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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

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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

Rhea chicks
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.

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

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.

Shark denticles
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.

Sharklet
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

Your Guide to 2018’s World Environment Day

 

June 5th is celebrated as World Environment Day each year. While some years focus on saving wildlife, others focus on cleaner water. This year, 2018, the theme for World Environment Day is:

#BeatPlasticPollution

 

Here are 5 facts about this year’s World Environment Day celebrations:

 

  • India is leading the charge with their campaign #BeatPlasticPollution and is hosting the global celebration and observation of this all-important day.  Pan-Indian plastic clean-up drives are being organized and schools are being mobilized to conduct neighbourhood marches, to spread the word about the terrifying impact of plastic on the world. In fact, in states like Gujarat, companies are reusing the 200 metric tonnes of plastic by-product from their paper manufacturing plants to power cement production plants across the state.

 

  • Peru has come up with a supremely unique solution to ending plastic pollution while helping their poor. The country recycles its plastic bottles and makes out of them – ponchila – which is a combination of “poncho” and “mochila”, a coat-bag amalgamation, made specifically for the poor children in the Andes. The product is a bag/poncho which can be used to carry books and transformed into a poncho to wear. The children, most of whom do not have warm clothing and who must travel several miles to reach their schools, are given these weather-proof and recyclable ponchila to use. Watch this video to see a ponchila in action.

 

  • Samoa recently had one of its own receive the Environmental Award for the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge from the United Nations. Angelica Salele was awarded US$10,000 for her invention – the reusable cotton sanitary napkin. Not only are Salele and her partner Isabell Rasch normalizing conversations about menstrual hygiene in Samoa, but they’re tackling a big issue – the 44.9 billion plastic-coated pads that fill-up landfills globally each year. The reusable cotton pads are made from skin-friendly material and do not contain any trace of plastic or related materials.

 

  • The International Olympic Committee has made a commitment to reduce the production and usage of single-use plastics from the institution’s offices and events. The committee has also partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to make sports environmentally sustainable. As part of this project, the IUCN has provided the IOC route maps of all the places that will be touched during the Summer and Winter Olympics, in each of the countries who have applied to host them till 2026. The maps indicate plastic disposal sites and waste management sites, amongst other places, which can help the IOC curb plastic waste.

 

  • The United Nations Secretary-General Mr. António Guterres has made a global appeal asking for the end of usage of single-use plastic. As you’ll see in this video, Secretary-General Guterres makes a compelling argument why plastic should be banned. Just to re-iterate, here is his message:

A healthy planet is essential for a prosperous and peaceful future. We all have a role to play in protecting our only home, but it can be difficult to know what to do or where to start. That’s why this World Environment Day has just one request: beat plastic pollution.

Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste. Every year, more than 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Artic, nowhere is untouched. If present trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish.

On World Environment Day, the message is simple: reject single-use plastic. Refuse what you can’t re-use.

Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner, greener world.

– António Guterres

 

Now that you know what’s happening around the world today, here are some tips to recycle and reduce plastic pollution.

 

If you’re interested, you can even take this fun and engaging quiz on key environmental movements around the world. It’ll just take 2 minutes.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image

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

5 Deadly Diseases That Are Wiping Out Animal Populations Across The World

Animals can catch a cold, they can also get arthritis and obesity-related illnesses. But here are 5 scary diseases plaguing animals in the wild, which resemble something right out of a horror movie. If we don’t act fast, we may end up losing these animals for good. 

 

All living creatures fall ill. But for the most part, knowledge about animal diseases is scarce. Research into this niche area has always been challenging. For one thing, scientists need to know what clues to look for, when diagnosing an animal with a disease. For another, enough numbers in the species need to exhibit the same symptoms, for the illness to be even considered an illness and not a chance affliction.

Here is a list of 5 animal diseases that scientists didn’t know existed, but which now are changing the face of science and animal conservation:

  • Chytridiomycosis

Species affected: Frogs

Considered to be the deadliest disease in recorded animal history, Chytridiomycosis is caused due to exposure to the chytrid Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungi. They are a type of zoosporic fungus which infects frog species and causes hyperkeratosis i.e. thickening of the skin.

Frogs breathe, drink and consume electrolytes through their skin and when the fungus causes the skin’s pores to clog and the skin to thicken, the only available airway of the animals closes. This causes skin infections, cardiac arrests and finally results in death.

As of today, Chytridiomycosis has resulted in the extinction of almost half the frog population in the world. Any colony that faces this disease sees a 100% mortality rate within a few months. Unfortunately, scientists don’t know why or how this disease spreads, leaving us without any means to protect our amphibious brethren.

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Image: Top – A Healthy Frog; Bottom: A Frog Infected With Chytridiomycosis
  • Snake fungal disease

Species affected: Snakes in Midwestern and Eastern USA

Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, aka, Oo is a fungus that not many know about. A keratinophilic fungus from the family Onygenaceae, it feeds on keratin, a substance that makes up fingernails, rhino horns and snakeskin.

The epidermis of the snake is covered with scales which are made of keratin. The Oo attacks the snake when it’s at its most vulnerable, infecting it with a fatalistic disease. Snakes tend to have a very weak immune system post-hibernation and it is then that the Oo enters the body of the body and eats away at the scales. Without the scales, the snake’s skin starts to disintegrate, exposing it to harsh weather and other infections.

This fungus has been recorded as having decimated massasauga and timber rattlesnake populations by 50% and has also put these animals on the endangered species list. Not much is known about this fungus and its impact on other snake species.

snake-fungal-disease_comp_2017_06_23
Image: A Snake Infected With Fungal Disease
  • Sea star wasting syndrome

Species affected: Starfish

The 1980s saw starfish populations facing a fatal infection. Lesions appeared on their arms, leading to severe infection. This infection caused the arms to fall off, making their bodies turn into a mushy, paste-like substance. A few days after the lesion first appeared, starfish wound up on the beach, wasted away to death.

Sea-star-wasting-disease.-Photo-credit1
Image: A Starfish Afflicted By The Wasting Syndrome

The sea star wasting syndrome has since the 1980s been a cause for concern for scientists. For long, there was no known cause visible to them. But in 2014, researchers discovered a virus they named ‘sea star associated densovirus’ on the bodies of the starfish. But studies of starfish fossils show that the species have been living with this virus for millennia. Research is still ongoing to understand if this virus is the cause of the disease or not.

As of now, the virus has led to the extinction of 3 American starfish species and has culled the population of 19 other species by half. The worst part, this disease has now spread to sea urchins, which are the starfish’s prey.

starfish wasting
Image: Time Frame Within Which Wasting Happens; In This Picture, Wasting Occurs Within 4 Hours
  • Colony collapse disorder

Species affected: Bees

Bee colonies around the world have been dying out and the reason isn’t clear why. The colony collapse disorder results in the traditionally conscientious worker bees deserting the queen bee, nurse bees and larvae, leaving them to fend for themselves. Unable to find sustenance and protection after food runs out, the queen, nurses and larvae die, leading to a complete collapse in the colony.

Assumed to be a rare occurrence at firsts, scientists were shocked to see the disorder affecting thousands of colonies in North America and Europe. Researchers believe this disorder could have occurred due to a variety of reasons, starting from invasion by parasitic mites called varroa destructor to a change in the chemical constitution in the bees’ bodies due to a viral infection. Scientists have also speculated that pesticides containing neonicotinoids may also be a reason for this disorder.

The colony collapse disorder has far-reaching consequences apart from the loss of billions of bees. The thread that rejuvenates the ecosystem, bees help humans in multiple ways. With the worker bees’ refusal to indulge in their normal behaviours, we may find ourselves in serious trouble.

  • Hemorrhagic septicemia

Species affected: Saiga antelope

Saiga antelope, renowned for their unique appearance, have made headlines again. But this time, it’s for a rare disease that’s wiped out one-third of the species in the past few years. This is a cause for concern, as the species population is teetering on the edge of extinction. More than 15 years of poaching and habitat loss have resulted in the death of 95% of the saiga population in the wild.

Assumed to be caused by a virus or a tick, the saiga antelope suffer from hemorrhagic septicemia or blood poisoning that results in internal haemorrhaging. This disease was noticed to have spiked during the calving season, a time when both mothers and calves are at their most vulnerable. The deadly disease took out almost 134,000 mothers and calves within a span of two weeks.

Thankfully, research has been able to confirm the exact cause of the disease and now we know the culprit is the Pasteurella multocida type B bacteria. Studies show that the bacteria reside in the antelope’s noses from birth. But the humid conditions in the nostrils act as a fertile breeding ground for the bacteria, leading to the formation of large colonies in the saiga’s bodies. These bacteria release deadly toxins into the animal’s bloodstream, resulting in blood poisoning and then death.

 

Saiga Mother and calf
Image: A Saiga Mother and Calf Die Due to Septicemia

 

Armed with this knowledge, we may finally be able to save this critically endangered species from extinction. Now, all we need to do is find a solution for the other diseases and lend a helping hand to these endangered creatures.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: Thousands of saiga antelopes lie dead in a field in Khazakstan of blood poisoning.

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.

Estrus dog
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.

Menstruation process
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.

Orangutan
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.

Chimp
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

The Winning Waltz: The Art of Wooing Through Dance

Suitors in the animal kingdom do quite a lot to get a lady’s attention. While some spin lilting melodies, others decorate their bachelor pads with ferns, flowers and foliage. Then there are those that break out their prized, stage-worthy moves in a jaw-dropping dance-off. Whoever said courtship in the animal kingdom was dry and uneventful certainly hasn’t seen these eventful courtship rituals.   

Dance has been a symbol of romance for long, and this isn’t just with humans. From time immemorial animals have been using dance as a way to bond with potential mates. While little is understood about what each movement actually represents, these lovely spectacles definitely are a must-watch.

The choreography of love

Love in the animal kingdom is a tricky affair. With so many suitors and such little time, it becomes difficult for females to make a split-second decision. Luckily, females have the art of dance to help them separate the top crop from the average.

Penguin
Penguins pair bond for life. They recognize each other after almost a year apart by their vocalizations and dance, which are unique to each couple. (Image Source)

The dance between a male and a female in the wild is usually initiated by the male. The male has just one shot at winning his beloved and he certainly puts this chance to good use by implementing his sexy moves and smouldering charm to win the lady (or ladies in some cases).

To understand how dance truly works in the wild, let’s take a look at 5 animals who are the masters (and mistresses) of the art of courtship dance:

  • Humpback whale

These giants of the oceans may look ill-equipped to be elegant, but let me assure you that there is no animal as graceful and spectacular than a humpback whale in the midst of a courtship ritual. In a movement resembling a slow waltz, the male and female humpback start circling each other, showcasing themselves to their suitor.

The humpbacks make a series of enchanting and almost melancholic vocalizations while indulging in a gentle duet with spiral movements. A few minutes into the dance, it all but seems the female is willing to mate.

But sadly for the male in this video, the romantic evening comes to an end. A group of marauding male humpbacks looking for a female have no qualms ruining a perfectly lovely evening.

  • Ostrich

A leggy bird with an immensely powerful kick, you wouldn’t think those muscular limbs could be flexible enough to perform some of the trickiest legwork you’d have ever seen. Male ostriches perform a very unique dance movement as part of their courtship ritual, complete with its very own intense head bang.

The females are mute spectators in the dance and are often the judges who decide if their suitor is worthy to mate with them, based on the finesse of his moves.

This spectacular video shows a male ostrich wooing his woman with his feather-fluffed, fast-paced quirky moves. Will he succeed? Take a look and find out.

If you liked this bird, you’re sure to love the bird that can put Michael Jackson to shame. Meet the Manakin, the greatest moonwalker on the planet.

  • Peacock Spider

When the male peacock spider decides to woo you, he does so with flair. The peacock spider, famous for his flashy and colorful exoskeleton is also renowned for another thing – his courtship dance.

Not only does the male have a vibrant abdomen, he also has a personality that’s equally radiant. When with a prospective mate, the male peacock spider extends his legs out upwards and moves them in very quick side-to-side shakes. So fast does he move his limbs, they appear to almost vibrate from the movement.

The male then contorts his body, lifts up his abdomen towards the sky and flashes his colorful back to the female. He enlarges himself to make the colors appear bolder and brighter and make the markings on his body bigger. Next, he quickly runs from one side to the other, moving closer to his mate with every step.

Want to see this flamboyant male in action? Well take a look at the video below.

  • Seadragons

Vibrant, elaborate and exotic to look at, seadragons are one of the ocean’s most spectacular creatures. Supremely colorful with the most brilliant of markings on their leafy fins, seadragons are one of nature’s true works of art. They are also animals that share a love of dance. During courtship, the male and female gently mimic each other in a well-coordinated movement.

A light bob of the heads, a gentle flutter of the fins and a soft entangling of the tails all accompany the slow and serene spiral-formation swim the pair embark on. The seadragons engage in this dance throughout the night. If they remain in-sync hours after the start of their romantic adventure, the male and female give each other their permission to mate.

  • Grebes

The last pair on our list is hands-down one of the most romantic animals in the wild. Grebes are freshwater diving birds that form pair bonds and mate for life. Each pair meets every year to mate and rear young. Once the mating season is over, the partners sometimes go their separate ways, only to find their way back to each other every mating season.

When grebes come together, the courtship dance transforms into something more beautiful and meaningful – a renewal of vows. Before they mate, the grebe pair engages in a complicated choreography replete with feather-ruffling, coordinated head movements and a spectacular, running finish that’s a wonder to behold.

Take a look for yourself. Words fail to capture the beauty of the grebe dance.

Another bird species that mates for life are the Japanese Crane. So strong are the bonds of love between Japanese crane pairs, this species is considered a ‘symbol of fidelity‘ in Japan. Beautiful isn’t it?

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image: Japanese crane courtship dance

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

The World of Animal Supermoms

Moms…what would we do without them? Across the animal kingdom, it’s the materfamilias who rears the young. This International Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the spectacular force of nature that is – Mom.

 

There are all kinds of moms in the world and each of them has a unique parenting style. This Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at some of these powerful women and how they impact their young’s life.

In this article, we’ll look at 3 categories of animal moms and their relationship with their young. Be sure to watch the videos of these moms in action. Here we go:

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

The moms under this list are the lone warriors of the animal kingdom. They single-handedly raise their young and train them to survive in this cruel, wild world:

  • Orangutans

Of all the mothers in the animal kingdom, Orangutan moms are the most patient, gentle and forbearing. Although they reside in groups where there are both males and females, the father seldom takes any interest in rearing his young.

The Orangutan mother is devoted to her baby’s upbringing right from birth. She builds the baby her nest in a tree (every night a new nest!), picks berries for her to eat, teaches her how to use tools, shows her ways to stay safe in the forest and essentially, makes her a responsible and contributing member of the group.

Orangutan mothers do have one fault though. They love their kids a little too much and spoil them rotten. So much so, that many orangutan babies stay with mom until they’re 10-12 years old.

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

The female ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most diligent birds in the animal kingdom. She really works very hard when raising her young. A single mother by all definitions, her mate’s role ends at egg fertilization.

Once she’s ready to lay her eggs, the ruby-throated hummingbird sets about building the nest. It’s an arduous process, which can tire even bigger animals. Once her nest is built, she lays the eggs and gestation takes up to 2 weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the mother visits flower-upon-flower collecting nectar for her young. She makes repeat visits for days until the young are ready to take flight and fend for themselves.

For a mom this size, that’s a lot of work.

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

Strength comes in numbers and these moms understand the immense benefits of community child rearing:

  • Elephants

When it comes to elephants, there is no such thing as a ‘single parent’. One cow-elephant having a baby equates to the entire herd having a baby. For elephants, the birth of a calf is a monumental occasion. The entire herd comes together to raise the baby after the mother’s 22 month gestation period. In fact, elephant calves spend more time with their aunts and siblings than their mothers. When a calf is threatened, each member of the group stops what she is doing and answers the baby’s call.

Elephant herds have designated babysitters (adolescent females a year or two from maturity, practicing their mothering skills), who take an active role in educating the calf and teaching it how to use its trunk, how to select the right leaves and how to be an asset to the herd.

  • Orcas

Have you ever seen an orca pod teaching the calf to hunt? No? Well, you should. Orcas are one of the most fearsome predators of the oceans and they are one species that believe in giving their young a hands-on learning experience.

When a calf is born, the entire pod (which is matrilineal) works together in caring for, feeding, cleaning and protecting the young from danger. When the calf is old enough to hunt, the mother (with her sisters, nieces and mother), takes the calf on hunting tours and teaches it to hunt seals and penguins.

This girl gang sticks up for its babies and there’s nothing they won’t do to keep the calves safe from harm.

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

If the rest of the animal kingdom believes in staying alive for their young, there are those moms who willingly embrace death to give their wards a better chance at survival:

  • Octopus

When it comes to maternal devotion, no animal can beat the octopus. After laying her brood of eggs (that number in the tens of thousands), the mother octopus painstakingly works on keeping the eggs dirt-free. She gently blows freshwater on the eggs to keep them hydrated and nourished and spends up to 14 months protecting her eggs from predators.

During this time, the octopus does not leave her nest even for a second to feed and in the process wastes away into nothing. By the time the eggs are ready to hatch, the octopus mom will literally be a shell of what she once was.

In 2014, scientists found an octopus mom caring for her brood for 4.5 years! They aren’t sure yet how she survived that long without feeding.

  • Spiders

A parent eating their young is common in the wild. But Matriphagy, where a young devours its own mother is rarer still. But spider babies seem to find nothing unnatural about this arrangement.

The spider mother gives the new hatchlings her unfertilized eggs to eat during the first few days post-birth. Once this repository of eggs gets over, the mother offers herself up to her babies for their next meal. The baby spiders pierce the abdomen of the mother and greedily suck out her bodily fluids; killing her in the process.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Are There Cannibalistic Plants?

Animals turn cannibalistic for a variety of reasons – hunger, lack of mates, competition for territory – to name a few. But have you ever heard of cannibalistic plants? There are carnivorous plants for sure. But are there plants that love their veggies? Turns out, yes there are. 

When scientists discovered that plants could be carnivorous, they were shocked. The discovery just went against the grain. But when they found out that plants could get cannibalistic too; it was a discovery that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around.

When plants eat their kin

When we talk about cannibalism in plants, we talk about plants which use other plants as food/prey as a parasite would its host.

The most fundamental way of segregating all parasitic plants is looking at how they function. Some parasitic plants affect the prey’s xylem (tissues near the roots), while others attack the prey’s phloem (tissues near the leaves). These plants grow hook-like ‘roots’ called haustoria, which they use to hang onto their hosts. The haustoria are also used to absorb nutrients from the host plants.

Dodder, aka cuscata, is a type of stem parasite that creeps and climbs around the stems and leaves of plants, biting into the plant using its haustoria and sucking out its juices. Hydnora is a root parasitic plant that sinks its haustoria into the roots of its prey, draining the plant of all its nutrients and juices.

Hydnora
Image: Hydnora; a carnivorous plant that feeds on insects also happens to be a parasitic plant. It’s a root parasite that feeds off other plants as a secondary food source.

Parasitic plants and photosynthesis

Another way of segregating parasitic plants is to understand whether they photosynthesize or not. In this case, there are two types of parasitic plants:

  • Holoparasites

Holoparasitic plants are a nightmare for gardeners around the world. These are non-photosynthesizing parasitic plants which rely solely on feeding-off other plants. They are extremely dangerous to plant health and some species lead to 100% mortality in the affected population if care isn’t taken to get rid of them.

Luckily, holoparasitic plants are quite ‘friendly’ to gardeners. They take a very long time to dry out their hosts, which gives gardeners and nursery caretakers plenty of time to tackle them. The dodder is a great example of a holoparasitic plant that is completely dependent on its host for nutrition.

Other holoparasites are squawroot, toothwort, broomrape and beechdrop.

parasitic plants
Image: Types of holoparasitic and hemiparasitic plants. Obligate parasites rely completely on their hosts to reproduce and will die out if they can’t find a permanent host to reproduce on; facultative parasites can reproduce as individual plants and don’t necessarily need a host plant to reproduce (although it can help if they have a permanent host).
  • Hemiparasites

Hemiparasitic plants derive food in two ways. They photosynthesize and gain valuable nutrition from the sun and soil just like any other plant. But they also leech-off neighbouring plants as parasites.

Since hemiparasitic plants also photosynthesize, they don’t actively feed-off other plants. It is only when they are unable to get nutrients from the sun and soil or they stand the chance of getting better nutrients from other plants that they turn parasitic.

Examples of hemiparasitic plants are mistletoe, Indian sandalwood, rattle plants, Indian paintbrush and velvetbells.

Parasitic plants and symbiotic relationships

Finally, the third way of segregating parasitic plants is to understand their relationship with their prey. Myco-heterotrophs are plants that appear to have a parasitic-symbiotic relationship with other plants.

A great example is the relationship between orchids and fungi. The orchids tap into the fungi’s mycorrhizal networks (tubular, filament-like structures that connect fungi to each other and other plants underground) and steal water, minerals and nutrients from the fungi.

Myco-heterotrophs can be either hemiparasitic or holoparasitic and despite masquerading as a symbiotic host, they add no visible value to the fungi.

The curse of the Vampire

Parasitic, cannibalistic plants do not root anywhere. Instead, the seeds look for a host and latch onto the host using the haustoria. A few days after feeding-off their host, the plants begin to voraciously multiply. Soon, the parasites grow to such an extent that they completely cover up their hosts and take over the neighbouring population. The food source is soon sucked dry and killed.

Dodder tree
Image: Dodder plant growth after months of parasitic feeding. The host plant will soon be completely covered and killed.

This feature of parasitic plants has earned them their scary title – The Vampire Plants.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image: Vampire Plant 

Pledging To Protect The Planet From Plastic

One of the most dangerous man-made creations and a deathtrap for many, plastic is destroying the global ecosystem and its inhabitants. This World Earth Day 2018, let’s take a look at how plastic affects our planet and what we can do, to stop its damaging effects.

 

5 Ways Plastic Impacts the Planet

  • It depletes a lot of non-renewable resources

Plastic is extracted, processed and shaped using scarce and non-renewable resources like petroleum, natural gas through a host of other energy-intensive procedures. These resources take billions of years to form naturally and using them extensively to manufacture something as harmful as plastic is a wasteful effort. A look at current extraction levels shows that we have oil left enough for just the next 53 years.

energy-sources-5-728
Image: Renewable v/s Non-renewable sources of energy.

 

  • It creates dangerous landfills 

Considering how many types of plastics are non-recyclable and a threat to the earth, incineration was the only feasible method of disposal. But given how we no longer possess the energy and resources needed to incinerate plastic and how we do not possess the technology to curb the pollution it leads to, this option no longer remains viable. That leaves just one option open – fill them in landfills.

As of today, 300 million tons of plastic are made each year, 50% of which are disposed-off in landfills. Chemical leaching from plastic into the ground affects the food we eat and the water we drink. Landfills that crumble and dissolve into water bodies pollute the ocean and threaten the lives of animals.

Kenya plastic
Image: A large landfill in Dandora, Kenya. This is how most landfills around the world look like.

 

  • It pollutes the ocean

The worst impact of plastic on the planet is its impact on the oceans. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains 7 million tons of plastic that go down to a depth of 9 feet. 9% of the fish in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains plastic waste in their diet. Most of this plastic comes from land after washing down from factories and oil refineries on the shore.

Plastic garbage patches exist in the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean and South Pacific Ocean. Essentially, all the oceans in the world today are polluted with plastic; poisoning the water and endangering marine species.

 

  •  It kills animals

Plastic is the number 1 cause for the death of millions of marine animals. Today, more than a 100 million marine animals are killed each year as a result of plastic in the oceans. Research shows:

  • More than 50% of sea turtles are ingesting plastic on a daily basis; so much so that their digestive system is severely obstructed.

 

Turtle plastic
Image: A Hawksbill turtle lies unconscious after a plastic wrapper caught around its mouth, restricting breathing.

 

  • About 400 stellar sea lions off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia get their fins and throats entrapped in plastic bands, plastic covers and rubber bands each year, which eventually leads to drowning and death.

 

Sea lion
Image: A sea lion caught in plastic wires and old fishing gear.

 

  • 98% of the Laysan albatross population has died of internal organ damage after ingesting plastic when hunting fish.

 

Albatros plastic
Image: Dead body of a Laysan albatross filled with ingested plastic.

 

  • Approximately 31% of fish, dolphin and whale populations ingest microfibers from plastic bags and bottles floating in rivers and oceans after confusing them for plankton and algae; of which 22% die due to digestive system obstruction due to plastic.

 

Whale caught
Image: A whale caught in plastic nets left behind by fishermen.

 

Whale plastic
Image: 4kgs worth of plastic found in the body of the Cuvier whale that washed-up dead off the coast of Norway.

 

  • It hurts people

People who consume fish that have plastic in their digestive systems, people who accidentally inhale/consume plastic in the form of sandwich wrappers, people who heat food/beverages in plastic containers (leading to chemical contamination of food from the plastic) and people who work with/around plastic, may suffer from a host of problems such as digestive concerns, asthma attacks, premature/stillborn births in pregnant women, miscarriage, male infertility, cancer and abnormal sexual characteristics development.

 

sea-of-garbage-2
Image: Rag pickers search through the plastic-filled Citarum river in Jakarta. They form a large part of the population that die from plastic-induced illnesses. 

 

What can we do to save the planet from plastic?

There are many things we can do to reduce plastic pollution in the world. Try out these tips and make a difference:

  • Replace regular plastic with bioplastics and biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics.
  • Identify the plastic you depend on and try to find alternatives to replace them. For example, carry your own tableware to the office – metal forks, spoon, knives, cups and plates – instead of using the plastic ones found at the office.
  • Avoid purchasing bottled water. Instead, use the water fountain or watering drums placed in public spaces and offices. Carry your own bottle and fill it at a water station.
  • Do not buy beauty products that contain microbeads as one of the ingredients. Choose scrubs, soaps and creams that use only natural ingredients like sea salt, yogurt, oatmeal and more.
  • Carry home-cooked food. The lesser take-out you buy; the lesser plastic boxes will be manufactured.
  • Take jute/cotton bags to the grocery store when making purchases. These bags may cost more than plastic carry bags, but they are sturdier, last longer, look more beautiful and are environmentally-friendly.
  • Make your purchases in bulk. This will discourage stores from stocking plastic bag in huge quantities. You can also ask your grocer to stock cloth bags instead.
  • Consider second-hand purchasing. From toys to lunch boxes, you can find many items, still in good condition in yard sales and thrift stores. Lesser demand for plastic translates to lesser production of plastic items.
  • Support and uphold the plastic ban in your state. Use only cloth bags when necessary.
  • Recycle. Take a look at this guide to plastic recycling to know what you need to do.

Plastics are a danger to the world. Today, we have innumerable alternatives to this white poison, which can help make the world a safe place. As creatures capable of intelligent thoughts and actions, it’s up to us to save the planet from harm. If we don’t, it could only mean the end.

For it’s just as celebrated writer Evo Morales said, “Sooner or later we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: End Plastic Pollution

The Illuminating World of Animal Necropsies

There’s something intrinsically disturbing at the thought of an animal lying on a gurney, its insides cut open for the entire world to see. Something unsettling at the thought of seeing what they last ate for lunch or how their hearts look, underneath all that fur and feather. Welcome to the underbelly of science – animal autopsies, aka, necropsies.

 

Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, made his entry into the National Museum of Natural History, Manila in November 2011. Everything seemed to be going well at the outset. Staff who worked closely with Lolong was elated at how well he had adapted to life in captivity.

 

Crocodile lolong
Image: Lolong, the World’s Largest Crocodile in Captivity

 

This is why everyone at the Museum had been shocked when in February 2013 Lolong was found dead in his enclosure. His necropsy (animal autopsy) report showed that he had succumbed to congestive heart failure. The report also revealed that he had lipidosis in his liver, had fungal pneumonia and suffered from kidney failure.

But the most significant results of the necropsy report had nothing to do with the illnesses. The reports helped researchers understand why exactly Lolong developed these problems and helped them find ways to prevent the same happening to other crocodilians.

What is a necropsy?

Autopsies are performed on people to identify the cause of death. Necropsies are autopsies performed on animals.

As with human autopsies, necropsies start with an external examination of the specimen’s body to understand if there are any indicators of the cause of death. Next, the body is dissected and each organ is examined systematically. Tissue samples are collected from all major organs, the stomach contents are checked to understand diet (and if the food was poisoned) and the blood is tested to understand what enzymes and chemicals are present and in what quantities.

 

01_06282005
Image: Skeletal Display of Whale at the Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

In some animals, like whales and elephants, the skeleton is preserved and is sent to museums and veterinary schools for further study and display. Specimen organs may also be preserved for further tests.

3 Benefits of animal necropsies

Necropsies may sound gruesome and morbid (they certainly look so), but they have a number of benefits:

They help understand little-known creatures

In 2014 a completely-intact colossal squid was brought into the New Zealand Museum in Te Papa Tongarewa. This was just the second fully-intact colossal squid specimen in the world; a rare specimen and an even rarer opportunity to take a better look at these mysterious creatures.

A necropsy was conducted to understand their diet, mating habits and hunting strategies. The physiology of the squid was analyzed to understand if the animal had any special features which made it different from other squid species. The necropsy was also used to understand why the colossal squid grows to mammoth proportions and how it sustains itself in deep waters.

They help pinpoint and stop epidemics

2009 saw the Tasmanian Devil being listed on the Endangered Species list. This wasn’t due to poaching. Researchers discovered that the marsupials suffered from an unusual, highly-fatalistic and extremely contagious form of face cancer, called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Cancerous tumors would form on the face and neck of the animals, leaving them physically unable to hunt or eat. A few months into the illness, the Tasmanian Devils died of starvation and weakness.

Necropsy reports showed how the cancerous tumors spread across the body and how they looked and felt structurally. Blood tests gave scientists insight into the chemical changes taking place in the bodies of afflicted animals. The reports helped conservationists plan the Devil Ark project, which sought to breed 1000 genetically clean Tasmanian Devils with an immune system that was pre-designed to recognize and eliminate the DFTD. Recent research shows how human cancer treatment drugs may be able to treat DFTD.

 

 

Tasmanian Devil Cancer
Image: Tasmanian Devil With DFTD

 

They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice

We assume that zoos are the right places for displaced and orphaned animals. But little do we know of the horrors that take place behind closed doors. The Cleveland Zoo found itself in the midst of controversy when the chief of veterinary services was caught asking members of the zoo community to support medical experimentation on animals.

This isn’t the only time zoo authorities have abused their power. Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary was found having subscribed the Humboldt penguins in their care anti-depressants because of the birds’ inability to adapt to the zoo’s climate. While the authorities claim that the penguins are healthier and happier than before, if not used judiciously, this could lead to an overdose and then death.

Necropsies conducted by court-authorized pathologists help uncover the hidden truths behind these animal-friendly facades. They help act as evidentiary support in medico-legal cases.

 

The messy nature of necropsies can overshadow the good they do for animals, wild and captive. But, with awareness, we can begin to accept and appreciate their role in conservation.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image Sources: Feature image

 

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