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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Photosynthetic Sea Slug

This is the eastern emerald elysia (Elysia chlorotica), a tiny marine sea slug native to the coastal areas of eastern North America. You may notice it is a very vibrant green, almost seeming to glow. What makes this creature so amazing is the source of that glow.


That's right, the same molecular structures that power plants and give leaves their green hue also powers this small creature.

This slug wasn't born this way, but rather acquired it's solar powered machinery through an elegant process known as kleptoplasty. Basically, the slug consumed a particular kind of algae (Vaucheria litorea) and in the process of digestion somehow stole it's prey's chloroplasts. What's even more amazing is the fact that the slug already had the genes required to use the chloroplasts, probably acquired by an ancestor through horizontal gene transfer.
So not only does it steal plant molecules, but it already has plant genes buried in it's DNA. 

A young slug can go as long as 10 months without food after stocking up on algal chloroplasts, subsisting only on sun-generated sugars.

How cool is that? A genuine solar powered animal.

Just imagine if we could harness that same power. A couple bottles of algae at birth, and then the rest of your life spent glowing and hunger free.

That would definitely be a wonderful world.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Monogamous Frogs
Deep in the rainforests of eastern Peru, there exists a truly remarkable species of frog.

Ranitomeya imitator, the mimic poison dart frog, is the first amphibian ever proven to be completely monogamous.

The depth of commitment between these frogs is simply breathtaking. The female will lay her eggs on the surface of a leaf, and the male will wait patiently for them to hatch.
When the tadpoles emerge, the doting father places them on his back and, one at a time, transports each tadpole to a carefully selected puddle in the leaves of a bromeliad growing high up in the trees.

He will watch over each of his half dozen children, waiting for signs that they are hungry. Whenever they need food he calls in their mother, who lays an unfertilized egg for each tadpole to eat.

The amount of work these frogs put into caring for their young really shows how complex frogs can be.
The most amazing thing about these frogs, in my opinion, is the level of commitment they have toward each other. Genetic testing of wild frogs shows that, unlike many supposed monogamous animals, these frogs almost never cheat on each other.

It really is wonderful, to think of a pair of these frogs living out their life in the harsh jungle, totally committed to each other and raising their children.

Perhaps we humans could learn a thing or two from their example.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Rarest Butterfly
The Palos Verdes Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis) exists in a tiny population on the northern side of a small peninsula in the southwestern part of Los Angeles County, California.

This delicate blue beauty is believed to be the rarest butterfly in the world.

They were actually believed extinct in 1983 due to habitat loss, but a small group was rediscovered in 1994.

The caterpillars of this butterfly only eat one plant, the common deerweed (Lotus scoparius), and as new houses go up this plant is rapidly disappearing. Adults only breed once a year and have a lifespan of five days in which to do it. All these factors contribute to a very shaky future for this rare species.
Captive breeding and reintroduction programs are currently underway, with some positive benefit. The preservation of habitat and host plants, however, is the most crucial point towards this creature's survival.

We can only hope that they don't slip back down into extinction, because this time there might not be any coming back.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Of Course Crabs Feel Pain
Do lobsters and crabs suffer when thrown live into a pot of boiling water?

A recent study indicates they do.

Hermit crabs collected in northern Ireland were given a simple test. Researchers gave them an electric shock and recorded the result. Not surprisingly, all the crabs fled their shells in response.

What is somewhat surprising is what happened next. The scientists gave the crabs a mild shock that would only cause some discomfort, then offered the crabs new homes.

The crabs that had been mildly shocked all decided it was time for a new home, with many of them engaging in grooming and other behaviors that are signs of distress in these animals.
The strangest thing about this study, in my opinion, is that anyone is surprised at all. Sure, they may look different, but lobsters and crabs are still living beings with brains and nervous systems. How could they survive in the wild if they didn't avoid pain?

I know most people don't care, and it seems like all the biologists in Maine would like to prove otherwise, but these creatures can suffer. So next time you're craving fresh lobster at a nice seafood restaurant, just do me a small favor.

Look over at their live lobsters and imagine how they will feel when they get boiled alive.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tiny Tortoise On The Brink Of Extinction
The smallest tortoise in the northern hemisphere is also the rarest tortoise in the world.

The Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) rarely grows to over four inches in diameter. Unfortunately for this small chelonian, that gives them a very high cute factor.

