Just about everyone is familiar with lemurs, right? Think of the movie Madagascar. Lemurs, lemurs, lemurs. For some reason, though, at least for me, one species of lemur really stands out as bizarrely different from the others—the aye-aye. Let's check this critter out, shall we?
What the heck is an Aye-aye?
The aye-aye (pronounced eye-eye) is the world's largest nocturnal primate. Lemurs live only in Madagascar, and there are about 100 species, but the aye-aye is the only living lemur species in the genus Daubentonia. Unfortunately, the aye-aye is endangered. In fact, in 1933 it was thought to be extinct, Then it was rediscovered in 1957. The aye-aye is a rather strange-looking creature.
Amazing Facts about the Aye-aye
Besides its striking appearance, perhaps the aye-aye's most unusual characteristic is the way it finds and consumes its prey. These lemurs will eat a variety of foods including fruits, seeds, insects, and flower nectar. However, it also has an unusual superpower. The aye-aye is one of only two known animal species that feed with a specialized technique called percussive foraging. (the other animal is the striped possum).
It all starts with the creature's unusually long fingers, particularly the really thin middle finger.
Although the aye-aye's middle finger seems perfectly suited for making a rude gesture, it actually serves a more practical purpose. The aye-aye uses the finger to tap on the surface of trees. As it taps, it pushes its large ears to the tree, listening for indications of hollow tunnels created by wood-boring grubs. This is actually a specialized form of echolocation.
When the aye-aye "hears" a hollow tunnel, it then chews through the bark and wood with its sharp teeth to access the tunnel. Then it inserts its long, thin middle finger into the tunnel, feeling around for the grub. When it finds the grub, it's hook-shaped claw skewers the insect, and the aye-aye pulls it out and chomps down on a nice, juicy meal.
What an amazing way to find food!
Check out this video showing how the aye-aye feeds using percussive foraging techniques.
Another unusual feature of the aye-aye is that it has front incisors that look very much like rodent incisors. In fact, like rodent incisors, these teeth grow continuously and must be constantly worn down by chewing. These teeth help the aye-aye gnaw through wood to get to those yummy grubs, and it also helps the aye-aye chew into coconuts. This type of teeth is unique among lemurs, and when the aye-aye was first discovered by scientists, they mistakenly classified it as a rodent, specifically a type of squirrel.
Check out the aye-aye skeleton below.
So, what exactly is an aye-aye? DNA studies have led scientists to conclude it is definitely a type of lemur, but it is considered the most primitive of all the lemurs. By the way, primitive does not mean stupid or un-evolved (every type of organism alive today has evolved for just as long as all other types of organisms... bacteria are just as evolved as humans... they are simply different from humans). In this case, I'm using primitive to describe the aye-aye as most similar to the original ancestors of all lemurs.
Scientists have long assumed all lemurs originated on Madagascar from some early primates that drifted on natural rafts across the water from Africa. However, the aye-aye's characteristics have led scientist to hypothesize that the ancestors of aye-ayes rafted to Madagascar at a different time, perhaps earlier than the ancestors of the other lemurs. This helps to explain why the aye-aye is so different from the other lemurs.
Aye-ayes spend almost all their lives in the trees, rarely venturing down to the ground. During the day they sleep in nests made of leaves, then they come out at night to forage and hunt for food.
Unlike the other lemurs, aye-ayes can reproduce at any time of the year. When a female is ready to mate, she calls out to attract males. The males, which usually get along with each just fine and even share their territories, then gather around the female and become really aggressive to one another, fighting for the right to breed with the female.
After a gestation period of about five months, females give birth to only one baby. The baby stays in the nest for two months and then stays with its mother for two years before wandering off to establish its own territory.
As you can imagine, baby aye-ayes look just as strange as the adults.
As I mentioned above, aye-ayes are an endangered species. This is an unfortunate consequence of three factors. First, the destruction of forest in Madagascar. Second, farmers often kill them to protect their crops, although there is little evidence that aye-ayes are destructive to cultivated crops.
The third reason is based on unfortunate folk beliefs. In Madagascar, there are numerous folk legends about aye-ayes. Some people believe they are evil omens of death. If an aye-aye shows up in a village, that means it must be killed or someone in the village will die. Some people believe that if an aye-aye points its thin, middle finger at someone, that person will drop dead. Some even believe aye-ayes sneak into homes while the residents are sleeping and use that middle finger to puncture the sleeping person's aorta, thus killing them in their sleep. Needless to say, none of these beliefs are true, but they have resulted in a hatred of these animals, and aye-ayes are often killed on sight.
Fortunately, their numbers have increased somewhat since the 1980s, and several captive breeding programs are helping us learn more about aye-ayes so we can prevent their extinction.
So, the Aye-aye deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bang-up Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term bang-up is an adjective meaning "excellent or extraordinary." In order to trace its roots, we first need to look at the word bang. Bang appeared in the English language in the mid 1500s, and it was a simulation of the sound of something striking something else with great force (a word that sounds like the natural sound it describes is called an onomatopoeia). The word bang turned out to be a great all-around useful word over the centuries. Its meanings include “to beat or injure violently," a noun meaning “thrill” (I got a real bang out of Stan's latest novel), “to bang out,” which means to produce or write something rapidly. These are just a few of its many uses. Bang-up may have originated in England in the 1800s as a way to describe something as “fashionable or stylish.” From 1843: "His spotted neckcloth knotted in bang-up mode..." Eventually it came to be used for anything that is extraordinarily good, especially in this context: "Stan did a bang-up job on that novel."
Anyway, bang-up is another way to say awesome!
Aye-aye #1 - DepositPhotos
Aye-aye fingers - Dr. Mirko Junge, CC BY-SA 2.0 - Wikimedia Commons
Aye-aye skeleton - Dr. Mirko Junge, CC BY-SA 2.0 - Wikimedia Commons
Aye-aye poking finger into tree limb - DepositPhotos
Baby aye-aye - Denver Zoo
Aye-aye in front of cinder-block wall - Denver Zoo
About 26 years ago, Trish and I visited the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. This was also the first time we had ever snorkeled, and what an amazing place for a first snorkeling experience! One of the things I remember most was swimming through the water and hearing the sound of parrotfish chewing on pieces of coral. There were so many parrotfish doing this that the sound was loud and almost constant. We enjoyed watching the fish bite off pieces of coral rock and chew them up to extract whatever food they could get.
What the heck is a Parrotfish?
Parrotfish make up a family (Scaridae) with about 95 species. Many of them sport amazingly bright colors. They live primarily in coral reefs but can also be found in seagrass beds. The name parrotfish comes from their parrot-like beak, which they use to scrape algae from coral and rock surfaces, and often they actually bite off chunks of coral.
