Yesterday I asked Trish what animal I should feature in my newsletter. She didn't hesitate. She reminded me of the time we took our kids out snorkeling in the wide, shallow bay at Cape San Blas, Florida. We rented a couple of canoes, paddled into the center of the bay, and spent the day splashing around and looking for interesting creatures. The next day, we told a commercial fishing guide about that, and he said, "I wouldn't get in that water. A guy caught an eight-foot bull shark there the other day." Hmm. That would have been good to know 24 hours earlier.
Anyway, while we were snorkeling, we found a seahorse. It was only about two inches long, but it was exciting because we had never seen one in the wild before. I can't find a photo of it because back then the only waterproof cameras we had were those plastic, disposable things that used film. Remember film?
So, what the heck is a seahorse?
Seahorses include about 40 species of fish in the genus Hippocampus. They live in shallow tropical and subtropical marine habitats, hiding in seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs, and other sheltered areas. These fish are best known for their upright posture, prehensile tail, and the fact that their heads and necks vaguely resemble that of a horse. But few people have seen them in the wild because they don't move around much, and they blend in with their surroundings.
Amazing facts about seahorses
Seahorses are ridiculously bad swimmers. Top speed: 150 cm per hour. Their tail (called the caudal fin on other fish) are not for swimming, so they swim mostly using their small dorsal (back) fin. This fin flips back and forth furiously, but as Ze Frank says, “Imagine trying to propel yourself on a skateboard solely by waving a Denny’s menu back and forth really fast.”
(by the way, zefrank1 has a collection of funny nature videos on YouTube... but avoid them if you are offended by slightly-raunchy jokes)
In spite of their slow swimming speed, seahorses are predators, feeding on small crustaceans. Obviously, they don't chase down their food. Instead, they wait motionless until their prey swim by, then they suck in the prey through their tube-like mouths.
Seahorses don't have a stomach. Seriously. And no teeth. Their food passes through their digestive system so fast that they have to eat constantly. A young, growing seahorse will eat up to 3,000 brine shrimp every day! I like shrimp too, but sheesh!
A group of seahorses is called a herd. Well, duh.
Seahorses are amazing at hiding. This helps them avoid being eaten (remember, they can't swim worth a hoot), and it helps them catch their prey (they are ambush hunters). Can you spot the seahorse in this photo?
Okay, that one was easy. How about this one?
Check out this video of camouflaged seahorses.
What's up with that prehensile tail? Instead of caudal fins for swimming, seahorses have a tail that can wrap around coral, seagrass, or just about anything else. This holds them in place in rough waters or when there is a current.
And these tails serve another important purpose. Seahorses have elaborate mating rituals. In an attempt to impress a female, a male will lock its tail around the female and wrestle with her in an attempt to impress her. If the two pair up, then the real dance starts. And I really mean dance. The two seahorses begin an intricate series of movements that can last for hours. Sometimes with their tails wrapped together. That's almost romantic.
But there's something else amazing about seahorse reproduction. Are you ready for this? The males are the ones that get pregnant. How does that work, you ask? After their elaborate courtship dance, the female lays eggs into a special oviduct in the male's body, in the structure called the brood pouch. Then the male swims to a safe place and sits tight during gestation, which can last weeks. When the babies are ready to be born, the male starts having contractions that force the babies out. Depending on the seahorse species, there can be as few as five babies and as many as 2,500!
Unfortunately, baby seahorses have little chance of surviving. Studies show that as few as 0.5 percent (1 out of every 200) live to adulthood.
So, the Seahorse deserves a place in the D.A.H.O.F.
(Dandy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: If the word dandy sounds old fashioned, that's because it is. The first recorded use of the word was between 1770 and 1780. Dandy has two meanings. The first is "a man who is excessively concerned about his clothes and appearance." That use of the word is rare these days. Today, the more common meaning is "something or someone of exceptional or first-rate quality." And there is something about a seahorse's appearance that makes me think the word dandy is perfect. So, dandy is another way to say awesome!
Seahorse 3 - Longsnouted Seahorse -Peter Ryngaert/ Guylian Seahorses of the World 2005 - via Smithsonian
Seahorse feeding - Fusedjaw.com
Seahorse Camo #1 - Klaus Stiefel on Flickr
Seahorse Camo #2 - Atsushi Sadaki/Caters News via Earthtouch News
Mating Seahorses - Jules Casey - Ocean Conservancy
Male Seahorse Giving Birth - YouTube
Yes! There really is a creature called the Demon Duck of Doom. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the creature is now extinct, And, as you've probably guessed, Demon Duck of Doom is not its official, scientific name. But the name is frequently used, even in books and museums, so by golly I'm going to call it the Demon Duck of Doom! Besides, this is the coolest, most awesomest animal name I've ever seen.
So, what the heck is a Demon Duck of Doom?
Well, first of all, it's a bird. A big bird. With a huge beak that was suited to tearing off chunks of flesh from creatures unfortunate enough to be its prey. It lived fifteen million years ago in what is now Australia, and its scientific name is Bullockornis planei.
On our trip to Australia last April and May, Trish and I were exploring the amazing Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre, and we came upon this life-sized, robotic bird beside the trail (see photo below). I read the informational kiosk, saw the name Demon Duck of Doom, and knew I had to feature this bird as an awesome animal.
Amazing facts about the Demon Duck of Doom
Okay, first let's talk about the creature's name. The genus name, Bullockornis (which seems a little strange in and of itself), actually comes from Bullock Creek, the site in Australia's Northern Territory where the first fossils were found. The word bullock also means a bull or ox (usually one that has been castrated), and the -ornis part of the name means bird. So, many people mistakenly translate the name to ox-bird. But you now know this is incorrect. Feel free to use this knowledge to impress people at parties.
