Due to the difficult times we are living in, when I sat down to write this email, I told Trish I wanted to make it as positive as possible, and I asked her, "What's the most positive animal you can think of?"
She said, "Nemo!"
I had to agree. Nemo is a very positive fish. The little guy never gives up and never loses faith. So, for that simple reason, the clownfish is today's Awesome Animal!
What the heck is a Clownfish?
The clownfish, also called the anemonefish, includes about thirty species of fish that form an amazing symbiotic relationship with sea anemones. They are brightly colored, often with various patterns of orange, black, and white.
Clownfish live mostly in coral reefs and shallow lagoons in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Nemo lives near Sydney, Australia, remember?
Amazing facts about Clownfish
Let's talk about this strange relationship between clownfish and anemones.
First a few definitions. Symbiosis is when two living things develop a close, long-term biological relationship with each other. There are three basic types of symbiosis: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.
Mutualism is when both organisms benefit. An example is lichens, in which fungi and algae (or sometimes cyanobacteria) live together and benefit from each other.
Commensalism is when one organism benefits, but the other doesn't really care (it isn't helped nor hurt). An example is the remora, a fish that suctions onto a larger fish (like a shark). It gets a free ride and leftover scraps of food, but the larger fish is neither helped nor harmed.
Parasitism is when one organism is benefited while the other is harmed or even killed. A well-known example is the tapeworm, which lives in the intestines of larger animals, stealing the larger animal's ingested food and often weakening the animal (called the host).
In my Diffusion series, humans and tree kangaroos form a symbiotic, mutualistic relationship, in which... well, you'll just have to read the series if you want to know more about that (you'll be glad you did).
Okay, back to the clownfish. Most clownfish species only form relationships with specific species of anemones. In fact, there are over 1,000 species of anemones, but only ten of those species can coexist with clownfish.
This is an example of mutualistic symbiosis. So, both animals benefit.
What does the clownfish get out of this? First, the sea anemone provides protection from predators. Sea anemone tentacles are poisonous and can sting and kill other fish. Second, the clownfish gets to eat scraps of fish left over from the anemone's meals, as well as anemone excrement and the occasional tentacle that breaks off. Third, the clownfish can raise its young in the safety of the tentacles.
What does the anemone get out of this deal? First, the clownfish defends the anemone from parasites and predators. Second, when the clownfish poops on the anemone, the nitrogen from this poop increases the amount of algae growing in the anemone's tissue. Third, if you watch a clownfish, you'll see that it constantly moves around among the anemone's tentacles. This movement helps circulate water around the anemone, increasing the anemone's oxygen intake.
Wow, how awesome is that relationship? Everybody wins! Well, except the prey fish that get attracted to the anemone's deadly stingers.
Below are two saddleback clownfish. Notice the juveniles beneath the anemone—we're going to talk about those in a moment.
Why do clownfish have such bright colors? One idea is that the bright colors attract small fish to the anemone, which are then killed by the anemone's stingers and consumed by the anemone.
Here's a good question... why don't the anemone's stingers harm or kill the clownfish? A layer of mucus on the clownfish's body protects it from the stings. When a clownfish decides to live with a new anemone, it does an elaborate "dance" among the anemone's tentacles. It swims about, touching the tentacles with different parts of its body, until the anemone becomes acclimated to its body.
It's worth pointing out that the fish's mucus is made up mostly of sugars instead of proteins, so it's possible the anemone may not recognize the fish as prey and therefore does not sting.
It's also worth pointing out that clownfish are not really immune to the anemone's stings. Studies have shown that, if the mucus is removed, the anemones can kill the clownfish. So, it's all about the mucus!
Check out this video about the clownfish/anemone relationship.
Below is a tomato clownfish.
Clownfish usually live in groups with an anemone, and the social structure is rather bizarre. We'll call the group of fish a colony. Each colony includes a breeding pair and then several additional, younger, non-dominant males. The breeding female is the boss, and she gets to live in the best room in the house, the top of the anemone. That's where the most food is (and I suppose it also has the best view).
Now here's where things get kind of weird. All clownfish are born as males. Yep, all of them. When something happens to the breeding female in a colony (the boss)—if she dies, for example—the breeding male switches sexes and becomes the breeding female (that was not a typo). The largest of the juvenile males then experiences a rapid spurt of growth and quickly develops into the breeding male.
Here's a good question... There's one breeding male, right? That male is the boss of the other males (but not of the female). Since that male likes being the one male lucky enough to breed with the female, why doesn't he kick all those smaller males out of the colony so that he doesn't have to worry about them sneaking upstairs and breeding with the female?
Here's the simplified answer. The smaller males modify their growth rate, purposely remaining small and submissive so that they are not a threat to the boss male. That way they get to stay in the colony, hoping to someday have the chance to become the boss male when the breeding female dies.
See? Clownfish are POSITIVE fish—always hopeful!
Below is a Clarkii clownfish.
Clownfish are wildly popular among aquarium enthusiasts. In fact, most of those you see in pet shops are bred in captivity rather than caught in the wild (Nemo would like that—he was caught in the wild). Selective breeding has resulted in a wide variety of "designer clownfish," with amazing colors and patterns. Below I put together several striking examples into one image.
So, the Clownfish deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Scrumptious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word scrumptious originated in 1833 in a humor piece about the fictional Major Jack Downing, written by Seba Smith. The word is thought to be a colloquial alteration of sumptuous. The original sumptuous describes something very expensive, of choice materials and fine work. Scrumptious, on the other hand, means "very pleasing, especially to the senses; delectable; splendid." So, it does not refer so much to the expense of what it describes. From Rudyard Kipling: "Whew! What a place! …" said Stalky, filling himself a pipe. "Isn't it scrumptious? …"
So, scrumptious is another way to say awesome!
Sea Otters - Wikimedia Commons
Knighting a penguin - Edinburgh Zoo
Macaques with snowballs - Weird Science vis Twitter
Nemo - Sticker image on Amazon product page
Clownfish #1 - GreatBarrierReefs.com
Saddleback clownfish - FishKeepingForever.com
Tomato clownfish - BuildYourAquarium.com
Clarkii clownfish - BuildYourAquarium.com
Hmm... have I featured a fish before? I don't think so. For the first fish featured as an Awesome Animal, I decided to use one most people probably haven't heard of before.
The Arapaima is unique because it is the largest fish living in freshwater. Another cool feature—it not only can breathe in water, like most fish, but it is also capable of breathing air!
What the heck is an Arapaima?
The arapaima, sometimes also called pirarucu or paiche, is a freshwater fish that lives in the rainforest rivers, swamps, and lakes of the Amazon basin of South America.
There are several species—up to five—but scientists do not all agree on this, and two of the species are so rare that their existence is questionable.
Amazing facts about the Arapaima
The arapaima is a big fish. They can grow over 15 feet (4.5 m) long and weigh up to 440 pounds (200 kg). There are plenty of ocean fish that get this large, but the arapaima is the largest fish that lives exclusively in freshwater.
Unfortunately, since the arapaima is an important food fish for local fishermen, they have been overfished, and their average size is now smaller, more like 7 feet (2.1 m) and 200 pounds (90 kg).
Arapaimas have extremely large scales. Each scale can be 2.4 inches (6 cm) across. As you can see from the photo above, the scales near the tail are often bright red. In fact, the name pirarucu comes from the Tupi language, and the word translates roughly to “red fish.”
