Featured Creature Friday: Remarkable Rats

Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

Okay, I know, the Featured Creature is usually about animals a little more exotic than your average rat. We’ve lived with rats (some of us even voluntarily), we’ve used them extensively for a very long time as research subjects, we’ve helped them spread all over the world and destroy fragile island ecosystems… what more could there possibly be to say about rats? Well, I thought this week with our Featured Creature it might be fun to try something a little different and offer you a collection of interesting links for things you might not know about a well-known sort of creature. You might be surprised, for instance, with a few of rats’ less-publicized qualities and talents, like empathy and even altruism. A study published a few years ago showed that rats will free their captive brethren, if they’re able, even if there isn’t any sort of actual reward in it for them. They may even save the captive some of their food, which if you ask me is a clear signal of good feelings from any species. (I mean I could share my Cheetos with you, but signs point to no.) Rats will also remember who’s helped them before, and are more likely to help other rats who’ve helped them. They aren’t just helping each other, though; what’s got me really excited this week is how rats are helping us. Non-profit organization APOPO is training rats and their handlers to do incredibly important work: detecting tuberculosis, and searching out hidden landmines. Sure, they don’t do that work spontaneously, they didn’t just wander into a lab one day and ask to be pointed at the tuberculosis test samples. But they’re stunningly good at the work. A single Giant Pouched Rat can check more TB samples in ten minutes than a lab technician can manage in a day… and the rats have a better accuracy rate, too, which has resulted in many previously undiagnosed TB patients being able to get life-saving medical treatment. You can’t beat these rats for mine detection, either. They’re light enough that even if they step directly on a landmine, they won’t set it off, and they’ve proved to be more efficient than mine-detection dogs at doing the work.

Rats may be one of those species that is likely to not only to survive the apocalypse but probably thrive in the midst of it — in the UK, for instance, they’re dealing not just with giant “mega-rats” but mega-rats that are immune to rat poison — but in the present they’re not just pests or pets, they’re doing an awful lot to improve our world, too. And when the inevitable world-ending cataclysm occurs, I for one would like to welcome our new mega-rat overlords.


Featured Creature Friday: The Great Potoo

greatpotooI didn’t even have to think of an adjective to describe this week’s featured creature, because even its official name thinks it’s just great. I’ll tell you right now why the Great Potoo is so awesome: huge yellow eyes and a gaping mouth make it look like a completely fictional animal invented by the Jim Henson puppet workshop, and its most common call sounds like it’s trying to call its mom from some Lovecraftian afterlife.

This nocturnal bird can be found in ranges from southern Mexico into Central and South America, and they require trees for their lifestyle, so they tend to live in woodlands and on the edges of forests. Their feathers, in a range of assorted browns, look pretty unremarkable until you see the Great Potoo’s greatest trick, which is its disappearing act. Its coloration is perfect camouflage against the bark of trees where it perches, but it also spends a lot of its time actively pretending to be the tree. It takes on a posture to make itself look like a broken branch, and chooses ideal perches that help it carry forth that illusion, like it’s really dedicated to performance art. Really boring, very still performance art. They’re incredibly dedicated to the art, too; a Great Potoo won’t abandon its tree impression until a predator is almost on top of it.

This strategy carries over to their child-rearing habits, too; instead of building an elaborate nest, the Great Potoo lays an egg and sits it on top of a stump or in a little hollow on a tree, and then the parent sits on top of the egg, and later the chick, occasionally taking off after flying insects (and sometimes even bats!) , and then flying right back to continue the long-term tree impression.

Featured Creature Friday: The Legendary Lammergeier

By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests, please allow me to introduce you to the most metal of vultures.

I’m not even kidding. Everything about this bird is hard-core, starting with its name. It’s called a Bearded Vulture, which admittedly is a little tame, but it’s also known as a Lammergeier — German for “lamb-vulture” — and it used to be known as Ossifrage, from the Latin for “bone-breaker,” both of which could also double as killer names for a death metal band.

Being vultures, Lammergeiers generally feed on carrion, and here’s the ultimate reason why this bird is too awesome to exist: it eats bones.

