defensive Formation from AlaskaOne
Muskoxen haven't changed a whole lot since the last ice age, and have probably existed pretty much as-is for 600,000 years. They are perfectly adapted to the arctic climate with long guard hairs growing nearly two feet long and thick, woolly undercoats. The guard coat protects against the elements, as well as insects. The undercoat of a Muskox is 8 times warmer than sheep wool! They can continue to function at temperatures of -40°C. Most the males and females of the species have horns, though those of the bulls are larger. The average adult weighs around 650lbs, with the males out-sizing the females. The top weight for Muskoxen is nearly 900lbs.

While we're on the topic of weight, calves are around 20-30lbs at birth and will reach well over 200 by their first year. Muskoxen are harem breeders, meaning one bull will mate with multiple females. Males of the species will fight each other over mates. One practice they take part in is starting about 150ft apart and then charging at each other at 25mph before headbutting. Females give birth about once every two years. The calves must stick close to their woolly parents for fear of freezing.

Cow and Calf from Alaska In Pictures
Muskoxen have few predators in the wild. Wolves are one of the handful of species that can take down fullgrown adults. When threatened, the Muskoxen form a circle with all of the bulls and cows facing outwards, protecting the calves within the circle. Unfortunately, this formation does not protect them against bullets, as the Muskoxen were almost hunted to complete extinction. The currently populations in Siberia and Scandinavia were reintroduced, as the native herds had been killed off decades earlier.

Thanks John for the suggestion!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

King Cobra

At maximum lengths of 18 feet, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the world's longest venomous snake... though they are not the most deadly. In fact, they don't even seem to make the top ten in regards to most potent venom. But do not underestimate them! A single bite contains about 7ml of neurotoxin which is strong enough to kill an elephant.

Image from Photosfan
King Cobras are the only members of their genus, but they belong to a pretty large family of Elapids which is home to hundreds of venomous snakes from around the world. The King Cobra itself is found in China, India, and South East Asia. They are diurnal, carnivorous reptiles, and are comfortable on land, in trees, and even in water. The King Cobra actually feeds primarily on other snakes, though they will also eat other reptiles, mammals, birds and eggs.

The King Cobra is well known within the context of snake charming. They are able to stand up straight with a third of their entire body length. Cobras do not hear in the same way that we do, so they are not entranced by the actual music. They are most likely drawn by the vibrations and the movement of the flute. The Cobra's ability to stand comes from the way in which they hunt, which involves striking quickly in a downward motion. The King Cobra will also stand and spread its hood when feeling threatened.

King Cobras are unique in that they are the only snake that builds a nest for its eggs. Starting at around age 4 they mate once a year and lay clutches of between 20 and 50 eggs. The females will remain atop the nest, guarding her eggs until they hatch nearly 3 months later. Males will also remain in the vicinity.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Magnificent Argentine Bird

Argentavis magnificens is the largest flying bird ever discovered... but it died out about 6 million years ago. The name that I  listed in the title of this post is a basic translation from the Latin of its binomial name, which was bestowed upon the creature after its discovery in 1980. With a wingspan of roughly 25 feet, a length of 11 feet from beak to tail, and 60 inch long flight feathers, magnificent certainly seems to fit.

Despite  its huge wings and flight feathers, it is speculated that magnificens was unable to truly fly. It weighed around 150lbs, making it difficult to take off. Instead, the birds most likely had  to run downhill into a headwind, which would then lift them up and allow them to glide. Gliding is a trait common in many modern species of  raptor, especially the condor, who have the  some of the largest wingspans of any living birds and are excellent soarers. The estimated glide speed for magnificens is 67kph (or about 41mph for those who are metrically challenged like I am.) Their estimated dive speed is 241kph. (150mph)

Image from Playpen
Fossils of the bird have been found in three separate sites in Argentina. Full skeletons have not been found, but finds including humerus bones and skull fragments have allowed scientists to come to good conclusions about the size and structure of these giant birds. Magnificens is part of an overall group of large birds known as Teratorns, all of which have been extinct for at least the last 10,000 years. The birds were all carnivorous hunters, most likely consuming small to medium sized mammals, reptiles, and other birds. It is believed that magnificens had a long life span due to its size, and probably did not even reach maturity until around 10 years of age.

