Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Vanishing Vaquita
This is the vaquita porpoise, Phocoena sinus, and it is the rarest cetacean in the world. It is also the smallest.

Barely reaching five feet in length and weighing only about a hundred pounds, this tiny porpoise lives only in the shallow waters of the northern reaches of the Gulf of California.

Fewer than two hundred remain in the wild, and these numbers are dropping significantly every year. The main reason?
Fishing nets, particularly the hard to see gillnets, entangle and drown these wonderful creatures on a regular basis.

Mexico has established a small reserve where the vaquita can live without the fear of nets, but it may be too little, too late.

I may be a  bit of an optimist, but I believe there is still hope. As long there are people willing to make sacrifices and put forth courageous effort, I feel very few of our fellow species are beyond saving.

If you feel moved to contribute to the continued existence of this marvelous animal, which of course I hope you do, go to For a species perched on the brink of extinction, every little bit helps.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Plant That Comes Back From The Dead
I want to show you something. Take a look at this tree limb. Imagine you are standing in the southeastern United States during an intensely dry summer.

No rain has fallen for months, and you believe the tiny dried leaves of whatever plant is sprawled across the surface of this limb must be dead. Surely, no life stirs here.

You are wrong, however, and brewing rain clouds are about to show you how wrong you are.
Water falls from the sky and within a few hours those dead leaves have sprung back to vibrant life.

This is Pleopeltis polyplodioides, the resurrection fern. An epiphyte that draws it's nutrients from the air and the bark it rests on, this plant can dry up in times of drought to the point where it appears dead.

Add a little rainwater, and it can swell back to life in less than twenty-four hours no matter how long its been dry.

It is estimated this plant can go without water for as long as a hundred years. It might not be able to actually bring itself back from the dead, but this remarkable little fern is still a miracle worker to me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scorpion Mothers
So you're walking through the tropical forest, somewhere in central Africa, and you stumble upon the creature to the right.

What is your immediate response? Fear, loathing, disgust?

What if I told you that this is a gentle, loving, and caring creature deserving of your admiration? You would scoff, no doubt, pointing out the obvious fact that nothing so ugly could be anything but a mindless monster intent on killing anything in it's path.

That's pure garbage. Beauty and wonder are so much more than skin deep and I think it is a true shame these marvelous beings aren't better appreciated.
  Pandinus imperator, or the emperor scorpion, is a wonderful mother. Born live, her young are fully formed but very vulnerable. Immediately after birth they clamber onto their mother's back for safety. They will remain there until their first molt gives them a firmer exoskeleton.

The mother, apparently more than just a mindless protector, will even kill insects and crush them into more manageable pieces for her fragile young to feast on.

After leaving her back the young don't just vanish into the wilderness. The mother-young relationship can last from several months to several years, with the young ones remaining in the family group as adults.

I think this is just amazing. We live in a world where only birds and mammals are are allowed to be genuinely caring, but all around us are a plethora of beings in all forms putting forth great effort to see their offspring live to adulthood. What is the difference between us, in the end?

I would say it is small. What would you say?

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Golden Toad is Forever Gone
Toads are supposed to be drab. Every toad that had ever been seen since man started cataloging his fellow creatures had been so. Until 1966, when scientists exploring a four square mile preserve in the cloud draped rain forests above Monteverde, Costa Rica discovered Bufo periglenes, the golden toad. Endemic to this one small piece of forest, little is known about the lives of these enigmatic creatures.

We will never have any answers to our questions either, because this species is gone from the face of the earth forever.
Staying hidden most of the year, these toads were only seen during a two week window in April. That's when the brightly colored males would gather in huge congregations around pools of rainwater to compete for a very small number of females.

1987 was a very dry year, and all the pools dried up before golden toad tadpoles could mature. Of the more than 44,000 eggs found, only twenty-nine tadpoles survived to maturity.

No golden toads have been seen since 1989.
There are many theories circulating as to the cause of the golden toad's demise. Climate change, fungal attacks, pollution, and even excess ultraviolet radiation have been blamed. Maybe it was just a natural occurrence, or maybe it was mankind's doing.

These theories are not my concern. I simply feel the need pause a moment and reflect on the passing of one of our fellow species. Nothing lasts forever, but it is a real sadness to discover such a wonder only to have it vanish such a short time later.

