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
Perhaps you have recently seen photos of a ridiculously cute-looking animal on social media—an animal that always seems to be smiling. If so, it is probably a Quokka. This creature, which is a small species of wallaby-like marsupial, has gone from being relatively unknown to becoming a selfie superstar. I recently saw a few photos, and I simply had to feature it as an Awesome Animal.
What the heck is a Quokka?
The quokka (pronounced kwok-uh) is a macropod (the family that includes kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, tree kangaroos, and more). They are about the size of a domestic cat, and they live in far western Australia, including several islands, especially Rottnest Island. For whatever reason, quokkas seem to have almost no fear of humans. Because of their goofy "smiles," National Geographic has deemed quokkas to be the "world's happiest animal."
Amazing facts about Quokkas
The first person to describe quokkas was a Dutchman named Volkersen. He found many of them on an island off the west coast of Australia. In 1696 he described the creature as "a kind of rat as big as a common cat." Well, obviously they are not rats, but that did not stop Volkersen from naming the island Rotte Nest (which means rat's nest). Eventually, the island was permanently named Rottnest. The name quokka was given to the animal by the Aboriginal people of that area.
Okay, we need to talk about this creature's face, which makes the quokka a contender for the cutest animal ever. As I'm sure you're aware, quokkas are not really smiling. This is simply the shape of the creature's mouth. And those prominent front teeth often contribute to the illusion of a smile.
In 2015, someone visited Rottnest Island, took a selfie alongside a quokka, and posted it to social media. The image went viral, and before long, Quokka Selfies became a big deal. A REALLY big deal. If you do a Google Image search for "quokka selfies," you will find literally thousands of them. People travel to Rottnest Island just to take quokka selfies. Apparently, these photos are not difficult to take because the creatures don't mind having a big human sprawl in the grass beside them with a camera. It is illegal to touch quokkas, but that doesn't stop people from cozying up to them for photos.
Quokkas are vegetarians. They primarily eat grasses, sedges, and leaves, but their favorite food is a small shrub native to Western Australia called Guichenotia ledifolia, a type of mallow. Humans are warned to not feed quokkas, and especially not human food, which can cause malnourishment and dehydration in quokkas. Rottnest Island in particular, and Australia in general, take this stuff seriously (as they should). On Rottnest Island, you will be fined $300 if you're caught feeding a quokka. You definitely don't want to get caught being cruel to them (or other animals in Australia). The maximum penalty for animal cruelty is a $50,000 fine and five years in prison.
Here's another good reason not to touch quokkas... the quokkas on Rottnest Island bite dozens of people per year. Maybe they are getting tired of selfies.
I feel the need to dispel a popular myth, that mother quokkas throw their babies at predators to escape being eaten. This idea started as a joke on social media, and since then it has become widely reported as fact. It is NOT true. However, there are some interesting facts that may have contributed to this. Quokkas are marsupials, so the mothers keep their babies in a pouch. When running away from a predator, sometimes these babies (unfortunately) fall out of the pouch. The mother keeps running, leaving the baby behind. This can also happen with other marsupials.
Here's the strange part. Studies have shown that, in quokkas, the mothers may drop the babies on purpose. When their lives are in danger from a pursuing predator, they can release their pouch muscles, causing the baby to fall out. The baby then distracts the predator, allowing the mother to escape. It's kind of like when a lizard loses its tail. The tail wriggles around, distracting the predator, allowing the lizard to escape.
Yeah, I suppose you're thinking quokkas will never get the mother-of-the-year award, but consider this. If the predator catches the mother, it will kill both the mother and the baby. If the mother escapes, she is already proven to be reproductively fertile and will likely have more babies. Yeah, the mathematics of this makes sense, but I'm sure many people still find it strange.
Let's talk about these babies a bit more (I don't want you to be mad at quokkas for dropping their babies). Quokkas give birth to one baby only 27 days after mating. Remember, these creatures are marsupials, so the babies are born very small, the size of a jelly bean. The tiny joey climbs from the birth canal to the pouch using its "hands." Then it stays in the pouch for about six months.
Now, this is really cool... the mother will have several other babies in her womb in a suspended state of development, ready to develop if something bad happens to the baby that was already born. These embryos are back-ups, just in case.
By the way. The fact that the mothers eject their babies when frightened is a really good reason why people should not harass these creatures!