And then there's the creature's more colorful name, the Demon Duck of Doom. Some paleontologists (although not all) believe the Bullockornis is related to ducks and geese. This, combined with its size and its supposed predatory habits, led a PR-savvy writer to christen the creature Demon Duck of Doom in order to get more people interested. Sure, it's a silly name, but there's nothing wrong with trying to get more people interested in paleontology, right?
By the way, the Bullock Creek fossil site where this bird was found has also produced some other pretty impressive fossils, including marsupial "lions," giant horned tortoises, and giant wombats! If someone ever invents a time machine, and I get the opportunity to go back in time, Bullock Creek might be my location of choice. As long as I can take bite-proof body armor.
These creatures were big. Bullockornis stood a little over eight feet tall and weighed about 550 pounds (250 kg). This is heavier than a male lion (420 pounds) and almost as large as a male tiger (up to 670 pounds). And if you consider that the creature's head was the size of a horse's, sporting a massive beak with razor-sharp sawing edges, you can image that the creature had an imposing presence (that's a fancy way to say that coming face to face with one would be a pee-your-pants kind of experience).
But wait! Not all scientists believe Bullockornis was a fierce predator. Some scientists point out that the beak is not hooked (like we see in the beaks of most predatory birds like hawks and owls). They also argue that the bird may have had poor vision, whereas all modern predatory birds have excellent vision. They argue that the large, heavy beak may have evolved to help the bird slice through thick plant stalks or chomp into husky fruits.
Or perhaps the bird was what we call an opportunist, taking down weak or injured prey when it had the chance, but typically scavenging. I'm sure that, when it came across a dead animal, it could easily scare off other scavengers or predators, and then its beak could help it slice off tasty chunks of meat.
Look at the fossilized skull below. What is your opinion on this? Predator, herbivore, or scavenger?
If they ever definitely determine that these birds were herbivores, I think we'll have to get rid of the name, Demon Duck of Doom. The name would seem kind of ridiculous.
Based on the structure of the legs, it is thought that Bullockornis was a fast runner. This supports the idea that they were predators. Sure, many herbivores can run fast to escape predation, but the main predators of Bullockornis were crocodiles. Crocodiles can quickly burst from the water to grab prey, but they are not the kind of predators that would force an animal to run long distances across a large, open space. How do we know crocodiles ate these birds? Because the fossil bones have puncture marks that match the pattern of crocodile teeth.
Hmm... would it be worse to be attacked by a Demon Duck of Doom, or by a giant crocodile? That's a tough call. I choose neither.
Check out this video about the Demon Duck of Doom (and the Killer Kangaroo).
Believe it or not, the Demon Duck of Doom is NOT the largest prehistoric bird to have lived in Australia (although it does have the coolest name). Dromornis Stirtoni, sometimes called Stirtoni's Thunder Bird, weighed up to 650 kg. That's almost 1,500 pounds! Like the Demon Duck of Doom, the Stirtoni may have been a fierce predator, or it may have been an herbivore. We may never know.
I think the most intriguing thing about the Stirtoni is that it lived from 8 million years ago to less than 30,000 years ago. And the first humans to occupy Australia arrived there about 60,000 years ago. You know what that means, right? It means humans likely encountered this 1,500-pound bird. Perhaps those humans hunted it... or perhaps it hunted them!
So, the Demon Duck of Doom deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F. (Legendary Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word legendary comes from the Medieval Latin word legendārius and was first used in about 1505. Typically, it means celebrated or described in legend. But more recently it has been broadened to mean heroic, strange, or superhuman. And even more recently than that, it has been used to refer to anything that is widely (or not so widely) recognized as excellent. So, legendary is another way to say awesome!
The pangolin is a strange mammal. Considering how bizarre it is, you'd think it would be more widely recognized. But I've discovered many people have never seen a picture of one, and even fewer would recognize the name Pangolin. I'm a sucker for the really weird creatures, so I'm excited to share this one with you.
So, what the heck is a Pangolin?
Pronounced pang-guh-lin. Pangolins are also called scaly anteaters. They are mammals in the family, Manidae. There are currently eight species, but we know of a number of extinct species. They are found in some areas of Asia and the southern half of Africa. Pangolins have the distinct honor of being the only mammals with large scales for protection.
Amazing facts about the Pangolin
So what's up with those scales? A pangolin's scales are made of a protein called keratin, which is the same stuff that makes up human fingernails and hair. Keratin is also what makes up feathers, horns, hooves, and claws. So keratin is useful stuff! Pangolin scales are very different from the scales of reptiles, both in structure and composition.
The scales provide protection from predators. When attacked, a pangolin will roll into a ball and tuck its vulnerable head under its heavily-armored tail. In this position, they are nearly indestructible. Not even a lion can chew through the armor!
The scales make up about 20% of the animal's body weight. By the way, the underside of a pangolin is not covered in scales. Instead, it is supple skin with a few sparse hairs. So it's a good thing they can roll into a ball.
Pangolins have no teeth. Yep, that's right. In this respect, they are like anteaters and armadillos (although they are not closely related to either). Pangolins feed mostly on ants and termites. They have an extremely long, sticky tongue (sixteen inches long, which is sometimes longer than the pangolin's body... wow!), with which they slurp up insects at an amazing rate. They can eat 200 grams of bugs per night, which adds up to 70 million ants and termites per year! Obviously, they are important regulators of ant and termite populations in the areas where they live. Check out this pangolin's tongue:
And take a look at this 11-second video of a pangolin sticking its tongue out! The tongue is coated with sticky saliva. A pangolin can shove its tongue deep into the tunnels of ant and termite nests, and when it pulls the tongue back out, it's covered with yummy, juicy bugs.
