Perhaps recently you have read news articles about the importance of horseshoe crabs in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. That's pretty interesting, but the horseshoe crab was an awesome animal way before its blood was used in medical research. In fact, these creatures have been awesome animals for nearly 450 million years!
What the heck is a Horseshoe Crab?
Well, first, they aren't crabs at all (and obviously they aren't horseshoes). In fact, they aren't even crustaceans. Instead, they are related to spiders. Recent studies have placed them into the class Arachnida. Horseshoe crabs get their name from their horseshoe-shaped carapace (the largest part of their exoskeleton). They grow to about two feet long (61 cm), weigh up to ten pounds (4.5 kg), and live up to 40 years.
There are four living species of horseshoe crabs, and they live in shallow coastal waters through much of Asia and the Pacific and on the Atlantic coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico.
Amazing Facts about the Horseshoe Crab
Okay, I know you want to ask, why isn't the horseshoe crab a crab? It kind of looks like a crab. It lives in oceans. It has an exoskeleton and crawls around in the water on jointed legs. Therefore it seems very crabby.
Still, not a crab. Crabs, along with lobsters, crayfish, and others, are in the class Crustacea. Crustaceans are in the huge phylum Arthropoda. Horseshoe crabs are arthropods, but they are not crustaceans. They are in their own class of arthropods called Merostomata (which means "legs attached to the mouth").
Enough with the fancy names already—why aren't these things considered crabs? Structurally, they are quite different from crabs. For example, horseshoe crabs do not have antennae. Also, they do not have mandibles (mouth parts for chewing food). Instead, they have a pair of small appendages called chelicerae, which help them shove food into their mouths. You know what other animals have chelicerae? Spiders.
Here's what the underside of a horseshoe crab looks like. Can you spot the two chelicerae in front of the five pairs of legs?
By the way, it's not a good idea to hold a live horseshoe crab by the tale like that, as this can harm the animal.
Horseshoe crabs are often called "living fossils." This is because they have existed for a really long time without changing much at all. The've been around, basically in the same form, since long before dinosaurs existed. The oldest fossils of horseshoe crabs are from a species that lived about 450 million years ago, and those looked very much like the horseshoe crabs living today.
Scientists believe the closest relatives of horseshoe crabs are the sea scorpions, which originated about 467 million years ago. Sea scorpions are extinct now, but they were impressive creatures. Some were among the largest arthropods that have ever lived. See the size comparison diagram below, showing six of the largest known species of sea scorpions.
Interesting thought: Why do some types of creatures exist for hundreds of millions of years without many changes to their basic form? There can be several reasons for this, but perhaps the easiest to explain is that some creatures have a body form that is already perfectly suited to the creature's niche (its specific environment, food source, etc.). Sharks are an example. And, of course, horseshoe crabs. Basically... if it ain't broken, don't fix it.
A horseshoe crab is basically an armored tank. Its entire body is covered by a protective shell. It walks around on the subsurface sand or mud on its five pairs of walking legs, and it preys on numerous types of sea worms, crustaceans, and clams.
A horseshoe crab gets its oxygen from the water using a series of book gills between the legs and the tail (see the book gills in the red outline below). These book gills get their name from the book-like arrangement of gills. Each one of the ten gills contains hundreds of layered folds called lamellae. So, it's kind of like ten books, and each book has hundreds of pages. This increases the surface area for absorbing oxygen.
Horseshoe crabs have amazing eyes. They have two prominent compound eyes on top of their shell. Compound eyes are made up of numerous smaller eyes, called ommatidia. Most arthropods have these (think of a fly's eye). Each of the horseshoe crab's compound eyes have about 1,000 of these ommatidia. But wait, there's more! In addition to the two compound eyes, these creatures have a pair of median eyes, a pair of lateral eyes, a pair of ventral eyes near the mouth (which is between the five pairs of legs), and they also have a group of specialized photoreceptor eyes on the tail. They have a plethora of eyes!
Although they cannot see fine details all that well, horseshoe crabs are amazing at seeing color and light levels. In fact, their cones and rods are the largest of any animal—100 times larger than those in humans. Amazingly, during the night their eyes are a million times more sensitive to light than during the day!
Below you can see one of the compound eyes.
Check out this video about horseshoe crabs.
Horseshoe crabs have been used in medical research for decades, particularly their blue blood. In fact, every pharmaceutical company in the world relies on horseshoe crabs. Why? Because their blood contains a substance with the tongue-twister name limulus amebocyte lysate. This substance is important because it detects endotoxin. What is endotoxin? It's a contaminant that can can kill you if it happens to get into vaccines, or any injectable drug.
It's impossible to understate the importance of this substance. A gallon of the stuff is worth $60,000.
Here's the bad news. Pharmaceutical companies catch half a million horseshoe crabs each year (the harvesting is regulated). They remove a portion of each crab's blood, then they release the crab. However, many of the released crabs are weakened, and they die. This practice, along with fishermen overharvesting horseshoe crabs to use as bait, is resulting in the crab's decline.
As you can imagine, the intense efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines has resulted in more crab blood needed.
Here's the good news. A synthetic alternative to this substance has been developed. It has been approved for use in Europe, and some US companies have also started using it.
The synthetic alternative is slowly catching on, so maybe eventually we will no longer need to harvest horseshoe crabs for this purpose.
So, the Horseshoe Crab deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Splendid Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The adjective splendid originated in the 1620s. It probably came from the Latin word splendidus, which means "bright, shining, glittering." Today, splendid is used to describe just about anything good, and it has a broad range of meanings, including gorgeous; magnificent; sumptuous; grand; superb; distinguished or glorious in name, reputation, or victory; strikingly admirable; possessing great talents; excellent; fine; very good; and brilliant in appearance. I guess it's an all-around useful word for praising things.
So, splendid is another way to say awesome!
My last post featured the Maned Wolf, a bizarre and little-known mammal. The Fossa also fits that description—a strange mammal that many people have not even heard of.
What the heck is a Fossa?
The fossa is not a cat (feline) or a dog (canine), although in some ways it resembles both. It is actually a relative of the mongoose. Fossas are medium-sized (15 to 26 pounds, or 7 to 12 kg) carnivorous mammals that live in the forests of the large African island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.
The name fossa is actually pronounced foo-sah, although many people also pronounce it as foosh.
Amazing Facts about the Fossa
The fossa is the largest carnivorous mammal native to Madagascar. Its total nose-to-tail-tip length is about six feet (1.8 m), with half of that length being its tail.
As Madagascar's top predator, the fossa's favorite prey are various species of lemurs. In fact, fossas are often described as lemur specialists, and they can kill and eat lemurs that weigh 90% of the fossa's own weight. However, they also sometimes eat just about anything else they can catch, including small mammals (particularly rodents), birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, crabs, and even fish. Most animals prefer to hunt either during the day or during the night, but the fossa seems to be happy hunting day and night. They also are just as skilled at hunting in trees as they are hunting on the ground.
This ability to eat a variety of prey, as well as the ability to hunt anywhere and anytime, has helped the fossa to live in almost every habitat across Madagascar. Even so, in some areas they are extremely rare and seldom seen by people.
