There are 15 species of howler monkey and they’re all found in Central and South America.
The howler monkey is the loudest primate on the Earth. Its call – a gruff, resounding roar – can be heard even 3 miles away. You can listen to ithere.
Not just their voice, but the howler monkey’s sense of smell is unbelievably acute – they can smell food from 2 miles away.
Howler monkeys aren’t herbivores, they’re folivores – they are specialists in eating leaves.
Howler monkeys are one of the few primates (including humans), who possess trichromatic colour vision. This means their eyes are sensitive to the three primary colours – green, blue & red – and they can make out the differences between colours. This helps them pick and choose the best (read – the ripest & safest) leaves to eat.
A particular species of howler monkey – the Mantled Howler – uses sticks as tools to drive away intruders and scare away predators. This is extremely unusual to the species as a whole; since this type of tool usage is considered the speciality of higher-order primates like chimps and humans.
Howler monkeys are the second laziest animals of the planet, right after sloths. They spend 80% of their time on treetops just resting. The other 20% of the time? Well, they pee on, poop on and scream at other monkeys, animals and birds.
Howler monkeys are an Endangeredspecies, because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Save them.
Midwives have been a part of every culture for centuries. Many places of religious worship celebrate midwifery through paintings, sculptures and Bas reliefs.
Apart from easing the actual birthing process, midwives helped ensure the newborn was healthy, had no trouble breathing and was able to suckle well. In short, midwives ensured both the mother and baby survived. While midwives were the only option for women of yore, today they are one of the most preferred methods of birthing assistance and reproductive care.
When we talk of midwives, we envision a staid, calm person, urging the mother to push, encouraging her with kind words and helping her cope with her pain. When we think about the midwife, we envision a woman and sometimes, a man. Essentially, we envision a human being.
Till as late as the late 1990s, it was believed that the practice of midwifery was developed by people. Surely animals did not, could not, possess a mind so sophisticated, that they could come up with a practice like midwifery. How would they know that another animal needed assistance during birth?
After all, wasn’t the one, defining difference between man and beast, the ability to empathize and help?
Animal midwifery: Where animals help other animals give birth
Nature is magnificent and one of the miracles of nature is an animal that acts as a midwife.
Researchers were stunned to see when male Djungarian hamsters chipped-in to help their mates give birth. Provided they didn’t turn their offspring into a meal first, male Djungarian hamsters consciously pulled the pups out from the females’ birth canals. They proceeded to lick the pups clean and then shared the afterbirth with their mates. If their pups looked asphyxiated, the fathers would lick the amniotic fluid off their nose, clear their airways and help them breathe.
Scientists believe that Djungarian hamster males experience a severe fluctuation in hormones just prior to birth and this results in an increase in cortisol and oestrogen in their bodies. This, they believe, could be one of the reasons for this unusual behaviour. The other theory has to do with the hamsters’ living conditions. Unlike other wild hamster species, Djungarian hamsters live in dry, desert environments and they spend a lot of time in their burrows with their mate, to escape from the harsh climate. This could make them more willing to help their mates during birth (compared to other hamster species where the males are nowhere near the birthing area).
But it isn’t just Djungarian hamsters who make excellent midwives. Researchers have observed female black snub-nosed monkeys in South China also playing midwives to their bandmates during delivery.
When a female black snub-nosed monkey is about to give birth and contractions start, she cries out using a very distinct sound. Upon hearing this sound, another female joins her and waits for the infant to crown. When he does, the midwife gently eases the baby out of the mother’s birth canal, tears open the amniotic sac and hands the infant back to the mother. Once she’s done, the midwife heads back to forage for food or take care of her own infant. The same behaviour was noticed in golden snub-nosed monkeys.
Female bonobos too practice midwifery. This behaviour has been seen often in captivity and once in the wild. Just like the black snub-nosed monkey, the bonobo mother makes a soft, high-pitched squeal.
When she hears this, another female bonobo accompanies the pregnant mother and helps her give birth. Here too, the afterbirth was shared between the mother and the midwife.
A primate speciality?
Djungarian hamsters aside, both the snub-nosed monkey and bonobo are primates. This makes us wonder whether their primate brains – significantly more developed than other animals’ – could be the reason for midwifery behaviour.
But this may not be the case.
Chimpanzees, who are the closest to humans (and who possess far superior brains compared to bonobos and snub-nosed monkeys), prefer to give birth in isolation. So too other primates like gorillas and orangutans.
But if you consider the research by primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas, only 5 out of the 39 live births (across 31 primate species) she recorded, were done in isolation. The rest were in the company of band/troopmates.
