Often I feature animals that appear in my books, and this is no exception. In my novel, Savage, Samuel Inwood has several interesting encounters with "scarab beetles," which is the family that includes dung beetles. And since I think dung beetles are so fascinating, I'm excited to tell you about them!
So what the heck is a Dung Beetle?
Well, simply stated, dung beetles are beetles that like dung. They seriously like dung. They like it so much that they either eat dung exclusively or just part-time (kind of like I'm a part-time vegetarian). They live world-wide (except for Antarctica). They are broad, stocky beetles in the family, Scarabaeidae (scarab beetles). And... did I mention that they like dung? A few years ago, Trish and I were hiking in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas (midwest USA). We came across this extremely busy beetle, working very hard to roll his prized dung ball through the grass to some unknown destination (my photo of it is below). Since then, I have become a fan of these little guys.
Amazing facts about Dung Beetles
There are 8,000 known species of dung beetles, and they are categorized based upon the way they use dung. They belong to three groups: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. You guessed it, the rollers carve out a piece of dung from a larger pile, shape it into a ball, and roll it away. Then they bury it somewhere so they have a snack for later, or so they can lay their eggs in it, thus providing a first yummy meal to their young. The tunnelers burrow into the ground beneath the larger dung pile and simply pull some of the dung down into their hole. And finally, the dwellers burrow into the large dung pile and set up residence within the pile itself.
A dung beetle walks into a bar... "Is this stool taken?"
Sorry, that was a crappy pun.
Ancient Egyptians were apparently very fond of dung beetles. One of their myths was that a giant dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a huge ball of dung. So they linked dung beetles to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun. Due to people's fascination with ancient Egypt, scarab beetles are now often seen in jewelry and other types of ornamentation.
Although dung beetles don't look very aerodynamic, they are actually good flyers. They fly around searching for nice piles of dung. As they fly, they can use their antennae to catch a whiff of fresh dung from a considerable distance. They prefer fresh dung, as it is easier to burrow into or roll into a ball.
Dung beetles are strong. In fact, they are thought to be the strongest insect in the world. They can easily roll a dung ball ten times their own weight. And one species, Onthophagus taurus, can pull up to 1,141 times its own weight! This is the equivalent of an average-sized human pulling an object that weighs 205,000 pounds (93,000 kg). That's about the weight of 100 Toyota Corollas. Well, now I feel like a wimpy weakling.
There are two reasons these beetles are so strong. First, they have to move dung! Second, the males often fight over the females. If a male enters a tunnel looking for a female and there is already another male there, then the two males lock horns and get into a pushing match until the stronger one pushes the other away. This is why many of the scarab beetles have impressive horns.
When a male and female have a chance encounter at a local dung pile, they will often form a pair bond. Then they work together to carve out a nice dung ball, and they either work together to roll it away, or the female will simply ride on top while the male pushes the ball. But often another male will come along and try to steal a dung ball. So, if you see two dung beetles rolling a dung ball together in the same direction, it is likely a bonded pair. If you see two (or three) struggling to push it in different directions, there are two males fighting over the dung ball.
Check out this BBC video on dung beetles (includes a silly way of showing how the males fight over dung balls).
Dung beetles are amazing navigators! One species (Scarabaeus zambesianus) is the only animal known to be able to navigate using the polarization patterns of moonlight. And according to recent studies in Africa, dung beetles can actually navigate based on the position of the Milky Way galaxy! They can move in a straight line relative to the orientation of the Milky Way's bright streak across the night sky. Wow!
So, the dung beetle deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F. (Scrumtrulescent Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word Scrumtrulescent was first used by Will Farrell in 2001, in a Saturday Night Live episode called "Inside the Actor's Studio." Since then, it has caught on (kind of) as a word that means: so great that any other word employed would be woefully insufficient. So it is another (new) way to say awesome!
The first book in my new series, Bridgers, will be released soon, so today's Awesome Animal comes from this book (sort of). I don't want to provide spoilers, so I'll just say that our heroes bridge to a world where they encounter some unusual birds. A lot of unusual birds. These are birds that don't exist, and never have existed, on our own version of Earth. But, there are a few extinct birds that lived on our version of Earth that are somewhat close. Including the Terror Bird.
So what the heck is a Terror Bird?
These were large flightless birds that lived in South America (and a few of them moved up into North America) between 62 million years ago and 15,000 years ago (although some evidence suggests they only survived until 1.8 million years ago). They were huge, fast, and vicious predators. We have found evidence of about 25 species of terror birds.