Here's an odd tidbit of information. The relatively large population of quokkas on Rottnest Island have criminals to thank for their abundance. Why? In the late 1830s the island was designated as an Aboriginal penal colony. This kept most people away from the island, which meant that the habitat there remained undisturbed for a long time.
So, Quokkas deserve a place in the B.C.A.H.O.F.
(Blue-Chip Animal Hall of Fame).
The phrase blue-chip was first recorded in 1923. The term was used by a guy named Oliver Gingold, an employee at Dow Jones. He was describing certain stocks trading at $200 or more per share. He got this from poker, in which the blue chips were worth more than the red and white chips. Eventually, blue chip no longer meant stocks with a high price tag, but instead it referred to stocks of high-quality companies. And, as often happens, people started using the term in a broader sense, to describe people that had excellent qualities, such as a blue-chip athlete, or a blue-chip scientist.
So, blue-chip is another way to say awesome!
Some animals, like the orangutan, are so obviously awesome that I never think to do a feature about them. Well, I happened to see a photo of an orangutan the other day, and I decided it's time for this creature to have its day in the spotlight.
What the heck is an Orangutan?
There are actually three species of orangutans, the Bornean orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Tapanuli orangutan. They are members of the Great Apes family, called Hominidae. This family, the Hominids, also includes gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans. Orangutans currently live only in the rainforests of Sumatra and Bornea in Southeast Asia.
Amazing facts about Orangutans
First let's figure out exactly where Sumatra and Borneo are. These are two very large islands in Indonesia. Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world, and Borneo is the third largest island (in case you're wondering, the largest island in the world is Greenland, the second largest is New Guinea). Here's where Sumatra and Borneo are:
Orangutans are sexually dimorphic, which means the males and females are very different in ways beyond just their sexual organs. Male orangutans are much larger than females. The males average 165 pounds (75 kg), while the females average only 82 pounds (37 kg).
The orangutan is one of the closest relatives to humans—these creatures share about 97% of the same DNA with us. In fact, the word orangutan came from the Malay words orang hutan, which means "human of the forest."
Orangutans have longer arms than humans, but shorter legs. A typical male orangutan has an arm span of about 6.6 feet (2 m), which is longer than an orangutan's standing height (about 5 feet). Check out the arms on this male:
As you can probably guess from the length of those crazy arms, orangutans spend much of their time climbing in trees. In fact, they spend over 95% of their time in trees. They even make nests of branches and leaves and sleep high in the trees. They eat, sleep, and travel in the rainforest canopy.
They travel in the trees? Wouldn't it be easier to just come down to the ground and travel? It would be for you and me, but orangutans are highly skilled at moving through the branches using both their feet and their hands, a process called quadrumanous scrambling. I love that phrase... quadrumanous scrambling.
To help them with this quadrumanous scrambling, orangutans have some cool adaptations. First, the muscles and tendons in their hands are arranged so that their hands are in the hooked position when at rest. This allows them to hold on to a branch without expending much effort in keeping their grip. Second, they have long fingers, but the thumb is really short. This gets the thumb out of the way so that their fingers can wrap all the way around a smaller branch and tuck between the branch and the palm, thus locking the grip. Third, their feet have long toes and an opposable thumb, so that they can also grip branches with their feet.
Check out this video of climbing orangutans.
Notice the size and position of the orangutan's thumb:
Orangutans also have extremely flexible shoulder and hip joints, allowing them to hang in almost any position. They can even do cool things like put their feet behind their heads.
Orangutans are strong. Most of their strength is in their arms. Here's why. Think about it—human strength is mostly in our lower torso and legs. That's because we are adapted for walking and running long distances. Well, orangutans are adapted for quadrumanous scrambling! They need to travel long distances using their arms (and legs, although in a way that is different from walking).
How strong are they? Well, an average, untrained human can leg press about 200% of his/her body weight, which makes our legs about 120% stronger than our arms. But an orangutan's arms are about 300% stronger than its legs. An average orangutan's arms are about 6 times stronger than an average human's arms. I do not recommend challenging an orangutan to an arm wrestling match.
I'm not fond of using animals for such spectacles, and the premise of this is ridiculous, but here is a video of a tug-of-war between an orangutan and a sumo wrestler.