Speaking of their scales, these large plates have evolved to be piranha proof! Since the arapaima lives in the same waters as piranhas, this is useful don't you think? The large, tough scales are made of mineralized collagen, making them extremely hard. Not only that, but the scales' corrugated shape makes them flexible so they don't break when piranhas bite.
Below are some kids feeding arapaima fish at a park.
Arapaimas can breathe air. You are probably familiar with the popular pet shop fish sometimes called the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens). It is a tiny fish that can live in a very small aquarium without oxygenated water. How does it breathe without much oxygen in the water? The betta fish has an organ called the labyrinth organ, and so does the arapaima.
The labyrinth organ is actually an extension of the gill plates (bone that anchors the gills) and is made of many folds of bone. Tiny blood vessels cover these folds and absorb oxygen from the air, kind of like lungs absorb air.
This ability to breathe air allows the arapaima to survive during the low water season when bodies of water become isolated and stagnant. This fish can survive in water with almost no dissolved oxygen (as low as 0.5 ppm).
Here's another benefit for this fish for having a labyrinth organ. During the low water season, other fish struggle to get enough oxygen from the water, and they become very slow and lethargic. Can you guess what arapaimas eat? Yep, other fish. So, they can gulp the air they need and then cruise around, sucking up all the lethargic fish. Like fish in a barrel, as they say.
When an arapaima takes a big gulp of air, it can then stay under water for 10 to 20 minutes before surfacing for another gulp. As you can imagine, they make a loud gulping sound when they do this.
Although arapaimas rarely attack humans, these fish have a habit of leaping out of the water when startled. This sometimes results in the massive fish capsizing the small boats that startle them. So, I suppose in that respect they could be considered dangerous.
Check out this video of a fisherman catching an arapaima.
Because arapaimas must come to the surface to breathe, they are fairly easy for fishermen to catch. The local fishermen often paddle around in their homemade canoes and skewer the fish with harpoons. See the fisherman below with his catch.
Unfortunately, arapaimas have been heavily overfished, and they have become extinct in some areas of their range. In other areas, their numbers are dwindling fast. Here's the good news, though. In areas where the government is actively regulating arapaima fishing (setting limits, seasons, etc.), these fish are actually thriving. Yay!!! In my opinion, it is a real tragedy when any species goes extinct, particularly when it is a result of human activity.
So, the Arapaime deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Sterling Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word sterling, of course, refers to British money and to sterling silver (or things made of sterling silver). The word originated in about 1300, probably from the Middle English word sterre (meaning star), from the stars that were pressed onto certain Norman coins. In the mid 1500s, the word was broadened to refer to "money having the quality of sterling." Then in 1600 it was broadened again to refer to "English money in general." A pound sterling originally meant a pound of sterlings, which was about 240 sterlings. At some point, the word began referring to "capable of standing to a test" (as a a good quality coin would). Then, finally, people started to use the term as an adjective to mean "genuine and reliable" or "first class." For example, of sterling character, or a sterling record of achievement.
So, sterling is another way to say awesome!
Tree chewed by beaver - Trish Smith
Beaver chewing tree - AnimatedFX on Flickr
Arapaima #1 - Tennessee Aquarium
Children feeding arapaima - Pinterest
Diagram of Labyrinth organ - My Aquarium Club
Fisherman carrying arapaima - Sergio Ricardo de Oliveira via NBC News
Fishermen with two arapaima - Leandro Castello via LiveScience
Sometimes I see a particular animal, and I think, Whoa... that's so weird it's awesome! The Babirusa is just such an animal. It's a pig, but it's very different from all other types of pigs. In fact, it makes me think of some of those long-extinct mammals from prehistoric times.
What the heck is a Babirusa?
Basically, this creature is a pig, but babirusas branched off from the other groups of pigs long ago. They've been separated from the other pigs for somewhere between 10 and 20 million years!
Babirusas grow to about 3.7 feet (1.1 m) long and about 220 pounds (100 kg). The four species of babirusas are found on a few islands in Indonesia, Specifically, the islands of Sulawesi, Togian, Sula, and Buru. Don't those exotic names make you want to go visit these islands?
One of the most astounding things about babirusas is their teeth. I'm not kidding—they have some seriously impressive teeth. Or messed-up teeth, depending on how you look at it.
Amazing facts about Babirusas
Before we talk about the teeth, let's further consider what these creatures really are. As I said above, these creatures are classified in the pig family (Suidae), but they are quite different from other pigs. For example, unlike other pigs, babirusas have complex, two-chambered stomachs, kind of like those of sheep and other ruminant mammals.
Also, babirusas do not have the stiff rostral bone in their snouts like other pigs do. So, their snouts are much softer, and they cannot dig with their snouts except in soft mud.
Babirusas are also called deer-pigs. It is thought that the people of Sulawesi came up with the name babirusa (in Malay, babi = pig, rusa = deer) because the creature's long tusks reminded them of the antlers of deer. But it is also possible that the name comes from the creature's unusually thin legs (for a pig).
Babirusas live in swampy rainforest areas along river banks. They are not picky eaters, and will eat just about anything. They like leaves, fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, bark, insects, fish, and small mammals. They are even known to eat smaller babirusas. As I said above, they can't dig with their snouts, but they use their specialized hooves to dig for insect larvae and roots in the ground.
Like many pigs, babirusas are fond of mud. The mud helps them keep parasites off their bodies.
Okay, let's talk about those crazy teeth, which are long enough that they are often called tusks. Both the males and the females have the lower tusks, which can be pretty impressive. They overlap the edge of the creature's snout as they grow upward (there just isn't room inside the mouth!). Even more impressive, though, are the upper tusks, which only the males have.
The first thing to point out is that babirusa teeth never stop growing. As long as the animal is alive, the teeth keep growing larger and longer. The upper tusks start out by growing downward, but then they quickly curve around and start growing upward. Astoundingly, they grow right through the top of the snout.
Then these amazing teeth just keep growing. If they don't break off, or if the males do not grind them down against a hard surface, the tusks will curve all the way back and touch the creature's forehead, Although it is rare, sometimes they will even grow right through the skull into the animal's brain. Yikes!
The question is, what is the purpose of such extreme teeth? The answer... we don't know for sure. Originally, and understandably, it was thought that the lower tusks were used by males when they would fight for mates, and the upper tusks protected their eyes during these altercations. Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, until you actually observe male babirusas fighting (which they do often). When they fight, they stand up on their hind legs and box, holding their heads high to protect their tusks, which are actually brittle and are not built to withstand much pressure
Check out this video about Babirusas and their teeth.
So, what are the teeth for? Well, there is a popular story told by locals where babirusas live, which says that the males use them to hang from trees to wait quietly until a female passes by. Umm... I think we can safely rule that idea out as being a whimsical story, right? (although I like the mental image of these creatures hanging around in the rainforest).
Probably, the most likely purpose of the teeth is to impress females (kind of like the tail display of a male peacock). The longer the tusks, the more attractive a male is to the females. However, we won't really know this for sure until extensive studies show it to be true.
Compared to the bizarre appearance of the males, female babirusas look more like other types of pigs. The babies are just as cute as any pig babies (in my opinion).
