Thursday, May 31, 2012

Flammulated Owl

Otus flammeolus
The firs thing that came to mind when I saw this animal for the first time was, "wow... that's a tiny Owl!" And they certainly are! Flammulated Owls are really small members of their family. Their bodies are only about half a foot long, and their entire wingspan is around 14in. For a comparison, the Eurasian Eagle Owl (one of the largest Owls) can have a wingspan as large as 6ft!

Aside from their small size, Flammulated Owls can be identified by their small ear tufts and coloration that... sort of matches their name-- "flammulated" means "of a reddish hue," and the owls certainly have little bits of reddish brown here and there, though they are mostly grey.

You can find these little guys in western Canada and the United States, as well as down in Mexico where they migrate to during the winters. It was once thought that they were very rare in their range, but better surveying methods have shown otherwise. One issue was simply finding them-- they give off very monotonous, quiet calls, and it can be very hard to locate them by sound. The Owls are now considered one of the most common Pine Forest Owl species, though they are scarce in a few regions.

While most Owls feed on small mammals and other birds, the Flammulated Owls eat invertebrates exclusively. They pick spiders, moths, crickets, and all sorts of other arthropods out of the air, trees, and off the ground.

Flammulated Owls breed during the springtime, with couples pairing off and building nests inside of tree holes that were often built by Woodpeckers. 2-4 eggs are laid at a time, and the female does all of the incubating while her mates brings food. Both parents care for the chicks, who fledge at 3-5 weeks, and leave for good after another 4-5.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Western North America
Size : Length up to 6in (15cm), Wingspan 14in (36cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Strigiformes
Family : Strigidae -- Genus : Otus -- Species : O. flammeolus

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Fruitadens haagarorum
Allow me to introduce you to a tiny little Dinosaur named Fruitadens. They are the smallest discovered members of the entire Ornithischian (bird-hipped) Order. These tiny guys only measured 2ft in length, and weighed less than 2lbs!

Fruitadens are not, in fact, named "Fruit Tooth." The moniker actually comes from the Fruita region of Colorado, which is where their fossils were discovered. Confusing the issue even more is the fact that they little guys probably did eat fruit... but they also ate small critters, insects, and other plants as well. It seems that they were very opportunistic feeders.

Fruitadens was first described only 2 years ago, but the bones where uncovered back in the 1970s and 1980s! They sat stored at the Los Angeles County Museum for decades until a more exact study could be done. The resulting analysis turned up one species, Fruitadens haagarorum (named for the President of the Museum's Board of Trustees), which lived during the Late Jurassic.

Status : Extinct since the Late Jurassic - 150 million years ago
Location : Colorado
Size : Length up to 30in (76cm), Weight up to 1.7lbs (.7kg
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : †Ornithischia
Family : †Heterodontosauridae -- Genus : †Fruitadens -- Species : †F. haagarorum

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brown Tree Snake

Boiga irregularis
Today's animal is the Brown Tree Snake, a reptile that would be nothing particularly special... if it wasn't for the impact it has has as an invasive species over the last 60 years. They have caused an incredible amount of destruction on the island of Guam, resulting in the extinction of a handful of other species and costing millions of dollars of damage.

You see, they aren't originally from Guam. They actually hail from Australia, New Guinea, and a handful of other large islands in Melanesia. In their native range they can be found in a variety of habitats, including areas free of trees! You heard me right, Brown Tree Snakes can be found in grasslands and in cliff areas, as well as in forests.

Sometime after World War II, but before 1952, a couple of Brown tree Snakes made their way to Guam as stowaways in ship cargo. When they reached the small island it didn't take long for massive devastation to occur. By 1968 they had spread across the entire island, due to the fact that they had no natural predators and no competition from other snakes.

The Brown Tree Snakes have led to the endangerment of several local bird, reptile, and mammal populations. In fact, twelve different native birds have gone completely extinct. In addition to hurting the local fauna, the plant diversity has also suffered. Many animals that served as pollinators saw their numbers decline, which resulted in a loss of plant life. And have I mentioned the power outages? Brown Tree Snakes love to climb electrical wires, causing blackouts and massive repair bills.

So what is being done about this dangerous invasive species? Well, lots of things actually, but there are so many snakes that it has been difficult to control them (recent surveys show as many as 20 snakes per acre, one of the highest Snake densities in the world!) Traps and poisons have been deployed to cut the numbers down, and recently it was discovered that Acetaminophen is deadly to Brown Tree Snakes. As a result, the government has been dropping dead mice laced with Tylenol into the trees.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia
Size : Length up to 6.6ft (2m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Squamata
Family : Colubridae -- Genus : Boiga -- Species : B. irregularis

Monday, May 28, 2012


Pseudois nayaur
The Bharal is one of those animals that goes by many different common names. Nabo, Naur, and Himalayan Blue Sheep are all some of the different monikers given to the species. Why so many names? Well, the Bharal lives in Central and East Asia, so different countries with different languages refer to the animal in different ways.

Bharal live in the Himalaya Mountains, as well as in other mountainous regions of China. They can be found at altitudes of between 10,000 and 18,000ft. They graze on the mountain slopes, and their grey coats give them excellent camouflage against predators. If they feel threatened, the Bharal stand perfectly still, blending in with the rocks. If that defensive tactic doesn't work, they can scamper up the cliffs with their sure-footed hooves before trying to blend in again. Of course, they can't always escape from predators. They make up a huge portion of the Snow Leopards' diet, and it is estimated that the Leopards consume between 11% and 24% of the Bharal population every year.

The rutting season lasts from November to January, and during that time males will chase and fight each other for the right to mate with the females. The calves are born 5-6 months later. Both male and female Bharal have horns, but those of the male larger.

