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.

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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.

Featured Creature Friday: The Humble Hermit Crab

It seems only appropriate that today’s featured creature should be one that, at first glance, seems a little boring. Hermit crabs are pretty common animals — there are 1100 different species and many of them are kept as pets. Of course, as pets, they’re about on par with seamonkeys or beta fish, the kind of pet that people impulse buy for a couple bucks and expect to be dead within a week. (With proper care, of course, these sorts of animals can live a long time — some species of hermit crabs, for instance, have been known to live over 20 years in captivity.)

Naked hermit crabs kind of look like what would happen if H.R. Giger had been in charge of creating Hello Kitty. (Photo by Arnstein Rønning, 2011, by way of Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Hermit crabs just don’t get a lot of credit for being complex animals with intricate social — yeah, they’re not very hermit-y — behaviors. And frankly, I don’t think we’re appreciative enough of the hermit crab’s particular form of body armor/performance art; unlike true crabs, hermit crabs have no shell of their own, and instead acquire or improvise a suitable home. You’ll find them living in snail shells, stones, driftwood, broken bottles, crab shells, glass shells, and even, apparently, Legos.

Without a shell, they’re vulnerable and also a little funny-looking when they’re naked, just like people. Which is why they armor themselves with the detritus of the sea floor. Basically, they’re like the Iron Man of the sea, if Iron Man was kind of timid and spent all of his time eating tiny things in the ocean.

Which he doesn’t. Because he’s Iron Man. And that’s neither here nor there.

In cases of shell shortage, hermit crabs will fight over shells the same way humans will fight for a decent neighborhood and a jacuzzi bathtub. But give them shells in abundance and they’re practically socialists, as this article in Scientific American explains:

When a lone crab encountered one of the beautiful new shells, it immediately inspected the shelter with its legs and antennae and scooted out of its current home to try on the new shelter for size. If the new shell was a good fit, the crab claimed it. Classic hermit crab behavior. But if the new shell was too big, the crab did not scuttle away disappointed—instead, it stood by its discovery for anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours, waiting. This was unusual. Eventually other crabs showed up, each one trying on the shell. If the shell was also too big for the newcomers, they hung around too, sometimes forming groups as large as 20. The crabs did not gather in a random arrangement, however. Rather, they clamped onto one another in a conga line stretching from the largest to smallest animal—a behavior the biologists dubbed “piggybacking.”

I guess that it’s a bit like when you’re a kid and all you get to wear is your siblings’ hand-me-downs (so speaks the youngest child of the family…), but the hermit crabs at least seem happy about it. And sometimes intensely competitive. Here’s a sweet video from Blue Planet with a terrifyingly huge snail, plus some hermit crab combat. The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Speaking of hermit crabs, did you know that coconut crabs are also sort of a hermit crab? In addition, they’re the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world (that means land-dwelling creepy-as-shit crab-thing). They can and do climb trees, live for decades, and have pincers so powerful they can crack coconuts. When the mommy crab and daddy crab love each other and decide to have a family, the female crab releases her eggs into the ocean, where the young ones start out as plankton. As juveniles they do the usual hermit crab thing and find random shells to live in, then when they get older and toughen up a bit they get by with just a thick sort of leathery exoskeleton and put away childish things like shells. Eventually crawl their way back onto land. Despite being the sort of creature you might imagine dwelling in the sea, adult coconut crabs actually drown if they’re left in the water, and so they generally prefer to dwell in your nightmares.

OH MY GOD HOW ARE YOU SO ENORMOUS AND WHY DO I SEE YOUR TERRIFYING PINCERS EVERY TIME I CLOSE MY EYES.

Featured Creature Friday: The Tongue-Eating Louse

I threw you an easy pitch last week with the Kakapo. It was cute and fluffy, as promised, and the worst thing it does really is shag the heads of eminent conservationists. But now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, I think it’s time to return to the world of general horror and creatures that will keep you up at night, dreaming the sort of dreams that make you stop breathing and occasionally wet yourself. And the place you need to look for that sort of experience is of course in the water, which as far as I can tell is occupied by nothing but animals that want to make you cry like a little girl. (I know what you’re thinking. Dolphins, right? Dolphins are made out of fun and joy! Well, dolphins murder things for fun and also they’re baby-killing rapists, so there’s that illusion shattered. You’re welcome.)

photo by Matthew R. Gilligan, Savannah State University / public domain

Luckily, in times like these, there’s Cymothoa exigua: the tongue-eating louse. It is exactly what it the name implies: it is a parasite that eats tongues. But it’s worse than that. Oh, friends, it is so much worse than that. Because what it does is it takes up residence inside a fish’s mouth (by crawling in through the gills), kills the fish’s tongue (it actually drinks all the blood from it and the tongue atrophies; the louse doesn’t actually eat it), and then it attaches itself to the stump and pretends to be the fish’s tongue. And the fish, poor bastard, doesn’t appear to know any better; because the parasite is attached to what remains of the tongue, it can actually use the thing like it is a tongue. It’s the only known parasite that actually functionally replaces a host organ. You’d think that maybe it would use this advantageous new position to take a cut of the fish’s food, like some sort of a louse mafia, but no… it’s feeding on either the fish’s blood or its delicious fish mucus (whatever fish mucus is). Now I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned that makes this thing the most psychopathic parasite ever. If it could talk, undoubtedly the only thing it would say is, “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again!”