So, the Babirusa deserves a place in the P.B.A.H.O.F.
(Pure Barry Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase pure barry is distinctly Scottish in origin, used primarily in Edinburgh, and its first recorded use was in 1923. The Scottish National Dictionary defines the term to mean: “fine; smart; used to describe something very good of its type.” Example of use: "That Bridgers 1 book is pure barry, mate. Pure barry, that book." So, pure barry is another way to say awesome!
(Thanks to reader Ed Hohmann for telling me about pure barry.)
Animal tracks - Stan C. Smith
Sidewinder tracks - HeyPugshund via Tumblr
Fictional woman - https://www.thispersondoesnotexist.com
Babirusa #1 - Dunnock_D licensed CC BY-NC 2.0
Babirusa in mud - SmallAnimalPlanet
Babirusa skull - UNCL Museums and Collections
Female babirusa with piglets - San Diego Zoo
Sometimes I feel compelled to bring justice to certain animals that have an unfairly nasty reputation. Snakes, for example, do not deserve to be almost universally hated. Mice are another example... what could be more harmless than a mouse? Chiggers on the other hand... well, don't get me started on those evil demons from hell.
What do you think of when you hear the name Vampire Bat? I'm guessing that the thoughts going through your head are not exactly pleasant. So, my duty today is to inspire a bit more respect and admiration for this creature.
What the heck is a Vampire Bat?
First of all, not all bats are vampire bats. In fact, of the 1,300 or so species of bats in the world, only THREE of those species are vampire bats. All bats are in the order Chiroptera, and the three species of vampire bats happen to be in the family, Phyllostomidae, also called the leaf-nosed bats. The three species include the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat. Vampire bats can be found from Mexico south into South America.
What makes vampire bats so unique among bats is their feeding habits. They have evolved to consume blood, a habit called hematophagy. That's all they eat—blood. No insects, no fruit, no nectar, not even asiago cheese bagels. They don't even drink water. Just blood. This habit, of course, is the source of all the unwarranted human derision of these animals.
Amazing facts about Vampire Bats
These bats were named after vampires, not the other way around. Since vampire bats live only in the New World, they were not described in scientific literature until 1810. As you probably know, myths about blood-sucking humans called vampires existed long before that. And then, in 1897, Bram Stoker's Dracula was released, and thus was born the silly idea that vampires could shape-shift into the form of a bat. As you can imagine, the vampire bat's reputation went downhill from there. By the way, Stoker also allowed Count Dracula to shape-shift into mist and into a wolf.
Even the medical community has embraced the pop culture association of bats and vampires! A Venezuelan research team isolated a new anticoagulant from one of the vampire bat species. They named the substance "Draculin."
Vampire bats are small, averaging only 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) in body length and two ounces (56 g) in weight, although that weight can double during a good feeding. I mention this because people often assume they are much larger. In fact, Bram Stoker himself wrote the following quote in Dracula: "I have not seen anything pulled down so quick since I was on the Pampas and had a mare ... One of those big bats that they call 'vampires' had got at her during the night and ... there wasn't enough blood in her to let her stand up." Hmm... perhaps Stoker didn't realize vampire bats only weigh two ounces.
Vampire bats very rarely attack humans. That's not to say that they are picky eaters—they will feed on the blood of just about any animal. Mostly they feed on birds and farm animals, but they have been known to feed on porcupines, armadillos, snakes, sea lions, and even penguins. Notice the tiny size of these white-winged vampire bats feeding on a sleeping chicken:
Let's take a closer look at vampire bats' feeding habits. First of all, these bats do not suck blood. Instead, they make a small skin puncture with their needle-sharp teeth, and then they use their tongue to lap up blood that comes from the puncture. They can consume about one ounce (30 ml) in one night, and it usually takes them about thirty minutes to lap up this much blood. As you can probably guess, they only feed at night.
Now this is interesting... If vampire bats go more than 48 hours without a meal, they die. When a vampire bat has a hard time finding enough food during the night, it will fly back to the roost (sometimes a roost may have hundreds of bats). There, the other bats that were more successful will regurgitate their extra blood so that the hungry bats can get enough to eat. Wow! See how friendly vampire bats can be? These creatures have their own social safety net.
This odd social behavior gets even more amazing. Research has shown that vampire bats will only regurgitate blood for other bats that are either close family or friends. The close family part of that statement is not surprising. It's the friends part that I find most fascinating. As it turns out, while vampire bats are hanging out (literally) in the roost during the day, they make friends. How do they make friends? For a bat to make a friend, it must take the time to groom and socialize with another bat (socializing basically involves snuggling up together). And it takes one to two months of grooming and snuggling before a bat is considered a friend.
Check out this video of vampire bats making friends
So, bats that do not invest the time and effort to make friends are at risk of starving whenever they have a bad night hunting for blood.
See what I mean? Vampires bats have to be friendly! (I wonder if there is a lesson we can learn from this...?)
Let's look at how they actually hunt and feed. These bats have infrared perception in their snouts. These heat-seeking sensors help them find warm-blooded animals and then help them find veins that are near the skin's surface (kind of like my sensors that zero in on a good taco bar). Also, like other bats, vampire bats use echolocation (seeing with sound), allowing them to find their way around in the dark.
Bats are the only mammals that can fly (gliding doesn't count). While most bats cannot walk, vampire bats are the only mammals that have ancestors that evolved flight, then lost the ability to walk, and then re-evolved the ability to walk. Yep, these little guys can scoot along at three feet (1 m) per second. That's pretty useful for an animal that needs to land and then sneak up on a larger animal to steal some blood. Check out the bat's walking mechanics below.
Okay, so the bat lands near its source of food, such as a sleeping cow, then it walks over to the cow and locates a vein near the surface. The bat uses its unbelievably sharp incisor teeth (these teeth do not have enamel, so they remain permanently razor sharp) to puncture the skin. So that the cow's blood does not clot up and stop flowing, the bat's saliva contains anticoagulants (yep, one of those anticoagulants is the one called Draculin).
Usually, the sleeping animal doesn't even know its blood has been stolen.
Finally (and this part is really cool), vampire bats have their favorite restaurants. Let's face it, a 2-ounce bat feeding on a massive pig or cow is risking its life for a meal. The larger animal could step on the bat, roll over on it, or even slap it with a wing, hoof, or tail, smashing it instantly. So, when a bat finds an animal that is particularly easy to feed on (a nice fat vein near the surface, an animal that sleeps soundly, etc.), then the bat will return to that same animal night after night.
How do they find the same animal? Vampire bats can locate their prey by sensing the sound of an animal breathing. In fact, this is so sensitive that they can even recognize the breathing pattern of one specific animal, allowing them to return to that particular buffet night after night.
The vampire bat below is feeding on a donkey's hoof.
Again, vampire bats rarely feed on humans (humans happen to have hands for swatting, which we can do even when we are asleep, so we are kind of dangerous to these bats). They aren't picky, however, so if you sleep in the open air (without a tent) where vampire bats live, your arms and legs are fair game.
So, the Vampire Bat deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F.
(Lulu Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word lulu originated in 1886. It refers to any remarkable or outstanding person or thing ("I read my first Bridgers book the other day, and it was a lulu."). This word is thought to have originated as a reference to Lulu Hurst. Who is Lulu Hurst? She was also called the "Georgia Wonder." She was a popular attraction from 1883 to 1885. Supposedly, she possessed a mysterious force that "allowed her to effortlessly move, with just a light touch, umbrellas and canes held tight by others." She was only 15 when she became famous for this act. So, lulu is another way to say awesome!
