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Showing posts from May, 2011

Gargoyle Gecko

Rhacodactylus auriculatus The Gargoyle Gecko gets its name from the little bumps found on their heads. They come in several different colors, including grays, browns, and oranges. Different morphs also posses colored splotches and stripes. Gargoyles are a medium to large Gecko species, and they have long, thin tails that can detach in times on danger, and then regrow. This particular species is only found on the main island of New Caledonia (Grand Terre)  in the Pacific Ocean. They can be found in lowland forest and scrub areas. Unfortunately, deforestation has been affecting their range, and the species is being considered for the CITES list. Gargoyle Geckos are omnivores that feed on fruits and insects. They are kept in captivity where they can live 10 years or more. IUCN Status :   Not Listed Location :   New Caledonia Size :  Length 6in (15cm) Classification :  Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order: Squamata Family : Gekkonidae -- Genus : Rhacoda

Black Swan

Cygnus atratus Before stumbling upon this species I had always thought that black swans were just a color variation. But not so!   Their is actually an entire, unique species of bird that can be found in Australia, as well as in introduced populations in New Zealand and North America. Despite the name, the  Black Swan is not completely black; they actually have white flight feathers that are not visible when the wings are folded down. They also have bright red bills. Black Swans have the longest neck  of any swan, are also one of the largest of all the waterfowl species, with a wingspan of up to 2m! Black Swan in Flight Black Swans mate for life, and actually perform a courting behavior called a " Triumph Ceremony " that helps to strengthen the bond of the pair. These dances are also used to threaten outsiders and mark territories. Females lay 5-6 eggs at a time, and they are incubated and cared for by both parents. Cygnets are precocial and greyish-brown in co

Malagasy Civet

Fossa fossana The Malagasy Civet is an interesting mammal that is actually more related to the Fossa than the Palm Civets of mainland Africa and Asia. Like the Fossa, it is found on the island of Madagascar, and lives in forested areas. Malagasy Civets are small and almost foxy in appearance. They have short, brown, spotted fur, with a tail that they use for storing food reserves in during the winter. Malagasy Civets are ground dwelling carnivores that forage at night for frogs, birds, insectivores, and invertebrates. Pairs form up during the mating season , and they will defend a territory together, marking it with scent from cheek and anal glands. Young Civets can walk within a few days of birth, but take 2-3 months to wean and will often remain with the parents for up to a year. Malagasy Civets are currently experiencing a population downturn due to habitat loss, hunting, and food competition with introduced species. IUCN Status :  Near Threatened Location : Madagas

Tiger Snail

Achatina achatina The Tiger Snail, also known as the African Giant Snail, is the largest land dwelling snail in the entire world. Some of the largest shells ever measured were a foot long! They are found in West Africa, and are kept as pets in some places of world. In their native Africa they are often harvested for food , due to their gigantic size. Like many snails, the Tiger is hermaphroditic, though two snails are still required for breeding to take place. They can lay over a thousand eggs a year and live as long as ten years! Tiger Snails are illegal to own or import in the United States. Why? Because of Achatina fulica . That species of snail, which is very similar to the Tiger Snail, is a horrible invasive species that feeds on and damages over 500 different plant types. Authorities have found and confiscated Tiger Snails at importation points, in an effort to keep a second huge invasive snail out of the country. IUCN Status :   Not listed Location :   West Africa

La Gomera Giant Lizard

Gallotia bravoana It's already really awesome when a species is "rediscovered." Until about ten years ago, most had thought that this large lizard species was extinct. And not only recently extinct, but extinct for about 500 years! In 2000, Biologists from La Laguna University discovered six specemins hiding out on the cliffs of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. Before this finding the species had only been known from fossilized remains. There are now about 90 wild individuals and 40 in captivity, and species protection plans have been put in to place to keep this rare species alive. Their major threats include habitat loss and feral cats and rats (enemies to many a species!) IUCN Status :  Critically Endangered Location : La Gomera, Canary Islands Size : Full length up to 4ft (1.2m) Classification :  Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Squamata  Family : Lacertidae -- Genus : Gal

