Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I'm Not Dead

Last month, Phantom Midge made a wonderful suggestion for an EUT that I hadn’t thought about. I had known about it for ages, and, like her, had been pronouncing it wrong for years1. Somehow, without any foreknowledge, I’m managing to post this on an exceedingly appropriate day, as today is the 70th anniversary of its discovery as a living animal.
Image from Dinofish
Image from Dinofish

Order Coelacanth (pronounced See-la-canth) had been well documented since 1836, and fossils show that it lived for 345 million years between the Devonian period and the end of the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs died out. This must have come as a big surprise for the West Indian Ocean Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) caught by fishermen off the coast of South Africa in 1938. These fishermen were friends with the curator of a small, local museum, and she would frequently check through their catch for anything interesting. Needless to say, something interesting was, in fact, found. Dinofish, who seem to be experts on this matter, have the whole long story on their site in far more detail than I can manage.

Coelacanths spend most of their time in deep (90-200m) caves, where they suction feed on any fish smaller than their head. Exceedingly sensitive eyes, along with an electro-sensory organ help them hunt. These are not small fish, getting up to about 6 feet in length and weighing about 175 pounds, thus surpassing the other “Living Fossil” fish I wrote about2. Coelacanth tail fins are split into three fleshy sections, and all eight of their fins move in a mesmerizing, visualized wonderfully—as always—in an ARKive video.

I was surprised the Coelacanth is listed at all, much less as Critically Endangered. I thought there would be far too little information on its numbers and habits to be called anything other than Data Deficient. Analyses of populations in 1989 suggested that there might only be 500 individuals left. The low population, ironically enough, might be attributed to by-catch. This could explain why all the natives were so perplexed when the Europeans got excited by the catch of a fish they knew to be inedible3. Since then, conservation and outreach programs have given fishermen the tools to release the fish directly back to the murky depths from which they came.


1In Freshman Zoology, I made a list of letter combinations that made an “s” sound. “Coe” always annoyed me, because I’ve never seen it outside of biology.
2Wikipedia has some nice articles about the term “Living Fossil.” Coelacanths are a “Lazarus taxon,” while the Australian Lungfish falls into the wider “Living Fossil” expression. I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to write about an “Elvis taxon.”
3Never underestimate the local population when it comes to ecology.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Put the Lime in the Coconut

Oversized arthropods will always be welcome on this blog. Alright, most arthropods are condidered icky enough, but there is a special type of revulsion saved for really big creepy-crawlies. Well, I've already written about the largest freshwater invertebrate, so the largest terrestrial invertebrate can't be far behind1. Also hailing from order Decapoda, this is the Coconut Crab (Birgus latro).

Image from Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust
Image from Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust3
When I say "big," I'm sure that you're looking for some measurements to back that up. The Coconut Crab, also known as the Robber Crab or Palm Thief, has a body length of 1½ feet, with a legspan of 3 feet. It weighs up to 9 pounds but its strong claws can apparently lift up to about 60 pounds. Yes, this crab can lift a medium-sized dog.

Why is it so beefy? Well, anyone who has tried to open a coconut with simple tools can answer that. This is not an easy fruit to get into. The Crab will strip the outer husk near the germination pores (those things that make a coconut look like a bowling ball). It will then use one of its legs to punch a hole through the inner husk, and break the coconut apart. Once again, ARKive provides us with wonderful footage of this in action.

Mating occurs quickly and on land, and the female carries the eggs under her abdomen. She then drops those into the ocean, where they hatch into marine larvae that look something like shrimp. Coconut Crabs are closely related to the Terrestrial Hermit Crabs you'd see in pet stores, and the young will find snail shells to protect their soft rear-end. As they grow larger, their abdomen grows a thick carapace, so they lose the need to find snails. Good thing, too, considering their size. They also become fully terrestrial, though they can still drink seawater.

Coconut Crabs are found dispersed throughout islands in the South Pacific. Being a huge crab, no one would be surprised that they're hunted for food. Being an island species also means invasive species like rats, pigs, and ants are a problem for the juveniles. As the islands get more populated, habitat destruction is a problem as people encroach on the beaches. As population estimates vary from island to island depending on the number of people there, the IUCN lists the Coconut Crab as Data Deficient.

Conservation varies from island to island as well. Some places set hunting limits, while others have set up breeding programs. More research needs to be done to really find out how to help these huge creepy-crawlies out.


1The fact that weight is pretty much meaningless in the ocean leads to some pretty big invertebrates down there. The Japanese Spider Crab2(Macrocheira kaempferi) with a 13 foot legspan wins as the largest arthropod, while the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) puts all other invertebrates to shame with a body length of 33 feet.
2You can't tell me that picture doesn't look like a video game boss.
3The image that many of you were expecting to see was probably
this one, which I would have used if I could have found an original source.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Be Prepared

Many of my readers may know that the Spotted (or Laughing) Hyenas’ (Crocuta crocuta) reputation for being scavengers is undeserved; they hunt at least as frequently as Lions. A smaller subset probably knows about the… um… interesting morphology found in female Spotted Hyenas. I hate to disappoint, but the Hyena I’m writing about today has neither of those characteristics. Meet the Brown Hyena (Hyaena brunnea).
Image from Lioncrusher's Domain
Image from Lioncrusher's Domain

It is much scragglier than its spotted relative, as well as being smaller. Their main food source is dead things, which they find using their acute sense of smell. While most of their diet is made up of carrion, this doesn’t mean they don’t hunt. Do you want to see a moderately ugly animal become instantly vilified? Watch this video of a Hyena on the coast hunting a baby Fur Seal. Of course, there’s no reason for the vilification—the Hyena’s gotta eat.

