A Magellanic penguin visits his rescuer in Brazil every year

April 14, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Below are two videos (there are more) about a 76 year old retired bricklayer from Brazil and the penguin who regularly visits him. The bird is a Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) named Din Din, and the bricklayer is João Pereira de Souza, who lives on a small island near Rio.  Ten years ago de Souza saved Din Din’s life when he found the struggling bird covered with oil on the rocks. Now the bird apparently visits Joāo every year, though it’s not clear where Din Din goes in the interim.

The story is told in full at ADAPT, which includes this:

“He stayed with me for 11 months and then, just after he changed his coat with new feathers, he disappeared,” Joao recalls.

The little guy wasn’t gone long though and just a few months later, he was back at the same beach. He spotted Joao fishing and followed him home, staying with him for the rest of the year.

Amazingly, this cycle has continued over the past five years [this was written in 2016]; each year Din Din spends approximately eight months with Joao and is believed to spend the rest of the time breeding on the Patagonia coasts of Argentina and Chile.

Well, this may be misreporting, as I find it unlikely that the bird takes the route below, traveling to Patagonia to breed; another scientist also thinks the bird stays off the coast of Brazil. Don’t believe stories (which are everywhere) that we know that Din Din travels so far every year to see his pal.

Here’s more:

“I love the penguin like it’s my own child and I believe the penguin loves me,” Joao told Globo TV. “No one else is allowed to touch him. He pecks them if they do. He lays on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines and to pick him up.

“Everyone said he wouldn’t return but he has been coming back to visit me for the past five years. He arrives in June and leaves to go home in February and every year he becomes more affectionate as he appears even happier to see me.”

Professor Krajewski, a biologist who interviewed the fisherman for Globo TV, told The Independent: “I have never seen anything like this before. I think the penguin believes Joao is part of his family and probably a penguin as well. When he sees him he wags his tail like a dog and honks with delight.”

Here are the videos:

I can’t find much about Din Din after 2016, so I’m not sure if this grand reunion is still going on. Wikipedia notes that Magellanic penguins can live up to 25 years in the wild, though.

ZeFrank on Merlin Tuttle

March 23, 2021 • 2:45 pm

I must have my constitutional, but I’ll leave you with this video about the life and work of a great naturalist and biologist, Merlin Tuttle. Tuttle (born 1941) devoted his career to studying and saving bats. His various efforts are shown in the film, and have occurred worldwide.

Donate to his foundation, which you can do here. Bats are wonderful creatures and good for the planet.

h/t: Mark

Monday ducks: nesting about to start

March 22, 2021 • 11:30 am

The ducks are behaving oddly, with Dorothy and Honey quacking at each other from a distance, or both ducks quacking at Shmuley when he’s not around (they demand his presence), and there’s a general refusal to eat at times.  I think what’s going on is that the hens are preparing to nest, and somehow (I can’t enter a duck’s brain), this has got them riled up.

The other day we saw Dorothy “window shopping”, sitting on the third-floor ledges of Erman Hall, sometimes in the very same window where she nested (twice) last year. So far she hasn’t built anything. Here she is in the window next to where she nested last year.

Sometimes, however, she sits on the roof of Erman and quacks loudly.

Spot the hen!

Look closer. . . . .

There she is—on the roof! (I hope she doesn’t nest in a gutter!)

Dorothy quacking from her rooftop perch. She does this even when there are no ducks around. Go figure. . .

First Dorothy quacked when she was the only duck around, but then Honey came to the pond, sat on the bank, jumped in to the water, and then both hens quacked at each other for a long time. Go figure. . .

Here’s a video of Honey on the bank quacking at Dorothy on the roof, whom you can hear quacking back. Then Honey jumps in the water and joins Shmuley. Dorothy came down and joined them both a few minutes later, and they finally got a meal.

Here’s Honey quacking in the pond.

