Monday, January 31, 2011

Keeping Kanzi II

Just a brief update on Kanzi (see the Keeping Kanzi post), one of the bonobos I took care of at Georgia State University (the bonobos are now at the Great Ape Trust).  Kanzi is a dad for the first time.  The mom is Elikya, and the baby's name is Teco, born in June, 2010.

Baby Teco   Source:  Great Ape Trust

I took care of Elikya when I was in charge of the Psuke Building at the Language Research Center.  Elikya, her mother Matata, and brother Maisha are 'control subjects' or non-language bonobos so that comparisons can be made between them and bonobos raised in a language-rich environment where the lexigram keyboards are used.  At the time Elikya was only 3 or 4 years old.

I remember one time when I was feeding everyone strawberries.  I only had one huge strawberry for each bonobo, and Kanzi stole Elikya's.  After everyone had gone outside, I noticed that Elikya had come back inside the building by herself.  I hurried to give her a treat that no one else got, and hoped she understood that I was trying to make up for Kanzi taking her strawberry.

There must be something about pulling hair with bonobo youngsters, because like Nyota (see Pensive Panbanisha post) Elikya was also a hair puller.  There was one place behind the Psuke building where you either had to duck under a tunnel or go all the way around the building to get to the other side of the play yard.  Whenever I ducked under that tunnel, somehow Elikya was always there ready to give my hair a yank.  Maybe showing bravery every time the young ones were able to grab somebody's hair is something like Native Americans 'counting coup'.  Most probably though they do it just to see if they can get a rise out you.  That's big with bonobos.

When I first started taking care of Kanzi and Panbanisha, they would take a mouthful of water and spit it at me.  We were told to simply ignore them which I did for a few days, but then the practice started to get really old.  So one day I tried reverse psychology.  Knowing they could understand what I said, after the umpteeth time of Kanzi spitting on me, I said, 'Gee, thanks Kanzi.  I was really hot and that felt good.'  I don't think he ever did it again!

Elikya is now 13 years old and also a first-time mom.

Elikya   Source:  Great Ape Trust

For a video of Kanzi playing with his son, click here.  The voice in the background on the video is Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.  Notice how gentle Kanzi is with little baby Teco.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Slew of Snow

The Northeast got hit yet AGAIN with more snow - we got about a foot this time.  I really love the sight of huge snowflakes falling - you can HEAR them fall.  I just hate the shoveling you have to do afterward.  The last time we got a lot of snow we had thunder snow, but I didn't hear any thunder this time.

Did you know that snow is a result of an extratropical cyclone connected with a low pressure system?  Here is a graphic that explains how snow is formed.

Source:  WAOW

They say no two snowflakes are the same.  I know that individual flakes are works of art - like these.

But when you get so much it's hard to appreciate.  We now have piles of snow so high we're running out of places to put it.  Take a gander.

Here is 'my' flock of pigeons sitting on my next door neighbor's roof waiting for breakfast!

But the sun is out and already it's starting to melt.  The shovels are ready and waiting for the next round.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Opining Octopods

What animal has 8 arms, 9 brains, 3 hearts, and copper-based blood instead of iron-based blood like we humans have?  No, it's not an alien from outer space.  Here's a hint:  it has 240 suction cups on each arm.  Need another hint?  It squirts ink to discourage predators.  If you guessed octopus, then you would be right.  It does sort of look like an alien though, doesn't it?

Source:  Wikipedia

There are over 250 species of octopuses.  (Or should I say octopi?  Octopuses is correct, but sounds weird.  But then octopi sounds weird too.  I think octopus should be one of those words that's both singular and plural like 'deer'.  Whatever - let's get on with the post!)  Octopuses occupy nearly every area of the ocean from coral reefs to the ocean floor.

Now about those 9 brains and 3 hearts.  It has a regular brain, but also has a brain or neural control for each one of its arms - the most sensitive part of its body.  It uses its arms for both tasting and feeling.  The octopus also has two gills and two of the hearts pump blood through each gill.  The third heart pumps blood to the rest of its body.

Octopuses eat crab, lobster, and fish, even some species of sharks.  They are also known to eat smaller octopuses.  Octopuses use poison to paralyze their prey.  Some species are among the most poisonous creatures in the sea, but there is only one group that is dangerous to humans - the blue ringed octopuses.

Source:  Wikipedia

Octopuses are capable of advanced reasoning and observational learning.  Experiments show they are also aware of their own bodies.  In one experiment octopuses were put into a clear plastic box with two holes in it - one too small for it to escape from and a maze of tubes which eventually led out of the box.  The octopuses tested the hole that was too small and realized they couldn't escape that way.  It then chose the maze and eventually got out.  When put in the box a second time, it didn't even test the smaller hole, but went straight to the maze.  In a second experiment, the octopuses were put in a box with a two-inch hole.  It took a bit of time, but they eventually were able to escape.  When put in the box a second time with a smaller hole, they tested the hole with one arm, realized it was too small and didn't try further.