Orangutans used to live throughout most of Asia, including as far north as China. Deforestation and the spread of humans have caused their range to shrink to only Sumatra and Borneo. Unfortunately, even these islands are rapidly losing their rainforest habitat suitable for orangutans. In Sumatra, there were about 12,000 orangutans in 1993, but now there are only 3,500. In Borneo, there are less than 35,000. That's all that remains of an amazing group of apes. When they're gone, they'll be gone forever.
Among the extinct species of orangutan is one with the name of Gigantopithecus blacki. This was the largest ape that ever lived (that we know of). Based on finds that only include jaws and teeth, scientists have concluded that these orangutans weighed as much as 660 pounds (300 kg).
Female orangutans are terrific (and patient) parents. They give birth only about once every eight years (they live over thirty years). Why only once per eight years? Because they are usually busy raising the previous offspring. The young orangutan will stay with its mother constantly as she cares for it and teaches it all the necessary skills to survive. This usually takes six to seven years! One of the main skills the mother teaches is how to build a proper sleeping nest, which orangutans do almost every evening. It usually takes three years for the young orangutans to master this skill!
As you probably know, orangutans are intelligent, among the most intelligent of nonhuman creatures. Orangutans can learn sign language, and there is even evidence that they quickly learn to make new sounds for vocal communication. They have voluntary control over vocal fold oscillation, an ability that is essential for humans to be able to speak. Orangutans use tools such as sticks to extract insects from tree crevices, and sticks for extracting seeds from fruits. The tools they use vary from one population to another, which means that tool use is cultural. They even use tools in vocal communication. For example, they roll up large leaves and use them like a megaphone to amplify the kiss-squeak sounds they like to make. It is thought that they enjoy doing this because it tricks the listener into thinking they are larger than they really are.
I'll wrap this up with a photo of an orangutan with extraordinarily long hair.
So, Orangutans deserve a place in the N.A.H.O.F.
(Nifty Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word nifty originated in the 1800s. It may have started as theatrical slang. It was first seen in print in 1868, in a poem by Bret Harte, who said the word was derived from the word Magnificat (the actual title of the Song of Mary, a traditional song of praise). Nifty is an adjective meaning "very attractive or appealing" (as in, "a nifty new hat for Easter"). Or it can mean "very interesting or clever" (as in, "a nifty idea"). It can also mean "substantial, sizable" (as in, "I sold the car for a nifty profit").
So, nifty is another way to say awesome!
I consider some creatures to be Awesome Animals simply because they are amazingly beautiful. Glasswing butterflies are a great example. As it turns out, though, these insects have plenty of other fascinating characteristics besides their beauty.
What the heck is a Glasswing Butterfly?
Glasswing butterflies include about 370 species in a subfamily called Danainae. These butterflies live throughout Central and South America. They are called glasswing because at least part of their wings are transparent, like glass.
Amazing facts about Glasswing Butterflies
Let's talk about those crazy transparent wings, including the how and the why.
How. Here is an oversimplified statement: they are transparent because they don't reflect very much light. Instead of being reflected, light passes right through them (including infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet). As you probably know, the colors of other butterfly wings are due to the light being reflected and scattered in certain ways by the tiny structures on the wing surface. Well, the nanostructure of glasswing butterfly wings is different. Instead of having orderly rows of microscopic structures, these butterfly wings have randomly-scattered pillars, each pillar 50 to 100 times thinner than a human hair. Not only are these pillars randomly scattered, they are also of different heights and thicknesses. All of this randomness has the effect of redirecting the light through the wings instead of reflecting it.
See these random pillars below.
Amazingly, these wing surfaces are much less reflective than glass, and scientists are studying them to help develop less reflective coverings for screens. You know... such as the screen you are looking at right now as you read this text.
Not only that, but these surfaces are extremely water repellant. This is important to the butterflies because, if raindrops stick to their wings, the weight of the water will keep them from flying.
As if that weren't cool enough, the wing surfaces are self cleaning. So, glasswing butterflies might help us develop screens that can be viewed even in direct sunlight, and repel water, and are self cleaning!
Now let's look at why they have transparent wings. The main predators of glasswing butterflies are birds. Birds typically catch butterflies in mid-flight, but these clear wings make it extremely difficult to track the butterflies' movements during flight. This kind of camouflage—transparency—is extremely rare in nature, making these butterflies pretty darn special.
