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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.  

 

Cubbon Park 4
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.  

 

Cubbon Park 3
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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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

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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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5 Fun Facts About Crabs

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

Here are five fun facts about them: 

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

 

 

Bonus

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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

 

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5 Fun Facts About Dung Beetles

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

Here are 5 fun facts about dung beetles: 

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

Bonus

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

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

DB 2
(image source – pixabay)

DB 4

(image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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

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

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

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

 

Bonus

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

 

Video: Centipede vs Millipede

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Orchids

  1. There are more than 25,000 documented species of orchids in the world and they’ve been around since before the continental drift 200 million years ago.
  2. The smallest orchid in the world is in Ecuador. It is only 2.1mm long and it requires a microscope to examine. It’s petals are so thin and transparent, scientists believe they resemble the size and texture of human cells.
  3. There is an orchid called the Bee Orchid, whose petals and fragrance resemble a bee. The orchid uses its unique appearance and fragrance to attract male bees, to stimulate pollination.
  4. Orchid seeds are really tiny – smaller than a dust particle. That’s why some orchids take up to 15 years just to germinate. Many of the full-grown potted orchids found in stores are often decades old!
  5. Rare orchids can get really expensive. Some of the most expensive orchid plants are – Rotchschild’s orchid ($5,000 per plant), Fire lilies ($10-$20 per stem), Yellow And Purple Lady Slipper (Critically endangered – Priceless) and Ghost Orchid (Critically endangered – Priceless).

Bonus

That vanilla-flavoured ice cream you love so much? It’s derived from an orchid. The Vanilla planifolia is a type of orchid, whose leaves are used to derive the vanilla flavouring used in food and beverages. Additionally, when someone talks about “vanilla beans”, they’re actually referring to orchid seeds.

Orchid 15
Rothshild’s slipper orchid
Orchid 16
Ghost orchid
orchid 17
Purple lady slipper orchid 
Orchid 1
Rare blue orchids
Orchid 2
Praying Angel orchid
Orchid 5
Bee orchid
Orchid 8
Platystele Jungermannioides – the smallest orchid in the world
Orchid 9
Moth orchid 
Orchid 10
Monkey orchid
Orchid 13
Swaddled baby orchid
Orchid 14
Flying duck orchid

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Dendrobium orchid 

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5 Fun Facts About Termites

  1. Termite bodies are made up of protein, calcium, iron and amino acids, making them really nutritious treats. In fact, many tribes in Africa, India and China eat termites as part of their daily meal to get the nutrition their bodies need.
  2. Although the Queen is the leader of the mound, termites are one of the few eusocial (hierarchy-based) insects where Kings also play a role. Termite kings stay with their Queens for life, helping fertilize the eggs and raise young larvae.
  3. Termite Queen faeces is fed to larvae to help them grow. Different kinds of faeces have different chemicals in them. The type of chemical fed to larvae determine what type of termite they grow to be – worker, soldier, nurse or future Queen.
  4. Termite Queens can live up to 50 years and some Queens can produce up to 10 million eggs in their lifetime.
  5. Termites are very clean insects and despite living underground their entire lives, they groom themselves most diligently. In fact, one of the jobs of the worker termites is to keep the mound and its members clean.

 

Bonus

There are over 2700 species of termites in the world and if you weighed the world’s entire termite population together, they’d weigh 445 million tonnes. In comparison, the world’s entire human population weighs north of 350 million tonnes.  

 

Video: How does a termite mound look from within?

 

 

Termite 3
Different types of termites

 

Termite 2
A termite surrounded by termite eggs

 

Termite 4
Only the King & Queen termites have wings and are able to fly

 

Termite 1
A termite mound. Some mounds can go up 30 feet high. As seen here, even the tallest animal in the world falls short in front of a termite mound. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Fruit Flies

Am not I

A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me?

(The Fly, William Blake)

 

  1. Fruit flies can’t stand carbon dioxide. It makes them woozy and unfocused.
  2. Fruit flies’ chromosomes look like barcodes.
  3. Fruit flies have 100,000 neurons, which is a very high number for flies and it is this large brain matter that makes fruit flies so intelligent.
  4. Fruit flies love their beer and males often get drunk on both alcohol and fruit. Female fruit flies have been observed rejecting males who get drunk often. (here’s an addition: humans like the same beer and wine as fruit flies…go figure)
  5. Fruit flies enjoy sex as much as the human whose house they are in. Turns out sexually-deprived males go into depression and look for alcoholic drinks/food, while their sated counterparts steer clear of alcohol. 