Starry Octopus   Source: Scuba Equipment USA

Octopuses are masters of camouflage.  Their first line of defense against predators is to hide either by physically hiding in a shell or crevice or by hiding in plain sight and blending in with their surroundings.  An octopus has the ability to change the color of its skin to any color, pattern, and even change the texture of its skin to blend in with the sandy ocean floor, for example.  This also brings us to the matter of their intelligence.  In order to blend in with its surroundings it has to be AWARE of its surroundings and be able to duplicate what it sees.  Check out this video.

The mimic octopus is king when it comes to disguise.  It can flatten itself like a flounder, imitate a sea snake or a scorpion fish.  For a video, click here.  For more info about octopuses in general, click here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Snowtracks 2

We got another 5 or 6 inches of snow on Friday and more tracks to ponder over.  I think perhaps one of the tracks I showed in the first post were from a possum.  I had three possum visitors Wednesday night - two youngsters and a mom most likely, although they didn't come together.  The two small ones came first, and the bigger one a little later.  And last night (Friday) I surprised a possum who had come out quite early (around 5:00) to get a quick snack of cat food.

Well, this morning (Saturday) I went out to find that Big Foot or maybe a woolly mammoth had gone through my yard!

These tracks are about a yard apart.

Or maybe it was just a cat jumping through the snow instead of walking??!!  'Tiz a puzzlement.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ancient Animals

What do you see in this picture?

Photo by Hans Hillewaert  Source:  Wikipedia

At first glance did you see the head of a dragon?  I did (Yeah, I know - I'm a little out there.)  But then I thought 'Ewww, what a weird dragon.'  You're looking at the eye of a nautilus - a creature that has been around for and changed little in 500 million years.  If you're thinking it has a strange-looking eye, you're right.  Its eye has no lens - what is known as a 'pinhole' eye.  It can see, but not very well, so relies more on its sense of smell than on vision to navigate and hunt.

The nautilus is a cephalopod and belongs to the same family as cuttlefish and squid, but the nautilus has retained its shell.  A very remarkable shell.  There is a reason it's also known as the chambered nautilus.

Photo by Chris 73  Source:  Wikipedia

Why the chambers?  As the animal grows it moves into an increasingly larger space, closing off the old space as it goes except for a small duct it uses for filling the unused chambers with air to aid in flotation.  Unfortunately, lots of people are enamored by its shell and the nautilus is hunted for it.

In the first picture the funny things sticking out of the shell are its tentacles.  It has up to 90 of them, but they don't have suckers like an octopus; they do have ridges though that allow a firm grip on its prey which includes shrimp, small crustaceans and fish.

Photo by Lee Berger   Source:  Wikipedia

Compared to its cousins the squid and octopus, the nautilus is a rather slow and lumbering member of the family.  It is not thought of as intelligent as its octopus relatives (more on that in an upcoming post), but perhaps the nautilus doesn't care as it has a beautiful house in which to live.  For a video and more information on the nautilus, click here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Avian Aliens

I have a new bird that started coming to my bird feeder - a song sparrow!  Now you're probably wondering why I'm so excited about a sparrow.  I have hordes of HOUSE sparrows, sometimes a flock of 30 or 40 will show up.  They throw the seed everywhere, and clean out the feeder in no time.  They are the bane of my existence!  Okay, well that IS a little dramatic, probably 'annoying' would cover it.  But any time a different kind of sparrow shows up, it's unique and thoroughly encouraged.

Song Sparrow  Photo by Will Elder  Source: National Park Service

When it first showed up, I wasn't sure what it was.  I always get confused when it's a brown bird - there are so many and all the pictures start to look the same.  I checked out the bird book and read something about it having a dominant brown spot on the breast.  Yesterday morning I saw that it, indeed, had that spot.  Ahhh, little brown bird identified.

My bird book says it's probably the best known of our native sparrows and is found almost everywhere in North America.  Hmmm.  So why didn't I know it and why have I never seen one around before?  And why is there only one?  Well, I would assume if there's one there must be a mate somewhere.  Actually I thought I may have seen a second one just this morning (Tuesday).  But there are certainly not hordes of them like the house sparrows.

Female and male house sparrow  Source: Northern Voices

The page where I found the above picture says that the house sparrow is on the decline.  Its original range was around the Mediterranean and Europe, and introduced to the U.S. in New York as natural pest control.  The article went on to say that it's an endangered species in the Netherlands and has been put on their red list.  I'd be glad to send them some of mine!