But that's not the only defense these insects have against predators. Here's one that's REALLY cool. Glasswing butterflies give their mates a very special nuptial gift—poison.
You read that correctly. Poison. Here's how it works. Male glasswing butterflies have a super-duper sense of smell. Why? So that they can locate certain flowers called asters. These particular asters are special because they contain seriously-lethal poisons called pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
So, the males gobble up these poisons and store them in their body. This makes the male butterfly really nasty-tasting and toxic to predators. Then, when the male finds a suitable female, he offers these poisons as a gift. That's a romantic way of saying that the toxic nectar from the flowers is converted to pheromones that attract the females. Not only that, but the toxins are concentrated in the male's body in a spermatophore (a package containing sperm), which is transferred to the female if she finds the male attractive. This poison goes into the female's body and makes her nasty-tasting and toxic to predators. What a generous gift.
It doesn't end there! The sperm cells in the spermatophore fertilize the female's eggs, and the toxin even makes the eggs nasty-tasting and toxic to predators. And... guess where the females lay their eggs... they lay them on those same types of aster plants. So, when the larvae hatch out, they consume the plant so that they become caterpillars that are nasty-tasting and toxic to predators.
The bottom line... glasswing butterflies are pretty to look at, but don't eat them. Also, female glasswing butterflies consider an offering pf poison to be very romantic.
Check out this video about glasswing butterflies giving the nuptial gift of poison
Here's another fascinating aspect of glasswing butterfly mating behavior. The males take part in a behavior called lekking. This is kind of like a buffet for females, a place for one-stop shopping for a suitable male. The males congregate together in one area, then each of them establishes his own little territory within that area—a territory he defends aggressively from the other males. With numerous males concentrated in one small area, when they all release their love pheromones, the concentrated pheromones attract females from great distances. The females converge on the lekking area and shop around, choosing a male based upon the quality of his little territory.
So, Glasswing Butterflies deserve a place in the D.A.H.O.F.
(Devine Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word devine originated sometime between 1275 and 1325. Originally it meant "godlike; characteristic of or befitting a deity." It came from the Latin divus, "of or belonging to a god, inspired, prophetic." As with many such words, it gradually developed a broader meaning, and by the late 1400s it was being used to mean "excellent in the highest degree, heavenly." In that sense, it is still in use today. So, divine is another way to say awesome!
Glasswing butterfly #1 - David Tiller, Wikimedia Commons
Microscope view of wing structure - Radwanul Hasan Siddique via Newatlas
Glasswing butterfly on red flowers - Scott Wilie, Wikimedia Commons
Glasswing butterfly on yellow flowers - Reiman Gardens
Glasswing butterflies mating - EcoQueenFaye
For today's Awesome Animal I decided to pick a creature that looks scary but is actually harmless to humans. In fact, vinegaroons are handy to have around because they often prey on animals that can be harmful, such as scorpions.
VINEGAROON... the name sounds kind of creepy. Also, as one author put it, the name sounds like the most foul-tasting Girl Scout cookie ever.
They look like a cross between a spider and a scorpion, but they are not poisonous, they do not sting, and they are harmless to humans.
But... well, they do have the ability to squirt out a nice mixture of acetic acid and caprylic acid. But only if you make them really mad.
What the heck is a Vinegaroon?
Vinegaroons, also called whip scorpions, make up a small order (only about 100 species) of arachnids. Notice the eight legs in the above photo.
Most people know arachnids include spiders and scorpions. Besides spiders and scorpions, though, there are also some bizarre and lesser known groups of arachnids, such as ticks, mites, harvestmen (daddy longlegs), and others. Now, even horseshoe crabs might be included as arachnids. And of course we have the vinegaroons.
Vinegaroons, although their shape is vaguely scorpion-like, are not closely related to scorpions at all. They have a long, segmented, whip-like "tail" sticking out from the end of their abdomen, which is how they got the name whip scorpion.
They live in the warmer areas of North America, throughout Central and South America, and in the warmer areas of Asia.
Amazing facts about Vinegaroons
Vinegaroons are nocturnal. During the day they live in burrows that they dig with their large, clawed appendages that grow in front of their face. At night they emerge and roam around looking for prey. They mainly prey on insects and millipedes, but sometimes will catch small frogs and other small vertebrates. As you can probably guess, they use those ominous-looking pedipalps (kind of like mandibles) to crush their prey, then they can leisurely lap up the yummy juices that flow out of the squashed creature.
