Image

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 
Image

Do Other Animals Sweat and Do They Stink?

Humans sweat in order to regulate body temperature.

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

But what about other animals? Do they sweat too?

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

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

You know who doesn’t sweat? Pigs.

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

 

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

 

What about the stench?

Okay, lets set the record straight.

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

There’s something else too.

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

So, what about animals? Do they stink too?

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

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

Other types of body odour

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

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

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image
Image

Humans aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Oral Sex, Other Animals Do It Too

It was a warm summer’s day in 2013 when scientists researching fruit bats in Southern India noticed a unique behaviour in their subjects. The bats – who lived in an old fig tree in the village of Malumichampatti in Tamil Nadu – were performing oral sex on their mates!

This was a startling revelation to the scientists. Till date, this behaviour hadn’t been noticed in Indian fruit bats. Up until then, it was only observed in Chinese fruit bats, but no other bat species. This discovery was new and exciting.

Only a human experience?

Humans have for long indulged in oral sex. Myths and ancient books from around the world mention oral sex aka. fellatio (oral sex on males) and cunnilingus (oral sex on females), in various capacities.

There was the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who blew life into her husband Osiris’s body by sucking on his penis, after he was murdered by his brother Set. In the ancient Indian book of Kamasutra, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the use of aupariṣṭhaka (the art of oral sex) in love making. In the ancient city of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed baths predating 79 AD, with wall paintings of couples engaging in oral sex. 

Popeii fresco
The ancient fresco on the walls of Pompeii’s public bath. (Source)

Based on these evidences, scientists assumed that oral sex was the domain of human pleasure. That is until they found other animals engaging in it too.

Non-penetrative sex for non-humans

Animals have evolved to have sex. This includes both penetrative and non-penetrative sex.

Pet dogs and cats are excellent examples of animals which engage in non-penetrative sexual behaviours – chair mounting, dry humping and self-stimulation (auto-fellatio). In farms, the same behaviour can be observed in horses and birds The same is true of wild animals like turtles, walruses and monkeys (amongst others), who indulge in self-love.

With masturbation on the table, oral sex doesn’t seem too-far-off a possibility.

Animals like fruit flies, squirrels, bonobos, wolves, brown bears, sheep, Dunnock birds and Darwin’s bark spiders have been observed engaging in oral sex. The reason for this isn’t clear yet, although there are a few theories:

Theory #1: Oral sex can help prolong sexual activity

With the Indian fruit bats, scientists noticed that oral sex served to increase the time bats spent performing penetrative sex. The male bats would begin mating, with about 50 seconds of oral sex, followed by 10-20 seconds of penetrative sex. They would then revert to about 90 seconds of oral sex and finally back to penetrative sex of much longer duration.

This has led to conjectures regarding the connection between oral sex and the length of penetrative sex.

Dunnock Prunella modularis perched on bramble with dark background Potton Bedfordshire. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
A Dunnock bird. (Source)

Theory #2: Oral sex can remove bad bacteria from the vagina

The second theory proposed by researchers talks of the role of oral sex in animal health.

Some scientists believe that enzymes in the animal’s saliva can remove (and sometimes kill) bad bacteria, which live on/inside the mate’s sexual organs. This was one of the theories suggested regarding the Indian fruit bats from Tamil Nadu.

Another related theory suggests that cunnilingus, may be used by males to wipe-off sperms by competitors; thereby ensuring that only their sperms successfully take root. This is the theory used to explain the behaviour of Dunnock birds; where the male pecks at the female’s cloaca until older sperm masses drop out of her body. He mates with her only after this pre-copulatory display. This he does, it is believed, to prevent his mate from mothering another male’s brood.

Theory #3: Oral sex can improve the quality and mobility of the sperm

Another theory surrounding animal oral sex is that of sperm quality. It is assumed that fellatio may remove old, ineffective sperm and allow the male to use fresh, healthy sperm when mating.

