Saturday, March 31, 2012


Xiphias gladius
The three most interesting things that I learned while reading about Swordfish are that 1) they are the only living members of their entire family. 2) Their genus name actually is the Latin word for sword. Convenient! And finally, 3) they have the widest temperature tolerance of any fish. They can be found in waters that range from 41-80 degrees F (5-27C)

Swordfish look a heck of a lot like Marlins and Sailfish, but they actually belong to two totally different families, though they are at least distantly related. They are a pelagic species that can be found in temperate and tropical ocean waters all around the world. They tend to migrate, moving into warmer waters in the winter and colder waters during the summer, but they also have that previously mentioned temperature tolerance, so they are able to survive at a variety of latitudes.

The sword of a Swordfish can actually make up 1/3 of their entire body length. They use the bill to thrash about while hunting, as it can stun and kill prey. The are opportunistic feeders, eating various types of squid, fish, and anything else they can grab.

Swordfish can grow really big! Though 10ft is usually considered large, individuals measuring over 14ft long have been observed. For such huge fish they lay tiny, tiny eggs. Each female can carry literally millions of eggs, all of which measure less than 2mm in diameter.

The species has been popular with recreational fisherman because of their aggressive nature and hard-to-catch attitude. They are also harvested commercially, though the meat tends to be higher in Mercury than many other Fish types. Currently Swordfish are listed as being of Least Concern, but because of longline commercial fishing they are listed on the Greenpeace Red List. Longline fishing results in bycatches and harms other fish species.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Tropical and Temperate oceans worldwide
Size : Length around 10ft (3m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Actinopterygii -- Order : Perciformes
Family : Xiphiidae -- Genus : Xiphias -- Species : X. gladius

Friday, March 30, 2012


Today's animal might just be the oldest creature I've ever talked about. It lived in the early Cambrian period around 525 million years ago!

Helicoplacus is the genus name for two species of absolutely ancient Echinoderm. They are the earliest Echinoderm fossils that have ever been studied, and the specimens are pretty well preserved for being half a billion years old!

Helicoplacus species had skinny pine-cone shaped bodies that were vertically oriented and attached to the sea floor. They had very primitive respiratory systems, and there is dispute about where the mouth actually was. It is believed that the grooves that circled the bodies actually helped move food into a mouth, wherever it was placed.

Members of the genus lived for around 15 million years before going extinct.

Status : Extinct for over 500 million years
Location : Fossils found in North America
Size : Length up to 2.8in (7cm)
Classification : Phylum : Echinodermata -- Class : †Helicoplacoidea -- Genus : Helicoplacus

Thursday, March 29, 2012

West Indian Manatee

Trichechus manatus
As I write this there are four living Sirenian species in the world. Three are Manatees, and one is the Dugong. The order gets its name from the Sirens of Greek myth, and there are legends of sailors mistaking this giant aquatic mammals for mermaids!

The West Indian Manatee is one of the three living Manatees, with the African and the Amazonian being the other two. Though they live exclusively in the water like Whales do, they aren't closely related at all. Their nearest living relatives are actually the other members of the Afrotheria superorder- Elephants, Hyraxes, Sengis, and Aardvarks. The Manatees and Dugongs evolved from wading African herbivores millions of years ago.

West Indian Manatee eating
West Indian Manatees can be found in the Caribbean, as well as along the coast of Central and South America. They can live in both fresh and saltwater, and make their homes in rivers, estuaries, canals, and other coastal, slow-moving waters that give them a steady food supply. Manatees are herbivores that feed on floating, aquatic plants. They can eat up to 150lbs of food every single day!

Did you know that the West Indian Manatee is a migratory species? Though they normally only travel at around 5mph (a very brisk walking speed for a human), they can move hundreds of miles in a year. In the United States they have been seen as far north as Massachusetts and New York over the summer months, though those occurrences are very rare.

West Indian Manatees live long, slow lives when compared to some other mammals. They can live as long as 60 years, they have long gestation periods (up to 14 months), and very lengthy reproductive cycles that can mean several years between calves.

The slow reproductive rate has been one of the things holding back the conservation effort. You see, West Indian Manatees were once hunted for their meat, skins, and oil, and they continue to be threatened by fast moving watercraft and by habitat loss. They are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, and are protected by the United States Endangered Species act, but it is a a very slow path to recovery, since they breed so slowly and because the human population in their area only continues to grow.

IUCN Status : Vulnerable
Location : South America and Caribbean Islands
Size : Length up to 11ft (3.5m), Weight up to 1,200lbs (544kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Sirenia
Family : Trichechidae -- Genus : Trichechus -- Species : T. manatus

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Amazonian Giant Centipede

Scolopendra gigantea
It may not be obvious from the picture, but today's animal is an absolutely massive Centipede. It can grow to be a foot long!

Amazonian Giant Centipedes can be found in locations outside the Amazon- they live throughout northern South America, as well as on several different Caribbean Islands. These Centipedes have around 23 different red body segments, each with a pair of yellow-ish legs. They use all those legs to move about quickly, but also to hold on to their prey.

And what, you may ask, does a Centipede this large eat? Well, they do munch on small insects, but they can also go after birds, mice, lizards, frogs, and even bats! Amazonian Giant Centipedes are venomous, and they use that toxin to subdue prey. The venom is even strong enough to do serious damage to humans, so watch out!

