Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Leptofoenus pittfieldae

Leptofoenus pittfieldae is an interesting animal, because it is only actually known from one single specimen. It is an extinct species of wasp that lived in the Miocene Epoch between about 5 and 23 Ma.

Image Source
The Dominican Republic is known for its Amber. Many deposits have been found there, several containing specimens, such as our single L. pittfieldae. It is a male wasp, about half an inch long, and was discovered in 2008. It was determined to be a new species due to markings, wing shape, and antennae structure, among other things. It was studied at the University of Kansas natural History Museum by Dr. Michael S. Engel. Its species name, pittfieldae, comes from the name of the niece of the specimens donor.

L. pittfieldae  is the only member of its genus found anywhere in the fossil record, though their are five living species. All of those species are uncommon in the West Indies, which may point to why only one example of L. pittfieldae has ever been found; it was uncommon in that area as well.

I chose this animal today because it just goes to show that there are things out there that we may have never known about. This particular wasp was only discovered two years ago and is known only from one tiny specimen. How many other fascinating creatures of the past are still undiscovered?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cottonmouth Water Moccasin

If you couldn't tell from past entries, I'm a big fan of poisonous/venomous creatures. So today we're going to learn about the only venomous water snake in all of North America: the Cottenmouth Water Moccasin. It goes by oh so many other names; sometimes it's just Cottonmouth, sometimes it's just Water Moccasin, sometimes it's  Water Viper, Swamp Moccasin, or just plain Rattler. Either way, Agkistrodon piscivorus refers to the semi-aquatic snake that has its range throughout the South Eastern United States.

Image Source
Cottonmouths are relatively large snakes, and can grow up to 48in in length. As far as coloring goes, they are darker on the top, ranging in color from olive green to black, and have a lighter underside. The give birth to live young which are lighter in color and more patterned. They grow darker and more uniform in color as they age. Throughout their lives they rarely move far from a permanent source of water.

Cottonmouths an be quite aggressive. They will stand their ground against threats, and that, combined with a strong venom, can result in a nasty situation. They have even been known to approach humans. The mouth of a Cottonmouth can snap shut extremely fast, quickly injecting the venom. Their venom is hemotoxic, which means that it breaks down red blood cells, reduces the ability for blood to clot or coagulate, and causes hemorrhages.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spotted Hyena

Crocuta crocuta are the largest of the living species of Hyena, all of which are found within the family Hyaenidae, which itself is part of the suborder Feliforma. That all means that despite their doggish looks and pack behavior, Hyenas are actually more closely related to cats! 

Image Source
Spotted Hyenas live all across Africa south of the Sahara. As mentioned, they live in large packs, sometimes numbering up to 80 members, which are led by the females. They are large, muscular hunters, capable of weighing over 175lbs. Interestingly, the males and females are extremely difficult to distinguish from one another, as they have similar looking external reproductive organs. The species is also sexually dimorphic, with the females being larger than the males.

They are exceptional hunters, working in groups to take down prey that includes gazelle, buffalo, and wildebeast. They are also extremely opportunistic feeders, which can cause problems when they live in close vicinity to humans. Spotted Hyenas, like all Hyenas, have a dentition that allows them to crack bones. Spotted Hyenas also have the strongest jaws among all animals, which assists greatly in their bone breaking ability. They can consume and digest their entire kill. There is a myth that Hyenas are scavengers, and while they will do so on occasion, around 95% of the diets consist of food that they have killed themselves.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sifaka Lemur

There are nine species of Sifaka Lemur that comprise genus Propithecus, and like all Lemurs they are found on the African Island of Madagascar. They are members of the Primate order, making these guys our distant, distant cousins. Some of you may remember a discovery that came out a few years ago about finding "the missing link." This was actually a 47 million year old Lemur-type species that could be the common ancestor for all primates, including humans.
Image from Animal Photos

The Sifaka Lemurs stand apart from other Lemur species and genera because of their movement. They are upright-standing creatures, and get around by jumping with help from their extremely powerful legs. In trees, they can jump several meters, and on the ground they hop from place to place, doing what some refer to as the Sifaka Dance. The video below illustrates this movement wonderfully.

Sifaka Lemurs receive their names from the "Shif-auk" call that they make. They are herbivores, feeding on leaves, flowers, fruits, and bark. They, like many other primates, living in small social groups, usually consisting of 3-10 members. While there may be multiple sexually mature females, only one of them breeds each year, and that females usually have dominance over males.

All species of Sifaka Lemur are threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Golden-Crowned Sifakas are now listed as critically endangered, with less than 10,000 in existence.

 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Yellowbelly Sea Snake

I confess, I just really like the name of today's animal. It reminds me of an insult a pirate would use. These snakes are also known as Pelagic Sea Snakes, but that's far less fun. Pelamis platurus is found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. They are the most widespread of all the sea snakes, and as their second common name might suggest, they are capable of living in completely open sea, (pelagic zones) though they prefer coastal waters.