Farewell golden toad. You will be missed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Bird That Circles the Earth
Imagine living a life of almost constant summer. Imagine days that seem to never end, long glorious light filled days for the rest of your life. For the bird to the left this is no pipe dream, but stone solid reality.

Sterna paradisaea, or the arctic tern, experiences more daylight than any other creature on the planet. It also lives through two summers every year.

Its not easy being an arctic tern, however, because the way this bird gets those sweet benefits is to take part in the longest annual migration of any bird on the earth.
The arctic tern flies from the frozen arctic at the top of the world to the frozen seas around Antarctica, then returns, every year. It takes a winding course, and so travels more than 40,000 miles each year. The average bird will travel nearly 3 million miles over the course of it's life. That's the equivalent of flying to the moon and back five times.

Breeding in the north, fishing and resting in the south, this dauntless creature pays the hard price for a life blessed by the sun.

Below is a map showing this marvelous bird's migratory patterns and northern and southern ranges. As you look at it, imagine a small, two pound bird covering that vast distance every year.

This is truly a remarkable creature.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Poisonous Bird
Look up into the trees of Papau New Guinea's rain forests. Perhaps you will see a flash of orange and black and be lucky enough to see the bird on the left land on a branch nearby. It will not be overly cautious, but I suggest you don't get to close.

This bird is poisonous.

One of only a handful of poisonous bird species in the world, the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is considered to be the most toxic. It contains a powerful neurotoxin called homobatrachotoxin in it's skin and feathers. Presumably, the purpose of this toxin is to defend against both parasites that would try to crawl onto it and visual predators like snakes and birds of prey that would learn to associate the bird's bright colors with a bad meal.

Not necessarily lethal to large predators, the toxin causes numbness, tingling, and discomfort when handled by humans.

What I find most interesting about these creatures is the source of their poison. They don't actually produce it themselves, but rather acquire it by eating a specific type of beetle. The type of batrachotoxin they obtain this way is the exact same as the toxin secreted by Phyllobates terribilis, the deadly poison dart frog of Colombia which also obtains it's toxin by eating certain insects.

Colombia and Papau New Guinea are literally on opposite ends of the earth. Yet you have a frog in one place and a bird in the other, each acquiring the exact same toxin from the same external source. That such things are possible makes me glad to live on this planet. The wonders of this world are so many, a person could spend an entire lifetime exploring them and never run out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Broadclub Cuttlefish Hypnotizes Prey
This is one of the many faces of the broadclub cuttlefish. I say one of many because like all cuttlefish, a particularly wondrous type of cephalopod, these creatures can alter both the texture and the color of their marvelous skin in the blink of an eye.

The picture at left shows a broadclub in standard blend mode. This is how he would normally hunt his prey, sliding along the sea floor or coasting across the coral reef and taking his usually crustacean prey completely unaware. But this isn't the only trick up the broadclub's sleeve.
If the prey item catches on that it is being hunted and tries to flee, or if it is large and potentially dangerous, the broadclub has a remarkable tactic I can only describe as breathtaking. It flares up, hovers over it's prey like some alien spaceship, and begins to flash it's skin like a neon sign. These rhythmic pulses of highly polarized light seem to hypnotize it's prey. Formerly active crabs freeze up and wait to be eaten.

Words really can't describe this spectacle, so I have included a video of this event below. As I always say before showing a cuttlefish video, look hard into those alien eyes. Observe them carefully whenever the cuttlefish becomes frustrated or bored. After doing so myself, I am convinced there is a powerful intelligence lurking in that spineless body.

Please comment if you do or don't agree. I'm curious to see if I'm the only one who thinks this way.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Rare Plant That Eat Rats
Mount Victoria is a mountain on the isle of Palawan, far away on the other side of the world. High up on its summit, in a few scattered populations, there exists a wondrous plant.

Nepenthes attenboroughii, the plant so rare it doesn't even have a popular name, is thought to consist of only a few hundred individuals.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that there are no more wonders to be found in this world, because Nepenthes attenboroughii sat undiscovered on the peak of that distant mountain until as recently as 2007.
The most amazing thing about this plant, however, is how it gets its nutrients. It grows in poor, rocky soil, and so must supplement its diet with other living things.

