Want to pull out all the stops for your Valentine today? Looking for tips to impress? Well, you may want to think more than twice before emulating any of these strange critters.
American burying beetles, for example, have a freaky take on romance. The male beetle’s way of getting ready for love is unique. No bunches of red roses for his beloved. What he likes to sniff out for her is a nicely rotting corpse. And why not. It seems he can smell a carcass (small mammal or bird) from miles away – well, at least two miles, which is still pretty impressive. And by the way, isn’t he a handsome guy? Who could resist him.
He uses the ‘scent’ to lure the female to the spot and together they go to town ripping fur (or feathers) from the cadaver. Then they roll what’s left into a ball, ‘seasoning’ it with their oral and anal secretions. Eek.
The next step is equally macabre. They bury the carcass ‘ball’ in a grave lined with its own fur or feathers. Once the task is completed, it’s ‘down to business’. Finally, the now fertilised eggs are deposited in a tunnel right next to the grave. When the baby burying beetles hatch there’s a tasty ‘well-seasoned’ corpse right there for them to feast on. Go beetles!
Love Among the Ratites (nothing to do with rats)
The biggest birds in the world and flightless to boot, they make for “stellar dads and unusual lovers”. Ratites are the emus, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis and rheas.
All male ratites (with the exception of the ostriches) are super-dads. They both incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks after they are hatched.
But what comes before the egg? What about the big birds’ love life? Very unusually in birds, ratites have penises, “really dense, collagenous penises” that they push out of their body cavity to mate. Truly. What can I say.
For dodgy doings and trickery we enter the world of the arachnid. A certain S. American spider gift-wraps in his silk the tasty prey he’s captured, before offering it to his beloved. But who knows what’s really inside that silk parcel? This gent is prone to giving in to his greed and presenting his sweetheart with an offering that is, yes indeed, beautifully wrapped. But when she tears off the layers in excitement, she discovers she’s been conned. All that’s inside are the inedible bits, worthless remains – damning evidence of his gluttony and lack of self-control. What a cheapskate.
You’ll Want for Nothing, Darling
No such scamming for this pretty little songbird. His modus operandi is 100% above board. Everything he has to offer he puts on conspicuous display to catch the eye of passing females. But don’t be deceived by those cute looks, this little avian has a startlingly macabre side. His love gift is a well-stocked ‘larder’… of corpses. If you’re ever in Scandinavia and stumble across a spiky bush gruesomely adorned with the carcasses of insects, frogs, toads, fish, lizards, mice, voles, stoats, bats or maybe even other birds , all brutally skewered on its thorns, you’ll know ‘the butcher bird’ is not far away.
I Made it Myself
How about a delicious ball of spit? And not just any old ball of spit. The male scorpion fly (so called because his tail-end, actually his genitalia, resembles a scorpion’s sting) offers his girl a ball a whole tenth of his body-weight in spit. That’s an impressive amount of spit. If the protein-rich saliva wins her over, she eats it, and the deal is sealed.
Still, a ball of spit is one up on the ball of something else the dung beetle has to offer. I think I’ll pass, thanks.
Though we all long to feel the warm glow of basking in our Valentine’s love, there are times one might be better off alone. Watch the peacock spider pulling his best moves to woo his very irritable-looking beloved.
Oh dear. Well that didn’t quite go to plan, did it? Looks like she’s not the romantic kind.
Happily Not All Animal Courtships End That Way
Though some might seem like a fate worse than death! Take the Golden Shower of the male porcupine for example. The Golden Shower is not as it sounds, some priceless treasure Mr P bestows upon his princess. Or may be it is. You be the judge. The ‘Golden Shower’, a vital part of porcupine courtship, is an explosive jet of urine with which he drenches his lady. Apparently it encourages her to ovulate. There have to be kinder ways!
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
Ask kids what they are most scared of, and with one voice they’ll shriek “SPIDERS!” Hardly surprising then that of all the phobias UK people suffer, nearly half involve creepy crawlies, spiders taking the crown. And no less than three quarters of undergrads canvassed admitted to some level of arachnophobia.