When scientists studied the content of fossa droppings (which look like a cylinder with twisted ends... kind of like a Tootsie Roll wrapper), they also found seeds. The seeds may have been in the stomachs of the lemurs the fossas had eaten, but more likely they were seeds from fruits the fossas ate in order to get the water from the fruits. This last idea is supported by the fact that seeds are more common in the droppings during the dry season.
The fossa's scientific name is Cryptoprocta ferox. Look at the genus name Cryptoprocta. Crypto means "hidden," and procta refers to the anus (think proctologist). So, this creature was named "hidden anus." Why? Well, the fossa has quite a few scent glands it uses for communication, especially for marking its territory. Some of these scent glands are just outside the anus, and they are enclosed within an anal pouch that encloses the anus, with a slit opening allowing the creature to defecate. So, the anus is hidden--Cryptoprocta!
Fossas are apparently proud of their scent glands, and they love using them! They are solitary animals (except when mating and raising young), and they go to great lengths to mark their territories using their scent glands. They enthusiastically mark trees, rocks, grasses, and the ground. Each of these marks is basically a No Trespassing sign for other fossas.
Okay, it's time to have "the talk." I'm referring, of course, to fossa mating habits. These creatures have some rather unusual reproductive strategies. Fossas are polyandrous, which means the females have more than one male mate (polyandry can be compared to polygyny, in which one male has multiple females).
With the fossa, mating is all about the location. Mating typically takes place on a solid, horizontal tree branch, an average of 66 feet (20 m) above the ground. Yikes! That's a long way to fall, so this can be a dangerous activity. A particular tree branch will be used year after year, often by numerous females. Think of it as a singles bar, where young men and women go to hook up with a partner.
Often, as many as eight males will hang around the spot, waiting for a female to show up. The females, who usually return to the same tree year after year, will arrive there one at a time, and each female will stay there for as long as a week. During that week, the female will mate with numerous males, one male at a time. The female chooses one of the males, signaling him with mewing sounds. Mating takes about three hours, and the process requires extreme acrobatic balance to prevent falling. After mating with the same male several times, which takes a total of about 14 hours, the female will signal another male that it's his turn. This goes on for up to a week, and then the female leaves the area, which means it's time for the next female to arrive and stay for another week, repeating the process.
Unless you are offended by watching such things, check out this video of fossas mating.
The female will give birth to up to six pups, which are very small, blind, toothless, and helpless. The pups do not become independent until they are a year old, and they are not sexually mature until they are three to four years old.
As you can probably imagine, the pups are pretty darn cute.
So, the Fossa deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bonny Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bonny (or bonnie) originated in the mid 1400s. It's a Scottish adjective meaning "pleasing to the eye; handsome; pretty." The word is thought to have come from the Old French word bon, which means "good" (as in bon appétit, which literally means "good appetite"). The French word was in turn derived from the Latin word bonus, also meaning "good." Words derived from bonny include the adverb bonnily (the fossa ran bonnily through the forest) and the noun bonniness (the fossa possesses a great deal of bonniness).
So, bonny is another way to say awesome!
This is one of those animals I chose simply because it looks so strange. It's a dog-like mammal that appears to have the body of a wolf, the face of a fox, the legs of a deer, and it has urine that smells like marijuana. Being this strange, it's surprising that few people have even heard of this animal (I just learned about it a few days ago). It's time to change that!
What the heck is a Maned Wolf?
This name is kind of unfortunate because the word "wolf" has negative connotations for many people. The maned wolf is not a wolf, and even though it resembles a fox on stilts, it is not a fox either. Instead, it is a canine species that is in its own genus (Chrysocyon, which means "golden dog") and is not closely related to other living canines. So, it is not a fox, wolf, coyote, dog, or jackal.
Maned wolves live in South America, primarily in south and central Brazil and into Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.
Unlike many other canines, these creatures are omnivorous, meaning they eat substantial amounts of both plants and animals. They get their name from the noticeable mane of hair on their neck, which stands up straight when they sense danger.
Amazing Facts about the Maned Wolf
First let's figure out those long legs. Although maned wolves are not particularly heavy animals (average 51 pounds, or 23 kg), these legs make the creature the tallest of all the wild canines. Why would a canine need legs that long? It has to do with the habitat these creatures live in. They inhabit grasslands, savannas, marshes, and wetlands, and it is thought that long legs help them see over the tall grasses. Their long legs also probably help them run through the grasses.
Unlike real wolves, maned wolves do not form packs. They live most of their lives alone, and they hunt alone. They are considered crepuscular, which means they are most active during the twilight hours.
You may have noticed from the photos that maned wolves have exceptionally large ears. This helps them with their unusual hunting techniques. They will stand still and rotate their ears, listening for small creatures moving around in the tall grass. If they hear something, they tap the ground with a front foot to flush the prey creature out, then they pounce on it. They typically eat rodents, rabbits, insects, birds, and sometimes even fish.
The really surprising thing is that the maned wolf's diet is 50% plants! This is highly unusual for a canine species. They feed on sugarcane, fruits, and other plants. In fact, studies show that they eat at least 116 different plant species.
The most common food item for the maned wolf is a fruit called the wolf apple. Astoundingly, this tomato-like fruit can make up 40% to 90% of the maned wolf's diet. Maned wolves seem to love these, and they regularly seek them out. Part of the fruit's appeal is that they grow all year, whereas most other fruits in the maned wolf's habitat are only available in the rainy season. Below is the wolf apple.
The seeds of the wolf apple pass right through the creature's digestive system and are deposited on the ground along with a nice pile of fertilizer. This makes the maned wolf an important means of seed dispersal for this plant. So important, in fact, that this relationship between the maned wolf and the plant is considered a symbiotic relationship, in which the two species rely on each other to survive.
An interesting twist to this symbiotic relationship is that maned wolves will often seek out a leafcutter ant nest before defecating. It will then poop directly onto the ant mound. Why? Because this helps the wolf apple seeds to germinate. How? Well, the ants need the dung as fertilizer for their underground fungus gardens (Did you know ants grow underground fungus gardens? That in itself is a fascinating story for another newsletter!). The ants carry the valuable dung below ground, but they don't need the wolf apple seeds, so they carry those away from their nest and place them in ant trash piles. For some reason this helps the seeds grow. So... the symbiotic relationship actually includes three species: the maned wolf, the wolf apple plants, and the leafcutter ants. Actually, four species if you include the fungus farmed by the ants.
These kinds of relationships in nature fascinate me!
Because other canines do not eat many plants, zoos were slow to figure out how to properly feed captive mane wolves. Historically, they fed them mostly meat, and the maned wolves often developed bladder stones. Eventually, as the maned wolf became better understood, zoos switched to a diet with more vegetables and fruits, resulting is healthier animals.
The maned wolf has a strange vocalization for communication. It's called the roar-bark, and few people have the opportunity to ever hear it.
Check out this video of a wild maned wolf using its roar-bark.
Speaking of communication, what's the story on this urine with a strange smell? Besides their roar-bark, maned wolves use their urine as a form of communication. For example, they mark their territories with the strong-smelling urine, as a way to warn other maned wolves to stay away. They also mark their paths to the spots where they have buried prey animals they couldn't eat in one meal (they do sometimes take larger prey).
Below is a maned wolf urinating on a tree to mark its territory.