Below is a queen parrotfish (I think).
Amazing Facts about Parrotfish
First let's take a look at the parrotfish's beak. Recent research has shown that parrotfish have some of the strongest teeth in the world. They really need these strong teeth because they spend much of their time munching on coral and chewing algae off the rocks. They don't actually consume the hard calcium carbonate coral rock, but they chew it up to get the polyps—the soft-bodied coral animals—and to get the algae that live inside the polyps, as well as bacteria living on the coral rocks.
To be able to do this all day, parrotfish need amazingly hard teeth. Their teeth are actually made up of a material called fluorapatite, which has a striking crystalline structure. Fluorapatite is a biomineral (a mineral produced by living organisms), and it is the second-hardest biomineral known. In fact, a single square inch of parrotfish teeth can tolerate 530 tons of pressure without breaking. In case you're wondering, this is the the weight of about 88 elephants.
Check out this parrotfish beak. Sticking your finger in this fish's mouth would not be a good idea.
Not only are parrotfish teeth astoundingly strong, their configuration is unique. Each parrotfish had about 1,000 teeth. They are arranged in rows (up to 15 rows), and they are fused together to form a solid beak. When one row of teeth wears out, it simply falls out, and the next row back becomes the primary chewing row.
Check out this video of feeding parrotfish.
Because parrotfish chomp a lot of coral rock to get at the food it contains, they have to get rid of all that rock. Well, they poop most of it out as coral sand. First, they pulverize it with grinding teeth in their throats to get the goodies out of it, then the small bits pass through their body and are pooped out. A heavybeak parrotfish can produce about 2000 pounds (907 kg) of coral sand each year!
They excrete so much of the stuff that, over time, it can pile up until it creates an island. Eventually, the island will accumulate organic matter until plants begin to grow. If you have ever been to a tropical coral island and enjoyed relaxing on a beautiful white-sand coral beach, that sand is actually parrotfish poop.
Parrotfish have unusual and diverse life cycles. Most of the species are what we call sequential hermaphrodites. They start their lives as females then eventually turn into males. Along with this sex change, there is usually a dramatic change in color, as the males are often more brightly colored than the females.
Weird, huh? Let's dig a little deeper. Parrotfish tend to swim around in schools that form when the group is fairly young (and therefore female). When the females in the school reach sexual maturity, the largest female in the group will transform into a male. That male then becomes the one responsible for fertilizing the eggs of the females in his school.
To give you an idea of how different the colors can be, below is a female common parrotfish (on the left) and a male common parrotfish (on the right).
There are all kinds of variations of this among parrotfish species. In some species, like the stoplight parrotfish, some of the fish start out as males, but others start out as females and later turn into males. In one species, the marbled parrotfish, the fish do not change their gender at all (the only species that doesn't). In some species the female is brightly colored and the male is dull. In many species the juveniles of both sexes are a different color from the adults of both sexes.
As you can imagine, these various colors make it rather difficult to identify species. In fact, when scientists first started studying parrotfish, they identified over 350 different species, which is almost four times more than the actual number of species!
Below is a blunthead parrotfish.
So, the Parrotfish deserves a place in the A.A.H.O.F.
(A-okay Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word A-okay (or A-OK) originated in 1952, when it was used in an ad for Midvac Steels (the ad said, "A-OK for tomorrow's missile demands"). However, it didn't become popular until people at NASA started using it in 1961. The term was commonly used to specify that everything checked out. It could be an abbreviation of "All systems are OK." The word is still widely used today, and it generally means "Ok, perfect, or excellent."
So, A-okay is another way to say awesome!
Queen parrotfish #1 - DepositPhotos
Parrotfish beak - DepositPhotoes
Coral Sand Island - Depositphotos
Female common parrotfish - Philippe Bourjon, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Male common parrotfish - Philippe Bourjon, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Blunthead parrotfish - Nhobgood, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
It occurred to me that I have never featured a bear as the Awesome Animal. That ends today! I decided to choose a bear that is unusual and that some people may not be aware of. Let's take a look at the Sun Bear, the smallest of the world's eight bear species!
What the heck is a Sun Bear?
Sun bears, sometimes called Malayan sun bears or honey bears, live in Southeast Asia, including southern China into India, and south into Indonesia. They are smaller than other bears, weighing only 55 to 143 pounds (25 to 65 kg). This is only about half the size of an American black bear. They get the name sun bear from the yellow or cream-colored patch of fur on the chest. Legend has it that this patch represents the rising sun. Their small size helps them climb trees, and they are the most arboreal of all the bears. In fact, they even sleep in trees.
Amazing Facts about Sun Bears
Basindo nan tenggil. That's what sun bears are called in the Malay language. It means "he who likes to sit high." This is an ideal name for a bear that spends so much time up in trees. To help them climb, sun bears have really long claws, about 4 inches (10 cm) long! Also, the palms of their paws are hairless, to help them hold on to branches, and they have powerful legs for climbing.
Other bears have longer snouts and eyes that face out to the sides. Sun bears have short snouts and eyes that face forward. Forward-facing eyes allow better depth perception, which really helps when you're climbing around in trees.
Sun bears sometimes make sleeping nests high in the trees by gathering branches and leaves and arranging them into a comfy platform.
They live in tropical forests, and their short fur helps them stay cool. Because of their short hair and head shape, sun bears have earned the nickname dog bear.
Sun bears are omnivores, which means they eat a wide variety of different foods. Their menu list includes termites, ants, bees (and of course honey), beetles, seeds, nuts, and fruits. They seem to love figs and often consume an impressive number of them at once. To help them slurp up bees, honey, and termites, sun bears have really long tongues, usually about ten inches (25 cm).
Check out this fun video, which shows the sun bear's long tongue in action, as well as its climbing skills, and more.
If some of these photos remind you of a wrinkled-skinned Shar Pei dog, that's because the sun bear has similarly wrinkled and loose skin. Why? This is a defense against predators. If a predator (such as a tiger) grabs hold of a sun bear, the loose skin allows the bear to move enough to turn and bite the predator to escape. Sun bears have powerful jaws and are very capable of defending themselves.
Sun bears are elusive, and little is known of their reproductive habits in the wild. In fact, we don't even know how long their pregnancies last. Some reports claim they are pregnant for only 95 days, others claim they are pregnant for as long as 240 days!
Here's what we do know. There is no distinct breeding season, and females can give birth any time during the year (they are the only bears that can do this). This characteristic is probably because they live in tropical areas, without a distinctly cold season.