Arachnophobes have always been a puzzle to me. Despite having once been on the receiving end of a startling nip, I love spiders. The cobwebs in the corners of my house are designated conservation zones where no duster is permitted. Tell me, what’s not to love? Any creature that can draw silk like magic out of its own body, and spin the thing of beauty that is the spider’s web, deserves better PR – IMHO.
My personal favourite has to be Bagheera Kiplingi, who out of 40,000 named species, is the only known vegan spider in existence! It’s name alone is endearing. This is what the BBC has to say about our little veggie friend: “Like other species of jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi has keen eyesight, is especially fast and agile and is thought to have good cognitive skills, which allows it to “hunt” down this plant food.” See, these little guys are clever too. (Apologies if the ‘jumping’, ‘fast’ and ‘agile’ have triggered a phobic meltdown)
But come on guys, we don’t have any real monsters in the British Isles. The house spider we’re likely to find in the bath at this time of the year, or glimpse out of the corner of an eye hurtling across the floor of an evening in the flickering light from the TV, deserves to be a welcome guest. It’s estimated that one will chow down and clear your home of 2,000 unwelcome bugs and flies a year. OK, so it can be a decent-ish span from one hairy little foot across to another, especially 2,000 bugs further down the line, but it’s not exactly in dinner-plate-size tarantula league.
If you live in Central America, India, Australia or such, you’d be insane – and quite possibly on the way to meet your maker – if you weren’t anxious about spiders. But we have no spiders of evil intent here, no deadly wolf, no sinister black widow. So why the fear? If it can’t be the size, or the poison factor here in the UK, how come this irrational abhorrence of arachnids?
Arachnophobia does run in families. The question is, inherited or learned? Nature or Nurture? It seems plain commonsense that if mum or dad are scared of these beasties (and it’s more often than not mum) the kids will not be slow to pick up on it. So nurture then.
Well, yes, but not entirely. As with so many aspects of the human animal’s behaviour, unpicking the tangled web of the two Ns isn’t simple. In a 2008 study, 5 month old babies who were shown a variety of images, looked longer at the spiders than at any of the other pics. These babes were unlikely to have been ‘turned’ at such an early age. The finding indicated, the co-authors said, that “humans, like other species, may possess a cognitive mechanism for detecting specific animals that were potentially harmful throughout evolutionary history.” Arachnophobia could well be innate – evolution made us this way. Not irrational at all, but an aid to survival.
A more recent and wonderfully titled study, Spiders at the Cocktail Party, confirms the baby test finding: human evolution has passed down undiminished the ancient fear of the arachnid. This time students were shown a range of different images to identify, including several fear- or revulsion-inducing objects like needles and flies, as well as spiders. Nearly all the participants recognised the spiders more quickly than any of the other images, and also gave them more attention. The spiders were rapidly spotted, even when they appeared out on the display’s periphery, and while the central image was drawing the subjects’ focus and conscious attention.
“Spiders,” say the authors, ‘may be one of a very few evolutionarily-persistent threats that are inherently specified for visual detection and uniquely ‘prepared’ to capture attention and awareness irrespective of any foreknowledge, personal importance, or task-relevance.”
Or, in plain English: Try to complete any requisite task, and we’re beset with constant distractions. We may pride ourselves on exceptional concentration and ability to focus. But, it doesn’t matter how engrossed we may be, the one thing that is certain to grab our attention however peripheral or fleeting its appearance, and spark in us that instant phobic response – is the scary eight-legged creeping and quivering, scurrying, scuttling, spider.
It really is all in the genes. You, my arachnophobic friend, are hard-wired this way. It’s normal.
Happy Halloween – and please don’t stamp on the spiders!
(What’s wrong with me then? Why can’t I be in the arachnophobe gang? What’s gone awry with my hard-wiring? Am I missing a gene or two? Maybe I’m a Neanderthal throwback or something. Any other dis-arachnophobes out there…. )
What you never knew you wanted to know about animals – but you really do
Did you know that –
Are champs at recognizing rumps? It’s not the face, but the butt they look at to tell one buddy from another – and they do it just as easily as humans distinguish faces. Bright colours, it seems, count for both species. In humans, females’ red lips are attractive to males, a fact well-known to lipstick manufacturers. No lipstick for chimp females though. It’s the red rump that’s the big turn-on in chimp society. The redder the better because when the rump blushes even deeper crimson the male knows his lady is ovulating and it’s now or never.
