Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cherished Cheetahs

When you think of a cheetah, you think of a sleek spotted cat roaming the African plains, right?  Did you know there is also an Asiatic cheetah?  It's actually a subspecies of its African cousin.  Cheetahs once roamed India, Afghanistan, as far as Syria, but now it is only found in Iran with rare sightings in Pakistan.  Between wars and revolutions causing drastic declines in prey species, as well as cheetahs themselves, and fragmented habitats, there may only be about 50 to 100 left in the wild.  Asiatics cheetahs are now considered critically endangered.

Found in the Kevir desert region of Iran, its main food consists of gazelles, wild sheep and goats, and hare. There have been debates about how genetically different the Asiatic Cheetah is from the African Cheetah, but recent studies show that it is indeed a subspecies.  Because of a lack of genetic diversity, however, due to habitat fragmentation, Asiatic cheetah cubs have a very high mortality rate.

Most of the known cheetah populations are in protected areas in Iran, but that alone may not be enough to save the individuals that are left.  It would be a shame to those these guys forever.

For a video, click here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mysterious Mammals

When we were touring the Museum of Science in Boston (see previous post) we also got to see most of the live animals that are used in their educational visits to schools.  Among them, was an animal that Aaron introduced to us as, 'the closest thing to a primate, but isn't'.  I wasn't sure what he meant by that so decided to look it up.  So here's a riddle for you, what looks like a cross between a squirrel and a mouse, is called a shrew but isn't, and is related to primates but isn't one?  A treeshrew! 

Madras treeshrew  Source:  Wikipedia

Treeshrews are from Southeast Asia and live in a tropical forest environment.  They were originally put in the Insectivora order which included moles and hedgehogs.  Then they were put in the primate family, but recent DNA analysis shows that treeshrews are actually most closely related to colugos (see my Clinging Colugos post).

Common Treeshrew  Source:  Wikipedia

Most treeshrews live in trees, but then again, some do not.  There are 20 different species of treeshrews.  The larger species tend to live on the ground and have larger claws which are used to dig up insects.  Besides insects they eat small mammals, fruit and seeds.  Treeshrews live in small family groups and they will defend their territory against intruders.  Like many small mammals, treeshrews have a larger brain compared to their body size than humans. 

Northern Treeshrew   Source:  Wikipedia

I always enjoy meeting a mammal I know nothing about.  For a video, click here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Flashy Fulminology

Are you a fulminologist?  A very flashy title for someone who studies lightning.  Lightning is an "atmospheric electrostatic discharge", a fancy way of saying it's a spark.  One very BIG spark!  Scientists know what it is, but exactly how and why it forms is still a matter for debate.  You've heard the saying 'water and electricity don't mix', but yet it is thought that the ice inside a cloud is a key element in forming lightning - that and perhaps a combination of wind, humidity, friction and atmospheric pressure.

Lightning can occur with either positive or negative polarity;  negative is more common, but positive lightning can carry ten times more current.  In either case, the amount of voltage depends on the length of the bolt - the longer the bolt, the higher the voltage.  Lightning can heat the surrounding air to thousands of degrees.  This causes the air to expand rapidly which generates a supersonic shock wave that as it dissipates becomes an acoustic wave we hear as thunder. 

We all know about cloud to ground lightning - the most dangerous kind.  One famous lightning hit was the Eiffel Tower in 1902.

Source:  Wikipedia

The top part of the Tower had to be reconstructed. 

And one of the most spectacular light shows in the sky is caused by cloud to cloud lightning.

Source:  Wikipedia

There is also intra-cloud lightning when there are both negative and positive charges within the same cloud.

As well, lightning can be produced by volcanic eruptions when rock, ice and ash particles collide and produce static charges, a phenomenon known as a 'dirty thunderstorm'.

Source:  Wikipedia

Lightning can be the cause of a great number of wildfires, but wildfires can also cause lightning by creating enough dust to produce a static charge, which in turn can start another wildfire.

While scientists are not really sure how lightning occurs in clouds, they can recreate it.  Or at least recreate how it looks to us.  Recently I visited Boston's Museum of Science and got to participate in their electricity show by being in a metal cage that was hit by 'lightning' demonstrating why you are safe in a car during a storm, although not a convertible or one made of fiberglass.  Click here to see a full explanation of why that is the case.  Here I am in "the cage" with a friend and the program presenter.

If you think "the cage" looks like a bird cage, you're right!  And here is a photo from the Museum's website of what the cage looks like when it's hit by lightning.

When you're actually in the cage, you definitely don't get the full effect!

I got to go behind the scenes because I have a friend that works at the Museum of Science.  Thanks again, Aaron!  Hope you learned something about lightning.  I certainly did!  For a couple of videos to learn more, click here and here.  For a video about the phenomenon of ground to cloud lightning, click here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

King Komodo

The largest species of lizard is the Komodo dragon, a formidable carnivore found only on several Indonesian islands, including the island of Komodo which is where it gets its name.  It can grow up to almost 10 feet long and weigh between 150 to more than 300 pounds depending on whether its weighed before or after it's eaten!  A member of the monitor lizard family, its main diet is deer, wild boar, and goat, and even animals as large as a water buffalo, although it will eat just about anything. It also eats dead animals which it can smell up to several miles away by using its forked tongue - like a snake does!  As it walks, the Komodo swings his head from side to side helping detect potential prey.  Its vision and hearing is not as nearly acute as its sense of smell.