Motherhood is a big job for female sun bears. They usually give birth to one or two cubs in a hollow tree. The cubs weigh only about 11 ounces (311 grams). These tiny newborns cannot hear, and their eyes are not open. In fact, their eyes remain closed for for 25 days. Once their eyes finally open, they are still blind until 50 days after being born. They don't even start running around and playing until four to five months. Then the babies stay with the mother for almost three years.
As you can probably imagine, baby sun bears are rather cute.
Unfortunately, sun bear numbers have declined drastically in recent decades. They are hard to find in the wild, so we aren't sure of their exact numbers. This lack of data prevents them from being listed as endangered, but scientists are sure their numbers are dwindling. The main reasons? Farming and logging have resulted in massive losses of their habitat. Also, poachers hunt them for meat and for body parts used in traditional medicine. Their gall bladders are commonly taken and sold for the bile. However, scientists have found no evidence that using the bile has any real benefit to humans. Sometimes mother sun bears are shot, and the babies are then taken and sold as pets.
The good news is, as we learn more about sun bears, more research-based efforts are being made to insure they have a future.
So, the Sun Bear deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Stupendous Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word stupendous has been around for a while. It was first used in the early 1600s, and was derived from the Latin stupendus, meaning "to be wondered at." Today, stupendous is defined as "causing astonishment or wonder." Example: The Grand Canyon has some stupendous hiking trails. Another definition of stupendous is "of amazing size or greatness." Example: They are a family of stupendous wealth.
So, stupendous is another way to say awesome!
There's a scene in my novel Hostile Emergence in which the characters are trying to make sense of something strange that they saw—beings that appeared to be translucent. They wonder if the beings' see-through nature was due to translucent body tissues, like glass frogs and some fish (it wasn't). Anyway, a see-through frog? Is that really possible? And why?
What the heck is a Glass Frog?
Glass frogs include about 150 species belonging to the family Centrolenidae. They live in the rainforests of Central and South America. Most of these frogs are lime green when viewed from above, but their bellies and legs can be astoundingly transparent in such a way that the internal organs and bones are clearly visible. There are some aquatic animals that are transparent, but glass frogs are the only land animals with transparent skin (although some insects have transparent wings, but that doesn't really count).
Amazing Facts about Glass Frogs
Okay, first we need to figure out why these frogs have transparent bellies. Is it just a coincidence that their skin is transparent, or does this characteristic somehow benefit the frog?
Scientists have long debated this question, but it wasn't until 2020 that a study finally provided a good explanation. It's a unique form of camouflage called edge diffusion.
First, a bit of background information. There are generally two types of animal camouflage. First, there is background matching, in which the animal looks similar to its background, thus blending in. Second, there is disruptive coloration, in which the animal has a certain high-contrast pattern that hides the animal's shape. A common example of disruptive coloration is a dark stripe that runs across an animals eye, making the eye difficult to see (eyes are often what give away an animal's presence).
Normally you might think being transparent would be a good way to achieve background matching, right? However, glass frogs' backs are not transparent, and they usually hold their transparent belly against a leaf, like this:
So, what's the point of being transparent only on the ventral side? How does this help the frog hide? Well, as it turns out, a glass frog's legs are usually more translucent than its head and back. When the frog is hiding on a leaf (as in the photo above), it tucks its four legs against its sides. Since these legs are usually translucent, this makes the edges of the frog blend in with the leaf. When the edges of an animal blend in, this makes it harder for a predator to pick out the animal's outline. This is called edge diffusion, and it tends to work well on a variety of different backgrounds because the frog does not have to change colors to match the color of the leaf.
Scientists in the study created 360 fake frogs out of gelatin, and they placed them on leaves in the rainforest for three days. Half the gelatin frogs had translucent legs tucked against their sides, the other half had opaque legs. Birds attacked the opaque-legged frogs twice as frequently as the translucent-legged frogs.
The transparent belly of glass frogs may simply be a side effect of having transparent legs. The photo below does a nice job of showing how translucent the glass frog's legs can be. These translucent legs allow the frog to use edge diffusion as a form of camouflage.
No other land animals can use transparency to achieve edge diffusion as a form of camouflage, which makes glass frogs very unique!
Many glass frogs have spectacular eyes, which might also help to break up their outline. An amazing example is the pretty-eyed frog:
We also need to talk about glass frog reproduction. Glass frogs live almost their entire lives among the leaves of rainforest trees. During the breeding season they move to trees that hang over rivers and streams. When a female is ready to lay eggs, a male will latch onto her (a behavior called amplexus), and he will not let go until she lays her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs as they are being laid.
Here's where things get kind of unusual. Most frogs lay their eggs in water and then leave the eggs alone, never seeing them again. Glass frogs, however, paste their eggs directly to the top or underside of a leaf high above a stream or river.
To reduce the chances of the eggs being eaten by predators, in many glass frog species, the female takes off on her own, while the male stays behind to protect the eggs until they hatch. The guardian male becomes extremely aggressive toward anything that comes near the eggs, often kicking at the intruder ninja-style.
Check out this fun video about male glass frogs protecting their eggs from wasp predators.
If the male is successful in protecting the eggs until they hatch, the baby frogs will pop out of the eggs and fall from the tree into the stream or river below. Of course, there they have numerous other predators to avoid, but such is the life of a frog!
So, the Glass Frog deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Swell Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word swell has several meanings. As a noun, it refers to a type of wave where the water rises abruptly, or to a rounded elevation of land. As a verb, it refers to something expanding in size. In about 1810 people started using it as an adjective, describing something or someone as stylish or fashionably dressed. Finally, in about 1930, people began using it as an adjective to describe something as good or excellent. Example: "That was a swell party." It was also used as a standalone adjective to express satisfaction: "Swell!" (kind of like "Cool!").
So, swell is another way to say awesome!
Glass frog #1 - Seánín Óg via Creative Commons
Glass frog on leaf - lwolfartist via Creative Commons
Pretty-eyed frog - Santiago Ron via Creative Commons
Glass frogs in amplexus - Santiago Ron via Creative Commons
Male glass frog protecting eggs - DepositPhotos
Transparent glass frog #2 - DepositPhotos
Stick insects, stick-bugs, walking sticks, bug sticks, ghost insects, or phasmids. These are all common names for stick insects. I decided to lump all the stick insects together as an Awesome Animal simply because I am so impressed by their stunning variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, most of which allow them to become almost invisible against their surroundings.
What the heck is a Stick Insect?
Phasmids are an order of about 3,000 species of insects that live mostly in the tropics, although a few species live in temperate areas, including here in the midwest United States. In Missouri we have two species, one of which happens to be the largest insect in North America, the Giant Walking Stick, which is seven inches long (some tropical species are much larger).