Being almost unbearably cute, these poor creatures have been decimated by the illegal pet trade. Thousands have been taken from their homes in the deserts of the Middle East and shoved into cramped shipping crates bound for distant shores.
Sadly, the Egyptian tortoise is completely extinct in Egypt. The few remaining subpopulations, mainly in Lybia, each contain less than a thousand adults. Females only produce a few eggs a year, and the young won't reach breeding age for another twenty years, so the numbers in the wild might not be enough to sustain a comeback for these tiny tortoises.

It is possible that these wonderful creatures may already be doomed.

I refuse to accept that, however. As long as a few breeding pairs remain, there is always hope.

On May 21st, 2007, a zoo in Rome successfully bred a pair in captivity that had been rescued from a smuggler's suitcase in 2005. Other zoos have since followed suit.

The future of these creatures rests entirely in our hands. Let's hope that we are up to the challenge.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ants Learn From Experience
This is Cerapachys biroi, a small reddish-brown ant native to eastern Asia and the Hawaiian islands. It is completely blind, but that doesn't stop it from displaying some very interesting cognitive behavior.

You see, these ants learn from experience.

The common view of ants is that they are mindless machines, completely preprogrammed automatons. As a super-organism, an ant colony is viewed in the same light as the human brain, but individuals are dismissed as incapable of real intelligence. However,  a study done on these ants may change that view.
C. biroi was chosen for this study because each new generation of workers is produced all at once, so all the fresh workers have the same level of experience.

What the scientists did was to split this new group in half. Members of one half were rewarded with prey items every time they foraged, whereas the other group was forced to come home empty handed.

After thirty days, the successful group continued to forage every day, but the other group had all given up and switched jobs. They now spent their time caring for the young within the colony.

Do you see how amazing this is? The ants who failed at foraging realized they weren't any good at it, and so took up a position within the colony that gave them more positive feedback.

In my mind, this elevates ants forever from the realm of simple machines and into the realm of living, thinking beings. Truly, the wonders of the natural world never cease to amaze me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Yes, Squid Can Fly
No, this is not a trick. The picture on the right is of an actual squid in flight.

Anecdotal accounts of squid flight have been circulating for years, but only in the last year has actual photographic evidence been taken.

Filling its soft, muscular body with water, the squid contracts rapidly and sends a sharp jet of water out of a tube at the base of its head. Like an underwater jet engine, this thrust propels the squid forcefully from the water. Once airborne, this remarkable animal flares out its tentacles for balance and begins vigorously flapping its fins.

Scientists have observed an eight inch Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) travel a distance of more than thirty feet. That's fifty times the animal's body length.

Its not just an isolated phenomenon either. Dozens of species are suspected of flight.

How cool is that? I anxiously await the first time a giant squid takes to the air and snatches up a passing plane.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Asian Giant Hornet Versus The Japanese Honeybee
This guy is a beast. More than two inches long and sporting a three inch wingspan, the asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the largest wasp on the planet.

Known also as the yak-killer, this wasp kills more people in Japan each year than all the other wild animals combined. Besides the usual tissue damaging bee and wasp stuff, its sting also contains a potent neurotoxin that can kill people who aren't even allergic.

A voracious hunter, the giant hornet doesn't bother with his sting for hunting. Instead he just shreds his prey with massive, crushing mandibles.
  These savage predators have a particular taste for honeybees. A single hornet can kill as many as 40 bees per minute, cleanly decapitating each one with a single bite. It only takes a few hornets a few hours to completely destroy a hive of 30,000.

At least, this is what happens with most bees. The japanese honeybee (Apis cerana japonica) is not such an easy target.

You see, when a hornet scout approaches a japanese honeybee hive he is preceded by a powerful tracking pheromone. Detecting this scent, the bees go into immediate action.

Five hundred bees gather at the hive's entrance, leaving an enticing path into the hive wide open. As soon as the scout enters, the trap is sprung.

Five hundred angry honeybees close in on the suddenly trapped hornet. Forming a tight ball of angry death, the vicious swarm wraps the hornet and each individual bee begins to vibrate.

The air around the hornet is sucked dry of precious oxygen and driven to a sweltering 117 degrees fahrenheit. The hornet is baked to death and the bees are now safe.

This is just a wonderful example of coevolution. As the hornets evolved into terrible killing machines, the bees evolved a behavioral antidote.

Can anyone reading this doubt that the earth is truly a wonderful place? There is so much cool stuff out there, I doubt a single lifetime could ever be enough to explore it all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rhinoceros Sondaicus, The Fading Forest Giant
Hidden deep within the tropical rainforests of southeast Asia is a rare and remarkable animal. It is so rare, in fact, that scientists don't even study it for fear of interrupting any possible breeding activity.

