Last summer when I was on a week-long adventure the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with my brothers, nephew, and my son, I got out of the tent one morning to find an enormous female snapping turtle trying to lay eggs right in the middle of the campsite (see photo below).
She stayed in that spot for several hours, ignoring us as we took photos and stepped around her as we went about our business around camp.
And here's the best part: When the turtle was apparently finished with her attempt to dig her hole, she headed back toward the water. The problem is, this campsite is fifteen feet above the water surface, with a large slab of rock sloping down toward the water. The turtle went straight for a place where the rock gets really steep the last ten feet to the water. She reached a point at which the slope was too steep to walk, and she hesitated. She seemed to consider this conundrum for a few seconds. Then she lunged forward and literally tumbled end over end until splashing into the water. To fully appreciate this amazing behavior, you must realize that this turtle was huge, at least 30 pounds, which made for quite a splash.
So what the heck is a Common Snapping Turtle?
The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is a large, heavy water turtle that lives throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. In fact, North America is the only place on Earth where members of this family can be found. Although there are four species in the family, the common snapping turtle is the most widespread (hence the name, common).
I intentionally included the word "common" in the name for this email to distinguish this turtle from the larger Alligator Snapping Turtle, which lives in the southeast U.S.
Snapping turtles are perhaps best known for being aggressive when provoked. They have extremely long necks (the species name is serpentina because their neck and head resembles a snake), and they can very quickly snap out and bite with their powerful, beak-like jaws.
In fact, a few years ago I found one crossing a gravel road. I approached it to get a better look. Thinking I might move it off the road, I reached for it. The turtle didn't like that. Its head shot out at least twelve inches, and it literally leaped six inches off the ground in an attempt to bite me. I nearly fell over backward in my attempt to pull my hand back.
But of course I should point out that these turtles are NOT aggressive unless they feel threatened. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
Amazing facts about Common Snapping Turtles
They are big! Common snapping turtles regularly grow to over thirty pounds (13.6 kg), and the heaviest one caught in the wild was 75 pounds (34 kg). Its close cousin, the Alligator Snapping Turtle can grow to 300 pounds (136 kg)!
They can live for a long time. Their average lifespan in the wild is about 30 years. But a long-term mark and recapture study in Ontario, Canada, suggests that they can live over 100 years.
Snapping turtles are not picky eaters. In fact, these turtles will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths. They eat insects, worms, leeches, crayfish, snails, frogs, other turtles, snakes, fish, small ducklings and goslings, and just about anything they find that is already dead. Last week, we had a stringer of fish tied to a branch at the lake shore so that we could cook them for dinner. We went out for a paddling outing on the lake. As we returned, nearing the shore, Trish, who was in the front of the canoe, suddenly slapped the water with her paddle and cried, "get away from our fish!" A huge snapping turtle had eaten almost all of one of the fish and was trying to start on a second. Trish scared it away with her paddle (I must admit, she startled me, too), but the turtle was back a few minutes later, not willing to give up, so we went ahead and cleaned the fish for an early dinner.
Snapping turtles lay lots of eggs. This is about the only time they come out of the water. The female finds a soft bit of ground and uses her hind feet to dig a hole. She will then lay 25 to 45 eggs, which look similar to ping pong balls but have a soft, leathery shell. The eggs hatch after incubating for 75 to 95 days.
Now, here's a weird fact about snapping turtle eggs. As is true for some other reptiles, the sex of the turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature of incubation. At lower temperature (68º F, 20º C) all the young will be female. At higher temps (about 74º F, 23.3º C) they will all be male. And in between, half of them will be male and half female.
Hatchling snapping turtles have a low success rate. Only about an inch long, they have soft shells and are quickly eaten by birds. If they make it to the water, many are then eaten by fish or other snapping turtles (hey, that's cannibalism!).
Snapping turtles hibernate during the winter. When the temperature drops to below 41º F (5º C), they bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of shallow water and remain there until the spring.
That's a long time to hold your breath! Of course, during the winter their metabolism drops to nearly zero, so they don't use much oxygen. Here's part of their secret: while hibernating, snapping turtles take in a small about of water through their cloaca (um... that's their butthole), and they get their small amount of oxygen that way. Even under normal warm conditions, they can hold their breath for over ten minutes!
Check out this video comparing the Common Snapping Turtle to the Alligator Snapping Turtle
Below is a common snapping turtle, but I don't recommend holding them this way, as they can reach their head back surprising far to bite.
One more tidbit. Thanks to a 19th-century political cartoon, the common snapping turtle is also known as "Ograbme." The cartoon was drawn in 1808, and it was in protest to Thomas Jefferson's unpopular Embargo Act. In the cartoon, we see the president prompting a snapping turtle to bite the hind end of some poor merchant, who curses the ograbme (which is "embargo" spelled backward).