It is believed that the Bharal are common in their range, which is why they are listed as being of Least Concern. It is, however, difficult to monitor their population due to their remote habitat and high elevation lifestyle. They do occur in several National Parks.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North America
Size : Height up to 3ft (90cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Bovidae -- Genus : Pseudois -- Species : P. nayaur

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Six-spot Burnet Moth

Zygaena filipendulae
Today's animal is a small, colorful insect with a name that describes it pretty much to the tee. The six-spot Burnet Moth does in fact have six spots on each wing... though sometimes they get a bit merged together, which can result in some spot-count confusion.

Six-spot Burnets live throughout Europe and are incredibly common on the continent. There are over 20 different subspecies! Most of the subspecies have dark bodies with wings of a metallic sheen. The wing spots are red, which warns predators that these Moths are poisonous! Sometimes the spots are yellow or brown, but only rarely.

Six-spot Burnets are active during the day, when they live in colonies and feed on the nectar of large flowers. They prefer sunny days, and fly from June to August. The Moths only reproduce once, and the caterpillars overwinter before pupating and becoming Moths in June. (Sometimes they will even overwinter twice!) Caterpillars are very plump and greenish-yellow, with black spots.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Europe
Size : Wingspan up to 1.6in (4cm)
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Lepidoptera
Family : Zygaenidae -- Genus : Zygaena -- Species : Z. filipendulae

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mourning Dove

If you live in North America, I'm sure you've met today's animal before. This is the Mourning Dove, or Turtledove, or Carolina Pigeon, or Rain Dove... It goes by a whole lot of names. These members of the Columbidae family are some of the most widespread and abundant birds in North America, boasting a range of over 11 million square miles!

Mourning Doves spend a whole lot of time eating. They forage on the ground, storing up as many seeds as possible in their crop (there can literally be thousands of seeds in there!) In a single day, a Mourning Dove can eat 20% of their body weight. Seeds make up nearly 99% of their diet, but they aren't especially picky about the type of seed. This helps them to survive and spread into different habitats. The Doves are even able to live in deserts, thanks to their ability to drink incredibly brackish water!

Another cause for their large population and extensive range is their nesting behavior. Banding studies suggest that Mourning Doves mate for life, and during a single season each pair can raise three to six broods! The common brood size is two eggs, and they hatch after only 2 weeks. The offspring are fed crop milk, and fledge at around 11-15 days (fast growers!)

Needless to say, their huge range and massive population size has kept the birds from being in any sort of conservation danger. In the United States it is estimated that there are more than 350 million of them, and around 20 million are harvested as game every year.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North America
Size : Body Length up to 12in (30cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Columbiformes
Family : Columbidae -- Genus : Zenaida -- Species : Z. macroura

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hazel Grouse

Tetrastes bonasia (male)
Meet the Hazel Grouse, a little bitty member of its family that can be found across the northern areas of both Europe and Asia. They are sedentary birds that live and breed in dense forests, laying their eggs in nests on the ground.

These birds can be identified by their gray backs, reddish-brown wings, and barred white and dark underparts. Males have black throats that are outlined in white, as well as a short crest on the head. Females are smaller than the males, have shorter crests, and lack the black throats.

Even if you know what they look like, you will still probably hear the Hazel Grouse long before you see it... if you see it at all! Their dense forest habitat makes them very hard to see, and their shy personalities often keep them hidden. The males make very high pitched ti-ti-ti calls, and the females have smoother sounding tetete.

Female Hazel Grouse

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Asia, Europe
Size : Body Length up to 15in (39cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Galliformes
Family : Phasianidae -- Genus : Tetrastes -- Species : T. bonasia

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Percheron Horses
Ever since yesterday's Abyssinian Cat, I've been in a bit of a domesticated animal mood. So today let's learn about one of the most distinct draft horses out there, the Percheron. (And don't be shocked if you see another domesticated breed tomorrow...)

The breed is best known for its grey coloration, and in France and Britain only grey and black horses are allowed to be registered. The United States is a bit more lenient on color-- chestnut, bay, and roan are also allowed. They are strong horses, know for their ruggedness, hard-working attitude, and adaptability.

Percherons are named for Le Perche, a region in France located about 50 miles southwest of Paris. Horses have been breed there for hundreds, if not thousands of years. But like many other ancient breeds, the exact details of the Percherons' ancestry is unknown.

There are a couple of different theories regarding the origins of the Percheron. Some suggest they descend from Roman horses brought in to Brittany around the time of Ceasar. Others argue that their ancestry lies with horses captured by Clovis I in the 5th century, or with Moorish horses taken from the defeated 8th century invaders. That last origin theory may actually be true, as it appears that Arabian blood was brought to the horses of Le Perche twice during the middle ages. The early Percherons were used as horses of war, but as heavy cavalry fell out of style they found other uses in agriculture and transportation as well.

Percheron Team
The decline of heavy cavalry did not diminish the Percherons' role in warfare. In fact, the desire to create swifter army mounts in the late 1700s actually led to the creation of the modern form of the breed, when additional Arabian blood was added to the line. Unfortunately, the horses nearly died out completely during the French Revolution. In the early 1800s breeding continued, and now every single Percheron can trace its ancestry to a foundation sire named Jean Le Blanc, born in 1823.

Percherons were first imported to the United States in 1839, and they flourished there as cart and agricultural horses. By 1930, 70% of all purebred draft horses in the United States were Percherons. They are actually the most popular French Draft breed in the world, and have helped to establish a handful of other draft breeds. They continue to be used in farming and forestry, as well as for advertising, carting,  parade work, dressage, and even jumping!