Amazing facts about Terror Birds
Terror birds were big! They ranged in size from 3.3 to 9.8 feet (1 to 3 meters) tall. It is thought that the larger ones weighed at least 330 pounds (150 kg). In fact, the largest bird skull that has ever been found was a terror bird skull, 28 inches (71 cm) long, with a wicked-looking predator beak that was 18 inches (46 cm) long.
Terror bird is an appropriate name for these creatures. They must have struck terror into the mammals that they preyed on. They had clawed wings that were more like arms. They had huge talons (hind feet) that were probably very powerful. They almost definitely grabbed their prey in with their huge beaks, but CT scans of their skulls indicate that they couldn't swing their prey side to side with much force. They had much more power in their up and down motion, and therefore it is thought that they killed their prey by grabbing the creatures in their massive jaws and bashing them into the ground repeatedly until they were dead. Today, seriemas, roadrunners, and secretary birds still practice this feeding technique.
And they were fast. Based on the birds' size and the structure of their bones, scientists believe they could run at least 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). It is possible that these birds sometimes ate large mammals, but most likely they commonly ate rabbit-sized creatures that were easier and less dangerous to kill.
Check out this fun Discovery Channel video about terror birds.
Scientists are pretty sure there is a descendant of terror birds still living today. It is called the Seriema. There are two species, and they live in South America (where most of the terror birds once lived). They stand a little less than a meter tall (35 inches). They can fly for short distances, but they typically hunt while running. They even escape predators by running, and they can run fast. Like their terror bird ancestors did, they chase down prey, such as insects, lizards, snakes, frogs, birds, and rodents. See photo below.
So, the terror bird deserves a place in the U.A.H.O.F. (Unreal Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word unreal was first used in about 1600. It originally meant not real, imaginary, or fanciful. But much more recently, particularly in North America, it began to be used with a meaning more like amazing or wonderful (as in, "This pasta salad is unreal!"). So it is another way to say awesome!
Usually, I feature animals that make appearances in my novels. But this is a creature I want to tell you about simply because I saw one recently and thought it was impressive.
Last summer, Trish and I visited the Sea Life Aquarium in Kansas City. As we walked through a darkened area featuring invertebrates, we came across a Japanese spider crab. This creature had a leg span of at least ten feet! I took a few photos (see the first photo below) and knew I would eventually need to tell you about it.
So what the heck is a Japanese spider crab?
The Japanese spider crab has the largest leg span of all of the arthropods (Arthropoda is the phylum that includes insects, spiders, crabs, lobsters, and other multi-legged creatures with exoskeletons). Japanese spider crabs live in the Pacific Ocean in the waters off the coast of the southern portion of Japan.
Amazing facts about Japanese Spider Crabs
These crabs are big! Japanese spider crabs can have a leg span of up to 14 feet (4.3 meters). That seems almost beyond belief, but you must realize that they have extremely long legs, so their size is mostly legs. Even so, the body is also impressive. The carapace can be up to 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter. The entire crab body and legs can weight up to 44 pounds (20 kg).
Japanese spider crabs live a long time. Well, actually, most crabs live quite a long time to begin with. You know those little hermit crabs you can buy in pet shops? Those critters can live sixty years! The Japanese spider crab is often reported to live 100 years, although I have had a hard time finding absolute proof of this, so perhaps it is only conjecture. But it certainly is possible, considering the creature's size and the long life of many other crabs.
They eat just about anything. Japanese spider crabs occassionally catch live prey, including mollusks and slow-moving invertebrates. But they seem to prefer dead creatures (they are scavengers), and their two long, powerful feeding claws can rip up just about any dead carcass they find on the ocean floor. Old mariner legends described these giant crabs dragging sailors into the water, drowning them, and then feeding on their bodies. Not true, of course, but these crabs certainly wouldn't hesitate to feast on the body of a sailor who has already drowned.
They generally live in deep water (150 to 300 meters down). But once per year, when they mate, they migrate into shallower water (about 50 meters). This is where their larvae hatch. Speaking of their larvae... in spite of the enormous size of the adult crabs, spider crab larvae are tiny and float around as plankton. In fact, if you've ever gone swimming off the coast of Japan, you have probably brushed up against thousands of Japanese spider crabs without even knowing it. The tiny larvae are extremely abundant. Why? Because females lay over a million eggs! See the spider crab larva below.