So, the snapping turtle deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious originated in the Disney movie, Mary Poppins. It describes anything so indescribable that there is no other word to describe it. The song is forever etched into my memory: "It's Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious, if you say it loud enough you'll always sound precocious, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" So, it's another way to say awesome!
Recently we had the pleasure of having several of our granddaughters visit us for a few days. Two of them came up from a town south of Houston, Texas. The girls, aged 4 and 8, rarely have a chance to see fireflies because they don't seem to have these amazing insects near their home. So, of course, we spent a few evenings chasing them and putting them into bottles to observe before letting them go. It was a real hoot to watch the girls chasing them down. At one point, the four-year-old, Billy, saw one of our solar lights come on and she darted over to it and tried to grab the firefly that she was sure must have landed on it.
So I have to ask myself--at what point do we stop enjoying these simple pleasures? Does it happen when we turn thirty? Forty? Is it possible to never lose the ability to enjoy simple things like chasing fireflies on a carefree summer evening?
I'm fifty-eight. But I have a lot to learn from my grandkids.
In honor of the beautiful summer evenings we've had lately here, today's awesome animal is the firefly! It's time to learn more about this amazing luminescent creature.
Some of you may live in areas that may not have fireflies, or perhaps you have other creatures (or fungi) that produce light. But here in the midwest US, fireflies can be seen by the hundreds on warm summer evenings.
So, what the heck is a Firefly?
Fireflies, often called lightning bugs, are neither flies nor bugs ("bug" is actually the name for insects in the order, Hemiptera, such as assassin bugs and stink bugs). Instead, they are beetles (beetles are in the order, Coleoptera). Astoundingly, there are 2,100 species of fireflies worldwide (although only some of them can light up). All of these species are in the family, Lampyridae. The family name, Lampyridae, comes from the Greek "lampein," which means to shine.
I find it interesting that, in the United States, there are distinct regions where people call these beetles fireflies and other regions where they are called lightning bugs. In fact, a study was done by Bert Vaux, a linguistics professor. He surveyed 10,000 people across the country regarding what they call these beetles. The resulting map is below. In the green area, people call them fireflies. In the blue area, they call them lightning bugs. And red is where they use both names.
What do people call these insects where you live?
Amazing facts about fireflies
Fireflies can light up (well, duh). It is a process called bioluminescence. You have to admit, this is a pretty cool superpower, right? Here is a very basic description of how it works. Fireflies have a substance in their abdomen called luciferin (yes, the name has the same Latin root as Lucifer). When luciferin mixes with calcium, oxygen, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical reaction occurs that creates light. Even more amazing, this is the most efficient light we know of. In this chemical reaction, almost 100% of the resulting energy is released as light. In comparison, with an incandescent light bulb, only about 10% of the energy is released as light (the rest is released as heat).
The larvae of fireflies are wingless, and they typically live underground (although some live in water). The larvae can also light up, and in many areas, they are called glow worms. In some species, even the eggs glow! But the larvae and adults light up for a different purpose. The main reason adults light up is to attract mates. But the main reason the larvae light up is to warn predators away. You see, fireflies have horrible-tasting defense chemicals in their blood. Predators see the light and then avoid eating these insects. These yucky chemicals have the awesome name, lucibufagins. See the firefly larva below.
Check out this video of firefly larvae.
We used to think adult fireflies would light up mainly to warn predators to not eat them. But now we know the primary purpose (for the adults) is to attract mates. What's really cool is that each species has it's own specific light signals, so that they don't accidentally get attracted to the wrong species. The signal could be a steady glow, a specific flashing pattern, or even a specific color. The light may be green, yellow, or orange. There is even a species that lives in the Eastern US that glows blue.
In the larval form, fireflies are predators, feeding on worms, other insects, and snails. Once they become adults, some are predators while others feed on nectar or pollen. Some species, once they become adults, don't eat at all... they don't even have mouths! Obviously, these adults have one single purpose: to find a mate. Once they accomplish that, they soon die. I imagine not being able to eat gives them a real incentive to be quick about it!
Female fireflies of the genus Photuris have a nasty trick. They emit light in the specific pattern of the females of another species. This fools the males of the other species into eagerly approaching, thinking they are about to get lucky with a female of their own species, only to be gobbled up by the trickster. Females of the insect world (and spiders, for that matter) can be mean! The photo below is a female Photuris feeding on an unsuspecting male.
One of the most spectacular light shows from fireflies is that produced by those species that flash in sync with each other. Following a predictable pattern, they will all flash at once. This will be followed by several seconds of darkness, and then they will all flash again. Oddly, we aren't sure why some fireflies flash synchronously. It might be because this gives the males a better chance when the female can compare and pick out the best male light (the one that is brightest, maybe?).