Status : Domesticated
Location : Developed in France
Size : Height up to 18hands (73in, 1.85m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Perissodactyla
Family : Equidae -- Genus : Equus -- Species : E. ferus -- Subspecies : E. f. caballus

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Abyssinian Cat

The Abyssinian Cat is yet another domesticated creature that has a slightly confusing back-story. The breed gets its moniker from Abyssinia, an old place name for what is now Ethiopia. Only... there is no evidence that the cats actually came from Ethiopia.

It is more likely that the breed developed further north in Egypt, and before that came from ancestors in Southeast Asia. The cats strongly resemble the felines painted in Ancient Egyptian wall murals, and recent genetic studies show resemblances to cats around the Indian Ocean.

The ancient origins may never be fully understood, but the modern ones are a little bit more clear (with some exceptions of course). The Abyssinian breed as we know it today was first bred in the United Kingdom at the end of the 19th century. Some claim that the cat who started to whole line was a female named Zula who was imported in the 1860s. However, there is no concrete evidence that this story is true. What is factual is that all current pedigreed Abyssinians come from cats bred in the United Kingdom.

In the past 150 years or so, Abyssinians have become incredibly popular. This is thanks to their unusual coloration and their playful, intelligent nature. They are described as being incredibly curious and active, and many turn out to be excellent climbers around the house!

Abyssinians have what is called a "ticked" coat, which is found in only three breeds (the Somali and a the Singapura being the other two). Each hair actually has three or four distinct bands of color, with a very light band at the root and a darker band at the tip. Abyssinians are typically seen in various shades of brown and cream.

Status : Domesticated
Location : Developed in the Untied Kingdom
Size : Length up to 2ft (60cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Family : Felidae -- Genus : Felis -- Species : F. catus

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Common House Mosquito

Culex pipiens
We learn about all sorts of creatures on Animal a Day. Sometimes they are majestic Leopards, sometimes they are beautiful Birds-of-Paradise.... and sometimes they are tiny little disease carriers that everyone hates.

I'm sure you've met Culex pipiens before; he is usually referred to as the Common House Mosquito. These tiny insects cane be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and are usually the most common Mosquitos in suburban and urban areas (yes, there are actually many different species of Mosquito).

I'm sure this is no surprise to you, but Common House Mosquitos feed on blood. Bird blood is their favorite drink, but humans and other mammals also appear on the menu. However, all those bites can be attributed to the females-- males actually do not feed on blood at all. They do not have biting mouth parts, and feed instead on plant nectar.

Common House Mosquitos have a short breeding cycle and can reproduce quickly and in very large numbers. A female can lay up to 350 eggs at once, depositing them in stagnant or polluted water. Those eggs hatch after only 2 days, and the larvae pupate and become adults after only a week or two.

Females at the end of the warm season have very important jobs to do, since the propagation of their species rests entirely on them. Normal Mosquitos only live about 2 weeks as adults, but late Summer females have to last for months! They mate and then build up fat reserves and find warm places to hang out (like basements). Their metabolism slows down considerably, and when spring rolls around they seek out food and then lay their eggs.

Their huge population caused by the fast breeding cycle makes Common House Mosquitos especially dangerous. They serve as vectors that transmit diseases from birds to mammals. Diseases like West Nile and SLE can easily get passed from bird to bird, and from bird to mammal, and eradicating these conditions is near impossible because of the sheer number of Mosquitos that carry the diseases with them. These diseases can be fatal to humans. Last year in the United States there were 712 cases of West Nile, and 43 deaths. Using Mosquito repellent and eliminating breeding locations is especially important during the summer months.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Northern Hemisphere
Size : Body Length up to 7mm.
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Diptera
Family : Culicidae -- Genus : Culex -- Species : C. pipiens

Monday, May 21, 2012

Berghia coerulescens

Berghia coerulescens
I always love writing about Nudibranchs. They are such colorful little Gastropods! Today's Nudibranch is Berghia coerulescens, a species with that can be found in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as in the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. (I was unable to find any common name for the species, but if anyone knows of one, let me know!)

B. coerulescens are quite small, typically between 4 and 7cm. You can identify them by all the weird blue and yellow fringes that grow out from their bodies. These growths are called Cerata, and they aide in respiration and defense. This species consumes Anemones (as do most members of their family). Anemone venom passes through the Nudibranch and actually collects at the tip of the Cerata, making the Nudibranch venomous as well!

Berghia coerulescens is a common species in the temperate waters of its range. They are also sometimes kept in captivity, though they have a relatively short life expectancy (only a few months).

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean 
Size : Body Length up to 2.5in (7cm)
Classification : Phylum : Mollusca -- Class : Gastropoda -- Superfamily : Aeolidioidea
Family : Aeolidiidae -- Genus : Berghia -- Species : B. coerulescens

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Red-rumped Swallow

Cecropis daurica
Today's animal is the Red-rumped Swallow, a bird that has a pretty wide distribution, and can be found across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Some birds of the species are migratory, while others (mostly in Africa and India) live in resident populations.

You can identify one of these birds by their cool coloration. They have reddish heads, blue backs, and a bright, red-orange rumps. Red-rumped Swallows are also sometimes referred to as Striated Swallows.

You can find these Swallows most commonly in grassland areas, flying about in search of dinner. They hunt from the air, picking off insects in flight.