Despite their toxicity, Amazonian Giant Centipedes are a welcome addition to farms and gardens, as they keep the damaging insect populations at bay with their voracious appetites.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : South America and Caribbean Islands
Size : Length up to 1ft (30cm)
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Subphylum : Myriapoda -- Class : Chilopoda
Order : Scolopendromorpha -- Family : Scolopendridae -- Genus : Scolopendra -- Species : S. gigantea

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lake Erie Water Snake

Nerodia sipedon insularum
The Lake Erie Water Snake is actually a subspecies of the very common Northern Water Snake. While the species as a whole is found across the northern areas of the continent, the Lake Erie subspecies is confined to a very small area of land on that titular lake.

This non-venomous subspecies is so remarkable because it was once rare and endangered. It was listed as a federally threatened animal in 1999, due to intentional killings and habitat loss. 20 years ago there were only about 1,200 adult snakes remaining!

Lake Erie Water Snakes have now dramatically rebounded, thanks to habitat protection, community involvement, and a recovery plan. They were de-listed by the federal government in August 2011.

One really great story behind the resurgence of the subspecies is that they help to curb the Round Goby population. The fish is an invasive species that has harmed the native populations. Lake Erie Water Snakes now consume the invasive fish in huge numbers- they make up 90% of their diet!

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North America
Size : Length up to 4ft (1.2m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Squamata
Family : Colubridae -- Genus : Nerodia -- Species : N. sipedon -- Subspecies : N. s. insularum

Monday, March 26, 2012

Aguascalientia Camels

Aguascalientia Jawbone
Today we're going to talk about two very recently discovered animals, both from the same genus. Both also happen to be extinct, and have been for about 20 million years.

Meet Aguascalientia panamaensis and Aguascalientia minuta, the two oldest creatures to be found in the country of Panama. They are extinct Camels, but are not the ancestors to modern camels or llamas. They actually belong to a separate evolutionary tree that dead-ended. The two species are very alike to one another. They sport snouts that are much longer than those in modern camels, and an overall much smaller height. That also have shorter teeth, which suggest that they were browsers.

The genus that these Camels belonged to actually dates back more than 30 million years, but they lived further north. The Isthmus of Panama didn't even exist until about the time these two species lived, so the discovery sheds some light on animal movement through the newly joined continents of North and South America.

The Fossils were uncovered as part of a 5 year excavation that started in 2009. The story was only first published a month ago, so there is still much to learn about these ancient Camels.

Status : Extinct
Location : Panama
Size : Height up to 3ft (.9m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Camelidae -- Genus : †Aguascalientia

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wood Duck

Aix sponsa
Wood Ducks are known as one of the prettiest of all the ducks, and in in my opinion is takes the top prize out of the North American species. They are found throughout the continent, with some populations remaining sedentary and some migrating between the north and south.

If you're looking at the Wood Duck and thinking how similar it is tot he Mandarin Duck, you're definately on to something. Those are the only two living species that share the genus Aix!

As with many birds, only the male Wood Ducks posses the bright colors. They have iridescent green and purple crested heads, with additional bold patterning throughout the body. Females are grayish-brown, though they also sport a crest.

During the breeding season Males will perform different diving and preening gestures to attract a mate. Once they are paired up they build nests in cavities or in man-made nest boxes. The rise of nest boxes may have caused some confusion within the species, as the rate of brood parasitism has increased. Broos Parasitism is when female ducks lay their eggs in different nests, so that their chicks are raised by different parents. Though they only lay 10-11 eggs, some nests have had over 30 in them!

Back in the 19th century Wood Ducks were hunted extensively, and the population suffered. They are still hunted today, and are the most popular Duck after the Mallard, but conservation and wetland management has allowed the population to rebound to steady, healthy levels.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : South East Asia
Size : Length around 21in (54cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Anseriformes
Family : Anatidae -- Genus : Aix -- Species : A. sponsa

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Walking Catfish

Clarias batrachus
Today we're going to be learning about yet another animal that has entered the pet trade... but with some damaging results.

Walking Catfish in their native environment aren't all that bad. They hail from Southeast Asia, and live in a variety of freshwater habitats. They can even be found in waters that other fish will not tolerate well, like canals, flooded areas, and even in brackish zones.

The common name of this species come from the fact that they can "walk" across land. Their pectoral fins allow them to stay upright while they move outside of the water. The movement is far from graceful, but it does let the fish move between different bodies of water.

Walking Catfish are omnivores, and use their barbels to hunt around for anything and everything. They are generalist feeders, consume plant matter, eggs, small fish, and invertebrates. The Catfish themselves are fished for food in their native range.

Back in the 1960s, individuals in the pet industry decided to bring Walking Catfish to Florida. Fish either escaped or were intentionally released into the wild, and now they are considered a dangerous invasive species. They are hurting local fish farms as well as the native species, due to their ability to move outside of water, their hardy disposition, their voracious appetite, and the fact that they carry Enteric Septicemia (ESC). Since the 1960s they have also moved into a handful of other states as well. It is now illegal to own one of these fish in the United States without a federal permit.

IUCN Status : Not Evaluated
Location : South East Asia
Size : Length around 1ft (30cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Actinopterygii -- Order : Siluriformes
Family : Clariidae -- Genus : Clarias -- Species : C. batrachus

Friday, March 23, 2012

Flemish Giant

Flemish Giant
It was pointed out to me that this week has been a bit of an unofficial theme week- the last couple days have featured animals that are popular within the pet industry! Well, why not keep this inadvertent theme going? Let's talk about the Flemish Giant, one of my favorite breeds of Domestic Rabbit, which can grow to weights of over 20lbs! That is larger than some dog breeds!

