Saturday, July 31, 2010

Coming Soon!

If anyone besides me is keeping count, Thursday, August 5th will be Animal A Day's 100th animal. So in celebration of this momentous occasion I'll be having yet another special theme week. And this time, I'm going to be stepping outside of the box: we're going to be talking about Mythical Creatures!

So come back on Thursday (and heck, every day up till then too, I still have lots of fun animals planned until then) and meet our first featured Mythical Beast. I'll also be making a few other site changes as well during the next week or so, including a slightly different layout, new pages, and a new suggestion system. Be sure to check it out and let me know what you think!

And take a look at that awesome sloth over there. I found a set of zoology textbooks from the 1920s at a book fair last week. Absolutely full of amazing drawings and diagrams. I'm trying to figure out something to do with this new resource...

Wolf Spider

The Tarantula Wolf Spider, Lycosa tarantula is the very first spider to ever be given the name "Tarantula," due to its native habitat around Taranto, Italy. Interestingly, what many non-Europeans consider to be Tarantulas are not even within the same taxonomic family as the genus Lycosa, and are instead their own distinct family, Theraphosidae. Tarantula Wolf Spiders are often simply called Wolf Spiders because of this.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
There are over 200 species within Lycosa alone, and several hundred more spread throughout the family Lycosidae. Wolf Spiders are large (some can grow to 2 inches) and are distinguished by their large eyes positioned centrally on their heads. Like all spiders, they have two body segments, and eight legs. They are (mostly) diurnal, ground dwelling spiders that hunt down their prey. This differentiates them from many other spider types, as they do not use webs. Another interesting trait is that the females actually carry their egg sacs with them, holding their abdomens up high so they do not hit the ground.

Wolf Spiders are actually really awesome to have around! They are wonderful hunters and can keep pest levels down. They are almost always found outdoors, though sometimes they'll end up inside by accident. If you find one, don't kill it! They can be herded into containers and transported back outside, where they are sure to keep away centipedes, beetles, cockroaches, and all sorts of other arthropods.

Wolf Spiders are abundant. Lycosidae has members across the world, and more than 125 species in the United States alone. Wolf Spiders have been known to bite humans, though it is rare and typically only happens when they are directly handled. They are poisonous, but it is mild and gives a similar reaction to a bee sting.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Raccoon Dog

So, is it a dog? Or a raccoon? If you guessed canine, you'd be right. Raccoon Dogs (also known as Tanuki)  are in fact canids, through they split away from the other members of family Canidae somewhere between 7 and 10 million years ago. They are the only species within the genus Nyctereutes.


Image by Jinsuk Kim
Raccoon Dogs and actual Raccoons are far, far more distantly related, but the species name of the dog, procyonoides, is a nod to Procyon, the genus in which Raccoons are found. Raccoon Dogs are native to East Asia, and are now abundant in Central and Eastern Europe due to introduction there for the fur trade. In some areas of Scandinavia, Raccoon Dogs outnumber the native foxes. Raccoon Dogs are still hunted for their fur, but their numbers are large, and so the species as a whole is not threatened. They live in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, dense forests, and urban areas.

As one could probably guess by now, Raccoon Dogs have such a name for a reason. Their facial markings resemble those of a Raccoon. They are very foxy in appearance, but with shorter legs and a shorter tail. And did I mention that they have claws that allow them to climb trees? They also have a diet that seems to mirror that of a Raccoon... they eat small mammals, insects, crabs, fruits, nuts, and garbage.

Raccoon Dogs are monogamous, possibly for life, and live in dens that were often built by another species. They give birth to litters sized between 6 and 8, and both parents help to raise the pups. Raccoon Dogs hibernate. They are the only canid to do this in their natural state.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

False Gharial

I saw one of these interesting crocodilians at a zoo while I was on vacation last month, and its odd appearance blew me (and my family members who I went with) completely away. Tomistoma schlegelii is known as the "False" Gharial because it shares a similar snout to the "True" Gharials, but other morphological features place it within the family Crocodylidae. However, recent studies are showing that it might just be closely related to the True Gharials after all, and now the classification is a tad bit up in the air.

False Gharials are huge.. though not as huge as the other Gharials. They do however, regularly reach lengths of over 4 meters. Their snout is one of their most interesting features, because while the rest of their body is long and wide, their snout it quite thin. They live in Malaysia and Indonesia, and like all crocodilians, most of their time is spent in the water. Not a whole lot is known about their behavior. It is suspected that females build mound-nests to lay their eggs upon, but that the hatchlings receive no parental assistance.

False Gharials are considered to be harmless toward humans. The largest animals they are known to prey on are monkeys and small deer, though overall fish and crustaceans comprise a large portion of their diet. The slender snout that they possess helps them to capture these creatures, as it provides less water resistance when thrashing back and forth, and also allows them to probe into dens and burrows. Prey is swallowed whole.

False Gharials are an endangered species due to habitat loss, fishing, and the skin trade. Their are specimens in captivity (such as the one I got to see) but the total number of the wild population is probably around 2,500 adults, and they are very fragmented.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiaca) go by a variety of different names: Artic Owl, Great White Owl, Ghost Owl, or my personal favorite, the White Terror of the North! Even their scientific name was a bit up for grabs, as for years they were classified as the sole extant species within the genus Nyctea. But now, thanks to the magic of *science*, they are now classified with the Great Horned Owls within the genus Bubo.


