Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creature Feature: Greater Bird of Paradise

It's time for yet another example of sexual dimorphism in birds. As with many of these, the male gets all the love. The male Greater bird-of-paradise sports elaborate feathers that rival the tail plumes of the quetzal. It is native to New Guinea and Indonesia (which is its own reservoir of awesome, I swear).

The Greater bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda) is so called because the first trade skins brought to Europe had their feet removed by the natives. This led European scientists to believe that the bird was a creature from paradise kept aloft by his elaborate display plumes. He supposedly never rested, only landing to Earth to die. (This is almost like an airborne version of an actual creature, the oarfish, but that is for another article.)

The bird-of-paradise's display feathers, instead of being based in the tail, are situated on the bird's flank - that is, beneath its wings. He also has wiry tail feathers that make his display more than just a bunch of yellow fluff.

There are many more interesting birds-of-paradise, but this one is one of the most eye-catching. It is also the species that gave the whole genus its name. One look at those feathers is enough reason to consider it unearthly; use stories and attributes like this for your own designs!

(I'll get bored of pointing out the sexual dimorphism possibilities in birds eventually.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Creature Feature: Hammerhead Bat.

Let me tell you about a creature called the Jersey Devil. It is a cryptid with the head of a horse, leathery wings, and equine hooves. True to its name, the creature has its origin in Leeds Point, New Jersey. It has supposedly been haunting the area for 260 years.

A more complete description from here:

"It was about three feet and half high, with a head like a collie dog and
a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and
its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves.
It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws
on them. It didn't use the front legs at all while we were watching.
My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the
window and say, 'Shoo', and it turned around barked at me, and flew away."

Now, look at this creature:

His name is Hypsignathus monstrosus, the hammer-headed fruit bat. When science is calling you a monster, you know you're weird. Only the males have the namesake heads, but damn if they do not look like the Jersey Devil's little brothers!

Hammer-heads are big enough bats to warrant a cryptid legend. A male hammer-head's wingspan can be up to 970 millimeters. That's almost a meter, which is a little more than a yard (3 feet) in U.S. terms. It is the largest bat in Africa.

For those of you who do not know sh*t about bats (or about bat sh*t, which can be used as fertilizer), the largest bats are always fruit-eaters. The hammer-head, however, has been known to prey on small animals. This is rare, but not unheard of.

That skull could've fooled me. A bite from that looks nasty!

Like the prairie chickens mentioned in a previous entry, hammer-headed bats are often cited as an example of lek mating. Males vocalize and flap their wings in order to attract a female. They are highly polygamous; only 6-8% of hammer-headed males may contribute to a hammer-head population.

Pimp life.

Although it's unlikely that the Jersey Devil is really just an escaped fruit bat, the visual similarities are uncanny. Might there not have been an escaped fruit bat that someone thought was a demon baby (similar to escaped wild cats from private collections)? Granted, the creature would not have lived long; New Jersey is a very different environment from Africa. It's still an interesting idea.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Creature Feature: Cormorants.

(I was torn over what clip to use. Some of the Guilin shots were GORGEOUS!)

Being called a "birdbrain" used to be a valid insult. Birds were commonly thought of by scientists as intellectually inferior to mammals, possibly because so many of them run into our windows. They also have a very different brain structure; if you ever look at a human brain, the balance section, the cerebellum, is a LOT smaller in us than it is in a bird. Now we know that at least some birds are smart enough to give humans a run for their money.

For example, Tokyoite crows are not only bigger than American crows, but also smarter. They put nuts (and, occasionally, rocks) on train tracks so that trains will crush them. They make fake nests so that, when the humans try to exterminate the crows, they wind up empty-handed. Goddess, no wonder crows have their own youkai in Japanese culture.

Pictured: A REAL Japanese crow.

Interesting as the crows are, there are several other birds that also exhibit sophisticated intelligence. Cormorants, (genus Phalcocorax, which would probably make a good name for a rock band) are among them.

Cormorants are all fishing birds. While this may cause problems for fishermen, a few places such as Japan and China have trained the cormorants to fish for them. Fishermen tie a piece of fishing twine around a cormorant's neck. When they dive and resurface with a fish, they cannot swallow it, allowing the fisherman to extract it simply by opening the cormorant's beak. This has been done for thousands of years, and has become a tourist attraction in some areas.

The Japanese have added fire. Apparently fishing at night with intelligent birds is not hardcore enough.

(I am unsure of exactly how these commands are issued and taught, but can presume that the method is similar to falconry - that is, the birds are taken in at a young age and taught that the humans are their only source of food.)

What's in it for the cormorant? It gets to eat every eighth fish that it brings up.

It knows when it's time for its eighth fish.

Cormorants are the best counters in the bird world. Crows can count up to three; parrots can count up to six. These birds can count, unfailingly, up to eight. If they do not get their eighth fish, they go on strike.

If you had to vomit up your last seven fish, you'd go on strike, too.

Seriously, there is no other way to put exactly how adamant these birds are about getting their eighth fish. They do not respond to orders. They refuse to dive again. Even pushing them off of the boat does not deter them from getting their eighth fish. They know when they have gotten to eight, and refuse to go any further.