Unfortunately, Japanese spider crab numbers have dwindled in recent years due to overfishing. These unusual crabs are considered a delicacy. In Japan, fishermen are now prohibited from catching them during the breeding season, from January to April. Hopefully this will help increase the population.
Like other arthropods, Japanese spider crabs grow by periodically molting their exoskeleton, which is actually an amazing thing to watch.
Check out this time-lapse video of a molting spider crab
So, the Japanese spider crab deserves a place in the T.A.H.O.F. (Trill Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word trill is an amalgamation of the words "true" and "real." It is used mostly in the hip-hop community to describe someone who is successful and widely-respected. So basically, it is kinda, sorta another way to say awesome!
Yes, I know Neanderthals are a species of human (depending on how you define human). And some of you may prefer not to think of humans as animals. That's a debate I'll avoid. But by any biological definition, all species of humans (including Homo sapiens and many more that are now extinct) are firmly in the order, Primates. And all primates are firmly in the class, Mammalia. And all mammals are firmly in the phylum, Chordata. And all chordates are firmly in the kingdom, Animalia.
And so Neanderthals are animals by biological definition. If you prefer, you can just imagine that I titled this post: Awesome Human: Neanderthals.
Why am I featuring the Neanderthal in this post? Two reasons. First, because Neanderthals make an appearance in my soon-to-be-released novel, Bridgers.
Second, because today I received my results from 23AndMe, an ancestral DNA testing service that Trish and I recently used. Guess what? I learned that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 98% of all the other people who have used this service!
And besides, Neanderthals are just plain awesome!
So what the heck is a Neanderthal?
Neanderthals are a species of humans closely related to Homo sapiens that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Compared to Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were physically shorter, with shorter legs and a bigger (and probably stronger) body. Neanderthals are named after the site where their bones were first identified in the Neander Valley, Germany. This is why the name Neanderthal is capitalized, by the way.
Amazing facts about Neanderthals
Neanderthals are closely related to modern humans. In fact, some scientists consider them to be a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), although the majority consider them a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis). We (modern humans) share 99.7% of our DNA with Neanderthals, which means they are much more closely related than our nearest non-human relative, the chimpamzee (we share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps).
It is now widely accepted that humans interbred with Neanderthals, probably in the range of 50,000 to 60,000 years ago (but possibly as long ago as 100,000 years). How do we know this? The Neanderthal genome project, founded in 2006, has successfully sequenced the Neanderthal genome (a genome is the genetic material of a species). By 2010, it was shown that nearly all modern humans have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA material. For people of non-African descent, this varies from 1% to 4%. It is actually much lower in people from African descent. Why? Because it is believed that Homo sapiens did not interbreed with Neanderthals until after leaving the African continent and migrating into Europe.
Yours truly (that's me) is more closely related to Neanderthals than most other people. As I said above, this is news I just got today. And I think it's really cool!
The above screenshot shows that I have 326 of the 2,872 Neanderthal genetic variants 23andMe tests for. The highest person they've tested had 397 of these variants, so I am pretty close to the top. The vast majority of people have less than 2% of their ancestry from Neanderthals. But for me, it is almost 4%!
So how did this happen? According to the most recent evidence, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are descended from a common ancestor, Homo erectus (or perhaps Homo heidelbergensis). From at least 700,000 years ago until about 200,000 years ago, erectus lived throughout Africa and much of Europe. But those in Europe became isolated from those in Africa and eventually became Neanderthals (with a body shape more appropriate for a colder climate). Those that were in Africa became Homo sapiens. About 55,000 years ago, some of the Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and interbred with Neanderthals, and then eventually spread throughout the rest of the world, carrying Neanderthal DNA with them from that point on.
Before you think, "That's gross... humans interbreeding with another species," remember that Neanderthals did not look all that different from humans. See the digital creation of a Neanderthal male above and female below. It is quite possible that if you met a Neanderthal on the street today, and it was wearing typical human clothes, you may not even notice. And so it doesn't take too much imagination to see how these interbreeding events could have taken place 55,000 years ago. Although it is pure speculation, it could have happened through peaceful exchanges of partners, or perhaps one group raiding another and stealing females (chimpanzees do that), or perhaps adopting abandoned or orphaned babies. Who knows?
