Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Animals of South Dakota: Part 2

NOW.  What animals should you be watching for on your trip?  Well, I am so glad you asked!  There are going to be three main areas where you would be able to see wildlife; the Prairies (P), the Pine Forests (PF), and the Black Hills (BH).

1.  Bison - If you are lucky, you might get stuck for a few minutes as a herd of bison crosses the road in front of you!  Be careful when viewing these animals, and use common sense; don't be the stereotypical stupid tourist and get yourself trampled to death by the bison.  They are the largest living mammals in North America, and can be testy. - P, BH

2.  Mule Deer - Just like we have in Boulder.  - P, PF, BH
A pair of mule deer fawns, near my house
3.  Pronghorn - One of my favorite animals, the Pronghorn Antelope is the second fastest animal in the world, and the fastest in North America, capabable of running around 61 MPH.  Why it can do that, we will talk about next Wednesday. - P, BH

4.  Red and Gray Fox, Coyote - Just like we have in Boulder, except for the Gray Fox. - P
A picture of a gray fox, taken by me at Brookgreen Gardens in  South Carolina
5.  Turkey Vulture - Watch for these guys anywhere, but they should be especially easy to spot on the vast swathes of prairie separating you from South Dakota.  They are instantly recognizable by their "V-Shaped" wing profile, their relative lack of wing-flapping, as well as the fact that they are probably circling something in the air.  Usually groups of them will signifiy a dead animal, as they are carrion eaters. - P, PF, BH

6.  Bighorn Sheep - Just like we have in Colorado - PF, BH

7.  These are the main ones to watch for, but if you get really lucky, you might see one of the black-footed ferrets in the Badlands, or a badger in the prairies!

Animals of South Dakota: Part 1

Hypothetically, let's say that you are taking a trip up to South Dakota from where I live in Boulder, Colorado, much like my family did nine years ago, in 2003.  You might be thinking "Ew, South Dakota?  What's there to do there?"  Well, although much of the driving might be boring, there are most definitely a few cool places to stop, as well as cool animals to watch for on the way!  Let's start with the sites.

  1. The Mammoth Site - This is one of my all time favorite Ice Age sites, about 40 minutes south of Custer.  According to their website, "To date 60 mammoths (57 Columbian and 3 woolly) have been discovered as well as 85 other species of animals, plants, and several unidentified insects."  This place is very interesting, and not just to those of my ilk.  Most recently, they have added a replica of the frozen baby mammoth discovered in Siberia named "Lyuba." - http://www.mammothsite.com/
    My sister and I standing next to a Columbian Mammoth cutout at The Mammoth Site
Part of The Mammoth Site
2.  Badlands Petrified Garden - I do not remember if we went to this place, but it definitely looks cool.  It is right around the Badlands National Park.  - http://www.badlandspetrifiedgardens.com/

3.  Reptile Gardens - On the way to the Badlands National Park in Rapid City, we have the awesome Reptile Gardens, which I know for a fact that I have been to as we have pictures of my sister and I next to a couple of massive tortoises.  However, our scanner stopped working, so all I have is this picture of a guy pulling a Steve Irwin-like stunt.  Definitely worth the admission price. - http://www.reptilegardens.com/
4.  Bear Country USA - Also on the way to the Badlands National Park, and just a bit farther than the Reptile Gardens, and also in Rapid City, is Bear Country USA.  I have not been there, but my parents have in I believe 1991.  They said that it is a really cool place, where (surprise surprise) you get to see a bunch of bears.  So that should be exciting! - http://www.bearcountryusa.com/

Monday, July 30, 2012

Animal Spotlight: The Capybara

Today, we are going to investigate the capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris).  Listed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN, both parts of its scientific name, hydrochoerus and hydrochaeris mean the same thing.  As you probably noticed, they both contain the Greek root "hydro," which, as you probably know, means "water."  The second half would be forgivable if you were unfamiliar with it: it means hog, or pig.  So, from its scientific name, we can assume that the capybara is a water pig.

