My books in the Diffusion series are filled with amazing creatures, some which are cute and cuddly, but many which are downright scary. That's what makes it fun, right? In Profusion, Bobby has a terrifying encounter with a creature called a nothosaurus.
The nothosaurus (meaning "false lizard") was a reptile that lived from about 240 to 210 million years ago. It was widespread, with fossils being found throughout North America, Europe, and China. As prehistoric aquatic reptiles go, the nothosaurus was not particularly large, averaging less than 13 feet (4 meters) long. Today's crocodiles get considerably larger. But that doesn't mean you would want one to grab onto you while you're taking a swim. They had wide, flat mouths with very sharp teeth.
Amazing facts about the Nothosaurus
These creatures had strong legs (unlike the flippers of many of the more aquatically-adapted marine reptiles that came later), and they could probably walk on land, perhaps about as well as today's seals and sea lions. This is why one of these was able to come out of the water and pursue Bobby (in Profusion). Many of them even had clawed feet rather than flippers. See the image below.
Nothosaurs had very long, sharp teeth adapted for catching fish (and perhaps any other smaller aquatic creatures, such as squid). We have an idea of how they hunted because scientists have found fossils of trackways left behind as they dug into the soft seabed with their paddle-like forelimbs, probably trying to churn up hiding creatures, which they would snap up in their teeth. See trackway in the image below.
There were at least twelve species of nothosaurus (probably more, as a very small percentage of prehistoric animals became fossilized). The first nothosaurus fossil to be found and identified was in Germany in 1833. See the photo below from the Berlin Museum of Natural History.
Want to get a feel for the size and shape of the nothosaurus? Take a look at this video of a walk-around of a life-size replica in a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Based upon their body structure, nothosaurs probably spent most of their time on land near the water (like today's seals), sliding into the water mainly to feed. I wonder if they also were as playful in the water as today's seals are...? I also wonder what kind of vocalizations they made. Did they bark like seals?
We still don't know if nothosaurus laid eggs or gave birth to live young. But it's likely they had live birth, because many of the ichthyosaurs (and the later plesiosaurs) had live birth, and they are thought to have evolved from the nothosaurs. But we still don't have an accurate estimate of when live birth in marine reptiles began.
So, the Nothosaurus deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F. (Bad Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Bad is an example of a word that has evolved to mean the opposite of its original meaning. It was popularized in 1987 by Michael Jackson with his hit song, Bad. But most people don't know that "bad" was used to mean "good" long before that. The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary was from the 1897 Pink Marsh, by George Ade: “She sutny fix up a pohk chop ‘at’s bad to eat.” So, in other words, bad is another way to say awesome.
Nothosaurus group by shore - Dinoraul on Renderosity
Detailed Nothosaur, showing feet - DK Findout!
Nothosaurus leaving trackway - Nature.com-Original artwork Brian Choo
Nothosaurus Fossil Skeleton - Berlin Museum of Natural History, photo by Elke Wetzig
I like to feature animals that make an appearance in my books, and today's critter makes a most spectacular appearance in Profusion. In fact, you could even say it's a save-the-world kind of appearance!
Imagine standing in the middle of a flock of over a million white, cackling geese spread out over the ground for as far as you can see. Then imagine that something triggers the birds to take off. In a roar of millions of wings and high-pitched voices, the geese lift from the ground and take to the sky, circling above you like a white tornado.
Yes, the scene above takes place in Profusion, but this is something you can also experience in real life. At least you can if you visit the North American migration corridors of the lesser snow goose or greater snow goose. They migrate in groups of hundreds of thousands, and their movements are one of the most impressive migration events on Earth.
The hunting of snow geese was stopped in 1916 because their numbers had been drastically reduced. By 1975 their numbers had recovered, and hunting them was reinstated. But since the 1970s, their numbers have increased by 300%. They are getting so overpopulated that huge flocks of them are inflicting irreparable damage to the fragile tundra habitats where they feed and nest in the summers.
Amazing facts about the Snow Goose
Snow geese like to migrate in groups. Often they will be in flocks of thousands. In fact, if you are near one of the places where they rest in large numbers, it isn't unusual to see flocks of several hundred thousand. I have been at the Grand Pass Conservation Area here in Missouri on days when there are 1.2 million gathered in one area. When they come in to land, it looks like a giant, gently swirling tornado. Check out this video showing some great scenes of migrating flocks.