In fact, it eats almost nothing but bones, with 85-90% of its diet consisting of bone marrow. Rather than compete with other scavengers in its habitat (which stretches through mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa), it just sits back and chills while they do all the work picking the meat from the carcass. When the meal is down to the bare bones — no pun intended — the Lammergeier swoops in to claim the skeleton. The Lammergeier can simply crunch its way through bones up to the size of a lamb’s femur, or might use its beak to smash a larger bone against a rock until it cracks open. For the biggest bones — some of them just as heavy as the Lammergeier is — it’ll simply carry them aloft to heights upwards of 200 feet, and then drop them against the rocks below, cracking the bones open so they can get at the marrow inside. It’s not just a random toss, either; it takes young Lammergeiers about seven years to perfect the technique. The Lammergeier’s highly acidic stomach contents — with an estimated pH of 1 — mean it can digest even hard, dry pieces of bone; it can continue to feast on a skeleton for months after all the marrow and soft pieces are gone.

As if the bone-eating weren’t awesome enough, Lammergeiers also kill more live prey than perhaps any other vulture; they’ll use their bone-breaking technique to crack open the shells of tortoises, but they’ll also do it to kill small mammals and sometimes beat smaller birds to death with their wings. (The Greek playwright Aeschylus was said to have met a death by tortoise when a Lammergeier mistook his bald head for a stone and dropped a tortoise on him from a great height.) The Lammergeier may also use its intimidating size — it has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet — to surprise and attack larger animals like wild goats and antelope, pushing them from cliffs and ledges.

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The bone-crushing and murder are only a part of why this bird is so great, though. It’s also just plain pretty as hell. Probably because its scavenging behavior is so different from the majority of other vultures, it also looks quite a bit different; unlike its often bald-headed fellows, the Lammergeier has a fully feathered head, including the feathery beard for which it is named and a pair of eyebrows I think we can all agree that even Spock would envy, along with brightly red-ringed eyes. The adult’s plummage is typically a sort of cream color, but they usually look more rusty red or orange, since they deliberately dye their feathers.

The adult birds wallow in iron-rich dust baths, which tints their feathers, but the behavior is thought to be very deliberate:

Why would a big, burly, black-and-white vulture gussy itself up in blush? It may boil down to a combination of diet and a society based on status. “Their diet is primarily ungulate bones,” says Margalida. They search cliff sides and valleys for sheep or chamois skeletons cleared of meat by other scavengers. While nutritious, the bones lack carotenoids, substances common in seeds and berries that give most other birds their flashy feathers.

“Red is very popular in the bird world,” says Margalida, adding that, in bearded vultures, the color appears to be a status symbol. Females, the dominant sex, are brighter than males. Color intensity also grows with age. A bird often handles conflict by puffing out and displaying its dyed ’do.

So they eat bones, they wear make-up, and if you cross them you could end up suffering a death by falling tortoise. If that’s not completely bad-ass, I don’t know what is.

Four Things You Should Know About My Dog Trudeau

Dear Trudog, what exactly are you doing?

Trudog, you know I like snuggling with you bro but this might be a little over the top.

1. Trudeau is afraid of the oven. He has oven-phobia. There is no logical reason for this. He’s never had a bad oven experience, or been afraid of any other oven or even this particular oven before. But suddenly, the simple act of turning the oven on sends him into a full-blown panic attack. If he has even the slightest inkling that the oven is about to be turned on, he will completely lose his shit. He’ll hide in corners and try to squeeze his massive frame beneath end tables. He’ll ignore all food offerings designed to foster in him a new love of the oven. He’ll pace the house while hyperventilating. Before I figured out exactly what the hell was going on and started trying to head it off — mostly by “crating” Trudeau in my bedroom any time the oven is in use, because I am completely at a loss with this one — he expressed his anxiety by becoming an actual lap dog. He felt better but I was slightly crushed.

He’s not sensing a gas leak (the oven is electric), and if he’s picking up some scent or sound undetectable to human senses, I obviously don’t know about it. Mostly he just seems to be feeling emotionally fragile. Possibly about my cooking. Maybe he realizes there’s a fair chance that my attempts at culinary excellent may one day actually result in a fiery inferno.

2. He’s a surprisingly picky eater. I say “surprisingly” because one of his more terrifying qualities is his particular taste for anything that he shouldn’t eat. Body-destroying foxtails? Delicious. Goose crap? A delicacy, you uncultured swine. Roadkill skunk? It’s like convenient take-out. An entire live elk? That meat’s just really fresh. He also has a general policy wherein anything you throw at his face will be assumed to be food until proven otherwise. So you’d think I wouldn’t have any difficulty getting him to eat anything at all, but suddenly there are no chews good enough for him.

