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.

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.

On Pig Orgasms, Praying Mantis Porno, and Pedantry

I love the Internet. I love the Internet so much that I try not to remember the world before we had constant access to information at our literal fingertips, because as much as I love libraries, before the Internet it was quite difficult to find an answer to a question like “do pigs have half-hour orgasms?” in under thirty seconds, and I feel like we ought to be justifiably proud in our achievements in this area. The bizarre reproductive systems of animals should be information we can access in the blink of an eye, by god!

Unfortunately, this glorious system has its downsides, particularly if you’re on Facebook or if you have a gullible relative who sees fit to forward you any email which has clearly already been forwarded at least twenty times. Because our ability to share information at lightning speeds means we also have the ability to disseminate completely false information with equal rapidity. Sometimes even with greater rapidity, because what’s easier than hitting the “share” button and watching all those “likes” roll in? (It’s sort of like playing with Monopoly money, except you can’t even buy imaginary assets with it.) Why would anyone complicate this process by Googling to find out whether what you’re sharing is accurate?

This is on my mind in particular this morning because of a chain message that’s been making the rounds on Facebook which has been making my inner fact-checker twitch, and since my Googling didn’t turn up any handy collection of clarifications on these points, I thought instead of a featured creature this week, I’d run down this list for my own satisfaction. Because I kind of can’t help myself. So, here’s the entire text that’s going around Facebook, and then we’ll address each point one at a time. Doesn’t that sound like a fun learning experience? I thought so too.

A pig’s orgasm lasts 30 minutes. (O.M.G.!!!) A cockroach will live nine days without its head before it starves to death. (Creepy. I’m still not over the pig.) The male praying mantis cannot copulate while its head is attached to its body. The female initiates sex by ripping the male’s head off. (Honey, I’m home . What the…?) The flea can jump 350 times its body length. It’s like a human jumping the length of a football field. (30 minutes. Lucky pig! Can you imagine?) The catfish has over 27,000 taste buds. (What could be so tasty on the bottom of a pond?) Some lions mate over 50 times a day. (I still can’t believe that pig …quality over quantity.) Butterflies taste with their feet. (Something I always wanted to know.) Elephants are the only animals that cannot jump. (Okay, so that would be a good thing.) A cat’s urine glows under a black light. (I wonder how much the government paid to figure that out.) An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain. (I know some people like that.) Starfish have no brains. (I know some people like that, too.) Polar bears are left-handed. (Talk about a southpaw.) Humans and dolphins are the only species that have sex for pleasure. (What about that pig? Do the dolphins know about the pig?)” – Unknown

So, there it is. I expect that many of these will turn out to be partially true, and I know some are not really correct at all, but we’ll see what we can find, and we’ll certainly all be better informed at the end of the process.

Awwwww yes, this is how we do it in Denmark. Girl, I’mma inseminate you so good.

A pig’s orgasm lasts 30 minutes.
As far as I can discern, this item is possibly true but somewhat disingenuous. I can’t really find any research that indicates 30 minutes as average rather than the absolute upper range of time for pig sex, but also because it implies that both parties are having a similarly good time, like pigs are having amazing tantric sex or something. We can assume that this 30-minutes idea is based on a boar’s ejaculation, which really can go on at great length (5-10 minutes seems to be an average, though 30 minutes would certainly seem possible with multiple ejaculations) and can produce a staggering half-litre of fluid. Good lord, pigs. In her TED Talk “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm,” Mary Roach discusses an interesting fact on why we ought to also be concerned with more than just the boar’s pleasure: pig farms in Denmark have found that when artificially inseminating sows, they can prompt the sows to produce more offspring by sexually stimulating the sows while they’re being inseminated. (The five-point stimulation plan for sows is seriously hilarious. Just watch the TED Talk, it is so worth it, I am not even kidding.) It’s not all bad for the sow, at least; while it’s fair to assume that she probably doesn’t enjoy the sex act with quite the vigor that the boar does, she at least gets something out of the deal, since her clitoris is in fact located inside her vagina, and thus she does get to experience an orgasm herself, which is more than many poor women of our own species can say. So I’m going to call this item partially true, but exaggerated; the sex lives of pigs are undoubtedly fascinating, but a half-hour orgasm seems to be more of a remarkable feat than a regular event.

