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What’s In A Name: The Colourful (& Sometimes Hurtful) Profession of Naming New Species

Elephas maximus borneensis, Funambulus palmarum, Ajaja ajaja, Oryza rufipogon…you may have come across these or something similar in your biology textbook or an article about wildlife. They are scientific names of animals & plants – Borneo elephant, Indian palm squirrel, Spoonbills and Wild rice, in that order.

At first read, we may not really decipher which species the name refers to. But when we do, we are pleasantly surprised.

One of the most exciting activities in the scientific community, is taxonomy – the science of grouping a newly discovered species. A part of this job involves naming the species.

While enjoyable, the process of naming a new species is also a very complicated task; which involves a lot of research, word play and sarcasm. If you’ve ever wanted to know how plants & animals get their scientific names, you’re at the right place.

 

Rules 2
Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is the governing body which has complete control over all things taxonomy. It is the Code which spells out how an animal can be named and what rules must be followed while naming.

According to the Code, there are 3 cardinal rules that all taxonomists need to follow when naming an animal:

  • Don’t use a used name – The name must be completely unique.
  • Don’t be insulting – The name must not be rude to anyone.
  • Don’t name the species after yourself – The final name cannot include the name of the taxonomist.

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

There are many cases in the past when scientists named an animal to either gain recognition or to take a dig at a competitor.

There was Dr. May Berenbaum, the VP of Entomological Society of America, who named a species of urea-eating cockroach after herself – Xestoblatta berenbaumae. Of course, she did say that fame wasn’t her focus when she did this. Dr. Berenbaum was already a highly-reputed scientist in the community and she only wanted to showcase her passion for creepy crawlies by naming one after herself.

 

Cockroach xestoblatta-berenbaumae-male-female
Xestoblatta berenbaumae (Source)

 

Then there was famed 1700s botanist, the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. He is renowned today, not just for his contribution to taxonomy, but also for being unbelievably petty and mean towards people he didn’t like. At the height of his career, he used fellow botanist and friend Johann Georg Siegesbeck’s name as inspiration to name a foul-smelling genus of weed – Sigesbeckia orientalis – after Siegesbeck publicly criticised Linnaeus’ method of species classification. This, many believe, was meant to be a dig at Siegesbeck’s  jealousy at Linnaeus’ success.  

 

Anderson (Mrs), active 1858; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Later Carl von Linne
Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy (Source)

 

St Paul Wort
Sigesbeckia orientalis aka St. Paul’s Wort (Source)

 

And who can forget Daniel Rolander, Linnaeus’ most-hated protégé?  After Rolander refused to share his field study results and samples from his trip to Suriname with Linnaeus, the latter promptly went ahead and got him banned from leading scientific and academic institutions of the time. To add salt to injury, Linnaeus also named a type of dung beetle – Aphanus rolandri – after Rolander. Ouch. 

Loosely translated to English, Aphanus rolandri means “inconspicuous Rolander”. Now that’s what I call a double whammy.

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

Here’s one more – Famed palaeontologist O.A. Peterson named a species of prehistoric pig as Dinohyus hollandi, after Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History W.J. Holland, for the latter’s annoying habit of hogging the limelight. Holland was known in scientific circles for taking credit for every research paper published by his students, irrespective of whether he contributed to it or not.

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

Barring these and a few other instances of inspired, but hurtful name-calling, taxonomy has for the most period, been a civilised affair.

When naming an animal or a plant, taxonomists are told to consider the specialty of the species as inspiration. So, when scientists found a new genus of tiny sea snails, they named them Ittibittium; given how they were much smaller in size compared to another genus of sea snails – Bittium.

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

The second way to name a new species – find another creature that looks exactly like it and name the new species after that. Enter Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly which is renowned for possessing a giant, golden bottom. Who else in the animal kingdom had such a big, tanned, booty? Why, Beyoncé of course.

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

TV shows and story book characters have inspired species names too. A newly discovered species of jellyfish was named Bazinga reiki after The Big Bang Theory’s protagonist Sheldon Cooper’s famous catchphrase “Bazinga”. The bacteria genus Midichloria was named after a fictional alien species called “midichlorians” described in the cult classic Star Wars.  Then there’s the fossil of a large turtle, discovered in 1992 – Ninjemys oweni, named after the hit show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 

 

So, to encapsulate

Scientific names must be unique, kind, not self-glorifying and clever. They must take inspiration from the species itself or another, just like it.

Can only scientists name a new species?

Although scientists who discover the species usually get the honour of naming them, some scientists allow members of the public to send their suggestions.

In 2000, Dr Nerida Wilson discovered a species of nudibranch in the Indian ocean. She didn’t have a name for the animal. So, she decided to let the people decide. She invited names from the public and the submissions were reviewed by a panel of expert taxonomists. Finally, the entry by Patrick from New South Wales was chosen and the nudibranch was named – Moridilla fifo.

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

Although Latin was the language of taxonomy in the 1700s, today, there’s no strict rule requiring taxonomists to name species in Latin or Greek. You can provide a name in any language of your choice and taxonomists will tweak the spelling to resemble Latin or Greek, without actually changing or translating the name itself.

Want to name a species yourself?

