Awesome Animal - The Bowerbird
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.
Bowerbird bower - Ingo Arndt/National Geographic
Vogelkop Bowerbird - BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dwdm3)
Satin Bowerbirds - Gerhard Koertner / Photoshot - BBC
Awesome Animal - Death Adder
In my upcoming novel, Profusion, one of the fascinating animals that makes an appearance is the Death Adder, a venomous snake that lives in eastern Australia and New Guinea (part of Profusion takes place in the rainforest of Papua, the Indonesian province that is the western half of New Guinea). The name "Death Adder" certainly implies that this creature is dangerous (which it is), but actually the name is derived from "Deaf Adder," the name given to the snake by early Australian settlers. They called it the deaf adder because, unlike many other snakes, these held their ground and did not slither away when approached by people. So people assumed they were deaf. It is important to note, though, that snakes in general do not actually "hear" the way we do. Instead, they sense vibration in the ground, and the death adder is no different from other snakes in that respect.
Scientists do not agree on how many species of death adders exist. Depending on the source (or how you define a species), there are 4 to 14 species.
Amazing Facts about Death Adders:
Death Adders, like all snakes, are predators. But instead of going after their prey, they sit still, often hidden beneath the soil or leaves, and wait for prey to come to them. To help lure prey closer, they have a modified tip on their tail that they move around, making it look like a wriggling worm. This attracts birds, rodents, frogs, and lizards to take a closer look. Typically this is the last closer look they ever take at anything. There is a scene in Profusion in which a tree kangaroo (our good old friend, Mbaiso) encounters just such a thing. If you want to know what happens, you will have to read the book when it comes out this summer!
Check out this cool video of "caudal luring" of a death adder:
Death adders can be deadly! They are among the most dangerous snakes, and they can inject up to 100 mg of a very undesirable neurotoxin (affects the central nervous system rather than just the tissue around the bite). And they strike amazingly fast. They can go from the strike position, hit their prey and inject venom, and back to the strike position in 0.15 seconds. They are the world record holders for strike speed!
In Australia, death adders often kill and eat giant marine toads. There is good news and bad news regarding this. Since marine toads are not native to Australia, and in fact are considered damaging to the ecosystem, this is the good news. The bad news is that marine toads have toxic glands on their skin. Once the marine toad is swallowed, the toxin from these glands kills the death adder. Talk about a lose-lose situation!
Death Adders look much like vipers (many venomous snakes are in the viper family, with short, fat bodies and triangular heads), but they aren't vipers at all. And they aren't adders either, in spite of their name. They are actually "Elapids" (more closely related to cobras and coral snakes).
Speaking of vipers, when Trish and I were hiking the Flint Hills of Kansas a few weeks ago, we came across a copperhead (photo below). Copperheads are "pit vipers," which means they have heat-sensing pits on their faces that help them detect warm-blooded prey. Notice how similar the death adder is to the copperhead. This is a result of "convergent evolution," which is when animals (or plants) that are not closely related evolve similar characteristics because those characteristics best suit their habits and environment.
So the death adder deserves a place in the J.A.H.O.F. (Jelly Animal Hall of Fame).
Fun Fact: Jelly is a term used as early as the mid 1500s. It was used to describe someone who was excellent (but particularly if they had a high opinion of themselves). It may have come from the word jolly, but no one knows for sure. Basically, it means awesome.
First death adder photo by Steve K Wilson.
Death Adder caudal lure: Queensland Museum
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.