The purpose of this blog is simple. My name is Thomas Knight and I am a zoo keeper. Since I have worked as a zoo keeper at several zoos, I obviously love animals. I love plants as well, as it happens. And fungi. And other forms of life as well. Viruses too, even though nobody is quite sure if they qualify as life forms. So each day I will pick some species of living thing that I think is really cool (and not necessarily just organisms that I worked with as a zoo keeper) and I will tell you why. Maybe it's because it has an amazing life history. Maybe it's because I think its nose looks funny. Who knows (well, you will after you read my post, I suppose)? One or two things about it and then you can move on and get on with your day. If you're looking for deep thoughts you've come to the wrong place (if you're looking for conservation, you may instead be looking for this place.) On the other hand, if you're looking for cool organisms, you may just have found the mothership.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bulbophyllum nocturnum

Bulbophyllum nocturnum by Jaap Vermeulen

Bulbophyllum nocturnum is a species of orchid found on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea.  Several things are cool about it.  First, it is beautiful in a quirky way (kind of an 'orchids meet Aliens').  Second, it is the only known night-blooming orchid in the world.  Third, it was only discovered in 2008 and described in 2011.  Finally, it is only known from one single specimen.  As a result, it is thought to be in danger of going extinct as a result of logging activities in the area.  It makes you wonder how many other species are out there that go extinct before we can discover them.
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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Steelblue Ladybird Beetle

Steelblue Ladybird Halmus chalybeus feeding on an egg of a Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus by DGedye
Steelblue Ladybird Halmus chalybeus feeding on an egg of a Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus by DGedye
The Steelblue Ladybird Halmus chalybeus is an Australian beetle that has since been introduced into New Zealand and Hawaii.  Like other ladybird beetles it is carnivorous and eats other invertebrates.  I am adding it today because I have always thought it was one of the most beautiful insects I have ever seen- that's all.  I've got nothing else, but isn't that enough?  I think so, so the next few days will purely be animals that I think are stunningly gorgeous.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus by Randy
Male Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus by Randy
The Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus is one of the most well known butterflies in North America (and has recently moved to other parts of the world).  It is not as common as most people think however, because it has a dopplegänger: the Viceroy Butterfly Limenitis archippus.  Both species look extremely similar (although if you look closely you will notice that the Viceroy Butterfly has a straight line near the bottom of the interior wings that the Monarch Butterfly doesn't have) as a result of Müllerian mimicry.  Both species are toxic to eat (depending upon the plant the caterpillar ate from, but most are toxic because their favored food plants are toxic), so by looking similar to each other potential predators of both will learn not to eat either one after tasting only one individual of either of the two species.  The coolest thing about Monarch Butterflies in not how similar they look to another species however- the coolest thing about the Monarch Butterflies is their incredible annual migration.  In the fall the newest generation of Monarch Butterflies make a mass migration from all around the United States and Canada to arrive in Mexico and California where they stay for the winter.  Huge numbers of Monarch Butterflies are then to be found in the Mexican overwintering areas.  In the spring, the female Monarchs (the males die after breeding with the females) that have spent the winter in Mexico and California fly across the continent to lay eggs throughout the United States and Canada.  As a result of this mass migration, Monarch Butterflies are able to survive the winter even though they often breed in areas that freeze.

An interesting historical side note about Monarch Butterflies is an example of the law of unintended consequences.  Monarch Butterflies were originally found only in North America, but they are currently found in several other countries around the globe.  This is as a result of early sailing ships- sailors used to line their pillows with cheap, soft material wherever they could find it and would replace it as they were able.  One of their favorite sources of pillow lining is the soft seed pods of the Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), which also just happens to be the favored food plant of the Monarch Butterfly.  As a result, every time the sailors reached a new island and dumped out their old pillow contents to replace it with new pillow stuffing, they were planting milkweed plants in a new environment.  Over time, Milkweeds became more common in some of those lands (if the environment was suitable for the plant).  The next stage involves storms- occasionally a storm will blow butterflies out to sea.  Most die at sea, but some go vast distances and if they reach a land mass with the right environment and the right food plants, they can survive and become established.  After sailors obligingly planted Milkweeds around the world, the Monarch Butterflies that were blown to places like New Zealand and Australia were able to become established for the first time in these new countries.  Monarch Butterflies can thank the stuffing of sailors' pillows for their spread across the oceans!

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Blue Star

Blue Star (Sea Star, Starfish) Linckia laevigata in Papua New Guinea by Mila Zinkova
Blue Star Linckia laevigata by Mila Zinkova
The Blue Star Linckia laevigata is a type of sea star (starfish) that lives in the Indo-Pacific ocean at shallow depths.  Although most are the beautiful bright blue of the individual in the photo, other individuals also come in aqua, green, pink, orange, yellow, or purple color phases as well.  Little is known about this sea star, primarily because they are nocturnal.  One really cool thing that we do know however is that they have an amazing ability to survive and recover from injuries.  If a leg is detached, that leg will grow into a whole new Blue Star. while the rest of the Blue Star will grow back a new leg to replace the missing leg!