They have a pretty amazing way of finding their prey. Although vinegaroons have eight eyes, those eyes are pretty much useless for seeing prey animals. So, they use their sense of touch. When walking, they mostly use their three back pairs of legs. The fourth pair, near the front of the body, are adapted to be highly-sensitive feelers. As the creature roams around, these two legs tap the ground, feeling for anything that might be a tasty snack. And that long, funny-looking tail? That thing is used to feel around behind the vinegaroon. So, it can detect any suspicious activity or potential food in front and in back.
Check out those thin, extra-long, "feely" legs and the "feely" butt protuberance on the vinegaroon below.
Here's a good question. The vinegaroon is obviously a nice, plump critter, probably packed with nutrients. Also, the vinegaroon doesn't sting (remember, it isn't a scorpion), and although those pedipalps look vicious, they can't squeeze hard enough to hurt anything bigger than a peanut shell. So, why don't predators gobble up these creatures like crunchy popcorn? Well, remember that vinegaroons have a pretty cool defense—they squirt acid.
At the base of that long, feely tail are pygidial glands. These glands produce a mixture of chemicals consisting primarily of acetic acid and caprylic acid. You've probably heard of acetic acid. It's the main ingredient in vinegar.
Note: Vinegar contains 5% acetic acid, whereas the mixture squirted from a vinegaroon's butt has 85% acetic acid. Imagine the taste and smell of this stuff!
Check out this video with slow-motion clips of a vinegaroon squirting acid.
When really bothered, the vinegaroon can squirt this mixture out about twelve inches (30.5 cm) in any direction.
Wait... that's it? It's only defense (other than looking like the devil's spawn) is to squirt vinegar? Heck, some people put vinegar on their salads!
Well, a vinegaroon can accurately aim its acid butt-nozzles, and it's pretty good at squirting the stuff directly into the eyes, nose, and mouth of its predators. Remember, the stuff is 15 times more concentrated acetic acid than vinegar. Not something I want squirted in my eyes. Nope.
As a last resort, if the acid spray doesn't work, the vinegaroon will face off with its harasser and strike an impressive "back-off" pose (see photo above). Those pedipalps may not be as strong as they look, but it's all in the attitude.
Okay, let's move on to the important stuff... making babies. Vinegaroons have an astoundingly elaborate, drawn-out courtship ritual, which can often last at least 13 hours! This is a multi-stage procedure, so stay with me on this...
Stage 1. If a male encounters a female as he is out roaming around at night, he chases her down and begins shoving her around with his pedipalps. They grapple back and forth like this for up to several hours. It's a way for the female to determine if the male is good and strong (she is not interested in having the babies of a weakling). If the female decides he's okay, she will signal this by sticking her long, feely forelimbs into his mouth.
Stage 2. This stage is all about... dancing. The male, still holding the female's sensory legs in his mouth, starts dragging her this way and that way in an elaborate dance. During this dance, the female follows his lead. Again, this is to further evaluate each other's worth as a mate. This dance goes on for three or four hours. Sounds rather exhausting to me.
Stage 3. Time to get down to business... very slowly. By this time, if the two vinegaroons still approve of each other, the male will have maneuvered the female toward a burrow. Still holding on to the female's feely legs, he turns around and positions himself on top of her. They stay like this for several more hours. Eventually, the male will deposit a sac of sperm (called a spermatophore) onto the ground. He pushes the spermatophore into the female's genital opening. Finally, the male releases her feely legs and then starts massaging her abdomen. This massage goes on for a few more hours. The purpose of this might be to help the sperm move deeper into the female's body.
Stage 4. Well, there is no stage 4. After all those hours of courtship and mating, the male and female mutually agree to part ways. The female does not cannibalize the male, as is the case with many spiders. Yay for him!
The female carries the eggs for several months and then eventually seals herself in a burrow. She lays the eggs, but they stay connected to her abdomen for several more months. Um... during these months, the female vinegaroon does not eat anything. Nothing. Wow.
The eggs hatch, and out come larvae that look like pieces of rice with tiny legs. The larvae climb up onto the top of the female's abdomen and hang on with a specialized sucker organ for... yep, another month. finally, after their first molt, the babies start to wander off around the burrow. When she finally decides they are ready to be on their own, she digs out of the burrow, releasing them to take off and start their own lives. Exhausted and hungry, the female can finally get on with her life!