Oral sex has also been presumed to improve the mobility of sperm, allowing the sperm to travel farther through the female’s reproductive tract and ensuring a successful pregnancy.

On this note, scientists have suggested that oral sex may work the other way too – make the female more receptive to mate, by stimulating the production of natural lubrication in the reproductive tract. In fact, this theory has been suggested regarding human females too.

Theory #4: Oral sex doesn’t serve any purpose, except pleasure

Finally, the last theory considers pleasure as the only purpose for the presence of oral sex in the sexual repertoire of non-human animals.

There are many animals like bonobos and macaques, who have been observed experiencing true pleasure during sex. They engage in play during the sexual act. For these few animals, mating doesn’t serve a reproductive purpose alone. They have sex because they like it.

Some scientists believe that in these species, oral sex may only be a tool to increase pleasure; and nothing more. A lot like in humans.

Bonobos
A Bonobo troop. (Source)

Oral sex and homosexuality in the animal kingdom

When talking about the sexual behaviours of animals, the question does arise – is oral sex in non-human animals restricted to heterosexual mates or does it include homosexual mates too (given how oral sex is common to both heterosexual and homosexual couples in humans)?

The answer – its species-dependent.

Primates like bonobos and macaques have been observed engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual behaviours, which includes oral sex. Other animals like dolphins, who are reputed for their varied sexual antics, have been observed engaging in homosexual behaviour, but not oral sex in particular. 

This makes it very hard to define whether there is any connection between oral sex and sexuality the animal kingdom or not; or if like humans, there is absolutely no connection. 

Understanding animal sexuality

With greater awareness, scientists are slowly peeling-back the layers surrounding animal sexuality. We are learning more today about sex, reproduction and pleasure, than we ever did before.

Understanding sexuality in the animal kingdom is also helping us understand human sexuality better. It is allowing scientists to understand human physiology and human evolution better too.

Studies like these are doing one other thing – redefining what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. As the lines dividing humans from animals blurs, we may need to rethink much about ourselves and the world.  

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Greater Indian fruit bat.

Image

Do Cockroaches Add Any Value To Our Lives?

As it turns out, they do.

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

  • They eat everything

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

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

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

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

  • They sustain life

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

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

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

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

Lesson to be learnt

 

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

As it turns out, they do.

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

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

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

What can we take away from this?

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

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

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Image

Yes, Cold Blooded Creatures Get Fevers Too: Here’s What You Need To Know

What do amphibians, reptiles and fish have in common? They are all ectotherms – cold blooded creatures. They are animals which cannot regulate their own body temperatures (like warm blooded animals can) and they rely on the external environment to change their internal temperatures. 

For long scientists wondered if sickness like cold, flu and fever were the lot of warm blooded creatures . As it turns out – they aren’t. Cold blooded creatures can fall ill too. 

How (?), you may ask. In order to understand this, we need to understand how fevers set in warm blooded creatures. 

All warm blooded creatures have a particular body temperature, which for them is considered normal. For example: 

  • Humans – 98.6°F
  • Dogs – 102.0°F
  • Elephants – 97.7°F
  • Horses – 100.4°F
  • Goats – 103.4°F

If the body temperatures of these animals rises above this limit (as is the case during infections), the body tries to thermoregulate .i.e. bring the temperature back down, to normal. When the body fails to do this and the body temperature continues to rise, fever sets in. 

 

crocodile-777116_1280
Cold blooded animals – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

What about cold blooded animals?

Based on this, it’s important to note that for fever to set in, there has to be a biologically-set body temperature. But cold blooded animals don’t have a fixed temperature. Their body temperature falls or rises depending on the temperature of the external environment. 

So, how do they fall ill?

Well, cold blooded or warm blooded, all animals are susceptible to illness. Just as with their warm blooded cousins, cold blooded animals too may get infections from parasites or viruses, which can raise or drop their body temperatures abnormally. Just like warm blooded animals, ectotherm animals’ bodies too can handle only a certain level of heat and cold. If the change in temperature during the infection falls beyond this limit, illness similar to fever sets in. 