The blue goose used to be considered a separate species, but now we know it is just a color variation of the snow goose that is caused by only one gene. The blue gene is slightly dominant to the white gene. If two white geese mate, they will have all white offspring. But if a white and blue goose mate, usually all the offspring will be blue (although they may have white bellies). And if two blue geese mate, they will have mostly blue, but some white geese. What I find interesting is that, at least here in the Midwest US, the proportion of blue geese has increased in the ten years I have been observing them. Now it seems as if about 30% of each large flock is blue geese. See the comparison below.
Snow goose goslings are very well developed when they hatch. They have soft downy feathers that immediately show whether they will turn out to be white or blue. And they can walk VERY well. In fact, in the arctic areas where they breed, the newly-hatched chicks can often walk with their parents up to 50 miles over a three-week period in order to find a better rearing area.
Snow geese can live up to 27 years. One of the important ways biologists study them is to put metal bands on their feet. When hunters shoot these banded birds, they report the information to an online database, which allows biologists to better understand migration patterns, breeding behavior, and longevity.
Snow geese are poop factories. Food passes through their digestive tract in only an hour or two. This means they can poop up to 15 times per hour. And they are especially productive (poopwise) when feeding on rhizomes, which are high in fiber (and the geese swallow lots of mud as they eat them).
Snow geese have become so abundant in the last few decades that they are causing severe damage to their tundra feeding grounds. Why? Because the birds feed on the grasses. And now that the flocks are larger than ever, they run out of grasses and start feeding on the underground rhizomes (specialized underground stems) of the grass, making it so the grass cannot grow back. They are turning arctic grasslands into salty mud flats.
In an attempt to control the exploding population, the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999 initiated new rules that allowed 24 US states to create opportunities for hunting enthusiasts to harvest as many of the birds as possible. I happen to enjoy snow goose hunting, but it isn't an easy sport. Snow geese are notoriously difficult to decoy, and it takes hundreds of decoys and lots of hard work. See image below. Unfortunately, these efforts are not decreasing the population much.
So, the Snow Goose deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F. (Fizzing Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Fizzing is one of several words associated with a sound that have gradually become adjectives implying that something is excellent. Ripping is another example (I had a ripping time last night). So, in other words, fizzing is another way to say awesome.
In one of my favorite scenes in Profusion, a long-beaked echidna makes an appearance (just wait until you read why). And so I have chosen this creature as the awesome animal for this newsletter.
Echidnas belong in the very small group of egg-laying mammals called monotremes. Monotremes are one of the three main groups of mammals (the other two are placental mammals and marsupials). But monotremes includes only five species: three species of long-beaked echidnas, the short-beaked echidna, and the duck-billed platypus. All five of the species live in Australia and New Guinea.
By the way, you may wonder why my featured awesome animals are typically from New Guinea or Australia, when I actually live in the center of North America. Well, I like to feature animals that appear in the novels of the Diffusion Series. And much of the story takes place on the Indonesian side of New Guinea.
Amazing facts about the Long-beaked Echidna
Oh my gosh, where to begin! Echidnas are among the strangest of mammals, so there is no shortage of amazing facts.
Let's start with the creature's jaw. Echidna's have no teeth, and their jaw is a single bone. So they do not have the ability to bite or chew. They can only slurp things up through their straw-like snout (they like earthworms and other soft ground invertebrates). Okay, let's take this weird mouth one step further. Not only do they have nothing more than a soft, squishy tube for a mouth, but their snouth also has tiny electro-receptors embedded in it, so they can detect the faint electrical fields created by the worms and other soil critters they eat. Echidnas have between 400 and 2,000 electro-receptors in the tip of their snout. See the long-beaked echidna skull below.
Echidnas lay eggs. That's right, eggs. Like the platypus does. The eggs then incubate and hatch within a pouch, similar to the pouch of a marsupial (kangaroos and such). But unlike all marsupials and placental mammals, the females do not have teats. Instead, the milk oozes out through the mother's skin in the pouch. And then the young lap it up. At least we think the young lap it up--oddly enough, no scientist has ever seen young echidnas lapping up the milk.
Echidnas have the lowest average body temperature of any mammals alive today (89º F, 32º C). In fact, when they hibernate, their temp drops to as low as 41º F (5º C). Because of their low body temperature and slow metabolism, echidnas live up to 50 years.
