Creature Corner, Vol. 5

Echidna

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Belonging to the scientific family Tachyglossidae, these spiny anteaters got their name from a creature described in Greek mythology, who was half-woman and half-snake, since the animal appeared to have qualities of both mammals and reptiles. Though a mammal, these creatures lay eggs, making them a member of the scientific order Monotremata; besides echidnas, the platypus is the only other member of this order. There are three known genus of echidnas, but only four currently existing species; there are four other extinct species known only by fossil records.

Like the platypus, echidnas evolved from an aquatic ancestor, but over time adapted to life on land. These animals are found in Australia and New Guinea, making homes in forests and woodlands. They do not tolerate extreme temperatures and use caves, rock crevasses, and the burrows of other animals as shelter. Being capable swimmers, they venture into water in order to bathe and groom themselves.

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Though the diet of an echidna consists of ants, termites, worms, and insect larvae, they are not closely related to the anteaters of the Americas. They have course hair and spines, much like a hedgehog or porcupine, and are usually black or brown in colour, though albinos have been reported. The elongated, slender snout functions as both a nose and mouth and long-billed species can have as many as 2,000 electroreceptors; short-billed species can have as few as 400 electroreceptors. Their ears, which are typically unseen due to the hair and spines, are simply slits on the side of their heads.

Short, strong limbs with large claws make these animals powerful diggers. They tear open logs and anthills, and use their long, sticky tongues with tiny sharp spikes to collect prey. Their mouths are tiny and their jaws are toothless, so they break down their food by grinding it between the bottom of their mouth and their tongue.

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Being solitary creatures, they have large mutually overlapping territories. With a low metabolism and stress resistance, their lifespan in the wild is typically around 16 years, however accounts of individuals reaching 45 years have been recorded. In captivity, the lifespan can reach 50 years.

The part of the cerebral cortex concerned with sight and hearing in mammals, known as the neocortex, makes up half of the echidna brain, whereas in humans it only makes up about 80 percent. Temperatures must also be around 25 °C (77 °F)  order for echidnas to reach REM sleep.

Echidna2R.I.P. Steve

Females weigh around 4.5 kg (9.9 lbs) and the males around 6 kg (13.2 lbs). On average the males are 25 percent larger in size, and have non-venomous spurs on their hind feet. Though the reproductive organs differ in each sex, both have a single opening, called a cloaca, which is used to urinate, release faeces, and mate.

Breeding season begins in June and extends into September, and the mating ritual is fairly odd. Know as the ‘train’ system, males will form lines up to ten individuals long and follow a female, each attempting to mate. Males may switch to different lines if they are unsuccessful. In the wild, it is challenging to observe them; in captivity they show no interest in mating, so no one has apparently ever seen an echidna actually ejaculate. Attempts at electrically stimulated ejaculation in order to collect semen samples have only resulted in penis swelling.

Amazingly, the male echidna has a four-headed penis, which is covered in penile spines to induce female ovulation. During mating, two of the head shut down and do not grow in size; the other two are used to release the semen into the female’s two-branched reproductive tract. Each time the male copulates it alternates the heads in sets of two.

Twenty-two days after mating, the female will deposit a single, soft-shelled, leathery egg, weighing about 380 mg (.38 g) into her pouch, which hatches after about ten days. The young echidna, which is called a puggle, remains in the pouch for up to 55 days while it develops spines and sucks on milk patch pores (monotremes do not have nipples!), after which the mother digs a burrow for the young. The mother returns to the puggle every five days to suckle until it is weened at about seven months.

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Predators to these animals include foxes, domestic dogs, wild cats, and goannas. Snakes can also slither in to burrow and prey on the defenseless young puggle. When an echidna feels threatened, it will use it’s spines as a sheild and curl itself into a ball or attempt to bury itself. Keeping the environment clean of litter, planting vegetation for echidnas to useas shelter and supervising pets are all ways of helping to protect these special little creatures. Report hurt echidnas and/or leave them undisturbed, grabbing them may cause stress and could result in injury.