A cockroach will live nine days without its head before it starves to death.
True, but this factoid underestimates the ability of cockroaches to keep creeping us out even after being decapitated, because nine days is nothing. They can, in fact, continue to live for weeks after losing their heads. They don’t breathe through their heads, nor do they bleed out the way mammals do, nor do they need to have a brain for the body to continue functioning. Starvation would eventually spell the end for a headless cockroach, but if they’ve had a good meal recently, pre-decapitation, the body can keep on for quite some time, moving around and reacting to touch. And if that wasn’t creepy enough, the decapitated head can go on about its business for some hours, too.

Here we have a male praying mantis, enjoying himself some copulation, with his head still attached. Whether he managed the dismount without being eaten is not noted. (Photo by Zwentibold, used under Creative Commons license from WikiCommons.)

The male praying mantis cannot copulate while its head is attached to its body. The female initiates sex by ripping the male’s head off.
Totally not true. While female praying mantises do  sometimes cannibalize their mates, it certainly isn’t the case that mating isn’t possible without decapitation. The origins of this misconception are most likely a series of old studies in which scientists observed female mantises devouring their mating partners, but later studies didn’t offer up the same results; in fact, it’s likely that the females in the original study were stressed by laboratory conditions or were not fed enough. How frequently the males perish when mating naturally in the wild is difficult to say, because the disturbance of being observed seems to have a serious impact on the behavior of the mantises in question. The incidence of sexual cannibalism in mantises seems to still be a subject of some debate among entomologists, but apparently males are able to recognize when they stand a risk of being eaten and are suitably cautious, while a female who is well-fed before mating will usually show no interest at all in biting anybody’s head off. It is true, however, that even once a female has bitten his head off, the male’s body will continue to mate with her — more vigorously, even — despite his state of headlessness. He probably learned that trick from the cockroaches.

The flea can jump 350 times its body length. It’s like a human jumping the length of a football field.
False, I think? Most of the sources I’ve found say they can jump about 200 times their body length, which isn’t as impressive, and isn’t a terribly accurate measurement either. On average they can manage about 13 inches with a single leap which is still pretty awesome, if only they weren’t such horrible, horrible little creatures. Biomechanically speaking they’re pretty mind-blowing though, as this article on BBC Earth News explains:

It was known that the energy to catapult a flea over a distance up to 200 times its body length lay in a spring-like structure in its body.

But scientists did not understand how they transferred this energy to the ground in order to jump.

High-speed footage now reveals that the secret lies in the way fleas use their hind legs as multi-jointed levers.

This “lever-effect” allows fleas to drive their feet onto the ground, and the sudden release of the “coiled spring” hurls the insect forwards and upwards, scientists report in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The catfish has over 27,000 taste buds.
True. This inadequately explains how rad that is, because their tastebuds are distributed all over their bodies, so they’re sort of like a giant, swimming tongue. Which really is a great argument for why we probably shouldn’t dump so much crap in our rivers, it probably tastes awful. Save the waterways, people. For the sake of the catfish.

Some lions mate over 50 times a day.
Okay, before we even get to the frequency of mating I want to point out something about lion mating, which is that the male lion’s penis is fucking barbed. Barbed. I mean Jesus, what is this shit. Animal kingdom, why don’t you do something for the ladies for once? Why is nature all about screwing the women over? As far as the fifty times a day claim, they saved themselves on that one with “some lions.” Average is apparently 20-40 times a day so I’d imagine some overachievers manage fifty times a day. They must be exhausted when they’re through, and the lionesses ought to be rewarded with like a spa day at the end of it all.