Again, it would be understandable if you were to think that, as the capybara most definitely resembles a pig, at least superficially.  However, the capybara is not pig: instead, it is a rodent, related to creatures such as chinchillas.  As a matter of fact, the capybara is the world's largest extant rodent

Semi-aquatic, the capybara has evolved webbed feet, like many other semi-aquatic animals, like the POLAR BEAR.  An herbivore, the capybara must face attacks from many predatory animals, including the caiman (a relative of a crocodile), eagles, ocelot, puma/mountain lion, jaguar, and the anaconda, for who the capybara is its favorite meal.  The capybara generally travels in herds of around ten or twenty, but groups of up to one hundred have been seen before.

Capybara are fairly common zoo animals, and, when they escape into the wild, if they can find a semi-aquatic habitat that they like, they can often survive and thrive.  Sightings are common throughout Florida, and there have been sightings in California as well. 

When it isn't an escaped convict of the zoo, the capybara lives throughout most of mainland South America (thus excluding Trinidad and Tobago), except for the country of Chile.  These countries are Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Not enough capybara for you?  Well just check out these two amusing video clips below!  The first one shows a capybara with a case of the hiccups at the Bristol Zoo in England (UK), while the one below shows squirrel monkeys riding capybaras at the Saitama Zoo in Saitama, Japan.

The Hiccuping Capybara

Squirrel Monkeys Riding Capybaras

Finally, here are a pair of pictures that I took of one of the capybaras at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.  Enjoy!
One of the capybaras sleeping at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.
One of the capybaras sleeping at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Making of Planet Earth: The Polar Bear

First of all, don't forget to scroll down and look at today's official post, about the three-toed sloth

I almost forgot to tell you all about another very interesting video clip about the polar bear, from "The Making of Planet Earth."  The clip below, narrated by David Attenborough, features the challenges that the main cameraman Doug Allan, aided by his field assistant Jason Roberts, came up against when it came to filming the polar bears in Norway.  Not only is the video quite interesting, it gets amusing towards the end, as well!

Filming the Polar Bears

Below is a picture of cameraman Doug Allan.  In the picture below, he is staked out, attempting to film the snow leopard, one of my absolute favorite animals.  This elusive cat proved quite difficult to film, and, hopefully, sometime in the next few weeks I can talk about the difficulties the crew of Planet Earth encountered when it came to filming the snow leopard in the wild.

Animal Spotlight: The Sloth

Today's "Animal Spotlight" is the arboreal South American three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus).  The three-toed sloth holds the record for the world's slowest mammal: in fact, it is so slow, that algae grows on its fur, giving it a greenish color.  The algae helps to camouflage the slow animal in the treetops of its rainforest home.  In the case that its camouflage fails it, then it will resort to taking a stab at its attacker with its incredibly large claws.  Definitely not something that you want to take a hit from.

After perusing a few sources, I have come up with a list of the top 10 sleepiest animals, as you can see below.  The numbers are all number of hours spent sleeping a day. 
  1. Koala:            20-22
  2. Sloth:             20
  3. Armadillo:       19
  4. Opossum:       19
  5. Lemurs:          16
  6. Owl Monkey:  17
  7. Lion:              14-16
  8. Hamster:        14
  9. Squirrel:         13-14
  10. House Cat:     11-12 
 HERE is a link to an earlier post about the koala, and why it is so sleepy.  The sloth apparently is so incredibly sleepy simply due to the fact that its leaves are so poor in nutrients, much like the predicament the koala finds itself in.

Two other sloth facts struck me as pretty interesting.  The first one is the fact that, due to a few extra neck vertebrae, the sloth can turn its head 270 degrees, as you can see in the picture below.

The second interesting fact is that, despite the poor ability of the sloth to walk on the ground due to weak hind legs, they are actually surprisingly adept swimmers, as you can see in both of the videos below.

A Sloth Walking

A Sloth Swimming

According to the website of National Geographic, the three-toed sloth is labeled as "Endangered" by the IUCN.  Sloths live in Central and South America, and the three-toed sloth specifically inhabits the countries of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana, and Brazil.

Finally, to learn a little bit more about the sloth, click on the link below.  The video is a short clip narrated by David Attenborough, and is also quite amusing.  Enjoy!