Go on and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Who knows, the next big discovery could be named by you.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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The 10 Best Ways To Celebrate Earth Day 2019!

Hey there everyone! Happy Earth Day!

Today is a very special day. Today is the day we celebrate the Earth and everything she stands for. Today is the day we take a pledge to protect the Earth and do our bit to keep the animals, plants & insects on our planet safe from harm and alive for our descendants to enjoy.

So, this Earth Day 2019, let’s look at the 10 simple ways in which we can do our part to keep the Earth safe.

  1. Don’t drive to work – 1 gallon (3.8 litres) of gas produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide when burnt. If everyone kept their car at home just for one day, it will stop the production of millions of pounds of carbon dioxide. This can save so many animals, plants & people.
  2. Tighten the tap – A leaking tap can lose up to 5 gallons (18.9 litres) of water each day. This quantity can meet the water needs of a small community. If you have leaking taps at home, get them fixed.
  3. Set up a bird bath – Many species of birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Installing a small bird bath on your terrace/garden/yard can provide these birds a place to cool-off in the scorching summer heat. Here is a simple guide to building a bird bath at home. You can also set-up a bird feeder, while you’re at it.
  4. Plant – Plants and trees give us oxygen. They give us fruits, flowers and seeds. They are homes for many animals & insects. All of us need plants for our survival. Yet, more than 2.47 million trees are cut down each day, around the world. Imagine what would happen if we continue to cut down trees and not replace them with new ones? Planting a single tree at home can really help the environment.
  5. Avoid plastics – Plastics are killers. No matter what form they come in – bags, bottles, rubber bands etc. – they are one of the greatest threats to the Earth. A single plastic bag takes 1000 years to decompose and there are more than 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste today on the Earth and in the ocean. Imagine how damaging this plastic can be on the planet. This informative blog will tell you all about it.
  6. Get eco-friendly toys for your pets – A lot of pet toys are actually made from materials which can have a negative impact on your pet’s health. They are also hard to recycle, making them very burdensome on the environment. Choose toys which are biodegradable and which are preferably ISO certified. Also make sure that they use ingredients which are hygienic & body-friendly for your pets.
  7. Choose re-usable bottles, coffee cups and straws – Disposable bottles, cups and straws are one of the main causes of pollution. They add to the plastic waste that’s already present on the Earth. Don’t contribute to this. Choose bottles which you can re-use multiple times. Take a coffee mug to work or to the cafe and ask the server to use that for your order. Ask for reusable straws, or better yet, avoid the straws altogether. The same goes for plastic grocery bags.
  8. Donate to animal welfare – Many zoos around the world allow the public to adopt animals for up to a year. During this adoption period, the patron foots the medical and food bills of the animal for the entire duration. But this may be expensive for some people. In that case, you can just donate the amount you want to the zoo of your choice. This will go a long way in getting quality food and medication for the animals.
  9. Volunteer at an animal shelter – If you’d like to play a more active role in animal welfare, then volunteer at an animal shelter or a Rescue & Rehabilitation unit. Not only will you be able to do your part for the Earth, but you’ll gain a better understanding and appreciation for your fellow-creatures.
  10. Recycle – Garbage is something we can’t escape. Its bound to pile up every day. The best way to respect the Earth and reduce the damage that you may be inflicting on the planet, is to actively recycle. Encourage your kids to join in and your neighbours too. Let this be a community event; after all, it will benefit the community as a whole. Here is a wonderful guide to recycling various materials.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured image: Pixabay
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Why Are Marsupials Found Only In Australia?

Take a look at global animal distribution and you’ll notice how each country in the world has a specific type or species of animal, that isn’t found anywhere else.

One such group of animals is the Marsupials – animals that possess a pouch which they use to raise their young in. Some of the best examples of Marsupials are kangaroos, koalas, possums and wombats.

When we think about marsupials, we always associate them with the Land Down Under. Why is it that marsupials are found only in Australia?

Okay, let’s take a moment to set the record straight. Marsupials aren’t found only in Australia. They are also found in South America, Central America and certain parts of North America & Southern Canada. The best example of an American marsupial is the Opossum

Possum 2
An opossum

Scientists believe that the first marsupials were actually born in South America and they crossed Antarctica to finally land on and inhabit Australia. This was 180 million years ago, when Australia, Antarctica and South America were a single super-continent called Gondwana. A common marsupial ancestor born in South America branched into two distinct species, with one residing in the Americas and the other migrating to Australia. Today, over 200 species of marsupials are found in Australia, 100 in South America and 13 in Central America – all descendants of the single American ancestor. 

Gondwana
A representative image of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana (image source)

So, the question we should be asking now is – “Why are a majority of the animals that are found in Australia, marsupial?” Or, a better question would be, “Why are so many marsupials still alive in Australia, when most of their American counterparts are extinct?” What makes Australia such a fertile ground for the birth (& survival) of so many marsupial species?. 

The answer can be two-pronged. One line of thinking states that the geography of the country-continent is the reason for a high percentage of marsupials in Australia.