Edit (9-19-10) For another really awesome gigantic bird, check out the newly discovered Pelagornis chilensis!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sperm Whale

It just dawned on me that I have not yet written a single post about a cetacean! What have I been thinking?! That's going to change, right here, right now. I present Moby Dick himself... the Sperm Whale. Not only is the Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) one of the most well known of all ocean mammals, but they are very topical creatures as well. 1,665 of these guys live in the Gulf of Mexico, which, as everyone on the planet should probably know, is undergoing a major environmental crisis with the BP oil spill. As top tier predators in the region, Sperm Whales can be hugely affected by the oil. Not only can the spill make them sick directly, but it also affects their prey, which then makes its way back to the whale during consumption. This past week a young whale was found dead 70 miles from the spill, and scientists are looking into cause of death. Sperm Whales have also hit the news this past week due to a new study that shows that their excrement actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Interesting creatures indeed!

Sperm Whales live in oceans all around the world. They are huge. They are the largest of all toothed whales (Odontocetes) and males can grow 60 feet long and weigh 45 tons. They have the greatest degree of sexual dimorphism of any cetacean. Females only reach about 35ft and weigh 11-14tons. The head of a Sperm Whale makes up about a third of their overall body length, and posesses the largest brain of any animal.. though in relation to overall body size it isn't that large. The head is also filled with an oily substance called spermaceti. It is still unclear as to what this substance is for, but speculations are that it helps manage buoyancy.
Image from Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sperm Whales can hold their breaths for 90 minutes and dive down 3,200 feet. The whales have several interesting adaptations that allow them to handle the pressure changes while diving. Blood gets directed to only the most vital organs, their heart rate slows considerably, and they are able to partially collapse their rib cages. In between dives the whales rest at the surface and breathe through their blow hole, which is unique in whales in that it is located asymmetrically on the tip of the head. They spout between 3 and 7 times a minute, with the water streams reaching up to 50 feet in the air.

The mortal enemy of all Sperm Whales (that sounds so dramatic!) is the Giant Squid. Whales have been found with scars and marks chronicling their fights with the large cephalopods, which make up a nice chunk of the whales' overall diet. They also consume sharks, rays and other fish. The whales hunt with echolocation, sending out sets of creaks that bounce back to the whale once they hit another object. Sperm Whales have very few predators, man being the most prominent. They were hunted heavily in the 18th and 19th centuries for their ambergris, spermaceti, and blubber. Despite that the population is still fairly numerous. Other predators include sharks (on whale calves), and Killer Whales. IUCN lists the Sperm Whale as a vulnerable species.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Handfish

Image from Aquaportal
Fish with hands? You bet! There are 5 genera and 14 living species of handfish, all of which are pretty rare and difficult to study. Only four examples of the pink handfish have even been found, the last being in 1999. Another species is known only from a single fish... caught in the 19th century. Overall, differentiating between distinct species has been difficult because of the lack of specimens. Taxonomically, the are all members of the family Brachionichthyidae, which takes its name from the Latin words for both arm, (bracchium) and fish (ichthys). They belong to the overall order Lophiiformes, which also includes those terrifying looking deep sea anglerfish.

So what do we know about the elusive and interesting Handfishes? Well, as previously mentioned, there are 14 species, nine of which were just recently named and identified, including the aforementioned Pink Handfish. The Spotted Handfish is a previously known species, and is the best studied of the group... though it is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. All Handfishes make their homes on the shallow sea floors off the coasts of Australia and Tasmania. They use their hand-like flippers to crawl across the bottom, rather than swim. Though their range is limited now, their relatives were walking the sea floors worldwide about 50 million years ago.

Handfish are not particularly abundant because it is believed that they do not reproduce as often as other fish, nor do they lay as many eggs. They are not affected well by environment changes and thus are at a great risk for extinction. And while one would think that their slow movement would allow them to be caught and devoured with ease, it is suspected that they have a certain level of toxicity to them, which acts as a pretty effective defense mechanism. Handfish are relatively small, growing no larger than 12cm in length.

Thanks to Jon for the suggestion!

Friday, June 18, 2010

House Centipede

Inspired by a crisis at work involving one of these little friends, today I present the House Centipede. Though there are a few species who are commonly called the House Centipede, the most abundant of them is Scutigera coleoptrata. It was originally found only in the Mediterranean region, but not you can spot them worldwide. House Centipedes are not actually "insects." They belong to the Myriapoda subphylum, rather than Hexapoda, which houses the class Insecta.