Check out this video of synchronous fireflies.
Unfortunately, fireflies seem to be declining. One reason for this could be the increase in light pollution. Studies have shown (and it just seems logical to me) that artificial lights make it harder for fireflies to find their mates. Also, habitat destruction could be a factor. Fireflies aren't very resilient. When a field is paved, instead of moving to another field, the fireflies simply disappear forever. One additional factor might be that fireflies are collected in large numbers for their luciferase, which is useful in medical research.
So, the firefly deserves a place in the A.A.H.O.F. (Amazeballs Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word amazeballs may have come from Amazeballz, which is the name of a pastry shop that started in Plano, Texas (USA). They make miniature cake balls. During the last few years, I've heard people use this word to describe something that is beyond amazing, as in, "The new Star Wars movie is amazeballs!" So, amazeballs is another way to say awesome!
Cora and Billy catching fireflies - Stan C. Smith
Firefly #1 (Japanese firefly) -National Wildlife Federation
Firefly name map - NC State University Department of Statistics
Firefly larva - Till, via whatsthatbug.com
Predatory female firefly - AmazingLife.bio
Fireflies in the forest (Japan) - Miyu
The Virginia opossum is a misunderstood animal. It tends to be the brunt of jokes and is used in derogatory statements. I am guilty of this myself. For example, in my new novel, Bridgers 3, one of the bridgers is being warned not to try something (I can't give away too many details), because trying this thing will "steal away your youth’s vigor like possums steal eggs." And in an upcoming short story, my main character complains that he doesn't fit in, stating: "To use a local phrase, at these events I was like a possum in a pigpen—I didn’t belong, and I feared getting shot if I were discovered."
These statements, like those many other people use, are not very complimentary to opossums. So today I plan to reveal the awesome side to these creatures.
So, what the heck is a Virginia Opossum?
The Virginia opossum is often called the North American opossum, mainly to distinguish it from opossums that live in South America. The Virginia opossum is unique because it's the only marsupial that lives in North America. It is a marsupial mammal about the size of a domestic house cat, and it has a bare, prehensile tail.
It is important to point out the difference between the Opossums of South and North America and the Possums of Australia and surrounding islands.
Opossums are in the marsupial order, Didelphimorphia. There are about 103 species, and they originated in South America.
Possums are in the marsupial order, Diprotodontia, the same order that includes kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and others. There are about forty species of possums that live in Australia, New Guinea, and others islands in the South Pacific.
So, the Virginia opossum is not closely related to the possums of Australia. There is an interesting story of why they have similar names: In 1610, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia wrote in A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia: “There are … Apossouns, in shape like to pigges.” (he was comparing them to domestic pigs, which back then had much more fur than they do today). He got this word, apossouns, from the local tribe of Native Americans (it meant "white beast"). So the name evolved into opossum. Then, in the late 1700s, Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist who went with Captain James Cook to Australia, saw a creature (a ringtail possum) and remarked that it resembled the opossums of North America. The name he gave them was shortened to possum.
So... these two similar names often confuse people, making them think that the two groups of mammals are closely related. But they aren't.
Amazing facts about Virginia Opossums
Virginia opossums are the only marsupials in North America. Although many species of opossums live in South America, the Virginia opossum has managed to migrate all the way up into Central America, Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. And it is still steadily expanding its range. This is due to global warming causing more northerly areas to have fewer heavy snow storms.
Like many other Marsupials, Virginia opossums give birth to very small babies, which then move to the mother's pouch where they will develop until they can move around and feed on their own. The newborns, usually about eight of them, are only the size of a navy bean. Once in the mother's pouch, though, they attach to a nipple and stay in that spot until they are too large to fit in the pouch. At that point they move out of the pouch and cling to the mother's fur, riding around with her. And at some point, they get too big to even do that.
Okay, I have to tell a brief story. When I was a kid (about 12) growing up in Kansas (Midwest U.S.), a good friend and I were fascinated by animals, including opossums. We managed to catch an opossum in a live trap, and we put it into a large cage my friend's dad helped us build in the corner of his garage. Well, before long it became apparent that the opossum was a female. Young opossums that were getting too big to fit in the pouch moved out and began riding around on her back. When the young got to be the size of hamsters, we began handling them. When they got to be the size of guinea pigs, we began letting them ride around on our shoulders as we walked around town. One time, while on a walk with young opossums, we decided we were hungry and walked into a McDonald's restaurant. We went to the counter, ordered our food, paid, and picked up our food. Astoundingly, no one in the restaurant, including the girl who took our order, even noticed that we had opossums along for the ride on our shoulders.
