After 27 years at our previous home, Trish and I recently moved to a new property to the south. Although it takes 70 minutes to drive between the two homes, the new place is actually only 34 miles (55 km) south as the crow flies (I'm not sure how many people use the term "as the crow flies," but it means in a straight line). But there are significant changes in the natural habitat in those 34 miles. The new house is in a region called the Ozarks. One animal that is rare at the old house location but is common at the new property is the nine-banded armadillo.
This creature fascinates me, so I was considering featuring it as an Awesome Animal. And then today we discovered that an armadillo family had established residence beneath our garden shed. Four young armadillos were wandering around the area feeding on worms, grubs, and other critters. Here's a photo my daughter-in-law took of two of the youngsters. They were about 10 inches (25 cm) long, not including the tail. That's about half the length of adults.
What the heck is an Armadillo?
Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning little armored one. This of course refers to the bony, protective plates that cover the creature's body. There are about 20 living species of armadillos, all of them native to the Americas. Only one species, the nine-banded armadillo, lives in the United States. The others are found in Central and South America.
Amazing facts about Armadillos
Armadillos are the only living mammals that have this type of bony armor. In a previous article I featured the pangolin, which is a mammal with large, protective scales, but those scales are attached to the skin and are not actually made of bone. With Armadillos, portions of the armor are bone-like, particularly over the shoulders and hips, as well as several bands that are connected by flexible skin. See the photo below of the skeleton of a nine-banded armadillo.
Contrary to popular belief, most armadillos cannot roll into a ball and cover themselves with their shell (pangolins can do this). Only two species, both of them three-banded armadillos, are capable of curling their heads and feet up and contorting their shells into a tight ball that is almost impenetrable to predators.
Nine-banded armadillo do not always have nine bands. In fact, they can have 7 to 11 bands. This species typically grows to about 12 pounds (5 kg).
Nine-banded armadillos are rapidly moving north and east in the United States! It wasn't until the late 1800s that this creature crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States. And since then it has been steadily spreading across the continent. When I was growing up in Kansas, I never once saw an armadillo. Now I see them regularly, both in Kansas and in Missouri, and they have been sighted as far north as Nebraska and Iowa. It is tempting to assume that this progression is a result of climate change, but it is probably more due to the fact that there are no natural armadillo predators here, as well as the creatures' rapid reproductive rate (a female can produce up to 56 babies in her lifetime).
Although this expansion seems to be a natural phenomenon, many people consider armadillos pests, mainly because nine-banded armadillos like to dig and can be destructive to gardens, and their burrows can destabilize houses and sheds.
Historically, people have eaten armadillos, but usually they have been considered "last resort" food animals. During the Great Depression (in the U.S.), armadillos were called "poor man's pork" and "Hoover hog" (because many people blamed President Hoover for the Great Depression).
Armadillos are diverse. The 20 or so different species live in diverse habitats, from rainforests, to grasslands, to deserts. The largest is the giant armadillo, an endangered South American species that grows to over 100 pounds (45 kg). See below.
The smallest armadillo is perhaps the most bizarre... the pink fairy armadillo. This species is only 5 inches (12.7 cm) long and lives in the deserts of Argentina. This delightful creature is rarely seen and we know very little about its habits. To give you an idea of how elusive they are, Mariella Superina of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council has been studying other armadillos in the pink fairy’s habitat for 13 years and has never once seen one in the wild! See photo below.
But people occasionally come across these creatures. Check out this video of a pink fairy armadillo digging in the sand.
Yet another species is the screaming hairy armadillo, which is native to the Monte Desert in South America. True to its name, this armadillo emits a loud squeal whenever it is threatened. It also has more hair than most of the other species. See photo below.
One last fascinating fact. As a rule, the nine-banded armadillo almost always gives birth to four genetically identical quadruplets (which explains why there are exactly four babies living under our shed). In humans, identical twins or triplets make up only 0.2% of the population. In other words, they are quite rare. There are a few other animals that often have identical twins (ferrets, deer, and polar bears, for example), but only the nine-banded armadillo makes a habit of popping out identical quadruplets.
So, armadillos deserve a place in the V.A.H.O.F.
(Virtuosic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word virtuoso originated in the early 1600s, and it means a person who has special knowledge or skill in a field, particularly someone who excels in musical skill. The adjective version of the word is virtuosic. Not surprisingly, people have expanded the use of virtuosic to describe almost anything that is outstanding. So virtuosic is another way to say awesome!
Nine-banded armadillo - Rich Anderson on Flickr
Young nine-banded armadillo - Traci Smith-Reams
Nine-banded armadillo skeleton - Ryan Somma via Wikipedia
Three-banded armadillo in a ball - Smithsonian National Zoo
Pink Fairy Armadillo in hands - Mariella Superina/Paul Vogt via Wired
Screaming hairy armadillo - Smithsonian National Zoo
Nine-banded armadillo quadruplets - QuantumBiologist
Okay, I'm not giving out any spoilers here, but I'll say that this Awesome Animal is very relevant to the upcoming Bridgers 5. That's it. That's all I'll say about that. My lips are sealed!
Lemurs. Just the name makes you think of Madagascar, doesn't it? I imagine the name makes some people think of the island country, The Republic of Madagascar. And it may make other people think of the 2005 DreamWorks picture, Madagascar. Let's take a closer look at these wide-eyed prosimian primates.
What the heck is a Lemur?
Lemurs are a group of about 100 species of mammals in the order Primates. Although lemurs look similar to other primates, such as the monkeys and apes, lemurs became isolated on the island of Madagascar long ago, and they evolved independently from the other primates. Lemurs typically have large eyes and are nocturnal. Most of them are arboreal (spend much of their time in trees). Below is perhaps the most recognizable of the lemurs, the ring-tailed lemur.
Amazing facts about Lemurs
Lemurs live only on Madagascar. The island of Madagascar broke away from eastern Africa, Antarctica, and India between 160 and 80 million years ago. But the first lemurs originated in Africa about 64 million years ago. So how did they end up on Madagascar? The most accepted explanation for this is that individuals and small populations rafted across the Mozambique Channel, the gap between Africa and Madagascar, which is about 350 miles (560 km) wide. Of course they didn't do this on purpose, but they happened to be on large, tangled mats of uprooted trees and other vegetation as the mats were washed out to sea by flooded rivers. By looking at models of ocean currents of 60 million years ago, it was determined that these rafts would have been carried to Madagascar in less than 30 days, making it possible for small mammals like lemurs to survive the trip.
