Sunday, July 29, 2007

Some Crazy Bastard

I’m sorry that I’ve been slacking; I’ve got no real excuse, but I am having problems finding EUTs with enough information for a blog post. It’s exactly the problem I mentioned in the Hunter Slug post: the species that really need our help are the ones that we don’t know anything about. On a different note, the WWF has once again given reason to explain the existence of this blog. My grandparents just got their 2008 calendar last week. Out of 13 pictures, one is an amphibian1, two are birds, and the rest, of course, are fuzzy, fuzzy mammals (well, I suppose the hippo and the whale aren’t really fuzzy, but you get the idea).
Image from IUCN
Image from IUCN

On yet another note, I believe this plant’s name ranks among the worst possible for a plant. It is the Bastard Quiver Tree (Aloe pillansii). Again, no explanation is given for the name, but it may be a, ahem, bastardization of the local term “Basterkokerboom2”. If you know your houseplants (or skin products) well enough, you probably recognize the genus Aloe. Yes, this thirty-foot tall tree from the deserts of Africa is a close relative to Aloe vera (which is found growing, among other places, rampantly in pots at my parents’ house).

I suppose saying it lives in the African desert is being unspecific. It inhabits the semiarid Karoo3 region of southern Africa, specifically on the north end of South Africa and south end of Namibia. Being one of the very few plants over about a foot tall gives it some important roles in the ecosystem, such as bird roost and food, and moisture provider through its thick leaves. It more than likely is pollinated by birds.

With fewer than 200 plants, it easily qualifies for IUCN’s critically endangered category. Why it’s endangered is a harder question, with answers ranging from grazing baboons to overgrazing to mining--or, of course, all of the above. At least some people are worried about it: International trade of the plant has been banned by CITES, so it struck me as odd that many of the informative sites about the plant were by horticulturalists. Local South African schools received puzzles, information packs, and worksheets about saving the Basterkokerboom.

1The Red-eyed Tree Frog, only the most photographed frog in the world.
2This is complete speculation through minimal evidence. Don’t cite me as a source for this.
3Off topic: Microsoft Word’s spellchecker doesn’t know the words “monotreme,” “echolocating,” or even “blog,” but it takes “Karoo” without a second thought.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Echidna's Arf

Six months ago, Greg suggested a few animals which I could write about, all listed at the EDGE website. I’ve already written about two of them and I recently saw some news about the third one that suggests I should write about it. I wouldn’t call it ugly, but obviously someone would, since it’s named after the Mother of All Monsters in Greek mythology.

Image from BBC News
Image from BBC News

This is the Attenborough Long-beaked Echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi). I suppose I should clarify that Sir David Attenborough is a famous TV naturalist and a co-founder of ARKive, not the Mother of All Monsters. That distinction belongs to Echidna. Actually, this is the only Attenborough Long-Beaked Echidna photograph. More on that later.

Long-Beaked Echidnas are insectivorous monotremes found on the island of Papua New Guinea. I’m not sure how much my readership knows about echidnas1, so I’ll give a basic description. Imagine a hedgehog with a long beak to help search for invertebrates, with a tongue like an anteater. Also, they lay eggs, which may seem strange. The term “monotreme” means “one hole,” which refers to their cloaca, as opposed to our… uh… two holes. There are three Long-Beaked species and one Short-Beaked Echidna.

While their smaller short-beaked cousins hunt for ants and termites, the Zaglossus2 forage for earthworms in the leaf litter. Echidnas are creatures of the night, and use their strong front claws to dig the burrows in which they sleep. Like the marsupials, they have a pouch, into which echidnas lay one egg. After hatching, the puggle3 laps milk which flows from patches, as monotremes have no teats. The young echidna is kicked out of the pouch, understandably, soon after the spines begin to develop.