Saying "Boo!" To A Sloth

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Animal Spotlight: The Polar Bear

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the world's largest extant, terrestrial carnivore, with males growing up to 1,500 pounds.  Like many animals that spend a good amount of time in the water, their feet are partially webbed to aid in swimming.  Although the fur of the polar bear is white, to help it blend into the ice and snow when it is hunting seals, its skin underneath is black, to aid in heat absorption.

In the picture above, it certainly looks like the polar bear is just enjoying itself, and having a good time.  While both of these may be true, the polar bear is actually cleaning its fur, presumably after a kill, given the blood-stained snow off in the left of the picture.  Below the picture is a link to a video clip from BBC's "Planet Earth," narrated by one of my personal heroes, David Attenborough.  In the video, make sure to watch for the fur cleaning.

This is the link to the Planet Earth link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwZH_aT0FGI

The polar bear, due to its immense size and lack of natural predators, fears nothing, humans included.  This, coupled with a natural, and insatiable, curiosity, often brings bears and humans into contact.  The video clip below is from another BBC show, called "Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice."  I first saw this show when we were in South Carolina this summer, and found it really interesting!  This clip is one of my favorite parts from it.

Polar Bears Attacking Spy Cameras:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvduCPXO_FE

Finally, we have another interesting YouTube video that I discovered today.  Watch and enjoy!


The polar bear's range covers five different countries: Russia, Denmark owned Greenland, Norway owned Svalbard, Alaska, and Canada.

We Interrupt Our Previously Scheduled Programming: Robert T. Bakker

So today I went in for an interview for a volunteer position at the Morrison Natural History Museum (you should check it out, it's pretty cool!).  I went in, and I met Robert Bakker.  He is pretty much like the Michael Phelps of paleontology.  He is really, really cool.  He and John Ostrom were pretty much the catalysts of the so-called "Dinosaur Renaissance," where the ideas of dinosaurs being cold-blooded, sluggish, stupid and slow were turned on their heads.  So that was pretty exciting.  Below is the link to his page on Wikipedia.  Very exciting stuff!


We will get back to the polar bears later in the day, but I had to talk about this first!

Friday, July 27, 2012

What REALLY Killed the Dinosaurs?

Today, almost all paleontologists believe in one of two scenarios that brought upon the downfall of the dinosaurs; the Silver Bullet Hypothesis, and the Blitzkrieg Hypothesis.  Proponents of the Silver Bullet Hypothesis consider the asteroid that hit Mexico 65.5 MYA to be the cause of the dinosaurs extinction, while fans of the Blitzkrieg Hypothesis believe that the asteroid worked in concert with other factors, like a number of extraordinarily large volcanic impacts and receding sea levels.  Although both of these hypotheses hold great weight, and stand up well to investigation, I find myself more in the Silver Bullet camp.  (If you are unsure, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gqq2rgOmi8 .  It's a bit long, but you can skip parts of it and still get the gist.  I was simply blown away after watching it, and landed smack-dab in the center of the Silver Bullet camp.)

However, this post is not to talk about the merits of the generally accepted dinosaur-death hypotheses; just like the post regarding the oddly named animals (http://thenaturalworld1.blogspot.com/2012/07/masiakasaurus-knopfleri-and-other.html), Scott Sampson's book Dinosaur Odyssey had another especially interesting tale, a tale about the many different hypotheses (over one hundred in all!) about how the dinosaurs died from over the years.  Here are some of the more interesting ones, quoted from Scott Sampson's book:

1.   Disease
2.   Slipped Vertebral Discs:  Because dinosaurs were so big
3.   Loss of Interest in Sex
4.   Poisonous Plants 1:  The consumption of these plants led to a deadly diarrhea amongst the dinosaurs
5.   Poisonous Plants 2:  The consumption of these plants led to a deadly constipation amongst the dinosaurs
6.   Fungal Invasions
7.   Climatic Change 1:  Global Warming
8.   Climatic Change 2:  Global Cooling
9.   Cosmic Radiation From a Supernova
10.  Egg-Eating Mammals
11.  Sunspots
12.  Nasty Aliens
13.  Not Enough Room on Noah's Ark
14.  The Racial Senility Hypothesis:  Dinosaurs, as a group, were young and restless when they first appeared in the Late Triassic Period.  During the Early Jurassic, the dinosaurs experienced "adolescence," as they expanded "in both form and diversity."  When they reached the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous, the dinosaurs had "reached their evolutionary peak;" they were middle-aged, and had nowhere to go but down.  Thus, in the Late Cretaceous Period, when the dinosaurs like Triceratops, Parasaurolophus, and Pachycephalosaurus grew interesting crests, frills and the like, these were "the result of hormones gone wild and certainly symbolic of a group on its way out."