Do I have to fly up and peck your eyes out? GIMME MY ****ING PAYCHECK!

If your boss ever calls you a birdbrain, be sure to tell him that cormorants not only know when they are overworked, but also that they can go on strike. Who knows; maybe you'll get a fish!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Creature Feature: Coots.

"Engagingly ugly" describes these birds to a T.

No, this is not about old people. This is about the bird whose name became a slang term for old people.

Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), like ducks, swans, and geese, are water birds. Despite their similar habits, they are unrelated to waterfowl; coots belong to a family of birds called rails (Rallidae), not true waterfowl (Anatidae). They inhabit and are common in Europe and North America, making this the first Creature Feature to ever be on a European animal.

(Had my camera not lost all of its pics, I could use my own images from England for this entry. I thought they were the coolest things ever when I found them in Hyde Park, and took great pains to capture their odd features. They were almost as cool as the swans I got to pet. Unfortunately, my camera flipped me the bird and was being crazy, so I lost over 600 pictures.)

As stated above, the term 'coot' originated from this bird's white, featherless frontal shield. This shield develops after about a year. The chicks, as seen in the clip above, also look like little baby vultures that can somehow swim.

The head is the least strange thing about this bird. Its feet are semi-webbed; instead of having full webs like a duck or swan's, the coot's feet have little flaps that serve the same purpose. This gives them a unique footprint.

This bird's feet were cool enough to photograph. That's saying something.

Even though the coot is a common bird, it was weird enough to deserve an entry of its own. Look around your backyard for your own oddities!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Creature Feature: Lemmings.

A while back, there was a 7-Eleven radio commercial that went something like this: One lemming approaches another lemming with a cup of 7-Eleven's delicious coffee. They get into a conversation about how much better and cheaper 7-Eleven's coffee is VS gourmet coffee like Starbucks's and Caribou's. Lemming #1 asks why Lemming #2 is still buying the overpriced drinks. The answer?

"We're lemmings."

Luckily, I was aware of exactly what a lemming was and why it mattered in this situation. Lemmings (which comprise the whole tribe Lemmini) are rodents native to the northern tundra. They, along with ostriches, chameleons, and porcupines, have one of the most misrepresented and false reputations in the wild animal world.


To call someone a 'lemming' implies that they are extreme conformists, and go with the flow so readily that they would literally jump off a cliff just to fit in. Here's the Urban Dictionary definition:

"A member of a crowd with no originality or voice of his own. One who speaks or repeats only what he has been told. A tool. A cretin.
"Ya think he'll do it?"
"He's a lemming, he'll do anything he's told."

This is largely thanks to White Wilderness, a documentary released in 1958 by Disney. Since the migration of little rodents living in the Arctic tundra apparently was not interesting enough, Disney filmed them 'jumping' (that is, being thrown) off of a cliff. Repeatedly. They do not commit suicide; a few stray lemmings may get knocked off en route, but this is definitely not intentional.

Disney also faked the whole 'mass migration' by filming only a handful of lemmings moving about in Alberta, Canada - an environment with no native lemmings, by the way.

There are a number of things wrong with the lemming myth outside of Disney's movie:

1. Why would a real creature commit suicide, let alone en masse? Sure, a few mythical creatures have shown suicidal tendencies (the Greek sphinx and supposedly the Persian simurgh among them), but in real life, the kamikaze gene feels out of place. Would we still have lemmings if they were all so suicidal?

2. Sheep would be more independent than lemmings according to the modern media. Sheep are herd animals. Rodents are not. Although lemmings do occasionally migrate, it would involve a LOT more than the dozen or so lemmings that Disney used.

3. Lemmings can swim. It's not exactly suicide if they're jumping off a cliff into the ocean. That would be more properly called an Olympic dive. Notice that all the lemmings in the film, despite being thrown off of a cliff by Disney filmmakers, are fairly cool with being thrown into the sea.

If this clip does not make lemmings sound like rodents BORN to be in a Linkin Park video, I don't know what does.

Stick with the classic sheep, an animal that does indeed move in herds and has a fairly compliant nature to begin with, as a way of insulting someone for following the crowd. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some gourmet coffee to buy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Creature Feature: Japanese Giant Hornet.

See this hornet? It killed a Japanese office worker.

(Image found here, and used without permission...I'm a very bad girl. I am not making a cent off of this blog, but the caption was too fun to resist. I mean, I actually know how to say that...)

Japan has all sorts of weird stuff. The Japanese eat deadly pufferfish and have a strange fixation on young girls, more porn than a book of Greek myths (including boob pudding), too much cuteness for the average sane person, and some of the weirdest pizza flavors on the planet. There are plans to make a giant mech a national monument. They already have their fair share of weird.

Japan is also a culture on an archipelago. Being restricted to islands always opens the door for weird, fascinating wildlife found nowhere else on earth.

Weird, fascinating, horrifying wildlife. Sounds like hentai potential to me!

Although Asia is loaded with killer hornets elsewhere, the Japanese subspecies, Vespa mandarinia japonica, remains the most notorious. It can fly at speeds of up to 25 MPH, can go nonstop for 62 miles a day and has a neurotoxic venom that kills 40 people per year on average. They are not aggressive towards humans, but do not need to be; should you mess with one, you are f*cked.

