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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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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

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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

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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.

The Mysterious Case of the Corkscrew Penis and the Inverted Vagina

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

 

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

For plume and penis

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

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

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

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

Labyrinthine ladies and their convoluted coition

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

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

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

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

Duck_genitals_tubes

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

Absolutely clever isn’t it?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Dugongs

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

Here are five facts about them: 

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

 

Bonus

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Video: Now let’s see a dugong in action

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: National Geographic; Dugong vs Manatee: Indigoscuba
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5 Fun Facts About Possums

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

 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

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

 

Bonus

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

 

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

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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

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

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

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

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

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

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

These characteristics makes sea sponges inherently animal-like.

 

Bonus

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

Would you use them?

 

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

 

Sea Sponge 2
Sponges grow in large clusters across the ocean bed. (image source)

 

Sea Sponge 3
A female sea sponge that’s spawning .i.e. releasing fertilised eggs into the ocean. Most sponges are hermaphrodites – both male and female – and can produce sperm and eggs simultaneously.  (image source)

 

Sea Sponge 4
Different types of sea sponges in the world. (image source)

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image source
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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 Jellyfish

  1. A jellyfish’s body is made of 98% water. They can dehydrate and disappear if they wash up on shore on a very hot & sunny day. 
  2. Jellyfish have the ability to clone themselves. If injured or cut in half, a jellyfish will heal itself and then clone itself to create two healthy organisms. 
  3. The Turritopsis nutricula jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea is capable of reversing its age once it reaches adulthood. How? When the Turritopsis nutricula becomes an adult, it starts changing its fully-grown cells into infant cells, essentially becoming a baby. This way, it remains young always. It is the only recorded animal to be completely and truly immortal. 
  4. In early 2000, fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico caught a monster-size jellyfish – almost 70 feet long and with sharp, extremely poisonous tentacles. This jellyfish was pink in colour and had never been sighted before. Scientists dubbed it the “Pink Meanie” and it is now one of the rarest and the second largest species of jellyfish in the world, reaching record lengths of 100 feet. The only jellyfish larger than this is the Lion’s mane jellyfish, which stands at 120 feet (that’s 3.5 times longer than a telephone pole!). 
  5. Jellyfish are more than 500 million years old, making them older than dinosaurs. Their ancient legacy can be attributed to their lack of a sophisticated physical body. Jellyfish don’t have any organs and only use their skin and a simple network of nerves to live. These combined make them very less physically demanding, requiring less to survive.

Bonus

In 1991, NASA sent adult jellyfish into space on board the Columbia space shuttle. The objective was to find out whether space-born babies can survive a life both in space and on the Earth. It turns out that the baby jellyfish born in space developed extreme vertigo when they returned to Earth and most never learned how to swim in Earth-water after their extraterrestrial stint, because their newborn bodies never learnt how to recognise and deal with gravity. Researchers believe human babies too may face similar challenges if they are born in space. This makes relocation to Mars (or any space-bound journey) all the more challenging for humans. 

Video: The world’s largest jellyfish has a very small, but very deadly predator – Anemone. Watch as this giant is ripped to shreds by a hundred little arms. 

Jelly 1
Turritopsis nutricula – the immortal jellyfish
Jelly 2
Box jellyfish – the most venomous jellyfish on the planet. About 30 human deaths are reported in the Philippines alone each year. Since 1954, there have been 5,568 recorded human deaths caused by box jellyfish.
Man of war
Portuguese Man O’ War – often confused for a jellyfish, is actually a ‘siphonophore’, an animal that is made up of a collection of smaller animals that have a symbiotic relationship.

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Fried egg jellyfish – they live for only six months, born in the summer and dying in the winter. 

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5 Fun Facts About Snails

  1. Snail eggs are enjoyed as “white caviar” by people around the world. Did you know that a kilogram of snail eggs costs €4,000? These eggs are supposed to taste very earthy & strong. 
  2. The Giant African Snail is the largest snail on the planet, measuring 30 cms (almost 1 foot) long! Halfway around the world in China, you’ll find the world’s smallest snail – Angustopila dominikae – which measures only 0.86 cms long. 
  3. The digestive juices of snails are a great cure for bronchitis and acidity in humans. In a late 1990s survey researchers discovered that populations that eat snails regularly have a death rate that is 20X lower than populations that don’t. 
  4. Most land snails are herbivores and are practically harmless. On the other hand, all aquatic snails are omnivores, often the top of the food chain at the bottom of the ocean. Sea-dwelling snails use sharp harpoons and produce potent sulfuric acid to hunt. 
  5. Ever seen the slimy, mucous-like trail left behind by snails? Snails produce this mucous to protect themselves from the hard and dry ground they travel on. They spend 40% of their energy producing this mucous, which can really tire them out. That’s why many snails try to cheat their way out of this by using a slimy trail left behind by another snail. 

Bonus

Did you know snails have a mortal enemy? 

Pouring salt on a snail is akin to signing its death warrant. Snail bodies are made mostly of water and other bodily fluids. When you pour salt on snails, the salt absorbs the liquids from the snail’s body through a process called “osmosis”. While a little salt will make the snail dehydrated, a lot of salt can kill it in minutes. 

Farmers know this and routinely pour salt at the base of plants to prevent snails from wreaking havoc on them. 

Video:

Here’s what happens when you pour salt on a snail (viewer discretion is advised)

Explanation:

When a snail starts drying up, its body produces a slimy substance to preserve any moisture that remains. The bubbles you see forming on the snail is the chemical reaction between the slimy mucous and the salt.

snail 1
Giant African Snail – the largest snail in the world
snail 2
Angustopila dominikae – the smallest snail in the world – on a needle head
Conus geographus
Conus geographus – the most poisonous snail in the world.