While they hunt and eat on their own, they come home to clans made of three to five other family members. Females will mate with unrelated nomadic males—just passing through—to prevent inbreeding. Cubs are raised by the whole family, and females will (begrudgingly) suckle others’ young. When the babies are on solids, the clan will bring back food for them.

They live in southern Africa, south of the Spotted Hyenas’ range. They prefer semi-arid environments, though some live on the Namibian Coast1. They can survive close to urban areas, which is what gets them in trouble. People will find them feeding on dead livestock, and assume the Hyena was the killer. ARKive states: "The brown hyena is a poor hunter, but will often make feeble, frequently unsuccessful, attempts to catch any small animal it encounters." Does that really sound like something that would take down a thousand-pound cow? This kind of persecution lead to the Brown Hyena being listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

It's not listed as Vulnerable anymore. Education programs have lead to farmers reconsidering their views on Hyenas. That, coupled with the maintanance of large conservation areas have helped the Brown Hyena back from Vulnerable; it is now listed as Near Threatened. If this continues, it might end up as another "Conservation Success Story," like the Bald Eagle and Lake Sturgeon.

1One would assume that those are the ones catching the Fur Seals, unless the baby was really lost, and meandered 500 miles inland.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

When I Get Home

I know, I know. The monthly idea didn't work out so well and I ended up missing August (and almost September). Expect a post in October, or, better yet, suggest an EUT for me to write about. Phantom Midge suggested the Oregon Forestsnail (Allogona townsendiana), but the blog that she linked to was well written enough that I don't think I would have much to add. So, a random ARKive search turned up a big beetle that is one heck of a homebody.
Image from the Zoological Institute of St. Petersburg
Image from the Zoological Institute of St. Petersburg

This is the Frigate (or Fr├ęgate, depending on your language) Island Tenebrionid Beetle (Polposipus herculeanus), and it is the largest known tenebrionid in the world. For all of you non-coleopterists out there, tenebironids are better known as Darkling Beetles1, and their larvae are far better known as mealworms. In day to day life, mealworms are seen in two situations: you either have a pet insectivore2, or you have flour that has been in your pantry far too long.

Now that we know a little about the family, on to the Frigate Island Beetle itself. Sources give it's length as 20 to 30 mm. That might not seem like much, but look at that picture again. That's not a small beetle. They are completely flightless--probably due to their size--and don't get around much. They spend the entirety of their lives on a few dead trees in a small area. The absolute farthest that they've recorded this beetle traveling is a whopping 19 meters3. The beetle is apparently able to find all its life needs on the few dead trees within those 19 meters. I haven't found what it eats, exactly; I wouldn't be surprised if scientists weren't sure. Looking at its kin, I would guess that the rotting trees are their main food source.

The Frigate Island Beetle has a fun defensive mechanism that I wish I had a visual for. It will, when threatened, exude a purple, stinking, staining chemical. I'm sure the t-shirts of the visiting entomologists look lovely after a day of research.

Frigate Island itself is a tiny island within a larger archipelago called Seychelles, just north of Madagascar. Of course, being from a small, pretty tropical island means that two things are threatening the beetle population: habitat loss and invasive species. A recent program to eradicate the rats (it's always rats) was succesful. Cooler still, the London Zoo has a breeding program, and you can even (figuratively) adopt a Frigate Island Beetle.

By the way, the Coconut Crab is also from Seychelles, and is listed as Data Deficient. It will likely get a post in the near future.



1Not Darkwing, Darkling!
2I, for example, have a tub of 50 in my refrigerator for my Leopard Gecko.
3Even for a beetle, this is small. The American Burying Beetle is not considered a distant traveling beetle, and is about the same size as this one, but can travel two miles on the scent of carrion.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Want my Baby Back

I apologize for the unintentional hiatus last month, but I start as a Master’s student next month, and preparations for such have gotten in the way of blogging. As it sounds like my workload will increase massively once school actually starts, don’t be surprised if Endangered Ugly Things continues on a monthly schedule for a while. I hate to say it, but in a fight between my blog and my education, my education wins out (barely).

Two weeks ago, both my girlfriend and my aunt sent me a link to MSNBC’s article on the “Top 10 Oddballs of the Animal World,” highlighting what they consider the weirdest looking animals out there. I hate to say, I could probably give some of those a run for their money1. It did point me back to EDGE’s amphibian list with a burrowing frog similar to the one I wrote about in May. I was worried about featuring another amphibian so soon (Ha!), but the Conservation Issue of The Year is the amphibian decline, so maybe two frog posts are justified. That, and this one deserves it.
Image from EDGE
Image from EDGE

The Myer’s Surinam Toad (Pipa myersi) belongs to a genus of frogs whose looks never fail to gather attention. As (according to EDGE) one naturalist put it:

"…looking – as all pipa toads look in repose – as though she had been dead for some weeks and was already partially decomposed."
A lovely image, though probably quite helpful in camouflaging themselves among the leaves within the Panamanian swamps they call home.