That's right. Nepenthes are carnivorous plants, known as pitcher plants for the modified leaves they use to trap unsuspecting prey. These "pitchers" emit the sweet smell of nectar. When an insect comes to drink, though, the slippery rim of the pitcher causes it to fall into what is essentially an open stomach full of digestive enzymes.

Nepenthes attenboroughii produce pitchers that are over a foot tall, nearly 7 inches in diameter, and can hold up to two liters of rainwater and enzymes. That means this plant could easily handle a rat that might fall into one of its pitchers.

This is truly a wondrous creature, both for its rarity and its dietary habits. I have included a video below that shows this plant's close relative, Nepenthes rajah, growing pitchers through time lapse video. It is beautiful to watch.

Interestingly, the man narrating the video is Sir David Attenborough, for whom the recently discovered species was named.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When the Fruit are Ripe in Zambia
I am going to tell you about a very special place. The Mushita swamp forest, a remote and hidden section of Kansaka National Park in the heart of Zambia. What really makes it special is the event that occurs there every year in November and December.

The trees all bear fruit.

Maybe that doesn't sound all that amazing. After all, trees bear fruit everywhere. However, this fruiting is the only one that causes the largest gathering of mammals on the entire planet.
Drawn by the presence of the fruit they crave, every year eight million straw colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) descend on this small piece of watery forest.

They fill the skies like a great black cloud, and when they finally land to rest their sheer numbers cause thick tree limbs to break off and fall to the forest floor.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this event is the mystery of its origins. Where do the bats come from? Where do they go when the fruit are all gone?

No one knows, and honestly, this makes me happy. In a world that is so often stripped of magic and mystery, its good to know there are still some unanswered riddles out there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Flamboyant Cuttlefish are Tiny Deadly Geniuses
Metasepia Pfefferi, or Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish, is truly one of the most amazing creatures on the planet.

First, its a cuttlefish, which makes it pretty awesome to begin with. Not really fish at all, cuttlefish are actually part of a stellar group that includes the squid, octopus and nautilus.

The cephalopods.

Cuttlefish are, in my humble opinion, the rock stars of the cephalopod world. They are simply magical. Their skin can literally turn any color or pattern in a blink of an eye, thanks to a powerfully complex nervous system that gives them complete conscious control over each cell. They can even alter the texture of their skin, raising ridges and bumps or going smooth as glass depending on their needs.
And let's not forget their wonderful eyes, highly developed and powerful organs with w shaped pupils that would outperform our own.

This strong visual acuity, coupled with a powerful brain and tentacles that are as dexterous as a human hand, has led to the most wonderful thing about cuttlefish of all.

They are geniuses. Seriously, their  minds are a complex domain that science is only starting to explore.
Okay, perhaps after all this cuttlefish talk you're starting to wonder why the flamboyant cuttlefish deserve special attention. There are two reasons, really.

First, they are the only poisonous cuttlefish, and one of only three poisonous cephalopods. Their muscle tissue contains a highly potent and rare toxin that science still doesn't fully understand. Those bright colors that make this guy so flamboyant are a statement to the world. "Don't eat me, or you will die."

The second, and I think far more exciting, thing that makes these marvelous creatures so special is their size. All that amazing brain power is contained in an animal that would fit comfortably in a shot glass.

Seriously, a five inch long flamboyant cuttlefish would be a monster. They're more often around three inches. This simple fact destroys our prejudiced assumption that a huge brain is required for a high degree of intelligence.

Please, don't take my word for it. Watch the video below. Ignore the narrator, and instead look into the tiny cuttlefish's eyes. Watch as he shifts from hunting camouflage to flamboyant threat display. Watch how he takes in his surroundings and tell me there isn't a sharp mind buried in that tiny boneless body.

Please comment below. I'm curious to see if I'm the only one who sees this.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pando, the World's Heaviest Living Thing
Pando is a place. You can go to Pando and walk through it for days.

Pando is also a living being, the heaviest and possibly the oldest on the planet.

Known  also as The Trembling Giant, Pando is a grove in the state of Utah that has been determined by genetic analysis to be a clonal colony of a male Quaking Aspen(Populous tremuloides).

Basically every one of it's more than 47,000 trunks, spread across 107 acres and weighing in excess of 6000 tons, is genetically identical and springs from a single massive root structure.

