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Humans aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Oral Sex, Other Animals Do It Too

It was a warm summer’s day in 2013 when scientists researching fruit bats in Southern India noticed a unique behaviour in their subjects. The bats – who lived in an old fig tree in the village of Malumichampatti in Tamil Nadu – were performing oral sex on their mates!

This was a startling revelation to the scientists. Till date, this behaviour hadn’t been noticed in Indian fruit bats. Up until then, it was only observed in Chinese fruit bats, but no other bat species. This discovery was new and exciting.

Only a human experience?

Humans have for long indulged in oral sex. Myths and ancient books from around the world mention oral sex aka. fellatio (oral sex on males) and cunnilingus (oral sex on females), in various capacities.

There was the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who blew life into her husband Osiris’s body by sucking on his penis, after he was murdered by his brother Set. In the ancient Indian book of Kamasutra, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the use of aupariṣṭhaka (the art of oral sex) in love making. In the ancient city of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed baths predating 79 AD, with wall paintings of couples engaging in oral sex. 

Popeii fresco
The ancient fresco on the walls of Pompeii’s public bath. (Source)

Based on these evidences, scientists assumed that oral sex was the domain of human pleasure. That is until they found other animals engaging in it too.

Non-penetrative sex for non-humans

Animals have evolved to have sex. This includes both penetrative and non-penetrative sex.

Pet dogs and cats are excellent examples of animals which engage in non-penetrative sexual behaviours – chair mounting, dry humping and self-stimulation (auto-fellatio). In farms, the same behaviour can be observed in horses and birds The same is true of wild animals like turtles, walruses and monkeys (amongst others), who indulge in self-love.

With masturbation on the table, oral sex doesn’t seem too-far-off a possibility.

Animals like fruit flies, squirrels, bonobos, wolves, brown bears, sheep, Dunnock birds and Darwin’s bark spiders have been observed engaging in oral sex. The reason for this isn’t clear yet, although there are a few theories:

Theory #1: Oral sex can help prolong sexual activity

With the Indian fruit bats, scientists noticed that oral sex served to increase the time bats spent performing penetrative sex. The male bats would begin mating, with about 50 seconds of oral sex, followed by 10-20 seconds of penetrative sex. They would then revert to about 90 seconds of oral sex and finally back to penetrative sex of much longer duration.

This has led to conjectures regarding the connection between oral sex and the length of penetrative sex.

Dunnock Prunella modularis perched on bramble with dark background Potton Bedfordshire. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
A Dunnock bird. (Source)

Theory #2: Oral sex can remove bad bacteria from the vagina

The second theory proposed by researchers talks of the role of oral sex in animal health.

Some scientists believe that enzymes in the animal’s saliva can remove (and sometimes kill) bad bacteria, which live on/inside the mate’s sexual organs. This was one of the theories suggested regarding the Indian fruit bats from Tamil Nadu.

Another related theory suggests that cunnilingus, may be used by males to wipe-off sperms by competitors; thereby ensuring that only their sperms successfully take root. This is the theory used to explain the behaviour of Dunnock birds; where the male pecks at the female’s cloaca until older sperm masses drop out of her body. He mates with her only after this pre-copulatory display. This he does, it is believed, to prevent his mate from mothering another male’s brood.

Theory #3: Oral sex can improve the quality and mobility of the sperm

Another theory surrounding animal oral sex is that of sperm quality. It is assumed that fellatio may remove old, ineffective sperm and allow the male to use fresh, healthy sperm when mating.

Oral sex has also been presumed to improve the mobility of sperm, allowing the sperm to travel farther through the female’s reproductive tract and ensuring a successful pregnancy.

On this note, scientists have suggested that oral sex may work the other way too – make the female more receptive to mate, by stimulating the production of natural lubrication in the reproductive tract. In fact, this theory has been suggested regarding human females too.

Theory #4: Oral sex doesn’t serve any purpose, except pleasure

Finally, the last theory considers pleasure as the only purpose for the presence of oral sex in the sexual repertoire of non-human animals.

There are many animals like bonobos and macaques, who have been observed experiencing true pleasure during sex. They engage in play during the sexual act. For these few animals, mating doesn’t serve a reproductive purpose alone. They have sex because they like it.

Some scientists believe that in these species, oral sex may only be a tool to increase pleasure; and nothing more. A lot like in humans.

Bonobos
A Bonobo troop. (Source)

Oral sex and homosexuality in the animal kingdom

When talking about the sexual behaviours of animals, the question does arise – is oral sex in non-human animals restricted to heterosexual mates or does it include homosexual mates too (given how oral sex is common to both heterosexual and homosexual couples in humans)?