As the name suggests, Flemish Giants were developed in the region of Flanders. They are a very old breed, as far as modern rabbits are concerned, and were developed as far back as the early 16th century. There is some debate over the origins of the breed before that time, and some think they may have descended from large South American breeds brought back to Europe by Dutch traders.

The first confirmed records of the modern Flemish Giant breed date to the 1860s, and by the turn of the century breed clubs and standards were forming. These Rabbits were initially bred for their meat- a larger sized animal produces more food- but they are now popular as pets and for showing. The standard calls for 7 different recognized colors - black, blue, fawn, light gray, steel gray, sandy, and white - and are shown in 6 different age and sex based classes.

Flemish Giants are very docile Rabbits, and are less energetic and feisty than many of the smaller breeds, though improper socialization can make them fearful and violent. If properly handled, cared for, and interacted with, they become very tolerant, laid back, and healthy pets.

Keep in mind, however, that these guys are huge. Not only can they weigh over 20lbs, but they grow very, very quickly. A Flemish Giant can reach its full weight at only 9 months of age. They need a large habitat to move around in, and need a great deal of feeding (though don't give them too much, they are prone to obesity!)

Status : Domesticated
Location : Originated in Flanders
Size : Weight up to 22lbs (10kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Lagomorpha
Family : Leporidae -- Genus : Oryctolagus -- Species : O. cuniculus

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Neon Tetra

Paracheirodon innesi
Like yesterday's animal, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, today's creature is also popular within the pet industry. In fact, the Neon Tetra is one of the most commonly kept tropical fish out there.

In the wild, these little guys can be found in tropical freshwater rivers of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. They are found in clear and blackwater areas, but not in whitewater, and are found in groups due to their social, shoaling nature.

Male and females Neon Tetras look identical, though the females sometimes have a slightly rounder shape, where the males are more straight and streamlined. Both sexes sport a shiny blue stripe that runs head to tail, as well as a bold red line that traces down the back half of the body.

Though Neon Tetras hail from South America, most of the fish found in the Pet Trade are imported from Southeast Asian farms where they are bred in captivity.

Many places advertise them as great beginner fish, there are still many considerations to take before owning them. They need to live in groups in order to be happiest, 5 is the minimum, but at least 10 are recommended. And despite the small size they do need a good amount of space- at least 1 gallon per fish. The Tetras are also very sensitive, and need stable water conditions.They are shy and are compatible with many other species, though larger fish will bully them, so it's best to keep them with species that are on the small to medium size. They are also suceptible to Neon Tetra Disease Pleistophora, a parasitic disease that is typically fatal.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Peru, Colombia, Brazil
Size : Body Length up to 1.2in (3cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Actinopterygii -- Order : Characiformes
Family : Characidae -- Genus : Paracheirodon -- Species : P. innesi

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Cacatua galerita
You may recognize today's animal, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, from their popularity in the pet industry and from their iconic looks. In the wild they hail from Australia and New Guinea, and in some places they are so numerous that they are actually considered pests!

When you think of a Cockatoo, you probably envision this species- snowy white body, large yellow crest on the head, loud squawks and even the ability to mimic words! In captivity they have been taught numerous tricks, sounds, and behaviors.

In the wild they are incredibly gregarious, and live in flocks that can number into the hundreds. They feed on fruits, grains, seeds, and the occasional insect. Their large flocks and feeding habits have caused damage to some farm areas, but they are a protected bird in Australia, so removal can only be done with the required permits.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos breed at different times of the year, depending on their location. Southern flocks tend to breed during the spring and summer, while Northern flocks are on a more wintertime schedule. Pairs come together and build their own nests (usually in a hollow tree), and 2-3 eggs are laid. Both parents help to incubate, and later feed, their chicks.

As previously mentioned, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are popular in the pet industry. Their international trade is regulated, which means that most in North America were captive bred. As a pet they are very, very demanding. Because they are such social birds in the wild, they need to form strong bonds with their human caregivers in order to have their companionship needs satisfied. They can be loud and destructive (to themselves and their enclosures) if they don't receive the proper amount of attention and stimulation. However, if you do have the time and energy for one of these beautiful birds (and I stress time - they can live over 70 years!) they can be extremely loving, affectionate pets.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Australia, New Guinea
Size : Body Length up to 22in (55cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Psittaciformes
Family : Cacatuidae -- Genus : Cacatua -- Species : C. galerita

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wandering Violin Mantis

Gongylus gongylodes
Today's animal is yet another one of the many suggestions that have been pouring in lately. Thanks everyone! Meet the Wandering Violin Mantis, also known as the Indian Rose Mantis and the Ornate Mantis.

You can see where the "Ornate" name comes from. These Mantises sport very slender bodies, but huge limbs that are very leafy in appearance and allow them to blend into the foliage. A useful trait when you hunt flying insects! Males are actually a bit smaller than the females, but they are able to fly, while the females have small, useless wings.

Wandering Violin Mantises go through several moltings before reaching adulthood, and are sexually mature about two weeks after that. Females lay an egg mass called an Ootheca. It contains up to 3 dozen eggs and has a protein casing that protects them.