Now this is the important part of the story. As the continents drifted north, by about 20 million years ago the ocean currents had changed, eliminating the possibility of other animals rafting to Madagascar. This isolated the lemurs and prevented them from having to compete with other arboreal mammals such as squirrels. And even more importantly, they did not have to compete with monkeys, which appeared on Africa later. Monkeys, due to their higher intelligence and aggression, almost certainly would have wiped out the lemurs had they existed in the same place.
Lemurs are diverse (over a hundred species). This is probably because of Madagascar's diverse habitats and highly seasonal climate. In fact, several species may exist in the same area of forest because they have different diets. The smallest species is the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, only 3.5 to 4 inches (9 to 11 cm) long, not counting the tail, and weighing only 1 ounce (30 grams):
Although now extinct, the largest lemur known was the Archaeoindris. It was as large as a male gorilla, weighing about 350 pounds (159 kg). Unfortunately, these giant lemurs became extinct about 2,000 years ago. This happens to be the time at which the first humans arrived on Madagascar. As I'm sure you can guess, this is probably not a coincidence. Humans have a track record of wiping out species by over-hunting and habitat destruction. Below is the Archaeoindris.
The largest living lemur is the indri lemur, which weighs about 20 pounds (9 kg).
Lemurs have two tongues. Yep, you read that correctly. Lemurs have a main tongue, which isn't too different from your tongue—it is designed to help them eat (most lemurs eat fruits, flowers, and insects). But underneath the main tongue is a smaller tongue made of stiffer cartilage. This is the grooming tongue. It is used when they groom the fur of their buddies (and in the process, they can separate out a few insects for a tasty snack). This second tongue is also used as a toothbrush to clean out the hairs that get stuck between their teeth as they groom each other.
In lemur society, females are dominant. Lemurs live in social groups called troops. Each troop, which could include 6 to 30 individuals, is led by a dominant female.
Lemurs are not the ancestors of monkeys and apes. Lemurs are prosimians, which means they are a type of primate that evolved before monkeys and apes (simians). But remember, lemurs evolved independently while isolated on Madagascar.
But that doesn't mean lemurs aren't intelligent. When it comes to understanding numbers, lemurs are as intelligent as monkeys.
Check out this video on studies of lemur intelligence.
One of the more bizarre species of lemurs is the aye-aye. Why? Well, mainly because of its extraordinarily long middle finger. Or more accurately, how this finger is used. The aye-aye is one of only two mammals that feed with a strategy called percussive foraging. Here's what that means: The aye-aye taps on a tree and then listens carefully to find grubs living in the wood. It then chews a small hole in the wood with its specialized, forward-slanting incisors. Finally, it inserts its long middle finger in the hole and pulls out the grubs. So the aye-aye fills the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. See the aye-aye below.
Recently, the filmmaker Ceri Levy teamed up with the artist Ralph Steadman to create an entertaining book about endangered animals, titled Critical Critters. The aye-aye is one of the featured creatures. The artist Ralph Steadman has an iconic style of splattered ink, made famous by his work for Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In this image, the aye-aye seems to be flashing its impressive middle finger at the world, perhaps a not-so-subtle gesture to the humans who are destroying the creature's habitat.
So, lemurs deserve a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Blastastic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word blastastic is simply a combining of blast (as in "that party was a blast") and fantastic (which today often means marvelous). The word blast originated before the year 1000, and it originally meant a gust of wind. But in about 1960 it was adapted to mean a party or a riotously good time. The word fantastic originated in the late 1300s, and it originally referred to elements of outlandish imagination. So, when you combine these two words, blastastic is another way to say awesome!
My brother, Shane Smith, recently emailed me an article about how Pennsylvania named the "snot otter" as their official state amphibian. Well, not only is snot otter one of the most awesome colloquial names ever given to an animal, but the animal itself is quite awesome (officially known as the hellbender).
So, I apologize to those of you who prefer the cute and cuddly creatures, because today's animal is, well... not (or should I say, It'snot).
I can't help it—I'm fascinated by all reptiles and amphibians. Always have been. And since the hellbender is a salamander, which is an amphibian, it deserves to be recognized for its awesomeness.
What the heck is a Hellbender?
Hellbenders are the largest type of salamander in North America. They are considered "living fossils" because they have not changed much in the last 160 million years. These salamanders live on the bottoms of fast-flowing streams, and their bodies are flattened to help them cling to the rocky stream bottom.
Amazing facts about Hellbenders
Hellbenders are big. They are in a family, referred to as the giant salamanders, that includes only two other species, the Japanese giant salamander and the Chinese giant salamander. Hellbenders grow to 12 to 29 inches (30 to 74 cm) long, including the tail. And they weigh up to four pounds (1.8 kg). This is much larger than any of the other salamanders that live in their range.
Hellbenders are predators. Mostly they prey on crayfish (90% of their diet is crayfish). But when they get the chance, they also snarf up fish, insects, earthworms, snails, tadpoles, fish eggs, and even other hellbenders. They have a "sit and wait" hunting strategy. They hide under rocks with only their heads sticking out, and when a crayfish swims too near, they open their mouth and suck in water, bringing the unfortunate crayfish with it.
Hellbenders have numerous other names. Snot otter is my favorite, but other names include devil dog, mud devil, grampus, Allegheny alligator, spotted water gecko, leverian water newt, and another favorite of mine, lasagna lizard. The name lasagna lizard comes from the unusual folds of skin along the hellbender's side (these folds are obvious in the photo below).
The name snot otter is obviously due to the slime that covers the hellbender's skin (this slime serves as a protective layer). No one knows for sure how it got the name hellbender, but some people believe the creature was named by settlers who felt that "it was a creature from hell where it's bent on returning." Anyway, hellbender is an intimidating name, one which is not really deserved, considering these salamanders are shy and timid.
You might think a hellbender's slime is gross, but it's very important. Not only does it protect them from abrasions from rocks, it also makes them slippery, which in turn makes them difficult for predators (such as fish, turtles, and snakes) to hold onto. And when they are being pursued, they quickly secrete even more slime, which happens to taste awful to predators. So even if a predator manages to grab ahold of one, it gets a mouthful of nasty slime and will often let go.
Okay, let's talk some more about the hellbender's amazing skin. What's up with all those lasagna folds? Here's an explanation: Young hellbenders (called larvae) have external gills for breathing. But as they grow to adulthood, their gills disappear. From that point on, they get all their oxygen through their skin. This isn't unusual for salamanders, but most other salamanders are much smaller. The larger an animal is, the less skin it has per unit of volume. It's that old "surface area to volume ratio" thing we all learned about in school. Small salamanders have more skin per gram of body weight, so their skin can easily absorb enough oxygen. But a four-pound hellbender simply needs more skin to get enough oxygen to support its massive body. That's why it has all those folds on its sides. That's also why hellbenders must live in well-oxygenated, fast-moving streams.