So, Vinegaroons deserve a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Supernal Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word supernal originated in the mid 1400s. It comes from the Latin supernus, meaning "situated above, that is above; celestial." Originally, the English word supernal meant "being in or belonging to the heaven of divine beings; heavenly, celestial, or divine." It is the opposite of infernal, which refers to "being of the underworld." For Kristen Bell fans, supernal means from The Good Place, while infernal refers to The Bad Place. Anyway, like many words, its usage has broadened so that it now often refers to anything that is exquisite or superlative. So, supernal is another way to say awesome!
I was probably about ten years old when I saw my first legless lizard. I was fishing with my dad and his friend, who happened to be a biologist. We came upon what I thought was a snake. But my dad's friend pointed out that it was actually a "slender glass lizard," a type of lizard without legs. This blew my mind! A long, skinny reptile without legs had to be a snake, right? Nope, not necessarily. Consequently, I've been fascinated by legless lizards ever since then. Below is a slender glass lizard, the same kind I saw that day fifty years ago.
What the heck is a Legless Lizard?
Actually, the term legless lizard is used to refer to a variety of different types of lizards that have lost their legs over time. In different areas of the world, these different groups have lost their legs independently of each other and are not closely related.
Amazingly, at least SEVEN different families of lizards have evolved legless species independently! This includes hundreds of species of legless lizards around the world.
The first question people often have is, why don't we just call these creatures snakes? Well, because they aren't snakes. Other than being legless, these creatures do not have the characteristics of snakes. Legless lizards have eyelids, snakes do not. Legless lizards have external ears, snakes do not. Legless lizards do not have wide belly scales, snake do. Legless lizards have short bodies and long tails, snakes have long bodies and short tails.
Not confusing at all, right? Check out the head of the European glass lizard below (this species also has the awesome name scheltopusik). You can see the lizard's eyelids, which allows it to close its eyes. You can also see its ear openings (behind the mouth). And behind that you can see part of the lateral fold, a weird fold of skin that runs the length of the lizard on each side. Snakes do not have any of these characteristics.
Amazing facts about Legless Lizards
Again, legless lizards are not snakes. They evolved from four-legged lizards, like those we have all seen. Snakes evolved from four-legged snake-like creatures that most of us have never seen (most of those lived long ago).
Legless lizards eat smaller prey than snakes because they cannot "unlock" their jaws. As you probably know, snakes can unhinge their jaws to swallow prey bigger around than their own head. Lizards cannot do this. Legless lizards typically eat insects, snails, spiders, and other small prey that will fit conveniently in their mouth. So, a typical snake will eat just occasionally, swallowing an animal large enough to sustain it for a while. A legless lizard eats small things frequently.
Below is a Burton's legless lizard eating a smaller lizard.
Many legless lizards are called glass lizards. Here's why. You may know some lizards are capable of losing all or a portion of their tail when attacked by a predator. They can then grow the tail back (at least partially). Well, glass lizards are very good at this. Not only do they have a really long tail, but the tail is extremely fragile. In fact, they can even break their tail off by themselves. They can actually thrash around hard enough to break it off without ever being touched. Since that day fifty years ago, I have found perhaps twenty or so slender glass lizards, and almost all of them had broken their tail at some point in their lives. You can easily tell because, once broken, the tail does not grow back the same way as before.
Notice the regenerated tail of the eastern glass lizard below.
This tail-breaking ability is called caudal autotomy (the word autotomy in Greek means "self severing"). This is really an amazing capability—the tail continues wriggling, which distracts the predator's attention from the fleeing lizard. As the lizard gradually regenerates the tail, instead of growing new vertebrae made of bone, the tail usually contains cartilage and is shorter than the original tail. Lizards have special sphincter muscles in the tail that squeeze the caudal artery closed to minimize the amount of bleeding.
Fossils have been found that show caudal autotomy was present in some lizards as long ago as the Jurassic period! Most likely, small lizards were escaping from the clutches of dinosaurs by dropping their tails!
Check out this video by Jungle Bob on legless lizards.