Image Source
Yellowbelly Sea Snakes are well adapted to their watery habitats. They still breathe air like any other reptile, but they are able to dive for very extended periods of time, sometimes up to 3.5 hours! These Snakes are also able to supplementary breathing through their skin, taking in oxygen at lower rates than when breathing normally, but overall the process assists with their dive times. They also have glands that remove excess salt and a paddle-like tail that helps them to move. All of these adaptation however, make them unsuited to land, and should they wash up on shore there can some trouble. Yellowbelly Sea Snakes still shed their skin like other snakes do, and in order to deal with this process they tie their body into a knot which they push downwards to the tail. This behavior is also used to remove barnacles and algae.

They are primarily diurnal creatures, and are carnivores. Yellowbelly Sea Snakes breed in open water when temperatures are above 20 degree C, and are ovoviviparous. They are very abundant and are not threatened or vulnerable. Oh, and have I mentioned that they are extremely venomous? The venom is actually stronger than that of a Cobra, but is administered in much smaller amounts. There have been no reported human fatalities.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Beefalo

Today's animal is a bit... different. It's a hybrid, an animal that is a cross of two separate species. In this case we have American Bison and domesticated beef cattle. Efforts to combine the best qualities of the two have gone back decades and decades. Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones, dismayed at the loss of so many cattle to the harsh weather of Kansas, decided to raise Bison and attempted to produce hybrids which he called "cattalo." Unfortunately, his project didn't' work out too well, and it wasn't until the 1960's that Beefalo really began to take off.

Image from Beefalo Australia
Beefalo are not actually a 50/50 cross. They are instead closer to 5/8 Cattle, and 3/8 Bison. Crosses that contain more Bison than that are referred to as Bison hybrids. Beefalo are fertile hybrids. They are more weather tolerant, calve easier, forage better, have a longer lifespan, and provide leaner beef due to the Bison influence, and provide more milk and are easier to handle due to the Cattle side. The American Beefalo Association oversees the registration of these hybrids.

One downside to this, and I suppose to the entire western ranching industry, is that the wild Bison herds have become genetically polluted over the decades. Many of the wild Bison have Cattle DNA in them, and could actually be termed hybrids themselves because of it. This is due to the general land overlap between the ranches and Bison ranges, and due to the fast recovery of the Bison in the last few decades, after they were nearly driven to extinction.

Thanks to Ashley for the suggestion!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gila Monster

The Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) is not only the largest lizard in the United States, but it the only venomous one. In fact, it is one of only two venomous lizards in the entire world! They can grow to nearly 2 feet in length and weigh 2-3lbs, and can be identified by their black bodies patched with yellow, orange, and pink. They are found in the United States and Mexico, and inhabit desert, scrubland, and woodland areas.

Image From Gold Camping
Gila Monster posses both venom and a powerful bite. Their venom glands are located in the lower jaw and the toxin is released upon biting. Once they've got something in their mouth it will take several seconds for them to loosen their grip, and they will even chew on their quarry to get the venom deeper into the bite. Their are no reported cases of human death by Gila Monster, and interestingly, these guys might actually help to save human lives. A hormone in their saliva have been synthesized and made into a medication for glucose stabilization in diabetics.

Other facts about Gila Monsters include their sluggish movement, their carnivorous diet of birds, , lizards, insects, small mammals, and eggs, and their ability to store fat in the tail and abdomen for use in the winters months. The pet trade and habitat destruction have damaged their numbers, giving them legal protection and a listing as Near Threatened.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Roseate Spoonbill

Flamingos aren't the only large, pink, wading birds out there. Roseate Spoonbills, actually get confused with Flamingos on occasion, but are are one of a handful of Spoonbill species found within the genus Plateinae. They around found at various parts of the year in the southern United States and throughout areas of of South America. Roseate Spoonbills are migratory birds, moving during the breeding season. They are monogamous.

Image from Nature Works
Roseate Spoonbills are quite striking. They stand over 80cm tall, and have 125cm wingspans. Their feathers are a bright pink color and were prized in the construction of ladies fans at the turn of the century. These feathers were so popular that the species numbers drastically declined and they had to be legally protected.

Roseate Spoonbills feed mostly off of fish, with a spattering of crustaceans and mollusks. Their long bill is extremely sensitive and will snap shut if prey swims past it. They have nostrils placed high up on the bill, which allows them to keep it submerged for long periods of time, creating whirlpools that draw in prey.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dunkleosteus

Inspired by a visit to Chicago's Field Museum yesterday, today we're learning about Dunkleosteus, one of the largest and most awesome Placoderms! Placoderms are an entire class of armored, jawed fish that swam the late Silurian and Devonian Seas over 400 MILLION years ago. They also disappeared during the mass extinction around 359 million years ago. Dunkleosteus lived around 380-360 mya, and during its time was a massive, powerful apex carnivore.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
How massive and powerful was the Dunkleosteus? For for one, it is believed that they measured over 20ft long, and perhaps up to 30! In comparison, the Great White Shark reaches 20ft at a maximum. Dunkleosteus also had one of the most powerful bites in all of animal history, 8,000 pounds per square inch! Interestingly, they had no actual teeth, but instead had serrated jaw bones that could shear right through their prey and that grew continuously to counteract them getting worn down. These guys were not picky eaters either, fossils have been found near regurgitated and half digested prey, demonstrating that they ate just about anything they could find, including their own kind.

