All eagles are, in general, pretty cool birds, but the harpy eagle takes coolness to a whole new level. It's the largest raptor in the Americas, and it hunts monkeys, sloths, porcupines, macaws, and iguanas. It has five-inch talons (longer than a grizzly bear's claws). Not only that, but it can puff up its head feathers to look like the king (or queen) of all birds.
What the heck is a Harpy Eagle?
The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is one of the largest, most powerful eagles in the world, and it lives and hunts in the canopy portion of tropical rainforests. Although the bird is rare, its range extends through Central America into much of South America, particularly Brazil. Unfortunately, except for Panama, it is almost extinct in Central America.
Harpy eagles were first described back in 1758, and they were named after the beasts of Greek mythology called harpies (fictional creatures with the body of a vulture and the face of a woman). the harpy eagle is most closely related to the crested eagle and the New Guinea harpy eagle.
Amazing Facts about the Harpy Eagle
First we need to talk about the hunting power of these birds. Harpy eagles have wing spans of about 6 feet (1.8 m), which is not particularly long for an eagle of this size (the smaller bald eagle can have a wing span of 7.5 feet). Why the shorter wings? Because most eagles hunt in open areas, where they can soar while they search for prey. Harpy eagles hunt in dense rainforest, where they need to be highly maneuverable. Their wings are short and very broad, which helps with maneuverability.
Harpy eagles are apex predators, at the top of their food chain, which means they have no predators to fear (other than humans). Occasionally they are attacked by jaguars or ocelots, but this is thought to be rare.
These birds don't mess around with small prey. Apparently they like the challenge of hunting larger animals. Although they feed on a variety of tree-dwelling animals, harpy eagles seem to prefer mammals, especially monkeys and sloths. Sloths can make up over half of their diet. Harpies ignore the smaller monkeys (like marmosets) and instead go for howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, saki monkeys, titi monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and spider monkeys.
If a harpy eagle can't find a sloth or a monkey, it will happily kill and eat a porcupine, squirrel, opossum, anteater, armadillo, kinkajou, or coati.
Although they prefer mammals, these eagles will eat large parrots like macaws, iguanas and other large lizards, and snakes. Rarely, they even sometimes kill domestic chickens, lambs, goats, and pigs. One study showed that harpy eagles killed 102 different prey species!
Here is a harpy eagle that has just caught a monkey.
Harpy eagles are powerful birds. As I said above, they like hunting large prey, and the larger females have never been recorded taking a prey animal weighing less than 6 pounds (2.7 kg). They are often seen snatching and flying off with mature howler monkeys and sloths weighing up to 20 pounds (9.1 kg), which is equal to or heavier than the eagle itself.
Typically, these eagles are perch hunters. They fly from tree to tree then sit for a while to listen and look for movement. When they spot a prey animal, they swoop in and pluck it from the trees, or sometimes from the ground.
Harpy eagles have larger talons than any other living eagles, usually 3-4 inches (7.6-10.1 cm) long, and sometimes up to 5 inches (12.7 cm) long, longer than the claws of a grizzly bear. Harpy eagles have powerful clutching toes, and they typically use their long claws to kill their prey. Their beaks are powerful enough to easily crack mammal bones but are used mostly for feeding rather than killing.
Check out the impressive harpy eagle foot and talons below.
The harpy eagle is one of the few raptors (other than some owls) that has a facial disc. The harpy can puff out the feathers around its face to form a concave disc with its face in the center. Why? Because, like owls, these birds rely on sound to help them find their prey (the forest is rather dark under the thick rainforest canopy). The facial disc helps to funnel sound to their ears. When they puff up their feathers to do this, they often end up with some long feathers sticking up from the back of their head, making them look rather majestic.
Check out this video about harpy eagles hunting.
Harpy eagles breed only once every two to three years. They are monogamous, and a pair will make a massive nest out of sticks. Even after the young hatch, the adults continuously add sticks that have green vegetation attached. This is thought to help keep the interior of the nest cool.
They typically lay two eggs, and the female incubates them for about 55 days. Surprisingly, when the first egg hatches, that young is nurtured, but the other egg is ignored, and the chick inside will die. Why? This allows the two parents to put all their energy into raising one healthy eaglet. You might wonder why they don't just lay one egg in the first place. By laying two, there is more likelihood that at least one will develop normally and hatch.
Two more tidbits of interesting information. The harpy eagle was used for inspiration for the design on the mythical creature Fawkes the Phoenix in the Harry Potter movies (as well as in the second Fantastic Beasts movie). Also, the harpy eagle is the national bird of Panama and is featured on the official Panama coat of arms.
So, the Harpy Eagle deserves a place in the I.A.H.O.F.
(Inimitable Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word inimitable originated way back in about 1525. It comes from the Latin word inimitabilis, which literally means "that cannot be imitated." The prefix in- means "the opposite of," and "imitabilis" means "imitable." So, anything that is inimitable cannot be imitated. The word is often confused with inimical, which means "harmful or hostile" (as in "a climate inimical to health"). However, if you can keep the two words straight, inimitable is a good way to express how unique (and often amazing) something or someone is, as in "Genesis Sequence is another of Stan Smith's inimitable novels."
So, inimitable is another way to say awesome!
Trish just told me she doesn't like either of the words, inimitable or inimical, because they are too hard to pronounce!
Harpy eagle #1, with head feathers up - DepositPhotos
Harpy eagle carrying monkey - Jiang Chunsheng, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Harpy eagle foot - Carnivora
Harpy eagle face with head feathers up - "Harpy Eagle" by mirsasha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Harpy eagle on nest with eaglet - DepositPhotos
Coat of Arms of Panama - Milenioscuro and Gumff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As a kid, when I was growing up in central Kansas (USA), my friends and I had an exaggerated fear of a large wasp called the cicada killer. Seriously. When we saw one, we would scream "Cicada killer!" and scatter as if our lives were in immediate peril. So, from a young age, I've had a healthy respect for stinging creatures.
Now everyone's talking about this mysterious demon called a murder hornet. Wow, what a name. The common name for the insect is actually Asian giant hornet. With all the buzz in the media (see what I did there?), we need to figure out what's real and what's exaggeration. Do we need to scream "murder hornet!" and run for our lives? Let's find out.
What the heck is a Murder Hornet?
Again, I want to emphasize that murder hornet is not the real name. Therefore, from this point on I will refer to these insects as Asian giant hornets, or just giant hornets.
Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia), are the world's largest hornets. They have a wing span of up to 3 inches (76 mm), and the stinger is 1/4 inch (6 mm) long. Their sting can deliver a relatively strong venom, and numerous stings can indeed kill a human (keep in mind this is true of some other hornets, bees, and wasps as well). They have a distinctive yellow head.
