Way back in 1995, Trish and I had a special opportunity to visit New Zealand with a group of about thirty other science teachers. One of the places we visited was the Aukland Zoo. What a spectacular place! I was thrilled to see so many animals that I had never seen before other than in photographs. But what I most anticipated seeing was the tuatara.
At first glance the tuatara looks like a lizard, like a rather bland version of some kind of iguana. But I knew that this creature was much, much more than that. The tuatara is, in fact, one of the most unusual reptiles alive today. Read on to learn more...
What the heck is a Tuatara?
Tuataras look like lizards, but they aren't lizards. Lizards and snakes belong in an order called Squamata. The tuatara is in a completely different order all by itself, called Rhynchocephalia. That's a mouthful: rink-oh-ceph-ale-ya.
Only one species of Rhynchocephalia (the tuatara) survives today, and it only lives in New Zealand. But there was a time, millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when there were many species, even some bizarre marine species. The Rhynchocephalia were once probably as abundant as lizards are today.
Why is the tuatara NOT a lizard? Hmm... where to begin...
Amazing facts about the Tuatara
Back in 1831, a British zoologist by the name of John Edward Gray discovered the tuatara (yes, I know—he didn't really discover the species... the native Maori were aware of it long before then). He sent a skeleton to the British Museum, and it was misidentified as a lizard. It wasn't until 1867 that another scientist named Albert Günther examined the skeleton and realized that it actually had features seen in crocodiles, turtles, and birds! So Günther proposed creating the order Rhynchocephalia just for this creature.
So we've known for 152 years that the tuatara is not a lizard!
If the tuatara isn't a lizard, is it a dinosaur? Nope, not a dinosaur either, although they were abundant while dinosaurs were around.
First, to fully appreciate how unique the tuatara is, let's consider this: The huge group of animals called “amniote vertebrates” includes mammals (5,416 species), turtles (341 species), birds (15,845 species), crocodylians (25 species), lizards and snakes (10,078 species). And then there's the Rhynchocephalia... with ONE species, the tuatara!
Let's look at what makes tuataras so unique. First, they have a third eye. What? A third eye? Well, kind of. This third eye is situated just where you would expect it to be—on top of the forehead. It's actually known as a parietal eye. It really does have a lens and a retina, but it is more primitive than the tuatara's regular eyes, and can mostly just detect the presence or absence of light. The exact purpose of the eye is not fully understood, but it is thought to help the tuatara judge the time of day and the season, which would help it with thermoregulation (maintaining its body temperature).
I should point out that tuataras are not the only animals to have parietal eyes. They are found in some burrowing lizards, some frogs, and some fish, including sharks. But the parietal eyes of the tuatara are more developed than these others. The photo below points out where the parietal eye is on a tuatara.
One of the most distinctive features of tuataras (that sets them apart from other reptiles) is that they have a second row of upper teeth. When they close their mouths, the one row of teeth on the lower jaw fits nicely between the two rows on the upper jaw. Actually, they are not even real teeth at all. Unlike other reptiles, their teeth are not separate structures. Instead, they are simply sharp projections of the jaw bone. Therefore, the "teeth" are not replaced when they break off. Because of this, the "teeth" gradually get worn down as the tuatara grows older. So, old tuataras have to switch to eating only soft prey like earthworms and grubs. Eventually they have to chew their food with nothing more than smooth jaw bones. Too bad old tuataras can't get dentures, huh?
Check out the tuatara skull below. You can see the rows of "teeth" on the sides. You can also see the beak-like front teeth (lizards don't have those), as well as the strange arches behind the eyes (lizards don't have those either). There are other aspects of this skull that separates tuataras from lizards, but I have to be honest—they are beyond my ability to accurately describe them!
Speaking of those "teeth," tuataras do not chew like lizards chew. Instead of chewing up and down, the jaws of tuataras have a forward-and-backward sawing motion, slicing food like a steak knife. This apparently works well—tuataras can chew through chiton and bone. It allows them to eat tougher prey. In fact, they are known to decapitate birds (headless bird bodies are often found near tuatara nests).
Tuataras are extremely tolerant of cold (for a reptile). I seem to remember a Gary Larson cartoon with a crocodile on the witness stand angrily telling the prosecutor, “Well, of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot! I’m a reptile!” But in reality, most reptiles become very lethargic in colder temperatures (making it so that the crocodile would be incapable of committing the crime in question). But not so the tuatara. They have a unique type of hemoglobin in their blood that allow them to be active at temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. Not only that, but they can hold their breath for up to an hour!
This slow metabolism makes it so that tuataras have really slow development and really long lifespans. I mean really long. It takes a tuatara a whopping 14 years to reach sexual maturity, and it takes 35 year for them to be fully grown. Once mature, it takes the females up to three years to produce eggs with yolk. And THEN it takes twelve to fifteen months from copulation to hatching! During that time, it takes up to seven months just to form the egg shells. Yeesh. Not in much of a hurry, are they?
Check out this video about hatchling tuataras.
So, if it takes 35 years to grow up, how long can these things live? Astoundingly, the oldest tuatara that we know of is Henry. Henry the tuatara lives in the Southland Museum in Invercargill, New Zealand. Henry became a celebrity when he finally decided to mate with a female at the age of 111 (like I said, not in a hurry). That was in 2009, so now Henry is 121 years old. Henry had the honor of meeting Prince Harry at the age of 118 (that was the age of Henry, not Prince Harry).
So, the tuatara deserves a place in the. F.A.H.O.F.
(Fabuloso Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word fabuloso comes from the Latin fābulōsus (which means fabulous, great, wonderful). It is somewhat difficult to trace the origins of its use in the English language because it is also used in several other languages (including Portuguese and Spanish). But from what I can tell, it is used to add a particular stylistic flair to the word fabulous (making it more flamboyant and expressive). Oddly enough, it is also the name of a multi-purpose cleaner used for cleaning bathrooms, tile floors, and such. Anyway, fabuloso is another way to say awesome!
Did you know the most common (and accepted) plural word for octopus is octopuses? It is not octopi. Actually the proper word is octopodes. Here's why: If the word octopus had come from Latin (like syllabus or alumnus), the correct plural form would be octopi. But octopus actually came from Greek, and in Greek the correct plural is octopodes. But the word octopodes never really caught in, so most people use octopuses.
And... did you know octopuses are mollusks? Yep, they are in the same animal phylum as snails, slugs, clams, oysters, and squid (as well as many others). I know... they don't look anything like a snail or a clam, right?
AND... did you know there are about 300 species of octopuses? And if there is one type that deserves to have squishy toys made in its image—it has to be the dumbo octopus.
What the heck is a Dumbo Octopus?
Dumbo octopuses include about 13 species of umbrella octopuses (a group that kind of look like an umbrella when they spread their tentacles). The name dumbo comes from the fact that they have two fins that spread out above the eyes, resembling the oversized ears of Dumbo the elephant (from the 1941 animated Disney film). Actually, very little is known about the dumbo octopus, but we know enough to be confident that they are awesome! Let's take a look.