The only other type of sparrow I've seen is the chipping sparrow.  A visit from the little chipper always makes me smile.  But again, I only see one at a time - never a flock.

Chipping sparrow   Source:  Wikipedia

The other thrill I got today was seeing the hawk.  I first noticed the hawk when I was sitting in my chair in the living room when in a flash I saw a bird take a house sparrow off the roof of my neighbor's house!  It took me a minute to believe what I had just seen.  It all happened so fast there was no way to identify the offending predator.  I've caught a glimpse of it in the trees on occasion, but never had my binoculars with me to really get a good look.  Today it was sitting on top of a telephone pole right near my house so I was able to grab my binoculars.  The problem is I'm still not totally sure what it is!

Originally I thought it might be a Cooper's Hawk, but I think it's bigger than that (it's so hard to judge size from a distance).  But now I THINK what I saw today was a male Northern Harrier.  Also when I first saw it take the sparrow off the roof I saw mostly brown.  Today it looked more gray, but it was raining.  It would make sense since the female Northern harrier is brown, while the male is slate gray.  Also today its back was toward me nearly the whole time, but I could still see some marks of brown on its breast.  However, the bird book says the harrier hunts by flying close to the ground and taking small animals by surprise.  So would a harrier take a sparrow off a roof?  The bird book claims it is mostly silent except at the nest, and today it sat and called and called the entire time.  The book also says the Cooper's Hawk has a barred tail which I don't recall seeing, but is more likely to take birds out of the air.  I think a pigeon got taken the other day - I saw a lot of feathers floating to the ground, but didn't see the strike.  The pictures of the Cooper's Hawk also shows feathered legs which I didn't see today.  So now you can see why I'm still uncertain.

Male Northern Harrier   Source:

Female Northern Harrier  Source:  Cornell

I will enjoy seeing the song sparrow in days to come, but the tale of the hawk continues.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Gaggle of Groupies

There are over 200 species of army ants - ants that don't have a permanent home.  Army ants take or kill almost anything in their path.  After being in an area for a couple of weeks, there is nothing left to eat so they move on.  There can be as many as 20 million ants in one colony - plenty of workers to help with the relocation.  And they take everything (food, eggs, larvae, pupae) with them to the new territory.  During the stationary period the queen lays her eggs - up to 120,000 at a time.  Army ants have a lifespan of only 3 to 13 months, so in order to keep the colony going, laying eggs is a constant and only occupation of the queen.

Safari ants  Photo by Mehmet Karatay  Source:  Wikipedia

The ants almost create their own ecosystem, because the ants have groupies that live with and/or follow their trail.  As dangerous as it is for some insects to be in the path of the ant army, there are other insects and insect larvae that actually share the ants' nest.  How do they do this?  In my 'Mimicry Masters' post, I discussed how some species look like other species for their own benefit.  Some army ant groupies take mimicry to a whole new level, as these intruders can look, smell, act and even sound like their ant host species so that the ants don't think they're intruders.

Some species of adult staphylinid beetles have evolved to look like ants, but they are also capable of mimicking the chemical signature of their host.  The beetle has a glandular secretion that actually attracts the ant.  The ant will 'adopt' the beetle and obligingly carry it right into the nest.  The beetles then have access to the ants' food.  On rare occasions when there is no food, the beetles will eat ant eggs and/or larvae.  Staphylinid beetles have been observed grooming worker ants, so perhaps there is a reciprocal relationship.  Or maybe the beetles are just establishing 'friends' they hope will turn a blind eye to the occasion ant 'snack'.  Staphylinid beetle larvae also may occupy the ant nest.  They mimic the scent of ant larvae so that worker ants will groom them.

Staphylinid beetle  Source:

The larvae of the Mountain Alcon Blue butterfly go a step further.  Not only can they reproduce the scent of the ant larvae so that workers will feed them, but they're also capable of making a pulsing sound that the ant queen makes and subsequently get the 'royal treatment' from their red ant hosts.

There are other groupies that don't inhabit the ant's nest, but follow the progress of army ants on the move.  Army ants may kill everything in their path but don't necessarily eat everything they've killed.  There are species of flies that take advantage of anything dead the army has killed, but don't take with them.  Certain species of birds also find an easy meal of those insects that are trying to escape the army.  Not a nice surprise to successfully avoid the ants only to be eaten by an (are you ready for this?) antbird!  Yes, it's true some birds that follow the ants are actually called antbirds, and in fact depend entirely on the ants for their food.  Cuckoos, and migrating thrushes, vireos and warblers also benefit from the fleeing insects the ants stir up.  Other birds only take advantage of the opportunity when the army goes through their territory.

