Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and Big Cats!

Bonner, Hannah. When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before DinosaursChronologically the first of two books by Bonner, When Fish Got Feet... explores the rise of fish in the Silurian and Devonian periods with wonderful comics, cartoons and illustrations. She takes difficult material, such as the rise and fall of the very fish classes (Sharks! Acanthodians! Placoderms! Bony Fish!) and makes it accessible to a younger audience. Even as an adult I really enjoyed this book and it gave me some wonderful ideas on future things to learn about!

Bonner, Hannah. When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before Dinosaurs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2004.
When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life before DinosaursThe second book chronologically, (though the first published) When Bugs Were Big takes a look at the Carboniferous and Permian periods. This span includes the movement to land by insects and tetrapods, the changing world, and the mass extinction that would give way to the Mesozoic and the age of the Dinosaurs. Once again Bonner has created a text that explains the timeperiod in a fun, illustrated way.


Turner, Alan and Mauricio Anton. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
The Big Cats and Their Fossil RelativesBig Cats is a book in a very similar vein to "Dogs," and it even includes illustrations by the same artist, Mauricio Anton. In this text Turner looks only at the big cats- Lions, Tigers, Leopards, etc.- and explains where they came from, who their now-extinct ancestors were, and how and why they have the specific adaptations that they possess. It gives a clear picture of the evolution of Big Cats, and explains nearly every function of their anatomy and how it corresponds to their social, mating, and hunting behaviors. This book is not "light reading" but if you have an interest in feline evolution and physiology, definately take a look. It also has some exceptionally beautiful illustrations and plates by Anton that help to visualize these creatures of the past.

Large Blue Butterfly

Large Blue Butterfly is both a common name and a description for Phengaris arion (sometimes also called Maculinea arion). It is a species of butterfly that lives in 37 countries throughout continental Europe, and was reintroduced to Southern England after going extinct there in 1979 due to habitat loss. They  are found in warm, dry locations which are often also home to Thyme and Marjoram, plants that are important to the reproductive process. Large Blue Butterflies have wingspans of about 2in, and are blue with black spots.

(Image Source)
Large Blue Butterflies have an interesting life-cycle. Eggs are laid on the aforementioned Thyme or Marjoram plants and when they hatch, the caterpillars will consume the plant that they hatched upon, molting 3 times. After the third molt, the still-small caterpillars drop to the ground where they attract Myrmica sabuleti red ants with a sweet secretion from their body. The ant will feed on the secretion, and after it is finished the caterpillar will inflate the skin behind its head. The ant mistakes the caterpillar for one of its own larvae, and carries it back to the nest, where the caterpillar then proceeds to eat all of the ant larvae, hibernate, and eventually pupate.

Adult Large Blue Butterflies emerge in June and have sadly short lives. While a caterpillar may live 9 months or longer, adults typically only hand on for a few weeks at the very most. This is just long enough for them to find a mate and reproduce.

Large Blue Butterflies are listed as Near Threatened.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Markhor

The Markhor, the national animal of Pakistan, is a particularly stunning creature. They are large members of the Capra genus, with males reaching weights of 240lbs. They are not the heaviest goats, but they certainly are the tallest, with males standing 3-4ft at the shoulder. Both sexes possess a pair tight, corkscrew twisted horns, but those of the male far surpass those of the female in length. Their horns can grow to 60 or more inches, and are used in aggressive fights during the mating season. They have shaggy coats that grow in length and color seasonally, with the hair shorter and redder in the summer, and longer and grayer in winter.

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Markhors (Capra falconeri) are currently found in only a few small pockets in the Himalayas, typically at elevations of between 2,000 and 12,000ft, where there is still sparse vegetation. They are exceptional climbers and their locations vary with the season, with summers in the higher altitudes and winters in the lower. Their feeding habits also are seasonally affected; in summer they tend to be grazers while in winter they browse. Markhor populations in these few remaining areas are small and typically very isolated. In the past, the Markhor had a range that extended throughout central Asia.

Unfortunately, Markhor are an endangered species, and continue to be hunted for their meat and for their horns, which are used as both hunting trophies and as ingredients for traditional Asian medicines. Markhor horns supposedly sell in China for over $2,200 a pound. Habitat loss and food competition from domestic livestock has also reduced their numbers. It is estimated that there are only a few thousand left. In the wild, Markhor are also hunted by wolves, snow leopards, and lynx.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane has a quite remarkable story. In the Pleistocene, these birds had a range that covered a vast area of North America. When westward expansion began in the 19th century, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat caused numbers to dwindle. By 1941, there were only sixteen birds left. Since then, multiple efforts have been made to both protect existing birds, and to create new migratory flocks. The only naturally occurring flock left migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. An additional route has been established between Wisconsin and Florida.

Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They stand at about five feet, and possess a seven and a half foot wingspan. Aside from its dark legs, beak, and facial markings, the adult Whooping Crane is entirely white. They are named for their whooping call, which is instrumental in the mating process. Mated pairs will sing duets together, while additional calls are made by nesting birds to announce their territory. They live in marshland areas, and are omnivorous. Whooping Cranes feed off of a variety of different things including plants, crustaceans, fish, and insects.
(Image Source)

But lets go back to those reintroduction efforts. There are now, as of January 2010, 551 Whooping Cranes in the wild and in captivity. One of the most interesting things I learned about this process is that ultra-light planes have been used to lead young Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population from their birthplaces in Wisconsin down to their wintering grounds in Florida. In the spring, the young birds are able to make the flight back to Wisconsin unassisted. In a side note, there was also, briefly in the 1970s and 80s, an effort to integrate young Whooping Cranes with Sandhill Cranes, and form a migratory population that ran from Idaho to New Mexico. Unfortunately this program was unsuccessful and has been discontinued.

While Whooping Cranes are now protected from hunting and egg collection, habitat loss is still a threat, as the wetlands continue to diminish. While the current populations live in protected areas, their isolation could prove disastrous should a major environmental change affect that specific area.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Komodo Dragon

Komodo Dragons are found exclusively on the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia (including the obvious Komodo Island.) They are the heaviest lizards on Earth, weighing upwards of 300lbs. They can grow as long as 10ft, with males being longer and heavier than females.

(Image Source)
One of the most amazing things about the Komodo Dragon is it's method of hunting and killing prey. They are extremely opportunistic feeders, and will eat pigs, deer, and even humans and water buffalo. They are also cannibalistic and fill feed on young Dragons.

On a side note, young Komodo Dragons must immediately reach the safety of trees after hatching, because adults will eat them without a second thought. The young Dragons will remain in the trees for about four years, until they are large enough to truly fend for themselves on the ground.

Anyway, back to hunting. Komodo Dragons hunt by waiting patiently for a potential meal to walk by. Then they strike out with their claws and teeth. If they kill the prey during the initial attack, they are able to devour it with amazing speed. One Komodo was observed eating an entire 90lb pig in just 20 minutes.

Now here comes the really interesting part. If a Komodo Dragon is unable to kill its prey on the initial assault they will simply follow it around and wait for it to die. The saliva of a Komodo Dragon contains 50 different strains of bacteria, which will afflict and poison the blood of the animal they attacked. In only a matter of days the animal will be dead and the Komodo can feed. Because of their keen sense of smell, other Dragons might take part in the stalking, and multiple individuals will fight over the kill when it eventually expires.



Komodo Dragons are endangered. Their habitats have diminished and now they share the same hunting prey as humans. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 Komodo Dragons living in the wild.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bumblebee Bat

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Did you know that the Bumblebee Bat, also known as Kitti's Hog nosed Bat, is one of the world's smallest mammals? They measure a mere 1.3 inches in length, and weigh only 2 grams! They are found in only two small ranges in the entire world. The first is in Sai Yok National Park in Thailand and the second in in Myanmar, and the individuals there were more recently discovered. Craseonycteris thonglongyai is the only member of the family Craseonycteridae, and they were first discovered in 1974.

Bumblebee bats live in limestone caves, where they roost in groups. As far as a physical description goes, they range from gray to reddish brown in color, possess a hog-like snout,They are nocturnal animals, coming out at night to feed on insects. Bumblebee bats use echolocation to hunt their prey, which is snatched both from the air while in flight, and from off of leaves and twigs. They hunt within a relatively short distance from their roosting site.

Unfortuantely Bumblebee bats are listed as vulnerable. Forest burning has had a large impact on their downward population trend, and it is now believed that their are 4,000 left in the world. In 2007, the Bumblebee Bat was chosen as a focal species for the EDGE project.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harris's Hawk

Harris's Hawks, named by Audobon after his friend Edward Harris, are medium sized hawks that live in dry, arid regions of the Southern United States, Central, and South America. Their wingspans grow up to 4ft, and have a body length of up to 2ft. The plumage of the Harris's Hawk is predominantly a chocolate brown, with chestnut accents on the wings and legs.

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Harris's Hawks are very social, and are one of only two social raptor species in the world. The Hawks will nest in groups consisting of at least one pair, though sometimes as many as seven birds can be found. These groups hunt together, and find more success than they would if hunting alone. As far as breeding goes, nests are built in trees and cacti, and eggs are incubated for a little over a month. Young Harris's Hawks may sometimes stay with their parents after fledging, helping to raise new broods for several years. Their hunting style and social behavior has made them quite popular within the field of falconry.

Harris's Hawks feed primarily on small mammals and ground birds, and they themselves are prey to larger raptors and ground mammals such as coyotes and foxes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hoffman's Two Toed Sloth

I'm in the mood for something endearing today, though I suppose my concept of "endearing" might be a little off. I love sloths. I think they are adorable and awesome, even if they can't walk on land and have fur covered in algae. Don't believe me? Think sloths are lame? Just watch these videos...




