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5 Fun Facts About The Cheetah

  1. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs never roar. They communicate with each other in a series of low chirps and purrs.
  2. There are 36 different species of cheetahs in the world and they can be classified into 5 main categories.
  3. Cheetahs are super-fast and can reach 112 kms/hour in just 3 seconds. Top speeds have been recorded at 120 kms/hour in 3 seconds!
  4. A cheetah’s body is designed to run. The thick rudder-like tail, muscular legs, non-retractable claws, flexible spine and wide chest make it the ultimate lean, mean running machine.
  5. There are only 7100 cheetahs left in the wild. The cheetah is on the Endangered Species List and is considered extremely vulnerable to extinction.

cheetah 3

 

cheetah 2

 

Bonus:

Ancient Sumerians, Egypt’s King Tut and the Mughal emperor Akbar trained thousands of cheetahs as guards and hunters for their royal houses.

(But this didn’t mean they could keep up with the Cheetah during chases and hunts. Take a look at this video which pits two of the fastest creatures on the planet in a race against each other, to know what we mean)

Usain Bolt vs the Cheetah

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Gorillas

  1. They are 98% human! 98% of the Gorilla’s genes are the same as the genes found in humans.
  2. They live only in Africa and no where else in the world.
  3. They make up to 25 different sounds, which is the highest level of vocalization by any great ape after humans. One gorilla named Koko even knew sign language and could make 1000 different signs!
  4. Want to identify a gorilla? Take its nose print. They’re unique (just like human fingerprints).
  5. Homosexuality exists in gorilla families and often females pair together and engage in sexual activity.

Bonus:

When we refer to  “Silverbacks”, we mean “male gorillas who’s over the age of 12” and who are often troop leaders. “Blackbacks” are “males under the age of 11”.

Gorilla 3

 

 

Gorilla 2

 

Video: 

 

-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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The Fragile Mental Health of Baby Orangutans

If you thought baby humans were tiny and vulnerable, think again. Baby orangs take first place as one of the most fragile and breakable newborns on the planet.

A baby orangutan needs round-the-clock care up until at least 1 year of age. Just like human babies, they are absolutely helpless and powerless and need their mothers (or carers in captivity) to feed them, bathe them and give them lots of hugs. In the wild, babies stay with their mother for 8-9 years, learning how to be an orang.

But these days, due to increasing commercial activity in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are being ripped apart from their homes; many apart from their families. Deforestation, coupled with human-orang conflicts which at times leads to mum’s death, can be quite traumatic for baby orangutans.

Often, workers and resident villagers keep orphaned baby orangs illegally as pets. They even sell them on the black market to make a quick buck. This can be especially devastating for baby orangs. Fed the wrong food and kept in unhygienic and harmful conditions, these babies find themselves spiralling down towards abysmal health.

It has been found that baby orangs that experience trauma at a young age often develop PTSD and may go into depression or have anxiety attacks as adults. In extreme cases, this manifests itself as self-harm. It has been noticed how traumatized orangs bite or scratch themselves, pull out their fur and hurl themselves against the wall when unable to overcome the frustration and anxiety they have building within them.

This is where orangutan care centres are especially important. These centres help vets, animal experts and volunteers care for baby orangs and rehabilitate them back into the wild. Take a look at this video below of baby Joss, who was rescued from a house that kept her as a pet where she was ill-treated the entire time.

Many orangutans may even find it very difficult to forge meaningful relationships with other orangs and their human caregivers.

A case in point is Pony, a 17 year  old female orangutan who was rescued from a brothel, where she was sold as a sex slave when she was a baby. Pony was trained to perform unnatural acts with humans and this resulted in her developing serious PTSD and an intense aversion to humans; something which is slowing down her treatment.

Unwilling to interact with humans, Pony is isolating herself from other orangs and her caregivers. Not taught how to forage when young and having been alienated from her natural psychological development, she has made no progress in her healing and the prospect of her release into the wild looks bleaker by the day. Although rescued at age 7, Pony was too old to provide the care her younger cousins (like Joss in the video) were given. Now caregivers use a combination of medication and routine activities to keep her calm and help her regain her trust in humans. To know more about her, follow this link*.

