Thursday, November 29, 2012

More Skunks

I was cleaning the litter boxes this afternoon when I happened to hear some grunting and snuffling noises outside.  I looked out the window and there were three skunks on my patio!  I think it was a mom and her two almost-grown kits.  The 'mom' is a beautiful skunk that is almost all white with just a narrow stripe of black down her back and black feet.  One kit was more 'normal' looking and the other was sort of a cross between the mom and the other kit with more white and a black stripe that started down its back, but then went down its shoulder.

They were all eating the cat food that was still out.  It was just before dusk and I was surprised to see them out while it was still somewhat light. They were all doing their best impressions of a floor mop and reminded me of a Pekinese or similar breed at a dog show - all fluffed out making it hard to tell which end was which.  Their behavior made me laugh though because they kept backing into each other trying to push the others off the food, but evidently not willing to risk a blast of 'skunk juice' right in the face from each other.  At least that was my interpretation of their actions.  Of course, I contemplated trying to get a picture, but as soon as I opened the door they scampered away.  Besides it really was too dark.  I was suckered into putting out a little more food and refilled the water dish.  They were back in no time.  At least now I know why the water dish is almost completely empty almost every morning.

Source:  Animal Planet

I watched them a while longer until it got too dark to see much.  Really love those crazy skunks!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fauna Flowers

The other day on Facebook I saw a photo of a monkey orchid.  It was beautiful and the face of the flower really did look like a monkey.  I thought 'Hmmm I wonder how many other flowers are named after animals'.  Here's what I found.  Native to South Africa we have the Mickey Mouse plant.  Okay so technically Mickey Mouse is just a cartoon character, but still...

Source:  Wikipedia
Then there are plants in the yam family with blooms known as bat flowers.  This is the black bat flower.
 Source:  Wikipedia

There is also the white bat flower.  They are certainly beautiful, but do they look like bats to you?

Source:  Wikipedia

From eastern Asia, we have toad lilies - several varieties.

Source:  Wikipedia

Source:  Wikipedia

From the Balkans and southern Europe we have the dragon flower or dragon arum, also known as the black dragon, the snake lily, and the stink lily.  It supposedly smells like a dead carcass.  Why?  It is pollinated by flies and how better to attract them than smelling really bad.

Source:  Wikipedia

Also from the arum family, anthuriums are sometimes called flamingo flowers.

Source:  Wikipedia

I was really disappointed with the fawn lily - it doesn't look like a fawn at all.  Wonder who named it?  Of course, depending on the particular species it is also commonly called a trout lily, dog-tooth violet, adder's tongue, glacier lily, and dogtooth fawn lily.

Source:  Wikipedia

Source:  Wikipedia

It seems as though the folks who named the orchids were much more with it as far as naming the flower by an appropriate name.  Like the fly orchid (native to Europe)...

Source:  Wikipedia
the bee orchid...

Source:  Wikipedia

and my absolute favorite and the picture that started this post, the monkey orchid.

You know I had to save the best until last!

Monday, November 19, 2012

New Jersey News

I went to visit my friends in New Jersey on Friday and came back today.  Saturday we went to the Skylands Biological Gardens.  Of course at this time of year there were very few flowers, but our purpose in going was to take a long walk around "the loop", enjoy some nice scenery along the way and spend some time outside on a beautiful day.  Here are a few pictures.  We started down this lovely oak-lined road.

We came across one large pond.

This maze of tree roots along the bank caught my eye.

Most of the leaves were already down on the majority of trees, which really made you notice the shapes and intricacies of the branches.

This tree had a hole right through the trunk, or else two branches had grown together.

Without the leaves, the bark of the trees was highlighted as well, like the mottled look of this sycamore tree.

A few old buildings were also along the route.

On the way back to the parking lot, we were greeted by two eagles guarding the entrance already decorated in their Christmas bows.

On Sunday, Lynne let me borrow her telephoto lens to try to get photos of some of the birds coming to her bird feeder.  While I was getting settled for the photo attempt, Lynne's dog Bella came out and 'assisted'.  She was so funny.  She insisted on standing right in the way and every time I would tell her to 'sit', she would sit ON me instead of next to me.  And then I really couldn't see anything because she's a big Bernese Mountain dog!

I managed to get a couple of the white-breasted nuthatch and a chickadee, although they are not totally in focus.

But what I was really trying to capture was the little red-breasted nuthatch.  I only managed to get one not so great photo before my battery went dead!  Even though you can't see its whole face, you still notice the distinctive eye stripes.

It was so cute!  I stood up to go inside after my battery disaster and there it came!  I was so close and immediately froze in place.  It sat right on the hook that the feeder was hanging from and stayed there for the longest time looking right at me.  Had I had a working battery, I might have been able to take a great photo WITHOUT the telephoto lens.

Anyway, I'm now back home and a good time was had by all.  Thanks again for your always wonderful hospitality, Lynne and Rick!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Very Vestigial

Vestigial parts, sometimes called vestigial organs even though some parts are not actual organs, are things that are part of a body, but no longer have a definite purpose or at least no longer used for the purpose for which they were originally intended.  Even though penguins have wings and use them to swim, they are considered by most to be vestigial because they are no longer used for their original purpose - flight.  Emus and ostriches, the tallest birds in the world, are also birds that have wings but no longer fly.  They don't normally swim (although emus can if they have to), but they do use their wings for balance and mating displays, and ostriches also use them to help regulate body heat.

