Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hungry Plants In Motion
Plants are often thought of as boring organisms. They just sit there, soaking up sunlight and drinking water from the soil.

In reality, the plant world is very dynamic. Trees thrust hard into the sky, battling for every scrap of sunlight. Vines swarm up from the forest floor, choking out their hosts in their desperate search for nutrients.

Some plants even kill and consume live prey, especially in areas like bogs and marshes where soil quality is low.

I could spend days writing about the wonders of carnivorous plants, but instead I will leave you with a couple of excellent videos I found on some particularly cool plant hunters.

Watch closely, especially the time lapse video, and hopefully you will come to share my appreciation of the violent world of plants.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday With The Fungus Eater
This lovely gastropod is Indrella ampulla, a unique species of snail that lives in the tropical rainforest in the Western Ghats of India.

There isn't a great deal of information  floating around on this intriguing mollusk, so all that I can tell you is that it feeds on fungus.

Also, like last week's painted snail, this creature exhibits quite a bit of color variation.

So, in lieu of more information, I'll leave you with a few images of these wonderful pulmonates. Please, observe and enjoy their marvelous diversity and exotic beauty.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday With The Painted Snail
Well, its Monday again, which means its time for another wonderful Monday gastropod.

Behold, Polymita picta, the painted snail.

This beautiful land snail is a pulmonate, which means it is part  of an illustrious group of snails and slugs that have acquired the ability to breathe the air with lungs instead of gills.

This particular pulmonate is native to Cuba, and can be found nowhere else.
 Perhaps the most splendid thing about this species of snail is it's incredible diversity.

As you can see, the range of colors these creatures produce is truly inspiring.

Unfortunately, this beauty brings these lovely animals to the attention of humans, who often kill  snails and make ornaments from their shells.

It is sad, really, that our species can't just appreciate the wonders nature produces. There will always be those who would rather destroy something to possess it than let it go free and retain it''s natural beauty.
And so I leave you with a final image, that of an intact snail making it's way through the leaves of it's home.

Marvel at the beautiful structure it has labored it's whole life to produce. I don't know about you, but I am happy to leave it  where it is.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Anemones With Personality
This simple creature is an anemone.

Actinia equina, the beadlet anemone, to be more precise.

Anchored firmly to it's home somewhere along the rocky shoreline of the United Kingdom, this delicate cnidarian looks no different from the other A. equina it shares the sea with.

But it is different, indeed. Its different because it has it's own personality.

Recently, scientists tested beadlet anemones along the coastline by startling them with jets of water and seeing how long they stayed contracted before unfurling their coils to resume feeding. Response time varied between individuals, but the individuals themselves were very consistent in their response times.

I realize that might not sound very interesting, but I feel every bit of insight we can gain concerning the minds of our fellow species is priceless.
And remember, this is a creature with a very primitive nervous system. If such a simple creature is capable of this level of neurological complexity, imagine what the more complex lifeforms are capable of.

Truly, we live in a time of great discovery. There is really no telling what wonders lay out there in the minds of our fellow species, just waiting to be uncovered.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cuttlefish In Motion
Anyone who has followed me from the beginning knows how much cuttlefish impress me.

These marvelous sepiid cephalopods are amazing in so many ways, from their insanely malleable skin to their piercing intelligence.

In an effort to reestablish my fondness for these creatures, I present you with a video I came across that displays many of their unique abilities quite well.

So please, observe, and look closely into those alien eyes. I am sure you will be convinced, as I am, that far more lurks in those w shaped pupils than a simple molluscan mind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gastropods, Mondays, And The Lovely Chromodoris Annae
Gastropods are an amazing group of organisms. There may be as many as 80,000 different species in this class of mollusk that contains all snails, slugs, and related organisms.

The most impressive thing, in my opinion, is the fact that gastropoda is the only group of organisms that has conquered every habitat. They flourish in the sea, they spread across the land, and they thrive in freshwater ecosystems. Their great diversity of form and behavior makes this a remarkable group to study.
Which brings me to my reason for this post. In honor of the vast array of gastropod forms, I have decided to make Mondays on this blog forever their abode.

Every Monday will bring a new species of gastropod. Snails, limpets, conchs, nudibranches, and sea hares will all be represented.