The female lion does not appear to be amused by this shit.
(Photo by Bob Fabry, used under Creative Commons license, from WikiCommons.)

Butterflies taste with their feet.
True fact, in fact. When butterflies are trying to figure out where to lay their eggs, they can tell just by landing on a leaf whether their eventual caterpillar offspring would find it delicious. It’s probably a time-saver, since they don’t have to sit around chewing bits off of leaves like they’re sampling wedding cakes. It’s probably kind of a rad superpower to have, until you landed on like a manure pile or something. But it’s not quite as impressive when you consider that during chrysalis they turn themselves into a cell soup and then make themselves into an entirely new organism. What is this witchcraft?!

Elephants are the only animals that cannot jump.
Apparently it’s true that elephants can’t jump; they just aren’t built for it, and it wouldn’t help them escape predators when instead of jumping they can just trample you to death. But any statement that claims “X is the ONLY animal that…” automatically makes me suspicious, and saying that elephants are the only creatures in all the animal kingdom that can’t jump is simply too broad a claim for me. How about snails? Clams? Sloths? Starfish? Jellyfish? Blobfish? It’s difficult to find any definitive statements on which animals may be physically incapable of jumping since so many of them simply don’t jump, ever, because it would be pointless and also silly, but I do think assigning the sole honor of a non-acrobatic life to elephants is going to too far. Speaking of silly, if you’d like to see what it might look like if elephants did jump, you can watch this lovely animated short of an elephant on a trampoline. Just tell everyone that it’s for science.

A cat’s urine glows under a black light.
This is true, and actually kind of handy if you’re trying to rid a house of the horrific odor of cat urine. However, it’s not that terribly interesting a fact because it’s also true of many other fluids, both animal and non-animal in origin. Human urine will also glow in damning brightness under blacklight — as Chef Ramsay often likes to demonstrate — so I don’t know what makes cats think they’re so special. A UV light may also reveal traces of semen, blood, saliva, or sweat, and many objects and substances will fluoresce under UV light for any number of reasons, but these include petroleum jelly, laundry detergent, tonic water, and all sorts of other boring things. It does look good on crime shows, though.

Baby, you got such big beautiful eyes that allow you to see predators from a great distance thus ensuring your longevity and the continuation of your damn fine genes.
(Photo by A. Kniesel, under Creative Commons license.)

An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.
True! This is not so much a statement on the ostrich’s intelligence — though they aren’t renowned for their remarkable brain power — but rather on the environment in which it is most suited to survive. While its eye-to-brain ration isn’t that bad in comparison to other birds, try not to think of it as incredibly small-brained so much as incredibly large-eyed (the largest eye on any land vertebrate, apparently); the size of its eyes (each is about two inches in diameter) gives it great long-range vision, combined with the heightened vantage point of its long neck, helps it immensely in its quest to not be eaten and die a horrible, horrible death. Which frankly seems like an admirable pursuit to me. (And while we’re on the subject of ostriches, I hope everybody realizes by now that they don’t actually hide their heads and think you can’t see them. That myth was probably started by Roman “historian” Pliny the Elder, who as far as I can tell spent most of his writing time drunk off his ass because nothing that jerk says is ever true.) Ostriches get kind of a bad rap, let’s be honest. Everybody thinks they’re stupid and we find it hilarious to watch people ride them, but just for perspective’s sake, you should know that they can run faster than you, the male ostrich has a scientifically important 8-inch phallus, and they are pretty much epic kickboxers. So I’m just saying, laugh all you like, but I wouldn’t fuck with an ostrich because they will mess your shit up.