Obviously, some of these solutions are more interesting than others, but all of them are, at this point in the study of dinosaurs, outdated.  But who knows: perhaps, someday soon, someone will discover proof that it was aliens, and not an asteroid, that ultimately did-in the dinos.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Fox's Animal Magnetism

For a while now, it has been thought that birds could see the magnetic field, in order to help them migrate.  It has been hypothesized that, when they are facing north, they can see a little blurry patch at the bottom of their eye.  If they are facing east or west, then they can't see the patch, so they know where to put the patch in their field of vision to get where they want to go.  Recent research by a Czech team of scientists seems to indicate that the red fox can also use the magnetic field, but for a different purpose: hunting.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) ("Least Concern" by the IUCN) has the largest geographical distribution of any member of the Carnivora, with habitat on all of the continents except for South America and Antarctica.  In North America, it inhabits the United States and Canada, in Europe and Asia it lives almost everywhere, and in Africa it lives in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya.  Not only does it possesses the range shown in the map below, it has been introduced to Australia, where, like the Dingo, it poses a threat to native species.

The red fox hunts by leaping up into the air, and coming down right on top of its prey, literally (for the prey, at least) appearing out of nowhere.  But how to pinpoint its jump?  The answer lies in the magnetic field, which is visible to the foxes.  But how does this work?  Out of all of the explanations set forth by various journals and such, I thought the explanation from Nature was easiest to understand.  Here's what they have to say:

"Think of a laser pointer attached to you that always points slightly downwards in the same direction. Now think of some object on the ground. If you walk towards the object until the laser spot is on top of it you know that object is a set distance away."

Generally, it was thought that foxes would pinpoint their location solely using their very acute sense of hearing.  But then the Czech team found that, when the red fox was leaping in a northerly direction, 74% of the attacks were successful, while the leaping attacks in other directions had the success rate of a mere 18%.  That's a very big difference, and seems to point to the magnetic field theory.
A picture of the red fox outside of the house that our friends the Beckleys rented in Breckenridge one summer.  Awesome place to stay, especially if you are looking to escape the summer heat!  Photo Credit: Julie Neher

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What Is It? The Weekly Challenge #3 Answer

Today's animal was easier for many of you, and we had a number of good guesses!  We had a few close guesses (like the American Kestrel, another North American bird of prey, but we had one totally right answer.  This weeks winner is Julie N., who guessed the Peregrine Falcon!
Peregrine Falcon
 The Peregrine Falcon is one of my favorite birds, mainly because of how it hunts.  It dives at medium-sized birds from up to 3,000 feet in the air, and often dives towards the birds with the sun at its back; that way, its prey has a difficult time of seeing them through the sun's glare.  In its dive, speeds of 175 - 200 mph have been recorded, placing it at the terminal velocity able to be achieved by the bird.  Some people have reported that the peregrine can exceed terminal velocity but, despite being taken in by this theory for a time, I believe that this not, in fact, true.  (I am not that into the math or physics, but I believe it might even be impossible, but I'm sure some of you know that better than me!)  Click on the link below to learn a little more, and to see the bird in action!


Although their population numbers suffered tremendous, pesticide-induced blows during the 20th century, they have made quite a comeback throughout the United States.  However, it was a close call.  Use of pesticides like DDT (commonly known as DEET, used to be common in mosquito repellent before its negative impacts on the environment became fully known) caused the Peregrine Falcon's eggshells to become weak, and they were easily broken.  The result of this was very few baby falcons surviving to breed themselves.  In fact, at one point it got so bad that the Peregrine Falcon was listed as "Endangered" by the IUCN in the 1950's through the 1970's.  It became extirpated, or locally extinct, in both Belgium and the eastern United States.  However, now it is labeled as "Least Concern;" an amazing comeback, for an amazing bird.