Wandering Violin Mantises are native to India and Sri Lanka, and require very warm environments to survive. The species is often kept by hobbyists, but they are not recommended for the first time Mantis owner. They need heat pads to stay warm, and because they eat flying insects, they also need a high netted cage that prey can be released into.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : India, Sri Lanka
Size : Body Length up to 4.5in (11cm)
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Mantodea
Family : Empusidae -- Genus : Gongylus -- Species : G. gongylodes

Monday, March 19, 2012

Crabeater Seal

Lobodon carcinophagus
The Crabeater Seal is an incredibly abundant species that can be found throughout the Antarctic waters. It is estimated that there are literally millions, if not tens of millions of these guys swimming around, which is a huge contrast to some of the other Seals we've talked about that are on the brink of extinction.

What makes Crabeater Seals so successful? Well, they have incredibly specialized teeth that allow them to strain out Krill and other small critters. (Interestingly, they don't eat crabs!) Those tiny crustaceans are very abundant in the Antarctic waters, giving the Seals a huge food source. They are able to dive down several hundred meters in search of prey, and can hold their breath for over 10 minutes. (Though dives are typically much shorter and more shallow)

Crabeater Seals also have a pretty unique family group. Most seals mate, and then the male leaves and has nothing to do with the pup and female. Crabeater males hang around and defend the female and her pup until the pup is completely weaned. Another interesting tidbit about these guys is that the males and females are very similar in size, unlike the extreme sexual dimorphism found in some other Seal and Sea Lion species.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Antarctica
Size : Body Length up to 7.5ft (2.5m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata--  Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Superfamily : Pinnipedia -- Family : Phocidae -- Genus : Lobodon -- Species : L. carcinophagus

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus
The Pileated Woodpecker is a large Woodpecker, the largest in North America in fact. It also has a pretty substantial range that covers the forested, non-mountainous areas of the continent.

You can identify the Pileated Woodpecker by its black body, red cap, and white bar that runs down the throat. The only difference between males and females is a red stripe that runs from the beak to the throat in males. They are similar in look to two other Woodpeckers that we have talked about here, the Ivory-Billed and Imperial, but those species have slightly different ranges, and are also extremely rare, if not extinct. The Pileated Woodpecker on the other hand, is very common.

You can tell that a Pileated Woodpecker is in your area by their loud call and by the pattern that they leave behind in dead trees. Insects like ants and beetle larvae make up big chunks of their diet, and in order to get to these meals they drill large rectangular patterns in the wood. Sometimes these holes are so deep that they cause small trees to break completely in half! Often times though, the tree is left very much intact, and the holes that they dig become nesting sites for other bird species.

When it comes to their own nesting, the male Woodpecker will excavate a large cavity, usually in a dead tree. He will use this nest site to attract a mate, and together they will raise 3-5 young each season. Pairs often remain monogamous for life, but the nest sites are rarely used more than once. Once again, these cavities are used by other birds for their own mating habits.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North America
Size : Body Length up to 19in (49cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Piciformes
Family : Picidae -- Genus : Dryocopus -- Species : D. pileatus

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Irish Setter

Irish Setter
Now, I don't always write about animals that correspond to holidays, but with all the cool critters that come out of Ireland, I couldn't really resist.

Irish Setters are gorgeous red sporting dogs that were developed in Ireland during the 19th century. The term "Setter" actually first appears a few centuries earlier, but those dogs were more spaniel like. Modern Setters first appeared in the 1700s, and the characteristic redness of the Irish Setter popped up by the 1850s as an offshoot of the Red and White Setters.

Setter Pointing
Irish Setters are all purpose hunting dogs. They have great noses, great speed, and have the abilities to point, track, and retrieve. Keep in mind that that long silky coats of the Show dogs aren't usually present on the hunting dogs. Their hair is kept shorter in order to be more manageable in the field.

To own an Irish Setter you had better have enough time and energy to give it proper exercise. They are a high energy breed and need to have an outlet for that energy to remain well adjusted and happy. Irish Setters are also very playful, intelligent, and affectionate, and are easy to house-train.

Status : Domesticated
Location : Originated in Ireland
Size : Height up to 27in (69cm), Weight up to 70lbs (32kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Family : Canidae -- Genus : Canis -- Species : C. lupus -- Subspecies : C. l. familiaris

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mountain Bluebird

Sialia currucoides (male)
Spring has arrived (for now), and the songbirds have returned to my neck of the woods. Now, to be fair, today's bird doesn't live anywhere near me, but I'm sure they are fluttering around by some of my western readers. Allow me to introduce you to the Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of both Idaho and Nevada.

Mountain Bluebirds come in different colors, depending on the sex of the bird. Females are a dull brownish-grey, with hints of light blue on the wings and tail. Males, on the other hand, are a very bright blue all around, with the underparts lighter than the top. They use their colors, their calls, and their carefully scouted nest locations, to attract mates.

When it comes to nesting habits, most of what we know comes from the birds that raise their young in man-made nest boxes. Females do almost all of the actual nest building, as the males for some reason tend to drop the materials en route to the site (and that's if they even help at all!). Thankfully, the males make up for their lack of building expertise by being great food providers. They deliver meals to the mother and their chicks. Mountain Bluebirds feed on insects, hovering in the air or waiting on a perch before swooping down for a catch.