One organism. One global mind you could literally get lost in. This being has been around for at least 80,000 years, possibly closer to 1 million according to more recent estimates.
This means that if you want to, you could literally go to Utah and have a picnic in the depths of an ancient being that was already old when human beings were learning how to use tools and manipulate fire.

That blows my mind.

Seriously, the simple fact that something so strange and wondrous actually exists fills me with a combination of hope and sadness for this planet.

There are wonders like this everywhere, and I feel it is our solemn duty as the reigning species on this earth to ensure that they are known, honored, and most of all allowed to exist as long as the laws of nature will let them.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Plants Go Easy on Siblings
The unprepossessing plant above is Cakile edentula, or the american sea rocket. It might not look like much, but researchers in Canada have made a pretty cool discovery working with it. Apparently, if you place more than one of these plants in a container, fierce competition ensues. Both plants send out roots, vigorously trying to choke out their opponent.

Unless, of course, the two plants come from the same mother. In that case they have much more restrained root growth and actually sacrifice individual growth to share resources.

That's sibling recognition. In a plant. Wow.
Apparently plant researchers choose their subjects based on their complete lack of visual appeal, because the tiny weed to the left is how researchers at the University of Delaware uncovered the mechanism by which plants can recognize their own siblings.

Using some cunning molecular trickery, they were able to prove that the plants determine whether neighboring plants are friend or foe based on the other plant's root secretions.

Plants don't have a nervous system. As a matter of fact, you can cut about any piece you like off pretty much any plant and get that piece to grow into a whole new plant. Because of this most people write off plants as stupid, self replicating machines, good only for oxygen and a shelter for wildlife.

Hopefully this little bit of information will show that there is much more to our photosynthesizing brethren than meets the eye.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Legs Means More Brains
Octopuses are smart.

This isn't news to most people, and if you doubt it just check out the guy on the left. He's not just hanging out in those shells. Actually, he carries them with him wherever he goes and uses them to build temporary shelters.

That's tool use. And he doesn't even have a spinal cord.

Which brings me to the point of this post, the part I think is news.

Octopuses have arm brains.
Well, sort of.

Basically, octopuses are so smart because their brains are pretty large in proportion to their body size. But that's only half the story, or I should say three fifths the story, because three fifths of their neurons aren't stored in their brain at all. Rather, they are located in the nerve cords of their arms, giving each arm its own independent nervous system.

I won't even go into the brutal experiments that were done to prove this, mainly because I think a creature smart enough to use tools should be treated with more respect. Suffice it to say, the octopus's powerful mind delegates commands and its complex arms carry out one of a large number of possible motor patterns, all with a certain degree of autonomy.

How freaking cool is that?

Funny, most articles and posts on this subject end with a discussion on how we can use this knowledge to design better robotic arms, or more efficient, decentralized computer networks.

That's not my philosophy though. All that I will say is this.
Octopuses are cool, and they deserve our respect and admiration.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Is That a Dragonfly or a Seagull?

Let's say for a moment that you can travel through time. Whenever you want to go, no problem. So you pack up your bags and head to the late Permian period, around 250 million years ago. Once you arrive, you notice you're having trouble breathing. That's because the oxygen levels in the air were much higher during that time.

These same high oxygen levels are the reason for the creature you see flying towards you, skimming through the air on a fast, powerful trajectory.
Meganeuropsis permiana, the giant protodragonfly of the ancient world.

It had a wingspan of close to three feet, and was nearly twenty inches long. It couldn't exist today, but back then the higher oxygen levels allowed for much bigger organisms.

If I were you, I'd probably go back to my own time at this point. With dragonflies big enough to snatch up kittens, you don't want to hang around long enough to find out how big the land predators were.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Biggest and the Smelliest
Rafflesia arnoldii is the largest flower on the earth. It can grow to be over three feet across and weigh well over twenty pounds.

I'm sure images of the perfect valentine are dancing through your head, but this is one flower you don't want to give someone you care about. Mainly because it has a peculiar odor.

Rotting meat.

The flies and other scavengers that pollinate this parasitic flower love it, but I doubt it would go over well on the windowsill.