Amazing facts about the Dumbo Octopus
You're not going to see a dumbo octopus while you're out snorkeling in shallow water. Why? Because these octopuses live deep in the ocean. Most of them live at depths of about 13,000 feet (4,000 m), and some have been found as deep as 23,000 feet (7,000 m). That's over four miles down! Chances are, they live even deeper than that. This makes them by far the deepest living of all the octopuses.
Dumbo octopuses appear to move through the water by slowly flapping their ear-like fins, but actually they are gently squirting water from their tentacle-funnel, and their ear fins are providing stability and steering. They can also crawl along the sea floor with their tentacles (you can call them arms if you want, but I just like to say the word tentacles). Since these methods of movement are slow, to escape from predators they also can dart away by aggressively squeezing water out. They do this by expanding and contracting their tentacles, making use of the funnel-like webbing between their tentacles.
Dumbo octopuses are fairly small, averaging about 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) long, about the size of a guinea pig. But larger ones have been found. The largest of these was 5 feet 10 inches (1.8 m) long and weighed 13 pounds (5.9 kg). I guess you could call that one a jumbo dumbo octopus.
Since dumbo octopuses live so deep, they are not threatened much by human activity. But they do have to worry about sharks and predatory cephalopods (such as larger octopuses and squid).
Dumbo octopuses are quite rare and difficult to find, so we don't know much about their population size, and we really don't know if they are threatened or if they simply are naturally scarce.
Dumbo octopuses may look cute and cuddly, but they are efficient and deadly predators. They typically float around in the open water, gently flapping their "dumbo ears" (fins), and when they find a fish or other prey, they pounce on it quickly and swallow it in one gulp. Their most common prey animals include worms, various crustaceans, copepods, amphipods, and isopods (that's a lot of pods). Below is a dumbo octopus catching a fish.
These creatures have a rather unusual sex life. First of all, there is no distinct season for breeding. Why? Because, this deep in the ocean, seasons don't have any significance. Not only that, but food is often scarce. And the ocean is a huge place! So these octopuses rarely encounter each other. So when a male does occasionally encounter a female, he uses a special protuberance on one of his arms to deliver a sperm packet into the female's mantle. The female then stores the sperm in her body and uses it when she happens to detect that her environment is favorable for laying eggs (kind of like putting a cookie in your pocket and saving it for later when you might get hungry). And, amazingly, the females usually have numerous eggs stored, and these eggs are at different stages of development, so that the female is ready with mature eggs whenever conditions happen to be right to fertilize the eggs and lay them (it's time to get that cookie out and munch on it).
The female typically lays her eggs attached to the bottoms of rocks on the ocean floor. In the photo below you can see the eyes of the developing embryos within the eggs.
Amazingly, scientists aboard a research vessel in 2005 were able to observe a baby dumbo octopus hatch out of an egg in a dish. It was the first time such a thing had been witnessed and filmed.
Check out this video of the newly-hatched octopus!
Notice how huge the "ear fins" are when these creatures are this young.
And check out this video of an adult dumbo octopus.
One more fascinating tidbit. Dumbo octopuses have hairy arms. Well, they aren't really hairs. They are actually called cilia, and they protrude from the octopus's suckers. There are several theories for the purpose of these cilia. First, it is likely they are used in feeding. When the octopus is sitting on the ocean floor, these cilia produce a slight but steady current of water in the direction of the octopus. It is thought that this can lure prey closer.
Also, the cilia act kind of like whiskers. When the octopus feels the area around it, the cilia serve as tiny antennae to help find prey.
And finally, the octopus uses the cilia to aerate the water around itself, both for its own benefit and to provide more oxygen for its eggs. The cilia produce a current, which pulls oxygen-rich water in from its surroundings to replace the water from which it has already depleted the oxygen.
You can see the cilia in the photo below.
So, the dumbo octopus deserves a place in the. E.A.H.O.F.
(Exquisite Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word Exquisite has had several meanings over the centuries. It originally came from exquisitus, a Latin word meaning "choice" or "chosen with care." When it was first used in English, it meant "anything brought to a highly-wrought condition." This included bad things (such as torture) as well as good things (such as art). Finally, in about 1580, it took on its modern meaning, which is "of consummate and delightful excellence." So, exquisite is another way to say awesome!
It's possible that this may be the strangest animal I've featured so far. Recently I came upon an article about these creatures, which have been given various names such as 'aliens', 'globs', 'jelly balls', 'buckets of snot', and 'sea walnuts'. With such great collection of names, this creature is worth a closer look.
What the heck is a Salp?
Basically, the salp is a barrel-shaped tunicate. What is a tunicate, you ask? Tunicates (subphylum Tunicata) are invertebrate animals that are in the Chordata phylum (this means they have a dorsal nerve cord, which includes all vertebrate animals, including humans). Tunicates, including salps, live in salt water, and they are filter feeders (they filter tiny plankton from the water). They have sac-like bodies, with one opening that takes in water and one opening that expels the water.
As adults, most tunicate are permanently attached to rocks or coral. But not salps—these amazing jet-powered creatures prefer to swim around freely, either by themselves or in really cool long, stringy colonies.
Are you confused about this explanation? Well, then let's dig into this more carefully. First, here's what an individual salp looks like:
Amazing facts about the Salp
First, I think it will help to understand what we are looking at in the photo above. The "head" is at the larger end at the left. This is where the mouth is, which pulls in water. This water is extremely important to the critter, because it provides food, oxygen, and propulsion. Notice the vertical striations along the side? Those are bands of muscles. When those muscles contract, water shoots out the tail end (the narrow end at the right), which is the most impressive jet propulsion system in the animal kingdom. But before the water is expelled, the salp absorbs oxygen and filters out the particles of food. The tan-colored object near the tail end is the stomach and intestine (the gut).
Okay, now that we have that crazy body figured out, let's take a look at the salp's even crazier life cycle. These creatures have what's called alternation of generations. This means that the generations switch back and forth between two forms. One form is the free-swimming, barrel-shaped individual (as seen above). The weird thing is, though, that these individuals do not produce more individuals! Instead, they reproduce asexually by producing a connected chain of tens to hundreds of all-female salps. This chain starts out very small, and then as the individuals in the chain grow, the chain can become quite large (sometimes longer than a bus!).
So, the free-swimming individuals asexually produce the next generation, which is a connected chain of female salps. By the way, asexual reproduction is the process of producing offspring without mating (without combining the DNA of a male and a female), and so all the offspring in asexual reproduction are genetically identical (clones) of the parent.
Amazingly, this long chain swims around in the open water using the same jet-propulsion method as the individuals, except that it is done in a coordinated manner.
Below is a salp "giving birth" to such a chain:
Okay, so how do the individuals in the chain reproduce to make the next generation? This is where things get really weird. These connected individuals are what we call hermaphrodites—they have sexual organs of both sexes (although in this case not at the same time) and can produce both eggs and sperm. The individuals in the chain first mature as females, and they are fertilized by the males of an older chain that they encounter as the chain swims around in the ocean. The resulting embryo grows in the body wall of each chain individual and is then released into the water to live its life as a free-swimming salp (this completes the alternating cycle of generations). AND... then the females in the chain turn into males, and they fertilize the females of a younger chain!
