Saturday, December 10, 2011

They Call Him Flipper

Dolphins are charismatic, no question about that. They play, they learn, they do amazing acrobatics. Their smiling faces draw people to aquatic parks worldwide. The freshwater dolphins have gotten some press lately, but they aren’t the prettiest dolphins around.

I suppose the Gharial-like snout on the Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is what bothers me about it. Its stubby dorsal fin gives it a humpbacked appearance that is far less pleasing than the torpedo-shaped marine dolphins we’re used to. However, both of these serve an important purpose: maneuverability. The shorter dorsal fin allows for faster turns, and the thin, tooth-filled rostrum is perfect for slashing sideways into an unsuspecting fish.

The Ganges River Dolphin is also effectively blind. The lack of a lens means that any light entering the eye is only seen as unfocused blurs of shadow. However, for a creature with echolocation living in the silt-filled rivers of India, this is less of a problem than one would expect.

As those silt-filled rivers are in some of the most densely human populated areas of the world, you can expect there to be some environmental issues. Damming, pollution, boat traffic, and by-catch are all problems that this blind dolphin faces. The Yangtze River Dolphin faced similar problems, and is now listed as “functionally extinct”.

The Ganges River Dolphin may have some support to save it from that fate. Dolphin reserves are being established, and the WWF is trying its darndest to educate the public. India even named this dolphin the National Aquatic Animal. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure it doesn’t go the way of the Yangtze River Dolphin.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

No One Like You

For October, Jonathan Wojcik of Bogleech agreed to do a guest post for Endangered Ugly Things. Check out his site for all the information you could ever want about monsters, real or imagined. Enjoy!

There are over a hundred thousand named Arachnids crawling around on our planet's surface, and America is more aware of them this time of year than any other season. Famous though they are, these ubiquitous terrestrial predators are seldom evaluated for their conservation status, and the exceptions have consisted almost entirely of spiders - really only one of several strange and incredibly ancient Arachnid groups.

Image by Gilles San Martin

Currently, there are at least two non-spider Arachnida recognized as threatened, and both of them belong to the family Lycosidae, or "pseudoscorpions." Though found virtually everywhere, these mostly blind predators go largely unnoticed due to their subterranean habits and incredibly small size - so small you can find them preying upon mites, lice and springtails between grains of soil, under the wing cases of beetles, in the fur of mice or between the pages of dusty, moldy old books. Many species will even use far larger, flying insects as transportation, grabbing into their leg hairs with a single claw and letting go at the next landing.

As their names imply, pseudoscorpions are entirely separate from the true scorpions, lacking the venomous tails but bearing very similar pincers which, in many species, can inject venom through the lower thumb-like claw. As an added bonus, they can also regurgitate a corrosive enzyme over stunned prey and secrete silk from their jaws, usually used to build igloo-shaped cocoons in which they molt and overwinter. Mating typically involves a "dancing" ritual where the male, locking pincers with the female, guides her over a sperm packet he lays on the ground. Like many other arachnids, females will carry their babies on their backs until tough enough to fend for themselves.

These minute animals have existed in more or less the same form for over 380 million years, but at least two species could disappear on us at any moment.  Known endangered Lycosids include Fissilicreagris imperialis and Tartarocreagris texana, the Empire cave and Tooth Cave pseudoscorpions. Like many other creatures you can read about on EUT, these troglobytes are completely unique to their respective cave systems and have adapted to survive in no other environment. Any unusual activity can be disastrous for cave dwelling organisms; even a few careless spelunkers or a trickle of urban runoff can disrupt conditions that have remained unchanged for eons.

A staggering portion of the human race suffers from unreasonable levels of terror associated with eight-legged arthropods, but it's not fair to let a widespread phobia cloud our concern for the plight of any species, large or small. If more of us could get past our fears and appreciate just how weird, cool and useful the Arachnids are, we might be seeing quite a few more of them not only listed, but actively protected. Right now, eyeless micromonsters are dancing in each other's arms in pitch darkness, and surely deserve as much as any other animal to continue doing so for ages to come.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beware! The Blob

I’ve tried to write about the Blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) before, but gave up due to lack of information. It was first suggested to me about a year and a half ago, and has been suggested a few times since then. I think I’ve found enough information about it and its close relatives to do it justice. First things first, though: the Blobfish does not look like a deflated Ziggy.