So there are few pictures of this animal, and even fewer videos.

Only in the rainforest could an animal that exceeds ten feet in length and weighs in excess of two tons be anything other than highly visible.

That's right. I'm not talking about some secretive long nosed bat-shrew, but about one of the largest mammals in all of Asia.

Rhinoceros sondaicus, the javan rhinoceros.
Once the most widespread Asian rhino, ranging all over southeast Asia and the Indonesian islands, the javan rhino now exists in only two places on earth.

Fewer than 60 browse for young leaves and fallen fruit in the protected Ujung Kulon National Park in western Java.

Less than eight struggle to survive in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam. Needless to say, their chances of a continued existence are slim.

None live in captivity.
All efforts have been made to leave these creatures alone, so that they might recover in their solitude. Still, they are at great risk.

You see, there are impoverished villages that are close to these wonderful creature's habitat.

That in and of itself isn't so bad, but when you add the fact that javan rhino horn goes for as much as 30,000 dollars per kilogram the  situation becomes dire. It is difficult to explain to villagers with hungry children that they should preserve a creature with no commercial value.

The situation is not hopeless, however. As long as these creatures can be left in silence and solitude, there is always hope. If you would like to help by adopting a javan rhino, go to adopt a javan rhino through the WWF. Let's all come together and show the world that the true value of life is so much more than commercial.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nicrophorus, Grotesque But Wonderful Parents
I would like to talk about what is perhaps the coolest genus in the animal kingdom.

Nicrophorus. Also known as burying beetles, the more than 60 known species that comprise this genus are a strange and wonderful mix of pure grotesquery and marvelous parenting.

You see, they are called burying beetles because they bury dead animals, but their reasons for doing so is what I find to be their most fascinating feature.

They do it for their children.
You may be wondering what the big deal is. Sure, all kinds of insects bury their young with dead things. In fact, that's how most wasps operate.

Look to the picture on your  right and you will see the thing that makes these beetles different. No, you're not hallucinating, that is a mother american burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) feeding her young. Notice the father watching from the foreground.

This kind of behavior is unheard of in the insect world, at least outside the realm of social insects like bees and ants.
Sure, it's gross, but its also kind of beautiful. The amount of effort these beetles put out to raise their young is tremendous.

First, they have to fight off all the other beetle parents in a violent free for all. Then the winners spend the next eight hours stripping down their hard won carcass and burying it in a "crypt" lined with the dead animal's feathers or fur.

Then the mother lays her eggs. The doting parents will spend the next several days fighting off hungry intruders and coating the meat with chemicals to slow decay and mask the scent that draws in competitors. Not to mention the effort they will put into regurgitating nutrients to their young.

There is one other thing though. I warn you, it may push your opinion of these creatures toward the grotesque.

They kill some of the young.
I know, it seems harsh, but only so many young beetles can grow to maturity off a single carcass. The beetle parent logic is to raise the maximum possible number of strong, healthy babies and no more.

Whatever your judgement, gross cannibal or insect super parents, you have to admit that these are some of the most amazing creatures on the planet.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Mushroom That Ate The Forest
Trees were dying.

Whole groves of evergreen trees in Malheur National Park in eastern Oregon were rotting from the inside and falling apart. The only sign of the culprit came every autumn, when strangely beautiful clumps of honey colored mushrooms would burst forth from rotting stumps and fallen trees.

Scientists investigating this phenomenon discovered that it was a pathogenic fungus causing the trees to die. Armillaria solidipes, to be more precise. They also discovered something truly amazing.

It was all one organism.
That's right. More than two thousand years ago, a single spore took root in the soil of what is now eastern Oregon. Growing, it began sending out black mycelial cords known as rhizomorphs. These hungry tentacles spread slowly throughout the forest, establishing fat murderous fungal mats on each food source it encountered.

Currently, this massive monster is more than three miles in diameter and takes up more area than 1500 football fields.

The coolest thing, in my opinion, is that this vast, hidden monster is edible. If I wanted to, I could go to Oregon next fall and pick a basket of juicy mushrooms. It might not taste that great, but who could miss the opportunity to snack on one of the world's largest organisms?

Certainly not this guy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cat Ba, Island Refuge Of The Rarest Primate
There are more than 3,000 islands in northern Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, but only one of them houses one of the rarest primates on the earth.