Starfish have no brains.
Not entirely true, and not very fair to the starfish. True, if you were facing an army of zombie starfish and you were trying to destroy their brains so they couldn’t feast on you, you might have a hard time knowing where to aim, but really I don’t think zombie starfish should be very high on your list of things to worry about. In essence, a starfish’s entire nervous system acts as its brain, which if you think about it is kind of awesome. Let us take a moment to just appreciate the humble starfish, okay? Because starfish do not need to take this bullshit. If you cut off a starfish’s arm, it can grow a new one.  They can grip onto things using their very own adhesive chemicals, so basically they make their own glue. They don’t need to have sex to make babies because sex is so totally passé. They have their own internal hydraulics to move around with. When a starfish is hungry it doesn’t have to eat things smaller than its mouth — instead it can devour shit like clams and fish — because it can eject one of its stomachs and turn its prey into delicious prey-soup. That’s how badass they are. So let’s give a little respect to the starfish before they decide to join the jellyfish army and put an end to us all, okay?

Polar bears are left-handed.
That is just fucking ridiculous. What do we think polar bears do with their time, anyway? It’s not like they can hold a fountain pen. They’re not out there on the polar ice practicing their fastball. They don’t even have hands. God, why are we even having this conversation? Okay, here are actual facts: there is no science to support this idea, nor has anyone managed to hunt down whoever started that stupid rumor and kill them with a trained polar bear, more’s the pity. (It was probably the asshole Pliny the Elder. That guy’s definition of “facts” was “shit I made up because I was too busy doing other stuff to actually learn anything.”) In fact, the only research I could find on the subject indicates that injuries seem to be more common to the right forelimb, which might indicate more of a tendency toward right-pawedness, or might indicate nothing at all because that study is actually about vitamin deficiencies in captive bears so who the fuck knows. In case you’re secretly harboring any other ridiculous ideas about polar bears, Polar Bears International actually has an entire page just about myths and misconceptions regarding polar bears, so please read it. You will find it enlightening and fascinating, and if you don’t, you can instead go watch this video of a baby polar bear riding around on its mom’s back and experience a drastic reduction in your stress levels. Because I’m sure that you, too, feel frustrated and annoyed by the persistence of stupid made-up “facts” about polar bears.

Humans and dolphins are the only species that have sex for pleasure.
So. Patently. Untrue. This is so untrue it makes me sad. Like, if the first item on this list were completely true and pigs actually had glorious 30-minute orgasms you’d think they’d be having sex for pleasure too. In fact, all sorts of animals have been demonstrated to have sex for what we would call pleasure, which for simplicity’s sake I will call non-reproductive. Just about every permutation of sexuality and sexual behavior that has been seen in humans has also been documented somewhere, somehow, in animals. Bisexuality, orgies, self-stimulation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, autoeroticism, stimulation with objects, rape, sex with dead animals, prostitution, fetishism, the list goes on on and on and on. Literally. This Wikipedia entry on animal sexual behavior is a pretty good place to start if you’d like to have your mind blown. Since dolphins are particularly mentioned here, I feel like it’s also my duty to point out that a dolphin’s idea of pleasure usually involves gang rape and sexual slavery. They also enjoy long swims near the beach and some nice infanticide.

But since we’re talking about sex for pleasure, let’s talk specifically about bonobos. Because how in the name of all that is holy can you talk about sex for pleasure without talking about bonobos? Bonobo chimps have sexual practices for every occasion. There’s sex to say hello or to resolve conflicts or to say I’m sorry. If they find an awesome new food source they’ll have a celebratory orgy. Bonobos are not at all monogamous and don’t particularly care what age or gender their sexual partners are, either. Aside from all the homosexual contact, which clearly is not for purposes of reproduction, they also enjoy all sorts of sexual positions that don’t result in offspring, either. They enjoy kissing with tongue and oral sex and occasionally the males like to do something called “penis fencing.” Yeah, it’s really called that. I won’t link you to any of the youtube videos with bonobos having enthusiastic and undoubtedly pleasurable sex, but I’m sure you can find them on your own, if you’re so inclined.