On average, the cicada killer wasp I mentioned above is actually about the same size or slightly larger than the Asian giant hornet (both can be up to 2 inches long), although there is a lot of variability between individuals of both species. Here they are side by side. The Asian giant hornet is a hornet, and the cicada killer is a wasp—two different groups.
Amazing Facts about Asian Giant Hornets
First, we need to talk about why these hornets have been so prominent in the news the last few years. Basically, it's because they are spreading. Specifically, they are showing up in the United States, and you know how the American news media can be, right? Is this cause for concern? Yes, but it is not cause for panic, as most people throughout the world have lived in close proximity to various stinging insects all their lives. Let's sort it out.
If these hornets can spread to the US, they can spread to other countries too. They live throughout Asia, and they are quite common in Japan. Japan, in fact, is where they were nicknamed murder hornets back in 2008.
Giant hornets can be dangerous, but so are other bees, wasps, and hornets, and so are other insects, like mosquitoes.
Here are some statistics. During the last two decades, in the United States there has been an average of 62 human deaths per year from bee, wasp, and hornet stings. In Japan, where Asian giant hornets are common, there has been an average of 21 deaths per year from bee, wasp, and hornet stings (giant hornets only cause a portion of those). Throughout all of Asia (a very large population of people), an average of 50 people die per year specifically from Asian giant hornets.
Just to put things into perspective, mosquitoes are responsible for millions of yearly deaths worldwide from malaria, dengue fever, and other diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Between 1700 and 1900, about 100,000 Americans were killed by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever.
Again, Asian giant hornets can be dangerous, but they are not cause for panic (unless you are a beekeeper... I'll get to that in a moment).
Below is a dead giant hornet, to give an idea of its size.
Asian giant hornets have a painful and dangerous sting. However, they are not aggressive toward humans unless they feel their nest is threatened.
Giant hornets have stingers that are much longer than those of most other wasps, bees, and hornets. Not only that, but because of this insect's size, they can inject seven times more venom than a honeybee can inject. The venom is particularly potent, and people describe it as being similar to getting a hot nail shoved into the skin.
The venom contains several kinds of toxins, including a neurotoxin called mandaratoxin. This neurotoxin from the sting of one wasp is enough to kill a mouse about 50% of the time. This is not usually enough to be dangerous to a human unless there are multiple stings. Obviously, an allergy to the venom increases the danger. Research shows that the majority of deaths occur as a result of cardiac arrest or anaphylactic shock resulting from numerous stings.
How many stings does it take? It depends on how allergic the person is, but here are some more statistics. Those people who have died were stung an average of 59 times each. Those people who were hospitalized but survived were stung an average of 29 times each. Remember, these are averages... which means some individuals were higher and some were lower.
In China, they recommend getting medical attention if stung 10 times or more, and 30 or more stings definitely requires emergency treatment.
Are these insects dangerous? Yes, they can be. Should everyone panic and move to an underground bunker? Nope. Most of us already live in areas where there are aggressive bees, wasps, and hornets, and have already learned to be cautious about approaching and threatening their nests.
The real danger of these hornets expanding into new territories is that they love to kill bees. In fact, that's how they actually got the nickname of murder hornets. Bees are essential pollinators. Beekeepers (and wild bees) help sustain dozens of essential agricultural crops, as well as countless non-agricultural native plants.
However, Asian giant hornets love killing bees! And they love honey. When a giant hornet finds a beehive, it releases a chemical that tells its buddies where the hive is, and soon an entire brigade of giant hornets descends upon the beehive like demons of the apocalypse. At five times the size of a honeybee, each giant hornet can kill 40 bees per minute. The hornets have jaws specially adapted for ripping the bees' heads from their bodies (see these "mandibles of death" below).
Incredibly, a few dozen giant hornets can wipe out an entire colony of over 10,000 honeybees in just a few hours. This could be devastating to bee populations (not to mention to the livelihood of beekeepers and honey producers).
Interestingly, Japanese honeybees, having evolved where giant hornets are common, have adapted defenses to this kind of attack. When they detect a single giant hornet near their hive, they attack en masse before the hornet can release its chemical to attract other hornets. The bees are too small to kill the hornet by fighting, so instead they pile onto it, enveloping it in a mass of bees, then they vibrate their bodies at an extremely fast rate. This creates so much heat that they roast the hornet alive. Awesome, huh?
Check out this video about how Japanese honeybees do this.
So, for many reasons, giant hornets are not welcome outside of their native range—not in the United States nor anywhere else. Fortunately, there are ways to get rid of these invasive murderers. Poisons, baited traps, controlled fires, and strategic uses of screens over nesting areas are possible eradication methods.
Even though these creatures are unwanted outside of their native range, they are still awesome animals. They are amazing apex insect predators, with impressive adaptations. Consider sharks... sharks are awesome animals, although you wouldn't want a bunch of them to invade your neighborhood swimming pool.
So, the Murder Hornet deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F.
(Fabulous Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word fabulous originated in the early 1400s, from the Latin word fabulosus. Its original meaning was "mythical, legendary." In other words, it implied that something was not actually true (this seems appropriate for the "murder hornet" because of all the misinformation about them). In about 1600, it began to be used to mean "incredible," as in "enormous, immense, amazing" (again, appropriate for this animal). Finally, in the 1950s, it was changed to mean simply "marvelous, terrific." A shortened form of it, fab, became popular in 1963 to refer to The Beatles (the Fab Four).
So, fabulous is another way to say awesome!
Asian giant hornet on white background - DepositPhotos
Asian giant hornet in hand - NUMBER7isBEST, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Four hornets on a rock - DepositPhotos
Giant hornet mandibles - USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1995, Trish and I were lucky enough to tour a fascinating cave in New Zealand. As we came out of the cave, there was a funny-looking bird sitting on a handrail within arm's reach of me. The bird simply stared, with no apparent urge to fly away. It had a cartoon-like face and a wide mouth that reminded me of a frog's mouth. In fact, this bird was actually a tawny frogmouth.
What the heck is a Frogmouth?
First of all, despite their owl-like appearance, frogmouths are not owls. They are actually related to nightjars (the nightjars are insect-eating birds with short, broad beaks... in Missouri we have three nightjars, the nighthawk, the whip-poor-will, and the chuck-will's-widow). However, frogmouths are often mistaken for owls because they are nocturnal and their feather coloration is similar to some owls.
This similar appearance is a great example of convergent evolution, in which unrelated organisms evolve to look similar to each other because they are adapted to similar habitats and habits. Owls and frogmouths both hunt at night, so they both have large eyes and similar camouflage patterns. However, frogmouths do not have strong claws like owls. Owls use their claws to hunt larger prey, whereas frogmouths catch insects and small vertebrates with their mouths instead of their talons. They can open their mouths wide to scoop up flying insects.
