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Humans Aren’t The Only Ones To Use A Midwife During Birth, Other Animals Do Too

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? 

 

Djungarian hamster
A Djungarian hamster (Source)

 

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). 

 

black Snub nosed monkey
A Black snub-nosed monkey (Source)

 

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.

 

Bonobo
A Bonobo (Source)

 

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. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image: Golden snub-nosed monkey 

 

 

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What’s In A Name: The Colourful (& Sometimes Hurtful) Profession of Naming New Species

Elephas maximus borneensis, Funambulus palmarum, Ajaja ajaja, Oryza rufipogon…you may have come across these or something similar in your biology textbook or an article about wildlife. They are scientific names of animals & plants – Borneo elephant, Indian palm squirrel, Spoonbills and Wild rice, in that order.

At first read, we may not really decipher which species the name refers to. But when we do, we are pleasantly surprised.

One of the most exciting activities in the scientific community, is taxonomy – the science of grouping a newly discovered species. A part of this job involves naming the species.

While enjoyable, the process of naming a new species is also a very complicated task; which involves a lot of research, word play and sarcasm. If you’ve ever wanted to know how plants & animals get their scientific names, you’re at the right place.

 

Rules 2
Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is the governing body which has complete control over all things taxonomy. It is the Code which spells out how an animal can be named and what rules must be followed while naming.

According to the Code, there are 3 cardinal rules that all taxonomists need to follow when naming an animal:

  • Don’t use a used name – The name must be completely unique.
  • Don’t be insulting – The name must not be rude to anyone.
  • Don’t name the species after yourself – The final name cannot include the name of the taxonomist.

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

There are many cases in the past when scientists named an animal to either gain recognition or to take a dig at a competitor.

There was Dr. May Berenbaum, the VP of Entomological Society of America, who named a species of urea-eating cockroach after herself – Xestoblatta berenbaumae. Of course, she did say that fame wasn’t her focus when she did this. Dr. Berenbaum was already a highly-reputed scientist in the community and she only wanted to showcase her passion for creepy crawlies by naming one after herself.

 

Cockroach xestoblatta-berenbaumae-male-female
Xestoblatta berenbaumae (Source)

 

Then there was famed 1700s botanist, the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. He is renowned today, not just for his contribution to taxonomy, but also for being unbelievably petty and mean towards people he didn’t like. At the height of his career, he used fellow botanist and friend Johann Georg Siegesbeck’s name as inspiration to name a foul-smelling genus of weed – Sigesbeckia orientalis – after Siegesbeck publicly criticised Linnaeus’ method of species classification. This, many believe, was meant to be a dig at Siegesbeck’s  jealousy at Linnaeus’ success.  

 

Anderson (Mrs), active 1858; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Later Carl von Linne
Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy (Source)

 

St Paul Wort
Sigesbeckia orientalis aka St. Paul’s Wort (Source)

 

And who can forget Daniel Rolander, Linnaeus’ most-hated protégé?  After Rolander refused to share his field study results and samples from his trip to Suriname with Linnaeus, the latter promptly went ahead and got him banned from leading scientific and academic institutions of the time. To add salt to injury, Linnaeus also named a type of dung beetle – Aphanus rolandri – after Rolander. Ouch. 

Loosely translated to English, Aphanus rolandri means “inconspicuous Rolander”. Now that’s what I call a double whammy.

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

Here’s one more – Famed palaeontologist O.A. Peterson named a species of prehistoric pig as Dinohyus hollandi, after Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History W.J. Holland, for the latter’s annoying habit of hogging the limelight. Holland was known in scientific circles for taking credit for every research paper published by his students, irrespective of whether he contributed to it or not.

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

Barring these and a few other instances of inspired, but hurtful name-calling, taxonomy has for the most period, been a civilised affair.

When naming an animal or a plant, taxonomists are told to consider the specialty of the species as inspiration. So, when scientists found a new genus of tiny sea snails, they named them Ittibittium; given how they were much smaller in size compared to another genus of sea snails – Bittium.

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

The second way to name a new species – find another creature that looks exactly like it and name the new species after that. Enter Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly which is renowned for possessing a giant, golden bottom. Who else in the animal kingdom had such a big, tanned, booty? Why, Beyoncé of course.

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

TV shows and story book characters have inspired species names too. A newly discovered species of jellyfish was named Bazinga reiki after The Big Bang Theory’s protagonist Sheldon Cooper’s famous catchphrase “Bazinga”. The bacteria genus Midichloria was named after a fictional alien species called “midichlorians” described in the cult classic Star Wars.  Then there’s the fossil of a large turtle, discovered in 1992 – Ninjemys oweni, named after the hit show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 

 

So, to encapsulate

Scientific names must be unique, kind, not self-glorifying and clever. They must take inspiration from the species itself or another, just like it.

Can only scientists name a new species?

Although scientists who discover the species usually get the honour of naming them, some scientists allow members of the public to send their suggestions.

In 2000, Dr Nerida Wilson discovered a species of nudibranch in the Indian ocean. She didn’t have a name for the animal. So, she decided to let the people decide. She invited names from the public and the submissions were reviewed by a panel of expert taxonomists. Finally, the entry by Patrick from New South Wales was chosen and the nudibranch was named – Moridilla fifo.

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

Although Latin was the language of taxonomy in the 1700s, today, there’s no strict rule requiring taxonomists to name species in Latin or Greek. You can provide a name in any language of your choice and taxonomists will tweak the spelling to resemble Latin or Greek, without actually changing or translating the name itself.

Want to name a species yourself?

Go on and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Who knows, the next big discovery could be named by you.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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5 Fun Facts About Uguisu

(Hear the pronunciation of “Uguisu” here)

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

Here are fun five fun facts about Uguisu:

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

Bonus

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

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

Uguisu 2
An Uguisu in the wild. (image source)
Uguisu 3
A bottle of Uguisu-no-Fun face cream made from Uguisu droppings. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image
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I’m Celebrating My First Anniversary At WordPress & Stories So Wild!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great evening!

Lots of love, 

Nisha Prakash