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

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

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

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

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

 

Rules 2
Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

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

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

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

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

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

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

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

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

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

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

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

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

 

 

So, to encapsulate

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

Can only scientists name a new species?

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

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

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

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

Want to name a species yourself?

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

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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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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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. 

 

crocodile-777116_1280
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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If Poison Were A Colour…

Here’s a short poem before we start:

 

Five Little Crayons

Five little crayons coloured a scene.

Yellow, blue, orange, red and green.

“Look,” said Yellow, “My sun is bright!”

Blue said, “Great! My river’s just right!”

Orange said, “Flowers! I’ll draw something new.”

Red said, “Great, I’ll add some, too!”

“Sigh,” said Green, “I’m tired of trees,

And grass and bushes and tiny leaves.

I think I’ll draw a big green cloud!”

“A big green cloud should be allowed!”

The crayons all smiled and didn’t think twice

A big green cloud sounded rather nice!

 

Pretty fun to sing isn’t it? And a wonderful sight it would be too. Especially in the wild.

Nature has her fair share of spectacularly beautiful animals and plants. Super colourful and oh-so-inviting, your only wish would be to touch the creature and feel it under your fingers. But do so and that may be the last thing you ever do.

If there’s one thing you need to remember about the wild, it’s that Colours = Poison.

Say hello to Aposematism

What do they call an animal that uses bright colours to ward-off danger? An aposematic animal of course. Aposematism is the biological process of using colours as signals to repel predators.

Animals brighten their skin pigments or even change their colours as warning to other animals not to cross their path. Plants, flowers, fungi and seeds use bright colours which indicate high levels of toxicity (which animals learn indicate ‘Don’t Eat’).

Aposematic animals & plants work in weird, but wonderful ways. While some are genuinely poisonous and use unique colours to their advantage, others are non-poisonous and mimic their more dangerous cousins to confuse and scare-off their predators, who otherwise may attack them.

But here you have below the list of 5 animals who really are poisonous and who use colour as a warning sign in the wild. Remember, they may look enchanting and you may want to touch them or pet them. But trust me, it’s better you stay away.

Now, without further ado, here are our top pics for pretty but potent animals in the wild:

1) Amazonian Poison Dart Frog

This one is most certainly the poster boy for ‘colorful but potent’ category in the wild (hence the feature image ;D) 

Poison dart frogs are one of the most toxic creatures on land. Dart frogs don’t make their own poisons, but store the poison of the insects and smaller animals they eat. They then process these poisons and combine them to make a very potent toxin…something which can be severely painful for humans.

Local Amazonian tribes use the tree frog’s poison to coat their darts, which they use to hunt monkeys and birds. The most toxic of all Amazonian tree frogs is Phyllobates terribilis.

Amazon red frog
Red Striped Poison Dart Frog
Amazon blue frog
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Golden Poison frog
Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog
Golden Frog
Phyllobates terribilis aka Golden Poison Frog

 

2) Caterpillars

The Monarch Butterfly and the Pipevine Swallowtail store and use their prey’s toxin as a defence mechanism when they are older. Birds know they can be deadly to eat and avoid them. But other than a handful of these winged critters, most butterflies and moths aren’t poisonous. But the same can’t be said of their offspring.

Many caterpillars have a poisonous coating on their body, which protects them from being eaten by predators when they are young & helpless. While some poisons only knock the predator out for a few hours, others kill. A case in point is the formidable  N’gwa or ‘Kaa caterpillar, which is found in Africa and whose toxin, according to researcher David Livingstone, which is a mixture of snake venom and plant toxin, has the capacity to kill an antelope.

 

Saddleback caterpillar.jpg
Saddleback Caterpillar
Stinging Rose Caterpillar.jpeg
Stinging Rose Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar

 

3) Hooded Pitohui

Did you ever think a bird would be on this list?

The Hooded Pitohui, scientifically called Pitohui dichrous makes its home in the lush forests of New Guinea. The size of a dove, the Pitohui is the only documented poisonous bird in the world.

