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

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

 

Basic info:

Name: Rhea

Scientific classification:

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

Height: 3-5ft

Weight: 55-80 pounds

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

Mating: Polygamous

Nest size: 10-60 eggs

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

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

Related to: Ostrich and emu

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A Rhea dad with his chicks (Source)

5 fun facts about Rhea dads

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

 

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

 

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

 

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A clutch of Rhea eggs (Source)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured Image: Pixabay 

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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.

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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.

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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

5 Technologies That Are Inspired by the Wild

Biomimetics, also known as biomimicry, is a branch of science that uses nature as inspiration to find solutions for human problems. One of the biggest uses of Biomimetics is using animal and plant defensive strategies as the foundation for technology. Here are 5 amazing inventions that are inspired by the wild.

  • Sharkskin and catheters

Catheters are so important for a variety of medical treatments. But for long, doctors had to contend with dirty-catheter-induced infections in patients. To combat this problem, scientists looked towards sharks.

Sharks have tiny, V-shaped sharp bumps on their skins called dermal denticles which prevent algae, barnacles and slime from collecting on the shark. This keeps them clean,  healthy and free from dermatological afflictions.

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Shark dermal denticles (Image Source)

Using the sharkskin concept, a company called Sharklet Technologies developed a specialized plastic wrap with sharp bumps along the surface, which could be coated on catheters. Once coated, the wrap prevented the accumulation of germs and pus on the catheter, reducing the threat of infections in patients.

These denticles also reduce drag in shark and help them preserve energy when swimming. That’s why swimming costume and bodysuit manufacturers are using the same concept to create efficient sportswear for athletes.

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Sharklet, the technology derived from the shark denticles (Image Source)
  • Tardigrades and live vaccines

Suspended animation is a concept that’s enthralled us for decades. Movies like Space Odyssey and Avatar have further rejuvenated our interest in the concept.  While humans are still experimenting with suspended animations, one animal has been living the concept for centuries.

Tardigrades are tiny, microscopic eight-legged animals that resemble arthropods. They’re called water bears or moss piglets because they spend their entire lives in water. If however, the water dehydrates, tardigrades find it difficult to survive. But instead of dying out, the tardigrades go into a state of suspended animation and remain in this state until their environment becomes re-hydrated. They do so by coating their DNA with a type of sugar-protein.

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Tardigrade (Image Source)

Scientists have used this concept to develop a method to preserve vaccines that expire in very short periods of time. They wrap the vaccines in sugar proteins similar to the ones used by tardigrades, putting them in a frozen state (without actually refrigerating them), which keeps them in perfect condition for up to 6 months. This ensures that the vaccines remain ‘live’ and ‘fresh’ much longer.

You can see tardigrades in the flesh here. If you want to find your own tardigrade, be sure to check out this video.

  • Butterflies and e-reader colour display

E-readers have renewed the habit of reading in many parts of the world. One of the best features that set e-readers apart from other technology is the colour display – light that enables users to read in extreme glare and in the dark.

It would come as a surprise to many that e-reader colour display has been inspired by butterflies. The iridescence of butterfly wings has inspired the development of the Mirasol, a full-colour e-reader that can churn out high-quality LCD-worthy colour pictures and text.

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Butterfly whose sheen wings inspired the Marisol (Image Source)

Butterfly wings shine in the sunlight by reflecting light off themselves, instead of absorbing and transmitting light. The display of the Marisol is based on this very feature. Sunlight is reflected off the screen ensuring that glare is reduced and the colours appear brighter and sharper; as opposed to in LCD screens where light is transmitted from within to produce colour.

  • Beetles and water harvesting

Found in the dry Namib desert in Africa, the Namib beetle is a master at collecting water. Living in an environment that faces a dire shortage of hydration, the beetle has evolved to keep itself hydrated even in the face of the most scorching summer.

The beetle’s shell is made of a flexible, waxy Teflon-like material which contains tiny grooves capable of trapping fog and condensing it into the water. The beetle indulges in what is known as ‘fog-basking’; where it turns it’s back towards the wind/fog and collects the fog in the grooves on its back.  The fog condenses into water and is pushed-off the slippery waxy-back and directed towards the beetle’s mouth.