Frogmouths live across much of Southeast Asia and Australia. There are 14 species of frogmouths, but the tawny frogmouth is arguably the best known of all of them. Well, at least it's the one most frequently seen on the internet. In fact, in April 2021, German researchers did a study using an algorithm to analyze the aesthetic appeal of over 27,000 bird photos and found that Instagram users "liked" frogmouth photos more than any other bird photos.
Therefore, frogmouths are officially the world's most Instagrammable bird species.
Amazing Facts about Frogmouths
First, I recommend that you watch this fun video about frogmouths. It's worth the five minutes of your life that it will take to watch it.
Okay, if you watched the video, you probably want to know more, right? Like, did he say frogmouths bash their prey against rocks? He did indeed. Remember, owls have strong claws for killing, frogmouths don't (their feet are small and rather weak). Instead, they have... well, big mouths. They can grab prey animals that are bigger than insects (frogs, reptiles, small birds and mammals), but instead of tearing them apart with talons, they whip them against a rock or tree over and over. Then they swallow the bashed-up creature in one gulp.
That's dramatic, I suppose, but the majority of a frogmouth's diet is smaller critters—nocturnal insects, slugs, snails, and worms. Most of these they see from their perch in a tree and pounce onto them on the ground. Sometimes they catch insects in flight, which unfortunately leads to these birds being hit by cars while swooping in to catch insects attracted to bright headlights.
Frogmouths are really good at camouflage. You can see from the photo above that their color allows them to blend in, but that's just the beginning. When they sense danger, they get into a position that makes them look like a broken branch on the tree. Sometimes they will even sway back and forth as if the wind is blowing the tree. Frogmouths actually seek out old trees to sit in because it's easier for them to look like an old, stumpy tree limb.
Below is a Javan frogmouth on its nest, trying to look invisible.
I guess we need to talk about the pitiful nests these birds create (see photo above). When it comes to nest-making, frogmouths definitely would not win the Engineer-Of-The-Year award. Their nests are rather minimalistic. Sometimes they lay their eggs in the fork of a tree with hardly any nest at all. Sometimes they place a few sticks together and call it a nest. Or they use a bit of moss, lichens, or leaves. These nests are well camouflaged, but they don't do much to keep the eggs from falling out of the tree, which definitely happens sometimes.
Well, perhaps they don't make the most impressive nests, but that's not to say they don't excel in other aspects of parenting. Frogmouths are excellent at sharing the duties. They are known to mate for life, and both sexes sit on the eggs—the male sits on the nest all day long, but then the male and female take turns during the night so they can both go out hunting for food. So, even though the nest is wimpy, the eggs and young are almost never left unattended. Both parents work hard to provide food for the growing chicks.
Below is a Hodgson frogmouth sitting on its nest with two chicks. I can't decide if those chicks are cute or scary-looking.
Frogmouths have a strange call. Sometimes they hiss or growl if they feel threatened, but their usual call is a low, monotonous wooo-wooo-wooo. Check out this video (you need to listen carefully... you can hear it in the last half).
Frogmouths are good at surviving extreme temperatures. When temps get really low and food becomes scarce, frogmouths are able to go into a dormant state called torpor. This drastically lowers their heart rate, metabolic rate, and temperature, which therefore reduces their need for food. Torpor is not the same as hibernation. Hibernation is a long-term state, whereas torpor is usually only a few hours at a time. Still, frogmouths can go into torpor repeatedly, spending much of the days and nights of the cold season in a low-energy state.
In the hot months, frogmouths open their mouths and pant. The moving air helps cool them down. To increase the effectiveness of this, they fill their mouths with mucus, which helps cool the air as it is inhaled.
I mentioned above that frogmouths often mate for life. Continuous close proximity and physical touch seem to be important ways for frogmouth pairs to reinforce their bond (Hey, I can identify with that!). Pairs typically spend their down time sitting beside each other, even close enough that they are touching. A male often grooms the female's feathers, sometimes doing this for up to ten minutes without stopping.
Below is a bonding pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths.
So, the Frogmouth deserves a place in the P.A.H.O.F.
(Portentous Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word portentous originated way back in the 1540s. In fact, it was seemingly a favorite word of William Shakespeare. It came from the Latin word portentosus. The root of the word, portent, was a synonym of a sign or an omen. When the word portentous was first used, it was always in reference to an omen, usually a bad omen. However, by the end of the 1500s, the word began being used as a synonym for prodigious, which means "remarkable or impressively great in extent, size, or degree." Today, many years later, the word is often used to mean "trying to appear important and serious." Well, take one look at the frogmouth and you'll agree this definition fits. Frogmouths look very important and serious to me.
So, more or less, portentous is another way to say awesome!
Way back in 1758 Carl Linnaeus described a type of lizard that had strange flaps of skin on its sides that looked almost like wings. He named the genus Draco, which is from the Latin word for dragons... you know, those giant, mythical flying reptiles. Back then, scientists did not know if the wing-like flaps of skin were actually for flying. In fact, this possibility was debated all the way into the mid 1950s. Many scientists thought the flaps were used only for threat displays or mating displays. Finally, in the 1950s, scientists actually observed the lizards gliding from tree to tree on these flaps of skin.
What the heck is a Flying Dragon?
Normally I share a YouTube video closer to the end of the Awesome Animal feature, but in this case I think you need to see the video first, in order to fully appreciate the awesomeness of these lizards before I go into more detail.
Check out this must-see video from the BBC.
See what I mean? Impressive lizards!
There are actually about forty species of Draco flying dragons, and they live in dense forests in Bornea, the Philippines, and across southeast Asia into southern India. They are fairly small lizards, averaging about 8 inches (20 cm) in length, including the tail, and they are all insectivores, gobbling up numerous insects per day.
Typically, they are drab in color, but their wing-like membranes, called patagia, can be brightly colored.
Amazing Facts about Flying Dragons
First, we need to talk about this whole flying thing. What the heck—a flying lizard? Not exactly. When it comes to animals, the word flying usually refers to the animal's ability to propel itself through the air under its own power for a sustained period of time. Birds, bats, and many insects can actually fly. Pterosaurs were real flying reptiles, and they could flap their wings for sustained flight, but they went extinct about 66 million years ago.
Draco flying dragons are not miniature pterosaurs, and they cannot fly. Instead, they are lizards, and they glide instead of fly (kind of like flying squirrels, which I featured in a recent email).
Don't let that fool you, though! Draco lizards are really good at gliding. They sail through the air with precision control, and people have observed them gliding as far as 200 feet (60 m) between trees. Look out your window at a tree that is 200 feet away. That gives you an idea of how impressive this feat is.