Australia has been a landmass that has remained largely separate from other continents for millions of years. This meant, it was subject to weather and soil conditions that was completely different from what was found on other continents. In turn, this affected the type of plants that grew on the continent, which changed the diet of the Australian marsupials significantly from their American counterparts. The researchers who support this theory believe that the diet offered by Australia was more conducive to the development of the marsupial species as a whole, compared to the diet elsewhere.

The second theory is that, since Australia was largely and for a very long time secluded and protected from the invasion of foreign species, the marsupials of yore didn’t have much competition to face for shelter, food and water. Additionally, the predominantly marsupial population ensured the birth of more marsupials and over time, the continent was soon overrun by marsupials. 

On the other hand, the Americas blossomed with many distinct species of animals, leading to intense competition for resources and as a result, the extinction of many marsupial species. We need to remember here that marsupial babies are born underdeveloped due to the lack of a placenta. They need additional time compared to their placental or egg-born cousins to grow into strong & mature creatures. With so many threats lurking around and such few resources to be shared by thousands of animals, it was just a matter of time before the genetically-weaker marsupial species in the Americas went extinct. 

Placenta vs marsupial
A short list of placental mammals and marsupials commonly found in the wild (image source)

The future of Australia’s marsupials

So, what’s next for our pouched friends?

Species around the world are experiencing the brunt of habitat loss and governments are implementing conservation projects to keep them safe. In Australia, the kangaroo is given protected status – with criminals found injuring or killing them, getting a one-way ticket to prison. But not all marsupials have been afforded this luxury, making conservation a challenging endeavour.

Additionally, some species like the antechinus, are going extinct for another (never-anticipated) reason – their suicidal mating tendencies – and have stumped scientists. Experts are now scrambling to save these almost-extinct species, but it may already be too late. 

In terms of whether we’ll see any new marsupial species being discovered anytime soon; only time will tell. For now, the focus is on preserving the population that is present in the Land Down Under.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Pixabay
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5 Fun Facts About Dugongs

Dugongs are marine animals which belong to the family Dugongidae. They are part of the order called Sirenia aka sea cows, which also includes the manatees. They can be found dispersed across the Indian ocean, Pacific ocean and the region between East Africa & Australia. 

Here are five facts about them: 

  1. Apart from manatees, dugongs are the only marine animals that are strictly herbivorous, eating sea grass, weeds and aquatic plants. All other marine animals are omnivorous. 
  2. The closest relative of dugongs is the Steller’s Sea Cow, which was driven to extinction in the mid-1700s.
  3. A dugong’s gestation period lasts one year and females give birth once every 3-7 years. 
  4. Although they resemble seals and walruses in appearance, dugongs are actually more genetically similar to elephants. That’s because these animals evolved from the same ancestor. 
  5. According to the IUCN Red List, dugongs have a “Vulnerable” classification; meaning they are very vulnerable to becoming extinct if conservation efforts aren’t set in place. As of today, less than 7500 dugongs are alive in the world.  

 

Bonus

The name “dugong” comes from the Malay word “duyung“, which means “Lady of the Sea“. Before scientists officially documented this species, sailors & fishermen out at sea assumed dugongs (and their cousins, the manatees) to be mermaids, sirens and other mystical creatures. This was predominantly because of the way these animals swam.

Dugongs and manatees rise out from the underneath the water and perform tail-stands (where they stand & balance on the tip of their tails) when coming up for air. This prompted sailors & fishermen to assume they were the mythical sea-dwelling creatures they grew up hearing about. 

 

 

Steller's Sea Cow
A representative image of a Steller’s Sea Cow – the extinct relative of the dugong (image source)

 

Dugong 1
Some more facts about dugongs (image source: pinterest)

 

Video: Now let’s see a dugong in action

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: National Geographic; Dugong vs Manatee: Indigoscuba
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5 Fun Facts About Africa’s Great Migration

You may have seen it on television – it’s an event that National Geographic has always loved to film. A grand spectacle and a treat for the senses, the Great Migration in Africa is the annual movement of the world’s largest (non-human) land animal group from one part of Africa to the other, in search of food and safer breeding grounds*.

Wildebeests, antelope, zebra and big cats congregate for five months of rigorous walking, eating, birthing and killing. Here are 5 amazing facts about it:

  1. The Great Migration starts in Tanzania at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation areas and ends at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The migration starts in the month of November and the animals reach their destination in March.
  2. A recorded 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and thousands of antelope make the migration each year. The animals travel a staggering 2900 kilometres (1800 miles) in total, from Tanzania to Kenya and back during this journey.
  3. The Great Migration follows one of the most dangerous routes in Africa. Animals making the journey have to deal with hungry predators (lions, cheetahs & crocodiles), treacherous floods, the uncaring African sun, mean-spirited tsetse flies and physical tiredness. More than 250,000 wildebeests and thousands of zebras and antelopes die each year on the journey. This is excluding the thousands of calves who are left orphaned and vulnerable to predators after their mothers die. A recorded 3000 lions follow the herds on their journey, picking off the weak and the injured.
  4. More than a foraging mission, the Great Migration is a breeding expedition. Pregnant wildebeests move from Tanzania to Kenya for better environmental conditions for calving. An estimated half a million baby wildebeests are born annually during the migration. In the peak of the calving season (February), more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born in a single day!
  5. Although they look like they’re confused and panicked all the time, the massive herds of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes actually function together as one cohesive unit. They display a tactic researchers call “swarm intelligence”, where they carefully analyse, strategise and implement a  plan of action to get safely past any threat together. There’s no “I” in this family.