The species has a very large range, and thanks to all the man-made nest boxes, the birds are doing quite well for themselves. Once upon a time their numbers were decreasing due to the nest site competition caused by habitat loss, but now the population is stable and the bird are listed as being of Least Concern.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Western North America
Size : Body Length up to 8in (20cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Passeriformes
Family : Turdidae -- Genus : Sialia -- Species : S. currucoides

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Red Flour Beetle

Tribolium castaneum
Today's animal is quite the pest; they are destructive as both larvae and adults, and though they originated in the Indo-Australian tropical regions, they can be found causing damage all around the world!

One little interesting fact is that the Red Flour Beetle is very similar in size, appearance, and behavior to the Confused Flour Beetle from Africa. The latter actually got its name because the two species were so alike!

Despite the name, Red Flour Beetles can be found in more than just flour. They hang out in cereals, nuts, seeds, and all sorts of other dried food products. They don't cause structural damage, and they don't have stingers that harm people, but they can have a huge negative impact on stored food. The Beetles even lay their eggs in food, the larvae eat the food, and the adults can live as long as 3 years.

Red Flour Beetles are very small, and very hardy. This makes it difficult to truly get rid of them. You have to completely eradicate all infested materials, check all possible cracks and crevasses, and essentially set up a sealed, protected food storage system. Pesticides and bleaches don't do a whole lot; a thorough disposal of materials is your best bet.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Worldwide
Size : Body Length less than 1cm
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Coleoptera
Family : Tenebrionidae -- Genus : Tribolium -- Species : T. castaneum

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Merino Sheep

Merino Sheep
Meet the Merino! This domesticated breed of sheep is known for its fine, high quality wool... but it has a lot of other cool characteristics as well, including a history that takes back over a thousand years, as well as a strong presence in the study of livestock genetics.

But first, let's go over some basic facts. Merino sheep are bred almost exclusively for their wool, and that wool is considered to be the finest in the world. It is so desirable that it is actually the wool that all other wool is compared to, as far as grading goes! The breed is also quite hardy and adapts very well to different climates and habitats. For example, they originated in Spain and North Africa, but are now being bred all over the world, including in Australia, Germany, and New England.

The very first Merino ancestors came through North Africa via Asia thanks to the Phonecians. When the Moors entered Spain in the 8th century they brought sheep with them, and by the 12th century the first foundation flocks were in place. These Spanish sheep bred with existing European breeds, and the Merino was the result.

For hundreds of years Spain had a monopoly on these fine quality sheep, and made a large profit off of the wool. Before the 18th century it was against the law to export them, but that all changed when the members of the nobility (including the King) started to send small flocks to other countries and principalities. The Spanish Merinos even became the bases for new breeds, including the popular Rambouillet.

Booroola Merino Ewe with Quadruplets
It was a good thing the Merinos eventually made it out of Spain, because the industry was almost completely obliterated there during the Napoleonic Wars. Since 1810, Australia, the United States, and Germany have been the top countries for the breed. There are now a handful of different strains, including the Peppin, Delaine, and the Booroola.

The Booroola Merino has been studied at a genetic level because they posses a gene called Booroola FecB.   (Named for the Australian ranch that it was discovered on back in the 1950s) This gene has allowed the strain to be one of the most prolifically breeding sheep strains in the world. While most sheep have one or maybe two lambs at a time, Booroola Merinos often have triplets or even quadruplets. Some have even have sextuplets! Introducing Merinos with the FecB gene can substantially increase birthrates without needing to introduce traits from other breeds that have high births, but less desirable wool.

Status : Domesticated
Location : Originated in Spain
Size : Varies, but males can weigh up to 130lbs (59kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Bovidae -- Genus : Ovis -- Species : O. aries

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amazon River Dolphin

The Amazon River Dolphin is one of the four (possibly five) species of freshwater Dolphin found in the world. They live in the Amazon basin and go by a handful of other names, including Boto and Boutu.

Inia geoffrensis
"Pink Dolphin" is yet another name for the species, due to the coloration that many of the individuals exhibit. The precise cause of the pinkness is not known, but Dolphins in murkier water tend to be more pink than those in clearer areas. Some are even as bright as flamingos!

Amazon River Dolphins differ from other freshwater Dolphins in that they have unfused neck vertebrae. This trait allows them to turn their heads from side to side and give them extra maneuverability. They can also paddle their fins in different directions, which gives them the ability to move around submerged tree roots and through very shallow spots when the rivers flood over areas that are normally above water.

The social structure of the species is dependent on the time of year. During the flood season they tend to be solitary hunters. This is because the fish are able to disperse much farther through the new marshes, giving the Dolphins more hunting area. When the waters recede, some dolphins come together in small groups in order to share the more concentrated hunting areas. Adult Dolphins have no major predators (besides humans) and thus do not need to rely on large pods for safety and protection.

Amazon River Dolphin
Amazon River Dolphins are prominent in local legends. One popular story tells that the Dolphin turns into a handsome young man at night, who always wear s hat to cover his blowhole. He comes ashore and seduces young women, often impregnating them. During the daytime he returns to the river and the women are left under a magical spell.

Legendary or not, the Dolphins are facing some problems. Some fisherman deliberately kill them so that they do not need to compete for catches, while other Dolphins get inadvertently tangled in fishing equipment. They are also facing habitat destruction, fragmentation due to dam building, and troubles arising from the chemical runoff of mining operations. A full population survey has not been done, and the species is listed as Data Deficient.