Cat Ba, the largest island in the bay, is a remarkable place. Moist tropical forest lays like a rich green blanket on limestone mountain peaks that thrust out of the equally rich sea. The entire island, both land and sea, has been declared by Unesco as a biosphere reserve of the world.

But the truly remarkable thing about this place is its rarest denizen, Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus. The golden headed langur.
 Also known as the Cat Ba langur, this striking gold and black creature was not always so rare. In the 1960's there were nearly 3000 on the island, cruising the treetops for leaves and nuts by day and resting in limestone caves by night.

Unfortunately for the langur, however, man valued it for more than its aesthetic beauty. Believing the creature's bones to have medicinal qualities, the locals hunted them to the brink of extinction.

By the year 2000 there were only 53 individuals left on the whole island.

Thankfully, the government there has realized how precious these langurs are and has taken steps to preserve them. Nearly half the island is a national park and for once the langur's numbers have actually increased.

The future is still uncertain for the Cat Ba langur. Only seven groups remain, and most of those are all females. Only three small groups actually produce young. With langur mothers giving birth to just one child a year, those numbers don't sound too promising.
 It is a bleak situation, but I can't help but be hopeful. As long as we humans are willing to face our mistakes head on and attempt to rectify them, there is always hope.

We are the most powerful species on this planet, and we have used that power to do a great deal of damage, but it is that same power that we can use to save this planet.

If you would like to aid the plight of this remarkable creature, go to They have many ways you can help.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cuttlefish Learn Before They Hatch
Look closely at the picture on the right. This is a cuttlefish, a lesser known but equally marvelous relative of the squid and octopus. Nestled firmly within the confines of its egg, it waits to be born.

You know the most amazing thing about this creature?

It is already learning.

That's right, as soon as those strange little eyes with the w shaped pupils jack into that powerful little brain this guy starts observing his surroundings.

Scientists have known for some time that cuttlefish can perform feats of learning and recognition from a very young age. As an intelligent organism that rarely lives over two years, fast learning is definitely a necessity.
However, recent studies involving the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) show that these creatures can learn visually before they even leave the egg.

Basically, the scientists put some clear eggs of a common cuttlefish in a tank next to a tank with a crab in it. They also put some eggs in a tank where they could see no crabs. As soon as the eggs hatched, they placed the babies in tanks with both crab and shrimp.

The young cuttlefish that had been exposed to crab went straight after crab, whereas the rest of the little ones preferred to go after shrimp. The only explanation is that the cuttlefish exposed to the crab learned to recognize them as a potential prey item from within the egg.

That is just plain awesome. Think about it. If those sharp little minds can accomplish such an amazing feat before they are even completely developed physiologically, what wonders could they be capable of as fully formed adults?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Cuttlefish are one of the most wonderful, amazing, and underrated creatures on the entire planet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Devil's Cigar, The Mystery Mushroom
This is the devil's cigar, chorioactis geaster, so called because it rises from the ground like a dark cigar before splitting radially into four to seven leathery rays. This split is often accompanied by a malevolent hiss as this rarest of mushrooms spits out a smoky cloud of hungry spores.

Ok, so that's fairly cool in and of itself, but this mushroom's physical characteristics are only a fraction of its awesomeness. The fullness of its coolness, at least in my opinion, comes from the places that it grows.
  The devil's cigar only grows in a few remote locations on the planet, and they just happen to be separated by 6,800 miles and the Pacific ocean.

In three isolated sites in Japan, these mushrooms grow on the stumps and dead roots of oaks.

In a few counties in Texas, they grow on the stumps and dead roots of cedar elms.

That is the same exact organism, feeding on two entirely different food sources and separated by the largest expanse of open water in the world. They've been separated this way for at least 19 million years, so that pretty much rules out human intervention.

People like to propose theories in situations like this, when the natural world shows us something so wonderful and strange it makes our brains hurt, but I just don't feel that need. Instead, I'll just end the story here.

You have questions? That's good. May your life be always filled with more questions than answers.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Web That Spans Rivers
This tiny spider will blow your mind.

Darwin's bark spider, Caerostris darwin, is less than an inch long. Nonetheless, this tiny native of Madagascar is capable of building the largest, strongest spider web on the planet.

Ten times tougher than kevlar and twice as strong as any known spider's, the darwin's bark spider's web can cover more than 30 square feet and have anchor lines more than eighty feet long.