Awareness about these endangered creatures and how they are being abused can help us find ways to save them and protect them. We may not be able to do much for Pony, but we may certainly be able to save others from this terrible fate if we try. Share this post and spread the word about the harrowing journey these little ones face.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: This article may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

Featured image: Orangutan babies

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Pig Anorexia: A Little-known Disease That’s Decimating Porcine Populations Globally

Anorexia nervosa is a complicated disorder and genes aren’t everything. The genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger.”

-Dr. Janet Treasure

 

When Dr. Janet Treasure, senior lecturer at the London Institute of Psychiatry conducted her research into the origins of Anorexia nervosa in humans, she found herself following a path not many knew about; but which could explain how Anorexia functions in human beings.

This path less travelled by, was the study of a disease that only few knew existed and which hardly any understood – Pig Anorexia.

 

Piglet suckling
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The day the pigs came calling

It was in 1962 at a farm in Ontario, Canada that the resident pig keeper noticed something amiss with the new litter of piglets. The tiny creatures had been recently weaned from their mother and were being fed by hand by the farm boys.

While things seemed fine at first, the pig keeper noticed the piglets had stopped eating soon after, often starving themselves for days until they were just skin and bones. With this starvation came the vomitting, the weakness and the weight loss.

The hunger, combined with the deteriorating condition of the body, soon grew too much for the tiny piglets to cope with and the entire farrow lost its life.

This was the very first case of ‘pig anorexia’ as it soon came to be called and it is a disease that has affected pigs the world over.

 

Virus
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The HEV

The Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV) is a RNA virus that affects porcine, aka pigs. As an RNA virus, it affects the pigs’ RNA, infecting the animal at the cellular level.

In every living creature, the DNA is the genetic blueprint of the body and it dictates the physiological and psychological make-up of the creature. The RNA is an acid present in the cells, which carries messages from the DNA and stimulates the production of proteins. These proteins are used by the cells to develop and control the functioning of the various organs inside the animal’s body.

Multiple RNA strands work within the cells of an animal’s body throughout its life. Ultimately, the RNA are responsible for the health of the proteins, the cells and the animal itself.

Now imagine if the HEV were to infect the RNA of the piglets. Each and every time an infected RNA would stimulate the production of proteins in the body, the proteins and by extension the cells, would be infected too.

Slowly over time, the HEV starts infecting the piglets from the cellular level by making their cells and organs diseased.

How does HEV spread?

HEV is just like any other virus and it spreads from contact with body liquids. These liquid spread between snout-to-snout contact and can also spread to pigs through indirect contact with boots, jackets, farm equipment etc. if pig saliva or mucus is splattered on them.

It’s been observed that most porcine populations are exposed to these viruses everyday. But only 1% – 4% of the population ever experience an active attack. Piglets are the most vulnerable to the virus, given their lack of immunity and strength.

Infected piglets will often have microscopic lesions inside their snout, on their tonsils and on the walls of their stomach. When the virus spreads, it moves to the lungs, small intestine and finally the brain through the sensory nerves. It is when the virus reaches the brain that piglets exhibit full-fledged anorexia-like symptoms.

The HEV has been observed re-writing the signals sent to the brain, changing the behaviour of the piglets. The affected piglets display low hunger levels at first and soon start skipping meals. During later stages of the disease, they may vomit extensively and may start dehydrating as a result. The muscles start to wear-out and soon, the piglet is just skin and bones. Death is an inevitable result of the disease.

The HEV-induced infection is a porcine-only infection and does not spread to humans.

 

Piglet 2
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Why is it called pig anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in humans, where the sufferer stops eating or refuses to eat and starts exhibiting a variety of symptoms including:

  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Listlessness
  • Depression
  • Constant vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Extreme weakness and lethargy
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Low tolerance to heat or cold

Pigs infected by the HEV  display symptoms  so close to Anorexia nervosa, that the disease has been named Pig Anorexia.

