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The Story of How Crocs and Gators Thrive When They Starve

They outsmarted & outmanoeuvred a gigantic burning comet, they outlived powerful dinosaurs and they overcame the challenges of a changing planet. Today, they’re two of the most formidable animals in the wild, who’s physiologies have hardly changed since the past 80 million years.

The best part about their ancient bodies – they’re capable of going without food for up to three years. Here’s the story of how crocodiles and alligators evolved this phenomenal ability.

Being cold-blooded helps you when you’re starving

Like all animals, alligators and crocodiles love to eat. In fact, they’re voracious eaters and very un-picky ones at that. Give a croc or a gator anything to eat – large mammals, small birds, snails, carrion – it’ll be gone in minutes.

The food that crocs and gators eat is digested and the energy is stored in their bodies. These reptiles actually have one of the strongest and most-effective digestive juices of all animals on the planet. Absolutely every part of their meal gets digested – bones, scales, hooves, nails etc. Anything that doesn’t get fully digested is used as a gizzard stone – a rock/rock-like object in the gastrointestinal tract, which is used to break down tough-to-digest food.

This powerful digestion helps crocs and gators generate tonnes of energy. But when it comes to actually using this energy to survive, these reptiles hardly ever tap into these food-derived energy cells.

Why?

 

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Well, alligators and crocodiles are reptiles. Most reptiles are cold-blooded animals (the mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are three extinct reptiles that were warm-blooded; the Tegu lizard is one of the rare, living, warm-blooded reptiles in the world).

Cold-blooded animals use the heat of the sun to warm themselves up. Crocs and gators indulge in a behaviour called “basking”, where they sit out under the sun, soaking in the warm rays. When absorbed, the sun rays warm their blood and increase their body temperature.

These animals can bask for hours at a stretch and when their body temperature becomes too hot to handle, they head back into the water for a cool swim or they lay down under a large, shady rock.

Basking helps alligators and crocodiles generate a lot of body energy; energy which these animals use to walk, swim, hunt and protect (their young). So, when gators and crocs need to use a lot of energy, their default, go-to fuel will be the energy they have stored from basking. It is only when they have depleted this energy, that they tap into their food-derived energy.

Each time they have a meal, crocodiles and alligators store additional energy in their body. Over time, this energy accumulates and their bodies become massive storehouses of power. This is why, when faced with starvation, crocs and gators hardly ever feel hungry or weak. In fact, they can go without eating – literally starve themselves – for up to three years!

Amazing isn’t it?

What happens after their energy is depleted?

At the end of the day, crocs and gators are just like other animals and they do need food to survive. If the entire energy storehouse in their body gets depleted, these reptiles start burning their excess tissues (which aren’t absolutely essential for survival) to make more energy (this is similar to humans burning their muscle tissue to survive during starvation). Once these tissues are also depleted, the animal actually begins to starve and it has to eat right away.

Did you like what you read?

Here are a few more fun facts about crocs & gators:

  • Despite having the ability to survive without food for so long, crocs and gators never miss an opportunity to have a meal. They are very opportunistic eaters and researchers have found some groups actually having up to 50 meals a year. Now that’s a lot of energy.
  • Crocodiles and alligators are the most social of all reptiles. They form long-term relationships with other members of their species. Even though they lead solitary lives most of the time, these group-mates join forces during the egg-laying season and protect their broods together.
  • Of all reptiles in the world, crocs and gators are the smartest. Their brains are extremely complex and adapted to quick thinking (funnily enough, their brains are really small, about the size of a small walnut). If a croc or a gator encounters a challenge and overcomes it, chances are it will remember how to solve the same problem the next time it happens. This is why scientists need to devise new techniques to outwit these fabulous living fossils, each time they want to capture them for their on-field studies.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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Can Animals Be Racist?

Humans are racist.

Walls and Aryan babies aside, people are biologically programmed to behave differently with people who look or act differently than us. While this could be a self-defence technique in the most evolutionary sense, for the most part, racism stems from our misconceptions and preconceived notions.

When people talk of racism, they only refer to people.  I mean, nobody talks about a racist Guinea pig. But does this mean racism is an inherently human experience? Can animals be racist? Do they possess the intellect to process complex thoughts, like discrimination, hate and disgust?

Let’s find out.

Your dog may be a racist and you may not know it!

I don’t know about other animals, but there is definitive proof that dogs do discriminate between people. Whether you call this behaviour “racism” or not, depends on you.

Research by the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille (France) proved that dogs pick up discriminatory tendencies from their owners.

In the study, 72 pet parents were asked to bring their dogs to meet a complete stranger. Upon meeting the stranger, the groups of participants were asked to display specific behaviours.