Liked today’s featured image? If you’d like to see some more truly breathtaking photos of the world from a snail’s perspective, check out this link to Ukrainian nature photographer Vyacheslav Mishchenko’s photography. 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Zorse

  1. Zorse is a real animal. It is the cross-bred offspring of a zebra stallion and a horse mare.
  2. The combination of the horse and zebra genetic material has given the Zorse a stunning genetic blueprint. A Zorse is always immune to the genetic diseases that are common to both its parents.
  3. Although its fur colour can come from either of its parents, most of the physical features of the Zorse come from the Zebra father, making it a very strong & hardy animal, fit for the wild. However, its personality and temperament are exactly like its Horse mother, making it very easy to train. That’s why the Zorse is used as a pack animal in certain places of North America.
  4. The Zorse has a 360-degree vision and can turn its eyeballs completely around to see. However, it has two blind spots – one behind the head and one directly below the nose.
  5. The Zorse is by birth sterile and can’t reproduce. However, mating behaviours have been observed in the animals, both in the wild and in captivity.

 

Bonus

Unlike Ligers and Tigons, which come from different combinations of lion and tiger mating, Zorse foals are born genetically the same irrespective of whether they are reared through a zebra stallion-horse mare mating or a horse stallion-zebra mare mating. However, since zebras are rarer and scientifically more valuable to breeding programs than horses are, no zebra owner voluntarily wastes time on having their female zebra give birth to a Zorse.

 

Zorse 4
A mother horse with her zorse foal

 

Zorses come in a variety of colours: 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About Chevrotain aka Mouse Deer

  1. Chevrotain are found only in Asia and Africa.
  2. Chevrotain are super small in size. The various sub-species of the mouse deer range in size between that of a Chihuahua and a Jack Russell Terrier.
  3. Although they resemble deer and have mousey faces, the chevrotain are not related to either of the animals. In fact, they belong to a separate, mostly-extinct species called Tragulidae, of which they are the only surviving members.
  4. They have very long and sharp fangs which they use during battle for territory and mates. Their bites can put even Dracula to shame.
  5. Female chevrotain are pregnant for most of their adult lives. They mate and get pregnant within a few hours of giving birth.

 

Bonus

Chevrotains walk down into the river bottom and remain submerged for up to 4 minutes at a time when they sense the presence of predators.  They may also create secondary burrows for themselves underwater where they stay until the danger passes. To see what this is like, watch the video below.

 

Mouse deer 1
A chevrotain’s fangs are very sharp and long. Males have longer and sharper fangs than females.
Mouse deer 4
Chevrotain mating
Mouse Deer 5
A mother chevrotain feeding a fawn. Mothers stand on three legs, lift a leg in the air and feed their fawns. 
Mouse Deer 6
Fawns are one of the smallest creatures in the wild
male Lesser Mouse-deer
A mouse deer in the Thai forest

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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5 Fun Facts About Okapi

  1. Okapi have tongues that are 30 cms long, which is approximately double the length of a standard television remote and three times the length of the average human tongue.
  2. Okapi diet is as diverse as it is colourful. Okapi eat over 100 types of plants & fungi, red clay and charcoal. This type of diet ensures they get all the nutrients they need to be healthy.
  3. New born okapi don’t poop until they are four to ten weeks old. Researchers believe this may be a tactic to avoid drawing predators through smell.
  4. Mother okapi speak to their babies in infrasound, sounds that are too low for humans to hear.
  5. Okapi release a black tar-like substance from their feet, which leaves marks when they walk. This could be a way of marking territory.

 

Bonus

Okapi are extremely shy and live in secluded areas of the forest. Apart from calf-mother pairs, they seldom interact with any species, including their own. Till the time they were discovered in 1901 by British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, Okapi were called ‘African Unicorns’ because people thought they were a myth and didn’t really exist. It was only the indigenous tribes living in the Congo-Ugandan region who had occasionally seen the animals till then. Now they are found only in the Congo and are the country’s national animal.

 

Video: An okapi in the wild

 

Okapi 1
An okapi 

 

Okapi 4
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve established in Congo helps safeguard this Rare & Endangered species. There are currently only 25,000 documented okapi in the wild. 
Okapi 5
The Congolese franc uses okapi as the image for their 50 franc notes.
Okapi 2
A mother-calf pair feeding

 

-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 Plecos aka Suckerfish

  1. Plecos are a type of catfish.
  2. When we refer to plecos, we refer to the 138 species of fish that come under the  genus Hypostomus.
  3. The plecos’ skin may look slimy, but its texture is like that of a rocky armour.
  4. Plecos are gentle with most fishes except their own species, who they can be very aggressive towards.
  5. Plecos never reproduce in captivity, but females can lay up to 300 eggs in the wild!

 

Bonus

Veteran aquarium keepers never write or say aloud the plecos’ full name “plecostomus” because of an old superstition that says “speaking or writing the name will cause the fish to die”.

 

Pleco 2

 

Pleco 1

-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 

 

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Could this Bird be the Best Dad in the Bird World?

Found in South America, the Rhea bird is one of the largest flightless birds in the world. Research shows that Rhea dads could be the most devoted fathers in the world of the feathered.

 

Basic info:

Name: Rhea

Scientific classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Rheiformes
  • Family: Rheidae
  • Genus: Rhea

Height: 3-5ft

Weight: 55-80 pounds

Diet: Broad-leafed plants, roots, seeds, fruits, small insects, baby reptiles and small rodents

Mating: Polygamous

Nest size: 10-60 eggs

Flight: Flightless; can run at speeds up to 40 miles/hour

Found in: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay

Related to: Ostrich and emu

Rhea chicks
A Rhea dad with his chicks (Source)

5 fun facts about Rhea dads

  • Rhea dads take on the sole responsibility of building the nest. This includes finding the right spot, procuring the right materials and building a good quality nest (and they do this for every female they mate with – which can be anywhere between 2 & 12).

 

  • Rhea fathers are a lot like penguin dads. They incubate the eggs and hatch it themselves (they usually attract the females to the nest – a shallow hole in the ground lined with leaves and moss – and have them deposit their eggs there).