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

California Black Sea Hare

California Black Sea Hare Aplysia vaccaria in a tidepool at San Pedro with yellow egg sac by Bibliomaniac15
California Black Sea Hare Aplysia vaccaria with yellow egg sac by Bibliomaniac15
The California Black Sea Hare Aplysia vaccaria is not just a gastropod, it is also the largest gastropod on Earth, weighing in at up to 99 cm (39 inches) long and nearly 14 kg (31 pounds).  When it is threatened by a predator, it squirts ink at its attacker that makes it difficult to see and which also dulls the predator's smell receptors, thereby taking two of the predator's senses out of action.  Probably a good strategy for an animal that looks like a gigantic black pudding.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
The Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula is the last of the three diving ducks that I am covering this week.  The Tufted Duck is found in Europe, Asia, and Africa, depending on the season, so much of its range overlaps the range of the Greater Scaup Aythya marila (much as the Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis overlaps with the range of the Greater Scaup in North America).  The Tufted Duck shares a similar diet with both the Greater Scaup and the Lesser Scaup.  Like the Lesser Scaup the Tufted Duck prefers freshwater habitats in the winter while the Greater Scaup prefers saltwater habitats.  The Tufted Duck is essentially filling the same niche in Europe, Asia, and Africa that the Lesser Scaup fills in North America.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis at the Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria Virginia by SherseyDC
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis by SherseyDC
The Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis is the second of the three diving ducks that I am going to profile this week.  Lesser Scaup live in North & Central America, from northern Canada and Alaska down into southern Mexico depending on the season.  The Lesser Scaup looks very similar to the Greater Scaup Aythya marila, to the point that the two species can be very difficult to tell apart unless you are quite experienced at it.  The most obvious physical differences are the iridescent purple head of the Lesser Scaup (versus the iridescent green of the Greater Scaup, although neither look iridescent or colored unless the light reflects off of them at just the right angle) and the shape of their heads (or size, if you have both species together to contrast their differences).  Like the Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup feed primarily on mussels, clams, snails, and other shellfish during the winter and primarily on invertebrate larvae and plant material during the summer.  Lesser Scaup breed in freshwater and brackish water systems, and like the Greater Scaup they they aggregate into flocks during the nonbreeding season, although often the size of the flocks of Lesser Scaup are smaller.  Unlike the Greater Scaup however, Lesser Scaup utilize a different habitat during the winter.  Whereas the Greater Scaup primarily utilize coastal saltwater habitats, Lesser Scaup prefer freshwater or brackish water habitats during the winter, rarely extending out to pure seawater unless the freshwater sources have all frozen over.  This provides for a habitat partitioning between the two species, with Greater Scaup presumably better adapted to foraging in higher saline environments while Lesser Scaup would be better adapted to foraging in less saline environments.  Both species live in the same geographic range but exploit subtly different habitats within that range- very cool.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Greater Scaup

Male Greater Scaup Aythya marila at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California by Calibas
Greater Scaup Aythya marila by Calibas
Over the next three days I am going to be highlighting three very closely related diving ducks, the Greater Scaup Aythya marila, Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis, and Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula, and will look at what makes them different, because I think that their differences and the evolution of the birds into three different species is really cool.  All three look very similar (to the point that even experienced birdwatchers can have problems telling Greater and Lesser Scaup apart unless their view of the bird is optimal) but have become different species for different reasons.

The Greater Scaup is found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.  It feeds primarily on shellfish in the winter, things like clams, mussels, and snails, while in the summer it feeds on a mix of invertebrates of all kinds and plant matter, much of it also obtained by diving into shallow (usually 2 meters or 6.5 feet deep, but up to ~6 meters or 19.5 feet deep regularly) water.  Males have beautiful iridescent green heads, although they can only be seen as iridescent and green if the light is hitting them just the right way (as is often the case with iridescence).  During the breeding season they will nest near freshwater lakes or rivers in the northern tundra.  In the nonbreeding season they will form huge flocks, often composed of thousands of individuals, and they move southward to the ocean for the winter, spending their time primarily along the coast in shallow waters but also spending some time in freshwater lakes.  The females in the following video can be identified by their brown coloration and the large white patch at the base of their bill.
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dasypeltis scabra