As an afterthought, they are also huge - around 2.4 inches long. That's big for a hornet.
I hope this person was careful!

With the efficiency of a ninja army, these hornets disassemble hives of European bees (Apis mellifera). This is no problem for Japanese bees (Apis cerona japonica), who can gang up in huge clouds around their giant enemy. The wasps forage for their hives, bringing back only the most nutritious body parts to feed to their siblings. Even the insects in this archipelago dice their food elegantly.

Despite this hornet's terrifying speed and deadly venom, they are considered beneficial. Like many vespids, these giant hornets remove pests from crops. That corn on the cob on your 4th of July picnic table was probably saved by a wasp, so, although you do not like them flying around your soda, it might not be a good idea to kill them. That goes double for a wasp that can kill you.

Also, the hornets are apparently quite tasty, and can be trained to make amazing pieces of art:

(Note: Consider this a teaser for another column that I will officially start on July 5th. It will be updated weekly, and will showcase some of the world's weirdest eats. American food is not particularly weird, we just have HORRIBLE food standards! EVERYTHING WE EAT IS POISON!)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Creature Feature: Tapeworms.

Behold the tapeworm, a MARVEL of nature! YT would not let me link this, so you will have to click the text. (For the lulz, note the Shakira interview and "America's Got Talent" alongside flesh-eating parasites.)

Yes, I went from the elegant quetzal to a creature that most people would in horror from. You know how I get with worms; they fascinate me!

Tapeworms (Class Cestoda) are no exception to my love of worms. Remember, parasites have to thrive inside another organism; they have to live through acids and our own immune systems in order to survive. If anything, living in such harsh conditions should be seen with more admiration than mere predation.

All hail the tapeworm. These can grow anywhere from 40-100 feet in length. Long worm is loooong.

The first things that most people notice about tapeworms are the flat segments that make up its 'body' called "proglottids." These, almost like those little sea salps in a chain, can reproduce independently, making some biologists believe that a single tapeworm should be treated as a colony of proglottids rather than a single organism. They can reach chains of up to 100 feet long.

Gravid proglottids usually come out in a host's feces, and lay eggs intended for a different host. Beef, fish, and pork can all contain juvenile tapeworms (cysts) just waiting to get in your gut and start the process all over again.

The head of the worm, called the scolex, is rarely seen. It has suckers and a hooklike 'mouth' that latch it onto the intestinal wall. It also looks like something straight out of an Alien movie:

Just as an example of how specialized parasites like this can be, let us look at the beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata). As the name implies, the beef tapeworm spends much of its life in a cow's body, but falls onto pastures via human feces. Once the resistant eggs from a proglottid are ingested by a cow, the larvae spread all around the cow's body from there. The cycle repeats itself unless the meat is either frozen or heated to temperatures that the cysts cannot handle.

Creepy? Perhaps, but also admirable in its own right. Few species accommodate so well to the introduction of domesticated animals. There is even one for puppies, animals hailed as man's best friend. These little guys have found a way to not only infect said animals, but also to make humans part of their wormy complete breakfasts. Hosts usually show no outward symptoms, but some cases result in severe weight loss, decreased appetite, nausea, and dizziness. You may also wind up with bad case of diarrhea, making this Japanese video essential:

Since at least the Victorian era, tapeworms in particular were advertised as a weight loss supplement. Given that many parasitic infections result in a change in appetite and weight loss, it may have worked.

There are, however, several better parasites for your health; hookworms in particular have been known to reduce allergy symptoms. That's a worm for another day.

This, however, has no excuse. It looks even more like a tapeworm with wings in the video games.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Creature Feature: Resplendent Quetzal.

(Whew. Not much time to edit these while overseas due to my VERY limited internet access, so prepare for lightning posts! They will still be 'posted' on the same days, so it will look like I was still posting one a day. Shh, our little secret!)

Peacocks are not the only birds with striking plumage and extreme sexual dimorphism. Another bird in the Americas, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) also exhibits a striking difference between male and female birds. The males are brilliant green with red undersides, and...

...OK, I'm going to run out of words. Have a picture instead:

The female is, of course, drab brown for better camouflage. All mythological associations with this bird revolve around the male and his spectacular plumage. It ranges from Mexico to Panama, and it is hard to not think that this little bird is special after one look at its tail feathers.

Some of you probably picked up on this bird's connection with the serpent god "Quetzalcoatl" right away. Both the Aztec and Mayan peoples linked this bird with their own god of the air. Since the male's long green feathers also look like leaves, they were associated with fertile crops. Said feathers were plucked from the male bird and used in headdresses.

Nowadays, we also associate it with Articuno.

Besides being popular in tribal fashion, modern Central American cultures (especially the Guatemalans) see the quetzal as a symbol of liberty. Legend has it that the red on the male quetzal's chest originated from the bloodstain of a Mayan warrior, and that no quetzal has ever sung since the Conquistadors took over Mexico-Central America. Quetzals do, however, have a reputation for being poor captives; many of them would rather die than be in captivity. Only recently have they been bred behind bars.