Ring-Tailed Lemur

Lemur catta The Ring-Tailed Lemur is perhaps the best recognized of all the Lemurs, due to it's fantastic black and white ringed tail. Like all Lemurs, the Ring-Tailed live on Madagascar, an island that they evolved on in isolation for around 50 million years ! Ring-Tailed Lemurs are an arboreal species, and are great climbers thanks to their nimble hands. Interestingly, their tails are not prehensile, which differs from some of their other primate relatives. Instead, its long length is used to aid in balance and for communication. This species is also notable among Lemurs because they spend a great deal of time on the ground , foraging for fruits. Ring-Taileds have several different forms of communication . They live in groups of up to 30 individuals that are led by a dominant female. They use their tails to keep their groups together and to spot out rivals. They also use a huge range of vocalizations and facial expressions in their communication, as well as scent glands.

Red-Footed Booby

Sula sula The Red-Footed Booby is the smallest of the six Booby species, and can be found living near tropical and subtropical oceans around the world. They are non-migratory birds, though they can fly as far as 90 miles (144km) from their roosts to find food in the oceans! Red-Footed Boobies eats fish, and lots of it! Flying Fish are one of their favorite meals, and they hunt by plunging downward and grabbing their prey from the air or just under the surface. They do not carry their food home; it gets swallowed before the flight back. Though all the birds have the characteristic red feet, Red-Footed Boobies come in a wide variety of colors . Some are white with dark wings, some are dark brown, and some are all white. And those are only a few combinations! Interestingly, the colors do not seem to be specific to any colony or area, and birds of different colors can be found roosting together. The Red-Footed Booby is currently listed as being of least concern, but habitat loss

Leicester Longwool Sheep

Leicester Longwool at Colonial Williamsburg While on vacation I made my way over to Colonial Williamsburg, where, since the 1980s, they have been maintaining a rare breeds program to support and conserve different types of livestock. One of the breeds in the program is today's animal, the Leicester Longwool sheep. This particular breed was developed in England in the 1700s by Robert Bakewell . Bakewell was the first to use modern selection techniques to create a new breed that would mature quickly and provide higher quality wool. Leicester Longwools resting The breed spread throughout England's colonies, and herds were even owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The Leicesters were crossbred to other sheep, and were instrumental in the creation of other new breeds. Unfortunately they fell out of favor over the course of the 20th century, due to the introduction of newer breeds, and became incredibly rare in both their native England and in North America.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Dermochelys coriacea Did you know that today is World Turtle Day , an event created in 2000 to bring attention to Turtles and Tortoises? In honor of today I'll be doing my own part to inform and educate about one of the world's most endangered Turtle species, the Leatherback Sea Turtle. Leatherback Sea Turtles are the largest of all the turtle species, one individual was weighed to 2,020lbs (915kg)! They are a pelagic species that can be found in waters around the world, and they make extensive migrations between their feeding and breeding grounds. These incredible turtles have the distinction of having the largest distribution of any reptile, and belong to a family that dates back over 100 million years! Hatchlings crawl towards the sea Leatherbacks are also distinctive because unlike most other Turtles, they do not have a hard, bony shell. Their back is actually quite flexible and rubbery feeling, and covered in ridges that make them more hydrodynamic. Leat

Clouded Leopard

Neofelis nebulosa The Clouded Leopard is a curious feline, stuck somewhere size-wise between the big and small cats. They look a lot like their larger Leopard family members, albeit with a more irregular, "cloudy" shaped coat, but they actually only grow to be about 50lbs (23kg). Clouded Leopards can be found in south east Asia, living in both forested and mountain foothill habitats. The species is unfortunately very vulnerable, and it is believed that there are less than 10,000 in the wild, though exact counts are unknown due to their reclusive nature . Clouded Leopards are now protected in many of their home nations, but their numbers have already been hard hit by deforestation and poaching. Clouded Leopards have the distinction of being one of the best felines climbers. They have rotatable ankles that allow them to climb downwards, and they can even climb while hanging upside down ! Though they are great climbers, it is believed that the species does a god

