Sunday 31 October 2010

Old World Vultures

There are two kinds of vulture in the world, those of the Old World and those of the New. They are all scavengers, fulfilling the extremely important role of getting rid of carrion and clearing the place of dangerous putrefying corpses and incumbent disease. Old World and New World vultures aren't actually closely related to each other, similarities between them are purely due to their lifestyle choices.

Wednesday 27 October 2010


Triton is the name given to the Greek god who is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea. Triton is the messenger of the ocean and blows on a conch shell to calm or anger the waves. It's also the name given to a snail. A gigantic marine snail, that is. One particular species, the aptly named giant triton, can see its shell reach more than half a metre in length, some 20 inches. For millennia, people have gathered these shells, drilled a whole in the top and blown it like a trumpet, just like the gods themselves. Although without the godlike control over the sea.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Crown of Thorns Starfish

Image: Matt Wright
The crown of thorns starfish seems to be less an animal and more a malevolent presence. Starfish are usually odd little things or perhaps just ornamental rocks or something, but the crown of thorns reaches about half a metre across and is a ruthless nocturnal hunter. They can have as many as 19 arms, which for no specific reason I find absolutely disgusting, underneath which are the thousands of tiny tube legs that starfish use to get around. Slowly.

On the upper side of the arms and the entire body is that horrific covering of spikes that lend it its Biblical name. They reach 5 centimetres in length and are sharp. Very, very sharp. On a molecular level in fact, such that they require absolutely no force whatsoever to pierce skin, also wetsuits in case you ever see one. They are also venomous, releasing a neurotoxin that causes pain, nausea and swelling. The spikes can even break off and get embedded in the skin, possibly leading to infection. This is bad enough at home or in your own bed, but in the sea? When all you wanted to do was get up close and personal with the wonders and vibrant colours of the coral reef? That would be disappointing to say the least.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Water Bear

Image source
Water Bears are microscopic animals found in water all over the world (a lot more on that later). They are also known as tardigrades, which means 'slow walker' and the name water bear comes from the bear-like way they walk. Aside from hibernation (a lot more on that later), the similarity pretty much ends there. A large adult water bear may be just 1.5 millimetres long and other species less than 0.1 mm. Also they have 8 legs armed with 4 to 8 teeny weeny claws. Their bodies are segmented, giving them a look not unlike a tiny caterpillar and they are in fact distantly related to insects and other arthropods. Their skin, or rather cuticle, even contains chitin (the stuff that makes exoskeletons hard) so they have to moult as they grow.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Elephant in Musth

Image: OxOx
Elephants. Delightful creatures long famed for their intelligence and memory, they have personality, self awareness and have even been seen grieving their dead. They are the biggest animals on land, sometimes approaching 4 metres in height, meaning they have no predators and can afford to be placid and peaceful. People who care for and work with elephants talk about developing real relationships with them. As is so often the case, the elephant has become beautiful in our eyes through the use of its own mind.

Usually. For there is a month every year in a bull elephant's life when all this goes out the window to be replaced with anger, furious aggression and wanton destruction. This period is called musth.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Komodo Dragon

Image source
The Komodo Dragon is a kind of monitor lizard and at some 10 feet, is the longest monitor and the longest lizard in the world. It is believed to be among the last of a whole host of giant monitors that once dominated Indonesia and Australia, filling in the apex predator niche usually taken up by mammals. Like a lot of old giants, or megafauna, in this part of the world, most of these gigantic lizards probably died out when they came into contact with humans. Today, the Komodo dragon survives on a few islands in central Indonesia, including one that happens to be called Komodo.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Underwater Arthropods

No matter how much you might like the sea and swimming and such, we humans are fundamentally landlubbers. We just lub the land. Quite right too, what with our spindly limbs and conspicuous absence of gills. It's no wonder then that we usually think of arthropods, insects and arachnids as equally at sea in the sea, what with their spindly limbs and, usually, conspicuous absence of gills. But a number of our exoskeletal friends have taken to water and haven't looked back, relying on various adaptations to get around, feed and breathe. Live, basically. Which is the whole idea. It's often fascinating to see how various skills and lifestyles shared with their terrestrial kin are put to use in this new environment. First though, grasping the nettle, let's quickly step over some arthropods that are so incredibly aquatic they require adaptations to stop being quite so mercilessly aquatic... 

Sunday 3 October 2010

Vampire Squid

Image source
The Vampire Squid's scientific name, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, translates to 'vampire squid from Hell'. Which is odd because it isn't a vampire, doesn't have any particularly vampiric habits and isn't actually a squid. Oh, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was created by devils and demons from the Underworld to spy on humanity and prepare for an infernal attack on the Land of Mortals. It still could be of course, but there is no real evidence to suggest it. It's all circumstantial.