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5 Fun Facts About Puma

  1. Pumas are known by 80 different names around the world. Some of the ones you may have heard of are – Cougar, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount & Shadow Cat.
  2. Puma cubs are born with spots on their fur, which they lose as they begin to age.
  3. Big cats roar, while small cats snarl. Unlike lions & tigers, puma can’t roar, but they can snarl. This makes them small cats, despite being the fourth heaviest cat species in the world.
  4. There are only 50,000 breeding Pumas in the wild, making them “Near Threatened” according to the IUCN Endangered Species list.
  5. Puma cubs start hunting small prey at 6 months of age. That’s the fastest of all the cats.

 

Bonus

Pumas are excellent jumpers. They can jump as high as 5.4 meters upwards onto a tree. That’s almost twice as high as the World Record high jump of 2.45 meters by Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor.

 

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A puma resting 

 

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A puma hunting a bear cub. The mother bear runs to save its cub. 

 

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A puma cub

 

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A puma running

 

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A mother-cub pair

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Wolverines

  1. Wolverines belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes badgers, otters, minks and beavers.
  2. Wolverines secrete a very foul-smelling liquid from their anus to throw-off predators and marauders. This liquid has given them the name “skunk bear”.
  3. Wolverines use a unique tactic to hunt. They climb onto tall trees and pounce onto their prey from the top. Sometimes, the force of the fall is enough to maim or kill the prey.
  4. In a fight between a bear and a wolverine, the bear will more likely be the first to back-off. Why? Wolverines are known for their nasty temper and nastier bite.
  5. The word “wolverine” means “glutton” in Latin. Wolverines will hunt/scavenge anything that comes in their path and pick the bones clean within hours. They’re also great at sneaking food out of traps set by researchers.

 

Bonus

A “wolverine” is actually the male of the species. The female is called an “angeline” and  wolverine cubs are called “kits”.

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An adult wolverine in captivity

 

Wolverine 4
A newborn kit

 

Video: Wolverine kits with their mother

 

So now that you know these amazing facts, which wolverine do you prefer? Comment below. 

wolverine 1

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Armadillos

  1. Armadillos swallow large quantities of air to inflate themselves into a balloon-like shape and float across water bodies.
  2. The three-banded armadillo is the only one of its species that can form into a complete ball. Its shell is so hard that even dogs can’t break it.
  3. When startled, armadillos jump 3-4 feet vertically into the air. This is the biggest cause of fatal accidents between cars and armadillos.
  4. The nine-banded armadillo becomes mother to 4 genetically-identical quadruplets each time it gives birth. Why? It produces a single egg that divides into 4 equal and completely identical parts.
  5. Armadillos are the only animals other than humans which can contract leprosy.

 

Bonus:

Armadillos are a delicacy in the United States. In fact, there’s a special dish called the Hoover Hog which locals in the southern United States make, using roadkill armadillo, fresh veggies and spices.  

However, I strongly discourage you to try this dish, as it is one of the causes of leprosy transmission between armadillos and humans.

Armadillo 2
A three-banded armadillo rolling into a complete ball
Armadillo ancient
Glyptodon; an extinct animal believed to be one of the ancestors of the modern-day armadillo

 

Armadillo 3
A baby armadillo being fed milk

 

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Three banded armadillo
Armadillo 6
Screaming hairy armadillo
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Andean hairy armadillo

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Minke Whales

  1. Minke whales have two V-shaped blow-holes on their heads. They can hold their breath up to 15 minutes.
  2. Minke whales are very shy and typically swim alone. But they are also curious and can be spotted swimming up to ships and looking up at people.
  3. The killer whale is the minke whale’s natural enemy.
  4. Minke whale pregnancies last 11 months long and calves spend up to 5 years with their mothers.
  5. Minke whales live up to 50 years of age.

 

Bonus:

Minke whales are the second smallest whales on the planet, measuring only 24 feet in length and weighing just under 4.3 metric tonnes. This is just a fraction of the world’s largest whale, the blue whale, which swims at 98 feet in length and weighs 180 metric tonnes.

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Size of a Minke whale compared to other whales

 

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A killer whale attacking a Minke whale
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A pod of Minke whales

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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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.

 

Mouse deer 1
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 Bald Uakari

(pronunciation: wakari)

 

  1. The Bald Uakari are very unique to look at, with their completely hairless, red ballooned faces and extremely short tails. Their fur ranges from pure white to reddish-brown to orange.
  2. Uakari have one of the most powerful jaws in primates and can cut open a hard Brazilian beetle nut with a quick bite.
  3. Uakari females give birth just once every two years.
  4.  Uakari live in groups called ‘troops’ which can contain up to a 100 monkeys.
  5. Uakari are considered vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List, due to extensive hunting by indigenous tribes in its native habitat of South America.