To help pangolins find all these ants and termites, they have long, sharp claws on their front feet for digging into the insects' mounds. They also use their claws to pull the bark from logs and trees to find ants and termites. In fact, they have prehensile tails, and they can hang upside down from a branch as they pull the bark from the tree's trunk.
Okay, if pangolins don't have teeth, how do they chew up all those ants and termites? While they are foraging, they swallow small pebbles. These pebbles go into a portion of their stomach called the gizzard. When the insect prey are swallowed and enter the muscular gizzard, the stones chew up the insects before the insects move on to the rest of the stomach. As you may know, birds also have gizzards since they don't have teeth.
Pangolins live most of their lives alone, getting together to mate only once per year. Most of the species give birth to only one baby. When the baby is born, its scales are soft (no doubt to make the birth easier on the mother!), but soon they harden and look like those of the adults. As the babies mature, they often ride around on the mother's back or on the top of her tail.
Unfortunately, the pangolin has the dubious distinction of being the Most Illegally Traded Mammal In The World. Since 2006, over a million pangolins have been taken from the wild to meet the demand for their scales and their meat (particularly in East Asia and parts of Africa). Their scales are considered essential for making some traditional medicines (but there is no evidence that any part of a pangolin has a beneficial effect on humans), and their meat is considered a delicacy.
But... things are looking better. In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a motion to move pangolins to Appendix I – offering all eight species of pangolin from both Asia and Africa the highest levels of protection, making trade in their parts completely illegal. This, and some aggressive public awareness campaigns should give these unique creature a better chance of surviving extinction.
You REALLY need to see this video! This is an ad from WildAid, to help make people aware of the plight of the pangolin and the new regulations banning the trade of pangolin products. It stars the awesome movie star, Jackie Chan.
One last tidbit. The third Saturday in February happens to be World Pangolin Day. That's February 16, 2019. This is to make more people aware of the pangolin's plight and the problems with buying pangolin products. There are many ways you can support World Pangolin Day (buy a t-shirt, post something on social media, and much more). One fun way to celebrate is to create a pangolin suit for your dog! You can get the instructions here, along with lots of other ideas and information.
So, the Pangolin deserves a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Crackerjack Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word crackerjack was first used in America in the 1890s. Prior to that was the form, crackajack, which was a whimsical word for an excellent fellow (crack = an adjective meaning first-rate or excellent, jack = a noun meaning a buddy or fellow). Today, crackerjack basically means "a person or thing that shows marked ability or excellence." So, crackerjack is another way to say awesome!
My last two Awesome Animals were insects, and creepy ones at that. And so it's time to feature a cute and cuddly animal. Well, at least cute—wild animals are rarely cuddly. I wanted to choose an animal that many of you may not be familiar with. I was able to come up with one that had only recently been discovered, the Olinguito!
So, what the heck is an Olinguito?
Pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe. This creature is a mammal in the family Procyonidae (racoons, coatis, ringtails, kinkajous, and a few others). They live in the mountainous forests of western Colombia and Ecuador (South America). Astoundingly, the olinguito was identified only a few years ago, in 2013, making it the first carnivore mammal species identified in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years!
Amazing facts about the Olinguito
First, I should point out that this creature wasn't exactly discovered in 2013. It had already been observed in the wild for over 100 years. But it was properly identified in 2013. This was the result of a ten-year study of a group of mammals called olingos. A Smithsonian scientist, Kristofer Helgen, studied olingos in an attempt to understand how many different species existed. By looking at a number of types of evidence, including shape of the teeth and DNA analysis, he and his team figured out that the olinguito is not an olingo at all. Instead, it is an entirely different type of mammal, living much higher in the mountains than any of the olingos (olinguitos live from 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level).
The olinguito is known to the locals in Colombia and Ecuador as the "kitty bear." I'm guessing this is because these creatures look like a teddy bear but are the size of a kitten. If you need further proof that the olinguito is a cute critter, check out this immature:
Olinguitos are what we call omnivorous frugivores. That's just a fancy way to say they eat mainly fruit (frugivore), but they also eat a variety of other stuff (omnivorous) such as insects and nectar from flowers.
Olinguitos are the smallest members of the raccoon family, averaging only about two pounds (0.9 kg).
There's an interesting story behind the discovery that the olinguito is a unique species. In 1923, scientists embarked on a six-month expedition in Ecuador to collect specimens of all types of animals to better understand the wildlife there. During the trip, 1,500 mammal specimens were collected. One of them, Mammal #66573, was incorrectly labeled as a kinkajou. Below is the original expedition journal and the page detailing the collection of the first olinguito (described as a kinkajou).
This specimen sat in a drawer in the American Museum of Natural History for almost 90 years before being correctly identified.
In the 1970s, there was a female olinguito (named Ringerl) that spent her entire life displayed in zoos around the United States. The creature had been mislabeled as an olingo. Ringerl was frequently moved from one zoo to another because she refused to breed with the other olingos (well, duh!). Ringerl was the first and only live olinguito in captivity at that time.
In about 2003, a group of mammalogists led by Kristofer Helgen began a study of olingos by looking at museum specimens, and they came across the 1923 mislabeled specimen. By examining its skull, teeth, and fur, they decided it wasn't an olingo, it was a new species. So in 2006 they set out on an expedition to find out if this new species still existed in the wild. They found some of the animals and discovered they are nocturnal, they spend most of their time alone in the treetops, and they have only one baby at a time.
With the help of DNA analysis, by 2013 Helgen's team was ready to declare the olinguito a new species. It took ten years to accomplish this!