By the way... look at the lizard on the right (on the tree) in the photo above. That is what they look like when their wings are not spread out—pretty much like a normal lizard.
How exactly do Draco lizards glide? That impressive patagial membrane (wing) is supported by special, elongated rib bones, which the lizard can spread wide after it takes to the air, using certain muscles that other lizards usually use to control their breathing. The lizard leaps from a tree and spreads its ribs, which spreads the patagial membranes on both sides of its body. It then grabs the membranes with its forefeet to hold them out, then arches its back to force the wings into a concave shape, which enhances lift. The lizard controls its flight path by moving the wings up and down with its forelimbs.
Check out those elongated ribs!
Okay, that makes sense. Now, WHY do Draco lizards glide? Remember, lizards are gobbled up by numerous predators. Walking around on the ground to get from tree to tree is dangerous business. So, there is a huge advantage to being able to glide between trees.
Maybe a better question is, why don't all lizards glide? There are many different answers. Not all lizards are small enough to glide. Not all lizards live in densely-forested areas (no point in gliding in a desert or grassland, right?). And there are numerous other reasons why not all lizards can glide. The question is kind of like asking, if gliding is good for Draco lizards, why can't people glide too?
In the past there have been other lizard species (now extinct) that have independently evolved this same ability. For example, there was a family of gliding lizards called Kuehneosauridae that lived during the Triassic period (251 to 201 million years ago). Their fossils show a similar structure to today's Draco lizards (see artist depiction below).
Male flying dragons also use their "wings" as displays to impress females. This is probably why some of them have brightly-colored patagia. In addition to their patagia, the males also have dewlaps, colorful folds of skin beneath the chin that males can extend to further add to their impressiveness (see below).
The males establish territories and guard them fiercely to keep other males out. Of course, the females are always welcome, and they move from territory to territory, checking out the males to see which one they are most impressed with.
So, the Flying Dragon deserves a place in the C.A.H.O.F.
(Choice Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word choice originated as a noun in about 1300. It came from the earlier French word chois, and its original meaning was "action of selecting" or "power of choosing" (as in, "I have no choice—I must read Stan's new book"). In the late 1300s, the word was also used as a noun for "the person or thing chosen" (as in, "Stan's new book is going to be my next choice"). Sometime in the mid 1300s, people began using the word as an adjective to mean "worthy of being chosen; excellent; superior" (as in, "Stan's new book will be one of the choice novels of our generation").
So, choice is another way to say awesome!
Flying dragon gliding #1 - Psumuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Flying dragon on tree with yellow patagia spread open - A.S.Kono, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Flying dragon landing on a tree - DepositPhotos
Flying dragon skeleton diagram - Wikimedia Commons
Prehistoric gliding lizard art - Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Draco volans displaying with dewlap - DepositPhotos
Thanks to reader (also one of my former 7th grade life science students) Scott Finley for suggesting this Awesome Animal.
Way back in 1995, Trish and I had a marvelous opportunity to travel to New Zealand. At a zoo there, we had our first introduction to the weird and wonderful kakapo (pronounced KAH-ke-poh), which is perhaps the most unusual of all parrots. These large parrots displayed endearing personalities, and we were immediately enamored by their appearance and antics. I think you'll find them just as fascinating as we do.
What the heck is a Kakapo?
For one thing, the kakapo is nocturnal—the only nocturnal parrot. And it is flightless—the only flightless parrot. Kakapos are massive, nine-pound parrots—the world's heaviest parrot. They spend their nights waddling around on the forest floor and climbing trees to find their favorite fruits and seeds. To top it all off, the kakapo might be the world's longest-living bird, with some individuals living up to 100 years.
Kakapos are endemic to New Zealand, and unfortunately they are highly endangered. In fact, I suppose Trish and I were lucky to see them at all—when we were there in the mid 90s, only 51 individual kakapos remained. The number is now closer to 200, which is good, but the species' survival is still far from assured.
The photo below gives you an idea of the kakapo's size.
Amazing Facts about the Kakapo
A flightless parrot? Really? Yep, completely flightless. Although this is the only flightless parrot, other birds have also evolved to be flightless on oceanic islands where there are few predators. Historically, New Zealand had no large land predators, resulting in a variety of flightless birds that would otherwise be vulnerable, such as the kakapo, several species of kiwi, three species of penguins, the takahe, the weka, and several species of flightless teal (teal are a kind of duck). In addition, New Zealand was home to a variety of extinct flightless birds, including the huge, impressive moas, which were the tallest birds known, able to reach foliage 12 feet (3.6 meters) off the ground. I guess you could say New Zealand is the flightless bird capital of the world.
Before humans arrived on New Zealand, the only predators kakapos had to worry about were birds of prey: one species of eagle, one falcon, one harrier, and one owl. Over time, the kakapo became well adapted to avoid these raptors—the parrots developed camouflaged feathers and became nocturnal. When kakapos feel threatened, they freeze, which helps them blend in with their surroundings. Although the eagle, falcon, and harrier only hunt in daylight, the nocturnal laughing owl could still sometimes prey on kakapos.
However, the real problems started when humans brought predatory mammals to New Zealand, particularly dogs, cats, and stoats (the short-tailed weasel).
Part of the problem is that a kakapo's body has a strong, musty-sweet smell (they use this smell to locate each other). This was not a problem when raptors were their only predators—raptors hunt by sight, not by smell. Mammal predators, on the other hand, have a highly developed sense of smell. Not a good thing for the kakapos! With mammals hunting them, the kakapo's tendency to freeze does not help at all and in fact makes them easy prey.
The Polynesian ancestors of the Māori (indigenous people of mainland New Zealand) arrived in New Zealand about 700 years ago, and they brought with them domesticated dogs called Kurī (a now-extinct breed of Polynesian dogs). The Māori used these dogs as a source of food, but they also used them to hunt birds, including the kakapo.
Also, the Māori inadvertently brought rats (as stowaways on their boats) to New Zealand, and the rats proliferated and preyed on kakapo eggs and chicks.
By the time Europeans arrived in 1642, the Māori had decimated the kakapo in some parts of New Zealand. Then, as I'm sure you can guess, the Europeans greatly accelerated the kakapo's decline. Not only did they clear vast tracts of land, they brought additional mammals, including different dogs, domestic cats, black rats, and stoats. By the late 1800s, the kakapo was recognized as a scientific curiosity, and thousands of them were killed and shipped to numerous museums around the world.
As I said above, when Trish and I saw these birds in a New Zealand zoo in 1995, there were only 51 individuals known to exist. Soon after that, all the remaining kakapos were transferred to four islands that had been cleared of all non-native predators and competitors, and were also replanted with native vegetation. Additional ongoing eradication efforts have been because cats, stoats, and rats continually reappear on the islands.