One fact that I found particularly interesting was that these birds live in large groups outside of the breeding season, but do not colonize while nesting. many other birds do the exact opposite. They build small, spherical nests with tunnel openings, and lay 3-6 eggs at once.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Africa, Asia, Europe
Size : Body Length up to 7in (18cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves --Order : Passeriformes
Family : Hirundinidae -- Genus : Cecropis -- Species : C. daurica

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Proganochelys quenstedti
Poor Proganochelys. For over 100 years it was the oldest turtle species ever discovered. its fossils dated back 210 million years! ...And then Odontochelys was found in 2008 with fossils 10 millions years older... and ruined that "oldest" distinction. Ah well, such is science! I'm sure even Odontochelys will be dethroned at some point; we still have such much to learn about the Earth's past.

Proganochelys fossils have been found in Germany and Thailand, and they show that this was a creature around 1m long. They look remarkably like the turtles that we have today, and even shed some light on how turtle got to be how they are.

Since it already has its shell, Proganochelys doesn't teach us much about shell evolution (Odontochelys helped a bit with that though!). It does, however, demonstrate how turtles lost their teeth very on in their evolutionary development. and it also has the large ear opening that is also found in modern turtles.

One big difference between Proganochelys and modern turtles is the retractability of the head. Our ancient friend simply could not do such a thing. But! They did have small spines on the neck to protect themselves with. Another cool difference? A spiny, clubbed tail!

Status : Extinct, lived around 210 million years ago.
Location : Germany, Thailand
Size : Length up to 3.3ft (1m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Sauropsida -- Order:  Testudines
Family : Proganochelidae -- Genus : Proganochelys -- Species : P. quenstedti

Friday, May 18, 2012

Karner Blue

Karner Blue (male)
I recently learned that the third Friday in May is Endangered Species Day... which would make that today! So let's learn a little about one animal on the United States Endangered Species List-- the Karner Blue. They are very small subspecies of the Melissa Blue Butterfly, sporting wingspans of around 1in. They have different appearances based on their sex-- males are a deep blue with silvery fringing, while females are more brown with orange spots. One fact I found particularly interesting is that the subspecies was actually discovered and named by Novelist and Lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov in 1944.

Karner Blues are Butterflies that  are now found only in a few States. They used to live in a large band that stretched across the northern United States, but their population is now fragmented between parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New York, and New Hampshire.

This pretty little insects were federally listed in 1992, due to habitat destruction and over-collection. Karner Blues are having a rough time because as Caterpillars they are 100% dependent on Blue Lupine flowers. Those plants are where the females lay their eggs, and it is on those plants that the Caterpillars feed. Blue Lupines grow in sandy areas near river valleys, which are popular locations for human settlement and development. When the habitat is changed, the Blue Lupines cannot grow and the Butterflies cannot reproduce.

In order to save the Karner Blue, we have to protect the Blue Lupines. Areas are being protected, and Butterflies are being reintroduced to revitalized areas where they once lived. One local effort is in my home state-- the Karner Blue Habitat Conservation Plan in Wisconsin is the first developed plan of its type in the country, and works with private groups to protect the habitats of these insects.

IUCN Status : Vulnerable
Location : United States
Size : Wingspan 1in (3cm)
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Lepidoptera
Family : Lycaenidae -- Genus : Lycaeides -- Species : L. melissa -- Subspecies : L. m. samuelis

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Southern Tree Hyrax

Dendrohyrax arboreus
The Hyrax is such a weird little animal! There are four different species within three genera, all of which are found in Africa and the Middle East. They look like rodents, digest their food like ungulates, but are most closely related to Elephants and Manatees. So bizarre.

As a side note to that-- the Superorder Afrotheria encompasses several genetically distinct animal species that all evolved on the African continent, share a common ancestor way back, and have no other close relatives. Sengis, Aardvarks, Elephants, Manatees, and Golden Moles are also members of this interesting group.

You may already know about the more common Rock Hyrax (they are fairly popular in Zoos)-- a ground dwelling, diurnal member of the family that is found across Sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of dense, forested areas. The Southern Tree Hyrax is just the opposite. They live in trees (if the name didn't give that away), are found in the denser forests that the Rock Hyrax is absent from, and live a nocturnal lifestyle.

The Southern Tree Hyrax lives either alone or in very small groups (another opposite of the large clan dwelling Rock Hyrax), and males can be incredibly territorial, making loud shrieking, screaming noises to keep others away. Because they spend their lives almost exclusively in trees, they are incredibly awkward when moving on the ground. Their dens are even constructed in tree holes, or in the nooks between two branches. Twigs, leaves, fruits, and seeds make up their diet.

The Southern Tree Hyrax is able to avoid a lot of different predators by staying off the ground, but they can't avoid the Verreaux's Eagle! This large Bird of Prey is a Hyrax specialist, and most of their diet is made up of the small mammals.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Africa
Size : Length up to 28in (70cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Superorder : Afrotheria
Order : Hyracoidea -- Family : Procaviidae -- Genus : Dendrohyrax -- Species : D. arboreus

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Horned Grebe

Podiceps auritus in breeding plumage with offspring
Meet the Horned Grebe, a migratory bird that can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. They breed far, far inland during the summer months, and during the winter they hang out further south along the ocean coasts.

When it comes time to breed, Horned Grebes are unmistakable. They have fantastic summer plumage with bright reddish feathers, a dark head, and huge light puffy tufts over their eyes. Those puffs give them their "horned" name. During the winter months they are far less colorful, sporting black and white feathers with no tufts.

Winter Plumage
Feathers play an important role in Horned Grebe digestion. Adults actually eat some of their own feathers in order to create an internal plug. This plug serves as a filter to keep bones and other slower digesting materials in the stomach longer. Parents even feed feathers to their babies to get this plug started!

And while we are on the topic of baby Grebes, did you know that they often ride along on their parents' backs while swimming? And because the adults usually feed on critters that they find underwater, this means the little ones get to go on dives too!