It’s toxin is a neurotoxin which numbs and paralyzes the victims. Luckily, this toxin isn’t fatal to humans, although the effects can take hours to wear-off. Sadly, the same isn’t true for its prey which are insects.

The Hooded Pitohui is part of a 3-species family, which also includes the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are poisonous too, but not to the level of toxicity as their hooded cousin. The toxin has been found to be the outcome of the birds’ consumption of the choresine beetle. Such a nuisance is this bird to the surrounding tribes, it had been nicknamed Pitohui or ‘rubbish bird’ by the locals, which then was adopted as its official name.

Hooded pitchoui 1
Hooded Pitohui
Hooded pitchoui 2
Hooded Pitohui
Variable pithoui
Variable Pitohui
Brown pitchoui
Brown Pitohui

 

4) Pufferfish

Here’s an animal that can (and has) kill(ed) a human. Puffer fish are one of the most venomous animals on the planet and a single sting can bring down the mightiest of men. Often, human deaths occur when people unwittingly consume puffer fish organs in their meal. In animals though, its often a result of the puffer’s hunting or defence strategy.

The toxin the puffer fish contains is called Tetrodotoxin, which is a highly potent neurotoxin. The toxin slowly blocks all the neural transmitters in the body, essentially paralysing the victim, one organ at a time. At its peak, the Tetrodotoxin closes the wind pipe, slows down the lungs  and stops the heart from working. Soon, the brain dies due to asphyxiation and lack of blood flow, killing the victim. Scientists believe Tetrodotoxin  is 200 times more lethal than cyanide!

Want to know something even more unbelievable? The Japanese have a very special dish called Fugu which is made of puffer fish and is served during very special events. And guess what? Chefs deliberately leave a bit of the poison on the fish as an adrenaline-inducing treat for the guests.

Puffer fish 2
Guineafowl Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 3
Blue Spotted Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 4
Yellow Spotted Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 6
Diodon Puffer Fish

 

5) Cone snails

They look harmless, inviting even. But pick one up and you’ll be stung faster than you can say ‘Oh no!’. Cone snails are another sea dweller that even humans need to beware of, if they don’t wish to be hurt or worse, dead.

Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, cone snails contain a variety of neuro venoms (depending on the species) and can range in toxicity that’s akin to everything from a bee sting to a fatal hit. These snails shoot out harpoons, which are teeth-like organs which they use when hunting underwater. Any animal that has the misfortune of brushing against the cone snail will be the unfortunate recipient of the harpoon.

One species of cone snail that are extremely potent to humans is the Conus geographus or the Cigarette snail, whose toxin is said to be so quick-acting that victims have only time enough to smoke a small cigarette before dying.

Another gastropod that is poisonous – Nudibranch. You can read all about them here.

Conus geographus
Conus Geographus, aka the Cigarette snail
Marbled cone snail
Marbeled Cone Snail
Cone snail
Types of Poisonous Cone Snails

 

In the next article, we’ll focus on the Top 5 Most Colourful & Poisonous Plants and Fungi.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image: Poison Dart Frog 

 

5 Technologies That Are Inspired by the Wild

Biomimetics, also known as biomimicry, is a branch of science that uses nature as inspiration to find solutions for human problems. One of the biggest uses of Biomimetics is using animal and plant defensive strategies as the foundation for technology. Here are 5 amazing inventions that are inspired by the wild.

  • Sharkskin and catheters

Catheters are so important for a variety of medical treatments. But for long, doctors had to contend with dirty-catheter-induced infections in patients. To combat this problem, scientists looked towards sharks.

Sharks have tiny, V-shaped sharp bumps on their skins called dermal denticles which prevent algae, barnacles and slime from collecting on the shark. This keeps them clean,  healthy and free from dermatological afflictions.

Shark denticles
Shark dermal denticles (Image Source)

Using the sharkskin concept, a company called Sharklet Technologies developed a specialized plastic wrap with sharp bumps along the surface, which could be coated on catheters. Once coated, the wrap prevented the accumulation of germs and pus on the catheter, reducing the threat of infections in patients.

