Monday, December 28, 2009

Hail to the Victors Valiant

I apologize for the unintentional two-month hiatus. Thanksgiving, leading right up to finals left me little time to search for Endangered Ugly Things. Next semester, I am only doing thesis work and teaching the Invertebrate Zoology lab, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back to my regular update schedule. This specific animal had to wait until after the regular college football season, to not upset my relatives who are Ohio State University alumni.

Image by Me
Image by me

The Wolverine (Gulo gulo) is, for all intents and purposes, a very big weasel. Forty-five pounds big. They are found around the world, under the Arctic Circle. Due to the large amount of food each individual requires, they have massive home ranges, with males wandering around an area of nearly 250 square miles. They can take down large prey (up to Caribou), but tend to scavenge when they have the opportunity.

The Wolverine has gained the same sort of reputation in North America as the Hyena does in Africa—a mangy, dangerous, scavenger (my dad has other names for the University of Michigan Wolverines). They aren’t mangy, but they are mainly scavengers—why fight a moose when it’ll die of starvation soon enough? They can also be quite dangerous, but name a fifty-pound animal that isn’t1.

I suppose what really irks me is the instant inclusion of scavengers into the “evil” category. Wolverines, hyenas, ravens and vultures all tend to get thrown into this role. I suppose this trend comes from the association with death, but I tend to see them more as janitors. They serve a vital role in cleaning up the ecosystem (would you like to be neck deep in deer carcasses?), and they get absolutely no respect for it. As the mutant Logan states "I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice."

Despite their ferocious image, the mothers take good care of their young, keeping them close and safe for more than a year after they are born. It’s at this stage of life that Wolverines are the most vulnerable to other predators in the area, but when there’s a protective mother Wolverine in the area, that’s not all that vulnerable. Videos of the baby Wolverines are just as cute as you’d expect baby mammals playing to be.

Despite declining numbers due to the expanding range of humans, predator poisoning regimes, and trapping, Wolverines are not listed by the IUCN. They’re not even federally listed in the US (despite multiple petitions for such), due to lack of data on their numbers, though there may be some pressure from groups who still want to trap these animals. They are, however, listed as endangered in Canada. As information grows about these animals, hopefully we can begin to better protect this ferocious (sometimes) scavenger.

1Dad mentioned the Capybara. Wikipedia says they “…are gentle and will usually allow humans to pet and hand-feed them.” Dang. Alright, smart guy, name a second one.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Alabama on My Mind

(Alternate title: Plays by Sense of Smell)

I got an urge this month to write about a blind cave animal, knowing that there are some exciting organisms that I've missed so far. I even went so far as to search "endangered blind cave," knowing that something interesting could fit after that description. Well, a number of animals can, such as the endangered Texas Blind Salamander, which lives within the same cave system as the Arachnids I've written about previously. However, on the second page, I saw a mention of the Alabama Cavefish (Speoplatyrhinus poulsoni) and decided to see find what I could find.

Image from Aldemaro Romero
Image from Aldemaro Romero

The "proper" term for a completely cave-dwelling animal is "troglobite," and this term comes with a set of characteristics that the Alabama Cavefish does a wonderful job of illustrating. Troglobites1 are small (not a lot of nutrients make their way into the caves), eyeless (when it's this dark, eyes aren't sensory organs, they're disease ports), and a range of colors from white to transparent (color just wastes precious nutrients when a] it's pitch black and b] no one around has eyes anyway). Other sensory organs go into overdrive to make up for the lack of eyes. Take, for example, the lateral line. In most fish, it is a row of cells that allow fish to sense vibrations in the water--effectively acting as fish ears. Well, in the Alabama Cavefish, that line becomes a network covering the entirety of the fish, shown beautifully in these pictures. If we stick with the "fish ear" analogy, I suppose it's not that different than most bats developing big honkin' ears. They also have large sensory papillae (read: fish noses) that help them sniff out prey in the dark.

The discovery of the Alabama Cavefish sounds like quite an interesting story. In 1966, John Cooper was a Ph.D. student studying the ecology and taxonomy of cave crayfish, and was thus well versed in the common troglobitic fish found in the area. Seeing what he thought was a Southern Cavefish, he caught it, looked at it, and yelled to his wife (who was apparently fine with following her husband down dark, cold, wet cracks in the earth), "This ain't Typhlichthys, it's something nobody ever seen before."2 After a few more sampling trips to Key Cave, and years in front of a dissecting scope, the species was officially named.