 

  • These birds are great at using decoys. They use rotten eggs, mouldy fruit and other animal bait as decoys to distract predators from the nest. These decoys are lined around the nest and are replenished whenever they are consumed. This helps keep the clutch safe from harm.

 

Rhea eggs
A clutch of Rhea eggs (Source)

 

  • Once the eggs hatch (after 6 weeks of incubation), the Rhea father spends the next 6 months caring for the chicks. The chicks burrow into their father’s feathers and revel in his feathery warmth. So possessive is he of his clutch, he even keeps the mothers at bay by attacking them with a ferocious charge and vicious bite.

 

  • Often, when they aren’t fulfilled by their existing brood, Rhea dads charge adolescent males as stand-in fathers, while they mate with more females and create a new nest. They then rotate between the nests, caring for the young and making sure they are properly protected.

 

Want to know more about this not-so-deadbeat dad? Take a look at the video below:

 

 

When it comes to fatherhood, its safe to say that the Rhea male is extremely devoted. He is one of those exceptions, who joins ranks of those animal dads who outrank mom in the art of child rearing.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured Image: Pixabay 

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The Tale of the Undead Fish

What happens when you roam the seas for 400 million years? Why you become a Coelacanth of course! Meet the fish that have baffled scientists with their unexpected return from the dead.

 10 mind-blowing facts about the Coelacanth

*(pronunciation: SEEL-uh-kanth)

  • They were thought to be extinct

Up until 1938, it was assumed that Coelacanths were extinct. The handful of the specimen caught by fishermen was all dead and the rest were fossils; but, in 1938, a live specimen was caught off the coast of South Africa. As of today, there are two known species of Coelacanths in the wild – one near the Comoros Islands, Africa and the other in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Coelacanths are endangered species. Research suggests that there are just between 230 & 650 coelacanths in the wild today.

Coelecanth fossil.jpg
Coelacanth fossil (Image Source)
  • They are the key piece in the puzzle about the Earth’s first terrestrial vertebrates

Fossil records of Coelacanths show that they originated during the Devonian Period which ended 419.2 million years ago. This was the era in evolution when the first terrestrial animals made an appearance.

The Coelacanths’ physiological characteristics resemble in part those traits we observe in land-based creatures today. Scientists believe that Coelacanths may be the missing link that might point us to the exact moment in evolution when the world’s first underwater vertebrates made their foray to the land.

tetrapod_evo
Evolution of vertebrates from the sea to the land (Image Source)
  • They have some very unique organs and some vestigial ones

While Coelacanths may be the clue to the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates, they don’t have a vertebral column themselves. Instead, they have a hollow, oil-filled tube called the notochord. The notochord is the embryonic vertebral column that evolves into a full-fledged spinal cord when the embryo develops.

They are also one of the only animals today that have an intracranial joint in their skull, which allows them to unhinge their jaws from the rest of the skull and consume prey almost three times their own size.

While on the one side these fish can’t do without their notochord and intracranial joint, on the other, they canlive without their lungs. Coelacanths’ are the only known fish to have lungs and these lungs develop normally (as in vertebrates) as embryos. But as they grow older, the lungs become smaller and finally stop working, becoming completely useless. To breathe, the fish uses the scaly plates on its body as gills.

Notochord
Notochord in an embryo. The notochord develops into a full-fledged vertebral column in most species. (Image Source)
  • Their brains contain more fat than actual brains

Coelacanths give the term ‘small-minded’ a completely new meaning. Only 1.5% of their cranial cavity constitutes their brain matter. The rest of the cavity is made of fat. Scientists are still unsure what these fish do with the fat in their cranial cavity. But it has been observed that younger Coelacanths have larger brains and lesser fat and this proportion inverts as they age.

  • They are nocturnal

Coelacanths spend most of their days in cool and dark caves sleeping. They only come out at night to feed. They are drift-feeders, meaning they let the current drift them along the ocean floor. They hunt fish and cephalopods like squids, nautilus, cuttlefish and more. They aren’t very competitive when it comes to territory and food and are quite willing to share their belongings with fellow Coelacanths.

coelacanth_600
Coelacanths huddling in the shadow of a cave (Image Source)
  • They use an electrosensory system to navigate the seas

Coelacanths possess a rostral organ in their snouts just like Anchovy which is a gel-filled cavity surrounded by a layer of adipose fat tissue. This organ is extremely sensitive to underwater electromagnetic signals and Coelacanths use this organ to navigate the seas, find prey and avoid obstacles.

coelacanth-7
Anatomy of a coelacanth (Image Source)
  • The females are one-man women during the mating season

Female Coelacanths are serial monogamists and mate with just one select mate during breeding season. This mate may or may not change across the seasons and may or may not be shared between two females.

Once, the gender ratio in the world of Coelacanths was so off balance, it was noticed that the young of two females living in close quarters were sired by the same father.

  • They give birth to live young

Coelacanths are the only fish in the world to have live births. In 1975, researchers at the American Museum of Natural History dissected a dead specimen to find it pregnant with five embryos. The embryos resembled full-grown Coelacanths in shape and scale-texture, with just a few differences that they were smaller in size and the embryos had a small yellow film covering their bodies and a large yolk sack protruding from their pelvic fins. It’s believed that Coelacanths’ eggs hatch within the mother’s womb and the ‘pups’ are then birthed live.

Coelacanth embryo
A coelacanth embryo (Image Source)
  • They aren’t dinner-table worthy

Coelacanths are foul tasting, to say the least. Their scales secrete copious amounts of mucous and their bodies contain toxic oils, urea and wax compounds which are both inedible and harmful to the human body. So don’t be in a hurry to get one on your plate.

Coelacanth image
A coelacanth in the wild (Image Source)
  • They are the only species of fish to have an operetta to their name

Remember the dead Coelacanth with the five embryos in her womb? Well, as it turns out, she was the muse to a musically-inclined scientist’s operetta.

