Like many of my novels, the upcoming Hostile Emergence features a number of strange creatures, some friendly, some not so friendly. Also, sometimes you think they may be friendly, but then they surprise you.
In Hostile Emergence, Skyra, Lincoln, and their team encounter a vast colony of prairie dogs (called a prairie dog town). In honor of the new book's release, today's Awesome Animal is the prairie dog!
What the heck is a Prairie Dog?
First of all, prairie dogs are rodents, in a group referred to as ground squirrels. The five species of prairie dogs are all found in North America, especially in the Great Plains. The name prairie dog comes from the fact that they tend to live on prairies, and their alarm call often sounds like the barking of a dog (although a very small, squeaky dog).
Prairie dogs average about 15 inches (38 cm) long, with an average weight of about 2 pounds (.9 kg).
Most people would describe prairie dogs as "cute," except maybe landowners who do not like all the burrows and mounds.
Amazing Facts about Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are what we call a keystone species. This means they are a type of animal in a particular ecosystem that many other animals rely on. If a keystone species is removed from an ecosystem, this will drastically change the balance of life there. Scientists estimate that about 150 other species depend on prairie dogs for their survival.
For starters, many predators feed on prairie dogs. A few examples: hawks, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, weasels, foxes, eagles, and black-footed ferrets. In fact, black-footed ferrets feed almost entirely on prairie dogs, and these ferrets are almost extinct due the extreme loss of prairie dog colonies resulting from habitat destruction (the prairie dog's historical range has shrunk by more than 95%).
So many animals feed on prairie dogs that Kristy Bly of the World Wildlife Foundation called prairie dogs the "Chicken McNuggets of the grasslands."
Getting munched on is not the only reason prairie dogs are a keystone species. They live in vast colonies, and their activities improve the quality of the soil (their tunnels aerate it and their droppings fertilize it).
Check out this video on prairie dog towns.
Prairie dog towns can be huge. Many of the largest prairie dog colonies are now a thing of the past due to urban and suburban development. However, prairie dogs were once considered the most abundant mammals in North America. Some prairie dog towns are relatively small, perhaps only a few acres. In Kansas, though, there is one that still exists today that is over 100 miles (160 km) long!
Prairie dogs are very social animals. They live in family groups called coteries. Well, actually, the families are called coteries in two species of prairie dogs (black-tailed and Mexican prairie dogs), but family groups are called clans in the other three species (white-tailed, Gunnison’s, and Utah prairie dogs). If you're wondering why the different names for family groups, coteries tend to be more tightly-knit groups than clans. There are certain behaviors (kissing and grooming) prairie dogs do only with members of their own coterie and not with members of other coteries.
A coterie (or clan) is the group that lives within a single burrow. Multiple coteries are grouped together to make a neighborhood, and multiple neighborhoods make up a prairie dog town (a colony).
Each coterie will have a few breeding males, a larger number of breeding females, and however many young they are raising at any given time.
Females stay within their coterie for their entire lives, while males leave the groups when they become mature to find another group to breed in (this avoids excessive inbreeding).
Below is a typical burrow for a prairie dog coterie.
Remember we talked about 150 other animals that rely on prairie dogs? Many animals make prairie dog burrows their homes. Examples include rabbits, rattlesnakes, salamanders, spadefoot toads, camel spiders, countless insects, and other animals that can’t dig burrows on their own. Many of these occupy the burrows even when prairie dogs live there, and others, such as the burrowing owl, live in abandoned burrows.
If you blink, you might miss the prairie dog mating season. We tend to think that prairie dogs are prolific breeders. Not really true. Female prairie dogs only mate one time per year, in early winter. When it's time, they go into estrus for only one hour. That's not a typo—one hour!
If mating is successful, they will have a litter of three to eight pups. On average, only half of those pups will survive their first year.
Here's an interesting tidbit: Once a male has mated with a female, he will not mate with her again during her brief estrus. However, he will prevent other males from mating with her by inserting what's called a mating plug (also called a copulation plug). Yep, this is a real thing. Many animals have these. It's a gelatinous secretion the male deposits in the female, and it solidifies to prevent other males from having access. Weird, huh?
Once the young are born, the adult females care for the young, while the males defend the burrow (they may look cute, but prairie dogs can be vicious fighters).
We definitely need to talk about prairie dog communication. Prairie dogs do a lot of yipping. Yip-yip-yip-yip. To us mere humans, all these yips may sound similar, but prairie dogs have an astounding array of communication signals, especially related to predator warnings (everything wants to eat prairie dogs, remember?).
Scientists have found that prairie dogs can not only signal that a predator is approaching, they can also put together strings of sounds that communicate the predator species, size, color, speed, and direction. I know... this seems hard to believe, but extensive behavior studies have shown it to be true. For example, prairie dogs can alert each other that there’s not just a human approaching, but a tall human wearing the color blue. Amazing!
This should give you an idea of how complex these calls can be: When a prairie dog signals that a hawk is approaching, all the prairie dogs that are directly in the path of the approaching hawk will dive into their holes, while all those outside of the hawk's path will stand on their hind legs and watch.
Prairie dogs also have specific calls when they see an animal they know is not a predator.
Prairie dogs even have a call to signal that a predator is gone. The call is a jump-yip, in which the caller arches its back so suddenly that it jumps off the ground, then this is followed by a shrill yip. See below.
Finally, you may have seen photos of prairie dogs kissing. This seemingly romantic behavior is actually how they confirm that another prairie dog is part of their family group. Regardless, you have to admit there is something endearing about it, right?
So, the Prairie Dog deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Staggering Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term staggering was first used in the mid 1400s. As I'm sure you can guess, it came from the word stagger, which means to "walk unsteadily." Stagger actually comes from stakeren, a Scandinavian word meaning "to push, shove, cause to reel." And that word may have had an original literal meaning of "to hit with a stick." Anyway, in the mid 1400s, people came up with staggering, an adjective to describe something so amazing or overwhelming that it makes you stagger. It still means pretty much the same thing today.
So, staggering is another way to say awesome!
Alligator and manatee - Patrick M. Rose/SAVE THE MANATEE CLUB via Wired
Sloth - UW-Madison/Zach Peery via Phys.org
Bat with baby - San Diego Zoo
Prairie dog #1 - Deposit Photos stock images
Prairie Dog Town - Texas Coop Power
Prairie dog burrow - Devil's Tower Handbook
Prairie dog with young - Deposit Photos stock images
Prairie dog jump-yip - Wikimedia Commons
Prairie dogs kissing - KXCI
I know... many people hate spiders. I get it. However, jumping spiders are different. They're furry and, well, their faces are just darn cute!
You know what jumping spiders are, right? They are those compact little fuzzballs with eight legs that crawl around with short bursts of speed. If you try to touch them, they disappear. Well, they don't actually disappear—they jump. They jump so quickly that often you hardly see them do it, and they seem to disappear.
And when you look really closely... those eyes!
What the heck is a Jumping Spider?