Image from Wikimedia Commons
Snowy Owls are large, diurnal owls that can be found in Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions across the planet. As their name might suggest, they are white birds as adults. Younger birds have some darker coloration, as do the adult females. (In the Harry Potter films, Hedwig was played by a male owl, as the females have more dark spots)

They are a very nomadic species, as in, individual birds do not live in the same area their entire lives. They follow the prey. Many birds also have separate breeding and wintering grounds. Because they breed in open tundras, their nests are built on the group and are vigilantly defended... even from much larger animals like wolves. Because Snowy Owls do not hunt near their nest, other birds species sometimes move in for the protection, as the Owls will drive off other predators in order to protect their eggs.

Snowy Owls hunt by waiting, usually on hills or outcroppings. They sit still until seeing a potential prey object, and they swoop down to capture it either directly from the air, off the ground, or from the water. They feed on small mammals, including hares, voles, and lemmings. Fish, and various bird species are also hunted. After catching their target, they bring it to the ground, flip it over, and break its neck with their beaks to kill it. Snowy Owls will swallow whole anything that they can, but larger prey is torn up and carried off in pieces. When prey is swallow whole and a lot of roughage is consume, more pellets are created.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pistol Shrimp

The common name Pistol Shrimp can refer to one of the 600 species belonging to the family Alpheidae. They are also sometimes referred to as Snapping Shrimp. Most species are found in tropical and temperate saltwater, though others are able to live in colder seas, and even in freshwater caves. They feed off of fish and other crustaceans and typically live within burrows.

Shrimp and Goby
They are an interesting little family of Crustaceans in that they share a handful of bizarre characteristics. The first is physical: all species have one "normal" sized claw, while the second claw is much, much larger. They use these claws for what is probably their most interesting trait; their title as one of the loudest creatures in existence. Even though they are small, growing not much larger than a few inches, Pistol Shrimp are able to produce 218 decibel sounds. This is louder than a gunshot, (typically around 190 decibels) and comparable to sounds made by the 50 ton Sperm Whale. They do so by snapping their large claws closed, which creates something called a cavitation bubble. When this bubble collapses, it not only produces an incredible loud pop, but it also, very briefly, creates extremely hot temperatures, up to 4700 degrees Celsius! (that's nearly 8,500 Fahrenheit) This bubble is able to stun prey, and on a human beings feels like getting snapped hard by a rubber band.

Pistol Shrimp also have an interesting relationship with Goby fish. The two creatures share a burrow and remain in physical contact at all times. The Shrimp have terrible eyesight, but the Goby's is exceptional. If the Goby spots danger, it twitches to warn the Shrimp, and both are able to move to safety. In return, the Shrimp maintains the den that they share. This relationship exists even with captive shrimp and fish.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Giant Swallowtail

Papilio cresphontes is the largest butterfly species in North America. They can be found throughout the Southern United States and Mexico, and in spattered areas across the Eastern and Central United States.

Image from Florida HTR
Giant Swallowtails are pretty easy to pick out. Not only are they large, with wingspans of up to 6 inches, but they have some pretty interesting coloration. The wings of the adults are black, but a horizontal band of yellow crosses from wing to wing, with additional mirrored yellow patterns found below, and possibly above, this band. Red marking are also sometimes found in the tail. Caterpillars are brown with white splotches, which camouflages them to look a lot like bird droppings. They are called "Orangedogs" due to an orange gland that acts as a further defense mechanism by secreting a toxin.

Giant Swallowtails feed off the nectar of a variety of plants, including Azaleas and Goldenrods. The caterpillars feed off of Citrus trees, and are considered to be pests by growers of Sweet Oranges. Giant Swallowtails prefer to lay their eggs on Citrus plants, and they do so by laying single eggs on various trees. The larvae eventually hatch, and then go through five phases before they form a chrysalis.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Short-Beaked Echidna

The Short-Beaked Echidna is one of the most bizarre mammals in existence. It, along with four other Echidna species and the Duck-Billed Platypus, are the world's only living Monotremes. Monotremes are considered to be very primitive mammals, in that they lay eggs in order to reproduce. All other mammals practice placental birth. There has been some arguement about where Monotremes should be placed taxonomically. Some consider them to be a separate, sister class to mammals, while others believe them to be reptiles (due to additional similarities in the digestive and excretory systems). Currently, they are placed as an Order within a separate subclass within Mammalia.

Image from Wildlife Queensland
The Short-Beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is found throughout Australia and parts of New Guinea. There are five different subspecies that inhabit various ranges throughout. Within their range, the Short-Beaked Echidna  lives in a multitude of different habitats, ranging from mountain areas to deserts, and everything in between. They are even able to tolerate snow and cold weathers. They prefer to live in burrows, favoring fallen logs, caves, or even self dug burrows in the ground.

Short-Beaked Echidnas have clawed front feet that are exceptional for digging. These feet also help them to locate their favorite meals - ants and termites - so that they can slurp them up with their long tongues. Short-Beaked Echidnas have no teeth. Their bodies are covered with spines, interspersed with hair. These are used for defense. Short-Beaked Echidnas have compact, muscular bodies, and are able to roll up into a ball that is extremely difficult for predators to penetrate. They have wonderful senses of smell, but poor eyesight. Short-beaked Echidnas are warm blooded, and they do in fact produce milk for their young.

Short-Beaked Echidnas are typically very shy, solitary creatures, and will only come together to mate. After mating, the female will lay a single eggs, which is incubated in a pouch until hatching. The baby (unofficially called a puggle!) will remain in the pouch (similar to marsupials) until it's spines begin to grow. At that point it is raised in an external burrow. Short-Beaked Echidnas are the only Monotremes that are commonly found within captivity. They have also been bred in captivity.