These denticles also reduce drag in shark and help them preserve energy when swimming. That’s why swimming costume and bodysuit manufacturers are using the same concept to create efficient sportswear for athletes.

Sharklet
Sharklet, the technology derived from the shark denticles (Image Source)
  • Tardigrades and live vaccines

Suspended animation is a concept that’s enthralled us for decades. Movies like Space Odyssey and Avatar have further rejuvenated our interest in the concept.  While humans are still experimenting with suspended animations, one animal has been living the concept for centuries.

Tardigrades are tiny, microscopic eight-legged animals that resemble arthropods. They’re called water bears or moss piglets because they spend their entire lives in water. If however, the water dehydrates, tardigrades find it difficult to survive. But instead of dying out, the tardigrades go into a state of suspended animation and remain in this state until their environment becomes re-hydrated. They do so by coating their DNA with a type of sugar-protein.

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Tardigrade (Image Source)

Scientists have used this concept to develop a method to preserve vaccines that expire in very short periods of time. They wrap the vaccines in sugar proteins similar to the ones used by tardigrades, putting them in a frozen state (without actually refrigerating them), which keeps them in perfect condition for up to 6 months. This ensures that the vaccines remain ‘live’ and ‘fresh’ much longer.

You can see tardigrades in the flesh here. If you want to find your own tardigrade, be sure to check out this video.

  • Butterflies and e-reader colour display

E-readers have renewed the habit of reading in many parts of the world. One of the best features that set e-readers apart from other technology is the colour display – light that enables users to read in extreme glare and in the dark.

It would come as a surprise to many that e-reader colour display has been inspired by butterflies. The iridescence of butterfly wings has inspired the development of the Mirasol, a full-colour e-reader that can churn out high-quality LCD-worthy colour pictures and text.

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Butterfly whose sheen wings inspired the Marisol (Image Source)

Butterfly wings shine in the sunlight by reflecting light off themselves, instead of absorbing and transmitting light. The display of the Marisol is based on this very feature. Sunlight is reflected off the screen ensuring that glare is reduced and the colours appear brighter and sharper; as opposed to in LCD screens where light is transmitted from within to produce colour.

  • Beetles and water harvesting

Found in the dry Namib desert in Africa, the Namib beetle is a master at collecting water. Living in an environment that faces a dire shortage of hydration, the beetle has evolved to keep itself hydrated even in the face of the most scorching summer.

The beetle’s shell is made of a flexible, waxy Teflon-like material which contains tiny grooves capable of trapping fog and condensing it into the water. The beetle indulges in what is known as ‘fog-basking’; where it turns it’s back towards the wind/fog and collects the fog in the grooves on its back.  The fog condenses into water and is pushed-off the slippery waxy-back and directed towards the beetle’s mouth.

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Namib beetle (Image Source)

Following the beetle’s ingenious water collection methods, researchers have developed water collection nets and drinking bottles (Dew Bank Bottle) whose surface resembles the beetle’s grooved back. These technologies are used in the arid Chilean and Israeli desserts to collect water for indigenous residents.

  • Boxfish and automobiles

When Mercedes-Benz was designing its new state-of-the-art energy-efficient Bionic car, it derived its design inspiration from a small, uniquely shaped fish. The boxfish, found in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, is a fish that has a honeycomb-like triangular/squarish-shaped body. But its shape isn’t the only thing unique to the boxfish. Its body is covered with bony plates called ‘carapace’ which reduce the drag underwater, while the fish swims.

Image Source

This unique body structure with its almost snout-like mouth makes the boxfish extremely aerodynamic. Underwater currents move over the fish’s body, reducing turbulence and allowing it to move fast.

Mercedes-Benz applied the boxfish’s anatomical structure to their Bionic car which was quirky to look at and extremely aerodynamic. The car’s structure also made it extremely energy efficient. Today, the Bionic is one of the most talked-about cars.

NISHA PRAKASH

5 Deadly Diseases That Are Wiping Out Animal Populations Across The World

Animals can catch a cold, they can also get arthritis and obesity-related illnesses. But here are 5 scary diseases plaguing animals in the wild, which resemble something right out of a horror movie. If we don’t act fast, we may end up losing these animals for good. 