  • A third of the dog owners were asked to walk three steps forward, towards the stranger.
  • Another group was asked to stand stock-still and display no physical cues during the meeting.
  • The final group was asked to take three steps away from the stranger.

The participants were told not to speak, make any noise or indicate any sign that alarmed their dogs in any way. Next, the dogs’ reaction to the meetings were observed and what the researchers saw astounded them!

 

Dog

 

In groups where owners approached the stranger, the dogs were relatively calm and didn’t display any signs of aggression or fear.

But, in the groups where the owners stood motionless or walked away from the stranger, many dogs were observed looking sharper, taking in their surroundings carefully and watching the stranger for any reaction. Why? Because the stranger initiated an abnormal physical and emotional response in their owners – their behaviour was suddenly very different.  

These dogs were recorded looking at their owners for a sign – an approval, a confirmation – to tell them what they needed to do. They were observed standing much closer to their owners, some in slightly defensive positions.

This proved what the scientists were trying to establish – dogs modify their behaviours and actions based on social cues given by their owners.

In scientific circles, this is called “social referencing” and this is something humans do a lot. For example, there’s a large snail in your garden and your baby is really intrigued by it. She wants to go near it. She looks at you to see if that’s okay. Your frown and your expression of disgust tell her that she probably shouldn’t be going anywhere near the thing; maybe there’s something wrong with it. This is social referencing. In adults, especially in terms of racism, children learn racist tendencies by observing their parents indulge in racist behaviours. If a parent says something mean and hurtful to a coloured person, his child may do the same too because he perceives the response to be a socially-accepted one.

The racism connect

Dogs’ ability to socially reference behaviours makes them indulge in behaviours that resemble racism.

For example, if a pet owner is bigoted against a particular race or colour, he may display certain physical signs like a frown, a look of disgust, a clenching of his jaws, physically moving away from the person of his discomfort etc. His dog may observe these behaviours and over a period of time, may associate the other individual, with danger. This can make the dog behave defensive and aggressive towards this person. If the dog isn’t too aggressive, to begin with, he too may display signs of fear, when he encounters an individual or an object that reminds him of the person his owner doesn’t like. These physical cues by the owner need not be conscious either. They can be done unconsciously or subconsciously and the dog will still pick them up and react off them. 

But despite this, scientists don’t consider dogs to be racists and we shouldn’t either. The reason is that dogs have not been recorded consciously holding prejudices that give rise to bigotry and hate. Dogs feed-off the behaviours exhibited by their humans and reflect similar conduct. This makes them (at least according to our current understanding) incapable of conscious racism. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

 

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Fun Facts About the Howler Monkey

  1. There are 15 species of howler monkey and they’re all found in Central and South America. 
  2. The howler monkey is the loudest primate on the Earth. Its call – a gruff, resounding roar – can be heard even 3 miles away. You can listen to it here.
  3. Not just their voice, but the howler monkey’s sense of smell is unbelievably acute  – they can smell food from 2 miles away. 
  4. Howler monkeys aren’t herbivores, they’re folivores – they are specialists in eating leaves.  
  5. Howler monkeys are one of the few primates (including humans), who possess trichromatic colour vision. This means their eyes are sensitive to the three primary colours – green, blue & red – and they can make out the differences between colours. This helps them pick and choose the best (read – the ripest & safest) leaves to eat.
  6. A particular species of howler monkey – the Mantled Howler – uses sticks as tools to drive away intruders and scare away predators. This is extremely unusual to the species as a whole; since this type of tool usage is considered the speciality of higher-order primates like chimps and humans. 
  7. Howler monkeys are the second laziest animals of the planet, right after sloths. They spend 80% of their time on treetops just resting. The other 20% of the time? Well, they pee on, poop on and scream at other monkeys, animals and birds.
  8. Howler monkeys are an Endangered species, because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Save them. 

 

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Black Howler Monkey & Baby (Males are completely black in colour, while females are yellowish-white) (Source)

 

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Mantled Howler Monkey – the only known howler monkey to use sticks as tools for defence. (Source)

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

P.S: Featured image: Howler monkey
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Celebrating Two Special Days In Paradise

Today is a good day. Today is a great day.

Today – June 5th 2019 – we celebrate World Environment Day and Global Running Day

So, here’s to an amazing Environment Day and Running Day to you and your loved ones! 

As I began my run today, I contemplated what I’d write about. I knew that this year’s theme for World Environment Day was Air Pollution. And while I did consider writing about it, I wasn’t really convinced.

Then I thought about running? Surely, as a physiological process that every species indulges in, running too comes in the purview of my blogging world.

The choice was hard. Writing about one meant foregoing the other. But then I realized that there was something I wanted to talk about a lot more than air pollution or running.