Dasypeltis scabra by Wildfeuer
Dasypeltis scabra by Wildfeuer
Dasypeltis scabra is a species of snake found in Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, and Tanzania, primarily in savanna habitats.  This snake is a bit unusual in that it has either no teeth or extremely reduced teeth.  The reason that Dasypeltis scabra has abandoned teeth is that it does not need them and they only get in its way.  Dasypeltis scabra has evolved into an egg eating specialist snake.  It has the ability to extend its jaws extremely widely to accommodate large eggs and large teeth would just get in the way of swallowing these big eggs.  Snake's teeth are not adapted to crushing eggshells, so Dasypeltis scabra's teeth were serving no real purpose.  Instead, the snake has a section of its vertebral column with spines that protrude downward towards its stomach.  When Dasypeltis scabra swallows an egg, it uses these downward-facing spines like a can opener (well, an egg opener) to break through the egg shell and get to the egg inside.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Drosophila silvestris

Drosophila silvestris is one of the Hawaiian fruit flies.  Hawaii has been a hotbed of evolutionary action with certain groups like the honeycreepers and the fruit flies- over 500 species of fruit flies have evolved in Hawaii!  There is a large amount of variation, both physically and behaviorally, between different species of fruit flies in Hawaii, and they tend to be more colorful and more beautifully marked than the fruit flies that most people are used to seeing, earning many of them the name of picture winged flies.  Drosophila silvestris is one of the many lekking species of fruit flies in Hawaii, with the males aggregating in groups of up to ~10 on a tree fern frond, dancing with their wings going up and down in their fruit fly flamenco while they sing for all they are worth at the females, hoping to impress them with their superior style.  They start courting when only ~2 weeks old, and interestingly, they need to learn their dance moves.  When individuals were raised in a laboratory, their dances were substantially different from the dances of wild males.  We tend to discount the importance of learning behaviors in teeny tiny little invertebrates and assume that learning is more important in vertebrates and instinct is more important for invertebrates, so it just goes to show you that you can never be too smug.  Fruit flies need school too.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Pseudoceros ferrugineus

marine flatworm Pseudoceros ferrugineus
Pseudoceros ferrugineus is a species of marine flatworm (flatworms are in the phylum Platyhelminthes).  Pseudoceros ferrugineus live on the ocean floor in the tropical Pacific and get around by gliding along the bottom (or if in a rush, they undulate their edges, propelling them through the water).  I include Pseudoceros ferrugineus today to demonstrate that worms can be astonishingly beautiful and have a surprising number of different body forms.  This is no earthworm.

Very short (several seconds) clip of two Pseudoceros furrugineus mating, but beautiful footage.
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Sunday, November 27, 2011


North Island Kōkako Callaeas cinereus by Matt Binns
Kōkako Callaeas cinereus by Matt Binns
The Kōkako Callaeas cinereus from New Zealand is one of only three species in the family Callaeidae, the New Zealand wattlebirds, only two of which are currently still alive (both the Kōkako and the Saddleback Philesturnus carunculatus are endangered, and the South Island subspecies of Kōkako has gone extinct along with the Huia Heteralocha acutirostris).  The family gets its name from the beautiful wattles on their face which you can see so clearly in the photo.  The Kōkako, like so many other New Zealand birds, appears to be in the middle of an evolutionary trend heading towards flightlessness (although that trend will probably be reversed now that so many mammalian predators have been introduced to the islands by humans)- the Kōkako has short wings that it uses for gliding more than for extensive flight, and has long legs that it uses to run, leap, and climb trees with.  Perhaps their most remarkable attribute is their voice.  The Kōkako has one of the most beautiful, haunting songs of any animal on Earth.  The first video includes some of their song and should definitely be heard.  It is simply stunning.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Giant Redheaded Centipede

Giant Redheaded Centipede Scolopendra heros
I am including the Giant Redheaded Centipede Scolopendra heros from the United States and Mexico for one reason- it is beautiful.  The reason the Red-headed Centipede is so beautifully marked is because it is venomous, so the bright, strongly contrasting colors warn away animals thinking about having it for dinner.  Unlike millipedes which may be poisonous to eat but are gentle herbivores, centipedes like the Red-headed Centipede are carnivorous and use the venom in their mouthparts to kill their prey as well as for defense.  If you're concerned about whether you are looking at a centipede or a millipede, don't try to tell by counting their legs- different species of both millipedes and centipedes have wildly varying numbers of legs.  Millipedes always have 2 pairs of legs per body segment however, while centipedes only have 1 pair of legs per body segment.  Makes it much easier than counting all those legs and is much more accurate.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Metepeira incrassata