Opossums defend themselves in just about every way except for actual fighting. When threatened, sometimes they will run. Other times they will hiss, growl, or even belch. They will show their teeth. They with urinate, and they will even poop to scare you away. Their most famous behavior, though, is to play opossum. Playing opossum is a real thing. The term refers to pretending to be dead. And they are good at it. They will roll onto their side and freeze. Drool will drip from their mouth and their breathing slows down. They actually go into a coma-like state, which can last up to four hours! When opossums do this, a foul-smelling green liquid seeps from their anus. This behavior, along with the smell, is known to sometimes make larger animals leave them alone.
Check out this video of an opossum playing dead.
Opossums have opposable thumbs. Well, actually this is on their back feet, so I suppose they are really opposable toes. But this arrangement helps them cling to tree limbs. Opossums are excellent climbers.
Opossums have an unusually short life span for an animal of their size. In the wild, they typically live only two years or less. Why? It is thought that this ultra-fast aging characteristic is due to opossums having few defenses against predators. Therefore, since they don't live long anyway, their bodies have not evolved the biochemical methods to live more than a few years. This might seem hard to believe, but to support this hypothesis, there is a population of opossums that have lived on an island off the coast of Georgia (U.S.) for thousands of years in the absence of predators. These opossums have a natural lifespan 50% longer than mainland opossums.
Opossums sometimes play a role in pop culture. The Pogo comic strip, created by Walt Kelly, began running in American newspapers in 1948. Pogo was a seemingly simple opossum living in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. But he tended to make deeply philosophical comments about politics and the state of the world.
And... one more. Heidi was a cross-eyed opossum donated to Germany's Leipzig Zoo in 2010. The opossum quickly became an international sensation, with 300,000 followers on Facebook. Heidi even inspired a series of YouTube songs. But the pinnacle of this opossum's fame came when she was given the task of choosing the oscar winners for the Academy Awards on the late night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live. Heidi died in 2011 (remember, opossums don't live long). By the way, experts believed that Heidi's crossed-eyed condition was due to fatty deposits behind her eyes, which did not affect her health in any other way.
So, the Virginia opossum deserves a place in the M.A.H.O.F. (Majestic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word majestic is an adjective for possessing majesty (of lofty dignity or imposing aspect; stately; grand). The word originated in about 1600. Other synonyms for majestic are kingly, splendid, magnificent, and noble. Perhaps you don't consider an opossum to be kingly, but that's beside the point. You have to admit they're awesome, and majestic is another way to say awesome!
In Bridgers 3, the bridgers meet some interesting beings who live off the land. One important food source for these beings is wild mushrooms.
I was reminded of this a few days ago when our neighbors came over and said they had some weird mushrooms growing in their flower garden. They wanted our opinion on what they were.
It turns out their mushrooms were stinkhorns (more specifically, the elegant stinkhorn).
Stinkhorns were given their rather unflattering name because, well, they stink. When you put your nose within an inch or two of these fungi, you are hit with an odor somewhere between the smell of soil and the smell of rotting garbage. We looked around in the garden and found a half dozen of these. On one of them, I noticed a carrion beetle busily chomping away (in the photo above you can see spots where carrion beetles have eaten portions). In case you don't know, carrion beetles usually feed on rotting animal carcasses. So if the stinkhorn appeals to carrion beetles, it must really stink!
You may have noticed that the business end of the weapon on the Bridgers 3 cover looks very much like a large centipede. In honor of that organic, living weapon, today's awesome animal is the giant centipede.
Way back when Trish and I first met (1991, in case you're wondering), we would regularly go to the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas to hike and search for snakes and lizards. Yep, it has been that kind of romance from the beginning. In the process of lifting up flat limestone rocks, where reptiles like to hide, we would sometimes come across the "giant centipede." Some of these were FIVE inches long.
Now, I want to point out that giant centipedes are known to have a nasty, outrageously painful bite (although the ones in Kansas are certainly not fatal). And they look rather wicked. Here is a photo I took of one of the centipedes we found.
So one day we decided to capture the largest one we could find so that we could show it to our students (we both taught biology at the time). We took the centipede home in a plastic butter tub. When we got home, we decided to transfer the creature to a larger container. This did not go well. The centipede made a wild lunge at the stick I was using to coax it from one container to the next. This startled me (translation: I squealed like a little girl), and dropped the butter tub. The centipede took off across the living room floor and disappeared down a crack next to the stairs.
It was under the floorboards of the house. The house where we lived, and slept, and routinely walked around without shoes. We never saw the centipede again, but we found it somewhat more difficult to relax for several weeks after the centipede incident.
SIDE NOTE: You might be wondering why a little five-inch arthropod would startle me so much. After all, for many years I taught my students how to safely handle tarantulas and snakes. Well, everyone has that one creature that gives them the willies, right?
So what the heck is a Giant Centipede?
For simplicity, I'm going to refer to all the larger centipedes of the genus Scolopendra as Giant Centipedes. Numerous species live around the world, particularly in tropical areas. The five-inch Tiger Centipede of Kansas (described above) is impressive, but some of the Scolopendra centipedes are truly awesome.