But the biggest mystery here isn’t just about how these animals fall ill, but it also includes what these animals do to get back to health. 

Changing behaviours for the sake of wellness

When fish, amphibians or reptiles fall ill, they indulge in what is known as a “behavioural fever“. If the animal is infected by a parasite or virus and experiences signs of ill health, it moves away towards areas which support warmer climates. For example, fish that normally prefer cold waters may swim towards warmer waters when they are ill. 

Why? 

Heat has the ability to deactivate viruses and destroy the proteins which assist in virus duplication. The same goes with parasites – heat can kill them too. 

So, a cold blooded creature that falls ill, will instinctively move towards a warmer place, in order to increase its body temperature, which will in turn help in killing or deactivating the pathogen in their bodies. 

 

Zebrafish
Zebrafish (Image source: Imperial College London)

 

This instinctive “behaviour“, which ectotherms exhibit when they have “fevers“, is called “behavioural fever“.  Scientists speculate this behaviour could stem from the fact that the immune systems of cold blooded animals may actually function better when in warmer climates.

One of the best examples of cold blooded creatures who exhibit behavioural fever are Zebrafish. The moment they fall ill, Zebra fish will change their water-heat preferences and swim to warmer waters. The same goes for Guppies. 

When behavioural fever benefits the host 

For some time, it was assumed that behavioural fever was helpful only for ectotherms who were in the throes of infection & fever. But as it turns out, in some cases, the move to hotter areas benefits pathogens too. 

Schistocephalus solidus, a tapeworm found in the gut of  rodents, fish and fish-eating birds, actually thrive on heat. Once the parasite is in the hot climate, it grows stronger and changes the heat preferences of the fish and manipulate other atypical (and often self-destructive) behaviours in the animal. 

 

virus-1812092_1280
Virus (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Then there is the Cyprinid herpesvirus 3, which is a virus that attacks fish in the Carp family. This virus affects the genetic code of the fish it infects and overrides the genes which stimulate behavioural fever. So, the infected fish doesn’t move towards warmer waters (as it is supposed to), instead choosing to stay in colder waters, where the virus can gain in strength. 

What happens if a feverish ectotherm cannot move to warmer climates? 

Vicious parasites and mind-control viruses aside, the inability to indulge in behavioural fever can have a massive, negative impact on cold blooded animals. This is in fact, very true of pets.

In the wild, cold blooded creatures have a lot of freedom to move to different places, in order to rid themselves of their illness and infection.  But pets stuck in aquariums and enclosures don’t have this luxury. 

Cold blooded pets like fish, turtles, tortoises, iguanas, lizards and snakes are cooped up inside their temperature-controlled tanks/enclosures for almost their entire lives; where they are subjected to the same temperature day-in-and-day-out. 

 

Cage frog
Caged animal – representative image (Image source: Pixabay)

 

Now imagine these pets fall ill and have a fever. Biologically they are programmed to leave and move to a place that is warmer, to heal themselves. But because they are stuck in their tanks/enclosures, these animals do not get the opportunity to get their bodies at the right temperature to kill the infection. 

When this happens, the fever and the infection only gets worse and in the worst cases, the pet dies. In fact, a large number of fish deaths in aquariums can be attributed to this.

So, what can pet owners do about this? 

Fish owners can set aside a separate tank where they can change the temperature of the water as required. Owners of amphibians and reptiles can create heat spots in corners of the enclosure by using detachable heaters and small light sources. This can give the sick pet an opportunity to self-heal. 

If however, your pet looks worse, it’s best to take him/her to a vet immediately. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Iguana (Source: Pixabay)
Image

Geckos are Weird, but Awesome: Here are 3 Reasons Why

Most of us don’t like geckos. They’re creepy little buggers who skulk in bathroom corners and whose bulging eyes look like they’re staring into your very soul. A little unnerving, to be honest.