Neanderthals were probably intelligent. Although brain size doesn't always equate to higher-level thinking, it certainly helps. Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans (1600 cubic cm for males, 1,300 cubic cm for females, whereas for modern humans the average is 1,250 to 1,400 cubic cm). There is a general consensus among scientists that Neanderthals made stone tools, used fire, and were hunters. And many studies show that they might have had symbolic thought (art and adornments), but most of these are from isolated finds and are often disputed. So we simply don't know.
As you would expect based on the explanations above, modern humans of non-African descent have probably acquired some physical characteristics from when those early humans migrated to Europe and interbred with Neanderthals. For example, Neanderthals had mutations of the genetic material leading to pale skin and a high variation in hair color (pale blonde, to red, to brown). In other words, interbreeding with Neanderthals could be the reason these characteristics are now so widespread in modern humans of European descent. By the way, the Neanderthal model above is supposed to be a male in his 20s. Yeesh! I'd hate to see what a Neanderthal my age would look like.
Check out this National Geographic video that provides a brief summary of Neanderthals
So, the Neanderthal deserves a place in the A.A.H.O.F. (Ambrosial Animal Hall of Fame). Or if you prefer, the A.H.H.O.F. (Ambrosial Human Hall of Fame)
FUN FACT: The word ambrosial originated over 400 years ago, in the late 1590s. Originally it meant exceptionally pleasing, particularly in flavor or smell. But that's kind of weird when applying it to Neanderthals, so I am using the other meaning, which is somewhere between delightful, heavenly, charming, or luscious. Okay, so it's still a little weird. Nevertheless, it is another way to say awesome!
On Amazon, there are two ways authors can list their books. One way is to go wide, which means that you list them on Amazon but also on other online retailers. The second way is to go exclusive (or narrow), which means you enter the books into Kindle Unlimited.
If you're not familiar with Kindle Unlimited, it's a subscription service for readers. Readers pay $9.99/month (in the US), and in return, they can read as many books that are in Kindle Unlimited as they want for free. When a book is in Kindle Unlimited, though, the author cannot list it on other retailer sites. It is on Amazon only, which is why we call it exclusive.
Well, I have put my books in Kindle Unlimited to see if I can reach more readers that way. You can still buy the ebooks (or print books) in the same way, but Kindle Unlimited subscribers can now read them for free.
By the way, if you're curious about it, authors still get paid when people read their books in Kindle Unlimited. But instead of a percentage of a sale, the authors get paid by the number of pages read. It comes out to about the same amount either way.
So, if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, and you have not yet read Infusion, Profusion, Savage, Blue Arrow, or Parthenium's Year, you can now get them for free!
Often I feature animals that show up in my previous novels. But today's animal makes an appearance in a novel I haven't released yet. It shows up in Bridgers 2. As you may know, Bridgers 1 hasn't even been released yet. I'm in the final editing phase, and I'm holding off a bit so I can release the first two books about a month apart (don't worry, there will still be more Diffusion books as well).
So what the heck is a Capybara?
The capybara has the honor of being the largest rodent living in the world today. It is in a genus (Hydrochoerus) that includes only two species (along with the lesser capybara). One of its closest relatives is the guinea pig. Capybaras live in South America, with their range covering most of the continent except the west coast. They live in a variety of habitats, from savannahs (a grassland with widely-spaced trees) to dense forests.
Amazing facts about capybaras
Above, I mentioned that capybaras appear in Bridgers 2, which isn't exactly accurate. It is actually a closely-related creature that lives on another version of Earth. In the Bridgers novels, the characters "bridge" to alternate versions of Earth. They can choose how far back in time their destination world diverged from our own, and so they often encounter creatures that don't exist on our world, although they are similar. In Bridgers 2, this capybara-like creature is domesticated as a food animal and is raised in large herds. This isn't far-fetched because on our world, capybaras are often hunted for food, and they are known to be gregarious, living in dense groups within small home ranges of about 25 acres (10 hectares). Which means they might do well as livestock.
But... one complication of trying to domesticate capybaras is that they need water. They are semiaquatic mammals. They must always be near bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, swamps, etc. To be honest, when I look at a capybara, the last thing that comes to mind is that they look like sleek, strong swimmers. But they are! In fact, they can stay completely submerged for five minutes. This is how they escape from predators. They can even sleep in water, keeping just the tip of their nose at the surface. Their eyes, nostrils, and ears are on top of their heads, making it easier for them to stay mostly submerged.