If Dunkleosteus were alive today, they could easily compete in a contest for the ocean's most deadliest. Alas, all species of class Placodermi went extinct by the end of the Devonian period, leaving no living descendants and giving way for the rise of other carnivorous swimming creatures. Fossils and casts of Dunkleosteus can be found in museums around the world, so if you can find one, go see it! That picture above does its size absolutely no justice.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

White Lipped Deer

Also known as Thorold's Deer, Cervus albirostris is one of the largest species of deer, with males reaching up to 500lbs and measuring 6ft in length. They are native to cold, high elevation grasslands in China and Tibet. Their brown coats get substantially thicker in the winter to accommodate the colder weather. They are also an incredibly sure-footed species for their size, with hooves that are well suited to climbing.


White Lipped Deer at the Lincoln Park Zoo
White Lipped Deer live in single sex herds for most of the years, with the males apart from the females and calves. During the mating season however, the herds will intermingle, and deer of all ages and sexes can be found. Herds typically number around 50-60 individuals at the height of the mating season, though even larger ones, with 200-300 members, have been reported. Males fight aggressively for mates, with help from their up to 4ft long, 15lb antlers. The gestation period is 7-8 months, and only one calf is born. A female White Lipped Deer may have 7-8 calves in her lifetime.

White Lipped Deer are considered vulnerable in the wild, due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Their antlers are used in traditional medicines. There are about 100 in captivity (I'm lucky enough to live near a zoo that has them.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Common Toad

Bufo bufo has a wide range that spreads across Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. It is able to live in a wide variety of habitats including woodlands, grasslands, and gardens. Close vicinity to a large body of water is preferable to the species.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Common Toads can actually grow to be quite large, measuring up to 18cm in length. They have a spotty dorsal side that ranges in color from tan to olive to brown. The color becomes more uniform during the mating season. Common Toads hibernate, sometimes in groups, from September-November, through March-June. The length of time depends on where the toad happens to live. One hibernation has ended, breeding season begins. Male Common Toads are highly competitive over females. They will grasp on to them in order to mate, but other males may get the same idea, resulting in "mating balls." While the males fight over the female, she can potentially be crushed or drowned. If a dominant male emerges, and the female is still alive, up to 5,000 eggs are spawned. The eggs will hatch and the tadpoles will become little toads after about 2.5months.

Common Toads have a defense mechanism to ward off predators. They secrete an irritant from their skin. Unfortunately, many predators don't seem to mind it, and will eat them anyway. Common Toads are an abundant species overall, but roadways have been causing dents in the population. In some areas, special passes and tunnels have been built to allow toads to cross without getting hit by cars. If a Common Toad survives cars, mating balls, and predators, they can live as long as 50 years.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Nile Perch

Nile Perch are very large, predatory fish native to a handful of rivers and lakes in Africa, though it has been introduced to others on the continent as well. Lates niloticus is also referred to as Mbuta, Capitaine, and a handful of other monikers. They can grow over 200cm long and weigh over 150kg. Their potential for such large sizes, and thus large cuts of meat, led to their introduction, and has created a large fishing industry.

Image from Tour Egypt
Around 50 years ago, Nile Perch were introduced to Lake Victoria, with the intention that these large fish could be used by everyone who lives around the large lake. The effect on the ecosystem was extremely damaging. The Perch consume anything and everything, and have no real predators besides man. Several species went extinct due to the Nile Perch, and now measures are being taken in other parts of the world to keep these fish out of waterways. They are listed by the IUCN as one of the world's worst invasive species.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Walrus

Odobenus rosmarus are large, Arctic Pinnipeds that can grow in excess of 3,000lb and reach lengths of 10-12 feet, with the males being slightly larger than the females. They are known for their whiskered faces and enormous tusks, which are found on both sexes. These tusks can grow up to 39in, and are actually just long canine teeth.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Walrus tusks are useful for a number of purposes. Males use them to fight for and protect mates and territory. Males and Females use their tusk to break ice, and maneuver themselves out of water. Their whiskers also serve an important purpose: detecting shellfish meals on the sea floor. Clams and mussels make up a large portion of their diet.

Walruses are very social creatures, and live in large herds year round. During non-breeding times, separate herds form for males and females. These herds also tend to migrate, moving from beaches to ice flows. As far as reproduction goes, females have 15-16 month gestation periods, and calves can weigh over 150lbs at birth!

Because Walruses are so massively large, their only non-human predators are Orcas and Polar Bears. Walruses were hunted for their tusks, hides, and oil for many, many years. Currently only a handful of native groups are allowed to hunt Walruses, and the numbers are carefully monitored.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blobfish

By popular request, I present the Blobfish, one of the strangest looking creatures of the sea. Psychrolutes marcidus lives off of the coast of Australia and Tasmania at depths of over 800m. The water pressure at that depth is nearly 80 times that of at the surface. They grow to about a foot in length.