It can get extremely challenging to diagnose the presence of HEV in pigs. For one, symptoms resemble other diseases like Encephalitis, Vomiting & Wasting Disease or the Classical Swine Fever (or Hog Cholera). The only way now to identify if a porcine herd is a victim of the HEV, is to understand their origins and their environment.

Of birth and breeding

Pig pens are extremely fertile incubation areas for the Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV).  Once the virus takes root, it cannot be eliminated. The reason for this is the lack of a cure. To this day, there is no clinical cure available to help affected piglets.

But, there is something pig breeders can do to reduce herd vulnerability.

Piglets get high immunity from the colostral antibodies found in the mother’s milk. Putting piglets onto the teat at the earliest can reduce chances of an infection by half. Second, keeping the pen clean and free of fecal matter can reduce chances of infection further.

But this still won’t be enough. It’s been observed that susceptibility to the HEV is also affected by genetics. Pigs birthed naturally, without human intervention have the highest chance of survival as they have the most natural genetic structure which is designed to combat fatal illnesses.

However, with humans preferring leaner bacon cuts over thicker ones, pig farmers are deliberately isolating and promoting those genes which give rise to thinner piglets. This type of genetic manipulation, makes the piglets weaker and more susceptible to infections, including the HEV.

Dr. Janet Treasure said, anorexia is as much about genes as it is about the environment. When combined with the weak genes, the poor rearing environment and pathetic post-birth care practices can double the chances of piglets developing anorexia-like symptoms post-weaning.

Fallen pig
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Pig anorexia – shattering the body and the mind

Physically, the impact of HEV-induced pig anorexia is nightmarish. Thousands of pigs die each year because of the lack of veterinary care. Exposure to infected piglets often puts other healthy animals too at risk and increases the headcount.

However, it isn’t the physiological impact alone that needs to be considered. Pigs are extremely emotional and cognitive creatures. They are inquisitive, temperamental and borderline-compassionate.

A 2013 researchby Reimert, Bolhuis, Kemp, & Rodenburg showed how untrained pigs when introduced into a new pen of trained pigs, adopted the behaviours and mannerisms of their trained counterparts, after sustained exposure to them. These behaviours and mannerisms included everything from the way the tails were held to the vocalizations made to the choice of food the pigs were making. This could be an attempt at social acceptance by the pigs or a mimicry of a positive stimulus-response behaviour.

Now let’s apply the same logic here. Imagine if new pigs are introduced to an infected herd which displays signs of starvation, depression and social isolation. The new pigs too are more likely to mimic this refusal of food and they may socially isolate themselves, following the example of the herd.

This psychological impact that the HEV has on healthy pigs, can lead to true pig anorexia, with pigs refusing to eat out of fear, anxiety or depression.

 

Pig person
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The human connect

The idea that pig anorexia could bring about a breakthrough in the study of anorexia in humans was unthought of. But during her study, Dr. Treasure realized how similar pigs were to humans in terms of psychology and social behaviour.

Her study into pig anorexia helped her understand a key component about Anorexia nervosa – while genes do play a vital role in indicating susceptibility to the disorder, it is the environmental factors that finally trigger the condition. Essentially, people may be pre-disposed to anorexia through genetics, but this pre-disposition is unlikely to have a major negative impact so long as the person’s upbringing is filled with love and support.

Just like fecal matter in pig pens, constant negative feedback from family can make people more likely to suffer from anorexia. Remove this environmental contamination and you reduce the subject’s vulnerability to the disorder. This insight is now helping medical professionals find lasting  treatments for anorexia in humans.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Note:

∗ 2013 Research – Please check Pg.115 

P.S: Featured image

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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

Your Guide to 2018’s World Environment Day

 

June 5th is celebrated as World Environment Day each year. While some years focus on saving wildlife, others focus on cleaner water. This year, 2018, the theme for World Environment Day is:

#BeatPlasticPollution

 

Here are 5 facts about this year’s World Environment Day celebrations:

 

  • India is leading the charge with their campaign #BeatPlasticPollution and is hosting the global celebration and observation of this all-important day.  Pan-Indian plastic clean-up drives are being organized and schools are being mobilized to conduct neighbourhood marches, to spread the word about the terrifying impact of plastic on the world. In fact, in states like Gujarat, companies are reusing the 200 metric tonnes of plastic by-product from their paper manufacturing plants to power cement production plants across the state.