The hellbender's skin has another superpower—it can see. That's right, the creature's skin contains numerous light-sensitive cells. It is thought that these cells help the salamander know whether it is well hidden beneath a rock. For example, the tail has the highest concentration of these cells, so that the hellbender can know whether or not its tail is sticking out. That's pretty darn amazing.
The two tiny eyes on top of its head can also detect light but are not good at seeing images. So hellbenders use their strong sense of smell to catch prey. They also have a "lateral line" along each side of the body, which detects slight vibrations in the water.
Check out this fun musical video about hellbenders!
Hellbenders grow slowly and live a long time. It takes a young hellbender 5 to 8 years to reach sexual maturity, and they live up to 30 years in the wild.
Hellbenders are not very sociable. Other than during the mating season, they spend all their time alone. In fact, when two adult hellbenders encounter each other, this almost always results in a fight. If they are about the same size, they will end up going their separate ways unharmed. But if one is smaller, it might get gobbled up by the larger one. I guess hellbenders aren't grossed out by hellbender slime.
Hellbenders have rather unusual breeding habits. During the fall mating season, each adult male uses its strong legs to dig out a brood site, which is a saucer-shaped hole beneath a large rock, positioned so that well-oxygenated water flows directly over the hole. Then the male sits there in the brood site and waits for a female to come along. When a female does show up, he will coax (or force) her into his brood hole and will not let her leave until she lays her eggs (up to 200 eggs at once). The male then sprays his sperm over the eggs and swishes his tail to evenly distribute the sperm.
The male then drives the female away and often tries to coax other females to add more eggs to his brood site. Some successful males will end up with almost 2,000 eggs! The male then guards the eggs by standing over them and rocking back and forth to increase the oxygen getting to them. The eggs hatch after about 45 days in warm regions, but it can take 75 days in colder areas. The young then swim off and try to survive on their own. See the hellbender larva below.
So, the Hellbender deserves a place in the R.A.H.O.F.
(Riveting Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word rivet was first used in the late 1300s, and it came from the Middle English rivette, which meant to attach. As a noun, rivet means a metal pin that holds things together. As a verb, rivet means to fasten or fix firmly. At some point, the meaning expanded to also mean to firmly hold people's attention. Example: Avengers: Endgame is said to be a riveting movie. And since hellbenders are so fascinating, the word fits well here. In other words, riveting is another way to say awesome!
I want to thank reader David Bayly for sending me several great ideas for Awesome Animals, of which the Jerboa was one.
When I was a kid, I watched a Disney movie called The Living Desert. Since I did not live near a desert (I lived in Kansas, which is mostly grasslands), I thought all those desert creatures were so exotic and amazing. To this day, I am fascinated by deserts. Well, I'm actually fascinated by every natural habitat, but deserts are extra amazing.
The jerboa is an example of an animal with extreme adaptations to the unique conditions existing in deserts. Let's take a closer look.
What the heck is a Jerboa?
Jerboas are rodents that live mainly in the extremely hot deserts of Asia and northern Africa. The most striking characteristic is their disproportionately long hind legs, which allow them to hop like a kangaroo. There are 33 species of jerboas, all of them in the family, Dipodidae. Below is a long-eared jerboa.
Amazing facts about Jerboas
Jerboas are fast, and they get around by jumping (like kangaroos). To help them do this, they have hind legs that are at least four times longer than their font legs. But they have a strange habit of zigzagging back and forth as they run (or hop). One possible reason for this is that it helps them avoid predators, such as snakes and owls. Also, this pattern may help them find food sources, which, in a desert, tend to be spread out and random. There must be a darn good reason they zigzag like this, because studies show that this is not as energy-efficient as hopping in a straight line. Even so, jerboas can run (hop) up to 16 miles per hour (25 km/hr).
Jerboas don't drink water. Ever. Instead, they get all the water they need from the food they eat. Their diet consists mainly of plants, although unlike many other rodents, they are incapable of eating hard seeds. They also will happily eat any insects they can catch.
Six of the 33 species of jerboas are pigmy species. And some of these pygmy species could, quite honestly, be the cutest rodents ever. Below is a Baluchistan Pygmy Jerboa.
And check out this video, in case you think this photo is fake.
The long-eared jerboa (the first photo above) has ears that are two-thirds as long as its body. This is the largest ear-to-body ratio of any animal in the world! Here is an interesting way to describe this (from a National Geographic article): "If basketball superstar Yao Ming was a long-eared jerboa, his ears would be the same size as Jada Pinkett Smith. He’s 7.6 feet (2.3 meters) tall, and she’s 5 feet (1.5 meters)."
So what's up with these long ears? Actually, many mammals that live in hot deserts have longer ears than their counterparts living in cooler areas. The long ears help to cool the animal's body. As blood flows through the vessels in the ears, the blood is cooled down. This cooler blood then returns to the main body and helps cool the entire animal.
Jerboas can really jump. Some of the species can jump vertically six feet (1.8 m) high. Let's put this into perspective. The average jerboa stands about four (10 cm) inches tall. So the creature can jump straight up 18 times its own height. I'm 5 feet 10 inches tall (178 cm). If I were a jerboa, I would be able to jump 35 yards (32 meters) straight up. This sounds like it would be fun, but when I fall 35 yards back down, the fall would probably kill me.
Jerboas use their long tails to help balance them as they hop. But they also use the tail to prop themselves up when they stand upright (remember, their front legs are really short, kind of like T-Rex arms... not much good for standing on).
Check out this video about Jerboas.
Jerboas spend most of the daylight hours in their burrows beneath the ground. They come out to forage for food at night, which is why they have such large eyes.
Baby Jerboas develop slowly compared to other rodents. When they are born, their hindlegs and forelegs are the same length. The hindlegs do not develop until they are 8 weeks old, and they cannot jump until they are 11 weeks old! They may be slow to develop, but they live longer than other rodents. Jerboas live about six years in the wild, which is twice the average lifespan of rats. Check out the baby jerboas below.
One more tidbit of information. During World War II, Britain chose the jerboa as the mascot for the country’s 7th Armoured Brigade. They named the brigade the Desert Rats. The brigade fought in World War II campaigns in North Africa. Why did they choose the jerboa? according to the story, Major General Michael O’Moore-Creagh wanted his troops to share the animal’s tactic of popping up, having a quick look around, and popping back down. Below is a patch worn by one of the soldiers.