As I said above, this is special urine, with an unusual smell. The urine releases pyrazines, a compound that creates a powerful odor that smells like marijuana smoke. Some people also say it smells like hops. As it turns out, pyrazines happen to be present in both of these types of plants.
Here's an interesting story of an incident that occurred at the Rotterdam Zoo in South Holland province (in The Netherlands). Dutch police were called because zoo visitors were reporting that someone was illegally smoking pot in the zoo. When the police investigated, they learned the smell was coming from urine in the maned wolf cage!
One more tidbit of information. We can't discuss a canine species without looking at the puppies, can we? Who doesn't like puppies? Well, actually they're called cubs, but I like the word puppies.
Although maned wolves usually live alone, you probably know they have to violate this rule now and then if they want to propagate. After a gestation period of about 65 days, the female gives birth to a litter of two to six black pups. Yep, the pups have black fur for about the first 10 weeks before their fur turns red. The parents stay together while the pups are young so they can both take care of the little furballs (although the females do most of the care). After the pups are weaned from breastfeeding, their parents feed them regurgitated food. Yeah, they eat barfed-up animals and plants, like a baby bird. Everyone deserved a warm meal, right?
So, the Maned Wolf deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Superlative Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word superlative originated in the late 1300s, and it came from the Latin word superlativus, which meant "extravagant, exaggerated, hyperbolic." Superlative today is used as an adjective to describe something as "of the highest kind, quality, or order; surpassing all else or others." It is also a noun used in grammar, referring to the highest degree for comparison. For example, take the word cool. The comparative form is cooler, but the superlative form is coolest. And you have to admit, the maned wolf is the coolest.
So, superlative is another way to say awesome!
In my last newsletter two weeks ago I featured the prairie dog because prairie dogs make a (very surprising) appearance in my new novel Hostile Emergence. I'm continuing that theme with another animal that appears (in large numbers) in the new book. This animal is the yellowjacket.
What the heck is a Yellowjacket?
Yellowjacket (or yellow jacket) is the name used to refer to a group of wasp species that are predatory and live in social colonies.
Yellowjackets are fairly small wasps, and they typically have yellow and black markings. Something I can tell you about them from personal experience—yellowjackets are mean, and their stings are painful!
Amazing Facts about Yellowjackets
Okay, first we need to sort out exactly what yellowjackets are, compared to other bees and wasps. Sometimes people mistakenly call them bees because they are about the size of a honeybee. Bees are different from wasps in a number of ways. For example, bees are plump and hairy compared to wasps. Wasps are slender, with a very thin waist. Wasps are shiny, with a smooth body surface. Bees have thick hind legs for collecting pollen, wasps do not. When wasps fly, their legs hang down, but bees' legs are tucked against their body. Bees have a barbed stinger, which usually causes the stinger to pull loose from their body after they sting, so they can only sting once (which is why they are less aggressive than wasps). Wasps can sting over and over again (so they tend to be much more willing to sting). Bees feed on flower nectar and pollen, whereas wasps are predators that kill other insects and take them back to their nest to feed to their young (although they feed on nectar and sweet fruits when they are not caring for their young).
So, now we know yellowjackets are not bees, but what makes them different from other wasps? What makes them different from hornets, for example? This is confused by the fact that some yellowjackets have the word hornet in their name, such as the bald-faced hornet in the picture above. True hornets, though, are much larger than yellowjackets (see the European hornet above).
Why does the bald-faced hornet have that name if it's actually a yellowjacket? Good question. Some people call it a blackjacket, which I think would be a less confusing name. One reason bald-faced hornets have been given that confusing name is that they typically make nests that are exposed and above ground (most yellowjackets make nests below ground or in enclosed cavities). Here is a bald-faced hornet nest I found on the back of our garage.
Another reason bald-faced hornets have been given the confusing name is that they are black and white, while other yellowjackets are black and yellow.
As I said above, typical yellowjackets make their nests below ground (as do the yellowjackets in Hostile Emergence). These below-ground nests usually only last one warm season, then the yellowjackets die off (except for the new queens). During that one season, the nest grows to about the size of a basketball, and can have several thousand wasps. In some areas where the winters do not get so cold, the nests can survive for several years, growing much larger. Below is an excavated two-year yellowjacket nest.
Let's imagine for a moment that you are walking across your yard. You do not realize that buried below your feet is a massive yellowjacket nest like the one pictured above. You cannot tell it is there because the tiny entrance hole at the ground's surface is only a centimeter across. Perhaps you see a few wasps flying in and out of the tiny hole, so you stomp on the hole to kill some of them. This is a bad idea.
Why is it a bad idea? Because yellowjackets are notoriously aggressive when their nest is threatened. Not only that, but they can detect vibrations in the ground. You might have hundreds of angry yellowjackets swarming out of the hole, ready to sting. This can be a painful experience, and if you happen to be allergic to their venom, it can even be dangerous. Last summer I pushed my mower over a below-ground yellowjacket nest, unaware of the nest's presence. Fortunately, I was stung only three times, but each of those stings resulted in massive swelling for several days.
So, even if you aren't terribly allergic to yellowjacket venom, numerous stings can still be dangerous or even deadly.
And, as if that weren't enough, yellowjackets can bite as well as sting! They have jaws for capturing their prey, and they can use those jaws to bite you and hang on, making it difficult to swipe them away with your hands. They can cling to your skin or clothing, stinging repeatedly. Nasty little devils!
Yellowjackets are actually more aggressive in the fall, as the weather is turning cold. Why? Because, as I said above, the wasps die out when the weather turns cold (except for the new queens). They die because their food source (other insects, as well as nectar and ripe fruits) is disappearing. So, the wasps are starving to death. This makes them grouchy, because they are constantly working harder to find enough food. In the spring, there are fewer yellowjackets, and they have plenty of food, so they are not as aggressive.
Yellowjackets also have a bad habit of attacking valuable honeybee colonies. They target honeybees, killing and eating all the adults and larvae, then feasting on the honey for dessert. This is more likely to happen in the fall, when honeybees are more sluggish in the cold compared to yellowjackets. In Canada there was a report of yellowjackets wiping out 100 of the 300 beehives of a commercial beekeeper. Each of those colonies had 50,000 honeybees!
You're probably wondering if I have anything good to say about yellowjackets. I do. After all, they are Awesome Animals. Some of the awesomest of all animals are those that can be dangerous (sharks, venomous snakes, and black widow spiders, to name a few). Sometimes an animal's most amazing adaptations are those of self defense and predatory skills. So, although I have a healthy respect for yellowjackets, I still appreciate their amazing characteristics.
I'll point out that many of the insects yellowjackets prey on are considered agricultural pests. Yellowjackets may not be beneficial to honeybee colonies, but they are beneficial to farmers. Yellowjackets also often feed on human garbage, typically items with high sugar content.
Let's wrap this up by examining the fascinating life cycle of these insects. Yellowjackets are social wasps, meaning they live in colonies in which individuals have specific roles, with specific body types for each role. Yellowjacket roles include queens (females), workers (females), and drones (males). In climates with a cold season, a colony typically lasts only one year.