Icy leaves - Stan C. Smith
Snow flake - Wikipedia
Electron microscope image - Wikipedia
Terminator - James Bareham/Polygon
Vampire bat #1 - Uwe Schmidt - Wikimedia Commons
White-winged vampire bats feeding on chicken - Bat Conservation International/J. Scott Altenbach
Vampire bats roosting - Josh More/Flickr
Walking vampire bat - Daniel K. Riskin, John W. Hermanson
Vampire bat feeding on donkey's hoof - Adrian Warren via The New York Times
My new Across Horizons series features many fascinating creatures (some of them scary, some not so much). One animal that makes several important appearances in the first book (titled Obsolete Theorem) is the Woolly Rhinoceros.
The woolly rhino, now extinct, is one of those iconic Ice Age creatures, along with such animals as the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, and the saber-toothed cats.
What the heck is a Woolly Rhinoceros?
First, the woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) was... well, woolly. It had a long, thick coat of fur to help it stay warm in a freezing climate.
Woolly rhinos stood about 6.5 feet (1.98 m) high at the shoulder. This is taller than most humans and about the size of the modern white rhinoceros. They weighed up to 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg) and were about 12.5 feet (3.8 m) long. Woolly rhinos lived throughout Europe and northern Asia, and they existed from about 350,000 years ago to the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.
Amazing facts about the Woolly Rhinoceros
The woolly rhino had the widest range of any rhinoceros species. It lived in most of the areas where woolly mammoths lived... except for North America. For some reason, woolly rhinos did not cross the Bering land bridge, although no one seems to know exactly why. I suppose it's possible that a few woolly rhinos made it to North America, but since no remains have been found, there must not have been very many that made it. Some scientists suggest that woolly rhinos didn't cross the land bridge because they could not survive in a tundra environment.
Woolly rhinos had two horns, and the horn on the end of their snout was really long, up to 4.6 feet (1.4 m). This long horn faced forward more than the horns of modern rhinos. Why? It is thought that woolly rhinos used their long horns like a snow shovel, scooping deep snow to the sides so they could eat the plants beneath it.
By the way, rhinoceros horns are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up hair, fingernails, claws, feathers, hooves, calluses, and the outer layer of skin of many animals. Because these horns are made of keratin, and they do not have a bony core like the horns of some animals, rhino horns do not fossilize.
So, if the horns didn't fossilize, how do we know what the horns looked like? Because some woolly rhinos have been found that were preserved in permafrost (soil that is permanently frozen throughout the year). And since woolly rhinos existed relatively recently (10,000 years ago is VERY recent by evolutionary standards), some of these frozen horns are still intact (not fossilized... just frozen). Below is an amazingly well preserved woolly rhino found by gold miners in Siberia in 2007. It died and became permanently frozen about 39,000 years ago, which happens to be fairly close to when Skyra lived. Notice that much of the fur is missing, except on parts of the legs and head.
Perhaps an even more remarkable find is Sasha. Sasha is a juvenile woolly rhino found in 2014 (also in Siberia), and in this case nearly all of the fur was intact. Scientists carefully cleaned the 34,000-year-old skin and fur and arranged it in standing pose to show what the creature looked like in life. Kind of cute, huh?
Ancient humans were apparently impressed by woolly rhinos. Images of these creatures are found among numerous cave paintings. Perhaps the most impressive set of cave painting ever found is the Chauvet Cave in southern France. This cave wasn't discovered until 1994, and it is packed with spectacular paintings that have been dated at 30,000 to 33,000 years old. Among the most common animals depicted—the woolly rhino.
Hmm... these cave paintings stimulate the imagination, don't they? Why did these people 30,000 years ago paint animals on cave walls? This is an interesting question, but the problem is, these people are long gone and we know nothing about their culture and the way they thought about things. So, all we can really do is guess. When someone painted a woolly rhino, were they simply painting the animal they liked to hunt and eat? Or perhaps they were painting a supernatural spirit? Or maybe they were depicting a family member whose soul they believed now exists in the form of an animal. Perhaps the cave could have even been a classroom, in which the children were encouraged to draw whatever came to their minds at the time. I guess we'll never know, will we?
Another thing we may never know for sure is how frequently humans (and Neanderthals) hunted woolly rhinos. Rhino bones have been found alongside human bones in caves, but these particular caves were not natural habitats for either the humans or the rhinos. This suggests that other animals, such as hyenas, may have dragged the bones into these caves.
Some weapons and tools were made with rhino bones, but these could have been bones from carcasses the humans found.
Perhaps the best evidence we have is rhino bones that have marks likely caused by human tools or weapons (some caused by a sharp object, maybe a spear).
Anyway, I'm pretty sure that when humans or Neanderthals encountered a woolly rhino, it was a rather exciting event.
Check out this video of a Neanderthal/woolly rhino encounter.
So, the Woolly Rhinoceros deserves a place in the H.A.H.O.F.
(Humdinger Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first documented use of the word humdinger was in 1883. It is considered an Americanism, and it refers to something or someone truly remarkable (The mayor gave a humdinger of a speech). The word may have originated by combining hummer and dinger, both of which were used to refer to something exceptional. Humdinger is also often used to describe something that is large (It was a humdinger of a storm), which makes this word particularly suited for the woolly rhino. So, humdinger is another way to say awesome!
For some strange reason, one of my favorite parts of the classic movie Elf (with Will Ferrell) is the brief scene involving Mr. Narwhal. I can't explain it, but it cracks me up every time (Bye, Buddy. I hope you find your dad.).
Here's a question for you... Do you remember the exact moment you learned that narwhals are actually real? I'm being serious here. I had seen pictures of them when I was a kid, but I just assumed they were some kind of mythical beast, like the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the crazy monsters they used to draw in the oceans on those really old maps.
Perhaps learning that narwhals are real is part of how I became so fascinated with animals.
What the heck is a Narwhal?
Narwhals are toothed whales. Toothed whales are those that... well, they have teeth. The group includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga whales, killer whales, sperm whales, and the beaked whales.
Hmm... yes, narwhals are in the toothed whale group, but oddly they only have a few teeth, and they don't chew with those teeth at all. They gum their prey.
By the way... if you were a whale, and you were NOT a toothed whale, you would be a baleen whale. All whales fit into one or the other of these two major groups.
The word narwhal literally means corpse whale. Nar is an Old Norse word that means corpse. Narwhals got this name because their skin is usually mottled gray (like the skin of a drowned sailer), and because in the summer these whales often float at the surface without moving (again, like a drowned sailer).
Often called unicorns of the sea, Narwhals are unique among whales because the males possess a very long tusk, which looks like a unicorn horn. Well, actually that's a silly comparison, because unicorns don't exist. It would be better to say that narwhal tusks look similar to the way artists typical draw horns of the mythical unicorn. Perhaps because people came up with the idea of unicorns after observing narwhals.
Amazing facts about Narwhals
Let's talk about this crazy tusk first. As I stated above, usually only male narwhals have these. The tusk is actually a modified canine tooth (remember I said they only have a few teeth?). It grows out from the left side of the upper jaw, right through the lip, and it forms a spiral as it grows.