Metepeira incrassata colonial orb weaving spider by George Uetz of the University of Cincinnati
Metepeira incrassata by George Uetz of the University of Cincinnati
Metepeira incrassata is an orb weaving spider found from Mexico through to California and Oregon in the United States of America.  Unlike most spiders, Metepeira incrassata is highly social.  And when I say it is highly social I mean it- although a colony may consist of only a handful of individuals their colonies have also been known to include as many as 165,000 individuals.  Studies have shown that larger colonies reduce the success rates of wasps that try to parasitize Metepeira incrassata, which would be an excellent reason for the extreme sizes of some of the colonies.  Within the colony there is no breeding season, with reproduction occurring continuously- the new spider babies just add to the size of the ever-increasing colony.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wild Turkey

Group of male Eastern Wild Turkeys Meleagris gallopavo silvestris in Avery County, North Carolina, United States of America
Given that it is Thanksgiving in the United States, today's organism is the Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo.  Two quick facts before you get back to your dinner, one about the animal and one about our relationship with them.  Like some other animals previously highlighted here, Wild Turkeys are lek breeders, but their lekking is a bit different.  Some of the lekking turkey males form groups of 2-4 close relatives of similar ages.  Only the dominant male breeds with the females, but the other 1-3 birds help him by displaying and chasing off other males.  Studies have shown that males with helpers have higher breeding success than solitary males, and the helpers are passing on some of their genes even though they are not breeding because they are close relatives to the breeding male, so they share a large percentage of their genes.  It's a very cool system.

If you're like me you have wondered why the Turkey is called a Turkey since it comes from North America, which is nowhere near Turkey on the map.  The name came about as a result of several layers of confusion.  In the 1500's, when much of the trade around the world flowed through Constantinople/Ístanbul in Turkey, a new delicacy in the form of guineafowl were being imported from Africa to Europe through Turkey.  As a result, many Europeans were under the erroneous impression that the birds originated from Turkey and called them turkey fowl (eventually shortened to just turkeys).  At around this same time, the Spanish introduced the North American Wild Turkey to Spain.  They thought that it looked a lot like the turkey fowls from Turkey (actually from Africa) so assumed that they must be a type of turkey fowl (they are not).  Later, when all of the mistakes had been discovered, the African birds had their names changed to guineafowl (more accurately), but the North American birds got stuck with the incorrect name (much like our buffalo and robins got stuck with the wrong names as well).
The birds in the video above are Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris, not Wild Turkeys, included so you can see the difference between them. These birds are harassing a Wildcat in Africa.  The three videos below this are of Wild Turkeys.

Watch My Life as a Turkey on PBS. See more from NATURE.
Sorry, this last video is only available in the United States. I hate including those sorts of videos, but it is too cool not to include, if only for the Americans.
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Armillaria solidipes

Fruit bodies of the honey fungus Armillaria solidipes Peck. Photographed in Wolfe Creek Education Center, Redwood National Park, Orick, California, USA by Tom Bruns
Armillaria solidipes by Tom Bruns
Armillaria solidipes is a species of Basiodiomycete (think mushrooms) fungus that parasitizes trees across the northern hemisphere.  Like most mushroom species, the bulk of the organism is not the mushroom that you occasionally see- that is only the fruiting body that springs up occasionally to release spores.  Most of the fungus is composed of hyphae (small tubes like roots) that spread out underground or under the bark of its host tree, draining nutrients from the host for its own benefit.  You might imagine that a little fungal growth that you can't even see would have little effect on a tree, but you would be wrong.  One study found that trees parasitized by Armillaria solidipes for 24 years were 42% smaller than ones that hadn't been parasitized.  That is a big difference for a little fungus, but Armillaria solidipes isn't a small fungus.  It is one of the largest organisms on earth, with one individual in Oregon at the Malheur National Forest reaching the astonishing size of 8.9 km2 (3.42 miles), possibly weighing as much as 605 tons.  This individual is estimated to be ~2,400 years old as well, making it one of the oldest organisms on the planet.  Makes you look at fungi in a whole new light.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Wildcat Felis silvestris by Schorle
If you look at the Wildcat Felis silvestris your first thought may be that it looks an awful lot like a house cat.  There is a really good reason for that.  Around 10,000 years ago humans first domesticated wheat and barley plants in the fertile crescent region.  At this time the Wildcat was widespread in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Also around this time it appears that domestic cats first appeared on the scene.  It seems likely that the cats started spending more time near human settlements as a result of the large numbers of rodents that the stores of grain would have attracted, and our early ancestors probably were happy enough to tolerate the presence of the Wildcats in return for reduced rodent predation on their crops.  It is very likely therefore that they chose to live near us because of the presence of the food sources that we bring (much like Rock Doves Columba livia or Norway Rats Rattus norvegicus are attracted to the food that we accumulate) and not because we captured them and forced domestication upon them.  Unlike the pigeons and rats however, the Wildcats were helping us to protect our food sources instead of eating them, so we did not try to chase off the Wildcats and eventually the partnership between us and the Wildcats became much closer, to the point that we have reached today where our domesticated cats live inside of our houses much of the time and are often fed most or all of their food by us.  Many people think of the history of domestication as a straightforward process, where our ancestors captured animals and forced domestication upon them, but scientific studies have been revealing more and more that things are rarely as simple as they seem with domestication.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Frilled Shark