 

Bonus

Fruit flies are a boon to science. They have a whopping 14,000 genes in their bodies (humans have 24,000…so that should tell you something) and extremely fast life cycles (fruit flies can  mature from eggs to adults in as less as two weeks), which makes them perfect for genetic experimentations. In fact, fruit flies have contributed to 6 Nobel Prizes between 1933 & 2017.

So, what did fruit flies help us understand?

  • Role of chromosomes in heredity
  • Role of radiation in genetic mutation
  • Control of embryonic development through genetic experimentation
  • Role of the olfactory system
  • Activation of immunity in organisms
  • Molecules that control the circadian rhythm
  • Mechanism of cellular healing in severe wounds

 

Fruit fly 1
Fruit flies mating

 

Fruit fly 2
A fruit fly consuming fruit

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Ladybugs

  1. Ladybugs aren’t really bugs. They’re beetles – insects that chew solid food and have hard wings. In fact, they are (correctly) called Ladybird beetles in Europe.
  2. When a ladybug is under threat of danger, it releases a yellowish liquid called hemolymph from its knees. This liquid has a truly horrendous smell which deters predators from attacking.
  3. Ladybug moms lay two sets of eggs – one set which is hatched and the other set which acts as food for the new borns.
  4. Not all ladybugs are darlings. One species, the harlequin ladybug, indiscriminately kills all insects it comes in contact with by infecting them with a deadly parasite called  Nosema apis.
  5. Ever had wine that tasted like peanuts or asparagus (shudder!)? This was probably the fault of a ladybug. Sometimes ladybugs that reside in vineyards are accidentally collected with the grapes and crushed in the machines that extract grape juice for wine. The hemolymph released by stressed-out ladybugs taints the wine and gives it a foul flavour.

 

Bonus

Legend says that ladybugs first made an appearance in farms that were plagued by plant-eating insects, after farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary (The Lady of Sorrows) to release them from their sorrows. That’s where they get their name from – The Lady’s Bug. According to stories, the red colour of the ladybug represents the Virgin’s cloak and the seven polka dots, the seven sorrows.

LB4
Ladybug

 

LB1
Ladybug caterpillar

 

LB 3
Different colours/species of ladybug

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

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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.

Tardugrade
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.

Butterfly 1
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.

Darkling beetle on the sand
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

The Winning Waltz: The Art of Wooing Through Dance

Suitors in the animal kingdom do quite a lot to get a lady’s attention. While some spin lilting melodies, others decorate their bachelor pads with ferns, flowers and foliage. Then there are those that break out their prized, stage-worthy moves in a jaw-dropping dance-off. Whoever said courtship in the animal kingdom was dry and uneventful certainly hasn’t seen these eventful courtship rituals.   

Dance has been a symbol of romance for long, and this isn’t just with humans. From time immemorial animals have been using dance as a way to bond with potential mates. While little is understood about what each movement actually represents, these lovely spectacles definitely are a must-watch.

The choreography of love

Love in the animal kingdom is a tricky affair. With so many suitors and such little time, it becomes difficult for females to make a split-second decision. Luckily, females have the art of dance to help them separate the top crop from the average.

Penguin
Penguins pair bond for life. They recognize each other after almost a year apart by their vocalizations and dance, which are unique to each couple. (Image Source)

The dance between a male and a female in the wild is usually initiated by the male. The male has just one shot at winning his beloved and he certainly puts this chance to good use by implementing his sexy moves and smouldering charm to win the lady (or ladies in some cases).

To understand how dance truly works in the wild, let’s take a look at 5 animals who are the masters (and mistresses) of the art of courtship dance:

  • Humpback whale

These giants of the oceans may look ill-equipped to be elegant, but let me assure you that there is no animal as graceful and spectacular than a humpback whale in the midst of a courtship ritual. In a movement resembling a slow waltz, the male and female humpback start circling each other, showcasing themselves to their suitor.

The humpbacks make a series of enchanting and almost melancholic vocalizations while indulging in a gentle duet with spiral movements. A few minutes into the dance, it all but seems the female is willing to mate.

But sadly for the male in this video, the romantic evening comes to an end. A group of marauding male humpbacks looking for a female have no qualms ruining a perfectly lovely evening.

  • Ostrich

A leggy bird with an immensely powerful kick, you wouldn’t think those muscular limbs could be flexible enough to perform some of the trickiest legwork you’d have ever seen. Male ostriches perform a very unique dance movement as part of their courtship ritual, complete with its very own intense head bang.