IUCN Status : Data Deficient
Location : South America
Size : Body Length up to 8ft (2.5m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Cetacea
Family : Iniidae -- Genus : Inia -- Species : I. geoffrensis

Monday, March 12, 2012

Humboldt Penguin

Humboldt Penguin at the
Milwaukee County Zoo
 The Humboldt Penguin shares its namesake with a Squid, a Skunk, a Dolphin, several plants, a handful of geological features, a few cities and counties, and more parks than I can even quantify (I have actually lived within in mile or so of two Humboldt Parks in two different states... weird). The Mr. Humboldt in question is Alexander von Humboldt, a late 18th-early19th century German naturalist and explorer who traveled extensively throughout South and Central America from 1799-1804. But his entire biography is something to perhaps be covered another day (Theme Week: Famous naturalists perhaps?)

Humboldt Penguins are a relatively warm weather species. They live off of the coasts of Peru and Chile (and are sometimes referred to as "Peruvian Penguins." They can be identified by the black band of feathers that run across the chest, and the splotchy pink skin patches on the face. Like all Penguins they have hydrodynamic torpedo-shaped bodies, powerful paddle-like wings, and webbed feet that allow them to move underwater at speeds of up to 30mph. They eat small fish, squid, and crustaceans.

The species has a pretty interesting nesting habit... they build their burrows in dried guano (poop!) that is left on the rocks by other seabirds. They breed throughout the year, and many pairs remain monogamous through their lifetimes. Two eggs are laid at once, and both parents incubate them and feed the hatched chicks.

Sadly, the Humboldt Penguin is on the decline. Though they have lived on the South American coast for thousands of years, this last century has been particularly unkind to them. Overfishing of the area, introduced predators, habitat loss, and climate change have all played a part in reducing the population. In addition to these factors, the harvesting of guano for fertilizer has damaged the breeding sites. It is estimated that there are around 12,000 breeding pairs in the wild. Thankfully the local governments and international organizations are working to protect the breeding colonies, and to breed the Penguins in captivity.

IUCN Status : Vulnerable
Location : South America
Size : Body Length around 28in (70cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Sphenisciformes
Family : Spheniscidae -- Genus : Spheniscus -- Species : S. humboldti

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Common Brushtail Possum

Trichosurus vulpecula
The Common Brushtail Possum is a species of Marsupial found in Australia. As the name probably suggests, they are a common animal, and have the largest range and most abundant population of any Australian Marsupial.

The Brushtails do in fact have very bushy tails, though the underside had a naked patch. This is because the Possum's tail is prehensile, and that patch allows them to grip things better. They feed on a variety of plants, including fruits and Eucalyptus, and have also been known to eat the occasional animal. The species is also nocturnal, meaning that they need to find dark places to sleep in during the daytime- possibly even inside a house roof!

Common Brushtail Possums are arboreal creatures, and are excellent climbers. The females even have front-facing pouches for their offspring, in part so that they don't lose them. Some other marsupials, especially those that dig, have backwards facing pouches to keep dirt and debris away from their developing infants.

A baby Possum is only 1.5cm at birth, and will need to grow in the pouch for 5 months. Once they leave the pouch they will ride around on mother's back for an additional couple of months.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Australia
Size : Body Length around 23in (58cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Infraclass : Marsupialia
Order : Diprotodontia -- Family : Phalangeridae -- Genus : Trichosurus -- Species : T. vulpecula

Saturday, March 10, 2012

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius
The American Kestrel (another suggestion from a reader, yay!) is the smallest Falcon in North America. For a comparison to other Birds of Prey, their maximum body length is around half that of a Red-Tailed Hawk, and less than 1/3 the length of a Bald Eagle. Unfortunately, their small size means that they can become prey for these larger cousins, as well for other large birds like Crows and Ravens.

American Kestrels live in both North and South America. Some populations live year round (in the warmer climates) while others migrate seasonally. They prefer to live in open grassland areas that have a sparse smattering of trees. They've also taken to man made habitats as well, and can be seen in suburbs and around sports stadiums. (The bright lights attract the insects that the Kestrels love to munch on!)

Interestingly, another name for the American Kestrel is the Sparrow-Hawk. But they don't really eat too many Sparrows. It is true that they will occasionally feed on smaller birds, small mammals, and reptiles, but they mainly dine on invertebrates.

When it comes time to nest, American Kestrels settle down in preexisting tree holes and cavities. The females select their mates, and the pair will remain monogamous through that season. 2-4 chicks are born at a time, and they leave the nest when they are a month old, though the family unit may remain together for a bit longer.

American Kestrels are listed as being of Least Concern, as they have a very wide range and high population. They are believed to be the most abundant Falcon in North America, with the population well over 1 million birds.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North and South America
Size : Body Length around 12in (30cm), Wingspan up to 24in (60cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Falconiformes
Family : Falconidae -- Genus : Falco -- Species : F. sparverius

Friday, March 9, 2012

Lilac-breasted Roller

Coracias caudatus
Today's animal was recommended to me on the Suggestions page, and I'm so glad it was! What a beautiful bird! (Hint: I love getting suggestions!)

Lilac-breasted Rollers belong to the same genus as the Blue-bellied Rollers that we learned about last month. They also share a very similar range, spanning across sub-Saharan Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula. They inhabit open woodlands, grasslands, and acacia country, and are typically a sedentary species.