Jumping spiders make up the family Salticidae. Astoundingly, there are over 6,000 species that we know of so far! Yep, six thousand—it's the largest family of spiders. I'd love to include a photo of each species, but I don't think that's going to happen.
Jumping spiders, which are typically small, have highly-developed eyes, with better vision than almost all other arthropods (arthropods also include insects, crustaceans, scorpions, centipedes, and many other creatures with exoskeletons).
Amazing Facts about Jumping Spiders
Let's begin with these spiders' jumping ability. As I'm sure you can guess, this ability is important to the way they hunt their prey. A jumping spider spots a prey animal using its amazing eyes. Then it carefully approaches the creature, trying to decide if the prey is suitable as a meal. Before jumping on its prey, the spider attaches a filament of silk (called a dragline) to the surface it is standing on. Then the spider launches itself through the air to attack.
Take a look at the legs of the spiders in the photos above—tiny little legs! Those aren't big, powerful legs like a grasshopper's hind legs. So, how does a jumping spider jump with such force? It's all about hydraulics.
Jumping spiders have jointed legs, like we do, but their legs each have seven segments. Like humans, spiders have flexor and extensor muscles. Extensor muscles are the ones that can be contracted powerfully to extend a leg, allowing a creature like a grasshopper or a human to jump. The weird thing is, jumping spiders do not have extensor muscles at two of the seven joints of their legs—and these are the joints that give them their jumping power!
So then how do they jump? Like I said, hydraulics. The jumping spider has the ability to force hemolymph (the spider's version of blood) out of its cephalothorax and into its legs. This sudden injection of blood into the legs causes the legs to straighten with great force, sending the spider flying through the air. They can jump up to 50 times the length of their own body. Pretty cool, huh?
If the spider misses its prey, or if the prey struggles and shakes the jumping spider off, the spider can just climb back up its safety dragline to get back to where it started.
Check out this video about how jumping spiders jump.
We really need to talk about the jumping spider's eyes, which are perhaps their most impressive feature. Jumping spiders have four pairs of eyes, and each pair serves a different purpose. There are two pairs of small eyes on the sides of the head, and two pairs of larger eyes mounted in the front of the head (see below).
On the sides of the head there is the pair of posterior medial eyes and a pair of posterior lateral eyes. The posterior medial pair don't really see distinct images—they just detect the level of available light. The posterior lateral pair are good at detecting motion to the sides and behind the spider, giving the spider almost 360° vision.
It's the two pairs of front eyes that are most amazing, though. These are called the anterior lateral eyes (the two smaller ones), and the anterior medial eyes (the two large ones).
The anterior lateral pair have good visual acuity, and they are spaced widely apart, helping the spider with depth perception.
The anterior medial pair (the biggest eyes) have extremely good vision. The retinas of these eyes can actually swivel around on their own, so that the spider can look around without moving its head. These eyes are acute, and some jumping spiders have an astounding ability to see color details, even into the UV range.
This gets a little complex, but I want to explain how these two big eyes help the spider estimate distance (which is important to a creature who likes to jump on its prey). These two eyes are too close together for depth perception, so jumping spiders have evolved a unique alternative called image defocus. It's all done with green light. Here's how it works: Incoming green light is focused on the deepest layer of the retina. So, green light passing through the surface layers of the retina is out of focus, or fuzzy. The spider is capable of measuring the amount of defocus (fuzziness) between the deep layer and the surface layers, and it uses that information to determine the distance of the object in front of its face. Wow!
Okay we need to discuss one other amazing thing about jumping spiders—their elaborate mating rituals. The males have evolved spectacular dances and displays to try to impress a potential mate.
We can divide these displays into two categories, those without color and those with color. You see, many jumping spiders are not capable of seeing a wide range of colors. Those species have elaborate dances, but it is mostly shuffling around, waving their legs in the air, and shaking their booty. Impressive, but...
There are also some species of jumping spiders that can see colors. The males of those species take advantage of this, and they add colorful enhancements to their booty-shaking dances. The male peacock spider, for example, has a brightly-colored abdomen flap, which it flips up and down like a decorative flag.
I could describe these mating dances all day long, but you wouldn't really get a feel for what they are like unless you see them in action.
This video is a great way to witness the displays for yourself.
Now, don't you agree there's more to jumping spiders than meets the eye? The next time you see one skittering around in your house, instead of smashing it, take a closer look.
So, the Jumping Spider deserves a place in the G.E.A.H.O.F.
(Gilt-Edged Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term gilt-edged was first used in about 1810. Originally, the adjective gilt was another way to say gilded. Gild is a verb, meaning "to cover with a thin layer of gold." So, something that has been gilded is covered with a layer of gold, such as the pages of an old book having gilded edges. Gilt-edged originally meant the same thing as gilded. Eventually, people began using gilt-edged in business to refer to the safest kinds of investments (such as government bonds). And then, as often happens, people began to us the term to refer to anything of the highest quality.
So, gilt-edged is another way to say awesome!
Jumping Spider #1 - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Two jumping spiders on finger - Jurgen Otto/University of Cincinnati Magazine
Jumping spider leaping - Scott Linstead
Jumping spider eyes - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Jumping spider on green background - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Peacock jumping spider - Jurgen Otto/University of Cincinnati Magazine
Here in the midwest U.S. we have a temperate climate, with hot summers and cold winters. In Missouri we are having an unusually warm October. Trish and I are always reluctant to give up our canoeing passion this time of year, so a few days ago we put the canoe in the lake again. Possibly for the last time of the season, but we hope not.
We had the joy of observing one of our favorite birds that migrates through this area in the fall... the American White Pelican. These birds are enormous, and they seem majestic as they swim around, searching for fish.
These impressive birds have a nine-foot (2.7 m) wingspan, making them one of the largest birds in North America. They gather together in sizable flocks on the shores of the lake, but then when they start looking for food, they often spread out, sometimes a hundred yards apart or so. From a long distance away you can hear them splashing about as they try to catch fish.
Here are a few that flew near us:
What the heck is a Pelican?
Pelicans are a group of eight species in the family Pelecanidae. Perhaps their most striking characteristic is their huge bill with an expandable throat pouch, which helps them capture fish. All eight species of pelicans are specialized fish eaters, scooping up fish in coastal waters as well as inland lakes and rivers.
Each species lives in one particular part of the world, making it so that most continents have at least one of the eight species.
Pelicans have been around for a while. A 30-million-year-old fossil was found in France, of a pelican bill that was similar to the bills of today's pelicans. So, these birds had to have been around even before that.
Here is a closer photo of an American White Pelican.
Amazing Facts about Pelicans
Okay, we have to talk about the pelican's crazy bill, right? The pelican's bill is an amazing adaptation for catching fish. They have a huge, expandable pouch below the bill called the gular. This throat pouch holds much more food than the bird's stomach, so sometimes they actually catch more than they can eat. Interestingly, different species of pelicans use their bills in different ways.
There is a myth that pelicans use their gular pouches to store food that they can eat later. In fact, here is a limerick (of unknown origin) about this:
“A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak enough food for a week.
But I’ll be damned if I can see how the helican."