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Europe, Asia, North America
Size : Length up to 15in (38cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Podicipediformes
Family : Podicipedidae -- Genus : Podiceps -- Species : P. auritus

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Amia calva
Today's animal is one of those really neat fish that harkens back to the Dinosaur days! They are the Bowfins, and they are the only surviving members of their entire Family, as well as their whole Order. The three other extinct Families within the Order date back between the Jurassic and the Eocene, with most of the fossils going back 100 million years!

For whatever reason, the other neat ancient fish we've talked about are found in more exotic locations (or at least exotic to Americans)-- the Coelocanth of South Africa, the Lungfish of Australia, etc. But congratulations North America! This is a weird old fish all your own! Bowfins are found in southern Canada and in the eastern United States, where they can be found in the Great Lakes, as well as in other lakes and slow moving rivers.

You can tell that the Bowfin come from an ancient lineage because they have a half bone, half cartilage skeletal system. They also have the ability to breathe air, thanks to a modified swim bladder that acts as a primitive lung. This lung also lets them live in siltier and more stagnant waters. They are indiscriminate predators, and feed on small fish, invertebrates, and amphibians.

Bowfin reproduction is a curious affair-- the males actually build nests! They construct nests out of plant fibers that can be as large as 3ft in diameter. They then mate with a female (sometimes multiple females), the eggs are laid, and the female(s) depart. The male Bowfin stands watch over his eggs, protecting them until they hatch. He then keeps watch over his new brood until they grow to lengths of around 4in.

Bowfin are not often hunted commercially, as their meat is less tasty than that of other fish, and they tend to retain more Mercury. They are popular with some sport anglers, due to their fighting spirit, but many consider them to be pests since they feed on more desirable aquatic animals.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : North America
Size : Length up to 43in (1.1m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Actinopterygii -- Order : Amiiformes
Family : Amiidae -- Genus : Amia -- Species : A. calva

Monday, May 14, 2012

Red Admiral

Vanessa atalanta
Today's animal is one that is very close to home for me... literally. They live on the tree outside my front door. It is the Red Admiral Butterfly, a species common throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. In warmer areas they live as residents, while colder areas see them only during the seasonal migrations.

Red Admirals can be identified by their brown wings banded with bright orange and tipped with black covered in white spots. Their wing undersides also possess those same colors, but with a more mottled pattern. As Caterpillars they are typically darkly colored and spiky, though some are more greenish or even red in hue. Red Admiral Caterpillars feed on Nettle plants. As adults they will feed on flowers, but they prefer different fruits.

In North America the Red Admirals hatch in two broods in the northern areas, and then winter in southern Texas. During their migration south they can be found living in just about every habitat imaginable, including forests, tundras, fields, and swamps. As previously mentioned there are also resident populations in warmer areas. Butterflies in Central America, for example, like in those tropical forests year round.

This year has been particularly spectacular for Red Admirals in North America. Every decade or so the migration is larger than normal, and this seems to be the year for it! The mild winter may have something to do with it, as more butterflies survived further north, meaning that more bred than normal.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : North America, Europe, Asia
Size : Wingspan up to 2in (5cm)
Classification : Phylum : Arthropoda -- Class : Insecta -- Order : Lepidoptera
Family : Nymphalidae -- Genus : Vanessa -- Species : V. atalanta

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gray Whale

Eschrichtius robustus
As it is Mother's Day, we're going to learn about one really awesome mother from the Animal Kingdom-- the Gray Whale!

Gray Whale breeding season takes place in November and December, and happens while the Whales are wintering in warmer waters near the Equator. Females gestate for a whopping 13.5 months and give birth to a single calf while in their wintering grounds the following year. Calves are born in safer waters off of Baja, Mexico that are free from predators, and the mothers will help lift their infants up to the surface so that they can breathe... at least until they become stronger swimmers. Calves are around 4ft long at birth, and grow very quickly. They can drink up to 80 gallons of milk a day, and that milk is 53% fat!

Eventually, the mother an calf must travel back to colder climates in order to feed. The wintering waters are safe for giving birth, but that is because there is so little food, and thus very few predators. All Gray Whales migrate, and they actually take part in one of the greatest animal migrations in the world, travelling as far as 12,500 miles (20,000km) round trip each year. Females and calves are the first to leave the warm winter waters, destined for the nutrient rich seas of the north. But the trip is not easy! Not only is the swim difficult for the calves due to it's distance, it is also incredibly dangerous thanks to all the predators (like Killer Whales) that are out to get them.

Calves remain with their mothers for around a year, and will themselves take about 8 years to reach sexual maturity. One fact that I found particularly interesting is that the female Gray Whales are often larger than the males, which is unusual for Cetaceans. Sperm Whales, for example, have some of the most ridiculous sexual dimorphism of any mammal.

Gray Whales also have a very distinctive look to them, thanks to the various parasites and growths that collect on their skin. Calves are born completely smooth, and will collect their barnacles and lice as they age. Doesn't sound especially pleasant, does it?

Currently, Gray Whales can only be found in the Pacific Ocean. Before the growth of Commercial Whaling they also lived in the Atlantic, but they are now extinct in that particular area. Gray Whales almost disappeared from the planet completely, but they are now protected and their population is slowly rebounding. Boat collisions, fishing gear entanglement, habitat degradation, and the effects of climate change all continue to impact the species.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Pacific Ocean
Size : Length up to 50ft (15m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Cetacea
Family : Eschrichtiidae -- Genus : Eschrichtius -- Species : E. robustus

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Helmeted Iguana

Corytophanes cristatus
The Helmeted Iguana is also sometimes referred to as the Forest Chameleon. Confusing, right? They are members of Corytophanidae, a family that also includes Basilisks and other Helmeted Lizards. The helmet name comes from the fact that these little guys have a huge helmet-like crest that extends from the back of their heads down over their necks. They also have a much lower crest that extends down their back. Males have larger helmets than females.