Ram's Horn Squid

Spirula spirula Today we have another reader suggestion, Spirula spirula , also known as the Ram's Horn Squid. As the suggester points out, the shell of this creature may look very familiar, but most people probably don't know that it belongs to a tiny, deep sea cephalopod! The Ram's Head Squid can be found in tropical waters at depths as far as 3,300ft (1,000m). They are little things, with body lengths measuring only around 1.6in (40mm). The Ram's Head Squid has eight arms and two longer tentacles, all of which have suckers. Adults are able to partially draw them in to their mantle. Internal Shell The shell that we spoke up earlier is actually found completely within the squid, and it helps to control  buoyancy .  Because of that mechanism the Squids swim in a head-down motion. Ram's Head Squids only live about a year and a half, and a lot of their behavior is not well known due to their small size and deep sea living. We do know that they are car

Black Pacu

The Black Pacu or Tambaqui is a very large, slow moving, mostly herbivorous fish that is actually a relative to the Piranhas. They are one of the largest members of their order swimming around in South America, and can weigh as much as 65lbs! Black Pacu or Tambaqui Unlike their Piranha relatives, the Black Pacus are not especially carnivorous. Most of their diet is made up of plants, fruits, and nuts that fall into the rivers, especially during flooding time. They also differ from their cousins in that way that their jaws are aligned. Piranhas have a notorious under-bite, while the Pacu's teeth is more even, or even aligned in an overbite. The Black Pacu tends to be quite solitary, but they can move great distances. In fact, the Black Pacu is one of the best seed carriers in the Amazon! They consume so much vegetation that many of the seeds are still intact. Once the seeds pass out of their digestive systems they end up in areas that are very fertile once the floodwaters

Io Moth

I got a suggestion the other day to write about a moth from the Saturniidae family, and boy are there a lot of choices! The family is comprised of over 1,300 species, and the group as a whole is made up of some of the largest moths out there. Selecting just one to talk about was quite a challenge! Io Moth But select I did, and I chose today's animal, the Io Moth, for two reasons. The first is that it is a very pretty moth, sporting bright yellow wings and huge dark eyespots. The second reason is that they are one of the northernmost species in the Saturniidae family. many of their cousins are found in tropical and subtropical regions, but Io Moths make regions as far north as Manitoba their home. The Io Moth lives an interesting life. After hatching from their eggs the Caterpillars are gregarious, flocking from plant to plant with a need to devour and grow. Because so many can be found in one location, the Caterpillars grow toxic spines to keep the predators away. They go

Mertens' Water Monitor

Mertens' Water Monitor at the National Zoo The Mertens' Water Monitor is yet another creature that I encountered on my recent travels, albeit once again in a captive setting. Mertens' Water Monitors live natively in northern Australia, hanging out near watery habitats like rivers, ponds, and streams. They are the most aquatic of all the Monitor Lizards, and are wonderful swimmers. They can even hold their breaths underwater for several minutes with help from nostril flaps that keep water out during dives. Their aquatic nature allows these lizards to feed on both land and in water, and some of their favorite meals include frogs, fish, and carrion. They also have great senses of smell which help them to find and forage for other snacks like turtle eggs and invertebrates. Mertens' Water Monitors are not listed by the IUCN, but they are considered Vulnerable by the local government. Their decline is due in part to the introduction of Cane Toads to the area, whic

National Zoological Park

Giant Panda having fun with some fruit frozen in ice Last week I was able to make my first ever trip to the National Zoo just outside of Washington, D.C.. The location is notable because it is one of the few zoos in the country to have Giant Pandas on exhibit, and what a gorgeous exhibit they have! In fact, the entire place has some really awesome habitats put together for the animals, and I'd love to go back in a few years once the construction is completed to see what else they've put together. The zoo had a really nice flow to it, and featured several species (aside from Pandas) that I'd never seen before in captivity, including Giant Anteaters, Kori Bustards, and Elephant Shrews (among many, many others).They also had some very well organized buildings for the birds, reptiles, and small mammals. They even had a specific building just for invertebrates featuring some really amazing species of Lobster, Cuttlefish, and many others. The National Zoological Park i