Man, I just love sloths. So today we're going to talk about the Hoffman's Two Toed Sloth, one of two species of Two Toed Sloth. Choloepus hoffmanni can be found in rainforest-type areas in South and Central America, where they are almost completely arboreal.

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And when I say "almost" I mean that they come down from the trees literally once a week in order to urinate and defecate. Their metabolism is so slow that once a week is all they need, and at that time they may lose up to 30% of their body weight! They will also descend when moving to a different tree, but their physiology makes them unable to walk, so instead they have to drag themselves across the ground to get where they are going. They actually have the lowest muscle mass to body weight ratio of any mammal, as well as the lowest variable body temperature (as low as 86 degrees F)! Surprisingly, they are pretty good swimmers.

Hoffman's Two Toed Sloths do just about everything upside down, including giving birth. Their bodies have adapted well to such a life; even their hair parts on the belly rather than the back, allowing rain to run off of them easier. These sloths also have a weird relationship with Algae. Their hair is wonderful for Algae growth, which helps to camouflage the Sloths, and potentially provide them with a meal. Sloths require camouflage to stay safe from potential predators, including Snakes, Eagles, and Cats.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pufferfish

Deflated (Source)


There are 121 species of Pufferfish, found within 20 separate genera, but all contained within the family Tetraodontidae. They lived in tropical waters throughout the world, and some species have even made it to temperate areas and fresh water. Pufferfish can grow to a variety of different sizes, depending on the species, with the largest individuals reaching about 40in in length. All Pufferfish have a similar long, tapered body shape and round head. Their family name, Tetraodontidae, comes from their four large, fused teeth that allow them to break open the hard shells of mollusks and crustaceans.

So how does a Pufferfish puff? Because they swim so slowly, Pufferfish are unable to quickly escape from would be predators. They have developed extremely elastic stomachs and the ability to very quickly suck in water (and sometimes air) in order to inflate themselves to a much large size. Most Pufferfish also have spines that remain hidden while deflated, but project outward while puffed up, giving them an even more fearsome appearance.

Inflated (Source)
But inflation is not the only trick a Pufferfish has up its sleeve. Nearly every species contains a powerful substance known as Tetrodotoxin, which if found chiefly in organs like the ovaries and liver. It is extremely potent, and in humans is over 1,000 times more powerful than Cyonide. Yet humans still eat Pufferfish! The meat of these fish, sometimes called Fugu, is considered a delicacy in Japan. If prepared correctly by a trained chef, the meat is harmless. Still, every year their are reported cases of poisoning, and there is no antidote. While this toxin is deadly to humans, some marine predators, including Tiger Sharks, are unaffected.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Steller's Sea Cow

The story of the Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) is a tragic one. In 1741, the ship of Dutch navigator Vitus Bering became wrecked on an island off the coast of the Kamchatka Penninsula (which would later be named Bering Island.) Bering and many of his crew members died on that island, which I suppose was a bad omen for the poor Sea Cows that were discovered there by the expedition's naturalist, Georg Steller. Steller wrote about the creatures once he and the crew were able to build a new ship from their old wreckage and leave the island. Within 27 short years, the entire species went extinct.

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How? Why? Bering's crew only killed and consumed one Sea Cow during their stay, but the meat was described as being delicious and of a quality that took longer to spoil than other meat. They had hides that could be used in boat making, and valuable oil that could be both eaten and burnt. Hunters began to travel to Bering Island, decimating the already minuscule population. (Estimates place the number at Steller's discovery to be around 1,500 individuals) The death of the last Steller's Sea Cow was recorded in 1768.

Steller's Sea Cows were the only Arctic members of the order Sirenia, which includes modern Manatees and Dugongs. They were also the largest; Steller recorded specimens as long as 28 feet. This dwarfs modern Sirenians which rarely grow larger than 12 feet. Steller's Sea Cows were also herbivores, which differs from most other marine mammals. They fed off of kelp and various algae. They lived in herds and were described by Steller as being monogamous.

Steller's Sea Cows were confined to arctic waters, though ancestral species within the same genus had a wider range that spread down as far as Southern California. They, and all other Sirenians, are most closely related to Hyraxes, small rodent-looking creatures. They are also distantly related to Elephants and other members of the Superorder Afrotheria.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

American Mastodon


(Image Source
The American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) was a large tusked mammal that inhabited North American during the late Pleistocene from about 3 million to 11,000 years ago. They stood between eight and ten feet at the shoulder and weighed around 10,000lbs. Mastodons had stocky legs and long hairs covering their bodies. They also had massive tusks, which where more straight then those of their Mammoth cousins.