 

All living creatures fall ill. But for the most part, knowledge about animal diseases is scarce. Research into this niche area has always been challenging. For one thing, scientists need to know what clues to look for, when diagnosing an animal with a disease. For another, enough numbers in the species need to exhibit the same symptoms, for the illness to be even considered an illness and not a chance affliction.

Here is a list of 5 animal diseases that scientists didn’t know existed, but which now are changing the face of science and animal conservation:

  • Chytridiomycosis

Species affected: Frogs

Considered to be the deadliest disease in recorded animal history, Chytridiomycosis is caused due to exposure to the chytrid Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungi. They are a type of zoosporic fungus which infects frog species and causes hyperkeratosis i.e. thickening of the skin.

Frogs breathe, drink and consume electrolytes through their skin and when the fungus causes the skin’s pores to clog and the skin to thicken, the only available airway of the animals closes. This causes skin infections, cardiac arrests and finally results in death.

As of today, Chytridiomycosis has resulted in the extinction of almost half the frog population in the world. Any colony that faces this disease sees a 100% mortality rate within a few months. Unfortunately, scientists don’t know why or how this disease spreads, leaving us without any means to protect our amphibious brethren.

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Image: Top – A Healthy Frog; Bottom: A Frog Infected With Chytridiomycosis
  • Snake fungal disease

Species affected: Snakes in Midwestern and Eastern USA

Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, aka, Oo is a fungus that not many know about. A keratinophilic fungus from the family Onygenaceae, it feeds on keratin, a substance that makes up fingernails, rhino horns and snakeskin.

The epidermis of the snake is covered with scales which are made of keratin. The Oo attacks the snake when it’s at its most vulnerable, infecting it with a fatalistic disease. Snakes tend to have a very weak immune system post-hibernation and it is then that the Oo enters the body of the body and eats away at the scales. Without the scales, the snake’s skin starts to disintegrate, exposing it to harsh weather and other infections.

This fungus has been recorded as having decimated massasauga and timber rattlesnake populations by 50% and has also put these animals on the endangered species list. Not much is known about this fungus and its impact on other snake species.

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Image: A Snake Infected With Fungal Disease
  • Sea star wasting syndrome

Species affected: Starfish

The 1980s saw starfish populations facing a fatal infection. Lesions appeared on their arms, leading to severe infection. This infection caused the arms to fall off, making their bodies turn into a mushy, paste-like substance. A few days after the lesion first appeared, starfish wound up on the beach, wasted away to death.

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Image: A Starfish Afflicted By The Wasting Syndrome

The sea star wasting syndrome has since the 1980s been a cause for concern for scientists. For long, there was no known cause visible to them. But in 2014, researchers discovered a virus they named ‘sea star associated densovirus’ on the bodies of the starfish. But studies of starfish fossils show that the species have been living with this virus for millennia. Research is still ongoing to understand if this virus is the cause of the disease or not.

As of now, the virus has led to the extinction of 3 American starfish species and has culled the population of 19 other species by half. The worst part, this disease has now spread to sea urchins, which are the starfish’s prey.

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Image: Time Frame Within Which Wasting Happens; In This Picture, Wasting Occurs Within 4 Hours
  • Colony collapse disorder

Species affected: Bees

Bee colonies around the world have been dying out and the reason isn’t clear why. The colony collapse disorder results in the traditionally conscientious worker bees deserting the queen bee, nurse bees and larvae, leaving them to fend for themselves. Unable to find sustenance and protection after food runs out, the queen, nurses and larvae die, leading to a complete collapse in the colony.

Assumed to be a rare occurrence at firsts, scientists were shocked to see the disorder affecting thousands of colonies in North America and Europe. Researchers believe this disorder could have occurred due to a variety of reasons, starting from invasion by parasitic mites called varroa destructor to a change in the chemical constitution in the bees’ bodies due to a viral infection. Scientists have also speculated that pesticides containing neonicotinoids may also be a reason for this disorder.