But did you know that geckos are some of the most ingenious creatures in the world? In fact, they’re responsible for being the muse behind some of the world’s most brilliant technologies.

Scientists today have begun full-fledged studies into these slippery critters, in the hope of finding more technological inspiration from them. Here are three amazing and weird facts about them:

  • They take a bath in dewdrops

Dewdrops are formed when the surface of a plant or insect’s body is hydrophobic .i.e. repels water. As it turns out, geckos have a similar, if not the same, hydrophobic skin. Gecko skin contains tiny hair-like spines which trap air from the atmosphere. When this layer of air cools down, it becomes water.

As time passes and more air collects on the hair particles, the water droplets grow in size. When they’re large enough, they are able to be manipulated by external forces like wind and gravity. A slight gust of wind or the gecko moving can make the dewdrop slide right-off its body. When the dewdrops fall-off the gecko, they clean away dirt particles on the body. This technique is extremely useful for geckos, given how many species live in dry and arid wastelands where little water is available. This type of water retention can help them stay clean and healthy, without having to look for water resources.

Here’s another fun fact. Geckos are the first vertebrates to be found possessing hydrophobic skin. Their skin has now inspired scientists to develop super-hydrophobic clothing which can self-clean by collecting water vapour from the air and which wouldn’t need washing, ever!

 

Gecko 4
Source: National Geographic

 

  • Their tails spin a tale of their own when chopped-off

Geckos, just like other lizards, have the ability to voluntarily cut-off and drop their tails when faced with danger. This defensive technique gives them the opportunity to escape. Think about it. You’re about to catch a sweet-looking gecko, when BAM!, its tail falls off. Shocking isn’t it? You probably wouldn’t want to touch it after this.

But the interesting part isn’t this ingenious tail-dropping strategy. Studies show that gecko tails can move independently in and of themselves for up to 30 minutes after they fall off. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Calgary collaborated on a project in 2009, to understand how these tail movements are controlled after the tail falls off.

The scientists pinched the base of a gecko’s tail and made it fall off. They then attached four electrodes to both sides of the tail – two on each side. They found that once the tails fell off, they began to swing from side to side. This was an automatic response. But the moment the tail was lightly-shocked through the electrodes, it started jumping and somersaulting in the air erratically.

As it turns out, gecko tails have brains of their own. The moment a predator so much as grazes against it, the tail starts jumping and flipping. A few seconds later, it goes back to its serene swinging movement. If the predator touches the tail again, it explodes into a series of complex back spins, flips and jumps.

Scientists believe this technique is an additional measure to alarm predators and keep them occupied while the gecko escapes.

 

Gecko 5
Source: National Geographic

 

  • They can right themselves mid-air just like cats

While felines have the credit for being the most aerially acrobatic of all vertebrates, it’s the geckos who have truly opened science’s eyes to amazing possibilities. Until someone observed the unique way in which geckos flipped mid-air to stop their drops, no one knew these little lizards were capable of mid-air antics.

Experiments have shown that when geckos walk on non-slippery surfaces, their tails are held high up, away from the floor and pointing towards the sky. If the ground/wall is slippery, the gecko lowers the tail to the floor and leans its body against it for support – kind of like on a fifth leg.

When geckos slip and fall, they rotate their tails at a right angle to their body. Then they twist their tails again in the same direction, to make their bodies rotate too. They basically use the momentum generated by their tails to turn right-side up, to land on their feet.

This technique ensures that geckos always land on their stomach, irrespective of the direction their bodies were in when their fall began. This entire process of turning right-side-up takes only about 100 milliseconds! Now that’s what I call fast.

For comparison, cats don’t use their tails to land on their feet when they fall. They have a very flexible backbone and free-floating collarbones which give them the flexibility and speed to twist their bodies up to 180 degrees in seconds.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Gecko

 

Image

Are Peacock Feathers Really That Colourful or Is It A Play of Light?