 

Bonus

There is still no established and accepted explanation for the occurrence of the Great Migration.

Some scientists believe the changing chemistry of the grass could be the reason for the movement. When levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the Serengeti grassland reduces, the wildebeests may be encouraged to move elsewhere for more nutritious meals, acting as the catalyst for the Great Migration. Others believe that the migration may be the result of a co-ordinated effort helmed by a leader. But so far there has been no evidence of there ever being an alpha-wildebeest in any herd. Then there are those scientists who believe that the Great Migration is the consequence of instinct and DNA – a purely biological process that has no other reason.

Well, whatever the rationale, fossil records show that the Great Migration has been in occurrence in East Africa for over one million years.

 

Migratie-Serengeti-map
The Great Migration – Route Map (image source)

 

serengeti-migration
A sea of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes greet the eyes during the Great Migration. Often, these herds extend all the way to the horizon; but they don’t stop there. They go on & on. (image source)

 

Wildebeest-Crossing-mara-river-Serengeti-lodge
Wildebeests crossing the Mara river – this is where they are most vulnerable to attack from crocodiles. (image source)

 

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A wildebeest mother with her newborn calf. (image source)

 

Video: Watch the culmination of the Great Migration – wildebeest giving birth & a newborn’s first, wobbly steps. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image
*Humans take the crown for the farthest migrations in search of food and shelter. 
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Deceptive Sizing: 3 Newborn Animals Who Are Ridiculously Smaller Than Their Parents

Ah baby animals…these bundles of joy have been lighting up the wild for millennia. While everyone has been raving about their cuteness, not a lot of people have spoken about their size. Let’s face it, when it comes to size, some animals are impressive…impressively small. 

Here are 3 animals whose babies are way smaller than you thought they would be: 

 

Kangaroos

Kangaroo adults can reach heights of 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) and can weigh 90 kilograms (200lbs). But their newborn joeys are smaller than gummy bears, often smaller than 25 millimeters. 

 

 

Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:

 

 

Pandas

At their heaviest, adult pandas can weigh 160 kilograms (350 lbs). But their tiny cubs weigh only 1/900th of their mother’s weight! Now that’s really tiny. 

 

Panda 2
A panda mom with her newborn cub

See that little pink floppy thing on the left side? yup, that little nugget is the cub.

Here’s a fun question; what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment! Ha ha, all jokes aside, a group of pandas is called “an embarrassment” because of the boisterous way in which panda cubs play when they’re together. It could embarrass any mum. 

Now indulge in some cub time by watching twin panda cubs embark on their first 100 days of life. 

 

 

Elephants

One of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants have longest gestation period in the wild. It takes their bodies 22 months to fully develop the calf (imagine being pregnant for almost two years!). But surprisingly, baby elephants when born are only 90 kilograms (200 lbs), while their heavy-weight mothers, aunts and sisters (and not to forget, their brothers and fathers) can reach ridiculously high weights of 3600 kilograms (4 tonnes)! 

 

 

Watch as this newborn calf, just hours old, meets his herd-mates, learns how slopes are not a baby’s friend and discovers the forest he is to grow up in. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About Crabs

Crabs are crustaceans, marine animals which have a thick exoskeleton made of a chemical called chitin (which is chemically derived from glucose). Crabs belong to the class Malacostraca, which means “soft shelled animal” and to the order Decapoda, which mostly includes marine crustaceans (like lobster, shrimp and prawn) that scavenge for food, as opposed to hunting them. This makes crabs soft-shelled scavengers.

Here are five fun facts about them: 

  1. There are two types of crabs in the world – true crabs and false crabs – classified so because of their differing physiology. True crabs have the traditional body structure of a crab – a short and shallow abdomen curled underneath the shell and 4 pairs of legs excluding the pincers. False crabs on the other hand, look a little like crabs, but not completely. They have longer abdomens and less than 4 pairs of legs. True crabs include spider crab, blue crab and ghost crab. False crabs include king crab, hermit crab and porcelain crab. There are a total of 5000 crabs in the world – 4500 true crabs and 500 false crabs. 
  2. The largest crab in the world is the Japanese Spider Crab, which measures 13 feet or almost 4 meters from one end of the body to another. In comparison are the Coral Gall crab, Pea crab, Marsh Fiddler crab and Flattop crab – all of which measure in at a teeny-tiny half an inch at adulthood. If you kept 4.5 standard sized mail boxes one-on-top-of-the-other on one side and a small pea on the other side…well, that’s how the size difference would look between these crabs.  
  3. A small species of crab called Lybia or boxer crab, carry stinging anemones in their pincers anywhere they go. Why?  Lybia are very small in size and they don’t have venom to protect themselves from predators. They use the anemones in a mutually-beneficial partnership where the anemone acts as their defensive, venom-filled gloves. If an animal were to attack the Lybia, the anemone would sting the predator, protecting the crab. In return, the crab takes the anemone to different water bodies, allowing it to feed-off various sources and gaining valuable nutrients not found in its native environment. 
  4. If a crab loses its limbs in a fight, it can grow them back in a matter of months. This is a feature that is also found in starfish and lizards. 
  5. Crabs walk sideways because their legs are positioned to the sides of their body and their joints bend outwards and sideways. The reason for this type of evolution traces back to the crabs’ feeding behaviour. As sand-digging scavengers, crabs never needed to move forwards or move fast. This meant they didn’t need forward bending legs (which are one of the reasons animals can walk or run fast) and could make-do with sideways legs and sideways walking. However, not all crabs walk sideways. Frog crabs and spider crabs belong to the handful of crab species that walk forwards. 