The colony collapse disorder has far-reaching consequences apart from the loss of billions of bees. The thread that rejuvenates the ecosystem, bees help humans in multiple ways. With the worker bees’ refusal to indulge in their normal behaviours, we may find ourselves in serious trouble.

  • Hemorrhagic septicemia

Species affected: Saiga antelope

Saiga antelope, renowned for their unique appearance, have made headlines again. But this time, it’s for a rare disease that’s wiped out one-third of the species in the past few years. This is a cause for concern, as the species population is teetering on the edge of extinction. More than 15 years of poaching and habitat loss have resulted in the death of 95% of the saiga population in the wild.

Assumed to be caused by a virus or a tick, the saiga antelope suffer from hemorrhagic septicemia or blood poisoning that results in internal haemorrhaging. This disease was noticed to have spiked during the calving season, a time when both mothers and calves are at their most vulnerable. The deadly disease took out almost 134,000 mothers and calves within a span of two weeks.

Thankfully, research has been able to confirm the exact cause of the disease and now we know the culprit is the Pasteurella multocida type B bacteria. Studies show that the bacteria reside in the antelope’s noses from birth. But the humid conditions in the nostrils act as a fertile breeding ground for the bacteria, leading to the formation of large colonies in the saiga’s bodies. These bacteria release deadly toxins into the animal’s bloodstream, resulting in blood poisoning and then death.

 

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Image: A Saiga Mother and Calf Die Due to Septicemia

 

Armed with this knowledge, we may finally be able to save this critically endangered species from extinction. Now, all we need to do is find a solution for the other diseases and lend a helping hand to these endangered creatures.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: Thousands of saiga antelopes lie dead in a field in Khazakstan of blood poisoning.

The Illuminating World of Animal Necropsies

There’s something intrinsically disturbing at the thought of an animal lying on a gurney, its insides cut open for the entire world to see. Something unsettling at the thought of seeing what they last ate for lunch or how their hearts look, underneath all that fur and feather. Welcome to the underbelly of science – animal autopsies, aka, necropsies.

 

Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, made his entry into the National Museum of Natural History, Manila in November 2011. Everything seemed to be going well at the outset. Staff who worked closely with Lolong was elated at how well he had adapted to life in captivity.

 

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Image: Lolong, the World’s Largest Crocodile in Captivity

 

This is why everyone at the Museum had been shocked when in February 2013 Lolong was found dead in his enclosure. His necropsy (animal autopsy) report showed that he had succumbed to congestive heart failure. The report also revealed that he had lipidosis in his liver, had fungal pneumonia and suffered from kidney failure.

But the most significant results of the necropsy report had nothing to do with the illnesses. The reports helped researchers understand why exactly Lolong developed these problems and helped them find ways to prevent the same happening to other crocodilians.

What is a necropsy?

Autopsies are performed on people to identify the cause of death. Necropsies are autopsies performed on animals.

As with human autopsies, necropsies start with an external examination of the specimen’s body to understand if there are any indicators of the cause of death. Next, the body is dissected and each organ is examined systematically. Tissue samples are collected from all major organs, the stomach contents are checked to understand diet (and if the food was poisoned) and the blood is tested to understand what enzymes and chemicals are present and in what quantities.

 

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Image: Skeletal Display of Whale at the Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

In some animals, like whales and elephants, the skeleton is preserved and is sent to museums and veterinary schools for further study and display. Specimen organs may also be preserved for further tests.

3 Benefits of animal necropsies

Necropsies may sound gruesome and morbid (they certainly look so), but they have a number of benefits:

They help understand little-known creatures

In 2014 a completely-intact colossal squid was brought into the New Zealand Museum in Te Papa Tongarewa. This was just the second fully-intact colossal squid specimen in the world; a rare specimen and an even rarer opportunity to take a better look at these mysterious creatures.

A necropsy was conducted to understand their diet, mating habits and hunting strategies. The physiology of the squid was analyzed to understand if the animal had any special features which made it different from other squid species. The necropsy was also used to understand why the colossal squid grows to mammoth proportions and how it sustains itself in deep waters.

