The Mysterious Case of the Corkscrew Penis and the Inverted Vagina

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

 

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

For plume and penis

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

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

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

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

Labyrinthine ladies and their convoluted coition

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

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

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

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

Duck_genitals_tubes

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

Absolutely clever isn’t it?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Common Buzzards

  1. Common buzzards mean two different things in two different countries. In the UK, they’re raptors and in the US, they’re turkey vultures. In this article, we’re talking about the raptors.
  2. Common buzzard love decorating their nests with fresh greenery and they can be quite picky about the leaves they choose.
  3. Although they can easily hunt large prey like pigeons and rabbits, common buzzards prefer to eat earthworms and dead meat (carrion). That’s quite a small meal for birds their size.
  4. Common buzzards weren’t actually that ‘common’ in the 1950s. Food shortage and wide-spread hunting pushed them to near-extinction. But after the implementation of better agricultural practices and the banning of buzzard hunting, these birds have become the largest population of raptors in the UK.
  5. Buzzards live up to 25 years in the wild.

 

Bonus

Bird trainers and falconers hate using buzzards for sport as they are very lazy birds. Not only are they very slow at learning to fly at baits, but some buzzards refuse to budge from their seats even when commanded.

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Common Buzzard Eggs

 

Buzzard 4
A Juvenile Common Buzzard

 

Buzzard 2
A White Common Buzzard

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Barn Owls

  1. Barn owls screech. In fact, other than the tawny owl that hoots, all owls screech.
  2. Barn owls never make nests. Instead, they lay eggs on their own pellets and droppings.
  3. Barn owls are monogamous pairs who breed only once in their life, laying up to 7 eggs. If food supplies are very high, they may brood again, but with a much smaller nest of 2-3 eggs.
  4. Barn owl chicks are the only birds in the world who sacrifice their share of the food to feed siblings who have less to eat or are ill and need more.
  5. Barn owls have the most sensitive hearing of all animals on the planet and can hear sounds between 0.5 to 10 kHz. They have lopsided ears, with one ear positioned higher than the other. This difference in placement means the birds can listen for the most minute sounds both from the air and the ground simultaneously.

 

Bonus

Barn owls were voted Britain’s favourite farmland birds in 2017. It’s not uncommon to find artificial nest boxes in homes across Britain, that are created specifically to encourage barn owls to nest.

 

Barn Owl India 2
Indian barn owl

 

Barn owl Australia 4
Australian masked barn owl

 

Barn Owl Celadonia 2
New Celadonian barn owl

 

Barn owl 4
A common barn owl

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Fairy Penguins

  1. Also called Little Blue Penguins (due to their blue-coloured feathers), Fairy Penguins are the smallest penguin species in the world, standing at 1 foot in height at adulthood. That’s around the same height as a 2-year old baby.
  2. Fairy Penguins are the only penguins not found in Antarctica. They live in New Zealand, Australia, Chile and South Africa.
  3. Fairy Penguins are monogamous during each breeding season and seldom mate with multiple partners during the same season. But once the chicks leave the nest, they may choose a different partner for the next season.
  4. Although they aren’t on the endangered species list, survival of the Fairy Penguins is solely dependent on humans. If it weren’t for the protected lands set aside for them, native predators would have long made this penguin population extinct.
  5. Fairy Penguins can be quite the gluttons, eating up to 2 kilograms of fish and krill a day. That’s a lot of food for birds their size.

Bonus

Fairy Penguins moult every February to grow thick, new waterproof feathers. Since they won’t have any feathers at this time, they are trapped on land unable to swim and unable to hunt for food for a week. To overcome this, these penguins eat double the usual quantity and put on weight to survive the week of starvation.

Fairy Penguin 2
A newly-hatched fairy penguin chick and an unhatched egg
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Fairy penguins in the wild

Video:

Newly hatched fairy penguin chick at Cincinnati Zoo

-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.

 

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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.

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Hooded Pitohui
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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.

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

 

5) Cone snails

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image: Poison Dart Frog 

 

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

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

 

Basic info:

Name: Rhea

Scientific classification:

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

Height: 3-5ft

Weight: 55-80 pounds

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

Mating: Polygamous

Nest size: 10-60 eggs

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

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

Related to: Ostrich and emu

Rhea chicks
A Rhea dad with his chicks (Source)

5 fun facts about Rhea dads

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rhea eggs
A clutch of Rhea eggs (Source)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured Image: Pixabay 

The Winning Waltz: The Art of Wooing Through Dance

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

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

The choreography of love

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

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

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

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

  • Humpback whale

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

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

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

  • Ostrich

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

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

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

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

  • Peacock Spider

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

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

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

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

  • Seadragons

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

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

  • Grebes

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

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

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

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

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image: Japanese crane courtship dance

The World of Animal Supermoms

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

 

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

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

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

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

  • Orangutans

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

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

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

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

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

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

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

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

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

  • Elephants

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

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

  • Orcas

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

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

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

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

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

  • Octopus

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

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

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

  • Spiders

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

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Pledging To Protect The Planet From Plastic

One of the most dangerous man-made creations and a deathtrap for many, plastic is destroying the global ecosystem and its inhabitants. This World Earth Day 2018, let’s take a look at how plastic affects our planet and what we can do, to stop its damaging effects.