Like everything else in Central America, the quetzal is primarily at risk due to habitat loss. Just let the sacred birdie be, mmkay?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Creature Feature: Jackson's Chameleon

Everybody has heard of chameleons. Although color-changing lizards are not that unusual, chameleons have become nature's poster animal for changing colors, both to show emotions and for camouflage. Chameleons in general are weird on a number of levels, from their telescoping eyes to their tong-like toes to their curly, prehensile tails. Many of them also have crests and/or horns. All of them can zap flies into their mouths with lightning-fast speed. Due to their extreme weirdness, they are seen as evil by natives in whatever part of Africa or Eurasia they are found.

This is not an entry on chameleons in general. The Jackson's chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii) in particular is unique, even among chameleons. It is native to the higher regions of Kenya and Tanzania. There are three subspecies of this chameleon, all of which eat a varied diet of invertebrates.

The horns on the male Jackson's above probably got your attention right away. Said horns are only present on the larger males; the females have minimal, if any, headgear. They look like they belong on a prehistoric lizard as opposed to a modern one. Throw in all the other features that make chameleons weird as all get-out and you have an odd creature based on looks alone.

As always, there are more to these lizards than meets the eye. Jackson's chameleons are one of the few lizards to give birth to live young, just like boas and livebearing fish.

They are also an invasive species on all Hawaiian islands thanks to the pet trade. In order to discourage breeding these chameleons, however, it is illegal to both import and export them into Hawaii.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Creature Feature: Babirusa.

Quick. When I say the word "pig," what is the first creature that pops into your head?

More likely than not, your mind immediately jumped to Babe, Gordy, or any other number of strange talking pigs. Whichever pig came to mind, it was pink, slightly fuzzy, and adorable as all get-out. Then you might have done some homework and realized that they polluted as badly as Spider-Pig from the Simpsons movie. Still no big deal, right?

Not all pigs are cute and fuzzy. Domestic pigs originated from wild boars, bristly creatures known for charging ahead at full speed and goring people with their tusks. Pigs have a good variety of wild relatives that look like regular pigs a la H.P. Lovecraft, but even Spider-Pig will not save you from the pig that dwells in the corners of your nightmares.

As the video says, the babirusa, a unique type of wild pig (with its own genus Babyrousa), is native to the jungles of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Although the females and piglets look like normal wild boars - the ancestors of the domestic pig - the male sports the most unusual tusk display of all swine.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Besides sporting (relatively) normal tusks, male babirusa have two teeth growing, and curling, right through their skulls. This is thought to be a visible sign of strength. Since it takes balls for someone to get diamond bling on their teeth, having teeth grow through one's skull is probably the porcine equivalent.

If you think these are extreme, imagine diamonds IN your teeth. If pigs had fashion, I'm sure we'd see babirusa dentures popping up.

Naturally, the natives of Sulawesi and the few other Indonesian islands that babirusa are found on have taken notice of its strange appearance. One theory for its unusual range (Sula and Sulawesi, with no babirusa on the islands in-between) is that they were exchanged among royalty. The four-tusked rakasa present in a few Indonesian Hindu temples also have roots in one of Wilbur's most bizarre, intimidating cousins. That doesn't mean that they could not make for interesting movie monsters.

If Doctor Who can use rhino-headed aliens, why not make an alien race based off of babirusa?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Creature Feature: Cephalopod Acid Part 2: Blanket Octopus

Just when you thought the blue-ringed octopus was the trippiest thing in the sea, along comes this pretty lady. Along with many other cephalopods, the whole genus Tremoctopus was born when Mother Nature had some spiked punch. There are four species in that genus; the most well-known is T. violaceus. Geez, even the name sounds like something from a drug trip.

One of the first things that one immediately notices upon meeting a female blanket octopus is her namesake train. Blanket octopuses do not use ink to defend themselves; instead, they unfurl an amazingly long, beautiful cape that can be fractured easily and regenerated. As an added bonus, they also steal man o' war tentacles. Tentacle porn, much?

Unlike peacocks, grackles, birds of paradise, deer, and most other sexually-dimorphic animals with elaborate displays, the female blanket octopus is larger and more splendid. The male is significantly smaller - he is only 2.4 centimeters VS a 2 meter plus female. He drifts along waiting to get laid, which, in this case, means cutting off a sperm-filled tentacle for his massive honey. This dimorphism allows the male to mature faster and the female to give birth to as many healthy offspring as possible. Macrophilia is alive and well in nature, guys. (As if anacondas were not enough of a hint.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Creature Feature: Asian Vine Snakes (Ahaetulla)

Sorry for the late post; Wisconsin Dells is not known for its plentiful Wi-Fi. It is, however, known for its amazing water parks and overpriced souvenirs.

Rushed vacation plans aside, let's have a quick look at the genus Ahaetulla. This genus is one of three dubbed "vine snakes," thus the additional bit of sciencey language in the title. They all look, well, botanical, but the snakes of Ahaetulla have stolen my attention as of late.

Ahaetulla covers a group of rear-fanged venomous colubrids native to many parts of Asia. They are commonly called 'whip snakes' or 'vine snakes' due to their arboreal natures and slender bodies. Their poison is not deadly to humans, and the location of their fangs in the back of their mouths makes for inefficient delivery.