Image from BugGuide
House Centipedes have 15 pairs of legs and can grow to about 2 inches in length. Their final pair of legs grows much longer than the rest. The Centipede's legs are vital for both movement (obviously) and hunting. they are very fast moving and are able to darts about on many kinds of surfaces, vertical or horizontal. They are able to consume multiple types of prey at a single time, and will hold additional meals within its legs. House Centipedes feed on insects and smaller arthropods, including flies, crickets and spiders.

House Centipedes live both indoors and out. Many people consider them to be pests and they are actually pretty hard to get rid of. They can live up to 7 years, and even if you lay out sticky traps, they can probably escape them. They will rip out the stuck leg... which can simply be regrown. House Centipedes are not dangerous to the average human. If they feel threatened they may bite, but the venom is very mild and will cause only a small bit of swelling.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Roman Snail

Also known as the Burgundy Snail and the Edible Snail, Helix pomatia is probably most commonly known by its culinary moniker... Escargot. Now, these snails are not the only species that can become Escargot, but they are certainly one of the most traditional. Roman Snails have been picked up and eaten since well, Roman times, if not earlier. While they are found in all of continental Europe, it was the Romans who first brought the snails with them to England, were they can still be found, albeit rarely. These snails now have legal protection in the U.K.

Courtship image from The Living World of Molluscs
They are quite large, with body lengths of 4 inches and shells up to 2 inches in diameter. They are the largest land snails found in Europe. Roman Snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they are both male and female at the same time, and their courtship rituals are quite extensive. The process can last for hours as the snails circle around each other before touching their soles against one another. The young that hatch from the eggs look like miniature versions of their parents, but only a few will actually live to reach maturity at about two years. Roman Snails have the ability to hibernate, which allows them to live 10-15 years.

Roman Snails also have a substantial impact on decomposition within an ecosystem. They are able to assimilate high percentages of their food, and consume it very quickly, which assists in the aforementioned decomposition and break down.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
As previously mentioned, Roman Snails are rare and have legal protection in the United Kingdom. They are also scarce and protected in other areas as well, including France. Ever since snail consumption became fashionable in the 19th century the population has reached endangered levels. The culinary tradition is only able to continue due to established Snail farms and importation from countries where the numbers are higher.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Inca Tern

The Inca Tern is one of my all time favorite birds. Why? It has a mustache! Their mustache and unique patterning make them special among seabirds, which is why they are the only member of genus Larosterna. Overall though, they are one of several dozen members of the Tern family, Sternidae. Inca Terns are seabirds that live on the rocky cliffs and islands off the west coast of South America, in the area of the Humboldt Current.

Unlike their far flying relatives the Arctic Terns, Inca Terns are non-migratory. They spend their lives living in their cliff areas, where they also breed and raise young. They are monogamous birds and lay clutches twice a year, usually around April/May and October. Nests are formed in natural burrows, and both parents assist in rearing the chicks, who remain in the nest for 7 weeks.

Because they are seabirds, Inca Terns feed on fish. They actually share a predatory range with Humboldt Penguins, but there is little competition over food as the penguins are able to retrieve their meals from much deeper ocean depths. Inca Terns obtain their food by flying over the water, spotting fish, and then diving beak fish into the waves.

Inca Terns are a near threatened species, with their wild populations on the decline. The birds survival is quite understandably tied to their food supply, which has been negatively affected by El Nino events in the past. It is estimated that the total population numbers around 150,000.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Leopard Shark

Leopard Sharks are found in muddy bays and estuaries off the West Coast of the United States, with a preferred underwater depth of around 6 meters. They aren't exceptionally large sharks. The largest one ever recorded was only 6 feet long, which pales in comparison to the Great White, which not only can exceed 20ft, but also will dine on Leopard sharks (and well, a lot of other things too).

The species is known by the distinctive bar shapes on their backs and prominent dorsal fins. They are sometimes confused with Zebra Sharks, which have similar markings but do not even remotely share a habitat. (Zebra Sharks are found in the Indian Ocean and around Australia) As far as their diet goes, they are carnivores, and feed off of crustaceans and smaller fish.

Leopard sharks are ovoviviparous, which means that they give birth to live young, but not in the way that viviparous sharks do. You see, viviparous means that the young develop inside the mother with help from an umbilical chord and placenta. Ovoviviparous means that the young develop inside the mother, but inside an egg. After they hatch from the internal egg they are born. There are sharks that fall into both of those categories, as well as sharks that simply lay the eggs (Oviparous). Anyway, Leopard Sharks are ovoviviparous, with a gestation period of about a year. They give birth to between 4-29 young, which take up to a decade to reach their own sexual maturity. Leopard sharks have lived over 20 years in captivity.