These protected kakapos have gradually increased to about 200 birds. Below is a Department of Conservation worker caring for some kakapo chicks.
Check out this video about the kakapo.
If you watched the video linked above, you saw a kakapo running toward the camera man, then stopping to take a closer look. Kakapos are notoriously friendly birds, and even those living wild on the protected islands are known to come right up to people, climb all over them, and even preen their hair. Of course, this friendly behavior has contributed to their decline, as they are extremely easy for humans and predators to hunt. In addition to hunting and eating kapakos, both the Māori and early European settlers kept these birds as pets.
Let's finish this up with a bit about the kakapo's sex life, which is just as unusual as all their other characteristics. Kakapos are the only parrots to have a a polygynous lek breeding system. That's a mouthful, so let's break it down. Polygynous means that one male mates with numerous females, but those females only mate with the one male. A lek is when a group of males gather in one area to compete for females by carrying out elaborate displays and behaviors. Females pick out their preferred males as the males display, or lek.
Amazingly, mating occurs only once every five years! This coincides with the ripening of a specific type of conifer seed called the rimu fruit, which kakapos love to eat. When it is finally time, the males will walk (remember, they can't fly!) up to four miles (6.4 km) to get to the lekking arena. At the arena, before the females arrive, the males fight aggressively for the best locations within the arena (each location is called a court). The most dominant males get the best courts.
Each court is a bowl-shaped depression in the ground, previously dug by male kakapos. The court bowls are usually situated near large rocks, a dirt bank, or tree roots that act to amplify sound. Why? Because the male kakapos make a lot of noise to impress the females. In fact, males make a loud booming sound all night long (about 8 hours non-stop), every night for a four-month period of time! The booms can be heard up to 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) away. This is such exhausting work that the males often loose 50% of their body weight during these four months (now you see why they only do this when abundant rimu fruits are ripe). As you can imagine, this booming activity can attract non-native predators from a long distance. Darn those non-native predators!
Once a female approaches a male's court, he performs an elaborate dance to impress her. Once they mate, the female heads back to her own territory, and the male keeps right on booming, hoping to mate with as many additional females as possible.
Females don't even reach sexual maturity until about nine years of age, and they only breed once every five years, so the kakapo is one of the slowest-breeding birds. This is why conservation efforts to increase the population have been so slow.
Below is a kakapo chick.
So, the Kakapo deserves a place in the N.A.H.O.F.
(Neat Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word neat originated in the 1540s, and it meant "clean, free from dirt." Originally it came from the Latin nitidus, with the literal meaning "gleaming." In the 1570s, it took on the meaning "inclined to be tidy," and in the 1590s the meaning "in good order." In about 1800, it began to be used to describe liquor that was "straight, undiluted." Finally, starting in 1934, neat was being used to mean "very good, desirable." The slang variant "neato" appeared in the 1960s. Today, neat is often used as a whimsically outdated adjective (see the silly "neature walk" videos). How neat is that? That's pretty neat!
So, neat is another way to say awesome!
Kakapo on ground - "Kenneth' Strigops habroptilus (Kākāpō)" by TheyLookLikeUs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Kakapo held by man - Errol Nye, National Kakapo Team, DOC. email@example.comUploaded by Ppgardne at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Kakapo hiding on the ground - "Hugh' Strigops habroptilus (Kākāpō)" by TheyLookLikeUs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Kakapo chicks being fed - Department of Conservation, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Kakapo chick - "K1', Strigops habroptilus (Kākāpō)" by TheyLookLikeUs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Imagine an animal that appears to be part zebra, part giraffe, and part donkey. Your imaginary creature might look something like an okapi. In fact, the okapi is sometimes called the zebra giraffe. In spite of its large size and distinct appearance, the okapi was not announced and described by western scientists until early in the 20th century. Why? Because they are reclusive and live only in the lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (in central Africa).
What the heck is an Okapi?
The okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee) is not closely related to zebras. If you look at an okapi's head, you'll see that the general structure is similar to the head of a giraffe. In fact, okapis are the only living close relative of giraffes (in the family Giraffidae). In addition to the name zebra giraffe, it is also called the forest giraffe.
The okapi is an artiodactyl mammal (an ungulate that stands on two of its toes). They weigh from 440 to 770 pounds (200 to 350 kg) and stand about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at the shoulder. Unfortunately, they are endangered, and their numbers have been reduced by half in the last 15 years.
Below you can see the resemblance between an okapi's head and a giraffe's head.
Amazing Facts about the Okapi
Did you notice the okapi in the first photo above does not have horns, but the one in the second photo does? That's because the first one is a female and the second is a male. Giraffes have these also. These short little horns are actually called ossicones. The weird thing is, only male okapis have ossicones, but both female and male giraffes have ossicones! Hmmm. What's up with that?
Have you ever watched a giraffe walk? Okapis and giraffes have a strange gait called a pacing gait--they step with both of the legs on one side of the body at the same time. So, they step forward with both the right legs, then step with both the left legs. All other ungulates walk by stepping forward with alternate legs on either side of the body. I know... it's hard to picture, isn't it? Check out this video of a giraffe's pacing gait.
Like giraffes, okapis have ridiculously long tongues. An okapi's tongue is 18 inches (46 cm) long! These creatures feed on understory plants in the forest, and this long tongue helps them select and pull off their favorite types of leaves. Also, the tongue is so long that they can use it to clean their eyes and even their ears. Below is an okapi grooming itself with its tongue.
The okapi keeps this long tongue busy by eating all day. In fact, they eat up to 60 pounds (27 kg) of plant material every day. They must not be too picky, because they have been observed eating over 100 different types of plants, some of which are poisonous to humans and other animals. They eat clay from the riverbeds to replenish salt and minerals. They also eat charred wood from trees that have been struck by lightning (again, probably to get minerals). And, as if that weren't strange enough, okapis even snarf up bat excrement. Yummy.
Check out this video about Okapis
Okapis live most of their lives alone, although occasionally they will gather in groups to eat, to groom each other, and to play.
What about those weird, zebra-like stripes on their legs and rump? These may help camouflage the okapi in its forest habitat (leopards are a natural predator of okapis). My favorite explanation, though, is that these are the okapi's "follow-me stripes." Some people believe the stripes help baby okapis see and follow the adults through the dense forest. Hmm... these seem to me to be contradictory explanations—one says the stripes hide the okapi, one says the stripes make the okapi more visible. Which do you think it is?
Okapis typically give birth to only one calf per breeding season. The calves are vulnerable to predation, so it helps that they can get up on their feet and start walking around within 30 minutes after being born. Here's an even more fascinating way the young avoid predators: okapi calves cannot poop until they are a month old. Why? This eliminates the possibility of the smell of young okapi feces attracting predators. At this moment, I'm trying not to visualize an okapi calf pooping after holding it in for a month.