The first part is true (its gular is larger than its stomach), but the pelican's gular is for capturing food, not for storing food.
Amazingly, some pelicans can hold three gallons (11 liters) of water in their pouch! The pouch is basically used like a fish net. The pelican finds a school of fish, then scoops up a mouthful of water (and some fish, hopefully). The bird then closes its mouth and contracts the muscles in the wall of the pouch, which expels the water out the left and right sides, holding the fish in. The fish are usually swallowed immediately after the water is purged.
The American white pelicans Trish and I observe on the lake near our home are usually fishing for gizzard shad, a type of fish that swims around in tightly-packed schools of thousands of fish. These white pelicans do not dive for fish (and the photo above is unusual... they do not normally eat fish in the air). Instead, they swim over a school of shad then quickly plunge their fish-net bill into the school below, hoping to get some fish in the mouthful of water they grab.
Now... this is really cool... when white pelicans congregate in large groups, they can increase their fishing success by working cooperatively to "herd" the schools of fish into shallow water. Remember, these pelicans cannot dive, so it helps if the fish are within their reach in shallow water. A large group of these birds will get into a formation, then swim together, using their broad, webbed feet to frighten the fish, forcing the fish to swim away from the birds. They corral thousands of fish into the shallow water near the shore and then have a feeding frenzy.
Check out this video about white pelicans herding fish and feeding on them.
Although pelicans often scoop up mouthfuls of small fish, they are quite capable of swallowing much larger fish, including fish that are fatter than the pelican's own neck!
Remember I said that different pelicans use their bills in different ways? White pelicans can't dive, but brown pelicans are masters at dive-bombing fish from the air. They hit the water at 40 miles per hours (64 kph), shoot under the water, and snatch the fish before the fish even knows what's happening. By the way, Brown pelicans live along the coastal areas of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America.
Wait! FORTY miles per hour?? Wouldn't that kill a bird? It would kill many animals, but not a brown pelican. That's because brown pelicans have a fascinating set of adaptations for doing this without breaking their necks, wings, and every other part of their bodies. First, they make their wings and body streamlined just before hitting the water. They also tighten the muscles around the spine to keep from breaking their backs. To protect their eyes, they have a special membrane, called the nictitating membrane, that slides into place over their eyeballs.
Overall, this is an impressive way to catch fish!
Check out this video about how brown pelicans survive these amazing dives.
We generally think of pelicans feeding on fish, but pelicans will also sometimes feed on frogs, turtles, crustaceans (like crabs), insects, and even mammals and birds. In fact, some pelicans, especially the great white pelican, are known to feed extensively on other birds. This pelican eats terns, cormorants, gannets, gulls, and African penguins. They have even been observed eating pigeons in cities!
That big gular pouch has one other handy use... it helps pelicans feed their young. Like many other birds, pelicans feed their young regurgitated food (yummy!). Think about it... When the adults hack up their partially-digested fish goo, the stuff goes right into their pouch. Then the baby can simply stick its head in there and slurp it all up. No mess, no fuss.
Here's a pink-backed pelican feeding its young:
One more tidbit of information. You know how kids can become demanding when they are being fed, right? Well, young pelicans really win the prize when it comes to this. Usually after—and sometimes before—young pelicans are fed, they throw the mother of all tantrums. They squawk like crazy while dragging themselves around in a circle using only one foot and one wing. They bash their head against the ground or whatever else is handy. In the grand finale, they go into what appears to be a seizure, then they fall unconscious (briefly).
Why do they do this, you ask? No one knows for sure, but many biologists believe it is the young pelican's way of drawing attention to itself and away from its siblings, probably to help it get more than its share of food.
Sheesh! Such drama.
So, the Pelican deserves a place in the T.F.A.H.O.F.
(Top Flight Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term top flight (or topflight, or top-flight) generally means "at the highest or most outstanding level, as in achievement or development." Example: A team of top-flight engineers. Many sources report that the phrase top flight was first used in1939, coinciding with the popularity of a U.S. Hall of Fame Thoroughbred racehorse that was very successful at the time. However, there are numerous examples of the phrase used in British and especially Australian newspapers dating back to the mid 1800s, especially associated with sports—horse racing, cycling, and cricket. It is possible the term came from the top flight of stairs in an apartment building, which would lead to the fanciest "penthouse apartment."
So, top flight is another way to say awesome!
Sea Otter with rock tool - Erin Rechsteiner via Hakai Magazine
Sleeping koala - Getty Images via People.com
American white pelican flying - Matthew Gasperoni, Macaulay Library
Flying white pelican catching a fish - MZPhoto-DepositPhotos
White pelican swallowing large fish - David C. Stephens/GETTY IMAGES
Brown pelicans diving - David Porras/Shutterstock via Treehugger
Pink-backed pelican feeding its young - San Diego Zoo
The very idea of an electric fish seems like some outrageous science fiction creature dreamed up by... well, an author like myself. Even its scientific name sounds like science fiction: Electrophorus electricus. But, I assure you, this creature is real.
What the heck is an Electric Eel?
Well, for starters, it isn't an eel at all. The electric eel is actually a type of knifefish, which means it's more closely related to catfish than to eels. They live in dark, murky rivers in South America, including the Amazon.
These fish use their electrical superpowers in several fascinating ways, mostly for locating and then subduing their prey, typically smaller fish.
Electric eels are large fish, typically growing over six feet (2 m) long and weighing 44 pounds (20 kg). Like catfish, electric eels do not have scales.
Amazing Facts about Electric Eels
Obviously, we need to explore this whole electric thing, right? There's a lot here to consider, so I'll try to organize it logically.
First, how in the heck do these fish generate a voltage? Basically, the electric eel has an amazing nervous system. Its nervous system can synchronize the activity of a series of specialized, disc-shaped cells that produce electricity. These cells are contained within a specialized electric organ. Actually, there are three pairs of these organs, and the organs can make up to 80% of the animal's body!
The disc-shaped cells are called electrocytes, and they are lined up within the organs so that a current of ions can flow through them. When the fish's brain decides to generate a shock, it sends a signal through its nervous system to the organs. Without getting too technical, I'll just say that this signal causes a sudden switch in the organ's polarity, thus generating an electrical current. Think of the organ as a battery, which has a series of stacked discs that produce a current in a similar way.
You see, the eel must activate all the electrocytes at once for this to work. The problem is, these cells are at different distances from the brain. That's where the fish's amazing nervous system comes in... the system has a complex array of nerves that makes sure all the cells activate at the exact same time, no matter how far out they are! Mind boggling, if you ask me.
How powerful is the shock? An electric eel can generate up to 860 volts and up to 1 amp of current. Is that enough voltage to kill a person? Probably not, but it would be painful, and it could incapacitate a person long enough for them to drown. Such drownings have occurred, although they are rare.
To give you an idea of what the shock might be like, consider this story from Philip Stoddard, a zoologist at Florida International University in Miami. Philip had a five-foot-long electric eel as a pet in an aquarium. The eel's name was Sparky. One day Philip decided he wanted to reach into the aquarium and pet Sparky. Philip knew the risk, but he figured the fish was comfortable around him and wouldn't feel threatened (hmm... ).