American Mastodons shared their Pleistocene homes with Mammoths. Though they both belong to the order Proboscidea, Mastodons are classed in the ancient and now completely extinct family of Mammutidae, while Mammoths shared the family of modern Elephants, Elephantidae. The American Mastodon was only the last of the Mastodon line. Members of the family appeared in Africa nearly 40 million years ago, and other species existed in Europe in Asia until about 2 million years ago.

Mastodon Tooth (Image Source)
Mastodons had low, ridged teeth that demonstrate a diet based on leaf browsing. This differs from the teeth of Mammoths which were used for grazing. Another distinction between the two is that the mouth of a Mastodon contained more teeth at one time than that of a Mammoth, though they shared the same number of overall teeth in a lifetime. The conical teeth of the Mastodon are the inspiration for their name. Mastodon means "nipple tooth."

Just this past Sunday it was reported that a new skull of what is believed to be a Mastodon was found in a mine in New Mexico. It measured eight feet long. Unfortunately, the skull crumbled during the excavation process, and will now be painstakingly reassembled. Mastodon fossils are relatively common throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest. A majority of these sites contain Mastodons dated between 40,000 and 11,000 years.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Firefly

Fireflies or Lightning Bugs are not actually flies at all! They are actually beetles within the order Coleoptera and the specific family Lampyridae. There are over 2,000 species of Firefly, and they can be found across the planet in both tropical and temperate climates, typically in areas are have a more moist habitat.

Image Source
So how do fireflies glow? Bioluminescence! They have organs dedicated to the production of light situation under their abdomens. Difference species produce different types of light flashes, and the lights are used for both finding mates and for defense. Even firefly larvae glow! Interestingly, the light that they emit produces no heat, making the light 100% efficient. Fireflies are even used for scientific purposes to study energy conversion.

As larvae, Fireflies consume other insects, including other species of Firefly. As adults however... well, no one really knows what they eat. Scientist suspect that they feed off of pollen and nectar, though they may not eat at all. Fireflies are adults only long enough to find a mate and produce eggs, so eating may not even be necessary.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

American Badger

What A Lovely Creature!
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It's my birthday today, and Wisconsin won yesterday, so heck, I'm doing the Badger! Badgers are awesome! Now, we're talking about the American Badger in this instance, not the European or Honey Badger, though both are just as awesome but will be discussed at a later date. American Badgers (Taxidea taxus) can be found throughout plains habitats in the western United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico. Since 1957 the Badger has been the state animal of Wisconsin, and the Badger moniker itself comes from the "Badger den" holes that miners lived in during the early 1800s. Fun Wisconsin Facts!

American Badgers are relatively large Mustelids. They can grow as large as 3ft in length and weight over 25lbs. They have flat bodies, and short, stocky legs that are used for some serious digging. They vary in overall color, but all Badgers have a very distinctive face with a white chin, black patches, and a white stripe that extends all the way down the back. They have excellent senses of sight, smell, and hearing, which are all used to search for prey. Badgers do most of their digging in order to locate and pursue prey, which includes various rodent species and ground nesting birds. In some areas, Badgers and Coyotes have a strange working relationship. Coyotes cannot dig and Badgers cannot chase, and by hanging out near each other both can benefit. It has been found that Coyotes are capable of catching a third more prey when working with a Badger.

So Majestic!
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American Badgers are solitary and primarily nocturnal. They do not actually hibernate in the winter, but instead will go into short inactive states where they may not leave their burrow for days at a time. Badgers actually mate in fall, but females are capable of delaying implantation so that their young are born in spring rather than during the cold winter months. An average of three young are born at a time, and will stay with their mother for 5-6 months.

Badgers are tough little guys and have few natural predators. While they will rarely pick a fight, if a Badger is provoked it can be a formidable fighter and can also emit a harsh musk to ward off attackers. There are anecdotes of Badgers fighting off pairs of Coyotes and being able to outdig men with shovels.

And not only are they awesomely fearsome... but they have an adorable side as well! Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt kept one as a pet, named Josiah. Not recommended, but awesome.



Methinks I might just visit the Badger at the Zoo today. Awesome.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pelagornis chilensis

Pelagornis chilensis is a large, now extinct bird that once soared the coastal skies. It is believed that they may be a precursor to modern pelicans and stocks. Pelagornis chilensis is one of a handful of species within the genus, and has been the one most in the public eye. Literally last week news reports started to come out about a gigantic prehistoric bird from Chile with a confirmed wingspan of over 17ft. While spans of birds like Argentavis magnificens have been estimated as being larger, due to flight feather length, P. chilensis is confirmed to have longer wing bones.

Image by Carlos Anzures (Source)
Image by Carlos Anzures (Source)
The bird lived between 5 and 10 million years ago, and has a remarkable complete skeleton. Because birds have such fragile frames in order to maintain flight, wing bones were often crushed. This skeleton is 70% complete. It is in fact the most complete fossil bird wing ever excavated.

Another awesome piece of information about P. chilensis? It had teeth.Well, kinda of. P. chilensis had bony psuedoteeth, which probably aided in grabbing and holding on to slippery seafood like squid and fish.