That’s about all there is to the tongue-eating louse. I don’t have any interesting reproductive facts or fascinating tidbits for you. It pretends to be a fish’s tongue. Really that alone is quite enough.

If you enjoy these features (and who doesn’t enjoy a good tongue-eating louse?) I want to point you to an excellent blog: The Proceedings of the Ever so Strange. They’ve even got a blog about the tongue-eating louse with even more horrifying pictures! The things they post about there are ever so strange, and extend to more than just creatures, so even when it’s not Friday you can learn something terrifying about your world!

Featured Creature Friday: The Killer Kakapo

Friends, I believe I have been terrifying you long enough with creepy lizard-worm-things and jellyfish and whatnot. It is time that I bring you a featured creature which is cute and cuddly and won’t try to bite your face off or use you as a host for its offspring. That’s why I want to tell you about the Kakapo.

Just look at that handsome face. My God. (photo by Brent Barrett, under Creative Commons license)

First off, you should know that in the title of this post, I’m using “killer” in the same manner as “wicked” or “brilliant,” or whatever it is the kids are saying these days. Unlike some of our other featured creatures, the Kakapo is not out to destroy you and your whole family. It is not literally a killer. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s a large, fluffy, vaguely friendly flightless bird. It’s a vegetarian (which is a nice change of pace after the Vampire Finch), and it has a distinctive style of eating in which it uses its beak (which is excellent for grinding things) to strip all the delicious edible parts out of a plant, leaving behind a neat little ball of indigestible fiber like an arts and crafts project.

It’s an incredible fact of island biogeography that species that evolve in limited habitats with limited predators tend to develop some wild specializations to suit their environments. Darwin saw it in the Galapagos, Wallace saw it in the Malay archipelago, and it’s pretty much a feature of islands everywhere, even the really big ones like Australia. As David Quammen put it, “Isolation plus time yields divergence.” (If you have any interest in biology, I highly recommend Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, which is an absolutely fascinating read on the subject of island biogeography. And it’s totally not as boring as that makes it sound… it’s an incredible book and one of my all-time favorites, and perfectly accessible if you don’t know the first thing about biology.)

The Kakapo lives in New Zealand, and like many island birds that didn’t really have many predatory land mammals to deal with, it long ago traded its not-very-useful power of flight for a life on the ground. It is the only flightless parrot in the world, and perhaps as a result (too many Cheetos?) is also the heaviest parrot in the world, weighing in at up to eight pounds. It makes up for the lack of flight with strong legs and an ambling ground-covering trot, plus it’s able to handily scale trees and “parachute” from heights using its wings to slow its descent. Like other parrots, it’s long-lived — up to 120 years. When the youngsters are play-fighting, they win by locking their chins over the other bird’s neck, like that annoying cousin who always gets you in a headlock and then gives you noogies. Much like sage grouse, they have a booming mating call and construct leks during breeding season (little dish-shaped indentations in the ground) to help amplify their calls. (Next, they will learn to break guitars and trash hotel rooms.)

They have a luxuriously soft feather-pelt because they don’t need stiff flight feathers. Around their beaks they have little whiskers that help them feel along the ground when they’re looking for snacks and shenanigans. In short, they look very very cuddleable.

(photo by Mnolf, under Creative Commons license)

Of course, also like other flightless birds, the Kakapo was pretty much screwed when humans showed up. Aside from hunting the Kakapo for its delicious rotundness, they also introduced predators like cats, rats and dogs. The Kakapo had adapted to predatory raptors, which are daytime hunters, by becoming nocturnal and learning to freeze and take advantage of its foliage-colored feathers. When night-hunting mammals were introduced, the Kakapo population was decimated. It was down into the double digits for awhile there. But thanks to a rather novel form of population recovery plan, New Zealand’s Kakapos have been relocated to even more isolated islands off the New Zealand coast, which are predator-free zones (after they exterminated — sometimes repeatedly — the rat and weka populations) and where the Kakapo’s numbers are very slowly recovering (its rates of reproduction are among the lowest of any bird species).

So you must be thinking to yourselves that this is all very interesting and whatnot, but beyond everything I’ve mentioned here, what exactly makes the Kakapo so special? Why do I love them so? Well, I will tell you why. It’s because of that one time when a Kakapo shagged Mark Carwardine’s head while Stephen Fry stood by, laughing his ass off.