As swamps are not exactly known for their clarity, Surinam Toads have reduced eyes. They instead rely on fancy lobed fingers to feel out their prey, which they then grab or simply vacuum up—long sticky tongues simply won’t work underwater. Their prey preference appears to be what I like to call “any animal smaller than its head.”

What I find truly ugly about Surinam Toads is not the fact that they look like an unfortunate road-kill accident. It’s their baby rearing techniques. During mating, the couple maneuvers themselves such that about 100 eggs are spread along the sticky back of the female. These are gradually absorbed into the skin, where the young develop. Most Surinam Toad young go through their entire metamorphosis in their mother’s backs, emerging as tiny froglets (seen here2). The Myer’s Toad lets the kids out a little early, with the young emerging into the world as tadpoles.

If you’ll find the range map on the EDGE website, you’ll get an idea why Myer’s Surinam Toad is listed. If anything has a total range of less than 5000 sq. km, then it automatically gets on the endangered list. Habitat loss and fragmentation is probably aiding in their decline, though too few have been found to conduct a thorough population estimate. They are found in a reserve, so there may be hope to see baby tadpoles pushing their way out of their mother’s skin for years to come.


1Both my girlfriend and Phantom Midge have suggested I write about the Yeti Crab. However, so little is known about it that it isn’t listed anywhere, as well as the fact that there is only one photograph of it. I do think it should be adapted into plush form, though.
2It should be said that I find this creepy enough that I can’t watch the entire video. It looks like something from a horror film.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dr. Worm

A friend of mine found an exciting Endangered Ugly Thing that I knew I had to write about. Nothing fits so far outside the "charismatic megafauna" category as a giant earthworm.
Image from Palouse Prarie Foundation
Image from Palouse Prarie Foundation

While the Giant Palouse Earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) is not the largest earthworm1, a three foot long earthworm is nothing to sneeze at. Especially when it smells like flowers. Yes, while other animals thrash or bite or musk when handled, the Giant Earthworm emits a flowery scent. Smelling like lilies, in fact. No one knows why. It is also said to spit and run (slither?) away to avoid predators. One local conservationist has been oft quoted as saying, "This worm is the stuff that legends and fairy tales are made of." I want to know what fairy tales he's been reading.

The Palouse region from which the Earthworm derives its name is an area of eastern Washington and northern Idaho that was dominated by thick prairies. However, as of today, most of the area has been converted to agricultural use. While the Giant Earthworm never tends to directly contact surface vegetation--what with living in burrows 15 feet underground--it can still be affected by the change. This habitat loss, as well as competition with invasive worms2 has led to the Palouse Giant Earthworm's decline.

Like a few other animals I've written about, the Giant Palouse Earthworm went a long time without any sightings. Unlike, for example, the Long-beaked Echidna, they've recently found another specimen. In 2005, a grad student from the University of Idaho found one, and it is now preserved in formaldehyde for posterity. While the IUCN has listed it as vulnerable, the US Fish and Wildlife Service seems reluctant to federally list it. This, of course, has put conservationists in an uproar. But hey, if this kind of controversy can produce stories in multiple newspapers, teaching more people about new vulnerable animals, it can't be all bad.

1 That honor belongs to the Giant Gippsland Earthworm (Megascolides australis) from Australia, which can grow up to 9 feet.
2Most earthworms you come in contact with in North America are invasive. Now you know.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Purple Haze

As a comment on my Copperbelly Watersnake post, Gargoyle Grins asked—very nicely—for a post on the Purple Burrowing Frog. I’m not sure when the comment was made, but I only saw it recently. I am more than happy to oblige a reader.

Image from EDGE, by S.D. Biju
Image by S.D. Biju via EDGE
Having only been formally described in 2003, there is a surprising amount of information known about the Purple Burrowing Frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). So far, it has only been found in two small areas in Western India, where it spends most of its time buried underground.

There are two major reasons for its subterranean lifestyle: it’s moist underground, and that’s where the termites live. With minimal eyes1, the Purple Burrowing Frog relies on smell and touch to hunt. The pointy nose is useful for shoving through termite’s walls, and it has a tongue specially shaped for sucking up the little morsels. The Purple Burrowing Frog depends on termites for more than just a food source. The structures and tunnels built by the termites help aerate and moisten the soil. It is the only burrowing frog that feeds underground; all others simply hide in the dirt to avoid predators.

During the monsoon season, however, the frogs come out to breed. They make their way to nearby water sources, and begin the mating process. Due to similarities to other species, it’s probable that the male temporarily glues himself to the back of the female during amplexus. Since it was only discovered in 2003, there are still quite a few uncertainties about its lifecycle.

Our lavender friends are listed as endangered by the IUCN because the range it has been found in is so small, and the forests under which they dig are threatened by expanding cultivation. Much more needs to be learnt about this animal before conservation efforts can be put into place.

1Eye reduction happens a lot in underground animals.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Horseshoes

I have been slacking and I know it. I graduate from the warm, quiet womb of my liberal arts college at 1:00 this afternoon, so I’ve been trying to set up a summer job and a grad school, and the blog has fallen by the wayside. I should be on schedule during the summer.