The skeleton of chilensis will remain in Chile for study and display, while a
replica is currently being prepared for display in Frankfurt, Germany. A full copy of the P. chilensis report is in the September issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.



Friday, September 17, 2010

Llama

Llamas come in many colors! (Image Source)

Llamas (Lama glama) are camelids that were domesticated 4,000-5,000 years ago in the Andes Mountains of South America. They are one of two members of the genus Lama, the other being their wild counterpart, the Guanaco (Lama guanicoe). Llamas are only found in their domesticated form, and there are over 7 million of them in South America, and about 100,000 in North America. Llames come in a wide variety of colors, and they stand 5-6 feet tall at the head and weigh between 250 and 400lbs.

Llamas were domesticated to serve many functions. They are pack animals, they provide meat, and they have thick wool and hides to be used for clothing and shelter. Llamas were, and still are, used to carry loads over difficult terrain. Their two-toed feet give them remarkable sure-footedness and they can carry 20-30% of their body weight. In recent years Llamas have also be utilized as livestock guardians.

Mother and Cria (Image Source)
Another benefit to pack-Llamas is that they require very little water and can subsist off of a variety of different plant materials. They also have excrement that not only attracts few flies, but can also be burnt for fuel. Llama wool is warm and lightweight, but has no commercial market, and is not as fine at that of Alpaca or Vicuna.

Female llamas have an interesting breeding cycle. They do not go into heat as many other mammals do. Rather, ovulation is induced by the act of mating itself. The gestation period is 350 days, and 1 baby (Cria) is born at a time, typically during the morning.

Llamas are described as being very social, yet independent animals. They are, in most cases, intelligent and easy to train. Llamas do spit! But this behavior is most often a result of a perceived threat, or to establish an order within the herd.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are native to the United States and Mexico where they live year round in a wide variety of habitats. They are medium sized, slender songbirds, with a brown and grey coloration.
Image Source

Mockingbirds are very aggressive. They don't take kindly to birds that invade their territory, and will guard it vigilantly. They feed off of a variety of things including insects, crustaceans, and fruits. Mockingbirds nest in shrubs and trees and lay 2-6 eggs at a time. They may raise multiple broods in a season.

Mockingbirds are extremely vocal, can mimic many other bird species, and continue to add new songs throughout their lifetime. An adult male may learn up to 200 songs throughout its life. One recording of a Northern Mockingbirds showed that it could imitate the calls of 36 other bird species. They sing both night and day, depending on if they have a mate or not. Females also sing, though they are less loud.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hyracotherium

Also known as Eohippus, or "Dawn Horse," Hyracotherium is the oldest known horse. Both terms are names of genera. The name Hyracotherium actually means "Hyrax-like" because when it was initially discovered by Robert Owen in 1841 he believed it was an early Hyrax. A few decades after that, Othniel C. Marsh determined that the fossils in fact belonged to an early horse, but due to naming rules the first name became the official one, even though Eohippus is probably more appropriate. Both names are still heard today.

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Hyracotherium lived in the Early Eocene, approximately 60-45 million years ago. It was a very small mammal that measured only about two feet long and stood 12-14 inches at the shoulder. They lived in woodland areas in the Northern Hemisphere.

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Hyracotherium did not have the hooves of modern horses. Instead, they had toes! Four toes were found on the front feet, while the back feet had only three. They also had pads on their feet similar to those of modern dogs. Hyracotherium had 44 low crowned teeth, including six incisors and two canines, and most likely browsed on leaves, fruits, and plant shoots. Thought we don't actually known what color Hyracotherium was, they are often drawn as having dark coats with light spots, which would help to camouflage them in a forest habitat.

Hyracotherium is only the first of a long line of early horses that gradually evolved into the animals we have today. There are even some scientists who believe that Hyracotherium was the ancestor to not just horses, but to many other modern mammals as well, including Rhinos and Tapirs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hagfish

Hagfish is the term for one of a 60 species of very ancient fish that live on sea floors around the world. The oldest fossil Hagfish was discovered in 1991, and is strikingly similar to today's Hagfish, demonstrating that they have changed very little in 300 million years. In fact, Hagfish are so old that they split from the human line over 500 million years ago.

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There is great debate as to whether or not Hagfish are really even fish. Heck, are they even vertebrates? Hagfish have skulls, but no vertebrae. They don't even have jaws. The remainder of the body is made up entirely of cartilage. They have smooth, scaleless bodies, and no fins. Not a whole lot is known about Hagfish reproductive habits, but it is believed that they are born hermaphroditic and settle into a sex as they mature.

Hagfish are blind, though the simple eye that they possess actually is a valuable tool in tracing the evolution of more complex eyes. To make up for their blindness, they have exceptional senses of touch and small. Hagfish are able to search out meals on the dark sea floor using said senses, and these meal often consist of small sea-floor worms. However, Hagfish have a secondary, quite gruesome feeding method. They can attach themselves to dead or injured creatures that are much larger than themselves. They are then able to burrow in to the body of said animal and literally consume it from the inside out.