The Long-Beaked Echidnas are endangered due to habitat loss and hunting for food. The reason the Attenborough Long-Beaked Echidna doesn’t look healthy in the photo is that it is the only specimen of the species, which was collected by a Dutch Botanist in 1961, and currently spends its time in a drawer in a museum in the Netherlands. Understandably, people thought it might be extinct. The good news is, new evidence suggests it might not be. In the area where they are found, the Cyclops4 Mountains, scientists have found “nose pokes,” which are holes made by the echidnas as they forage in the mud. Also, the locals say that they’ve been seeing them for about two years. The plan is to mount a full-scale expedition next year to find and photograph a live Attenborough Long-Beaked Echidna. If I’m still blogging by then, I’ll be sure to give you an update.

1I’m guessing quite a lot, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from explaining.
2Something to do with their tongues, right, Mike?
3Yes, this is the proper term for an infant monotreme.
4Alas, the Cyclopes are not among the monsters birthed by Echidna.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hunter S. Slug

Much the same way I found the Astingy Leaf Chameleon, I was searching ARKive for some good invertebrates. I could probably spend a good month on animals picked solely from that section, but the two that stuck out the most were the Pondoland Cannibal Snail and the Snake Skin Hunter Slug1. Since I was having problems deciding which one to write about, I asked a friend who randomly picked the slug. Don’t worry, I’m sure the Cannibal Snail will show up soon.

Image by Dai Herbert via ARKive

The Snake Skin Hunter Slug (Chlamydephorus dimidius) is everything its name suggests2: dark grooves on the skin give it a scaly appearance; it is a vicious predator, eating snails and millipedes, and possibly earthworms. How it hunts, I can’t find, but I’m sure any videos of the kill would be ripe material for Animal Planet. This hints at a serious problem with the Hunter Slug. There’s a lot unknown about it. So, we know it lives in the forests of the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, and it’s carnivorous. Other than that… there’s not a whole lot. How and when they reproduce, who knows? What are its major predators? No idea. The Hunter Slug’s only protection come from the fact that they live in a few protected areas.

I know this is a short post, but this lack of information is a big issue for literally thousands of species like the Snake Skin Hunter Slug. Scientists simply don’t know enough about the organism to properly protect it. The only way to help these species is to learn more about them. This is my form of activism. If I can teach people about things that need their help that would otherwise go unnoticed, I feel that I have done my job.

1Others include the Hairy Marron, which is a fuzzy crayfish, and the Poor Knight’s Weta, which is a giant cricket-like thing.
2Unlike some, such as the Puritan Tiger Beetle, the Hermit Ibis, or the Three-toothed Snail.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Paddlin' Madeline Home

Phantom Midge1 gave me a few good suggestions recently, but alas, neither the Yeti Crab nor the Zombie Worm are listed, whether or not they are actually in danger of becoming extinct. There are gobs of disgusting-looking deep-sea critters, but since so little is known about their populations and habits, there is not enough information for them to be placed on an endangered species list. There is, however, an aquatic animal that I had known about for a while, but about which I have neglected to write.
Image from Texas Parks and Wildlife
Image from Texas Parks and Wildlife
This is the American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), which I have seen for years at the Columbus Zoo, and was sure it was on the Ohio Endangered Species List. It wasn’t which slightly upset me, since I was planning on writing about it for most of the week. Turns out it’s listed as vulnerable on the IUCN redlist, so I get to write about it anyway. It lives in large rivers of the Mississippi River basin, growing up to a size of seven feet, and living up to about twenty or thirty years.

The protruding…thingy (actually called a rostrum) from which the Paddlefish gets its name is covered with electroreceptors to help it find groups of zooplankton on which it feeds. The minute prey are swept unceremoniously from the water by the gaping maw of the Paddlefish, and then filtered from the water by raking protrusions on the gills. The fish’s mouth is specifically designed to open to an immense size to filter the largest amount of water possible. Wikipedia suggests that the rostrum also acts as a hydrofoil to help keep the head level in the water as filter feeding occurs, but I don’t really like to cite them as a source.

The American Paddlefish live in rivers, so of course dams affect their populations by impeding their moving patterns. Much like the sturgeon, they have been harvested for meat, and their eggs have been harvested for caviar. Agricultural runoff causes the streams to silt up, making filter feeding a difficult prospect. To help relieve some of these threats, farm-raised Paddlefish are released into the wild. Stricter regulations on Paddlefish harvesting have also been put into effect.

1Still no blog, so here’s her sister’s link again.