Capybaras are huge rodents. Their average weight is about 100 pounds (45 kg), but the largest ever found was 201 pounds (96 kg). When they were originally discovered, they were called water pigs, although we know now that they are rodents, not pigs. The second largest living rodent is the beaver, with an average weight of about 39 pounds (17 kg). Although the capybara is today's largest rodent, it certainly doesn't hold the record historically. Perhaps the largest prehistoric rodent was the Josephoartigasia, for which a fossilized skull was discovered in Paraguay in 1987. Also a relative of the guinea pig, the Josephoartigasia lived 3 million years ago and is estimated to have weighed 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg). Here's an artist's impression of what this massive rodent looked like:
Is it just me, or does that gigantic, one-ton rodent look kind of scary?
Although capybaras are adapted well to the water, they can also run on land. In fact, they can run 22 mph (35 km per hour), as fast as a small horse!
Okay, time for a bit of information on capybara sex and reproduction. These rodents have what's called harem-based polygynous breeding. That's when one male gathers a group of females and then vigorously defends them, preventing other males from getting close. When the male pursues a female, she will typically run into the water. If she is ready to mate, it takes place in the water. Often with the female completely submerged until it is over... good thing it's brief! If the female isn't ready, sometimes she will swim deep enough to dislodge the male (clever, don't you think?).
Both male and female capybaras use scent glands as an important part of their mating routines. Not only do they have anal scent glands, but both sexes also have scent glands on their snouts, called morillos. Especially in the males, the scents produced by the morillo are complex, with up to 54 different compounds. But these 54 compounds are present in different quantities in every male, making the scent subtly different for each individual.
Check out this video of capybaras mating in water.
Capybaras tend to be docile animals. Because of this, they are sometimes kept as pets. I'm not sure this is a good idea, though, because they need a swimming pool or pond to be happy.
Check out this video showing how docile they are.
Not only are they docile to humans, when put into zoo-like surroundings, they tend to be very friendly (or at least tolerant) of other animals around them. Example, squirrel monkeys hitching a ride:
So, the capybara deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F. (Lit Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word lit has gone through a number of different meanings and is still used for a variety of things. I think originally it meant being high (as in, "John was really lit last night"). It can also mean "being excited" (even sexually excited). But I like its most recent use, to say that something is especially terrific ("This party is lit!"). So it is another way to say awesome.
For those not familiar with January in Missouri (central US), I'll describe it. January is perhaps the coldest month of the year here. The trees are bare and the ground vegetation is brown and dead. There are no insects around, so those animals that eat insects (at least those that live above ground) must hibernate or migrate. Most of the nights are below freezing, and it can get to -10 F (-23 C).
But that doesn't mean we don't have the odd warm day. Trish and I just got back from several relaxing days at our rustic little cabin in the Missouri Ozarks. On Sunday, the temperature hit 71 F (22 C). This happens occasionally. But amazingly, in the afternoon the woods behind our cabin suddenly filled with the beautiful calls of the tiny frog called the spring peeper!
Some of you in warmer areas may hear frogs all year around, but hearing them here in January is a real treat. So to celebrate this event, I have chosen the spring peeper as the Awesome Animal for this post.
Here's what the forest behind our cabin typically looks like in January. This was January 19th, from a trail camera we've installed to get photos of wildlife (this lovely picture of the snowy forest was photo-bombed by a white-tailed deer).
Often I feature animals that show up in my novels, but not this time. This email is in honor of those brave little frogs that dared to awaken and begin calling on January 21st in the Missouri woodlands.
So what the heck is a Spring Peeper?
Spring peepers are frogs, so they are in the class Amphibia (amphibians). Their scientific name is Pseudacris crucifer. The second part of the name comes from the fact that they have a distinct X (cross) on their back. They live in the eastern half of North America, including eastern Canada.
Spring peepers are only about one inch long, but their call is extremely loud for such a tiny critter. They are usually the first frog to become active and start calling in early spring, so their call is a welcome sound to many people.
Amazing facts about Spring Peepers
So, why would Trish and I hear spring peepers in mid-January? To understand this, it is important to know how frogs spend their winters. Amphibians have porous skin, and oxygen can pass through it. When winter approaches, frogs simply swim to the bottom of a pond and wriggle back and forth until they are partially or completely under the mud (some of them crawl into the mud beneath rotting logs). When the temperature drops, their metabolism slows down enough that their skin can absorb adequate oxygen from the surrounding water. If the temperature gets too warm, their metabolism increases and their skin cannot take in enough oxygen to sustain them, so they have to swim to the surface to breathe with their lungs.