The Mysterious ‘Silkhenge Spider’
In the jungles of Peru and Ecuador, builds a very special protective playpen for its young? In spite of extensive publicity in the world of science, no-one yet knows what species this clever beast belongs to. Watch this video of spiderlets being born, and hear the scientists trying to unravel the mystery
Run fast? So fast they would win the race against that lightning-speedster Usain Bolt himself, no competition. Don’t be fooled by that large lumbering appearance. These beasts can run at 30mph, and that’s just when they’re cruising. If you put them under pressure or make them mad, who knows what their top speed might be? Never try to outrun a grizzly. If Usain couldn’t do it, you and I certainly can’t!
The female shark
Has learned to grow an extra-thick skin? And not because she gets insulted more than most. It’s just that during mating, her male counterpart has the unpleasant habit of biting her – hard. Those jaws are not a thing to be trifled with!
Are right-handed? At least we think so. Right-handed? With 8 legs, or is that arms? I reckon the Honduran curly hair tarantula deserves a prize for its name alone. And if not for its name, its size. It’s as big as a grapefruit. Eek. It seems more often than not, male curly-hairs choose to take a right turn rather than a left in a laboratory maze, when in either direction there’s the promise of their favourite food, cockroaches. Ditto in pursuit of females. The difference is statistically significant (ie. happens more often than if by chance). “Furthermore, the team observed that the male spiders prefer to use their right eyes and feet while moving.” Not so much right-handed, more right-footed then.
Whatever, there’s no call for alarm, arachnaphobes. It seems this species is pretty docile, unless you’re a cockroach that is. And isn’t he a magnificent beast?
Are a knockout? Literally. Two snail species of the genus Karaftchelix are said to be “unusually aggressive”. Can you even imagine an aggressive snail? A contradiction in terms, surely. But these ones are veritable Snail Samurai. While most snails in danger retreat into the safe haven of their shell, these two kinds are no shrinking violets. They use their shell not for retreat, but attack – as a weapon of war, swinging it vigorously and very effectively at their predator, the carabid beetle. See the warriors in battle here:
Egyptian fruit bats
Bicker? A lot. They row over food, feud over their favourite spots in the roost, and even have romantic tiffs. And the way they talk varies depending on the particular bat person they are addressing. No different from us then. Before this latest study, scientists thought all that noise was just saying ‘get the heck out of here’, or words to that effect. But after running 15,000 calls through a “machine learning algorithm” (don’t ask – I don’t know) the researchers discovered the squabbling was much more complex than you might expect. And they expect more intriguing discoveries from bat-speak yet to come.
Used to have a penis bone? Seriously. What is a penis bone? What’s it for, and how come we were so careless as to lose it? It’s scientific name is a baculum, and it’s an ‘extra-skeletal’ bone, which means it’s not attached to the rest of the skeleton, “but floats daintily at the end of the penis”. Again, eek. A variety of mammals have hung on to theirs but ours is not even vestigial like the appendix – it’s gone for good. The scientists have various colourful speculations as to its purpose. And also why our evolution alone among primates found no further use for one. As you may have suspected, it’s all about the mating game. Different species, different mating strategies. Some need’em, others don’t.
To find out more about how we lost the penis bone and see a photo, click here. More links to today’s animal craziness at the bottom of the page.
I hope you have enjoyed these fun facts. I actually put them together with another more serious purpose in mind. Shouldn’t we marvel at the infinitely fascinating, colourful, varied and complex life on this planet of ours, and do all that we can to keep it safe? Sadly, new species are being discovered that are already extinct. There is so much we don’t know. So much more to discover and wonder at. Let us treasure it at its true worth which is beyond price.
Please take a look at this list of simple eco-friendly things we can all do to make a difference:
Two gruesome parasites, an extinct lizard, some blotchy lichen, a mean-looking fish – as well as two quite pretty ones. And a particularly hairy scary spider known to ambush unsuspecting snakes passing by its hidden trapdoors. (A political metaphor? We can but hope!)