Frilled Shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus mouth and teeth by Kimse
Frilled Shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus by Kimse
The Frilled Shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus is one of only two species (or possibly two different subspecies of one species) of shark in the family Chlamydoselachidae, an ancient family that has now faded away except for these two enigmatic and mysterious members.  The Frilled Shark grows to about 2 m (6.5 feet) in length and live fairly deep in the ocean (usually 120-1,280 m [394-4,200 feet deep] but up to 1570 m [5,150 feet] deep) so they are rarely seen even though they have a global distribution.  They are ovoviparous (eggs are retained within the female, which then hatch inside the female so the female never lays eggs) with 8-12 young.  The gestation period is not known but is thought to be very long, 1-2 years most likely.  I mostly am including this species today because of its bizarre appearance, unlike anything else.  Look at its unique teeth as well as the incredible body shape.  It looks like it should be in a science fiction movie.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chaunacops coloratus

Chaunacops coloratus
Chaunacops coloratus (formerly Chaunax coloratus) is a species of sea toad, a small family of deep ocean fishes.  Chaunacops coloratus lives between 1,250-2,000 m (4,100-6,560 feet) below the surface.  Very little is known about Chaunacops coloratus except that it walks around the ocean floor using its fins like feet and that it has a lure on its head which it uses to attract prey items close for it enough to grab and swallow them.  Frankly, I think that's enough to make it really cool- check out how peculiar it is.  Very unlike what we are used to thinking a fish should look and act like.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Arctic Fox

Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus from Kulusuk Greenland by Algkalv
Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus by Algkalv
The Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus (formerly Alopex lagopus) is another species in the dog family like the Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda but they are from very different ecosystems and have developed some extremely different adaptations.  The first noticeable difference is the size of the ears.  Whereas the Fennec Fox from the Sahara has huge ears that radiate heat out, the Arctic Fox from the Arctic regions of Asia, Europe, and North America has small, densely furred ears to hold in the precious body heat.  The Arctic Fox has fur on the soles of its feet like the Fennec Fox to protect its feet from the extreme temperatures (although in this case cold instead of hot), and has a countercurrent capillary rete (the heat of the blood approaching the foot warms the cold blood leaving the foot, so the Arctic Fox retains nearly all of its heat- see here for an picture of how this works to help you visualize it) in the soles of their feet to help prevent heat loss to the snow and ice it walks upon.  The Arctic Fox also has extremely large feet to help it to move easily through the snow like snowshoes.  Also like the Fennec Fox, the Arctic Fox uses vasoconstriction to regulate temperature loss and stays inside of dens to protect it from the most extreme temperatures.  Unlike the Fennec Fox, the Arctic Fox is the only member of the dog family that has two different coat colors during the year- in the winter it has an extremely dense white coat that helps it to blend in with the snow and ice, and during the summer it has a thinner brown or blue-grey coat that helps it to camouflage better with its less snowy surroundings then.  Also unlike the Fennec Fox, the Arctic Fox is compact to decrease surface area for heat loss, instead of being long and thin to disperse heat more efficiently.
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Fennec Fox

Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda by Kkonstan
Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda by Kkonstan
The Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda lives in the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and is incredibly well adapted to desert existence.  The Fennec Fox is the smallest species of canid (the dog family) in the world.  The most obvious attribute of the Fennec Fox is its enormous ears, which are the largest in proportion to its body of any species of dog and which are extremely sensitive and help it to detect insects and other small animals digging below the surface of the sand.  In the high temperatures of the desert it is also an excellent way to lose excess body heat (vasoconstriction- narrowing of the blood vessels to restrict blood flow- during the colder night temperatures helps to reduce heat loss during that time of the day) as well.  And it makes people think they are really, really cute (although I doubt that had any role in their evolution).  The soles of their feet are also covered in long hairs, protecting them from the temperature of the sand and helping them to move more easily through the shifting sand.  As with most desert animals they are adapted to drinking rarely, and get most of the liquids that they require from their prey.  They have extensive burrows (up to 10 m or 33 feet long and 1 m or 3 feet deep) which they usually remain in during the day to protect them from the worst of the heat of the desert, coming out at night to hunt when it is cool.
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Thursday, November 17, 2011