Wow. Geez! Whew! This reproduction craziness makes my head spin. Okay, I have to ask this, because I guess it's the way my mind works: What would it be like if humans had this same kind of life history cycle? Free-walking individuals, which produce chains of hundreds of connected babies, which mature as females and are fertilized by chains of males, and then the chains of females turn into males and fertilize chains of females, which produce free-walking individuals.
Thanks a lot, Stan. That's an image I can never erase from my visual cortex!
Salps are jelly-like in appearance, but they are NOT jellyfish—not even close. The only thing they have in common with Jellyfish is that they both float around in the water. Jellyfish are in the phylum Cnidaria, and they very simple animals. Jellyfish are similar to corals, whereas salps are more similar to humans. Salps have complex nervous systems and digestive systems, with a brain, heart, and intestines. Salps diverged (evolutionarily) from jellyfish 800 million years ago! Salps, like humans, are Chordates. Obviously, they are distantly related to humans, but they are much moredistantly related to jellyfish.
Check out this spiral salp chain.
Salps are important to the global ecosystem. Why? Salps feed on plankton, such as floating, single-celled algae. These algae have absorbed a lot of dissolved carbon dioxide from the ocean. This means that carbon accumulates in the guts of salps. The salps excrete this as solid waste that sinks to the ocean floor. Also, when the salps die, their bodies sink to the ocean floor. This process effectively removes a lot of carbon from the carbon cycle. This removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus slowing down global warming. Cool, huh? (pun intended)
Not only that, but when there is a huge algae bloom, the salps respond by reproducing faster, becoming densely populated in the area of the algae bloom and slurp up the algae, removing even more carbon.
But even though these "salp blooms" are removing more algae and carbon, sometimes the salps themselves can become really abundant. According to scientists, as the average temperature on Earth warms up, the larger plankton (like diatoms) in the oceans is being replaced by smaller plankton (called picoplankton). And salps are very good at eating the smaller plankton. The result? Salps are becoming far more abundant than they previously were.
This results in dead salps sometimes washing up onto beaches, creating a thick layer of jelly-like bodies. But don't worry... they are not harmful to the environment, and unlike jellyfish, these gentle creatures do not sting.
So, the salp deserves a place in the. H.D.A.H.O.F.
(Hunky Dory Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Hunky dory is an American phrase that originated in about 1862. Its basic meaning is 'quite satisfactory', or 'fine' (as in "I got a good night's sleep, and I was all hunky dory in the morning"). Explaining its origin is a bit of a challenge, though. The phrase almost certainly came from the now-archaic slang word hunk, which meant 'safe', which in turn came from the Dutch word honk, meaning 'goal' or 'home' in a game. In a child's game, to make it home and win the game was to achieve hunk. Now, the dory part of it is uncertain, but it is likely that it is a result of the way children like to express things. Instead of saying O.K., children like to say okey-dokey. So it is thought that hunky dory originated in the same way—hunk is more fun to say that way! So, hunky dory is another way to say awesome (kind of)!
I was thinking about this, and I realized I have never featured a monkey as an Awesome Animal! It's time to remedy that. And it might as well be an unusual one that few people have heard of.
What the heck is a Snub-Nosed Monkey?
Snub-nosed monkeys live in Asia, including southern China, Vietnam, and Myanmar. There are about four species, and they are the only members of the genus Rhinopithecus.
The name snub-nosed monkey comes from the fact that these creatures don't have much of a nose. The forward-facing nostrils are flat on the face. This is one of many adaptations for living in extremely cold habitats.
Amazing facts about the Snub-Nosed Monkey
Snub-nosed monkeys are one of the few types of monkeys that live in temperate areas (places with distinct seasons, including a cold winter). They typically live in the mountains. For example, the golden snub-nosed monkey will spend the summer months at altitudes of up to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) in the mountains of Tibet. The snow cover can last six months in this area.
Snub-nosed monkeys have relatively long hair, which covers their entire body except around the eyes and mouth. Even their hands are fur-covered, making it look like they are wearing mittens. And the flat snub-nose itself is thought to be an adaptation to sub-freezing temperatures (animals that live in cold climates have fewer protruding body parts that can freeze... shorter ears, stubby noses, etc.).
Here is a golden snub-nosed monkey in its cold, mountainous habitat:
The photo above shows a snub-nosed monkey on the ground, but this is actually rare in the wild, as these monkeys spend 97% of their time in trees. They eat in trees, sleep in trees, and socialize in trees.
Speaking of socializing, these creatures are amazingly social. During the cold months of winter, they live in groups of about 30. But in the warmer months, they come together into troops of at least 200, and sometimes as many as 600! This seasonal forming and splitting of groups, called fission and fusion, is unusual among the other types of monkeys.
Snub-nosed monkeys are ventriloquists. They can emit a wide range of calls without any visible movement of their mouths. This is mostly because of their unusually large nostrils. They are also extremely talented vocalists. They can produce 18 different types of calls, including calls that express affection or aggression, warning of danger, and contact calls specifically used when groups are joining together into larger troops.
These monkeys also have a tendency to call in a chorus, in which numerous individuals call at the same time for several seconds.
Check out this video that shows socialization behaviors.
The golden snub-nosed monkey has the scientific name Rhinopithecus roxellana. The roxellana portion of the name comes from Roxelana, the concubine and wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, a 16th century Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. supposedly, Roxelana had reddish-gold hair and a snub nose. I wonder how she would have felt about having a monkey named after her?
Snub-nosed monkeys are rather slow in their growth and reproduction. One dominant male will mate with numerous females, and then the gestation period is seven months. Females give birth to only one baby, and the young aren't weaned until a year later. The male young aren't ready to mate for seven years, whereas the females are ready in four to five years.
Check out this baby golden snub-nosed monkey (they are gray as youngsters), a good candidate for the "cutest baby animal ever" award:
Wait... most monkeys live in tropical areas and eat fruits and leaves (and sometimes insects). If snub-nosed monkeys live in the cold mountains, what the heck do they eat? Well, during the warmer months they are are able to eat pine needles and broadleaf leaves, as well as wild onions, grasses, flower buds, and some insects. When winter comes they feed on lichens and tree bark. Yummy... lichens and tree bark!
And don't forget that there are at least four different species of snub-nosed monkeys (some scientists think there are five). The most commonly known is the golden snub-nosed monkey (several photos above). Unfortunately, for a long time it was thought that the fur of the golden snub-nosed monkey had medicinal qualities, in particular that it could prevent and cure rheumatism. And so government officials and other wealthy people would wear coats and hats made from the fur. As you can probably guess, this species has been almost decimated by hunting (which is no longer allowed). The population has also been harmed by harvesting the dead trees that provide them with most of the lichens they need to eat.
And there is the black and white snub-nosed monkey, also known as the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey (pictured below). This species lives only in the southern China province of Yunnan. They live at the highest altitude of any other nonhuman primate... as high as 15,400 feet (4,700 meters). Brrr... very cold up there.
And then we have the gray snub-nosed monkey, which is highly endangered, with a population of less than 750. They currently live only in Mount Fanjing National Nature Reserve in the Wuling Mountains in China. See below.