So, the Jerboa deserves a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Cosmic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word cosmic was first used in the 1640s, and it came from the Greek kosmikós. Its original meaning was "of or relating to the cosmos" (such as cosmic laws). At some point, people started using the word to describe something as "inconceivably vast" (the song is a masterpiece of cosmic proportions). This led inevitably to the word being connected to the phrase, "out of this world," and people started using it to mean "better than best." In other words, cosmic is another way to say awesome!
I want to thank reader James Frederick for suggesting that I feature this creature. The Water Bear is also known as the Tardigrade. And another common name for it (which is actually my favorite) is Moss Piglet.
Let's find out why it is such an awesome animal.
What the heck is a Water Bear?
The first thing I should say is that water bears (Tardigrades) are small. In most of the species, the adults are only 1 to 1.5 millimeters long. Not quite microscopic, but pretty darn close. Tardigrades are in their very own phylum. A phylum is the next category beneath a kingdom... so a phylum is a really significant group. For example, the phylum Chordata includes all animals that have a dorsal nerve cord (spinal cord), including all vertebrate animals. There are only about 1,100 species of tardigrades in the phylum.
Tardigrades typically have eight legs, they live in water, and they can be found, quite literally, everywhere on Earth. I'm not kidding about this. They live on mountaintops, at the deepest parts of the oceans, in deserts, in rainforests, in Antarctica, even in volcanoes and deep sea vents. They are one of the most resilient animals known.
Amazing facts about Water Bears
You may think I'm exaggerating about tardigrades living everywhere, but I'm not. Many species of tardigrades live (and feed) on moss, but others live pretty much anywhere that a thin film or water or tiny drops of water can exist, such as in sand dunes and sand beaches. About 150 species live in oceans, some of them at depths of almost 5,000 meters. They have been found in freshwater lakes that are 150 meters deep. They are abundant in soil and leaf litter. And they have been found at higher than 6,000 feet in the Himalaya Mountains.
Did I mention that tardigrades have superpowers? Well, buckle up, because we're going to explore these amazing abilities. But first, I'll explain that most of these abilities are possible due to the creature's knack for cryptobiosis... a general term that describes several forms of suspended animation. When conditions become harsh, a tardigrade will expel almost all water from its cells, nearly stopping all metabolic activity. It becomes what one scientist described as an "indestructible pellet." This pellet is called a tun.
In 2007, scientists sent tardigrade tuns into space, in which the tardigrades were exposed to the heat, solar radiation, and vacuum of space for 12 days. Afterwards, when they were rehydrated, they became active, and they grew, ate, and even reproduced. Tardigrades are the only multi-cellular animal we know of that can survive these amazingly harsh conditions.
Tardigrades can turn into glass. When their environment becomes extremely dry, tardigrades become tuns and produce a special kind of "bioglass," which holds the proteins and other molecules together until the creature is rehydrated. When things get wet again, the glass dissolves, and the tardigrade comes back to life.
In 2014, scientists pulled out some tardigrades that had ben placed in a freezer back in 1983. After being frozen for over 30 years at -4 degrees F (-20 C), three of the creatures came back to life. One of them started laying eggs six weeks after defrosting.
But that's not really cold at all to a tardigrade. These creatures have been frozen for 26 hours at -423 degrees F (-253 C) and they lived. And... the temperature of -459.67 F (-273.15 C) is called absolute zero. This is where all molecular motion stops completely. Well, in 1950, tardigrades were frozen to -459.4 degrees F (-273 C) and they came back to life afterwards. That's almost absolute zero!
Here is a video of a tardigrade shriveling up and then coming back to life.
Below is one of the tardigrades that was revived after being frozen for 30 years:
Boiling water doesn't kill them either. Water boils at 212 degrees F (100 C). But tardigrades survive temperatures of 304 degrees F (151 C). In extreme heat, tardigrades produce specialized heat-shock proteins, which prevent the other proteins from being destroyed. The second most heat tolerant organism we know of is a bacteria that can survive at 252 degrees F (122 C). Not even close!
As if that weren't enough, tardigrades can survive pressures up to 87,022 pounds per square inch! This is six times the pressure in the deepest part of the ocean.
Okay, one more superpower. Um, well, kind of. It wasn't until 2016 that scientists carefully studied the life cycle of tardigrades. They observed the mating process, which consistently lasts for an entire hour. So... I guess we can add that to the list of talents.
For whatever reason, tardigrades are adored by many people. More so than any other tiny invertebrate animal that I know of. Is it because tardigrades are kind of cute? Is it because they are the toughest animals on Earth? Who knows, but the following photos provide evidence of their appeal:
So, the Water Bear deserves a place in the H.Z.C.A.H.O.F.
(Hairy Zero Cool Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: According to the Urban Dictionary, hairy zero cool means doubly awesome. Why? Well, because in slang, 'hairy' can mean awesome (um... okay, if they say so). And 'zero cool' also means awesome (it is an American slang phrase). This use of zero cool may have originated from the movie, Hackers, in which Zero Cool was the nickname of one of the hackers. Zero Cool is also the title of an early Michael Crichton novel, published in 1969. Regardless of its origin, hairy zero cool is a way to say doubly awesome!
Tardigrade #1 (blue-green) - Yahoo News
Tardigrade and Tun - American Scientist
Tardigrade that had been frozen for 30 years - Megumu Tsujimoto, Satoshi Imur, Hiroshi Kanda/National Institute of Polar Research/SOKENDAI, Tokyo, Japan - via Popular Mechanics
Tardigrade Tattoo - Discover Magazine
Tardigrade Keychain - GiantMicrobes.com
Tardigrade Necklace - Etsy
Okay, I've been waiting to feature this animal for a long time. The naked mole rat does not make an appearance in any of my novels (at least not yet), but I am simply fascinated by this creature.
What is your concept of beauty? I don't mean physical beauty of people, which is greatly over-emphasized in pop culture. I'm talking about beauty in nature. Some people might think beauty is tall, snow-covered mountains. Others might think it's a wide open, undisturbed grassland, or an ancient forest. Or perhaps an animal, like a zebra or a bird of paradise. Well, beauty doesn't have to be physical (I'm not sure anyone would say these creatures are physically beautiful). But beauty can also be in the astounding adaptations of an animal or plant. Or in a bacterium, protozoan, or fungus, for that matter. It's the amazing adaptations and behaviors that make the naked mole rat a creature of beauty.
What the heck is a Naked Mole Rat?
One could argue that naked mole rats are the strangest mammals on Earth. But that's a matter of opinion, right? Let's look at them more closely so you can decide for yourself. Naked mole rats are not moles, nor are they rats. They are burrowing rodents that live in East Africa. This in itself is not unusual. After all, there are plenty of burrowing rodents, such as gophers, kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, and woodchucks.