So on January 21st, when the temperature rose to 71 F, the ice thawed out and the water warmed up enough that the spring peepers were forced to emerge to the surface. And if you're a male spring peeper, when you get to the surface, you have this uncontrollable urge to call for a mate. And that's why Trish and I were treated to a symphony of horny frogs in the middle of winter!
Check out this video of spring peepers calling.
If these frogs choose to spend their winter at the bottom of a rather shallow pond, that pond may freeze completely. Well, not to worry. Spring peepers are one of only five frogs in North America that can survive being frozen. When the temperature of the water or mud around them drops below freezing, their body starts producing a natural antifreeze, which protects their most vital organs. But 70% of their body freezes solid! Their heart even stops beating, and they appear to be dead. We still don't completely understand how these frozen frogs are able to come back to life. They are tough little frogs!
Spring peepers have an impressive vocal sac.The vocal sac is that bulging throat you see under the chin of many male frogs. It's a flexible membrane that amplifies the sound of the male frog's call. The vocal sac, in fact, is one reliable way to tell the difference between males and females of many frog species. There are two slits in the bottom of the male's mouth connecting the mouth to the vocal sac. The frog fills its lungs with air, closes its nose and mouth, and blows the air through its vocal chord (larynx), producing its call. The louder the call, the better, because the nearest female may be way over in the next pond.
Although spring peepers are a type of chorus frog, they have something in common with tree frogs: sticky toe pads that allow them to cling to leaves and other surfaces. They can climb vertical surfaces and even cling to leaves upside down. A study in 2009 revealed how frog toe pads work. If you look very closely, the toe pad surface is covered with flat-topped cells surrounded by grooves filled with mucus. But when scientists looked even closer at those flat-topped cells with a special super-duper microscope (called an atomic force microscope), they saw that they were covered with jillions of tiny "nanopillars." With all these nanopillars, a huge amount of surface area comes in contact with the climbing surface, and the mucus helps to provide adhesive forces. It's an amazing adaptation.
Like many other frogs, spring peepers take the shotgun approach to breeding. Since most of their young are eaten by other predators in the water, they lay about 900 eggs! This makes it more likely a few of them will survive. In the spring, when a male successfully calls a female to him, he will climb onto her back and hold on tight (this is called amplexus) until she lays her eggs (eggs are layed in the water). Amplexus puts the male in a good position to release sperm onto the eggs as they come out of the female's body. By the way, this amplexus is such a powerful instinct in male frogs that I have seen triple-decker amplexus before (where a second male clings to the back of a male that is clinging to the back of a female, perhaps in hopes of getting his sperm onto some of the eggs). As you can imagine, since spring peepers are small, and they lay 900 eggs, the resulting tadpoles are really small:
So, the spring peeper deserves a place in the O.F.A.H.O.F. (On-Fleek Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: On fleek is a relatively new term (used by people much younger than me). It's an adjective to describe something that is so good that it's "on point." It originated as a reference to eyebrows (eyebrows waxed to perfection are "on fleek"), but now can be used to describe just about anything that is outstanding. So it is another way to say awesome.
I enjoy featuring animals that show up in my novels. In Diffusion, there is a scene where Samual shows Quentin one of the huge orb-weaving spiders that produce the silk the Papuan natives use to make incredibly strong rope. As it turns out, the spider in my story is not as exaggerated as you might think. Today's awesome animal is the orb-weaving spider, especially the giant golden orb-weaver.
So what the heck is an Orb-Weaving Spider?
Orb-weavers are a large family of spiders that include over 3,100 species. These are the spiders that typically build large, spiral webs in your garden. Their webs are typically wheel-shaped, and that's how they got the name of orb-weavers (orb general means circular).
I am going to focus mainly on the golden orb-weavers (spiders of the genus Nephila). Why? Because they are some of the largest and most beautiful spiders. Below is a photo of a golden orb weaver Trish and I encountered on a hike in Costa Rica:
Amazing facts about Orb-Weaving Spiders
Some orb-weavers are quite large. The females of the giant golden orb-weaver can have a body length of up to 3 inches (75 mm), and with the long legs included, a entire length of 6 inches (150 mm).