 

 

Bonus

There is a type of parasitic barnacle called the Sacculina, which injects itself into the crab’s body, takes control of the crab’s will and makes it do its bidding. Crabs infected by Sacculina can’t control their own body mechanisms and are forced to become walking, breathing incubators of Sacculina eggs. Read this highly-informative article to learn all about the relationship between the Sacculina and its crab host. 

Here’s what a crab infected by Sacculina look like: 

 

 

Video: Coconut tree crabs are the only type of crabs that can climb trees. Watch this monster of a crab climb a tree, bend coke bottle caps and more. 

 

 

Crab 1
A Lybia with anemone in its pincers (image source)

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image – The Sally Lightfoot crab from the Galapagos Islands. Sacculina – Mental Floss & Wikipedia.

 

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5 Fun Facts About Possums

Posssums are marsupials (pouched mammals) that are found in North America. They are the only marsupial species found outside Australia and New Guinea. They belong to the order Didelphimorphia, to which belong 95 species of possums. 

 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

  1. Possums are renowned for their ability to “play dead”. In reality, possums don’t actually “play” dead. Their paralysis and almost-dead like state is an involuntary physiological reaction where their nerves and muscles literally freeze and stop working for hours due to stress. This in-built defense mechanism has allowed the possum to survive from pre-historic times. 
  2. Lyme disease is a tick-bite induced disease that results in terribly itchy and inflamed rashes, joint pain and fatigue. Possums in your backyard is a great defense against Lyme disease. It’s been found that possums prey on over 5000 of the ticks and fleas that spread the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. 
  3. Apart from the venom of the Coral Rattlesnake, possums are immune to all other snake venom. That’s why they regularly prey on snakes in the wild. A few years ago researchers created an anti-venom using possum peptides (short chain amino acids linked by peptide bonds), which they injected into mice. They then injected snake venom into the mice only to find the venom absolutely useless. 
  4. Rabies virus require very hot temperatures to develop and spread. But possums have very low body temperatures compared to other mammals and this makes them invulnerable to rabies. You can almost never find a possum with rabies. 
  5. Primates aren’t the only species to be gifted with opposable thumbs. Possums have opposable thumbs called “halux” on their feet and they use them to climb atop the steepest trees and into the deepest sewers in search of food. 

 

Bonus

Contrary to popular belief, possums and opposums aren’t the same animal. They also don’t belong to the same species. For one, possums belong to the Didelphimorphia order in North America, while opossums belong to the order Phalangeridae in Australia. Both animals look similar, but behave completely differently. It was because of this similarity in physical features that led scientists to confuse the opposum for a possum. 

 

Possum 3
Possums are excellent climbers and use their tails as rudders and as a fifth limb to improve their dexterity. (image source)

 

Possum 1
A possum with her young (image source- pixabay)

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image – Wikipedia 
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5 Fun Facts About Dung Beetles

Dung Beetles are members of the order Coleoptera, which include insects that have hardened wing cases and not papery wings like other insects. As members of coleoptera, they belong to the super-order Endopterygota, which constitutes insects whose bodies undergo a drastic transformation from how they are in the larval stage to how they are in the adult stage. Other insects that share their super-order are bees, butterflies, flies and ants. 

Here are 5 fun facts about dung beetles: 

  1. We all know that dung beetles love to eat poop. But research shows that dung beetles have a blatant preference for herbivore poop, given the high nutritional value it has from the undigested plant matter. Carnivore and omnivore droppings which contain much less nutrition than what beetles require, are only consumed occasionally.
  2. Did you know that dung beetles have been around from the past 30 million years? Fossil records in South America show prehistoric dung balls, similar to the dung balls today’s dung beetles make, around sites where herbivorous dinosaurs were found. Looks like someone was a good samaritan, keeping dino poop off the streets. 
  3. Although the quintessential image of a dung beetle is that of a beetle pushing around a ball of poop, most dung beetles actually don’t indulge in this behavior. Many dung beetles either live within piles of animal poop or burrow holes into the ground below the poop, as these help the beetles gain quick access to the poop when they’re hungry. Dung beetles only roll their dung when they need to carry food to their nests, which may be far away from the pile of fresh poop. 
  4. One type of dung beetle from Africa, the Scarabaeus satyrus, uses the Milky Way Galaxy to navigate and travel. When this beetle needs to transport its ball of poop, it waits for it to get dark, gets on top of the poop ball, looks towards the sky, finds the milky way and uses the stars to make its way home. If anything blocks their view of the stars (like scientists did when they placed tiny hats on these dung beetles to check their navigation reflexes when blind), these beetles will wander aimlessly like lost puppies. Talk about requiring celestial guidance.  
  5. If you thought a tiny hat didn’t complete its trousseau, don’t worry. There’s more to come. To test whether dung beetle poop-ball-rolling efficiency was affected by the heat of the midday sun, scientists put selected dung beetles in tiny silicon booties. They noticed that the beetles wearing the booties took lesser breaks and were faster in their walk & poop-rolling. 