Dr Charles Rand, a haematologist from Long Island produced his quirky ode to the pregnant fish in an operetta entitled Quintuplets at 50 Fathoms Can Be Fun, also called A Coelacanth’s Lament. It was set to the music of the Gilbert and Sullivan song ‘Tit Willow’ and is one of the American Museum of Natural History’s best creations.

coelacanth sketch
The first coelacanth sketch made by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the museum curator who discovered the first live coelacanth specimen. (Image Source)

Now that you know so much about the coelacanth, it’s time to meet one in person.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image

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

Animal of the Week: The Naked Mole Rat

They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen and they draw you in with their secretive lives. Meet one of nature’s weirdest creatures – The Naked Mole Rat. Found only in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, the naked mole rat, a.k.a. the sand puppy is a biological and medical marvel.

 

10 Highly Interesting & Funny Facts about the Naked Mole Rat

 

  • The naked mole rat isn’t a mole or a rat. It’s actually related to the porcupine and Guinea pig.

 

 

  • Naked mole rat colonies are eusocial – there is a queen, there are workers, soldiers and nurses (just like bees, wasps and ants). Some colonies can number in the 300s.
NMR 5.jpg
Hierarchy in the naked mole rat colony (Image Source)

 

 

  • Unlike other eusocial queens (read bees, wasps and ants), naked mole rat queens are warriors and fight for the throne. Even after the victory, the queen needs to be on guard and be ready for a fight, to avoid being dethroned by a competitor.
NMR 4.jpg
In a naked mole rat colony, the Queen is the King, Emperor and Tzar rolled-into-one. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rats almost never come above ground, choosing to live in tunnels for their entire lives. This is why their eyes are super-tiny and they are virtually blind, relying on their hearing to live and work.
NMR 3.jpg
A pictorial representation of life inside a naked mole rat tunnel colony (Image Source)

 

 

  • A mole rat’s incisor teeth can move independently of each other, like two antennas that can operate separately when digging. But they can be made to move together like chopsticks when foraging for food.
AAES-00006091-001
A naked mole rats incisor teeth (as depicted here) can move independently of each other. (Image Source

 

 

  • When under attack, soldier mole rats climb one on top of the other to form a barricade to the tunnel entrance. They open their mouths and display their sharp teeth towards the entrance, gnashing them in the process. Any marauder entering the tunnel is greeted by a wall of deadly teeth.
NMR 9.jpg
How naked mole rats confront marauding mole rats who try to force their way into the tunnel (Image Source)

 

 

  • Punishment of misbehaving members of the mole rat community includes biting and shoving. The worse the behaviour, the worse is the bite; and it’s usually the queen who metes out the punishment.
NMR 10.png
A misbehaving mole rat gets a bite for every bad behaviour exhibited. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rats can’t feel pain! Their skin doesn’t contain ‘substance P’ which is the key neurotransmitter which acts as a receptor for pain. Experiments show that pouring capascin or acid on the rats don’t elicit a response at all.
NMR 11
A naked mole rat’s skin is completely unique. It can’t feel pain and it doesn’t age. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rat tunnels are divided into ‘rooms’ and are allocated for specific purposes such as the queen’s chamber, nursery and food storage area. There’s even a specific bathroom where all colony members go to poo.
NMR 13.jpg
Naked mole rats have separate bathrooms, bedrooms and storage rooms within their extensive tunnelling system. (Image Source)

 

 

  • The naked mole rat has a superpower – immortality (or close to it)! Mole rats can live without oxygen for up to 18 minutes and they are the only known animals completely immune to cancer.

 

 

Interesting aren’t they?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image 

Guinea pig, Naked mole rat & Porcupine

Why Do Only 6 Species of Animals Have Periods?

We all get a visit from Aunt Flo once a month and it’s safe to say none of us really look forward to her visit. After the routine “Why God, why me?!” cries, we soothe ourselves with the thought that there are other animals that have periods too. But the question remains. Why do only 6 species have periods? Why not the rest?

Periods are a natural process that occurs in every woman’s body. Correction, every human woman. Correction again, every woman of 6 specific species.

For long, it had been assumed that menstruation was a purely human process. Soon, scientists discovered that other animals bleed too. As of today, apart from humans, there are 5 species that have been found menstruating:

Three are primates:

  • Chimpanzees
  • Orangutans
  • Monkeys

Two non-primate mammals:

  • Bats
  • Elephant Shrews

Now the question arises – why do only these 6 species have their periods? What’s the truth? This World Menstrual Hygiene Day, let’s try and find out.

Gynecology

The estrus cycle

Before we dive headlong into menstruation, we need to understand another biological process that is closely related to it.

A few decades ago scientists began observing female pigs, cows, cats, dogs and other non-primate mammals bleeding at periodic intervals. Stunned at the thought that they could be menstruating like human women, scientists conducted a thorough scientific inquiry.

What was thought to be menstrual blood, turned out to be vaginal discharge during estrus.

Estrus is the time of an animal’s life when it is in heat. Once a non-primate mammal female reaches sexual maturity and is physiologically ready to bear young, she undergoes a hormonal transformation which not only tells her body to get her womb ready but signals the males (through the release of pheromones) that the female is ready to mate.

During this time of estrus, due to the excessive production of hormones in their bodies, females display multiple external (visible) physiological changes in the form of a swollen perineum, changes in genital colouring and light bleeding.

Estrus dog
The estrus cycle of a dog (Image Source)

This bleeding is only an indication that the female is ready and willing to receive a mate. It does not indicate that she is menstruating. (An interesting fact to note is how non-primate mammal females mate only when in estrus .i.e. during bleeding. Unlike menstruating females who do not engage in sexual intercourse when on their periods.)

But the defining difference between menstruation and estrus is the way the endometrium is managed by animals.

