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5 Differences Between Turtles & Tortoises

Turtles & Tortoises must have been the source of the “Find the difference” game, because they are two animals that most people can’t distinguish between. 

Turtles & tortoises are both reptiles which belong to the Testudines family of animals – animals which developed a bony/cartilaginous layer on their backs, which cover their bodies as a shield. They belong to the same group as crocodiles and snakes. 

A lot of times, many aspiring pet owners don’t know how to differentiate between a turtle and a tortoise and end up caring for them the wrong way. They give them the wrong food and expose them to the wrong living conditions. This results in many animal deaths. Those owners who try to do right by their pets by releasing them back into the wild, release turtles & tortoises in environments they actually aren’t supposed to, leading to more deaths. 

So, how can we stop this vicious cycle? By learning more about them of course. Here are the top 5 differences between turtles & tortoises

  1. Turtles can swim, tortoises can’t. That’s why turtles have webbed feet (sea turtles have full-fledged flippers) and tortoises have feet that have toes (like that of an elephant) which they use to walk & climb. 
  2. With the exception of the Sonoran mud turtles and Box turtles, all other turtle species have a streamlined and flat shell. All tortoises have deep, domed shells. The streamlined shells of turtles are highly-aerodynamic and reduce drag in the water. Tortoises never needed to evolve a flat shell because they never needed to swim. 
  3. Turtles live on an average for 80 years. Tortoises for 150 years. There have been instances where turtles and tortoises in healthy captive conditions lived well beyond their natural lifespans, some reaching an estimated 250 years of age. 
  4. Turtles are omnivores and like to eat a mix of plants and meat like larvae, insects, small fish and jellyfish. Tortoises are mostly herbivores and love their green leaves, with only a handful of species choosing to eat meat. 
  5. Female turtles come on shore only to lay eggs and will return to the water immediately after. Female tortoises on the other hand, often stay a few days protecting the nest and will return to their territories much later. If you’ve seen a turtle/tortoise lay her eggs near your property and you want to do your bit to give these eggs a chance to hatch (and not get eaten by predators), read this really-informative article by the Tortoise Protection Group here

Bonus

Okay, here’s a fun fact that can turn everything you’ve just learnt on its head. 

Scientifically speaking, there’s no distinct species called “tortoise”!

Okay, before you drop your device in shock, let me just clarify that there’s more to it.

So, according to taxonomy (the science of classification), all animals that have shells which cover their body completely are called “turtles”. What this means is that all tortoises are in reality a type of turtle

Let’s break it down further. The species called “turtles” includes – tortoises, terrapins (yep, that’s a new one) and turtles.

  • Tortoises are turtles which live exclusively on land.
  • Terrapins are turtles whose shells resemble those of sea turtles (only smaller), but whose legs look like those on tortoises and they swim in freshwater.
  • Turtles are actually sea-turtles which live in the ocean and do not remain long on land. 

Basically, all tortoises and terrapins are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises and terrapins. 

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An Australian sea turtle (image source)
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A Galapagos giant tortoise (image source)
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A Terrapin – see how they look like a cross between a turtle and a tortoise. Their shells are flat and streamlined, but their feet are only slightly-webbed with long claws attached, making them perfect for both land and water-based living.  (image source)
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Turtles & tortoises have different types of feet. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image
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5 Fun Facts About Chevrotain aka Mouse Deer

  1. Chevrotain are found only in Asia and Africa.
  2. Chevrotain are super small in size. The various sub-species of the mouse deer range in size between that of a Chihuahua and a Jack Russell Terrier.
  3. Although they resemble deer and have mousey faces, the chevrotain are not related to either of the animals. In fact, they belong to a separate, mostly-extinct species called Tragulidae, of which they are the only surviving members.
  4. They have very long and sharp fangs which they use during battle for territory and mates. Their bites can put even Dracula to shame.
  5. Female chevrotain are pregnant for most of their adult lives. They mate and get pregnant within a few hours of giving birth.

 

Bonus

Chevrotains walk down into the river bottom and remain submerged for up to 4 minutes at a time when they sense the presence of predators.  They may also create secondary burrows for themselves underwater where they stay until the danger passes. To see what this is like, watch the video below.