Bonus

With all this talk of poop-rolling, don’t you want to know what weight a dung beetle can pull during each poop-rolling session? A dung beetle can pull as high as 1,141 times its own body weight! That’s the equivalent of a 70 kilograms human being pulling six double decker buses filled with people!

Here is what we do in the name of scientific inquiry: 

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(image source – pixabay)

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(image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image – Pixabay; Dung beetle wearing a hat – Nat Geo; Dun beetle wearing shoes – Scientific American
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5 Differences Between Turtles & Tortoises

Turtles & Tortoises must have been the source of the “Find the difference” game, because they are two animals that most people can’t distinguish between. 

Turtles & tortoises are both reptiles which belong to the Testudines family of animals – animals which developed a bony/cartilaginous layer on their backs, which cover their bodies as a shield. They belong to the same group as crocodiles and snakes. 

A lot of times, many aspiring pet owners don’t know how to differentiate between a turtle and a tortoise and end up caring for them the wrong way. They give them the wrong food and expose them to the wrong living conditions. This results in many animal deaths. Those owners who try to do right by their pets by releasing them back into the wild, release turtles & tortoises in environments they actually aren’t supposed to, leading to more deaths. 

So, how can we stop this vicious cycle? By learning more about them of course. Here are the top 5 differences between turtles & tortoises

  1. Turtles can swim, tortoises can’t. That’s why turtles have webbed feet (sea turtles have full-fledged flippers) and tortoises have feet that have toes (like that of an elephant) which they use to walk & climb. 
  2. With the exception of the Sonoran mud turtles and Box turtles, all other turtle species have a streamlined and flat shell. All tortoises have deep, domed shells. The streamlined shells of turtles are highly-aerodynamic and reduce drag in the water. Tortoises never needed to evolve a flat shell because they never needed to swim. 
  3. Turtles live on an average for 80 years. Tortoises for 150 years. There have been instances where turtles and tortoises in healthy captive conditions lived well beyond their natural lifespans, some reaching an estimated 250 years of age. 
  4. Turtles are omnivores and like to eat a mix of plants and meat like larvae, insects, small fish and jellyfish. Tortoises are mostly herbivores and love their green leaves, with only a handful of species choosing to eat meat. 
  5. Female turtles come on shore only to lay eggs and will return to the water immediately after. Female tortoises on the other hand, often stay a few days protecting the nest and will return to their territories much later. If you’ve seen a turtle/tortoise lay her eggs near your property and you want to do your bit to give these eggs a chance to hatch (and not get eaten by predators), read this really-informative article by the Tortoise Protection Group here

Bonus

Okay, here’s a fun fact that can turn everything you’ve just learnt on its head. 

Scientifically speaking, there’s no distinct species called “tortoise”!

Okay, before you drop your device in shock, let me just clarify that there’s more to it.

So, according to taxonomy (the science of classification), all animals that have shells which cover their body completely are called “turtles”. What this means is that all tortoises are in reality a type of turtle

Let’s break it down further. The species called “turtles” includes – tortoises, terrapins (yep, that’s a new one) and turtles.

  • Tortoises are turtles which live exclusively on land.
  • Terrapins are turtles whose shells resemble those of sea turtles (only smaller), but whose legs look like those on tortoises and they swim in freshwater.
  • Turtles are actually sea-turtles which live in the ocean and do not remain long on land. 

Basically, all tortoises and terrapins are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises and terrapins. 

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An Australian sea turtle (image source)
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A Galapagos giant tortoise (image source)
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A Terrapin – see how they look like a cross between a turtle and a tortoise. Their shells are flat and streamlined, but their feet are only slightly-webbed with long claws attached, making them perfect for both land and water-based living.  (image source)
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Turtles & tortoises have different types of feet. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image
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5 Fun Facts About Uguisu

(Hear the pronunciation of “Uguisu” here)

Uguisu, called the Japanese Bush Warbler in English, is a small bird that is predominantly found on the island nation of Japan and in certain places of Korea, China and Russia. A very shy bird, very little is known about it. 