Emu   Source:  Wikipedia

Other flightless birds include kiwis, rheas and cassowaries.

Cassowary    Source:  Wikipedia

Besides flightless birds there are also some species of weevils and other beetles that have wings but do not fly.

Some animals have what could be called vestigial eyes, because they no longer use them to see.  Blind mole rats live underground and their eyes are actually covered with a layer of skin.

Source:  Wikipedia

Cave fish and cave salamanders, as their name implies, live in dark caves and no longer need to see.  Some cave fish can detect light and dark, but others actually have no eyes at all.

Source:  Wikipedia

Other adaptations to their surroundings include loss of pigmentation (some are actually translucent) and a body clock that does not respond to light.

Humans also have vestigial parts such as wisdom teeth or third molars. Normally these teeth never erupt from the gum and are 'leftovers' from ancestors that needed these teeth for chewing and grinding plant material.  However, about one third of all adults, as in my case, have either malformed or impacted teeth that need to be removed.  Unless there's a problem, most people may not even realize they have these teeth.

Another human vestigial part is the coccyx, also known as the tail bone, which it literally is - the remains of the base of a tail.  The coccyx consists of four fused vertebrae found at the base of the spine, exactly where most mammals and many other primates have external tails protruding from the back/  However, the coccyx seems to have no purpose as it is not used in either sitting or walking.  Neither is it used for grasping or balance which is what tails are normally used for.  Humans and great apes are some of the only vertebrates that don't have tails as adults. 

Appendix, tonsils, and redundant veins could also be considered vestigial, although recent studies have shown that perhaps they are not as 'useless' as originally thought.  Perhaps the smallest vestigial human part is DNA which is considered 'junk' DNA or DNA that as far as we know now seems to have no purpose.

Perhaps the most interesting vestigial 'part' is actually a behavior or reflex known as piloerection.  Have you ever thought about why we have 'goose bumps'?  Have you ever watched the hair on your cat or dog puff up in moments of stress or defense?  It was also a function of our human ancestors - a means of raising the fur on the body to make it look larger and scare away predators.  When it's cold, this action also allows air to be trapped between the hair of the fur to provide insulation.

Source:  Wikipedia

All these examples show adaptations to changing environments and evidence for the evolutionary process.

For more on human evolution, check out 'Your Inner Fish' on my Book Recommendations page.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Woody Woodpeckers

There are about 200 species of woodpeckers and they are found world-wide except for Australia, Madagascar, New Zealand and the poles.  The smallest woodpecker (that we know of right now) is the bar-breasted piculet which is about 3 inches long and lives in the Amazon rainforest.

Source:  Mangoverde

At up to 23 inches long, the largest member of the family is the Great Slaty Woodpecker found across southern Asia.

Female Great Slaty  Source:  All About Birds

Although the Imperial Woodpecker once found in Mexico is one inch larger, it is now believed to be extinct...

Male and female   Source: Wikipedia

along with the slightly smaller Ivory-billed Woodpecker once found across the southeastern U.S.

Source:  Wikipedia

Although there have been recent possible reports that a few individual Ivory-billed survivors may have been spotted, there have been no confirmations.

Woodpeckers have many adaptations for their woodpecking lifestyle.  "The 'woodpecker niche' is based on digging holes in live wood and on prying off pieces of bark.  That means dependable food sources all year round in the form of sap, insects living under bark, and insects burrowing into wood.  It also means an excellent place for a nest, since a hole in a tree affords protection from wind, rain, predators, and temperature fluctuations...

 Woodpecker holes    Source:  Wikipedia

These include a chisel-like bill, nostrils protected with feathers to keep out sawdust, a thick skull, strong head and neck muscles, and a hinge between the base of the bill and the front of the skull to help spread the shock of pounding...Another set of adaptations are those for perching vertically on bark, such as a stiff tail to press against bark as a brace,

 Black-rumped Flameback    Source:  Wikipedia

strong muscles for manipulating the tail, short legs, and long, curved toes...The third adaptation is an extremely long and extensible tongue, fully as long as our own tongues in some woodpeckers.  Once a woodpecker has broken into the tunnel system of wood-dwelling insects at one point, the bird uses its tongue to lick out many branches of the system without having to drill a new hole for each branch...Finally, woodpeckers have tough skins to withstand insect bites plus the stresses from pounding and from strong muscles."  (an excerpt from The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond.)

However, not all woodpeckers have all of these adaptations; some don't have a stiff tail and not all woodpeckers have equal excavating skills.  Sapsuckers are hard wood specialists.

Red-breasted Sapsucker   Source:  Wikipedia

And defying the typical woodpecker image, there are even three ground-dwelling woodpeckers.  The aptly named Ground Woodpecker builds its nest in a tunnel in a stream bank and is an ant specialist.

Ground Woodpecker found in southern Africa    Source:  Wikipedia

More typical species include the blond-crested woodpecker from South America...

Source:  Wikipedia

members of the flicker group, such as the Chilean Flicker...

Source:  Wikipedia

and the Greater Flameback from tropical Asia.

Source:  Wikipedia

Woodpeckers are a very interesting group of birds.