Greg e-mailed me an article about an endangered rat from Australia that people are desperately trying to protect. Unfortunately, there seems to be little information on the little rodent, but I thought you readers might be interested. This week’s animal is one I’ve looked at for a while, and I’ve just now gotten around to writing about it.


Image by Joan Krispyn
Three years ago, I worked in the Shores department at the Columbus Zoo. One of the scariest looking denizens of the touch pool was the Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus). With its fierce-looking eyes and pointy tail, it intimidated some of the visitors. It didn’t help that many people thought it was a baby stingray1.

That scary-looking tail (formally called a telson) is about as sharp as a dulled pencil, and just about as dangerous. When adults migrate en masse onto the dry high-tide zone to lay eggs, flipping is a definite possibility. Right side-up, they present an armored shell to any seabirds. Upside-down, they are a bowl of seafood2. The long telson allows them to right themselves, hopefully before any hungry seagulls show up.

The eggs they lay hatch into “trilobite larvae,” who look enough like their namesake. These stay buried for a few weeks, until the right high tide rolls in. They then swim like mad until they are below the intertidal zone. A few days later, they molt into juveniles, and start living on the bottom, living in deeper waters as they age. As adults, they aren’t exactly picky about what they eat; they live off of whatever animals have burrowed into the sand.

I know, they’re not actually listed as endangered, but there are a number of people worried about their conservation. There are two main uses for them, both of which costal states are setting limits on. The first is use as bait for eel and conch fishing, and this seems to be the largest source human-induced mortality in the Horseshoe Crabs. The other use is in medical research, as they are harvested for their literal blue blood (it’s copper-based). This can be used to test pharmaceuticals, but don’t ask me how. Research and education programs are popping into existence to try to help save the Horseshoe Crab before it gets listed.


1Alas, the Touch-A-Shark pool had shut down years before.
2Upside-down, they also look like face-huggers from Alien.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Buzzsaw

This will not be the first time I’ve written about things with exciting nasal protuberances. I don’t find these noses ugly—they all do nifty things, and I can’t help but write about them.
Image from Elasmodiver
Image from Elasmodiver

The rostrum of Green Sawfish (Pristis zijsron) is no exception. It uses its saw mainly for feeding—swiping at unsuspecting fish, stunning and injuring the intended prey, or raking up tasty crustaceans from the seafloor. The Sawfish is closely related to sharks and rays, and, like them, has sharp scales called denticles; these have been modified to form the “teeth” of the saw. Catching food is not the only thing the rostrum is good for, as it is lined with motion- and electric- sensing pores to find buried prey. That, and if anything happens to appear threatening, it couldn’t hurt to have a spiky protrusion on… um… hand.

I thought Wikipedia had a typo when it stated that the Green Sawfish grew as large as 7 meters—surely, they must mean feet. Nope. This is a big fish. They reach maturity at 14 feet. Think of the length of a typical bedroom. A little more than half of that is filled with a fish that looks halfway between a shark and a ray. The other five and a half feet is a nose with spikes. Don’t worry; humans are much too large to be considered prey, though you might not want to provoke them.

The Green Sawfish is the most common sawfish. It’s also critically endangered. That doesn’t bode too well for the other species. In fact, the Common Sawfish (Pristis pristis) is pretty close to becoming extinct. The biggest threat to all sawfish is accidental by-catch by the fishing industry. Let’s face it, with a proboscis like that, getting tangled in nets would not be pleasant. Less frequently, they are caught on purpose—for meat, for oil, or for an interesting six-foot long spiky thing. As of yet, they are only beginning to set conservation measures into place.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Black Bead Game

I really wanted to write about the whipscorpion that Phantom Midge found, but I hate to say, there is little to no information about Trithyreus shoshonensis. So, my fall back this week is an animal that I got a picture of during my spring break trip to the Columbus Zoo. Growing up, I remember learning that the Gila Monster was one of two venomous lizards. This is the other one.

Image by Me
Image by me

Yes, the Mexican Beaded Lizard (Heloderma horridum) looks a whole lot like the Gila Monster. This so happens because they are within the same genus, and the major differences are that the Gila Monster is smaller and more colorful. Not having the hinged fangs of vipers, the Beaded Lizard delivers venom that flows along grooves in the teeth, and delivers by chewing. Digimorph gives a wonderful visual of that—check out the horizontal dynamic cutaway1 and watch for the hollow bottom teeth. The venom is used mainly as a defense mechanism, and is typically non-fatal to humans—if you get medical treatment quickly enough. The small animals they prey on…well, that’s a different story.

The “beads” from which this lizard gets its name are osteoderms2: tiny bits of bone growing within the skin that lead to its studded appearance. This adds another layer of protection on top of the fact that they can maim with a single bite. They inhabit the scrublands and other semi-arid habitats of Western and Southern Mexico, explaining the other part of their name. Like some other arid-adapted lizards, the Mexican Beaded Lizard can store fat in its tail to provide food and water during times of scarcity.

Habitat loss, due to clearing for agriculture, is one large factor in this species’ decline. The one that really surprises me, however, is the pet trade. I’ve always been an avid fan of reptiles, and have no problems with keeping some as pets. But I draw the line at an animal that can kill me if improperly handled. To help stop this problem, they are listed by CITES, and there are breeding and head start programs to replenish their numbers in the wild.