Here are fun five fun facts about Uguisu:

  1. Uguisu have a very melodious chirp, one of the most refreshing in the bird world. In fact, when people actually see the pale, olive-coloured Uguisu, they are surprised that something so drab-looking can produce such a beautiful sound. 
  2. Speaking of their song, Uguisu songs are thought to fulfill multiple purposes. Apart from functioning as mating calls, Uguisu are also thought to use songs to wage wars, claim territories, convey danger and indicate the presence of food. Each song is slightly distinct from the other. 
  3. During breeding season, it is the Uguisu female that builds the nest, incubates the eggs, feeds the newborn chicks and teaches them to fly. The males’ only role is to fertilise the eggs. 
  4. Uguisu droppings are one of the most sought-after natural items in Japan. They are used to make skin lightening & brightening creams. It is believed that Geisha and Kabuki actors in the Edo period routinely applied it to their faces in preparation for their performances. Uguisu-feaces inclusive cosmetic – “Uguisu-no-Fun” – was sold extensively in Japan for quite a long time, with companies often illegally capturing and caging Uguisu birds in captivity. This was the case until authorities set in place stringent measures to prevent this illegal kidnapping. It was reported that the secret to Victoria Beckham’s beauty was Uguisu-droppings cream. 
  5. Uguisu resemble Bushtits and Nightingales in appearance. That’s why the discoverer of the Uguisu – Heinrich von Kittlitz – confused them for nightingales. That’s why even today, the Uguisu  are called Japanese Nightingales outside Japan. 

Bonus

There is a type of wooden floorboard used in traditional Japanese construction, which when stepped on creates a creaking sound that is eerily similar to the call of the Uguisu  bird. This type of floorboard is called – Uguisubari – in Japan. The purpose of these floorboards is to announce to the home owner, the presence of other people (often unwelcome & uninvited) in the house.

Video: Listen to a Uguisu  tease us with his/her beautiful voice. Notice how he/she isn’t visible at all. These birds are masters of camouflage. 

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An Uguisu in the wild. (image source)
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A bottle of Uguisu-no-Fun face cream made from Uguisu droppings. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image
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5 Fun Facts About Sea Sponge

Sea Sponges are multi-cellular creatures that do not have a brain and organ systems and depend on the constant flow of water through their porous bodies to get the oxygen and food they need to survive. There are over 9000 recorded varieties of sea sponges in the world today and they can be found at various depths right from the seashore to the abyssal zone, which is the deepest part of the ocean. 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

  1. Fossil records of sea sponges indicate that sponges first made an appearance on the Earth 650 million years ago. This makes them one of the earliest life forms on the planet.
  2. There are currently 480,931 marine species known and on record and an estimated 2 million that are as yet unrecorded and unknown (i.e. there is not enough evidence – be it visual proof or physical proof – to classify any unknown animal as a distinct species) in all the lakes, seas and oceans of the world. It’s believed that 75% of the world’s entire marine population (480K + 2 Million) accounts for sponges.
  3. Since they don’t have any age-rings (like in trees), it can be hard to accurately estimate the age of a sea sponge. But analysis of growth rates indicates that some sea sponges grow 0.2 mm (0.000656168 feet) per year. Based on this, sponges as small as 1 meter (3.2 feet) wide may be over 4500 years old!
  4. A sea sponge in the Caribbean – Tectitethya crypta – produces two chemical compounds which can treat certain types of cancer and HIV. The chemicals – spongothymidine and spongouridine – have been used to develop the HIV drug Azidothymidine (AZT) which can be used to prevent mother-to-child and needle-to-skin AIDS/HIV transmission. The same chemicals have also helped create medication for leukemia and herpes. 
  5. The biggest debate since the time of Aristotle has been – “Are sea sponges plants or animals?” Although they resemble plants in appearance and remain permanently fixed to the spot they grow on like plants, sea sponges are not plants. Why? 

– Sea sponges can’t produce their own food like plants and rely on stray organic matter to float into their pores via the flowing water.

– Sea sponges have an immune system like other animals which reject dissimilar cells if transplanted into them. Scientists need to use immunosuppressants to successfully transplant dissimilar cells into their bodies. 

– Finally, some sea sponges produce and release sperm to indulge in sexual reproduction. 

These characteristics makes sea sponges inherently animal-like.

 

Bonus

Today, you can find a feminine hygiene product called “Menstrual Sponges” on the market. Basically, these are sea sponges that are used as re-usable tampons. In many parts of the world (especially in developed, first-world countries), sea sponges are a favoured alternative to toxic, non-biodegradable and expensive sanitary pads and tampons. Here is a link to the Top 5 most preferred sea sponge tampons

Would you use them?

 

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Various tidal zones in the ocean – sea sponges are found at each level, right from the seabed to the Abyssal zone.

 

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Sponges grow in large clusters across the ocean bed. (image source)

 

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A female sea sponge that’s spawning .i.e. releasing fertilised eggs into the ocean. Most sponges are hermaphrodites – both male and female – and can produce sperm and eggs simultaneously.  (image source)

 

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Different types of sea sponges in the world. (image source)

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image source
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5 Fun Facts About Bison

Bison, also called the American Buffalo, are a species of Bovine found in North America. They are a Near Threatened species with only 500,000 left in the wild. 

Here are 5 fun facts about them:

  1. Bison have lived in the area that is now known as Yellowstone National Park since prehistoric times. Researchers believe these animals are more than 2 million years old and have survived the ice age. 
  2. Adult bison can weigh up to 2000 pounds. Although its such a heavy animal, a bison can run at record speeds of 35 miles/hour. That’s faster than Usain Bolt’s Olympic record speed of 27.8 miles/hour. 
  3. You can easily tell how a bison is feeling by looking at its tail. Calm bison will leave their tails down and swish it around – the movement seems effortless. But an angry bison, especially one that’s about to charge, will have its tail straight upwards, pointing towards the sky. 
  4. Bison calves are called “red dogs” because of the colour of their fur. When bison calves are born, they are orange-red in colour and they turn brown-black as they age. 
  5. A bison’s hump is made of strong muscles. This lump of muscle, supported by the animal’s strong vertebral column, helps the bison shovel large amounts of snow and dirt from the ground when its foraging for food. Unlike the camel (which uses its fat-filled hump as a source of energy during times of scarcity), a bison can’t use its hump as anything other than a snow/dirt shovel. 