The females are mute spectators in the dance and are often the judges who decide if their suitor is worthy to mate with them, based on the finesse of his moves.

This spectacular video shows a male ostrich wooing his woman with his feather-fluffed, fast-paced quirky moves. Will he succeed? Take a look and find out.

If you liked this bird, you’re sure to love the bird that can put Michael Jackson to shame. Meet the Manakin, the greatest moonwalker on the planet.

  • Peacock Spider

When the male peacock spider decides to woo you, he does so with flair. The peacock spider, famous for his flashy and colorful exoskeleton is also renowned for another thing – his courtship dance.

Not only does the male have a vibrant abdomen, he also has a personality that’s equally radiant. When with a prospective mate, the male peacock spider extends his legs out upwards and moves them in very quick side-to-side shakes. So fast does he move his limbs, they appear to almost vibrate from the movement.

The male then contorts his body, lifts up his abdomen towards the sky and flashes his colorful back to the female. He enlarges himself to make the colors appear bolder and brighter and make the markings on his body bigger. Next, he quickly runs from one side to the other, moving closer to his mate with every step.

Want to see this flamboyant male in action? Well take a look at the video below.

  • Seadragons

Vibrant, elaborate and exotic to look at, seadragons are one of the ocean’s most spectacular creatures. Supremely colorful with the most brilliant of markings on their leafy fins, seadragons are one of nature’s true works of art. They are also animals that share a love of dance. During courtship, the male and female gently mimic each other in a well-coordinated movement.

A light bob of the heads, a gentle flutter of the fins and a soft entangling of the tails all accompany the slow and serene spiral-formation swim the pair embark on. The seadragons engage in this dance throughout the night. If they remain in-sync hours after the start of their romantic adventure, the male and female give each other their permission to mate.

  • Grebes

The last pair on our list is hands-down one of the most romantic animals in the wild. Grebes are freshwater diving birds that form pair bonds and mate for life. Each pair meets every year to mate and rear young. Once the mating season is over, the partners sometimes go their separate ways, only to find their way back to each other every mating season.

When grebes come together, the courtship dance transforms into something more beautiful and meaningful – a renewal of vows. Before they mate, the grebe pair engages in a complicated choreography replete with feather-ruffling, coordinated head movements and a spectacular, running finish that’s a wonder to behold.

Take a look for yourself. Words fail to capture the beauty of the grebe dance.

Another bird species that mates for life are the Japanese Crane. So strong are the bonds of love between Japanese crane pairs, this species is considered a ‘symbol of fidelity‘ in Japan. Beautiful isn’t it?

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image: Japanese crane courtship dance

The World of Animal Supermoms

Moms…what would we do without them? Across the animal kingdom, it’s the materfamilias who rears the young. This International Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the spectacular force of nature that is – Mom.

 

There are all kinds of moms in the world and each of them has a unique parenting style. This Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at some of these powerful women and how they impact their young’s life.

In this article, we’ll look at 3 categories of animal moms and their relationship with their young. Be sure to watch the videos of these moms in action. Here we go:

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

The moms under this list are the lone warriors of the animal kingdom. They single-handedly raise their young and train them to survive in this cruel, wild world:

  • Orangutans

Of all the mothers in the animal kingdom, Orangutan moms are the most patient, gentle and forbearing. Although they reside in groups where there are both males and females, the father seldom takes any interest in rearing his young.

The Orangutan mother is devoted to her baby’s upbringing right from birth. She builds the baby her nest in a tree (every night a new nest!), picks berries for her to eat, teaches her how to use tools, shows her ways to stay safe in the forest and essentially, makes her a responsible and contributing member of the group.

Orangutan mothers do have one fault though. They love their kids a little too much and spoil them rotten. So much so, that many orangutan babies stay with mom until they’re 10-12 years old.

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

The female ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most diligent birds in the animal kingdom. She really works very hard when raising her young. A single mother by all definitions, her mate’s role ends at egg fertilization.

Once she’s ready to lay her eggs, the ruby-throated hummingbird sets about building the nest. It’s an arduous process, which can tire even bigger animals. Once her nest is built, she lays the eggs and gestation takes up to 2 weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the mother visits flower-upon-flower collecting nectar for her young. She makes repeat visits for days until the young are ready to take flight and fend for themselves.

For a mom this size, that’s a lot of work.