Here is a giant walking stick in Missouri:
Amazing Facts about Stick Insects
When it comes to stick insects, we really need to talk about camouflage. Being invisible is a stick bug's super power, and some of the species have taken this camouflage thing to a whole new level. In fact, the name Phasmid comes from the Ancient Greek phasma, which refers to a phantom, an apparition, or a ghost.
Stick insects spend most of their time in trees, munching on leaves. That may seem like a boring life, but being a bug in a tree is extremely dangerous. Why? Because trees are teeming with predators, including birds, monkeys and other primates, reptiles, spiders, small mammals, and even other insects. And don't forget about bats. Stick insects are too slow to run from predators. Most species don't have wings, so they can't fly from predators. They can't run, they can't fly, but they can sure hide!
When a predator comes near, stick insects try to look like part of the tree. Usually this works, but even if it doesn't, and the bird grabs the insect by one of its legs, the leg will pop off, the stick insect will crawl away (if it's lucky), and eventually it will regenerate the lost leg.
The Australian prickly stick insect below is an example of how extreme the adaptation for camouflage can be.
In case you need further convincing, the photo below shows three individuals of the same species (Phyllium westwoodii). This species is highly adapted to resemble the leaves on the trees on which they feed. This species lives in China and the surrounding areas.
Another example is the moss mimic stick insect (see below). This one is adapted to look very much like the moss that grows on the trees where the stick insect feeds.
Not only can stick insects look just like their surroundings, many of them apparently move just like their surroundings. Stick insects actually use their legs to sway back and forth, making them look like a twig swaying in the breeze.
Check out this video of stick insects, showing examples of how they can move.
Well... as I said, when stick insects feel threatened, they often start swaying back and forth. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in countless stick insect dancing videos posted online.
Here is a typical example.
Enough of that silliness!
I will point out that camouflage, swaying, and detaching their legs are not the only ways stick insects avoid being eaten. The different species have developed an impressive array of additional defenses. For example, some types have sharp spines. Some expel noxious odors from special noxious odor glands. Some have yucky-tasting chemicals in their blood, which they can squirt out through seams in their exoskeleton. Some have the ability to startle predators by making a loud noise. Some curl up their tail to look like a scorpion. Some even have brightly colored wings they can display to confuse a predator. Finally, some are so large that they are intimidating to smaller predators.
Like this impressive specimen from Malaysia:
Some stick insects, in fact, are among the longest insects in the world. Below is another species from Malaysia, Phobaeticus serratipes. One female of this species, with her legs extended, was 22 inches (55 cm) long. This is simply too large for smaller predators to handle.
One more tidbit of information. As you have no doubt already surmised, stick insects are really good at avoiding predators. Well, not only do they protect themselves from being gobbled up, they also have evolved some impressive ways to prevent their eggs from being snarfed up. Stick insects lay hundreds of eggs. Laying all these eggs in one spot can be risky (it's the old "don't put all your eggs in one basket" thing). So, some species fling their eggs to the ground one at a time, thus spreading them out. Some find discreet hiding spots to lay their eggs, and some even glue their eggs to the undersides of leaves.
However, my favorite strategy is even more impressive. Some stick insects have developed an amazing relationship with ants. Yep... ants. The stick insects attach fatty capsules to the surfaces of their eggs. These fatty bundles are tasty and nutritious. So, the ants seek out the unhatched eggs and carry them to their nests below ground. The ants get to eat the fatty capsules, and the eggs get to develop in a safe place. When the eggs hatch, the young stick insects simply leave the ant nest to start their new life!
So, the Stick Insect deserves a place in the A.P.E.H.O.F.
(Animal Par Excellence Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The adjective par excellence means "preeminent," or "being of the best kind." Interestingly, this is an adjective that is usually placed after the noun it describes. Example: "Stan is a novelist par excellence." Or, "Across Horizons is a science fiction series par excllence." Par excellence is a French phrase, but it comes from the Latin per excellentiam, which means "by way of excellence." The first known use of par excellence was way back in 1695, so it's been around for a while.
So, par excellence is another way to say awesome!
Missouri Giant Walking Stick - Jim Rathert/Missouri Department of Conservation
Australian giant prickly stick insect - DepositPhotos
Three leafy stick insects - DepositPhotos
Moss mimic stick insect - Frank Vassen/Wikimedia Commons
Large stick insect from Malaysia - DepositPhotos
Giant Stick insect on man - Bernard DUPONT/Wikimedia Commons
The first time I saw a photo of a saiga antelope, I thought it must be a creature from one of the Star Wars movies, with its huge eyes and its strange snout. Nope, it's real. Let's figure out what this crazy creature really is, shall we?
What the heck is a Saiga Antelope?
The saiga antelope is an endangered species that lives only in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, although it used to have a much wider range.
This antelope lives in harsh, semi-arid grasslands, and it migrates hundreds of miles each year between summer and winter. The saiga is relatively small for an antelope, usually only 24 to 32 inches (61-81 cm) high at the shoulders, and weighing between 60 and 150 pounds (26 to 69 kg). In other words, about the size of a German Shepard.
The most striking feature of the saiga antelope is its strange, bulbous nose.
Amazing Facts about the Saiga Antelope
First we need to discuss the saiga's strange nose. What's up with that schnoz?
The nose has two enormous, proboscis-like nostrils that drape over the mouth and point straight down toward the ground. Why? No one knows for sure, but we have some ideas. In order to figure out the purpose of this extraordinary snout, scientists in 2004 dissected and examined several. They found numerous large chambers within the nostrils. As the animal breathes in, the dust is filtered out by these chambers before the air reaches the lungs. This makes sense because saigas migrate in large herds, and much dust would be kicked up by all those hooves.
Another obvious benefit of these chambered nostrils is that they would warm the cold air in the winter and cool the hot air in the summer.
And finally, perhaps the main function of these cavernous sniffers is that they help the male saigas attract mates. The males emit a loud nasal roar to impress the females. The bigger the male's body size, the bigger its nose and the louder its nasal roar, allowing females to choose the healthiest mates. This doesn't work for me... when I blow my nose, Trish isn't the least bit impressed.
This mate selection hypothesis is supported by the fact that female saigas have much smaller noses than male saigas. Here is a female:
Saigas graze in herds, usually in fairly flat, dry grasslands, semi-deserts, and steppes (a steppe is a type of grassland where there are no trees other than near streams and lakes). They prefer open areas where they can see predators approaching from a long distance. This is not surprising considering saigas are often hunted by wolves, and young saigas are often taken by foxes and eagles.