Sometimes, it might just be a picture and a snippet of information, while other days I might go to greater depths and produce a flood of knowledge.

For today, though, I give you the stunning creature pictured here. Chromodoris annae, a lovely species of nudibranch.

These beautiful marine slugs feed on sponges in the western Pacific Ocean.
 Like all nudibranch, this lovely species glides along using the two tentacles, Rhinophores, at it's head to taste chemicals and proteins floating in the sea, all while breathing through the frilly gills hanging from it's posterior end.

Bask in it's beauty, and know that more is coming. I can only hope that, in time, you have as much appreciation for this marvelous class of organism as I do.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Mollusk That Uses Tools
This is the veined octopus, Amphioctus marginatus, and it is a mollusk.

What this basically means is that this soft bodied creature, equipped with three hearts and blood that uses copper instead of iron to transport oxygen, is more closely related to snails and clams than it is to you or any other vertebrate.

This simple fact is what makes this small octopod's behavior so amazing.

You see, this remarkable creature uses tools.
Dwelling in the sandy bottoms of bays and lagoons along the western Pacific Ocean, this baseball sized cephalopod is a voracious hunter. Unfortunately, it is also a tender, soft bodied snack for any larger predator that comes along.

So what does this remarkable little guy do? He gathers up discarded coconut shells and other similar debris, sometimes carrying individual pieces as far as 65 feet.

Then he carefully arranges them into a well built shelter where he can hide with confidence.
How awesome is that? Such behavioral and cognitive complexity in a creature that doesn't even have a spinal cord and only lives for two years just blows my mind.

Just think, it was only a few decades ago that scientists discovered that chimpanzees use tools, and now we're finding that even invertebrates are capable of such feats.

These truly are exciting times, and as humans probe deeper into the minds of our fellow species I can only hope we develop a greater respect and appreciation for the life that surrounds us.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Fossorial Blue Beauty
Look at this picture. Bask in the glowing beauty of the rich, fertile rainforest of Thailand.

But know that the true beauty in this picture lies beneath the surface.

She is a fossorial creature, meaning she is built for a life in the earth. Living in a complex system of well built tunnels, this wonderful beast only ventures forth into open air when the night is dark and the rumblings in her empty stomach override her deep need for the security of tight spaces.

Then she emerges, and the whole forest pauses in silent appreciation.
Haplopelma lividum, the tarantula so blue it hurts the eyes. Reaching a legspan of nearly seven inches, this massive hunter is not a creature to be messed with.

It makes you wonder, really, why such a savage creature would spend so much of it's time hiding away in the dark.

It is almost as if she knows, deep down, how beautiful she is and withholds that beauty from the world.

So, please, go out into the forests of Southeast Asia. Find a hole and wait.

She is a shy beauty, but I guarantee you that the sight of her rising from her deep sanctuary like some night blooming blue earth flower will make all the hours spent waiting in that damp jungle feel like time well spent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Largest Eagle To Ever Fall From The Sky
Bare bones. A pale collection of skeletal matter and a host of aboriginal legends are all that remain of this mighty beast that once fell from the skies of South Island, New Zealand with the striking force of a cinder block falling from an eight story building.

Harpagornis moorei, Haast's eagle, was the largest eagle to ever take flight. Weighing more than thirty pounds, a big female would have a body nearly five feet long and a wingspan close to ten feet. Keep in mind, that's a ten foot wingspan on a bird of prey with rather short wings and a long tail in relation to body size.
The reason this beast of a bird was able to survive in it's dense forest home was it's chief prey item.

The moa, a giant flightless bird that had no chance against the tyranny from above that this mighty eagle delivered.

Unfortunately, there is another creature even more terrible and destructive; a creature neither the moa nor the Haast's eagle were prepared for.


Around 1400 CE, man delivered the killing blows to both of these wonderful creatures.
First, they mercilessly hunted the moa to extinction. Then they cleared the dense forests that the eagle called home.

With the loss of it's main prey item and the destruction of it's habitat, the majestic Haast's eagle faded into extinction.

Now all that remains are bones. Bare lifeless bones and a few images created by artist's who dream of a time when death fell hard from the heavens.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Jaragua Sphaero, Smallest Reptile On The Planet
This is the Jaragua Sphaero, Sphaerodactylus ariasae, and it is the smallest reptile living on the earth.