What makes this behaviour particularly difficult to observe, is how these animals typically give birth at night. Additionally, with these animals so adept at hiding from predators (including humans), it becomes even harder to track birthing animals.
Empathy, intelligence or instinct?
The practice of midwifery developed in humans as we became more aware of the birthing process. Our highly-evolved brains, capable of high empathy, added to this progress.
What we don’t know today, is if animal midwifery stems from the same reason. It could also be the desire to partake of another female’s placenta (after all, it is rich in life-saving nutrients). Or, it could just be pure instinct.
No matter how we reason it, the concept of animals playing midwives will throw up more questions, than they answer. Only time and extensive research will reveal the truth.
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.
The rules of naming
The International Code of Zoological Nomenclatureis 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.
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.
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.
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.
Fossil of Dinohyus hollandi
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.
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.
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.
Bazinga reiki jellyfish
Bacteria genus Midichloria
Fossil of Ninjemys oweni
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of the peackock 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.
Dugongs are marine animals which belong to the family Dugongidae. They are part of the order called Sirenia aka sea cows, which also includes the manatees. They can be found dispersed across the Indian ocean, Pacific ocean and the region between East Africa & Australia.
Here are five facts about them:
Apart from manatees, dugongs are the only marine animals that are strictly herbivorous, eating sea grass, weeds and aquatic plants. All other marine animals are omnivorous.
The closest relative of dugongs is the Steller’s Sea Cow, which was driven to extinction in the mid-1700s.
A dugong’s gestation period lasts one year and females give birth once every 3-7 years.
Although they resemble seals and walruses in appearance, dugongs are actually more genetically similar to elephants. That’s because these animals evolved from the same ancestor.
According to the IUCN Red List, dugongs have a “Vulnerable” classification; meaning they are very vulnerable to becoming extinct if conservation efforts aren’t set in place. As of today, less than 7500 dugongs are alive in the world.
The name “dugong” comes from the Malay word “duyung“, which means “Lady of the Sea“. Before scientists officially documented this species, sailors & fishermen out at sea assumed dugongs (and their cousins, the manatees) to be mermaids, sirens and other mystical creatures. This was predominantly because of the way these animals swam.
Dugongs and manatees rise out from the underneath the water and perform tail-stands (where they stand & balance on the tip of their tails) when coming up for air. This prompted sailors & fishermen to assume they were the mythical sea-dwelling creatures they grew up hearing about.
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.
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.
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.
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 diatomsdied 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.
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.
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.
You may have seen it on television – it’s an event that National Geographic has always loved to film. A grand spectacle and a treat for the senses, the Great Migration in Africa is the annual movement of the world’s largest (non-human) land animal group from one part of Africa to the other, in search of food and safer breeding grounds*.
Wildebeests, antelope, zebra and big cats congregate for five months of rigorous walking, eating, birthing and killing. Here are 5 amazing facts about it:
The Great Migration starts in Tanzania at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation areas and ends at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The migration starts in the month of November and the animals reach their destination in March.
A recorded 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and thousands of antelope make the migration each year. The animals travel a staggering 2900 kilometres (1800 miles) in total, from Tanzania to Kenya and back during this journey.
The Great Migration follows one of the most dangerous routes in Africa. Animals making the journey have to deal with hungry predators (lions, cheetahs & crocodiles), treacherous floods, the uncaring African sun, mean-spirited tsetse flies and physical tiredness. More than 250,000 wildebeests and thousands of zebras and antelopes die each year on the journey. This is excluding the thousands of calves who are left orphaned and vulnerable to predators after their mothers die. A recorded 3000 lions follow the herds on their journey, picking off the weak and the injured.
More than a foraging mission, the Great Migration is a breeding expedition. Pregnant wildebeests move from Tanzania to Kenya for better environmental conditions for calving. An estimated half a million baby wildebeests are born annually during the migration. In the peak of the calving season (February), more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born in a single day!
Although they look like they’re confused and panicked all the time, the massive herds of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes actually function together as one cohesive unit. They display a tactic researchers call “swarm intelligence”, where they carefully analyse, strategise and implement a plan of action to get safely past any threat together. There’s no “I” in this family.
There is still no established and accepted explanation for the occurrence of the Great Migration.
Some scientists believe the changing chemistry of the grass could be the reason for the movement. When levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the Serengeti grassland reduces, the wildebeests may be encouraged to move elsewhere for more nutritious meals, acting as the catalyst for the Great Migration. Others believe that the migration may be the result of a co-ordinated effort helmed by a leader. But so far there has been no evidence of there ever being an alpha-wildebeest in any herd. Then there are those scientists who believe that the Great Migration is the consequence of instinct and DNA – a purely biological process that has no other reason.