These sharks are quite abundant and are listed as animals of least concern. However, they come up in recreational and commercial fishing nets, and there is a fear of potential overfishing in the future. In the wild their primary predators are sea mammals and larger fish (like other sharks.) Leopard sharks are not dangerous to humans. There is only one incident report on file, and it doesn't even involve a bite.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lipizzan Horse

Today, in a continuation of an unofficial World Cup theme, we celebrate one of the national symbols of Slovenia. Slovenia you see, is a small country of about 2 million people that has made it to the World Cup for their second time. Yesterday morning, they even won their first game... though they're in a group with England and the United States so future wins would be quite the upset indeed.... Anyway. Animals.

Image from AMNH
The Lipizzan (or Lipizzaner) is a breed of horse that is relatively rare. In fact, only about 3,000 of them exist around the world. The horse has its origins with the Hapsburg family, a royal dynasty that controlled various territories in Europe up until the end of World War I. In 1580, Archduke Charles II established a stud farm in Lipica, Slovenia (Well, it wasn't Slovenia then, but you get the idea) with the intent of creating first class riding horses. Lipica is also known as Lipizza in Italian, which is where the breed's name comes from. Lipizzans were bred from the native Karst horses, mixed with imported Spanish stock, Andalusians and Barbs.

Since the late 18th/ early 19th century all Lipizzans have been descended from 6 stud lines, and keeping those lines going has run into some problems. The breed has a rather interesting history of movement during warfare. The stud farm was relocated three times during the Napoleonic Wars and again during World War I, which left the future of the breed divided once the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was split up. Prior to WWI, all Lipizzans were bred in one location and were in private possession of the Hapsburg family. The division of nations forced the horses to be split up between multiple countries, which is how the current breeding farm situation is today. The horses were also relocated and dispersed during World War II. The original stud farm in Lipica still exists, and is still breeding Lipizzan horses after 430 years.

Image from Travel With a Challenge
Now that the history crash course is over, we can talk about the horse itself. Lipizzans are traditionally white in appearance, but are not "true white" horses, which is a genetic rarity. Grey, brown and black Lipizzans also exist. Foals are born with dark hair, which then lightens over time. The breed overall is slow to mature. It can take between 6 and 10 years for the coat to fully lighten, and the horses are able to preform well into their 20s. Lipizzans are exceptionally good as dressage, and are the sole breed used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. They are strong, muscular, yet graceful horses, capable of performing the Airs Above the Ground. An arena attraction, the "World Famous" Lipizzaner Stallions, has been touring for forty years, showing off the horses's feats.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Blue Crane

World Cup 2010 has begun, and unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably aware that it is taking place in South Africa, the first time it has ever been held on that continent. So in honor of this grand event, I present the national bird of South Africa: the Blue Crane. I had debated doing a write-up on the Springbok, their national animal, (and Rugby mascot) but I feel like I cover deer/antelope species far too often, so I'm going to put that one off till a later date (the finals perhaps?)

Image from Iyuefra.com
Anyway, less musing, more birds. 99% of all Blue Cranes (Anthropoides paradisea) are found within South Africa. They have the most restricted distribution of any crane species. They live in grassland areas, and sometimes use wetlands for breeding and roosting. Blue Cranes are a medium sized crane, standing about four feet tall and weighing in at eleven pounds. (In comparison, the largest crane, and also the largest flying bird, is the Sarus Crane. It stands 5.9 feet tall) They are bluish-grey in color, with black winds and legs. There is no distinction between the males and females of the species. Interestingly, the Blue Crane is the only crane that does not have the color red on it.

Blue Cranes reach breeding age at 3-4 years. They mate for life and the partners will rarely leave visual range of one another. Like other species of crane, Blue Crane mates engage in unison calling. It is believed that these calls and movements serve a variety of purposes outside of courtship, including motor development adn tension release. But anyway, back to breeding. They prefer to nest on the ground, in grassy areas where their eggs can be hidden. 2-3 eggs are laid at a time.

Poisoning from agriculture, and loss and alteration of habitats has placed the Blue Crane as vulnerable. The South African government and private groups have been working to protect the species.