To absorb or not to absorb

The endometrium is the main participant of the menstrual cycle of female animals. In females, the endometrium – which is the thick, jelly-like lining of the uterine walls – is the layer in which the egg will implant post-insemination.

In animals that undergo estrus, the endometrium is produced at the start of the estrus, in anticipation of the fertilized egg. But when insemination fails to happen, the body re-absorbs the uterine lining and keeps it in reserve for the next time the female is in estrus.

But, in menstruating animals, this endometrium layer is shed and expelled out of the body. During this process of shedding, the body also discharges blood.

Menstruation process
Menstrual process in humans (Image Source)

Why does this happen?

Scientists have been putting forth theories about why only certain animals shed their endometrium and menstruate, while others don’t.

Theory #1: Complicated gestation process and number/nature of offspring

One theory is that the gestation process of menstruating animals is more complicated and drawn-out than those that don’t menstruate. For starters, this theory does hold true for most of the animals on our list.

Orangutan
Orangutan mother and baby

Human pregnancies last 9 months, a chimpanzee’s and orangutan’s are around 8 months, a bat’s can go up to 6 months and a monkey’s is 5 months. These pregnancies are much longer than those faced by animals in estrus. Additionally, humans, chimps, orangutans and bats all give birth to just one baby (most of the time) during each pregnancy.

The explanation behind this theory is that menstruating animals require the best, most nutrient-rich and hospitable endometriums to support the birth of their babies. These babies, many of whom have immense intellectual capabilities, require additional support of nutrients in the womb, to develop completely.

Theory #2: Endometrium absorption expends too much energy which certain animals cannot spare

This theory connects with the first theory of the gestation process and the nature of the offspring. If we are to believe this theory, then we need to accept the fact that animals which have long gestation periods, which produce highly-intelligent young and which rear only single offspring during each pregnancy need greater amounts of energy than animals that are in estrus.

Chimp
Chimpanzees

This particular theory subscribes to the belief that absorbing the endometrium is just an energy-wasteful task; one that can be avoided and the energy re-directed to meet the requirements of complicated pregnancies. The body can save tons of energy by shedding the uterine lining and making a fresh one in time for the pregnancy (which is a better option than using a stale lining).

Counter evidence?

The only animal that doesn’t subscribe to either of these theories is the elephant shrew. The shrew has a gestation period of 1-2 months and produces multiple litters of 3-4 pups each pregnancy during the year. It doesn’t spend too much time or energy giving birth; yet bleeds during its period.

Elephant shrew
Elephant shrew

Additionally, these theories dampen a little in the face of evidence that highly-intelligent animals like elephants, whales and dolphins who all undergo very long gestation periods and bear intellectually mature young do not menstruate in their lifetimes.

What does this all mean?

Well, just like with their human counterparts**, things aren’t clear why or how chimpanzees, monkeys, orangutans, bats and elephant shrews menstruate. For now, scientists believe this to be a biological enigma, a riddle that remains unsolved, despite decades of study.

For now, we leave animal menstruation as it is – a blatant question mark, a brain teaser, a stumper of the animal kingdom.

**Here’s some extra info if you’re interested:

Why do women bleed?

For long scientists have wondered why the shedding of the endometrium happens in humans. Scientists believed that the reason women bleed and the endometrium sheds may be because there was something inherently wrong with women’s bodies. They thought that the complex biological processes in humans may produce unwanted chemicals in the body which needed to be thrown out as often as possible.

1920s physician Bela Schick believed women menstruated to get rid of poisonous chemicals called Menotoxins, which filled their bodies just before their period.

Dr. Schick conducted experiments on menstruating and non-menstruating women, asking them to carry flowers in their hands. He observed that the flowers held by menstruating women wilted faster and lost their fragrance within minutes. He even supported claims by other scientists that women on their periods sweated out these menotoxins from their bodies while menstruating. He claimed that these toxins were responsible for bread not rising and beer not fermenting when menstruating women touched them (reminded of persistent taboos, anyone?).

This belief in Menotoxins continued all the way to the 1990s when another theory was proposed – menstrual blood may be a way to get rid of pathogens, stale sperm and bacteria in a woman’s body, cleansing her in the process.

But this theory too did not hold good. If it meant that stale sperm was toxic to women’s bodies, surely it meant that stale sperm not ejaculated by men could be poisonous to them too. So why don’t men menstruate?

Till date, neither of these theories has been proven. Nor has there been any other theory that can explain the mystery that is menstruation.

-NISHA PRAKASH

Animal Gender Benders: The Fluid Gender Spectrum of the Animal Kingdom

Gender has always been assumed to be a binary concept. You’re either male or female. There is nothing in-between. But as research shows, gender is beyond just the physical and often pervades the psychological and the emotional. The environment also plays an active role in gender adoption and identity.

 

Gender identity has always been a topic that has been extremely controversial. But thanks to more investment in gender studies and a greater tolerance towards our brethren (a consequence of the rich multi-cultural environment we live in), today, people are opening their hearts and minds to the concept of gender identity. We are a lot more open to the idea of people choosing the genders they best identify with; as opposed to living with the one they were assigned.

It is a wonder that we humans have such a difficult time grasping the concept of ‘gender as a spectrum’ when our animal cousins have for long exhibited gender fluid traits. Maybe it’s time we revisited our long-held notions and straightened-out our crooked understanding of gender.

5 gender notions redefined in the wild

We have certain pre-conceived notions about what males and females are supposed to be. Unfortunately, not all of these notions are true. The animals in this list are challenging accepted (stereotypical) notions about what it means to be male and female.

Let’s take a notion, one-at-a-time and see the animals that blow these theories out of the water.

Notion #1: Males are bigger and stronger than females

One of the most mesmerizing creatures of the deep seas is the Anglerfish. One look at them and you’ll remember a character from your favourite horror movie. With extremely large heads and dark, glassy eyes, they look like true-blue aliens.