The answer – its species-dependent.

Primates like bonobos and macaques have been observed engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual behaviours, which includes oral sex. Other animals like dolphins, who are reputed for their varied sexual antics, have been observed engaging in homosexual behaviour, but not oral sex in particular. 

This makes it very hard to define whether there is any connection between oral sex and sexuality the animal kingdom or not; or if like humans, there is absolutely no connection. 

Understanding animal sexuality

With greater awareness, scientists are slowly peeling-back the layers surrounding animal sexuality. We are learning more today about sex, reproduction and pleasure, than we ever did before.

Understanding sexuality in the animal kingdom is also helping us understand human sexuality better. It is allowing scientists to understand human physiology and human evolution better too.

Studies like these are doing one other thing – redefining what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. As the lines dividing humans from animals blurs, we may need to rethink much about ourselves and the world.  

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Greater Indian fruit bat.

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Yes, Cold Blooded Creatures Get Fevers Too: Here’s What You Need To Know

What do amphibians, reptiles and fish have in common? They are all ectotherms – cold blooded creatures. They are animals which cannot regulate their own body temperatures (like warm blooded animals can) and they rely on the external environment to change their internal temperatures. 

For long scientists wondered if sickness like cold, flu and fever were the lot of warm blooded creatures . As it turns out – they aren’t. Cold blooded creatures can fall ill too. 

How (?), you may ask. In order to understand this, we need to understand how fevers set in warm blooded creatures. 

All warm blooded creatures have a particular body temperature, which for them is considered normal. For example: 

  • Humans – 98.6°F
  • Dogs – 102.0°F
  • Elephants – 97.7°F
  • Horses – 100.4°F
  • Goats – 103.4°F

If the body temperatures of these animals rises above this limit (as is the case during infections), the body tries to thermoregulate .i.e. bring the temperature back down, to normal. When the body fails to do this and the body temperature continues to rise, fever sets in. 

 

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Cold blooded animals – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

What about cold blooded animals?

Based on this, it’s important to note that for fever to set in, there has to be a biologically-set body temperature. But cold blooded animals don’t have a fixed temperature. Their body temperature falls or rises depending on the temperature of the external environment. 

So, how do they fall ill?

Well, cold blooded or warm blooded, all animals are susceptible to illness. Just as with their warm blooded cousins, cold blooded animals too may get infections from parasites or viruses, which can raise or drop their body temperatures abnormally. Just like warm blooded animals, ectotherm animals’ bodies too can handle only a certain level of heat and cold. If the change in temperature during the infection falls beyond this limit, illness similar to fever sets in. 

But the biggest mystery here isn’t just about how these animals fall ill, but it also includes what these animals do to get back to health. 

Changing behaviours for the sake of wellness

When fish, amphibians or reptiles fall ill, they indulge in what is known as a “behavioural fever“. If the animal is infected by a parasite or virus and experiences signs of ill health, it moves away towards areas which support warmer climates. For example, fish that normally prefer cold waters may swim towards warmer waters when they are ill. 

Why? 

Heat has the ability to deactivate viruses and destroy the proteins which assist in virus duplication. The same goes with parasites – heat can kill them too. 

So, a cold blooded creature that falls ill, will instinctively move towards a warmer place, in order to increase its body temperature, which will in turn help in killing or deactivating the pathogen in their bodies. 

 

Zebrafish
Zebrafish (Image source: Imperial College London)

 

This instinctive “behaviour“, which ectotherms exhibit when they have “fevers“, is called “behavioural fever“.  Scientists speculate this behaviour could stem from the fact that the immune systems of cold blooded animals may actually function better when in warmer climates.

One of the best examples of cold blooded creatures who exhibit behavioural fever are Zebrafish. The moment they fall ill, Zebra fish will change their water-heat preferences and swim to warmer waters. The same goes for Guppies. 

When behavioural fever benefits the host 

For some time, it was assumed that behavioural fever was helpful only for ectotherms who were in the throes of infection & fever. But as it turns out, in some cases, the move to hotter areas benefits pathogens too. 

Schistocephalus solidus, a tapeworm found in the gut of  rodents, fish and fish-eating birds, actually thrive on heat. Once the parasite is in the hot climate, it grows stronger and changes the heat preferences of the fish and manipulate other atypical (and often self-destructive) behaviours in the animal. 

 

virus-1812092_1280
Virus (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Then there is the Cyprinid herpesvirus 3, which is a virus that attacks fish in the Carp family. This virus affects the genetic code of the fish it infects and overrides the genes which stimulate behavioural fever. So, the infected fish doesn’t move towards warmer waters (as it is supposed to), instead choosing to stay in colder waters, where the virus can gain in strength. 