Check out this video of an olinguito
The photo below is of Ringerl, the first olinguito in captivity, moved from zoo to zoo in the 1970s.
Interestingly, the announcement of this new species resulted in kind of a "crowdsourcing" flood of information that has helped scientists understand the creature. Soon after the announcement, Dr. Helgen received thousands of emails from naturalists, birdwatchers, and other people with sightings and observations. For example, people at the Bellavista Reserve in Ecuador emailed him that they had figured out a way to track individual olinguitos and monitor their feeding and mating habits. At a reserve in Colombia, people provided the documentation of a baby olinguito and new details about how the animals breed and nest. As a result, we now know much more about this amazing creature.
The olinguito story seems to appeal to everyone, including children. There have been several olinguito kids' books published in recent years.
So, the Olinguito deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bully Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bully was first used in the 1530s. It was from the Dutch word boele, which means lover. The word became a popular adjective after the US president Teddy Roosevelt used it frequently to describe something's awesomeness. He used the term "bully pulpit" to describe his powerful pulpit from which to speak to the country. So, bully is another way to say awesome!
One of the important themes in my newest novel Bridgers 4 is the ability of certain creatures to control the minds and behaviors of other creatures. In Bridgers 4, certain creatures can control even humans (you must read the book to get the bizarre and frightening details). I've selected an Awesome Animal that is notorious for this ability—the parasitic wasp.
Actually, I should have featured these wasps closer to Halloween because they are kind of creepy. But, they're also absolutely fascinating.
So, what the heck is a Parasitic Wasp?
What I am referring to here is a family of wasps, called Ichneumonidae. Astoundingly, the ichneumonid (pronounced ick-noo-mon-id) wasps include over 60,000 species worldwide. Usually, when we think of wasps, we think of those nasty stingers. But the stingers of ichneumonid wasps have been modified to be ovipositors—a structure for laying eggs. And here is the fascinating (and creepy) part: they lay their eggs inside or on other creatures. Then their larvae, which are carnivorous, eat the host creature. And sometimes, the larvae actually control the behavior of the host, forcing it to do things that benefit the larvae.
Below is an ichneumonid wasp laying its eggs in cabbage-eating caterpillars.
Amazing facts about Parasitic Wasps
First, I should point out that these wasps do not exactly fit the definition of parasite. Parasites (like ticks or tapeworms) rarely kill their hosts whereas these wasps almost always kill their hosts (the larvae consume the host creature). A more appropriate term is parasitoid. But I didn't want the title of this email to be too confusing, so I used the more familiar term. So, ichneumonid wasps are actually parasitoids.
In Bridgers 4, Desmond, Lenny, and Xavier discuss an ichneumonid wasp that controls the behavior of orb-weaver spiders, so I'll begin with that amazing example. In the Central American tropics, there is a wasp that seeks out an orb-weaving spider, grabs the spider, and lays a single egg on the spider's abdomen. When the egg hatches, the worm-like larva attaches to the spider's abdomen and then starts sucking the spider's fluids out to say alive. See the larva attached to the orb-weaving spider below:
For a while, this doesn't seem to affect the spider. But when the wasp larva gets to a certain size, it injects a chemical that changes the spider's behavior. The spider stops making its normal, symmetrical web it uses for catching insects. Instead, it makes a very specific type of web, one that is much stronger and that is perfect for safely holding the wasp larva's cocoon. When the spider finishes the new web, the larva kills and eats the spider. The wasp larva then creates its cocoon on this nice, custom-designed web.
Check out this video about this wasp that forces spiders to weave a different web.
The photo below on the left is the spider's normal web, and on the right is the web the wasp forces the spider to weave:
The web on the right is stronger, requiring 2.7 to 40 times more force to snap the strands, compared to the normal web on the left. This makes the web more suitable for holding the wasp's cocoon. Also, the web on the right glows brightly when looked at under ultraviolet light, whereas the one on the left doesn't. This prevents insects and birds from accidentally flying into the web, again making it safer for the wasp's cocoon.
Researchers believe the wasp larvae inject their spider hosts with chemicals that mimic hormones the spiders produce naturally to trigger them to build resting webs. And then slight modifications to the chemicals could force the spiders to go over the same spots to reinforce the web and to add the extra UV visibility. What an amazing example of mind-control! It's like something from a science fiction story, right? Oh wait... I actually use this concept in Bridgers 4.
But wait, there's more! There are many, many examples of wasps that can change the behavior of their hosts, essentially turning them into zombie slaves. Another example is the emerald wasp and its much-larger victim, the common household cockroach. The wasp stings the cockroach in a very precise spot of the roach's brain, injecting mind-controlling venom. The cockroach suddenly loses its ability to initiate its own movement. The wasp grabs the cockroach's antenna and leads it to a special chamber. The cockroach follows along, unable to resist, making it much easier for the wasp to take the larger victim to its doom. Once it leads the cockroach to the chamber, the wasp lays a single egg on the roach and then seals up the chamber with pebbles. The wasp larva hatches out, burrows into the cockroach, and then eats the cockroach from the inside. I know... gross and creepy. But so cool! Hmm... I wonder where Ridley Scott got the idea for the alien larvae for his 1979 film, Alien.
Below is the emerald wasp with its unfortunate victim:
Okay, can you handle one more example without having nightmares? There is a wasp called the Ladybird Parasite. The adult females of this wasp seek out adult female ladybird beetles. The wasp lays a single egg on the beetle's belly. After about a week, the wasp larva hatches. It already has wicked mandibles, and it proceeds to remove any beetle larvae or eggs, and then it enters the beetle's body and starts feeding on the beetle's insides. The beetle goes about its business for almost a month while the wasp larva feeds within it. When the wasp larva is ready to emerge, it paralyzes the beetle first. It then tunnels out and forms a cocoon attached to the beetle's belly.