While many may talk about losing their favourite haunts to the ever-increasing curse of pollution (and yes, that’s important too); I still had something that (for now) was relatively untarnished.

In a sea of smog, I still had a piece of paradise in my city, where I could run in peace, enjoy a lungful of fresh air and watch birds and animals scamper about in joy.  

 

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Cubbon Park (Source)

 

Say hello to Cubbon Park 

Located in the heart of India’s Garden City, Cubbon Park is a beautiful, wooded, public park, that is spread out over 300 acres of pristine land. A kaleidoscope of greens, browns, oranges and yellows, it is a place that embodies happiness. A stroll through Cubbon Park can rejuvenate you and inspire the best in you. A run can do so much more. 

Cubbon Park is a goldmine of biodiversity. 

Over 34 species of birds, belonging to 10 different families, call Cubbon Park their home. And what a home it is. The park is also home to 68 genera and 96 species of plants (overall 6000 types of plants & trees!). It is one of the largest biological ecosystems in the South of India. Look around and you may spot a cluster of Bamboo trees, Ashoka trees, Gulmohars, Banyans, Neem plants, Mahagony and more. 

Peer through the lush leaves and you’ll definitely spot massive bustling beehives and birds nests with newborn chicks, on the branches. The twittering of baby birds can be heard for miles; a sound that is so soothing. Listen harder and you may hear the trilling, screeching and singing of the many insects who also have an equal claim on this beautiful land.

Follow the trail of nuts on the ground and you may spot an industrious squirrel busy foraging for the coming season. If you’re really lucky (like I was), you may even get to see the flowering of the Bamboo trees – a rare phenomenon which happens once every 12-20 years here! 

A magnificent study

Cubbon Park has been a top research spot for biologists, zoologists and botanists. There are many scientists who believe that there are undiscovered species of animals and plants here. Studies are regularly conducted by the Horticulture department and individual researchers, to unearth the ecological diversity in Cubbon Park.  

 

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One of the most popular running spots inside Cubbon Park – yes, there are many. (Source)

 

A runner’s paradise

Cubbon Park isn’t just a haven for the flora and fauna who have taken up residence here (and the people who study them). It is also a paradise for walkers, joggers, runners, cyclists and yoga enthusiasts. The park offers numerous trails where nature lovers can retire to and enjoy the meditative silence.  

You’ll also find heritage guides organizing guided walking tours of Cubbon Park, explaining its history and ecological significance. There’s always this gentle bustle of activity here that’s just infectious. 

Contrary to what some believe, the visitors to the park seldom disturb the flora and fauna. In fact, there are many who purchase bird seeds from government-run bird seed vans and feed the birds here. Not just the birds, there are many who feed the ants and termites sugar, honey and flour and keep them fed and energized. 

A muse for the artists

Cubbon Park isn’t just excellent for fitness enthusiasts, it is also an amazing inspiration for artists – professional and amateur. Don’t get too surprised if you see a man, woman or child with a paintbrush or a crayon in hand, sketching a tree or a pond or a flower. Because that’s exactly what this park does – kindle your creativity.

Like a second home

A single visit to Cubbon Park is enough to make you fall in love with this emerald treasure. You feel at home among the trees and among the animals, birds and insects. You never wish to leave and when you do, your thoughts are consumed about when you’d be back. 

As they say, “Home is not a place…it’s a feeling.” And I can safely say, Cubbon Park makes me feel so much…

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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Humans Aren’t The Only Ones To Use A Midwife During Birth, Other Animals Do Too

Midwives have been a part of every culture for centuries. Many places of religious worship celebrate midwifery through paintings, sculptures and Bas reliefs.

Apart from easing the actual birthing process, midwives helped ensure the newborn was healthy, had no trouble breathing and was able to suckle well. In short, midwives ensured both the mother and baby survived. While midwives were the only option for women of yore, today they are one of the most preferred methods of birthing assistance and reproductive care.

When we talk of midwives, we envision a staid, calm person, urging the mother to push, encouraging her with kind words and helping her cope with her pain. When we think about the midwife, we envision a woman and sometimes, a man. Essentially, we envision a human being. 

Till as late as the late 1990s, it was believed that the practice of midwifery was developed by people. Surely animals did not, could not, possess a mind so sophisticated, that they could come up with a practice like midwifery. How would they know that another animal needed assistance during birth?

After all, wasn’t the one, defining difference between man and beast, the ability to empathize and help? 

 

Djungarian hamster
A Djungarian hamster (Source)

 

Animal midwifery: Where animals help other animals give birth

Nature is magnificent and one of the miracles of nature is an animal that acts as a midwife. 