Thanks to @iflylikeicarus for the suggestion!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Moustached Tamarin

I try and write about so many random animals that when I realize I've neglected a specific type (like spiders and sharks in the past) I feel I need to rectify the situation immediately! I've never written about a primate! They are the creatures most genetically similar to ourselves and yet in three months I have not once mentioned them. For shame! So today we're going to talk about the Moustached Tamarin, a tiny member of the Primate order that I think looks pretty darn terrific.

Image from BlueAnimalBio
The Mustached Tamarin, or Saguinus mystax, is a small little guy. Their body length (tail not included) is between 25 and 35 cm, with a non-prehensile tail adding on an additional 30-40cm. They are identified by their entirely black body... save for a white mustache that gives them their name. (Though the Emperor Tamarin, a fellow genus member, has an even more spectacular 'stache.)

Mustached Tamarins are omnivores, and feed off of fruits, insects, and other small animals. They are found in the tropical rainforests of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. Mustached Tamarins are diurnal, arboreal primates, and they live in small communities of unrelated males and females. From a reproductive standpoint, most societies are polyandrous, meaning one females has multiple male mates. Monogamy and polygyny (one male with multiple females) is also sometimes seen. Female Tamarins often give birth to large twins that may weight 25% of the mother's overall weight. The entire group works together to raise all of the infants.

There are three subspecies of Mustached Tamarin, and all are relatively abundant within their native areas.  Thankfully their are no real threats to their current population, and thus they are listed by the IUCN as being of Least Concern.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Victoria Crowned Pigeon

I know I wrote about another pigeon just last week, but I read about these guys in a book yesterday and just had to learn more about them. Pigeon the size of a turkey you say? To the internet!

Image from MDH
The Victoria Crowned Pigeon is the largest living species of pigeon. They can stand over 70cm tall, and weigh up to 5lbs, with the males being slightly larger than the females. They are actually not the largest pigeons of all time, however. The extinct Dodo was a member of the pigeon family, and weighed over 40lbs! Victoria Crowned Pigeons sport beautiful blue and purple plumage, including a crest that the top of their head. Both the males and females display these dazzling colors and crests. They are named for both their crest, and for Britain's Queen Victoria. They are found in the dense forests of New Guinea and other small, surrounding islands.

Like many bird species, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon mates for life. A nest is built from twigs and leaves, and in it is laid one egg. Both parents incubate it until hatching after 4 weeks. The chick is naked and helpless, and is fed crop milk by both parents for the first few days before switching over to a regurgitated diet. They fledge after about a month, but will continue to stay with their parents for a few weeks longer. As mentioned in the Rock Pigeon post, Pigeons (and Flamingos) are unique birds in that they produce the aforementioned crop milk, which is a secretion not all that different from mammals milk, but is produced in a part of their throat.

Unfortunately, the Victoria Crowned Pigeons beautiful plumage has attracted unwanted human attention. They have been poached for their feathers, and have been snatched out of the wild for the illegal pet trade. Deforestation and hunting has also hurt their numbers, and they are now considered a vulnerable species.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Elephant Seal

The genus Mirounga holds two extant species, the Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris) and the Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina). The two species, predictably enough, reside in their respectively named hemispheres. The Northern Elephant Seals are often found on offshore islands and along the California coast. Southern Seals live in Antarctica, splitting time (depending on the season) between the mainland and the offshore pack ice.

Arguing Males from Friends of the Elephant Seals
Southern Elephant Seals are the largest of all the seals. The heaviest males recorded were over 8,000lbs. Both the Southern and Northern seals demonstrate extreme sexual dimorphism. Females rarely weigh much over 1,000lbs, and only grow to be about half as long as the males. They also do not sport the species' naming feature: the elephant trunk-like nose that is exclusive to the males. These noses assist the males in making loud, resonating sounds during the breeding season. Both the males and females lose a large amount of their body weight during that season, as they do not feed until the pups are weaned. Females can lose 35% of their overall mass.

The breeding season is interesting for the Elephant Seal. Males come ashore and fight each other, often brutally, for mates. Elephant Seals are polygynous, with one male breeding with a large number of females. After the dominant males have established themselves, the female arrive and give birth to the pups that they have been pregnant with for the past year. While they are nursing their pups, they will mate again with one of the males. Once their pups are weaned and mating is complete, the seals return to the sea. It is possible for females to give birth to ten pups over their lifetimes, and their overall life expectancy is a few years longer than the males.

Image from ItsNature
As previously mentioned, the Northern Elephant Seals can be found along the California coast. One site in particular houses a large colony that comes in year round to perform various functions. Año Nuevo state park sees thousands of Elephant Seals each year, either breeding, birthing, or molting. I was lucky enough to visit this place a few years back during the adult male molting season, and even from a pretty far distance back you can appreciate just how massive these pinnipeds are!

Both Northern and Southern Elephant Seals were hunted to near extinction for their oil during the 19th and early 20th century. Populations are now protected, and the Northern species has been steadily growing. The Southern Elephant Seals, however, have been experiencing a population decline in recent years. The exact reason for this is unknown, but it may just be that without hunting, the population has grown faster than the prey can sustain.

Thanks to John for the suggestion!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Megalodon

Today, one of the most deadly and dangerous sharks is the Great White, which can grow to lengths of 20 feet. less than two million years go, however, we would've had the Megalodon to deal with. It is perhaps the largest predatory fish ever to exist, sporting lengths of over 50 feet, and a jaw 7 feet wide. Their individual teeth could grow to 7 inches long, and during the Renaissance, fossilized teeth were thought to be the teeth of mythical dragons! It wasn't until the late 17th century that scientists realized they were looking at a really, really big shark. (Teeth are really the only remnant that we have of these beast, as cartilage fossilizes very poorly)

Really, really big shark.