What’s not for the President to love?
Seriously though, the discoverers of these new-to-science species have found some pretty cool reasons for honoring Mr Obama in this way. I’ve highlighted them because they are good.
From the extinct Obamadon to the barackobamai spider, the outgoing U.S. president is a taxonomic inspiration.
Though U.S. President Barack Obama is leaving office soon, he will be forever immortalized in taxonomy thanks to scientists who have named species after him. Nine different species from extinct lizards to trapdoor spiders got their names from the 44th U.S. president, which is more than any of his predecessors. (Theodore Roosevelt comes in as a close second with seven.)
Here are the creatures that are saying “Thanks, Obama,” for their presidential names.
Aptostichus barackobamai (trapdoor spider)
In 2012, biologist Jason Bond of Auburn University in Alabama declared the existence of 33 new trapdoor spider species in the journal ZooKeys. He named many of them after celebrities like Stephen Colbert (Aptostichus stephencolberti) and even one after the aggressive desert-burrowing menace from Star Wars called the sarlacc (A. sarlacc). But Bond named one spider A. barackobamai in appreciation for Obama.
“I feel like his presidency is noteworthy,” Bond told Wired. “He’s been a true statesman in the face of ridiculous opposition.”
You can find A. barackobamai among the redwoods in north-central California, ambushing countless dim-witted insects, frogs, and even snakes that venture past its hidden trapdoors.
Etheostoma Obama (spangled darter)
The longest river in Tennessee is home to the darter, a tiny fish named for its tendency to zip around cold, clear waters. When examining color variation in the common speckled darter, biologists Steve Layman from Geosyntec Consultants, an environmental consulting and engineering firm based in Atlanta, and Richard Mayden at Saint Louis University in Missouri realized they weren’t looking at just one species, but five. As they describe in their November 2012 paper in the Bulletin of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, the duo named one Etheostoma obama, or the spangled darter. Only about 45 millimeters long, the fish is wonderfully colored with iridescent blue and orange spots and stripes.
The biologists say they decided to name the darter after Obama because of his focus on clean energy and environmental protection.
Obamadon gracillis (extinct insectivorous lizard)
Five million years ago, a fearsome lizard roamed the land … well, fearsome to insects, anyway. The now extinct Obamadon gracilis, or just Obamadon, was only a third of a meter long and devoured insects using a set of impressively tall and straight teeth. Paleontologists discovered an Obamadon fossil in Hell Creek Formation in Montana and published their finding in the December 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They were fascinated by the lizard’s impeccable choppers, which they say reminded them of President Obama’s smile.
Paragordius obamai (hairworm)
Hairworms are gruesome parasites that grow up to 30 centimeters long inside the bodies of their hosts. Lucky for you, they only infect crickets. One particular hairworm species, the African hairworm, was discovered in Kenya in 2012. Biologist Ben Hanelt of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque was splitting open some crickets to check out their parasites, but was baffled when an entire population turned out to be female. Turns out he found the first species of parthenogenic hairworms—meaning the female parasites can reproduce without any male assistance, as noted in his PLOS ONE study published in April 2012.
Hanelt named the parasite Paragordius obamai in honor of Obama, as the president’s father and stepgrandmother are from a Kenyan town just 19 kilometers away from where he found the parasites.
Baracktrema obamai (turtle blood fluke)
Earlier this year, Obama had the honor of being named after a second parasite, this time one that lives in the blood of Malaysian freshwater turtles. As described in the August issue of the Journal of Parasitology, Baracktrema obamai are as thin as human hair and reside in the turtles’ lungs, where they lay their eggs. Thomas Platt, a biologist who retired from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, this year, assures the public this is meant as a compliment to Obama, not an insult.
In 2008, biologist Bret Whitney at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge was doing field work in the Amazon when he heard a bird sing a song he’d never heard before. After analyzing its DNA, Whitney realized he’d found a new species of puffbird: stout, fluffy birds with exceptionally large heads that live mostly solitary lives in the Amazonian treetops.
