What is that pink balloon on a marabou stork?

January 29th, 2012 by lucy

Strikingly ugly and bald, with a thick powerful bill, the Marabou stork is unforgettable.  But what is that naked pink pouch that sometimes appears hanging under its bill?

This gular sac has two purposes: it helps keep the stork cool, as the skin has a dense concentration of blood vessels. It’s also a show-off device.  In the breeding season, the male Marabou stork inflates the sac to impress rivals and prospective partners.  The female will inflate hers in return.  They also have a second air sac, small and normally hidden by feathers at the back of the neck, which swells like a red bubble during a display.

Thousands of tortoises stolen from the Galapagos Islands

August 6th, 2011 by lucy

That’s what the headline might’ve read if the 19th century world had been more concerned with conservation.  The Galapagos Islands were treated as a supply station by ships, particularly whaling vessels, which had most reason to pass through the eastern Pacific. The sailors would go onshore and help themselves to vast numbers of the giant tortoises – the same species that fascinated Darwin, helping him shape his theory of evolution, and gave the islands their name ( Spanish galápago – tortoise).  The ability of the tortoises  to survive for a long time without food or water meant they were a convenient source of fresh meat on the interminable sea voyages of the era.

The tortoises were easy to catch but heavy to carry so the smaller sized females were disproportionately taken – another factor contributing to their decline. In 1813, the Essex of the US navy reportedly carried off as many as 4 tons of tortoises.

The Galapagos Tortoises in their relation to the whaling industry by Charles Townsend includes an account of a seaman who landed on the islands in 1865:

Many huge turtles had carved on their backs the name of some whaling ship and a date of years before. I have often heard tell that a vessel went over from Panama with two donkeys and procured terrapin so large that two of them weighed 2,200 lbs. We had brought long iron poles with us and we lashed the terrapins’ legs together, slung them on the poles and so carried them back to the ship – one man on each end of the pole. We valued them very much for fresh meat. I don’t think anything ever tasted much better than fried terrapin liver. One thing we used to feed the turtles on board ship was bananas.

However, the greatest impact on the tortoise population was made when humans began to settle in the “the lonely archipelago”, with their accompanying domestic animals. Numbers dropped from over 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s.  Conservation efforts involving breeding programs and culling of introduced species have brought about a small recovery to around 20,000.

Tourist paradise – Coati opportunity!

July 29th, 2011 by lucy

Idyllic Mexican beaches, the natural park of the Iguazu Falls . . . some of the most beautiful landscapes of Central and South America happen to be habitats of the coati, who has found in the tourist a new opportunity. Rather than fleeing the human invaders, coatis have become efficient at hoovering up their food scraps. They converge in numbers wherever pickings are rich, creating a forest of ringed tails, held high and upright as they scour the zone.

Tourists are enchanted with their fearless nature, and will even forgive blatant sandwich-snatching in return for a good photo opportunity.  Long coati snouts are good for investigating rubbish bins, and non-retractable claws are perfect for ripping open lunch bags, even as the owner is walking along.

So what is a coati? Some kind of giant rodent? The handsome stripy tail puts you in mind of a lemur. In fact, they are members of the racoon family.

More coati facts

  • The tails come in handy when the coati troop is in tall vegetation, visible when held erect.
  • Coati groups are made up of females and young males.  Mature males are solitary.
  • They nest and sleep in trees.
  • As versatile omnivores, their natural diet includes fruit, insects and worms. Larger males will capture rodents.
  • Found in Central and South America: Nasua nasua in the south of its range and Nasua narica in the north

The tourist-coati interplay means photographic evidence of their activities is abundant.  Some good selections here:

Can you survive being swallowed by a whale?

July 17th, 2011 by lucy

In traditional whaling, the period after harpooning the prey was highly dangerous for the hunters. The boat would be pulled at great speed through the ocean, sometimes far from the whaling ship, before the injured animal tired (Nantucket whalers called it a “sleigh ride”). The whale would thrash violently and the small whaling boats were often smashed to smithereens.

According to a well-told story, this is what happened to a boat from a British whaling ship, The Star of the East, near the Falkland Islands.  Their vessel destroyed, the crew were picked up from the water, but young apprentice seaman James Bartley was missing.