So, he reached in and stroked the fish's back. You can guess what happened, right? The fish zapped him with 500 volts of electricity, more than four times the shock he would get by sticking his finger into a typical North American household socket (for various reasons, here in the US we use 110-volt outlets—actually they are closer to 120 volts these days—whereas many other countries use 220). Anyway, Philip got a powerful shock. His entire arm hurt for about an hour.
Check out this video about how electric eels can defend themselves with electricity.
Now that we've talked about HOW they produce electricity, let's explore WHY they do this.
Obviously, one reason is for defense against predators. An electric eel can actually kill an attacking caiman that is trying to eat it. Even if the predator isn't killed, it will immediately realize it has made a mistake and will back off. Or, it will be incapacitated long enough for the eel to escape (you might find this a little disturbing, but here is a video recorded by a fisherman who catches an electric eel, then a caiman tries to attack the eel as the guy is reeling it in... the caiman appears to be killed).
But the eel's use of electricity is much more complex than just predator defense. They use their electricity in multiple ways.
They use low voltages to sense their surroundings, kind of like an electrical version of sonar. Remember, these fish live in muddy, murky water, and they have poor eyesight, so this low-voltage sensory ability comes in handy.
They use high voltages in several ways.
High-voltage use #1: To detect prey. The eel can emit pairs of high-voltage pulses, 500 of these pulses per second. These pulses cause their hidden prey to involuntarily twitch. The eel can sense these twitches (remember that low voltage use described above?), allowing it to locate the prey animal.
High-voltage use #2: To stun or kill prey. Once the eel locates the prey, it emits even higher-voltage pulses at 400 pulses per second. This stuns the prey fish, and the eel can approach it and suck it into its mouth with one gulp.
One more interesting morsel about electric eels. An electric eel at the Tennessee Aquarium has its own Twitter account. Yes, you read that right. The fish's name is Miguel Wattson. The fish's tank is set up to constantly monitor its electrical output. Whenever Miguel Wattson gets excited and generates enough electricity, this activates a connected computer to send out a pre-written tweet, many of which are clever and fun. Here's an example:
You can follow Miguel's tweets here.
Here's an older one:
So, the Electric Eel deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Stellar Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word stellar originated in the 1650s, as an adjective meaning "pertaining to stars or star-like." Beginning in 1883, it was used in a theatrical sense of the word star (as in the star of a play). In this sense, stellar meant "outstanding, leading." Eventually, people started broadening its use to refer to anything that was outstanding, such as, "The company thrived, due to stellar management."
So, stellar is another way to say awesome!
Hmm... usually I explain why I chose the particular animal as the Awesome Animal. This time, the reason is pretty silly. I saw a photo of a Shoebill, and I thought, look at that crazy bill! That's it. Sometimes my reasons are not particularly intellectual.
What the heck is a Shoebill?
This bird is sometimes called the shoe-billed stork, or the whalehead. Figuring out exactly what the shoebill is has been an ongoing challenge. For years it used to be classified as one of the storks. However, anatomical studies (looking at the structure) suggest it is more closely related to pelicans. But then, molecular studies have convinced many scientists that it is actually more closely related to herons. I guess the jury is still out on that. Because of all this confusion, the bird has been placed in its own special family (called Balaenicipitidae... just try to pronounce that one).
Apparently, the shoebill's closest living relative is another odd-looking bird called the hamerkop. Anyway, they're a big, impressive-looking bird. Shoebills are taller than a mailbox, sometimes standing five feet (152 cm) tall, with an 8-foot wingspan!
Shoebills live in central and eastern Africa, and they eat an impressive variety of prey.
Amazing Facts about Shoebills
First, we need to talk about that bill. The bill is sturdy, heavy, and perfectly adapted for the bird's methods of catching prey. Here's why it's so heavy and sturdy: The shoebill hunts by standing still or walking slowly and carefully, watching for anything that moves that it can swallow (and shoebills can swallow a lot!). When it spots an animal, the bird throws itself forward with every ounce of strength it has, and its bill crashes into the water at full speed.
Here is a brief video that shows a shoebill hunting.
Often, when a shoebill grabs a prey animal like this, it also gets a mouthful of water plants and mud. No problem, though. The bird is skilled at shifting its jaws back and forth to discard the salad and keep the meat.
I mentioned above that shoebills eat an impressive list of prey. They are particularly fond of lungfish (see above photo), but they will eat pretty much any creature they can swallow whole. This includes not only surprisingly large lungfish, but also eels, catfish, and frogs. As if that weren't impressive enough, they do not hesitate to eat monitor lizards, snakes, and even young crocodiles. Yep, this is a bird that eats crocodiles.
So, it grabs a mouthful of stuff, shakes out everything else except for the prey animal, then it often maneuvers the animal around until it can decapitate it with its sharp-edged bill. Easier to swallow that way, I suppose. And swallow it does—whole. All at once. Down the hatch. Gulp.
But wait! Even though the bird has eaten its prey, it isn't quite finished with it yet. Sorry, but this part is a little disgusting. Shoebills live in hot places, and to help cool themselves down, they poop on their legs. That's right. How does it work? Well, bird poop is mostly liquid, and when the poop evaporates, it cools the blood circulating through the shoebill's legs, and that cooled blood cools the rest of the bird's body. Isn't that cool?
Um, is it me, or does the shoebill look a little like the long-lost dodo bird?
Hey, why do they call them shoebills? What kind of shoe looks like that? A Dutch wooden clog, of course, and that's how they got their name.
Remember when I said shoebills often hunt by standing still and waiting? I wasn't kidding. You wouldn't want to get into a staring contest with one of these birds because they are capable of standing in one place and staring at the water for hours at a time. They could teach us all a thing or two about the virtues of patience.
Shoebills have large, gold-colored eyes, and when they look directly at you, their stare is rather intimidating. It makes you feel like they are sizing you up, deciding if you are small enough to swallow whole.
Here's a random thought. To me, the shoebill looks very dinosaur-like. Its scientific name is Balaeniceps rex. In other words, it is named B. rex. If you've seen the Jurassic Park movies, you know what a T. rex's death stare looks like. Well, here's the B. rex's death stare:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that shoebills are ill-tempered or dangerous to people. They actually seem quite tolerant of people (although you have to admit... that stare!). Shoebills in zoos seem to like it when approaching people mimic their movements, including bowing to the bird.
Check out this video of these behaviors in a shoebill in captivity.
If you watch videos of a shoebill, you will see and hear it clacking its bill loudly (you can see this in the above video). This is a common form of communication between the birds. They seem to do it most when they are around their nests, although the specific purpose of the sound is uncertain.
One more item of interest. Adult shoebills are certainly strange-looking birds. You must be wondering what baby shoebills look like. In 2009 the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida was only the second zoo in the world to successfully hatch a baby shoebill. As it turns out, newly-hatched shoebills look... well, kind of normal (although maybe a little goofy).