Image from Telegraph / CATERS
Blobfish are rather interesting because they are made up entirely of a gelatinous goo. This goo effectively replaces their missing swim bladder by keeping them from sinking, as the goo is less dense then the water at those depths. The also have no muscles. Heck, the barely move. Blobfish remain in one place, suspended and floating and waiting for their next meal, which is comprised of pretty much any floating matter that moves by them.

The most striking feature of this fish is of course its face. It's almost human like in appearance! In other interesting Blobfish facts, the females will actually protect their eggs before they hatch, often doing so in large groups. 

Sadly, the Blobfish has become a victim to deep sea trawling, nets that scrape the bottom of the sea. Scientists fear that it will go extinct in their native habitat.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Moa

I just love huge birds. Huge Ravens, Huge Eagles, Huge Hummingbirds. So obviously, gigantic extinct flightless creatures of awesome would also capture my interest. Too bad humans killed them all.. they went extinct in only a few hundred years ago. I should also mention that when I say Moa, I'm actually referring to eleven separate species within six genera.
Image from Zoological
Society of London / LiveScience

Like yesterday's gigantic insect, Moas inhabited New Zealand, where they evolved into giant, flightless creatures because there were no land mammals (aside from bats) to compete with. The Moas only predator (until man) was the similarly gigantic Haast's Eagle, now also extinct, but that had a 10ft wingspan.

The largest species of Moa stood 6ft tall at the back, and none of them had wings, even vestigial ones, which is very unique among birds. Feathers show that they were red and brown, and their eggs measured roughly 24cm in length. Because of their lack of predators, it is believed that Moas lived 50 years or more. Most species exhibited sexual dimorphism, with the females being larger and heavier than the males. Interestingly, the Moas closest relatives are not the extant flightless Kiwis, nor are they the Australian Cassowaries and Emus. Tinamous, smaller South American birds, are now said to be their nearest cousins.

The downfall of the Moa began around 1280CE, when people first inhabited the islands of New Zealand. The Mos were not used to these new hunters, and they became easy prey.  Their habitats were diminished, and they were hunted for their meats and bones. By the 1400s, they were believed to be extinct. Carbon-14 testing supports that timeline, though hunters claimed to have spotted Moas for several hundred years after. Even today, there are individuals who claim to see Moas.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Giant Weta

There are 11 species in the genus Deinacrida, and they comprise some of the heaviest insect in the entire world. Thanks to their isolation in New Zealand, Giant Wetas (whose genus name means "terrible grasshopper") have grown to sizes of more than four inches (not including legs) and can weigh up to 2.5oz, which is more than a sparrow. The largest of the Giant Wetas is  the Wetapunga ("god of ugly things.") It is believed that Wetas grew so large because they were fulfilling the rodent niche. There were no small rodents to compete with, and no large nocturnal predators to consume them, so they just kept getting bigger.

Image from Department of Conservation
Despite their size, Giant Wetas are gentle, arboreal giants. They are so heavy that they are unable to jump, and they prefer to consume a vegetarian diet. They really don't have any insect predators, due to their large size, though there are several bird species, including Kiwis and Owls, that make meals of them. Giant Wetas have actually changed very little in the past 100 million years, thanks to their remote island habitat. Similar lack of change can be found in the Tuataras, who also maintain primitive characteristics dating back nearly 200 million years.

Giant Wetas are now facing population issues due to the introduction of rats and cats to New Zealand. They are far less common on the large islands than they once were, and have now been isolated to smaller, offshore locations.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Butler's Garter Snake

In the past I've taked about large constrictors and poisonous snakes, but now we're going to learn about a much smaller snake, Thamnophis butleri. Butler's Garter Snakes can be found in several locations across the Midwestern United States and part of Canada, but they are often listed as threatened or endangered due to habitat loss. They live in meadows, marshlands, and woodlands, but the populations are often isolated.

Image from NewBerlin.org
Butler's Garter Snakes are distinguishable from other snakes (and other Garter Snakes even) by their black to olive-brown bodies and the three yellow stripes that run their length. The top stripe runs directly down the top of the back, while the other two run along the sides at the 3rd scale row. They have very small heads. They typically grow to around 20in.

Butler's Garter Snakes feed on a variety of creatures including worms, frogs, and fish. Due to their northern habitats, they hibernate in the winter. They often do this in colonies, and sometimes with other species of Garter Snake. They snakes are typically active after the frosts go away, and will remain so until the temperature drops consistently below about 50 degrees. Butler's Garter Snakes are ovoviviparous, giving birth to live young in early summer.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lionfish

The common name "Liofish" can refer to any of the species found within several genuses of the family Scorpaenidae. They are all characterized by their often colorful, striped bodies, and long spines. Most species are around a foot in length when fully mature, and can have spines that reach as long as 14in. Lionfish are native to the tropical coral reef near Indonesia, but they are quickly becoming a non-native invasive species in other areas of the world. They are also prized in the pet trade.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
The spines of a Lionfish are toxic, but not actually used in hunting. Their venom is merely a defensive tactic, and can be dangerous to humans, though not often fatal. Lionfish do their actual hunting be relying on camouflage and stalking their prey. They eat a variety of fish and crustaceans, and have been known to practice cannibalism. Lionfish themselves are preyed upon by very few species, though interestingly, due to their invasion of Atlantic Waters, human consumption of Lionfish has become more and more popular. The fish themselves are not poisonous, and can be prepared like any other fish once the spines are removed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Common Raven