All Rollers are named for their stunning courtship flights, and the Lilac-breasted is no exception! The males quickly fly to a height of around 10m, and then dive with closed wings in a rocking, rolling motion. I hunted around for a video of this, but came up empty. Any leads?

At any rate, if the male is impressive enough he has found himself a mate. Lilac-breasted Rollers are monogamous and typically live in pairs, though small flocks are also seen. They lay 2-4 eggs at a time in nests build within pre-excavated tree holes (thanks Woodpeckers!) Juveniles are fully feathered after only 3 weeks, but they are a greyish brown color and won't receive their full colors till they are adults.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Africa
Size : Body Length around 14in (36cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Coraciiformes
Family : Coraciidae -- Genus : Coracias -- Species : C. caudatus

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Hey friends! I've hopped on the Pinterest Bandwagon... though I've actually been on it for ages with a personal account...

Anyway, Check out the Animal A Day Pinterest boards. I'll be adding lots of cool animal pictures and videos- from the super cute, to the really weird, and the totally awesome.


Haikouichthys is quite a mouthful to say for such a tiny creature. (High-Koo-ICK-Thisss!) These prehistoric swimmers measured only about an inch long, and lived way back in the Early Cambrian around 530 million years ago!

Haikouichthys is one of the many, many animals that evolved during the Cambrian. This period, which lasted from 542-488 million years ago, saw rapid and diverse evolution and population growth. What makes this particular animal so interesting is that it could be considered one of the very first fish. They had skulls, designating them as some of the earliest craniates. However, the fossil record is unclear as to whether they had actual spines, or just primitive notochords.

Spine or not, Haikouichthys demonstrated several other traits that can be found in modern fish. They had relatively fish like shapes, complete with two eyes and a mouth at the front of their heads, fines, and bilateral symmetry.

Status : Lived 530 million years ago
Location : Fossils found in China
Size : Length 1in (2.5cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Superclass : Agnatha -- Family : Myllokunmingiidae
Genus : Haikouichthys

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Thalassomedon hanningtoni
Thalassomedon is one crazy looking sea reptile! These members of the Plesiosaur order lived 95 million years ago and have necks that make up half of their overall body length and contain 62 vertebrae!

Thalassomdeon means "Sea Lord," and while they weren't the most frightening creature of the late Cretaceous (I'm looking at you Mosasaur) they certainly looked to be great ambush hunters.

The eyes of the Thalassomedon were very large and were located on the tops of their heads. They used those large eyes and long skinny necks to ambush schools of fish that were swimming above them. Interestingly, it is unlikely that the Thalassomedon could stick its head far above water; air does not support the weight the same way that water does.

Status : Extinct for 95 million years
Location : North America
Size : Body Length around 40ft (12m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : †Plesiosauria
Family : †Elasmosauridae -- Genus : †Thalassomedon -- Species : †T. hanningtoni

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

African Wildcat

Felis silvestris lybica
Most people understand that dogs were domesticated from Grey Wolves, but the ancestry of the domestic cat isn't as widely known. Enter the African Wildcat, a Wildcat subspecies that is responsible for all of the housecats we have today!

There are several different Wildcats around the world, spanning across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though they are all genetically similar, and they all look a heck of a lot like domesticated cats, it is one particular African subspecies (F. s. lybica) that ended up being domesticated by Middle Eastern civilizations around 10,000 years ago.

African Wildcats live throughout the African continent, as well as on the Arabian Peninsula and near the Caspian Sea. There are actually over a dozen subspecies on the continent aside from the domestic ancestor. They live in most habitats, including deserts, forests, and savannas.

The African Wildcat is, unsurprisingly, a carnivore. They hunt by pouncing, and go after small mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians. Hunting is done primarily at dawn and dusk. The are solitary animals for the most part, except when a  female is raising a litter of kittens.

The entire Wildcat species is listed as being of Least Concern, but they do face some conservation challenges. The most prominent of these is hybridization; many of the African Wildcats interbreed with domestic cats, resulting in very few genetically pure populations.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Africa
Size : Body Length around 30in (76cm), Weight up to 14lbs (6.5kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Family : Felidae -- Genus : Felis -- Species : F. silvestris -- Subspecies : F. s. lybica, others

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gaboon Viper

Bitis gabonica
The Gaboon Viper of Sub-Saharan Africa has a couple of important distinctions. Is has the highest venom yield among its family members, the longest fangs (up to 2in!), and the largest weight.

Gaboon Vipers hunt at night in forested areas. Their scale patterning makes for excellent camouflage among the leaves. They hunt small mammals, birds, and amphibians by waiting quietly and then ambushing with their deadly fangs and venom.

Female Gaboon Vipers only breed once every 2-3 years, but when they do they can have as many as 60 offspring at once! And these are not eggs, the young snakes enter the world via live birth! One interesting fact I found is that these snakes are rarely bred by zoos. There is so much breeding going on in the pet industry that zoos and aquariums are asked to take in confiscated animals.

Yes, some people actually do keep these venomous snakes as pets! A man who lives in my county was bit by one of his Gaboon Vipers last year, and bites can be fatal in humans (he lived). The venom attacks the blood vessels and causes internal bleeding, swelling, and intense pain.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Africa
Size : Length around 5ft (1.5m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Squamata
Family : Viperidae -- Genus : Bitis -- Species : B. gabonica

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pygmy Hog

Porcula salvania
Meet the Pygmy Hog, a tiny little pig found only in Assam, India. They are the smallest members of the pig family. Pygmy Hogs are now a critically endangered species, and it is estimated that there are only 150 left in the wild.