During the annual migrations, saigas group together into large herds of thousands of animals. When the migration is over, they form smaller herds of only 30 to 40 animals.
In the rutting season, males start to get pretty serious about things. Not only do they use their snouts to impress females, they must first take possession of a harem of up to 40 females. This is no easy task, and the males sometimes fight to the death in the process. Take a look at those horns on the males. No wonder these fights can be dangerous!
After winning a harem, the males must continue to fight off new challengers, and then there is the tedious business of mating with all those females. After this is all said and done, the males are so weak that many of them die off.
After a gestation period of about 145 days, the females give birth, usually to twins. Only about a third of births are individual babies.
Because of the risk of predators, young saigas are up and on their feet within a few days, and they are weaned within four months.
It's difficult to talk about the saiga antelope without discussing this creature's unfortunate decline in recent years. For at least as far back in time as the last ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, saigas grazed over vast areas of Asia and Europe. They were probably a favorite prey animal for saber-tooth tigers and cave lions. The populations were still immense through the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Well, you can probably guess at least part of what happened then, right? In the first half of the 20th century, saigas were widely hunted by humans, but this hunting was well managed and had little impact on the populations. However, the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s changed everything for the saiga. The hunting regulations disappeared. Rural economies of the countries where the saiga lived were devastated, resulting in poverty and unemployment, which resulted in greatly increased hunting for saigas, for their meat and for their horns, which could be sold to China, where they are used in traditional medicines. Even today, China purchases huge numbers of saiga horns.
Amazingly, in just the last 15 years, saiga populations have decreased by 95%.
The good news? Numerous zoos and other organizations are working with experts from Russia, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, China, and Mongolia to develop international strategies to save the saiga antelope from extinction
Check out this video about the saiga antelope.
So, the Saiga Antelope deserves a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Cracking Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The adjective cracking (at least in the way it's used here) originated in about 1830. With this usage, the word means "very impressive or effective," and is often used to describe literature, such as "Stan tells cracking tales of adventure." The word can also be used as an adverb meaning "very or extremely," such as "a cracking good novel." Wait, there's more! The word can also mean "to start doing something quickly," as in "Let's get cracking." And... the word can mean "precise or smart," such as "The guard gave a cracking salute."
Anyway, I like the first definition given above, in which cracking is another way to say awesome!
Male saiga on green field - DeopositPhotos
Male saiga head and snout - Andrey Giljov, Wikimedia Commons
Female saiga antelop - DepositPhotos
Male saigas fighting - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Young saiga - DepositPhotos
Saiga herd - DepositPhotos
Perhaps recently you have read news articles about the importance of horseshoe crabs in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. That's pretty interesting, but the horseshoe crab was an awesome animal way before its blood was used in medical research. In fact, these creatures have been awesome animals for nearly 450 million years!
What the heck is a Horseshoe Crab?
Well, first, they aren't crabs at all (and obviously they aren't horseshoes). In fact, they aren't even crustaceans. Instead, they are related to spiders. Recent studies have placed them into the class Arachnida. Horseshoe crabs get their name from their horseshoe-shaped carapace (the largest part of their exoskeleton). They grow to about two feet long (61 cm), weigh up to ten pounds (4.5 kg), and live up to 40 years.
There are four living species of horseshoe crabs, and they live in shallow coastal waters through much of Asia and the Pacific and on the Atlantic coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico.
Amazing Facts about the Horseshoe Crab
Okay, I know you want to ask, why isn't the horseshoe crab a crab? It kind of looks like a crab. It lives in oceans. It has an exoskeleton and crawls around in the water on jointed legs. Therefore it seems very crabby.
Still, not a crab. Crabs, along with lobsters, crayfish, and others, are in the class Crustacea. Crustaceans are in the huge phylum Arthropoda. Horseshoe crabs are arthropods, but they are not crustaceans. They are in their own class of arthropods called Merostomata (which means "legs attached to the mouth").
Enough with the fancy names already—why aren't these things considered crabs? Structurally, they are quite different from crabs. For example, horseshoe crabs do not have antennae. Also, they do not have mandibles (mouth parts for chewing food). Instead, they have a pair of small appendages called chelicerae, which help them shove food into their mouths. You know what other animals have chelicerae? Spiders.
Here's what the underside of a horseshoe crab looks like. Can you spot the two chelicerae in front of the five pairs of legs?
By the way, it's not a good idea to hold a live horseshoe crab by the tale like that, as this can harm the animal.
Horseshoe crabs are often called "living fossils." This is because they have existed for a really long time without changing much at all. The've been around, basically in the same form, since long before dinosaurs existed. The oldest fossils of horseshoe crabs are from a species that lived about 450 million years ago, and those looked very much like the horseshoe crabs living today.
Scientists believe the closest relatives of horseshoe crabs are the sea scorpions, which originated about 467 million years ago. Sea scorpions are extinct now, but they were impressive creatures. Some were among the largest arthropods that have ever lived. See the size comparison diagram below, showing six of the largest known species of sea scorpions.
Interesting thought: Why do some types of creatures exist for hundreds of millions of years without many changes to their basic form? There can be several reasons for this, but perhaps the easiest to explain is that some creatures have a body form that is already perfectly suited to the creature's niche (its specific environment, food source, etc.). Sharks are an example. And, of course, horseshoe crabs. Basically... if it ain't broken, don't fix it.
A horseshoe crab is basically an armored tank. Its entire body is covered by a protective shell. It walks around on the subsurface sand or mud on its five pairs of walking legs, and it preys on numerous types of sea worms, crustaceans, and clams.
A horseshoe crab gets its oxygen from the water using a series of book gills between the legs and the tail (see the book gills in the red outline below). These book gills get their name from the book-like arrangement of gills. Each one of the ten gills contains hundreds of layered folds called lamellae. So, it's kind of like ten books, and each book has hundreds of pages. This increases the surface area for absorbing oxygen.
Horseshoe crabs have amazing eyes. They have two prominent compound eyes on top of their shell. Compound eyes are made up of numerous smaller eyes, called ommatidia. Most arthropods have these (think of a fly's eye). Each of the horseshoe crab's compound eyes have about 1,000 of these ommatidia. But wait, there's more! In addition to the two compound eyes, these creatures have a pair of median eyes, a pair of lateral eyes, a pair of ventral eyes near the mouth (which is between the five pairs of legs), and they also have a group of specialized photoreceptor eyes on the tail. They have a plethora of eyes!