Corvus corax is an extremely widespread species of bird, and can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  They are one of several species of Raven within the Corvus genus, and, due to their extensive range, they are one of the most recognizable. Common Ravens live in just about any non-rainforest habitat, though they prefer open areas. They are also the second largest of all the "Perching Birds," members of the order Passeriformes.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Ravens are extremely intelligent. They work in pairs to effectively hunt and capture prey, and have a complex system of calls. They have been studied by scientists for years and are now known to be excellent mimics, tool users, and problem solvers. Unfortunately, their place as "Einstein of the Bird Family," has caused problems. Common Ravens are able to get into a wide variety of containers... which is an issue for livestock pens, campsites, and the family cooler that is left out while picnicking. They are omnivores and highly opportunistic feeders.

Common Ravens are symbolic in many cultures. They are prominent in the mythologies of many Pacific Northwestern Native Tribes. Two Ravens, Huginn and Munnin, serve as news-bringers to the Norse god Odin. The additionally appears in Celtic and Greek tales, among many others. They serve a variety of roles, as tricksters, as guides, and in modern England, they are "responsible" for holding the monarchy together! Legend goes that Charles II wished to have the Ravens removed from the Tower of London, where they were becoming a nuisance. He was told that at least six Ravens should always remain, otherwise the entire monarchy would fall. Currently there are seven Ravens living at the Tower, overseen by their very own Raven Master. Though Ravens tend to live about a decade in the wild, Tower Ravens have lived over 40 years!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bibliography Update

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the SeaIve added a new book to my slowly growing bibliography.
Check out The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Seaby Philip Hoare.
I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the relationship between man and whale. It both informed and infuriated me as it dove in to the history of the whaling industry, and educated me on aspects of whales in natural history that I had never even considered. Pick it up!

I'm currently eating through an interesting text about Big Cat fossils and evolution, so check for that soon!

Bowhead Whale

Well, Mythological Creatures Week is now over and I certainly had an interesting time fishing for information on some well, and not so well known legendary beasts. But alas! It is time to return to the realm of fact!

Image From SuperCentenarian.com
I've been reading Philip Hoare's The Whale lately, (which will be up on the Bibliography once I actually finish it) and have stumbled across a fact that blew my mind. Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus) can live to be over 200 years old. Until a few decades ago, no one really thought that these rare, Arctic dwellers lived any longer than the standard 60-70 years for whale... and then they found the harpoons. Individual whales were found that had harpoon tips that hadn't been manufactured since the 1860s and 70s. Those whales had been swimming around with broken tips in their skin for over a hundred years. More and more specimens were found with these odd instruments, and with subsequent Amino Acid testing it has now been determined that Bowheads can live to a ripe age of 200. How do they do it? Well, their year-round Arctic habitat probably helps to slow down their metabolism. They are one of the few whales that live in such conditions for their entire lives.

Bowhead Whales are baleen whales, meaning that they consume plankton which is filtered through large keratin plates in their mouths. The baleen of a Bowhead can grow up to 13ft in length, which made it highly sought after by the commercial whaling industry. Bowheads are so named because their heads resemble an archer's bow, and the almost triangular shape of their head may help them to break through the Arctic Ice. Bowheads are able to reach lengths of 50ft, and weights of 60tons. They resemble the three Right Whale species that share their family, Balaenidae, but they are the only extant species within their genus.

Sadly, the Bowhead Whale was hunted to near extinction for their oil and baleen. A ban on hunting since the 1980s has allowed their numbers to steadily rise, and now only indigenous peoples are able to collect set numbers of them each year. The total worldwide population is unknown.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chupacabra

All of the Mythical Creatures covered this week have been beast rooted in hundreds of years of legend and tradition. Such is not the case with today's creature. Chupacabras, the "Goat-Suckers," have only been around and popular since the mid-90s, which is when most of the incidents began.

Image from VirtueScience
What are these incidents? Well, on multiple occasion and in multiple locations across Latin America, livestock has been been found dead.... and completely drained of blood. Often there are no tracks around the corpses, and they have strange puncture marks. The first of these incidents was in Puerto Rico in 1995, where 8 sheep were found bloodless. A few other occurrences date to the 1970s, but those may not be linked, as the sightings and livestock killings happened in huge numbers post 1995. Most of these incidents have happened in Latin America, but some have been reported as far away as Oregon and Michigan.

Chupacabras are described in a wide manner of ways. They are dog like, yet lizard like. They have wings, they don't have wings. There are a handful of people who claim they've killed Chupacabras, but the animals they find always turn out to be something else (like a Coyote baby Raccoon!) So what could the Chupacabra be? Some think its related to the Vampire Bats, which are also found in Latin America. Some think it's a government experiment gone very, very wrong. Some point to Aliens. And others believe it's a pack of wild dogs doing all of the damage. No one knows for sure, and incidents and sightings keep happening. Awesome.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Loch Ness Monster

How could I do a mythical creatures special without mentioning one of Cryptozoology's favorite mysteries? Stories of the Loch Ness Monster date back hundreds of years. One particular example from 565 CE tells of Saint Columba saving a swimmer in the Ness. This story was even recorded in chapter 28 of Adamnan's 7th century Life of St. Columba.