Another gross thing about Hagfish? The slime. Hagfish secrete a thick mucus from their bodies that serves a a defense mechanism. It is said that a single adult hagfish can secrete up to a gallon of this mucus at a time. The mucus is also full of tiny fibers that make it exceptionally thick and difficult to deal with.

Monday, September 13, 2010

American Robin

The American Robin can be found all over North America, and is an extremely common bird. They are also teh state bird of three US States! They live in a wide variety of habitats from tundras to farm fields.  They are larger songbirds, with wingspans of up to 16in. Robins have very characteristic coloration, with both the males and females being brownish-black and sporting a reddish-orange breast. Females are slightly duller in color than the males.

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Robins also have very colorful eggs! After partnering up for each breeding season, females robins lay several clutches of 3-5 blue eggs. Both her and her mate will take care of the new chicks until they fledge and a new brood is born. Sadly, only 25% of all robins will make it to their first winter. Most Robin populations are migratory, and they are diurnal birds.

American Robins are omnivores. They consume a wide variety of fruits and insects. They are commonly seen eating worms (hence the phrase). Unfortunately, pesticides and other chemicals have been affecting the Robins, and their numbers have been declining over the past forty years. Robin eggs, young, and adults are preyed upon by many other animals, including squirrels, hawks, cats, and snakes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aardvark

Orycteropus afer  is an interesting mammal. Even though they resemble anteaters, they are not actually related. Aardvarks (whose name essentially means "earth pig") are members of their own entire order, which itself is part of the superorder Afrotheria. The closest relatives of the Aarvarks are actually Hyraxes, Sengis, and Elephants!

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Aarvarks are medium sizes animals with nearly-hairless bodies and powerful claws which are used for digging at termite mounds. They also have highly specialized snouts that allow them to smell out and then lick up vast quantities of their favorite meals. Aardvarks actually do have teeth, but they grow only at the back of the jaw, have no enamel, and fall out and grow continuously throughout their lives.

Aardvarks are solitary, nocturnal animals. During the day they sleep in burrows, and they often dig completely new ones each day. Abandoned burrows can become shelter for many other smaller animals species. Females give birth to only one cub at a time, who is born pink and hairless. At about six months, any male offspring will leave and become independent. Female cubs stay with their mothers until she gives birth to another cub.

Aardvarks are not a threatened species. Their major predators include wild dogs and big cat species. Some human tribes consume Aardvark meat.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Manta Ray

Manta Rays (Manta birostris) are the largest of all rays, but worry not! They are harmless, graceful swimmers. Unlike some other ray species, that have no stingers. Mantas are very, very large, commonly measuring over 20ft wide. Some individuals can reach 30ft, and weigh over 3,000lbs. They are found in tropical and temperate near-coastal waters around the world.

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Did you know Manta Rays are closely related to sharks? And like their sharkish cousins the Basking and Whale Sharks, Mantas consume very tiny creatures. They have two fins on their head that almost resemble horns (perhaps a reason for their other common name, the Devil Ray) which suck in plankton and other small sea creatures. The prey is then filtered through gill rakes and consumed. Also like the aforementioned sharks, Manta Rays have tiny teeth which are unused.

Manta Rays mate belly to belly, and are ovoviviparous. Females give birth to only 1-2 pups at a time, which are already 4ft across when born. Their age of sexual maturity and overall lifespan is unknown.

Manta Rays are basically harmless to humans, but one should be careful around them due to their large size. They are currently listed as Near Threatened by IUCN.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtles are found throughout the world's tropical and subtropical seas. They are a migratory species, moving many miles each year between feeding and nesting areas. They can grow quite large, with adults reaching 5ft and weighing over 500lbs. Green Sea Turtles are omnivorous, consuming sea plants as well as crustaceans.

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Female Green Sea Turtles do usually not lay eggs every year, those males try and breed yearly. Females are often on a breeding cycle that ranges from every 2 to 4 years. When females do lay eggs, they spend about two hours to lay clutch containing up to 200 of them. These eggs incubate for 45-75 days, after which the young turtles must make the often deadly march to the sea.

Baby Sea Turtles have countless predators both in an out of the water, including gulls, opossums, sharks, rats, and dolphins. A large percentage of the hatchlings will not make it to adulthood. Green Sea Turtles do not become sexually mature until they are at least twenty years old. They can live as long as eighty years.

Green Sea Turtles have seen a major population decline over the past 100 years. Egg harvesting, accidental capture by fishing, and disease have led to their decline. They are now currently protected by numerous agencies worldwide, and they are listed in Appendix I of CITES.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rhea

When people think of flightless birds, they think Ostrich, Emu, maybe even Kiwi. But what about the Rhea? There are two species of Rhea, both native to the grasslands of South America. Like the aforementioned birds, Rheas are ratites; birds that lack an anchor for their wing muscles, and thus cannot fly. Rheas still have large (for a Ratite) wings, but they are used for balance while running.