Although they cannot see fine details all that well, horseshoe crabs are amazing at seeing color and light levels. In fact, their cones and rods are the largest of any animal—100 times larger than those in humans. Amazingly, during the night their eyes are a million times more sensitive to light than during the day!
Below you can see one of the compound eyes.
Check out this video about horseshoe crabs.
Horseshoe crabs have been used in medical research for decades, particularly their blue blood. In fact, every pharmaceutical company in the world relies on horseshoe crabs. Why? Because their blood contains a substance with the tongue-twister name limulus amebocyte lysate. This substance is important because it detects endotoxin. What is endotoxin? It's a contaminant that can can kill you if it happens to get into vaccines, or any injectable drug.
It's impossible to understate the importance of this substance. A gallon of the stuff is worth $60,000.
Here's the bad news. Pharmaceutical companies catch half a million horseshoe crabs each year (the harvesting is regulated). They remove a portion of each crab's blood, then they release the crab. However, many of the released crabs are weakened, and they die. This practice, along with fishermen overharvesting horseshoe crabs to use as bait, is resulting in the crab's decline.
As you can imagine, the intense efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines has resulted in more crab blood needed.
Here's the good news. A synthetic alternative to this substance has been developed. It has been approved for use in Europe, and some US companies have also started using it.
The synthetic alternative is slowly catching on, so maybe eventually we will no longer need to harvest horseshoe crabs for this purpose.
So, the Horseshoe Crab deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Splendid Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The adjective splendid originated in the 1620s. It probably came from the Latin word splendidus, which means "bright, shining, glittering." Today, splendid is used to describe just about anything good, and it has a broad range of meanings, including gorgeous; magnificent; sumptuous; grand; superb; distinguished or glorious in name, reputation, or victory; strikingly admirable; possessing great talents; excellent; fine; very good; and brilliant in appearance. I guess it's an all-around useful word for praising things.
So, splendid is another way to say awesome!
My last post featured the Maned Wolf, a bizarre and little-known mammal. The Fossa also fits that description—a strange mammal that many people have not even heard of.
What the heck is a Fossa?
The fossa is not a cat (feline) or a dog (canine), although in some ways it resembles both. It is actually a relative of the mongoose. Fossas are medium-sized (15 to 26 pounds, or 7 to 12 kg) carnivorous mammals that live in the forests of the large African island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.
The name fossa is actually pronounced foo-sah, although many people also pronounce it as foosh.
Amazing Facts about the Fossa
The fossa is the largest carnivorous mammal native to Madagascar. Its total nose-to-tail-tip length is about six feet (1.8 m), with half of that length being its tail.
As Madagascar's top predator, the fossa's favorite prey are various species of lemurs. In fact, fossas are often described as lemur specialists, and they can kill and eat lemurs that weigh 90% of the fossa's own weight. However, they also sometimes eat just about anything else they can catch, including small mammals (particularly rodents), birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, crabs, and even fish. Most animals prefer to hunt either during the day or during the night, but the fossa seems to be happy hunting day and night. They also are just as skilled at hunting in trees as they are hunting on the ground.
This ability to eat a variety of prey, as well as the ability to hunt anywhere and anytime, has helped the fossa to live in almost every habitat across Madagascar. Even so, in some areas they are extremely rare and seldom seen by people.
When scientists studied the content of fossa droppings (which look like a cylinder with twisted ends... kind of like a Tootsie Roll wrapper), they also found seeds. The seeds may have been in the stomachs of the lemurs the fossas had eaten, but more likely they were seeds from fruits the fossas ate in order to get the water from the fruits. This last idea is supported by the fact that seeds are more common in the droppings during the dry season.
The fossa's scientific name is Cryptoprocta ferox. Look at the genus name Cryptoprocta. Crypto means "hidden," and procta refers to the anus (think proctologist). So, this creature was named "hidden anus." Why? Well, the fossa has quite a few scent glands it uses for communication, especially for marking its territory. Some of these scent glands are just outside the anus, and they are enclosed within an anal pouch that encloses the anus, with a slit opening allowing the creature to defecate. So, the anus is hidden--Cryptoprocta!
Fossas are apparently proud of their scent glands, and they love using them! They are solitary animals (except when mating and raising young), and they go to great lengths to mark their territories using their scent glands. They enthusiastically mark trees, rocks, grasses, and the ground. Each of these marks is basically a No Trespassing sign for other fossas.
Okay, it's time to have "the talk." I'm referring, of course, to fossa mating habits. These creatures have some rather unusual reproductive strategies. Fossas are polyandrous, which means the females have more than one male mate (polyandry can be compared to polygyny, in which one male has multiple females).
With the fossa, mating is all about the location. Mating typically takes place on a solid, horizontal tree branch, an average of 66 feet (20 m) above the ground. Yikes! That's a long way to fall, so this can be a dangerous activity. A particular tree branch will be used year after year, often by numerous females. Think of it as a singles bar, where young men and women go to hook up with a partner.
Often, as many as eight males will hang around the spot, waiting for a female to show up. The females, who usually return to the same tree year after year, will arrive there one at a time, and each female will stay there for as long as a week. During that week, the female will mate with numerous males, one male at a time. The female chooses one of the males, signaling him with mewing sounds. Mating takes about three hours, and the process requires extreme acrobatic balance to prevent falling. After mating with the same male several times, which takes a total of about 14 hours, the female will signal another male that it's his turn. This goes on for up to a week, and then the female leaves the area, which means it's time for the next female to arrive and stay for another week, repeating the process.
Unless you are offended by watching such things, check out this video of fossas mating.
The female will give birth to up to six pups, which are very small, blind, toothless, and helpless. The pups do not become independent until they are a year old, and they are not sexually mature until they are three to four years old.
As you can probably imagine, the pups are pretty darn cute.
So, the Fossa deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bonny Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bonny (or bonnie) originated in the mid 1400s. It's a Scottish adjective meaning "pleasing to the eye; handsome; pretty." The word is thought to have come from the Old French word bon, which means "good" (as in bon appétit, which literally means "good appetite"). The French word was in turn derived from the Latin word bonus, also meaning "good." Words derived from bonny include the adverb bonnily (the fossa ran bonnily through the forest) and the noun bonniness (the fossa possesses a great deal of bonniness).
So, bonny is another way to say awesome!
This is one of those animals I chose simply because it looks so strange. It's a dog-like mammal that appears to have the body of a wolf, the face of a fox, the legs of a deer, and it has urine that smells like marijuana. Being this strange, it's surprising that few people have even heard of this animal (I just learned about it a few days ago). It's time to change that!
What the heck is a Maned Wolf?