 

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A chevrotain’s fangs are very sharp and long. Males have longer and sharper fangs than females.
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Chevrotain mating
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A mother chevrotain feeding a fawn. Mothers stand on three legs, lift a leg in the air and feed their fawns. 
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Fawns are one of the smallest creatures in the wild
male Lesser Mouse-deer
A mouse deer in the Thai forest

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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5 Fun Facts About Magpies

  1. Magpies are scared of shiny objects. That’s why it’s advisable to place shiny buttons, coins and glassware near plants to prevent the birds from wreaking havoc on them.
  2. The magpies tail is as long as his body, making him one of the longest birds in the avian world.
  3. They are the only species of birds that can recognise themselves in mirrors. In fact, they are one of the only non-mammalian species apart from ants and manta rays to have this ability.
  4. Apart from self-recognition, magpies can recognise other animals by their faces. So, if you’ve ever had a magpie attack you when you’re out running/cycling, get ready for a lifetime of dislike. These birds form friendships and enemy-ships (is that a word?) that last a lifetime.
  5. Unrelated magpie males help widowed females raise the chicks of another male with great gusto, even if it means the female may leave him in the end.

 

Bonus

There’s an old superstition that says the number of magpies one sees in a day can predict if there is bad luck in store or not. In fact, a famous nursery rhyme claims origin from this superstition – One For Sorrow. Here it is:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

Eight for a wish,

Nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird,

You must not miss.

 

Nest of Magpie, Pica pica. Wild bird in a natural habitat. Wildlife Photography.
A magpie nest with newborns and unhatched eggs
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Magpies are indiscriminate eaters and eat everything from worms to bird chicks

 

 

NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Fruit Flies

Am not I

A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me?

(The Fly, William Blake)

 

  1. Fruit flies can’t stand carbon dioxide. It makes them woozy and unfocused.
  2. Fruit flies’ chromosomes look like barcodes.
  3. Fruit flies have 100,000 neurons, which is a very high number for flies and it is this large brain matter that makes fruit flies so intelligent.
  4. Fruit flies love their beer and males often get drunk on both alcohol and fruit. Female fruit flies have been observed rejecting males who get drunk often. (here’s an addition: humans like the same beer and wine as fruit flies…go figure)
  5. Fruit flies enjoy sex as much as the human whose house they are in. Turns out sexually-deprived males go into depression and look for alcoholic drinks/food, while their sated counterparts steer clear of alcohol. 

 

Bonus

Fruit flies are a boon to science. They have a whopping 14,000 genes in their bodies (humans have 24,000…so that should tell you something) and extremely fast life cycles (fruit flies can  mature from eggs to adults in as less as two weeks), which makes them perfect for genetic experimentations. In fact, fruit flies have contributed to 6 Nobel Prizes between 1933 & 2017.

So, what did fruit flies help us understand?

  • Role of chromosomes in heredity
  • Role of radiation in genetic mutation
  • Control of embryonic development through genetic experimentation
  • Role of the olfactory system
  • Activation of immunity in organisms
  • Molecules that control the circadian rhythm
  • Mechanism of cellular healing in severe wounds

 

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Fruit flies mating

 

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A fruit fly consuming fruit

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Hippos

  1. Hippos are one of the most aggressive animals on the planet and they ‘yawn’ to show their annoyance or aggression towards another animal. Hippos kill an estimated 500 people each year in Africa.  
  2. The ‘red blood’ hippos sweat is actually a natural sunblock and moisturiser which hippos secrete to keep their skin hygienic and healthy.
  3. Hippos rise every 3-5 minutes from underwater to take a breath of air. They do this even when they are asleep, rising automatically and submerging again despite being semi/unconscious.
  4. Hippos are extremely fast and can run at speeds as high as 30 kms/hour. This is faster than the average human!
  5. Hippo calves suckle from their mothers underwater by closing their nostrils and ears.

 

Bonus

Hippos are actually related to whales and porpoises and not other land-based organisms!

 

 

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Hippo mother and calf pairs stay together for 8 years, until the baby enters adulthood.

 

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Hippo mums gently nudge their babies to the surface for the first few days after birth, to help them swim to the top.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Gorillas

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

Bonus:

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

Gorilla 3

 

 

Gorilla 2

 

Video: 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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If Poison Were A Colour…

Here’s a short poem before we start:

 

Five Little Crayons

Five little crayons coloured a scene.