When it comes to the anglerfish, it is the female that reigns supreme. She is almost 10X larger than the tiny males and can reach lengths up to 3.3 ft. Her large, sharp jaws are designed to annihilate prey of all sizes and are flexible enough to chow-down on prey double their size.

Temperamentally, the females are crankier than the males and can turn on each other and other animals in an instant. The males, on the other hand, are submissive and steer clear of the females until it’s time to mate.

This rare footage shows a pair of anglerfish during mating.

 

Notion #2: Animals remain the same gender they were born with throughout their lives

It’s safe to say that sex-change surgeries haven’t been developed for animals. But this hasn’t stopped these fish from taking control of their bodies. Clownfish have a matriarchal society with the largest female being the alpha. When she dies, the largest male physically transforms into a female and takes her place. This process of changing from males to females is called protandry.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the wrasse, where the largest females change physiologically into males when the resident dominant male is no more.  We call this phenomenon of females transforming into males as protogyny. In the picture below, the female (with the small head) changes in colouring and develops a large bulbous head in its place when transforming into a male.

Kobudai
Source: A male and female Asian sheepshead wrasse pair – the male has a large bulbous development on his head

Then there are animals like the coral-dwelling Gobiodon (aka goby) which engages in what we call serial bidirectional sex change. If three female goby are placed in an aquarium, the most dominant female transforms into a male, to create opportunities to mate. However, the moment a male is introduced into the group, the newly-turned goby changes back into a female and displays traditional feminine characteristics. Animals like the goby can undergo sex changes numerous times in their lives, whenever they want, wherever they want.

 

Notion #3: Only females get pregnant and bear young

Well, to be fair, this notion is true for most species. Most species, except the seahorse. Seahorse mothers produce eggs just like other mums. But instead of having the eggs fertilized and incubating them in their own bodies, they transfer the eggs to the males when it is time to mate.

A small slit in the male’s torso acts as a pocket to collect the tiny eggs. Once inside his body, the male fertilizes the eggs with his sperm and moves the fertilized eggs into an incubation pouch within his body.

Fast-forward 24 days and you’ll see thousands of tiny baby seahorses jetting their way out of dad’s tummy. Take a look at this video to see a live seahorse-birth in action.

 

Notion #4: Only males have penises and they will display them proudly

While penises are predominantly a male appendage, a look at the female spotted hyena will have you doubling back in shock. In the world of the spotted hyena, the female is the one that wears the pants. She is the one who makes the decision, who decides the pecking order and who also possesses a scrotum and an elongated penis. These appendages are actually the clitoris that gets re-shaped due to excessive testosterone in the female’s body. These masculine physiological characteristics give her a very short fuse and a horrifying bite.

This video gives great insight into the female hyena’s pseudo-penis.

If at one end of the spectrum we have a woman with a penis, at the other end we have a male with an all-too-feminine perineum.

Females of the colobus monkey species remain in the family group all their lives. The males, on the other hand, are kicked out when they reach puberty. During mating season, the females display a swollen anus, indicating they are in heat. This then becomes an invitation to all the males to woo the females. At this time, adolescent males are turned out of their homes by older males, in an attempt to reduce competition for females. To avoid this sorry fate, adolescent male colobus monkeys develop the faux-female-perineum in an attempt to confuse the troupe. This tactic of masquerading as females helps them avoid eviction for a few weeks.

 

Notion #5: Only males are sexually aggressive and fight for rights over females

It’s long been believed that males of all species are the only ones who have a high libido and that they are the ones who chase after the ladies. But Rhesus monkey females will definitely put this theory to rest. The females of this group have a raging libido and sometimes force males into coitus. The females have been noticed making lewd gestures at males and at times even raping them.

Another primate species where the women want to hit the sack more than the males – the bonobo. These animals really enjoy swinger parties.

If there are women who force their way into a man’s bed, there are others where the females duel with their sisters for the right to mate; and make no mistake, there’s nothing gentle-womanly about this catfight.

 

Antelope fight
Source: Two female antelopes in a fight for mates

 

Or maybe we should call it the antelope fight, instead. Female antelopes can get exceptionally aggressive during mating season. They interrupt couples in heat while mating and challenge the females to a fight to the finish. The winner gets the man and the loser moves on. Every man’s dream isn’t it?

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured image: Gender

Monotremes: The Round Pegs in the Square World of Mammalia

They aren’t reptiles, but they lay eggs. They aren’t amphibians, but some do take to the water. They aren’t birds, but they have webbed feet. They also produce milk and rear their young. Is this a case of an identity crisis or are we dealing with an oddball from the animal kingdom?

 

If you had to differentiate a mammal from its Animalia cousins, you would look for two specific characteristics:

  • Their warm blood
  • Their ability to give birth

Any animal that doesn’t check these two boxes is automatically disqualified from the mammalian classification. For the large part, this would be a good test to administer. But not when the animals under consideration are Monotremes.

Say hello to the non-conformists

The Duck-Billed Platypus

 

Platypus 3
Image: Duck-billed Platypus

 

  • Size

Males: 50 cms

Females 43 cms

Weight: 1.6 – 2.4 kgs.

  • Body structure

The platypus resembles a cross between a beaver and a duck. They have beak-like snouts which are actually sensory tools that contain electroreceptors. These receptors allow the platypus to sense the electrical pulses generated by other animals as a result of muscle contraction. The platypus uses these electrical pulses to find and feed on small fish and invertebrates.

Currently, there is one species of platypus in the world.

  • Venom and toxicity

Platypus spurs are connected to a venom sack found on their hind legs, near the ankle. The venom is a combination of b-defensins proteins which are designed to destroy viral and bacterial pathogens. While the toxin isn’t fatal to humans, it will cause excruciating pain when injected.

Scientists have observed that platypus use the venom only during the mating season when battling other males for females. During the non-mating season, the platypus’s body does not produce the poison and remains dry.