Gastornis at the NMNH Today's animal, which I encountered in a cast, skeletal form at the National Museum of Natural History , was actually a bit tricky to track down and research, since it goes by two different names. You see, the genus was first discovered in Europe in 1855, and given the name Gastornis . Fifteen years later, more complete fossils were found in North America, where they were named Diatryma . The fossils were called by the latter name for a while, but the name has now reverted back to Gastornis , due to the fact that that word came first. Reconstruction with feathers Well now that we got the naming trouble figured out, we can focus on some of the other aspects of this spectacular prehistoric bird. Like for example, they lived in the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, between 55-45 million years ago. Their fossils have been found in both Europe and North America. Members of the Gastornis genus were quite large, standing as tall ad 6.5ft (2m). They were flig

Guira Cuckoo

Guira Cuckoos at Busch Gardens Well I just made it back from vacation, and now that Marsupial Week is all wrapped up I'd like to share with you some of the animals that I met while out of town. The first of these is the Guira Cuckoo, a scruffy looking bird that natively inhabits open areas of southern South America. I encountered two of these birds at the Lorikeet Glen in Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Guira Cuckoos are very social; they sleep, feed, and nest in groups. They forage on the ground with each other, feeding on small vertebrates and insects. Guira Cuckoos are quite interesting because they are non-parasitic . No, this doesn't mean they are bug free, this means that they don't practice brood parasitism. Many Cuckoos will deposit their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Because the Cuckoos are typically larger than their hosts, the Cuckoo chicks will get rid of the host's eggs or hatchlings in order to receive more attention. Rather than take p


Alas, we come now to the end of Marsupial Week. Our final feature is the Thylacine, sometimes known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. This extinct carnivore is another great example of convergent evolution ; because it lived in a place devoid of placental mammalian predators, if was able to fill that niche and closely resemble a dog despite being completely unrelated. Benjamin, the last captive Thylacine Unfortunately, Thylacines are now extinct, most likely due to competition with introduced predators and human hunting. They disappeared from the Australian mainland around 200 years ago, and the last examples of the species died in captivity during the 1930s. There have been several sightings in the wild ever since, but none of these claims were official and  confirmed . When they lived, Thylacines were the largest carnivorous Marsupials. They fed off of smaller animals, typically other marsupials, and hunted alone or in pairs during the nighttime. After Europeans arriv

Virginia Opossum

Yesterday we learned about one of the Western Hemisphere's most unique marsupials, and now we'll move on to one of its most common. The Virginia or North American Opossum is the only marsupial on the continent to live north of Mexico. They can be found throughout the eastern United States, parts of the West, and down into Mexico and Central America, living in habitats that range from forests, the farmland, to urban areas. Didelphis virginiana So what came first, the Possum, or the Opossum? Well, if it's the word we're talking about, Opossum came first. It is derived from an Algonquin word that means "White Animal." The term was eventually adapted to refer to Australia's similar looking marsupials. Opossums also came first in the line of marsupial evolution. They are one of the oldest marsupial families . Opossums are nocturnal scavengers that live off of an omnivorous diet. They consume plant matter, insects, and even carrion. Virginia Opossums ca

Monito del Monte

Let's totally switch gears now for a second, and look at one of the amazing Marsupials found outside of Australia and New Guinea. ...But first, a sort of history lesson. The only living member of Microbiotheria The first Marsupial and Placental mammals diverged from each other over 110 million years ago. Keep in mind that the continents were not always placed where they are today. Way back, the Marsupial and Placental mammals moved about, but as continents separated and drifted, different groups became cut off from one another. Many of the Marsupial lineages died out, including those in Asia and Europe. One group, however, made it into South America before it split from the North. These animals had less competition from Placentals and were able to thrive for tens of millions of years. And then after some time, around 60 to 50 million years ago, Marsupials made their way from South America, through Antarctica, to Australia . They diverged into many other Marsupial

