The plight of the honeybees.
Bee photos by John Kimbler [flickr]
TheFrogMan wins the Hank Green’s Opinion award for “Best at Tumblr”
Screech Owls and Blind Snakes, an Unlikely Mutualism
by Andrew Durso
In the 1970s and 80s, a pair of biologists at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Fred Gehlbach and Robert Baldridge, were studying screech owl nesting ecology. These small owls nest in tree cavities and eat a variety of small animals, from insects to mice. Like most raptorial birds, Eastern Screech Owls usually kill their prey before bringing it home to feed to their nestlings.
Gehlbach and Baldridge observed some of the screech owls in their study carrying live Texas Blindsnakes (Rena [formerly Leptotyphlops] dulcis) to their nests in experimental nest boxes like those used by wood ducks and bluebirds. When they checked the nests the next day, they found, to their surprise, between one and fifteen live blindsnakes living among the owl chicks in fourteen different nests! In some cases, the snakes lived with the baby owls for at least a week! Many of the blindsnakes bore scars from adult owl beaks, but few had been killed.
f you’re not familiar with blindsnakes (aka scolecophidians), don’t worry; few people are. There are about 400 species of these ‘seriously strange serpents’, as Darren Naish calls them over at TetZoo, distributed chiefly in the world’s tropical regions (the Texas Blindsnake is one of the few temperate exceptions). Most have small eyes (or none at all, as their name suggests), smooth round scales, and eat invertebrates. Their jaw architecture is entirely unique: their jaws act like little scoops to effectively shovel ant and termite larvae and pupae into their mouths.
How does this help baby screech owls? Gehlbach and Baldridge wanted to find out, so they measured the diversity and abundance of invertebrates in the owl nests with and without live blindsnakes, as well as the health and survival of the baby owls (which they were already measuring). They found that nests with blindsnakes had significantly fewer mites, insects, and arachnids, and that baby owls from these nests were 25% more likely to survive and grew as much as 50% faster…
(read more: Life is Short, But Snakes Are Long)
Slater Museum: Featured Creature - 8 Feb 2013
Rock Pocket Mouse (Chaetodipus intermedius)
This adorable little rodent is a native of the American Southwest and lives rocky desert environments throughout Arizona and New Mexico. But this modest mouse is far more than just a cute critter. The Rock Pocket Mouse is also a poster-child for natural selection!
This seemingly innocuous rodent has a very special color polymorphism (i.e. variations in coat color) that has earned it a prominent place among biology and evolution text books world-wide. Ever since these differences in coat color were first described in the 80s, scientists have been fascinated by the Rock Pocket Mouse. Sure, plenty of animals show interesting differences in coat or plumage coloration - finches vary from orange to red, owls in the east tend to be redder than their cousins in the west, some Jaguars are born with pitch-black pelts - so what’s so special about this dinky mouse?
While melanism in big cats is a genetic mutation and redness in finches is diet-dependent, the color polymorphisms in Rock Pocket Mice appear to correlate with habitat. Naturalists in the 80s and 90s first described this correlation, noting that light-colored subspecies tend to mostly live in areas with light-colored sandstone and rock, while dark-colored subspecies thrived mostly in areas with dark, volcanic rock. Scientists found that mice living on mismatched substrates (light coats on dark rock and vice versa) were more likely to be captured by predators like hawks and owls, thus selecting for specific coat colors in specific locations.
Before the age of genetic research, evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution was primarily based in phenotypic, fitness-related traits - the genetic aspect of Darwin’s theory was still largely unsupported. It wasn’t until 2003 that researchers at the University of Arizona determined the genetic basis for this phenomenon, thus connecting phenotype (the fur color) with genotype (the genes) and providing extremely robust evidence for evolution by natural selection.
Today, this example of a naturally-selected color polymorphism is in nearly every evolution text-book and is cited by researchers around the world.
And you thought it was just another mystery mouse!
To learn more about this elegant study check out their 2003 paper.
Congrats to leuchtturm for being the first to notice that one of our specimens is missing a tail!
A Phylogenetic Blueprint for the Modern Whale
The emergence of Cetacea in the Paleogene represents one of the most profound macroevolutionary transitions within Mammalia. The move from a terrestrial habitat to a committed aquatic lifestyle engendered wholesale changes in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.
The results of this remarkable transformation are extant whales that include the largest, biggest brained, fastest swimming, loudest, deepest diving mammals, some of which can detect prey with a sophisticated echolocation system (Odontoceti – toothed whales), and others that batch feed using racks of baleen (Mysticeti – baleen whales).
A broad-scale reconstruction of the evolutionary remodeling that culminated in extant cetaceans has not yet been based on integration of genomic and paleontological information. Here, we first place Cetacea relative to extant mammalian diversity, and assess the distribution of support among molecular datasets for relationships within Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates, including Cetacea). We then merge trees derived from three large concatenations of molecular and fossil data to yield a composite hypothesis that encompasses many critical events in the evolutionary history of Cetacea. By combining diverse evidence, we infer a phylogenetic blueprint that outlines the stepwise evolutionary development of modern whales.