Dodo Raphus cucullatus reconstruction at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History by Ballista
Dodo Raphus cucullatus reconstruction, photo by Ballista
Most people do not realize that the extinct Dodo Raphus cucullatus from Mauritius was actually a gigantic species of flightless pigeon.  Sadly, the Dodo went extinct less than a century after humans first settled on Mauritius in 1598 and very little literature about the bird exists except stories about how delicious they were.  Even skins do not exist- only a few ever made it to Europe before the Dodo went extinct, and those all were lost or decomposed to the point that today the only remains that we have left of the Dodo are bones and from one bird some patches of skin with a few feathers from the head and a few scraps of tissue remaining on some of its foot bones.  A combination of human predation as well as the pressure from the animals that we introduced to Mauritius when we arrived apparently culminated in the rapid extinction of the Dodo.  Even though we know very little about the Dodo, the Dodo has historically fascinated us as you can see from the wide array of videos attached below.  It's too bad that the Dodo went extinct, but ideally we will learn lessons from the past and work harder to ensure that we minimize the number of extinctions of other species in the future.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

European Rabbit Flea

European Rabbit Flea Spilopsyllus cuniculi
The European Rabbit Flea Spilopsyllus cuniculi is, like most of the 2,000+ species of fleas, specialized to live on one species or a few closely related species of animals- in this case rabbits.  The European Rabbit Flea has a curious reproductive strategy, however.  Adult European Rabbit Fleas do not enter reproductive condition until one of two things trigger them.  Usually they are triggered by the altered cortisol and corticosterone hormone levels in the blood of the female rabbit host- when the levels indicate that she is getting close to the time when she will give birth, the European Rabbit Fleas will slowly fire up their reproductive mechanisms.  After the rabbit gives birth, all of the adult fleas will migrate from her to her babies, where they will feed, breed, and lay their eggs on the baby rabbits.  After about 2 weeks they will migrate back to the adult rabbit again and their reproductive systems will again shut down until the next time the rabbit gives birth.  The other thing that will trigger their reproductive systems to fire up is being on a baby rabbit- in the presence of a baby rabbit the European Rabbit Flea's reproductive system starts up much more quickly than being in the presence of the female rabbit's changing hormones (which makes sense, since any European Rabbit Flea on a baby rabbit whose reproductive system isn't already running had better get it going quickly if it is going to have any chance of breeding before all the other adult fleas leave).  It's an incredibly efficient way to spread their offspring throughout the surrounding rabbit population.  Fleas may be annoying but they are certainly remarkably well adapted for what they do.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Riftia pachyptila

Riftia pachyptila deep sea vent tubeworms
Riftia pachyptila is a species of tubeworm found near deep sea hydrothermal vents, where temperatures vary wildly over very small areas and where no light reaches.  Entire ecosystems have evolved around these hydrothermal vents that are based on chemosynthesis (the chemical compounds spewing from the vents provide energy sources for the organisms in these communities) rather than photosynthesis (based on converting the light from the sun into energy, which most life on the planet is based on).  They are found at such great depths (averaging ~1500 meters, or 1 mile, below the surface) that photosynthetic systems are far away, leaving these communities mostly self-sustaining.  These communities have organisms like Riftia pachyptila at their base instead of plants.  When a drifting larval Riftia pachyptila finds a suitable patch of seafloor to settle onto (not too far from a vent and not too near- this is very important in an area where the temperatures can fluctuate by several hundred degrees within the distance of a foot or so) it attaches to the area and starts building a protective chitinous tube to live in and opens its mouth up to take in symbiotic bacteria which will help it to convert the chemicals spewing freely from the nearby hydrothermal vents into usable energy forms, storing the bacteria in a special organ called a trophosome.  As the Riftia pachyptila grows, it loses its mouth and gut entirely (which it only needed to bring initial colonies of the symbiotic bacteria into its body).  The adult tubeworm, full of colonies of symbiotic bacteria, is now ready to fully exploit its environment.  Out of its tube it extends feathery stalks which pull chemicals from the surrounding water, chemicals that for many organisms would be toxic.  Riftia pachyptila has extremely specialized hemoglobin to prevent all of the sulfides from the water from neutralizing its oxygen-carrying capacity for example (which gives it the beautiful red color as well).  The bloodstream then carries the chemicals to the bacteria, which convert the chemicals into forms which are more useful for most life forms on Earth.  The incredibly abundant energy flowing from the hydrothermal vents allows Riftia pachyptila to grow extremely quickly, at rates of 14-85 cm/year (5.5-33 inches/year) and may grow to ~3 m (8 feet) long.  This rapid growth allows a large community of other animals to survive with them, feasting off of the Riftia pachyptila and other organisms exploiting the chemical bounty from the vents.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Hydnora africana