"Excuse me this marrow bone is not what I ordered. I was thinking more like Twinkies maybe. Or squirrels."

“Excuse me this marrow bone is not what I ordered. I was thinking more like Twinkies maybe. Or squirrels.”

Meaty venison bone? Pass. Bully stick? Perhaps, if you ask nicely. Buffalo tendon? Yes, but only every other Thursday or on the full moon. The vet assures me his teeth are fine, though they probably won’t stay that way if he stops chewing on anything ever, and meanwhile I’m reduced to repeatedly placing various animal parts directly into his mouth until he realizes that actually, now that you mention it, this thing is delicious. Honestly, I think he’s probably just screwing with me. When he’s alone in the house he’s probably snickering into his paws. Which is a surprise because…

3. He is annoyingly polite. I probably brought this on myself by naming him after a Canadian, but seriously. He really likes to enjoy the furniture just like the rest of us, but first he has to check with you that it’s okay. This is his particularly pathetic opening move:

It's basically equal parts "look how amazing my manners are" and "please sir, may I have some more?"

It’s a killer combination of downcast body language, tentative tail-wagging, and wide, beseeching eyes.

You might think — as I did, at first — that this is a delightful quality. He usually won’t just hop up onto the couch uninvited, so there’s always time to put down a fur-and-drool-catching blanket. But it’s more irritating than it seems, because first of all, you don’t always know what he’s asking for. His pathetic “can I get up there?” face is the same as his “can I have food?” face and his “can I have a walk?” face and his “why don’t we have a pet squirrel?” face. Once you ascertain that he is in fact attempting to gain access to the furniture, then he has to be invited. But typically he doesn’t find invitations convincing. I don’t know, maybe he has low self-esteem or something. Because you invite him on the couch and he doesn’t get up. He just stares at you as if to say, “Really? Me? Are you sure? I thought maybe you didn’t like me! I don’t want to impose!” You have to go from casually inviting to outright imploring before he’ll actually climb up. I’m never sure whether he’s uncertain of his welcome or whether he’s really pissed off that I didn’t actually bother to send him an engraved invitation and a nice platinum card that entitles the bearer to free furniture privileges for life.

4. Trudeau is a vigorous, active dreamer. It seems odd to me to use such doing words as adjectives describing my particular dog, because a character sketch of Trudeau in general terms would be more likely to involve words like “somnolent,” “laggard,” and possibly “pining for the fjords.” He’s perfectly content to spend a good 90% of his day enjoying various depths of snooze. As I write this, he’s chosen to illustrate my point by dragging himself laboriously from his bed, staggering two steps to a cooler stretch of floor, and collapsing with a heartfelt groan, as if he’s just expended an effort equal to the Iditarod.

In his dreams, though, he is clearly ferocious. He barks in a way that would be deep-throated and remarkably loud, if he were awake. (When he is awake, he’s remarkably quiet; I’ve had him nearly four years now and heard him actually bark maybe twice.) His legs twitch in a fair imitation of a mighty sprint that never leaves him winded. Sometimes his lips curl back from his teeth in a snarl that would be truly terrifying if the sound that accompanied it wasn’t reminiscent of a distressed guinea pig. You’re not fooling anybody, Trudeau. Not even those dream-squirrels you’re chasing.

Sweet dreams, you adorable little bastard.

Sweet dreams, you adorable little bastard.

All Creatures Great and Totally Epic

Birds from Earthwings and a presentation of exotic and domesticated native wild animals from Wild Wonders were huge highlights for me at the Soldier Hollow Classic sheepdog championship. (Photos of the actual sheepdog part of the event are right over here.) I’m kind of crazy about barn owls and foxes in particular, so I might’ve been freaking out internally. I’m sure you can’t blame me because LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY ARE.

The Sheepdog Championship at Soldier Hollow

If you’ve never actually watched a sheepdog competition, you might not realize what you’re missing. I certainly didn’t. I mostly attended the championships at Soldier Hollow because I thought it’d make for a great photo opportunity (I was right), but I was honestly more interested in the programming that the rest of the schedule had to offer: dock diving for dogs, and demonstrations on a plethora of subjects including raptors, police dogs, exotic animals, draft dogs, and other entertainments. (I’ll have photos to share of all of that later.) I wasn’t disappointed on that count either, but I was taken by surprise by exactly how ridiculously enthralling the actual sheepdog herding was.