Mother okapis communicate with their calves by making infrasonic sounds, which humans and some other animals can't hear. What is an infrasonic sound, you ask? Well, you've heard of ultrasonic sounds. Those are high-frequency sounds (frequencies above 20kHz). Infrasonic sounds have frequencies below 20Hz. So, ultrasonic is too high for humans to hear, infrasonic is too low for us to hear.
Guess what... leopards cannot hear infrasonic sounds either. Cool, huh?
So, the Okapi deserves a place in the K.A.H.O.F.
(Knockout Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word knockout, originated in 1887, and it was used in reference to boxing, meaning "to stun by a blow for a 10-count." In 1892, people decided to expand the use of the word to also describe an "excellent thing or person." It wasn't until 1953 that it became a common way to describe a beautiful woman. Interestingly, starting in 1936, knock yourself out became a way to tell someone to "make a great effort."
Anyway, because knockout is used to describe someone or something as "excellent," it is another way to say awesome!
Black and rufous elephant shrew - DepositPhotos
Dog noses - DepositPhotos
Freddy Mercury and cat - AllThatsInteresting
Crow on the street with walnut - CrowBehavior
Okapi on white background - DepositPhotos
Okapi head closeup - DepositPhotos
Giraffe head closeup - DepositPhotos
Okapi tongue - kaelin, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Okapi from behind, with forest as background - DepositPhotos
Okapi with calf - Columbus Zoo
Missouri has several big rivers flowing through it, including the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, as well as several large reservoirs. Big rivers (and therefore big reservoirs connected to those rivers) are home to some fairly large species of fish that grow to over 100 pounds (45 kg). In my opinion, one of the strangest of these fish is the paddlefish.
What the heck is a Paddlefish?
Paddlefish are unusual in that they are Chondrostean fish. This means they are mostly cartilaginous (cartilage skeleton instead of bone), but still they have a small amount of bony tissue. You may know that the true cartilaginous fish include sharks, rays, and skates, whereas bony fish include most of the other fish we are familiar with. The paddlefish lies somewhere between. Paddlefish have smooth skin, without scales.
Paddlefish are considered primitive fish, which means they have not changed significantly for a long time. In fact, they have not changed much at all from the earliest known paddlefish fossils, which are 120 to 125 million years old.
Only one living species remains, the American paddlefish, and it lives in the Mississippi River basin of North America. There was another species until recently, the Chinese paddlefish, but unfortunately that species was declared extinct in 2019. The two images below show what the Chinese paddlefish looked like.
Amazing Facts about the Paddlefish
Perhaps the paddlefish's most impressive feature is that long, spatula-like bill, which is called a rostrum. In fact, another name for paddlefish is spoonbill. So, what the heck is that bill for?
First, it's important to understand that paddlefish are plankton eaters. They feed almost entirely on zooplankton (tiny animals suspended in the water). For many years, scientists suggested that the paddlefish used its long bill to swish back and forth in the mud at the river's bottom to stir up a bunch of plankton. It was also suggested that it was somehow used to navigate through the muddy water. However, research with electron microscopes in the 1990s revealed that the rostrum is covered with tens of thousands of tiny electroreceptors. These receptors are so sensitive that they can detect the smallest movement of zooplankton in the water. They can even detect the movement of a single leg of some of the smallest (almost-microscopic) swimming arthropods (such as a water flea).
Amazingly, these electroreceptors are so sensitive that they can detect signals of less than 1/100th of one 1-millionth volt per centimeter. This is literally a superpower.
So, that paddle-like bill tells the paddlefish when it is swimming through a cloud of zooplanton. The paddlefish will then open its mouth as it swims forward, and thousands of tiny animals get filtered from the water by thin filters on the gills called gill rakers.
One more interesting tidbit about this impressive rostrum. When metal objects are placed in a paddlefish's swim path, they easily avoid them, even in the dark. However, when plastic objects are placed in their path, they collide with them. Hmm... so, the rostrum helps paddlefish navigate some of the time but not all the time. It seems to me the research would be more meaningful by studying the fish's ability to avoid natural objects like rocks, but I couldn't find that data anywhere.
Check out this video about paddlefish.
Fun fact: In 1997 Missouri designated the paddlefish as the state’s official aquatic animal.
The paddlefish has a third eye on top of its head. This third eye does not see images, but it detects changes in light level, which helps the fish know when it is day and night.
Many states in the US, including Missouri, have initiated paddlefish breeding and stocking programs. Tens of thousands of young paddlefish are released in rivers and reservoirs each year. Part of the reason for this is that many of the rivers in the Mississippi River basin have been dammed in efforts to control severe flooding, to generate electricity, and to provide recreational reservoirs. These dams prevent paddlefish from spawning on most of these rivers, and therefore the only new paddlefish in these rivers are the fingerlings that are stocked annually.
Young paddlefish are not strong swimmers, therefore they grow fast their first year, which reduces the chance of being eaten by predators. By the end of their first year, young paddlefish are about 12 inches (30 cm) long. After that, their growth slows down. By the time they are 5 years old, they grow only about 2 inches (5 cm) per year. They can live up to 30 years, eventually weighing over 100 pounds (45 kg).
To give you an idea of their size, below is a photo of the world record paddlefish caught in Oklahoma (it was released after weighing). The fish weighed 146.7 pounds (66.5 kg). NOTE: Fishing for paddlefish is strictly regulated, with limits and a brief season, in order to avoid overfishing. Most of the fish caught are those that were stocked by state wildlife agencies during the past decades. Fishing is only allowed in those waters where paddlefish are abundant.
So, the Paddlefish deserves a place in the P.A.H.O.F.
(Prizewinning Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word prize, with the meaning of "that which is obtained or offered as the reward of exertion or contest," originated in the 1300s. The Middle English word at that time was prise. The spelling with a "z" (prize) originated in the 1500s. The noun prizewinner didn't appear until about 1890, with the meaning "a person or thing that wins a prize or is deserving of a prize." Eventually, the adjective prizewinning became a common word to describe anything that is spectacular. Example: Stan writes prizewinning novels.
So, prizewinning is another way to say awesome!
Paddlefish #1, on green water background - Caviar Star
Paddlefish on white background - DepositPhotos
Chinese paddlefish photo - Wei Qiwei, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese paddlefish illustration - Wikimedia Commons
Paddlefish feeding with mouth open - Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Department of the Interior., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fingerling paddlefish at hatchery - USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
World record paddlefish - Jason Schooley/ODWC via Wate.com
I recently saw a photo of a gerenuk, and I thought, What the hootenanny is that thing?! It looks like an antelope or gazelle, but with a really small head, long neck, long legs, and the ability to stand upright like a human.