Pygmy Hogs have had a confusing taxonomic history. They were first described back in 1847, and were placed into a brand new genus. But then it was decided that they were actually closely related to the European Wild Boars, and were moved into the genus Sus, which contains several extant species. It wasn't until 2007 that genetic testing confirmed that the original taxonomic placement was correct.

Pygmy Hogs live in areas with tall grasses, which they use to build small sleeping nests while they wander about for food (roots, grasses, insects). Females even build little nests in which to give birth! Once born, the infant hogs will stay hidden in these nests for about a week.

Though the species is Critically Endangered, there is hope for the future. A captive bred population was released into the reserve in 2002, and there are plans for additional reintroductions.

IUCN Status : Critically Endangered
Location : India
Size : Height up to 1ft (30cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Suidae -- Genus : Porcula -- Species : P. salvania

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Golden Parakeet

Guaruba guarouba
The Golden Parakeet is a gorgeous yellow Parrot with dark green flight feathers. These vibrant birds are endemic to Brazil, and live in only a handful of regions.

There is little definitively information about the wild Golden Parakeets, as they are rare and have only recently been the subject of scientific study. We do know that fruits, seeds, and nuts make up most of their diets. They also seem to live in small flocks, and breed during the December-April wet season. Nests are sometimes communal, meaning that multiple females will lay eggs within the same nest. When the chicks hatch, all of the flock adults help to care for the young.

Sadly, Golden Parakeets are becoming incredibly rare in the wild, and are now listed as Endangered. It is estimated that there less than 2,500 left in the wild, and that number continues to drop. Deforestation has been a major contributor to their decline; the construction of roads and dams has drastically altered their habitats. The birds are also illegally captured for the pet trade; their bright colors make them highly sought after.

IUCN Status : Endangered
Location : Brazil
Size : Length up to 13in (34cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Psittaciformes
Family : Psittacidae -- Genus : Guaruba -- Species : G. guarouba

Friday, March 2, 2012


Odontochelys semitestacea
Odontochelys is an extinct animal that was only just recently discovered (2008). It is pretty darn remarkable find, and represents the earliest Turtle that we know about.. it dates back to the Early Triassic over 220 million years ago!

Odontochelys is a transitional reptile. It shares many characteristics with modern turtles, but also demonstrates traits found in earlier reptiles. It has a plastron, which is the under part of a turtle's shell, but it has no carapace! It also has a turtle-like beak, but there are teeth inside it!

The find is helping scientists figure out how turtles evolved. The previous-oldest-fossil already had a carapace, so discovering a species without one gives clues as to where the shell actually came from. One theory is that shells came from the fusion of osteoderms, which are bony plates of armor in the skin. But Odontochelys has no osteoderms, yet it still has a plastron.

The other theory, which is now looking better, is that the plastron grew first (presumably to protect the aquatic turtles from underside attacks). Once the plastron was in place the turtles eventually evolved extensions from their ribs and backbone that fused together to form a full shell. However, it will be difficult to determine for sure until more transitional fossils are uncovered.

Status : Extinct for around 220 Millions Years
Location : China
Size : Length up to 9.5in (24cm), Weight up to 4.5lbs (2kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Sauropsida -- Order : Testudines
Family : †Odontochelyidae -- Genus : †Odontochelys -- Species : †O. semitestacea

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Today is the 5th birthday of my parents' dog. Not bad for a little guy who almost died of an auto-immune disorder a few years ago. Did you know dogs can have blood transfusions? Well, you do now!

Anyway, we have no idea what that dog is. He's medium sized and orange with a weird husky-like tail. We've just always called him a Dingo. So today, for his birthday, we're going to learn about the actual Dingoes of Australia.

The subspecies Canis lupus dingo actually refers to more than just Australian Dingoes. New Guinea Singing Dogs, Thai Dogs, along with a handful of other types are also classified under that subspecies. But today let's stick to just the Dingoes.

Dingoes first arrived in Australia from Asia around 4,000 years ago. Because there was still a significant amount of water to cross to get there, it is believed that the original Aborigines brought the semi-domesticated dogs with them. Once they arrived on the continent, the dogs spread quickly. Fossils have been found throughout Australia that date back 3,500 years. Dingoes were first described by science in 1699, when they lived both with Aboriginal populations, and as wild packs.

Dingoes sometimes live as solitary animals, and sometimes in small packs of around 10 members. They are very opportunistic, and will feed on both plants and animals. The population greatly expanded once European Settlers arrived with their livestock, as the dogs now had a massive new food source.

Dingo Pups
Because they prey so readily on sheep, Dingoes are considered a nuisance in many areas. There have even been fences erected to keep the dogs away. They also get a lot of blame for damaging Australia's native animal populations. Some believe that the Dingo is partly responsible for the extinction of the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Wolf, since they competed for food and space.

Dingoes are both persecuted protected, depending on the location. Genetically pure Dingoes are becoming very rare, since they will interbreed with domestic dogs, and efforts are being made to keep the pure Dingoes and the hybrids separate. Dingoes are also occasionally kept as pets, though I wouldn't recommend it.

IUCN Status : Vulnerable
Location : Australia
Size : Height up to 2ft (60cm), Weight up to 44lbs (20kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Family : Canidae -- Genus : Canis -- Species : C. lupus -- Subspecies : C. l. dingo
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