A colony is started by a single fertilized queen. After surviving through the winter in a sheltered place, a queen will find a suitable place to start a nest, usually an existing hole in the ground (like a rodent burrow), but sometimes in a cavity of a stump or even a house or barn. She will build a small paper nest and lay about 50 eggs. After the eggs hatch, she hunts insects and brings the food back to feed the larvae. When the larvae are full grown, they form a pupa and eventually emerge as adult females (workers). As more workers emerge, they get busy and start expanding the nest. They also go hunting for food for the new larvae, and they defend the nest (all yellowjacket females can sting, but the male drones can't).
The colony and nest continue growing, often resulting in 5,000 wasps and a nest with up to 15,000 cells. Eventually, the workers start creating larger cells, in which new queens will grow, as well as male drones. The new queens and the drones then leave the nest and go out into the world to mate. After mating with new queens from other colonies, the males quickly die. After mating with drones from other colonies, the new queens store up body fat and find a safe place to survive the winter.
All the wasps, except for the new fertilized queens, will then die. The nest decomposes over the winter (the wasps do not reuse the nests). In the spring, the new fertilized queens start the cycle all over again.
Check out this video about the yellowjacket's nest and life cycle.
Note: although yellowjackets typically build their nests below ground, sometimes a queen will start a colony in a cavity of a human-made house or other structure, as you will see in this video.
So, the Yellowjacket deserves a place in the G.A.H.O.F.
(Groovy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term groovy originated in the jazz culture of the 1920s. It probably originated from the physical groove in a record, in which the needle drags. However, it was mainly used to refer to the groove of a song (how the song sounded and felt to the audience). Disc jockeys would say things like, "I'm going to play some good grooves" (or "hot grooves"). Eventually, starting in 1941, the word groovy began to be used as slang, meaning "marvelous, wonderful, or excellent." This usage became really popular in the 1960s, but by the 1980s it was only being used as a humorously outdated term. I still hear people using the word, especially people much younger than myself, so perhaps it will become popular again.
So, groovy is another way to say awesome!
Yellowjacket #1 (on white background) - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Large excavated yellowjacket nest - Wikipedia Creative Commons License
Cartoon yellowjacket - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Yellowjackets on apple core - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Yellowjacket nest diagram - Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District
Like many of my novels, the upcoming Hostile Emergence features a number of strange creatures, some friendly, some not so friendly. Also, sometimes you think they may be friendly, but then they surprise you.
In Hostile Emergence, Skyra, Lincoln, and their team encounter a vast colony of prairie dogs (called a prairie dog town). In honor of the new book's release, today's Awesome Animal is the prairie dog!
What the heck is a Prairie Dog?
First of all, prairie dogs are rodents, in a group referred to as ground squirrels. The five species of prairie dogs are all found in North America, especially in the Great Plains. The name prairie dog comes from the fact that they tend to live on prairies, and their alarm call often sounds like the barking of a dog (although a very small, squeaky dog).
Prairie dogs average about 15 inches (38 cm) long, with an average weight of about 2 pounds (.9 kg).
Most people would describe prairie dogs as "cute," except maybe landowners who do not like all the burrows and mounds.
Amazing Facts about Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are what we call a keystone species. This means they are a type of animal in a particular ecosystem that many other animals rely on. If a keystone species is removed from an ecosystem, this will drastically change the balance of life there. Scientists estimate that about 150 other species depend on prairie dogs for their survival.
For starters, many predators feed on prairie dogs. A few examples: hawks, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, weasels, foxes, eagles, and black-footed ferrets. In fact, black-footed ferrets feed almost entirely on prairie dogs, and these ferrets are almost extinct due the extreme loss of prairie dog colonies resulting from habitat destruction (the prairie dog's historical range has shrunk by more than 95%).
So many animals feed on prairie dogs that Kristy Bly of the World Wildlife Foundation called prairie dogs the "Chicken McNuggets of the grasslands."
Getting munched on is not the only reason prairie dogs are a keystone species. They live in vast colonies, and their activities improve the quality of the soil (their tunnels aerate it and their droppings fertilize it).
Check out this video on prairie dog towns.
Prairie dog towns can be huge. Many of the largest prairie dog colonies are now a thing of the past due to urban and suburban development. However, prairie dogs were once considered the most abundant mammals in North America. Some prairie dog towns are relatively small, perhaps only a few acres. In Kansas, though, there is one that still exists today that is over 100 miles (160 km) long!
Prairie dogs are very social animals. They live in family groups called coteries. Well, actually, the families are called coteries in two species of prairie dogs (black-tailed and Mexican prairie dogs), but family groups are called clans in the other three species (white-tailed, Gunnison’s, and Utah prairie dogs). If you're wondering why the different names for family groups, coteries tend to be more tightly-knit groups than clans. There are certain behaviors (kissing and grooming) prairie dogs do only with members of their own coterie and not with members of other coteries.
A coterie (or clan) is the group that lives within a single burrow. Multiple coteries are grouped together to make a neighborhood, and multiple neighborhoods make up a prairie dog town (a colony).
Each coterie will have a few breeding males, a larger number of breeding females, and however many young they are raising at any given time.
Females stay within their coterie for their entire lives, while males leave the groups when they become mature to find another group to breed in (this avoids excessive inbreeding).
Below is a typical burrow for a prairie dog coterie.
Remember we talked about 150 other animals that rely on prairie dogs? Many animals make prairie dog burrows their homes. Examples include rabbits, rattlesnakes, salamanders, spadefoot toads, camel spiders, countless insects, and other animals that can’t dig burrows on their own. Many of these occupy the burrows even when prairie dogs live there, and others, such as the burrowing owl, live in abandoned burrows.
If you blink, you might miss the prairie dog mating season. We tend to think that prairie dogs are prolific breeders. Not really true. Female prairie dogs only mate one time per year, in early winter. When it's time, they go into estrus for only one hour. That's not a typo—one hour!
If mating is successful, they will have a litter of three to eight pups. On average, only half of those pups will survive their first year.
Here's an interesting tidbit: Once a male has mated with a female, he will not mate with her again during her brief estrus. However, he will prevent other males from mating with her by inserting what's called a mating plug (also called a copulation plug). Yep, this is a real thing. Many animals have these. It's a gelatinous secretion the male deposits in the female, and it solidifies to prevent other males from having access. Weird, huh?
Once the young are born, the adult females care for the young, while the males defend the burrow (they may look cute, but prairie dogs can be vicious fighters).
We definitely need to talk about prairie dog communication. Prairie dogs do a lot of yipping. Yip-yip-yip-yip. To us mere humans, all these yips may sound similar, but prairie dogs have an astounding array of communication signals, especially related to predator warnings (everything wants to eat prairie dogs, remember?).
Scientists have found that prairie dogs can not only signal that a predator is approaching, they can also put together strings of sounds that communicate the predator species, size, color, speed, and direction. I know... this seems hard to believe, but extensive behavior studies have shown it to be true. For example, prairie dogs can alert each other that there’s not just a human approaching, but a tall human wearing the color blue. Amazing!
This should give you an idea of how complex these calls can be: When a prairie dog signals that a hawk is approaching, all the prairie dogs that are directly in the path of the approaching hawk will dive into their holes, while all those outside of the hawk's path will stand on their hind legs and watch.
Prairie dogs also have specific calls when they see an animal they know is not a predator.