Image from the Telegraph

Yes, that is a picture of the Blobfish, and yes, that picture makes it look like someone let the air out of Ziggy’s oversized head. However, that picture was taken of a dead specimen on a research boat, right before it was pickled in formaldehyde. Blobfish don’t rely on swim bladders to remain buoyant like other fish, because the pressure of half a mile of water would squish the air right out of them. Instead, their flesh contains a gelatin-like substance that is nearly equal to the density of water. This means they can float effortlessly in the water, but makes it look like they melted above the surface. As to what they really look like, this is a much better picture:

These fish, who now resemble their Sculpin brethren much closer, bob along the ocean floor around the coast of Australia and New Zealand. There, they eat whatever floats or crawls by—mostly crabs, snails, and octopuses1.

Everyone seems to think Blobfish are lazy. Yes, they are adapted to using as little energy as possible to eat and move, but they are not deadbeats. While other fish spawn and leave, the Blobfish is an attentive parent. They will clean and sit on the eggs, protecting them from parasites and predators.

More efficient fishing methods have caused no end of trouble to all kinds of sea creatures. Trawling the ocean floor for crustaceans also picks up bycatch like the Blobfish. Callum Roberts and other scientists are worried about the future of this majestic fish. While it’s not officially listed as endangered, the government is certainly worried about it.

Public knowledge about bycatch in general, and the Blobfish in specific, is growing. Professor Roberts has certainly been trying to get the word out. There is also this British kids’ show that depicts the Blobfish fairly accurately, as well as adorably. They also sound like British Zoidbergs, which seems appropriate.


1You can argue all you want about the proper plural of “octopus.” There isn’t one.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trapped Under Ice - Metallica

For this month’s EUT, I was looking for an invertebrate in a new taxon. While I technically found one, “invertebrate” usually implies an animal. As to what it looks like… well… it looks like someone shoved a bottle of glitter up their nose, and then sneezed on a branch1.

Image by Juana Arrabal Vargas

This is a slime mold known only as Diacheopsis metallica. Despite appearances, it is a single-celled amoeba. Slime molds spend a large amount of the time as you would expect an amoeba to: gooping around as an individual cell, eating things smaller than itself. When things get rough the individuals band together, Voltron-syle, to search for food or water. This isn’t to say the cells form together into a multi-cellular creature. Instead, they form a gigantic, multi-nucleated cell that is able to pick up and move, slug-like, to a more favorable location. They also use this time to produce spores, which will spread if things don’t get any better.

Scientists have found this aspect of slime molds absolutely fascinating. In this form, slime molds can solve mazes. It will even re-create the Tokyo Rail map when food is placed at junction points. Computer scientists are researching how slime molds solve problems to help programs search, move, and problem solve more organically.

D. metallica is a cold-adapted slime mold that lives on the tops of mountains in scattered ranges throughout the world. While they hibernate as spores during the winter, they become active in spring. They use the melting snow to create the correct temperature and the right amount of water to create favorable conditions to eat and multiply.

While the IUCN doesn’t have this slime mold officially listed, they are beginning to worry about it. On their Species of the Day fact sheet, they say it “has a provisional listing of ‘Near Threatened’.” This is because global climate change is shrinking the snow-covered habitat that these glittery globules rely on. Individual conservation actions for a slime mold are near impossible to carry out, but trying to fix climate change is a good start.

1My wife says this is something Ke$ha would do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

He Put the Taz in Taz-Mania

Image from Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service
Much like the Hyena and the Wolverine, the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) has a reputation. Once again, that reputation as a fierce predator and unscrupulous scavenger is not entirely unfounded. As the largest marsupial predator alive, the Tasmanian Devil will kill and eat most anything smaller than itself, and happily scavenge the remains of anything larger. The name “Devil" seems harsh for an animal the size of a lapdog, but when early settlers heard them fighting through the night, “Devil” came readily to mind.

Tasmanian Devils don’t typically hang out together except when a particularly large carcass has been found. Disagreements soon break out1 about who gets to eat first. However, like its Warner Brothers counterpart, the Tasmanian Devil is more loudmouth than fighter, especially to its own species2. There is a lot of growling, and baring teeth, and even some nipping, but physical fights are rare.

The home life of the Tasmanian Devil is nearly as dysfunctional (by human standards) as its table manners. When a female is ready to mate, she will visit a number of males to make sure she’s pregnant. She will give birth to about 30 raisin-sized babies, which is an issue, because she only has four teats. The newborns race to the pouch, and only the winners survive to weaning. In eight months, the young are ready to head out on their own.