But... naked mole rats are unique in a number of ways. The most striking is their social structure. Naked mole rats (and one other species of mole rat) are the ONLY mammal species that are eusocial. This is a type of social structure in which the adults live in groups and work together to care for the young, and only certain females (queens) are allowed to give birth. If you're thinking that's the way some ants, termites, bees, and wasps live, you're right. Those insects are eusocial. But there are no other mammals that are eusocial.
Amazing facts about Naked Mole Rats
Let's talk more about this eusocial thing. Hold on to your socks, because these amazing facts will just about knock them off! These creatures live in underground colonies, and when the queen dies, the dominant females basically start a war in order to choose which one will have the honor of being the new queen. As an example of how brutal this is, a captive colony of naked mole rats at the Smithsonian National Zoo needed a new queen, and during the selection process the number of adults was reduced from 17 to 13. The winning female in this case weighed 81 grams, while the closest competitor weighed only 55 grams. I guess size does matter.
Once a female becomes a queen, she starts having litters right away. Her first litter may have as few as two or three pups (each weighing less than a penny). But she'll get pregnant over and over, and each pregnancy will stretch her spine out a little more (seriously) until she can have room inside for up to 28 pups!
By the way, naked mole rats sleep in big, writhing piles (to help keep warm). That's why the pups in the photo above are piled with adults. One of those adults is the queen, the only one that will suckle the pups.
So, the queen nurses the pups until they are ready for solid food. At that point, the other adults in the colony take over care of the pups. They do this by feeding their poop to the pups! Yep, that's right. The adults produce a special kind of poop called cecotrope. This stuff is in the form of solid, yummy pellets that are full of good nutrients, as well as bacteria that the pups need in their guts to help them digest food as they grow older.
Check out this video on Naked Mole Rats
Let's take a look at the different roles in a naked mole rat colony. As stated above, there is one queen. And only one to three males reproduce with the queen. The other adults are called workers, and they are all sterile. The smaller workers typically gather food and take care of the nest. The larger workers are kind of like soldiers... if the burrow is attacked (by a snake looking for a snack, for example), these larger workers will defend the nest. In fact, they have been seen piling up at the entrance to block a snake from getting to the queen. This means that some of these soldiers might get eaten, thus sacrificing themselves for the queen. Wow.
All the workers, no matter their size, work together to take care of the pups.
As mentioned, other non-queen females in the colony are sterile. Amazingly, if the queen dies or is removed, some of the other females start producing certain hormones that make them fertile. And then they fight each other to become the queen. It is thought that the queen somehow suppresses fertility in all the other females in the colony. Again, wow!
Below is a pregnant queen:
Here's another way mole rats are different from ALL other mammals: They are ectothermic. That means they are essentially cold-blooded. They do not produce heat internally, like other mammals do. Instead of regulating their temperature internally, they regulate it by changing their behavior. To stay warm, they sleep in restless, always-moving piles of mole rats. When they're hot, they move down to the deeper levels of the burrow, and when they're cold, they move up closer to the surface, which is warmed by the sun.
Naked mole rats are extremely well adapted to the low-oxygen environment of their burrows. They can go without any oxygen at all for 18 minutes with no negative effects! And they can carry on with their normal activities for five hours breathing air that has only 5% oxygen (the normal oxygen level of the atmosphere of Earth is just under 21%).
Naked mole rats, quite literally, feel no pain in their skin. This is because their skin lacks neurotransmitters. This is thought to be an adaptation to living in conditions with extremely high levels of carbon dioxide (they use up the oxygen in their burrows and end up breathing lots of CO2). When breathing high CO2 levels, acid builds up in the tissues, which normally would cause pain.
Naked mole rats don't drink water. They get all the moisture they need from the food they eat (the underground parts of plants, like roots and tubers).
A colony may include 75 to 80 individuals, and one colony's burrow system can include two to three miles (3-5 km) of tunnels. They dig these tunnels entirely with their teeth! Impressive, considering they don't even have dental insurance. Their lips seal closed behind their teeth, to keep the dirt out of their mouths. A whopping 25% of their muscle weight is the muscles involved with closing their mouths as they dig. If that were true for a human, our jaw muscles would be the size of all the muscles in one of our legs.
Below is a photo of naked mole rats digging cooperatively. This is called a digging chain.
Naked mole rats live longer than any other rodents, up to 32 years! Most rodents this small (3 to 4 inches long, or 8 to 10 cm) live only a few years. Here's the weird thing about this: studies show that the mortality rate of these animals does NOT increase as they age. You may want to read that sentence again. They do NOT have more of a tendency to die as they grow older. In other words, they do not really age the way people do. They maintain a healthy heart and vascular system throughout their lives. And they are highly resistant to cancer. Pretty impressive, huh?
I'll finish with a cartoon from Lindsey Leigh that kind of summarizes (in a humorous way) the life of a mole rat colony.
So, the Naked Mole Rat deserves a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Copacetic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word copacetic is one of those rare words for which the origin is simply unknown. It is used almost exclusively in North America, and sources sometimes attribute it to Louisiana French, or to Italian, or even to Hebrew, among other possible origins. But the truth is, no one knows for sure. It's also unusual because it is not considered slang in its modern usage. The word means completely satisfactory, just fine, or excellent. So, copacetic is, more or less, another way to say awesome!
Typically, my novels include encounters with strange creatures. In my recently-released novel, INFINITY, the characters encounter coyotes. Now, if you live in the United States, you may think coyotes are not all that strange. However, the coyotes in INFINITY are unlike any coyotes you've ever seen (I won't give away any more detail than that). But you don't have to bridge to an alternate version of Earth to find amazing animals, because the coyotes we have right here on this world are pretty impressive. Let's find out more.
What the heck is a Coyote?
Coyotes are members of the canine family (Canidae). Which means they are related to dogs, wolves, foxes, dingoes, jackals, and others. Coyotes live in North America, and they are widespread in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and even into Central America.
Coyotes are medium-sized canines, smaller than wolves, larger than foxes. Typically, adults weigh between 15 and 44 pounds (7 to 20 kg). When you see one up close, you might assume it is heavier than that because of the bushy fur on its body and tail. The largest specimen ever recorded was a huge male killed in Wyoming in 1937, which weighed 75 pounds (34 kg).
Amazing facts about Coyotes
All coyotes belong to the same species, but there are a whopping 19 subspecies, each of them unique in its own way. Among these subspecies are the northern coyote, plains coyote, mountain coyote, Mexican coyote, Belize coyote, and many more. A very diverse species!