And it’s not just sex, either. We like to think of animals as slightly mindless and driven by their various urges for survival and perpetuation of the species, but I hope we’ve all realized by now — particularly since science is providing us with solid proof — that all sorts of animals engage in all sorts of behaviors just for the fun of it. They have rich, complex lives of their own, and it’s not like they stop existing when we aren’t watching, so let’s all just take a moment to get over ourselves.

And sure, maybe my idea of fun is exhaustive Internet fact-checking, which is decidedly less exciting than a bonobo’s idea of a good time, but I hope that you’ve found this excursion into pedantry entertaining, and I do hope you’ll think about doing a little research of your own the next time you feel inclined to hit the share button this kind of bullshit. I mean Jesus, how could they forget about the bonobo orgies? Fucking amateurs.

Featured Creature Friday: The Freeloading Alcon Blue Butterfly

Last week I featured another bizarre caterpillar, Hawaii’s carnivorous Eupithecia, and I thought perhaps this week you’d like to meet a larva that is somehow, impossibly, even more bad-ass.

Denmark’s beautiful Alcon Blue butterfly looks about like you’d expect, for a butterfly. It has lovely blue wings and eats flowers and is about as intimidating as a nice decoupage. But don’t let them fool you. These lepidoptera are devious little bastards.

You see Jimmy, when a mommy and daddy butterfly love each other very much, they put their abdominal regions together and get nasty. Don’t pretend you’re scandalized. I know you’re familiar with the mating habits of butterflies. I’ve seen your browser history, buddy.

For the most part, the Alcon Blue’s reproductive cycle looks pretty normal. They get it on, as butterflies do, and then the female lays her eggs on a specific flower that she’s terribly fond of, and then the larvae hatch and hang around eating plants for awhile, and then shit starts getting real. You see, when the larvae are large enough, they drop down to the ground and sit around waiting, while emitting a delicious pheromone-y perfume that makes them smell irresistible to ants. And I’m not talking irresistibly delicious, either.

The scent that the larva emits convinces the ants that the larva is one of their own offspring, and they’ll pick it up and carry it right into their own home. In fact, they are so freaking stoked about this larval caterpillar that they will protect and preserve it at the cost of their own offspring. They feed it, they keep it clean, they make it the happiest little larva in all the land, and they don’t even mind that these faux-ants they’re tending to are eating not only the food they bring in but also they’re devouring the ants’ own larvae, because hey, who needs their own offspring when they can use all their resources caring for the freaking bad seed, instead?

Did you want another cheeseburger, sweetie? How about some Cheesy Poofs? No, don’t get up, I’ll make some snacks for you and all of your friends! Oh, you want to eat my other children? Okay, honey, that sounds fine!

Although this may sound like basically the perfect life for a larva, wherein they are fed and cared for and presumably get to spend all of their time playing Call of Duty, their gambit is not without risks. For one, the ants who are being parasitized might just figure the whole thing out, as this BBC article explains:

By looking at the patterns of infection/resistance and the genetics of different populations, the team was able to describe how the separate chemistries of the butterflies and the ants co-evolve in what amounts to an ongoing “arms race” – giving each animal periods and locations of dominance in their relationship.

So essentially, the ants change their chemical scent to help them recognize the butterfly larvae, and the larvae change their scent to adjust to the new situation, and on and on forever and ever. But that isn’t the only risk the Alcon takes inside the ants’ brood. They’re also preyed upon by a wasp called Ichneumon eumerus. The wasp, upon discovering Alcon larvae within an ant nest, will spray a chemical concoction that causes the ants to become confused and attack one another. Then it will seriously screw up the Alcon’s life; to wit:

When the wasp detects an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, it charges inside and sprays a pheromone cocktail that makes the ants attack each other. The wasp slips through the confusion, lays its eggs inside the caterpillar and leaves. After the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the eggs hatch and consume the it from the inside.