Image from Thinkquest
So what did the Megalodon eat? In short, probably everything. It is estimated they they consumed up to 2,500lbs of food each and every day, which really doesn't seem like all that much when you consider that they have to power a muscular body that weighs over 50tons. They most likely consumed whales of the time, as well as fish, and other sea mammals. Megalodons lived in coastal areas around the world. Basically nothing fed on them.

Image from Karen Carr
No one is 100% sure about why the Megalodon went extinct. They dominated the seas for nearly 20 million years, and then all died out about 1.6 million years ago. Habitat changes and loss of prey may have been the culprits. Some cryptozoologists believe that the Megalodon is still out there, due to unconfirmed sightings and the fact that it's extinction is relatively recent. However, due to the size and the coastal habitats of the Megalodons, their continued existence is pretty unlikely.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Velociraptor

In 1993, a film called Jurassic Park was released that thrust the Velociraptor into the forefront of our collective Dinosaur fascination. Unfortunately... its depiction was pretty darn wrong. Granted, that wasn't wholly the fault of the movie-makers, because one of the primary physical characteristics of the Velociraptor wasn't even discovered until several years after the film's release. But the other major discrepancy... yeah, that one is probably on them.

Image by Christopher Srnka
There are two species of Velociraptor, and both lived in what is now Central Asia. In 1998, a forelimb from one specimen was found that contained some interesting features. There are marks in the bone known as quill knobs. This revelation points to the fact that Velociraptors definitely had feathers. Velociraptors could not fly, but they probably used their feathers for maneuverability, display, and for temperature control. And guess what? They were probably warm blooded.

The other physical trait that the movie got wrong? The size. You see, Velociraptors probably weighed no more than 30lbs, and had a height of about 3 feet. They did at least have those large, terrifying claws, which they used to attack and kill their prey, and one of their favorite meals was the Protoceratops. Velociraptors lived during the late Cretaceous period.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sengi

Also known as Elephant Shrews, Sengis are small mammals belonging to four genuses within the Macroscelididae Family. They are not actually related to true shrews all that closely, for they belong to a different Family and Order entirely. Because Elephant Shrew is a bit of a misnomer, biologists have been using the name "Sengi," which is their Bantu name. Interestingly, molecular research in recent years show that Sengis could be more closely related to the Elephant and they are to the Shrew.

Short Eared Sengis
Sengis are found only in Africa. Depending on the species, they live in savannahs and scrublands, as well as dense forests. Some species are diurnal, while others are active during both the day and night. Sengis are carnivores eat a variety of invertebrates, including worms and spiders. A few species will also supplement their invertebrate diet with fruits and other plant matter. They themselves are preyed upon by a wide variety of larger creatures, and as such, they must always be alert. Eagles, Lizards, and Snakes all hunt Sengis. When they have spotted a predator, they slap their tails on the ground as a warning signal.

Sengis mate for life, and many species breed continuously over the course of the year, though their little size is only one. While they are not a very vocal group, Sengis have exceptional sense of smell, sight, and hearing. Some will built complicated track systems throughout the undergrowth in order to both hunt and escape from predators.

Thanks to Heather for the suggestion!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Amur Leopard

Panthera parus orientalis is the rarest cat in the world. There are only an estimated 30-40 left in the wild. Amur Leopards are a leopard subspecies that is native to the temperate forests of far eastern Russia and China. They are distinguishable from other leopards by their longer coats and widely spaced, thick bordered spots.

Image from ALTA
Amur Leopards are solitary animals. Males and females come together to breed, but only rarely does the male stick around to help raise the cubs. Cubs will stay with their mother, learning how to hunt and survive, for up to two years. Amur Leopards eat mostly Sika and Roe deer, as well as small mammals.

Even though captive breeding programs exist, the gene pool is not the purest. Accidental Interbreeding between other leopard subspecies had taken place at the start of the captive program, making few of the captive leopards truly purebred. Genetic diversity is also (obviously) threatened in the wild populations, as the few remaining cats only have each other to breed with.

Amur Leopards became so critically endangered due to human activities. Habitat destruction, logging, and poaching for their beautiful coats has left the cats where they are today. Efforts have been made by ALTA, and over a dozen agencies worldwide to protect and conserve the Amur Leopards. Unfortunately, illegal hunting is still happening.
 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rock Pigeon

You may recognize today's bird. For it is the Rock Pigeon, conqueror of city sidewalks world round! Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) can be found just about everywhere, either as a native species or as an introduced one. Aside from urban areas, rock pigeons can be found in their native, rocky cliff habitats, and in open, unwooded areas. Pigeons are non-migratory, and they have the ability to find their way home from just about any location. It is speculated that they are able to do this because in nature they were forced to find their specific nest within a large colony setting.

Image from Birding Information
There are actually several subspecies of the rock pigeon. These include the wild birds, domestic pigeons, and the feral, city dwelling populations. There is evidence that pigeons were domesticated between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Humans have used pigeons for many purposes over the years. They have been used as a food supply, as animals for experimentation, for sport, and as message carriers. During World Wars I and II, pigeons were used extensively as message carriers, and participated in battles such as Ypres, Verdun, and the Normandy Invasion. Several pigeons were award the Dicken Medal, the U.K.'s highest animal award. Charles Darwin wrote about Rock Pigeons at length, and even kept a few of them for his studies.