This name is kind of unfortunate because the word "wolf" has negative connotations for many people. The maned wolf is not a wolf, and even though it resembles a fox on stilts, it is not a fox either. Instead, it is a canine species that is in its own genus (Chrysocyon, which means "golden dog") and is not closely related to other living canines. So, it is not a fox, wolf, coyote, dog, or jackal.
Maned wolves live in South America, primarily in south and central Brazil and into Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.
Unlike many other canines, these creatures are omnivorous, meaning they eat substantial amounts of both plants and animals. They get their name from the noticeable mane of hair on their neck, which stands up straight when they sense danger.
Amazing Facts about the Maned Wolf
First let's figure out those long legs. Although maned wolves are not particularly heavy animals (average 51 pounds, or 23 kg), these legs make the creature the tallest of all the wild canines. Why would a canine need legs that long? It has to do with the habitat these creatures live in. They inhabit grasslands, savannas, marshes, and wetlands, and it is thought that long legs help them see over the tall grasses. Their long legs also probably help them run through the grasses.
Unlike real wolves, maned wolves do not form packs. They live most of their lives alone, and they hunt alone. They are considered crepuscular, which means they are most active during the twilight hours.
You may have noticed from the photos that maned wolves have exceptionally large ears. This helps them with their unusual hunting techniques. They will stand still and rotate their ears, listening for small creatures moving around in the tall grass. If they hear something, they tap the ground with a front foot to flush the prey creature out, then they pounce on it. They typically eat rodents, rabbits, insects, birds, and sometimes even fish.
The really surprising thing is that the maned wolf's diet is 50% plants! This is highly unusual for a canine species. They feed on sugarcane, fruits, and other plants. In fact, studies show that they eat at least 116 different plant species.
The most common food item for the maned wolf is a fruit called the wolf apple. Astoundingly, this tomato-like fruit can make up 40% to 90% of the maned wolf's diet. Maned wolves seem to love these, and they regularly seek them out. Part of the fruit's appeal is that they grow all year, whereas most other fruits in the maned wolf's habitat are only available in the rainy season. Below is the wolf apple.
The seeds of the wolf apple pass right through the creature's digestive system and are deposited on the ground along with a nice pile of fertilizer. This makes the maned wolf an important means of seed dispersal for this plant. So important, in fact, that this relationship between the maned wolf and the plant is considered a symbiotic relationship, in which the two species rely on each other to survive.
An interesting twist to this symbiotic relationship is that maned wolves will often seek out a leafcutter ant nest before defecating. It will then poop directly onto the ant mound. Why? Because this helps the wolf apple seeds to germinate. How? Well, the ants need the dung as fertilizer for their underground fungus gardens (Did you know ants grow underground fungus gardens? That in itself is a fascinating story for another newsletter!). The ants carry the valuable dung below ground, but they don't need the wolf apple seeds, so they carry those away from their nest and place them in ant trash piles. For some reason this helps the seeds grow. So... the symbiotic relationship actually includes three species: the maned wolf, the wolf apple plants, and the leafcutter ants. Actually, four species if you include the fungus farmed by the ants.
These kinds of relationships in nature fascinate me!
Because other canines do not eat many plants, zoos were slow to figure out how to properly feed captive mane wolves. Historically, they fed them mostly meat, and the maned wolves often developed bladder stones. Eventually, as the maned wolf became better understood, zoos switched to a diet with more vegetables and fruits, resulting is healthier animals.
The maned wolf has a strange vocalization for communication. It's called the roar-bark, and few people have the opportunity to ever hear it.
Check out this video of a wild maned wolf using its roar-bark.
Speaking of communication, what's the story on this urine with a strange smell? Besides their roar-bark, maned wolves use their urine as a form of communication. For example, they mark their territories with the strong-smelling urine, as a way to warn other maned wolves to stay away. They also mark their paths to the spots where they have buried prey animals they couldn't eat in one meal (they do sometimes take larger prey).
Below is a maned wolf urinating on a tree to mark its territory.
As I said above, this is special urine, with an unusual smell. The urine releases pyrazines, a compound that creates a powerful odor that smells like marijuana smoke. Some people also say it smells like hops. As it turns out, pyrazines happen to be present in both of these types of plants.
Here's an interesting story of an incident that occurred at the Rotterdam Zoo in South Holland province (in The Netherlands). Dutch police were called because zoo visitors were reporting that someone was illegally smoking pot in the zoo. When the police investigated, they learned the smell was coming from urine in the maned wolf cage!
One more tidbit of information. We can't discuss a canine species without looking at the puppies, can we? Who doesn't like puppies? Well, actually they're called cubs, but I like the word puppies.
Although maned wolves usually live alone, you probably know they have to violate this rule now and then if they want to propagate. After a gestation period of about 65 days, the female gives birth to a litter of two to six black pups. Yep, the pups have black fur for about the first 10 weeks before their fur turns red. The parents stay together while the pups are young so they can both take care of the little furballs (although the females do most of the care). After the pups are weaned from breastfeeding, their parents feed them regurgitated food. Yeah, they eat barfed-up animals and plants, like a baby bird. Everyone deserved a warm meal, right?
So, the Maned Wolf deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Superlative Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word superlative originated in the late 1300s, and it came from the Latin word superlativus, which meant "extravagant, exaggerated, hyperbolic." Superlative today is used as an adjective to describe something as "of the highest kind, quality, or order; surpassing all else or others." It is also a noun used in grammar, referring to the highest degree for comparison. For example, take the word cool. The comparative form is cooler, but the superlative form is coolest. And you have to admit, the maned wolf is the coolest.
So, superlative is another way to say awesome!
In my last newsletter two weeks ago I featured the prairie dog because prairie dogs make a (very surprising) appearance in my new novel Hostile Emergence. I'm continuing that theme with another animal that appears (in large numbers) in the new book. This animal is the yellowjacket.
What the heck is a Yellowjacket?
Yellowjacket (or yellow jacket) is the name used to refer to a group of wasp species that are predatory and live in social colonies.
Yellowjackets are fairly small wasps, and they typically have yellow and black markings. Something I can tell you about them from personal experience—yellowjackets are mean, and their stings are painful!
Amazing Facts about Yellowjackets
Okay, first we need to sort out exactly what yellowjackets are, compared to other bees and wasps. Sometimes people mistakenly call them bees because they are about the size of a honeybee. Bees are different from wasps in a number of ways. For example, bees are plump and hairy compared to wasps. Wasps are slender, with a very thin waist. Wasps are shiny, with a smooth body surface. Bees have thick hind legs for collecting pollen, wasps do not. When wasps fly, their legs hang down, but bees' legs are tucked against their body. Bees have a barbed stinger, which usually causes the stinger to pull loose from their body after they sting, so they can only sting once (which is why they are less aggressive than wasps). Wasps can sting over and over again (so they tend to be much more willing to sting). Bees feed on flower nectar and pollen, whereas wasps are predators that kill other insects and take them back to their nest to feed to their young (although they feed on nectar and sweet fruits when they are not caring for their young).