And then we have the gray snub-nosed monkey, which is highly endangered, with a population of less than 750. They currently live only in Mount Fanjing National Nature Reserve in the Wuling Mountains in China. See below.
You have to admit, these monkeys are pretty darn awesome, right?
So, the snub-nosed monkey deserves a place in the B.K.A.H.O.F.
(Bee's Knees Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Okay, this one's a bit of a stretch because the phrase the bee's knees is usually used as a noun, as in "Snub-nosed monkeys? Oh, they're the bee's knees." This phrase's meaning has changed a lot over the years. It was first recorded in the late 1700s, and at that time it was used to describe something very small and insignificant. And then at some point it became a nonsense expression, to describe something that didn't have any meaningful existence. Then during the jazz scene in America in the 1920s, people started to use it to mean excellent, along with other similar phrases such as "the cat's meow" and "the flea's eyebrows." So, if you are willing to use it as an adjective, the bee's knees is another way to say awesome!
Golden snub-nosed monkey #1 - Nature Picture Library
Golden snub-nosed monkey in mountains - Animal Spot
Group of golden snub-nosed monkeys - Wang LiQiang via Zoo Portraits
Baby golden snub-nosed monkey - Animal Spot
Black (Yunnan) snub-nosed monkey - Earth.com
Gray Snub-nosed monkeys - Ming Li via Phys.org
Okay, I have to admit I chose this animal simply because I think it has a cool name: aardwolf. That, and the fact that few people know much about it. Then the more I looked into this unique creature, the more I realized it is truly awesome.
What the heck is an Aardwolf?
The name aardwolf is derived from Afrikaans and Dutch, and it literally means "earth wolf." There are two isolated populations that live in South Africa and East Africa. The aardwolf is in the same family with hyenas (Hyaenidae), but it split off from the hyenas long ago and is classified in a different subfamily (Protelinae).
At first glance, the aardwolf looks similar to a striped hyena, but aardwolves are unique among cat-like and dog-like carnivores because they do not prey on large animals or carrion. Instead, they feed on insects!
Amazing facts about the Aardwolf
Aardwolves are much smaller than hyenas. Hyenas typically weigh between 60 pounds and 190 pounds (86 kg to 27 kg), whereas aardwolves weigh only 15 to 30 pounds (6.8 to 13.6 kg). They are more the size of lap dogs or domestic cats (only slightly larger than foxes).
By the way, in the Hyaenidae family, there are three species of hyenas and one species of aardwolf. Aardwolves have five toes on their front feet and four toes on the their hind feet, whereas hyenas have four toes on all their feet. Also, surprisingly, hyenas and aardwolves are more closely related to felines (cats) than to dogs.
Okay, let's talk about this insectivorous lifestyle. Aardwolves eat insects almost exclusively. Especially termites. They will eat small mammals and birds only as a last resort. They are sometimes seen hunkered over the carcass of a large dead animal, but they are not eating the dead animal—they are eating the insects and insect larvae that are feeding on the carcass.
Ready to be impressed? Aardwolves love termites. They love them so much that they can eat 300,000 in one night! Check out the yummy-looking termites below. Don't you wish you could slurp up 300,000 of those tasty morsels every night?
Just in case you don't fully appreciate the aardwolf's dedication to exclusively eating insects... when the weather turns cold and the termites and other insects become inactive, the aardwolf, instead of switching to other prey, will simply wait. They often lose up to 20% of their body mass because they choose to wait for those delicious bugs to become available again. Basically, they go on a hunger strike until they get what they want.
How do they eat so many termites? Well, the unrelated aardvark likes to tear into termite mounds and stick its long, sticky tongue down into the termite burrows. The aardwolf, on the other hand, takes a simpler approach. It doesn't tear up the termite mound at all. Instead, it simply licks the termites off the ground as they emerge from the nest.
Aardwolves hunt at night when termites are more likely to emerge from their nests. Aardwolves have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. Not only can they smell termites from a distance (a specific scent secreted by soldier termites), they can actually hear large groups of termites crawling in the grass. They simply walk up to them and lap them up with their sticky, bristly tongue.
Since aardwolves don't destroy the termite mounds, they can return to the mounds every few months to feed on them again. They have a knack for remembering the locations of the most productive mounds.
Aardwolves usually forage by themselves, for the simple reason that their unique food source is too scarce to allow them to forage in groups.
Check out this brief video about the aardwolf.
Like the hyenas, the aardwolf has a shaggy mane of hair along the ridge of its back. Since the aardwolf is not large, and since it is not a particularly fierce fighter, one way that it defends itself is to contract the tiny muscles that raise this glorious mane to full height. This is supposed to intimidate threatening predators such as lions and leopards. Hmm... a 20-pound critter with a mohawk. Doesn't seem that intimidating to me.
If the upright mane doesn't work, there's always Plan B. For an aardwolf, Plan B is to squirt out this nasty-smelling stuff from the anal glands—stuff that is almost as smelly as a skunk's spray. Now that's intimidating!
Aardwolves have an interesting social life. I've already mentioned that they go out at night and forage alone, due to necessity. But during the daylight hours they live in small family groups in burrows. Aardwolves' front legs are too weak to dig, so instead of digging their own burrows, they take up residence in the abandoned burrows of aardvarks. An added bonus of this is that aardvark burrows are almost always situated in areas with plenty of termite mounds (aardvarks eat termites too).
Aardwolves are blatant cheaters. Their family groups are considered monogamous... socially monogamous but not really sexually monogamous. Two parents live in a den with several offspring. The two parents often live together for their entire lives. But (and this is a big but), there is usually significant shenanigans going on in the dark of night. The adults frequently travel to other dens and engage in some hanky-panky. In fact, one study showed that 62% of copulations were not even between mated individuals. But in spite of this constant cheating, the pair usually continues to live together. Out of each litter of 2 to 4 babies, typically at least one is the live-in father's offspring.
Regardless of who the father is, baby aardwolves are pretty darn cute.
So, the aardwolf deserves a place in the N.A.H.O.F.
(Nonpareil Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word nonpareil was first used in the early 1400s and can be traced back to a Middle French origin. It was an adjective that literally meant "not equal." But since the late 1500s, it has commonly been used as a noun to describe an individual of unequaled excellence—he or she is one of a kind. In 1612, Captain John Smith used the word as a noun (with an archaic spelling): "Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter... was the very Nomparell of his kingdome, and at most not past 13 or 14 years of age." Oddly, the word also means "a small pellet of colored sugar for decorating candy, cake, and cookies." And it is the name of a type of chocolate candy covered with bits of sugar. So, when used as an adjective, nonpareil is another way to say awesome!
Thanks to reader Daniel Hohlstein for suggesting this creature.
Usually when we think of shrimp, we think, Yum... boiled or fried? But did you know that there are at least 3,000 species of crustaceans that are considered shrimp? As a group, they are extremely variable. But the prize for the most colorful has to go to the mantis shrimp (which, oddly enough, isn't actually a true shrimp).
But their colors are not the most impressive thing about mantis shrimp. If you are ready to be amazed, read on.
What the heck is a Mantis Shrimp?