What happens if a feverish ectotherm cannot move to warmer climates? 

Vicious parasites and mind-control viruses aside, the inability to indulge in behavioural fever can have a massive, negative impact on cold blooded animals. This is in fact, very true of pets.

In the wild, cold blooded creatures have a lot of freedom to move to different places, in order to rid themselves of their illness and infection.  But pets stuck in aquariums and enclosures don’t have this luxury. 

Cold blooded pets like fish, turtles, tortoises, iguanas, lizards and snakes are cooped up inside their temperature-controlled tanks/enclosures for almost their entire lives; where they are subjected to the same temperature day-in-and-day-out. 

 

Cage frog
Caged animal – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Now imagine these pets fall ill and have a fever. Biologically they are programmed to leave and move to a place that is warmer, to heal themselves. But because they are stuck in their tanks/enclosures, these animals do not get the opportunity to get their bodies at the right temperature to kill the infection. 

When this happens, the fever and the infection only gets worse and in the worst cases, the pet dies. In fact, a large number of fish deaths in aquariums can be attributed to this.

So, what can pet owners do about this? 

Fish owners can set aside a separate tank where they can change the temperature of the water as required. Owners of amphibians and reptiles can create heat spots in corners of the enclosure by using detachable heaters and small light sources. This can give the sick pet an opportunity to self-heal. 

If however, your pet looks worse, it’s best to take him/her to a vet immediately. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Iguana (Source: Pixabay)
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Geckos are Weird, but Awesome: Here are 3 Reasons Why

Most of us don’t like geckos. They’re creepy little buggers who skulk in bathroom corners and whose bulging eyes look like they’re staring into your very soul. A little unnerving, to be honest.

But did you know that geckos are some of the most ingenious creatures in the world? In fact, they’re responsible for being the muse behind some of the world’s most brilliant technologies.

Scientists today have begun full-fledged studies into these slippery critters, in the hope of finding more technological inspiration from them. Here are three amazing and weird facts about them:

  • They take a bath in dewdrops

Dewdrops are formed when the surface of a plant or insect’s body is hydrophobic .i.e. repels water. As it turns out, geckos have a similar, if not the same, hydrophobic skin. Gecko skin contains tiny hair-like spines which trap air from the atmosphere. When this layer of air cools down, it becomes water.

As time passes and more air collects on the hair particles, the water droplets grow in size. When they’re large enough, they are able to be manipulated by external forces like wind and gravity. A slight gust of wind or the gecko moving can make the dewdrop slide right-off its body. When the dewdrops fall-off the gecko, they clean away dirt particles on the body. This technique is extremely useful for geckos, given how many species live in dry and arid wastelands where little water is available. This type of water retention can help them stay clean and healthy, without having to look for water resources.

Here’s another fun fact. Geckos are the first vertebrates to be found possessing hydrophobic skin. Their skin has now inspired scientists to develop super-hydrophobic clothing which can self-clean by collecting water vapour from the air and which wouldn’t need washing, ever!

 

Gecko 4
Source: National Geographic

 

  • Their tails spin a tale of their own when chopped-off

Geckos, just like other lizards, have the ability to voluntarily cut-off and drop their tails when faced with danger. This defensive technique gives them the opportunity to escape. Think about it. You’re about to catch a sweet-looking gecko, when BAM!, its tail falls off. Shocking isn’t it? You probably wouldn’t want to touch it after this.

But the interesting part isn’t this ingenious tail-dropping strategy. Studies show that gecko tails can move independently in and of themselves for up to 30 minutes after they fall off. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Calgary collaborated on a project in 2009, to understand how these tail movements are controlled after the tail falls off.

The scientists pinched the base of a gecko’s tail and made it fall off. They then attached four electrodes to both sides of the tail – two on each side. They found that once the tails fell off, they began to swing from side to side. This was an automatic response. But the moment the tail was lightly-shocked through the electrodes, it started jumping and somersaulting in the air erratically.

As it turns out, gecko tails have brains of their own. The moment a predator so much as grazes against it, the tail starts jumping and flipping. A few seconds later, it goes back to its serene swinging movement. If the predator touches the tail again, it explodes into a series of complex back spins, flips and jumps.

Scientists believe this technique is an additional measure to alarm predators and keep them occupied while the gecko escapes.

 

Gecko 5
Source: National Geographic

 

  • They can right themselves mid-air just like cats

While felines have the credit for being the most aerially acrobatic of all vertebrates, it’s the geckos who have truly opened science’s eyes to amazing possibilities. Until someone observed the unique way in which geckos flipped mid-air to stop their drops, no one knew these little lizards were capable of mid-air antics.