The Surgeon's Photo (1934)
Modern interest in "Nessie" arose during the 1930s after a road was built alongside the 25 mile long lake. Perhaps the most iconic depiction comes from a 1934 photograph known as the "surgeon's photo." This image cemented the Loch Ness Monster as a plesiosaur-type creature. The surgeon's photo is now believed to be a fake, but even without it, there have been dozens, if not hundreds of sightings, including other photographs and videos.

What could Nessie be? Well, there are some that believe it is a relic of prehistoric times. This is probably not the case, as the lake has only existed for 10,000 years (since the last Ice Age). Others think it might just be a seal, or large river otter, or just a bunch of logs or waves. According to calculations based upon the number of fish, and the size of the lake, the Loch Ness monster could weigh no more than 660lbs. But with an animal that big, wouldn't we have seen some evidence by now? Bones perhaps? And if it were a Plesiosaur or large mammal, it would need to come up to breathe! There have been numerous sonar scans of the lake, with the largest, Operation Deep Scan, undertaken in 1987. None of these scans, including the most recent in 2003, have turned up any evidence of an animal that large.

So is Nessie really out there? Are the hundreds of sightings over nearly 80 years all completely wrong? We don't know. Science points to the fact that there is probably nothing down there, and especially nothing like a Plesiosaur, which went extinct 65 million years ago. But either way, the Loch Ness Monster provides an interesting tourist industry, raking in several million dollars a year. Hey, even I've been there. Sightings have gone down in recent years, perhaps we have just become more skeptical, but I don't think the Nessie legend is going to go away any time soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Basilisk

Ah the Basilisk, king of serpents! Even it's name comes from Basileus, a Greek word for King. The oldest descriptions of the Basilisk place it as simply a large snake, however, over time it evolved into a truly strange creature. Depictions of Basilisks range from the standard serpent, to a creature with the feet and head of a Rooster,  or even with the face of a man. In heraldry, it has a bird's body, a rooster's head, and a serpents tail. They may or may not have wings.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
The first mentions of Basilisks come from the Ancient Greek and Roman Traditions. Legend says that looking into the eyes of a Basilisk causes instant death. This is of course very bad to those who come across it, but also provides a method of killing the creatures. Holding up a mirror to the eyes of the Basilisk would cause it to kill itself. Also interestingly, hearing the crow of a Rooster also proved fatal. Weasels are also dangerous to the Basilisk. A second type of Basilisk is also found in mythology, and that is a creature that burns whatever it touches. So either way, you're in trouble.

Basilisks are sometimes interchangeable with the Cockatrice. There really doesn't seem to be much of a  different between the two. They have the exact same death stare, and same aversion to roosters and weasels. The Basilisk legends most likely spawned out of accounts from real life, poisonous snakes. The King Cobra, with it's fanned out hood, may have played a part. Today, we have small lizards known as Basilisks. They most certainly do not set everything on fire, nor can they kill with a glance. What they can do however, is walk across water!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Roc

The Roc, also known as the Rukh, is a stupendously gigantic bird of prey that comes out of Persian legends. It appears in texts around the 8th century CE, and is present in numerous Middle Eastern stories, atural histories, and sailors' tales, including the 1001 Nights. Sinbad's second voyage includes a run-in with a Roc.

A lot of what we "know" about the Roc comes from the writings of 13th century explorer Marco Polo, who wrote about these birds in his highly embellished travel log. He claimed that they were flying birds of prey with 48 foot wingspans, 24 foot long flight feathers, and eggs that measured almost 150 feet in circumference. It is unclear what Polo was actually trying to describe, as no bird of prey has ever come close to that size. (the largest bird of prey ever discovered went extinct 6 million years ago and it had a 25ft wingspan) Perhaps he had them confused with the Elephant Birds of Madagascar, though they were flightless and had no wingspan to speak of. Their eggs however, while not 150ft in circumference, could hold 2.5gallons of water which may have assisted in Marco Polo's embellishment.

Rocs are typically described as being white, with a resemblance to either eagles or vultures, depending on the source. Because they are so large, their meals consist of large prey! Rocs were said to capture entire elephants in their claws, killing them by dropping them on to rocks from high places. This is similar to methods employed by real life birds of prey. Vultures drop bones from high up to crack them and get the marrow. Eagles will capture large prey, such as this goat, and drag them off of cliffs. So once again, we've taken a look at a mythical creature based in some fact!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ahuizotl

Most of you readers out there have probably heard of Unicorns and Krakens before. But have you ever heard of the Ahuizotl? Because one of my purposes of this blog is to inform about some of the lesser known beasts out there, I thought this would be a good pick for Mythical Creatures Week!