Whitney named it Nystalus obamai in a June 2013 Handbook of the Birds of the World paper in honor of Obama’s impact on the development of green technology—particularly solar energy—that could help preserve ecosystems like N. obamai’s.
Teleogramma obamaorum (African cichlid species)
Along just 40 kilometers in a stream in the African Congo swims another Obama-monikered fish: Teleogramma obamaorum. The cichlid was discovered in 2011 when a drought caused water levels to dip down low, exposing the populations to researchers who were sampling the area. As noted in her April 2015 study in American Museum Novitates,
One species of orange-red lichen grows only on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California: firedot lichen. Discovered during an ecological survey in 2007, Caloplaca obamae was the first organism to be named after the 44th president.
They reported their discovery in the March 2009 issue of the journal Opuscula Philolichenum.
Tosanoides obama(coral reef basslet)
The newest organism to bear Obama’s name is a pink, blue, and yellow coral reef fish. Tosanoides obama was discovered in June of this year, and given its name in the journal ZooKeys.
Obama is the only fish to live exclusively in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a protected reserve that President Obama expanded to 1,508,870 square kilometers this year in August. That decree made it the largest ecologically protected place on the planet, and it prohibits any commercial extraction like fishing or deep-sea mining within the monument.
Richard Pyle, a marine biologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, discovered and named the fish, and insists, like other biologists before him, that it’s meant as a compliment to honor POTUS’s respect and protection of the natural world.
What you never knew you wanted to know about animals – but you really do
Did you know that –
Can actually taste sunshine? Yes, I did say ‘taste’. They don’t have eyes. Which makes sense since they’re underground most of the time. But on the odd occasion they do pop up, they taste light with LITE-1, a protein from a family of taste-receptors. LITE-1 enables these little animals to taste light 50 times better than we humans can see it via light-receptors in our eyes. I wonder what it tastes like.
Can grow themselves a magnificent mane of fur, exactly like their mate, the King of Beasts? Five lionesses in Botswana are the living proof of this strange anomaly. One is even going around roaring like a male, and ahem, humping other females. The world has more than enough testosterone already thanks ladies.
‘Listen’ with the hairs on their legs? So, without ears, they can hear us talking from right across the other side of the room. That leg hair vibrates in response to sound waves from our voices, which in turn triggers neural signals to the eight-leggers’ brain. Fortunately, they can’t actually make out what we’re shrieking: ‘Get that spider out of here!’ To them it just sounds like a really bad phone connection. I never say that by the way. I’m a big fan.
Help make wine? It’s true! Yeast is the magic alchemy that turns grapes into wine. And where does the yeast comes from? Wasps’ guts, would you believe. Certain wasps store wild yeasts in their guts over winter. When the wasps feast on the following year’s grape harvest the yeasts are left behind on the fruit. No glass of velvety hints-of-citrus chardonnay without our winemaking friends the wasps.
Ratites (nothing to do with rats!)
the biggest birds in the world and flightless to boot, make for ‘stellar dads and unusual lovers’? The ratites are the emus, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis and rheas.
All male ratites (except ostriches) are super-dads. They both incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks after they are hatched.
So now to the interesting bit, the big birds’ love life. Very unusually in birds, ratites have penises, “really dense, collagenous penises” that they push out of their body cavity to mate. Truly. What can I say?
A Never Before Seen Chinese Spider
Camouflages itself to look exactly like a leaf? And that’s not all. To make the disguise even more convincing, s/he picks dead leaves up off the ground, drags them up the tree to its chosen twig and attaches them there with spider silk. It’s a case of spot the one among many that isn’t actually a leaf. The creature was finally rumbled when an unusually sharp-eyed arachnologist noticed suspicious glints of silk apparently attaching leaves to a tree. On closer inspection and to his great surprise, one of the leaves turned out to be a very cunning creature, until that moment completely unknown to humans. And probably also to its prey until sadly it’s too late for them.
Can express opinions and tell us if they’re too hot, too cold, and if they want their blanket on or not? The only thing about this news hot off the press that I find surprising is the scientists’ wonderment at discovering what they never knew before – that equids have the ‘intelligence’ to communicate with us. I imagine the horses would be laughing up their sleeves, if they had sleeves to laugh up.