1Yes, it’s actually a Gila Monster. The principle is the same.
2Meaning “bone skin.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You Dirty Rat

Today, I had an urge to write about a non-descript rat thing. At one point, I mentioned that the EDGE website was full of them. So, I went trolling, but to no avail. Many of them are quite cute. The ones that aren’t, well, it’s possible that some of them have been extinct since the ‘60s and no one’s noticed1. Then, like a bolt from the blue, I remembered a non-descript rat thing that was much closer to home. I mentioned it by name in the original essay, and promptly forgot about its existence.
Image by Bob Gress via Outdoor Alabama

The Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma magister) is literally a big packrat. Much like the Fen Raft Spider researchers who called it a “beautiful spider,” the Woodrat is described by Wikipedia as, “…particularly handsome in appearance resembling more of an over sized White-footed Mouse than the Norway Rat.” That’s not exactly a stunning endorsement.

As its name suggests, the Allegheny Woodrat is found along the Allegheny Mountains, typically in the woods. More specifically, these large rodents are found among rocky outcroppings, where they build their nests. They are nocturnal and understandably shy, as their main predators are owls, bobcats, weasels, foxes, and probably any other large predator that happens to be outside at that time of night. Their food consists of typical small herbivore fare: berries, seeds, nuts, and grasses.

Like other packrats, they make a bark-and-grass nest, tucked away in their little hidey-hole, and decorate it with exciting shiny things they find around the place. It has been suggested that they will place dried leaves near their football-sized nest to act as early warning systems to detect incoming predators. They raise three litters of three babies per year, which is apparently very few compared to their more promiscuous cousins.

Scientists have noticed the population decline of the Woodrats all over their range, except, apparently, in Kentucky, where they seem to be doing all right for some reason. Defoliation vectors, such as Gypsy Moth or Chestnut Blight have caused habitat problems throughout the Woodrat’s range. However, the best suspect for their decline is a little nematode known as Baylisascaris procyonis. As areas become more urbanized, generalists, such as Raccoons, become more populous. B. procyonis is a Raccoon parasite, and it is fatal to Woodrats. Most of the conservation efforts surrounding the Woodrat have been studies trying to control this parasite.

1I really don’t like the fact that I can’t write about some organisms because there’s not enough data out there. I may have to make a post of animals with cool names and insufficient data, just to keep track of them.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blood Meridian

It’s been a while since my last insect post, and I’m trying to decide if that’s a good way to go about picking the animals I write about. I fully intend to research the whipscorpion that Phantom Midge picked out for me, but I recently wrote about an arachnid—that’s why it took so long to write about the Copperbelly Watersnake. While looking through ARKive’s insects, I couldn’t help but note how interesting names play a part in which organisms I choose.
I just found the Dracula Ant. (Cue thunder.)

Image by April Nobile, found at AntWeb
Image by April Nobile via AntWeb

It doesn’t particularly look like much. However, note the stinger on the Dracula Ant (Adetomyrma venatrix): much like their wasp cousins, worker Dracula Ants will seek out prey and paralyze it with its stinger, and then… fail to drink its blood. No, it’s far worse then that. The helpless prey are then dragged back to the colony, and fed to the larvae. Once the larvae are satiated, the adults proceed to chew holes in them, sucking out some of their blood1. This is termed “non-destructive cannibalism” by scientists, because the larvae aren’t killed. ARKive goes on to state (a little creepily): “Nevertheless, when hungry workers enter the chamber, the larvae have been observed attempting to flee and escape their fate.”

As weird as this sounds, other ants will feed outside food to their larvae for digestion, some of which the larvae will regurgitate as food for the adults. This allows each individual ant to have specialized mouthparts for their tasks. Since larvae are always specialized for eating, this allows them to act as a stomach for the colony.

While these miniscule bloodsuckers were first described in 1993, and the first colony discovered in 2001, they are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Like many animals from Madagascar, the island’s growing human population is encroaching on their habitat. Unlike most other ants, the queens are flightless, so they are that much more susceptible to habitat fragmentation. Their major protection lies in the hands of one guy—Dr. Fisher of the California Academy of Sciences. He was the one to discover the first colony, and he moved a few into his lab. If there is ever a need to start a captive breeding program, he seems to be the go to guy.

Edit: I just got new information (and a video!) on the Dromedary Jumping-Slug. I knew I created that e-mail address for a reason.

1Technically, insects don’t have blood. They have hemolymph, which translates to “blood-water,” which is a pretty good definition of what it is.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Blue Suede Shoes

I know I wrote about a bird recently, but as I said before, finding (non-vulture) ugly birds is difficult, so when ARKive has an ugly bird on their front page, I jump at the chance. It’s a bird I’ve known about for a while, but I didn’t realize it was endangered. Wikipedia states that Animal Planet’s “Beastly Countdown” lists this animal as “the #1 ugliest creature on Earth.” I don’t think so; I could probably come up with another ten uglier from earlier posts. But, I suppose, that’s for you to decide.1


Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia
The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) is a large stork (maybe), whose beak quite closely resembles footwear associated with 19th century Dutch (compare). They inhabit central African wetlands, where they feed on lungfish, catfish, frogs, lizards, and the like. ARKive puts their hunting strategy quite succinctly: “Prey is grasped from the water in the bird's sharp, hooked beak, which grips, crushes and pierces in one instant.”