They help pinpoint and stop epidemics

2009 saw the Tasmanian Devil being listed on the Endangered Species list. This wasn’t due to poaching. Researchers discovered that the marsupials suffered from an unusual, highly-fatalistic and extremely contagious form of face cancer, called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Cancerous tumors would form on the face and neck of the animals, leaving them physically unable to hunt or eat. A few months into the illness, the Tasmanian Devils died of starvation and weakness.

Necropsy reports showed how the cancerous tumors spread across the body and how they looked and felt structurally. Blood tests gave scientists insight into the chemical changes taking place in the bodies of afflicted animals. The reports helped conservationists plan the Devil Ark project, which sought to breed 1000 genetically clean Tasmanian Devils with an immune system that was pre-designed to recognize and eliminate the DFTD. Recent research shows how human cancer treatment drugs may be able to treat DFTD.

 

 

Tasmanian Devil Cancer
Image: Tasmanian Devil With DFTD

 

They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice

We assume that zoos are the right places for displaced and orphaned animals. But little do we know of the horrors that take place behind closed doors. The Cleveland Zoo found itself in the midst of controversy when the chief of veterinary services was caught asking members of the zoo community to support medical experimentation on animals.

This isn’t the only time zoo authorities have abused their power. Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary was found having subscribed the Humboldt penguins in their care anti-depressants because of the birds’ inability to adapt to the zoo’s climate. While the authorities claim that the penguins are healthier and happier than before, if not used judiciously, this could lead to an overdose and then death.

Necropsies conducted by court-authorized pathologists help uncover the hidden truths behind these animal-friendly facades. They help act as evidentiary support in medico-legal cases.

 

The messy nature of necropsies can overshadow the good they do for animals, wild and captive. But, with awareness, we can begin to accept and appreciate their role in conservation.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image Sources: Feature image

 

Halloween’s Mascots: A Guide to Scary Critters

Certain animals just have bad juju…or do they?

Black cats lurking in the corner, bats screeching across rooftops and black widows spinning silken death traps…all symbols of witchcraft and the demonic. For ages, certain animals have been associated with the dark arts. From witchy cats to satanic bats, a lot of these critters have developed a bad reputation. But why is this so? Are these animals truly a mark of the devil or are they just misunderstood creatures? This Halloween, we find out the answer.

To the Dark and Beyond

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which was celebrated every year on November 1st. The night before the festival was a day associated with the undead. People believed that their loved ones would rise in the form of ghosts and haunt them. To keep these ghosts at bay, revelers would place food and wine offerings outside their doors as “treats”. They would don masks and costumes while going out, to “trick” the ghosts into thinking they were fellow-ghosts.

pumpkin

Soon, the traditions of Samhain were adopted by the Church and the festival was renamed as All Hallows Day; and the night before as Hallow’s Eve. Today, we know and celebrate this important day as Halloween.

Over time, inspired by books and movies, Halloween began to take on a darker image. References to witchcraft were written in into the (actually) harmless festival. Symbolism was drawn to exaggerate the “claims” of the presence of dark magic.

Considering that Halloween was a festival of the night, anything associated with the night soon began to assume a darker shape. As a consequence, animals that were predominantly nocturnal and predatory became symbols of Hallow’s Eve.

Creepy Crawlies

When it comes to animals with a dubious reputation, nothing beats the ones we have listed below. While some are traditionally associated with Halloween, others have such a fearsome and frightening reputation that they’ve made the cut. Take a look at some of the most dangerous and bloodthirsty beasts of the festival of the night:

  • Aye Aye

Known as the harbinger of evil, the aye aye has a fearsome reputation. Although not traditionally associated with Halloween, they are feared by locals in Madagascar.

The world’s largest nocturnal primate (a lemur), aye ayes are extremely shy and docile creatures. They feed on berries and bugs and spend a major portion of their lives on trees and away from human eyes.

A fun fact about aye ayes – they are the only primate species which use echolocation to find prey.