The leader of this particular piece of research told the BBC, “Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent but this shows that using the right methods they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can take choices that seem sensible to us even.“ Oh, the arrogance of the human race vis a vis the nonhuman animal kingdom knows no bounds!
I think it says far more about humans’ clodhopping inability to understand other creatures than it does about the latter’s abilities, don’t you?
American Burying Beetles
Have some freaky mating fetishes? Yes, we’re back to That again. But this is courtship as you’ve never known it. The male beetle has a uniquely bizarre way of getting ready for love. No bunches of red roses for his beloved. What he likes to sniff out for her is a nicely rotting corpse. And why not. It seems he can smell a carcass (small mammal or bird) from miles away – well, at least two miles, which is still pretty impressive.
He uses the ‘scent’ to lure the female to the spot and together they go to town ripping fur (or feathers) from the cadaver. Then they roll what’s left into a ball, ‘seasoning’ it with their oral and anal secretions. Eek.
The next step is equally macabre. They bury the carcass ‘ball’ in a grave lined with its own fur or feathers. Once the task is completed, it’s ‘down to business’. Finally, the now fertilised eggs are deposited in a tunnel right next to the grave. When the baby burying beetles hatch there’s a tasty well-‘seasoned’ corpse right there for them to feast on. Go beetles!
And on that somewhat gruesome note we must end this episode of the weird and wonderful. I’m sure there will be more to come.
If you want to know more about worms loving the taste of sunshine, click here
If you want to know more about be-maned lionesses and see a photo of this oddity of nature, click here
If you want to know more about spiders’ hearing with their hairy legs, click here
If you want to know more about wasps and wine, click here
If you want to know more about ratite dads & lovers, click here
If you want to have a go yourself at spotting the cunning Chinese leaf spider, click here Update 13th December 2016 Scientists have now chosen the binomial Latin tag for this newly-discovered creature. They think it’s odd shape resembles the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter and have named it after the hat’s original owner Godric Gryffindor. So it’s official. The trickster is called Eriovixia gryffindori. Eriovixia denotes its genus, and gryffindori this particular species. Click the link for some good pics.
If you want to know how the horsey ‘take my blanket off’ discovery was made, click here
If you want to know more about the corpse-sniffing American burying beetle, click here
Forget spiders, black cats and bats. The scariest thing in nature?
Fear is natural. Fear is good. In the wild, fear keeps animals alive. It sounds strange, but it’s actually fear that keeps ecosystems in balance.
It’s the ‘trophic cascade effect’. Take an apex predator like the wolf, at the top of the food chain. The wolf’s presence keeps deer ‘on their toes’. Instead of standing in one spot grazing vegetation down to the ground, they are wary, stopping only briefly, constantly on the move. So plant life proliferates and in doing so provides habitat and food for the smaller animals.
To find out how astounding this is in bringing about an explosion of life, both plant and animal, watch this beautiful short video about wolves in Yellowstone. It will gladden your heart.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that a horrifying 75% of apex predators, the large carnivores such as wolves, bears and big cats, are in decline. And as the Living Planet Report tells us, it is all down to us humans. We are driving plants and animals extinct at 1,000 times the natural background rate.
But take away the apex predators, and biodiversity rapidly declines.
Western University decided to test whether we humans could take the place of the missing big beasts as ‘the monster-in-the-woods’, and provide that vital fear factor to keep ecosystems healthy.
Their findings were not good. For a start, human hunters kill four times as many smaller carnivores as do the nonhuman predators. That in itself throws the ecosystem out of kilter.
And, it turned out that we are just too darn scary. So frightening, in fact, as to induce “paralysing terror” in the badgers tested on in the research. Having the sounds of large carnivores played to them naturally did put the badgers on their guard, and they made fewer trips to their usual foraging spots. But when the sound of people talking was played, only a handful of the bravest ventured out at all, and the time they spent feeding was dramatically reduced. Most of the badgers decided the safest option was to keep their heads down, stay at home and not go out to feed at all.
So to the smaller animals, we are more to be feared than wolves and bears. Some kudos! We humans, the scariest creature on the planet.