These tusks never stop growing (well, until the whale dies, that is), and they can get up to 10 feet (3.1 m) long! For comparison, male narwhals, not including the tusk, are about 15 feet (4.5 m) long and weigh 3,500 pounds (1,590 kg). Females are slightly smaller.
Usually, it's only the left canine tooth that grows into a tusk. But in one of about every 500 male narwhals the right canine grows out as well. So there are actually narwhals that have TWO tusks. Also, about 15% of the females grow a tusk (although only one female has ever been found that had two tusks... that female was collected in 1684).
Check out this narwhal skull and tusk:
What in the heck is the function of this bizarre tusk? That's a bit of a mystery. Scientists have come up with plenty of explanations. One idea is that the tusk is used as a weapon against predators (polar bears, orcas, and sharks) and to spear fish for their dinner. Or maybe they use it to dig for prey on the ocean floor. Another idea is that they use it to puncture the surface ice to make breathing holes (narwhals live mainly in far north arctic waters). Some scientists have suggested the tusk is an acoustic organ (tusks are hollow, and narwhals communicate with clicks and whistles).
One thing is for sure. The tusk is not essential for survival—most females don't have them, and the females live longer than the males.
The leading theory is that the tusk is for sexual selection. Males are often seen with their heads out of the water, hitting and rubbing their tusks together as if they are sword fighting. This is called tusking, and scientists have often assumed this is a way for males to establish dominance.
But wait! There's more to this mystery. A 2014 study found that narwhal tusks contain millions of highly sensitive nerve endings. These nerve endings are particularly suited to detect ocean water conditions. So, scientists have suggested that when males rub their tusks together, they are actually exchanging information about the nature of the water they have recently traveled through. Whoa... that's cool.
And there's more! In 2016, drones were used to film narwhals, and for the first time ever they were observed using their tusks to stun fish (arctic cod), which they would then eat.
Check out this video showing this feeding behavior.
My guess is that narwhal tusks are multi-purpose tools. Most likely, they are used for sexual selection, but they are apparently useful for a variety of other tasks. They are the Swiss Army knives of the whale world!
One more rather odd thing regarding a narwhal tusk. On November 29 there was a tragic and violent attack that concluded on London Bridge. A knife-wielding man began attacking innocent people at a prison rehabilitation program. Darryn Frost, a civil servant in Britain’s Justice Ministry, grabbed a long narwhal tusk from the wall in Fishmonger's Hall (beside London Bridge), and confronted the man, eventually (along with several others), chasing the man onto London Bridge and subduing him (the attacker was then shot). Anyway, this is the only instance that I know of in which someone used a narwhal tusk as a weapon. Frost is now considered a hero.
The narwhal's closest relative is the beluga whale (which looks like a white narwhal without a tusk). They are so closely related, in fact, that they sometimes mate and produce hybrid offspring. This is very rare, though. In Greenland in 1990, an unusual whale skull was found. The skull was unlike any scientists had seen before, but it had characteristics of both the beluga whale and the narwhal. Finally, in 2019, DNA analysis proved that the skull was indeed a hybrid between the two species.
Below is a 1920 illustration of the two species.
Fortunately, although narwhals are very secretive and difficult to find, they are designated as a species of "least concern" (not threatened or endangered). Scientists estimate the population to be about 125,000.
However, arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate, which will result in more ships moving through the waters where narwhals live. Unfortunately, narwhals are vulnerable to ships. They become extremely frightened and stressed when ships pass by. Also, their habit of lying motionless at the surface results in collisions. But for now, they seem to be doing okay.
So, the Narwhal deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F.
(Lollapalooza Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first documented use of the word lollapalooza was in 1904. It is considered an Americanism, and it refers to something or someone truly remarkable. Oddly, no one seems to know exactly how the word originated. Lollapalooza is also the name of a popular annual music festival. How did the festival get this name? Legend has it that Perry Farrell (of the band Jane's Addiction) named the festival Lollapalooza in 1991 after hearing the word in a Three Stooges short film. So, lollapalooza is another way to say awesome!
The other day, Trish shared a post with me that featured several photos of a flower mantis. The creature was so beautiful that at first I wondered if it was even real. Well, flower mantises are indeed real. Somehow I had never known about them before!
So, I decided to feature the flower mantis today, in case some of you have never heard of them. Yes, they are real.
By the way, the person who found the above female flower mantis (in the Nkutu Valley, South Africa) named it Miss Frilly Pants.
What the heck is a Flower Mantis?
The flower mantises include about 1,800 species (wow!), most of them in the family Hymenopodidae. They are found in East Africa, as well as in South and East Asia.
Like all mantises, flower mantises are extremely skilled and deadly predators. This, in fact, is why they look like flowers. They use a strategy called aggressive mimicry, which can most easily be described as a wolf in sheep's clothing. More on that below.
I wish I could provide photos of all 1,800 species, but I'll have to settle on just a few.
Amazing facts about Flower Mantises
Flower mantises are tricky predators. As I mentioned above, they use aggressive mimicry. This is not the same thing as camouflage (which is blending into the surroundings so as to not be detected). Aggressive mimicry is when a predator is disguised as something that is harmless to its prey. In fact, it is usually something that attracts its prey. So, instead of blending into the surroundings (camouflage), the predator stands out so that it is very visible. It just isn't what it appears to be.
Another example of aggressive mimicry is the alligator snapping turtle. The turtle sits on the bottom of a stream or pond, opens its mouth, and wriggles its pink tongue. To a fish, the tongue resembles a wriggling worm. The fish swims right into the turtle's mouth, and.... snap! Hence the name, snapping turtle.
Predators that use aggressive mimicry don't have to go hunting for their prey. They simply sit and wait for the prey to come to them.
By looking like flowers, flower mantises attract pollinating insects that like to feed on the flower nectar. The insects see the "flower," they fly right up to it, and... snap!
Check out the orchid mantis below, beside an actual orchid that it mimics.
Scientists have been fascinated by flower mantises for well over 100 years. One of the first people to describe them (although incorrectly) was the travel writer James Hingston in 1879. Hingston mistakingly thought that the flower mantis he was watching was actually an insect-eating plant:
"I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network."
So, the mantis's mimicry worked so well that it even fooled this human observer.
I feel compelled to further explore this type of mimicry. Actually, for a long time scientists mistakingly believed that flower mantises were an example of cryptic mimicry. In other words, scientists assumed the mantises looked similar to flowers so that they could hide among the flowers and wait for insects that were attracted to the flowers. There are plenty of examples of such cryptic mimicry, such as the crab spider in the photo below, which has just caught an unsuspecting wasp. Keep in mind that the wasp was attracted to the flower itself, not to the spider.
For many years, this is what scientists believed flower mantises were doing. Eventually, however, they began to realize this isn't true of the flower mantis. Flower mantises do not hide within the flowers. In fact, they don't hide at all. They usually sit upon a background of green leaves so that they stand out. They are not trying to hide. They want to be seen.
And this gets even stranger. It turns out that flower mantises are even better at attracting insects than the flowers themselves. If you put a flower mantis side-by-side with a similar flower, insects will visit the mantis more often than the flower.