So, now we know yellowjackets are not bees, but what makes them different from other wasps? What makes them different from hornets, for example? This is confused by the fact that some yellowjackets have the word hornet in their name, such as the bald-faced hornet in the picture above. True hornets, though, are much larger than yellowjackets (see the European hornet above).
Why does the bald-faced hornet have that name if it's actually a yellowjacket? Good question. Some people call it a blackjacket, which I think would be a less confusing name. One reason bald-faced hornets have been given that confusing name is that they typically make nests that are exposed and above ground (most yellowjackets make nests below ground or in enclosed cavities). Here is a bald-faced hornet nest I found on the back of our garage.
Another reason bald-faced hornets have been given the confusing name is that they are black and white, while other yellowjackets are black and yellow.
As I said above, typical yellowjackets make their nests below ground (as do the yellowjackets in Hostile Emergence). These below-ground nests usually only last one warm season, then the yellowjackets die off (except for the new queens). During that one season, the nest grows to about the size of a basketball, and can have several thousand wasps. In some areas where the winters do not get so cold, the nests can survive for several years, growing much larger. Below is an excavated two-year yellowjacket nest.
Let's imagine for a moment that you are walking across your yard. You do not realize that buried below your feet is a massive yellowjacket nest like the one pictured above. You cannot tell it is there because the tiny entrance hole at the ground's surface is only a centimeter across. Perhaps you see a few wasps flying in and out of the tiny hole, so you stomp on the hole to kill some of them. This is a bad idea.
Why is it a bad idea? Because yellowjackets are notoriously aggressive when their nest is threatened. Not only that, but they can detect vibrations in the ground. You might have hundreds of angry yellowjackets swarming out of the hole, ready to sting. This can be a painful experience, and if you happen to be allergic to their venom, it can even be dangerous. Last summer I pushed my mower over a below-ground yellowjacket nest, unaware of the nest's presence. Fortunately, I was stung only three times, but each of those stings resulted in massive swelling for several days.
So, even if you aren't terribly allergic to yellowjacket venom, numerous stings can still be dangerous or even deadly.
And, as if that weren't enough, yellowjackets can bite as well as sting! They have jaws for capturing their prey, and they can use those jaws to bite you and hang on, making it difficult to swipe them away with your hands. They can cling to your skin or clothing, stinging repeatedly. Nasty little devils!
Yellowjackets are actually more aggressive in the fall, as the weather is turning cold. Why? Because, as I said above, the wasps die out when the weather turns cold (except for the new queens). They die because their food source (other insects, as well as nectar and ripe fruits) is disappearing. So, the wasps are starving to death. This makes them grouchy, because they are constantly working harder to find enough food. In the spring, there are fewer yellowjackets, and they have plenty of food, so they are not as aggressive.
Yellowjackets also have a bad habit of attacking valuable honeybee colonies. They target honeybees, killing and eating all the adults and larvae, then feasting on the honey for dessert. This is more likely to happen in the fall, when honeybees are more sluggish in the cold compared to yellowjackets. In Canada there was a report of yellowjackets wiping out 100 of the 300 beehives of a commercial beekeeper. Each of those colonies had 50,000 honeybees!
You're probably wondering if I have anything good to say about yellowjackets. I do. After all, they are Awesome Animals. Some of the awesomest of all animals are those that can be dangerous (sharks, venomous snakes, and black widow spiders, to name a few). Sometimes an animal's most amazing adaptations are those of self defense and predatory skills. So, although I have a healthy respect for yellowjackets, I still appreciate their amazing characteristics.
I'll point out that many of the insects yellowjackets prey on are considered agricultural pests. Yellowjackets may not be beneficial to honeybee colonies, but they are beneficial to farmers. Yellowjackets also often feed on human garbage, typically items with high sugar content.
Let's wrap this up by examining the fascinating life cycle of these insects. Yellowjackets are social wasps, meaning they live in colonies in which individuals have specific roles, with specific body types for each role. Yellowjacket roles include queens (females), workers (females), and drones (males). In climates with a cold season, a colony typically lasts only one year.
A colony is started by a single fertilized queen. After surviving through the winter in a sheltered place, a queen will find a suitable place to start a nest, usually an existing hole in the ground (like a rodent burrow), but sometimes in a cavity of a stump or even a house or barn. She will build a small paper nest and lay about 50 eggs. After the eggs hatch, she hunts insects and brings the food back to feed the larvae. When the larvae are full grown, they form a pupa and eventually emerge as adult females (workers). As more workers emerge, they get busy and start expanding the nest. They also go hunting for food for the new larvae, and they defend the nest (all yellowjacket females can sting, but the male drones can't).
The colony and nest continue growing, often resulting in 5,000 wasps and a nest with up to 15,000 cells. Eventually, the workers start creating larger cells, in which new queens will grow, as well as male drones. The new queens and the drones then leave the nest and go out into the world to mate. After mating with new queens from other colonies, the males quickly die. After mating with drones from other colonies, the new queens store up body fat and find a safe place to survive the winter.
All the wasps, except for the new fertilized queens, will then die. The nest decomposes over the winter (the wasps do not reuse the nests). In the spring, the new fertilized queens start the cycle all over again.
Check out this video about the yellowjacket's nest and life cycle.
Note: although yellowjackets typically build their nests below ground, sometimes a queen will start a colony in a cavity of a human-made house or other structure, as you will see in this video.
So, the Yellowjacket deserves a place in the G.A.H.O.F.
(Groovy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term groovy originated in the jazz culture of the 1920s. It probably originated from the physical groove in a record, in which the needle drags. However, it was mainly used to refer to the groove of a song (how the song sounded and felt to the audience). Disc jockeys would say things like, "I'm going to play some good grooves" (or "hot grooves"). Eventually, starting in 1941, the word groovy began to be used as slang, meaning "marvelous, wonderful, or excellent." This usage became really popular in the 1960s, but by the 1980s it was only being used as a humorously outdated term. I still hear people using the word, especially people much younger than myself, so perhaps it will become popular again.
So, groovy is another way to say awesome!
Yellowjacket #1 (on white background) - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Large excavated yellowjacket nest - Wikipedia Creative Commons License
Cartoon yellowjacket - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Yellowjackets on apple core - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Yellowjacket nest diagram - Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.