Cast of Ahuizotl Stone Plaque, Aztec
ca. 1500
Peabody Museum
Ahuizotl is a creature out of Aztec mythology. It is described in the Florentine Codex, a 16th century encyclopedia commissioned by a missionary and completed by indigenous artists. It describes the Ahuizotl as a small, smooth, dog-like creature, with a monkey's hands and a tail that includes an additional hand at the end. They live in underwater caverns and snatch all those who come near their lair. The most disturbing and frightful aspect of this mythical creature is that it loves to consume human nails, eyes, and teeth, and it's victims would be fished out of the water untouched... except with those things completely removed.

The Ahuizotl is linked to an Aztec emperor of the same name, who probably took his moniker from the creature. He ruled when the civilization was prosperous, and before the coming of the Spaniards. Montezuma, the emperor at the time of first contact, was Ahuizotl's nephew and successor. His tomb made news when it was discovered by archaeologists in 2007.

Like most mythical beasts, the Ahuizotl probably has some basis in fact. Due to the descriptions provided from the Florentine Codex and other primary source documents, the smooth, shiny, small-eared, long-tailed, handed creature may have been an otter. Otters possess most of those traits (minus the hand tail and stealing human nails and teeth of course) and could most certainly be the basis for the Ahuizotl myth.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Kraken

We now move from a creature of magic and purity... to one of horrible watery death. The Kraken! The Kraken is a large sea monster said to live in the cold waters of the North Sea. Though it is from Scandinavian areas, the Kraken does not appear in Norse mythology (though other similar sea beasts do show up there). Other mythologies are rife with tales of sea creatures, including those of Scylla and Ceto from the Greek tradition, however, these tend to be more fish/serpent like. But we'll get to appearances later.

Sea Monster (Kraken?) Attacking Ship
Pierre Denys de Montfort, ca. 1810
Krakens share something in common with the Unicorns... they both have some base in actual, natural history. The term "Kraken" appears in several scientific texts, including Erik Pontoppidan's 1755 Natural History of Norway, and again in Linnaeus's first edition of Systema Naturae. In Systema, the Kraken is classified as a cephalopod, though this information was removed from later editions. Interestingly, Linnaeus was not all that far off, since a major inspiration for the Kraken was most likely the Giant Squid. Though earlier Krakens sometimes had crab-like qualities, since the 18th century the Kraken has often been depicted as a large squid or octopus, especially so after the 19th century confirmation of Giant Squids.

So where is the watery death I had so previously mentioned? Stories have been passed along for hundreds of years about creatures so long that they resembled islands. The Kraken was said to be so large that it could wrap its tentacles around an entire ship and crush and capsize it. Of course the largest squids and octopuses ever found would not be capable of doing such things, but the myth and allure of the Kraken lives on. The Kraken has influenced poetry, books, and movies, and with the fishing up of new and more bizarre sea creatures, the legend and the questions of "what is really down there?" won't be going away any time soon.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Unicorn

Well, we've finally made it to Animal #100! So let's start out this themed week with one of the most recognizable of all mythical creatures: The Unicorn. Variations of the Unicorn appear in the histories and mythologies of civilizations spanning from China to Mesopotamia to Greece. Images of horned horse-like creatures can be found in the cave paintings at Lascaux, written reports of Unicorns date back to at leas the 4th century BC. In short, for hundreds, even thousands of years, Unicorns have captured the interest and imaginations of people around the world.

"The Unicorn in Captivity"
Netherlands, ca. 1500
The Cloisters, New York
There are many variations of the Unicorn, but regardless of the name and culture, they all carry the characteristic horn. It is also common for them to possess cloven hooves, a lion's tail, and a goat-like beard. They carry a variety of traits and powers, depending on the culture. In China, the Qilin is a horned creature that brings good luck and prosperity. The Medieval Unicorn is a creature that represents purity and chastity, and which carries magical properties in its horn. Unicorns became symbols for both Christ and the nobility. References to a horned creature called Re-em are found in the Bible, and many of these passages later translated that word to Unicorn. Unicorns are found in paintings and tapestries, and many of these artworks depict the Unicorns with their heads resting the the laps of young maidens. This is a not so subtle nod to the belief that only a virgin could tame a Unicorn.

And what of the Narwhal? One legend holds that the Unicorns were too slow to make it on to Noah's Ark, and thus were left behind at the mercy of the sea... and they became Narwhals. While science demonstrates that Narwhals existed far, far before when the flood story would've occurred, Narwhal horns, which are long and spiraled, may have been inspiration for some of the medieval Unicorn legends. For hundreds of years royalty would pay exorbitant sums to acquire these horns, and they adorn thrones and crown jewels today. Other real-life creatures, including Rhinos, Oryx, and even Deer, may have also contributed to the Unicorn story.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Whale Shark

You know what? Just for the heck of it, let's do one more shark. Because sharks are awesome! So I'm going to talk about the largest living species of shark, the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus).

Image from AquaViews
Whale Sharks are 40-65 feet long, but don't think of them as gigantic, fearsome man-eaters. They are truly gentle giants who tend to be completely indifferent to divers. (though getting accidentally whacked by their tails can cause serious injury) Much like the large Baleen Whales, What Sharks prefer to eat plankton and other small fish. They feed by sucking in large quantities of water, and then expelling it through their gills, keeping their tiny meals inside their mouths with help from filters. They can filter 6,000 liters an hour.