This picture of the Peregrine Falcon was taken by me, last week at the Reptile Day at Dinosaur Ridge, near Golden.  My friend Masaki Kleinkopf and I went and were able to see a few pretty cool things, the Peregrine Falcon being just one of them.  I highly recommend going to check out the Ridge, as well as the museum they have there, it is really quire interesting!

Don't forget to check in later in the day for this week's challenge!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Animal Spotlight: The Bobcat

First of all, remember, if you like what you are reading, hit the "follow" or the "subscribe" button below!"

The bobcat is one of three main felines that lives in North America, the others being the Canadian lynx and the mountain lion.  (Although other cats, like the jaguar, jaguarundi and ocelot, do occasionally make it up to Texas and Mexico, generally they just live in Central and South America).  Labeled "Least Concern" by the IUCN, the bobcat averages around three feet in length, and is named such for the short, "bobbed" tail.
A bobcat at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California.  Note the short, stubby tail.
The bobcat is quite adaptable; it inhabits almost every single environment that the Continental United States has to offer, as well as most of Mexico.  There are thirteen recognized sub-species of bobcat.  Furthermore, despite its size, can be strong enough to take down small deer.  Here is a link to a video about a bobcat that I found to be quite interesting.


When we went camping last week, twice did we see paw prints that looked too small to be mountain lion prints, and were most likely bobcat prints.  I was quite excited; unfortunately (but not surprisingly) we didn't see any of the cats themselves.  Here is one picture from each of the times we saw the tracks. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Thagomizer of Stegosaurus

Stegosaurus is a very famous dinosaurs, one of the most famous, along with Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus.  All three of these dinosaurs have been found in Colorado; in fact, the first Triceratops bones were actually found in Denver, and Stegosaurus is the state dinosaur of ColoradoStegosaurus has also been found in Wyoming and Utah, in the Morrison Formation, as well as in Portugal.  The row of plates along its back make it very interesting looking, as do the spikes on the end of its tail, nicknamed a "thagomizer."  Holes in the vertebrae of a potential predator of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, fit exactly with the size of one of the spikes on the tail of the Stegosaurus, showing that there was almost certainly a predator-prey relationship between the two, as was previously suspected.  Studies have shown that the tail end of Kentrosaurus, a close relative of Stegosaurus, also with a thagomizer on its tail, could have been brought around to the side of the dinosaur, potentially swatting at enemies trying to attack the Stegosaur from the side.

Finally, discoveries of articulated Stegosaurus skeletons show that the spikes were actually horizontal from the ground, as opposed to held at an angle, as you can see in the outdated and incorrect picture below.

It's an interesting word, though, isn't it: "thagomizer."  It certainly doesn't sound like a very sciency name; in fact, when I first heard it, I immediately thought it sounded like something out of one of my favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.  Well, if you thought that as well, then you were actually surprisingly close to the mark, as the term did in fact come from a comic strip, another one of my favorites: The Far Side.

The term wasn't used scientifically until the year 1993, at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, by the one-time Curator of Paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science Ken Carpenter.  The name has been used multiple times since then, in different mediums; books and television shows (including another personal favorite, BBC's Planet Dinosaur), as well as places such as the Smithsonian Institution and Dinosaur National Monument.  Although an informal name, it is popular, and has amusing origins.

Gary Larson created a great number of hilarious The Far Side cartoons covering all sorts of topics.  However, it seems like a large number of them featured animals, or were in some way nature related.  You will undoubtedly see a great many of them in this blog as time goes on, but here are a few other amusing dinosaur ones.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Denver Zoo 7/20/2012

Ok, a little off topic, I know, but please, everyone reading this blog, go see the new Batman movie.  Words fail to describe it.  Now go.