Coyotes are predators but will eat just about anything: rodents, rabbits, fish, frogs, snakes, insects, birds, and even grass and fruits. Studies show that mammals make up 90% of their diet. In fact, they are pretty impressive as predators when they hunt cooperatively to kill deer.
Yep, coyotes are capable of killing adult deer, even though coyotes are MUCH smaller. The average size for a white-tailed deer buck is 150 to 300 pounds (68 to 136 kg). To accomplish this, coyotes hunt large prey in pairs or in small groups. Bringing down an adult deer, especially a buck, is dangerous, though, and usually younger, less experienced coyotes do not participate in this.
Another dangerous prey animal is the porcupine, a large rodent with numerous sharp quills on its back. Many adult coyotes have learned to work in pairs to flip these rodents over and then attack the soft belly. This takes skill, and when younger coyotes try it, they often get a face full of needle-sharp quills.
But I think my favorite coyote hunting skill is their ability to pounce. They like to stand still and watch for rodents in the snow or grass. When they see one, they leap high into the air and come down on it from above. This technique tends to be highly effective, and therefore mice, rats, and voles make up a large part of a coyote's diet.
Humans have a love/hate relationship with coyotes, and the hate side often outweighs the love side. There are many reasons for this. Farmers and ranchers, for example, hate coyotes because these canines sometimes kill calves and other young livestock. Hunters hate them because coyotes kill deer, turkeys, geese, pheasants, and other game. Pet owners hate them because coyotes sometimes attack domestic dogs.
These bad feelings toward coyotes have long been a part of North American attitudes, and coyotes are often portrayed in stories and cartoons as sneaky and devious. An example is Wile E. Coyote, the cartoon character who never gives up trying to catch the roadrunner, but always seems to fail in the most spectacular of ways.
Check out this Wile E. Coyote video
Coyotes are prolific. Females give birth to as many as 12 pups, and both the parents care for the pups, which results in a high survival rate of the entire litter. Research has shown that human attempts to curtail a coyote population often don't work because even if up to 75% of a coyote population is killed, these amazing creatures bounce right back to their previous level the next year. Since coyotes have few natural predators (besides humans), their populations are usually self-regulated by disease, or by the carrying capacity of their environment (the amount of food and space the environment offers).
Coyotes are highly adaptable, and their range has expanded dramatically because of human activities. Before the 1800s, coyotes were mostly restricted to the southwest United States and in low numbers in the midwest. This was mainly because wolves prevented them from spreading. But humans have wiped out most of the wolves in North America, which opened up new territory for coyotes. By the 1970s, coyotes had spread across the continent, even far up into Canada. In fact, they even spread to the Canadian island of Newfoundland, presumably by swimming (coyotes are very good swimmers). Remarkably, some of the coyotes of Newfoundland are white! They're called snow coyotes:
There's an interesting story behind the snow coyote. A group of scientists recently studied some of these creatures by sequencing their genes. They found that each white coyote carries two copies of a specific gene related to hair color. The normal coyotes on Newfoundland have only one copy of this gene (which means the gene is recessive).
Now here's where it gets interesting. Scientists have found this particular gene before—in golden retrievers. It's what makes the dogs have light-colored hairs. Here's my favorite part of the story: In Newfoundland in 2002, during the coyote breeding season, a male golden retriever ran off with a local coyote and never returned home.
Did you know that coyotes often interbreed with wolves and domestic dogs? It's true. Hmm... so it's very possible that this golden retriever bred with the coyote, and they had puppies bearing the gene described above. Since the puppies only had one copy of the gene, they would have been normal in color. But after a few generations, some of these one-copy offspring probably interbred and produced two-copy offspring... and in this case the genes created nearly-white fur instead of the blonde fur seen in golden retrievers.
I just love that kind of story!
Okay, one more tidbit about coyotes. As stated above, coyotes are adaptable. In fact, they have learned to thrive in human-influenced environments. Coyotes are now becoming common in city suburbs and even in the centers of large cities. For example, only five miles from Chicago O'Hare International Airport, scientists have discovered the smallest known coyote territory ever observed. For at least six years, a coyote community has lived within about a third of a square mile. That must mean that the creatures are finding it very easy to locate plenty of food and water right there in that tiny urban area.
Again, people have mixed feelings about urban and suburban coyotes. What do you think? Should we try to wipe out these new city dwellers, or should we just accept them as another part of the urban landscape, like the pigeons and feral cats?
So, the Coyote deserves a place in the T.A.H.O.F.
(Tubular Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Dude, you know where tubular comes from, right? Well, let's start at the beginning. The word actually originated in the late 1600s, and it meant "having the form or shape of a tube." But in the late 1970s, surfers started using the word to describe when waves break like a barrel. With the help of the Frank Zappa song "Valley Girl," written and sung by his daughter Moon Unit, the word began to be used widely to mean something "cool" or "excellent." Now the word is pretty much just used as a way of mocking the 1980s. Nevertheless, tubular is another way to say awesome!
I don't like giving spoilers about my upcoming novel, INFINITY, but I simply cannot resist telling you this. Our bridger heroes and their clients encounter river otters. But these otters are not like the otters you've seen here in our own world. The otters in INFINITY are... well, there I go again, trying to tell you too much!
I'll just say that the otters in INFINITY are why I chose today's Awesome Animal, the giant river otter. River otters have a reputation for being cute and playful (although those in INFINITY certainly are not), but are they really? Let's find out more about these creatures.
So, what the heck is a Giant River Otter?
Otters are carnivorous mammals in the family, Mustelidae (this is the family that includes all those long, skinny critters like ferrets, weasels, mink, martens, wolverines, and more). There are 13 living species of otters throughout the world, including the river otter, which is fairly common here in Missouri. The giant river otter, on the other hand, lives in South America, particularly in the Amazon River Basin. This is the largest living otter species, and it grows to 5.6 feet (1.7 m) and weighs up to 71 pounds (32 kg). In comparison, the North American river otter that lives here in Missouri weighs only 10 to 30 pounds.
Amazing facts about Giant River Otters
The giant river otter is one of three otter species in South America. But strangely, it is not as closely related to the other South American species as it is to the smooth-coated otter that lives in Asia.
Giant otters are the longest of all the mammals in the mustelid family, although the sea otter might be a bit heavier. Above, I gave the maximum length of 5.6 feet. But it is likely that they grow longer than this, as early reports on sightings and the skins of giant otters indicated that there used to be huge males that were as long as 7.9 feet (2.4 m). Try to imagine swimming next to an 8-foot otter! Unfortunately, these large individuals are not seen today due to overhunting.