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

Strength comes in numbers and these moms understand the immense benefits of community child rearing:

  • Elephants

When it comes to elephants, there is no such thing as a ‘single parent’. One cow-elephant having a baby equates to the entire herd having a baby. For elephants, the birth of a calf is a monumental occasion. The entire herd comes together to raise the baby after the mother’s 22 month gestation period. In fact, elephant calves spend more time with their aunts and siblings than their mothers. When a calf is threatened, each member of the group stops what she is doing and answers the baby’s call.

Elephant herds have designated babysitters (adolescent females a year or two from maturity, practicing their mothering skills), who take an active role in educating the calf and teaching it how to use its trunk, how to select the right leaves and how to be an asset to the herd.

  • Orcas

Have you ever seen an orca pod teaching the calf to hunt? No? Well, you should. Orcas are one of the most fearsome predators of the oceans and they are one species that believe in giving their young a hands-on learning experience.

When a calf is born, the entire pod (which is matrilineal) works together in caring for, feeding, cleaning and protecting the young from danger. When the calf is old enough to hunt, the mother (with her sisters, nieces and mother), takes the calf on hunting tours and teaches it to hunt seals and penguins.

This girl gang sticks up for its babies and there’s nothing they won’t do to keep the calves safe from harm.

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

If the rest of the animal kingdom believes in staying alive for their young, there are those moms who willingly embrace death to give their wards a better chance at survival:

  • Octopus

When it comes to maternal devotion, no animal can beat the octopus. After laying her brood of eggs (that number in the tens of thousands), the mother octopus painstakingly works on keeping the eggs dirt-free. She gently blows freshwater on the eggs to keep them hydrated and nourished and spends up to 14 months protecting her eggs from predators.

During this time, the octopus does not leave her nest even for a second to feed and in the process wastes away into nothing. By the time the eggs are ready to hatch, the octopus mom will literally be a shell of what she once was.

In 2014, scientists found an octopus mom caring for her brood for 4.5 years! They aren’t sure yet how she survived that long without feeding.

  • Spiders

A parent eating their young is common in the wild. But Matriphagy, where a young devours its own mother is rarer still. But spider babies seem to find nothing unnatural about this arrangement.

The spider mother gives the new hatchlings her unfertilized eggs to eat during the first few days post-birth. Once this repository of eggs gets over, the mother offers herself up to her babies for their next meal. The baby spiders pierce the abdomen of the mother and greedily suck out her bodily fluids; killing her in the process.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

All Hail the Queen: The Badass Women of the Animal Kingdom

They call them the ‘gentler sex’, but these powerful ladies from the animal world are anything but gentle. Strong and resilient, the matriarchs in this list are empresses; deadly and doting rolled-into-one. If you thought the men were accomplished, you won’t believe the prowess of the women. It’s time to meet the mistresses of the game.

The males of any species have always been considered more powerful, more creative, more strategic and more ruthless. But a look at these animals and you’ll wonder at the powerhouses that are females. You will admire them for their courage, their ingenuity and their desire to turn the odds in their favor.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the power, the beauty and the talent of the ladies of the animal world.

Meet the doyennes of the animal kingdom

  • Praying mantis

They say love hurts and love with a praying mantis is a definite stinger. Just ask a male praying mantis and he’ll tell you all about it.

Volatile in the extreme, the female praying mantis needs a satiating meal to willingly get into the bridal chamber; and who does she ask for as the sacrifice, but her lover.  During mating, the female praying mantis cuts off the head of the male and eats it; and saves the body for nourishment when laying the eggs.

Dangerous creatures to begin with female praying mantis are the original femme fatales of the animal world.

Praying mantis

  • Spotted hyena

‘Ballsy woman’, that’s what they call a girl who has the courage to counter the men. But when it comes to the spotted hyena, we may need to take this address a bit literally.

Female hyenas are the leaders of their canine packs, resembling their male counterparts in their mannerisms, behavior and also (wait-for-it) anatomy. That’s right, anatomically speaking, female hyenas possess genitalia that resembles the male sexual organs.

Called ‘pseudo-penises’, these organs are enlarged clitoris, that resembles the male reproductive organs. The pseudo-penises are a result of high concentration of androgen in the body, which results in the development of masculine characteristics; most notably the female’s vicious temper and mean bite.

Hyena

  • Whiptail lizard

Who thinks women need men to procreate? Well, the whiptail lizards of South America certainly don’t. These lizards are truly the ‘Amazonians’ of the vertebrate world and they’re skilled in ‘virgin births’.