Helmeted Iguanas can be found in tropical rainforests ranging from Mexico down to Colombia. Their long limbs and grasping toes allow them to be excellent climbers.

One interesting feature to the Helmeted Iguana is that it can change color (hence the Forest Chameleon Name). They really can only shift from greens to browns, but that is enough to allow them some camouflage while out basking in the sun, or while hunting for insects.

IUCN Status : Not Listed
Location : South and Central America
Size : Length up to 14in (34cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Squamata
Family : Corytophanidae -- Genus : Corytophanes -- Species : C. cristatus

Friday, May 11, 2012

Altay Sheep

Altay Sheep Ewe
When we think of sheep, we often imagine domesticated animals that are kept and bred for their wool, not for their meat. Such is not the case for today's breed, which was developed in the dry, cold, mountainous regions of China not for their wool, but for both its meat and fat. (They are sheared, but wool is a secondary purpose.)

Altay Sheep belong to the "fat-rumped carpet wool" type. And that pretty much means exactly what it sounds like. They have dense, carpet-like wool and exceptionally fatty rumps, which is great for the sheep and for their herders, as they both use those fat stores to survive. The sheep use the fat reserves to live during the harsh, vegetation sparse winter months, and the herders use that same fat for fuel.

As you might guess, the breed is very hardy and adaptable, and is able to survive well in the rough conditions that it was bred into. They even typically give birth to just one lamb at a time, which suits them best in conditions that only allow them to eat for a few months of the year!

Status : Domesticated
Location : China
Size : Height up to 29in (76cm), Weight up to 175lbs (80kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Bovidae -- Genus : Ovis -- Species : O. aries

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moustached Treeswift

Hemiprocne mystacea
Moustached Treeswifts are not actually true Swifts, but they are close relatives. There are actually just four species of Treeswift in the world, and they all belong to the same genus and live in Southeast Asia.

Today's animal is another critter that I chose entirely for it looks. It has a mustache made of feathers! Very cute!

The Moustached Treeswifts don't seem to be too picky about the habitats that they live in. Lowland forests, mountainous forests, and even swampy forests will all work nicely for these guys, who are found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

Insects are the preferred diet for these Treeswifts, and they are able to maneuver very easily through the forests in order to find their prey. Males and females form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, and lay only one eggs at a time, which incubates in nest that is attached to a tree branch. The parents will feed their chick regurgitated insects until it is old enough to fledge and hunt on its own.

Moustached Swifts are common throughout their range, and are listed as being of Least Concern. Unfortunately I had to use an illustration for their visual, since the photographs didn't do justice to their mustaches...

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Papua New Guinea, Indonesia
Size : Length up to 10in (25cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Apodiformes
Family : Hemiprocnidae -- Genus : Hemiprocne -- Species : H. mystacea

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Great Egret

Ardea alba
Are you ready to get confused? Here we go.
This is the Great Egret. Or Great White Egret. Or Great White Heron. It looks like a Snowy Egret, but it's bigger. It also has the same common name as a Floridian color variation of the Great Blue Heron... which is white... and is also called the Great White Heron.

But thankfully we have scientific names! So no matter what you call today's bird, Ardea alba is how it will always be known to science... well, unless they find some weird discrepancy down the road that requires reclassification. But let's not add on to the confusion any more...

For the sake of this post, we'll go with "Great Egret," since they are quite large and majestic. They have a distribution that spans most of the world, with some populations living in a range year round, and some migrating North and South seasonally.

Great Egrets nest in large colonies, often sharing the space with other bird species. They build their large nests up in the trees, and parents are monogamous. Clutches of three or four eggs are the most common, but unfortunately it is rare for all chicks to survive to adulthood. Aggression between offspring is incredibly common, and the larger chicks will often kill their smaller siblings in order to receive more food.

Like many beautifully plumed birds in North America, Great Egrets saw a population dip in the late 19th century, due to the popularity of feathers in womens' hats. Conservation measures have allowed the North American Egrets to rebound, and in 1953 the Great Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Southern Hemisphere
Size : Height up to 3.3ft (1m), Wingspan up to 5ft (1.5m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Pelecaniformes
Family : Ardeidae -- Genus : Ardea -- Species : A. alba

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Barnard's Lanternfish

Symbolophorus barnardi
Today's animal is one of those mysterious deep-sea dwellers that we don't often see, despite their massive range and huge population. It is called the Barnard's Lanternfish , and it gets its name from the bioluminescent photophores that allow its head, underside, and tail to light up!

Studies have shown that this Lanternfish, and other members of its family, make up more than half the biomass down in the deep sea, and they live in ocean waters across the globe! Today's species in particular is a small little guy that can be found throughout the Southern Hemisphere, living at depths of up to 3,000ft, though they tend to come up closer to the surface during the night, and can be found in waters as shallow as 350ft.

If the fish can be found in (relatively) shallow waters, why bother diving so far down during the daytime? This behavior takes place in order to avoid becoming someone's dinner. Barnard's Lanternfish are a great food source for larger ocean-dwelling animals, so they dive down to avoid predation when those animals are doing most of their hunting. The Lanternfish then come closer to the surface so that they themselves can feed on the plankton that live there.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Southern Hemisphere
Size : Body Length up to 6in (15cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Actinopterygii -- Order : Myctophiformes
Family : Myctophidae -- Genus : Symbolophorus -- Species : S. barnardi

Monday, May 7, 2012

Common Moorhen

Gallinula chloropus
Meet the Common Moorhen, a very distinctive looking bird that has black plumage, a bright red and yellow beak, and gigantic feet. Those feet are used to walk across floating vegetation and mud. They aren't webbed, like the feet of many other waterbirds, but the Common Moorhens can swim pretty well nonetheless.