Today is India’s 70th Republic Day and I thought what better animal to talk about today, than our National Bird – the Peacock.

Peacocks are renowned around the world for their immensely beautiful and supremely colourful tail feathers. For quite some time, it was assumed that peacocks derived their brilliant rainbow-like colours from plants; just like lots of other birds.

But recent research has revealed that the brilliant peacock tail feathers may actually be the result of light reflection, rather than the consumption of pigment-filled leaves, seeds and fruits.

Photonic feathers

Electromagnetic radiation is essentially a type of light. The electromagnetic spectrum is at its most-basic, the distribution of this electromagnetic radiation or light. But not all of these light waves can be seen by the naked eye. The portion which we can see through the naked eye is called the visible light and we are able to see them, because of their specific wavelengths. The typical human eye can see electromagnetic waves that fall between 390 nanometres to 700 nanometres on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The feathers of a peacock contain structures called “photonic crystals”, which are bands of photons (photons = fundamental particles of light) that selectively reflect certain types of electromagnetic waves. When these waves fall within the visible light range of the spectrum, they can be seen by the human eye. The different colours that are visible on the peacock’s feathers, are a result of waves of different lengths being reflected by the photonic crystals.

 

peacock-feathers-3013486_1280

 

When light falls on the peacock’s feathers, the crystal lattice (the structural arrangement of the particles in crystals) in the photonic crystals, capture the light and reflect them in specific ways. The length of these reflected waves, then determine the colour the peackon feather, plume and tail.

Research has found that peacock feathers get their colours when light is reflected off melanin-containing crystalline lattice rods that are spaced:  

  • Iridescent blues – 140 nanometres apart.
  • Greens – 150 nanometres apart.
  • Copper & Browns – 150-185 nanometres apart.
  • Yellows – 165 nanometres apart.
  • Other colours – from colour-mutations derived from blues and greens.

It isn’t just peacocks who possess photonic crystals in their feathers. Butterflies have them in their wings and chameleons have them on their skin.

Information about photonic crystals and their impact on animals is now being used by scientists to better-understand light and the role it plays in the animal kingdom.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image

Do Animals Cry and Do They Mourn?

What’s your definition of “crying“?

  • The act of expressing emotions through the production of tears?

  • The physiological response of your body to counteract dryness in the eyes?

If its the first definition, then No, animals don’t cry. However, if its the second definition, then Yes, animals do cry. Animals apart from humans don’t feel what we normally call/define “emotions“. If an animal produces tears in its eyes, its most probably the result of dryness in the eyes or an eye infection.

Of course, this answer isn’t completely comprehensive either. We have animals like elephants who remember the grievances caused against them by humans years ago. We know for a fact that elephants have excellent memories and can hold grudges. We know that elephant mothers are distraught when their calves die. In one village in Southern India, an elephant herd destroyed an entire village through which the corpse of a calf was dragged through (the villagers were disposing-off the calf’s corpse a few days after its death and the scent of the corpse attracted the elephants). Elephants go so far as to investigate the corpse – using their trunks to feel the body and the bones. Sometimes they come back day-after-day, to investigate the bones until the smell wears-off.

Other animals like rhinos, Western scrub jays, chimpanzees and giraffes may not hold grudges, but they have been observed “mourning” their dead. Research shows that rhinos and scrub jays converge around their dead comrades and issue vocalizations that sound different to their normal communication – similar to the sounds humans make when crying. Giraffes have been spotted waiting for their dead calves to get up for hours, even days on end. One of homo sapiens‘ closest relatives – chimpanzees – carry their dead offspring with them for days. Chimps have been noticed tenderly grooming their dead, arranging their fur, posturing their limbs and swatting away insects and predators, keeping the corpses safe for days.

Crying and tears have been observed during some of these cases, but not all. Therefore, there is neither clarity nor validity as to whether animals can feel emotion, can cry or can really mourn (according to our definition of these, at least).