Dog vs Sheep

I attended day four of the event, which meant I got to take in the final championship round, the cream of the crop, the best of the best, and the most difficult course, the “International Double Lift.” The handlers, controlling their dogs through a series of specific whistles and occasional spoken commands, had to guide the dogs through what looked like a frankly harrowing course, over a long distance. (The location at former Olympic venue Soldier Hollow was also gorgeous and perfect for the crowd to be able to see the action on the opposite slope.) The dog is first sent on an “outrun” along the outside of the course, to gather a small group of sheep from the top of the hill, guide them between a pair of free-standing panels set up like gates, then drop that group and go and fetch a second little flock of sheep and do the same thing again. The dog then had to round up the first group, merge it together with the second group, and run the combined herd through another three obstacles, going around a post, then through a series of two more “gates.” The dog then gathered the sheep into the “shedding” ring, which was just a ring of ground marked by colored sandbags. The herder and dog together had to sort the sheep into two groups, keeping only five sheep wearing red cloth collars, and “shedding” the rest out of the circle. If they managed to get that far, they then had to herd those five remaining sheep into a small fenced pen, which was clearly about a million times harder than it sounds. Actually, it was clearly all about a million times harder than it sounds, and they had to do it all before the timer counted down to zero. The judges were also awarding points for any number of nuanced things, like how straight a line the dog managed to keep the sheep on, whether the handler changed sides with the dog during the shed, whether the dog ran out too wide or not wide enough in the cast. Neither herder nor dog are allowed to touch the sheep in any way, and the sheep aren’t necessarily inclined to be cooperative, either. By the time they’ve been herded for nearly a half an hour, they start to sass back.

It’s hard not to get into it, as you’re watching. I’d suggest not even resisting, because a competition like this could make a sheepdog enthusiast out of anyone. When you’ve watched a team do something so obviously difficult for twenty minutes, it’s tough to see it all fall apart. Every time a sheep made a break for it, the entire (very sizable) crowd gasped. When sheep broke free of the shedding circle and put the shepherd back at square one, everyone groaned in sympathy. And when a ewe broke free and celebrated with a manic bucking fit, we all found it hilarious, because we were together in our appreciation for sheep-related humor. Since I was new to sheepdog competitions, I was glad I’d spent the five bucks on a program, which explained not only the course and scoring but also provided illumination on the voice and whistle commands, which is both educational and hilarious. (For instance, “way to me” instructs the dog to move counter clockwise to the sheep, and the corresponding whistle command is listed as “whee-who.” “Whee-wheeeo” on the other hand means “come bye” or “move clockwise to sheep.” So if I told you “whee-whee, whee-wheeeo, whee-whee, whee-whee, who-hee-who,” I trust it would be obvious what I wanted.)

It was truly a pleasure to watch these skilled stockmen and their incredible dogs working sheep the same way they would on the range, and it was nice to spend a day in the company of fellow dog lovers, getting caught up in the drama of it all together. We were rained on in the morning and I got sunburned in the afternoon, I got to pet a skunk and photograph a fox, and all in all I’d say it’s one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I’m officially a convert… I’d be happy to watch dogs run around after sheep any day of the week.

Featured Creature Friday: The Cunning Cookiecutter Shark

Coming soon to Discovery Channel: Kaiju Week! Kaiju: Fact or Fiction? Kaiju: You Can't Prove They Aren't Real. (Image from Pacific Rim.)

Coming soon to Discovery Channel: Kaiju Week! Kaiju: Fact or Fiction? Kaiju: You Can’t Prove They Aren’t Real. (Image from Pacific Rim. Go see it, it’s awesome, there are robots punching monsters.)

Friends, you know I’m no fan of the ocean, primarily because there are jellyfish in there. Sure, the world’s oceans are full of strange, wild, beautiful creatures that frankly boggle the imagination, but the fact is that the majority of them wouldn’t mind feasting on your delicate human flesh. So generally I don’t like to think about what may be lurking in the depths of the sea, waiting to make a meal of us all. I try to ignore the terrifying existence of everyday, supposedly mundane animals like venomous sea snakes, stinging jellyfish, deadly rays, and saltwater crocodiles. (Saltwater. Crocodiles. So wrong.) It’s not even remotely a comfort to me to know that the world’s oceans are still for the most part an unexplored frontier, housing who knows what kind of horrors. You might think you just need to worry about the things science can verify, when the fact is that there could be shrieking eels. Kaiju. Cthulhu. You don’t know.