The Blue Crane is found on the South African 5 cent coin!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hispaniolan Solenodon

Alright so. The Hispaniolan Solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) is considered to be one of the best examples of what mammals looked like during their beginnings over 70 million years ago. The ancestors of this shrew-like creature branched off from other mammalian families during the late Cretaceous period, and the extant Hispaniolan Solenodon is now one of the last few remaining native mammal species in the Caribbean. Literally dozens of mammal species existed on these islands prior to human colonization, but now due to loss of habitat and increased predation from introduced species populations, only around fifteen remain.
Image from Focus on Nature

The Hispaniolan Solenodon is unique to the island of Hispaniola, were it can be found in a multitude of habitats... well, that is, if you can find them. They are very difficult to locate in the wild, and at times many believed them to be extinct. Conservation efforts have been ongoing between various government agencies, zoo organizations, and the EDGE program. EDGE brings awareness and conservation to some of the rarest and most genetically unique mammal and amphibian species in the world. The Hispaniolan Solenodon is an EDGE Focal Species.

What makes the Hispaniolan Solenodon so unique? Well, aside from the 76 million year old evolutionary split, they are one of only a few mammals that can produce toxic saliva. This mechanism is used to capture their insect prey and is something that was more commonly found in prehistoric mammals. The venom is injected through their lower incisors. Solenodons are about the size of rats, are nocturnal, and live in family groups that consist of a breeding pair and one to two offspring. Only one case of captive breeding has ever been documented. Their life expectancy in the wild is unknown, but one captive individual lived eleven years, which places them as relatively long lived small mammal. Traditionally they only had three major predators, the Barn and Stygian Owls, and the Hispaniolan Boa. Today, feral dogs and cats, as well as mongoose introduced to the island, have hurt their numbers considerably. More information about this fascinating creature and its conservation can be found at EDGE and at The Last Survivors project.

Thank you so much to @greenantilles for the wonderful suggestion!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Magnificent Hummingbird

The Magnificent Hummingbird, once known as Rivoli's Hummingbird,  is native to Central America and the south western United States and is one of the largest hummingbirds with a whopping 14cm body length and an 18 cm wingspan! (OK, I guess that's not really whopping, but it's pretty largest compared to the Bee Hummingbird which is only 5cm long!) There are two subspecies, Eugenes fulgens fulgens in the northern part of the range, and E. f. spectabilis in the south, primarily in Costa Rice and Panama. They are the only members of the genus Eugenes.

Image from Ownbyphotography.com
These lovely birds are identified by their green, purples and gray colors. The sexes appear differently, with the males having dark green backs, black undersides, purple crowns and shiny metallic green necks. The females are a bit less flashy, with a more olive colored green on their backs and grey undersides. They are typical of hummingbirds in many ways, but their size gives them a few differences. For one, they fly more slowly, and sometimes even glide. Also, though it consumes nectar like other species of hummingbird, the Magnificent Hummingbird also frequently dines on insects.

What I find interesting about these birds is that so little is known about them. They are not an endangered or threatened species, yet information about much of their behavior is not yet known. What we do know is that they reside in a variety of completely different habitats, lay two eggs at the time and that larger birds and snakes are their major predators.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Horseshoe Crab

I've been working my way through back episodes of the PBS series "Nature." If you have never seen it, go to their website, they have tons of full episodes. It's amazing, really. Anyway. Recently I came across an episode titled "Crash: A Tale of Two species" and it drew me in in a way I had never expected, especially for a show whose major star is a weird looking invertebrate. Without doing an entire plot synopsis, it details the intricate relationship between a small, migratory sea bird known as a Red Knot, and the strange, ancient Horseshoe Crab. So today, inspired by that episode, we dive in to the world of the Horseshoe Crab!

Image from University of Delaware
First off, it isn't actually a crab at all. Though it belongs to the Arthropod phylum, along with crabs and other crustaceans, its subphylum is Chelicerata, home to spiders and scorpions. Moving further down the taxonomic chart, the four species of Horseshoe crab are the only living members of their entire Family, Order, and Class.  What that means in a nutshell is that they are quite unique genetically, and that they split from their nearest living relatives a long, long time ago. (The fact that there are only 4 species in the entire class is really strange when you consider that the three other classes in phylum Arthropoda- Insecta, Arachnida, and Crustacea- have one million, seventy thousand, and twenty thousands species respectively)

So I've already mentioned their ancient-ness. But just how ancient are they? Well, fossils of their ancestors have been found that date back 360 million years. That's 160 million years before any dinosaurs even showed up! They have survived massive extinctions when other related species (like Trilobites) have not. Now they are found primarily on the eastern coast of the United States. More Horseshoe Crabs spawn in Delaware Bay than in any other location on a planet. (Delaware has even designated them as their State Marine Animal)

Image from A Delmarva Odyssey
I could probably talk about these guys for an absurdly long amount of time, but I'll start to wrap this up with a few fast facts: Horseshoe crabs molt several times, stopping at around age ten. Females molt a few more times than males, making them larger. They also have ten eyes which are mostly light sensors! Oh, and their blood is Blue. Not only is it blue, but it has a unique trait in that detects bacteria and toxins and forms clots around them to contain and destroy. LAL testing, which uses this strange blood, is required by the FDA for all new IV and injectable drugs.