Here’s a fun and informative video with the reincarnation of Steve Irwin, Andrew Ucles, as he finds a echidna in the wild! (Warning: he’s very attractive):

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Creature Corner, Vol. 4

Rosy Maple Moth

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Scientifically named Dryocampa rubicunda, these adorably unreal moths are characterized by their distinct pink and yellow colours. While the vibrance of colours can vary, some of these moths can also be very pale, even completely white.

These cuties are found in south-east Canada, including Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario, as well as in Minnesota and down the east coast of the U.S. to Florida. They can even be spotted as far west as Michigan, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

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Maple trees are where these moths call home, specifically Red Maples, Silver Maples, and Sugar Maples. Females are able to  lay eggs up to 3 times per season, about 150-200 eggs. Groups of 20-30 pale yellow eggs are laid on the underside of maple leaves, and hatch in about 2 weeks. For the first few stages of development the larvae live and eat the maple leaves together, but they eventually become independent. The caterpillars, also known as green-striped mapleworms, grow to be about 55 mm (2.2 in.) in length and have green bodies with lateral lines and red heads. After about another 2 weeks, the caterpillars crawl down their host tree and pupate (make a cocoon) underground, which can last another week.

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The tiny adult males have a wingspan of 32-44 mm (1.3-1.8 in.) and the females 40-50 mm (1.6-2 in.). These moths are nocturnal; the females emit pheromones at night to attract males, who have bushier antennae to detect these pheromones. Interestingly, the adult moths do not eat, only the larvae does. Their lifespan is typically up to 9 months.

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Though the bright colours act as a warning sign to predators,they can still be attacked by birds such as bluejays. Since these moths don’t eat, they don’t affect the ecosystem as predators, and have no economic impact on the environment (though eating all the leaves from a tree can be seen as pesky).

Currently, these moths are not classified as threatened or endangered, which makes me happy because I cannot get enough of these cuties!

Creature Corner, Vol. 3

Johnny Cash Tarantula

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On February 4, 2016, our little understanding of North American tarantulas changed when an analysis of the Aphonopelma genus, was published.

Previously, it was believed the Aphonopelma genus contained 55 species in areas around the southwest U.S.; however, after almost a decade of research, 20 field expeditions, and the study of more than 3,000 specimens, Dr. Chris Hamilton and his team determined there were simply 15 species. They also discovered 14 species which had been unknown to scientists, bringing the total number of Aphonopelma species to 29.

One of those new species was given a little more fame than the others. Aphonopelma johnnycashi, pictured above, is now commonly known as the Johnny Cash tarantula. The name is derived from the location the tarantula was discovered: near Folsom State Prison in California. In case you missed the connection, Johnny Cash wrote a song titled Folsom Prison Blues. He also had an interest in performing at prisons and his live album, At Folsom Prison, was recorded at the location. Known as “the man in black” for his distinctive style, as well as the song, Man in Black, also lends inspiration to the tarantula’s name; mature males are solid black in colouration.

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Chris Hamilton’s research on the tarantulas was part of his PhD research, and is currently a a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He describes tarantulas as being, “teddy bears with eight legs” (shudder), since they are easy going and only tend to bite when they feel threatened. Interestingly enough, Hamilton has a Johnny Cash tattoo!

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Dr. Chris A. Hamilton

Of course, Johnny Cash isn’t the first rockstar with a tarantula tribute. In 2005, Bumba lennoni was discovered in Brazil. The study leader, Fernando Pérez-Miles, was a fan of the Beatles and wanted to dedicate a species to Lennon because the musician helped “to make this world a gentler place”, according to the study. Below is a picture of that little beast:

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I’ll end with a picture that is less likely to lead to nightmares:

JCCat

Creature Corner, Vol. 2

Secretary Bird

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Oh, hello there.