Physically, whale sharks have some interesting features. Their body sports a distinctive checkerboard pattern, and their eyes are very small and placed on the sides of the head. Their teeth are tiny (especially for a fish so large) are are placed in 300 rows. Though they appear to have nothing to do with their feed habits. The Whale Sharks' body is also covered with tiny denticles, which are common to most shark species, and play a role in being hydrodynamic.

Whales sharks are slow swimmers, but they are migratory. They live in tropical waters across the planet where plankton levels are highest. Whale Sharks are usually solitary creatures, but groups of up to 100 have been spotted. They are ovoviviparous, and it is thought that they can give birth to up to 300 young at a time. The life expectancy of one of these wonderful sharks could be near 100 years. Whale Sharks are hunted in a handful of places, and they are currently listed as vulnerable.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Common Eland

Taurotragus oryx is the largest species of antelope in Africa. They are sexually dimorphic, with males capable of weighing over 900kg, and females topping out at 600kg. However, the females win out in horn length. Both sexes have horns, but the females' are longer and more slender, while the males' are short and thick. Common Eland are found in Southern Africa, and are capable of living in a pretty wide variety of environments.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Interestingly, the trade-off for being the largest antelope is to be the slowest antelope as well. They rarely reach speeds greater than 25mph. However, they do have some remarkable jumping skills (especially for their weight) and can leap 10 feet from a standing start. In other interesting features related to legs, Common Elands have strange joints and tendons in their front legs. When they walk there is a clicking sound. This feature has not been widely researched, but it is suspected that it may have something to do with male territoriality.

Eland live in large herds, usually numbering around 60-75 individuals, though herds in the hundreds have also been witnessed. They have a pretty complex social structure, with three separate group types observed. There are Female Groups, which are predictably full of females. These groups travel large distances. The Male Groups, in contrast, are sedentary. Lastly, there are Nursery Groups, which are made up of females with offspring, calves, and not quite mature adults. As calves age, their mothers leave to rejoin Female Groups. Eventually, the young Eland will be old enough to move on to a different group as well. Eland can live 15-25 years in the wild.

Elands have

Monday, August 2, 2010

Goblin Shark

Once again, sorry about the post delay, it's been a really hectic day! (and just goes to show that I should go back to my old method of having back-up posts ready for days like this) I'm still in a sharky mood, so today is another personal favorite of mine, the Goblin Shark.

Image from National Geographic
Goblin Sharks are extremely rare, and only about 45 have ever been caught. That is because these interesting looking fellows prefer to live on the sea floor on outer continental shelves. The average water depth of those discovered was between about 900 and 3,000 feet. Goblin Sharks have been found off the coasts of South Africa, Portugal, Australia, and a handful of other places. The first Goblin Shark ever seen was found in Japan, and the man who discovered it called the creature Tenguzame, after Tengu, a goblin-like creature of myth.

As already stated, Goblin Sharks are rare and have had very little interaction with humans. We know next to nothing about their social behavior and reproductive habits, though dietary information is available. If you couldn't tell from the photograph, Goblin Sharks have a very large, protruding snout. This snout, also known as a rostrum, is electrosensitive, and helps the shark to detect prey in their dark habitats. They sit and wait, undetected, for potential meals to swim by, notice them, and close in. In regards to other anatomical features, Goblin Sharks have undeveloped lower caudal (tail) fins, flabby bodies, and are a grayish-pink color. Scientists believe their flabbiness allows them to float at a constant level in the water without the need to move.

Goblin Sharks are the only living members of the family Mitsukurinidae. Though they can grow to over 10 feet in length, they are not dangerous to humans since they live so deep down in the water.

Slight delay


Due to an unexpected call in to work, todays animal will be a bit delayed. Look back tonight for another sweet shark!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thresher Shark

Shark Week 2010 starts today, so in honor of that fine tradition I'm going to talk about one of my favorite sharks, the ever so strange looking Thresher Shark. Alopius vulpinas can be found in ocean waters worldwide, though they are most abundant in temperate zones. It is typically a pelagic species, meaning that it inhabits the open sea, though they will occasionally travel to coastal waters. Thresher Sharks are also referred to as Fox Sharks, which lines up with their species name vulpinas, a derivation of the Latin word for fox.

Image from Flickr
Thresher Sharks are pretty easy to pick out. They have an upper caudal (tail) fin that can make up 50% of their overall body length. They usually grow to between 10 and 15 feet. Their tail is used to assist in hunting. The diet of a Thresher Shark consists mostly of fish that they round up and stun with their tails. They have even been known to kill they prey by whipping their tails. Thresher Sharks also eat cephalopods and crustaceans. Thresher Sharks are very strong swimmers, and are capable of leaping completely out of the water.

I get to use one of my favorite words to describe the reproductive habits of the Thresher Sharks. They are ovoviviparous! This means that they lay eggs, but they are laid inside the mothers body, and incubated there. The young pups, usually between 4 and 6 in number, are then born live into the open sea.

There are other members of genus Alopius besides vulpinas, and all of the species are listed as vulnerable. Fishing net entanglement and a slow livespan have led to decreasing numbers in recent years.
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