Pleasant, no? And this is all while the little beggars are still just little pink slug-looking things. If they survive the wasps long enough to actually pupate — which may take up to two years in the ants’ care, being total freeloaders — their chemical defenses no longer protect them from being seen by the ants as intruders. They then get to run the gauntlet out of the ants’ brood chamber and out into the world. They aren’t without defenses, however; they’re covered in loose scales which detach when grabbed by angry ants, allowing them to make their escape.

You might think that this sounds like a horribly convoluted way to reproduce, and frankly you’d be right; the Alcon Blue lives a very specific life which requires specific plants (they feed from and lay their eggs only on Marsh Gentians and Willow Gentians) and needs ant colonies (though it is somewhat non-specific in which ants will do) to perpetuate its life cycle. Both the butterflies and the wasps that prey on them are considered endangered, which is too bad because there are some scientists who would dearly like to leverage their brand of chemical warfare, but you’d probably think it was pretty good news if you were an ant; it probably gets tiresome being caught in the crossfire between butterfly and wasp.

Featured Creature Friday: The Wonderful Woolly Bear Caterpillar

I’m not really an entomology sort of person. It’s partly because insects are often creepy and partly because I’m just not good enough at spotting them to foster an interest. It’s the same reason I’ll never take up birdwatching: when your eyesight is bad enough that it takes you five minutes to spot a full-grown eagle, it might be time to consider an interest in elephants, instead.

I am generally a fan of caterpillars, though. For one thing, they’re often incredibly cute in a bizarre and alien sort of way, and like the butterflies and moths they become, caterpillars come in a truly staggering array of colors and configurations. Some of them look like tiny cacti and some have horns and some are poisonous and some will burn you with acid and I’m sure that deep down, some of them just want to be loved.

But we’re here to talk about a particularly magnificent specimen in the form of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, which is particularly extraordinary because it has considerably lengthened its lifespan through cunning use of cryogenic technology.

I've named this one "Fry." It was only trying to deliver a pizza...
photo by IronChris, by way of Wikimedia Commons and used here under Creative Commons license.

Compared to some other caterpillars, the Woolly Bear might not be much to look at — it’s sort of like a multicolored scrub brush — but it’s anything but mediocre. Where most species of caterpillar live only a few weeks, the Woolly Bear has adapted to cold climates by simply freezing solid when the temperature drops, which has extended this little Lepidoptera’s lifespan considerably. In warmer climates they’ll live a few years; in the arctic, their badassery extends to fourteen years or more. Every winter they freeze, every summer they thaw, eat, and grow bigger, until they finally become moths, live just long enough to reproduce, and then die. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, but who knows, maybe being a moth sucks.

As you all know, I’m a sucker for scientists getting all excited about nerdy things — they’re like teenage girls at a Bieber concert — so here’s a fantastic video from the new series Frozen Planet with a lovely gentleman and his lovely accent telling you all about the Woolly Bear and how completely awesome it is.

But wait, there’s more! Woolly Bear Caterpillars were also the first insects shown to self-medicate to stop parasitic infestation. Woolly Bears are plagued by a type of parasitic fly which is kind enough to leave a gift of larvae inside the poor caterpillar; when the little bastards hatch, they eat the caterpillar from the inside and then bust right out of there like they think they’re extras in Alien. But infected Woolly Bears can fight back by eating alkaloid-laden plants.

Bernays and her colleagues showed that infected woolly bears eat more toxic alkaloids than their non-infected peers. Healthy woolly bears also ingest alkaloids, but only in small amounts, apparently to make themselves unsavory to predators.

In addition, the team showed that parasite-free woolly bears that binge on alkaloids are more likely to die compared with woolly bears that take the drug in moderation.source National Geographic

So not only have they figured out how to treat their own medical problems in a totally groovy holistic fashion, but they’re also better at moderation with their alkaloids than I am with chocolate. Thanks a lot, Woolly Bear caterpillars. Now I feel like crap about myself. Which is probably how you’re going to feel when you finally turn from a bad-ass caterpillar into a completely boring moth. CHECKMATE.