Researchers were stunned to see when male Djungarian hamsters chipped-in to help their mates give birth. Provided they didn’t turn their offspring into a meal first, male Djungarian hamsters consciously pulled the pups out from the females’ birth canals. They proceeded to lick the pups clean and then shared the afterbirth with their mates. If their pups looked asphyxiated, the fathers would lick the amniotic fluid off their nose, clear their airways and help them breathe.  

Scientists believe that Djungarian hamster males experience a severe fluctuation in hormones just prior to birth and this results in an increase in cortisol and oestrogen in their bodies. This, they believe, could be one of the reasons for this unusual behaviour. The other theory has to do with the hamsters’ living conditions. Unlike other wild hamster species, Djungarian hamsters live in dry, desert environments and they spend a lot of time in their burrows with their mate, to escape from the harsh climate. This could make them more willing to help their mates during birth (compared to other hamster species where the males are nowhere near the birthing area). 

 

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A Black snub-nosed monkey (Source)

 

But it isn’t just Djungarian hamsters who make excellent midwives. Researchers have observed female black snub-nosed monkeys in South China also playing midwives to their bandmates during delivery. 

When a female black snub-nosed monkey is about to give birth and contractions start, she cries out using a very distinct sound. Upon hearing this sound, another female joins her and waits for the infant to crown. When he does, the midwife gently eases the baby out of the mother’s birth canal, tears open the amniotic sac and hands the infant back to the mother. Once she’s done, the midwife heads back to forage for food or take care of her own infant. The same behaviour was noticed in golden snub-nosed monkeys. 

Female bonobos too practice midwifery. This behaviour has been seen often in captivity and once in the wild. Just like the black snub-nosed monkey, the bonobo mother makes a soft, high-pitched squeal.

When she hears this, another female bonobo accompanies the pregnant mother and helps her give birth. Here too, the afterbirth was shared between the mother and the midwife.

 

Bonobo
A Bonobo (Source)

 

A primate speciality?

Djungarian hamsters aside, both the snub-nosed monkey and bonobo are primates. This makes us wonder whether their primate brains – significantly more developed than other animals’ – could be the reason for midwifery behaviour. 

But this may not be the case.

Chimpanzees, who are the closest to humans (and who possess far superior brains compared to bonobos and snub-nosed monkeys), prefer to give birth in isolation. So too other primates like gorillas and orangutans. 

But if you consider the research by primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas, only 5 out of the 39 live births (across 31 primate species) she recorded, were done in isolation. The rest were in the company of band/troopmates. 

What makes this behaviour particularly difficult to observe, is how these animals typically give birth at night. Additionally, with these animals so adept at hiding from predators (including humans), it becomes even harder to track birthing animals. 

Empathy, intelligence or instinct?

The practice of midwifery developed in humans as we became more aware of the birthing process. Our highly-evolved brains, capable of high empathy, added to this progress. 

What we don’t know today, is if animal midwifery stems from the same reason. It could also be the desire to partake of another female’s placenta (after all, it is rich in life-saving nutrients). Or, it could just be pure instinct. 

No matter how we reason it, the concept of animals playing midwives will throw up more questions, than they answer. Only time and extensive research will reveal the truth. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image: Golden snub-nosed monkey 

 

 

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Let’s talk about Climate Change

Found this post about climate change. Very wonderfully written and oh so powerful. A compelling article that articulates our current situation. Do read and share.

The Yellow Parasol: https://wp.me/pb0sX1-j

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Which Animals Yawn?

We all yawn. In fact, I’m yawning right now.

In humans, we yawn in order to replenish oxygen levels in the body. When our breathing slows down (this typically happens when we’re sleepy or tired and our bodies fail to consciously breathe), we tend to breathe in less oxygen and hold in carbon dioxide. This imbalance of gasses alerts the brain that we are running out of oxygen. The brain then signals the body to initiate a yawn.

When humans yawn, fresh oxygen is taken in and moved down from the oesophagus to various parts of the body. When the oxygen rushes in, the carbon dioxide is pushed out and exhaled with force. This helps the body stabilize its breathing.

But humans don’t just yawn to breathe better. We yawn to:

  • Express our boredom – a very give-away physical cue.
  • Keep alert – Our heart rates increase by 30% each time we yawn, sending more blood to the brain and making us more active.
  • Make friends – Contagious yawns, anyone? (here’s another great insight – research shows children with autism do not find yawns contagious because they are more likely to miss the physical and social cues associated with yawning. This makes scientists believe that yawns could have a sociological significance in groups.)

What about other animals – do they yawn?

If a yawn were to mean “opening the mouth wide and breathing slowly”, then no, humans aren’t the only ones who yawn.

Research shows that over 27 different animals, other than humans, yawn. This list includes – African elephants, walruses, dogs, lions, camels, cats, sheep, gibbons, chimpanzees, rats, mice and foxes, amongst others. All of these animals engage in yawning behaviours in order to regulate their breathing.