At barely 16 millimeters in length, this diminutive gecko is small enough to fit comfortably on the face of a US quarter. 

This little guy makes his home in only two remote locations. The Jaragua National Park in the southwest of the Dominican Republic, and a nearby forested island. That is really all the information on this remarkable creature I can provide, because little is known of it's life in the wild.

The most amazing thing about this species, in my opinion, is the fact that it was only discovered in 2001. How wonderful it is that there are still secrets hiding in the forests and caves of this planet, even in this new millenium.

This is no special case either. Poecilotheria pederseni, the beautiful arboreal tarantula I share my home with and mentioned in my last post, was also discovered in that same year.

This just demonstrates what I already believe. The world is full of wonders, and all it takes is for someone to go and seek them out. I promise you, if you do you will not be dissappointed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beauty On Eight Legs
Behold, Poecilotheria metallica, the spider that causes arachnophobes to fall to their knees and marvel.

Well, maybe not, but it is certainly the most beautiful spider I have ever seen.

Like all memebers of the genus Poecilotheria, this tarantula displays a stunning fractal pattern and wonderful combination of colors. Unlike it's sister species, however, P. metallica also shines a rich metallic blue that puts all the rest to shame.

Dwelling in crevices high in the trees of southeastern India and Sri Lanka, this arboreal tarantula hunts it's prey from the shelter of an assymetric funnel web.

It was first discovered in the Indian town of Gooty, thus earning it the name Gooty Sapphire Ornamental Tree Spider. That's quite a mouthful, but this is one creature that deserves such a majestic title.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this spider, in my opinion, is the fact that if you're willing to shell out a few hundred dollars you can actually bring a captive bred  P. metallica into your home.

Sounds scary, I know, but I can assure you it is a wonderful thing to share your home with a poecilotheria. Sure, they have a nasty bite, but the Poecilotheria pederseni I share my home with is by far the coolest and most stunning animal companion I have ever had.

I usually don't bring my personal life into this blog, valuing raw information over amusing anecdotes, but in this case I will make an exception and end with a picture of a Poecilotheria pederseni. I will also say that if you want an animal companion that is both visually appealing and behaviorally complex, you could do no better than a poecilotheria.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Brighamia, A Genus On The Brink
The Hawaiian island chain is truly a remarkable place. Due to it's geographic isolation, pretty much every  species native to the region is descended from a random traveler that just happened to wash up on shore or make an incredible flight.

Because of this bottlenecking effect, Hawaii hosts a rare and wonderful collection of endemic species.

90 percent of Hawaii's flowering plants exist only on Hawaii, the highest percentage of any flowering region on the earth. Most are restricted to a few locations.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Brighamia, a genus of flowering plant represented by only two species. Both are in Hawaii, and both are on the verge of disappearing forever.
Brighamia rockii used to live on several islands, but now only survives on the small island Moloka'i.

Five distinct populations are all that remain, consisting of fewer than two hundred individuals.

Invasive plants, goats, deer, and the loss of native pollinators all are contributing to the vanishing of this wonderful example of genetic drift and the wonders of island speciation.

Sadly, this plant is doing great when compared to it's sister species.
Brighamia insignis is in dire straits. Native to Kaua'i and Ni'ihau, fewer than 65 individuals are left.

The main reason for this plant's decline is the fact that it only had one pollinator, a hawk moth that is now extinct. Human "pollinators" are the only hope this flowering rarity has of not following it's companion moth down into extinction.

So there you have it. Two rare relatives, both on the verge of vanishing forever.

This is no isolated case either. All across Hawaii, and on many other archipelagos as well, native species that have flowered in isolation face the burning fires of change as new forms are introduced by human hands.

All hope is not lost, however. As I've said before; what we have damaged, we have the power to heal. As human hands pollinate Brighamia insignis, so can human hands bring relief to all those wonderful species we have driven to the edge of extinction.

Or at least that is my sincere hope.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Highest Living Thing
High above the world, on the frigid slopes of Mount Everest, there lives a singularly spectacular organism.

Individuals have been spotted at elevations in excess of 20,000 feet, making this creature the highest living permanent resident on the face of the earth.

The most amazing thing about this animal, in my opinion, is that it's not even warm blooded. No furry mammals or majestic birds can survive on those freezing slopes.