 

  • Peru has come up with a supremely unique solution to ending plastic pollution while helping their poor. The country recycles its plastic bottles and makes out of them – ponchila – which is a combination of “poncho” and “mochila”, a coat-bag amalgamation, made specifically for the poor children in the Andes. The product is a bag/poncho which can be used to carry books and transformed into a poncho to wear. The children, most of whom do not have warm clothing and who must travel several miles to reach their schools, are given these weather-proof and recyclable ponchila to use. Watch this video to see a ponchila in action.

 

  • Samoa recently had one of its own receive the Environmental Award for the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge from the United Nations. Angelica Salele was awarded US$10,000 for her invention – the reusable cotton sanitary napkin. Not only are Salele and her partner Isabell Rasch normalizing conversations about menstrual hygiene in Samoa, but they’re tackling a big issue – the 44.9 billion plastic-coated pads that fill-up landfills globally each year. The reusable cotton pads are made from skin-friendly material and do not contain any trace of plastic or related materials.

 

  • The International Olympic Committee has made a commitment to reduce the production and usage of single-use plastics from the institution’s offices and events. The committee has also partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to make sports environmentally sustainable. As part of this project, the IUCN has provided the IOC route maps of all the places that will be touched during the Summer and Winter Olympics, in each of the countries who have applied to host them till 2026. The maps indicate plastic disposal sites and waste management sites, amongst other places, which can help the IOC curb plastic waste.

 

  • The United Nations Secretary-General Mr. António Guterres has made a global appeal asking for the end of usage of single-use plastic. As you’ll see in this video, Secretary-General Guterres makes a compelling argument why plastic should be banned. Just to re-iterate, here is his message:

A healthy planet is essential for a prosperous and peaceful future. We all have a role to play in protecting our only home, but it can be difficult to know what to do or where to start. That’s why this World Environment Day has just one request: beat plastic pollution.

Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste. Every year, more than 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Artic, nowhere is untouched. If present trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish.

On World Environment Day, the message is simple: reject single-use plastic. Refuse what you can’t re-use.

Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner, greener world.

– António Guterres

 

Now that you know what’s happening around the world today, here are some tips to recycle and reduce plastic pollution.

 

If you’re interested, you can even take this fun and engaging quiz on key environmental movements around the world. It’ll just take 2 minutes.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image

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

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

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

 

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

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

  • Chytridiomycosis

Species affected: Frogs

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

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

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

frogs-chytrid-infection-nl
Image: Top – A Healthy Frog; Bottom: A Frog Infected With Chytridiomycosis
  • Snake fungal disease

Species affected: Snakes in Midwestern and Eastern USA

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

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

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

snake-fungal-disease_comp_2017_06_23
Image: A Snake Infected With Fungal Disease
  • Sea star wasting syndrome

Species affected: Starfish

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

Sea-star-wasting-disease.-Photo-credit1
Image: A Starfish Afflicted By The Wasting Syndrome

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

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

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

Species affected: Bees

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

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

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

  • Hemorrhagic septicemia

Species affected: Saiga antelope

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

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

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

 

Saiga Mother and calf
Image: A Saiga Mother and Calf Die Due to Septicemia

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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

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

The World of Animal Supermoms

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

 

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

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

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

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

  • Orangutans

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

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

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

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

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

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

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

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

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

  • Elephants

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

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

  • Orcas

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

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

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

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

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

  • Octopus

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

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

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

  • Spiders

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

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

The Illuminating World of Animal Necropsies

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

What is a necropsy?

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

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

 

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Image: Skeletal Display of Whale at the Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

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

3 Benefits of animal necropsies

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

They help understand little-known creatures

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

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

They help pinpoint and stop epidemics

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

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

 

 

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Image: Tasmanian Devil With DFTD

 

They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice

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

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

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

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image Sources: Feature image