Okay, one last thing... WHY? Why have so many species of lizards evolved to have no legs? Wouldn't they be better off with legs? Well, first of all, we have to recognize that the long, slithery, legless lifestyle must be a pretty good one. Otherwise, snakes and legless lizards wouldn't be so abundant. It also helps to consider that creatures living underground may be better off without legs (think about worms).
So, it's quite possible legless lizards evolved as some types of lizards started living in the soil. As they became more and more adapted to life in the soil, they gradually lost their legs. Then, later, some of those started living above ground again, but by that time they had already lost their legs. Makes perfect sense, right?
To make things even more confusing, there are some snakes that still have remnants of legs (boas and pythons are examples), and there are some legless lizards that have legs! Legless lizards in the family Pygopodidae don't have forelimbs, but they have small remnants of hind legs.
Make up your mind, why don't you! Legs or no legs?
Hmm... whoever came up with the phrase "Leaping lizards!" probably wasn't thinking about legless lizards. I just thought I'd toss that thought into the mix. You're welcome.
So, Legless Lizards deserve a place in the J.D.A.H.O.F.
(Jim-Dandy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term jim-dandy was first used in the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky in 1887: "Dear Sir: Though a stranger to you (yet a Democrat), let me say you are a 'Jim Dandy.'" This term can be both a noun (as used above) and an adjective. As a noun, it means something that is "a superior example of its kind." As an adjective, it means excellent or outstanding. Etymologists are not sure if the term ever referred to an actual person. But there was a popular minstrel song in the 1840s called "Dandy Jim of Caroline." Perhaps that's what gave people the idea of using the phrase? The word dandy dates back to the late 1700s, and it referred to a young man "who devotes excessive attention to fashionable dress and grooming." Anyway, jim-dandy is another way to say awesome!
Baby elephant trunk - Imgur
Sloth - finstad4
Slender glass lizard - Todd Pierson, Herps of NC
European glass lizard head - Australian Reptile Park
Burton's Legless lizard eating a skink - Luke Jongens/Flickr
Eastern glass lizard with regenerated tail - Pinterest
Legless lizard lifting its head - San Diego Zoo
In keeping with my theme of positive, happy subjects, I again asked Trish to give me an idea for an animal that makes her happy (last time she said Nemo... the clownfish). This time she said, "My happiest happy place is snorkeling in a coral reef! So you should feature coral."
Trish wasn't kidding about this. I enjoy snorkeling, too, but to her it is almost a spiritual experience. She actually tears up when snorkeling among the corals (have you ever tried wiping tears away while wearing a face mask?). So, coral is another excellent suggestion. Besides, some people may not really know what corals are... or that they are even animals. So let's take a look.
What the heck is a Coral?
Corals are invertebrate animals in the phylum Cnidaria, which also includes sea anemones, sea pens, jellyfish, box jellyfish, and hydrozoans such as the Portuguese Man o' War.
Actually, it's kind of silly of me to lump all types of corals together in this email, as corals represent a diverse group of animals. After all, there are about 2,500 species. Of those, about 1,000 species are reef-forming corals. These are the corals that form a hard skeleton by secreting calcium carbonate. Over many years these hard skeletons build up and form massive coral reefs.
Amazing facts about Corals
First let's talk about what a coral is. Corals generally live in large colonies of genetically-identical individuals. Each individual coral is called a polyp.
If you look at an individual polyp, you will see tentacles. In the center of the tentacles is a mouth that leads to a basic stomach, or digestive sac. Each of the tentacles is lined with stinging cells called nematocysts. As you can probably guess, these stinging cells help the coral defend itself and help it capture its prey, which is usually tiny animals swimming in the surrounding water.
The polyp's body secretes calcium carbonate that forms a hard protective shell around the polyp. This cup-like shell is called a corallite. Over time, millions of corallites build up upon each other to form massive coral reefs and outcrops (see the coral outcrop in the photo above). Some coral reefs are big enough to be seen from space!
Below is a simple diagram.
Coral polyps have only one opening. Yep, only one—the mouth. That means food goes in the mouth, and waste goes... well, back out the mouth. Eww. I'm glad I have an anus.
Nematocysts (stinging cells) are pretty awesome. If you've ever been stung by a jellyfish, you know how awesome nematocysts are (awesome for the jellyfish, not for you).