What? How can that be possible? We have to get into a bit of bug psychology to understand it. When we humans look at a flower mantis, it might fool us at first, but as we look closer, we see that something isn't quite right, and soon we figure out that it is an insect instead of a flower. That's how our brains work. Bees and flies, on the other hand, do not have this capability. They simply see the mantis's color, and they think, "Ooh, a flower... yummy!" Then they dart right in for some nectar, and... snap!
So, insects are simply attracted to the specific color and the general shape of a flower, not really the details. The thing is, flower mantises usually do not look like any one specific type of flower. Instead, they have the characteristics of several kinds of flowers. In other words, they are structured to look like a generalized flower. And they attract more insects because some insects are specific in which type of flower they like... so, it is helpful to the mantis to look like several types!
Flower mantises are actually the first animals we've ever discovered that capture their prey by mimicking a complete flower.
Unlike other mantises that grab prey insects that are crawling on the ground or on a plant, flower mantises grab their prey out of the air. This happens in a fraction of a second, and the mantises are really deadly in their aim.
Check out this cool video about flower mantises.
Since these insects are so amazing to look at, I'll wrap this up by showing a few more examples:
So, the Flower Mantis deserves a place in the R.A.H.O.F.
(Ripsnorter Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first documented use of the word ripsnorter was in 1840. It is considered an Americanism, and it refers to something or someone extraordinary ("That fiddler played a ripsnorter of a song"). It can also refer to something intense or violent ("That was a ripsnorter of a storm"). Flower mantises are definitely extraordinary, and they are also extremely powerful predators. So, it fits. Ripsnorter is another way to say awesome!
Flower Mantis #1 - Waterfall Retreat & Environmental Centre Facebook Page
Orchid mantis and orchid - Igor Siwanowicz via The Conversation
Crab spider - Olaf Leillinger/Wikimedia via The Conversation
Purple spiny flower mantis - iNaturalist via Twitter
Very thin flower mantis - PXFuel - Creative Commons
Flower mantis on tip with buds - Roger Meerts/Shutterstock via Discover Magazine
Flower mantis on rolled-up leaf - Thinkstock via Mentalfloss
There are two reasons why I chose the reindeer for this post. The first one is obvious, right? It's close to Christmas.
The second reason? Because reindeer play a role in the upcoming first book in my new series. The series is titled Across Horizons, and it is my own twist on time travel (more information on the series in future newsletters). The first book takes place 47,000 years in the past, when reindeer roamed much of the northern hemisphere in vast herds. At the time, there were also cave lions, cave bears, woolly rhinos, and countless other impressive mammals... but again, more on that later.
What the heck is a Reindeer?
Everyone has heard of reindeer, but does everyone know much about the actual wild animal? First, you should know that in North America these creatures are called caribou. Yep, caribou and reindeer are the same species.
As the name suggests, they are a species of deer, with the scientific name of Rangifer tarandus. They are all the same species, but there are at least 13 different subspecies, usually separated into geographically distinct "herds."
Amazing facts about Reindeer
Reindeer have what's called a circumpolar distribution. This means they exist all the way around the world at far north latitudes (near the North Pole). So, they can be found in the cold, northern regions of North America, Greenland, Europe, and Siberia.
Reindeer have impressive antlers. In fact, relative to body size, they have the largest, heaviest antlers of all the living species of deer. A male's antlers can reach up to 51 inches (130 cm) long. Moose can have larger antlers, but they also have much larger bodies.
Keep in mind that antlers and horns are not the same thing. Antlers are made of bone, they usually are branched, and they grow and fall off every year. Antlers are features of the deer family (Cervidae). Horns have a bony core covered by a keratin sheath (keratin is the protein that makes up hair, skin, and fingernails). Horns, which are a permanent part of the body and do not fall off, are features of the Bovidae family (cattle, sheep, goats, bison, and others).
Reindeer are the only species of deer in which both males and females grow antlers. Here is an interesting thought. Male reindeer start growing their antlers in March or April and then shed them by early December (before Christmas). Female reindeer start growing their antlers in May or June, and they don't shed them until they start having calves in the spring. Hmm... In every movie or picture of Santa and his sleigh, the reindeer have antlers. This means all those reindeer are FEMALE. Oh no, my head is going to explode! I've always thought Rudolph, and at least some of the others, were boys.
Well, hold on a second... The timing of antler shedding in males can sometimes be affected by other factors. For example, young males can keep their antlers longer. Also, males that are neutered may not lose their antlers until April. Do we dare imagine that Santa may have neutered his reindeer?
Anyway, reindeer antlers can be quite impressive.
Although reindeer all belong to one species, the various subspecies can be quite different. In some subspecies, the males can grow to over 550 pounds (250 kg). The males of the smallest subspecies, the Svalbard reindeer, average only about 150 pounds (68 kg).
Hmmm... let's think about this. The very first time people were introduced to the idea of Santa having reindeer was in 1823. This was when Clement C. Moore published his poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (also known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" from the poem's first line). In this poem, Moore described the reindeer as "tiny." That makes sense to me—we certainly don't need a 550-pound reindeer falling through the roof. So... logically, Santa's reindeer must be Svalbard reindeer. But this means that all the movies have it wrong, as they always use huge, full-sized reindeer. So confusing!
As I said, the first mention of Santa having reindeer was Moore's poem. Moore provided the names Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Wait, what? Dunder and Blixem? Eventually, these last two were changed from Dutch to German, and they became Donner and Blitzen. But still, these two stand out. Why? Because all the others make sense in English. In German, Donner means "thunder" and Blitzen means "flash."
While I'm on a roll with Santa connections, what about Rudolph? Well, he (or she...?) wasn't introduced until 1939. That's when Robert L. May, a catalog writer for Montgomery Ward, wrote a children's book for the department store. The book was written in verse, and May titled it, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Here's what the original looked like:
Hmm... no antlers on the original Rudolph. In fact, it didn't look much like a reindeer at all.
Okay, I have to address something I've wondered about all my life. Where did the idea come from that reindeer could fly? For my benefit and yours, I did a bit of research on this. As it turns out, this idea might be much older than you think. The anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, in his book "The Reindeer People," provides details of Reindeer Stones. These are stones that ancient people (as long ago as 3,000 years) embedded vertically in the ground. Reindeer stones are found in various places throughout the world but particularly in Siberia and Mongolia. Various animals were carved upon these stones. However, one animal was carved far more often than any other—the reindeer.
The odd thing about these carved reindeer is that they are depicted with their neck outstretched, their front legs flung out in front, and their back legs flung out behind. And often the sun is framed within the creature's antlers, as if the artists were depicting the reindeer flying through the sky.
Below is a set of "reindeer stones."
So, perhaps some ancient peoples thought of reindeer as having superpowers, including the ability to fly. The Pazyryk people were an ancient nomadic culture in the Altai mountains of Siberia. Their mummified remains are really cool because these people had a habit of covering their bodies with elaborate tattoos, and many of these tattoos are still clearly visible. Guess what was often depicted in their tattoos.... yep, flying reindeer.
Below is an actual mummified tattoo depicting a reindeer that seems to be flying. The image is shown more clearly on the right. Notice that this tattoo even shows the reindeer with a bird's beak.
So, it seems that the idea of flying reindeer is not a new concept at all. Now, back to real reindeer...