Amazing facts about Giant Centipedes
Giant centipedes are big (well, duh). How big? One of the largest, sometimes called the Amazonian Giant Centipede, grows to 12 inches (30 cm) in length. Yes, that's a foot long.
Giant centipedes, like all other centipedes, are predators. Living under rocks and in the leaf litter of forests, these creatures normally catch and eat other invertebrates (insects, spiders, scorpions, millipedes, snails). But they're not picky. They will eat anything small enough for them to subdue and kill. So the larger species often eat frogs, lizards, snakes, mice, small birds, and even bats. In fact, the Amazonian Giant Centipede is an expert at catching bats. They climb around upside down on the ceilings of caves to ambush bats. Once they kill one, they hang by a few of their hindmost legs while holding and feeding on the much larger bat.
Check out this video of a giant centipede attacking a bat.
And this one of a giant centipede preying on a tarantula.
Centipedes produce fast-acting venom. The two large "fangs" you see at the head end of a centipede are actually a modified pair of legs (called forcipules) for injecting venom into their prey. So, since these are modified legs instead of true mouthparts, centipedes do not actually "bite" (although the effect is the same). What's truly amazing about centipede venom is how fast it works. A giant centipede that weighs only 3g can immobilize a 45g mouse in less than 30 seconds. Centipede venom contains many nasty components, but a recent study indicates that the component that allows giant centipedes to kill large prey (such as bats and mice) is one that blocks potassium ion channels within nerve cells. This causes the nerves to fire repeatedly, throwing the heart and breathing system into disarray. This venom component was given the appropriate name of Spooky Toxin (SsTx).
Centipedes don't see well, so they use their sense of touch to catch prey. They have two multi-jointed, antennae. These antennae are highly sensitive to touch, and they are covered with chemoreceptors, allowing the centipedes to also "smell" their prey.
Despite their name, centipedes do not actually have 100 legs. They actually have one pair of legs for each body segment (millipedes have two pairs per segment). So some centipedes have as few as 14 legs, and some have as many as 177. The giant centipedes of the genus Scolopendra typically have 21 to 23 body segments (42 to 46 legs).
Okay, one more morsel of information to satisfy your burning curiosity. Giant centipedes are not considered as food for humans in most cultures. But in China, they are sometimes eaten grilled or deep fat fried and are usually served on skewers.
So, the giant centipede deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F. (Funkadelic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word funkadelic actually originated in the late 1960s as the name of an American band led by George Clinton. It combined the words funk and psychedelic. The word then became a broader term to describe the category of music this band pioneered, dance music that combines soul and funk with elements of rock. And... the word gradually began to be used to describe anything cool or spectacular. So, funkadelic is another way to say awesome!
For those who are fans of my Bridgers series, I'm pleased to say that Bridgers 3 is almost complete! If all goes according to plan, it will be released in early August (maybe even August 1st).
The covers for the Bridgers series have a common theme... a grimy hand holding a weapon. The weapon is something the bridgers are forced to use in order to survive in an alternate version of Earth. Bridgers 1 features a primitive spear, Bridgers 2 has a bladed, copper mace.
Well, it's time to introduce the cover of BRIDGERS 3. This cover features the strangest, awesomest, scariest weapon yet... a venomcrook.
Bridgers 3: The Voice of Reason introduces a world unlike any the bridgers have ever imagined. Saving the human species is not as easy as you might think.
Only a few weeks away!
Not sure if you're interested in the Bridgers series? One way to find out is to read a free preview.
Read Chapter 1 of Bridgers 1: The Lure of Infinity
And you can get the full books here: Bridgers 1, Bridgers 2.
Today's awesome animal is not one that makes an appearance in my novels. But, dang it, giant clams should be in one of my stories! Remember the old Tarzan movies (and other adventure tales) where the hero would swim to the ocean floor, only to have a giant clam clamp down on his leg? He would struggle to get loose, barely making it free before drowning.
So, giant clams have gotten a bad rap (at least in the old movies). But I don't think they deserve that.
When Trish and I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef on our recent Australia trip, we saw a mind-boggling array of colorful fish and invertebrates. But even with all those amazing creatures there, my favorite was the giant clams.
So what the heck is a Giant Clam?
Giant clams actually include about ten species of bivalve mollusks that live in warm, shallow waters of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. They are the largest of all the bivalve mollusks (mollusks that have two shells, like clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and others). Below is a giant clam I saw while snorkeling off the coast of Queensland, Australia. It was between two and three feet (.6 to .9 m) from end to end.