When the dead whale eventually floated up to the surface, just before sunset, the crew set to work immediately on the butchering, to avoid spoilage in the heat.  They got started on stripping the blubber, and then began to winch the stomach on deck, when suddenly movement was observed inside. When the stomach was cut open, out slid the missing sailor, alive but unconscious.

It took him over a month to recover enough to relate what had happened.  Terrifyingly, he had been engulfed by the whale’s cavernous mouth. He remembered sharp stabling pain as he slid over the teeth, only to plunge feet-first down a chute to land in the stomach, where he lost consciousness in the hot and foetid air.

Bartley did not escape unscathed: he was left blind, hairless, and with a strange pallid pigment of the skin, apparently bleached by the gastric juices. He never returned to sea, but made a living as a cobbler in Gloucester.  He died 18 years later, and his tombstone bears the epitaph: James Bartley -1870-1909 – A Modem Jonah.

Some would dismiss this as an impossible yarn.  Another story tells of a whale swallowing, this time of a seal-hunter who disappeared inside a sperm whale near Newfoundland, after falling off an ice pan. The whale was duly killed and cut open to retrieve the body.

Gagging from the overpowering stench of the stomach, the ship surgeon saw the young hunter had probably been killed outright when his chest and lungs were crushed. The body was covered in a gastric mucosa and all the unclothed parts were partly digested. The only sign of life was the lice on his head. This tale seems more plausible, but might be equally tall.

Surviving in mountains: the highest places in the world where plants flower

July 10th, 2011 by lucy

A candidate for the highest flowering plant in the world is Christolea himalayensis of the Crucifer family, which was recorded at 6300 m on India’s Mount Kamet in the Western Himalayas.  Its grey leaves are hard to spot , but the flowers, “yellow suffused with pink”, are bright among the rocks.  As Toshio Yoshida describes in Portraits of Himalayan Flowers, the plant “grows on bleak, unstable screes” that freeze and thaw everyday, throughout the year.

Another record-breaking plant, Purple saxifrage – Saxifraga oppositifolia, was found in the Swiss Alps, close to the summit of the Dom (the third highest peak of the Alps).

Although at 4,505 m the site is nearly 2,000 m lower than for C. himalayensis, the conditions the Purple saxifrage faces here are more gruelling, according to the discoverer Professor Körner: Read the rest of this entry »

How does a Cobra lily trap its prey?

March 4th, 2011 by lucy

In a sun-lit meadow on the mountainside, a large grove of curving plants grow close together in the marshy grass, which glistens with cool running spring water.  Humans are struck by the resemblance of these pitcher plants to hooded cobras, poised to strike, and have christened them Cobra Lilies, but for an insect there is nothing threatening about them at all.

On the contrary, they are very enticing.  The pitcher plant surface is covered in scattered nectar glands where insects can feed, and there are even more on a bright red appendage, forked like a snake’s tongue. The tongue hangs down from a mouth-like opening, and just inside there is a particularly copious supply of the tempting sweet stuff.

For us, the snake illusion is completed by the pattern on the domed leaves, giving the impression of scales.  They are translucent aeroles that flood the pitcher with bright light. An insect might be reluctant to enter a dark interior, but is lulled into a false sense of security in this well-lit space.

Having gorged, rather than go back out the way it came in, the insect might head straight for one of these false exits.  After all, the mouth is half hidden by its curling lip.

Disorientated and tired, like a fly that has been helplessly crashing into a glass window, the insect might try to settle on the slippery walls of the plant.  Unable to get a grip, it goes plunging down the spiralling tube straight into the pool at the bottom, which is kept filled with water pumped up from the ground.  The down-pointing hairs on the inner walls discourage any attempts of a soaked insect to climb back to freedom.  By the end of the summer, these carnivorous pitcher plants will be half-filled with insect remains, the sign of a successful season.

Cobra Lilies (Darlingtonia californica) are native to northern California and southern Oregon in the United States.

Magpies loved in Norway

February 25th, 2011 by lucy

The magpie, along with other members of the crow family, is often reviled and the object of superstitious beliefs.  This interesting extract from The Naturalist of Norway by John Bowden, published in 1869, shows how attitudes to birds can vary among cultures, including within Europe.