Three years later, it was listed as threatened. Despite frequent (and difficult) excursions into Key Cave, no more than ten Alabama Cavefish have been seen at the same time, causing guesses about the population size to be nothing more than guesses. One of the biggest worries that researchers have is that something will happen to the Gray Bats (also endangered) that roost in the cave and bring nutrients into the cave in the form of poop. The bats eat outside insects (mosquitoes and the like), poop in the cave, which is eaten by bacteria, which is eaten by amphipods and isopods, which are eaten by the Cavefish. If the bats get messed with, then the whole system falls apart.

To protect these now critically endangered fish and their habitat, the entire site is now a National Wildlife Refuge. The cave is not open to the public, which protects the bats and fish, and the refuge itself provides a buffer between the caves and nearby development, which would mess with the groundwater flowing into these isolated sanctuaries.

1 Alabama Cavefish are more properly called "stygiobites," which are aquatic cave-dwellers. While "troglo-" refers to caves, "stygio-" refers to the River Styx. If you're wondering, the "-bite" is just "bio-" as a suffix.
2Don't even bother trying that five times fast. Try saying it twice, at any speed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

How I Felt

Much like last month, August's EUT is a suggestion that came in a while ago, and I'm only just getting around to it. This is the first time that a researcher has suggested their own species of interest as an Endangered Ugly Thing, and I'm quite excited about it. He's even set up a support group for Ugly Thing researchers on the forum. Randy, the researcher, even had a professor tell him--in the middle of a presentation, no less--that his research topic was, "the ugliest thing I have ever seen - it looks like black vomit!" Now, isn't that just mean? Doesn't his research demand respect, regardless of how the species looks? On the other hand, it does look like black vomit.

Image by Randy Skinner

The Boreal Felt Lichen (Erioderma pedicellatum) is, according to ARKive, "known as the Panda Bear of lichens," due to its rarity. I personally think, given the professor's description, the lichen needs quite a bit more charisma before it can be described as the Panda Bear of anything1. Much like the Rock Gnome Lichen, the Boreal Felt Lichen is actually two species living together in symbiosis. The majority of the Lichen is a fungus, which serves as structure and protection for the cyanobacteria that allows the organism to photosynthesize.

This lichen is quite picky about where it plants itself. It requires very large amounts of moisture, so it only lives in coastal areas. In Scandinavia it grows mostly on Norway Spruce, and in Newfoundland it keeps mainly to Balsam Firs. The only problem with the previous statement is that it might not exist in Scandinavia anymore. The Canadian population is under massive amounts of protection to save the 10,000 or so individuals that remain.

What has been hitting the Boreal Felt Lichen so hard, as to cause it to go extinct in much of its range? Scientists aren't sure, but they've got a lot of good ideas, such as deforestation, climate change, acid rain, and air pollution. It's very likely that it's a combination of these factors, as the cyanobacteria that provides the lichen with food is very susceptible to changes in humidity and pH.

The areas in Newfoundland that contain the majority of the remaining population are being protected by the government as soon as they find them. This is where our poor lichen researcher, Randy, comes in. He is using state-of-the-art landscape ecology to create models that would be able to predict where a previously unknown group of Boreal Felt Lichens might be found.

1Maybe we should reverse it. How do you think Panda researchers would respond to their species being called "the Boreal Felt Lichen of Carnivora"?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Song of the Shrimp

New visitors from the Scientific American article: Welcome! I hope you find some things that interest you here. My forum is starting to pick up, and I would love to see some new blood there. Bryan, who I met at the Green Futures expo, I hope you can forgive me for not writing about the animal you suggested, but I completely forgot. For two months. Sorry.

Image from Ann Dickinson
Image from Ann Dickinson

This is the California Freshwater Shrimp (Syncaris pacifica). It doesn't look like much, which is actually a anti-predatory device, as its translucency helps hide it from predators. If hiding doesn't work, it has a protective spine useful for jabbing into a predatory fish's mouth.

These shrimp are only found in a few counties in the Bay Area in California, and seem to be fairly picky about their habitat. They live in the runs1 of streams that have undercut banks, exposed roots, and overhanging vegetation. All of these features provide the Freshwater Shrimp with numerous hiding places.

The problem comes when those hiding places are disturbed. There are quite a few ways this can happen, all of which have the final result of removing the vegetation that these shrimp call home. The trees that provide the overhanging roots are removed when a stream is channelized, and agriculture and livestock fill the stream with runoff that buries those roots in silt.

There is quite a bit of good news going for the California Freshwater Shrimp. For one thing, its numbers appear to have almost quadrupled between 1991 and 2000. Another thing is that a number of teachers and students are using this as their rallying species to help teach people about freshwater habitat, and saving some endangered species in the process. If anyone in those programs reads this: I salute you. You will be able to tell future generations that you helped save a living thing from extinction.