Experiments have shown that when geckos walk on non-slippery surfaces, their tails are held high up, away from the floor and pointing towards the sky. If the ground/wall is slippery, the gecko lowers the tail to the floor and leans its body against it for support – kind of like on a fifth leg.

When geckos slip and fall, they rotate their tails at a right angle to their body. Then they twist their tails again in the same direction, to make their bodies rotate too. They basically use the momentum generated by their tails to turn right-side up, to land on their feet.

This technique ensures that geckos always land on their stomach, irrespective of the direction their bodies were in when their fall began. This entire process of turning right-side-up takes only about 100 milliseconds! Now that’s what I call fast.

For comparison, cats don’t use their tails to land on their feet when they fall. They have a very flexible backbone and free-floating collarbones which give them the flexibility and speed to twist their bodies up to 180 degrees in seconds.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Gecko

 

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Are Peacock Feathers Really That Colourful or Is It A Play of Light?

Today is India’s 70th Republic Day and I thought what better animal to talk about today, than our National Bird – the Peacock.

Peacocks are renowned around the world for their immensely beautiful and supremely colourful tail feathers. For quite some time, it was assumed that peacocks derived their brilliant rainbow-like colours from plants; just like lots of other birds.

But recent research has revealed that the brilliant peacock tail feathers may actually be the result of light reflection, rather than the consumption of pigment-filled leaves, seeds and fruits.

Photonic feathers

Electromagnetic radiation is essentially a type of light. The electromagnetic spectrum is at its most-basic, the distribution of this electromagnetic radiation or light. But not all of these light waves can be seen by the naked eye. The portion which we can see through the naked eye is called the visible light and we are able to see them, because of their specific wavelengths. The typical human eye can see electromagnetic waves that fall between 390 nanometres to 700 nanometres on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The feathers of a peacock contain structures called “photonic crystals”, which are bands of photons (photons = fundamental particles of light) that selectively reflect certain types of electromagnetic waves. When these waves fall within the visible light range of the spectrum, they can be seen by the human eye. The different colours that are visible on the peacock’s feathers, are a result of waves of different lengths being reflected by the photonic crystals.

 

peacock-feathers-3013486_1280

 

When light falls on the peacock’s feathers, the crystal lattice (the structural arrangement of the particles in crystals) in the photonic crystals, capture the light and reflect them in specific ways. The length of these reflected waves, then determine the colour the peackon feather, plume and tail.

Research has found that peacock feathers get their colours when light is reflected off melanin-containing crystalline lattice rods that are spaced:  

  • Iridescent blues – 140 nanometres apart.
  • Greens – 150 nanometres apart.
  • Copper & Browns – 150-185 nanometres apart.
  • Yellows – 165 nanometres apart.
  • Other colours – from colour-mutations derived from blues and greens.

It isn’t just peacocks who possess photonic crystals in their feathers. Butterflies have them in their wings and chameleons have them on their skin.

Information about photonic crystals and their impact on animals is now being used by scientists to better-understand light and the role it plays in the animal kingdom.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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Do Animals Cry and Do They Mourn?

What’s your definition of “crying“?

  • The act of expressing emotions through the production of tears?

  • The physiological response of your body to counteract dryness in the eyes?

If its the first definition, then No, animals don’t cry. However, if its the second definition, then Yes, animals do cry. Animals apart from humans don’t feel what we normally call/define “emotions“. If an animal produces tears in its eyes, its most probably the result of dryness in the eyes or an eye infection.

Of course, this answer isn’t completely comprehensive either. We have animals like elephants who remember the grievances caused against them by humans years ago. We know for a fact that elephants have excellent memories and can hold grudges. We know that elephant mothers are distraught when their calves die. In one village in Southern India, an elephant herd destroyed an entire village through which the corpse of a calf was dragged through (the villagers were disposing-off the calf’s corpse a few days after its death and the scent of the corpse attracted the elephants). Elephants go so far as to investigate the corpse – using their trunks to feel the body and the bones. Sometimes they come back day-after-day, to investigate the bones until the smell wears-off.

Other animals like rhinos, Western scrub jays, chimpanzees and giraffes may not hold grudges, but they have been observed “mourning” their dead. Research shows that rhinos and scrub jays converge around their dead comrades and issue vocalizations that sound different to their normal communication – similar to the sounds humans make when crying. Giraffes have been spotted waiting for their dead calves to get up for hours, even days on end. One of homo sapiens‘ closest relatives – chimpanzees – carry their dead offspring with them for days. Chimps have been noticed tenderly grooming their dead, arranging their fur, posturing their limbs and swatting away insects and predators, keeping the corpses safe for days.