But the most striking thing about their size is that the females are HUGE compared to the males. When the male and female of a species are different from each other, it is called sexual dimorphism. But orb-weaving spiders have taken the concept of sexual dimorphism to the extreme. The females can be up to TEN times longer than the males. And this means the male weighs less than 5% of the weight of the female. Wow! Just for kicks, let's convert that to human terms. Let's say there is a 140-pound woman. Her mate would be a man who weighs less than SEVEN pounds. Okay, that's just a little weird to think about.
Check out this video of a male and a female golden orb-weaver.
There are two main theories for why they are so different in size:
Theory #1: In many spiders, once the male mates with the female, he inserts a "mating plug" in the female, which prevents other males from mating with her (I am not making this up!). By doing this, the male can be sure he is the father of all the offspring of that female. But in giant orb-weavers, these plugs do not seem to work. And so the theory is that the females of these species have evolved to be very large so that they can be too large for the plugs to work, thus ensuring that they can produce young from more than one male (more diverse offspring, which is a good thing from the female's perpective).
Theory #2: In giant orb-weavers, the males that find and mate with a specific female first will fertilize more of her eggs than males that find her later. And smaller males are faster, so they can scramble around through the vegetation and find females faster than larger males. And thus the males have evolved to have a smaller size.
Again, I'm not making this stuff up. See the male and female in the photo below.
Well, as you can imagine, for a tiny male orb-weaver, mating with a giant female is risky business. The females have a habit of eating the males after the "job" is complete. But some male orb-weavers have a special strategy to avoid this. It's called mate-binding. To make the females more receptive (and less likely to cannibalize them), the males spread silk over the female's back, in a motion that looks very much like he is giving her a massage. Research shows that this massaging motion makes the female relax, and therefore she is less likely to eat the male. Here is a video of mate binding in orb weavers.
Although most orb-weavers are fairly docile, they can certainly bite. But they are not dangerous to humans. They inject neurotoxin, like a black widow spider, but it is much less toxic.
As I mentioned earlier, in my Diffusion novels orb-weaver silk is used to make very strong rope. This is actually possible, assuming there is a good way to harvest lots of spider silk, because orb-weaver silk is strong! In fact, it's the strongest biological material we know of. It is more than ten times stronger than a strand of Kevlar of the same diameter. The recently-discovered Darwin's Bark Spider, a type of orb-weaver, has the strongest silk of any spider. They create webs that are more than 80 feet (25 meters) wide! The actual circular part of the web (the part that catches insects and other small animals) can be a meter in diameter. See the Darwin's bark spider web below.
In Diffusion, Samuel Inwood made his vest from orb-weaver silk. Actually, few people have been able to do this, as spider silk is not easy to collect in large amounts. In 2012, a textile designer and an entrepreneur collected golden orb-weavers from the wild and managed to get enough silk to create a beautiful cape, which was put on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see photo below). It took over three years to make!
So, the orb-weaving spider deserves a place in the H.S.A.H.O.F. (Heart-Stopping Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first-known use of the phrase heart-stopping was in 1888. It is possible that it started as a reference to the (incorrect) assumption people used to have that one's heart would stop when sneezing. Today it refers to anything that is so frightening or emotionally gripping as to make one's heart seem to stop beating. I like to use it in a positive way, though, to describe something amazing or exciting. So it is another way to say awesome.
I enjoy featuring animals that show up in my novels. Today's Awesome Animal appears in Infusion. Haven't read Infusion yet? Hmm... you know, there's a painless and reliable cure for that unfortunate condition. Anyway, there is a scene where Bobby asks the Lamotelokokhai to prove to him that it has detailed knowledge of every living creature it has ever encountered in the past. The result of this request is rather shocking. I'll just say it involves creating a Cuscus, an unusual and extremely adorable creature.
So what the heck is a Cuscus?
Pronounced "cuss-cuss." Like many of the mammals of Australia, New Guinea, and the surrounding islands, cuscuses are marsupials (their young develop outside the mother's body in a pouch). Generally, they are considered possums, and there are four genera and about 23 species (although since they live high in the canopy of remote tropical forests, it wouldn't surprise me if a few more species were eventually discovered).
Okay, before I go on to the amazing facts, just take a moment to look at the photo above. Check out that face! I think I need to nominate the cuscus as the animal most likely to be mistaken for a cartoon character.