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The largest of the Rheas, the Common or American Rhea (Rhea americana), cant grow to heights of 5 feet, while the Lesser or Darwin's Rhea (Rhea pennata) grows to only 3 or 4. They are omnivores, and will consume fruits, seeds, lizards, insects, and even carrion. Rheas are solitary through the breeding season, but will form flocks during the winter. These flocks sometimes intermingle with those of other species.

Interestingly, it is the male Rheas that do most of the egg-guarding and chick-rearing. What is even more interesting is that Rheas are polygamous, and the males take more than one mate. All of his breeding partners will lay their eggs in the same place to be watched over by the male. A Rhea egg can weight 1.5lbs.

Like Ostrich, Rhea meat can be eaten, and the industry is regulated by the USDA which considers it to be "red" meat. Rhea feathers and skins are also used for various purposes, including clothing and decoration.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Star Nosed Mole

Condylura cristata is a quite amusing looking little fellow. The common name comes from the fact that their nose is completely hairless and has 22 small "tentacles" that give a star-like appearance. But more on that remarkable nose later. Star Nosed Moles can be found in low wetlands throughout North America and can grow to about 20cm in length.

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The nose of the Star Nosed Mole is the most sensitive organ in the entire animal kingdom. Its nose has over 25,000 touch receptors known as Eimer's Organs, which rapidly tell the brain whether or not what they are touching is edible. Star Nosed Moles are able to locate and consume prey with amazing speed (it is believed they are also the fastest eaters in the animal kingdom as well), and their remarkable sense of touch more than makes up for their poor eyes. It is believed that their eyes are only really good for sensing light and dark.The Moles dig complex tunnel networks with their specialized claws, and build nests underground made from dried plants and grasses.

Star Nosed Moles are monogamous for each breeding season, but have a short life expectancy of only 2-4 years. Star Nosed Moles are preyed upon by various birds, land mammals, and even fish. These Moles are excellent swimmers and will even forage for food while underwater.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mudpuppy

Mudpuppies are among the largest of all Salamanders, and can grow to about 14in in length. They can be found throughout the Eastern United States and Canada, and are completely aquatic. They prefer shallow lakes and streams, though specimens have been found at depths of 100 feet. Mudpuppies spend most of the day hiding under rocks and vegetation. They are carnivorous and feed at night off of insects, crustaceans, small fish, and snails.

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Necturus maculosus is identified by their brown spotted bodies and bright red gills. It is an interesting species of Amphibian because gills are their one and only method of breathing, unlike many other species of salamander which develop lungs during their metamorphosis. Another pretty unique trait is that Mudpuppies guard their eggs, rather than lay them an abandon them. It takes up to 5 week for eggs to hatch after being laid. Mudpuppies have a lifespan of around twenty years and don't even reach sexual maturity until about five or six.

Mudpuppies are not a threatened species, but habitat loss and pollution has affected some localized populations.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Harp Seal

Adult (Image Source)
Harp Seals are probably best known in their pup form; the white, fluffy, adorable little guys that seems highly represented in the children's plush toy market. Harp Seals are found in the Arctic Waters, where they live on park ice and migrate up to 2,500km each year between breeding grounds and summering areas. They come together for breeding and molting and form groups of several thousand seals. Adult Harp Seals measure up to 6ft in length, and weigh about 300lbs. They are carnivores, and are able to dive to 100m and hold their breath for 15min.

Pup (Image Source)
Harp Seals come together in large groups to mate. This usually happens right after weaning the previous season's pup. After mating, female Harp Seals are able to delay implantation, allowing her to give birth when pack ice is available. You seals are born a camouflaging white, and will feed off an extremely high-fat milk for about the first two weeks of their life. Once the pups have reached about 80lb, they are very abruptly weaned and left on their own. Pups will go through an extensive molting process before finally achieving their adult coats at sexual maturity at the age of 4-6. Harp Seals are so named because of a harp-shaped pattern found on the sides of the adult seals.

The fluffy white coats of newborn Harp Seals as made them very desirable. Harp Seals are one of the most commercially important of all the Seals, and though the hunts are now regulated in most areas, hundreds of thousands of Harp Seals are killed each year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Pterygotus

So a few weeks back we talked about one of the top predators of the Devonian Period, so now lets move back about 400 million years and talk about the terror of the Silurian seas: Pterygotus. Fossilized specimens of these gigantic sea scorpions have been found in New York and Britain.