Yellow, blue, orange, red and green.

“Look,” said Yellow, “My sun is bright!”

Blue said, “Great! My river’s just right!”

Orange said, “Flowers! I’ll draw something new.”

Red said, “Great, I’ll add some, too!”

“Sigh,” said Green, “I’m tired of trees,

And grass and bushes and tiny leaves.

I think I’ll draw a big green cloud!”

“A big green cloud should be allowed!”

The crayons all smiled and didn’t think twice

A big green cloud sounded rather nice!

 

Pretty fun to sing isn’t it? And a wonderful sight it would be too. Especially in the wild.

Nature has her fair share of spectacularly beautiful animals and plants. Super colourful and oh-so-inviting, your only wish would be to touch the creature and feel it under your fingers. But do so and that may be the last thing you ever do.

If there’s one thing you need to remember about the wild, it’s that Colours = Poison.

Say hello to Aposematism

What do they call an animal that uses bright colours to ward-off danger? An aposematic animal of course. Aposematism is the biological process of using colours as signals to repel predators.

Animals brighten their skin pigments or even change their colours as warning to other animals not to cross their path. Plants, flowers, fungi and seeds use bright colours which indicate high levels of toxicity (which animals learn indicate ‘Don’t Eat’).

Aposematic animals & plants work in weird, but wonderful ways. While some are genuinely poisonous and use unique colours to their advantage, others are non-poisonous and mimic their more dangerous cousins to confuse and scare-off their predators, who otherwise may attack them.

But here you have below the list of 5 animals who really are poisonous and who use colour as a warning sign in the wild. Remember, they may look enchanting and you may want to touch them or pet them. But trust me, it’s better you stay away.

Now, without further ado, here are our top pics for pretty but potent animals in the wild:

1) Amazonian Poison Dart Frog

This one is most certainly the poster boy for ‘colorful but potent’ category in the wild (hence the feature image ;D) 

Poison dart frogs are one of the most toxic creatures on land. Dart frogs don’t make their own poisons, but store the poison of the insects and smaller animals they eat. They then process these poisons and combine them to make a very potent toxin…something which can be severely painful for humans.

Local Amazonian tribes use the tree frog’s poison to coat their darts, which they use to hunt monkeys and birds. The most toxic of all Amazonian tree frogs is Phyllobates terribilis.

Amazon red frog
Red Striped Poison Dart Frog
Amazon blue frog
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Golden Poison frog
Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog
Golden Frog
Phyllobates terribilis aka Golden Poison Frog

 

2) Caterpillars

The Monarch Butterfly and the Pipevine Swallowtail store and use their prey’s toxin as a defence mechanism when they are older. Birds know they can be deadly to eat and avoid them. But other than a handful of these winged critters, most butterflies and moths aren’t poisonous. But the same can’t be said of their offspring.

Many caterpillars have a poisonous coating on their body, which protects them from being eaten by predators when they are young & helpless. While some poisons only knock the predator out for a few hours, others kill. A case in point is the formidable  N’gwa or ‘Kaa caterpillar, which is found in Africa and whose toxin, according to researcher David Livingstone, which is a mixture of snake venom and plant toxin, has the capacity to kill an antelope.

 

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Saddleback Caterpillar
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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
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Blue Spotted Puffer Fish
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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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The Tale of the Undead Fish

What happens when you roam the seas for 400 million years? Why you become a Coelacanth of course! Meet the fish that have baffled scientists with their unexpected return from the dead.

 10 mind-blowing facts about the Coelacanth

*(pronunciation: SEEL-uh-kanth)

  • They were thought to be extinct

Up until 1938, it was assumed that Coelacanths were extinct. The handful of the specimen caught by fishermen was all dead and the rest were fossils; but, in 1938, a live specimen was caught off the coast of South Africa. As of today, there are two known species of Coelacanths in the wild – one near the Comoros Islands, Africa and the other in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Coelacanths are endangered species. Research suggests that there are just between 230 & 650 coelacanths in the wild today.

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Coelacanth fossil (Image Source)
  • They are the key piece in the puzzle about the Earth’s first terrestrial vertebrates

Fossil records of Coelacanths show that they originated during the Devonian Period which ended 419.2 million years ago. This was the era in evolution when the first terrestrial animals made an appearance.