In the scientific community, there is a huge rift between the two groups who study the phenomenon of emotional responses, mourning and crying in animals – one group that truly believes that animals can feel and the other group that believes that humans anthropomorphize animals (attribute human emotions to inanimate objects or natural phenomenon) . The debates and the fights for academic supremacy are endless. Currently, there is enough evidence to support both claims –

  • Animals can really feel.

  • Animals can’t really feel – we only think so, because we anthropomorphize them.

Unfortunately, this creates more problems when trying to understand this phenomenon. Additionally, the concern of possible anthropomorphism often scares researchers and scientists from conducting further studies; at the (assumed) risk of discrediting their other discoveries/research. You see, in the scientific community, one of the worst things a scientist can be accused of is anthropomorphism.

So, until we have more evidence, we cannot make definitive calls regarding the emotional capacity or “crying” ability of non-human animals.

 

NISHA PRAKASH

Image

5 Fun Facts About Fossils

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

 

Bonus

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

Fossil 2
A butterfly fossilised in amber (image source)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Fossil of a lizard

 

Image

Deceptive Sizing: 3 Newborn Animals Who Are Ridiculously Smaller Than Their Parents

Ah baby animals…these bundles of joy have been lighting up the wild for millennia. While everyone has been raving about their cuteness, not a lot of people have spoken about their size. Let’s face it, when it comes to size, some animals are impressive…impressively small. 

Here are 3 animals whose babies are way smaller than you thought they would be: 

 

Kangaroos

Kangaroo adults can reach heights of 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) and can weigh 90 kilograms (200lbs). But their newborn joeys are smaller than gummy bears, often smaller than 25 millimeters. 

 

 

Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:

 

 

Pandas

At their heaviest, adult pandas can weigh 160 kilograms (350 lbs). But their tiny cubs weigh only 1/900th of their mother’s weight! Now that’s really tiny. 

 

Panda 2
A panda mom with her newborn cub

See that little pink floppy thing on the left side? yup, that little nugget is the cub.

Here’s a fun question; what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment! Ha ha, all jokes aside, a group of pandas is called “an embarrassment” because of the boisterous way in which panda cubs play when they’re together. It could embarrass any mum. 

Now indulge in some cub time by watching twin panda cubs embark on their first 100 days of life. 

 

 

Elephants

One of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants have longest gestation period in the wild. It takes their bodies 22 months to fully develop the calf (imagine being pregnant for almost two years!). But surprisingly, baby elephants when born are only 90 kilograms (200 lbs), while their heavy-weight mothers, aunts and sisters (and not to forget, their brothers and fathers) can reach ridiculously high weights of 3600 kilograms (4 tonnes)! 

 

 

Watch as this newborn calf, just hours old, meets his herd-mates, learns how slopes are not a baby’s friend and discovers the forest he is to grow up in. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

 

 

Image

5 Fun Facts About Crabs

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

Here are five fun facts about them: 

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

 

 

Bonus

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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

 

Image

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 
Image

5 Fun Facts About Uguisu

(Hear the pronunciation of “Uguisu” here)

Uguisu, called the Japanese Bush Warbler in English, is a small bird that is predominantly found on the island nation of Japan and in certain places of Korea, China and Russia. A very shy bird, very little is known about it. 

Here are fun five fun facts about Uguisu:

  1. Uguisu have a very melodious chirp, one of the most refreshing in the bird world. In fact, when people actually see the pale, olive-coloured Uguisu, they are surprised that something so drab-looking can produce such a beautiful sound. 
  2. Speaking of their song, Uguisu songs are thought to fulfill multiple purposes. Apart from functioning as mating calls, Uguisu are also thought to use songs to wage wars, claim territories, convey danger and indicate the presence of food. Each song is slightly distinct from the other. 
  3. During breeding season, it is the Uguisu female that builds the nest, incubates the eggs, feeds the newborn chicks and teaches them to fly. The males’ only role is to fertilise the eggs. 
  4. Uguisu droppings are one of the most sought-after natural items in Japan. They are used to make skin lightening & brightening creams. It is believed that Geisha and Kabuki actors in the Edo period routinely applied it to their faces in preparation for their performances. Uguisu-feaces inclusive cosmetic – “Uguisu-no-Fun” – was sold extensively in Japan for quite a long time, with companies often illegally capturing and caging Uguisu birds in captivity. This was the case until authorities set in place stringent measures to prevent this illegal kidnapping. It was reported that the secret to Victoria Beckham’s beauty was Uguisu-droppings cream. 
  5. Uguisu resemble Bushtits and Nightingales in appearance. That’s why the discoverer of the Uguisu – Heinrich von Kittlitz – confused them for nightingales. That’s why even today, the Uguisu  are called Japanese Nightingales outside Japan. 

Bonus

There is a type of wooden floorboard used in traditional Japanese construction, which when stepped on creates a creaking sound that is eerily similar to the call of the Uguisu  bird. This type of floorboard is called – Uguisubari – in Japan. The purpose of these floorboards is to announce to the home owner, the presence of other people (often unwelcome & uninvited) in the house.

Video: Listen to a Uguisu  tease us with his/her beautiful voice. Notice how he/she isn’t visible at all. These birds are masters of camouflage. 

Uguisu 2
An Uguisu in the wild. (image source)

Uguisu 3
A bottle of Uguisu-no-Fun face cream made from Uguisu droppings. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image
Image

I’m Celebrating My First Anniversary At WordPress & Stories So Wild!

Hey everyone! It gives me great pleasure to announce that today – October 9th 2018 – is My 1 Year Anniversary at WordPress.

It was a year ago that I decided to pick up my laptop and start blogging about a topic that I was most passionate about – wildlife. I thought I’d take this time (and use this post) to talk about my experience so far and the amazing journey I’ve been on during this eventful year. 

I have always loved wildlife. As long as I can remember, I’ve picked up books that dealt with animals, plants, rocks, water bodies…the list is endless. Be it stories by Enid Blyton or memoirs by Jane Goodall, each book held my fascination and still do so today. Although I don’t have an academic background in wildlife and I don’t have much field experience, apart from the ocassional safaris and treks through protected parks, I have always felt the only prerequisite needed to write about wildlife is – passion. And that’s something I have in excess of. 

My journey this year has been amazing and I’ve gone through such a growth curve. I’ve learnt what kind of material ticks in the blogging world, what type of writing format I’m good at, what type of work my readers love to read and most importantly, what type of content gets the word out about the wonderful plants, animals & arthropods that occupy our world. I hope I’ve been able to (and hope to continue to) do my bit to help reduce ignorance and increase empathy towards the wild. 

I have been inspired by so many writers, painters, bloggers, photographers – both on WordPress and those outside it – the list of people whose creative work has inspired my creative juices to flow, is endless. I have gained immense knowledge about the different kinds of science writing in the literary world and I’m now more aware about my responsibilities as a science writer. I am discovering new ways to discharge these responsibilities with care and finesse. 

I have experimented with multiple blog formats over the course of this year and I am now beginning to understand where my future lies in the world of wildlife blogging. For this, I have my readers to thank. Your feedback has helped me find my voice – a voice that works for both you and me – a voice that hopefully works in favour of the wild we are working together to protect, preserve and promote. 

I’d also like to thank my family – my parents & sister – for their constant encouragement, without which I would never have had the courage to channel my passion into words. This blog is a source of comfort and joy to me today. Your critique and directions have helped me hone my writing and they challenge me to take on more challenging topics of discussion each day. 

Finally, I’d like to end by thanking everyone of my readers & followers for being with me on this exciting journey. I hope we can walk arm-in-arm for years to come, learning about the wild we all love so much. 

Have a great evening!

Lots of love, 

Nisha Prakash 

 

 

Image

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.