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Namib beetle (Image Source)

Following the beetle’s ingenious water collection methods, researchers have developed water collection nets and drinking bottles (Dew Bank Bottle) whose surface resembles the beetle’s grooved back. These technologies are used in the arid Chilean and Israeli desserts to collect water for indigenous residents.

  • Boxfish and automobiles

When Mercedes-Benz was designing its new state-of-the-art energy-efficient Bionic car, it derived its design inspiration from a small, uniquely shaped fish. The boxfish, found in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, is a fish that has a honeycomb-like triangular/squarish-shaped body. But its shape isn’t the only thing unique to the boxfish. Its body is covered with bony plates called ‘carapace’ which reduce the drag underwater, while the fish swims.

Image Source

This unique body structure with its almost snout-like mouth makes the boxfish extremely aerodynamic. Underwater currents move over the fish’s body, reducing turbulence and allowing it to move fast.

Mercedes-Benz applied the boxfish’s anatomical structure to their Bionic car which was quirky to look at and extremely aerodynamic. The car’s structure also made it extremely energy efficient. Today, the Bionic is one of the most talked-about cars.

NISHA PRAKASH

Animal of the Week: The Naked Mole Rat

They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen and they draw you in with their secretive lives. Meet one of nature’s weirdest creatures – The Naked Mole Rat. Found only in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, the naked mole rat, a.k.a. the sand puppy is a biological and medical marvel.

 

10 Highly Interesting & Funny Facts about the Naked Mole Rat

 

  • The naked mole rat isn’t a mole or a rat. It’s actually related to the porcupine and Guinea pig.

 

 

  • Naked mole rat colonies are eusocial – there is a queen, there are workers, soldiers and nurses (just like bees, wasps and ants). Some colonies can number in the 300s.
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Hierarchy in the naked mole rat colony (Image Source)

 

 

  • Unlike other eusocial queens (read bees, wasps and ants), naked mole rat queens are warriors and fight for the throne. Even after the victory, the queen needs to be on guard and be ready for a fight, to avoid being dethroned by a competitor.
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In a naked mole rat colony, the Queen is the King, Emperor and Tzar rolled-into-one. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rats almost never come above ground, choosing to live in tunnels for their entire lives. This is why their eyes are super-tiny and they are virtually blind, relying on their hearing to live and work.
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A pictorial representation of life inside a naked mole rat tunnel colony (Image Source)

 

 

  • A mole rat’s incisor teeth can move independently of each other, like two antennas that can operate separately when digging. But they can be made to move together like chopsticks when foraging for food.
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A naked mole rats incisor teeth (as depicted here) can move independently of each other. (Image Source

 

 

  • When under attack, soldier mole rats climb one on top of the other to form a barricade to the tunnel entrance. They open their mouths and display their sharp teeth towards the entrance, gnashing them in the process. Any marauder entering the tunnel is greeted by a wall of deadly teeth.
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How naked mole rats confront marauding mole rats who try to force their way into the tunnel (Image Source)

 

 

  • Punishment of misbehaving members of the mole rat community includes biting and shoving. The worse the behaviour, the worse is the bite; and it’s usually the queen who metes out the punishment.
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A misbehaving mole rat gets a bite for every bad behaviour exhibited. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rats can’t feel pain! Their skin doesn’t contain ‘substance P’ which is the key neurotransmitter which acts as a receptor for pain. Experiments show that pouring capascin or acid on the rats don’t elicit a response at all.
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A naked mole rat’s skin is completely unique. It can’t feel pain and it doesn’t age. (Image Source)

 

 

  • Naked mole rat tunnels are divided into ‘rooms’ and are allocated for specific purposes such as the queen’s chamber, nursery and food storage area. There’s even a specific bathroom where all colony members go to poo.
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Naked mole rats have separate bathrooms, bedrooms and storage rooms within their extensive tunnelling system. (Image Source)

 

 

  • The naked mole rat has a superpower – immortality (or close to it)! Mole rats can live without oxygen for up to 18 minutes and they are the only known animals completely immune to cancer.