What interested me about them was not their camouflage nor their venomous potential. Call it a subtlety from working with reptiles, but these guys have particularly interesting faces. Whip snakes are among the few reptiles blessed with binocular vision...

...via an almost mammalian, triangular face and keyhole-shaped pupils. Seriously, just look at the face on this snake! Goats have their work cut out for them; the vine snake could pull Baphomet off just as well, and would make a nice dragon base. Hey, if no one else has done it, I will just have to do it myself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Creature Feature: Common Grackle.

If you live in North America, you probably have not even noticed these birds. From a distance, grackles look like regular, unappealing blackbirds. Sure, their neon yellow eyes stand out, but eh. Black birds with yellow eyes. So what?

Even their names are unappealing. "Grackle" is not a pretty word at all. Grackles do not have pretty songs like some other passerines. The distaste for this bird can be most clearly expressed by the word for a group of grackles: A 'plague.'

One look up close reveals that they are not normal blackbirds. They aren't really black! Like little hidden peacocks, their feathers shine with shades of iridescent blue, purple, and green. Males are a lot brighter than females, enough so that the females are sometimes mistaken for a different species of bird.

They are also noticeably intelligent, and sport a number of interesting behaviors. For example, common grackles practice 'anting'- they allow ants to clean their feathers. They can also mimic other birds or sounds, albeit not as efficiently as mockingbirds. As demonstrated in the video below, grackles can also learn a few tricks:

Believe me when I say that dog food is more appropriate for birds than for dogs.

(Also, hooray for my first North American creature?)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Creature Feature: Comet Moth.

Wow. This is the first thing I've done from Madagascar, isn't it? Expect a lot more; that little island is/was home to a million unique species that all deserve a moment in the spotlight. Most of you are probably well-aware of lemurs - the primates that look kind of like crosses between monkeys and raccoons. Perhaps a few of you also know of fossas, Dumeril's boas, and day geckos. Yes, the little Geico gecko has some cousins on an island dangling beneath the African continent.

Just like us, he refuses to talk about his in-laws. Shame; that could be a GREAT conservation plug!

Why, of all things, did I decide to pick on a moth? A friend of mine wanted me to identify a strange brown moth from the Amazon region. This led to a crash course in Lepidoptera, the order containing butterflies and moths. I want to say that I have narrowed it into the order Saturniidae, but cannot say for sure. I still have not found what it really is, but am definitely not giving up.

This moth was found in the course of my search. The moth in question had the tails typical of American luna moths, so that was one of the places I looked. I had no idea that the luna moth was related to so many other moth species that I had taken a liking to in my bug-studying days, and encountered quite a few new favorites (including, of all things, a moth with bright pink and yellow coloration. Sparklemoth!).

So, if this moth looks an awful lot like one you may have seen near your hometown, it should come as no surprise. Besides the name 'comet moth,' Argema mittrei is also called the 'African moon moth.' It is one of the largest moths in the world, with male moths sporting a wingspan of 20 centimeters and tails of 15. Males are larger and brighter than females.

Both sexes look pretty damn trippy, but the male is up top.

Sadly, the comet/African moon moth is highly endangered. The caterpillars of the comet moth feed only on fresh eucalyptus leaves, so deforestation is a big problem. Furthermore, their cocoons are not solid, but meshed to keep the metamorphosing caterpillars from drowning in their humid rain forest climate. As soon as the moth emerges, it has to go mate; it has a short lifespan of 4-5 days, and is only fertile the first day out of the cocoon.

Here's a moth that we do not want to exterminate. Appreciate its beauty while it lasts!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Creature Feature: Dingoes.

"Crikey! The dingo ate my baby!"

Does that sound familiar to you? It should. Dingoes have become almost as iconic of Australia as kangaroos, koalas, emus and spiders that can kill you in a single bite. The kicker here is that one of these things is not like the others. Can you guess which one?

Yep. The dingo is different from nearly every other poster animal of Australia. That's because it really shouldn't be there to begin with.

If you have ever studied the fauna down under obsessively, no doubt you noticed that there is no logical evolutionary progression towards a placental canid. There are carnivorous marsupials and a few stray herbivorous placental mammals (like those darn rabbits!), but those were introduced by humans.

Besides humans, the dingo is the only large placental mammal in Australia. To their credit, they came over with the Aborigines and not Europeans, but they are still not technically a native species. They can also still breed with domesticated dogs, which should be a pretty big hint that they are not part of the indigenous population. (Consequently, Australian environmentalists treat the dingo population as being under threat due to outbreeding.) Dingoes are still blamed for wiping out the thylacine (despite having a slightly different niche) and the Tasmanian Devil on the Australian mainland.

A lot of native species were killed off simply because humans came over with their dogs...which then got loose and started breeding on their own, messing with the ecosystem even more. Ultimately, this evened things out in Australia; one apex predator was removed, and another took its place. (New Zealand was not so lucky, but that is for another article.) Dingoes even keep other foreign populations, such as cattle and rabbits, in check.

So everything worked out ecologically. Good for the dingo. What about that baby-eating thing? What did Australia do to the domestic dog to give it such a horrible reputation?