You know what arthropods are, right? Arthropoda is a phylum of animals that includes pretty much all the invertebrates that have an exoskeleton (insects, crabs, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, isopods, and many more). In Bridgers 4, Infinity and Desmond are stranded on a world filled with amazing arthropods.
Within the arthropod phylum, we have the subphylum of crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, lobsters, crayfish, isopods, barnacles, and more). And then within the crustaceans we have an order called Stomatopoda. The stomatopods include about 450 species of mantis shrimp.
Perhaps the most striking thing about mantis shrimp is that they are deadly predators. Fierce, wicked, dangerous, clobbering predators, capable of smashing their prey to smithereens.
Amazing facts about Mantis Shrimp
Before we discuss the predator behavior of mantis shrimp, let's talk about their colors. Why do mantis shrimp have such amazing colors? It probably has something to do with the fact that they have amazing EYES. It's true. Mantis shrimp are considered to have the most impressive and complex eyes of the entire animal kingdom.
Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating, so let's take a look. You know how human eyes have rods and cones, right? Rods are for detecting movement and light levels. Cones are for detecting color. Animals that have lots of rods (like deer) are very good at detecting movement. Animals with lots of cones are good at detecting colors. Humans have pretty good color vision, but we have only three types of cones (dogs, on the other hand, have only two types of cones). Think about how colorful the world looks to us with our three types of cones. Now imagine what it would look like if we suddenly had FIVE types of cones (like some butterflies). We would then see colors that we don't even have words for—colors we've never seen before. Okay, now imagine what the world would look like if we had SIXTEEN different types of color-sensing cones. Because that's how many mantis shrimp have! If a mantis shrimp suddenly had to look through human eyes, it would probably think our vision is pretty darn plain and boring.
When you and I look at a peacock mantis shrimp, here's what we see:
Now try to imagine what another mantis shrimp would see, with its SIXTEEN types of cones. It boggles the mind.
Let's explore these eyes a bit more. The mantis shrimp's eyes are on stalks and can move freely and independently of each other. Each eye is packed with tens of thousands of clusters of cones (photoreceptor cells). And those cells are divided into three regions: the top, the bottom, and a band of special cells across the middle (see photo below). These three regions are different, and mantis shrimp can look at objects with all three regions at the same time, giving them super-duper trinocular vision!
And they can see wavelengths of light we cannot see at all. For example, they can see deep ultraviolet. They can actually detect five different frequency bands in the deep ultraviolet range. And they can see two types of polarized light (linear and circular), an ability that has never been observed in any other animal. We cannot see any of these frequencies, so we can only imagine what things look like to a mantis shrimp.
Consider the three regions in each eye above. Since there are two eyes, that's six regions, each of which can look at an object separately. Humans have two eyes, and with our two eyes we have decent depth perception. But mantis shrimp can look at things with all six regions at once, giving them far better depth perception. Which helps to make them the awesome predators they are.
One more thing about the eyes. Recent studies have shown that mantis shrimp can actually detect cancer. How? Their eyes see polarized light, and polarized light is reflected differently by cancerous cells compared to healthy cells. This is leading to attempts to replicate this ability with cameras that use specialized lenses that can detect polarized light in the same way.
Now let's get back to talking about the mantis shrimp's amazing ability to pulverize the crap out of its prey. These creatures have modified forelimbs, or "clubs." These clubs are highly-specialized, calcified limbs that are generally divided into two categories: those for impaling their prey, and those for smashing their prey.
So, the 450 species of mantis shrimp are divided into smashers and spearers (I'm not kidding). Both of these types have the ability to strike out with unbelievable power. See the two clubs at the bottom of the photo below:
Just how powerful are these clubs (or spears)? Well, you might think I'm exaggerating, but let's take a look. Mantis shrimp strike by rapidly unfolding their clubs. From a standing start, the club instantly reaches a speed of 51 miles per hour (83 km/hr). This requires an acceleration of 10,400 Gs. Think about this: One G is the gravitational force pulled on objects by the Earth's gravity. So right now, sitting in my chair, I am experiencing one G of force (the Earth's gravity is what makes my body weigh 185 pounds when I am sitting still). If I accelerate straight up at 2 Gs, my body would seem to weigh 370 pounds. AND... if I accelerate at 10,400 Gs, my body would seem to weigh nearly 2 million pounds! In other words, I would be smashed into disgusting Stan C. Smith soup.
I repeat, the mantis shrimp accelerates its clubs at 10,400 Gs. Those little clubs accelerate faster than a 22 caliber bullet being fired from a rifle. So when they hit something, they hit it REALLY hard. Not only that, but the rapid acceleration of their clubs causes tiny, superheated, vapor-filled bubbles to form in the surrounding water. These are called cavitation bubbles, and when these bubbles suddenly collapse, this creates another significant force on the prey—enough force to shatter the prey's body. So even if the mantis shrimp misses its prey, the force from the collapsing cavitation bubbles will likely do the job.
And mantis shrimp can strike quickly. They swing out their clubs in less than 800 microseconds. This means that, theoretically, in the time it takes you to blink an eye, these shrimp can punch you 500 times. But it usually only takes a punch or two to do the job.
Check out this video showing the mantis shrimp's smashing ability.
If you could swing your arm with the same force as a mantis shrimp, you could throw a baseball into orbit. Mantis shrimp are not usually kept in glass aquariums because they are capable of shattering the aquarium's glass walls. Mantis shrimp literally bash their prey to bits and then feed on the mess of dismembered legs and body parts. Hmm... I need to figure out how to integrate some kind of giant mantis shrimp into Bridgers 6.
Okay, so here's a good question. If mantis shrimp can punch so hard, how can they do this without breaking their own appendages? Scientists have looked closely at their clubs and it turns out that the outer surface consists of a hard crystalline calcium-phosphate ceramic material. But it's the layers beneath that make all the difference. The clubs have layers of elastic polysaccharide chitin, which act as shock absorbers and prevent the clubs from cracking. This stuff is so impressive that engineers are using the concept to build new types of aircraft panels and body armor.
So, the mantis shrimp deserves a place in the O.A.H.O.F.
(Outasight Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word outasight is obviously a reduction of out-of-sight. Out-of-sight is a slang term that originated in about 1890. Wait! What? I bet you thought it originated as a hippie phrase in the 1960s, right? Along with the related phrase far out. But it's actually much older than this. Here's an excerpt from the 1893 novel, Train Wreckers: "Now if Daisy would only put in an appearance this would be an out of sight chance to pop the question." Of course, the phrase DID become very popular in the 1960s, when it was derived from far out (that Bridgers 5 book is so far out that it's out of sight!), and is usually associated with the experiences of using psychedelic drugs. Either way, the phrase is a perfect fit for the mantis shrimp, don't you think? So, outasight is another way to say awesome!
Thanks to reader Debbi Dieter for suggesting this creature.
In the United States, there are only two species of deer (white-tailed deer and mule deer), which typically grow to 200 to 300 pounds (90-136 kg). However, we have a few other ungulates (hoofed animals that walk on the tips of their toes), such as elk, moose, bison, mountain goats, and others (yes, I know elk and moose are technically deer). Some of these other ungulates, like the moose, can grow to 1,500 pounds (680 kg). And when we consider ungulates from other parts of the world, some of them, like the white rhinoceros, can weigh up to 9,900 pounds (4,500 kg).