 

 

Interesting aren’t they?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image 

Guinea pig, Naked mole rat & Porcupine

Why Do Only 6 Species of Animals Have Periods?

We all get a visit from Aunt Flo once a month and it’s safe to say none of us really look forward to her visit. After the routine “Why God, why me?!” cries, we soothe ourselves with the thought that there are other animals that have periods too. But the question remains. Why do only 6 species have periods? Why not the rest?

Periods are a natural process that occurs in every woman’s body. Correction, every human woman. Correction again, every woman of 6 specific species.

For long, it had been assumed that menstruation was a purely human process. Soon, scientists discovered that other animals bleed too. As of today, apart from humans, there are 5 species that have been found menstruating:

Three are primates:

  • Chimpanzees
  • Orangutans
  • Monkeys

Two non-primate mammals:

  • Bats
  • Elephant Shrews

Now the question arises – why do only these 6 species have their periods? What’s the truth? This World Menstrual Hygiene Day, let’s try and find out.

Gynecology

The estrus cycle

Before we dive headlong into menstruation, we need to understand another biological process that is closely related to it.

A few decades ago scientists began observing female pigs, cows, cats, dogs and other non-primate mammals bleeding at periodic intervals. Stunned at the thought that they could be menstruating like human women, scientists conducted a thorough scientific inquiry.

What was thought to be menstrual blood, turned out to be vaginal discharge during estrus.

Estrus is the time of an animal’s life when it is in heat. Once a non-primate mammal female reaches sexual maturity and is physiologically ready to bear young, she undergoes a hormonal transformation which not only tells her body to get her womb ready but signals the males (through the release of pheromones) that the female is ready to mate.

During this time of estrus, due to the excessive production of hormones in their bodies, females display multiple external (visible) physiological changes in the form of a swollen perineum, changes in genital colouring and light bleeding.

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The estrus cycle of a dog (Image Source)

This bleeding is only an indication that the female is ready and willing to receive a mate. It does not indicate that she is menstruating. (An interesting fact to note is how non-primate mammal females mate only when in estrus .i.e. during bleeding. Unlike menstruating females who do not engage in sexual intercourse when on their periods.)

But the defining difference between menstruation and estrus is the way the endometrium is managed by animals.

To absorb or not to absorb

The endometrium is the main participant of the menstrual cycle of female animals. In females, the endometrium – which is the thick, jelly-like lining of the uterine walls – is the layer in which the egg will implant post-insemination.

In animals that undergo estrus, the endometrium is produced at the start of the estrus, in anticipation of the fertilized egg. But when insemination fails to happen, the body re-absorbs the uterine lining and keeps it in reserve for the next time the female is in estrus.

But, in menstruating animals, this endometrium layer is shed and expelled out of the body. During this process of shedding, the body also discharges blood.

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Menstrual process in humans (Image Source)

Why does this happen?

Scientists have been putting forth theories about why only certain animals shed their endometrium and menstruate, while others don’t.

Theory #1: Complicated gestation process and number/nature of offspring

One theory is that the gestation process of menstruating animals is more complicated and drawn-out than those that don’t menstruate. For starters, this theory does hold true for most of the animals on our list.

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Orangutan mother and baby

Human pregnancies last 9 months, a chimpanzee’s and orangutan’s are around 8 months, a bat’s can go up to 6 months and a monkey’s is 5 months. These pregnancies are much longer than those faced by animals in estrus. Additionally, humans, chimps, orangutans and bats all give birth to just one baby (most of the time) during each pregnancy.

The explanation behind this theory is that menstruating animals require the best, most nutrient-rich and hospitable endometriums to support the birth of their babies. These babies, many of whom have immense intellectual capabilities, require additional support of nutrients in the womb, to develop completely.

Theory #2: Endometrium absorption expends too much energy which certain animals cannot spare

This theory connects with the first theory of the gestation process and the nature of the offspring. If we are to believe this theory, then we need to accept the fact that animals which have long gestation periods, which produce highly-intelligent young and which rear only single offspring during each pregnancy need greater amounts of energy than animals that are in estrus.