The possession of an extra pair of chromosomes (compared to their lizard counterparts) allows the all-female gang of whiptail lizards to lay eggs that don’t need sperm to fertilize. These self-fertilized eggs hatch into more females, who possess the same genetic make-up as their mothers.

This type of asexual reproduction is impressive even in invertebrates (where this is common), but for vertebrates like the whiptail lizard, this is positively biblical.

Whiptail lizard

  • Bonobos

When Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, he may have derived inspiration from the Bonobo. If there is one thing the pygmy chimpanzees can teach us, is that More Sex = Less Conflict. Mistresses in the art of seduction, the female bonobos use sex as a tool for maintaining peace in the troop.

But when this doesn’t work, they rely on their strong sisterhood. If a male harasses, victimizes or hurts one female, the entire band of girls gang up on him and strike back. They even go as far as refusing sex for an entire lot of eligible bachelors; finally forcing the males to intervene and punish the bad-mannered member.

When things simmer down and the men behave, the females ‘swing’ into action and treat them to some sweet loving.

Bonobo

  • Elephants

When it comes to females who break the glass ceiling, nothing beats the elephants. Their organizational ability and leadership skills will put an A-list CEO to shame. If there’s something we can learn from them it’s – girl power and perseverance.

The matronly matriarchs of the animal world, female elephants lead groups of up to 100 across the vast savannah in search of food and water, all the while managing a bunch of boisterous whippersnappers. Most of the matriarchs in the herd are over 50 years old (quite old in elephant years) and they take an active interest in collectively raising the calves.

The best way to describe a herd of female elephants is as a ‘self-reliant society’. There are no males allowed in this group.

Elephant herd

  • Orcas

All of the greatest lineages in history have one thing in common – they’ve all been led by powerful and enterprising women. The same is true with the killer whales.

Orcas form bonds for life and when a daughter is born, she stays with her mother until the very end. Often, daughters and mothers stay together even after the daughter has daughters of her own. These ladies form large pods called ‘matrilines’, which include hundreds of female killer whales.

The mothers teach their daughters to hunt, to raise young and to even toy with the emotions of the males. If there’s ever an orphaned baby or an adolescent she-calf, you can rest assured she won’t be alone for long. Protective in the extreme, a mother orca will never let anyone hurt a young female.

Killer whale

  • Honeybees

What can you say about a colony that spends its life serving the Queen? A completely matriarchal society, life in a honeybee colony revolves around their female sovereign.

Right from the time they are born, all drones (synonyms – good-for-nothing and hanger-on ;)) are trained to serve the queen. The females in the colony take center stage and spend their lives selecting a single queen bee, raising her on royal jelly and taking care of her every need.

If the queen dies, don’t worry. Chances are, the females have already identified an heir, who is also a woman; and are in the process of transforming her from a pauper to a princess.

Honeybee

There are many more females who deserve a mention on this list, but we’ll leave them for next time. Till then, long live the Queen!

-NISHA PRAKASH

What is Biological Ornamentation?

Animals display a wide variety of spectacular accessories. But, what are they and why did they evolve?

The Colour of Love

If you’ve seen any documentary on birds, you’ll definitely have seen a sequence involving the Birds of Paradise. Producers of bird documentaries may fail to include many winged beings in their film, but the one species they will never miss is the Birds of Paradise. Why? Their colourful plumage and brilliant displays of courtship are the answers.

Birds of Paradise, the males, in particular, have exceptionally colourful feathers and tails. They are curious little creatures who decorate their nests with the most eclectic of objects, from shiny pebbles to colourful mushrooms. Their unique courtship dance is an eye-catcher; especially so because it is only the males who indulge in them.

Bird of paradise

This brings us to the question – what do the females do? Female Birds of Paradise are quite the Plain Jane’s of the bird world. Neither do they have the beautiful plumage their counterparts do nor do they decorate nests or take part in the entertaining courtship ritual.

This isn’t true of only Birds of Paradise. In fact, there are many species where the male does the work and the female remains the spectator. Take peacocks for example. The peacock’s tail is one of the most spectacular in the animal kingdom. Whether roaming in tropical jungles or strutting about in a wildlife reserve, you can always spot a peacock displaying its ‘tail’ing glory with pride.

The peahen, on the other hand, is exceptionally drab. She does not have the magnificent tail feathers that her companion does and she has a more subdued personality. During mating season, you are more likely to spot a peacock strut to a peahen, than the other way around.