If you’ve noticed, this list of animals mentions only one specific family of animals – Mammals. So, does that mean only mammals have the ability to yawn .i.e. breathe in to regulate their oxygen intake? Not really.

 

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A guinea pig “yawning” (Source)

 

First off, not all mammals yawn in order to regulate their breathing. Baboons and Guinea pigs yawn when they’re irritated. Here, the yawn often serves as a sign of aggression, a sign that reads “Back off or I will attack.”

Then there are fish – whose normal, typical breathing behaviour resembles a big yawn. Fish also increase the number of times they yawn, when the waters they swim in have lesser oxygen and they need to breathe more to get the oxygen they need. This is a normal and daily occurrence in fishes. In comparison, human yawns occur once-in-a-while, when the body desperately needs oxygen.

Then there are Adelie penguins, who yawn as part of their courtship ritual. Their yawns also function as comfort behaviour .i.e. behaviours that animals indulge in, to make themselves more comfortable (ex: ruffling feathers, cleaning mites, grooming each other, wallowing in mud, bathing in dust etc.). The yawns have nothing to do with breathing regulation.

You may even have seen snakes yawn. They don’t do this to breathe better; instead, they do this before eating very large prey. Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t unhinge their jaws when eating prey which are larger than they are. Instead, they yawn to make their jaws more flexible to hold their large meal. 

So, what does this mean? What’s the purpose of a yawn?

The answer is – nobody knows. Not definitively, at least.  Yawning means very different things to different species of animals. But there is one very interesting and entertaining piece of information that animal behaviourists have unearthed. Well, two interesting pieces of information:

  • Yawns are contagious in animals too A study showed how dogs tend to yawn when they see their owners yawn. Chimpanzees in the wild have been observed yawning when their troop-mates do.
  • Primate yawns are the longest in the animal kingdomAs it turns out, the length of our yawn depends on the size of our brain. Humans are the veteran champions when it comes to yawning, clocking in an average of 6 seconds per yawn.

Want to see who our close competitors were? Read here.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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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.

 

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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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Do Other Animals Sweat and Do They Stink?

Humans sweat in order to regulate body temperature.

When our bodies get too hot, they release water, minerals and salt in order to cool themselves down. Without sweat, our bodies would overheat, our organs would start to malfunction and soon we would have a heatstroke; which could be fatal.

But what about other animals? Do they sweat too?

Yes, they do. So, this is one question you don’t have to sweat over.

  • Dogs and cats sweat through their paws/pads. You can see faint wet footprints on really hot days.
  • Horses sweat too. Their sweat contains a detergent-like compound known as “latherin”, which helps clean their coats and keep them cool. This compound is the reason why you see a foam-like layer on horses’ coats on really hot days or when they’re overworked.
  • Monkeys, chimps, gorillas and orangutans all sweat too. But we can’t see them sweat like we do, since their sweat glands are located below their fur.
  • Hippos secrete a really scary-looking liquid, called “blood sweat”. This liquid contains a reddish-orange pigment (which gives it its blood-red colour) and it offers anti-bacterial and cleansing properties, which keep the hippo healthy. In addition to this, it functions like sweat and regulates the hippo’s body temperature.

You know who doesn’t sweat? Pigs.

Pigs regulate their body temperatures by wallowing in the mud. So, they don’t sweat like we do. The expression “sweating like a pig” actually refers to pig iron, which is a type of iron metal. During the smelting process, pig iron tends to heat-up to a very high temperature. When it cools down, it reaches dew point, resulting in the formation of large dew droplets on the iron. 

 

piglet-3386356_1280
Sweating like a pig? (source)

 

What about the stench?

Okay, lets set the record straight.

Human sweat actually doesn’t have an odour of its own. The bacteria located on the skin, especially those around the sweat glands, start to break down the sweat compounds when sweat is produced. The resultant changes in the chemical make-up of the sweat leads to the release of an odour, which stinks.

There’s something else too.

Humans have two types of sweat glands –  Eccrine sweat glands (which are found all over the body) and Apocrine sweat glands (which are found under the armpit & around the anus). When the Apocrine sweat glands mature and start to function after a child hits puberty, it releases a thick & oily sweat, different from the one released by the Eccrine sweat glands. It is this thick and oily sweat that produces a terrible stink when broken-down by bacteria.

So, what about animals? Do they stink too?

Pigs don’t sweat the way we do and so they don’t produce any stench whatsoever. The same goes for any other animal that doesn’t sweat the way humans do.

What about the ones that sweat like us? Well, the bodies of other “sweating” animals do produce smells; just not the ones we’re talking about. 