Giant otters are classified as endangered. Hunting them is now illegal, but their numbers are still being reduced by deforestation, water pollution due to runoff from farms and oil drilling sites, and poaching (it is hard to catch poachers in the area where giant otters live).
Giant otter babies (called cubs) are born completely covered in fur. In fact, they are one of the few species of carnivores with noses that are completely covered in fur. The cubs are usually born in underground dens near the banks of slow-moving rivers. They are helpless at birth, and they don't learn to swim until they are two months old.
Below is a giant otter pup born in a zoo in Singapore.
Giant river otters, like other otter species, live in family groups, and they are very social. In fact, their social behaviors include hunting, grooming, resting, and communicating. For communicating, they have nine different vocalizations. Most of these are probably for locating each other or for warning each other about predators.
Here's an explanation for why otters play together so often. First, it's important to understand that otter social behavior and cooperation are crucial to their survival (the obvious example is cooperative hunting). When otters play together, they are strengthening their social bonds, thus insuring effective cooperative behaviors.
Check out this video of a family of giant otters working together to kill a large caiman.
Although giant otters typically eat fish, they often kill and eat larger prey. And they are always hungry. They eat six to nine pounds of food per day! In addition to fish, they also eat crustaceans, snakes, and just about any other river creatures they can catch and kill.
All otters are excellent swimmers, including the giant river otter. They propel themselves with their tail and with their large, webbed feet. They also flex their long bodies as they swim. Their thick, water-repellant fur keeps their skin dry and warm. And, as if that weren't enough, they can close their nostrils and ears to keep the water out. You've probably noticed that otters have very small ears. This helps their speed also.
Giant otter family groups usually have four to eight individuals, but families of up to twenty have been observed. A family group is usually the two parents (which are monogamous) and the last one or two litters of pups.
Each family group has a large home territory, averaging almost five square miles (12 square km). They patrol their territory regularly, marking the borders with their anal glands. If other otters trespass, they will defend their territory viciously.
Within a family group, the subadults have the task of caring for the newest pups. So they are kind of like sibling babysitters.
Giant otters are mostly dark brown, but each individual has a white marking from the chin to the chest. These markings are different on each otter, and they use these to identify each other. It's interesting that these markings are in this location (on the chin). Otters have cool habit of "snorkeling," which is when they thrust themselves upward out of the water with their heads high. This allows them to see farther. But it also exposes their distinct markings to the other otters they are facing.
Check out the markings on these two giant otters:
So, the Giant River Otter deserves a place in the S.G.A.H.O.F.
(Squad Goal Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Okay, this one's really a stretch. I was reading an article about slang terms that millennials use. The phrase squad goal is used to describe the type of behavior that friend groups aspire to. Here's an example: When you see Harry Potter and his friends gear up to defeat the Dark Lord, you could say "Squad goal." This means you admire the way the group is working together, and you are suggesting that your own group (squad) should strive to work together in such a way. And since giant river otters are so good at cooperative efforts, I thought this phrase was perfect. So, squad goal is another way to say awesome!
I have a confession to make—I love creature movies (often called creature features). There, I said it. Any movie in which some rampaging creature causes terror and havoc. Of course, many of these movies are beyond silly, and they portray the creatures in a falsely-negative light (an extreme version of this was a 2006 movie about killer sheep, called Black Sheep).
But I don't care how silly these movies are. I still like them. One of my favorites is the 1999 film, Komodo, with its over-the-top punchline: Welcome to the bottom of the food chain.
This movie, of course, is about Komodo dragons--really mean, hungry ones. But let's face it, Komodo dragons are just lizards. Sure, they are the largest and heaviest lizards alive today, and they have a venomous bite (kind of). But are they really that bad? Let's look at the truth about these creatures.
So, what the heck is a Komodo Dragon?
Komodo dragons are lizards in the monitor family (Varanidae). They are found on several Indonesian islands, including the island of Komodo. They are carnivores but don't hesitate to eat carrion. Growing up to ten feet (3.1m) long and weighing up to 366 pounds (166kg), they are by far the largest living lizards.
Amazing facts about Komodo dragons
The most obvious amazing characteristic is their size. There are two primary lines of thought regarding this. First, some scientists say this is an example of island gigantism. This is when animals isolated on islands tend to grow much larger than their relatives on the mainland. There are hundreds of examples of island gigantism, including giant shrews and rats, kiwis and other flightless birds, and various reptiles. Here's an explanation: small islands are usually devoid of large predatory mammals (often because small islands don't have enough food to support large warm-blooded predators that need more food than cold-blooded predators). In the absence of large predatory mammals, the smaller cold-blooded predators (such as lizards and snakes) can gradually become larger to fill that particular niche.
But... some scientists think that Komodo dragons are NOT examples of island gigantism. They point out that very large monitor lizards were already living on the mainland of Australia. In fact, some of the mainland lizards were much larger. One extinct species, the giant goanna, grew to 18 feet (5.5 m) and weighed 1,268 pounds (575 kg)!
So, these scientists suggest that Komodo dragons are large simply because they are descended from large ancestors.
Regardless of how they got that way, Komodo dragons are impressively large lizards.
Komodo dragons were not documented by scientists until 1910. A few collected skins of these lizards made their way to scientists, who were fascinated by the creatures' size. In 1926, W. Douglas Burden organized an expedition to Komodo island, mainly because of the reports of Komodo dragons. After the expedition returned with several preserved specimens and two live ones, the story of the expedition inspired the 1933 movie, King Kong (a movie I still love to watch!).
Are Komodo dragons really venomous? This is an interesting question, because there have been many misconceptions in the past. People used to believe that the saliva of these lizards was filled with nasty bacteria, and that once bitten, their prey would soon die and the lizards would then track them down by smell. Well, a recent study showed that Komodo dragon saliva is no different from the saliva of any other carnivore. They don't have rotting flesh stuck between their teeth, filled with dangerous bacteria. In fact, they meticulously clean their mouths for 15 minutes after eating a meal.
Okay, so the saliva myth has been largely disproven. What about actual venom? In 2009, scientists identified two glands in the lower jaw and extracted the fluid from these glands. They analyzed the fluid, finding that it contained two toxic proteins known to cause symptoms such as muscle paralysis and hypothermia, which could lead to loss of consciousness in their prey.
So... YES, they are venomous. BUT there's more to the story. Many scientists don't think these toxic substances have all that much to do with killing their prey. Why? Because Komodo dragons usually kill their prey very quickly. They've been observed killing wild pigs in only a few seconds. They do not bite and intentionally release their prey so that they can track them down later by smell. After all, if they already have the animal in their mouth, why let it go?