Baby echidnas are called puggles (how perfect is that?). But very few of them have been born (hatched?) in captivity. Only a few dozen have been born in zoos, and in fact it wasn't until 2012 that the first zoo-born parents produced offspring (the baby short-beaked echidna below is one of the offspring).
Okay, now for the R-rated portion. Male echidnas have a four-headed penis. Why, you ask? Well, during mating, two of the heads shut down, while the other two enlarge to fit the female's reproductive tract, which happens to have two branches. So why not just have a two-headed penis? Because the males alternate between the two pairs when they mate with more than one female. Why? That's uncertain.
Echidnas have impressive tongues. Their tongues are six inches long, and can dart out of their snouts amazingly fast to slurp up worms and insects.
Check out this awesome video of a feeding echidna from National Geographic.
So, the long-beaked echidna deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F. (Boss Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Most people assume the word boss began being used in place of awesome fairly recently (wasn't it popular in the 1990s?). But actually it was used as an adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1881. So for the last 136 years, it has been a good substitute for awesome.
Today we're going way back in time. These flying reptiles lived from 125 to 115 million years ago. BUT they make a spectacular and terrifying appearance in Profusion. And because of that, I have honored them as today's awesome animal. Notice the Anhanguera at the top of Profusion's cover:
Anhanguera (pronounced Ahn-han-gair-ah) means "old devil" in Portuguese. This creature was one of the flying reptiles in the group commonly called pterosaurs. But it is not nearly as well known as the famous pterodactyl. The Anhanguera's fossils weren't discovered until the 1980s.
Amazing facts about the Anhanguera
This huge flying reptile had a wingspan of 15 feet (4.5 meters), and weighed up to 50 pounds (22.7 kg). They were larger than any flying creature living today. When standing on the ground it was four feet tall.
One of the three species of Anhanguera was named after Steven Spielberg. Anhanguera spielbergi was named when a complete fossil was found in Brazil (see the photo below). Apparently, the scientist (I cannot find who it was, exactly) was impressed by Spielberg's work (possibly the Jurrasic Park movies?).
In movies and artists' drawings, pterosaurs are often shown as having smooth-skinned bodies and wings (instead of feathers and fur). How do we know that's what they looked like? Amazingly, there are a number of well-preserved fossils of pterosaur skin. Paleontologists have found skin impressions from the wing membranes, throat, head-crests and feet. Not only that, but some of them were also covered with fine hairs, called "ptero-fuzz." I love the name, ptero-fuzz!
Due to the structure of their jaws and teeth, it is thought that many of the pterosaurs (including Anhanguera) were fish eaters. In fact, it it likely some of the smaller ones could even dive under the water to catch fish!
The Anhanguera had a beak that was wider at the end than near the head, a shape similar to the bills of today's pelicans. This wider end is thought to have increased their chances of catching fish.
The Anhanguera had weak back legs, which meant that it probably couldn't walk very fast or very gracefully. Check out this animated video. The video is kind of goofy, but it is downright fun. And most of all, it is considered to be one of the best animations of how these creatures used to move.
So, the Anhanguera pterosaur deserves a place in the J.A.H.O.F. (Jam-up Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Jam-up comes from the word jam, as in close together, or in close contact. Somehow, in America, this gradually became the adjective jam-up, which means perfect. So if you had some really good blackberry jam, you could call it jam-up jam. So, in other words, it's another way to say awesome.
Profusion is 115,000 words of excitement, narrow escapes, and awesome creatures. And it is the longest novel I have written yet, but it will be the same price as Infusion ($3.99). However, if you snatch it up on its release day (September 1), you can get it for only $0.99. Yep, for ONE DAY ONLY, it will be only 99 cents.
Here's the teaser:
How can you save humanity if your only hope is to call upon an entity that could destroy us all?
As nations argue over who should possess the alien entity called the Lamotelokhai, 15-year-old Bobby Truex knows the answer—no one should. After all, he’s the one who told it to go into hiding. He knows, better than anyone, that misusing it leads to death and destruction. After months trying to overcome his guilt, Bobby’s life is suddenly shattered, forcing him to risk everything and once again ask for help from the most dangerous object imaginable.
Meanwhile, Quentin and Lindsey Darnell are tormented by the memory of leaving their son Addison to die in the Papuan rainforest. After learning he is still alive, they set out to find him but are shocked by what they discover. Addison is now part of something truly amazing, something that may result in the next stage of human evolution.
Now, Bobby must not only survive—he must make his way to the other side of the world to find Quentin and Lindsey. The fate of the planet depends on it.