The Coelacanths’ physiological characteristics resemble in part those traits we observe in land-based creatures today. Scientists believe that Coelacanths may be the missing link that might point us to the exact moment in evolution when the world’s first underwater vertebrates made their foray to the land.

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Evolution of vertebrates from the sea to the land (Image Source)
  • They have some very unique organs and some vestigial ones

While Coelacanths may be the clue to the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates, they don’t have a vertebral column themselves. Instead, they have a hollow, oil-filled tube called the notochord. The notochord is the embryonic vertebral column that evolves into a full-fledged spinal cord when the embryo develops.

They are also one of the only animals today that have an intracranial joint in their skull, which allows them to unhinge their jaws from the rest of the skull and consume prey almost three times their own size.

While on the one side these fish can’t do without their notochord and intracranial joint, on the other, they canlive without their lungs. Coelacanths’ are the only known fish to have lungs and these lungs develop normally (as in vertebrates) as embryos. But as they grow older, the lungs become smaller and finally stop working, becoming completely useless. To breathe, the fish uses the scaly plates on its body as gills.

Notochord
Notochord in an embryo. The notochord develops into a full-fledged vertebral column in most species. (Image Source)
  • Their brains contain more fat than actual brains

Coelacanths give the term ‘small-minded’ a completely new meaning. Only 1.5% of their cranial cavity constitutes their brain matter. The rest of the cavity is made of fat. Scientists are still unsure what these fish do with the fat in their cranial cavity. But it has been observed that younger Coelacanths have larger brains and lesser fat and this proportion inverts as they age.

  • They are nocturnal

Coelacanths spend most of their days in cool and dark caves sleeping. They only come out at night to feed. They are drift-feeders, meaning they let the current drift them along the ocean floor. They hunt fish and cephalopods like squids, nautilus, cuttlefish and more. They aren’t very competitive when it comes to territory and food and are quite willing to share their belongings with fellow Coelacanths.

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Coelacanths huddling in the shadow of a cave (Image Source)
  • They use an electrosensory system to navigate the seas

Coelacanths possess a rostral organ in their snouts just like Anchovy which is a gel-filled cavity surrounded by a layer of adipose fat tissue. This organ is extremely sensitive to underwater electromagnetic signals and Coelacanths use this organ to navigate the seas, find prey and avoid obstacles.

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Anatomy of a coelacanth (Image Source)
  • The females are one-man women during the mating season

Female Coelacanths are serial monogamists and mate with just one select mate during breeding season. This mate may or may not change across the seasons and may or may not be shared between two females.

Once, the gender ratio in the world of Coelacanths was so off balance, it was noticed that the young of two females living in close quarters were sired by the same father.

  • They give birth to live young

Coelacanths are the only fish in the world to have live births. In 1975, researchers at the American Museum of Natural History dissected a dead specimen to find it pregnant with five embryos. The embryos resembled full-grown Coelacanths in shape and scale-texture, with just a few differences that they were smaller in size and the embryos had a small yellow film covering their bodies and a large yolk sack protruding from their pelvic fins. It’s believed that Coelacanths’ eggs hatch within the mother’s womb and the ‘pups’ are then birthed live.

Coelacanth embryo
A coelacanth embryo (Image Source)
  • They aren’t dinner-table worthy

Coelacanths are foul tasting, to say the least. Their scales secrete copious amounts of mucous and their bodies contain toxic oils, urea and wax compounds which are both inedible and harmful to the human body. So don’t be in a hurry to get one on your plate.

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A coelacanth in the wild (Image Source)
  • They are the only species of fish to have an operetta to their name

Remember the dead Coelacanth with the five embryos in her womb? Well, as it turns out, she was the muse to a musically-inclined scientist’s operetta.

Dr Charles Rand, a haematologist from Long Island produced his quirky ode to the pregnant fish in an operetta entitled Quintuplets at 50 Fathoms Can Be Fun, also called A Coelacanth’s Lament. It was set to the music of the Gilbert and Sullivan song ‘Tit Willow’ and is one of the American Museum of Natural History’s best creations.

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The first coelacanth sketch made by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the museum curator who discovered the first live coelacanth specimen. (Image Source)

Now that you know so much about the coelacanth, it’s time to meet one in person.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image