Anyway, to learn more about Horseshoe Crabs I would highly recommend watching the aforementioned "Nature" episode. Also, check out Horseshoecrab.org, and a Horseshoe Crab site put together by the University of Delaware. Both resources provide excellent information about the history, evolution and anatomy of this interesting invertebrates. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Torosaurus


I haven't written about any Extinct animals since the Mother's Day Quagga, so I'm definitely overdue. Thus, I present the Torosaurus, a dinosaur which walked the earth during the late Cretaceous Period, around 70 million years ago. It also just so happens to be the very first dinosaur that you see when entering that particular wing at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

First discovered in 1889 in Wyoming, and then named in 1891, all Torosaurus fossils have been found in the western United States and Canada. The Torosaurus was a bird-hipped, herbivorous dinosaur that probably weighed around 4 tons. It used a beak like mouth to shear tough vegetation, and it also had the largest skull of any land animal yet discovered, with fossilized skulls measuring 8 feet in length. The skull also included a massive frill which had two large symmetrical openings, which possibly existed in order to cut off some weight. In addition, the Torosaurus had three large horns, two immediately above the eye socket, and one smaller one on the snout, all of which face forward.

Image from Texas Geology
The term Torosaurus encompasses an entire genus, conveniently named Torosaurus. Two species have been classified, though the true identity of the genus is under debate. So few fossil remains have been discovered that it is speculated that Torosauruses may actually be a different growth phase of the more abundant Triceratops. Recent studies into dinosaur growth have already eliminated a handful of species, and there are estimates that further research could eliminate 1/3 of all species entirely, as they are really just different growth stages of other species.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Solomon Islands Leaf Frog

Because Alaska wasn't exactly teeming with cold blooded wildlife, (besides a few species of sea turtle, one toad, and two frogs) I've gotta give the reptiles and amphibians some love. So today's featured animal is a frog native to a climate that is the complete opposite of Alaska's: The Solomon Island Leaf Frog. Also known as the Solomon Island Eyelash Frog and the Triangle Frog, Ceratobatrachus guentheri is indigenous to the forest floors of hot and humid Papua New Guinea, and of course, the nearby Solomon Islands.

Frog at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Solomon Island Leaf Frogs are quite interesting in that they are one of the few types of frog that do not undergo a metamorphic phase. Most frogs (and amphibians in general) are born as tadpoles, and as they age they shift from their young aquatic forms to their adult land dwelling ones. Solomon Island Leaf Frogs have no tadpole phase outside of their egg development. They undergo metamorphosis within their eggs, and then hatch as tiny frogs which simply grow larger over time.

They come in a variety of different colors, from golden to duller browns, and are sometimes referred to as "eyelash" frogs due to the growths over their eyes that help to give them a more leafy appearance. They are sometimes kept as pets, and it is advised to not keep them where you are sleeping, since they are nocturnal creatures, and can produce some rather loud sounds.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Alaska Week Complete!

Well, I can finally post an update here now that Blogger is back online. Alaska Week is over! And it didn't actually last two weeks! (just 8 days...) I had so many animals I wanted to include, so the few that I was able to force myself to cut out will be showing up sometime soon...

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone for the great comments and feedback. The animal randomness will be going back to normal for a bit. Keep sending over suggestions!

Oh, and you may have noticed yet another new layout. This blog is still new and I'm still messing around with things, so bear with me on the changes :)

Grand Cayman Blue Iguana

Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas (or Grand Cayman Iguana, or even just Blue Iguana) are extremely endangered in the wild, and have been for quite some time. In fact, they are the most endangered iguana in the entire world. Their species name, lewisi, comes from the naturalist who first wrote about them, Bernard C. Lewis. Even back in 1938, Lewis understood their rarity, stating that he doubted more than a dozen even lived on the island.

Blue Iguanas live naturally in only one location, Grand Cayman, a 76 square mile island in the Caribbean Sea. It is the largest animal native to the island, growing 5 feet long and weight 25-30lbs. These iguanas are also one of the longest-lived species of  lizard, with the oldest on record dying at the age of 69.