OK, back on topic.  Yesterday, a couple of friends and I visited the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  While I had already seen their new Toyota Elephant Passage, I did get to see a couple of things that I didn't get to last time, some of them not actually at the Elephant Passage.  Although some of the pictures are not very good at all, I would still like to share a few with you.  One of the most exciting things of the day was the new Amur leopard cub that was born recently.  With only around 30 individuals remaining in the wild, the Amur leopard inhabits the Primorye region of southeastern Russia, and is labeled "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN.  unfortunately, all of my pictures of it were terrible.  I didn't get to see the clouded leopard (JUST LIKE LAST TIME.  DARN), but I did get to see the fishing cat!  Native to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the fishing cat is definitely one of my favorite animals.  So here are some pictures, enjoy! 
Elephant demonstration
Asian elephant catching lemons in its mouth.
The "Endangered" fishing cat.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the clouded leopard again, just like last time.  Darn. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Eye Shine....What Is It?

Eyeshine is a very common occurence amongst nocturnal animals.  Have you ever tried to take a picture of your dog and cat, but their eyes are glowing a very odd color?  Or you have been watching Animal Planet or another similar channel, and they show a night-vision scene, with the animals eyes glowing?  This is eye shine.  It is caused by a reflective layer in the eyeball, called the tapetum lucidum.
Tapetum lucidum in an armored dog
For nocturnal animals, seeing in the dark of night can be a problem.  Some animals counter this with extra large eyes.  This works well for nocturnal animals, sure: but think about in the morning, when you first wake up.  If someone comes into your room and just opens up the window shade, you might not be very happy, as your eyes generally need some time to adjust to the lighting conditions.  If you had gigantic eyes, this problem would be magnified even more.  So many animals that are active during both the night and the day have evolved something else; little mirrors in their eyes.
You can clearly see that the angle of tilt of the head makes the eyeshine much more intense in the left eye of this chubby cat
Here is essentially what happens.  When light hits our eyes, it is absorbed.  This gives us humans one chance to absorb the light that we can.  When light hits the eyes of, say, a dog or cat, or any other animal active at any time of the day, some of the light is absorbed, while some of the light is reflected back to the object the animal is viewing.  The light hits the object, and then bounces again back to the animal, giving it essentially a second chance to view the object.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Masiakasaurus knopfleri, and Other Interestingly Named Creatures

A few months ago, while reading Dr. Scott Sampson's book Dinosaur Odyssey (you probably know him as the guy from Dinosaur Train), he has a very brief section of his book where he talks about some interesting scientific names of sometimes not that interesting of creatures.  He presents nine of them, and here I present them to you, as well.

1.  Masiakasaurus knopfleri
This dinosaur, from Late Cretaceous Madagascar, was named by Scott Sampson and his colleagues, means the "vicious lizard of Knopfler," meaning Mark Knopfler, a famous musician.

 2.  Milesdavis zlichovianus
This trilobite was named after the famous jazz musician Miles Davis.

3.  Mozartella beethoveni
This wasp was named after two famous classical musicians, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

4.  Dicrotenipes thanatogratus
This one is probably less obvious to most of you out there, but in Greek, thanatos means "dead" (think Thanos, the villain for the next "Avengers" movie from Marvel: he loves and worships death), and in Latin, gratus means "grateful."  This midge was named after the famous band, Grateful Dead.

5.  Montypythonoides riversleighensis
This extinct Australian snake was named after the Monty Python franchise, but unfortunately, the name is now outdated; its correct scientific name now is Morelia riversleighensis.

6.  Strigiphilus garylarsoni
Named after the famed cartoonist Gary Larson of The Far Side fame (watch for at least one post featuring him next week).  Besides having this owl louse named after him, also has had a beetle and a butterfly named in his honor. Regarding the owl louse, he said “I considered this an extreme honor. Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along.”

7.   Ninjemys oweni
"Owen's Ninja Turtle" is named after the famous group, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and was found in Pleistocene-aged rocks in Queensland, Australia.