Scientifically, this goofy bird is known as Sagittarius serpentarius, but the common name is based from a few distinct observations. In the 1800’s (around the time this bird was first described) secretaries would carry their quill pens behind their ears. The feathers protruding from the crest of this bird apparently give it an appearance resembling those secretaries. In Latin, Sagittarius (the bird’s genus) means “archer”; the crest feathers could resemble a quiver of arrows. Serpentarius in Latin refers to serpents, and this bird is known for their ability to catch snakes.

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Besides snakes, the secretary bird enjoys a diet consisting of insects, small mammals, and even other birds. When the secretary bird has chased down their prey, they either strike it with their bill, or stomp on it until the prey dies, or is stunned enough to swallow. After fires, these birds can be found scavenging around the burn site for animals that were unable to escape the blaze.

Despite being related to raptors (buzzards, vultures, harriers, kites), secretary birds spend most of their time on the ground. They can be found south of the Sahara Desert, with their ideal habitat consisting of savannas with short grasses for hunting, and acacia trees for roosting.

These birds are monogamous, and pairs work together for months to build large nests which are typically about 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter and one foot (0.3 meters) in depth. Two or three eggs are laid over the course of a few days, with an incubation period of about 45 days.

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With an eagle-like body, and crane-like legs, these birds can reach a height of about 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) tall, and can have a wingspan of 6.9 feet (2.1 meters). They can live for about 15 years in the wild but have been recorded to live for as long as 19 years in captivity.

In 2000, South Africa adopted a new coat of arms which displays this bird. Similarly, in 1985 Sudan put the bird on their national emblem.

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Though adult birds have no natural predator, the young chicks are left vulnerable in their treetop nests to other birds such as ravens or large owls. Deforestation and loss of habitat are the main threats to this species and as such, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the bird as vulnerable. However, the bird is still widespread across Africa, and is well represented in protected areas.

Creature Corner, Vol. 1

I want to do a series of posts about animals that I find interesting/weird/uncommon/etc. The animal that will be starting this exploration is

Cantor’s Giant Soft-Shell Turtle

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(On the street it’s also called a frog-faced soft-shell turtle.) The name is in honor Theodore Edward Cantor, a Danish zoologist who was known for describing many new species of reptiles and amphibians. Scientifically, this turtle is known as Pelochelys cantorii, and for those needing a little brush up on their binomial nomenclature, that is the genus and species respectively.

Also known as an Asian giant soft-shell turtle (sounding a little less majestic in my opinion), this turtle could be found in many Asian countries, such as India, China, Thailand, Laos, etc. Since it’s a freshwater species, the habitat is primarily inland slow-moving freshwater rivers and streams. Interestingly, this species is not found in New Guinea, however two other members of the genus Pelochelys are restricted to New Guinea.

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While the largest recorded length of the carapace (a fancy word for shell) is 183 cm (6 feet), the average length of the shell is only about 100 cm (a little over 3 feet). These turtles also weigh around 100 lbs.

This turtle is carnivorous, with a diet consisting of crustaceans, mollusks, fish, and human babies. (Just kidding about the human babies, seriously!) 95% percent of this creature’s life is spent buried and motionless in sand, surfacing only twice a day to take a breath! (Much like one of my roommates who only leaves their room twice a day.. HA!) These turtles lay about 20-28 eggs, usually around February or March.

Sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized this species as endangered. However, in 2007 a nesting ground in Cambodia was discovered, which gives hope that this giant can be saved from extinction.

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As a side note, this particular animal is often confused with Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles (Rafetus swinhoei), which IUNC has categorized as critically endangered. In fact, only a few days ago one was found dead in Vietnam. Scientists believe that this leaves only 3 known living specimens: one in a protected lake in Hanoi, and a pair at the Suzhou Zoo in China. This turtle played a key role in Vietnam’s mythology, symbolizing Vietnam’s independence struggle. Many people fear that the death is a bad omen for upcoming changes in the ruling Communist Party. State media has said the turtles’ body is being held in a temple on a small island on the lake while an official decision on what to do is made; embalming is being considered.