Does this look like a face that would eat a baybee?

Australia, as stated above, is home to kangaroos that can kill you, snakes that can kill you, spiders that can kill you, and giant birds that can kill you. Even the cute, cuddly fairy penguins and wombats can do serious damage if they want to. That means, unlike most of the feral dogs you hear about, these dogs are designed to take care of badass prey that eats humans for breakfast. Furthermore, since they are descended from domestic ancestors, dingoes are unafraid of humans. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, no?

The little blue penguins are plotting your demise.

So, by extension, do dingoes really eat babies? After all, they are not native, and originated from the domestic dog. No way they can be that vicious!

Try and picture this eating a baby. I dare you.

Despite the huge pop culture myth that dingoes eat human spawn, the answer to this seems to be 'not usually.' The original report from the '80's about a dingo eating a baby is based largely on circumstantial, but convincing evidence; a child went missing, and a dingo was found near the campsite. Nobody has actually seen a dingo devour a baby. A later report mentions a dingo with a limp leg carrying a baby, but it is questionable. Since a limp was also reported in the original case, it may be that only injured dingoes go for sweet, sweet baby meat. Reports of child-eating have been greatly exaggerated.

This does not mean that you should share food or squeaky toys with dingoes; as a simple Google search will tell you, dingoes are only slightly more tame than wolves. Would you share those things with a wolf? How about a wolf that, thanks to its domestic breeding, has lost its fear of humans?

Didn't think so.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Creature Feature: Sunbeam Snakes.

Last night, I was completely blown away by...well, let me put it this way.

You know when you're reading a biology book and they mention a completely random animal as an exception to a rule? Something along the lines of "All mammals have live babies except for platypi and echidnas?" You never have to know that information for a test because it is not the norm. Those two mammals (in this example) are exceptions, not the rule. In this case, thanks to popular culture, you probably know what a platypus looks like already, and maybe have a mangled image of the echidna thanks to hours of playing Sonic the Hedgehog. In any case, unless you're just the type who goes, "huh, never heard of those *Google*" and spend the night before a major test researching exactly what an echidna is, it is not something that you would look up.

The same thing happened with me and sunbeam snakes. They were mentioned, however briefly, in one of my snake books because they refuse to fit in scientific boxes and have fully-functional left lungs. I recently found them, completely randomly, on a Kingsnake.com listing.

My goddess are sunbeam snakes pretty. They put the rainbow boa (Epicrates chenchria) to shame with their iridescence. A whole rainbow flashes against their dark scales with every coil, and, if I could, I would like to see what a calico one looks like up close. Besides making snakes glow in the dark, it would be awesome to emphasize that, holy shit, these creatures shine with all the colors of the rainbow. Mammals cannot do that.

Although there are only two varieties of sunbeam snake, they are unique enough to have their own genus, Xenopeltis. They are, along with boas and pythons, one of the most primitive groups of snake. Since they have traits from both genera, they belong to neither genus.

Both species of sunbeam snake are native to Asia. They live in China, Indonesia, and range into the Philippines. They are commonly found in rice paddies or open areas, but they spend a lot of their time underground as well (making them 'fossorial,' i.e. 'this thing lives in ditches').

So why the hell are they so darn SHINY? What does iridescence do for a snake that spends most of its time underground? Who knows. Just sit back and enjoy the shimmer.

Yes, this was the best YT vid I could find.

Naturally, I did some research on sunbeams after coming across them on Kingsnake. It turns out that they are fairly advanced snakes (as are rainbow boas, by the way), requiring 80-100% humidity, a lot of substrate and fairly high temperatures. Despite their brilliance, they stress easily, and should not be handled frequently. Just leave them alone and let them strike like lightning at feeder mice.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Creature Feature: Axolotls.

Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are among the weirdest of amphibians. They have amazing regenerative abilities, breed readily in captivity, and have large embryos (good for observing the development of vertebrates). What they are most well-known for, however, is their habit of never growing up.

Well, O.K., that's not completely true. They do become sexually mature, but they never lose the look of their baby stage. Axolotls do not undergo metamorphosis. Yes, they can be coaxed into an adult form (which looks very similar to a tiger salamander), but it does not live long. Instead, axolotls look like bigger babies as they get older, retaining their gills, paddle-shaped tails, and other traits that most salamanders only have as larvae.

Like zebrafish, they can also be genetically-engineered to glow in the dark. You know I'm down with that.

Unfortunately, despite their prevalence in captivity, axolotls are critically endangered. They are only found in two lakes in all of Mexico. One of these lakes was drained because of flooding; the other is a puddle of its former self. The Aztecs also ate these creatures, leading to their use in modern Mexican cuisine, but I could NOT eat this face:

Could you?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Creature Feature: Rock Dove.

...yeah, that's just a more awesome way of saying 'common city pigeon' (Columba livia domestica). I know, I know, there are a MILLION other pretty pigeons out there, but, as with the Japanese beetle, it never hurts to try and see the beauty in the invasive and mundane.