These birds are the most widely distributed members of the entire Rail Family, and can be found on every continent save Antarctica! There are currently twelve different subspecies, which all differ slightly by size and plumage.

One very distinct thing about the Common Moorhens is their breeding behavior. While most of their relatives have the males fight over the females, it is the female Moohens that fight over the males! After mating, both parents will incubate and care for the young, and newly hatched offspring are precocial, feeding themselves after only a few days.

The species as a whole is not at threat for extinction, but some local populations are in trouble. The Hawaiian and Mariana subspecies are considered Endangered, due to habitat loss.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Worldwide
Size : Body Length up to 15in (38cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves --Order : Gruiformes
Family : Rallidae -- Genus : Gallinula -- Species : G. chloropus

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Alpine Marmot

Marmota marmota
It's been a while since we last talked about a Marmot- those big old Ground Squirrels that tend to produce some hilarious photographs. Today's Marmot is the largest of the clan, which also makes it the largest of all the world's Squirrels as well!

Alpine Marmots are found (where else?) in the European Alps. Though I should also note that they have been introduced to the Pyrenees, the Carpathians, the Tatras, and a few other areas as well. Grassy, high-altitude plains are their preferred habitats, as they allow them to build the complex burrows systems that they live in, and to feed on the grasses and flowers that they prefer.

Marmot families are pretty close knit, are are comprised of a breeding pair and their offspring from previous years. They can number as few as 3-5 individuals, or as large as 50! There is some interbreeding within these colonies, but it is minimal as these colonies are typically female dominant, so the males only remain in a colony for a year or two (Alpine marmots can live as long as 14 years!)
Alpine Marmot

The Marmot colonies spend their active months foraging for food and preparing for their winter hibernation. They use a variety of calls and whistlers to warm one another against danger during these foraging sessions.

Did you know that these guys hibernate for half of the year? When winter comes they head into their burrow system, and the last one in plugs up the hole with grasses and dirt to keep out the cold. Infant mortality is pretty high in Marmots, so snuggling with the youngsters and keeping them warm greatly increases their chances of living another year.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Europe
Size : Body Length up to 21in (54cm), Weight up to 17lbs (8kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Rodentia
Family : Sciuridae -- Genus : Marmota -- Species : M. marmota

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Green-headed Tanager

Tangara seledon
Happy Saturday everyone! I don't know about where you all are reading from, but here is it pretty dark and rainy, so a bright colored little bird is exactly what I need to liven things up!

Meet the Green-headed Tanager... which has a misleading name. Though they definitely sport some green feathers, especially on the neck, their actual heads are more of a Turquoise color. The rest of the body is boldly patterned with shades of blue and green, and when they fly... Surprise! Their rump is bright orange!

Green-headed Tanagers are found in the Atlantic coastal forests of South America, residing in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. They live in small flocks that number 6-20 birds, and they forage for fruits as well as for small arthropods. And did you know that tanager families stick together? The parents often have two broods per season, and their offspring from both will hang around for about a year before going off on their own.

Green-headed Tanagers are common throughout their range, and do not appear to have any major threats against them, though an actual population size has not been quantified.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina
Size : Length up to 5in (13cm)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Passeriformes
Family : Thraupidae -- Genus : Tangara -- Species : T. seledon

Friday, May 4, 2012

Spotted Wobbegong

Orectolobus maculatus
If you look hard enough you'll be able to tell that today's animal, the Spotted Wobbegong, is actually just a very strange looking shark. In fact, all members of it's order are pretty goofy in appearance, and are collectively known as Carpet Sharks due to their mottled coloring and bottom-dwelling natures.

Spotted Wobbegongs in particular have a greenish/yellowish/brownish coloration, covered in small, lighter outlined circles. These colors help them to remain camouflaged within the reef zones that they live. These sharks have a range that spreads across the continental shelf in the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific, and they are rarely found deeper than 350ft (110m).

Crab, Lobster, and Octopus are three of the Spotted Wobbegongs favorite foods. They hunt at night, remaining very still and waiting for prey to come near. They do sometimes sneak up on their prey while hunting, but the wait-and-catch method is more common.

One additional cool fact about Spotted Wobbegongs is that they are one of those interesting animals that is Ovoviviparous. That means that their young are born alive, after incubating in eggs within their mother's bodies. The offspring are usually around 20cm at birth, and there can be over 30 born at a time!

Despite their size, Spotted Wobbegongs are not considered dangerous to humans. There have only been 16 confirmed bites, none were fatal, and in all but two of those the Shark was provoked.

IUCN Status : Near Threatenened
Location : Indian Ocean
Size : Length up to 10ft (3m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Chondrichthyes -- Order : Orectolobiformes
Family : Orectolobidae -- Genus : Orectolobus -- Species : O. maculatus

Thursday, May 3, 2012

West Caucasian Tur

Capra caucasica
The West Caucasian Tur might look very familiar to you, cause it definitely did to me! At first glance I thought it was an Ibex, and that guess wasn't too far off. Turs and Ibxes belong to the exact same genus, and there is even quite a bit of taxonomic uncertainty floating around about how genetically distinct all the Turs and Ibexes actually are.

As the name suggests, these Turs can be found on the western side of the Caucasus Mountains, and they occur primarily within Russia. They are alpine dwellers, and inhabit areas 2,600-13,000ft above sea level (800-4,000m). Males tend to live at higher altitudes than the females, possibly because those areas are harder to navigate with young calves.