So, the Shoebill deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bumper Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bumper has numerous meanings. As a noun, it refers to the protective guard on the front of a vehicle, or any other kind of rim, pad, or projection that protects something. It even refers to a glass full to the brim (particularly with beer). In Australia it's a slang word for a cigarette butt. However, when used as an adjective, bumper can mean unusually abundant (such as a bumper crop), but it can also mean unusually large and/or fine. And that, folks, is why I think bumper, particularly when referring to the shoebill, is another way to say awesome!
Yesterday I was writing one of the chapters of the third Across Horizons book, and I decided the scene needed a really strange creature. I dug around for ideas and decided on a velvet worm. I then read a few articles on velvet worms, and I was blown away by these creatures. Who knew they were so awesome? I decided velvet worms deserved to be featured in this post, and here they are.
What the heck is a velvet worm?
This question is not so easy to answer. In spite of the name, they aren't really worms. They look a little like a caterpillar, but caterpillars are insects. They look a little like a slug, but slugs are mollusks. They actually belong in their own phylum, Onychophora.
We know of about 200 species, mostly living in the tropics. However, they are extremely secretive, living in dark places in leaf litter on the ground and are only active at night. It is almost certain that many more species exist that we have not yet discovered.
Velvet worms are predators, feeding on almost any creatures their own size or smaller. They average about three inches (7.6 cm) long, but some are less than an inch, and some get as long as eight inches (20.3 cm).
One of the most amazing things about velvet worms is the way they catch and eat their prey! Let's get into the details.
Amazing Facts about Velvet Worms
First let's look at why these critters make such interesting predators. They may be called velvet worms, but I think a better name might be spider-man worms. Why? Because they trap their prey by spraying out two jets of sticky goo from their slime cannons. A two-inch velvet worm can shoot this slime out as far as two feet (61 cm). The slime hits the prey animals and immediately begins to harden like sticky glue.
With the prey creature now immobilized, the velvet worm can take its time and safely approach its meal. It has a specialized knife-like tooth hidden in its mouth, which it slides out and uses to cut through the prey animal's skin or exoskeleton. Once a hole is made, the velvet worm injects saliva, which is deadly to the prey animal. Not only does the saliva kill the animal, it also starts to digest the animal's insides. The velvet worm waits patiently as the saliva does its job, keeping itself busy by re-ingesting and thus recycling the goo it had already squirted. Finally, it goes back to the opening it made in the prey animal and starts slurping up the creature's digested insides. Yum!
Check out this video about the velvet worm's slime cannons.
Notice the jets of goo squirting from this velvet worm:
Let's break this amazing predation process down into steps. First, velvet worms have very poor eyesight, so how do they even locate their prey? Those short, squishy-looking legs allow them to move around on the forest floor without being heard. Also, because their legs do not vibrate the surfaces much, their prey cannot feel them approaching. The velvet worms themselves are extremely sensitive to vibrations and changes in air pressure from movement, so they can detect other creatures moving around nearby. They sneak up on their prey very stealthily, and they get so close that they can touch the prey with their finger-like antennae. Their antennae are highly sensitive, and velvet worms very lightly touch the prey animal to determine if it would be suitable as a meal. Often they spend a full ten seconds touching the animal without scaring it off!
Check out the antennae on the blue velvet worm below:
Once the velvet worm decides the prey is suitable and worth using up some of its precious slime, it squirts the slime through its two slime nozzles.
But where does the slime come from, and what is it? The velvet worm has two huge slime glands inside its body that run most of its entire length, allowing it to produce an impressive amount of the goo.
The slime itself is amazing stuff. Its main ingredient is a special type of protein that, when the protein molecules join together, they quickly form a solid structure. But inside the velvet worm's body, and while the slime is being squirted, the proteins are coated with water molecules that keep the proteins separate. In fact, 90% of the slime is water that is there to keep the proteins from interacting with each other. But... when the slime hits the prey animal, it spreads out, covering the animal, and the water quickly evaporates. Guess what happens when the water is gone. That's right, the proteins join together and form a biological glue.
The cool thing is, no other animals in the world use biological glue that works like this.
As I stated above, once the prey is immobilized, the velvet worm casually approaches and cuts a hole in the prey's body to inject saliva that digests the animal from the inside. The saliva contains hydrolytic enzymes, which use water molecules to break the chemical bonds of the prey animals' internal organs. Once that's done, all the velvet worm has to do is suck up all that digested stuff. It's like sucking the water out of a coconut through a straw.
I know... kind of gross, but you have to admit it's also awesome!
Here's an animated GIF of the velvet worm's specialized mouth. I like to think of it as the SSSIPSO (Shell Slicing, Saliva Injecting, Prey Slurping Orifice).
Okay, one more fascinating thing about velvet worms. Most of the velvet worm species live and hunt alone, but at least a few species live in groups with complex social structures, and they even hunt cooperatively. Velvet worms in the genus Euperipatoides live together in groups of up to fifteen. Each group will make a home together, usually somewhere like inside a rotting log, and the members of the group are really aggressive to velvet worms from other logs.
Each group has one dominant member, usually a female. The group leaves the log at night to hunt as a pack, making it easier to capture prey (15 velvet worms... that's a lot of slime). When they make a kill, the dominant female always feeds first. Next, the other females feed, then the males. Finally, the young feed last (assuming there is anything left to eat!).
The social hierarchy is determined by aggression and submission. The biggest, meanest individuals are more dominant. Interestingly, to avoid getting into a fight with a larger individual, velvet worms carefully measure each other by feeling with their antennae from one end of the body to the other. If the opponent is too big, it's safer to simply become submissive.
So, Velvet Worms deserve a place in the F.L.A.H.O.F.
(Front-Line Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase frontline originated in 1842 as a military term to refer to the location of the most advanced combat units. In about 1910, the hyphenated form (front-line) originated as an adjective, meaning "highly experienced or proficient in the performance of one's duties." In other words, "first-rate," as in She is a front-line performer. So, front-line is another way to say awesome!
If I did a survey and asked all of you one fact you've heard about badgers, I'm betting the most common answer would have something to do with how mean and vicious they are. Yeah, perhaps part of the reason for this is all the Honey Badger Don't Care jokes and memes (and even a book), which apparently started with a silly YouTube video that now has over 95 million views. By the way... don't watch the video if you are offended by foul language.
Are badgers really vicious and fearless? Let's find out!
What the heck is a badger?
Actually, there are 11 species of badgers. They are in the family Mustelidae, which also includes otters, ferrets, weasels, minks, wolverines, and others.
Badgers have short legs and stocky, muscular bodies. Their feet are equipped with impressive claws for digging. Badgers live in burrows that they dig with these impressive claws, and a badger burrow is called a sett, which has resulted in several jokes used by standup comedians: "I had a fat badger joke, but I couldn't fit it in my sett."
The different species of badgers live throughout most of the world, including China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Desert, India, and most parts of Europe.
Below is an American badger.