Some reindeer subspecies migrate, others don't. Those that do migrate, though, can be pretty impressive. A few populations of reindeer in North America migrate farther than any other land animal, up to 3,100 miles each year. To accomplish this, they average about 23 miles per day. Sometimes these migrating herds can include as many as 500,000 individuals!
Check out this video of the Western Caribou Arctic Herd in Alaska.
Rivers and lakes don't slow the reindeer down as they migrate. Adults can swim long distances at 4 mph (6.4 km/hr), and they can swim 6 mph (10 km/hr) when they are in a real hurry.
Check out this video of a swimming herd.
A migrating herd of thousands of reindeer must be an amazing sight to see.
One last random fact: An entire reindeer was once found inside the stomach of a Greenland shark. I just thought you might want to know that.
So, the Reindeer deserves a place in the P.A.H.O.F.
(Primo Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word primo originated in the mid 1700s. In Italian it literally means first. By the late 1700s it was primarily a musical term, meaning the first or leading part in an ensemble. Much more recently, the word has been adopted to describe something as excellent or first class ("That's a primo flying reindeer tattoo you got there."). In the1990s, it was often used as street slang to describe the high quality of drugs ("This is some primo weed, man!"). So, primo is another way to say awesome!
Reindeer herd #1 - Creative Commons via pxfuel.com
Reindeer with big antlers - National Park Service
Rudolph book - Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College via NPR
Reindeer stones - Alix Guillard, Wikimedia Commons, via Earthtouchnews
Reindeer tattoo - SiberianTimes via DailyMail
Large reindeer herd - ADF&G via National Park Service
I can't help it. I have to feature another amphibian (in my last post I featured the Caecilian). After all, Bridgers 6 is filled with awesome amphibians, so these critters are on my mind lately.
Bridgers 6 takes place on an alternate version of Earth teeming with creatures descended from amphibians. There are big ones, small ones, scary ones, and tall ones!
What's the biggest amphibian on our own version of Earth, you ask? Without a doubt, it's the Chinese giant salamander.
What the heck is a Chinese giant salamander?
Hiding in rocky streams in the Yangtze river basin of central China is an amazing salamander that grows to six feet (1.8 meters) long and weighs up to 110 pounds (50 kg). They are known to live at least sixty years, and possibly much longer. For a long time, scientists thought there was only one species, but genetic analysis indicates there are probably three or more distinct species.
Giant salamanders belong to the family Cryptobranchidae. There is actually one other member of this family, the hellbender (also known as the snot otter), which grows to two feet long and lives in the eastern United States (I featured the hellbender back in May).
Amazing facts about Chinese giant salamanders
Giant salamanders are considered living fossils because the Cryptobranchidae family has been around for 170 million years. Much of their history was during the time of dinosaurs! They have changed very little during all that time.
Giant salamanders spend their entire lives under water. Surprisingly, though, they do not have gills. Heck, they don't even have lungs. They get their oxygen by absorbing it directly through their skin. So, as you would expect, they need to live in streams with fast-moving, highly-oxygenated water. See all those folds of skin on the creature's sides? Those folds increase the surface area of the skin, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen absorbed.
Giant salamanders are predators, and they eat almost anything that moves and will fit in their mouth. They will suck up aquatic insects, worms, frogs, other salamanders, freshwater crabs, shrimp, and fish. They even eat smaller individuals of their own species, In fact, one study found that 28% of all the food found in the bellies of 79 giant salamanders was other giant salamanders.
Above I mentioned that they suck up their prey. This is called the gape-and-suck method, and it's actually a highly effective way to feed (many fish do this too). Here's how it works. When they sense prey in front of them, they greatly increase the size of their throat and pop open their mouth. This creates a powerful sucking action and draws in water, as well as any unfortunate creature swimming in the water. To make this even more effective, they displace their jaw in the process. This entire motion takes place in just a fraction of a second.
Check out this slow-motion video of how powerful this prey-sucking methods works!
I also mentioned above that giant salamanders "sense" the prey in front of them. They have very poor eyesight. Instead of seeing their prey, they have rows of special sensory nodes along each side of their body, from their head all the way to their tail. These sensory nodes allow them to detect the tiniest of vibrations in the water. So they "see" by detecting the vibrations other creatures create. This must work pretty well, because they catch enough prey to grow to over a hundred pounds!
Sure, the Chinese giant salamander is a big amphibian, but is it the biggest amphibian ever? Not even close. About 275 million years ago, in the swamps and rivers of an area that is now Brazil, lived the Prionosuchus. Amazingly, Prionosuchus grew at least 30 feet long and weighed 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg).
Prionosuchus was the amphibian version of a crocodile (does this sound familiar to those of you who have read Bridgers 6?), or more accurately, a gharial, a fish-eating crocodile with a long, narrow, toothy snout. The diagram below gives you an ideas of the size of the Prionosuchus. Keep in mind this creature was an amphibian!
There is an interesting story behind the first identification of giant salamanders. Surprisingly, scientists knew about giant salamanders from fossils before discovering living specimens. In 1726, Johann Scheuchze described a fossil giant salamander from Switzerland. He mistakingly believed the fossil was of a human that had drowned in the biblical flood, the Deluge. So he gave the fossil the name Homo diluvii testis. In Latin, this means Man, a witness of the Deluge.
The fossil (shown below) was about three feet (1 m) long, and the tail and hind legs were missing, so Scheuchze assumed it was a human child that had been violently trampled, perhaps in an attempt to escape the Deluge.
In 1758, another scientist decided the fossil was a catfish. Then in 1787, another scientist decided it was a lizard. In 1809, yet another scientist concluded that it was "nothing but a salamander, or rather a proteus of gigantic dimensions and of an unknown species."
Hmm... biology has come a long way in the last 250 years, hasn't it? Interestingly, in 1837, when the giant salamander was given its genus name (the name still used today), it was named Andrias. This means image of man. And scheuchzeri was assigned as the species name. These two names together honor Johann Scheuchze and his (mistaken) beliefs.
By the way (I can't help mentioning this), the species Andrias scheuchzeri was used by the Czech author Karel Čapek in his 1931 science fiction novel, War with the Newts (also translated as War with the Salamanders). In the Pacific, a race of intelligent salamanders are found. They are enslaved and abused. But then they rebel, which leads to a global war for species domination. This satirical book is considered by many to be the first ever dystopian sci-fi novel, and many consider it to be the best science fiction book ever written.
Chinese giant salamanders have inspired numerous myths and legends in Chinese culture. In fact, the commonly-seen yin and yang symbol is thought to have originally been two giant salamanders intertwined harmoniously. Also, these salamanders are often called wa wa yu, which means baby fish. Why? Because the giant salamander's distress call sounds like a human baby crying.
Check out this brief video about the Chinese giant salamander.
Okay, one more thing about the Chinese giant salamander. These creatures were once common in the rivers across southeast China. Unfortunately, now they are critically endangered in the wild. They have become a fashionable delicacy among the wealthy, and this has resulted in almost complete decimation in the wild from poaching.
Today most giant salamanders are found on commercial farms that raise them for food, sometimes bringing $1,500 per salamander. The Chinese government encourages the farms to release some of their salamanders into the wild. At first, this seems like a good idea. BUT... scientists have found that the farm-raised salamanders are genetically different from those in the wild. It seems the wild salamanders can easily be divided into five very different genetic groups, and the groups split apart from each other millions of years ago. But the farm salamanders are a result of extensive genetic mixing. So, the original genetically-distinct types in the wild are quickly being replaced by these new, artificially-mixed salamanders that never existed before. Hmm... an interesting dilemma.