Yes, of course I have chosen an animal that makes an appearance in Profusion. But the flying fox in Profusion is definitely not one you would ever want to run into!
Flying foxes are actually bats. They are in the group of bats called fruit bats (mostly in the genus, Pteropus). Take a look at the face of just about any flying fox and you'll understand how they got their name. They have very fox-like faces. Below is a grey-headed flying fox.
There are about 60 species of flying foxes, and they are widely spread throughout the subtropics of Asia, Australia, East Africa, and many islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. One thing that distinguishes flying foxes from other bats is that they eat fruit, pollen, nectar, or flowers. This means they have to live in areas that have flowers and fruit to eat year-round (tropical). Also, these bats do not have echolocation (sonar) to help them catch insects. Instead, they have very well-develop eyesight and smell.
Check out this spectacular BBC video.
Amazing facts about Flying Foxes:
These are the largest bats in the world. The large flying fox (yes, that's its name... creative, huh?) has a wingspan of five feet (1.5 meter)! See image below.
Some flying fox species are so rare they are found only on one small island. For example, the Mauritius flying fox (See photo below) lives only on the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It is very important there because it pollinates flowers and disperses seeds of many plants that also live only on that island.
One reason why some flying foxes are rare is that they are simply not very prolific. In fact, the large flying fox usually has only one pup (I love that they're called pups), and that's after a gestation period of 180 days! And then it takes 3-4 months for the pup to be weaned, and it won't be sexually mature for about two years.
Flying foxes mate while they are hanging upside down. Um, this one doesn't need too much explanation, does it? Oh, I guess I could add that the male often has a penis that is one-fourth the length of his entire body. Are you starting to see the logistical problems involved here?
Flying foxes hang out (literally) in trees in massive groups called camps. Sometimes these camps can have several hundred thousand bats. But this isn't nearly as many as they used to have before their numbers were depleted. In the 1930s, there were camps that were four miles wide and had 30 million flying foxes!
So, the flying fox deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F. (Supernacular Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Supernacular comes from the noun, supernaculum, which means a drink to be consumed to the last drop. Although the word is usually used to describe a drink, I personally believe it should be expanded to describe anything that is awesome.
I am so excited about this cover! Profusion will be released soon, and my cover designer, Donna Harriman Murillo, has done it again. Feast your eyes on the cover, in all its colorful, action-packed glory:
By the way, that's Bobby on the cover. The question is, what the heck has happened to him? And what's going on in the background? Things are getting serious.
PROFUSION. The stakes are higher, the action is more intense, and the creatures are awesome! Coming in September.
People often ask what is the best sequence in which to read my books. This is a good question, because at this point all my published books take place in the Diffusion universe (although I have an upcoming series that will be unrelated). The order in which you read them can certainly impact the way you perceive the overall story. There are two reasonable sequences:
If you want to read them in chronological order of the events that take place, you should read them as follows (from left to right):
And then, logically, you would read Profusion when it comes out later this summer.
Or, you could read them in the order I had originally intended (think of this as the Director's Cut):
And then you would read the upcoming Profusion after Blue Arrow. I personally like this sequence because it gradually reveals information in a way that appeals to me. For example, even though Savage takes place in 1868, long before Diffusion, it is a part of the story you will appreciate more if you have read Diffusion and Infusion. The same could be said for Blue Arrow.
But regardless of what order, the important thing is to read them! You can get them all here:
In my upcoming novel, Profusion, Samuel collects a two-foot-long lizard which he plans to use for an experiment. It turns out this lizard is a blue-tailed monitor (Varanus doreanus).
By the way, Samuel's experiment with the monitor lizard goes very, very badly. But you'll have to read Profusion when it comes out (by the end of the summer) to find out just how badly!
There are about 80 species of monitor lizards, living mainly in Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Guinea. Perhaps the most famous monitor is the Komodo monitor (often called the Komodo Dragon), which is the largest species of lizard living today (up to 10 feet long and 150 pounds!). But I chose the blue-tailed monitor for today's awesome animal, because I am fascinated by the smaller monitor lizards, particularly those with unusual colors.
Amazing facts about blue-tailed monitors:
The blue-tailed monitor is somewhat of a celebrity in Papua New Guinea and has been featured on one of their postage stamps:
This lizard is at home in the trees, on the ground, and in the water. They are excellent swimmers and climbers, but as they grow larger and heavier, they tend to hang out on the ground more than in the trees. Here's a short video that shows how they use their tail to swim.