Hydnora africana from the Karasburg District of Namibia by Lytton John Musselman, 2002
Hydnora africana by Lytton John Musselman
Hydnora africana is a species of plant found in southern Africa which has an extremely specialized life history.  Unlike most plants, Hydnora africana is almost entirely subterranean.  The only part of Hydnora africana that ever emerges through the soil surface is the top of the flower, and that usually happens only once every few years (it is a very slow-growing plant).  We tend to think of plants as needing substantial parts of their anatomy above the surface of the soil in order to use photosynthesis to turn all of those wonderful rays from the sun into sugars, but Hydnora africana is a parasite upon the roots of several Euphorbia species, drilling into the roots and stealing nutrients away from those plants for its own use so it doesn't have any need for the sun.  Hydnora africana has no leaves, and while there is some argument about it there appears to be no stems either- it looks like Hydnora africana is all root and flower (making it something of the exact opposite of the dodders).  On those rare occasions when it does flower, it pushes up the peculiarly-shaped flower from the above photo (Hydnora africana branched off from the other flowering plants very early in the history of flowering plants, so it has very different flowers as well as other parts of its anatomy and life history) which smells of dung and is open only enough to allow a beetle in, with backward-pointing hairs to keep them from escaping.  As a result, dung beetles are attracted to the flower but then get trapped inside of it.  After the beetle(s) have been trapped inside for several days, the flower opens further, releasing the beetle(s), now covered in pollen, so that they can pollinate another flower from a different Hydnora africana that they unwittingly enter (fortunately for the Hydnora africana, dung beetles are not particularly fast learners).  Hydnora africana is more generous with the beetles than with its plant host however, and provides the beetles with a nutritious tissue for them to eat during their temporary confinement, ensuring that the pollination process is not a detrimental process for the beetles.  The pollinated flower then produces a delicious fruit which is eaten by birds and mammals, who then disperse its seeds to new locations, hopefully near a host plant.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lyre-tailed Nightjar

Lyre-tailed Nightjar Uropsalis lyra male at Lower Tandayapa Valley in Ecuador by Michael Woodruff
Lyre-tailed Nightjar Uropsalis lyra male by Michael Woodruff
I am going to finish off this sexual selection nightjar trifecta with the Lyre-tailed Nightjar Uropsalis lyra.  While the Afican nightjar ladies seem to have decided that long wing feathers are the fashion of the day, in South America some of the nightjar ladies instead took things to similar extremes with the tail feathers of the males.  The Lyre-tailed Nightjar is just one of the examples of this, but is one with several videos available so it is the one I chose to feature.  Like the Standard-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis the Lyre-tailed Nightjar is a lekking species, with males showing off in groups for the females.  The extreme pressure from sexual selection is driving the excessively long tail feathers in the males of this species the same way that it drives the wing feathers of the previous two species.  It is absolutely astonishing to me to see the extremes that animals can be driven to by sexual selection.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Standard-winged Nightjar

Standard-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis by Jan Steffen
Standard-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis by Jan Steffen
Since I started with nightjars, I will go a bit further and show another amazing example of sexual selection in the nightjars.  The Standard-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis is another nightjar found in central Africa with males that sport amazing wing feathers for impressing the females.  Unlike the Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx vexillarius, where the male displays to females on his own, Standard-winged Nightjar males group together into leks where the males all show off together in display arenas and the females come to check it out.  When each female decides which of the males is the most impressive, she will mate with him.  Since most of the females will decide that a small number of those males with the most impressive wing feathers are the best, it means that the males with the most out-of-control wing feathers will father nearly all of the offspring.  That is an excellent way to drive evolution really quickly towards incredibly over the top wing feathers.
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Pennant-winged Nightjar

Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx vexillarius by Joseph Wolf from Ibis 1864
The Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx vexillarius is a secretive bird found through much of central Africa.  Like the other nightjars the Pennant-winged Nightjar is nocturnal, so there is relatively little known about its behavior.  One thing that is known about the Pennant-winged Nightjar however is that it has insanely long feathers that trail from its wings.  Since the feathers grow in before the breeding season and are broken off shortly after (with some evidence that the males themselves are damaging them to make them shorter) it is assumed that their sole purpose is for breeding, to impress the lady Pennant-winged Nightjars (the females do not have those absurdly long wing feathers).  A few observers have also seen the males lifting their wings to prominently display/vibrate the long feathers at passing females during breeding season, providing further evidence for the role of sexual selection in the length of those feathers.  It must be really hard to fly with feathers that long, especially for birds that often roost on the ground and that require efficient flight to catch flying insects in the dark of night, but the wishes of females are often a very potent force in the world of evolution (among other things).
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chrysis ignita

Chrysis ignita by Kurt Kulac
Chrysis ignita by Kurt Kulac
Chrysis ignita is a type of cuckoo wasp.  They only grow to ~12 mm long so they are quite a tiny wasp.  They do not raise their own offspring, but instead lay their eggs in the nests of solitary bees (mostly mason bees).  Their larvae hatch before the bee larvae do and the young Chrysis ignita eats the food stored away for the bee larvae as well as the larvae themselves.  They are called cuckoo wasps because they lay their eggs in the nests of other species, the same as many cuckoo species do.  Not very nice behavior for a guest, but I suppose when you are such beautiful metallic iridescent colors you sometimes feel that you can skip the social niceties.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A new, really old, unidentifiable mite