In other words, ungulates are generally BIG animals.
So, what's the smallest of all the ungulates? It turns out to be the mouse deer, also known as the Chevrotain.
What the heck is a Chevrotain?
Chevrotains are small ungulates that live in the forests of South and Southeast Asia (and one of the species lives in Africa). The smallest of these, the Java mouse deer, is the size of a rabbit, usually weighing only 2.2 to 4.4 pounds (1-2 kg).
Mouse deer are not actually true deer (although they are ungulates). They belong to the family, Tragulidae. There are a number of extinct species in this family, and the ten species alive today are all that's left of this ancient group.
Amazing facts about Chevrotains
Mouse deer are in an old family. This group of mammals originated about 34 million years ago, and they haven't changed much since then.
They are considered primitive ruminants. Ruminants are mammals that get their nutrients from plants by having the consumed plant material ferment (with the help of microbes) in specialized stomach compartments before going into the rest of the digestive system. Chevrotains have four stomach chambers for this, but the third chamber is poorly developed compared to that of more modern ruminants. Chevrotains are thought to be a stepping stone between ungulates with simple stomachs (like pigs) and ungulates with highly-evolved four-chambered stomachs (like true deer and cows).
Mouse deer do not have antlers or horns. But they do have something unusual—elongated teeth, or tusks.
Why does a tiny little ungulate have tusks? Well, only the males have these tusks, and they use them when they fight each other. Why do they fight each other? To compete for mates, of course. This is the same reason many other ungulate males fight. The male deer that live around our house get into these nasty shoving matches using their pointed antlers. Bighorn sheep males charge at each other and smash their brains out (not literally) in a head-on collision. And the little chevrotain males slash at each other with their sharp tusks. It's all about being dominant. Good thing humans aren't like that, right? Hmm...
Chevrotains have extremely thin legs and feet. With those tiny legs, they can't turn very quickly, but the legs do help them run through the thick brush of their forest habitat.
Chevrotains have mysterious blood. First of all, they have the smallest red blood cells of any mammal. As far I can tell, no one knows why their cells are so small. Not only that, but about 13% of their red blood cells have little pits in the cell surface. These pits have never been observed in the blood cells of any other animal, and we simply do not know what function they serve. See the pits in electron microscope image below. Also note that the red blood cells are almost round (spherical), which is another unusual characteristic. Weird.
After a very long gestation period of 7 to 9 months, chevrotain females give birth to only one young. But... they usually mate again within an hour or two after giving birth. And they continue to do that throughout their adult life, breeding and giving birth all year round. Wow, that means the females are pregnant almost their entire lives!
The young are very well-developed when they are born, and within 30 minutes they can stand and run around at full speed.
Now this little tidbit of information is particularly unusual for an ungulate. Several species of chevrotains are water lovers. In fact, the species that lives in Africa is called the water chevrotain. This creature will dive into the water whenever it senses a predator is near. They sink to the bottom and actually walk along the stream bed. To keep the current from carrying them away, they scrunch down to reduce the water resistance, and they also grab hold of submerged plants. They can stay under water this way for four minutes! Then they slowly move to the edge of the stream and discretely raise their nose up and take another breath, thus avoiding the predator until it gets bored with waiting and goes off in search of easier prey.
Check out this video of a water chevrotain avoiding an eagle.
One more interesting fact. Another way that the chevrotain responds to danger is to stomp its feet (actually, large species of deer do this, too). Chevrotains can stomp four to seven times per second, creating a "drum-roll" sound to warn other chevrotains in the area that a predator is near.
So, the chevrotain deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F.
(Fabulicious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Well, the word fabulicious is obviously a combination of fabulous and delicious. The word fabulous originated way back in about 1540, and it has roots in the word fable. In other words, it referred to something too amazing to be true. And the word delicious originated even earlier, about 1250, and it meant very pleasing or delightful (especially in smell or taste). At some point, some brilliant person decided these two words belonged together, and thus fabulicious was born. So, fabulicious is another way to say awesome!
Mouse Deer #1 - The Washington Post
Mouse deer tusk - Arjan Haverkamp via Flickr
Mouse deer blood cells - K. Fukuta, H. Kudo and S. Jalaludin, Journal of Anatomy
Mouse deer with baby - ZooBorns
Mouse deer stomping feet - ZooBorns
Did you know the only mammals native to New Zealand are a few species of bats and some marine mammals (whales, dolphins, and seals)? For this reason, the Kiwi is sometimes called New Zealand's "honorary mammal." But the Kiwi, or course, is actually a bird.
Wait! Did you think I was referring to those little brown, fuzzy fruits in the produce section at the market? Nope, those are actually called kiwifruit. And they definitely are not birds.
Wait again! Did you think I was referring to New Zealanders? The people of New Zealand have been referred to as Kiwis since the nickname was given to them during World War I. Again, nope... I'm not talking about the people.
Speaking of New Zealanders, you might think my statement above about the only native mammals being bats and sea mammals is incorrect. After all, humans are certainly mammals, so wouldn't we consider the Maori people to be mammals native to New Zealand? Well, maybe, but the Maori people discovered and settled in New Zealand only 740 years ago (close to the year 1280). That certainly makes them indigenous to the island, but 740 years isn't long compared to the 50 million years since the first kiwis appeared!
What the heck is a Kiwi?
Kiwis consist of five bird species living only on New Zealand. They are in the group of large, flightless birds called ratites, which includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, and some species that are now extinct. Kiwis are the smallest (by far) of all the ratites. Perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic is that they are flightless ground birds.
Amazing facts about Kiwis
The genetic heritage of kiwis is confusing. They shared the island of New Zealand with an extinct type of ratites, the 500-pound (227 kg) moa. So, you would think kiwis are closely related to moas. But, DNA evidence has shown that kiwis are more closely related to the elephant birds (also extinct) from Madagascar. And regarding living species, kiwis are more closely related to the emus and cassowaries than to the moas. How can this be possible? Well, studies have shown that the ancestor of kiwis, a bird called Proapteryx, was probably capable of flight, suggesting that kiwi ancestors migrated to New Zealand separate from moas (moas were already large and flightless when the kiwi ancestor arrived on the scene).
Kiwis are about the size of chickens. The largest, the great spotted kiwi, weighs about 7.3 pounds (3.3 kg), and the smallest, the little spotted kiwi, weighs 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg).
I mentioned above that kiwis are sometimes referred to as "honorary mammals." Part of the reason for this is that they appear to be covered in fur, but this is actually thin, hair-like feathers.
Kiwis have really strong legs. Amazingly, a kiwi's muscular legs make up about a third of its entire body weight! With these powerful legs, kiwis can run as fast as a human. In a single night, a kiwi can cover its entire territory, which is often hilly and difficult to traverse. How big is an individual's territory? Up to the size of 60 football fields. That's 79 acres (32 hectares)!