Like most iguanas, Grand Caymans are herbivores. Studies show that their diet entails 45 different species of plant, with 80% of their overall consumption coming from leaves, and the remaining 20% from fruit. These iguanas are solitary animals, with females guarding a single territory and males alternating between multiple locations. During mating season, the males will try and extend their range further, encompassing as many female territories as possible. Females stop eating in order to make room for the 20ish eggs that she will lay. Iguanas, like most reptiles, do not assist in raising their young.

Groups are now working diligently to restore the species in the wild. A Nation Trust has been set up, which receives assistance not only from the local government, but also from zoos and organizations from around the world. There are now over 300 iguanas in the wild, with hopes to get the number up over 1,000, which would remove its Critically Endangered ranking. However, steps still need to be taken to ensure that their habitat is protected, as human factors, along with dog and cat populations, still threaten the species.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Harbor Seal

Our final Alaska Week animal will be one of my favorites - the Harbor Seal. Like some of our other Alaskan friends, Harbor Seals, also known as Common Seals, can be found in other locations. In fact, they exist on the Northern Hemisphere coats of the both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Harbor Seals are abundant in Alaska, numbering over 150,000. This is a substantial amount when the entire Pacific population is only around 300,000.

Taxonomically, Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) are considered True or Eared Seals, and are members of family Phocidae. This differentiates them from the fur seals and sea lions (Otariids or Eared Seals) with whom they share the overall Pinniped super family. True Seals have no external ears, dense, short hair, internal or retractable reproductive organs, and are better suited to ocean swimming and endurance than the Eared Seals, though they trade off is a definite awkwardness on land.

Image from Seal Sitters
Harbor Seals can dive to depths of 1640 feet and hold their breath for over 20 minutes. Males are slightly larger than females, reaching 6.5ft as opposed to 5.5. They feed on fish, squid and octopi, and they in turn are fed upon by killer whales, sharks, sea lions, and even land predators like bears and wolves. They are also huntedThey are relatively solitary animals, sometimes living completely alone and sometimes living only in small groups. The mother/pup bond is exceptionally strong due to the lack of large protective colonies. Interestingly the milk that mothers feed their pups can contain up to 45% fat.

Harbor Seals are incredibly non-vocal. While I'm sure a lot of people think of loud barking when they think of any type of seal or sea lion, the Harbor Seal doesn't bark at all. Young pups have unique cries to tie them to their mothers, but beyond that, most of the seals' vocal communication is done underwater. Above water, physical communication is far more common.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Arctic Tern

The Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any animal in the entire world. In a single year, these 4oz, 15 inch wingspan seabirds can fly 44,000 miles. Forty Four Thousand. And with their lifespan of over 30 years, that is equivalent to three round trip flights to the moon. For further perspective, that's 1.5 million miles, or 62 full trips around the Earth. Numbers!

Image from the Seabird Group
Terns reside in the coastal areas of the two poles, though they also have breeding grounds as far south as England and Ireland. They spend the winters down in Antarctica, feasting off of fish and crustaceans in preparation for the springtime commute up to the Arctic areas to breed and raise their young. Terns mate for life, and both parents care for their offspring, which number between one and three per clutch. Eggs take 3-4 weeks to hatch, and then it is only another 3-4 weeks after birth before the chicks fledge. They remain with their parents a few months after that, and will eventually join them and the rest of the flock on the flight back to the wintering grounds. Terns reach sexual maturity at 3-4 years of age. Like another one of our Alaska Week friends, the Chinook Salmon, the Arctic Tern returns to its birthplace in order to breed, sometimes even to the exact same colony. Happily though, they do not die!

Arctic Terns are not a threatened species overall. Populations in certain areas (such as new England) have declines or gone extinct altogether, but on the whole their remote living quarters has kept the species stable.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Caribou

Caribou are also known as Reindeer, though that's mostly a European thing. In Canada and Alaska, wild creatures are Caribou, while the domesticated animals are sometimes called Reindeer. So because this is Alaska Week, and because I'll mostly be discussing the wild specimens, we're going to go with Caribou.

There are seven subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, only one of which, the Barren Ground Caribou, is found in Alaska. Two others, the Peary and Woodland, have ranges in Canada, while the other four are found in Europe and Greenland. There are over a million individual Caribou in Alaska, divided into 32 herds. These herds migrate, sometimes travelling up to 3,700 miles in a year. These migrations have been tracked and studied by scientists for years due to their massive range and overall distance.