Well, whatever the rationale, fossil records show that the Great Migration has been in occurrence in East Africa for over one million years.
Video: Watch the culmination of the Great Migration – wildebeest giving birth & a newborn’s first, wobbly steps.
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:
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.
An adult female kangaroo
A newborn joey
Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:
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.
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.
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)!
A newborn elephant calf
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.
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:
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 crabson 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Sacculina before it expels its shell
Sacculina after it expels its shell
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dung Beetles are members of the order Coleoptera,which include insects that have hardened wing cases and not papery wings like other insects. As members of coleoptera, they belong to the super-order Endopterygota, which constitutes insects whose bodies undergo a drastic transformation from how they are in the larval stage to how they are in the adult stage. Other insects that share their super-order are bees, butterflies, flies and ants.
Here are 5 fun facts about dung beetles:
We all know that dung beetles love to eat poop. But research shows that dung beetles have a blatant preference for herbivore poop, given the high nutritional value it has from the undigested plant matter. Carnivore and omnivore droppings which contain much less nutrition than what beetles require, are only consumed occasionally.
Did you know that dung beetles have been around from the past 30 million years? Fossil records in South America show prehistoric dung balls, similar to the dung balls today’s dung beetles make, around sites where herbivorous dinosaurs were found. Looks like someone was a good samaritan, keeping dino poop off the streets.
Although the quintessential image of a dung beetle is that of a beetle pushing around a ball of poop, most dung beetles actually don’t indulge in this behavior. Many dung beetles either live within piles of animal poop or burrow holes into the ground below the poop, as these help the beetles gain quick access to the poop when they’re hungry. Dung beetles only roll their dung when they need to carry food to their nests, which may be far away from the pile of fresh poop.
One type of dung beetle from Africa, the Scarabaeus satyrus, uses the Milky Way Galaxy to navigate and travel. When this beetle needs to transport its ball of poop, it waits for it to get dark, gets on top of the poop ball, looks towards the sky, finds the milky way and uses the stars to make its way home. If anything blocks their view of the stars (like scientists did when they placed tiny hats on these dung beetles to check their navigation reflexes when blind), these beetles will wander aimlessly like lost puppies. Talk about requiring celestial guidance.
If you thought a tiny hat didn’t complete its trousseau, don’t worry. There’s more to come. To test whether dung beetle poop-ball-rolling efficiency was affected by the heat of the midday sun, scientists put selected dung beetles in tiny silicon booties. They noticed that the beetles wearing the booties took lesser breaks and were faster in their walk & poop-rolling.
With all this talk of poop-rolling, don’t you want to know what weight a dung beetle can pull during each poop-rolling session? A dung beetle can pull as high as 1,141 times its own body weight! That’s the equivalent of a 70 kilograms human being pulling six double decker buses filled with people!
Here is what we do in the name of scientific inquiry:
Hibiscus, also called Rose Mallow, are flowering plants that belong to the order of Malvaceae– which are plants that grow in warm, temperate, tropical and sub-tropical regions. There are 679 species of hibiscus in the world.
Here are 5 more facts about them:
Hibiscus are edible and have a citrusy taste. Roselle, a type of red-coloured hibiscus found in West Africa is used to make a special type of prawn soup that locals eat as a delicacy during festive times. The Paites tribe in Manipur, India also uses hibiscus leaves in their cooking, for its uplifting flavour.
One of the primary reasons why people started brewing hibiscus tea was because of the hibiscus flower’s unique diuretic properties – it has the ability to stimulate urine production in the body, thereby helping the body throw out harmful toxins.
Hibiscus is the National Flower of 3 countries – Republic of Haiti, Malaysia and South Korea.
Hibiscus flowers and leaves should never be consumed by pregnant women. Why? Hibiscus is an emmenagogue food – in addition to stimulating urine production, hibiscus flowers stimulate blood flow in the pelvic region. A pregnant woman regularly consuming hibiscus flowers, leaves or hibiscus-infused foods and beverages will confuse her body into setting the menstrual process in motion. This can lead to early labour or miscarriage! Even lactating mothers would be better off staying far away from hibiscus as consumption could lead to a stop in milk production.
Want to shine your dirty shoes before a big meeting? Go right into your garden and get a hibiscus. Hibiscus oil is a natural shoe-shiner and is used as a shoe polish liquid across Asia.
Women in Hawaii and Tahiti have an interesting custom. Single women who come of age, who are ready for marriage and who wish to be courted wear a hibiscus flower behind their right ear; while married women and betrothed girls wear the flower behind their left ear.
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.