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When compared to human mating rituals, where males and females play equal roles, the rituals of the animal kingdom leave the work to the men. It is the males which are more colourful than the females and it is the males who have the burden of sealing the deal.

Where Males Strut and Females Observe

In most of the cases (with the exception of lions, zebras, penguins and a few other species) the males fertilize the egg and move on, leaving the female to incubate the eggs and deliver the offspring. If you consider this fact, you’ll notice how the female’s investment in incubation and birth is significantly higher than that of males.

Therefore, once a female is impregnated, chances are she won’t be looking for a new male. The female will lay her eggs or give birth (as the case may be), care for her offspring and once the offspring no longer needs her help, she moves on in search of a new mate.

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But, the males, on the other hand, are woven of a different cloth. Males are designed to quite literally “sow their wild oats far and wide”. At the end of the day, the objective of any animal is to continue the existence of its own bloodline. A female, due to her time commitment, will be unable to fulfill this requirement. A male can do wonders here.

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution spoke of two important aspects – sexual selection and biological ornamentation. If a male intends to mate with as many females as possible, the first step is to attract the female’s attention.

Ornamentation serves to attract a number of mates and with it greater chances of mating. Biological ornaments act as indicators of a potential mate’s health and virility, allowing the females to judge whether the male has the genes needed to produce healthy offspring.

Stags with bigger antlers, lions with darker manes, Polyphemus moths with large & hairy antenna and sea slugs with fluorescent colouring are just a few examples of biological ornamentation used in sexual selection.

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Weapons of War

Not all biological ornamentation is meant for mating. Some animals take this a step further and turn these ornaments into armaments.

Take orb-weaver spiders for example. These little critters can weave webs of brilliant hues. The rainbow coloured web serves two purposes – a display of virility to the females and an enticing death trap to prey. Bees and other nectar collecting insects mistake these webs for flowers and approach them. Once they land on the webs, it’s almost impossible to escape.

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Stag beetles are another example. With one of the largest mandibles of any beetles on earth, stag beetles use these ornaments not just as a weapon of seduction, but also as a weapon of war. When it comes to stag beetles, there is a well-known belief – the larger your mandibles, the more likely you’ll land the female.

Stag beetles reside on trees. When a male sees a female he likes, he climbs up to her with the intention of mating. But, in 9 out of 10 cases, he encounters a rival in his path. In a storybook attempt worthy of being captured in the pages of a classic, the male uses his gigantic ‘antler-like’ mandibles to literally ‘overthrow’ his opponent. The fight for the dark maiden’s mandibles is won only after one male successfully throws his opponent out of the tree.

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The Time of the Females

While the males are the recipients of biological ornamentation in most cases, there are certain species where the females are more ornamented or have better armaments.

Take the female seahorse for example. Seahorses are some of the only animals where the male incubates the eggs until hatching. Post-fertilization, the female transfers the eggs to the male and moves on in search of a new mate.

Male seahorses, unlike their other species counterparts, are drab and plain to look at. The females are infinitely more colourful and are much larger than the males. The purpose is obvious. Just like male Birds of Paradise, female seahorses need to look unique and attractive to grab the attention of males. This is a classic case of sexual role reversal in the animal kingdom, with the male preoccupied with rearing the young and the female looking to mate more often.

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When it comes to armaments, females can be equally deadly. Take the female angler fish for example. A glowing spine sticking out of the top of her head and large, distended and extremely sharp fang-like jaws, the female anglerfish is gigantic compared to the minuscule male. The spine doubles as a glowing death trap which attracts bioluminescent fish towards her. The male angler doesn’t have any such armaments to boast of.

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The female black widow spider is another example. Much larger than the male and extremely poisonous, the females have beautiful hourglass-shaped red markings on their abdomen which are highly attractive to suitors and prey alike; although in most cases, the suitors turn out to be prey themselves.

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An Evolutionary Gamble

It all started with a lack of fertile females. With fewer females available to mate with and more competitors than wanted, males had to stand out from the crowd in order to get noticed. As time passed, evolution took its toll.

The change in predatory conditions, problems with weather & pollution, destruction of habitat and the rise & decline in species population numbers all had an impact on the biological ornamentation of animals.

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Over the years, some ornaments have remained the same, while others have improved. Some armaments have become vestigial, while others have evolved. The fight for food and mates and the race for survival are the primary reasons for biological ornamentation.

Today, we see so many spectacular ornaments and armaments on display; some of which were non-existent just a handful of years ago. Only time will tell what new biological ornamentation we will get to see in the future.

 

NISHA PRAKASH