Fossil Astigmatid mite riding on the spider Dasumiana emicans by Andrew McNeil, University of Manchester
Fossil Astigmatid mite by Andrew McNeil, University of Manchester
Although this fossil can't be identified to the level of species, I am including it today because it's really cool.  This teeny tiny (76 μm long; 13 of these mites could stand end to end and they still wouldn't reach a millimeter long!) little mite was riding on the back of a spider (Dasumiana emicans) 44-49 million years ago, when a glob of sap dropped on the both of them, trapping them for eternity.  That sap became amber, and scientists recently subjected that amber to phase-contrast X-ray computed tomography, giving us an excellent 3-D image of the pair of them.  As a result, the mite has been identified as a member of the mite family Astigmata, and the body parts of this miniscule animal are clearly visible.  This is the smallest arthropod fossil identified, and it is amazing to realize that with our technology we are now able to learn something about the mites that lived on spider's backs (or at least rode on them occasionally) when whales still had legs.  Absolutely amazing.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Calyptra thalictri

Calyptra thalictri by Anaxibia
Calyptra thalictri by Anaxibia
Calyptra thalictri looks superficially like so many of the other small brown moths found in its range (southern Asia and Europe, although they are moving northward as climate change progresses) but scientists have discovered that it does things a little bit differently from most other moths.  Male Calyptra thalictri will suck not only fruit to get their juices, but will also drill their proboscis through the skin of a human to take a blood drink.  Scientists hypothesize that since it is only the males that display these vampire-like tendencies, they may be trying to get salt from the blood to pass on to the female as a sexual 'gift' during mating, to help increase the likelihood of survival of the young.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Bar-headed Goose

Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus
The Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus is a species of goose found in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Viet Nam. If you are a geography buff you will recognize that those are countries in and around the Himalayas.  The Bar-headed Goose holds a number of high altitude flight records, all as a result of having to cross the Himalayas during migration from its breeding range to its wintering range and back again.  They hold the record for the highest regular flights (a single instance of a Rüppell's Griffon Vulture Gyps rueppelli reaching 11,550 m or 37,900 feet is the only record of any bird ever coming close to the height of their regular migrational feats) of any animal, as well as the longest sustained climbing flight rates of any animal, climbing at rates of 0.8-2.2 km (0.5-1.4 miles) in elevation each hour without stop for 8 hours while they average 67 kph (41.6 mph) as they reached the higher elevations, until they pass over the top of the Himalayas.  At those elevations there is so little oxygen in the air that helicopters have difficulty staying airborne.  It is not known how high Bar-headed Geese are able to fly,  but they have been seen flying well above the summit of Mount Everest which is at 8.848 m (29,029 feet).  To put this into perspective for you, this means that they can at least fly at the elevations that commercial jetliners usually utilize.

Bar-headed Geese manage this amazing feat through a variety of adaptations.  Their hemoglobin is better adapted to grab oxygen from the air, allowing them to pull in more oxygen even in elevations where there is only 1/3 the air pressure that is found at sea level.  Their lungs are proportionally larger and they breathe faster at higher elevations than other geese, bringing more air through the lungs as well to give the improved hemoglobin a better chance of encountering oxygen molecules to grab onto.  Their muscles also have a higher density of capillaries so that the oxygen carried through the blood does not have to diffuse as far through the muscle, making the entire system more efficient.  To make this feat all the more amazing, the birds also start their flights during the night or early mornings when there should be a slight headwind, so they are not gaining any advantages from thermals or tailwinds to get them over the mountains- they are making this astounding journey entirely under their own power.  These birds are simply astonishing.  It is thought that they adapted slowly to high elevations; as the Himalayas formed and then rose higher and higher the geese kept adapting to the mountain range's increasing elevation.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Malaysian Orchid Mantis

Orchid Mantis Hymenopus coronatus by Luc Viatour /
Malaysian Orchid Mantis Hymenopus coronatus by Luc Viatour /
The Malaysian Orchid Mantis Hymenopus coronatus is a species of mantis from the rain forests of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sumatra and is a master of camouflage.  When first hatched and while extremely small, they are black with red legs, making them look like ants.  As they get larger, going through later life stages, they change color until becoming white or pink with a necklace (brown for boys, green for girls) that allows them to camouflage wonderfully with the flowers that they wait in ambush for their prey on/near, with their legs resembling flower petals in shape.  They will grab and eat any insects that come close- they are beautiful but deadly.

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