Pigeons are surprisingly interesting birds. If you do not immediately shoo them away, take a look at them sometime. Not only are the wild-type (!) pigeons iridescent, but they come in a variety of colors and patterns. Like many species, they can inherit piebaldism, which leaves some patches of black iridescence in a sea of white. Other times, they just remind one of cheesecake or cookies n' cream ice cream.

Unlike Japanese beetles and lionfish, rock doves have been bred in captivity for thousands of years (going all the way back to cuneiform tablets) and have a few exotic looks to show for it.

As cool as exploding feathery heads are, I cannot fathom what prompted THIS breed.

Like many doves, city pigeons have an innate sense of direction. One theory says that magnetic particles in their brains allow pigeons to remember exactly where their nests and mates are, even if they are moved thousands of miles away from the site. Other theories say that pigeons can return home via solar patterns, visual cues, or familiar smells, but those are not nearly as awesome as honing in on the Earth's magnetic pull. However they do it, the pigeon's knack for navigation has been observed and manipulated since ancient times; pigeons were often used to deliver messages. In World Wars I and II, the ability to carry notes back and forth earned a few lucky pigeons medals. By "lucky," I mean "got injured and still delivered the notes."

Lest we forget.

Pigeons are also one of the few groups of birds that feed their young with milk. No, they do not have breasts (do I even need to mention DuckTits?), but instead regurgitate a high-fat and -protein semi-liquid from their crops. It is produced by both male and female pigeons. Replacing this special feed is one of the main obstacles of pigeon breeders (such as, say...Darwin).

Despite the pigeon's talents and service to mankind, we still do not want them in our cities. Their waste slowly decays bridges and statues, after all. The easiest way to curb the pigeon population is to stop people from feeding them, or, alternatively, let the peregrine falcons do their thing.

Falcons are badasses like that.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Creature Feature: Japanese Beetle.

Many of you probably know about the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) thanks to the little nibbles on your trees, shrubberies, and flowers. You might have seen these guys in your weeds, wreckin' your yard. Yes, they are related to the rose chafer beetles that I want in a lucite clock (both are in the family Scarabaeidae), but these are far, far more annoying.

Japanese beetles are, however, very very pretty. Like the rose chafer, they have some metallic green parts. Their wing covers are bronze-orange, and the whole bug would make a nice jewelery piece. At the tips of their antennae are little three-fingered 'hands' that reach out to give the beetle a better sense of its surroundings. (Am I the only one who finds that image both creepy and adorable?) Also, yes, those are tufts of hair you see on the beetle's underside.

I could praise these little green and orange bugs all day. That would not stop me from luring them into a little plastic bag and drowning them. As beautiful as they may be, they are, like lionfish, a destructive invasive species. Though well-regulated in their native habitat (Japan), in America, they have become even more infectious than DDR. They predate upon 200-odd plant species, including quite a few that humans would like to keep around.

Come pick my roses! No, wait, NOT LIKE THAT!

Japanese beetles probably came into the U.S. in a shipment of iris bulbs before 1912. They were first spotted in a New Jersey nursery in 1916, and have spread their way across the U.S. (and even into Canada) ever since. The beetles' success has caused an increase in some bird populations, which causes the birds to be considered pests themselves. (Why no one has labeled humans as pests, I'll never know. Sorry, jaded again.)

Just a reminder of what these guys can do.

So, despite their beauty, feel free to drown them, smack them into walls, seal them into plastic blocks, fry them (hey, you never know, might be good), use them in chicken feed, or tear off their wing coverts and make a necklace out of them. Get a big enough one, preserve it, and brag that you have a lucky Egyptian scarab. You'll be doing the United States a great service.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Creature Feature: Lionfish

Following in the vein of both striped animals and big cats, the lionfish (also called turkeyfish, scorpionfish, fire fish, and a few other colorful names) is a vicious, beautiful predator native to the Indian Ocean. Their range extends all the way out to Japan, Korea, and northern Australia. Yes, everything cool is from Asia.

The term "lionfish" can be used to describe any fish of several genera, many of which include "Pterois" -"wings"- in their names. Small wonder; just look at those pectoral fins! If the arowana looks like an Eastern dragon flying through the skies, the lionfish may well be a wyvern.

Now to make it glow in the dark...

They eat small creatures such as krill, and are known for, like everything else with a psychedelic paintjob, being poisonous. Although lionfish are predatory, all of my sources assure us that their poisonous spines are purely defensive.

The severity of the venom varies from person to person; of course, medical attention is recommended regardless of who you are. Unlike some of the creatures we've had in our spotlight, lionfish venom is usually not fatal to humans. It still hurts like a bitch.


You might need to know how to deal with a lionfish sting in the near future. Besides their natural range, there have been many reports of lionfish populations in American waters. This sudden population boom has caused scientists and divers alike to worry about reefs around Florida and the Caribbean. To be more precise, there's been a noticeable decrease (of approx. 80%) in the population of small fish wherever lionfish appear. Predictably, scientists are pointing their fingers at the exotic pet trade.

This raises an interesting point: Cats and dogs have been wrecking nature for ages and not too many people seem to care. Same with cows; cattle have been passively the rain forest for a good long time, but no one has done too much about it. In contrast, when a snake or lionfish is involved, scientists are all up in arms. Never mind the impact humans have.