When I said they were maybe a large stork, that was because scientists are still working on where to taxonomically put these huge wading birds. They could be with the storks, or the herons, or the pelicans, or the hammerkops2. The latest studies put it closest to either the herons or the pelicans.

Shoebills are solitary birds, aggressively defending their territory, and the only come together to mate. They build a nest of papyrus and brutally attack any potential predators. Baby shoebills (exceedingly cute) hatch after a month, can walk after two, and can hunt after three. It takes three years for the young to reach sexual maturity, and they can live up to 36 years.

As the population of Africa increases, more land is required for agriculture, which takes away the swamps necessary for this bird’s livelihood. Like any decent sized bird, it has a good amount of meat on it, and is subsequently hunted for food. CITES is attempting to limit trade, and may make it illegal for any trade of Shoebill parts. Conservation efforts are iffy, as they are found in some reserves, but Africa is notorious for its political instability. Consistent wildlife management is a lot to ask for. There are suggestions that toting these as a great African animal, like the Lion or the Wildebeest, will be the biggest aid to its conservation. The easiest way to do that is to tell people about it.
I feel my work here is done.

1Every once in a while, people take offence to me calling these animals ugly. I know that this is subjective, but there are animals that people will simply not find cute. The point is to show that those animals are just as important as the cute ones.
2I had never heard of these before. They look halfway between a
roadrunner and a ball-peen.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Throwing Copper

Recently, I was featured in an article in a magazine distributed around Ohio1. If you’re interested in reading it, I’ve linked to it here.

Two months ago, Pcrucifer asked if I take requests—indeed I do. While I’ve written about a number of snakes, I still get the feeling that the general public still thinks: “EEK! A snake!” Until that changes, I will continue writing about them. Water snakes are big and angry enough that they will always find a place here.


Image from Michigan DNR

The Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta), like the rest of the genus, is fond of water, though it is not as aquatic as some of its relatives. Typically found near wetlands and swampy forests in the Midwest, it hunts down any animal it can fit in its mouth2, usually frogs, tadpoles, and small fish. Unlike many Water Snakes, the Copperbelly has is uniform color on its back. Its belly, surprise-surprise, is bright orange. I was asked why they have a bright red belly. I can’t seem to find the answer.

While they are normally found near wetlands, they have a large enough range that they frequently move between wet spots, and even hibernate in the higher, drier areas. This movement causes some issues when there’s a human-made impediment in the way. Pcrucifer even called them “a snake for whom roads are a real problem.” I am familiar with this problem.

However, being squashed by cars is not their biggest threat. Some of these threats are becoming very predictable. I asked my English major girlfriend3: “They’re a wetland species, why are they endangered?” Without hesitation, she answered, “Because wetlands are disappearing.” Yes, I would be hard-pressed to find a wetland animal I’ve written about that doesn’t have “Habitat loss” as one of the threats.

There are people who worry about this snake, and lots of people who worry about wetlands. As the Copperbelly is only recently federally listed, recovery plans are still in the works, but I’m sure current wetland efforts can’t be hurting.

1To people with a certain electric company. So, if you live in Ohio and can’t find it, that’s why.
2Remember, this is a snake we’re talking about here. “Can fit in its mouth” is bigger than “the size of its head."
3Who wrote about the Andean Condor.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The White Tent The Raft

It’s been a while since an arachnid has graced this blog, and since I only have three arachnid posts total, it’s high time I add to it1. Everyone keeps calling it “one of Europe's largest, most beautiful but least common species of spider.” Hate to break it to you guys, but it’s still a spider, and most people don’t like spiders.

Image by Helen Smith
Image by Helen Smith. Yeah, I think it’s pretty too. But look how surprised that fish is!
The Fen Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius) is not an aquatic spider--there’s no such creature2. However, they aren’t aquatic in the same way a Water Strider isn’t aquatic. Just because you can’t swim doesn’t mean you have to get out of the pool—or rather, off the pool. They skate on top, using surface tension to float across the bogs and swamps; hence the name “Fen Raft”.
These spiders are found throughout in wetlands throughout Europe, with a fairly spotty distribution. They do not build webs to hunt, preferring to wait on a stem with their front legs touching the water’s surface. When they feel a vibration, BAM! Dinner is served. Main courses typically include aquatic insects, water striders, and less frequently, fish, like our surprised friend shown above.

The water also comes in handy when a male Fen Raft Spider wants to woo the ladies. Courtship involves drumming the water until the couple meets, when they both begin to bob slowly to each other. Mating is quick, likely because it is not unheard of for the male to become a protein source. After laying the eggs, the female carries the egg sac under her fangs for about three weeks. After hatching, the young spend a week growing up in a web-nest that’s constructed and guarded by mom.

It seems that wetlands are disappearing everywhere, and therefore, so are the Fen Raft Spiders. The remaining wetlands are getting more and more pollution problems, and all evidence suggests that these spiders require clean water. There’s certainly hope though. Britain has pulled out all the stops trying to protect their two populations from dying out, and frankly, it seems to be working.