 

5 Ways Plastic Impacts the Planet

  • It depletes a lot of non-renewable resources

Plastic is extracted, processed and shaped using scarce and non-renewable resources like petroleum, natural gas through a host of other energy-intensive procedures. These resources take billions of years to form naturally and using them extensively to manufacture something as harmful as plastic is a wasteful effort. A look at current extraction levels shows that we have oil left enough for just the next 53 years.

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Image: Renewable v/s Non-renewable sources of energy.

 

  • It creates dangerous landfills 

Considering how many types of plastics are non-recyclable and a threat to the earth, incineration was the only feasible method of disposal. But given how we no longer possess the energy and resources needed to incinerate plastic and how we do not possess the technology to curb the pollution it leads to, this option no longer remains viable. That leaves just one option open – fill them in landfills.

As of today, 300 million tons of plastic are made each year, 50% of which are disposed-off in landfills. Chemical leaching from plastic into the ground affects the food we eat and the water we drink. Landfills that crumble and dissolve into water bodies pollute the ocean and threaten the lives of animals.

Kenya plastic
Image: A large landfill in Dandora, Kenya. This is how most landfills around the world look like.

 

  • It pollutes the ocean

The worst impact of plastic on the planet is its impact on the oceans. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains 7 million tons of plastic that go down to a depth of 9 feet. 9% of the fish in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains plastic waste in their diet. Most of this plastic comes from land after washing down from factories and oil refineries on the shore.

Plastic garbage patches exist in the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean and South Pacific Ocean. Essentially, all the oceans in the world today are polluted with plastic; poisoning the water and endangering marine species.

 

  •  It kills animals

Plastic is the number 1 cause for the death of millions of marine animals. Today, more than a 100 million marine animals are killed each year as a result of plastic in the oceans. Research shows:

  • More than 50% of sea turtles are ingesting plastic on a daily basis; so much so that their digestive system is severely obstructed.

 

Turtle plastic
Image: A Hawksbill turtle lies unconscious after a plastic wrapper caught around its mouth, restricting breathing.

 

  • About 400 stellar sea lions off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia get their fins and throats entrapped in plastic bands, plastic covers and rubber bands each year, which eventually leads to drowning and death.

 

Sea lion
Image: A sea lion caught in plastic wires and old fishing gear.

 

  • 98% of the Laysan albatross population has died of internal organ damage after ingesting plastic when hunting fish.

 

Albatros plastic
Image: Dead body of a Laysan albatross filled with ingested plastic.

 

  • Approximately 31% of fish, dolphin and whale populations ingest microfibers from plastic bags and bottles floating in rivers and oceans after confusing them for plankton and algae; of which 22% die due to digestive system obstruction due to plastic.

 

Whale caught
Image: A whale caught in plastic nets left behind by fishermen.

 

Whale plastic
Image: 4kgs worth of plastic found in the body of the Cuvier whale that washed-up dead off the coast of Norway.

 

  • It hurts people

People who consume fish that have plastic in their digestive systems, people who accidentally inhale/consume plastic in the form of sandwich wrappers, people who heat food/beverages in plastic containers (leading to chemical contamination of food from the plastic) and people who work with/around plastic, may suffer from a host of problems such as digestive concerns, asthma attacks, premature/stillborn births in pregnant women, miscarriage, male infertility, cancer and abnormal sexual characteristics development.

 

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Image: Rag pickers search through the plastic-filled Citarum river in Jakarta. They form a large part of the population that die from plastic-induced illnesses. 

 

What can we do to save the planet from plastic?

There are many things we can do to reduce plastic pollution in the world. Try out these tips and make a difference:

  • Replace regular plastic with bioplastics and biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics.
  • Identify the plastic you depend on and try to find alternatives to replace them. For example, carry your own tableware to the office – metal forks, spoon, knives, cups and plates – instead of using the plastic ones found at the office.
  • Avoid purchasing bottled water. Instead, use the water fountain or watering drums placed in public spaces and offices. Carry your own bottle and fill it at a water station.
  • Do not buy beauty products that contain microbeads as one of the ingredients. Choose scrubs, soaps and creams that use only natural ingredients like sea salt, yogurt, oatmeal and more.
  • Carry home-cooked food. The lesser take-out you buy; the lesser plastic boxes will be manufactured.
  • Take jute/cotton bags to the grocery store when making purchases. These bags may cost more than plastic carry bags, but they are sturdier, last longer, look more beautiful and are environmentally-friendly.
  • Make your purchases in bulk. This will discourage stores from stocking plastic bag in huge quantities. You can also ask your grocer to stock cloth bags instead.
  • Consider second-hand purchasing. From toys to lunch boxes, you can find many items, still in good condition in yard sales and thrift stores. Lesser demand for plastic translates to lesser production of plastic items.
  • Support and uphold the plastic ban in your state. Use only cloth bags when necessary.
  • Recycle. Take a look at this guide to plastic recycling to know what you need to do.