Amazing facts about the Giant Clam
Giant clams are, well, giant. They can grow to more than four feet (1.2 m) and weigh over 500 pounds (227 kg). Most of this weight, however, is the shell. The soft, living portion is only about 10% of the creature's weight. Although the body is only 10% of the weight, these soft tissues are almost entirely good, healthy protein, which is why giant clams have been hunted for centuries (maybe much longer). Due to hunting, giant clams are now at risk of becoming extinct. Fortunately, these clams can live to over 100 years old.
Giant clams do not eat people. Legends in the South Pacific describe giant clams waiting patiently for unsuspecting swimmers to come along so they can grab them and eat them whole. This is simply not true. There has never been a substantiated case of a human being killed by one of these gentle giants. In fact, the muscles that pull the shells closed move far too slowly to catch a swimmer by surprise.
Giant clams are colorful. The portion of the live tissue you can see is called the mantle (I think of it as the clam's lips). The mantle is a different color for ever individual clam, and they can be brilliant greens, oranges, blues, or about any other color. This color is caused by iridocytes, which are cells that reflect light. Oddly, if you see a giant clam that looks green, if you swim to the other side and look at it from a different angle the color can change its hue.
These brilliant giant clam iridocytes are being closely studied by scientists who hope to develop improved cell phone screens. Most TV and cell phone screens today use their own source of backlighting. But reflected light is much easier on the eyes. Giant clam iridocytes are so good at reflecting different colors of light that these cells may hold clues to creating screens that reflect ambient light (instead of being backlit).
Check out this video of the colors of giant clams.
How do giant clams get so huge? Oddly, they obtain their food in several ways. Most of their food comes from the symbiotic algae that live in their cells (these algae are the source of the iridocytes' colors). So, the clams can use sunlight for photosynthesis (in which light is used to convert carbon dioxide into food/energy). Giant clams also feed on plankton by filtering it from the water. The nutrients from the plankton help feed the algae in the clam's cells. Complicated, huh?
One species of giant clam has perfected the ship-in-a-bottle trick. These clams, when relatively small, burrow into the stone-like surface of a coral reef. They end up with only their mantle (the "lips") showing. As they grow, they get too big to fit through the hole in the rock (although high acidity in a layer of tissue around their shells eats away at the surrounding rock so that their cavity grows as their shell grows). So for multiple decades of their life, they are trapped in the rock-hard reef. Below is a photo of one of these clams I found while snorkeling. All you can see is its lips.
So, the giant clam deserves a place in the K.A.H.O.F. (Kryptonian Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Okay, maybe this one's a bit of a stretch, but I like it. The word Kryptonian actually refers to the advanced race of aliens from the planet Krypton (you know... from Superman). Gradually it evolved into an adjective that describes anything associated with the planet or the race. And then (this is the part that might be based on my own wishful thinking), it evolved into an adjective to describe anything spectacular (the Kryptonians, including Superman, were spectacular, right?). So, in my opinion, kryptonian is another way to say awesome!
Today's awesome animal is not one that makes an appearance in my novels, but it is one I've been thinking I should feature, especially since Trish and I saw so many of them on our Australia trip. Sometimes people can't resist describing certain animals as having personality. Well, the kookaburra is one of those that would definitely fall into the personality category.
So what the heck is a Kookaburra?
Kookaburras are birds in the kingfisher family. They are the largest of the kingfishers, growing up to 17 inches (42 cm) long. There are four species of kookaburras, the most well-known of which is the laughing kookaburra. The kookaburra, like the wombat and the kangaroo, is an iconic animal of Australia, and it is worth knowing more about. Here is a laughing kookaburra Trish and I saw while on a walk:
Amazing facts about the Kookaburra
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of kingfishers is their vocalizations, and the kookaburra is king (and queen) of the kingfishers in this respect. The laughing kookaburra (which is the species we saw in northeast Queensland) is famous for its astoundingly-loud "laughing" call. On our trip to Australia, even if we had wanted to sleep past daybreak, the kookaburras would not have allowed it. At first light, they seem to get the overwhelming urge to let everything within a half mile know that they still haven't lost their sense of humor. Because of their regularity, they are sometimes called the bushman's clock.
Check out this video of a kookaburra laughing.
And this one!
Of course, they aren't really laughing when they do this. Instead, they are letting other birds know the boundaries of their territory. Kingfishers, in general, are territorial.
The kookaburra is a predator with an impressive, boat-shaped beak, up to four inches (10 cm) long. Although most of the other species of kingfishers live near water and prey on fish, kookaburras often live far from water, and they typically kill and eat insects, lizards, frogs, snakes (even venomous snakes), rodents, and smaller birds. Here's one with a frog.
Kookaburras are cool birds, but some Australian farmers aren't too fond of them because kookaburras have a fondness for killing and eating baby chicks and ducklings.