As unappealing as this flower is, it will still be sad if it disappears forever. You see, it only grows on a certain vine, which only grows in the primary(undisturbed) rain forests of Malaysia, Sumatra, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As the primary rain forest in these regions vanishes, so does this rare and enigmatic flower.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pink Flower Jungle Ninjas
Hymenopus coronatus

Malaysian Orchid Mantis

Beautiful. Elegant. Like a delicate forest flower brought to life, this creature lives amongst the equally beautiful orchid blossoms in the rich verdant rain forests of Malaysia, Indonesia and Sumatra.

Born black and orange, looking much like fierce little ants, every molt brings them more in tune with their environment. Depending on their surroundings, they can end up being pink, a rich yellow, stark white, or some combination of the three.

Skilled hunters, they'll tackle anything that moves, even occasionally taking down small lizards. If lifted from their perch they lash out violently, savagely fighting to the last breath.

Can you doubt their ninja status?

If you do, just look at the picture below and see how long it takes you to find the ninja.
Notice the small gap between looking and seeing?

That's all the time this guy needs. Consider yourself warned.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Land of the Man-eaters

On the border between India and Bangladesh, three mighty rivers empty into the sea, forming the largest river delta in the world. Nestled in this region is a mangrove swamp/forest known as the Sundarbans. This habitat seethes with life in the wash of fresh river water and ocean salt. It is beautiful, majestic, awe inspiring.

And deadly if you're a human. Why?
There are over 400 tigers living in the Sunderbans, the largest population of tigers anywhere living in a single, contained area. Unlike tigers everywhere else, they do not fear man, but rather view us as just another selection on the menu.

There are also roughly 5,000 people living around the Sundarbans, eking out an existence on its fringes and often making illegal trips into the interior for wood and honey.

These two collection of facts, when placed together, show why the Sundarbans is such a deadly place. Between 50 and 250 people are killed, and presumably eaten, every year.
As you can see, tigers are great swimmers, so great they can pull a man off a boat and carry him away with ease. They often do.

As for land excursions, villagers foiled many attacks by wearing masks on the backs of their heads. Tigers like to attack from behind. Unfortunately for the villagers, tigers aren't stupid. They figured it out and are now back to eating people on a regular basis.

It really is a magical place. I'm sure by now you're frothing at the mouth for a chance to go there yourself and bask in the wonders of nature.

You know the best part? You can. Just go here.

Enjoy you're stay. He looks Hungry.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hummingbirds are champions

image credit: Peasap
Are you intimidated? Do you recoil from your screen, driven back by the baking furnace of a thousand suns that is this creature's pure and unadulterated awesomeness?

Well you should, and here's why.

The ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), is probably the only kind you've ever seen if you live in the eastern half of the U.S. Don't feel left out though, because that's like saying the only person you've ever seen is Chuck Norris.

Twice a year this tiny fluff of feather and bone participates in a marathon that boggles the mind. Basically, in order to migrate back and forth between their homes here and their party shacks down in Mexico, they take the shortest route you could imagine.

                                                        They Just Go Straight

That's right, after fattening up to a hefty 6 grams, they fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico, most often with no stops.

That's around 400 miles.

That's around 20 hours of hauling tailfeathers, roasting across the open water; often into a twenty mile per hour headwind.
image credit: Daniel E Bruce

Good, its safer that way. Just imagine what would happen if this little beast decided you weren't giving him enough respect.

Maybe drag you 400 miles?

Give hummingbirds the respect they deserve, and pray you never find out.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Velociraptors are vicious little turkeys

image credit: Jim Linwood
If you were alive during the nineties, there's a good chance you saw the movie Jurassic Park, or were at least inundated with a flood of popular culture references that would make you think you knew what the creature on the left was.

"Oh yeah," you'd say, "That's a velociraptor. Tall enough to look a man in the eye, about ten or eleven feet long, a vicious killing claw on its first toe. It lived in the western United States, right?"

You'd be wrong.

All those stats are true, however they apply to the velociraptor's larger cousin, Deinonychus, one of the most fearsome creatures to ever stride across the Americas.

image credit: Kevin
Turkeys, really? Oh yes, the real velociraptors were not much larger than turkeys. These little killers hunted protoceratops (a small, hornless predecessor to the likes of the mighty triceratops, about the size of a sheep) and other small game across what is now the Gobi desert of Mongolia.

Vicious? Yes. Intelligent pack hunters? Double yes. Packed a savage killing claw on the first toe of each foot? Yes indeed.

Small enough to shove into a medium sized dog carrier? Unfortunately that is also a yes.