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.