We are not just messing up ecosystems by causing the decline in apex predator populations. It seems we are directly affecting the behaviour of the remaining animals in those habitats. The researchers concluded that “Humans may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
When you consider that at least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of humans and human activity in one way or another, this research is incredibly bad news for the remaining 17% that’s left for the animals.
Controlling the growth of the human population is going to be vital in reducing our impact, it goes without saying. But if we as individuals want to help give our fellow earth-dwellers, the nonhumans, a bit more space to live than that pitiful 17%, if we want them to survive at all, we can make a difference by taking animal products off our plate, and out of our lives. We must.
Wishing you a ton of fun this Hallowe’en – dress up, spook your neighbours!
And then November 1st – time for us to make Planet Earth a whole lot less scary for the animals. November is World Vegan Month, the perfect time for us humans to start reducing our heavy footprint on the planet.
To make space for the animals.
Cute & Creepy Animal-Friendly Hallowe’en Recipes here
It’s that time again. Wood smoke in the air, windfall apples lying in the grass, turning leaves, fine crisp mornings. Who doesn’t love Autumn?
Well, maybe not arachnophobes. It’s that time when sizable eight-leggers zoom across the living room carpet, drawing a nervous eye away from the TV. It turns out these beasties aren’t actually Autumn invaders. They’ve been living in the house with us all along. But Autumn is mating time for the house spider, and the hunt for that one lady spider who will make his life complete brings the “sex-crazed” creature out of hiding.
Food not love
Hedgehogs are on a mission too, but their quest is less romantic. It’s not love, but food they are searching for. They need to get as much flesh as possible on those little hedgehog bones before it’s time to hibernate in November.
Help them out by not being an over-tidy gardener. Piles of leaves, twigs and logs provide not just a cosy nest for hogs, but also first class accommodation for slugs, bugs and beetles, making them veritable hedgehog larders.
Now is also a good time to give hedgies a helping hand with some nightly snacks. The little creature has one enormous appetite, so some crushed or chopped unsalted peanuts, and sunflower hearts will go down a treat. And don’t forget a shallow dish of clean water. Absolutely NO milk though. It upsets their tums and gives them diarrhoea.
Juvenile hedgehogs that may be from a second brood of the year cannot survive the winter if they weigh less than 650g. If you spot a small hedgehog, DON’T follow the normal rule for wildlife which is leave well alone. Pick the little beastie up and weigh him/her. If your hoglet comes in at under 650g, phone your local hedgehog rescue. The little guy will need expert care over the winter.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and shouldn’t be seen in the day. If one does appear while it’s light, she may well be suffering from hypothermia. Place her on a warm (not hot) towel-wrapped hot water bottle in a box, in a quiet dark place, and cover the box with another towel or blanket.
Make your garden hedgehog-safe
If you’re strimming or mowing check corners and under hedges first, to avoid harming resting hogs. Remove any kind of netting – hedgehogs can suffer serious injury from getting entangled in strings, elastic, rubber bands, plastic and nets. Cover swimming pools, drains and holes. And if you have a pond, make sure there are stones or bricks a hedgehog can use to climb out if he falls in.
As the nights draw in, an Autumn bonfire is a thing of wonder. And Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes Night are just around the corner. If you’re collecting wood for your bonfire, don’t build the fire until you’re ready to light it. Or if it’s already stacked in a heap, take it apart again to make sure no little creature, unaware of the danger, has made it home.
And please NEVER use slug pellets in the garden. Not only do they kill hedgehogs’ major source of food, but are also poisonous to the little mammals.
A winter home
If you can devote a small corner to a winter home for your garden visitor, it will be sure to be appreciated. Purpose-built hedgehog homes are on sale at garden centres, or you can make your own. Even a slate or a board propped against a wall and lined with leaves is a help.
With such simple things we can make a difference for an iconic little animal we are in danger of losing altogether.
Hedgehogs are a listed endangered species. Their numbers have suffered a catastrophic decline, from 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million now. A loss equivalent to that of tigers.
Urge the government to take action and help save the hedgehog from extinction here
For everything you ever wanted to know about hedgehogs visit Hedgehog Street
And don’t forget to enjoy this beautiful season of the year!