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.