Blue-tailed monitors are exported as pets to the U.S. and Europe. But since they often grow to four or five feet, require large, spacious cages, and live 10 to 15 years, they are only suitable for the most dedicated pet enthusiasts.
Interesting story about how monitor lizards got their name, as told by an Egyptologist: Long ago, Egyptian villages were found along the Nile River, their main source of water. But the Nile was full of crocodiles. How could they know when it was safe to enter the water? As the story goes, they would catch a large monitor lizard and chain it to a boulder on the edge of the river. If the lizard was lying peacefully, sunning itself, the Egyptians knew it was safe to enter the water. If, however, it was struggling to get away, they knew danger was lurking nearby. A crocodile was in the area. So the lizards got their name because they "monitored" the crocodiles' movements.
The blue-tailed monitor is not the only brightly-colored monitor lizard. Below is the blue-spotted tree monitor, which lives only on the small island of Batanta, off the west coast of New Guinea.
What I'd like to know, is why are these lizards blue in the first place? After digging for answers a bit, I'm not sure there is a clear-cut answer to this. It seems unlikely these bright colors are used by the males to attract mates (as with many birds), because both males and females have the same colors. If anyone has a good hypothesis, email me and let me know.
So, the blue-tailed monitor deserves a place in the G.A.H.O.F. (Gallows Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Gallows originally meant "fit for the gallows," meaning, deserving to be hanged. But by 1789, it had become a slang adjective meaning awesome, in the same way that wicked and bad have come to mean their opposite. How gallows is that?
Monitor photo #1 - Reptile Fact
Papua Stamp - Mark O'Shea
Pet Monitor - Snakes at Sunset
Blue-spotted Tree Monitor - Australian Geographic
In my novel, Diffusion, Quentin finds a stone talisman that turns out to be very important. But the place where he finds it is interesting as well. The talisman is basically a small stone (although carved to resemble a creature). It is found by a male BOWERBIRD and incorporated into the bird's elaborate "bower," where Quentin eventually finds it.
Bowerbird bowers are part of a mating ritual that is almost beyond belief. In order to impress females, the male bowerbird creates a spectacular structure with sticks, clears away the ground in front of it, and then painstakingly collects "treasures" and puts them into neat piles, sorted by size, texture, and color.
There are about 20 species of bowerbirds, ranging from bright orange in color to dull brown. Most of them live in New Guinea and/or northeastern Australia.
I've always been fascinated by the fact that, in most animals, it is the males that have developed incredible behaviors and physical characteristics to attract mates. It is the male's job to prove he is worthy (healthy and strong... in other words, likely to produce healthy, strong offspring). It is the female's job to be aloof and picky. Much research has been done on this, and it has to do with the amount of energy females put into producing offspring compared to males (as in A LOT MORE!). But that's a topic for a future email.
Check out this video from the BBC of the courtship of the flame bowerbird (prepare to be amazed):
Amazing Facts about Bowerbirds:
Male regent bowerbirds actually paint the sticks that make up their bower. They do this with their blue or green saliva, often painting it on using a leaf as a paintbrush. A rare example of tool use in birds!
The Vogelkop bowerbird creates bowers that are a meter high and 1.5 meters wide (see the photo below). They decorate their "lawn" with piles of brightly-colored flowers and other objects. Whenever these start rotting or loosing their color, the birds replace them with fresh ones.
When bowerbirds live near civilization, they often collect human-made objects because they are bright-colored. The Satin bowerbird below has collected pieces of blue plastic. Notice the drab female watching him perform from inside the bower.
Male bowerbirds work so hard on their bowers, expending valuable energy doing so, that this has resulted in the habit of raiding each other's bowers. When a male leaves his bower unguarded, another male might swoop in and steal some of his hard-earned treasures. Sometimes they even tear down the bower structure itself. That is terribly rude, but I guess all is fair in love and war.
Males build their bowers so the sun will shine on their bright treasures and on themselves. After all, the best presentation will win the female. So in forests with an open canopy, they build them with a north-south orientation. In a closed canopy forest, they build them near a gap in the canopy.
So the bowerbird deserves a place in the P.A.H.O.F. (Prestantious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Prestantious is from a latin word meaning excellence. It is a very rare word, as it has appeared only once in the Oxford English Dictionary, stating that it was used once in a book written in 1638, The Blood of the Grape. Basically, it means awesome.