So, the Chinese Giant Salamander deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Boffo Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word boffo was first recorded in use in the 1940s. Basically it means sensational or extremely successful. By the 1960s, the word was commonly used in show business. This usage is thought to have originated in the Hollywood trade magazine Variety. Example: "It was a boffo performance, impressing even the harshest critics." So, basically, boffo means it's a hit. In spite of the giant salamander's recent troubles (being endangered), the fact that the creature has been around for 170 million years indicates a boffo performance (evolutionarily speaking). So, boffo is another way to say awesome!
Recently, I spotted this frog clinging to the corner of one of our little bird houses.
In spite of its mostly green color, this is a gray treefrog. These frogs can change their color, and they are actually gray more often than they are green. But when they are surrounded by green vegetation, their skin turns green like the one in this photo. You know, like a chameleon.
Let's think about this for a moment... their skin changes color to better conceal them. Wow. Perhaps amphibians are under-appreciated for their awesomeness. Consider the Olm, a blind salamander with transparent skin that lives underground, hunts for its prey by smell and electrosensitivity, and can survive without food for 10 years (seriously). Then there's the Chinese giant salamander that can grow up to 1.8 meters in length and evolved independently from all other amphibians over one hundred million years before Tyrannosaurus rex. And there's the Chile Darwin’s frog—the fathers protect the young in their mouths. And the Gardiner’s Seychelles frog, the world’s smallest frog, with adults growing up to be the size of a pencil eraser. And let's not forget about the caecilian, a legless amphibian that... oh, wait... the caecilian is today's Awesome Animal. Let's take a more careful look.
Have you ever heard of a glass lizard? It looks like a snake, but it's actually a lizard without legs. Well, the caecilian is kind of the glass lizard of the amphibian world—an amphibian with no legs. Actually, at first glance a caecilian looks like an earthworm. Check it out:
What the heck is a Caecilian?
First, Caecilian is pronounced seh-SILL-yun (almost like the pizza). Second, caecilians are amphibians, but they aren't frogs, they aren't toads, and they aren't salamanders. So what are they? They're caecilians, of course! Caecilians are their own order within the class Amphibia. In case you care, the order is called Gymnophiona (some scientists prefer to call the order Apoda, which means 'without feet').
Caecilians live on just about every continent that has moist tropical regions, including Southeast Asia, India, East and West Africa, Indonesia, and Central and South America.
Caecilians are the least known of the amphibians. One reason for this is that most of them spend their time underground (that's why they look like earthworms). Some of them are so secretive that it's almost certain that there are species we have not yet discovered. We now know of about 200 species. In fact, to celebrate the discovery of the 200th species, the musical group called the Wiggly Tendrils (this is a real band!) recorded a song titled Caecilian Cotillion.
Check out the Caecilian song!
Amazing facts about Caecilians
Where to even begin! Get ready to be amazed, because Caecilians are bizarre creatures.
Not all caecilians look like gray earthworms. They are kind of like gummy worms—they come in all colors and sizes. Check out this blue species:
And not all of them live in the soil. Some of them are perfectly at home in the water. Check out this aquatic caecilian:
The smallest species of caecilians are only a few inches long, but the largest (Caecilia thompsoni from Colombia) can grow to five feet (1.5 m) long and weigh 2.2 pounds (1 kg). Five feet long!? What would a five-foot caecilian look like? You would think it would be fat and heavy-looking, but not so much:
When it comes to reproduction, frogs and toads have what's called external fertilization. That means the female lays eggs, and then the male fertilizes the eggs outside of the female's body. But caecilians have internal insemination. The males have a long, tube-like organ called a phallodeum, which is inserted into the female's cloaca for about three hours (I guess they aren't in any hurry). As you can probably guess, sperm cells are transmitted into the female's body through the phallodeum, where they fertilize the eggs.
Some caecilians lay eggs, some have live birth, but I feel compelled to nominate female caecilians for Mother of the Year. I'll explain why. In some caecilian species, the mother seals herself in a subterranean cavity, where she lays her eggs. The eggs hatch, and the mother and babies remain in the cavity for four to six weeks as the babies grow. What do the babies eat, you ask? Here's where it gets weird. After the female lays eggs, her skin begins to thicken, and the skin cells fill up with fats and other nutrients. The newly-hatched babies have special teeth that are like scrapers, and they literally eat the skin off the mother. The mother grows more skin, and the babies eat that skin, too. This continues until the babies are ready to leave home and go out on their own.
So the mothers literally feed the babies their own skin, over and over. Even more bizarre, in some of the species that have live birth, the babies inside the mother's body use their special teeth to munch on their mom's reproductive organs!
Like I said, Mother of the Year.
Caecilians have teeny tiny little eyes that don't see much, or don't see at all. These eyes are usually subcutaneous (buried under the skin), and some species even have bone over their eyes! There's not much need for eyes when most of your life is spent in the dark.
Not much is known about what Caecilians eat in the wild, but in captivity they readily chomp on earthworms, so worms are probably a normal part of their diet. In a study of the gut contents of 14 dead caecilians, the only identifiable objects were termite heads. That doesn't mean caecilians go around biting off the heads of termites, it just means that the heads are the portion that is most difficult to digest.
Although caecilians look like they are all tail, they actually don't even have tails. Their cloaca (that's the polite word for their butthole) is at the very end of their body.
Most caecilians breathe with lungs, but scientists were amazed to find some species without any lungs at all. Wow... eyes, legs, tails, and now lungs—caecilians seem to be all about giving things up. Apparently these lungless species can get all the oxygen they need by absorbing it directly through their skin. Here's a lungless caecilian found in Brazil:
Caecilians have super-strength. They need to be strong to push their way through the soil. Scientists at the University of Chicago wanted to find out how hard caecilians could push against soil. They set up an artificial tunnel and filled one end with dirt and put a brick at that end to stop the caecilians from burrowing any farther. To measure how hard the caecilian could push, they attached a device called a force plate. The results were a surprise. They used a caecilian only 1.5 feet (50 cm) long. “It just shoved this brick off the table,” one of the scientists recalled.
Because of this amazing soil-pushing strength, caecilians have developed extra-thick, reinforced skulls to prevent serious head damage.
So, the Caecilian deserves a place in the F.S.A.H.O.F.
(Four-Star Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase four-star was first recorded in use in the early 1920s. Basically it means of a superior degree of excellence. The phrase started as the number of asterisks used to denote relative excellence in guidebooks (for example, a four-star restaurant, or a four-star hotel). It also indicates being a full general or admiral, as indicated by four stars on an insignia. As with many other such words, four-star eventually was used to describe just about anything of high quality (the caecilian is a four-star amphibian). So, four-star is another way to say awesome!
Caecilian #1 - Michael & Patricia Fogden/CORBIS via WIRED
Blue Caecilian - Unknown, via beetleboybioblog
Aquatic caecilian - National Zoo
Longest caecilian - Reptilis.org
Blue and black caecilian with babies - Alex Kupfer via Science News for Students
Lungless caecilian - B.S.F. Silva via Science News for Students
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.