These webs span lakes and rivers. Seriously. It is normal to see webs with more than thirty insects tangled up in their strands.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this spider, at least to me, is the fact that it wasn't documented by science until last year. This isn't some microscopic dung beetle, hidden away in the foul smelling dark waiting for some clothespin clad scientist to dig him up. This is a spider that weaves webs big enough to snag boats.

That is just so great. It never ceases to amaze me how many countless wonders are out there in the world. Go, explore, seek out new things. I guarantee you will never run out of new discoveries. From the damp ground of the Ecuadorian cloud forests to the hot furnace of deep sea volcanoes, this world is truly a wonderful place.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bois Dentelle, Two Lonely Trees On A Hill
There is a hill called Piton Grand Bassin. This hill sits high in the beautiful cloud forest of Mauritius, an island off the coast of southeastern Africa. This is a very special place.

Why, you ask?

Because there are two bois dentelle trees (Elaeocarpus bojeri) living on this hill. That may not seem all that remarkable in and of itself, except for the fact that these are the only two members of this species living wild anywhere on the entire planet.

These two trees, best known for the gorgeous sprays of white flowers they produce, are the last of their kind.

Unlike some species on the brink of extinction, these trees aren't at risk because humans want what they have, but rather because they have nothing we want. Ignored and unappreciated, these wonderful organisms have fallen victim to invading plants like the more aggressive and commercially desirable guava.
But all hope is not lost. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, in a last ditch effort to save this vanishing species, has managed to produce several offspring from the seeds of these trees.

Who knows, perhaps in a few decades the cloud forest will be filled with the scent of blooming bois dentelles. Till then we can only wait, wait and hope that these two lonely trees can go on standing just a little while longer.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chimpanzees Hunt With Spears And Live In Caves
On the dry, lightly forested savanna of southeastern Senegal there lives a very special group of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus). The Fongoli group, named after the region they inhabit, exhibit some striking behavioral differences from their forest dwelling relatives in other parts of Africa.

In the absence of adequate trees to live in these apes have taken to spending a good deal of their time in caves. It brings to mind the habits our own ancestors picked up when they left  the jungle. But that's not the most amazing thing these creatures do.
They hunt with spears.

That's right, spears. These chimps break off live branches a little over two feet long, strip off the leaves, and then sharpen the points with their teeth.

Then they jab them into the daytime nesting cavities of bushbabies, the small nocturnal primate on the right. Once they have killed the bushbaby, they pull it out for a nice protein rich snack.

That is so cool. I remember when I was a child how all the books said tool use separated us from the animals. Now you have "animals" doing something only humans are supposed to be capable of.
 What is most amazing to me about this phenomenon is that it seem to be the sole domain of the chimpanzee women and children. Adult males hunt by hand and rarely share their meat.

So it seems the females invented this trick to compete with the stronger males, and are now passing it on to their children. Even the young males are learning.

Think about it. In a few generations the entire group could be hunting this way. This could be the birth of a spear hunting culture. Imagine, if we can keep these marvelous animals from sliding int extinction, in a thousand years we could be watching them coax fire from stones.

In a million we could be hanging out together at the local library.

I know that may seem far fetched, but no other creature on this planet is as closely related to us as the chimpanzee. If we can keep them from going down that dark tunnel into extinction, there is really no telling what new wonders they will share with us.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Frog Dad Raises Babies In His Mouth
Darwin's frog (Rhinoderma darwinii), so named because Charles Darwin discovered it during his  famous trip on the HMS Beagle, is one of the most remarkable animal fathers I have ever heard of.

Living near slow moving forest streams in Chile and Argentina, this inch long frog normally lives a very low key life. Camouflaged to look like a leaf on the forest floor, it generally escapes notice. During breeding season, however, it is hard not to notice this strange animal.

As is usual with frogs, the female lays around 30 eggs on the ground and the male fertilizes them. These frogs break custom at this point. The female leaves and the male stays on, diligently watching over his children and waiting for them to hatch.

When they do hatch he eats them.

"What?" You're probably looking at the screen in confusion right now, waiting for me to explain how cannibal dad is supposed to be a good father.

Well, he's such a remarkable father because he doesn't actually eat them. He keeps them in his mouth, his vocal sac actually, until the tiny tadpoles turn into little froglets. Then he opens his mouth and they hop away into the forest.

People spend a great deal of time talking about how great bird and mammal parents are, but honestly I find the standard warm blooded animal methods to be somewhat boring. You would be surprised how many different techniques there are out there.

Truly, we live in a wonderful world.