The Echidna

 

Echidna 1
Image: Echidna

 

  • Size

Males & females: 30-45 cms.

Weight: 2-7 kilograms.

  • Body structure

The four species of echidna are land-based animals and they resemble the porcupine, given their spines. The short-beaked echidna is an ant-eater, feeding exclusively on anthills and termite mounds. Its long-beaked cousins also feed on earthworms and bugs, in addition to ants and termites. They use their electroreceptors-filled snouts to find food.

Both the monotremes have a short build and large shoulder muscles which give them the physical force to dig into the ground. They are also ‘cold’ blooded, having a body temperature of 32C, which is 5C lower than other mammals.

  • Venom and toxicity

The echidna’s spurs are non-poisonous and completely harmless; it may sometimes be used for defensive purposes.

 

Monotremes
Image: Types of Monotremes

 

3 facts we know about monotremes

Not much is known about these mysterious animals, but here are a few facts that we do know:

  • They are neither mammalian nor are they non-mammalian

Like birds, monotremes have webbed feet, possess beak-shaped snouts and have no teeth. Like amphibians, the duck-billed platypus is an excellent swimmer, staying close to water bodies and spending most of its life in cool rivers and lakes. Additionally, like reptiles, they have a cloaca (a single opening that is used as the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tract) and they lay eggs. But this doesn’t make them solely non-mammalian.

The spiny anteater (echidna) and the duck-billed platypus possess certain physiological characteristics, like – the single bone in the lower jaw, the three small bones in the inner ear, hair on the body, high rate of metabolism and the ability to produce milk – all of which are endemic to mammals.

 

Echidna Platypus Physical Differences
Image: Physical Differences Between Platypus & Echidna

 

  • They lay eggs, but have premature births

The duck-billed platypus resembles reptiles and amphibians in its reproductory characteristics. Females lay 1-2 eggs at a time and burrow 20-30 meters below the ground to lay their eggs. The eggs hatch within 10 days of laying.

The echidna, on the other hand, resembles marsupials. They lay up to 3-5 eggs per batch and they store these eggs in a pouch that grows on their bodies. The eggs are gestated in the pouches and they hatch between 10 and 14 days.

When born, the newborns resemble fetuses (as seen in placental mammals). This short gestation period, coupled with the young’s need to physically develop outside the womb, is what is called a premature birth.

At this point, both monotreme species rear their young like birthing mammals. They produce thick, vitamin-filled milk out of their sweat glands that the young can suckle on.

This video of a monotreme birth is a rare insight into the reproductory behaviors of these little-known creatures:

 

  • The platypus is the echidna’s ancestor

Research shows that about 200 million years ago monotremes split from the line of traditional mammals and evolved physiological traits that differentiate them from placental mammals. Some scientists believe this could be an evolutionary reaction to competition to resources like food, land and mates.

Marsupials made their way to Australia 71 to 54 million years ago, creating stiff competition for the monotremes. By evolving different characteristics – like the ability to swim and lay eggs – monotremes were able to find new places to occupy and new ways to continue their bloodline.

The first ever monotremes were platypus-like animals. But over a period of 15-25 million years, a change was noticeable, with the body of certain species of platypus becoming more like that of the echidna. Scientists can only speculate that this was again an evolutionary requirement, to help monotremes adapt to the various geographical and environmental conditions of the new lands they were occupying.

 

Platypus 4
Image: Re-constructed Image of Steropodon galmani, The Earliest Known Ancestor of the Monotremes 

 

Living fossils

As of today, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna have remained physiologically the same as they first were when evolved. Little is known about why they remain in this stunted evolutionary form. But, with new monotreme fossils being discovered, there is hope that the veil shrouding these mysterious creatures may finally be removed.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Farting Herring and Other Fish that Break Wind

Boom-boom, duck call, honker and whopper are some of the many names it goes by. But in layman terms, we call it ‘farting’. Considered to be a mammalian feature, researchers have discovered that our sea-dwelling friends too exhibit the tendency to thunder from down under.

Marine researchers Bob Batty, Ben Wilson and Larry Dill made an outstanding and super-hilarious discovery in 2003 – fish fart. For their unique discovery, the trio was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, given for highly improbable scientific discovers that initially make people laugh; and then make them think.

When studying Pacific and Atlantic herrings off the coast of Canada and Scotland, the researchers discovered the fish expelling gas from their bodies. When recorded on camera, the sounds (and the bubbles released) resembled human farts underwater. What caught the scientists’ attention was how the fish synchronized the expelling of gas, like that of an orchestra.

Fish

Upon further research, the trio realized that the farts produced by the fish weren’t fecal gas and didn’t serve a digestive purpose. The so-called ‘farts’ were in reality fresh oxygen that the fish inhaled through their mouths and exhaled through their anuses, in an attempt to communicate.

The trio of Batty, Wilson and Dill went as far as feeding the fish to check if the farts changed in any way (as they would if they served a digestive purpose). But, they discovered that the sounds and the bubbles remained the same.

Tooting their own horn

Herrings are one of the very few fish who have been recorded producing fart-like noises underwater. Scientists say these herring farts resemble the high-pitched sound a raspberry makes when squeezed.

Although not verified, researchers believe that these high-pitched noises are produced by herrings in an attempt to keep the shoal together after dark. Some scientists have taken a step further in this direction and have claimed that the ‘farts’ could be how individual herrings communicate with each other when part of a massive shoal. Given how the noises start only at night, scientists believe that the high-frequency vocalizations could also be a way to help lost or straggling herrings get back to the safety of the shoal.

Of course, these vocalizations are far from being a safety net. In fact, these farts act as double-edged swords, often attracting predators like whales, sharks and porpoises to the herrings.

An additional role of the farts could be that of a protective shield. The thousands of bubbles formed by the farts have been observed being used as a medium of protection at night. The air released post-explosion of the bubbles, creates a temporary layer of air around the herring, protecting them.