Other types of body odour

The smell produced by animal body secretions shouldn’t be confused with sweat-induced smell. Some secretions, like musk, civet & ambergris (which are derived from musk deer, civet cats and sperm whales respectively) , aren’t sweat. In other cases, animal body odour is actually pheromones, which are released by animals to inform potential mates that the animal is willing to receive sexual partners.

Then there are gorillas, which produce a smell, unique to each individual troop member. But these odours act as social markers, providing other troop members and enemy gorillas information about the animal. These smells have been shown to affect how gorillas behave with one another.

But coming back to sweat and its stink; there is still no strong evidence to show that animals which do sweat like humans, stink like humans too. So far humans are the only ones who produce copious amounts of sweat and who stink up the joint when they sweat.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image
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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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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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5 Animals and Insects That Resemble Leaves, Flowers and Poop!

Nature is mysterious. It’s also beautiful…sometimes, shockingly. When you think you’ve seen it all, nature throws another curveball at you, leaving you spellbound and speechless.

Here are 6 more curveballs to add your list. The 6 animals and insects who don’t look like they’re supposed to, but look like leaves, flowers and  yes, poop:

 

  • Kallima aka. Indian dead leaf butterfly

Found in: South Asia

Oakleaf butterfly

Image Source

 

Fun Fact: The Indian dead leaf butterfly  doesn’t like to fly. Just like a dead leaf skims the ground when a gentle gust of air lifts it into the air; the dead leaf butterfly  too occasionally flits around the ground only when he absolutely must. He chooses to stay-put, snacking on fallen fruits, moving only when food runs out or there’s danger nearby.

 

  • Satanic leaf-tailed gecko

Found in: Madagascar

Leaf tailed gecko

Image Source

Fun Fact: Despite its “satanic” appearance, the leaf-tailed gecko is a very mild-mannered creature and is relatively harmless. Her young are pretty shy too. In order to prevent them from being eaten after birth, the mother lays her clutch of eggs inside the dead leaves of a plant, so that her little ones (which resemble tiny dead leaves) get camouflaged completely once they’re born.

 

  • Bird dung crab spider

Found in: Malaysia, Sumatra and Java

Bird dung crab spider

Image Source

Fun Fact: The bird dung crab spider is a master of deception. In order to play the role of “bird dung” with conviction, the spider sprays a thin jet of its own silk on the leaf and then applies some on parts of its body. It then lays down on the silk and waits. From the air, the spider now looks like a piece of bird poo, laying in a puddle of white, watery bird droppings.

 

  • Moss mimic stick insect

Found in: Central America

Moss mimic insect

Image Source

Fun Fact: The moss mimic stick insect takes mimicry to a whole new level. The stick insect’s moss-like cuticles take on the colour of the tree it lives on. You may see insects of the same species in different shades of greens and browns. Another fun fact – the moss mimic stick insect’s eggs resemble plant seeds. She doesn’t lay them in clusters like other insects. Instead, she loosely fixes them onto different trees so that they can fall or be carried away by birds, hatch elsewhere and expand her kingdom.

 

  • Malayan leaf frog aka. Malayan horned frog

Found in: Indonesia and Thailand

maylayan-horned-frog-compressor

Image Source

Fun Fact: The tadpoles of the Malayan horned frog have a really unique physiology. Unlike other frogs, their mouths are upturned and they cannot eat underwater. They need to swim to the surface and feed-off anything that is floating on the water’s surface (compared to other tadpoles which live underwater and eat aquatic algae).

 

  • Orchid mantis

Found in: Indonesia and Southeast Asia

Orchid mantis

Image Source

Fun Fact: The Orchid mantis’ camouflage is so effective; more number of butterflies, bees and other nectar-eating insects are actually attracted to the orchid mantis, than they are to the actual flowers!

 

 

Amazing, isn’t it? 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: An Orchid Mantis.
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Do Cockroaches Add Any Value To Our Lives?

As it turns out, they do.

Periplaneta, the genus to which cockroaches belong to, might be considered vermin by most of us; but as it turns out, they’re actually quite useful little critters. Here’s how:

  • They eat everything

Okay, this may not sound too great at first, but read along and you’ll see why this is a good thing.

Cockroaches eat absolutely everything under the sun, from potatoes to animal carcases to books. This makes them excellent recyclers.

Just imagine. What would you do with thousands of metric tonnes of dead matter, used books and rotten fruits? You can’t responsibly dispose-off them all, can you? This is where cockroaches come in. They eat through absolutely everything and they get rid of your waste for you.

There are over 55 species of cockroaches in the world, of which 12 reside close to humans. The rest live outdoors. Together, they recycle millions of metric tonnes of waste each year.

  • They sustain life

Okay, this is going a little far, don’t you think? Nope, because it’s true.