Prairie dogs even have a call to signal that a predator is gone. The call is a jump-yip, in which the caller arches its back so suddenly that it jumps off the ground, then this is followed by a shrill yip. See below.
Finally, you may have seen photos of prairie dogs kissing. This seemingly romantic behavior is actually how they confirm that another prairie dog is part of their family group. Regardless, you have to admit there is something endearing about it, right?
So, the Prairie Dog deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Staggering Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term staggering was first used in the mid 1400s. As I'm sure you can guess, it came from the word stagger, which means to "walk unsteadily." Stagger actually comes from stakeren, a Scandinavian word meaning "to push, shove, cause to reel." And that word may have had an original literal meaning of "to hit with a stick." Anyway, in the mid 1400s, people came up with staggering, an adjective to describe something so amazing or overwhelming that it makes you stagger. It still means pretty much the same thing today.
So, staggering is another way to say awesome!
Alligator and manatee - Patrick M. Rose/SAVE THE MANATEE CLUB via Wired
Sloth - UW-Madison/Zach Peery via Phys.org
Bat with baby - San Diego Zoo
Prairie dog #1 - Deposit Photos stock images
Prairie Dog Town - Texas Coop Power
Prairie dog burrow - Devil's Tower Handbook
Prairie dog with young - Deposit Photos stock images
Prairie dog jump-yip - Wikimedia Commons
Prairie dogs kissing - KXCI
I know... many people hate spiders. I get it. However, jumping spiders are different. They're furry and, well, their faces are just darn cute!
You know what jumping spiders are, right? They are those compact little fuzzballs with eight legs that crawl around with short bursts of speed. If you try to touch them, they disappear. Well, they don't actually disappear—they jump. They jump so quickly that often you hardly see them do it, and they seem to disappear.
And when you look really closely... those eyes!
What the heck is a Jumping Spider?
Jumping spiders make up the family Salticidae. Astoundingly, there are over 6,000 species that we know of so far! Yep, six thousand—it's the largest family of spiders. I'd love to include a photo of each species, but I don't think that's going to happen.
Jumping spiders, which are typically small, have highly-developed eyes, with better vision than almost all other arthropods (arthropods also include insects, crustaceans, scorpions, centipedes, and many other creatures with exoskeletons).
Amazing Facts about Jumping Spiders
Let's begin with these spiders' jumping ability. As I'm sure you can guess, this ability is important to the way they hunt their prey. A jumping spider spots a prey animal using its amazing eyes. Then it carefully approaches the creature, trying to decide if the prey is suitable as a meal. Before jumping on its prey, the spider attaches a filament of silk (called a dragline) to the surface it is standing on. Then the spider launches itself through the air to attack.
Take a look at the legs of the spiders in the photos above—tiny little legs! Those aren't big, powerful legs like a grasshopper's hind legs. So, how does a jumping spider jump with such force? It's all about hydraulics.
Jumping spiders have jointed legs, like we do, but their legs each have seven segments. Like humans, spiders have flexor and extensor muscles. Extensor muscles are the ones that can be contracted powerfully to extend a leg, allowing a creature like a grasshopper or a human to jump. The weird thing is, jumping spiders do not have extensor muscles at two of the seven joints of their legs—and these are the joints that give them their jumping power!
So then how do they jump? Like I said, hydraulics. The jumping spider has the ability to force hemolymph (the spider's version of blood) out of its cephalothorax and into its legs. This sudden injection of blood into the legs causes the legs to straighten with great force, sending the spider flying through the air. They can jump up to 50 times the length of their own body. Pretty cool, huh?
If the spider misses its prey, or if the prey struggles and shakes the jumping spider off, the spider can just climb back up its safety dragline to get back to where it started.
Check out this video about how jumping spiders jump.
We really need to talk about the jumping spider's eyes, which are perhaps their most impressive feature. Jumping spiders have four pairs of eyes, and each pair serves a different purpose. There are two pairs of small eyes on the sides of the head, and two pairs of larger eyes mounted in the front of the head (see below).
On the sides of the head there is the pair of posterior medial eyes and a pair of posterior lateral eyes. The posterior medial pair don't really see distinct images—they just detect the level of available light. The posterior lateral pair are good at detecting motion to the sides and behind the spider, giving the spider almost 360° vision.
It's the two pairs of front eyes that are most amazing, though. These are called the anterior lateral eyes (the two smaller ones), and the anterior medial eyes (the two large ones).
The anterior lateral pair have good visual acuity, and they are spaced widely apart, helping the spider with depth perception.
The anterior medial pair (the biggest eyes) have extremely good vision. The retinas of these eyes can actually swivel around on their own, so that the spider can look around without moving its head. These eyes are acute, and some jumping spiders have an astounding ability to see color details, even into the UV range.
This gets a little complex, but I want to explain how these two big eyes help the spider estimate distance (which is important to a creature who likes to jump on its prey). These two eyes are too close together for depth perception, so jumping spiders have evolved a unique alternative called image defocus. It's all done with green light. Here's how it works: Incoming green light is focused on the deepest layer of the retina. So, green light passing through the surface layers of the retina is out of focus, or fuzzy. The spider is capable of measuring the amount of defocus (fuzziness) between the deep layer and the surface layers, and it uses that information to determine the distance of the object in front of its face. Wow!
Okay we need to discuss one other amazing thing about jumping spiders—their elaborate mating rituals. The males have evolved spectacular dances and displays to try to impress a potential mate.
We can divide these displays into two categories, those without color and those with color. You see, many jumping spiders are not capable of seeing a wide range of colors. Those species have elaborate dances, but it is mostly shuffling around, waving their legs in the air, and shaking their booty. Impressive, but...
There are also some species of jumping spiders that can see colors. The males of those species take advantage of this, and they add colorful enhancements to their booty-shaking dances. The male peacock spider, for example, has a brightly-colored abdomen flap, which it flips up and down like a decorative flag.
I could describe these mating dances all day long, but you wouldn't really get a feel for what they are like unless you see them in action.
This video is a great way to witness the displays for yourself.
Now, don't you agree there's more to jumping spiders than meets the eye? The next time you see one skittering around in your house, instead of smashing it, take a closer look.
So, the Jumping Spider deserves a place in the G.E.A.H.O.F.
(Gilt-Edged Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term gilt-edged was first used in about 1810. Originally, the adjective gilt was another way to say gilded. Gild is a verb, meaning "to cover with a thin layer of gold." So, something that has been gilded is covered with a layer of gold, such as the pages of an old book having gilded edges. Gilt-edged originally meant the same thing as gilded. Eventually, people began using gilt-edged in business to refer to the safest kinds of investments (such as government bonds). And then, as often happens, people began to us the term to refer to anything of the highest quality.
So, gilt-edged is another way to say awesome!
Jumping Spider #1 - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Two jumping spiders on finger - Jurgen Otto/University of Cincinnati Magazine
Jumping spider leaping - Scott Linstead
Jumping spider eyes - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Jumping spider on green background - DepositPhotos Stock Images
Peacock jumping spider - Jurgen Otto/University of Cincinnati Magazine
Here in the midwest U.S. we have a temperate climate, with hot summers and cold winters. In Missouri we are having an unusually warm October. Trish and I are always reluctant to give up our canoeing passion this time of year, so a few days ago we put the canoe in the lake again. Possibly for the last time of the season, but we hope not.