Okay, this may be the most impressive thing about kiwis. These birds typically lay one egg per season, but that one egg is the largest egg (relative to their body size) of any other bird. Consider this... a human baby is typically about 5% of the weight of the mother giving birth. And (drumroll please...) the kiwi's egg can be a whopping 25% of the mother bird's weight. Let's put this into perspective. This would be like a 150-pound (68 kg) woman giving birth to a 37-pound (16.8 kg) baby. Yeeeouch!
Let's look at it another way. A kiwi is about the size of a chicken, but a kiwi's egg is six times the size of a chicken's egg.
If you think this might be hard on the female kiwi, you're right. During the 30 days it takes to grow the egg in her body, the female must eat three times the amount of food she normally eats. But for the last three days or so of that time, the egg gets so large that there is no room left for her to eat at all, and she must go hungry.
However, there is relief for her after the egg has been laid. In four of the five kiwi species, the male is the one to incubate the egg, a process that takes 63 to 92 days (in the fifth species, both parents share the task). That's the least the male can do after all that, right?
Check out the X-ray below.
How are kiwis able to have such large eggs? Three reasons: First, as you can imagine, kiwis would not be able to develop such large eggs if they weren't ground birds. It would be too much weight to carry in flight.
Second, kiwis typically live in areas with abundant food, allowing them to take in enough nutrients to support the development of these huge eggs.
And third, until recently, when humans introduced predators to New Zealand, kiwis historically had few natural predators (which might eat the eggs or easily catch the mothers, which are slowed down by the weight).
Once the egg has been laid and incubated, the kiwi baby has to kick its way out of the egg when it hatches. Unlike other birds, kiwi babies do not have an egg tooth.
Since they grow so large inside the egg, and since incubation is so long, the babies hatch with a full coat of hair-like feathers. Most baby birds have that "ugly-baby-bird" look, but baby kiwis simply look like smaller versions of the adults.
You know how birds that fly have hollow bones to make them lighter? Well, kiwis have marrow in their bones (like mammals), making them heavier than other birds their size.
It may look like kiwis have no wings, but they actually do. The wings are only about an inch (3 cm) long and are usually hidden beneath the hair-like feathers. Each wing has a claw on the tip, but no one really knows the purpose of this claw.
Kiwis' beaks are quite different from those of other birds. Their beaks are long, yet they are pliable and sensitive to touch. And kiwis are the only birds with nostrils at the end of the beak. These special beak features allow them to stick their beaks into the soil and locate worms and insects by smell without ever seeing them.
Check out this video of a kiwi feeding (kiwis are nocturnal and are difficult to find in the wild, and even more difficult to photograph).
One last tidbit. The kiwi is one of the most iconic symbols of any country, as iconic to New Zealand as kangaroos are to Australia. New Zealanders seem to be united in their fondness for these birds. Today, over 90 different organizations work to protect kiwis in over a half million acres (230,000 hectares) of kiwi habitat. The bird is truly a national treasure.
So, the kiwi deserves a place in the A.T.A.B.C.A.H.O.F.
(All That and a Bag of Chips Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase "all that" was first used to mean impressive in about 1989 (such as "My girlfriend is all that!"). And then in the mid 90s, people started saying "all that and a bag of chips" to mean good, plus extra. It's possible the phrase began as a way to express your superiority, as in "You're all that, but I'm all that AND a bag of chips!." So, all that and a bag of chips is another way to say awesome!
By the way, this phrase is specifically American in origin. I suppose if it had started England, it would be "All that and a bag of crisps."
What would it be where you live??
Thanks to Tiffany and her son, Royce, for suggesting the Binturong.
It's often called a bearcat, but it is neither a bear nor a cat. It smells like buttered popcorn, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't taste like popcorn. The binturong is a viverrid. What is a viverrid, you ask? Let's find out more.
What the heck is a Binturong?
The binturong is a mammal that lives in South and Southeast Asia. As I said above, although it is called a bearcat, it is actually in the family Viverridae (the viverrids), which is an ancient group of mammals found only in the eastern hemisphere. The family also includes civets and genets. Binturongs have shaggy, black hair, stiff white whiskers, and a monkey-like prehensile tail. So perhaps instead of calling it a bearcat, people should call it a bearcatmonkey (although it's really none of these).
Amazing facts about Binturongs
Although binturongs are in the order Carnivora, they eat as much (or more) fruit as they eat other animals. When they do hunt, they sneak around in the rainforest treetops like a cat and catch insects, birds, and rodents. They usually hunt at night, but they often eat fruit during the day, sometimes lounging around on branches as they handle the fruit with their agile hands. Binturongs can also swim and dive well, and on hot days they can even be seen catching fish as they cool down in the water.
Binturongs are one of only two carnivore mammals that have a prehensile tale (the other is the kinkajou, which is unrelated and lives in Central and South America). They can use this tail as a fifth hand, to help them climb through the trees and hang on to branches.
Binturongs are remarkably docile toward humans, and this has resulted in them being captured from the wild in large numbers, to be sold around the world as pets. This, along with destruction of vast areas of their forest habitat, has caused a significant decrease in the number of wild binturongs in Asia. They are also captured for zoos, and they are hunted for food. Unfortunately, today they are rarely seen in the wild.
Okay, what's up with this buttered popcorn smell? It's true, and here's why: In the wild, binturongs are solitary animals—they rarely come face-to-face with each other. And that's the way they like it. To warn others away from their territory, they frequently urinate on the trees. The resulting smell is a signal to other binturongs, "Hey, I live here. Go away!" Oddly enough, they also use this smell during mating season, in which case the meaning changes to, "Hey, I live here. Want to stick around and make babies?"
But I still haven't explained the popcorn smell. Scientists have identified 29 chemical compounds in binturong urine. The one compound found in every sample was 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (let's just call it 2-AP). Remarkably, 2-AP is the exact same chemical that gives cooked popcorn its wonderful scent.
But this creates more questions than answers! The 2-AP in popcorn is only produced when the popcorn is heated up and popped. The high temperature is necessary to get that smell. Binturongs are awesome, but they certainly can't produce such high temperatures in their bodies. So, we don't know for sure how they do it, but scientists suggest that the 2-AP might be produced when the binturong urine comes into contact with specific bacteria that live on the animals' skin or fur.
Since males have more 2-AP in their urine than females, then it seems logical that leaving their scent on the branches not only tells other binturongs that a binturong is nearby, it even tells them if the nearby binturong is a male or female (precise communication is important, don't you think?).
Let's talk about binturong babies for a moment.
First, binturongs are one of the few mammal species capable of embryonic diapause. The means the female, once her eggs have been fertilized, can delay the eggs' implantation until environmental conditions are just right. Okay, in my opinion that qualifies as a superpower. The females can mate whenever they find a male, but then they can delay birth until they are ready.
Typically, a female will give birth to only two babies, but sometimes there are as many as six.
Check out this video of binturong babies.
Binturong babies smell like popcorn as much (or more) than the adults. But... the babies also have their own superpower. During the first few months, when the young are most vulnerable, the babies have the ability to squirt out a foul-smelling liquid (like a skunk). As they grow older they become better able to protect themselves, and they soon lose this stinky superpower.