It's a family affair. Kookaburras are monogamous (they choose one mate and stick together for a long time). They make their nests in holes in trees, laying up to five eggs. The eggs and hatched young are cared for not only by the parents but also by some of the siblings from previous clutches of eggs. So there could be seven or more kookaburras taking care of the young. Many of these sibling helpers will stay around to help for four years. These family groups get together each dawn and dusk and let out their loud, raucous calls to mark their territory.
Kookaburras hunt by sitting perfectly still on a branch and watching for prey. But sometimes a breeze will make the branch sway. No problem. Kookaburras are capable of keeping their heads perfectly still while the branch moves so that they can better spot small movements on the ground. This motionless head and swaying body make them look like a reverse bobblehead.
I grew up in Kansas, in the center of the US, thousands of miles from where kookaburras live. Yet I remember in school we would learn and sing the song, Kookaburra. This is a popular nursery rhyme and round, which apparently is taught to children around the world. It was written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair, a music teacher in Melbourne.
As harmless as this song seems, its history has included considerable controversy. For example, in 2009, Larrikin Music (the copyright holder of the song) sued the Australian band Men at Work, claiming that part of the song Down Under (the flute portion) was a rip-off of the Kookaburra song. After almost a year, the court ruled against Men at Work. And then, in 2010, there was a big social media controversy when a primary school directory told students to change the words, "Gay your life must be" to "Fun your life must be."
Now, when you look for the lyrics, you'll find a variety of different lines ("What a life you lead," "Sing your song for me," and others).
So, the Kookaburra deserves a place in the D.A.H.O.F. (Dynamite Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word dynamite was first introduced by A.B. Nobel, who invented dynamite. At some point in the 20th century, the word became a popular expression for anything spectacular. This use of the word is no doubt best known from the TV show, Good Times (1974 to 1979). In every episode, the character J.J. (played by Jimmy Walker) would say, "Dy-no-mite!" So, dynamite is another way to say awesome!
Okay, for today's Awesome Animal, it seems appropriate to feature an animal that plays an important role in Bridgers 2 (which is being released on June15!). When our bridgers arrive in their new alternate version of Earth, they find themselves in the midst of a herd of large, hump-backed, drooling, lip-smacking creatures that resemble the camelops, which happens to be extinct on our own version of Earth.
So what the heck is a Camelops?
As you can probably tell by the name, the camelops was a type of camel. These critters were quite large, standing over seven feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 1,800 pounds (800 kg). They roamed over most of western North America, appearing about three to four million years ago and finally going extinct very recently (about 11,000 years ago).
Amazing facts about Camelops (and Camels)
Most people think of camels being in the deserts of Asia and Africa. But actually, camels (and their close relatives, llamas) originated in North America about 44 million years ago. By the way, horses originated in North America, too. Camels and horses gradually migrated to Asia over the Bering Strait (which, of course, is now underwater).
We don't know if the camelops had a hump on its back. Why? Because everything we understand about these extinct animals comes from fossils. The hump on a camel's back is made of soft tissue (not bone), and soft tissue is rarely preserved in fossils. So, they may have had humps, like the modern camels, or they may have been humpless, like their other close relatives, llamas. The result of this is that some artists create them with long fur and humps, and others create them with short fur and no humps:
The camelops was highly adapted for running and traveling great distances in open grasslands. Based upon fossilized tracks of early camels and upon bone structure, we know that they had a distinctive "pacing gait," in which the two legs on each side move at the same time (the two right legs move forward, then the two left legs). This gait is very efficient, allowing long-distance travel with less energy consumption.
These camels liked to hang out with early horses and bison. Their fossils are often found together. Maybe this was because there was more safety from predators in large numbers. Or maybe simply because they liked to graze on the same plants.
We don't know for sure why the camelops went extinct. It happened at about the same time that many other large North American mammals disappeared, including the mastodon, horses, llamas, and many others. This mass extinction could have been the result of climate change. But many scientists think it may have been caused by the spread of humans that hunted big game. Humans migrated to North America across the Bering Strait and then spread out to the south and east. These humans are known to have used spears with sharpened stone tips, as well as other stone tools. There is still little definitive evidence that humans caused the extinction, but it seems very likely.
Another thing we're uncertain about regarding camelops anatomy is the mouth and throat. The males of today's Arabian camel (also called the dromedary) have a strangely modified soft palate that they can hang out the side of their mouth when they are ready to mate. This astoundingly grotesque structure is called a dulla, and the females find it irresistible, especially when accompanied by massive drooling and a loud grunting vocalization.
Check out this video of a camel extending its dulla!
Anyway, since the dulla is a soft body part, we don't really know if the male camelops had these.
The word camel comes from the Arabic word, gml, which has the literal meaning, beauty. Hmm... whoever came up with the name probably wasn't looking at a camel with its dulla hanging out.