Amazing Facts about Badgers
The name badger originally came from the 16th century word bageard, which meant "marked by a badge." This is a reference to the distinct white stripes on the faces of most badger species.
Some types of badgers live alone, but others live in groups of up to fifteen. A group of badgers living together is called a cete. Their burrows can be extensive, especially when living in groups, and can include numerous passageways and sleeping chambers. For whatever reason, badgers keep their burrows exceptionally clean. They regularly carry out old bedding and bring in fresh bedding, and they defecate only in latrines located outside of their burrows.
Below is a European badger.
Okay, let's talk about the badger's reputation for being fearless and aggressive. Is it true? As usual, this is often exaggerated. Badgers are certainly capable of defending themselves, and they have powerful jaws and claws, but they rarely attack humans. Of course, like many other animals, a badger will certainly attack a human if you corner it and try to pick it up or harm it. Here's a sampling of evidence of the badger's reputation:
I found an article on the BBC website about a Scottish castle that had to close off part of its public area because a "very angry badger" had gotten into the cellar of the structure.
There are numerous YouTube videos of badgers defending themselves against much larger creatures, including this one of a honey badger taking on six lions. Badgers have really thick, tough skin, and this video shows how these characteristics can save a badger's life.
Also, the honey badger has the Guinness Book of World Records title of "World's Most Fearless Creature."
So, there's no doubt that badgers are fierce creatures and are capable of fighting off attackers.
Perhaps part of their nasty reputation comes from certain behaviors, particularly the notorious honey badger (which lives in Africa and Southeast Asia). For example, honey badgers have a strong resistance to snake venom and scorpion venom. This includes cobra venom, and honey badgers often kill and eat cobras. In fact, 25% of a honey badger's diet is venomous snakes!
Why would the honey badger evolve an immunity to snake venom instead of just avoiding venomous snakes? As one writer put it: "Evolving to withstand snake venom is like being the only person at a party who can eat the extra-hot salsa: You get it all to yourself."
Below is a honey badger:
Another major portion of a honey badger's diet is... you guessed it... honey (as well as honeybee larvae). Eating honey involves getting stung by bees. A lot of bees! And, as you can guess, "honey badger don't care!" Again, the thick skin comes in handy. A honey badger's skin is about 1/4 inch (.635 cm) thick and is incredibly tough.
Not only is the badger's skin thick, it's also loose. So loose, in fact, that when a predator gets a badger in its jaws, the badger has room to squirm around and bite the predator's face Badgers also have incredibly strong jaws. Scientists have developed a metric called the Bite Force Quotient (BFQ), which takes into account the bite force and the animal's body size. A European Badger has a BFQ of 106. Compare that to a brown (grizzly) bear, with a BFQ of only 78. The leopard has a BFQ of 94, and the lion had a BFQ of 112. So, the badger rates pretty high in biting force.
This is a long (36 minutes) video, but check it out if you really want to learn a lot about honey badgers.
Honey badgers have no problem going after the difficult foods such as venomous snakes and honey. They even sometimes target porcupines, which have quills that can kill much larger predators. Below is a honey badger that made an attempt to kill a large crested porcupine but finally had to give up.
And don't forget there are other species of badgers too. Below is a hog badger in Thailand.
And below is the Javan ferret-badger, which lives in Indonesia. The ferret-badgers are some of the smallest badger species. Most badgers (including the American badger, European badger, and honey badger) average about 25 pounds (11 kg), but the ferret badgers are only about 4 pounds (1.8 kg).
So, Badgers deserve a place in the U.A.H.O.F.
(Undefeated Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word defeat originated way back in the 1300s, and it is most often used as a verb meaning "to overcome in a contest, battle, election, etc." It also means "to frustrate or to thwart." The adjective undefeated didn't show up until hundreds of years later, in the 1700s. Undefeated is now mostly used related to sports, as in "The team had an undefeated season." Considering the badger's reputation as an undefeated fighter, the word seems particularly important here.
So, especially when it comes to badgers, undefeated is another way to say awesome!
A few days ago I was walking to our garden, and I spotted a really cool, inch-long insect scuttling around on the ground at my feet. I recognized it as a velvet ant, a creature that fascinates me but which I rarely have a chance to see. I tried for several minutes to get a decent photo with my phone, but the darn thing was on a mission. It wouldn't stop scurrying for even a split second, so here's my best shot:
Here in Missouri, velvet ants are often called cow killers. This menacing name comes from their reputation for having an extremely painful sting. You see, these creatures are not actually ants at all—they are wasps.
What the heck is a Velvet Ant?
Amazingly, there are over 7,000 species of velvet ants worldwide! They are in a family called Mutillidae. As you can probably guess, they get their common name (velvet ant) from the velvety coat of fur on their bodies, which is often bright orange and black.
Here are a few of the different species:
Amazing Facts about Velvet Ants
First, let's make sure we know exactly what these things are. As I said above, velvet ants are actually wasps. They exhibit what is called sexual dimorphism—meaning the males and females are very different in appearance. The males have wings and can fly, while the females are without wings and spend all their time on the ground. The wingless females can sting, but the winged males cannot.
Velvet ants are solitary wasps. They live alone instead of in colonies that have queens, workers, and drones. The adult males fly around at night, feeding on flower nectar. The wingless females also feed on nectar, but they move around on the ground, often during daylight hours.
Here is what a winged male looks like:
Okay, we really need to talk about this wasp's amazing ability to defend itself. It is perhaps the best-defended type of wasp. First, its stinger packs a mean punch. In fact, legend has it that the sting is powerful enough to kill a cow. Hence the name cow killer. Don't worry, this is nothing more than a legend. These wasps are not dangerous to cows or to humans (unless you are highly allergic to wasp and bee stings in general).
But the velvet ant's sting is painful! How painful? Well, first let's distinguish between pain and toxicity. Pain is how much the sting hurts, toxicity is how dangerous or fatal the sting is. Surprisingly, tests have shown that velvet ant venom (which still has an unknown composition) is no more toxic than the venom of honeybees.
It's also important to think about the velvet ant's solitary lifestyle. They live alone, so they do not have companions to help them fight off predators. It's more important for a velvet ant to administer immediate pain to a predator, so that it can make a quick escape. It's the "shock and awe" approach. When a predator grabs a velvet ant, the pain comes so fast that it will usually release the wasp before killing it.
How painful is it? In one comparative study, velvet ant pain outscored the pain from 58 other stinging insects. The only bugs rated as more painful were the bullet ant, the warrior wasp, and the tarantula hawk (a type of wasp). Even those names sound nasty, don't they?
Oh... and that was one study I am glad I did not volunteer for.
I suppose the pain is made worse by the fact that velvet ants have stingers that can be half as long as their entire body! See the stinger in the image below.
Not only do velvet ants have a nasty sting, they also make a warning sound by contracting their abdomen. This sound warns predators that the velvet ant is ready to attack (kind of like a rattlesnake's rattling). In studies, whenever a shrew would come within a meter of a velvet ant, the velvet ant would start making this sound, and the sound would become more frequent as the shrew got closer. In the study, the shrews would never attack the velvet ants.