Immaculate Antbird  Source:  Wikipedia

Parasitic wasps, snakes and many other creatures have also been associated with army ants.  In fact, over 300 species have been noted to either depend on army ants entirely or partially for their existence.  Army arts could be considered a keystone species.

Even though army ants are terribly destructive, there are creatures that depend on them.  And areas that have been stripped of 'ant food' are quickly inhabited again by creatures looking for a new home, or perhaps fleeing their old home as the army invades.  Another reason for making sure that the entire ant ecosystem can survive.  For a video about army ants, click here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Striking Snowtracks

Wednesday the Northeast got hit with a whole bunch of snow, officially 13 inches for my city in Rhode Island, but other places got almost two feet.  After shoveling out the car and the road in our little mobile home park was plowed, I concentrated on shoveling off my patio so the birds would have access to food.  The juncos were out in full force, along with hoards of sparrows, starlings, and pigeons.  Both the titmice and chickadees were laying low as were the blue jays.  Yesterday the sun was shining and the snow started to melt.  We got a few more inches of snow after the main dig out so while I was shoveling the patio again I noticed all the different tracks in the snow wondering what critters had visited my yard.  The most noticeable was this mass of bird and kitty paw prints; hopefully they weren't there at the same time.

It was obvious who made those tracks; some of the rest were more intriguing - possibly more birds, squirrels, who knows what else, and a couple of marks in the snow that were not even tracks.  But here they are.  I'll let you have fun trying to figure them out because a couple of them I have no clue.

These tracks go right through the bush, but don't really look like either cat or bird tracks.

The snow was really wet and chunky.  Shovelfuls came up with big hunks of snow.  Here's a track where a little piece of snow rolled down and made its own snowball.

Hmmm, wonder if these are human or alien!??

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Peculiar Planthoppers

I don't remember now which TV show I was watching a few days ago, most likely on the Animal Planet Channel, but they showed a lantern fly that I thought was so unusual.  Actually it looks more like a butterfly or moth with the 'fake' eyes on its wings.

Source:  Discover Life

The above picture shows this particular lantern fly (Fulgora laternaria) with its wings open.  This is what it looks like with its wings closed.

Source:  Discover Life

The closed wing photo gives credence to its other nicknames, the peanut bug or peanut head bug.  Doesn't its head look like a peanut?  You can't see the resemblance looking down from the angle in the first photo.  This particular critter is found in Central and South America.  As big as its head is, it can't bite; its mouth is more like a straw that it uses to suck juice out of plants.  Both the big head and the 'fake' eyes are used to discourage and misdirect predators.  Its third defense is releasing a skunk-like spray.

There are many different species of lantern flies, also called planthoppers because they sometimes hop like grasshoppers.  They were originally called lantern flies because it was believed that they glow like fireflies.  They don't, but the name stuck.  Here's another strange one.

Photo by Richard Ling   Source:  Wikipedia

This guy (Pyrops candelarius) comes from southeast Asia and that long nose/mouth probes under bark and eats the sap of the longan and lychee trees.  Here's what it looks like with its wings open.

Copyright Light Creations   Source:

Here's a lantern fly (Lycorma delicatula) from China.

Photo by Henripekka Kallio  Source:  Wikipedia

Isn't it amazing how different they look with their wings open?  They look so drab and ordinary, and with just a flip of the wings there's a true Cinderellan (is that a word?) transformation.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Primarily Primates

I spent Christmas in Portland, OR with family and friends, namely my sister, Betsy, my niece Alexis, her husband Matt, and their son Theo, along with my friend Jean.  My grand nephew Theo has picked up his mom's and my love of primates.  I spent a lot of time with him looking through a primate book.  It was amazing how quickly he picked up names of primates and the ability to identify them.  What about you?  Can you identify different primates just by looking at a picture?  Do you know the difference between an orangutan, chimpanzee, gorilla, lemur, baboon, tamarin, and squirrel monkey?

Photo by Alex Dunkel  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Mila Zinkova  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Luc Viatour  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Oliver Spalt  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Manuel Gonzalez Olaechea y Franco  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Thomas Lersch  Source:  Wikipedia

Photo by Charles Miller  Source:  Wikipedia

Here is the order of the above pictures:  lemur (ring-tailed), gorilla, squirrel monkey, orangutan, baboon (Hamadryas), chimpanzee, tamarin (golden lion).  How did you do?  Theo can also recognize different species of birds that come the feeder in his backyard.  Oh, and by the way, did I mention the age of my grand nephew?  Today is his SECOND birthday!!  Who knows what he'll be identifying next.  Happy Birthday, Theo!  And now a picture of the funniest primates of all - US!