1Runs are the areas in streams halfway between the shallow, fast moving riffles, and the slow, deep pools. This site explains these quite well.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Perfect Past Tense - Earwig

If you are visiting through the Washington Post article: Welcome! I hope you stick around, look through my old posts, and leave some comments. If you’ve got any suggestions for animals to write about, I’d be glad to hear them. I’ve even got a forum here. As for my old readers (all six of you), I’ve got a nice, juicy insect for this month.

Image from Earwig Research Centre
Image from Earwig Research Centre

Meet the Saint Helena Earwig (Labidura herculeana), the largest earwig in the world. It lives (lived?) on Saint Helena1, a small volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Much like Attenborough’s Echidna, this specimen in the picture is not cavorting around its tropical island home, and for much the same reason: this species might have gone extinct in the ‘60s.

While most earwigs will eat about anything they can get their mandibles on, the Saint Helena Earwig is probably mostly herbivorous. They seem to spend most of their time in burrows, coming out only during nights after it has rained. This withdrawn behavior probably has not helped the people who are trying to determine if, in fact, it has gone extinct.

Though, it is not as if people have stopped looking. There have been a number of expeditions over the years, mostly led and funded by the London Zoo. From what I’ve seen, The Independent has been incredulous, if supportive, of spending thousands of pounds for people to wander around a tropical island looking for earwigs.

Most of the island of Saint Helena seems to be in ecological peril, and long time readers of this blog will understand when I say: “It’s because it’s an island.” Remote islands have a very specific ecology that is easily thrown off balance. Then, humans show up bringing rats, pigs, cats, dogs, and deforestation, wrecking the whole place. In the case of the Earwig, people seem to be blaming an introduced centipede, as well as the clearing of an area of forest.

Conservationists are worried about the Saint Helena Earwig, as well as other endemic arthropods. An airport, proposed in 2005, has not been built for fear of destroying the only habitat in which these gentle, albeit freaky-looking, giants may still survive.

1Apparently named for the same saint as the volcano in Washington, though she doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to volcanoes.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Unsung- Helmet

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a bird. The problem with them is that they tend to be cute, pretty, or majestic. Except, of course, for the carrion-eaters, but I can’t just write about vultures and pretend I’ve covered the entire class. So, like I always do, I went trolling through ARKive’s bird section and found this beauty.

Image by Doug Janson
Image by Doug Janson

The Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), hails from Southeast Asia, where it spends its time eating fruit, like the majority of Hornbills. They also hunt bugs, using their pointy beak in much the same way that a woodpecker would. This is not a small bird, growing up to around a five feet from beak to tail. Wikipedia describes their call as “hoots followed by maniacal laughter.” Listen to any of the recordings on this site all the way to the end, and you’ll understand what they mean.

The casque—the helmet that gives them their name—is solid, as opposed to most hornbills, which means the skull is about ten percent of the total body weight of the bird1. This comes in handy, as the males participate in the aerial equivalent of Bighorn Sheep clashes, fighting over females and territory by running head-on into each other while flying. I can’t find any videos of this, but I’m sure it would be amazing.

Their headgear has also gotten them into some trouble. As it is solid keratin, it can be used as a reddish ivory-like substance for carving (called, surprisingly enough, hornbill ivory). As one can expect, this does not bode well for the bird. Well, it was all right when only the natives were doing it2, but once the civilized world got wind of this material, things were not looking good. CITES has now clamped down on this, making any trade of hornbill ivory completely illegal. The constant rainforest destruction that everyone has worried about for as long as I can remember isn’t helping the Helmeted Hornbills’ population either.

1Compare our atypically large head, with about 0.7 percent of our body weight.
2This tidbit isn’t entirely related, but I can’t think of anywhere else to put it: apparently the natives believe that a giant Helmeted Hornbill guarded the river between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Velvet Revolver

I have been somewhat disappointed with the limited ability for back-and-forth communication on Blogger, so, at the suggestion of some of my colleagues at the Writing Center1, I’ve started a forum on another site, which can be found here. Please visit it, and let’s start some fun discussions. This month’s EUT comes once again from ARKive, though I’m sure I had seen it in the past, and skipped over it due to lack of information. I think I’ve got enough to talk about this time around, so here is the Pink Velvet Worm

Image from ARKive
Image from ARKive

At a little more than an inch long, the Pink Velvet Worm (Opisthopatus roseus) looks something like a squishy centipede. However, it belongs to the phylum Onychophora, though most of the members look quite similar to the human eye. Velvet worms, as they are commonly called, are quite closely related to the Arthropods, though they lack the jointed legs that give the latter group its name. Instead, they have dumpy-looking caterpillar-esque legs with a pair of claws on the bottom of each.