Pigeons are herbivores, and only rarely will they consume insects. Their diet consists of fruit, seeds, and whatever things they can scavenge off of the sidewalks. In the wild they nest in high, cliff areas, which made the transition to urban dwelling perhaps a bit easier. Both parents care for their young, feeding them a substance called "pigeon milk" that is produced in their crop. Pigeons come in a wide variety of colors, though grey is the most common. Their feet are nearly always pink.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Great Blue Heron

Image from Outdoor
I'm on a bit of a bird kick this week, so bear with me as I work my way through some of my favorite feathered creatures. Yesterday a huge Great Blue Heron flew over my car, and I was simply inspired. Great Blue Herons are one of the most widespread of all the herons, as well as one of the largest. They can be found in nearly every part of non-arctic North America at some point of the year.

Great Blue Herons don't get their name from being tiny. They have a body length of around 4 feet, and sport a wingspan of over 6 feet. They have long legs, a ruff at the base of the neck, and a black stripe that extends across the side of the head.

Herons are wading birds, and are found living in coastal areas, swamps, ponds, rivers, marshes, etc. They use their long legs to wade and hunt, doing so by standing still and waiting for prey to swim by. When it does so, the Heron strike with it's long, spear-like bills. They also slowly stalk their prey. Great Blue Herons eat all sorts of creatures, including fish, amphibians, lizards, small mammals, insects, and crustaceans. However, they can only eat what they are capable of swallowing, and can choke if trying to do otherwise.

Image from Animal Pictures Archive
Great Blue Herons nest in large colonies, which I would absolutely love to see. Seeing one of these guys in flight is pretty amazing, seeing dozens? Sign me up. Anyway, these colonies consist of seasonally monogamous pairs who build their nests in tall trees. 2-7 eggs are laid, and the chicks are able to fly when they are two months old. Young herons and eggs are preyed upon by ravens, hawks, eagles, and a variety of other birds. Adults can also be preyed upon by larger birds. Great Blue Herons are listed as being of Least Concern, but human encroachment on their habitats could be detrimental in years to come.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cassowary

I've been reading this quite delightful book called Birdology, which devotes each of its chapters to a different type of bird, and the author's experiences with the bird. Well, chapter two is all about the Cassowary. Cassowaries are large, flightless birds endemic to Northern Australia and New Guinea. They are among the largest birds in the world, and their closest living relatives are the Australian Emus.

Image from CCWild
There are three extant species of Cassowary, all belonging to genus Casuarius. They are the Southern Cassowary, the Northern Cassowary, and the Dwarf Cassowary. All three species are similar in appearance. The birds sport large crowns called casques on their heads. The true purpose of the casque is unknown, but speculation is that they may help to produce low frequency sounds. Cassowaries have long, course, black feathers that cover most of their bodies. They neck is naked, and sports blue and red skin. The species differ in size, casque appearance, and type of (or lack of) wattle. Male Cassowaries are smaller than the females.

The only time I've ever
seen a Cassowary
Cassowaries are solitary birds most of the time. If a male successfully courts a female, the couple will remain together for a few weeks until the eggs are laid. (If unsuccessful, he can be seriously injured!) Once laid, the female departs, and has nothing to do with the incubation and care of her offspring. All of those duties go to the male. He incubates for about 50 days, and then cares for his offspring for an additional nine months, teaching them how to find food and avoid predators.

Cassowaries are responsible for numerous attacks on human beings, and are listed as the world's most dangerous bird. The inside third toe in each of their feet is actually a spike that grows nearly five inches long. When threatened, the Cassowary is capable of leaping several feet into the air and attacking with their clawed feet. When not being threatened, they are very shy creatures, and can be extremely difficult to spot in the wild. They are also relatively uncommon in zoos, due to their nature. Native people in New Guinea hunt Cassowaries, and use their claws and bones to make weapons.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Macrochelys temminckii is the largest freshwater turtle species in the entire world. They live in the Southeastern United States and can reach weights of 80kg (about 175lbs). Weights of over 200lbs have also been found, and an unverified report of a 403lb monster exists from the 1930s.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Alligator Snapping Turtles spend nearly all of their time in the water. As juveniles they stick to small streams,  and as adults live in deep river and lake areas. They are able to remain underwater for 40 to 50 minutes before needing to surface for air. Females of the species are usually the only ones who go to land, and they do so in order to lay their eggs. This trek usually takes them around 150ft inland, where up to 50 eggs are laid. The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the incubation temperature. Extreme temperatures create females, while moderate temperatures create males.

Not only are Alligator Snapping Turtles large, they are also long lived. While ranges of 20 to 70 years are normal, it is possible for them to live to age 100.They are distinguished by their large sizes, huge, powerful jaws, and ridged carapace that consists of three rows of spines.

The tongue of an Alligator Snapping Turtle has a quite ingenious way of luring in prey. It has a red piece of skin that resembles a worm. Fish and frogs, which make up most of the Turtles' diet, are drawn to this lure and are then captures in the Turtles' powerful, beak-like jaws. Alligator Snapping Turtles will also eat insects, small mammals and even other turtles! Basically, if it fits in their jaws, they eat it.


Thanks to John for the suggestion!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Canada Goose

If you live in the United States or Canada, you've probably come across a Canada Goose once or twice... or heck, every time you step outside. Branta canadensis is an extremely widespread species. Flocks from the northern reaches of the range are often migratory, spending their winters in the Southern United States and Mexico. Birds living in more temperate latitudes however, will remain in the area year-round. Canada Geese are found near bodies of water, and they aren't picky about what that body is. They can be found in habitats ranging from large lakes to man-made suburban drainage ponds to water features in golf courses. Due to their suburban invasion, they are sometimes considered pests. They are especially detrimental to airfields, which are typically placed near water.