The wasp in the cocoon develops beneath the ladybird beetle. Why? Well, ladybird beetles are brightly colored to scare away potential predators (the beetles secrete a nasty tasting chemical). And so the paralyzed beetle becomes the developing wasp's zombie bodyguard. The beetle even twitches its legs regularly, which helps to scare predators away. The photo below shows these zombie bodyguards with wasp cocoons beneath them.
I wish I could go on and on about animals that control the minds of other animals. There are even examples of parasitic fungi that do this! But, those will have to be topics for future Awesome Animal emails. Well... maybe in the next email I should feature an animal that is cute and cuddly?
So, the Parasitic Wasp deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F.
(Formidable Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word formidable has been around since the early 1400s. It has several meanings, such as causing apprehension or dread, of awesome strength, and arousing feelings of awe because of grandeur or strength. Due to creepiness and horrifying habits of parasitic wasps, I thought this word was a good choice today. So, formidable is another way to say awesome!
Since Bridgers 4 is coming soon, I've selected an Awesome Animal that makes an appearance in the book. Well, kind of... The creature in the story is given the name tiger beetle by one of the bridgers because it is fast and aggressive. But it is actually very different from the tiger beetles of our own world. You will have to read Bridgers 4 to see how amazingly different the creature in the book really is.
So, what the heck is a Tiger Beetle?
Tiger beetles are a large group of beetles in the subfamily, Cicindelinae, with over 2,600 species and subspecies. What makes the tiger beetles so awesome? Well, they are strikingly colorful, they can run fast, and they are aggressive predators. Years ago, the first time I saw a tiger beetle, I didn't know what it was. I saw this green insect zipping back and forth on the ground, so fast that my eyes could hardly keep up with it. When it finally stopped, I got on my knees and observed a strikingly brilliant green beetle. It turned out to be the six-spotted tiger beetle:
Amazing facts about Tiger Beetles
How fast are tiger beetles? They can run 5.6 miles per hour (9 km/hr). That may not sound fast, but if you consider the tiger beetle's size, this is about 125 body lengths per second! They are among the fastest runners of all insects.
They use this speed to catch their prey. But they do this in an unusual way. They sprint really fast for a short distance and then abruptly stop to visually reorient themselves. Then they take off running again. It is thought that they do this because their visual sensory system cannot keep up with their speed. They simply cannot process the visual images fast enough. So when you watch these insects run, you'll see them dart forward, stop, dart forward, stop, and so on.
Below is a festive tiger beetle from Nebraska (Central US).
Tiger beetles have mandibles (jaws) that are adapted to their specific prey. Their large mandibles look kind of like serrated swords, and they are perfect for quickly grabbing and chewing up smaller insects. As the tiger beetle chews its prey, it sucks the yummy fluids out and then tosses aside the crunchy hard parts. Each species of tiger beetle has mandibles that are specific for the prey it eats. Those that have small mandibles eat only small insects, and those with large mandibles can feed on much larger prey. Because of this, it is possible for several types of tiger beetles to live in the same area because they don't compete for the same food.
Check out these chompers:
Tiger beetles can usually run fast enough to get away from predarors that might want to eat them. But sometimes they have to use their Plan B. If a very fast predator, like a lizard, chases them, they can quickly fly away. They don't usually fly far, perhaps twenty feet, but that's far enough to escape.
When it comes to escaping predators, tiger beetles have additional strategies. Some of them have patterns of spots and stripes on their backs that confuse predators, making it look like they aren't even an insect at all.
But perhaps the most impressive predator defense is the production of cyanide. You've probably noticed the bright colors of some of the beetles in these photos. The really bright ones are species that produce cyanide, which is extremely bitter and yucky. In fact, it can kill smaller predators that make the mistake of trying to eat a tiger beetle. These bright colors are a warning to predators to leave them alone. Check out this gold-spotted tiger beetle:
Tiger beetles often live in warm environments, and the ground can become very hot in the bright sun. Those tiger beetles that live in the hottest places often have exoskeletons that are light in color so that they don't absorb heat. They also have numerous hairs on their underside, which insulates them from the ground's heat. Not only that, but they have long legs that allow them to stand tall, putting distance between their bodies and the hot ground.
Well, I've explained that tiger beetles are vicious and effective predators. But their young, the larvae, are just as impressive. Tiger beetle larvae are like smaller versions of the creatures from the movie Tremors. The larvae have huge mandibles, and they use the mandibles to dig a tunnel in the soil. Then they back into the hole and sit there with only their head exposed, waiting for prey to come by. That's kind of creepy! And they have hooks at the back of the abdomen that grip the soil so that they can hold on to large prey they've grabbed.
So, the Tiger Beetle deserves a place in the P.A.H.O.F.
(Prodigious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word prodigious has been around a long time. It was first used in the 15th century. It means amazing, wonderful, or of a large quantity or size, and as far as I can tell, it has always had the same meaning. It is derived from the same Latin word that prodigy is derived from: prōdigiōsus.
So, prodigious is another way to say awesome!
You know how some animals have been given a name that makes them sound just awful? Like the gila monster (a lizard), or the hellbender (a salamander), or maybe the blobfish? It doesn't seem fair to the animal, does it? Well, today's awesome animal, the poison dart frog, is another creature with an undeserved negative name. But in spite of the name, they are arguably the most beautiful frogs in the world.
So, what the heck is a Poison Dart Frog?
Poison dart frogs are small but spectacular frogs in the family, Dendrobatidae. There are about 300 species living in Central America and South America.