Komodo dragons are often scavengers, and they can smell a dead carcass as far away as 5.9 miles (9.5km). But they also hunt live prey, and they are fierce predators. Astoundingly, they can eat up to 80% of their own body weight in one meal! When they kill larger prey (too large to swallow whole), they tear off massive chunks. They will eat as much as 88% of a carcass: the bones, hooves, some of the skin, and the internal organs, including intestines.
Now here's the most amazing part. With prey up to the size of a goat, Komodo dragons can swallow the creature whole. Snakes are capable of such things, but remember, this is a lizard. To make room, they have flexible skulls and jaws. They also have an expandable stomach. Swallowing such large prey is not a quick job. It can take 20 minutes to swallow a goat, even though they have copious amounts of slick saliva to help the food go down.
Check out this video of a Komodo dragon swallowing a large monkey
(but only if you're not grossed out by such things)
Komodo dragons have been known to try to speed up this process by running at a tree and ramming into it to push the creature down their throat. In fact, they've even been seen knocking over trees while doing this.
Komodo dragons will eat just about anything they can catch, including invertebrates, snakes, other lizards, small mammals, goats, deer, horses, and water buffalo. They even eat each other.
Although they can be fierce, they only occasionally attack humans. I could only find a handful of documented cases of humans being attacked. One of them was a national park guide who went into his office to sit at his desk. Unfortunately, a Komodo dragon had wandered in the open door of his office and was hiding under his desk. The guide survived but was injured.
So, even though I like the 1999 movie, Komodo, the film does NOT accurately portray the true nature of these wonderful creatures.
And Komodo dragons aren't always giant, fierce-looking lizards. As babies, they're actually kind of cute.
So, the Komodo dragon deserves a place in the K.A.H.O.F.
(Killer Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word killer was first used in about 1525. Its original meaning was, a person or thing that kills, as in "The detective finally captured the killer." At some point it took on the meaning, something severe, powerful, or difficult, as in "That was a killer snowstorm," or "That was a killer final exam." Finally, more recently, it has come to mean, highly effective or superior, as in "That is a killer fried chicken recipe." Considering the nature of the Komodo dragon, I think this word is perfect. So, killer is another way to say awesome!
Yesterday I asked Trish what animal I should feature in my newsletter. She didn't hesitate. She reminded me of the time we took our kids out snorkeling in the wide, shallow bay at Cape San Blas, Florida. We rented a couple of canoes, paddled into the center of the bay, and spent the day splashing around and looking for interesting creatures. The next day, we told a commercial fishing guide about that, and he said, "I wouldn't get in that water. A guy caught an eight-foot bull shark there the other day." Hmm. That would have been good to know 24 hours earlier.
Anyway, while we were snorkeling, we found a seahorse. It was only about two inches long, but it was exciting because we had never seen one in the wild before. I can't find a photo of it because back then the only waterproof cameras we had were those plastic, disposable things that used film. Remember film?
So, what the heck is a seahorse?
Seahorses include about 40 species of fish in the genus Hippocampus. They live in shallow tropical and subtropical marine habitats, hiding in seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs, and other sheltered areas. These fish are best known for their upright posture, prehensile tail, and the fact that their heads and necks vaguely resemble that of a horse. But few people have seen them in the wild because they don't move around much, and they blend in with their surroundings.
Amazing facts about seahorses
Seahorses are ridiculously bad swimmers. Top speed: 150 cm per hour. Their tail (called the caudal fin on other fish) are not for swimming, so they swim mostly using their small dorsal (back) fin. This fin flips back and forth furiously, but as Ze Frank says, “Imagine trying to propel yourself on a skateboard solely by waving a Denny’s menu back and forth really fast.”
(by the way, zefrank1 has a collection of funny nature videos on YouTube... but avoid them if you are offended by slightly-raunchy jokes)
In spite of their slow swimming speed, seahorses are predators, feeding on small crustaceans. Obviously, they don't chase down their food. Instead, they wait motionless until their prey swim by, then they suck in the prey through their tube-like mouths.
Seahorses don't have a stomach. Seriously. And no teeth. Their food passes through their digestive system so fast that they have to eat constantly. A young, growing seahorse will eat up to 3,000 brine shrimp every day! I like shrimp too, but sheesh!
A group of seahorses is called a herd. Well, duh.
Seahorses are amazing at hiding. This helps them avoid being eaten (remember, they can't swim worth a hoot), and it helps them catch their prey (they are ambush hunters). Can you spot the seahorse in this photo?
Okay, that one was easy. How about this one?
Check out this video of camouflaged seahorses.
What's up with that prehensile tail? Instead of caudal fins for swimming, seahorses have a tail that can wrap around coral, seagrass, or just about anything else. This holds them in place in rough waters or when there is a current.
And these tails serve another important purpose. Seahorses have elaborate mating rituals. In an attempt to impress a female, a male will lock its tail around the female and wrestle with her in an attempt to impress her. If the two pair up, then the real dance starts. And I really mean dance. The two seahorses begin an intricate series of movements that can last for hours. Sometimes with their tails wrapped together. That's almost romantic.
But there's something else amazing about seahorse reproduction. Are you ready for this? The males are the ones that get pregnant. How does that work, you ask? After their elaborate courtship dance, the female lays eggs into a special oviduct in the male's body, in the structure called the brood pouch. Then the male swims to a safe place and sits tight during gestation, which can last weeks. When the babies are ready to be born, the male starts having contractions that force the babies out. Depending on the seahorse species, there can be as few as five babies and as many as 2,500!
Unfortunately, baby seahorses have little chance of surviving. Studies show that as few as 0.5 percent (1 out of every 200) live to adulthood.
So, the Seahorse deserves a place in the D.A.H.O.F.
(Dandy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: If the word dandy sounds old fashioned, that's because it is. The first recorded use of the word was between 1770 and 1780. Dandy has two meanings. The first is "a man who is excessively concerned about his clothes and appearance." That use of the word is rare these days. Today, the more common meaning is "something or someone of exceptional or first-rate quality." And there is something about a seahorse's appearance that makes me think the word dandy is perfect. So, dandy is another way to say awesome!
Seahorse 3 - Longsnouted Seahorse -Peter Ryngaert/ Guylian Seahorses of the World 2005 - via Smithsonian
Seahorse feeding - Fusedjaw.com
Seahorse Camo #1 - Klaus Stiefel on Flickr
Seahorse Camo #2 - Atsushi Sadaki/Caters News via Earthtouch News
Mating Seahorses - Jules Casey - Ocean Conservancy
Male Seahorse Giving Birth - YouTube
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.