Caribou are unique as a deer species in that both the males and females have antlers, which they shed yearly. Antlers in males are substantially larger than those in females, whose antlers are smaller and more irregular. Male caribou can also reach weights of over 400lbs, with figures of up to 700lbs recorded. Females top out at around 250. Caribou have some pretty neat hooves to help them with both their food supply and their migrations. They have very wide set feet with spongy footpads to help them move over snowy and wet surfaces. In winter the pads shrink, which exposes the hoof edge to form a kind of ice pick / shovel. These hooves give them better traction by allowing them to dig into icy terrain. They also help to uncover lichens, which is one of their most popular food sources.
Lounging (taken at Milwaukee County Zoo)

Caribou were domesticated several thousand years ago (the exact date seems up in the air, but between 5,000-2,000 years ago seems the most likely) Domesticated Caribou (more often referred to as Reindeer) are vitally important to many Arctic societies. In Scandinavia and and Siberia, the entirely livelihood of a culture can depend upon the herd. Notable examples are the Sami's, who used and still use the reindeer for multiple purposes including transportation (not only do they pull sleighs, you can ride them!), food, and clothing. Domesticated Caribou are not as common in North America, but the usefulness of the wild populations has had an impact on those cultures as well.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Alaskan King Crab

There are three species of King Crab fished commercially in Alaska, the Red King Crab, the Blue King Crab, and the Golden King Crab. A fourth species, the Scarlet King Crab, is also found in Alaskan waters, but is rare and does not support a commercial fishing industry. All four species belong to the overall super-family, Lithodoidea, which houses 113 living species overall.

Golden King from Calacademy.com
King crabs have five pairs of legs. The back pair are much smaller then the rest, and are usually hidden in the crab's carapace (body). They serve an important function during the mating season however, as females use them to tend to the embryos that she keeps under her tail, and they males use them in the fertilization process. The middle three sets of legs are used for walking, and the final set, that which is closest to the front of the body, sports pincers. In most crabs, the right claw is substantially larger than the left.

Like most animals, the King Crab grows larger as it ages. However, its carapace does not grow with it. As they age, the crabs must molt and grow new shells (which are made primarily of calcium). This molting process happens much more often when they are juveniles, and less when they are adults and have more or less plateau'd in size. King Crabs can live 25-30 years, and crabs that make it to those ages can be as many as five feet in leg span. King Crabs feed on all sorts of small marine life, including each other. They are preyed upon by fish, octopuses, and otters.

Red King from Alaska Fisheries Science Center
The Red King Crab is the most harvested of the Alaskan King Crabs. Crab fishing is also one of the most dangerous of all professions, with fatalities over 20 times greater than the average U.S. rate. The amount of danger involved in the Alaskan King Crab Industry has led to the creation of the Discovery Channel series, Deadliest Catch.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Grizzly Bear

So what is the difference between a Brown Bear, a Grizzly Bear, and a Kodiak Bear? A large part of it has to do with location. Brown Bears stick to the coastal areas, Grizzlies prefer inland habitats, and Kodiak Bears are native to a small chain of islands in Southern Alaska, where they have been isolated from the rest of the bear population since the last Ice Age. (12,000) years ago!)

There are also a physical differences - most noticeably, a hump! Grizzly have shoulder humps made up of fat and muscle that lend extra strength to their front legs, giving them a better ability to dig and swipe. Grizzlies also posses long, white-tipped guard hairs on their shoulders and backs that give them a "grizzled" appearance. Hence the name. There is also some pretty substantial sexual dimorphism going on with these guys, as the males can easily weigh double that of a female and be nearly 2 feet taller when standing on the hind legs.

Grizzly bears are omnivores, notoriously consuming whatever food is easily available to them. Salmon swimming to and from spawning areas are a popular meal, and the bears are also known to go after large prey such as Moose and Caribou. However, they also consume large amounts of plant material, including roots, which is where the digging skills come in.

Grizzlies are solitary animals. They mature sexually at around 5 years of age, and the males and female come together to breed in June or July. Females go in to hibernation and give birth, usually to twins, during the winter while hibernating. Mothers take excellent care of their young, who stay with them for about two years.

While the Grizzly Bear is found in only 2% of its original, native habitat down the the lower 48 states, the Alaskan population is thriving. 98% of America's Brown Bears (including Grizzlies) are found in Alaska, which also houses 70% of the overall North American population.
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