We had the joy of observing one of our favorite birds that migrates through this area in the fall... the American White Pelican. These birds are enormous, and they seem majestic as they swim around, searching for fish.
These impressive birds have a nine-foot (2.7 m) wingspan, making them one of the largest birds in North America. They gather together in sizable flocks on the shores of the lake, but then when they start looking for food, they often spread out, sometimes a hundred yards apart or so. From a long distance away you can hear them splashing about as they try to catch fish.
Here are a few that flew near us:
What the heck is a Pelican?
Pelicans are a group of eight species in the family Pelecanidae. Perhaps their most striking characteristic is their huge bill with an expandable throat pouch, which helps them capture fish. All eight species of pelicans are specialized fish eaters, scooping up fish in coastal waters as well as inland lakes and rivers.
Each species lives in one particular part of the world, making it so that most continents have at least one of the eight species.
Pelicans have been around for a while. A 30-million-year-old fossil was found in France, of a pelican bill that was similar to the bills of today's pelicans. So, these birds had to have been around even before that.
Here is a closer photo of an American White Pelican.
Amazing Facts about Pelicans
Okay, we have to talk about the pelican's crazy bill, right? The pelican's bill is an amazing adaptation for catching fish. They have a huge, expandable pouch below the bill called the gular. This throat pouch holds much more food than the bird's stomach, so sometimes they actually catch more than they can eat. Interestingly, different species of pelicans use their bills in different ways.
There is a myth that pelicans use their gular pouches to store food that they can eat later. In fact, here is a limerick (of unknown origin) about this:
“A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak enough food for a week.
But I’ll be damned if I can see how the helican."
The first part is true (its gular is larger than its stomach), but the pelican's gular is for capturing food, not for storing food.
Amazingly, some pelicans can hold three gallons (11 liters) of water in their pouch! The pouch is basically used like a fish net. The pelican finds a school of fish, then scoops up a mouthful of water (and some fish, hopefully). The bird then closes its mouth and contracts the muscles in the wall of the pouch, which expels the water out the left and right sides, holding the fish in. The fish are usually swallowed immediately after the water is purged.
The American white pelicans Trish and I observe on the lake near our home are usually fishing for gizzard shad, a type of fish that swims around in tightly-packed schools of thousands of fish. These white pelicans do not dive for fish (and the photo above is unusual... they do not normally eat fish in the air). Instead, they swim over a school of shad then quickly plunge their fish-net bill into the school below, hoping to get some fish in the mouthful of water they grab.
Now... this is really cool... when white pelicans congregate in large groups, they can increase their fishing success by working cooperatively to "herd" the schools of fish into shallow water. Remember, these pelicans cannot dive, so it helps if the fish are within their reach in shallow water. A large group of these birds will get into a formation, then swim together, using their broad, webbed feet to frighten the fish, forcing the fish to swim away from the birds. They corral thousands of fish into the shallow water near the shore and then have a feeding frenzy.
Check out this video about white pelicans herding fish and feeding on them.
Although pelicans often scoop up mouthfuls of small fish, they are quite capable of swallowing much larger fish, including fish that are fatter than the pelican's own neck!
Remember I said that different pelicans use their bills in different ways? White pelicans can't dive, but brown pelicans are masters at dive-bombing fish from the air. They hit the water at 40 miles per hours (64 kph), shoot under the water, and snatch the fish before the fish even knows what's happening. By the way, Brown pelicans live along the coastal areas of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America.
Wait! FORTY miles per hour?? Wouldn't that kill a bird? It would kill many animals, but not a brown pelican. That's because brown pelicans have a fascinating set of adaptations for doing this without breaking their necks, wings, and every other part of their bodies. First, they make their wings and body streamlined just before hitting the water. They also tighten the muscles around the spine to keep from breaking their backs. To protect their eyes, they have a special membrane, called the nictitating membrane, that slides into place over their eyeballs.
Overall, this is an impressive way to catch fish!
Check out this video about how brown pelicans survive these amazing dives.
We generally think of pelicans feeding on fish, but pelicans will also sometimes feed on frogs, turtles, crustaceans (like crabs), insects, and even mammals and birds. In fact, some pelicans, especially the great white pelican, are known to feed extensively on other birds. This pelican eats terns, cormorants, gannets, gulls, and African penguins. They have even been observed eating pigeons in cities!
That big gular pouch has one other handy use... it helps pelicans feed their young. Like many other birds, pelicans feed their young regurgitated food (yummy!). Think about it... When the adults hack up their partially-digested fish goo, the stuff goes right into their pouch. Then the baby can simply stick its head in there and slurp it all up. No mess, no fuss.
Here's a pink-backed pelican feeding its young:
One more tidbit of information. You know how kids can become demanding when they are being fed, right? Well, young pelicans really win the prize when it comes to this. Usually after—and sometimes before—young pelicans are fed, they throw the mother of all tantrums. They squawk like crazy while dragging themselves around in a circle using only one foot and one wing. They bash their head against the ground or whatever else is handy. In the grand finale, they go into what appears to be a seizure, then they fall unconscious (briefly).
Why do they do this, you ask? No one knows for sure, but many biologists believe it is the young pelican's way of drawing attention to itself and away from its siblings, probably to help it get more than its share of food.
Sheesh! Such drama.
So, the Pelican deserves a place in the T.F.A.H.O.F.
(Top Flight Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term top flight (or topflight, or top-flight) generally means "at the highest or most outstanding level, as in achievement or development." Example: A team of top-flight engineers. Many sources report that the phrase top flight was first used in1939, coinciding with the popularity of a U.S. Hall of Fame Thoroughbred racehorse that was very successful at the time. However, there are numerous examples of the phrase used in British and especially Australian newspapers dating back to the mid 1800s, especially associated with sports—horse racing, cycling, and cricket. It is possible the term came from the top flight of stairs in an apartment building, which would lead to the fanciest "penthouse apartment."
So, top flight is another way to say awesome!
Sea Otter with rock tool - Erin Rechsteiner via Hakai Magazine
Sleeping koala - Getty Images via People.com
American white pelican flying - Matthew Gasperoni, Macaulay Library
Flying white pelican catching a fish - MZPhoto-DepositPhotos
White pelican swallowing large fish - David C. Stephens/GETTY IMAGES
Brown pelicans diving - David Porras/Shutterstock via Treehugger
Pink-backed pelican feeding its young - San Diego Zoo
The very idea of an electric fish seems like some outrageous science fiction creature dreamed up by... well, an author like myself. Even its scientific name sounds like science fiction: Electrophorus electricus. But, I assure you, this creature is real.
What the heck is an Electric Eel?
Well, for starters, it isn't an eel at all. The electric eel is actually a type of knifefish, which means it's more closely related to catfish than to eels. They live in dark, murky rivers in South America, including the Amazon.
These fish use their electrical superpowers in several fascinating ways, mostly for locating and then subduing their prey, typically smaller fish.
Electric eels are large fish, typically growing over six feet (2 m) long and weighing 44 pounds (20 kg). Like catfish, electric eels do not have scales.
Amazing Facts about Electric Eels
Obviously, we need to explore this whole electric thing, right? There's a lot here to consider, so I'll try to organize it logically.
