Category Archive 'Natural History'
20 Oct 2016

Pileated Woodpeker

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pileatedwoodpecker1

13 Oct 2016

From Down Under

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wedge-tailedeagle
On Nullarbor Plain near Cocklebiddy, Western Australia… a very isolated part of Australia with nothing but views of saltbush in all directions: Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) munching road-killed kangaroo.

16 Aug 2016

Largest Animal War in History

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ArgentineAnts
An Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) attacks a much larger fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).

Every now and then there is a good question and answer on Quora. Someone asked: “Do animals fight wars and if so what was the largest war?”

Zoologist Suzanne Sadedin replied:

The largest war in animal history — in fact, by numbers the largest war in history — is going on right now.

Once upon a time there was a tiny brown ant who lived by a swamp at the end of the Paraná River in Argentina. Her name, Linepithema humile, literally means “humble” or “weak”. Some time during the late 1800s, an adventurous L. humile crept away from the swamp where giant river otter played and capybaras cavorted.

She stowed away on a boat that sailed to New Orleans. And she went to war.

At home in the Paraná delta, L. humile nests would ferociously defend themselves from other nests, both of their own species and other kinds of ant. It was a life of never-ending territorial skirmishes, where nobody could really get ahead. When two L. humile met, they would flick their antennae over each others’ bodies, tasting the combination of hydrocarbons on their skin. This flavor would tell them whether the stranger belonged to the same nest. If she tasted familiar, she would be recognized as a sister. She would be gently stroked, offered food and welcomed into the nest. But if the flavor were not recognized, the ants would try to kill each other.

In New Orleans, something changed. L. humile, invading the United States, spread like wildfire. Instead of forming discrete, competing colonies, they behaved as a united army. They would brutally attack ants of other species, but welcome every L. humile as a long-lost sister in arms. Like L. humile in Argentina, other species of ants in the US must defend their territories against their own species. This gives the cooperative L. humile a huge strategic advantage; they waste neither lives nor energy on fighting with their own kind, but focus ruthlessly upon species-level conquest. Though individually tiny, they can swarm over native ants many times their size.

The supercolony grew to cover most of the United States. Then it spread to England, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. L. humile is now abundant on every continent except Antarctica, and wherever she goes, she slaughters native ant species.

How did she do this? Did inbreeding reduce the diversity of hydrocarbons on the ants’ skin, such that they no longer saw one another as enemies, but as sisters? Did natural selection tone down L. humile’s territorial instincts to suit their environment, so they would react aggressively only to the strong stimulus of another species? It seems likely both mechanisms were involved.

Things have not been perfect. Near San Diego, a schism formed, and a separate supercolony was created. The battlefront extends for miles; some 30 million ants die there every year. Another super-colony has formed in Catalonia. Perhaps as L. humile eliminates her competitors, her alliance will fracture entirely into squabbling tribes. But for now, from Europe to the United States, all the way to New Zealand, a global megacolony still persists, consisting of around 1 trillion individuals: a humble brown ant united in war against every other ant alive.

People always talk about the meek inheriting the earth. In L. humile’s case, it’s clearly working.

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ArgentineAntUSMap
L. humile distribution by US county

14 Jul 2016

Seriema Golf

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Red-legged seriema (Cariama cristata) at golf course in Brazil.

28 Jun 2016

Wolf Takes Bighorn Sheep

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(“Oh, My God! says wife in car. A lot.)

02 Jun 2016

A Mantis of Her Own

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GinsburgMantis

Mashable:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg… was just honored with her very own species of praying mantis.

According to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, scientists have successfully used female genitalia to identify different species of praying mantises. Using this process, they have discovered a new mantis, which has been named Ilomantis ginsburgae, in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg, a beloved 83-year-old supreme court justice, active feminist and oldest member of the highest court in the country was honored “for her relentless fight for gender equality.”

Additionally, the bug’s neck plate sort of looks like a jabot, which Ginsburg is well known for sporting around her neck.

And we all know what the female mantis does to the male after mating…

Hat tip to Matthias Storme.

17 May 2016

Large, Dead Anaconda Video

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A video featuring a very large, dead anaconda turned up on Facebook today via an Oriental source. It certainly looks real.

I found another version with a slightly different view of the critter.

Via Creepy Basement.

07 May 2016

Saturniidae

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Saturniidae
Saturniidae caterpillar

30 Apr 2016

Bald Eagles Nest Cam Shocks Viewers

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Animal lovers got a shock yesterday when a webcam broadcasting pictures of a bald eagle nest in Pittsburgh showed the adult eagles feeding somebody’s domestic cat to their chicks.

Washington Post story

Cats? Bald eagles are powerful enough to kill sheep or even small deer.

20 Apr 2016

Leptocephalus

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Leptocephali
The leptocephali are about 300 – 400 mm long and appear to be metamorphosing larvae of some type of moray eel of the family Muraenidae. The morphological similarities between these leptocephali and Ribbon Eels, Rhinomuraena quaesita, suggest they may be Ribbon Eel larvae.

Leptocephali are transparent because they have only a thin layer of muscle over a mucinous pouch inside the body. The pouch contains glucosaminoglycan (GAG) compounds that form a transparent jelly-like substance. The GAGs are converted into tissue during metamorphosis, and thus in addition to being transparent, they are also an energy storage material.

08 Nov 2015

The King Cobra Eats Other Snakes

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SnakewithSnake

31 Oct 2015

Eastern US Has a New Species

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Coywolf

The Economist discusses the pedigree of the now-ubiquitous Eastern Coyote.

It is rare for a new animal species to emerge in front of scientists’ eyes. But this seems to be happening in eastern North America.

Like some people who might rather not admit it, wolves faced with a scarcity of potential sexual partners are not beneath lowering their standards. It was desperation of this sort, biologists reckon, that led dwindling wolf populations in southern Ontario to begin, a century or two ago, breeding widely with dogs and coyotes. The clearance of forests for farming, together with the deliberate persecution which wolves often suffer at the hand of man, had made life tough for the species. That same forest clearance, though, both permitted coyotes to spread from their prairie homeland into areas hitherto exclusively lupine, and brought the dogs that accompanied the farmers into the mix.

Interbreeding between animal species usually leads to offspring less vigorous than either parent—if they survive at all. But the combination of wolf, coyote and dog DNA that resulted from this reproductive necessity generated an exception. The consequence has been booming numbers of an extraordinarily fit new animal (see picture) spreading through the eastern part of North America. Some call this creature the eastern coyote. Others, though, have dubbed it the “coywolf”. Whatever name it goes by, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, reckons it now numbers in the millions.

The mixing of genes that has created the coywolf has been more rapid, pervasive and transformational than many once thought. Javier Monzón, who worked until recently at Stony Brook University in New York state (he is now at Pepperdine University, in California) studied the genetic make-up of 437 of the animals, in ten north-eastern states plus Ontario. He worked out that, though coyote DNA dominates, a tenth of the average coywolf’s genetic material is dog and a quarter is wolf.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Robert Laird.

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