Instead, it is a lowly jumping spider that claims the title.
Euophrys omnisuperstes, whose name means "standing above all."

This tough little arthropod hunts crevices amongst the rocks, eagerly feeding on tiny animals that feed in turn on plant debris blown up from lower altitudes.

Jumping spiders (Salticidae) have always impressed me, and this marvelous little guy is no exception. Truly, we live in a world that is full to overflowing with wonders.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On The Wonder Of Arthropods
Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time has probably noticed my love for arthropods. Insects, spiders, centipedes, and even crustaceans fascinate me to no end.

Think about it. Wherever you are, right now, get up and go outside. I guarantee you it will take less than ten minutes to find a fascinating arthropod.

They are everywhere. On the land, in the sea, burrowing through the rich earth. They were the first organisms to spread wings and conquer the sky.

Basically, they are flat out amazing.
Bees in central america gather scent compounds from orchids and carry them around like perfume. Dragonfly nymphs prowl the waters and prey on fish and amphibians. Spiders drift into the sky on silken sails and are the first organisms to fall to earth on newly formed islands.

There is a predatory beetle that runs so fast it goes blind while in motion. Another beetle mixes chemicals in it's abdomen and shoots the napalm-like mixture from it's abdomen like a fiery water gun.

In closing, I pretty much love anything with an exoskeleton and that is not going to change anytime soon. I try to keep the natural wonders on this blog spread across a pretty even spectrum, but expect a preponderance of posts on insects and their kin.

If you are like many people out there, and you think
"bugs" are gross or in some way beneath you, then you probably don't belong here.

If you're like me, however, and you love all the organisms on this fabulous planet, then please come often and let me share these wonders with you.

I deeply thank you for the privilege.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Fish Father In A Hurry
Usually, when covering parents in the animal kingdom, I have a tendency to discuss the ones that are particularly attentive.

This guy, however, has drawn my attention for exactly the opposite reason.

He is a sand goby, Promatoschistus minutus, a coastal fish dwelling in the waters of the Mediteranean and the Baltic sea. He is a bad father.

Well, sort of. Its actually hard to classify his parenting skills, really.
You see, he does care solely for his young, attentively putting his life on the line to watch out for their safety.

Unfortunately he also eats about a third of them. It's not like he's doing it to ensure more survive either. He  mostly eats the bigger eggs, the ones that take the longest to hatch. By doing this, he is able to cut down parenting time so that he can get back out there and breed some more females.

Parental care aside, his selfish motivations and his desire to eat his own babies just so he can go party puts this guy right at the top of my bad parent list.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bigger Than A Giant Squid
Unlike you may believe, the giant squid is not the largest squid hunting the ocean deeps. There is another, much larger monster out there.

It is the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni.

Dwelling in the deep waters around Antarctica, this behemoth is truly amazing. It's eyes alone are over a foot across. Reaching over forty feet in length, it still isn't as long as the giant squid. However, it's body is longer and much thicker, giving it a more massive profile.

Also, it has a wicked adaptation the giant squid lacks. Whereas the giant squid only has suckers on it's tentacles, the colossal squid's thick arms are equipped with savage hooks to better snare it's prey.

Pretty amazing, isn't it? I think the coolest thing about this real life sea monster is how many of them there are. Though almost never seen by humans, they are numerous enough to make up 77 percent of the Antarctic sperm whale's diet.

It definitely makes you wonder. What other giant killers lurk out in those unexplored depths?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tiger Moths Are Ultrasonic Warriors
This is Bertholdia trigona, a species of tiger moth, and he is an ultrasonic warrior.

I know, moths are supposed to just flutter mindlessly around streetlights before wandering out into the dark and being snacked on by hungry bats.

Apparently nobody told this tiger moth that, because this guy refuses to go down like that. He laughs in the face of marauding bats.

How can he be so mug? Easy, he can jam bat  sonar.
As a bat closes in on this wicked moth, it goes into echolocation overdrive and unleashes a frenzy of sound waves to better see it's intended victim.

This moth is no chump, however, and in response he unleashes an ultrasonic defense that is pure awesomeness. Using highly developed ultrasound emitters, he kicks out a whopping 450 clicks every tenth of a second the bat is attacking.

What was once a crisp moth image becomes a fuzzy blur, and the bat misses it's target.