Cockroach faeces is one of the most-powerful natural fertilizers on the planet. Cockroach waste produces huge amounts of nitrogen (courtesy, the decaying matter they feed on), which is then used by plants during their lifecycle.

Without nitrogen, plants won’t be able to survive. Kill enough cockroaches and over time you lose entire forests. And as you know, without forests there won’t be any animals. This includes humans.

So, if you encounter a cockroach, stop and consider this. The cockroach you’re about to stamp, is probably saving your life. Consider giving him a warning and let him off the hook. Poor guy.  

Lesson to be learnt

 

Now, I’ve had my fair share of cockroach kills in my life. And like most people, I never realized how important these creatures were to the ecosystem. But this insight helped me re-think how I view cockroaches. It also made me wonder about other pests like rats. Do they add any value to the Earth too?

As it turns out, they do.

Rats are very intelligent creatures. They’re very adaptable and are quick learners. That’s why they’re the primary subjects of all scientific experiments. But rats and mice do offer value beyond this.

We may hate rats because they’re “icky”, but they function as prized food for animals like cats, snakes, eagles, falcons, owls and weasels, amongst others; most of whom are beloved the world over. Imagine what would happen to them if rats were to go extinct.

Humans may be able to survive the loss of their lab companion. But do you think other animals could survive the loss of prey?

What can we take away from this?

Every animal on the planet fulfills a purpose. Learning about these animals can help us understand what this purpose is. More importantly, this knowledge can prevent our committing harsh actions against them, which may ultimately have a long-standing negative impact on the planet.

But in saying this, its also important to note that animals like cockroaches and rats are considered pests for a reason. They spread germs  and disease and they wreak havoc on farm produce. Killing them can prevent these pests from overrunning the planet and keep the Earth safe.

But for this to be executed correctly, it must be done in a controlled manner and a need-only basis.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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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

 

The Mysterious Case of the Corkscrew Penis and the Inverted Vagina

Sex in the animal kingdom is messy and sometimes a man just doesn’t know how to take ‘No’ for an answer. While some females resort to the protection of the herd to keep insistent males at bay, others stand their ground and refuse to let the men touch them. But, what this species of avian does, takes the battle of the sexes to a whole new level.

 

Mating season can be a difficult time for everyone. Males can get very handsy during mating, forcing themselves on unwilling females. While some animals give in to the subjugation, others join forces with one male, forcing other marauders to keep away. But there are few animals that take things to the next level and develop unique physiological mechanisms to keep out unwanted advances.  This is the story of one such animal.

For plume and penis

Male ducks are annoying. They’re a bunch of irritable, insistent and hormone-driven creatures that can become truly trying during mating season.  Just ask the females and they’ll vouch for this.

Male Muscovy ducks, in particular, can be difficult partners for females. These ducks can turn from calm and collected to crazed and commanding in a second during mating. They are one of the few creatures in the animal kingdom who turn rapists during mating season.

When a female refuses to allow an unwanted male to impregnate her, the Muscovy duck uses his abnormally long penis to force himself into the female. The penises of the Muscovy ducks measure 40 centimeters long; which is approximately half their body length. During insemination, they forcefully eject the penis into the females, pushing through and navigating the vaginal walls, until they reach the egg.

The entire process takes such little time; the males everting their penis and entering the female in less than half a second; that females have no power to stop the males from inseminating them. The video below shows how long and fast a male duck’s penis can actually be, during mating. Take a look.

Labyrinthine ladies and their convoluted coition

Evolution of physiological traits is a matter of necessity. Female ducks choose their partners based on various criteria, right from the health of their plumage to the way the males complete the courtship ritual. But marauding males often circumvent tradition and go straight to the act; necessitating females to take matters into their own hands and protect themselves.

To prevent unwelcome males from inseminating them, female Muscovy ducks have evolved counter-clockwise vaginas, which are designed to trick males into thinking they were successful in mating with the females. So how does this work?

The inverted and twisted vaginas of female Muscovy ducks are made of constricted muscles, which face in the direction opposite to the clockwise male penises. They contain dead-ends and empty cul-de-sacs which are designed to receive the sperm of unwelcome males. When a male forcefully enters a female, the female tightens her vaginal walls and guides the penises into the dummy chambers and dead ends. When the male ejects, he does so believing that he is ejecting into the female’s egg chamber, when in fact he is ejecting into an empty, dummy chamber which is located far away from the egg.  This helps the female preserve the egg for a more deserving and chosen partner, while also removing the threat of a roving rapist.

A study conducted by Dr. Patricia Brennan from Yale University showed how the Muscovy ducks’ reproductive anatomy actually looks like. The results of the experiment showed how males find straight vaginas easier to navigate, but find it extremely difficult to evert when the vaginas are twisted. This could explain how female Muscovy ducks are taking back control over reproduction through ingenious reproductory evolution.