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Chimpanzees

This particular theory subscribes to the belief that absorbing the endometrium is just an energy-wasteful task; one that can be avoided and the energy re-directed to meet the requirements of complicated pregnancies. The body can save tons of energy by shedding the uterine lining and making a fresh one in time for the pregnancy (which is a better option than using a stale lining).

Counter evidence?

The only animal that doesn’t subscribe to either of these theories is the elephant shrew. The shrew has a gestation period of 1-2 months and produces multiple litters of 3-4 pups each pregnancy during the year. It doesn’t spend too much time or energy giving birth; yet bleeds during its period.

Elephant shrew
Elephant shrew

Additionally, these theories dampen a little in the face of evidence that highly-intelligent animals like elephants, whales and dolphins who all undergo very long gestation periods and bear intellectually mature young do not menstruate in their lifetimes.

What does this all mean?

Well, just like with their human counterparts**, things aren’t clear why or how chimpanzees, monkeys, orangutans, bats and elephant shrews menstruate. For now, scientists believe this to be a biological enigma, a riddle that remains unsolved, despite decades of study.

For now, we leave animal menstruation as it is – a blatant question mark, a brain teaser, a stumper of the animal kingdom.

**Here’s some extra info if you’re interested:

Why do women bleed?

For long scientists have wondered why the shedding of the endometrium happens in humans. Scientists believed that the reason women bleed and the endometrium sheds may be because there was something inherently wrong with women’s bodies. They thought that the complex biological processes in humans may produce unwanted chemicals in the body which needed to be thrown out as often as possible.

1920s physician Bela Schick believed women menstruated to get rid of poisonous chemicals called Menotoxins, which filled their bodies just before their period.

Dr. Schick conducted experiments on menstruating and non-menstruating women, asking them to carry flowers in their hands. He observed that the flowers held by menstruating women wilted faster and lost their fragrance within minutes. He even supported claims by other scientists that women on their periods sweated out these menotoxins from their bodies while menstruating. He claimed that these toxins were responsible for bread not rising and beer not fermenting when menstruating women touched them (reminded of persistent taboos, anyone?).

This belief in Menotoxins continued all the way to the 1990s when another theory was proposed – menstrual blood may be a way to get rid of pathogens, stale sperm and bacteria in a woman’s body, cleansing her in the process.

But this theory too did not hold good. If it meant that stale sperm was toxic to women’s bodies, surely it meant that stale sperm not ejaculated by men could be poisonous to them too. So why don’t men menstruate?

Till date, neither of these theories has been proven. Nor has there been any other theory that can explain the mystery that is menstruation.

-NISHA PRAKASH

Animal Gender Benders: The Fluid Gender Spectrum of the Animal Kingdom

Gender has always been assumed to be a binary concept. You’re either male or female. There is nothing in-between. But as research shows, gender is beyond just the physical and often pervades the psychological and the emotional. The environment also plays an active role in gender adoption and identity.

 

Gender identity has always been a topic that has been extremely controversial. But thanks to more investment in gender studies and a greater tolerance towards our brethren (a consequence of the rich multi-cultural environment we live in), today, people are opening their hearts and minds to the concept of gender identity. We are a lot more open to the idea of people choosing the genders they best identify with; as opposed to living with the one they were assigned.

It is a wonder that we humans have such a difficult time grasping the concept of ‘gender as a spectrum’ when our animal cousins have for long exhibited gender fluid traits. Maybe it’s time we revisited our long-held notions and straightened-out our crooked understanding of gender.

5 gender notions redefined in the wild

We have certain pre-conceived notions about what males and females are supposed to be. Unfortunately, not all of these notions are true. The animals in this list are challenging accepted (stereotypical) notions about what it means to be male and female.

Let’s take a notion, one-at-a-time and see the animals that blow these theories out of the water.

Notion #1: Males are bigger and stronger than females

One of the most mesmerizing creatures of the deep seas is the Anglerfish. One look at them and you’ll remember a character from your favourite horror movie. With extremely large heads and dark, glassy eyes, they look like true-blue aliens.

When it comes to the anglerfish, it is the female that reigns supreme. She is almost 10X larger than the tiny males and can reach lengths up to 3.3 ft. Her large, sharp jaws are designed to annihilate prey of all sizes and are flexible enough to chow-down on prey double their size.

Temperamentally, the females are crankier than the males and can turn on each other and other animals in an instant. The males, on the other hand, are submissive and steer clear of the females until it’s time to mate.

This rare footage shows a pair of anglerfish during mating.

 

Notion #2: Animals remain the same gender they were born with throughout their lives

It’s safe to say that sex-change surgeries haven’t been developed for animals. But this hasn’t stopped these fish from taking control of their bodies. Clownfish have a matriarchal society with the largest female being the alpha. When she dies, the largest male physically transforms into a female and takes her place. This process of changing from males to females is called protandry.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the wrasse, where the largest females change physiologically into males when the resident dominant male is no more.  We call this phenomenon of females transforming into males as protogyny. In the picture below, the female (with the small head) changes in colouring and develops a large bulbous head in its place when transforming into a male.

Kobudai
Source: A male and female Asian sheepshead wrasse pair – the male has a large bulbous development on his head

Then there are animals like the coral-dwelling Gobiodon (aka goby) which engages in what we call serial bidirectional sex change. If three female goby are placed in an aquarium, the most dominant female transforms into a male, to create opportunities to mate. However, the moment a male is introduced into the group, the newly-turned goby changes back into a female and displays traditional feminine characteristics. Animals like the goby can undergo sex changes numerous times in their lives, whenever they want, wherever they want.

 

Notion #3: Only females get pregnant and bear young

Well, to be fair, this notion is true for most species. Most species, except the seahorse. Seahorse mothers produce eggs just like other mums. But instead of having the eggs fertilized and incubating them in their own bodies, they transfer the eggs to the males when it is time to mate.

A small slit in the male’s torso acts as a pocket to collect the tiny eggs. Once inside his body, the male fertilizes the eggs with his sperm and moves the fertilized eggs into an incubation pouch within his body.

Fast-forward 24 days and you’ll see thousands of tiny baby seahorses jetting their way out of dad’s tummy. Take a look at this video to see a live seahorse-birth in action.

 

Notion #4: Only males have penises and they will display them proudly

While penises are predominantly a male appendage, a look at the female spotted hyena will have you doubling back in shock. In the world of the spotted hyena, the female is the one that wears the pants. She is the one who makes the decision, who decides the pecking order and who also possesses a scrotum and an elongated penis. These appendages are actually the clitoris that gets re-shaped due to excessive testosterone in the female’s body. These masculine physiological characteristics give her a very short fuse and a horrifying bite.

This video gives great insight into the female hyena’s pseudo-penis.

If at one end of the spectrum we have a woman with a penis, at the other end we have a male with an all-too-feminine perineum.

Females of the colobus monkey species remain in the family group all their lives. The males, on the other hand, are kicked out when they reach puberty. During mating season, the females display a swollen anus, indicating they are in heat. This then becomes an invitation to all the males to woo the females. At this time, adolescent males are turned out of their homes by older males, in an attempt to reduce competition for females. To avoid this sorry fate, adolescent male colobus monkeys develop the faux-female-perineum in an attempt to confuse the troupe. This tactic of masquerading as females helps them avoid eviction for a few weeks.

 

Notion #5: Only males are sexually aggressive and fight for rights over females

It’s long been believed that males of all species are the only ones who have a high libido and that they are the ones who chase after the ladies. But Rhesus monkey females will definitely put this theory to rest. The females of this group have a raging libido and sometimes force males into coitus. The females have been noticed making lewd gestures at males and at times even raping them.

Another primate species where the women want to hit the sack more than the males – the bonobo. These animals really enjoy swinger parties.

If there are women who force their way into a man’s bed, there are others where the females duel with their sisters for the right to mate; and make no mistake, there’s nothing gentle-womanly about this catfight.

 

Antelope fight
Source: Two female antelopes in a fight for mates

 

Or maybe we should call it the antelope fight, instead. Female antelopes can get exceptionally aggressive during mating season. They interrupt couples in heat while mating and challenge the females to a fight to the finish. The winner gets the man and the loser moves on. Every man’s dream isn’t it?

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured image: Gender

Monotremes: The Round Pegs in the Square World of Mammalia

They aren’t reptiles, but they lay eggs. They aren’t amphibians, but some do take to the water. They aren’t birds, but they have webbed feet. They also produce milk and rear their young. Is this a case of an identity crisis or are we dealing with an oddball from the animal kingdom?

 

If you had to differentiate a mammal from its Animalia cousins, you would look for two specific characteristics:

  • Their warm blood
  • Their ability to give birth

Any animal that doesn’t check these two boxes is automatically disqualified from the mammalian classification. For the large part, this would be a good test to administer. But not when the animals under consideration are Monotremes.

Say hello to the non-conformists

The Duck-Billed Platypus

 

Platypus 3
Image: Duck-billed Platypus

 

  • Size

Males: 50 cms

Females 43 cms

Weight: 1.6 – 2.4 kgs.

  • Body structure

The platypus resembles a cross between a beaver and a duck. They have beak-like snouts which are actually sensory tools that contain electroreceptors. These receptors allow the platypus to sense the electrical pulses generated by other animals as a result of muscle contraction. The platypus uses these electrical pulses to find and feed on small fish and invertebrates.

Currently, there is one species of platypus in the world.

  • Venom and toxicity

Platypus spurs are connected to a venom sack found on their hind legs, near the ankle. The venom is a combination of b-defensins proteins which are designed to destroy viral and bacterial pathogens. While the toxin isn’t fatal to humans, it will cause excruciating pain when injected.

Scientists have observed that platypus use the venom only during the mating season when battling other males for females. During the non-mating season, the platypus’s body does not produce the poison and remains dry.

The Echidna

 

Echidna 1
Image: Echidna

 

  • Size

Males & females: 30-45 cms.

Weight: 2-7 kilograms.

  • Body structure

The four species of echidna are land-based animals and they resemble the porcupine, given their spines. The short-beaked echidna is an ant-eater, feeding exclusively on anthills and termite mounds. Its long-beaked cousins also feed on earthworms and bugs, in addition to ants and termites. They use their electroreceptors-filled snouts to find food.

Both the monotremes have a short build and large shoulder muscles which give them the physical force to dig into the ground. They are also ‘cold’ blooded, having a body temperature of 32C, which is 5C lower than other mammals.

  • Venom and toxicity

The echidna’s spurs are non-poisonous and completely harmless; it may sometimes be used for defensive purposes.

 

Monotremes
Image: Types of Monotremes

 

3 facts we know about monotremes

Not much is known about these mysterious animals, but here are a few facts that we do know:

  • They are neither mammalian nor are they non-mammalian

Like birds, monotremes have webbed feet, possess beak-shaped snouts and have no teeth. Like amphibians, the duck-billed platypus is an excellent swimmer, staying close to water bodies and spending most of its life in cool rivers and lakes. Additionally, like reptiles, they have a cloaca (a single opening that is used as the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tract) and they lay eggs. But this doesn’t make them solely non-mammalian.

The spiny anteater (echidna) and the duck-billed platypus possess certain physiological characteristics, like – the single bone in the lower jaw, the three small bones in the inner ear, hair on the body, high rate of metabolism and the ability to produce milk – all of which are endemic to mammals.

 

Echidna Platypus Physical Differences
Image: Physical Differences Between Platypus & Echidna

 

  • They lay eggs, but have premature births

The duck-billed platypus resembles reptiles and amphibians in its reproductory characteristics. Females lay 1-2 eggs at a time and burrow 20-30 meters below the ground to lay their eggs. The eggs hatch within 10 days of laying.

The echidna, on the other hand, resembles marsupials. They lay up to 3-5 eggs per batch and they store these eggs in a pouch that grows on their bodies. The eggs are gestated in the pouches and they hatch between 10 and 14 days.

When born, the newborns resemble fetuses (as seen in placental mammals). This short gestation period, coupled with the young’s need to physically develop outside the womb, is what is called a premature birth.

At this point, both monotreme species rear their young like birthing mammals. They produce thick, vitamin-filled milk out of their sweat glands that the young can suckle on.

This video of a monotreme birth is a rare insight into the reproductory behaviors of these little-known creatures:

 

  • The platypus is the echidna’s ancestor

Research shows that about 200 million years ago monotremes split from the line of traditional mammals and evolved physiological traits that differentiate them from placental mammals. Some scientists believe this could be an evolutionary reaction to competition to resources like food, land and mates.

Marsupials made their way to Australia 71 to 54 million years ago, creating stiff competition for the monotremes. By evolving different characteristics – like the ability to swim and lay eggs – monotremes were able to find new places to occupy and new ways to continue their bloodline.

The first ever monotremes were platypus-like animals. But over a period of 15-25 million years, a change was noticeable, with the body of certain species of platypus becoming more like that of the echidna. Scientists can only speculate that this was again an evolutionary requirement, to help monotremes adapt to the various geographical and environmental conditions of the new lands they were occupying.

 

Platypus 4
Image: Re-constructed Image of Steropodon galmani, The Earliest Known Ancestor of the Monotremes 

 

Living fossils

As of today, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna have remained physiologically the same as they first were when evolved. Little is known about why they remain in this stunted evolutionary form. But, with new monotreme fossils being discovered, there is hope that the veil shrouding these mysterious creatures may finally be removed.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

The Mysterious Case of the Corkscrew Penis and the Inverted Vagina

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

 

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

For plume and penis

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

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

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

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

Labyrinthine ladies and their convoluted coition

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

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

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

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

Duck_genitals_tubes

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

Absolutely clever isn’t it?

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Halloween’s Mascots: A Guide to Scary Critters

Certain animals just have bad juju…or do they?

Black cats lurking in the corner, bats screeching across rooftops and black widows spinning silken death traps…all symbols of witchcraft and the demonic. For ages, certain animals have been associated with the dark arts. From witchy cats to satanic bats, a lot of these critters have developed a bad reputation. But why is this so? Are these animals truly a mark of the devil or are they just misunderstood creatures? This Halloween, we find out the answer.

To the Dark and Beyond

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which was celebrated every year on November 1st. The night before the festival was a day associated with the undead. People believed that their loved ones would rise in the form of ghosts and haunt them. To keep these ghosts at bay, revelers would place food and wine offerings outside their doors as “treats”. They would don masks and costumes while going out, to “trick” the ghosts into thinking they were fellow-ghosts.

pumpkin

Soon, the traditions of Samhain were adopted by the Church and the festival was renamed as All Hallows Day; and the night before as Hallow’s Eve. Today, we know and celebrate this important day as Halloween.

Over time, inspired by books and movies, Halloween began to take on a darker image. References to witchcraft were written in into the (actually) harmless festival. Symbolism was drawn to exaggerate the “claims” of the presence of dark magic.

Considering that Halloween was a festival of the night, anything associated with the night soon began to assume a darker shape. As a consequence, animals that were predominantly nocturnal and predatory became symbols of Hallow’s Eve.

Creepy Crawlies

When it comes to animals with a dubious reputation, nothing beats the ones we have listed below. While some are traditionally associated with Halloween, others have such a fearsome and frightening reputation that they’ve made the cut. Take a look at some of the most dangerous and bloodthirsty beasts of the festival of the night:

  • Aye Aye

Known as the harbinger of evil, the aye aye has a fearsome reputation. Although not traditionally associated with Halloween, they are feared by locals in Madagascar.

The world’s largest nocturnal primate (a lemur), aye ayes are extremely shy and docile creatures. They feed on berries and bugs and spend a major portion of their lives on trees and away from human eyes.

A fun fact about aye ayes – they are the only primate species which use echolocation to find prey.

lemur-1394598_960_720

  • Bats

Heard of blood-sucking vampires? I’m sure you have. But a fact that you may not know is that vampire bats are tiny and they seldom feed on anything other than cattle and pigs. As of today, there have been no recorded “attacks” on humans by vampire bats.