Since European settlers arrived in Tasmania, the Devils have had a roller-coaster ride in terms of population. Initially they were killed for raiding chicken coops and the like. In the 1940s, they became protected by law. This increased their numbers enough that they were once again considered a pest species by the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, a new threat emerged: Devil Facial Tumor Disease. This is a contagious cancer that has once again reduced Tasmanian Devil population to a fraction of what it once was.

The Tasmanian government has lost no time in trying to protect these animals, including quickly having the Tasmanian Devil listed as endangered. Breeding programs, disease research, and awareness campaigns have popped up all over the island in an attempt to save this little loudmouth.

1 While the Tasmanian Devil in that video is eating, he sounds exactly like my cat.
2For your listening pleasure, please compare Mel Blanc’s interpretation with the real thing. I’m sure your co-workers won’t mind if you’re listening at work.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mr. Bighead

Years ago, I read about this month’s EUT in the Animal Wonders edition of Zoobooks, the same place I first learned about the Axolotl. The illustration was strange enough to catch my eye and imagination for a good few months—a long time for my flighty young mind1. I recently rediscovered this animal whose complete disproportion struck me at such a young age.

Image from Asian Turtle Conservation Network

The scientific name of the Big-Headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) means “flat-chest big-head,” which is obviously quite apt. Every article that mentions the Big-Headed Turtle states that its gigantic noggin is too large to fit in its narrow shell. So, to protect its head, the turtle uses a two pronged approach. One: the solid bone skull is covered with thick scales. Two: massive, very sharp jaws are coupled with a tendency to bite.

This turtle inhabits shallow, fast moving streams in Southeast Asia, where it enjoys a diet of fish and mussels. Swimming around in the heavy flow of these streams would take too much effort, so the Big-Headed turtle is an excellent climber instead, and ARKive has video to prove it. Its long flexible tail helps to prop it up as it uses its strong claws and beak to climb waterfalls. There are even stories of finding these turtles climbing trees and bushes. What they did when they got up there is anyone’s guess.

The Big-Headed Turtle’s big head seems to evoke one of two responses: it is either grotesquely disproportionate, or adorably baby-like. The second of these responses has led to a large number of them being caught for the pet-trade. While some captive breeding exists, there are not nearly enough Big-Head farms to supply demand for the pet trade. For this reason, it was placed on the IUCN Redlist in 2000, and is now CITES protected as well.

1An incomplete list of animals that have, at one point, been “my favorite animal”: giraffes, raccoons, pangolins, mosquitoes, jellyfish, frilled lizards, chameleons, fireflies, sloths, and many more I can’t think of right now.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Crows have been long associated with death in Western culture. In Medieval times, they were known to follow armored soldiers into battle for the prospect of feasting on the casualties. In modern times, people see them eating roadkill, as Halloween decorations, or as the monsters from The Birds. While Crows certainly enjoy carrion there is another side to them less frequently seen in modern interpretations. For one thing, they are omnivorous so dead things are only part of their diet. For another thing, they might be just as smart as the prettier parrots.

Our main method of determining animal intelligence is looking at how well they solve problems. Crows are masters. They bend wires into fishhooks to pull food from thin tubes. They have learned to use cars to crack hard nuts—while waiting for the light to turn red to retrieve them. One person is trying to teach them to use a vending machine. They can mimic human speech, with more clarity than most parrots. So, when you see a Crow walking down the sidewalk, don’t think, “portent of death,” think “Whosa prettybird?”

Image from Michael Westerfield

The Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiansis), is locally known as the ‘Alala. It has a lot in common with your more familiar American Crow: they eat whatever they want (mostly fruit and eggs), they hang out in groups, are strong fliers, and like to play wrestle. They use tools to get to their food. However, the ‘Alala is larger, and has a larger, rounder beak.

Why the Hawaiian Crow is in trouble is up for debate: it could be disease, habitat loss, or introduced predators, such as rats or mongooses. Chances are good that it’s all of the above. There is no question that it is in big trouble. The last wild ‘Alala pair were seen in 2003. All the rest of them alive today—about 70 individuals—are in two captive breeding facilities. Release programs have been unsuccessful. Part of that is due to the aforementioned predators, but there’s a problem that the conservationists didn’t foresee. Crows are smart, but because of that, they need to be taught. Without a whole society to teach them, the new crows haven’t learned how to properly forage or escape predators.