Binturongs have an interesting relationship with strangler fig trees. Not surprisingly, Binturongs eat the figs from these trees and then poop them out somewhere. But as it turns out, a strangler fig seed cannot germinate on its own. It has to have the binturong's help. The binturong is one of only two known animals that have the correct digestive enzymes that can break down the tough outer covering of the fig's seeds. So this makes the binturong kind of important to the strangler fig trees.
One last tidbit. Ever wonder what a binturong would look like in a formal portrait? Of course you have. Well, ZooPortraits is a fun organization that creates and uses "ironic caricatures" to teach about wildlife and to raise money for conservation. For your viewing pleasure, below is a binturong in a very formal setting (not exactly its natural habitat).
So, the binturong deserves a place in the D.A.H.O.F.
(Dope Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word dope originated in the 1840s, and it referred to a thick liquid (such as a lubricant) used to prepare a surface. In the 1880s, the word began to be used to refer to any illicit drug. Then in about 1905, the word began to refer to news or information (What's the latest dope on the election?). And then much more recently, it became a slang word for cool (Yo, that new shirt is dope!). So, dope is another way to say awesome!
Meat from domesticated turkeys has become so ubiquitous in grocery stores and restaurants that people tend to forget about the ancestors of the domestic turkey, the wild turkey. But as one of the largest birds in their native range, wild turkeys are fascinating and well worth a closer look.
What the heck is a Wild Turkey?
Turkeys are large birds that live mostly in North America (US, Mexico, and Canada). Turkeys are in the order Galliformes, which also includes pheasants, chickens, quail, partridges, grouse, junglefowl, and other similar birds). Turkeys are easily recognized by their featherless heads and loose folds of skin on the head and neck. There are only two species of true wild turkeys, and one of the species has five or six distinctive subspecies. The eastern turkey is the subspecies that lives on our new property:
Amazing facts about Wild Turkeys
Wild turkeys are omnivorous. They not only feed on seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, and grasses, but they also love gobbling (no pun intended) insects, as well as small frogs, salamanders, lizards, and snakes.
Turkeys have a lot of names. Mature males are called toms, gobblers, or longbeards. Mature females are hens. Juvenile males are called jakes, whereas juvenile females are jennies. And the chicks are called poults (this word comes from poultry).
Male turkeys have elaborate behaviors for attracting and impressing females. They use a gobble call to attract females. Not only is this call quite different from the call of any other bird, it is also loud! A turkey's gobble can be heard a mile away.
Perhaps even more impressive than the gobble is the male turkey's ability to strut. They fan out their tail feathers and puff up all their other feathers to look larger. They also emit two other sounds, spitting and drumming, both of which are subtle and rather difficult to capture on video or audio recordings. But if you turn your volume up, you can hear toms spitting and drumming in this video. Below is a tom strutting, trying to impress a hen. To me, she looks only mildly interested.
An adult turkey has between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers!
Males have sharp, wicked-looking spurs on their legs, which they use when they fight each other for dominance. Males (and 10 to 20% of females) have a long tassel of specialized hair-like feathers hanging from their lower necks, called a beard. Although no one knows for sure, these beards probably help to impress females (the longer the beard, the older and more virile the tom).
Turkeys have weird-looking heads. Above the male's beak is a fleshy protuberance called a snood (yep, it really is called a snood). Again, this structure is used to impress females (studies show that females prefer toms with longer snoods... in turkeys, size really does matter). The loose, fleshy stretch of skin below the chin is the wattle. And the bumpy masses of skin on the neck are caruncles. Like a really ugly mood ring, these bumpy parts turn colors depending on the turkey's mood: they turn red to attract a hen, but they turn blue when the turkey is frightened. The tom below has a particularly impressive snood, wattle, and caruncles. Sexy, huh?
There is a commonly-believed myth that the wild turkey almost became the national bird of the United States (the bald eagle has that distinction) when Benjamin Franklin argued for it. Here's the true story: Ben Franklin did write a letter to his daughter in 1784, in which he criticized the bald eagle (because it was chosen for the national seal). He wrote that the bald eagle is a bird of bad moral character and does not get his living honestly... he is too lazy to fish for himself. He went on to say that, compared to the eagle, the turkey is a much more respectable bird, and though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage. So, although Ben obviously liked the turkey, technically he didn't really propose making it the national symbol.
Wild turkeys were a favorite food of Native Americans. In fact, the turkey is one of only two domesticated birds native to North America (the other is the Muscovy duck). The domestic turkey originally came from Mexico. Native Americans in central Mexico, sometime between 1000 BC and 100 BC, domesticated the south Mexican wild turkey (the only subspecies that does not live in the U.S.). The Spaniards took this domesticated subspecies back to Europe in the 1500s, and eventually it spread throughout Europe as a farm animal. Ironically, settlers from England brought these domestic turkeys with them to Massachusetts, unaware that a larger, closely-related subspecies already lived in the wilds of Massachusetts. It is believed that all domestic turkey breeds came from the south Mexican wild turkey subspecies.
Wild turkeys almost went extinct. When Europeans first arrived, millions of turkeys lived from Canada south into Mexico. But by about 1900, most of them were gone due to overhunting and habitat loss. By the late 1930s, there were only 30,000 left. By the 1940s, only isolated pockets of them existed. Through intensive conservation efforts, these birds gradually rebounded. Now it is estimated that about 7 million live in the U.S.
Many people are surprised to learn that turkeys can fly. Actually, they are strong flyers (although only for a relatively short distance... about a quarter mile). Turkeys fly up into trees every evening, where they roost in safety for the night.
Not only can turkeys fly, but they can run at up to 25 miles per hour (40 kph)!
Hen turkeys lay 10 to 14 eggs. The eggs hatch after at least 28 days. The hen feeds the poults, but only briefly. Within a few days, the poults are running around catching insects on their own. The males play no role at all in raising the young. That doesn't seem fair, does it?
One last tidbit of information. There are several other birds around the world that are called turkeys, but those are not closely related to the turkeys of North America. One example is the brush turkey of Australia (also called the bush turkey, scrub turkey, or gweela). When Trish and I explored Queensland, Australia last year, we saw many of these. They are not only common, but they often seem unafraid of humans, sometimes walking by within a few meters. These birds are awesome, too, but although they are in the same order, they are in a different family from the wild turkeys of North America. Here's a brush turkey.
So, wild turkeys deserve a place in the N.A.H.O.F.
(Neato Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word neat originated in the early 1300s, and it meant polished, handsome, trim, and clean. At some point the word became a slang expression for great or wonderful. It was already being used a lot when I was a kid in the 1960s, so it must have started before then. And then around 1968, American teens began using a variation of the word: neato. If you say neato today, people would consider you laughably out of touch (or perhaps fashionably retro). Regardless, neato is another way to say awesome!
Flowing spring and turkeys in yard - Stan C. Smith
Bearded Tom Turkey - National Wild Turkey Federation
Tom strutting for hen - Robert Burton/USFWS
Tom snood and wattle - Lansing Wild Birds Unlimited
Domestic turkeys - All Over Albany
Hen turkey with poults - TribLive via Wikimedia Commons
Australian brush turkey - Di Donovan via ABC
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.