 

Bonus

Analysis of migratory patterns show that the bison made their way to North America from Asia during the Pliocene Epoch via the natural land bridge that connected Asia to North America, before the split of the Pangaea. So, although the bison is now the USA’s national mammal, it was never their indigenous species. 

 

Video: Two juggernauts go head-to-head in a fight to the finish for land and ladies. What happens next? 

 

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A cave painting of a bison from historic times – proof that bison roamed the lands during the olden days.

 

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A newborn bison calf with its mother. You can see the remnants of the birth coming from the bison mother.

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Photo Credits: Pixabay

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5 Fun Differences Between Centipedes & Millipedes

Centipedes & Millipedes both belong to the group “Myriapoda“, under the phyllum “Arthropoda“, which includes spiders, crustaceans and insects. We know they have a seemingly never-ending number of legs, with one having more legs than the other (20-350 legs in centipedes & 40-750 in millipedes). But is that the only difference between them? 

5 differences you didn’t know existed between centipedes & millipedes 

  1. Centipedes are flat, while millipedes are cylindrical. Centipedes are yellow-gray in colour, while millipedes are reddish-brown or black in colour.
  2. Centipedes have a single pair of legs in each segment/section of their bodies. Millipedes have two pairs of legs in each segment/section of their bodies. Centipedes’ legs are spread outwards and away from their body, towards their side. Millipedes’ legs are directly under them. 
  3. Centipedes are venomous, whereas millipedes are not. 
  4. Speaking of venom, centipedes use highly-toxic venom like hydrogen cyanide or hydrochloric acid to injure, immobilise and hunt small prey like insects, worms and in the case of the Venezuelan giant centipede, bats. Millipedes on the other hand, are predominantly vegetarians, dining on decaying leaves and rotten tree bark. They only eat insects if they are easily available and the millipedes don’t need to expend too much energy catching them. 
  5. Centipedes die if they don’t find a wet and moist place to live, whereas millipedes are quite versatile and can adapt to any environment – dry or moist. That leggy arthropod that just crawled out of your kitchen sink – that’s a centipede. It’s cousin you see scuttling around inside the storage boxes and wall cracks in the basement – that’s a millipede. 

 

Bonus

During mating, centipede males leave bundles of sperm next to female centipedes and move away. The females use these bundles only when they find the perfect nest to lay the fertilized eggs (if the timing isn’t right, female centipedes store these sperm bundles for a better day). Millipede males & females on the other hand, engage in sexual intercourse to reproduce. Male millipedes have been observed giving “massages” to females to get them in the mood for sex. 

 

Video: Centipede vs Millipede

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Sheep

  1. Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned in the world. She was born in 1996 and died in 2003 due to lung disease. Now 8 other species have been cloned after her. 
  2. Like to eat lamb or mutton? If yes to the former, you enjoy dining on young sheep. But if its the latter you like, adult sheep are your preferred meal. 
  3. A sheep’s natural diet constitutes invasive plants .i.e. plants or weeds that are not native to a geographical area and which wreak havoc on the health of native plants and animals (ex: moss, vines etc). That’s why farmers and conservationists use sheep in a process called “conservation farming“, where they consciously rear sheep to eat & clear any invasive plant species in a fragile ecosystem. 
  4. Sheep may appear dull and stupid, but they are quite intelligent and can recognize human voices and faces. They are often observed developing close bonds with specific people or animals on the farm. In fact, many sheep have “best friends” in their own flocks!
  5. Don’t you just love water-proof cosmetics? You need to thank sheep for that. Sheep produce a water-proof fatty oil called “lanolin” to keep their wool dry. It is this oil that is used as a base to produce water-proof make-up. 

 

Bonus

Apart from humans, sheep are the only animals who show a conscious lifelong preference for same-sex mates. A 1994 study showed that 8% of the males in sheep flocks prefer to partner with other males for life, even if there is no dearth of fertile females. In other animal species, a variety of factors from shortage of mates to lack of sexual pleasure can temporarily encourage homosexuality in animal groups.  

 

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Sheep live in tight-knit flocks. Lambs grow up playing with each other. 

 

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Orphan lambs are put with foster moms who have lambs of their own and are producing milk. This can be a very tricky affair for both farmers and lambs. Read all about it here

 

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Sheep wool never stops growing. Sheep need to be sheared at least once a year to prevent the onset of any dermatological diseases or pest-caused diseases. In 2004, Shrek, a merino sheep from New Zealand hid inside a cave for six years because he was scared of getting sheared. By the time he was coaxed out and caught by farmers, he had enough wool on him to produce 20 full-length men’s suits!

 

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Bighorn Sheep from North America have horns that weigh as high as 14 kilograms. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH