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Why The King Cobra Might Not Be King Afterall…Or Even A Cobra

When people talk of snakes, they inevitably bring up his name. I call this snake him because it’s right there in the moniker.

The King Cobra.

One of the most feared snakes on the planet; correction, the most feared snake on the planet, it is a 12 foot (sometimes 18!) mighty Goliath whose bite is worse than its hiss. But is the King Cobra really all that we make it out to be? I mean, is the King Cobra, really the biggest, baddest, meanest and most venomous cobra of them all?

Nope, not quite.

The King Has Fallen

I have always loved the King Cobra. Always.

Then you can imagine my surprise, shock and intense disappointment when a few years ago I found out that the King Cobra isn’t actually a cobra at all! (gasp!)

I’ll give you a few seconds to digest this information.

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.

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Okay. Getting back.

Yes, the King Cobra is not a “true” cobra. It is just a snake that happens to have the word “cobra” in its name.

In reality, Cobras (true cobras) belong to the family of snakes called Elapidae and their genus name is Naja. The King Cobra, on the other hand (although from the family of snakes as the true cobras), comes from a completely separate genus called Ophiophagus. The word Ophiophagus is quite literally Greek for “Snake Eater”.  

To understand why the King Cobra is called a cobra, despite not really being a cobra; we need to look at the differences between the King and true cobras. I’ve created a table for you to read:

 

Characteristics

True Cobra

King Cobra

Hood shape & size

Short & wide Long & narrow
 

Hood visibility

Hood is very easily noticeable. Hood is not as noticeable. Very narrow hood.

*Hood pattern

Various patterns – V-shaped, Eye shaped, Two circles etc.  The pattern looks like a “V” (almost chevron pattern) or a broken oval.
 

Food

Eggs, small birds, small mammals, lizards, toads & sometimes other snakes. Exclusively feed on snakes and sometimes poisonous snakes (including true cobras and other Kings).
 

Fang placement

Fangs are fixed on the top jaw. Not retractable.   Fangs are fixed on the top jaw. Not retractable.  

Venom (in a single bite)

Between 50 mg & 400 mg Between 380 mg & 600 mg
 

Desire to bite

Very low. Very shy snakes, prefer to only strike in warning, with their mouths closed. Bite only in extreme cases. Very low. Very shy snakes, prefer to only strike in warning, with their mouths closed. Bite only in extreme cases.

Number of scales on the head

 

9

11

The size difference between genders

Males & females are almost the same sizes. Females are much smaller than males.
 

Egg-laying behaviour

Lay eggs and leave them unattended; just like other snake species. Build a nest out of twigs and leaves, lay eggs in the nest & stay back to aggressively protect the clutch until the eggs hatch.

Number of members in the genus

 

31

1

  • So, why is the King cobra called a “Cobra”?

Because of the presence of the hood and the similar fang placement.

  • Why is it not considered a True cobra?

Because it doesn’t share most of the other features that true cobras have.

 

Now for the next question…

 

Why is the King Cobra called the “King”?

While there is no definitive answer, most scientists do agree that the King cobra’s preference to kill and eat other snakes, even his own cousins, makes him extremely deadly. No other snake in the entire world has been observed showing this level of focused preference towards cannibalism. 

This unique, almost ruthless behaviour; plus its extraordinary courage and its lack of restraint when it does decide to inject venom; have given this snake the title of the King.

But if you really think about it; the King Cobra is the only member of its Ophiophagus genus. So, how can it be a King, when it doesn’t have any subjects to rule?

 

Ha ha…food for thought.

 

One more thing before we end

Snake bites can be dangerous. But preparation and knowledge can help. This report about What You Should Do During A Snake Bite is really helpful and can save a life.

 

 

 

* (Refer table: Hood Pattern)

cobra_hood 1

Different hood patterns on the hood of the spectacled cobra (Source)

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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The Story of How Crocs and Gators Thrive When They Starve

They outsmarted & outmanoeuvred a gigantic burning comet, they outlived powerful dinosaurs and they overcame the challenges of a changing planet. Today, they’re two of the most formidable animals in the wild, who’s physiologies have hardly changed since the past 80 million years.

The best part about their ancient bodies – they’re capable of going without food for up to three years. Here’s the story of how crocodiles and alligators evolved this phenomenal ability.

Being cold-blooded helps you when you’re starving

Like all animals, alligators and crocodiles love to eat. In fact, they’re voracious eaters and very un-picky ones at that. Give a croc or a gator anything to eat – large mammals, small birds, snails, carrion – it’ll be gone in minutes.

The food that crocs and gators eat is digested and the energy is stored in their bodies. These reptiles actually have one of the strongest and most-effective digestive juices of all animals on the planet. Absolutely every part of their meal gets digested – bones, scales, hooves, nails etc. Anything that doesn’t get fully digested is used as a gizzard stone – a rock/rock-like object in the gastrointestinal tract, which is used to break down tough-to-digest food.

This powerful digestion helps crocs and gators generate tonnes of energy. But when it comes to actually using this energy to survive, these reptiles hardly ever tap into these food-derived energy cells.

Why?

 

crocodile-526435_1280

 

Well, alligators and crocodiles are reptiles. Most reptiles are cold-blooded animals (the mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are three extinct reptiles that were warm-blooded; the Tegu lizard is one of the rare, living, warm-blooded reptiles in the world).

Cold-blooded animals use the heat of the sun to warm themselves up. Crocs and gators indulge in a behaviour called “basking”, where they sit out under the sun, soaking in the warm rays. When absorbed, the sun rays warm their blood and increase their body temperature.

These animals can bask for hours at a stretch and when their body temperature becomes too hot to handle, they head back into the water for a cool swim or they lay down under a large, shady rock.

Basking helps alligators and crocodiles generate a lot of body energy; energy which these animals use to walk, swim, hunt and protect (their young). So, when gators and crocs need to use a lot of energy, their default, go-to fuel will be the energy they have stored from basking. It is only when they have depleted this energy, that they tap into their food-derived energy.

Each time they have a meal, crocodiles and alligators store additional energy in their body. Over time, this energy accumulates and their bodies become massive storehouses of power. This is why, when faced with starvation, crocs and gators hardly ever feel hungry or weak. In fact, they can go without eating – literally starve themselves – for up to three years!

Amazing isn’t it?

What happens after their energy is depleted?

At the end of the day, crocs and gators are just like other animals and they do need food to survive. If the entire energy storehouse in their body gets depleted, these reptiles start burning their excess tissues (which aren’t absolutely essential for survival) to make more energy (this is similar to humans burning their muscle tissue to survive during starvation). Once these tissues are also depleted, the animal actually begins to starve and it has to eat right away.

Did you like what you read?

Here are a few more fun facts about crocs & gators:

  • Despite having the ability to survive without food for so long, crocs and gators never miss an opportunity to have a meal. They are very opportunistic eaters and researchers have found some groups actually having up to 50 meals a year. Now that’s a lot of energy.
  • Crocodiles and alligators are the most social of all reptiles. They form long-term relationships with other members of their species. Even though they lead solitary lives most of the time, these group-mates join forces during the egg-laying season and protect their broods together.
  • Of all reptiles in the world, crocs and gators are the smartest. Their brains are extremely complex and adapted to quick thinking (funnily enough, their brains are really small, about the size of a small walnut). If a croc or a gator encounters a challenge and overcomes it, chances are it will remember how to solve the same problem the next time it happens. This is why scientists need to devise new techniques to outwit these fabulous living fossils, each time they want to capture them for their on-field studies.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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Fun Facts About the Howler Monkey

  1. There are 15 species of howler monkey and they’re all found in Central and South America. 
  2. The howler monkey is the loudest primate on the Earth. Its call – a gruff, resounding roar – can be heard even 3 miles away. You can listen to it here.
  3. Not just their voice, but the howler monkey’s sense of smell is unbelievably acute  – they can smell food from 2 miles away. 
  4. Howler monkeys aren’t herbivores, they’re folivores – they are specialists in eating leaves.  
  5. Howler monkeys are one of the few primates (including humans), who possess trichromatic colour vision. This means their eyes are sensitive to the three primary colours – green, blue & red – and they can make out the differences between colours. This helps them pick and choose the best (read – the ripest & safest) leaves to eat.
  6. A particular species of howler monkey – the Mantled Howler – uses sticks as tools to drive away intruders and scare away predators. This is extremely unusual to the species as a whole; since this type of tool usage is considered the speciality of higher-order primates like chimps and humans. 
  7. Howler monkeys are the second laziest animals of the planet, right after sloths. They spend 80% of their time on treetops just resting. The other 20% of the time? Well, they pee on, poop on and scream at other monkeys, animals and birds.
  8. Howler monkeys are an Endangered species, because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Save them. 

 

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Black Howler Monkey & Baby (Males are completely black in colour, while females are yellowish-white) (Source)

 

Howler Monkey 3
Mantled Howler Monkey – the only known howler monkey to use sticks as tools for defence. (Source)

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

P.S: Featured image: Howler monkey
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Humans Aren’t The Only Ones To Use A Midwife During Birth, Other Animals Do Too

Midwives have been a part of every culture for centuries. Many places of religious worship celebrate midwifery through paintings, sculptures and Bas reliefs.

Apart from easing the actual birthing process, midwives helped ensure the newborn was healthy, had no trouble breathing and was able to suckle well. In short, midwives ensured both the mother and baby survived. While midwives were the only option for women of yore, today they are one of the most preferred methods of birthing assistance and reproductive care.

When we talk of midwives, we envision a staid, calm person, urging the mother to push, encouraging her with kind words and helping her cope with her pain. When we think about the midwife, we envision a woman and sometimes, a man. Essentially, we envision a human being. 

Till as late as the late 1990s, it was believed that the practice of midwifery was developed by people. Surely animals did not, could not, possess a mind so sophisticated, that they could come up with a practice like midwifery. How would they know that another animal needed assistance during birth?

After all, wasn’t the one, defining difference between man and beast, the ability to empathize and help? 

 

Djungarian hamster
A Djungarian hamster (Source)

 

Animal midwifery: Where animals help other animals give birth

Nature is magnificent and one of the miracles of nature is an animal that acts as a midwife. 

Researchers were stunned to see when male Djungarian hamsters chipped-in to help their mates give birth. Provided they didn’t turn their offspring into a meal first, male Djungarian hamsters consciously pulled the pups out from the females’ birth canals. They proceeded to lick the pups clean and then shared the afterbirth with their mates. If their pups looked asphyxiated, the fathers would lick the amniotic fluid off their nose, clear their airways and help them breathe.  

Scientists believe that Djungarian hamster males experience a severe fluctuation in hormones just prior to birth and this results in an increase in cortisol and oestrogen in their bodies. This, they believe, could be one of the reasons for this unusual behaviour. The other theory has to do with the hamsters’ living conditions. Unlike other wild hamster species, Djungarian hamsters live in dry, desert environments and they spend a lot of time in their burrows with their mate, to escape from the harsh climate. This could make them more willing to help their mates during birth (compared to other hamster species where the males are nowhere near the birthing area). 

 

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

 

But it isn’t just Djungarian hamsters who make excellent midwives. Researchers have observed female black snub-nosed monkeys in South China also playing midwives to their bandmates during delivery. 

When a female black snub-nosed monkey is about to give birth and contractions start, she cries out using a very distinct sound. Upon hearing this sound, another female joins her and waits for the infant to crown. When he does, the midwife gently eases the baby out of the mother’s birth canal, tears open the amniotic sac and hands the infant back to the mother. Once she’s done, the midwife heads back to forage for food or take care of her own infant. The same behaviour was noticed in golden snub-nosed monkeys. 

Female bonobos too practice midwifery. This behaviour has been seen often in captivity and once in the wild. Just like the black snub-nosed monkey, the bonobo mother makes a soft, high-pitched squeal.

When she hears this, another female bonobo accompanies the pregnant mother and helps her give birth. Here too, the afterbirth was shared between the mother and the midwife.

 

Bonobo
A Bonobo (Source)

 

A primate speciality?

Djungarian hamsters aside, both the snub-nosed monkey and bonobo are primates. This makes us wonder whether their primate brains – significantly more developed than other animals’ – could be the reason for midwifery behaviour. 

But this may not be the case.

Chimpanzees, who are the closest to humans (and who possess far superior brains compared to bonobos and snub-nosed monkeys), prefer to give birth in isolation. So too other primates like gorillas and orangutans. 

But if you consider the research by primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas, only 5 out of the 39 live births (across 31 primate species) she recorded, were done in isolation. The rest were in the company of band/troopmates. 

What makes this behaviour particularly difficult to observe, is how these animals typically give birth at night. Additionally, with these animals so adept at hiding from predators (including humans), it becomes even harder to track birthing animals. 

Empathy, intelligence or instinct?

The practice of midwifery developed in humans as we became more aware of the birthing process. Our highly-evolved brains, capable of high empathy, added to this progress. 

What we don’t know today, is if animal midwifery stems from the same reason. It could also be the desire to partake of another female’s placenta (after all, it is rich in life-saving nutrients). Or, it could just be pure instinct. 

No matter how we reason it, the concept of animals playing midwives will throw up more questions, than they answer. Only time and extensive research will reveal the truth. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rules 2
Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

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

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

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

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

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

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

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

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

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

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

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

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

 

 

So, to encapsulate

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

Can only scientists name a new species?

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

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

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

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

Want to name a species yourself?

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

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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Humans aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Oral Sex, Other Animals Do It Too

It was a warm summer’s day in 2013 when scientists researching fruit bats in Southern India noticed a unique behaviour in their subjects. The bats – who lived in an old fig tree in the village of Malumichampatti in Tamil Nadu – were performing oral sex on their mates!

This was a startling revelation to the scientists. Till date, this behaviour hadn’t been noticed in Indian fruit bats. Up until then, it was only observed in Chinese fruit bats, but no other bat species. This discovery was new and exciting.

Only a human experience?

Humans have for long indulged in oral sex. Myths and ancient books from around the world mention oral sex aka. fellatio (oral sex on males) and cunnilingus (oral sex on females), in various capacities.

There was the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who blew life into her husband Osiris’s body by sucking on his penis, after he was murdered by his brother Set. In the ancient Indian book of Kamasutra, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the use of aupariṣṭhaka (the art of oral sex) in love making. In the ancient city of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed baths predating 79 AD, with wall paintings of couples engaging in oral sex. 

Popeii fresco
The ancient fresco on the walls of Pompeii’s public bath. (Source)

Based on these evidences, scientists assumed that oral sex was the domain of human pleasure. That is until they found other animals engaging in it too.

Non-penetrative sex for non-humans

Animals have evolved to have sex. This includes both penetrative and non-penetrative sex.

Pet dogs and cats are excellent examples of animals which engage in non-penetrative sexual behaviours – chair mounting, dry humping and self-stimulation (auto-fellatio). In farms, the same behaviour can be observed in horses and birds The same is true of wild animals like turtles, walruses and monkeys (amongst others), who indulge in self-love.

With masturbation on the table, oral sex doesn’t seem too-far-off a possibility.

Animals like fruit flies, squirrels, bonobos, wolves, brown bears, sheep, Dunnock birds and Darwin’s bark spiders have been observed engaging in oral sex. The reason for this isn’t clear yet, although there are a few theories:

Theory #1: Oral sex can help prolong sexual activity

With the Indian fruit bats, scientists noticed that oral sex served to increase the time bats spent performing penetrative sex. The male bats would begin mating, with about 50 seconds of oral sex, followed by 10-20 seconds of penetrative sex. They would then revert to about 90 seconds of oral sex and finally back to penetrative sex of much longer duration.

This has led to conjectures regarding the connection between oral sex and the length of penetrative sex.

Dunnock Prunella modularis perched on bramble with dark background Potton Bedfordshire. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
A Dunnock bird. (Source)

Theory #2: Oral sex can remove bad bacteria from the vagina

The second theory proposed by researchers talks of the role of oral sex in animal health.

Some scientists believe that enzymes in the animal’s saliva can remove (and sometimes kill) bad bacteria, which live on/inside the mate’s sexual organs. This was one of the theories suggested regarding the Indian fruit bats from Tamil Nadu.

Another related theory suggests that cunnilingus, may be used by males to wipe-off sperms by competitors; thereby ensuring that only their sperms successfully take root. This is the theory used to explain the behaviour of Dunnock birds; where the male pecks at the female’s cloaca until older sperm masses drop out of her body. He mates with her only after this pre-copulatory display. This he does, it is believed, to prevent his mate from mothering another male’s brood.

Theory #3: Oral sex can improve the quality and mobility of the sperm

Another theory surrounding animal oral sex is that of sperm quality. It is assumed that fellatio may remove old, ineffective sperm and allow the male to use fresh, healthy sperm when mating.

Oral sex has also been presumed to improve the mobility of sperm, allowing the sperm to travel farther through the female’s reproductive tract and ensuring a successful pregnancy.

On this note, scientists have suggested that oral sex may work the other way too – make the female more receptive to mate, by stimulating the production of natural lubrication in the reproductive tract. In fact, this theory has been suggested regarding human females too.

Theory #4: Oral sex doesn’t serve any purpose, except pleasure

Finally, the last theory considers pleasure as the only purpose for the presence of oral sex in the sexual repertoire of non-human animals.

There are many animals like bonobos and macaques, who have been observed experiencing true pleasure during sex. They engage in play during the sexual act. For these few animals, mating doesn’t serve a reproductive purpose alone. They have sex because they like it.

Some scientists believe that in these species, oral sex may only be a tool to increase pleasure; and nothing more. A lot like in humans.

Bonobos
A Bonobo troop. (Source)

Oral sex and homosexuality in the animal kingdom

When talking about the sexual behaviours of animals, the question does arise – is oral sex in non-human animals restricted to heterosexual mates or does it include homosexual mates too (given how oral sex is common to both heterosexual and homosexual couples in humans)?

The answer – its species-dependent.

Primates like bonobos and macaques have been observed engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual behaviours, which includes oral sex. Other animals like dolphins, who are reputed for their varied sexual antics, have been observed engaging in homosexual behaviour, but not oral sex in particular. 

This makes it very hard to define whether there is any connection between oral sex and sexuality the animal kingdom or not; or if like humans, there is absolutely no connection. 

Understanding animal sexuality

With greater awareness, scientists are slowly peeling-back the layers surrounding animal sexuality. We are learning more today about sex, reproduction and pleasure, than we ever did before.

Understanding sexuality in the animal kingdom is also helping us understand human sexuality better. It is allowing scientists to understand human physiology and human evolution better too.

Studies like these are doing one other thing – redefining what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. As the lines dividing humans from animals blurs, we may need to rethink much about ourselves and the world.  

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Greater Indian fruit bat.

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5 Fun Facts About Fossils

  1. Fossils are the remains of animals which have died millions of years ago. They occur when animal remains are preserved under layers of earth and water over millennia. The pressure and temperature of the soil need to be just right in order for the remains to become fossilised. Fossils are normally found in the sedimentary layer of the soil, when clay, mud and rocks accumulate on the top and compress the soil in the bottom.
  2. There are 3 types of fossils on the planet – Body fossils which include the hard parts of an animals body such as teeth, nails, scales, shells, feathers and fur;  Trace fossils which are physical signs that an animal was living/present in a particular place, for example footprints, prints of nest, faeces, egg shells and tracks; Plant fossils which are fossilised remains of plants and which include seeds, flowers, leaves, roots and shoots. 
  3. The oldest fossils on Earth are approximately 3.7 billion years old. They are fossils of stromatolites – which are mounds or sheets of mud that preserve cyanobacteria – the earliest bacteria that developed on Planet Earth. Apart from the bacteria themselves, the stromatolites also contain chemical by-products produced by the bacteria too. This gives us a glimpse into how the Earth was geographically and chemically billions of years ago.
  4. Fossil fuels aren’t made from actual fossilised dinosaurs or plants. Fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas were formed when microscopic algae-like creatures called diatoms died in massive numbers and which over time were fossilised. The intense soil pressure on these fossil remains converted the carbon inside the diatom remains into fuels.
  5. Scientists determine the age of fossils using two processes. The first is called the “carbon-14 dating” which involves studying the time it takes for the carbon present in the animals’ bodies to decay over time. The other process is called the “molecular genetic clock” which involves comparing the DNA and physiology of fossilised remains to animals that are alive today.

 

Bonus

Sometimes, when animals and plants get trapped inside tree sap or resin, over time, they fossilise completely intact – feathers, fur, bones, teeth, bodily fluids, roots etc. – to form a product called “amber“. The fossils preserved in amber are the most significant finds for any scientist or paleontologist, since these fully-intact fossils offer researchers a look at how animals really looked like millions of years ago and whether these species have changed over time or not. Take a look at this article to see the 10 strangest things to fossilise in amber

Fossil 2
A butterfly fossilised in amber (image source)

 

Fossil 4
A body fossil of a dinosaur (image source)

 

Fossil 5
Trace fossil of a trilobite – this fossil is the track remains of a trilobite as it moved across the seafloor (image source)

 

Fossil 3
Stromatolites in Hamelin Pool, Western Australia (image source)

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Fossil of a lizard

 

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5 Fun Facts About Africa’s Great Migration

You may have seen it on television – it’s an event that National Geographic has always loved to film. A grand spectacle and a treat for the senses, the Great Migration in Africa is the annual movement of the world’s largest (non-human) land animal group from one part of Africa to the other, in search of food and safer breeding grounds*.

Wildebeests, antelope, zebra and big cats congregate for five months of rigorous walking, eating, birthing and killing. Here are 5 amazing facts about it:

  1. The Great Migration starts in Tanzania at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation areas and ends at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The migration starts in the month of November and the animals reach their destination in March.
  2. A recorded 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and thousands of antelope make the migration each year. The animals travel a staggering 2900 kilometres (1800 miles) in total, from Tanzania to Kenya and back during this journey.
  3. The Great Migration follows one of the most dangerous routes in Africa. Animals making the journey have to deal with hungry predators (lions, cheetahs & crocodiles), treacherous floods, the uncaring African sun, mean-spirited tsetse flies and physical tiredness. More than 250,000 wildebeests and thousands of zebras and antelopes die each year on the journey. This is excluding the thousands of calves who are left orphaned and vulnerable to predators after their mothers die. A recorded 3000 lions follow the herds on their journey, picking off the weak and the injured.
  4. More than a foraging mission, the Great Migration is a breeding expedition. Pregnant wildebeests move from Tanzania to Kenya for better environmental conditions for calving. An estimated half a million baby wildebeests are born annually during the migration. In the peak of the calving season (February), more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born in a single day!
  5. Although they look like they’re confused and panicked all the time, the massive herds of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes actually function together as one cohesive unit. They display a tactic researchers call “swarm intelligence”, where they carefully analyse, strategise and implement a  plan of action to get safely past any threat together. There’s no “I” in this family.

 

Bonus

There is still no established and accepted explanation for the occurrence of the Great Migration.

Some scientists believe the changing chemistry of the grass could be the reason for the movement. When levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the Serengeti grassland reduces, the wildebeests may be encouraged to move elsewhere for more nutritious meals, acting as the catalyst for the Great Migration. Others believe that the migration may be the result of a co-ordinated effort helmed by a leader. But so far there has been no evidence of there ever being an alpha-wildebeest in any herd. Then there are those scientists who believe that the Great Migration is the consequence of instinct and DNA – a purely biological process that has no other reason.

Well, whatever the rationale, fossil records show that the Great Migration has been in occurrence in East Africa for over one million years.

 

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The Great Migration – Route Map (image source)

 

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A sea of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes greet the eyes during the Great Migration. Often, these herds extend all the way to the horizon; but they don’t stop there. They go on & on. (image source)

 

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Wildebeests crossing the Mara river – this is where they are most vulnerable to attack from crocodiles. (image source)

 

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A wildebeest mother with her newborn calf. (image source)

 

Video: Watch the culmination of the Great Migration – wildebeest giving birth & a newborn’s first, wobbly steps. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image
*Humans take the crown for the farthest migrations in search of food and shelter. 
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Deceptive Sizing: 3 Newborn Animals Who Are Ridiculously Smaller Than Their Parents

Ah baby animals…these bundles of joy have been lighting up the wild for millennia. While everyone has been raving about their cuteness, not a lot of people have spoken about their size. Let’s face it, when it comes to size, some animals are impressive…impressively small. 

Here are 3 animals whose babies are way smaller than you thought they would be: 

 

Kangaroos

Kangaroo adults can reach heights of 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) and can weigh 90 kilograms (200lbs). But their newborn joeys are smaller than gummy bears, often smaller than 25 millimeters. 

 

 

Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:

 

 

Pandas

At their heaviest, adult pandas can weigh 160 kilograms (350 lbs). But their tiny cubs weigh only 1/900th of their mother’s weight! Now that’s really tiny. 

 

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A panda mom with her newborn cub

See that little pink floppy thing on the left side? yup, that little nugget is the cub.

Here’s a fun question; what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment! Ha ha, all jokes aside, a group of pandas is called “an embarrassment” because of the boisterous way in which panda cubs play when they’re together. It could embarrass any mum. 

Now indulge in some cub time by watching twin panda cubs embark on their first 100 days of life. 

 

 

Elephants

One of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants have longest gestation period in the wild. It takes their bodies 22 months to fully develop the calf (imagine being pregnant for almost two years!). But surprisingly, baby elephants when born are only 90 kilograms (200 lbs), while their heavy-weight mothers, aunts and sisters (and not to forget, their brothers and fathers) can reach ridiculously high weights of 3600 kilograms (4 tonnes)! 

 

 

Watch as this newborn calf, just hours old, meets his herd-mates, learns how slopes are not a baby’s friend and discovers the forest he is to grow up in. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About Crabs

Crabs are crustaceans, marine animals which have a thick exoskeleton made of a chemical called chitin (which is chemically derived from glucose). Crabs belong to the class Malacostraca, which means “soft shelled animal” and to the order Decapoda, which mostly includes marine crustaceans (like lobster, shrimp and prawn) that scavenge for food, as opposed to hunting them. This makes crabs soft-shelled scavengers.

Here are five fun facts about them: 

  1. There are two types of crabs in the world – true crabs and false crabs – classified so because of their differing physiology. True crabs have the traditional body structure of a crab – a short and shallow abdomen curled underneath the shell and 4 pairs of legs excluding the pincers. False crabs on the other hand, look a little like crabs, but not completely. They have longer abdomens and less than 4 pairs of legs. True crabs include spider crab, blue crab and ghost crab. False crabs include king crab, hermit crab and porcelain crab. There are a total of 5000 crabs in the world – 4500 true crabs and 500 false crabs. 
  2. The largest crab in the world is the Japanese Spider Crab, which measures 13 feet or almost 4 meters from one end of the body to another. In comparison are the Coral Gall crab, Pea crab, Marsh Fiddler crab and Flattop crab – all of which measure in at a teeny-tiny half an inch at adulthood. If you kept 4.5 standard sized mail boxes one-on-top-of-the-other on one side and a small pea on the other side…well, that’s how the size difference would look between these crabs.  
  3. A small species of crab called Lybia or boxer crab, carry stinging anemones in their pincers anywhere they go. Why?  Lybia are very small in size and they don’t have venom to protect themselves from predators. They use the anemones in a mutually-beneficial partnership where the anemone acts as their defensive, venom-filled gloves. If an animal were to attack the Lybia, the anemone would sting the predator, protecting the crab. In return, the crab takes the anemone to different water bodies, allowing it to feed-off various sources and gaining valuable nutrients not found in its native environment. 
  4. If a crab loses its limbs in a fight, it can grow them back in a matter of months. This is a feature that is also found in starfish and lizards. 
  5. Crabs walk sideways because their legs are positioned to the sides of their body and their joints bend outwards and sideways. The reason for this type of evolution traces back to the crabs’ feeding behaviour. As sand-digging scavengers, crabs never needed to move forwards or move fast. This meant they didn’t need forward bending legs (which are one of the reasons animals can walk or run fast) and could make-do with sideways legs and sideways walking. However, not all crabs walk sideways. Frog crabs and spider crabs belong to the handful of crab species that walk forwards. 

 

 

Bonus

There is a type of parasitic barnacle called the Sacculina, which injects itself into the crab’s body, takes control of the crab’s will and makes it do its bidding. Crabs infected by Sacculina can’t control their own body mechanisms and are forced to become walking, breathing incubators of Sacculina eggs. Read this highly-informative article to learn all about the relationship between the Sacculina and its crab host. 

Here’s what a crab infected by Sacculina look like: 

 

 

Video: Coconut tree crabs are the only type of crabs that can climb trees. Watch this monster of a crab climb a tree, bend coke bottle caps and more. 

 

 

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A Lybia with anemone in its pincers (image source)

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image – The Sally Lightfoot crab from the Galapagos Islands. Sacculina – Mental Floss & Wikipedia.

 

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5 Fun Facts About Possums

Posssums are marsupials (pouched mammals) that are found in North America. They are the only marsupial species found outside Australia and New Guinea. They belong to the order Didelphimorphia, to which belong 95 species of possums. 

 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

  1. Possums are renowned for their ability to “play dead”. In reality, possums don’t actually “play” dead. Their paralysis and almost-dead like state is an involuntary physiological reaction where their nerves and muscles literally freeze and stop working for hours due to stress. This in-built defense mechanism has allowed the possum to survive from pre-historic times. 
  2. Lyme disease is a tick-bite induced disease that results in terribly itchy and inflamed rashes, joint pain and fatigue. Possums in your backyard is a great defense against Lyme disease. It’s been found that possums prey on over 5000 of the ticks and fleas that spread the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. 
  3. Apart from the venom of the Coral Rattlesnake, possums are immune to all other snake venom. That’s why they regularly prey on snakes in the wild. A few years ago researchers created an anti-venom using possum peptides (short chain amino acids linked by peptide bonds), which they injected into mice. They then injected snake venom into the mice only to find the venom absolutely useless. 
  4. Rabies virus require very hot temperatures to develop and spread. But possums have very low body temperatures compared to other mammals and this makes them invulnerable to rabies. You can almost never find a possum with rabies. 
  5. Primates aren’t the only species to be gifted with opposable thumbs. Possums have opposable thumbs called “halux” on their feet and they use them to climb atop the steepest trees and into the deepest sewers in search of food. 

 

Bonus

Contrary to popular belief, possums and opposums aren’t the same animal. They also don’t belong to the same species. For one, possums belong to the Didelphimorphia order in North America, while opossums belong to the order Phalangeridae in Australia. Both animals look similar, but behave completely differently. It was because of this similarity in physical features that led scientists to confuse the opposum for a possum. 

 

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Possums are excellent climbers and use their tails as rudders and as a fifth limb to improve their dexterity. (image source)

 

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A possum with her young (image source- pixabay)

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image – Wikipedia 
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5 Fun Facts About Uguisu

(Hear the pronunciation of “Uguisu” here)

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

Here are fun five fun facts about Uguisu:

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

Bonus

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

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

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

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great evening!

Lots of love, 

Nisha Prakash