Crying and tears have been observed during some of these cases, but not all. Therefore, there is neither clarity nor validity as to whether animals can feel emotion, can cry or can really mourn (according to our definition of these, at least).

In the scientific community, there is a huge rift between the two groups who study the phenomenon of emotional responses, mourning and crying in animals – one group that truly believes that animals can feel and the other group that believes that humans anthropomorphize animals (attribute human emotions to inanimate objects or natural phenomenon) . The debates and the fights for academic supremacy are endless. Currently, there is enough evidence to support both claims –

  • Animals can really feel.

  • Animals can’t really feel – we only think so, because we anthropomorphize them.

Unfortunately, this creates more problems when trying to understand this phenomenon. Additionally, the concern of possible anthropomorphism often scares researchers and scientists from conducting further studies; at the (assumed) risk of discrediting their other discoveries/research. You see, in the scientific community, one of the worst things a scientist can be accused of is anthropomorphism.

So, until we have more evidence, we cannot make definitive calls regarding the emotional capacity or “crying” ability of non-human animals.

 

NISHA PRAKASH

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The Truth About Sharks and Their Sleep

“Do sharks sleep?”

This is a question that many-a-curious-George has asked him/herself for years. But the answer, unfortunately, remains elusive.

For long, science has told us that sharks need to constantly swim to stay alive. Stop swimming and they die. Unfortunately, sharks and their sleeping habits are one of the least-studied aspects of marine biology. Add to this the immense behavioural diversity that each of the 400 species of shark in the world exhibit and you have yourself a recipe for confusion.

A breath of truth

There are basically two categories of sharks you need to consider when studying shark sleeping behaviours:

  • Sharks that have spiracles
  • Sharks that don’t have spiracles

Spiracles are two small openings located on each side of the shark’s nose, just behind its eyes. They are actually a type of gill-slit that are designed to let water pass through the shark’s body when the shark is resting on the ocean floor. These spiracles work even when the shark is covered in sand. Only certain forms of bottom-dwelling sharks like rays, nurse sharks, wobbegong/carpet sharks and skates have spiracles.

When a shark has spiracles, it can easily rest on the floor without having to worry about breathing. The spiracles push the water into the shark’s body and enable the processing of oxygen. So, instead of being forced to be on-the-move always, sharks with spiracles can rest on the ocean floor and do what they do best, ambush their prey.

A shark’s spiracle (Image source)

So, what about sharks without spiracles?

See, this is where things get really tricky. Scans of “sleeping” sharks indicate that while the brains are inactive and unconscious, the rest of the shark is active and working. Just like in many other animals, it’s the spinal cord that is responsible for the swimming motion in sharks. Research shows that the synapses and neurons in a shark’s spinal cord are always active and always engaged in exchange of neural information, irrespective of what the rest of the body does.

What this means is that, the parts of the shark’s body responsible for swimming never stop working, even if the rest of the shark is asleep. So, the question of sleep & breathing doesn’t arise here, since sharks without spiracles don’t engage in what we humans traditionally term as “sleep”. Their brains remain unconscious, while their bodies continue to move.

But do sharks really sleep?

This still doesn’t answer the basic question – spiracle or no spiracle, do sharks actually sleep?

The answer – not really; at least not according to our description of “sleeping”.

Take a look at any dictionary and you’ll see that “sleep” is defined as an activity where
the mind and the body are suspended of consciousness“, where they “remain inactive until exposed to external stimuli“.

Based on observable evidence, sharks don’t really sleep. Often, bottom dwellers remain stationary, while being completely mentally active, observing the movement of animals swimming past. Irrespective of whether they ambush their prey or not, these sharks remain awake at all times.

Then there are sharks who do exhibit sleep-like behaviours, but don’t fall into deep slumber like we (or other animals) do; continuing to move through the water, always.

Why exactly these sharks remain partially-unconscious or lay so still, is unknown. But one thing is certain; these behaviours definitely aren’t proof of sharks resting or sleeping.

Of course, with the question of sleep, comes the question of dreams. Do sharks dream? The answer – maybe not. Since they don’t engage in traditional sleeping patters, scientists still aren’t certain whether they engage in REM and non-REM cycles; making any question related to dreaming redundant until further evidence is available.

For now, sharks and their sleeping habits remain heavily-shrouded in mystery. Let’s hope the future helps us swim past these cloudy waters towards clearer explanations.

-NISHA PRAKASH

(P.S: Featured image)

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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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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. 

 

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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. 

 

 

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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. 

 

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

 

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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