Plastics are a danger to the world. Today, we have innumerable alternatives to this white poison, which can help make the world a safe place. As creatures capable of intelligent thoughts and actions, it’s up to us to save the planet from harm. If we don’t, it could only mean the end.

For it’s just as celebrated writer Evo Morales said, “Sooner or later we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: End Plastic Pollution

Dulcet Darlings: The Evolution of Birdsong

Hoots, caws and chirps…who hasn’t heard them? From fresh-spun melodies to clockwork calling, birds have enthralled us with their ability to spin brilliant ditties from out of nowhere. But how did these birdsongs evolve and where are they headed?

A songbird’s panpipes

Scientific expeditions to Cape Lamb in Antarctica lead to one of the most important discoveries in the field of ornithology. A fossil, named Vegavis iaai, was found in the harsh, cold environment. Upon closer examination, it was found to be a direct ancestor of the Anatidae family, to which belong today’s ducks, geese and swans.

But, while the fossil does shed light on avian evolution, the most inspiring discovery had nothing to do with ducks or geese. The Vegavis iaai remains to this day, the only bird fossil to have an intact vocal cord. The fossil’s voice box – the syrinx – is the oldest in collection. This discovery allows scientists to study a very obscure aspect of bird evolution – their song.

dino

The syrinx is the voice box found in birds. Just as with the human larynx, the syrinx’s primary function is the production of vocalizations. The discovery of the Vegavis iaai’s syrinx helps scientists understand how and why birdsong evolved in the first place.

Dinosaurs, which started out as sea creatures, evolved the ability to walk on land. Soon, this evolution went up a notch with their developing wings and having the ability to fly. A key finding of this research was how the syrinx (or anything resembling it) was non-existent in non-avian dinosaurs; proving that the development of a distinct voice box in avian dinosaurs was a much later development.

The development of the syrinx started a chain reaction in avian evolution. CT scans and 3D reconstruction of Vegavis iaai showed how soft tissue and neural development also evolved to accommodate the requirements of the syrinx. It’s been theorized that the evolution of the syrinx and the change in brain development led to the evolution of the birdsong.

Flying bird

Analysis of non-avian dinosaur fossils does not indicate the presence of a voice box or a vocal cord. Scientists believe that if dinosaurs did vocalize, they would do so with the help of the air sacs in their lungs or the crests on their head. The theory is that dinosaurs would fill the sacs with air and then force this air out to create sounds; a technique that is sure to have been an inconvenience to avian dinosaurs while in flight.

Researchers theorize that the origin of flight was the trigger that led to the evolution of a voice box in birds. The new environment that avian dinosaurs inhabited necessitated the development of an organ which could help them communicate with each other easily.

Re-evolution of the syrinx?

Research conducted on Black-capped Chickadees found on the Hudson River in New York indicated a change in the frequency, pitch and tone of the birdsong. Scientists believed that this particular species of birds may be in the grips of evolution.

Chickadee bird

However, further research revealed that re-evolution of the syrinx wasn’t the case. In fact, researchers were alarmed by what they discovered. The area around the Hudson River is the recipient of harmful chemicals such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were found to be the cause of the shift in the Chickadee’s birdsong.

Toxins from the PCBs were found to adversely impact brain development in the birds. The area of the brain that was affected was the one that controlled the syrinx and other organs responsible for vocalization. This alteration in brain development led to the production of low quality and feeble vocalizations in Black-capped Chickadees.

It isn’t just PCB that’s poisonous to birds and their song. A whole host of chemicals such as Bisphenol A and DDT also affect brain development and vocalization in birds.

sparrow song

But, it would be unfair to assume that these chemicals only have a negative impact. Song sparrows, when affected by PCBs were found to produce more complex and more pleasant-sounding tunes than before. The same goes for Starlings.

Environmental disruptions and the evolution of avian vocalization

While pollution is one aspect of changing vocalization, another is the evolution of urban spaces. The birds of the past didn’t have to contend with things like traffic, changing temperature and pollution-driven changes in airflow and air currents.

Today’s birds are finding it increasingly hard to attract mates and communicate with fellow avian, due to disruptions from people, vehicles, pollution and temperature. Just as humans developed sound-proof rooms to better communicate with peers, birds are slowly evolving the tone, pitch and frequency of their birdsong to better communicate with each other.

starling bird

While the birdsong itself is undergoing changes, it is difficult to tell whether the syrinx will undergo any physical modifications or not. Only time will tell what will become of it. As for whether birds will be positively or negatively impacted by this forced evolution; scientists are yet to understand how things will shape up.

But researchers aren’t afraid. Birds have shown extraordinary resilience to forced change and evolution. Researchers believe that they will emerge victorious and melodious after this evolution as well.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

*Dinosaur- representative image only

What is Biological Ornamentation?

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

The Colour of Love

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

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

Bird of paradise

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

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

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

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

Where Males Strut and Females Observe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weapons of War

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

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

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

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

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The Time of the Females

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

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

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

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

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

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An Evolutionary Gamble

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

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

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

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

 

NISHA PRAKASH