Yes, some of these frogs really are poisonous, and yes, native peoples use their poisons on the tips of their hunting blow darts (or at least they used to). Nevertheless, is it fair to name the entire group poison dart frogs? Out of about 300 species, only three of them are known to have been used for such a purpose. Many of the species aren't toxic at all or are only mildy toxic.
The first poison dart frog I had a chance to see in the wild was when Trish and I were in Costa Rica in 2016. We had arrived at a nice ecolodge, and we were sitting on the patio, which was surrounded by gardens. I noticed a tiny green and black frog hopping through the vegetation nearby. It turned out to be this frog (which happens to actually be called the green and black poison dart frog):
Amazing facts about Poison Dart Frogs
Some poison dart frogs really are poisonous, but they are not venomous. Let's clear up a few important points. There are literally millions of animals that produce toxic chemicals. But that doesn't mean they're poisonous. By definition, in order to be poisonous, an animal must be toxic to eat. Poison dart frogs store toxins in glands beneath their skin. So if you eat one that is highly poisonous, you may be in serious trouble. For an animal to be venomous, it must have the ability to inject a toxic substance with fangs, a stinger, barbs, spurs, or something similar. Rattlesnakes and honeybees are venomous.
Poison dart frogs do not bite and do not inject venom, so they are not venomous. They are poisonous.
How poisonous are they? Well, most of them aren't particularly dangerous to humans. As I said above, only three types have been used for making poison hunting darts. But the most toxic of these, the golden poison frog, is one of the most toxic creatures on Earth. The poison from one individual is enough to kill 20,000 mice. Wow! How many humans would that be? Here's a golden poison frog:
Poison dart frogs do not produce their poisons. Huh? It's true. Instead of producing the poisons in their own bodies, these frogs get the substances from the food they eat. They specialize on eating certain ants, beetles, mites, and millipedes that contain these toxins. This is why poison dart frogs that are raised in captivity have minimal levels of toxins. They don't have access to their natural, toxin-heavy food source.
These frogs give their babies a toxin boost at a very young age. Recent studies have shown that mother frogs lay a number of unfertilized eggs, which happen to be laced with toxin. They feed these eggs to their young tadpoles, thus giving their babies a nice toxin boost to get them started. Isn't that sweet?
Studies have shown that the brighter the frog is, the more toxic its poison is. Scientists actually used a spectrophotometer to measure the frogs' color. Those that were brighter and more conspicuous were more toxic.
Below is the other poison dart frog we saw in Costa Rica, the strawberry poison dart frog:
Okay, here's a question you may be wondering about. Since these frogs get their toxins by eating toxic prey (ants, mites, etc.), why aren't they poisoning themselves when they do this? As it turns out, it is a fairly simple mutation that makes them immune to the poison.
If you want a more detailed explanation of this, check out this video.
The way that natives used the frogs to get the poison onto their darts was rather gruesome. A study of the Emberá Indians of Columbia described the process. These people would catch a number of the frogs and place them in a hollow cane. When preparing darts, they would pull out a frog and "pass a pointed piece of wood down his throat, and out at one of his legs." Obviously, this would seriously agitate the frog, causing it to "sweat" out the poison on its back. They would then dip their arrows in the poison, and these arrows would remain effective for up to a year.
Poison dart frogs evolved their extremely bright colors as a way to warn predators not to eat them. This is called Aposematism (a fancy word for "warning coloration"), and it is common in many different poisonous and venomous animals. The coral snake is a venomous example, and the monarch butterfly is a poisonous example. The bright black and white pattern of a skunk is another example, but skunks have a very different threat for predators to avoid.
One more poison dart frog example, the blue poison dart frog:
So, the Poison Dart Frog deserves a place in the B.T.C.A.H.O.F.
(Beyond The Call Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase beyond the call is a reduction of "above and beyond the call of duty," which probably originated in the American armed forces during World War I. In 1916, the services created a series of medals to honor acts of courage. The Medal of Honor would only be awarded for actions “above and beyond the call of duty." More recently, the phrase has become a way to describe almost anything that is excellent or well done. There are actually two shortened versions: "beyond the call" and "above and beyond."
So, beyond the call is another way to say awesome!
This week's Awesome Animal is one that plays an important role in my upcoming novel, Bridgers 4! The animal is the PILLBUG. Well, it isn't really pillbugs that show up in the book. It's actually... well, you're just going to have to read the book when it comes out in late November.
You see, pillbugs are near and dear to my heart. Why? Well, back when I was teaching biology to 7th graders (kids 12 to 13 years old), I did a major research and creative-writing project that involved pillbugs. More on that below. But other than that, pillbugs are just awesome!
I may need to explain that the name, Pillbug, may not be known to everyone everywhere. Around here, many people call them roly polies. They are also called woodlice, isopods, armadillo bugs, potato bugs, doodle bugs, and my favorite, chuggypigs. I would be interested to know what people call them where you live... please reply and let me know.
So, what the heck is a Pillbug?
A pillbug is not really a bug. It's not an insect. It's actually a crustacean. You know what crustaceans are, right? Crustaceans include lobsters, crabs, shrimp, crayfish, krill, barnacles, and many others. Pillbugs are unusual for crustaceans in that they are terrestrial (they live on land instead of in water). Pillbugs are in an order of crustaceans called isopods. This also includes sowbugs, which are similar to pillbugs. But pillbugs have a superpower that sowbugs don't--the ability to roll into a ball, which is how they got the name pillbug.