Source:  Wikipedia

It's an ambush hunter waiting for hours for unsuspecting prey to walk by.  But it can also move at more than 10 miles an hour if it needs to.  Considering its size and short stumpy legs that's fast.  Even if the prey gets away, if it's been bitten it hasn't really because the Komodo's saliva is filled with virulent bacteria and it will soon die of blood poisoning.  Researchers have found 57 different strains of bacteria in wild Komodo dragon saliva, including e coli, and while some bacteria takes 3 days to cover a petri dish, it only took 8 HOURS for Komodo dragon saliva!  And besides the bacteria, it has recently been discovered that Komodos also have venom glands, so in reality it is most likely a combination of the two that causes the death of the Komodo's victims.  Why the Komodos aren't affected by their own saliva or bites by other Komodos is still a mystery.

A Komodo has about 60 short sharp serrated teeth designed for tearing and cutting, similar to shark's teeth.  A Komodo can live up to 30 years or more and can go through four or five sets of teeth during its lifetime.

Source:  Wikipedia

A Komodo has a long tail, almost the length of its body.  It can be used to knock prey off their feet and for balance when reaching for prey or fighting another dragon.  It may also be used as a rudder as the Komodo is a good swimmer.  It has good sized claws which are perfect for digging the burrows it sleeps in.

Claws are also used by young Komodo dragons to climb trees where they live, eating bugs, other smaller reptiles, small mammals, and bird eggs.  This strategy is used to avoid being eaten by adult Komodo dragons.  (Smaller dragons make up about 10 percent of the larger Komodo's diet.)  Once they reach a length of about 4 feet long or reach a weight where climbing trees is not so easy any more, they try life on the ground.

Komodos can devour up to 80 percent of their body weight in one meal.  If resources are scarce, it can live on only 12 to 14 meals a year.  When a Komodo does find a meal, it will swallow it whole if possible, eating EVERYTHING including hooves, horns and bones, but will later regurgitate anything that it couldn't digest.  Now that's one BIG "hairball"!

Source:  Bagheera

There are four times as many male dragons as female dragons.  Why?  Generally, Komodos are solitary animals, only getting together for mating and eating.  However, a female can lay viable eggs without the help of a male, but every unfertilized egg that hatches is a male Komodo.

You might call the Komodo dragon a living dinosaur considering it's been around for about 40 million years!   As tough as they are though, they are still considered endangered because of loss of prey and habitat.  For videos, click here and here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Twitchy Tigger

Tigger is my next door neighbor's cat - a cat with a sense of humor, but not very bright!  On Mother's Day my neighbor's son accidentally let Tigger outside and life for them and him hasn't been the same since.  It took literally weeks for them to coax Tigger back into the house.  Once they did though it was too late.  Tigger had already had a taste of being outside and as terrified as he seemed to be in the beginning, he now wants outside on a constant basis.  Now that it's getting colder though, he's decided that there are indeed advantages to being inside.  He gets along with all the other cats and is quite the kitty ambassador to the other animals.  He likes to chase the squirrels and is fascinated by the woodchucks, and, of course, the birds.  He's very inquisitive and a good tree climber.  He's come a long way since that fateful day in May.  He would be a great candidate for the website, Cats That Look Like Hitler, except that he's black with a white mustache.

Here's Tigger stalking a woodchuck.

Where'd he go?  I think the first few weeks of his 'escape'  Tigger actually hid under my shed with the woodchucks, so maybe they're good buddies.

Okay, it's getting cold out here.  I'm ready to come in now.

I'll just wait right here.  I'm sure somebody will be along soon.

Tigger's a good guy even if he does look like Hitler!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall Colors

You saw a little bit of the fall colors in the last post, but here is a more up-close and personal look at some of the fall colors that are still around.

Yes, those were roses.  Through snow and several hard frosts my neighbor's roses are still hanging in there!  Happy Fall!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Perfect Perspectives

I've been working a temp job for the last few weeks that takes me to Cumberland, Rhode Island.  I'm really loving the drive - at least once I get past Route 1.  In a matter of literally feet, I go from busy two-lane mass confusion to the New England countryside.  So this post I'm taking you on a little drive with me.

From my house I go a few blocks to Newport Avenue - one of the main drags of Pawtucket on the eastern side of town.  It's a mixed zone of homes and businesses.  I stay on Newport Avenue (Route 1A) until I hit Route 1 which takes me across the state line into Massachusetts.  Route 1 is loaded with restaurants, gas stations, strip malls, a regular mall and car dealerships. although once in a while along the way there are hints of things to come.

Then I come to the corner where I turn onto Route 120.  And I go from this...

to this.

When I make that turn, I definitely let out a big AAAHHHH and can feel my blood pressure go down about 10 points.  The rest of my journey is a joy.  By the way, 120 also takes me back into Rhode Island.  Here are more scenes along the way.

There are some spectacular houses in the area as well as more modest ones.  But the majority are nestled in the arms of these wonderful mature towering trees.

This little shed is dwarfed by the trees.

And then I come to another light where I turn onto Route 114.

There are a few businesses on 114 - like a general store!  The 'Lil General store to be exact.

A veterinary office and an ice cream shop.  I love their sign.

But there is also a little park.

And you can't be in New England without seeing a few stone fences.

A couple of times I've turned that corner onto Route 120, gone a short distance and seen wild turkeys along the side of the road!  (My friends in New Jersey also have wild turkeys that wander into their yard.  I 'borrowed' a picture from their house.)

This kind of scenery just speaks to me and soothes my soul.   I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as I do!