Barring a third or fourth viewing of Pacific Rim, though — and I mean, who wouldn’t want that? — if you’re interested in learning what oceanic monsters you should be terrified of at the moment, you’re pretty much left with Shark Week. And since the Discovery Channel seems to be getting into shrieking eel territory with their ridiculous Megalodon non-documentary, I thought I’d join the effort to bring the Shark Week tradition back to its old-school roots by telling you about an interesting, unassuming little shark that’s actually swimming around in the warm waters of the world’s oceans right now.

Cookiecutter sharks don’t look like much: they’re under two feet long, an unassuming brownish color, and used to be known by the yawn-worthy moniker of “cigar sharks.” The name doesn’t exactly seem menacing, either, like maybe they’re the peaceful bakers of the shark world, cheerfully decorating sugar cookies while the rest of their fellows tear penguins apart or whatever.

The cookiecutter shark uses its "who me? But I'm ADORABLE!" face as just one of its many weapons. (Image by NOAA.)

The cookiecutter shark uses its “who me? But I’m ADORABLE!” face as just one of its many weapons. (Image by NOAA.)

Don’t let cookiecutter sharks fool you, though. They’re still sharks. They’re also total assholes.

Their huge green eyes and silly-shaped mouth might look like the kind of result you’d get if you asked an anime artist to draw you a super-cute fish, but it’s all just part of their arsenal of attack weapons. What other tricks do they have up their fins, you wonder? Well, for one thing, they’re sneaky as hell. They’ve got a dark collar around their necks that makes them look like a little, tasty fish, and they’ve got bright green photophores (light-emitting organs) on their bellies  — they’re the brightest of the light-up sharks known to science — which, as seen from below, practically makes the rest of their bodies invisible. This helps them get the drop on their prey.

When it comes to the actual attack, they’ve got some serious adaptations on their side. Relative to body size, they have the largest set of teeth of any known shark. The lower row of teeth actually interlock to form a surface very much like a saw blade. (When they shed teeth, as sharks are wont to do, they shed that entire row at once. And what do they do with their saw-blade row of teeth when they shed it? They swallow the entire thing, like total bad-asses, so their bodies can recycle the calcium.) They’ve also got a set of lips that act like a suction cup. Why a suction cup, you ask?

Well, the cookiecutter shark likes to aim big. Unlike a lot of other sharks, it doesn’t just go after the kind of prey that can actually fit in its mouth. Sure, it’ll eat squids and whatnot, but what it’s really known for is taking a bite out of animals much larger than it is. It ambushes them with the help of its sneaky bio-luminescent trickery, latches on with its suction-y mouth, sinks in those sizable teeth, and then twists itself while its lower jaw vibrates like an electric carving knife, slicing a neat disc of flesh away from its prey.

Scars and wounds from the cookiecutter’s bite have been found on whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, large fish, stingrays, and people. These things prey on everyone equally, including the terrifying bad-asses of the sea like great white sharks, sperm whales, and leopard seals. They’re also known to travel in schools, so an animal that falls victim to a cookiecutter attack might end up looking like a crop circle diagram. Attacks on humans are rare, though they do occasionally happen, while other species are positively plagued by cookiecutters; nearly every adult spinner dolphin off Hawaii carries the marks of the cookiecutter’s parasitic predation, and beached whales have been seen bearing hundreds of bites. Cookiecutters have also been known to chow down on submarines, underwater cables, fishing nets, and oceanographic equipment, which could be attributed to them mistaking those things for prey but personally I think they do it to be dicks.

They’re apparently elusive enough that video footage of cookiecutters in their native habitats isn’t really a thing that exists, but the BBC put together a pretty great CGI simulation that shows how their hunting technique works:

(BBC Worldwide)

Unlike a great many of the world’s sharks, the cookiecutter isn’t endangered; it’s widespread and doesn’t face significant pressures on its population, which is sort of a good news/bad news situation on the shark conservation front. It’s like, yay, a shark species we aren’t hunting into oblivion, whooo! Bad news, it thinks the endangered sharks are delicious.