Amazing facts about Pillbugs
As mentioned above, pillbugs have the ability to roll into a tight ball. There is actually a name for this. To roll into a ball is to conglobate. The obvious benefit of conglobation is protection from predators. But some biologists believe it is even more important as a way to avoid dehydration. Pillbugs are about the only crustaceans that live on land, and they are not as well adapted to dry land as insects. They do not have the waterproof waxy coating that insects have. They use gill-like structures to breath, and therefore they have to spend their time in moist areas under rocks and logs, and if you put them in a dry environment, they will roll into a ball to keep from drying out. Here is a conglobating pillbug:
Pillbugs can drink through their anus. Actually, they can and do suck up water through their mouth parts, like we do. But remember, they are very sensitive to drying out, so they also have the ability to take in water through special tubes at their rear end, called uropods. Okay, weird.
Pillbugs do not pee. That's right. They do not need to urinate. Most animals cannot tolerate ammonia, which happens to be present in the wastes that are created inside our bodies. Most animals convert these wastes into urea and then squirt that out of their bodies. That's urine. But pillbugs have an amazing tolerance for ammonia gas, and they can just excrete it directly out through their exoskeleton. Wow, it would be nice to not have to pee. I could sleep through the whole night!
Pillbugs molt in two sections. As crustaceans, pillbugs are included in the larger group, Arthropods (which also includes insects, spiders, and more). Arthropods have exoskeletons, and almost all of them grow larger by periodically molting their exoskeleton (which doesn't grow once it hardens). Beneath the shed exoskeleton is a new, soft exoskeleton, which immediately grows larger before it hardens up. Pillbugs are different in that they first shed the exoskeleton on their back half. Then a few days later they shed the front half.
Check out this cool video of pillbugs molting.
Pillbugs walk around on seven pairs of legs. Strangely, though, when baby pillbugs hatch, they only have six pairs of legs. They don't get the seventh pair until after they molt for the first time.
Pillbugs eat decaying matter on the forest floor and under rocks and logs. They also eat their own poop. That's right. It's a real thing among may animals, and it is called coprophagy. Other animals do it for different reasons, but pillbugs do it to conserve copper. Pillbugs need copper in their bodies, and they lose some of it every time they poop. So they have a habit of eating their poop to conserve the copper.
Female pillbugs carry their babies around on their underneath side. The eggs are layed and then transferred to the marsupium (similar in function to a marsupial's pouch). The eggs hatch in the marsupium, and then the young hang on to the mother's underside for eight to twelve weeks as they develop.
Okay, so I have to talk a bit about the The Pillbug Project (the actual title of a project I did with my 7th graders back in my teaching days). We formed a partnership with a dozen or so other schools in North America. The students in each partner class went out and collected pillbugs in their area. We then carried out a series of experiments with the pillbugs to see how well adapted they were to the climate in their area of the continent. These were simple choice experiments. For example, put the pillbugs in a container that is dry on one side and moist on the other side. After a specific amount of time, count how many are on each side. We did the same thing with warm and cool sides, light and dark sides, etc. Not surprisingly, we found that the ones from warm, dry areas of the continent were more comfortable on the dry side and on the warm side. Those from cooler, wetter regions were more comfortable on the cool side and wet side. And so on. There were many more experiments involved, but you get the idea.
We also worked collaboratively with the students at the other schools to write a fun book about an intelligent pillbug from the future that travels back in time to teach a pair of teens about the history of life on Earth. This pillbug, named Armadillia, had a nifty little time machine attached to a belt around his waist. Below is a drawing one of my students created, his vision of what this fictional character should look like.
So, the Pillbug deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F. (Fetch Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word fetch in this usage is, I suppose, a reduction of fetching, which means "attractive." Okay, I must admit, using the word fetch in this context isn't really a thing. It comes from the 2004 movie, Mean Girls, in which Gretchen tries to make fetch a thing but gets shut down by her friend, Regina George. Here's the clip. In spite of Gretchen's efforts, in the 14 years since the movie came out, fetch still isn't catching on. But Regina's response ("Stop trying to make Fetch happen!)" has now become a way to mock people who are out of touch. So... for Gretchen's sake, I'm going to say that fetch is another way to say awesome!
Trish and I recently flew down to Texas to spend a bit of time with the family of one of our daughters in El Campo (southeast of Houston). They have a small farm there, and I had the opportunity to help with a few tasks. I did not grow up on a farm, and I have little farm experience, but I was recruited to help with moving a sun shelter (for pigs) from one field to another. I can honestly say this was the first time I have wallowed in pig mud. I now understand why pigs enjoy it.
While Trish and I were on a walk on the outskirts of El Campo, we saw an impressive bird for the first time, the Caracara.
Here's a bit of interesting background on the caracara. This bird is also known as the Mexican eagle, but it actually isn't an eagle at all, it is a relative of the falcons, and it likes eating roadkill more than hunting. The bird used to have the honor of being the national bird of Mexico. But it was downgraded not too long ago. Why? Because the Mexican state department took a closer look at the bird on the national seal and decided it was a golden eagle, not a caracara.
The bird on the national seal goes back to native Aztec legend. According to the legend, the sun god, named Huitzilopochtli, asked the people to find an eagle perching on a cactus and eating a snake, and that's the spot where they should build their new town. The town was called Tenochtitlan but later became known as Mexico City.
At some point, someone decided the bird was a caracara. The problem, though, is that the caracara wasn't common in that area, and it didn't look much like the bird on the seal. But the golden eagle is common there and does look like the bird on the seal!
Anyway, the caracara isn't my chosen Awesome Animal for this week (that's the Pillbug), but I thought I would share this tidbits.
Wallowing in mud - Trish Smith
Crested Caracara - Bay City Tribune
In honor of the upcoming re-release of Diffusion, today's awesome animal is the Tree Kangaroo. Way back in 2016, I briefly described these creatures in one of my newsletters, but now it's time to give them the full treatment. After all, tree kangaroos are perhaps the most iconic creature of the Diffusion series.
