Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2007
The animal in this video looks baffled and benign, no doubt because it is chockful of drugs. Still, it’s a chance to see one of the fiercest predators on Earth–and one of the least known. The animal is the fossa (pronounced “foosa”), which is the nightmarish archenemy of Madagascar’s many lemur species. The speaker in the video is Luke Dollar of Pfeiffer University, who studies the fossa and has recently been chosen a 2007 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
Here’s some background on the fossa: The myth persists that Madagascar, like many smaller islands, is a paradise without predators. In fact, it has eagles, hawks, and the fossa, a nocturnal mongoose. Our prosimian cousins, the lemurs, typically sleep on the upper branches of trees. But the fossa, has a knack for finding them and creeping up the trunk of the tree, its lean body pressed close to the bark. Then it leaps out into space and catches a lemur by the face or throat with its teeth.
Not my idea of a nice wake-up call.
Here’s a link to the video.
To find out more about the project, visit http://www.earthwatch.org
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Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2007
The Toughest Creatures on Earth.
By Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Neal Layton.
61 pp. Candlewick Press. $12.99. (Ages 8 and up)
In the course of any literary or journalistic career, all of us at one time or another write something that’s utter poop. But few dare to make that word the title of a book, as this writer-illustrator team did in their last, much-praised outing together, “Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable.”
This time around, they take on animals that have evolved to thrive in the most extreme conditions on Earth, from the “frogsicles” that get through the winter “frozen solid and brittle as glass” to the high-jumping click beetles that manage to survive a 2,000 G-force without passing out (the way wimpy humans do at five G’s).
The authors bring just the right note of whimsy and scientific accuracy to their task. Nicola Davies, a sometime zoologist, is a writer, producer and presenter of radio and television programs in Britain. On her British publisher’s Web site, she reveals that she keeps sheep and trims them with kitchen shears. Also that “I’m expert at wringing chickens’ necks,” and, oh dear, that “I used to study whales in Newfoundland dressed in nothing but wellies (only on hot days).” Well, talk about hands-on! And what is going on with the weather in Newfoundland? Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Evolution | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2007
Well, o.k., they’re spines, or even tarsi. But they function much as do our vaunted opposable thumbs. University of South Florida biologist Deby Cassill and colleagues report that ants use short, thick tarsal spines on their forelimbs to pick up and manipulate objects. Until now, researchers believed ants did that sort of thing only with their jaws, or mandibles, which they use for, among other things, plundering rival colonies, snatching up their prey, and carrying prey, or rival ants, back to the nest where … well, you don’t want to know. In fact, two thirds of an ant’s head are given over to the muscles that run the mandibles.
But the USF researchers have now filmed ants using the spines on their forelegs to grasp and maneuver embryonic eggs and larva. “Thus,” they write, the ant “joins a short list of animals known to use their forelimbs to manipulate ojbects including insects such as the mantids, Crustaceans such as the crabs and lobsters … and veterberates such as the pandas, koalas, opossums, rodents and primates.”
And the best news here? The ant species in which the research team discovered this rare ability is Solenopsis invicta. That would be the fire ant, an invasive species that has overrun the American South and is already well-known for … thumbing its nose at human attempts to control it.
For further information, here’s the source:
(http://www.springerlink.com/content/a08132x3718p236p/). Cassill, D.L.,
Anthony Greco, Rajesh Silwal and Xuefeng Wang. 2006. Opposable spines
facilitate fine and gross object manipulation in fire ants.
Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 3, 2007
Somewhere in a rainforest in Panama, a big bruiser of a dung beetle, with a formidable horn on his snout, stands ready to defend his turf. Let’s call him Mr. Big. He is, by the standards of his species, the beau ideal: not only tall, dark, and handsome, but also ferocious in combat. What he’s defending is, o.k., howler monkey flop, but this is an insanely precious commodity for local dung beetles. They get to it 15 seconds after it hits the ground.
At the other end of the tunnel where Mr. Big stands guard, a female is sequestered beneath the monkey dropping. She’s supposed to be busily packing up balls of dung and storing them in the larder as food for her offspring by Mr. Big.
Instead, she is having sex with a stranger, a dismal runt named Raoul.
What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely everything, at least according to our conventional notions about sexual behavior. It’s part of our lore that the Mr. Bigs of the world–the beefy macho types–get the girls. They also get to kick sand in the faces of the 98-pound Raouls. The stereotype may even seem to make crude Darwinian sense (at least to throwbacks), in that the spoils accrue to the strong.
But recent research has starkly demonstrated that our stereotypes are wrong: The natural world is full of what biologists call “satellite males” or “sneaker males.” Many of them are relative weaklings, or lack the masculine ornamentation to dazzle choosy females. Some even practice unconventional strategies like cross-dressing. Yet they manage to defeat the expectations of the macho types: Surprisingly often, it’s the 98-pound weakling who gets the girl. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Sex & Reproduction | 2 Comments »