 

Bonus

Uakari are very susceptible to malaria and often fall ill, which reduces the redness of their faces. Animals with paler red faces are rejected by potential mates as they indicate traces of ill health. This can be especially hard for Uakari who have never had the disease, but have pale faces due to genetics.

 

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A reddish-brown uakari

 

Uakari 3
A white uakari

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Okapi

  1. Okapi have tongues that are 30 cms long, which is approximately double the length of a standard television remote and three times the length of the average human tongue.
  2. Okapi diet is as diverse as it is colourful. Okapi eat over 100 types of plants & fungi, red clay and charcoal. This type of diet ensures they get all the nutrients they need to be healthy.
  3. New born okapi don’t poop until they are four to ten weeks old. Researchers believe this may be a tactic to avoid drawing predators through smell.
  4. Mother okapi speak to their babies in infrasound, sounds that are too low for humans to hear.
  5. Okapi release a black tar-like substance from their feet, which leaves marks when they walk. This could be a way of marking territory.

 

Bonus

Okapi are extremely shy and live in secluded areas of the forest. Apart from calf-mother pairs, they seldom interact with any species, including their own. Till the time they were discovered in 1901 by British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, Okapi were called ‘African Unicorns’ because people thought they were a myth and didn’t really exist. It was only the indigenous tribes living in the Congo-Ugandan region who had occasionally seen the animals till then. Now they are found only in the Congo and are the country’s national animal.

 

Video: An okapi in the wild

 

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An okapi 

 

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The Okapi Wildlife Reserve established in Congo helps safeguard this Rare & Endangered species. There are currently only 25,000 documented okapi in the wild. 
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The Congolese franc uses okapi as the image for their 50 franc notes.
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A mother-calf pair feeding

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Elephant Seals

  1. Adult elephant seals can grow up to 20 feet  (6 meters) in length and weigh 8800 pounds (3991 kgs). That’s almost twice the length & weight of a midsize truck or SUV!
  2. Elephant seals can hold their breath underwater for more than two hours straight.
  3. Elephant seals get their names from their large trunk-like snouts called “proboscis”. These appendages grow only on males and develop during puberty. Males use this appendage during mating to attract females (using a series of snorts & grunts) and as shields to protect themselves during fights with competing males.
  4. Elephant seals produce concentrated, jelly-like urine when there is a lack of drinking water in their surroundings. This concentrated urine helps them conserve water in the body for later use. But the moment they drink water, their urine becomes normal and more liquid-like.
  5. Beachmasters are the alpha adult males in a group of male elephant seals. They are the ones who are the strongest of the lot and who possess the best spots on the beach. It is important for the beachmasters to create a big space on the rookery (the beach selected for breeding) if they wish to attract & control a large harem of females.

 

Bonus

Elephant seals usually mate a few months before winter. This is to ensure that the pups are born during the ideal breeding season when the weather isn’t too cold or too hot. But, females have what is called a “delayed implantation”.

The normal gestation period for elephant seals is 9 months. However, due to the delayed implantation it takes up to 12 months for pups to be born. So, if the weather is not right for the pups’ birth or males haven’t established their territories on the rookery in time, this delayed implantation gives them sufficient time to create or wait for better breeding conditions. This is nature’s way of ensuring greater number of live births during the harsh winter.

 

Video: Epic fights and all the excitement of the breeding season

 

 

 

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A harem of female elephant seals. Each harem can cross a 100 females.
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Just-born seal pup. Sea gulls feed on the placenta and broken umbilical cord of the newborns.
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A seal pup
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Seal pups feeding. The milk is extremely nutritious and helps the pups gain three times their birth weight in blubber, in under a month.

 

-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 Puppies

  1. What do French bulldogs, Scottish terriers, Clumber spaniels, German wirehaired pointers, Mastiffs and Pekingese have in common? 80% of their species are born via C-section!
  2. Puppies are born blind and deaf at birth and only get their eyesight and hearing around the 7 week mark. They get their sense of smell at 3 weeks.
  3. Puppy dog face is a real phenomenon. Research shows puppies deliberately make puppy eyes and cutesy expressions when they’re being watched by owners. This is a tactic to get attention, hugs and treats.
  4. There are instances of identical twin pups, although they’re very rare. In 2016, an Irish wolfhound in South Africa delivered twin pups who shared the same placenta.
  5. Puppies learn important lessons from other dogs and humans before 7 weeks of age. They must be introduced to humans and other animals by this age or they’ll never get over their fear of other creatures and become anti-social.