Speaking of the dromedary (Arabian camel), these camels once lived in the wild in and near the Sahara Desert. But they were domesticated in the Somalia area about 4,000 years ago, and by 2,000 years ago, there were no more dromedaries living naturally in the wild. Oddly, though, in 1840, dromedaries were imported into Australia to be used as work animals in the dry areas of the outback. Over the decades, some of these camels were released into the wild, and now the population of feral camels is estimated at 300,000 to over 600,000. This is currently the only population of breeding dromedaries exhibiting wild behavior in the world.
The photo below is of an Australian prospector riding a camel that held a world record for distance traveled without once drinking water. How far? Six hundred miles!
So, the Camelops (and camels in general) deserves a place in the W.A.H.O.F. (Wicked Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word wicked first meant, well... wicked (evil or morally bad). But in the last few decades younger people have started using it to mean wonderful, great, or masterful (as in, "I passed my biology exam. Wicked!"). It can also be used as an adverb to add emphasis to whatever you're describing, such as, "That's wicked cool!" So, wicked is another way to say awesome!
For your reading pleasure today, I am featuring the Bush Stone-Curlew as the awesome animal. Why? Two reasons. First, because today is the release date of y new novel, Bridgers 1: The Lure of Infinity. Bridgers 1 is filled with strange birds, and the bush stone-curlew is definitely a strange bird. Second, we saw stone-curlews on our Australia trip, and I think they are, well, simply awesome.
So what the heck is a Bush Stone-Curlew?
The Bush Stone-curlew is a rather strange-looking bird with extremely long legs and large eyes. It is a predatory bird that lives in all but the driest areas of Australia, although it has decreased significantly in recent decades. Here is a photo of one of the bush stone-curlews we saw in northeast Australia:
Amazing facts about Bush Stone-Curlews
Stone-curlews are primarily predators. They hunt in areas where there are fallen leaves and sticks they can sort through and small logs they can pick apart. They do this to find a variety of insects, lizards, small snakes, crabs, and even rodents. They hunt mainly at night, which is why their eyes are so large (looking similar in some ways to owl eyes).
Stone-curlews love to stare at their own reflections. This is an unusual behavior that has been observed on many occasions. In fact, stone-curlews have become brief social media stars when photos of them staring into windows have gone viral. Often they will become so transfixed with their own reflection that they will return to the same window day after day, standing motionless and staring for hours each day. This behavior can probably be explained by several facts. First, stone-curlews have a defense strategy that involves standing or squatting motionless. Perhaps when they see their reflection, they think it is another bird and they freeze. It could be a variation of the common bahavior of birds fighting with themselves in the mirror. Anyway, the photo below is a stone-curlew that kept returning to this window so regularly that a volunteer with Wildcare Australia put up this sign (it says: "I’m a bush stone curlew. I’m fine. I just like to stare at myself in the window.").
Stone-curlews are rarely seen doing their courtship behaviors. Why? Because once they find a mate, they stay paired together for life... as long as 30 years! Their courtship behavior must be spectacular to see because those people who have been lucky enough to witness it have described it as a "glee party" and a "whistling concert."
Speaking of the stone-curlew's call, these birds have sometimes been nicknamed the "screaming woman bird." Their call is a high, mournful, piercing shriek. This may be why aboriginal Australians have associated the bird with suicide and death.
Check out this video of a stone-curlew calling.
Curlews can also growl or hiss. When Trish and I came upon three stone-curlews at the edge of a soccer field, I tried to approach them to get a better photo. They responded by growling at me. This is a common behavior when they feel threatened.
Check out this video of a growling curlew.
As another means of defense, the stone-curlew will often freeze, apparently attempting to blend in with its background. The thing is, it tends to freeze immediately, even when it is currently in a strange position. So if you see a dead-still curlew standing on one leg or squatting, this is why. See photo below.
Although stone-curlews have declined in much of their range (endangered in New South Wales, threatened in Victoria), they adapt very well to human presence in Queensland (northeast Australia). In Brisbane, they inhabit the shopping districts, hanging out without moving near shrubbery during the day, rarely noticed by all the people. And at night they happily feed on the insects and geckos that congregate around the bright lights. They have even been seen collecting cigarette butts and lining their nests with them, possibly because the nicotine acts as an insect repellent.
Speaking of their nests, when stone-curlews feel that their nests are being threatened, they often spread their wings and raise a noisy ruckus to scare aware potential predators. See photo.
So, the bush stone-curlew deserves a place in the G.A.H.O.F. (Gnarly Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word gnarly first meant bumpy or twisted (as in, he has gnarly fingers). Eventually (particularly in surfing) it became a word to describe something very difficult or bad (he had a gnarly wipeout on that wave). And then finally, it came to mean very good. As in, that dude can do some gnarly guitar playing! So gnarly is another way to say awesome!
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.