Sorry. Jaded. We'll look at another awesome invasive species tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Creature Feature: White Tigers.

In retrospect, I really should have done the anaconda today; Lady GaGa's new video for "Alejandro," a song about a Latino harem, would have fit perfectly. It's almost close enough for me to call synchronicity, but not quite. Tch.

Instead, today's post will be devoted to one of Vegas's most popular residents: The white tiger. Although they've been around for longer than anyone could know, many of us know them from Siegfried & Roy's Vegas performances. Contrary to what playbills may tell you, none of the white tigers seen today are Siberian; they all have some Bengal lineage, which is just one of the many issues that tiger fans and experts like to pick on. There are also a few different kinds of white tiger, but the morph we will be focusing on is the common "white with black stripes" popularized by S&R.

Your hand has a flavor. *OMNOMNOM.*

This common color morph in Bengal tigers is a recessive gene dubbed 'chinchilla albinism.' Despite this, they are NOT considered 'albino' tigers in the strictest sense; a report from 1922 told of an albino mother tiger and her babies, all of which were stripeless with pink eyes.

This version of white-ness was first found in Bengal tigers, and has been in captive collections since the 1900's. This version of white coloration is linked to larger-than-average size, which may have helped it survive in wild populations. The trait is currently extinct in the wild, and even in its heyday would have occurred in only 1 out of every 10,000 Bengal tiger cubs.

It is also genetically linked to crossed eyes. All captive white tigers, due to outbreeding with Siberians and severe inbreeding, cross their eyes when stressed. The trait is getting rarer and rarer, and will probably be bred out. Strangely, this only seems to happen in Bengal-Siberian crosses; it is (was?) rarely observed in pure Bengal whites.

Bulging eyes...squished face...With a little imagination and long fur, and you could market this as a shishi!

Regardless of how much money well-meaning zoos make off of white tigers, there are a good amount of people against keeping them. They have at least one point right: Though exotic, white tigers are NOT an accurate sample of wild tiger populations. These are not the tigers we should be looking at. An exception can be made for Vegas; zoos should really stop showcasing freaks.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Creature Feature: Java Green Peafowl.

What would the month June be without at least one peacock in honor of its namesake goddess, the Roman Juno? No, this is not the Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus); the green peafowl, Pavo muticus, fits the goddess better in a number of ways.

There are a number of checks against that association, starting with the peacock not being Hera's original bird. The Greeks did not even have a word for peacock, instead calling it the "Persian bird." Prior to the peacock, Hera had the cow and the cuckoo (a brood parasite...interesting choice) as her animals. Damn if the peacock did not prove the most popular out of those.

The association of a peafowl with marriage and childbirth is not limited to Greece and Rome. Starting with the words 'Persian bird,' an immediate similarity surfaced between Hera's peacock and the simurgh, a phoenix-like bird that appears in the Persian Shahname. Along with raising the albino (here I go again with that) Persian Prince Zal, she (ALWAYS 'she') invented the C-section. The simurgh is present throughout a great deal of Persian history, inherently benign, and frequently depicted with a peacock's tail (...despite being female).

China has a similar creature in the fenghuang, which is linked to marital harmony and the empress. Originally, 'feng' used to be used to indicate a male phoenix, and 'huang' a female; now they are both symbolic of feminine (yin) power. The sexes can still be identified by the amount of tailfeathers; a male has an odd number of plumes, the female an even (usually two). Parallel to how the Chinese emperor is identified with the dragon, the empress is linked to the fenghuang.

I wish I could have found a purse or something...I may end up photographing one of my own fenghuang necklaces/clothing pieces later, but for now, have a truly Japanified fenghuang/houou. Ho-oh actually follows the even-feather rule, too!

Yup. Back to Indo-China. Again. You KNEW I could not stay away from that area for long.

There are quite a few differences between the Java green and India blue peafowl...besides the obvious change in color. The Java green has a different crest, stronger wings capable of sustained flapping flight, and is overall leaner and taller than the blue peafowl. They can be more aggressive than blue peafowl, and are more susceptible to cold, which makes them harder to keep as well.

Unusually for galliformes, the male and female do not look very different from each other. Just about the only time one can tell them apart is when the male has his train. Also unlike the India blue, Java greens have been proven monogamous in captivity and spend time raising their offspring (like a few other oddball predatory birds). This lack of difference between the sexes makes the feminization of the whole genus Pavo a bit more logical; if the tail is only present during mating season, and they themselves live in happy relationships, why not link them with matrimony as well?

A male and female...I think. It's hard to find side-by-side pictures, but the female is slightly darker.

Indian peacocks, on the other hand, tend to have wholly different habits and deities associated with them. They are not as clearly predatory as their Javan counterparts, and have, like chickens, very clear distinctions between hens and cocks year round. Unlike the feminized Eastern phoenix, many entities associated with the peacock are male. That includes the bizarre-as-hell demon Adramelech and a peacock angel (that was, of course, labeled as 'Satan' by nearly all monotheistic religions).

Just for comparison's sake.

The only logical explanation for the switch between birds is that ancient people really did not care what sort of peafowl they linked the Queen of the Gods to. Either that, or Hera is secretly a dyke.

There. I said it.