Bonus

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is training a Weimaraner pup named Riley to find and hunt pests that may damage irreplaceable artwork.

Here’s a cute video on puppy behaviour:

 

Pup 1

 

Pup 2

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About The Cheetah

  1. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs never roar. They communicate with each other in a series of low chirps and purrs.
  2. There are 36 different species of cheetahs in the world and they can be classified into 5 main categories.
  3. Cheetahs are super-fast and can reach 112 kms/hour in just 3 seconds. Top speeds have been recorded at 120 kms/hour in 3 seconds!
  4. A cheetah’s body is designed to run. The thick rudder-like tail, muscular legs, non-retractable claws, flexible spine and wide chest make it the ultimate lean, mean running machine.
  5. There are only 7100 cheetahs left in the wild. The cheetah is on the Endangered Species List and is considered extremely vulnerable to extinction.

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cheetah 2

 

Bonus:

Ancient Sumerians, Egypt’s King Tut and the Mughal emperor Akbar trained thousands of cheetahs as guards and hunters for their royal houses.

(But this didn’t mean they could keep up with the Cheetah during chases and hunts. Take a look at this video which pits two of the fastest creatures on the planet in a race against each other, to know what we mean)

Usain Bolt vs the Cheetah

 

-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”.

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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
Stinging Rose Caterpillar.jpeg
Stinging Rose Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar

 

3) Hooded Pitohui

Did you ever think a bird would be on this list?

The Hooded Pitohui, scientifically called Pitohui dichrous makes its home in the lush forests of New Guinea. The size of a dove, the Pitohui is the only documented poisonous bird in the world.

It’s toxin is a neurotoxin which numbs and paralyzes the victims. Luckily, this toxin isn’t fatal to humans, although the effects can take hours to wear-off. Sadly, the same isn’t true for its prey which are insects.

The Hooded Pitohui is part of a 3-species family, which also includes the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are poisonous too, but not to the level of toxicity as their hooded cousin. The toxin has been found to be the outcome of the birds’ consumption of the choresine beetle. Such a nuisance is this bird to the surrounding tribes, it had been nicknamed Pitohui or ‘rubbish bird’ by the locals, which then was adopted as its official name.

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Hooded Pitohui
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Hooded Pitohui
Variable pithoui
Variable Pitohui
Brown pitchoui
Brown Pitohui

 

4) Pufferfish

Here’s an animal that can (and has) kill(ed) a human. Puffer fish are one of the most venomous animals on the planet and a single sting can bring down the mightiest of men. Often, human deaths occur when people unwittingly consume puffer fish organs in their meal. In animals though, its often a result of the puffer’s hunting or defence strategy.

The toxin the puffer fish contains is called Tetrodotoxin, which is a highly potent neurotoxin. The toxin slowly blocks all the neural transmitters in the body, essentially paralysing the victim, one organ at a time. At its peak, the Tetrodotoxin closes the wind pipe, slows down the lungs  and stops the heart from working. Soon, the brain dies due to asphyxiation and lack of blood flow, killing the victim. Scientists believe Tetrodotoxin  is 200 times more lethal than cyanide!

Want to know something even more unbelievable? The Japanese have a very special dish called Fugu which is made of puffer fish and is served during very special events. And guess what? Chefs deliberately leave a bit of the poison on the fish as an adrenaline-inducing treat for the guests.

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Guineafowl Puffer Fish
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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 Fragile Mental Health of Baby Orangutans

If you thought baby humans were tiny and vulnerable, think again. Baby orangs take first place as one of the most fragile and breakable newborns on the planet.

A baby orangutan needs round-the-clock care up until at least 1 year of age. Just like human babies, they are absolutely helpless and powerless and need their mothers (or carers in captivity) to feed them, bathe them and give them lots of hugs. In the wild, babies stay with their mother for 8-9 years, learning how to be an orang.

But these days, due to increasing commercial activity in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are being ripped apart from their homes; many apart from their families. Deforestation, coupled with human-orang conflicts which at times leads to mum’s death, can be quite traumatic for baby orangutans.

Often, workers and resident villagers keep orphaned baby orangs illegally as pets. They even sell them on the black market to make a quick buck. This can be especially devastating for baby orangs. Fed the wrong food and kept in unhygienic and harmful conditions, these babies find themselves spiralling down towards abysmal health.