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Pterygotus is actually a genus name, and members within it comprised some of the largest Arthropods of all time.  With the ability to reach lengths of nine feet, the only other Arthropods that ever reached similar sizes was the Carboniferous Arthropleura. They were completely aquatic, and most likely hunted by laying on the sea floor and ambushing prey. Pterygotus consumed other, smaller invertebrates. They had pincers like modern scorpions, but did not have a stringer-tipped tail. Instead, their tail was broad and most likely used as a paddle to assist with movement, seeing as their legs were very small.

Pterygotus was able to achieve such a large size because of the lack of jawed fish and other predators. No one hunted them and they had no one to compete with. Once jawed fish became more populous, Pterygotus and other large Arthropods began to die out, as they were no longer able to compete. For several million years, however, Pterygotus ruled the seas.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

European Pine Marten

Martes martes can be found throughout Europe. While some populations have become habitat generalists, most Martens prefer forested areas, where they can live semi-arboreal lifestyles and remain protected from predators. They are about the size of a domestic cat, with a body length of roughly 20in, and an additional tail length of 10in. Males are slightly larger and heavier than females.

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European Pine Martens are a brown to reddish-brown color, with a yellowish colored patch on the neck and chest. Their coats are thicker during the winter, and more coarse during the summer. Martens were, and still are in some places, hunted for their winter coats.

European Pine Martens are omnivores, though they prefer meat above anything else. Their diet consists of smaller mammals, insects, birds, and frogs. They will also eat carrion, fruit, nuts, and honey. They are nocturnal, solitary creatures that mark their territories using scent glands. Martens become more social during the summer mating season, and after meting the females are able to delay implantation, causing their pregnancies to actually begin in early spring. Young Martens are born blind, deaf, and toothless, and will take about 6 months to become fully independent.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Atlantic Ghost Crab

As the name might imply, Ocypode quadrata is found in the Atlantic coastal areas of North and South America. They are one of 28 extant species within Ocypode that share the common name of Ghost Crab. Members of the genus are found throughout the world. They get their name from their ability to blend in with their surroundings and their partially translucent bodies.

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Atlantic Ghost Crabs live in burrows that they dig themselves. These are placed above the tideline, go down at a 45 degree angle, and can become 3-4 feet deep. They are built from wet sand for sturdiness, and the crabs use burrows for both shelter and for hibernation. Atlantic Ghost Crabs cannot swim, but they must live near water as it is required for their respiration. When hibernating, oxygen is stored in special sacs, allowing them to remain dormant for about 6 weeks. Females also need water in order to reproduce, as that is where they lay their eggs. Young crabs are even more camouflaged than the adults, and can be extremely difficult to see.

The eyes of the Atlantic Ghost Crabs can rotate a full 360 degrees, which is a good thing when you have so many natural predators. Birds and Raccoons regularly feed on Ghost Crabs, and in some areas the crabs are consumed by Humans as well. Atlantic Ghost Crabs are most active at night, and are very opportunistic omnivores.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Basking Shark

We've learned about the world's largest shark, so now lets move on to number two! Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) can be found in arctic and temperate coastal areas around the world. They are extremely migratory, following the plankton supply during the seasons, and can grow over 12m in length.

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That's right. Plankton. Like Whale Sharks, Basking Sharks feed off of tiny little creatures, rather than hunting and consuming larger prey as many of sharks do. They swim around with their large mouths open, ingesting whatever finds its way in. They then close their mouth and trap all of the food with help from gill rakers. All of the excess water is then expelled through their gills. They do have many teeth, but they are small and largely unused. Basking Sharks give birth to live young, making them ovoviviparous.

Unfortunately, Basking Shark populations declined dramatically in the 20th century, due to overfishing. These Shrkas have extremely large livers that make up 25% of their overall weight. The livers are vitamin rich and contain oil that is a major motivation for hunting. The species is currently considered Vulnerable, and are unfortunately still being hunted illegally. Basking Sharks are not dangerous to humans.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Red Winged Blackbird

Male Red Winged Blackbird (Source)
I chose today's animal because I quite like it. I grew up seeing them everywhere, and I've always loved their striking wing colors. Red Winged Blackbirds live all over North America in marshes, fields and meadows. They are one of the most abundant bird species on the continent, with numbers of nearly 200 million.

One thing I have learned in writing this post is that only the males of the species have the distinguishable red and yellow band. Females aren't even black! They have a brown, mottle appearance, which aids to camouflage them and is a coloration found in several other species of bird. Juveniles also have a similar coloration to the adult females. Red Winged Blackbirds vary in color based upon their location. For example, in areas where they overlap with a similar looking species, the Tricolored Blackbird, males have lost their yellow band. They feed off of insects, seeds, and grains.
Female (Source)

Some populations are migratory, but others remain in their habitats year round. While making their migration, Red Winged Blackbirds can travel at speeds of about 30mph. During the breeding season males fiercely defend their territory, and will mate with multiple females within it. Each partnering produces 2-3 chicks per season. Both parents protect the nesting area. Outside of the breeding season they live in large flocks that sometimes intermingle with other species and number into the thousands.
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