Let's look at how these nematocysts work. Basically, they're like a spear gun shooting a barbed dart, and the dart contain toxins that can be lethal. These tiny darts are contained within a cellular capsule, connected to a thread that is coiled up under pressure. When a prey animal touches the polyp's tentacle, the cellular capsule's covering (called the operculum) pops open, and the thread rapidly uncoils, shooting the dart out at high speed. The dart punctures the prey animal and releases its toxins. Like I said... awesome!
If you've ever snorkeled in a coral reef, you may be thinking, "Wait, I didn't see all those tentacles. All I saw were the hard coral boulders, outcrops, and reefs." Well, that's probably because many corals extend their tentacles mainly at night.
By the way. Snorkeling at night in the ocean or sea can be amazing, but it's also kind of scary. Trish and I have done this twice (while taking marine biology classes together), and I can tell you there is something deeply frightening (but also exhilarating) about not being able to see in the water beyond the range of your waterproof flashlight. It's worth it, though, because the corals are particularly beautiful at night!
Below is what corals usually look like during the day (left) and at night (right).
Corals eat just about anything they can catch, from nearly-microscopic plankton to small fish. Whatever they can kill with their stinging cells is fair game.
But wait! It's not that simple. Many corals also feed in a different way. They have a mutualistic relationship with specialized algae called zooxanthellae. These algae live on and in the coral polyp and can actually be 30% of the polyp's mass.
What does the coral polyp get out of this relationship? The algae are photosynthetic, which means they use sunlight to produce food, and they share that food with the polyp, particularly glucose, glycerol, and amino acids. The algae also help by removing waste particles, and they help with producing the hard shell, the corallite.
What do the algae get out of this relationship? Well, they get a safe place to live, protected by those awesome stinging cells. They also get to feed on the polyp's yummy waste, particularly carbon dioxide, phosphate, and nitrogenous waste.
I should point out that, when water conditions get bad, the internal algae can become stressful to the polyp. When this happens, the polyp will eject the algae in order to give itself a better chance to survive the difficult times. When the water gets really bad, mass ejections can occur, and this is called coral bleaching. Vast areas of coral reefs can turn white, because it was the algae that gave the corals their diverse colors in the first place. Coral bleaching can be caused by pollution or by an increase in water temperature. If the bad conditions continue for too long, the coral polyps will die.
The image below shows the before and after appearance of coral bleaching. Unfortunately, coal bleaching is becoming a big problem, but since this email is all about being positive, I'm not going to focus too much on that.
Here are a few more amazing facts about coral.
Corals have been around for a long time. They originated about 500 million years ago, long before dinosaurs existed. Coral reefs grow very slowly, only about 2 cm per year, and some of today's reefs have been forming for 50 million years.
When coral reefs grow parallel to the coast, they are called barrier reefs. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has grown to include 900 smaller reefs, and it extends for 2,600 miles (4,184 km).
Coral reefs provide a home for an incredible variety of wildlife. Coral reefs take up only about 1% of the ocean floor, but they provide a home for as much as 25% of all species in the oceans!
White sandy beaches are actually made of coral pooped from fish. Yep, it's true. Some types of fish, such as parrotfish, like to nibble on corals to eat the algae living in the polyps. Once the fish have digested the goodies, they poop out the hard calcium carbonate shell as tiny granules of sand. These sandy poop granules help make up those nice white beaches we all like to lay on. Check out the beak on the purplestreak parrotfish below. That beak can chomp right through the coral shell, and one parrotfish can poop out 200 pounds (90 kg) of white sand per year!
So, Corals deserve a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Corking Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word corking originated in about 1890, and is used, particularly in British English, as an adjective to describe something as excellent or fine. Example: "It was a corking celebration." Often it is paired with another word, particularly good, as in "That Bridgers book was a corking good read." Anyway, the word corking came from the word corker. The word corker is a slang term from the early 1800s that originally meant “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument,” a reference to how a cork tightly seals a wine bottle. Then corker was eventually used to describe anything as good or excellent: "That was a corker of a joke." Eventually, the adjective corking arose from that.
So, corking is another way to say awesome!
Happy dog - Twitter
Penguin rover - Le Maho et. al via Nature... via Buzzfeed
Giraffe Manor - The Giraffe Manor
Coral outcrop in Australia - Toby Hudson/Wikimedia Commons
Coral anatomy - USGS/Public Domain
Bleached coral - Green and Growing
Parrotfish - metha1819/Shutterstock via Marine Conservation Society
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.