It has been found that baby orangs that experience trauma at a young age often develop PTSD and may go into depression or have anxiety attacks as adults. In extreme cases, this manifests itself as self-harm. It has been noticed how traumatized orangs bite or scratch themselves, pull out their fur and hurl themselves against the wall when unable to overcome the frustration and anxiety they have building within them.

This is where orangutan care centres are especially important. These centres help vets, animal experts and volunteers care for baby orangs and rehabilitate them back into the wild. Take a look at this video below of baby Joss, who was rescued from a house that kept her as a pet where she was ill-treated the entire time.

Many orangutans may even find it very difficult to forge meaningful relationships with other orangs and their human caregivers.

A case in point is Pony, a 17 year  old female orangutan who was rescued from a brothel, where she was sold as a sex slave when she was a baby. Pony was trained to perform unnatural acts with humans and this resulted in her developing serious PTSD and an intense aversion to humans; something which is slowing down her treatment.

Unwilling to interact with humans, Pony is isolating herself from other orangs and her caregivers. Not taught how to forage when young and having been alienated from her natural psychological development, she has made no progress in her healing and the prospect of her release into the wild looks bleaker by the day. Although rescued at age 7, Pony was too old to provide the care her younger cousins (like Joss in the video) were given. Now caregivers use a combination of medication and routine activities to keep her calm and help her regain her trust in humans. To know more about her, follow this link*.

Awareness about these endangered creatures and how they are being abused can help us find ways to save them and protect them. We may not be able to do much for Pony, but we may certainly be able to save others from this terrible fate if we try. Share this post and spread the word about the harrowing journey these little ones face.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: This article may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

Featured image: Orangutan babies

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Pig Anorexia: A Little-known Disease That’s Decimating Porcine Populations Globally

Anorexia nervosa is a complicated disorder and genes aren’t everything. The genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger.”

-Dr. Janet Treasure

 

When Dr. Janet Treasure, senior lecturer at the London Institute of Psychiatry conducted her research into the origins of Anorexia nervosa in humans, she found herself following a path not many knew about; but which could explain how Anorexia functions in human beings.

This path less travelled by, was the study of a disease that only few knew existed and which hardly any understood – Pig Anorexia.

 

Piglet suckling
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The day the pigs came calling

It was in 1962 at a farm in Ontario, Canada that the resident pig keeper noticed something amiss with the new litter of piglets. The tiny creatures had been recently weaned from their mother and were being fed by hand by the farm boys.

While things seemed fine at first, the pig keeper noticed the piglets had stopped eating soon after, often starving themselves for days until they were just skin and bones. With this starvation came the vomitting, the weakness and the weight loss.

The hunger, combined with the deteriorating condition of the body, soon grew too much for the tiny piglets to cope with and the entire farrow lost its life.

This was the very first case of ‘pig anorexia’ as it soon came to be called and it is a disease that has affected pigs the world over.

 

Virus
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The HEV

The Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV) is a RNA virus that affects porcine, aka pigs. As an RNA virus, it affects the pigs’ RNA, infecting the animal at the cellular level.

In every living creature, the DNA is the genetic blueprint of the body and it dictates the physiological and psychological make-up of the creature. The RNA is an acid present in the cells, which carries messages from the DNA and stimulates the production of proteins. These proteins are used by the cells to develop and control the functioning of the various organs inside the animal’s body.

Multiple RNA strands work within the cells of an animal’s body throughout its life. Ultimately, the RNA are responsible for the health of the proteins, the cells and the animal itself.

Now imagine if the HEV were to infect the RNA of the piglets. Each and every time an infected RNA would stimulate the production of proteins in the body, the proteins and by extension the cells, would be infected too.

Slowly over time, the HEV starts infecting the piglets from the cellular level by making their cells and organs diseased.

How does HEV spread?

HEV is just like any other virus and it spreads from contact with body liquids. These liquid spread between snout-to-snout contact and can also spread to pigs through indirect contact with boots, jackets, farm equipment etc. if pig saliva or mucus is splattered on them.

It’s been observed that most porcine populations are exposed to these viruses everyday. But only 1% – 4% of the population ever experience an active attack. Piglets are the most vulnerable to the virus, given their lack of immunity and strength.

Infected piglets will often have microscopic lesions inside their snout, on their tonsils and on the walls of their stomach. When the virus spreads, it moves to the lungs, small intestine and finally the brain through the sensory nerves. It is when the virus reaches the brain that piglets exhibit full-fledged anorexia-like symptoms.