First, how in the heck do these fish generate a voltage? Basically, the electric eel has an amazing nervous system. Its nervous system can synchronize the activity of a series of specialized, disc-shaped cells that produce electricity. These cells are contained within a specialized electric organ. Actually, there are three pairs of these organs, and the organs can make up to 80% of the animal's body!
The disc-shaped cells are called electrocytes, and they are lined up within the organs so that a current of ions can flow through them. When the fish's brain decides to generate a shock, it sends a signal through its nervous system to the organs. Without getting too technical, I'll just say that this signal causes a sudden switch in the organ's polarity, thus generating an electrical current. Think of the organ as a battery, which has a series of stacked discs that produce a current in a similar way.
You see, the eel must activate all the electrocytes at once for this to work. The problem is, these cells are at different distances from the brain. That's where the fish's amazing nervous system comes in... the system has a complex array of nerves that makes sure all the cells activate at the exact same time, no matter how far out they are! Mind boggling, if you ask me.
How powerful is the shock? An electric eel can generate up to 860 volts and up to 1 amp of current. Is that enough voltage to kill a person? Probably not, but it would be painful, and it could incapacitate a person long enough for them to drown. Such drownings have occurred, although they are rare.
To give you an idea of what the shock might be like, consider this story from Philip Stoddard, a zoologist at Florida International University in Miami. Philip had a five-foot-long electric eel as a pet in an aquarium. The eel's name was Sparky. One day Philip decided he wanted to reach into the aquarium and pet Sparky. Philip knew the risk, but he figured the fish was comfortable around him and wouldn't feel threatened (hmm... ).
So, he reached in and stroked the fish's back. You can guess what happened, right? The fish zapped him with 500 volts of electricity, more than four times the shock he would get by sticking his finger into a typical North American household socket (for various reasons, here in the US we use 110-volt outlets—actually they are closer to 120 volts these days—whereas many other countries use 220). Anyway, Philip got a powerful shock. His entire arm hurt for about an hour.
Check out this video about how electric eels can defend themselves with electricity.
Now that we've talked about HOW they produce electricity, let's explore WHY they do this.
Obviously, one reason is for defense against predators. An electric eel can actually kill an attacking caiman that is trying to eat it. Even if the predator isn't killed, it will immediately realize it has made a mistake and will back off. Or, it will be incapacitated long enough for the eel to escape (you might find this a little disturbing, but here is a video recorded by a fisherman who catches an electric eel, then a caiman tries to attack the eel as the guy is reeling it in... the caiman appears to be killed).
But the eel's use of electricity is much more complex than just predator defense. They use their electricity in multiple ways.
They use low voltages to sense their surroundings, kind of like an electrical version of sonar. Remember, these fish live in muddy, murky water, and they have poor eyesight, so this low-voltage sensory ability comes in handy.
They use high voltages in several ways.
High-voltage use #1: To detect prey. The eel can emit pairs of high-voltage pulses, 500 of these pulses per second. These pulses cause their hidden prey to involuntarily twitch. The eel can sense these twitches (remember that low voltage use described above?), allowing it to locate the prey animal.
High-voltage use #2: To stun or kill prey. Once the eel locates the prey, it emits even higher-voltage pulses at 400 pulses per second. This stuns the prey fish, and the eel can approach it and suck it into its mouth with one gulp.
One more interesting morsel about electric eels. An electric eel at the Tennessee Aquarium has its own Twitter account. Yes, you read that right. The fish's name is Miguel Wattson. The fish's tank is set up to constantly monitor its electrical output. Whenever Miguel Wattson gets excited and generates enough electricity, this activates a connected computer to send out a pre-written tweet, many of which are clever and fun. Here's an example:
You can follow Miguel's tweets here.
Here's an older one:
So, the Electric Eel deserves a place in the S.A.H.O.F.
(Stellar Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word stellar originated in the 1650s, as an adjective meaning "pertaining to stars or star-like." Beginning in 1883, it was used in a theatrical sense of the word star (as in the star of a play). In this sense, stellar meant "outstanding, leading." Eventually, people started broadening its use to refer to anything that was outstanding, such as, "The company thrived, due to stellar management."
So, stellar is another way to say awesome!
Hmm... usually I explain why I chose the particular animal as the Awesome Animal. This time, the reason is pretty silly. I saw a photo of a Shoebill, and I thought, look at that crazy bill! That's it. Sometimes my reasons are not particularly intellectual.
What the heck is a Shoebill?
This bird is sometimes called the shoe-billed stork, or the whalehead. Figuring out exactly what the shoebill is has been an ongoing challenge. For years it used to be classified as one of the storks. However, anatomical studies (looking at the structure) suggest it is more closely related to pelicans. But then, molecular studies have convinced many scientists that it is actually more closely related to herons. I guess the jury is still out on that. Because of all this confusion, the bird has been placed in its own special family (called Balaenicipitidae... just try to pronounce that one).
Apparently, the shoebill's closest living relative is another odd-looking bird called the hamerkop. Anyway, they're a big, impressive-looking bird. Shoebills are taller than a mailbox, sometimes standing five feet (152 cm) tall, with an 8-foot wingspan!
Shoebills live in central and eastern Africa, and they eat an impressive variety of prey.
Amazing Facts about Shoebills
First, we need to talk about that bill. The bill is sturdy, heavy, and perfectly adapted for the bird's methods of catching prey. Here's why it's so heavy and sturdy: The shoebill hunts by standing still or walking slowly and carefully, watching for anything that moves that it can swallow (and shoebills can swallow a lot!). When it spots an animal, the bird throws itself forward with every ounce of strength it has, and its bill crashes into the water at full speed.
Here is a brief video that shows a shoebill hunting.
Often, when a shoebill grabs a prey animal like this, it also gets a mouthful of water plants and mud. No problem, though. The bird is skilled at shifting its jaws back and forth to discard the salad and keep the meat.
I mentioned above that shoebills eat an impressive list of prey. They are particularly fond of lungfish (see above photo), but they will eat pretty much any creature they can swallow whole. This includes not only surprisingly large lungfish, but also eels, catfish, and frogs. As if that weren't impressive enough, they do not hesitate to eat monitor lizards, snakes, and even young crocodiles. Yep, this is a bird that eats crocodiles.
So, it grabs a mouthful of stuff, shakes out everything else except for the prey animal, then it often maneuvers the animal around until it can decapitate it with its sharp-edged bill. Easier to swallow that way, I suppose. And swallow it does—whole. All at once. Down the hatch. Gulp.
But wait! Even though the bird has eaten its prey, it isn't quite finished with it yet. Sorry, but this part is a little disgusting. Shoebills live in hot places, and to help cool themselves down, they poop on their legs. That's right. How does it work? Well, bird poop is mostly liquid, and when the poop evaporates, it cools the blood circulating through the shoebill's legs, and that cooled blood cools the rest of the bird's body. Isn't that cool?
Um, is it me, or does the shoebill look a little like the long-lost dodo bird?
Hey, why do they call them shoebills? What kind of shoe looks like that? A Dutch wooden clog, of course, and that's how they got their name.
Remember when I said shoebills often hunt by standing still and waiting? I wasn't kidding. You wouldn't want to get into a staring contest with one of these birds because they are capable of standing in one place and staring at the water for hours at a time. They could teach us all a thing or two about the virtues of patience.