Check out this video of a velvet ant's alarm sound and its stinger.
But wait! The painful sting and the threatening noise are not the velvet ant's only defenses. The bright orange and black colors are actually a form of aposematic coloration. This means they have evolved a specific combination of colors to scare off predators (kind of like the coral snake). Many predators have learned the hard way that touching a velvet ant involves pain, and they learn to avoid insects that have this color pattern.
Not only that, but velvet ants have extremely strong, hard exoskeletons. Crushing a velvet ant requires 11 times more pressure than crushing a honeybee! Yep... this has actually been measured with a device called a force transducer.
And there is one more defense. When threatened, velvet ants also squirt out an alarm chemical from their mandibular gland. It is thought that this chemical further warns the attacker that they are about get the crap stung out of them if they don't back off.
So... a painful sting, aposematic coloration, a really hard exoskeleton, a warning sound, and a warning chemical. Velvet ants are well-defended wasps!
To give you an idea of how invincible velvet ants are, in a large 2018 study, numerous species of velvet ants were placed with a variety of different predators, including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. The wasps were attacked by moles, shrews, lizards, birds, frogs, toads, and many more predators. Only one animal, a single American toad, was able to kill and eat a velvet ant. All the others failed. Two shrews were able to wound a velvet ant, but only after several failed attempts.
The velvet ant is one tough cookie.
One last photo. Below is a species of velvet ant found in Chile. It's called the panda ant.
So, Velvet Ants deserve a place in the G.A.H.O.F.
(Gangbusters Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word gangbusters originated in about 1940. It comes from the popular U.S. radio crime-fighting drama called "Gang Busters," which ran from 1937-1957. The show always started with a dramatic opening involving sirens, screams, pistol shots, and jarring music. The show often involved law enforcement officials busting up organized crime gangs. Eventually, the word started being used widely to mean "outstandingly excellent or successful." Example: The new Marvel movie went gangbusters. The word can also mean "with great speed, intensity, vigor, impact, or success." Example: The software market was growing like gangbusters.
So, especially when it comes to velvet ants, gangbusters is another way to say awesome!
Immortal Jellyfish - Animal Rescue Professionals
Young chimp with stick - National Geographic
Velvet ant species comparison - Joe Wilson/Joe Wilson et al./Current Biology 2015 via The Guardian
Winged male - Johnny N. Dell, via Tallahassee Democrat
Velvet ant stinger - Joseph S. Wilson, USU, via Utah State University Today
Panda ant - Chris Lukhaup - Flickr
In my new novel, Foregone Conflict, Skyra, Lincoln, and the team find themselves in a strange world in which Neanderthals and humans both exist. The more they learn about the people of this world, the stranger things become. The people here are oddly fascinated by spiders. Not just any spiders, though. They are fascinated specifically by social spiders, an amazing group of spiders that live in huge colonies (instead of individually, like most spiders do).
So, today, to celebrate the release of Foregone Conflict, I am featuring social spiders!
What the heck are Social Spiders?
It's important to remember that, as a rule, spiders are antisocial. They like to be alone. They hunt alone, they aggressively defend their webs, and many of them actually eat their own mates (which is very rude). Consider Shelob, the monstrous spider that attacks Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Shelob hangs out alone in the caves of the Mountains of Shadows, waiting for foolish hobbits or orcs to wander too close.
But there are some species of spiders, particularly in tropical areas with an abundance of insects, that have overcome these "lone wolf" tendencies and have adopted a social existence.
Why? Because in certain circumstances, working together is better than working alone.
Amazing facts about Social Spiders
First, let's figure out how social spiders are different from social insects. We're all familiar with social insects like bees, wasps, and termites, which live in complex societies. These social insects often have distinct castes—each caste with distinct jobs, such as collecting food, or caring for the eggs and young, or defending the colony. There is even a queen, whose sole purpose is to lay eggs. These insects even go so far as to have different biological bodies for the members of each caste, and only a few of them ever have the opportunity to reproduce.
Social spiders, on the other hand, do not have these distinct castes, and they do not have different biological body types. Every spider in a colony looks pretty much the same as all the others. Every spider can potentially reproduce.
So, why do these spiders live in colonies instead of alone? What is the benefit of living in a group? Keep in mind that, when it comes to questions like these, it's all about mathematics. For example, one hypothesis is that living in a colony results in capturing, on average, more prey per spider. If each spider gets more food, then it is in the spiders' best interest to live in colonies. If each spider gets less food, then it is in the spiders' best interest to live alone.
As it turns out, in certain circumstances, spider colonies work better than living alone. In certain circumstances, working together to build a much larger web results in more prey per spider. Amazingly, some social spiders make webs that are 25 feet (7.6 m) tall.
Also, in certain circumstances, it is better to have large numbers of spiders to subdue and kill larger prey. While some social spiders live in group of only a few dozen, others live in groups of up to 50,000!
Notice that I said this is beneficial in certain circumstances. Let's figure out what these certain circumstances are. First, it is thought that living in colonies helps if the average size of the prey animals in the area is unusually large. After all, it takes a lot of spiders to subdue a bat, a bird, or a large insect. In tropical areas, there are a lot of birds and bats, and a lot of jumbo insects. This is probably why most social spiders tend to live in tropical areas.
Here's another idea—living in colonies helps if it rains a lot. Why? Because rain tends to destroy spider webs, and therefore the webs require more maintenance. More spiders equals more hands (or legs) to help out. Social spiders work together to build, maintain, and clean the massive web. Social spiders live mostly in areas that get a lot of rain.
Then, of course, there is the actual size of the web. The larger the web, the more insects and other prey it will catch. In order for a 25-foot web to catch enough prey to support thousands of spiders, it must exist in an area that has a lot of insects. You guessed it... tropical areas.
Check out this video of a social spider web.
And then there is the obvious benefit of defending against predators. Let's say you are looking for a nice spider lunch. If you find a single spider, its pretty easy to snatch it and gobble it up. But if you find an entire army of thousands of social spiders, that's an entirely different challenge. In fact, you might end up being lunch for the spiders!
Remember, social spiders are not like social insects. Let's look at how a social spider colony works. Instead of having well-defined castes, social spiders are more egalitarian. All spiders can do all things, and they are all capable of reproducing. The roles in spider colonies are more related to age and gender. And, believe it or not, scientists are starting to discover that these spiders sort themselves by "personality." Certain spiders are more likely to spend their time attacking predators, for example. Certain spiders are more likely to repair the webs, while others are more likely to take care of the colony's babies (each colony has a spider nursery).
Astoundingly, more and more studies are showing that these roles are more likely due to individual spider personalities than to genetics. In other words, they actually choose what they want to do with their time! The social spider below, for example, which is battling an invading ant, probably has a more aggressive personality.
Even though social spiders can be very successful, this lifestyle is quite rare among spiders. There are about 45,000 spider species world-wide, but only about 25 of those are social spiders.