I love discovering fascinating creatures I previously knew nothing about, so I did a bit of research. Behold, the magnificent gerenuk:
What the heck is a Gerenuk?
First of all, the name gerenuk means “giraffe-necked” in Somali. In fact, this creature is often called the giraffe gazelle (a gazelle is a slender type of antelope).
Gerenuk antelopes are relatively small, about 3 feet (0.91 m) tall while standing on all four feet, and weighing between 62 to 115 pounds (28 to 52 kg). They live in the arid areas near the Horn of Africa (on the east side of Africa). The gerenuk is one of the most desert-adapted antelopes, surviving for long periods of time without water.
Amazing Facts about Gerenuk
Perhaps the most striking thing about these gerenuk antelopes is that they are built for reaching high to eat the softer leaves that are far above the ground. The neck is extremely long, topped by an almost comically-small head.
Why such a small head? With this animal, it's all about reaching high and nibbling on soft, yummy leaves. None of that grazing on the ground business! If you want to hold something up high, it's easier if the object is smaller and lighter, right? Hence the long, thin neck and the tiny head. And the gerenuk's snout is tapered into a small, pointed mouth—ideal for nibbling on tiny leaves that are located between nasty thorns. This antelope exemplifies elegance and grace, don't you think?
Standing straight up like that requires strong hind legs, and you can certainly see the legs' strength in the first photo above. In addition, the gerenuk has wedge-shaped hooves and specially-adapted vertebrae to help it stand erect. They are able to reach tender leaves, flowers, and fruits that many other animals can't. Because these choice foods contain a reasonable amount moisture, gerenuks rarely or never have to drink water.
Check out this video about gerenuks.
Gerenuks are what we call sexually dimorphic. That means the males and females look significantly different and are easy to distinguish. The males have horns and thicker necks, whereas the females never have horns, and their necks are amazingly slender. Here's a male gerenuk:
Gerenuks are not as social as most other antelopes. They are often observed living alone, or in herds of only two to six individuals.
Gerenuks can mate throughout the year, and when a male is in the mood, he becomes much less antisocial. He will seek out a suitable female, then stand in a sideways pose, showing off his horns. If the female indicates she is amply impressed, the male will "mark" her as his by rubbing a secretion from glands near his eyes onto her thighs. Once he has marked her, he will guard her from other males, following her around until she is ready to mate.
How does the male know the female is ready to mate? By sampling her urine. This is known as the lip curl test. When the female is ready to mate, the chemistry of her urine will change, and it will pass the male's lip curl test.
After a gestation period of six to seven months, females typically give birth to a single young. The mothers clean up their babies immediately, consuming the afterbirth to eliminate traces that might attract predators. Baby gerenuks are up and walking around only minutes after birth.
So, the Gerenuk deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bragworthy Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word brag can actually be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. The noun form means "a pompous or boastful statement." The verb means "to talk boastfully." The adjective means "first-rate" (as in, "Stan's novels are not only brag, they are the braggest"). The verb form of brag originated in the late 1300s and meant "to make a loud sound" or "to talk boastfully." It's unclear when the adjective bragworthy originated, but there is no doubt that it means "worth bragging about."
So, bragworthy is another way to say awesome!
It's an animal... it's a plant... it's a plantimal!
There are some organisms that blur the lines between kingdoms, especially when you look at organisms in the protist, fungi, and bacteria kingdoms. Such blurred lines involving animals are less common, however, and people find them particularly fascinating.
(Thanks to Linda Torres, a former student of mine, for suggesting this awesome animal.)
I thought it would be fun to take a look at one awesome example, the green sea slug (Elysia chlorotica). This creature has been referred to as a "solar-powered crawling leaf."
What the heck is a Green Sea Slug?
First of all, I should point out that my opening sentence above is somewhat exaggerated. The green sea slug is obviously an animal, just as all sea slugs are animals. This creature does not tempt us to create a new kingdom called plantimals (although that would be cool!).
Green sea slugs, like all slugs, are mollusks (in the phylum Mollusca, along with snails, clams, octopuses, squid, and many others). To narrow it down, green sea slugs are in a group called the sap-sucking sea slugs. They're called sap-sucking because they suck up the cellular contents of photosynthetic algae then use these cellular contents for themselves. Some of them simply digest the cellular contents for food, but others (like the green sea slug) save the living chloroplasts from the algae to use in their own bodies for photosynthesis. This is a rare process known as kleptoplasty (klepto means thief, plasty refers to the stolen chloroplasts).
By the way, chloroplasts are the organelles within a plant or algae cell that conduct photosynthesis.
Green sea slugs live along the east coast of North America, particularly in shallow salt marshes and tidal pools, where there is plenty of available sunlight.
Amazing Facts about Green Sea Slugs
If you haven't already guessed, these sea slugs are bright green due to the presence of the stolen chloroplasts, which become distributed throughout the slug's body. Unlike snails, slugs do not have protective shells, so the green color also helps to camouflage these slugs, hiding them from predators.
I need to point out an important distinction. A number of different animals (such as corals) keep live algae inside their bodies so that they can benefit from the algae's ongoing photosynthesis. This could be considered a mutualistic relationship between the animal (coral) and the algae, because they both benefit from the convenient arrangement. The green sea slug, on the other hand, breaks down the cells of the algae, and it extracts the algae's chloroplasts and actually uses them within its own cells. Big difference, right? This is not mutualism at all, because the algae obviously does not benefit from being destroyed and eaten.
Researchers have found that once a young green sea slug eats its fill of algae for the first time in its life, it never has to eat again, as long as it has access to sunlight. From that point on, the ingested chloroplasts provide it with the food it needs.
Just for fun, let's extrapolate this lifestyle to consider what it might be like if humans could do this. In this scenario, after you're born you feed on your mother's breast milk until you're old enough to gobble up a bowl full of live algae. Soon after, your skin turns green. From then on, you never have to eat again, although you would have to stay out in the sunlight a good portion of each day, during which you would have to strip down to your birthday suit because clothing would block the sun and prevent photosynthesis.
Okay, that's just downright silly. But wouldn't it be awesome?
Wait, there's more to the green sea slug's strange photosynthetic ability. In 2007 scientists discovered that there are genes in green sea slugs that are associated with photosynthesis. These genes are supposedly from the algae eaten by the slugs, but the genes even show up in young slugs that have never eaten algae. Subsequent research revealed even more algae genes in the slugs, some of which are known to play a role in manufacturing chlorophyll. To make a long story short, the research is starting to show that green sea slugs might be capable not only of using the chloroplasts from the algae they eat, they may also be capable of manufacturing their OWN chlorophyll (using the genes they stole from the algae).
If so, this makes green sea slugs the only animal known to be capable of making chlorophyll!