1Here’s a challenge for you readers: can somebody find me an endangered whipscorpion? That would be cool.
2These are not spiders.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Let a Frown be Your Umbrella

It’s been a while since I’ve written about birds. The major problem with them is that they tend to be, well, cute. With vultures, much like snakes, it is easy to throw them all in due to deep-seated associations people have with the whole taxa. So, I set out to find an ugly, non-carrion eating bird. What I found was a Muppet.
Image from Oriental Bird Club

This is the Sri Lankan Frogmouth1(Batrachostomus moniliger), and I believe that if Jim Henson set out to create an animal, this would be the result. A comically wide, flat mouth. Bulbous, ping-pong eyes. A single, large eyebrow. Remind you of anyone2? There are good reasons for each of those traits, and in fact, the Sri Lankan Frogmouth is not the only one with those traits. There are a number of other Frogmouths—a relative of the Nightjar—though none look quite as cartoony as the Sri Lankan.

As a nocturnal insectivore, the Frogmouth needs to be able to pick moths out of thin air, while flying through dense jungle. This explains both the gigantic eyes, and the gaping mouth acts as a funnel to increase the chance of an unsuspecting insect getting drawn into their maw. I’m not sure of the exact purpose of the monobrow, but it certainly aids in the magnificent camouflage. These birds are able to sit perfectly still atop a mossy branch and look like nothing more exciting than a stump. While I can’t seem to find a major predator, there seem to be plenty of choices.

Alas, it was only after I had decided that I needed to write about this animal that I found out… it’s not really endangered3. For a time, it was considered Near Threatened (possibly due to its amazing camouflage), and ARKive suggests that if habitat loss by non-sustainable agriculture were to get out of hand, it could go right back there, or worse. And, frankly, such a thing is not hard to imagine.

1Please watch the videos. It's even stranger looking when it moves.
2If you really want to freak yourself out, compare the pictures side-by-side.
3I would like to know what you think about this week’s other option, the
Bare-Headed Rockfowl. Is it ugly enough for a future post? I value your opinions.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Or Would You Rather Be a Pig?

Well, I saw it was just about time for another mammal post, so I searched through ARKive’s list on the subject. I found something that I really thought was ugly. This may seem like a non-issue (it is Endangered Ugly Things), but I realized that I haven’t written about much recently that I consider ugly. I mean, I try to write about species that don’t tend to make the spotlight, but I like bats and snakes and salamanders. I guess I’m really just hyping this animal up, so here you go; judge for yourself.

Image from Oregon Zoo
Image from Oregon Zoo

This is the Babirusa (Babyrousa sp.), a pig from Indonesia, whose name translates into “pig-deer.” Apparently, the… impressive dentition of the males look like antlers to some natives, but I don’t see it. While the picture may look like the top tusks grow through the snout, don’t let that fool you. They actually grow straight through the snout. While the males do fight fiercely for the females, the top tusks seem to serve only as ornamentation. While the natives claim that males can hang these tusks on branches to support their heads, other sources dispute this1.

Despite the formidable canines, these swine are herbivorous, even more so than many other Suidae. Since the tusks prevent searching for food by rooting, they rely on fruits, leaves, nuts, and the occasional insect larva. With this plant-heavy diet, they have developed a complex stomach, to the point that some people argued whether they were ruminants, and thus Kosher, or not2.

Unlike most other pigs, the Babirusa only give birth to about three babies a year, and are slow to reach sexual maturity. Add this to the facts that a) habitat loss, as forests are being cleared, and b) they’re a pig, and thus tasty, and you have the recipe for an animal listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

Conservation efforts are picking up, though. They’ve recently protected a large area of forest that the Babirusas inhabit, as well as increasing penalties for selling their meat. I even found an economic journal that states that, by their measurements, the penalties are enough to decrease poaching of these animals. Alas, captive breeding efforts aren’t going as well, as many of the Babirusas in American zoos are related, leading to definite genetic problems.

1I’m always cautious refuting native claims. They’ve lived with the animals for generations, so they’ve probably seen some strange things that the visiting scientists only dream of.
2To anyone reading my blog who keeps Kosher: They’ve decided that the Babirusa is treyf, so if you felt like traveling to Indonesia to eat an internationally protected pig, sorry.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Meet Ya Down at the Crawdad Hole

I’ve got some exciting news that isn’t immediately related to the EUT of the week, but is still pretty cool. I got cited by Wikipedia! And, even more exciting, EDGE just put up a new Amphibians chapter… and I got cited by them! For the same post! Looking at my Sagalla Caecilian post, it’s not even particularly in-depth, but it’s somehow linkable by pretty big names. Excuse me while I go deflate my ego….

I found this week’s EUT a while ago, but somehow never got around to writing about it. Like a few other of my past posts, if you take a perfectly innocuous animal and make it huge, it slips right into the ugly category. On a side note, I’m surprised how few crustaceans I’ve written about so far.

Image from RamPumps.com
Image from RamPumps.com
The Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi) has enough modifiers in its common name that I don’t particularly need to explain its range, its habitat, or its superfamily. Its size could use some description, as it isn’t Giant Salamander or Giant Catfish giant, with a record of six and a half pounds and two and a half feet, it’s still a freakin’ big crayfish, not to mention the largest freshwater invertebrate.

I suppose I could also define its habitat more precisely, as they prefer clean, wooded rivers, and the juveniles are mostly found in headwater streams. Like most crayfish1, the Giant Crayfish is omnivorous, or, as this site states: “Their diet consists mainly of decaying wood, but they will also consume leaves, small fish, and rotting flesh.”