One last interesting tidbit. In 2013, in Santo Antonio da Platina, Brazil, a strong wind storm destroyed many of the area's social spider nests, tearing portions or entire nests free and hurling them into the air. This event led to a “spider rain” in which people in Santo Antonio da Platina observed spiders raining from the sky.
So, Social Spiders deserve a place in the P.A.H.O.F.
(Phat Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word phat may have originated in the early 1980s. It is thought to have started as hip-hop slang, meaning "great or excellent." It is presumably an intentional misspelling of the word fat, kind of like the word boyz. In this case, fat is being used the way it has for centuries, as slang meaning ''rich,'' as in ''fat and happy." I will point out that some people think the word phat started out with a meaning related to admiration of a woman's form (such as, pretty hips and thighs). But... this is considered incorrect, and it is assumed that this meaning may have originated as an improvised explanation to women who felt insulted by the word. Regardless, it is mostly used to mean "great or excellent," and therefore phat is another way to say awesome!
My novella, FUSED: TRAINING DAY, features several fascinating creatures. The most bizarre of these happens to be an extinct lizard. It's not really an animal you want to have in your living room.
Way back in 1995, when Trish and I were on our first trip to Australia, we visited a natural history museum in Brisbane. There was a dark display hall with a carefully-reconstructed primeval forest. The star of the show in that forest (in my opinion) was a model of a massive monitor lizard called a megalania. That creature has stuck in my mind ever since, and I have always known I would find a way to have one show up in one of my stories.
So, since I just released FUSED: TRAINING DAY, this is also the perfect time to feature the megalania as an Awesome Animal!
What the heck is a Megalania?
During the Pleistocene (2.5 million years to about 12,000 years ago), fierce mammal predators, such a saber-toothed cats, ruled most of the world. But not so much in Australia. The apex predators in Australia were reptiles, including land-dwelling crocodiles, enormous snakes, and huge monitor lizards. The megalania was the largest of these monitor lizards.
The megalania (Megalania prisca or Varanus priscus) lived from about 1.6 million years ago to about 40,000 years ago. It is also called the giant goanna (goanna is the name given to certain monitor lizards, particularly in Australia).
Amazing facts about the megalania
Okay, the first thing we need to do is figure out exactly how big these things were. The megalania is touted as the largest terrestrial lizard to have ever roamed the earth. Is this true?
The largest living lizard is the Komodo monitor (the Komodo dragon), which can grow to be 10 feet (3 m) long and weigh 150 pounds (70 kg). We'll use the Komodo as a standard for comparison.
The strange thing is, the assumed size of the megalania has changed greatly based upon different studies that have been done. Why? because complete fossil skeletons are rare. The earliest estimates put megalanias at about 23 feet (7 m) long and about 1370 pounds (620 kg).
In 2009, the megalania was downgraded to 18 feet (5.5 m) and 1,268 pounds (575 kg). The author of the study argued that the previous estimates used flawed methods.
However, in a completely different study published in 2004, Ralph Molnar did a very comprehensive study comparing fossil megalania bones to the bones of two different living monitor lizards. One was the lace monitor, which is long and thin, and the other was the Komodo monitor, which has a thicker body. The conclusion? If the megalania was shaped more like the lace monitor, it was 26 feet (7.9 m) long. If the megalania was shaped more like the Komodo monitor, it was 23 feet (7 m) long. The largest individuals would have weighed 4.280 pounds (1,940 kg)!
Yeah... I know what you're thinking. What difference does it make, right? Whether it's 1,200 pounds or 4,200 pounds, this was a big honkin' lizard—way, way bigger than a Komodo dragon.
In the diagram below, 3A is the small estimate, 3B is the large estimate. Lizard 1 is the Komodo dragon (the largest lizard living today).
It's important to remember that we aren't talking about a dinosaur. Dinosaur skeletons were structured very differently from lizard skeletons. Dinosaurs had legs positioned directly beneath their bodies, able to support vast amounts of weight. Lizards, though, have legs that extend out to the sides. With no direct support from underneath, lizards simply cannot grow all that large. Most lizards are the size of your hand or smaller. Many are smaller than your pinky finger.
So, the megalania was a big lizard. If you saw a 4,000-pound predatory lizard coming your way, you would probably want to make yourself scarce. As if the size wasn't intimidating enough, these lizards were probably venomous. You read that right. The megalania belongs in a reptile group (specifically, a clade) called Toxicofera, which includes all the reptiles that have venom-producing glands in their mouths.
Here's how this venom works (based on what we know about living monitor lizards with venom, such as the Komodo dragon). The vemon, produced in the lizard's jaw, is a hemotoxin. This means it attacks the blood. Specifically, it prevents the blood from clotting. So... the lizard bites the heck out of its prey (Komodo dragons have a seriously nasty bite), the prey starts to bleed, and the hemotoxin greatly increases the bleeding. Soon, the prey animal goes into shock and collapses. Then... lizard lunch!
Because of the megalania's hemotoxic venom, these lizards were probably capable of taking down very large prey. The painting below shows a megalania stalking a herd of huge herbivorous marsupials.
Check out this video about the megalania (kind of long but informative).
Below are two Komodo monitors fighting. They are each probably about 7 feet (2.1 m) long. Now, picture what this would look like of they were each 23 feet (7 m) long!
Several hypotheses have been formed to explain the extinction of megalanias, which happened about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. First, some people suggest they went extinct after several large prey species went extinct, specifically Diprotodon and Procoptodon. When these animals disappeared, there was simply not enough food to support a population of such large lizards.
Second, some people think the first humans to colonize Australia may have hunted megalanias to extinction (try to imagine hunting an adult megalania with primitive weapons!). This hypothesis is supported by the fact that humans entered Australia at about that time.
Third, it seems likely that their extinction was caused by a combination of #1 and #2 above. Perhaps humans burned huge swaths of forest, and in doing so they killed off the food supply for megalania prey species.
And... fourth, some people like to believe that megalanias are still alive, with isolated populations hidden in remote areas of Australia. There have been stories of large footprints found, cattle killed with suspicious bite marks, and so on. BUT... as cool as it would be to find living megalanias, the possibility is HIGHLY UNLIKELY.
So, the Megalania deserve a place in the P.K.A.H.O.F.
(Peachy Keen Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The adjective phrase peachy keen was popularized (and probably invented) by a Los Angeles DJ named Jim Hawthorne around 1948. The young DJ, it seems, was bored with his job. One night, without notifying his bosses, Hawthorne turned his show into a wild, carefree program he referred to as "Hellzapoppin on the air." Before the station could fire him, they were inundated with fan mail. The program soon exploded in popularity. One of Hawthorne's signature phrases was "Oh so peachy keen." Well, the phrase is still being used, and it means excellent, wonderful, and fine. So, peachy keen is another way to say awesome!
Megalania #1 - Dinosaur Park
Size diagram - Wikimedia Commons
Fighting Komodo monitors - DepositPhotos
Megalania stalking marsupials - Laurie Beirne via Science Magazine
Megalania pursuing a Bullockornis - Peter Trusler, via Monash University on Flickr via NatGeo
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.