8.  Gozillus

9.  Darthvaderum greensladeae
One of my personal favorites, this mite was named after the famous Darth Vader, from Star Wars.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Is It? The Weekly Challenge #2 Answer

 Hello again!  Thank you to our guessers for this week: surprisingly, one of you got it exactly right!  Congratulations to Kristie C., who guessed this weeks mystery animal 100% correct!  The correct animal was Pakicetus, an ancient ancestor of the cetaceans, or the whales, dolphins and porpoises.  Around 53 MYA, Pakicetus lived in a world that was gradually becoming what we see today.  At this time, what we now know as India was its own special island continent, moving steadily northwards until, eventually, India crashed into Asia.  This crash resulted in the largest mountains we have today, the Himalayas

However, 53 MYA, during the Eocene Epoch, India hadn't quite reached Asia, a small sea separating the two, the remains of the vast Tethys Ocean.  The Tethys Sea was high in saline, which is incredibly good for life.  Microscopic organisms like plankton flourished, sending reverberations up the food chain, all of the way to the fish, which exploded in numbers as well.  And on the shore of this Tethys Sea, in what today is Pakistan, stood Pakicetus

As Pakicetus watched the gread abundnace of fish in the waters, he began to take short fishing trips into the water.  Over millennia, as Pakicetus took more and more fishing trips, of longer and longer duration, adaptations that proved beneficial for hunting fish in the water occurred, like a more streamlined shape, most likely webbed feet, and nostrils placed further back on the head.  Over a few million years, Pakicetus evolved into another ancient whale, called Ambulocetus.

Check back in a few hours for your next "What Is It?" challenge?  I promise you, after the last two, this one should seem like a piece of cake!  See you all then!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Convergent Evolution: Hesperornis and Penguins

Everyone who is reading this blog, and most people who aren't, have heard of penguins, and know, more or less, what they look like.  However, most people have no idea what a Hesperornis is, which is entirely forgivable.  What is especially interesting about Hesperornis is that it was really the "original penguin," in the loosest sense of the terms.

If not for the captions below each picture, these two animals would most likely be quite difficult to tell apart.  One major difference between the two birds is in the mouth: Hesperornis had teeth, a feature which no modern birds possesses.  Another major, but non-skeletal difference, between the two birds is that Hesperornis died out 78 MYA, during the Late Cretaceous.  Its remains have been found in the United States (Kansas), Canada, and Russia.

The similarities between Hesperornis and modern day penguins is called "Convergent Evolution," a fascinating topic which we will undoubtedly touch upon numerous times.  According to Science Daily, convergent evolution is, "In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches."  In English, when two animals, not necessarily closely related at all, evolve similar features that serve the same purpose.
An (excellent) drawing of the skull of Thylacosmilus
 Another example which we have already talked about is the long, saber-like canines that evolved in both the saber-toothed cats, such as Smilodon, and the South American marsupial carnivore Thylacosmilus.

 This post is part of the "Convergent Evolution" series.  For the rest of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Function of Cheek Pouches

A possible ancestor of Diprotodon (the largest mammal known from anytime in Australia, as well as the largest known marsupial known from anywhere in the world, and a relative of the wombat), the skull of Euryzygoma dunense, another extinct, megafaunal, eight foot long, quadrupedal herbivorous marsupial, is quite interesting: it has two extended cheekbones.  This gives Euryzygoma the unusual mammalian property of its skull being wider than it is long.  Although to most this probably doesn’t actually seem all that exciting, the extended cheekbones have led to two interesting theories regarding their function in the living animal.  One we will look at in a few weeks (the week of August 3rd to be more precise), but the other one we will look at now.

The hypothesis came about when the skull of Euryzygoma was first described.  The scientists who first described Euryzygoma thought that the lateral extensions of the zygomatic arch resembled those seen in squirrels, gophers and various types of Old World Monkeys, like the macaque and the baboon

 In the living animals just described, these lateral extensions function as cheek pouches, which make it so that the animals that possess them can store food in them.  That is why you so often see a squirrel running around with its cheeks puffed out.   

Some scientists think that Euryzygoma might have used its cheek pouches to store water; thus, it would not need to spend so much time near waterholes that were most likely infested with large crocodiles.  This would also help Euryzygoma travel longer distances during a drought, enabling it to move greater distances to reach waterholes that other animals would simply unable to reach, having a much more limited range.
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