Interestingly, the Canada Goose was almost extinct. At the beginning of the 20th century their numbers were so low that reintroduction efforts were started to raise the population. This movement was obviously a success, as the Geese can now be found in every single US state. Regulated hunting, tagging, and relocation efforts now exist for the species, in order to keep the overall population in check.

In the wild, Canada Geese are able to live up to 24 years, and specimens in captivity have made it past 40. They are seasonally monogamous, and some pairs will remain together for a lifetime. They are very social birds, with both parents caring for their young within an even larger flock environment. Canada Geese are herbivores that consume a variety of grasses. The largest of the subspecies, the Giant Canada Goose, can weigh over 20lbs and have a wingspan of 80in. Canada Geese are one of the largest goose species

Monday, July 12, 2010

Common Octopus

Image from New York Daily News
The 2010 World Cup ended yesterday, and while the world is abuzz with Spain's first win, there has also been a great deal of talk about Paul. Who is Paul? Paul is the Common Octopus "Oracle" who correctly picked the outcomes of all 7 of Germany's games, plus the World Cup Final. Treats were placed in boxes adorned with national flags. The treat eaten first was the winning team. Paul went 8 for 8. (Though he did make some blunders during the 2008 Euro) Anyway, Paul is retiring now, but in celebration of his strange cephalopod superpowers, enjoy some facts on the Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris)!

Common Octopuses (Octopi is actually an incorrect plural term) are found in temperate and tropical coastal waters across a great deal of the planet. They live at depths shallower than 500 feet. Octopuses are carnivorous, and are active predators during the daytime. They feed primarily on crustaceans and mollusks, and they will actually stockpile their food to eat at a later time. They hunt by a variety of methods, including stalking, luring, and simply groping around for their prey. After consuming a meal, they will leave the shell in a heap known as a midden pile. These piles help scientists to study not only what Octopuses eat, but also what kinda of organisms live in the area.

Image from Animal Picture Archive
Octopuses have some pretty amazing senses. They have the largest brains of any invertebrate and have both long and short term memories. They are also capable of some pretty advanced problem solving. The Common Octopus has wonderful eyesight, and they are able to distinguish between other creatures and objects, both by sight and by touch.they also have extremely flexible bodies, and can squeeze through spaces that are only a fraction of their overall body size.

Common Octopuses also have an amazing array of defense mechanisms. They are able to change both the color, and the texture of their skin. This allows them to hide virtually in plain sight. Skin color is also able to reflect the mood of the Octopus. Another defense they have is their ink. If the camouflage fails, the Octopus will shoot a jet of ink at its attacker, which disorients them and gives the Octopus time to escape. This ink also contains a substance that affects the attackers' sense of smell, further allowing the Octopus to flee in safety.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tomato Frog

The common name "Tomato Frog" can refer to all three species that are found within the genus Dyscophus. Each species does have its own common name, but they aren't especially helpful since it appears that both Dyscophus antongilii and Dyscophus insularis are given the official "Tomato Frog" moniker, and calling a species the Madagascar Tomato Frog seems kind of redundant, as all three species are native to the rainforests Madagascar. But whatever. I'm talking about all three collectively.

Image from Charles Paddock Zoo
If you couldn't guess from the name, Tomato Frogs are usually red, though the color span, depending on the specific species and the individual frog, ranges from yellow to red to brown. Interestingly it is the females that are the most vibrantly colored. They are also larger than their male counterparts, growning up to 10.5cm in length, while the males hit up to only 6.5cm.

Tomato Frogs use their coloring as a warning to predators. When threatened, they puff up in size.If that scare tactic doesn't work, and the frog ends up in some animals mouth, they will secrete a mucus that irritates the eyes of their attackers. While the predator is trying to clear their eyes, the Tomato Frog escapes.

Female Tomato Frogs are capable of laying up to 15,000 eggs at a time. They will hatch in the pools they were laid in and go through metamorphosis after an additional 45 days. One of the species, D. antongilii, is listed as Near Threatened, due to collection for the pet trade and loss of habitat. A consortium of Zoos in the United States, led by the Baltimore Zoo, is working to increase their numbers. The other two species are listed as being of Least Concern.

Woah! I just realized this was animal #75! 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Polish Tatra Sheepdog

Image from PTSCA
The Polish Tatra Sheepdog is a very old, and very large breed of livestock guarding dog. They are also quite rare outside of Poland. In the United States there are between 200-300 total dogs. The breed is also known as Owczarek Podhalanski, Polish Mountain Sheepdog, Tatrahund, and Polish Shepherd. It is recognized by the UKC and FCI, but not the AKC.

The Polish Tatra Sheepdog is a large, white breed with a thick double coat. Males stand up to 28" tall, with the females growing slightly smaller. They can weigh up to 130lbs. Polish Tatra Sheepdogs are intelligent, independent, and territorial. For hundreds of years it has been their job to guard over their flocks and families. They are mostly likely related to the Kuvasz, a similarly large, white, Hungarian livestock guarding breed.

Image from PTCSA
Like the Kuvasz and several other large, European breeds, the Polish Tatra Sheepdog can trace its origin to both the Mollaser dogs of the Balkins, as well as from Central Asian Mastiffs. The Tatra Mountains were first colonized in the 14th century, and the dogs used by the farmers then, and for centuries after, would be the ancestors of the modern breed. The breed nearly became extinct after World War II, when the numbers of herdsman and flocks declined. In the 1960s, efforts were taken to save and revitalize the breed. There are now about 3,000 individuals worldwide, and they are still being used in their original livestock guarding roles.