The magpie is common in all parts of Norway.  It is a special favourite among the peasants who would not harm it on any consideration.  The Lapps esteem it highly, and do their best to entice it about their tents.  During the long and wearisome winter of Norway, the magpie is to the Norwegian bönder what the redbreast is to the country people of England.  This bird is allowed to come into the peasant’s cottage; it is regularly fed, and if any mischievous person were to molest it, he would bring down a storm about his ears which he would not forget in a hurry.

Bowden also found that Norwegian magpies, as well as becoming very tame, had special powers attributed to them, verging on the magical:

In country districts here, the people put hens’ eggs under the magpie and consider the chickens hatched in such a way will be prolific layers.

But people were aware of the risks:

When this is done, the magpie is carefully watched at hatching time, and the chickens are removed as soon as they come out of their shells, otherwise the magpie would devour them.

Photo by zimpenfish

The Red-eyed Frog – the most photogenic frog in the world?

February 25th, 2011 by lucy

With its feet tucked in and eyes firmly shut, the Red-eyed Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) merges perfectly into the leaves where it rests all day.  But if threatened by a predator, it only has to open its bulging eyes and the ensuing flash of red can be enough to startle the predator for a second or two.  As the frog leaps into action, the unexpected apparition of bright orange toes can also delay the attack long enough for a getaway.

Those large popping eyes make striking photographs, and the technicolour Red-eyed Frog, featured on countless magazine front covers, has become a symbol of its threatened tropical rain forest habitat.

Where to see the Red-eyed Frog?

They are common in Costa Rica in Tortuguero national park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  The best time to see them is in the rainy season when they come down from the tree-tops to mate and lay eggs.

The Hercules Beetle – fact and fiction

February 15th, 2011 by lucy

Like a stag with antlers, the male Hercules Beetle (Dynastes hercules – found in rainforests of South and Central America) is equipped with spectacular horns that it uses to assert its right to mate.  In a duel, the stronger beetle will grasp his rival with the long, down-curving, pincer-like horns and dash him to the ground.  The victor is known to seize the female beetle (without horns) and carry her to a quieter spot away from the combat zone.

Thanks to these gleaming appendages the Hercules is one of the largest beetles in the world (specimens of up to 17 cm long have been recorded). It also has phenomenal strength. According to calculations they can carry 850 times their body weight, the equivalent of 65 tons for a human.  Those who try to keep them in captivity often have problems as the Hercules Beetle, if it feels like going out, can simply bend the bars of a cage or push open a lid weighed down with a rock.

Such power has created legends.  Charles Leonard Hogue reported in Latin American insects and entomology that in Guadeloupe people believed the Hercules Beetle to be a kind of insect chain-saw, clasping a branch in its horns and then whirring round till it was cut.  The origin of the belief is probably that tree sap is part of their diet.  Though they can fly, they are more likely to be found trundling along the rain forest floor, looking for rotting fruit to assuage their sweet tooth.

Hercules Beetles in Japan

They are popular as pets in Japan, no doubt after featuring in modern Japanese culture:

A Hercules Beetle named Spike appears in Mushiking: Battle of the Beetles,  an arcade game and collectible card game developed by Sega

A Hercules Beetle also features in the card game associated with Japanese manga Yu-Gi-Oh! created by Kazuki Takahashi

Among the spin-off toys is a model kit

The lowest point in Africa

February 11th, 2011 by Nick

File:Lake Assal 1-Djibouti.jpg

Lake Assal in the bleak Afar Depression in Djibouti, is the lowest point in Africa,  at 155m below sea level, and is also considered the  most saline body of water in the world  outside Antarctica (note, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest), with a remarkable 34.8 percent salt concentration. The area is wild and desert-like, and thee is no wildlife  or flora in the lake’s soup-like waters. Image by Fishercd More from Wikipedia

See also:

Lake Assal – Djibouti”, BBC Science and Nature

Lake Assal sits at the top of the Great Rift Valley in the Danakil Desert where summer temperatures sometimes reach 52°C and are accompanied by strong drying winds. To the right of the lake is a glistening white plain which was once part of the lake floor. The lake has now evaporated to leave a vast expanse of salt. The Afar people of Sudan make their living by mining and trading this valuable commodity.

Why Africa’s Lake Assalis the Saltiest on Earth?