As a general rule, as a species gets larger, it takes longer to reach sexual maturity, and this is no exception. It takes males nine years and females fourteen years before they’re able to make little Giant Crayfish, and they can live up to 40 years. This, coupled with the completely unsurprising problem of overharvesting, has lead to their decline in numbers, and subsequent listing. The problem of habitat loss exists for the Giant Crayfish, just like it shows up for most headwater species.

Tasmania is doing commendably well in terms of conservation efforts. It has been illegal to collect a Giant Crayfish since 1995, and there have been habitat conservation programs and education programs running around the island in an attempt to save these cute little massive crayfish.

1I know, I know, not a fish. A lot of the Australian sources are calling it a lobster, and I suppose I could always resort to “crawdad,” but I’ve always called them crayfish, and never thought of them as fish.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Old Dead Tree

The last time I wrote about something that wasn’t an animal was just about six months ago, and the last time I wrote about a fungus was last March. As much as I hate to admit it, I can see how easy it is to fall into the “cute things” trap. I’m still trying to be even-handed, so I’m going to see if I can push my way out of the snare of zoocentrism1. In that vein, here’s a rotting log.

Image from swefungi.se
Image from Swefungi.se

Many people fail to think about the fact that rotting logs don’t just fall apart on their own; they need help2. Thus is the job of Phellinus nigrolimitatus, which has no common name, other than a wood-decay fungus. It lives in the deep temporal forests across the Northern Hemisphere, and essentially having the same interactions with a tree there as vultures in Africa have with the zebras. The fungus kills nothing, just feasts on the remains, allowing nutrients to be passed back into the soil.

While I have had problems finding information about species in the past, this fungus yields a different issue, similar to the problem I had with the Sagalla Caecilian. There is information out there about P. nigrolimitatus, but it’s all in scientific journals. It’s amazing how convenient ARKive’s format is: listing what it is, where it’s found, why it’s endangered, with a big picture on top. But, since the information is out there, I don’t want to shy away from writing about it just because I’m lazy (or don't speak Swedish or Norwegian).

Its diet consists mainly of old (well, dead) Spruces, as well as a few Pine species. I’m not exactly sure how it spreads from tree to tree, but it likely has airborne spores that are scattered throughout the forest in hopes of landing on a beautiful, rotting tree carcass.

While P. nigrolimitatus may be found around the world, it is only listed in Norway and Sweden. This means one of two things: either Norway and Sweden have specific problems with the fungus, or the entire Northern Hemisphere does, and only those two countries recognize it. The problem, according to many articles, is the fact that these fungi are really only found in very dense, unmanaged forests, where tree corpses are littered throughout. In managed forests, with a low number of huge, dead trees, it is that much more difficult for the spores to find their way to a suitable habitat.

The biggest conservation effort in place for the fungus seems to be the fact that they are listed as endangered, which may lead to more old growth, non-managed forests where they are found. As I stated when I first wrote about a fungus, I’m waiting for the day when there is a United States Endangered fungus. A few states have them already.

1I know it’s not a word, but it should be.
2We've got a Petrified Forest for that exact reason.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Babyface

When I started blogging, I told myself that I would have to keep a set deadline to make sure I kept it up. I would write one each weekend, and if I didn’t keep it up, I would almost certainly fall into the trap of procrastination. And here I am. I’m going to see if I can manage back into weekend-ly posts. Since this post is for last weekend, I’ll see if I can crank out another post by Sunday night. It’s getting harder than I expected to keep finding Endangered Ugly Things.
Image by Me
Image by me
However, looking through IUCN’s list of amphibians, I never expected to see this guy. It’s the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), whose face appears on many “Strange Animals!”-type publications and programs1. They fall into that category due to the fact that they exhibit neoteny; that is, they never undergo metamorphoses like other amphibians, but retain their gills and dorsal fin for life. They are classified as mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), which includes more everyday salamanders, such as the Eastern Tiger2.

If you think the name “Axolotl” is hard on the mouth, just wait, I’ve got a few doozies in the next paragraph.
The Axolotl likely gets its name from the Aztec words meaning “water-dog,” though some sources link it to the other Aztec god of the underworld, Xolotl, twin of Quetzalcoatl. With these clues (as well as the fact that its species name is mexicanum), it’s not hard to guess where these are generally found in the wild. Yes, it lives in central Mexico, and its historic range includes Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco, which hasn’t existed since before the Europeans showed up. Xochimilco (National Geographic pronunciation: SO-chee-MILL-koh) is now only a series of canals within the bounds of Mexico City. Understandably, Axolotl populations aren’t quite what they were when the Aztecs were using them as a daily meat source.

While pollution and habitat loss have thrown the wild Axolotls onto the Critically Endangered list, that isn’t to say that there aren’t many left. They breed in captivity wonderfully, and are used in many medical research labs to study their ability to regenerate limbs (wouldn’t that be convenient?).

The restoration of an ecological park has stabilized populations in the wild, and the introduction of the abundant captive bred individuals could bring these salamanders back from the brink. Also, a local university is working hard to save the local wildlife by increasing public awareness, and are using the Axolotl as their flagship species.

1I, personally, first came to know of their existence from a series called Zoobooks, where an Axolotl appeared on the cover of “Animal Wonders,” I believe.
2Neat fact: other Mole Salamander species have developed neoteny, which apparently frequently shows up where the water is low on predators and the surrounding land is dry.