Thanks Michelle for the suggestion!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Water Chevrotain

Are you ready for some tiny, tiny deer? I hope so, because after a few days of not-so-cuddly looking critters, I think I cute little mouse-deer is much needed. And when I say little, I mean little. Water Chevrotains are not the smallest ruminants in the world, but they are definitely up (or down?) there.. though they are the largest of the Chevrotain species.. Adults stand between 30 and 40cm at the shoulder, and top out near 26lbs. Females are about 20% larger than males.

Image from Blue Forest Safaris
Water Chevrotains are so named because they live near water. One of their methods of fleeing a threat is to dive into the water, where they are capable of hiding while completely submerged. (Watch the video!) They are hunted by most of the carnivores that overlap their tropical central African habitats. Chevrotains themselves eat a variety of fruits and flowers, but they have also been known to consume insects and other scavenged meat. They are nocturnal.

They have a pretty interesting body shape. Their back legs are up higher than their front, and they typically walk with their heads pointing downwards. This gives them a bit of a cone shape overall. Water Chevrotains stand, and run, in that way because it helps to get them through thickets and other thick areas. Their feet look a bit like pigs' feet, and the males of the species have canine teeth that stick out, giving them little tusks. They are solitary creatures for most of the year, and come together to breed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Northern Pike

I'm from the Midwest. As a child, I spent a great deal of time in various woodland areas, and have swam in my fair share of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan lakes, and well, two fish in particular always freaked me out from those lakes, the Muskellunge, and the Northern Pike. Northern Pikes live throughout most of the Northern United States, Canada, and most of Northern Europe. They are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the entire world. The European specimens tend to be slightly larger, and overall, Northern Pike can easily reach over 2 feet in length and weigh over 20lbs.They are also capable of living 25 years, with the largest fish obviously being the oldest.

The Face of Terror!
(Image from SACO)
Northern Pike are absolutely voracious eaters, and will attack and consume things that are up to four times their own size. They are aggressive and territorial, and are apparently quite interesting to fish for because they'll try and eat just about anything. This includes human feet, so watch out swimmers! (The bitten toes of a fellow camper when I was 8 or 9 began my dread of these pointy teethed fish) People-feet aside, they normally eat other fish, but ducks, shorebirds, rodents as large as muskrats, and insects are also tasty snacks for the Northern Pike. Heck, they'll even eat other pike. They have sharp, backwards slanting teeth that they continuously replace over their lifetimes.

I haven't done a scientific name derail in a while, but I find the entymology of Esox lucius to be rather fascinating. Esox comes from Greek and Celtic words that essentially mean Salmon, while lucis most likely comes from a Greek word for wolf. Yes. Wolf Salmon. Eater of everything. In fact, besides eating themselves, their only other major predators as adults are human beings. Eggs and young fish are often consumed by other fish, birds and mammals, though obviously a few of those half million eggs laid by each female are able to survive to adulthood.

Thanks again to Jon for the suggestion!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hercules Moth

Image from Rob & Stephanie Levy
The Hercules Moth is one of the largest moths in the entire world, with a wingspan of up to 27cm! While they Atlas Moth of South East Asia has then just slightly beat in the wingspan category, the Hercules does take the size award in its native tropical habitats in New Guinea and Northern Australia. The largest Hercules Moth ever found was 36cm (14.17in) across! Males are slightly smaller than the females, but their tails tend to be longer and their coloration is more vibrant.

Hercules Moth caterpillars can grow quite large as well, with some measuring 12cm in length. They are bluish green in color, and have false else that are intended to distract and confuse predators. Caterpillars are hearty eaters, with one of their favorite plants being the bleeding heart tree. They only actually consume 6-8 species of plant, despite living in dense and varied rainforest habitats.

Image from Animals Picture Archive
As adults, Hercules moths live short lives. Females emerge from the chrysalis without mouths, so they cannot feed. They only live as long as their food reserves allow, typically 4-5 days. In this time she finds a mate using pheromones, locates a good food source to lay her 80-100 eggs upon, and then dies. Tragic! Males don't do much better. They too are unable to feed, and the goal of their short life is to find a lady moth, mate, and then die.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dragon Moray Eel

Enchelycore pardalis  is a rather attractive, yet aggressive little fellow found throughout the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are also known as Leopard Moray Eels and Japanese Dragon Eels, and are members of the 200+ species family Muraenidae. They live in caves and coral reef areas where the can remain hidden while hunting. Dragon Morays can grow almost a meter in length, which is pretty small when compared to the largest of the Morays, the Giant Moray, which can reach lengths of 2.5meters.

Dragon Moray Eels have (in my opinion) some lovely coloration.Their bodies are covered in patterns orange, yellow, white, and black. They even have horns! Though they aren't really horns. They are actually nostrils! Dragon Morays use their sense of smell to hunt, and they snack on crustaceans, fish, and even octopuses! Basically, if they can fit it in their mouths, they'll eat it. They also have teeth that act like traps, due to their backwards positioning. This makes it extremely difficult for the prey to wiggle free. All food gets repositioned so that it can go down the throat head first. After swallowing, the eels practice a behavior called knotting, which means that the Eel makes a loop out of its own body, knotting itself up. This helps to smash around the meals that are moving through their digestive system.

One interesting tidbit about the Dragon Moray Eel is that they are protogynous hermaphrodites. (Gotta remember to add that one to the glossary) This means that they have reproductive organs of both sexes, and that eels that start off as female have the ability to change sexes if there are two few males in the local population.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Also known as the Acadian Owl, Blind Owl, Sparrow Owl and about a dozen other names, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is a relatively tiny little guy who measures only 8.5in in length and possesses a 20in wingspan. They are native to North America, and some, but not all, are migratory.