I take a toy tree kangaroo to book signings, and one is included on the copyright page of the new versions of the Diffusion books:
It is high time I expound upon this creature’s awesomeness. Yes, tree kangaroos are real! They live on the island of New Guinea, but also in very northern Australia and some of the Indonesian islands. Why are tree kangaroos so cool? Well, because they’re kangaroos—that live in trees! When Australian Aborigines and Papuan (New Guinea) natives told early European explorers about tree kangaroos, the explorers refused to believe the stories. You have to admit it seems pretty unlikely, right?
So what the heck is a Tree Kangaroo??
Tree kangaroos are marsupials, in the genus Dendrolagus. There are about 14 different species, but this is one of very few types of large mammals with species still being discovered. Most tree kangaroos are about the size of a housecat. They are a fascinating example of divergent evolution (when groups of similar creatures become isolated and gradually diverge in form and function). Long ago, groups of ground-dwelling kangaroos became isolated in areas of dense tropical forest, as opposed to the open grasslands more typical for kangaroos. Once isolated in rainforest areas, they developed the ability to climb trees.
Amazing facts about Tree Kangaroos
These creatures eat, sleep, and breed in the treetops, but that doesn’t mean they live a comfortable existence. First of all, I imagine breeding in the treetops requires some caution (yikes!). Second, they seem to be a tasty meal for their primary predator, the amethystine python (which has a habit of hugging much too tightly). Third, natives hunt them for food (In New Guinea, "the man who has successfully hunted a tree-kangaroo has greatness bestowed upon him. He has conquered the largest, most prestigious and human-like marsupial known to his people." [Tim Flannery, from the awesome book, Throwim Way Leg]). And fourth, they depend on pristine rainforest, and if you haven’t heard, rainforests are getting smaller every day (a real bummer).
Tree kangaroos are reclusive. Some are extremely rare and live in places so remote that they are unusually tame, as they have never learned to fear humans. Just a few days ago, National Geographic published an article about the Wondowoi Tree Kangaroo, a species that had not been spotted since 1929 (ninety years ago!). It was thought to be extinct, until an amatuer botonist led an expedition into the nearly-impenetrable bamboo forests of the Wondiwoi Mountains of West Papua to find it. After much searching, he took the first ever photographs of this species:
The Papuan people of New Guinea have numerous ancient myths about tree kangaroos, some of which play a role in the Diffusion novels. For example, one of the main characters of the novels is a tree kangaroo named Mbaiso (at least it looks like a tree kangaroo... all is not what it seems in Diffusion). The name comes from a rare tree kangaroo, Dingiso mbaiso, which is revered by the local Moni people as an ancestor. When describing encounters with these animals, the tribesmen hunters say the creatures sit up, whistle, and hold up their paws in greeting. So the Moni believe the creatures are ancestor spirits who recognize them.
Another interesting story, this one about the Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo, is that the creature has a special power. If you think of the girl you love before you let your arrow fly to shoot this tree kangaroo, at the moment the arrow pierces the animal’s body, that’s when the girl will fall in love with you.
Below is the Matschie's tree kangaroo:
Tree kangaroos really are adapted to life in the trees. Compared to ground kangaroos, they have longer, curved nails for gripping the bark. Their hind feet are longer, and they have spongy, padded grips on their palms and the soles of their feet. Perhaps most striking is their tail. It is longer and heavier than those of ground kangaroos, which gives them better balance as they climb. When they climb straight up a tree trunk, they wrap their forearms around the tree and use their powerful hind legs to "hop" up the tree.
They are terrific jumpers. They can leap from one branch to another that is thirty feet (9m) below them. And, this may be hard to believe, but they can leap to the ground from as high as sixty feet (19m) without getting hurt! Considering adults can weigh 25 to 30 pounds (11 to 14kg), this is amazing!
Check out this fun Animalogic video about Tree Kangaroos.
As mentioned above, tree kangaroos are marsupials. And you know what that means, right? It means they give birth to their babies very early, and then the babies develop in an external pouch. The babies are only the size of jellybeans at birth. At that point, about the only parts of their external anatomy that are well developed are their hands and mouth. They use their hands to crawl to the pouch, then they attach their mouth to a nipple and hang on. For a long time. Astoundingly, baby tree kangaroos stay in the mother's pouch for up to 275 days. And then, after they come out, they are not weaned for up to another 240 days!
One more little tidbit. You may have noticed that tree kangaroos look quite a bit like teddy bears. To illustrate how true this is, recently a photo emerged on the internet. It was taken at the Perth Zoo, of a mother Goodfellow's tree kangaroo with a baby in her pouch (the first tree kangaroo baby born at the zoo in 36 years). The creatures looked so cute and teddy-bear-like that many people thought the photo was a fake, just a photo of a stuffed toy. But, of course, the photo was indeed real:
So, the Tree Kangaroo deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F.
(Legit Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word legit is, of course, a reduction of legitimate, which means "conforming to the law or to the rules." The earliest citation for use of the shorter version, legit, is from 1897. But in recent years it has been used as a slang word to mean that something is either credible or that it is cool. I think this word is appropriate for tree kangaroos because some people are surprised that these creatures are even real. AND, because these creatures are definitely cool! So, legit is another way to say awesome!
250-million-year-old bacterium - Bioprocess Online
Goodfellows Tree Kangaroo #1 - Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary
Wondowoi Tree Kangaroo - Michael Smith (National Geographic)
Matschie's Tree kangaroo- San Diego Zoo
Baby Goodfellow's Tree Kangaroo in pouch - ZooBorns
Goodfellow's Kangaroo and baby - Perth Zoo
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.