Shoebills have large, gold-colored eyes, and when they look directly at you, their stare is rather intimidating. It makes you feel like they are sizing you up, deciding if you are small enough to swallow whole.
Here's a random thought. To me, the shoebill looks very dinosaur-like. Its scientific name is Balaeniceps rex. In other words, it is named B. rex. If you've seen the Jurassic Park movies, you know what a T. rex's death stare looks like. Well, here's the B. rex's death stare:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that shoebills are ill-tempered or dangerous to people. They actually seem quite tolerant of people (although you have to admit... that stare!). Shoebills in zoos seem to like it when approaching people mimic their movements, including bowing to the bird.
Check out this video of these behaviors in a shoebill in captivity.
If you watch videos of a shoebill, you will see and hear it clacking its bill loudly (you can see this in the above video). This is a common form of communication between the birds. They seem to do it most when they are around their nests, although the specific purpose of the sound is uncertain.
One more item of interest. Adult shoebills are certainly strange-looking birds. You must be wondering what baby shoebills look like. In 2009 the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida was only the second zoo in the world to successfully hatch a baby shoebill. As it turns out, newly-hatched shoebills look... well, kind of normal (although maybe a little goofy).
So, the Shoebill deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bumper Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bumper has numerous meanings. As a noun, it refers to the protective guard on the front of a vehicle, or any other kind of rim, pad, or projection that protects something. It even refers to a glass full to the brim (particularly with beer). In Australia it's a slang word for a cigarette butt. However, when used as an adjective, bumper can mean unusually abundant (such as a bumper crop), but it can also mean unusually large and/or fine. And that, folks, is why I think bumper, particularly when referring to the shoebill, is another way to say awesome!
Yesterday I was writing one of the chapters of the third Across Horizons book, and I decided the scene needed a really strange creature. I dug around for ideas and decided on a velvet worm. I then read a few articles on velvet worms, and I was blown away by these creatures. Who knew they were so awesome? I decided velvet worms deserved to be featured in this post, and here they are.
What the heck is a velvet worm?
This question is not so easy to answer. In spite of the name, they aren't really worms. They look a little like a caterpillar, but caterpillars are insects. They look a little like a slug, but slugs are mollusks. They actually belong in their own phylum, Onychophora.
We know of about 200 species, mostly living in the tropics. However, they are extremely secretive, living in dark places in leaf litter on the ground and are only active at night. It is almost certain that many more species exist that we have not yet discovered.
Velvet worms are predators, feeding on almost any creatures their own size or smaller. They average about three inches (7.6 cm) long, but some are less than an inch, and some get as long as eight inches (20.3 cm).
One of the most amazing things about velvet worms is the way they catch and eat their prey! Let's get into the details.
Amazing Facts about Velvet Worms
First let's look at why these critters make such interesting predators. They may be called velvet worms, but I think a better name might be spider-man worms. Why? Because they trap their prey by spraying out two jets of sticky goo from their slime cannons. A two-inch velvet worm can shoot this slime out as far as two feet (61 cm). The slime hits the prey animals and immediately begins to harden like sticky glue.
With the prey creature now immobilized, the velvet worm can take its time and safely approach its meal. It has a specialized knife-like tooth hidden in its mouth, which it slides out and uses to cut through the prey animal's skin or exoskeleton. Once a hole is made, the velvet worm injects saliva, which is deadly to the prey animal. Not only does the saliva kill the animal, it also starts to digest the animal's insides. The velvet worm waits patiently as the saliva does its job, keeping itself busy by re-ingesting and thus recycling the goo it had already squirted. Finally, it goes back to the opening it made in the prey animal and starts slurping up the creature's digested insides. Yum!
Check out this video about the velvet worm's slime cannons.
Notice the jets of goo squirting from this velvet worm:
Let's break this amazing predation process down into steps. First, velvet worms have very poor eyesight, so how do they even locate their prey? Those short, squishy-looking legs allow them to move around on the forest floor without being heard. Also, because their legs do not vibrate the surfaces much, their prey cannot feel them approaching. The velvet worms themselves are extremely sensitive to vibrations and changes in air pressure from movement, so they can detect other creatures moving around nearby. They sneak up on their prey very stealthily, and they get so close that they can touch the prey with their finger-like antennae. Their antennae are highly sensitive, and velvet worms very lightly touch the prey animal to determine if it would be suitable as a meal. Often they spend a full ten seconds touching the animal without scaring it off!
Check out the antennae on the blue velvet worm below:
Once the velvet worm decides the prey is suitable and worth using up some of its precious slime, it squirts the slime through its two slime nozzles.
But where does the slime come from, and what is it? The velvet worm has two huge slime glands inside its body that run most of its entire length, allowing it to produce an impressive amount of the goo.
The slime itself is amazing stuff. Its main ingredient is a special type of protein that, when the protein molecules join together, they quickly form a solid structure. But inside the velvet worm's body, and while the slime is being squirted, the proteins are coated with water molecules that keep the proteins separate. In fact, 90% of the slime is water that is there to keep the proteins from interacting with each other. But... when the slime hits the prey animal, it spreads out, covering the animal, and the water quickly evaporates. Guess what happens when the water is gone. That's right, the proteins join together and form a biological glue.
The cool thing is, no other animals in the world use biological glue that works like this.
As I stated above, once the prey is immobilized, the velvet worm casually approaches and cuts a hole in the prey's body to inject saliva that digests the animal from the inside. The saliva contains hydrolytic enzymes, which use water molecules to break the chemical bonds of the prey animals' internal organs. Once that's done, all the velvet worm has to do is suck up all that digested stuff. It's like sucking the water out of a coconut through a straw.
I know... kind of gross, but you have to admit it's also awesome!
Here's an animated GIF of the velvet worm's specialized mouth. I like to think of it as the SSSIPSO (Shell Slicing, Saliva Injecting, Prey Slurping Orifice).
Okay, one more fascinating thing about velvet worms. Most of the velvet worm species live and hunt alone, but at least a few species live in groups with complex social structures, and they even hunt cooperatively. Velvet worms in the genus Euperipatoides live together in groups of up to fifteen. Each group will make a home together, usually somewhere like inside a rotting log, and the members of the group are really aggressive to velvet worms from other logs.
Each group has one dominant member, usually a female. The group leaves the log at night to hunt as a pack, making it easier to capture prey (15 velvet worms... that's a lot of slime). When they make a kill, the dominant female always feeds first. Next, the other females feed, then the males. Finally, the young feed last (assuming there is anything left to eat!).
The social hierarchy is determined by aggression and submission. The biggest, meanest individuals are more dominant. Interestingly, to avoid getting into a fight with a larger individual, velvet worms carefully measure each other by feeling with their antennae from one end of the body to the other. If the opponent is too big, it's safer to simply become submissive.
So, Velvet Worms deserve a place in the F.L.A.H.O.F.
(Front-Line Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The phrase frontline originated in 1842 as a military term to refer to the location of the most advanced combat units. In about 1910, the hyphenated form (front-line) originated as an adjective, meaning "highly experienced or proficient in the performance of one's duties." In other words, "first-rate," as in She is a front-line performer. So, front-line is another way to say awesome!
Every human being needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.