Image from Idaho Birding Trail
Northern Saw-Whet Owls are identified by their already mentioned small bodies, their lack of ear tufts, and their proportionally large heads. They are chestnut brown with various white markings, including a Y that forms over their eyes. Their large eyes are yellow, and the beaks are black. Northern Saw-Whet Owls are so named because one of their calls is said to resemble the sound of whetting a saw. They are quite vocal during the breeding season, but remain silent during the rest of the year.

As far as diet is concerned, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl really loves its rodents. Typically 70% to 80% of their diet consists of mice and voles, with the rest being filled in my insects, spiders, other birds, and even marine crustaceans. Larger prey, including mice, is consumed in two different meals, as it is possible for the owls to choke while attempting to consume their prey whole. Hunting takes place at night with help from night vision and superb hearing. They stake out their prey from low perches (6-12 feet above the ground) before silently swooping in.

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are monogamous, but not for life. Males attract females with their lovely singing voices, and will take them to the nest sites they have selected before doing a little head bobbing dance. Nests are built in tree cavities, and the female watches over the eggs while the male performs all of the hunting. Eggs hatch after 3-4 weeks, and fledging takes place 4-5 weeks after that. Captive individuals have lived 8 years, but the life expectancy in the wild is unknown. They are preyed upon by larger owls, other birds of prey, and larger (to them anyway) mammals.

Thanks to John for the suggestion!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

American Alligator

Juvenile
To celebrate the 4th of July, and the fact that I just got back from South Carolina with more animal pictures than I know what to do with, we're going to talk about the American Alligator! There are only two extant species of Alligator, and the American is the largest. They live in freshwater swamps in the South Eastern United States and can grow up to 15 feet in length, though even larger specimens have been recorded. Alligators and other Crocodylians are very old species, with their ancestors appearing during the mesozoic era and surviving the great extinction that finished off the dinosaurs.


American Alligators are opportunistic predators, and will eat just about anything. There have been documented human killings, and since the statistics began in 1948, there have been 20 killings in the state of Florida. While that number does seem a bit chilling, overall humans are not a major part of the Alligators' diet. They eat birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and carrion. Alligators do not need to feed daily, and when the temperature cools down enough (below a around 73 degrees) they stop feeding all together and subsist on their stored up reserves. They can go for weeks at a time without feeding. American Alligators are very quiet hunters, moving towards prey with all but their eyes and nostrils submerged, and then springing forward in one fast movement to capture their meals. They are wonderful swimmers, but awkward on land. Alligators cannot chew their food, so they need to either consume meals small enough to swallow whole, or they have to tear off pieces of their kill.

Adult!
As far as reproduction goes, males attract females by bellowing. Interestingly, American Alligators do not have vocal cords. Despite this, the bellows can be heard over a mile away. Females build nests on land that protect and incubate her eggs, and she guards it vigilantly during the incubation period. Upon hatching, the young alligators alert their mother, who then has to dig them out of the nest. Juveniles remain with the mother for several months. In another interesting fact, a new study shows that female American Alligators choose to stay with the same breeding partner 70% of the time.

Feeding Time!
A question that I've been asked a handful of times is "What is the difference between an Alligator and a Crocodile?" Well, there are a few visible cues. First, the Alligator has a more broad, square head, while the Crocodile's is more pointy and triangular. The teeth can also be a big giveaway. The lower teeth of an Alligator fit snugly into their upper jaw, so only the top teeth might stick out. Crocodile teeth interlock, so both the upper and lower sets are visible externally. A less visible difference is the fact that Alligators stick pretty much exclusively to freshwater, where Crocodiles are more tolerant to salt water due to glands that allow them to filter out all of the salt. These are of course just a handful of difference between the two, but the jaw and teeth differences should be helpful in determining what you are looking at.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Baiji

Writing about extinct animals is always a challenge to me because in so many circumstances the information is just not there. We know about the creatures from fossils that are so often incomplete, or from unreliable sources in the case of the more recently extinct animals. The Baiji falls into neither of these categories, as its functional extinction was sadly announced only four year ago, in 2006. If there are still individuals out there, they would be the rarest mammals on earth.

Image from Wildlife Extra
Only a hundred years ago thousands of these freshwater dolphins, also known as Chinese River Dolphins, swam the length of the Yangtze. Industrialization and fishing practices have led to their fast decline, and in 2006 a six-week, multi-national expedition uncovered no specimens. Reports of an sighting surfaced in 2007, but even if a handful of individuals remain, the population is unlikely to be sustainable. They have never been bred in captivity, though the Chinese government and international agencies have made steps in the past to set up programs.

Baijis (Lipotes vexillifer) have existed for millions of years, and are recorded in Chinese history for nearly two millennia. They are one of five species of freshwater dolphin, all of whom are listed by the IUCN as between vulnerable and critically endangered.

Baijis, like all dolphins, hunt by means of echolocation. They typically feed during the day and consume a variety of fish species that are found on both the river bottoms and on the surface. Another similarity to their saltwater cousins is their social organization. They live in small groups and use a variety of clicks and whistles for communication.

Physically, the Baiji grows to be about 8 feet long and weighs 500lbs. They have grey bodies, very long snouts, low dorsal fins, and small eyes that are functional but not especially useful in the murky waters. Gestation is 10-11 months, and one calf is born at a time. Life expectancy is around 25 years, based upon dentition and captive individuals.
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