All velvet worms are carnivorous, feeding on any invertebrate smaller than them. Much smaller prey are simply hunted down and eaten, but for larger prey, they have the coolest prey capture method: twin projectile glue guns concealed in their face, which they can fire up to ten times their body length. This glue is also useful for deterring predators, because no one wants that in their eyes.

Back to the Pink Velvet Worm itself. It has been found in a single forest in South Africa, and this forest has been logged heavily since the 1900s, both for the wood, as well as for plantations of non-native vegetation. These three factors—the small range, the logging, and the invasive species—have conspired to place the Pink Velvet Worm on the Critically Endangered list.

Conservation efforts are still in the works, of which listing is just one. They are putting together education efforts, which have worked in the past for other animals. Also, there are five Pink Velvet Worms in captivity, and hopefully we can learn more about what they do from these squishy little ambassadors to our race.

1Yeah, I’ve been working at a Writing Center for about a year now. It’s made me a heck of a lot more confident with my writing. There’s no better way to learn something than by teaching someone else.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Velvety Underground

I’m sorry I missed February, but I started the in-depth work on my thesis, which makes it difficult to get into the blogging mindset. However, I have found another parasite that has managed to get listed1. They live on the bodily fluids of a single species, rarely even seeing the light of day. After that description, I want you to imagine an orchid.
Now, look at this picture.

Image from ARKive
Image from ARKive

This is the Underground Orchid (Rhizanthella gardneri). While many orchids are parasitic—living as the botanical equivalent of a louse—they produce pretty flowers, so no one thinks twice about trying to save them. The Underground Orchid’s lifestyle is not much different, except for the fact that it looks like a root with a tumor. It lives in the root system of the Broom Honey Myrtle, a pine-like tree from Australia. This orchid produces no chlorophyll, because that would be pointless if the flower might break the surface. Instead, it gets its energy and nutrients from the Myrtle, but it’s not as simple as that. It never is.

I had originally thought that parasitic plants work by putting its roots into the roots of the host and effectively sucking the tree’s blood. Some do. The Underground Orchid, however, is myco-heterotrophic. This means that there is a fungus living in the Myrtle’s roots, sucking out its juices. The orchid then subsists on the juices of the fungus, making this some sort of strange nesting-doll version of parasitism2. The end result is still the orchid parasitizing the tree, but with some (unwilling) help from a root fungus.

The Underground Orchid relies on the existence of the Broom Honey Myrtle, and tracts of these trees are being cleared to make way for agriculture. People are also attributing a decrease in health of the myrtle to a decrease in the numbers of the orchid. Preservation sites are being set up throughout the Underground Orchids’ range to help save them. Also, botanists are also working on finding a way to breed these root-flowers in captivity.

1Just so you know, the Pygmy Hog-Sucking Louse managed to get a mention on QI.
2I’m sure there is some Australian burrowing insect that would suck the juices out of the orchid, making this even more recursive.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Come Sail Away

I'll be the first to admit that this month's EUT isn't all that ugly, but they can't all be eldritch abominations from the dawn of time. It does, however, look very dragon-like, though the color makes it look like it's straight out of a cartoon.
Image from
Image from

This is the Philippine Sailfin Lizard (Hydrosaurus pustulatus). It lives up to its name well, with a tail that would not look out of place on a Dimetrodon1. As one can guess from the scientific name, the Sailfin is not out of place in the water, using the sail to power its swimming through the rivers of the Philippine Islands. In this case, swimming is mostly a defense mechanism to avoid terrestrial predators, though they have been known to eat crustaceans. This supplements their mostly herbivorous diet of fruits and leaves.

The fact that the males have a larger tail fin, along with their crayon-blue color, suggests another reason for the fin; the same reason Blue Iguanas are blue--it looks sexy. If a male has enough energy to produce a fin that large, and can still escape predators despite being the color of an interstate sign, that means he's got some good genes to pass down to the kids.

The Sailfin Lizard is no longer listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN list. This is not necessarily a good thing. It has been moved to Data Deficient, which means we don't really know how bad it is. Life on a tropical island means habitat loss is almost a given threat, but overshadowing that is the pet trade.

Ah, the pet trade, such a mixed curse. It destroys the wild population, without killing that many of them. If they can be bred in captivity, it means they might be able to be bred to be released. It also means that there can be a higher demand for them, leading to more being taken from the wild. It about killed the Red-Kneed Tarantula and Macaws2, but it might save the Axolotl. It looks like it could go either way for the Sailfin Lizard. This guy (where I got the picture) is selling captive-bred Sailfins as pets, and these guys are breeding them the same way to be released into the wild.

1Dimetrodon are actually more closely related to us than they are to this lizard.
2You do not want a Macaw as a pet. They might be pretty, but imagine having a five-year old child for seventy years. Whose screams can be easily heard for miles. Who can bite through an eighth of an inch of steel.