The HEV has been observed re-writing the signals sent to the brain, changing the behaviour of the piglets. The affected piglets display low hunger levels at first and soon start skipping meals. During later stages of the disease, they may vomit extensively and may start dehydrating as a result. The muscles start to wear-out and soon, the piglet is just skin and bones. Death is an inevitable result of the disease.

The HEV-induced infection is a porcine-only infection and does not spread to humans.

 

Piglet 2
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Why is it called pig anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in humans, where the sufferer stops eating or refuses to eat and starts exhibiting a variety of symptoms including:

  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Listlessness
  • Depression
  • Constant vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Extreme weakness and lethargy
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Low tolerance to heat or cold

Pigs infected by the HEV  display symptoms  so close to Anorexia nervosa, that the disease has been named Pig Anorexia.

It can get extremely challenging to diagnose the presence of HEV in pigs. For one, symptoms resemble other diseases like Encephalitis, Vomiting & Wasting Disease or the Classical Swine Fever (or Hog Cholera). The only way now to identify if a porcine herd is a victim of the HEV, is to understand their origins and their environment.

Of birth and breeding

Pig pens are extremely fertile incubation areas for the Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV).  Once the virus takes root, it cannot be eliminated. The reason for this is the lack of a cure. To this day, there is no clinical cure available to help affected piglets.

But, there is something pig breeders can do to reduce herd vulnerability.

Piglets get high immunity from the colostral antibodies found in the mother’s milk. Putting piglets onto the teat at the earliest can reduce chances of an infection by half. Second, keeping the pen clean and free of fecal matter can reduce chances of infection further.

But this still won’t be enough. It’s been observed that susceptibility to the HEV is also affected by genetics. Pigs birthed naturally, without human intervention have the highest chance of survival as they have the most natural genetic structure which is designed to combat fatal illnesses.

However, with humans preferring leaner bacon cuts over thicker ones, pig farmers are deliberately isolating and promoting those genes which give rise to thinner piglets. This type of genetic manipulation, makes the piglets weaker and more susceptible to infections, including the HEV.

Dr. Janet Treasure said, anorexia is as much about genes as it is about the environment. When combined with the weak genes, the poor rearing environment and pathetic post-birth care practices can double the chances of piglets developing anorexia-like symptoms post-weaning.

Fallen pig
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Pig anorexia – shattering the body and the mind

Physically, the impact of HEV-induced pig anorexia is nightmarish. Thousands of pigs die each year because of the lack of veterinary care. Exposure to infected piglets often puts other healthy animals too at risk and increases the headcount.

However, it isn’t the physiological impact alone that needs to be considered. Pigs are extremely emotional and cognitive creatures. They are inquisitive, temperamental and borderline-compassionate.

A 2013 researchby Reimert, Bolhuis, Kemp, & Rodenburg showed how untrained pigs when introduced into a new pen of trained pigs, adopted the behaviours and mannerisms of their trained counterparts, after sustained exposure to them. These behaviours and mannerisms included everything from the way the tails were held to the vocalizations made to the choice of food the pigs were making. This could be an attempt at social acceptance by the pigs or a mimicry of a positive stimulus-response behaviour.

Now let’s apply the same logic here. Imagine if new pigs are introduced to an infected herd which displays signs of starvation, depression and social isolation. The new pigs too are more likely to mimic this refusal of food and they may socially isolate themselves, following the example of the herd.

This psychological impact that the HEV has on healthy pigs, can lead to true pig anorexia, with pigs refusing to eat out of fear, anxiety or depression.

 

Pig person
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The human connect

The idea that pig anorexia could bring about a breakthrough in the study of anorexia in humans was unthought of. But during her study, Dr. Treasure realized how similar pigs were to humans in terms of psychology and social behaviour.

Her study into pig anorexia helped her understand a key component about Anorexia nervosa – while genes do play a vital role in indicating susceptibility to the disorder, it is the environmental factors that finally trigger the condition. Essentially, people may be pre-disposed to anorexia through genetics, but this pre-disposition is unlikely to have a major negative impact so long as the person’s upbringing is filled with love and support.

Just like fecal matter in pig pens, constant negative feedback from family can make people more likely to suffer from anorexia. Remove this environmental contamination and you reduce the subject’s vulnerability to the disorder. This insight is now helping medical professionals find lasting  treatments for anorexia in humans.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Note:

∗ 2013 Research – Please check Pg.115 

P.S: Featured image