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  • Bats

Heard of blood-sucking vampires? I’m sure you have. But a fact that you may not know is that vampire bats are tiny and they seldom feed on anything other than cattle and pigs. As of today, there have been no recorded “attacks” on humans by vampire bats.

Another interesting fact about bats is that not all are bloodthirsty carnivores. Some are completely vegetarian and feed on berries!

Here’s a final tidbit about bats. Hammerhead bat males from Central Africa converge together during the mating season and produce a unique honking noise to attract females. They couple this with a unique dance and try to vie for the maiden’s attention.

bats

  • Black Cats

The most iconic symbols of Halloween, black cats are regarded as the vehicles of witchcraft. In reality, black cats are regular cats that just happen to be black. The brilliant black of their fur, coupled with their stunning irises, make them look hypnotic.

In some places, black cats are believed to bring power, glory and love to the owner. Irrespective of whether this is true or not, black cats are some of the most gorgeous animals you can house as pets. They are as friendly as any cat can be and will fit perfectly into your household.

Additionally, recent research has shown that the gene that colors the cats’ fur black is the same which gives them disease-resistant power. In fact, these genes are similar to the genes that are HIV-resistant in humans. For all we know, black cats may be the key to finding a cure to HIV and Aids.

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  • Demon Stinger

Wow…even the name is scary. The Bearded Ghoul, aka the demon stinger, is a species of fish that is part of the family which is home to the infamous stonefish. Lying buried in the sand, these fish launch a surprise attack like torpedoes and bring a swift end to crustaceans and fish alike. Their unique beard-like spines filled with toxic venom give them their name.

Residing in tropical reefs, the bearded ghoul is extremely venomous and is particularly dangerous to humans. With a potent mixture of hemotoxins and neurotoxins, this fish really does put the “sting” in “stinger”.

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  • Halloween Snake

With “Halloween” in its name, you may think this reptile is harmless. While with its black body and orange stripes it certainly does look harmless, in reality, it isn’t. Found in rocky places, you can see this critter crawling amidst the craggy mountains of Central and South America. Highly dangerous to humans, they can give a nasty bite.

Want to know the worst part? Halloween snakes, just like other coral snakes, don’t have venom sacks at the base of their fangs. To inject venom, they latch on to their prey for a long time and slowly administer the poison. A bite from this creepy crawly will definitely leave you in a world of pain.

The good thing though, these snakes are highly reclusive and move away at the slightest indication of danger. So unless you’re actively looking for them, chances are you won’t find them.

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  • Spiders

Ah! The infamous black widow spider – the true Daughter of Danaus of the arthropod world. Much has been said about the black widow – how she kills her own mate after copulation and how a single bite can kill a grown man with ease. In reality…well, all of this is true (although human deaths happen rarely if treatment is immediate).

Spiders, with their secretive ways and beautiful webs have fascinated us for centuries. The sheer number of spider species (40,000!) coupled with their unique lifestyles and poisons of varying levels of toxicity have enthralled us for ages.

In reality, apart from a handful of spiders, not many are truly poisonous and none of them actively attack humans. But, just like other animals if threatened, they will hurt you.

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  • Suriname Toad

Not really a venomous creature, the Suriname toad made this list for a completely different reason – a truly back-breaking achievement. Found in the waters in and around South America, this amphibian has a very unique way of giving birth.

While most toads and frogs lay eggs in the water, the Suriname toad retains its eggs in its body and grows them on its back. As the eggs develop into tadpoles, the toad’s back turns into a sort-of honeycomb-shaped maze. When the tadpoles hatch, they break open through these pockets, creating holes in the mother’s back.

The cycle repeats when the mother sheds her mottled skin and grows a new unmarked one that isn’t so hol(e)y.

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Strange and Wondrous

The world of animals is filled with such unique and fascinating examples. While some facts about these creatures are clear as day, others are as dark as night. In retrospect, this is probably why the animals on this list and a few off them have secured such a formidable reputation.

Strange as these animals are, they are even more wondrous. Halloween’s special animals have “tricked” us with their unique abilities. At the same time, they have “treated” us to a spectacular display worthy of commemoration.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH
*Representative images only
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