Duck_genitals_tubes

If it’s a mate she’s chosen for herself, the female relaxes her vaginal muscles, turning the inverted and counter-clockwise vagina into a straight tunnel-of-sorts, allowing the male to inseminate her egg with ease.

Absolutely clever isn’t it?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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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 of the peackock 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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Can Chicken Swim?

Have you ever seen that Friends episode where Joey and Chandler try to get their little chick to swim in the bathtub? And we all know how that ended – as expected, the chick began to drown and had to be saved. 

So, does this mean that chicken can’t swim?

As it turns out, technically they can, although they aren’t built to do so. 

Ducks, the natural comparison for chicken when it comes to swimming-related affairs, have: 

  • Webbed feet designed to create powerful strokes in the water.
  • Oily, water-proof feathers that don’t get wet.
  • Natural body-dynamics that help them stay upright in the water.

These are features that chicken don’t have. That’s what makes them so bad at swimming.  But this doesn’t mean that chicken can’t swim.

Experiments have shown that if the situations necessitated it (for example, during an attack from a predator or the lack of a road) and the conditions were right, chicken will not only attempt to swim to safety, but will swim successfully and not drown. 

Chicken can swim relatively well, although their strokes may not be as powerful as a duck’s because of the lack of webbed feet. If the water is shallow and the chicken are able to find a footing in the water without going under, a short swim won’t be fatal. 

Of course, their non-water-proof feathers will drag them down into the water in a minute or two and if they turn upside down when this happens, they are most-likely not going to be able to turn upright by themselves. Unless of course, something like a rock or tree bark or a step is there to help the chicken find their footing and land on their feet. 

So, to encapsulate: Chickens can swim, but they aren’t biologically designed to do so. Give a chicken a choice between a rocky road and a smooth stream, it will always choose the road. 

On this note, I sincerely request all of you to not try any swimming-related experiments or shenanigans on chicken. They are vulnerable creatures and deserve our love and respect. If you do see a chicken drowning, be sure to yank it out of the water or throw in a large stone or branch near it, so it can use it to get back out.

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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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 Fossils

  1. Fossils are the remains of animals which have died millions of years ago. They occur when animal remains are preserved under layers of earth and water over millennia. The pressure and temperature of the soil need to be just right in order for the remains to become fossilised. Fossils are normally found in the sedimentary layer of the soil, when clay, mud and rocks accumulate on the top and compress the soil in the bottom.
  2. There are 3 types of fossils on the planet – Body fossils which include the hard parts of an animals body such as teeth, nails, scales, shells, feathers and fur;  Trace fossils which are physical signs that an animal was living/present in a particular place, for example footprints, prints of nest, faeces, egg shells and tracks; Plant fossils which are fossilised remains of plants and which include seeds, flowers, leaves, roots and shoots. 
  3. The oldest fossils on Earth are approximately 3.7 billion years old. They are fossils of stromatolites – which are mounds or sheets of mud that preserve cyanobacteria – the earliest bacteria that developed on Planet Earth. Apart from the bacteria themselves, the stromatolites also contain chemical by-products produced by the bacteria too. This gives us a glimpse into how the Earth was geographically and chemically billions of years ago.
  4. Fossil fuels aren’t made from actual fossilised dinosaurs or plants. Fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas were formed when microscopic algae-like creatures called diatoms died in massive numbers and which over time were fossilised. The intense soil pressure on these fossil remains converted the carbon inside the diatom remains into fuels.
  5. Scientists determine the age of fossils using two processes. The first is called the “carbon-14 dating” which involves studying the time it takes for the carbon present in the animals’ bodies to decay over time. The other process is called the “molecular genetic clock” which involves comparing the DNA and physiology of fossilised remains to animals that are alive today.

 

Bonus

Sometimes, when animals and plants get trapped inside tree sap or resin, over time, they fossilise completely intact – feathers, fur, bones, teeth, bodily fluids, roots etc. – to form a product called “amber“. The fossils preserved in amber are the most significant finds for any scientist or paleontologist, since these fully-intact fossils offer researchers a look at how animals really looked like millions of years ago and whether these species have changed over time or not. Take a look at this article to see the 10 strangest things to fossilise in amber

Fossil 2
A butterfly fossilised in amber (image source)

 

Fossil 4
A body fossil of a dinosaur (image source)

 

Fossil 5
Trace fossil of a trilobite – this fossil is the track remains of a trilobite as it moved across the seafloor (image source)

 

Fossil 3
Stromatolites in Hamelin Pool, Western Australia (image source)

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Fossil of a lizard

 

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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.

 

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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