Another interesting fact about bats is that not all are bloodthirsty carnivores. Some are completely vegetarian and feed on berries!

Here’s a final tidbit about bats. Hammerhead bat males from Central Africa converge together during the mating season and produce a unique honking noise to attract females. They couple this with a unique dance and try to vie for the maiden’s attention.

bats

  • Black Cats

The most iconic symbols of Halloween, black cats are regarded as the vehicles of witchcraft. In reality, black cats are regular cats that just happen to be black. The brilliant black of their fur, coupled with their stunning irises, make them look hypnotic.

In some places, black cats are believed to bring power, glory and love to the owner. Irrespective of whether this is true or not, black cats are some of the most gorgeous animals you can house as pets. They are as friendly as any cat can be and will fit perfectly into your household.

Additionally, recent research has shown that the gene that colors the cats’ fur black is the same which gives them disease-resistant power. In fact, these genes are similar to the genes that are HIV-resistant in humans. For all we know, black cats may be the key to finding a cure to HIV and Aids.

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  • Demon Stinger

Wow…even the name is scary. The Bearded Ghoul, aka the demon stinger, is a species of fish that is part of the family which is home to the infamous stonefish. Lying buried in the sand, these fish launch a surprise attack like torpedoes and bring a swift end to crustaceans and fish alike. Their unique beard-like spines filled with toxic venom give them their name.

Residing in tropical reefs, the bearded ghoul is extremely venomous and is particularly dangerous to humans. With a potent mixture of hemotoxins and neurotoxins, this fish really does put the “sting” in “stinger”.

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  • Halloween Snake

With “Halloween” in its name, you may think this reptile is harmless. While with its black body and orange stripes it certainly does look harmless, in reality, it isn’t. Found in rocky places, you can see this critter crawling amidst the craggy mountains of Central and South America. Highly dangerous to humans, they can give a nasty bite.

Want to know the worst part? Halloween snakes, just like other coral snakes, don’t have venom sacks at the base of their fangs. To inject venom, they latch on to their prey for a long time and slowly administer the poison. A bite from this creepy crawly will definitely leave you in a world of pain.

The good thing though, these snakes are highly reclusive and move away at the slightest indication of danger. So unless you’re actively looking for them, chances are you won’t find them.

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  • Spiders

Ah! The infamous black widow spider – the true Daughter of Danaus of the arthropod world. Much has been said about the black widow – how she kills her own mate after copulation and how a single bite can kill a grown man with ease. In reality…well, all of this is true (although human deaths happen rarely if treatment is immediate).

Spiders, with their secretive ways and beautiful webs have fascinated us for centuries. The sheer number of spider species (40,000!) coupled with their unique lifestyles and poisons of varying levels of toxicity have enthralled us for ages.

In reality, apart from a handful of spiders, not many are truly poisonous and none of them actively attack humans. But, just like other animals if threatened, they will hurt you.

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  • Suriname Toad

Not really a venomous creature, the Suriname toad made this list for a completely different reason – a truly back-breaking achievement. Found in the waters in and around South America, this amphibian has a very unique way of giving birth.

While most toads and frogs lay eggs in the water, the Suriname toad retains its eggs in its body and grows them on its back. As the eggs develop into tadpoles, the toad’s back turns into a sort-of honeycomb-shaped maze. When the tadpoles hatch, they break open through these pockets, creating holes in the mother’s back.

The cycle repeats when the mother sheds her mottled skin and grows a new unmarked one that isn’t so hol(e)y.

toad-751287_960_720

Strange and Wondrous

The world of animals is filled with such unique and fascinating examples. While some facts about these creatures are clear as day, others are as dark as night. In retrospect, this is probably why the animals on this list and a few off them have secured such a formidable reputation.

Strange as these animals are, they are even more wondrous. Halloween’s special animals have “tricked” us with their unique abilities. At the same time, they have “treated” us to a spectacular display worthy of commemoration.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH
*Representative images only
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