Here is a video that explain this a bit more.
And here's a video showing a green sea slug's movements.
Here's a green sea slug with its leaf-like sides rolled up (they do not need to be extended when there is little or no sunlight available).
So far I've been writing this as if Elysia chlorotica is the only species of sea slug with these photosynthetic abilities. However, the sap-sucking sea slug group includes several similar species. For example, the species Elysia timida is also known to eat algae and put the ingested chloroplasts to work photosynthesizing in its own body:
So, the Green Sea Slug deserves a place in the A.A.H.O.F.
(Astonishing Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word astonishing, an adjective meaning "causing a feeling of great surprise or wonder," originated in about 1620. As I'm sure you can guess, it is derived from the word astonish, which originated in about 1520 and which literally meant, "to leave someone thunderstruck." Later, the related word astonishment originated in about 1570, with the meaning "paralysis." So, you can see that the early words related to astonishing focused on the dramatic, overwhelming, and possibly even detrimental effects on someone after witnessing or learning something shocking. Later on, astonishing came to be used in a more general sense to describe anything that was unusually remarkable.
So, astonishing is another way to say awesome!
Two green sea slugs on white background - PlantPhysiol.org
Green sea slug feeding on algae, with brown background - Karen N. Pelletreau et al., CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Green sea slug with sides curled up - Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Elysia timidia - Elysia_timida_(Risso,_1818)_.jpg: Parent Géryderivative work: Channer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When I was a kid, I assumed flying squirrels actually looked like this:
Yep, that's Rocky of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Then, when I was about twelve, a friend of mine somehow ordered a pair of live flying squirrels in the mail (back in those days you could order almost any kind of wild animal... fortunately we now have regulations to limit this). He kept them in a cage in his bedroom, and sometimes we would get them out and let them run and jump around in the room. I was fascinated by the way they could spread their arms and legs and glide through the air. By the way... they were not very suitable as pets!
What the heck is a Flying Squirrel?
Flying squirrels are actual squirrels, which means they are rodents. Although here in North America we only have three species of flying squirrels, there are about fifty species worldwide, particularly in China and Southeast Asia. As you probably know, flying squirrels cannot actually fly the way birds and bats fly. Instead, they can glide from tree to tree on the thin flaps of skin between their forelegs and hind legs. They can precisely control their gliding direction and speed by moving their legs and tail. Notice the loose folds of skin on the southern flying squirrel below (this is the type that lives in the forest around our home in Missouri):
It is worth pointing out that sugar gliders are not flying squirrels. I mention this because many of you may have seen sugar gliders for sale in pet stores. Sugar gliders are actually a type of possum, which means they are marsupials. So, they are not closely related to squirrels at all. However, sugar gliders can glide just like flying squirrels, so this is a fascinating example of convergent evolution (when living things that are not closely related develop similar characteristics because they have adapted to the same kinds of environments). Below is a sugar glider:
Amazing Facts about Flying Squirrels
So, how exactly do these rodents glide? Flying squirrels have a thin flap of skin that stretches out along the sides of their body between their ankles and wrists. This flap is called the patagium. When they spread out their arms and legs, the patagium basically becomes a parachute.
Although flying squirrels are much like other squirrels in most ways, they have a few adaptations to enhance their gliding ability. For example, their leg and arm bones are longer, while their hand and foot bones are shorter. The longer limb bones allows them to create a larger parachute, while the shorter hand and foot bones allow them to better control the parachute. Check out the skeletal structure below.
Flying squirrels have a surprising amount of control over their gliding flight. In fact, they can even create lift by changing the angle of their limbs. Astoundingly, flying squirrels have been observed gliding up to 300 feet (90 meters)!
Notice the finger-like projection sticking out from each of the hands? This is an unusual piece of cartilage that the squirrel can hold vertically, thus providing stability and controlling the direction of flight. No other squirrels have this cartilage projection—only the flying squirrels.
Numerous hypotheses have been suggested to explain the evolution of gliding in flying squirrels. In my opinion, the most reasonable hypothesis is that this adaptation arose because it allows these squirrels to move from tree to tree without expending much energy. Gliding from one tree to another uses much less energy than descending to the ground and then climbing up another tree (not to mention that being on the ground makes the squirrel more vulnerable to predators). So... why don't all squirrels have this ability? That's a good question.
Check out this cool video about how they fly.
Most flying squirrel species are nocturnal, and they are extremely shy, so humans do not often have a chance to see them. Amazingly, Trish and I have only seen one southern flying squirrel in the wild, although they are abundant in our area. Spotting this creature took some effort. We had been hearing the creatures running around on our roof during the night, so we decided to sit out on the deck one night to see if we could spot one. We could hear these strange, high-pitched calls in a tree near us, so I switched on a spotlight. We saw the glow of the flying squirrel's eyes as it stared back at us. We have never seen one during daylight hours.
This is what it looked like:
Amazingly, scientists have recently (and by accident) discovered that all three of the North American species of flying squirrels glow PINK under a UV light! No one really knows why, although scientists have hypothesized that it might be related to avoiding predators, or to communication between squirrels, or possibly to help them navigate while gliding. Here's a video about this flying squirrel superpower.
Flying squirrels are omnivores and eat a surprising variety of different foods. They have been known to eat fruits, seeds, flowers, buds, snails, insects, fungi, lichens, bird's eggs, spiders, and even tree sap.
Finally, flying squirrels come in a wide variety of sizes. The three species found in North America are all about the size of the palm of your hand, but the woolly flying squirrel, which lives in Pakistan, is the largest species, weighing 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg). The smallest species, the Hose's pygmy flying squirrel of Borneo, weighs only 2.5 ounces (70 grams).
Check out this red and white giant flying squirrel from China!
(photo by Will Burrard-Lucas)
So, the Flying Squirrel deserves a place in the H.A.H.O.F.
(High-class Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term high-class, an adjective meaning "of superior quality or status" can be traced back to about 1833. Originally, at that time, it probably meant "of high social rank," suggesting (in a rather snobbish way) that people in higher social classes were of higher quality. Alternatively, it may have been used by people of lower socioeconomic classes to (perhaps derisively) describe someone or something as "very fancy, wealthy, or expensive." Regardless, it has come to be used widely as a more general term (a high-class hotel, a high-class jeweler, a high-class author).
So, high-class is another way to say awesome!
Rocky the flying squirrel - Wikimedia Commons
Flying squirrel on a tree, photo #1 - DepositPhotos
Sugar glider - DepositPhotos
Flying squirrel skeleton - Bj.schoenmakers, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Flying squirrel gliding through room - Bluedustmite at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Flying squirrel with glowing eyes - PJTurgeon, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Red and White giant flying squirrel - Will Burrard-Lucas
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.