Tiger Quoll

Dasyurus maculatus When I wrote about the Tasmanian Devil a while back, I discovered that it was the world's largest living Marsupial carnivore. This then made me wonder what other types of Marsupial carnivores were out there. You always think about the herbivorous Koalas, Kangaroos, and Wombats, but what about the meat eaters? Well look no further than the Quolls, an entire genus of almost cat-like predators that can be found in Australia and New Guinea. (There are other carnivorous Marsupials of course, but they are for another day). The Tiger Quoll is the largest of all the Quolls by nearly 50% body size , and is also the largest Marsupial carnivore on the Australian mainland . They are also sometimes referred to as Spotted-Tail Quolls, which is entirely appropriate due to their spotted coats that pattern all the way down their tails. Tiger Quoll or Spotted-Tail Quoll Tiger Quolls hunt at night, feeding on birds, possums, reptiles, and even small Wallabies!They ar

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Macropus giganteus So now lets move from the largest Marsupial to ever live, to one of the largest living in the present day. The Eastern Grey Kangaroo is a commonly encountered Marsupial throughout Eastern Australia. They inhabit all sorts of areas, including grasslands, woodlands, and even sub-tropical forests. Eastern Grey Kangaroos are distinguishable by their large size and short, greyish-brown fur. They have strong legs that allow them to hop at speeds of up to 35mph (56kph), and their tail provides them with excellent balance. Did you know that these Kangaroos can also cover 25ft (8m) in a single jump? And that they can also swim quite well too? Adult These large Marsupials are very social, and live in groups called mobs. Each mob is controlled by a dominant male, and contains younger males, females, and joeys. Males will fight over potential mates by boxing with one another; leaning back on their tails and kicking with their powerful hind legs. Did you know that


So based on the past two animals, we've learned that Marsupials evolved traits that were similar to those found in their placental counterparts. But did you also know that there were Marsupial Megafauna, similar to the gigantic animals found elsewhere in the world at around the same time? While Mammoths roamed North America and Eurasia, and while giant Ground Sloths wandered about South America, Diprotodon made all of Australia its home. Also called "the Giant Wombat," Diprotodon was the largest Marsupial to have ever lived. These Wombat relatives were the size of a Hippopotamus! Diprotodon Diprotodons lived in open woodland and scrubland habitats, where they fed by browsing with help from their two large front teeth.. They also had large claws on their front feet, which suggests that they could also dig for food . Their pouches were most likely rear-opening, like in modern wombats. This kept the young safe from debris while the mother was digging. Like most M

Sugar Glider

Petaurus breviceps Oh the ever so adorable Sugar Glider. Did you know that these popular exotic pets are also members of team Marsupial? Like yesterday's Southern Marsupial Mole, Sugar Gliders are also a great example of convergent evolution. They closely resemble, and behave like, the flying Squirrels found around the world, yet they are actually Marsupial Possums! (Not to be confused with Opossums, but we'll cover those guys later in the week). Wild Sugar Gliders are found in northern and eastern Australia, as well as in New Guinea. There are seven location-based subspecies. Sugar Gliders are nocturnal and arboreal, and also never touch the ground! They have skin flaps between their front and back legs that allow them to glide as far as 325ft (100m) , they also use their tails to help steer while in the air. Sugar Gliders are  omnivores that feed on various nectar, gums, and saps, as well as on insects. The are very social, especially for marsupials, and live in gr

Southern Marsupial Mole

Marsupials are so amazing because they are their own separate group of mammals that evolved independently from the mammals found elsewhere in the world. Yet, at the same time, they are strikingly similar. The Southern Marsupial Mole is a fantastic example of convergent evolution, which is when two species develop the same or similar traits without actually being related. Notoryctes typhlops You see, though it looks like a Mole, has shoveling claws like a Mole, and burrows like a Mole, the Southern Marsupial Mole is no more closely related to placental Moles than it is to any other placental mammal. Found in the sandy deserts of Australia, the Southern Marsupial Mole spends most of its time underground, though they do surface after rainfall. These amazing creatures have a few adaptations to make life in such a habitat workable. They have rear-opening pouches that prevent sand from being swept in while digging, they have ears that are hidden under layers of fur, and their eyes