Not alone in the world of tubas and trumpets

If you think herring are the only musical creatures of the sea, think again. Here are 3 other animals that pass gas underwater:

  • Tiger sharks

Just like herrings, sand tiger sharks have been observed to ‘fart’. They gulp down air through their mouths and expel it forcefully out through their cloacas, which are penis-like organs that sharks use during mating. These farts aren’t a digestion-related gaseous expulsion but are a form of communication.

Shark

  • Cod

Male codfish have been observed producing loud grunts by forcefully expelling water out of their bodies. These ‘farts’ are in fact a form of communication during mating. The lower the frequency and longer the grunt, the more earnest is the wooing.

  • Pollack

Similar to their cod brethren, Pollack fish too emit grunts and buzzes during mating. Although resembling human farts, these vocalizations serve only a reproductive purpose. Apart from mating, most fish vigorously inhale and exhale air underwater, in an attempt to maintain buoyancy.

A talent of the mammals?

So far, only mammals have been observed producing farts and expelling fecal gas. Even dolphins, whales and other cetaceans like porpoises and dorudons have been observed to fart; and these farts are related to digestion. It seems, for now, the talent of breaking wind remains with the mammalians.

P.S: You may come across this video online entitled ‘shark fart’. Please note that this is a shark ‘pooping’. Apart from sand tiger sharks, no other shark species have been found to expel gas.

-NISHA PRAKASH

Everything You Need to Know About Nudibranch

Snails and slugs are dark, slimy and disgusting…Right? Well…most are, but not the Nudibranch, the most colourful of all the molluscs. One look at them and you just might find yourself falling in love with a sea slug.

 

Molluscs have always received negative attention for being wet, slimy and smelly. But, if you look beyond their pale and slippery exterior, you’ll find them to be fascinating creatures.

One such mollusc that has captured the world’s attention is the colourful Nudibranch. The size of a teacup, they are invertebrate gastropod molluscs, belonging to the same family as that of snails and forest slugs.

Nudi 5

Called ‘Clown’, ‘Dancer’, ‘Dragon’ and a host of other names, each befitting their unique personalities, Nudibranch give the ocean a vibrant makeover with their very presence.

Here are a few fun facts about these spectacular creatures:

  • They’re literally ‘naked gills’

The word ‘Nudibranch’ is an amalgamation of two Latin words – nudus, meaning ‘naked’ and brankhia, meaning ‘gills’.

Nudibranch have exposed protrusions coming out of their backs. These extensions are the gills which they use to breathe. The gills resemble flower petals and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are over 3000 species of Nudibranch on the ocean floor today.

 

nudibranch-2336887_960_720

  • They are clownishly colourful

If you’ve seen a Nudibranch on television, you’ll know what I’m talking about. From pine green to fiery orange, Nudibranch come in hundreds of colours. Each colour combination is unique and creates a visual treat on the ocean floor.

Nudibranch derive their colouring from the food they eat. These sea slugs are carnivorous and prey on algae, corals, anemones, sponges and even other Nudibranch. They use two highly specialized and sensitive tentacles called rhinophores on their head to detect the movement of their prey.

Great examples are the Rostanga bifurcata and the Rostanga arbutus, which take the red pigment from the sponges they prey on and transfer it not only on to their skin, but also to the shells of their eggs.

  • They get their toxins from other animals

Nudibranch are masters at toxin accumulation. In addition to stealing their colour, Nudibranch also steal their prey’s toxins. Research by the University of Queensland found that Nudibranch take a variety of chemical compounds from their prey.

Latrunculin A, a type of toxin found commonly in sponges was the most sought-after. This chemical, which causes degenerative neural destruction in animals when injected, was stored in the mantle (the skin) as a defence against predators.

This toxin has a very bitter taste, which discourages predators from coming in for a second bite.

  • They make sounds that even humans can hear

Some types of Nudibranch have been observed making sounds to attract attention. These sounds, which resemble the sound of a wire tapping the side of a glass jar, are made at even intervals. It was first discovered in the year 1884, by a scientist studying Nudibranch behaviour.

It is still unknown whether these vocalisations are to find prey or to attract mates.

 

Nudi 6

  • They are hermaphrodites

Like all molluscs, even Nudibranch are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female sexual organs.

The mating ritual of Nudibranch is quite unique. Although they possess the reproductive organs of both sexes, sea slugs cannot self-fertilize. They need help from other sea slugs to get the reproductory process started.

In some cases, the Nudibranch may choose to be either a male or female, leaving the other role to be fulfilled by its mate. If both Nudibranch wish to be males, a battle takes place where the first to penetrate the other gets to remain a male; and the other a female.

In some cases, the Nudibranch engage in simultaneous reciprocal mating, where they both take turns to give sperm to the other.

  • They create a mesh net to hold their eggs

When Nudibranch lay their eggs, they create a mesh-like mass on which to deposit them. This mass is made from their bodily secretions during mating. This mass has a jelly-like texture and clumps together. The shape of the mass resembles that of flower petals.

Sometimes, Nudibranch also lay eggs on plants on the sea floor and create a mesh out of these plants by gluing them together with their bodily secretions.

Nudi mesh

(Image: Egg mass created by Nudibranch)
  • They develop symbiotic relationships

Most sea slugs spend their time crawling across the ocean floor in search of food. This leads to the growth of dangerous bacteria and algae on their skin. To get rid of these infection-causing bacteria, Nudibranch develop a working relationship with shrimps.

The shrimp lives in the gill folds of the Nudibranch, feasting on the bacteria and algae. This way, the shrimp is well-fed and the Nudibranch remains clean.

 

nudi 8

When it comes to molluscs, Nudibranch are some of the most complex species. They give a wonderful insight into invertebrate evolution. One can’t imagine the ocean floor without them.

 

 

 

Written by Nisha Prakash

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.

lemur-1394598_960_720

  • 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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