Amazing facts about Cuscuses
I mentioned above that it is possible new cuscus species could be found. This is because they live in some of the most inaccessible forests in the world. In fact, a new species was discovered in 2009, in the forest that covers an inactive volcano in Papua New Guinea called Mount Bosavi. It was named the Bosavi Silky Cuscus. See image below. And check out this video of the discovery of the Silky Cuscus in 2009.
Most cuscuses are about the size of a housecat (body length about 18 inches with a tail about the same length). They have round heads with small ears that are usually hidden by fur, which makes that tennis ball-like head seem even more spherical. But one of the most amazing things about their appearance is their colors. They can be black, brown, gray, and sometimes lighter colors such as tan, white, or cream. In fact, they can even be a mix of these colors, with a spotted or mottled appearance. Because of this, they are perhaps the most colorful of all marsupials. The females and males often have different colors, allowing us to distinguish between genders. And their colors often change as they mature. Check out the spotted cuscus featured on this Papua New Guinea stamp:
Cuscuses spend almost their entire lives in trees. To help them climb, they have some interesting adaptations. For example, they have prehensile tails that look almost like very long fingers. These tails can grip so hard that it is difficult for a person to loosen them if the cuscus is determined to hold on. They also have opposable digits, like a human's opposable thumb, only cuscuses also have opposable toes.
The biggest danger to cuscuses is the loss of tropical forest habitat. And their main predator of is humans. They are widely hunted for food and their fur, especially in New Guinea. Other than humans, they are sometimes eaten by pythons and birds of prey.
Cuscuses usually sleep on branches in the open, with their heads tucked between their legs. To help with camouflage, they sometimes pull leaves and branches over their bodies. However, there are some species (like the Ground Cuscus, pictured below) that live in burrows and move to the trees at night to feed.
Cuscuses are marsupials, so they give birth to young after a very short gestation period, typically only a couple weeks. But then the babies crawl to the mother's pouch, where they continue to develop for six to seven months. Oddly enough, although two to four are usually born, only ONE will survive and emerge from the pouch to live on its own.
Okay, I think I've decided what it is about the appearance of these creatures that intrigues me so much. It's their eyes! Obviously, cuscus eyes are adapted for seeing at night. But the way they are arranged on the face for looking forward and the bulging roundness of them gives these creatures an appearance unlike any other mammal. Below is the Sulawesi Bear Cuscus.
So, the cuscus deserves a place in the M.B.A.H.O.F. (Mind-Blowing Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term mind-blowing originated in the 1960s drug counterculture. Its original meaning was producing hallucinatory effects. But it has gradually evolved to have a more general meaning: something that is so shocking, surprising, unexpected or wonderful that your brain cannot comprehend it. So it is another way to say awesome.
Recently I've tossed out some hints regarding my next book, Bridgers. Here's a bit more.
Let's say the remarkable concept of infinite parallel universes has been proven to be true, and humans have constructed a device that can send you to another version of Earth for 36 hours. One of the interesting aspects of this device, though, is that you can "dial back" to any point of divergence you want.
Warning - Crazy Explanation: Infinite universes really does mean INFINITE. There is another universe for every possible combination of atoms. So there are universes nearly identical to ours and those that are vastly different.
The device mentioned above allows you to choose how far back your destination world diverged from our own. Let's say you choose to visit a world that diverged from ours ten minutes ago. This means the world was identical to ours in every way up until ten minutes ago. But for the last ten minutes, events on that world have been independent of our world. Not much can happen in ten minutes, so that world would be very similar to ours, including all the people (except for those who died in that ten minutes on one world but not on the other).
If you choose a world that diverged ten years ago, it would still be similar. But a lot can happen in ten years. Elections could have resulted in different leaders, for example, resulting in somewhat different social landscapes.
What about a world that diverged 100 years ago? None of the same people would exist, except those who are more than 100 years old.
What about 1,000 years ago? That world could look quite different, right? Different languages, different political boundaries. Maybe even the extinction of life on Earth due to imprudent use of nuclear weapons.
What about a world that diverged 10,000 years ago? Or 100,000? or 100 million?
Boggles the mind, doesn't it?
Keep in mind this isn't time travel. If you leave this world on December 12, it will be December 12 on the alternate version of Earth you visit. But you get to choose how far back the world diverged from ours.
So here is a question for you:
If you had the opportunity to visit an alternate version of Earth, how far back would you want the divergence point?
I would love to hear your opinion on this.
I invite you to Comment to this post and give me your thoughts.
I am almost done writing my new book, Bridgers!
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.