This is amazing to me. Bat echolocation is very sophisticated, and here you have an insect with a comparably sophisticated defense against it. Insects have long been assumed to be simple creatures, ignored mostly based on their size, but it is my firm opinion that there is much more to their world than we realize. In the coming years, as more scientists probe their hidden world, I am sure even more wonders will be revealed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Farewell, Western Black Rhinoceros
This is the western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), a magnificent creature that once ranged across the savanna of central-west Africa.

They are all gone now.

No matter how much you may want to, you will never see this animal alive in it's natural habitat, either browsing on the low grass or rearing it's young.

The sad thing is, they really had a chance at survival. As long ago as the 1930's, conservation efforts pulled these heavily hunted beasts back from the edge of extinction.
As the years passed, however, protection efforts declined as illegal poaching intensified. The courts failed to punish poachers and these magnificent animals slowly disappeared.

By the year 2000, only ten remained in northern Cameroon.

An intensive search in 2006 found none. The IUCN still lists the western black rhino as critically endangered, but they're just being hopeful. They recognize the sad truth that these marvelous creatures are probably all gone.

So let's say farewell to the western black rhino. Wave goodbye as it vanishes into the tall grass of extinction, casting one last sad look over it's shoulder before departing forever.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

An Insect Smarter Than A Supercomputer
This is a bumblebee (genus Bombus), and it is smarter than you are.

When it comes to certain tasks this tiny insect, with a brain the size of a grass seed, is smarter than a supercomputer.

In the game of chess, humans and computers often duel it out to a standstill.There is one mathematical puzzle, however, where neither would stand a chance against this fuzzy hymenopteran.

The travelling salesman problem.

Imagine you are a salesman and you must visit a number of cities to sell your product. The problem before you is how to hit every city at least once and to travel the shortest possible distance in the process.
Supercomputers solve this problem the hard way, calculating all the possible routes and distances before arriving at a solution. This method can take hours or days, depending on the complexity of the problem.

Meanwhile, researchers have discovered that bumblebees solve this problem all the time. Given a selection of pollen-rich flowers, these bees don't hit the flowers in order of discovery, but rather take a broader approach and automatically find the shortest path to land on all the flowers at least once.

This should blow your mind. A bumblebee's brain contains fewer cells than we have clumped at the base of each optic nerve, and yet they can master complex tasks that even a human would have trouble with. More study is definitely needed, but in my opinion this bit of knowledge forever shatters our arrogant view that only organisms with brains similar to ours are capable of true intelligence.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Bumblebee Bat
This tiny creature is the bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai).

About the size of a large bumblebee and weighing less than a penny, it is the smallest mammal on the planet.

Unfortunately, like many of the wonderful creatures that populate this planet, this diminutive bat stands on the edge of extinction. Only a few thousand remain in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar.
Dwelling in limestone caves along heavily forested rivers, their future is an uncertain one. The main threat to this species is the annual burning of their home forests.

It is sad, really. It seems like every cool new creature I learn about comes with this disclaimer.

 Warning: species on the brink of extinction.

It seems bleak, But I can't help but be optimistic. We humans made this mess, which means it is within our power to fix it. I can only hope we do before its too late for this tiny furry flyer.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Emergence of a Luna Moth
This is a cocoon.

Formed high in the trees of a North American deciduous forest, it has withstood the bitter cold of winter and now prepares to empty its cargo into the warm spring morning.

What was once a slumbering caterpillar has undergone a sea of molecular and structural changes, becoming the creature that will soon emerge.

After a painful, body deforming birth, it is hard to appreciate the beauty of this newly made lepidopteran.

Give it time. Born into the morning, this wonderful nocturnal creature requires the day to prepare for the night ahead.

First, it must climb to a safe perch where it can be free from predatory harassment. Then it will spend the next several hours pumping blood into it's tiny wings, filling them out to their truly magnificent size.

At last she is revealed in all her glory. Fully formed and ready for the night life, this female luna moth (Actias luna) waits anxiously for dark.

She exists for one purpose. Find a mate. She doesn't even have a mouth, as she only has a week to live and won't waste it searching for food.

And this is where we will leave her. Perched high in a tree as night falls, singing her siren's song of heavy pheromones into the darkening  sky.