This hypothesis represents a starting point for more detailed, comprehensive phylogenetic reconstructions in the future, and also highlights the synergistic interaction between modern (genomic) and traditional (morphological + paleontological) approaches that ultimately must be exploited to provide a rich understanding of evolutionary history across the entire tree of Life.
Gatesy J, Geisler JH, Chang J, Buell C, Berta A, Meredith RW, Springer MS, McGowen MR. 2013. A phylogenetic blueprint for a modern whale. Mol Phylogenet Evol. 66 (2), 479–506: doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2012.10.012.
Can a Wildlife Bridge Fix America’s $8 Billion Roadkill Problem?
BALMORI ASSOCIATES’ PROPOSAL TO BUILD CHEAP ANIMAL-CROSSING STRUCTURES OVER HIGHWAYS COULD RELIEVE SOME OF THE BURDEN.
We all know that roadkill is a tragic corollary of car culture. What you might not know is that it’s also mega-expensive. Vehicle-animal collisions cost Americans a whopping $8 billion a year (download a PDF here).
Design can help. Balmori Associates, a New York City landscape design firm, proposes building simple, inexpensive wooden bridges over highways, then covering them in native vegetation to create a sort of wildlife crosswalk. Each bridge would be so wide and the greenery so diverse, it’d appear like an extension of the forest, and animals, the thinking goes, would be less inclined to go galloping across roads helter skelter, resulting in fewer accidents (and a slimmer cleaning bill).
Balmori came up with the idea for the ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition, which bills itself as the “first-ever international design competition… intended to solve the problem of ensuring safe travel for humans and wildlife.” The contest ends in January, when one of five design teams is selected to build a bridge over West Vail Pass in Colorado.
ARC expects the winning design to serve as a model for other parts of the country (clearly, the only way to make a dent in that $8 billion figure is to repeat the idea elsewhere). To that end, Balmori’s bridge isn’t specific to Vail. “It is a kit of parts,” the press materials say, “that can be applied and adapted to various conditions and sites.”
The main thrust is to keep the bridge as low-tech as possible so it can be constructed easily anywhere in the United States without disrupting the road or the natural environment. By using cheap native wood — beetle-killed blue pine, in the case of Colorado — you can create a simple structure that actually stores more CO2 than it needs for production; no heavy machinery required. What’s more, much of the bridge can be prefabricated, then assembled on site, cutting back on the hours construction interferes with traffic.
Balmori is up against some pretty stiff competition, including Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which recently nabbed a commission to spruce up the area around the St. Louis Arch, and Olin Studio, the Philadelphia firm charged with redesigning the courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum. Check back on Co. in January for the winner.
[Images courtesy of Balmori Associates]
I hope something like this will spread to the UK!
We have been using gantries to ‘help’ bats cross roads at a safe height for years, but in a recent study it was found that they are used at most 11% of the time. To the point where bats will cross roads at a dangerous point even though there is a gantry close by because thats where their orignal flight path went.
Money needs to be spent on much more useful crossings (like this example) which will benefit more animals.
Here’s the article if you want to read more:
That’s an actual, earthly animal you’re looking at in the photo above—not, as you might have assumed, a creature out of Star Wars. The star-nosed mole, which resides in the bogs and wetlands of the eastern U.S. and Canada, is roughly the size of a rat when fully-grown. It’s functionally blind and eats insects, worms and small fish.
But the most noticeable aspect of the animal is its utterly strange appearance, dominated by its 22-tentacled ultra-sensitive snout, called a star (those aren’t its eyes and face at the center of the pink fleshy area, but rather its nostrils). This snout, used to hunt and grab prey, features more than 100,000 nerve endings packed into an area barely more than 1 cm in diameter, making it one of the most sensitive touch organs in the whole animal kingdom. - Continue reading at Smithsonian.com.
Photo by: Kenneth Catania
So just a heads up I changed my name from ‘Fascinating Animal Facts’ to ‘Zoologeek’. I thought it was a little wordy.
I have an exam coming up. Promise some new posts soon!
Have a nice day :)
The Brain Scoop
Episode 1: The Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum
Episode 1 is out. Words evade me. I pressed the “submit” button, and here we go.
Join me for a tour!
I think this YouTube series is going to be amazing - I’ve been excited ever since they announced it. I really wish I could volunteer somewhere like this and do what Emily does! Everyone should watch, subscribe and support it! And learn lots at the same time!
Kiss of the Cretaceous Spider
Wow. Talk about unlucky. A hundred million years ago, this prehistoric spider had just grabbed lunch, literally. A wasp had been captured and was about to become spider chow. Just then, they were both engulfed in a drop of tree resin, and preserved in amber.
Although the Jurassic Park-style DNA-from-amber tricks aren’t actually realistic (sadly), it doesn’t diminish the coolness of capturing a prehistoric moment in a fossil freeze-frame.
(via Discover Magazine)
Also just for your amusement here is a list of the 10 weirdest bats. http://listverse.com/2011/03/04/top-10-bizarre-bats/
I especially love the Chapin’s Bat with the impressive mohawk!
Now I really must get back to more productive revision….