West Caucasian Turs feed on over 100 different species of plant. They primarily graze during the summer and browse during the winter. This is because the snowfall can become quite dense, even at the lower altitudes that they travel to during that season, and digging for vegetation can be difficult, even with their strong legs.

Breeding season takes place during those winter months, and kids are born in late spring/early summer. While some ungulates go off and give birth in secluded, inaccessible areas, Tur mothers have their kids right out in the open, and their offspring are able to climb along with the rest of the group by the end of the day!

It is estimated that there are less than 6,000 of these goat-antelopes left in the wild. Hunting, competition from livestock, and habitat loss have all led to their population decline. They do occur in protected areas, but poaching continues.

IUCN Status : Endangered
Location : Caucasus Mountains
Size : Height around 39in (1m), Weight up to 140lbs (65kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Bovidae -- Genus : Capra -- Species : C. caucasica

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Florence Merriam Bailey

Florence Merriam Bailey, 1904
Alas, the first Naturalist's Week has come to an end. I hope you had an enjoyable time learning about some of the people who helped to discover, innovate, and conserve the animals that we normally learn about on this site. I tried to pick some individuals who may be a bit lesser known and it was fun to go back to my roots (part of my background is in European History, so writing about people, places, and their impact is right up my alley). Anyway, I might do this again, since there are so many awesome people out there who significantly impacted the animal world for the better!

But for now, let's learn about Florence Merriam Bailey, a woman who had an intense interest in the feathered creatures of the world, and who dedicated more than 50 years of her life to their study and observation.

Born in New York in 1863, Florence Merriam came from a family that strongly encouraged her interest in natural history. Her father was a friend of John Muir, and her older brother would eventually become the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. In fact,  I could probably write an entire article about her brother, Clinton Hart Merriam, but we'll save his adventures for another day!

Anyway, from 1882-1886 she studied at Smith College, and though she did not received a degree (well... she would get an honorary one in 1921) she did begin to be more consumed by her passion for birds. At that time, birds were studied from their skins and bones, and rarely from life. Interestingly, Florence Merriam was one of the very first people to call for the use of Binoculars when birding, rather than a gun! 

Color identification illustration from
Birds of Village and Field
In 1885, while still at Smith, she started to write about protecting birds, especially in regards to the fashion industry. Feathers were incredibly popular on womens hats at the time, and as a result some species were being hunted to near extinction (the Whooping Crane!) Merriam formed her school's Audubon Club, wrote in defense of the birds, and actually organized protests and distributed pamphlets to make the cause known. 

It was around this time that she also became the first female associate member of the American Ornithologist's Union, and four years later she published her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass, which was based on articles that she had written for Audubon Magazine. During the late 1880s and through the 1890s, Florence Merriam traveled throughout the American West, which influenced several more books.  

At the tail-end of the century she returned to Washington D.C. to stay with her brother, and it is there that she met and married one of his naturalist colleagues, Vernon Bailey. The couple continued to travel throughout the West, writing about their animal collections and observations- she with birds, and he with mammals.

Florence Merriam Bailey continued to write and explore until her death in 1948 at the age of 85. She published a dozen books, more than 100 articles, and helped to bring awareness to birds of the United States. Her last major work, Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon National Park, was published in 1939, and in her later years she helped to found the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, where she taught classes on Ornithology for several years. She became the first woman fellow of the American Ornithologist's Union in 1929, and even had a subspecies of Mountain Chicadee, Parus gambeli baileyae, named after her in 1908.

If you are interested in her works, several of them are available through public domain resources like

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold
Today's Naturalist is a little more contemporary, at least when compared to those people who have been featured previously. His name is Aldo Leopold, and he is best known for his contributions to Ecology, Environmental Science, and Conservation. He also wrote the influential Environmental book, The Sand County Almanac.

Rand Aldo Leopold was born in Iowa in 1887, and he spent a great deal of his childhood outdoors. He did a great deal of hiking, climbing, and hunting, and would spend hours observing, drawing, and writing about the nature around him. It was then only natural that he attended the Yale Forest School, which he graduated from in 1909.

After completing his education, Leopold entered the United States Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona. In 1922 he created the Forest Service's very first fish and game handbook, and established Gila National Forest as the first designated Wilderness Area in 1924.

It was during his time in the Southwest that Leopold developed many of his ideas regarding preservation and wildlife management. A popular mindset of the time was to keep animals on private preserves for the sole purpose of having something to hunt for sport. Leopold saw things differently. He felt that wilderness areas should exist to maintain healthy, biologically diverse natural communities.

In 1924 Leopold transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, where he continued his work in Ecology and Conservation Philosophy. He published Game Management in 1933, which outlined the techniques needed to manage and restore wildlife areas. Shortly after that book was published, Leopold was offered the chair of an all new department at the University of Wisconsin - the Department of Game Management.

It was around this time that Leopold and his family purchased a run-down track of land near Baraboo, Wisconsin. This 80 acre plot had been damaged by overgrazing, logging, and wildfires, and was far from fertile and healthy. It was at this location that Leopold put many of his ideas into practice, attempting to restore the wilderness around him and documenting all the changes. His work and observations here inspired his most famous work, The Sand County Almanac.

Unfortunately, Leopold never saw the success of his greatest piece of nature writing. Only a week after he got the publisher's acceptance, he died of a heart attack at the age of 61 while helping to fight a wildfire on a neighbor's property. The book would be released a year later, in 1949, and would go on to sell over 2 million copies. It is considered one of the most significant environmental works ever written.
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