Honey has also been “window shopping,” which is the name we give to “looking for a nest site”. So far she’s been seen on the first-floor windows—too close to the ground for my taste:

The lovely long-necked hen Misty is still around, but we are not feeding her in the hope that she leaves. It’s sad to not feed such a graceful mallard, but this is tough love. We want at most two broods in the pond this year. Here’s Misty quacking:


A blind elephant listens to Bach, Chopin, and Schubert

March 12, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Reader John Crisp sent me this video along with the following heartfelt comment (quoted with permission):

Sorry if you have already seen and/or posted this. It made me cry. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some considerable time with elephants, and I’m not sure that a planet without elephants would be worth living on.

I don’t recognize the tunes, but the elephant clearly likes them, swaying with pleasure. What a great privilege to serenade an elephant!

The YouTube notes:

Lam Duan is the name of an old blind elephant, her name means “Tree with Yellow Flowers”. Lam Duan has been blind most of her life. Lamduan lives at Elephants World, Thailand. http://www.elephantsworld.org

Albatross fails to stick landing

March 10, 2021 • 2:30 pm

This about as awkward a landing as I’ve ever seen a bird make, and this albatross must have been really embarrassed in front of that chick! The Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) is limited in range during the breeding season:

Northern royal albatrosses nest on the Chatham Islands (Forty-fours Island, Big Sister Island, and Little Sister Island), Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands, and at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula of New Zealand. The Taiaroa Head colony is the only albatross colony found on a human-inhabited mainland in the Southern hemisphere. When they are not breeding, northern royal albatrosses undertake circumpolar flights in the southern oceans, and in particular like the Humboldt Current and the Patagonian Shelf.

The video below is from Tairoa Head, and is from a collaborative Albatross Cam:

You can watch the 24 hour livecam here or here; it’s a partnership between New Zealand’s conservation department and the Cornell Bird Lab; the second link tells you about the collaboration.  Here are some of the YouTube notes:

Flying for the Northern Royal Albatross is mainly effortless, landing can be a little bit harder. #RoyalCam​ chick had a front row seat to a ‘how not to land’ lesson.

Landing is challenging because of the narrow wings of the albatross, which do not generate sufficient lift to fly slowly. Their preference is to take off and land when it’s quite windy, which allows better control at slow speeds while using the angle of the wing and the speed of the wind to control the descent. However, on calmer days, things can get tricky, as is seen here.

Lucky for the somersaulting alby, recovery was quick and only the chick was watching!! Albatrosses are sturdy birds accustomed to periodic mishaps on landing, and true to form, this adult walked away and appeared fine.

Royal Cam is a 24-hour live stream of a Northern Royal Albatross nest during the breeding season at Pukekura/Taiaroa Head on the southeast tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

Sunday ducks

March 7, 2021 • 2:30 pm

The weather is warming up here, and Honey may begin building her nest within a few weeks. Let’s hope it isn’t on the east side of the biology building like last year, a location requiring some provision for a soft landing for the ducklings. I’m also hoping that Honey and Rosie (Rosalind) don’t breed at the same time, either, as that may lead to more kidnappings this year.

By the way, photos of Rosie’s bill show a remarkable similarity to that of Dorothy’s bill taken last year, so there’s a fair chance that Dorothy has come back again with Honey. More data to come. . .

But today let’s not worry; let’s enjoy some photos of our favorite mallards.

First, an itinerant hen and her handsome drake. I am not feeding any ducks other than Honey, Rosie, and the drake Shmuley, as I don’t want the pond crowded with ducks, nor do I want more than two broods of ducklings if I can avoid it.

The ice on the pond is melting rapidly, and will be gone in less than a week. Below you can see Honey, Rosie, and Shmuley (“Honey’s Armada”) driving the other ducks out of the pond and onto the ice:

The Armada, with Honey to the left:

Honey and the father of her future ducklings (I think, for paternity isn’t assured without a PCR test). I did see them mate, but that’s not dispositive.

After lunch yesterday, the Armada retired to the South Duck island for a vigorous preen and a snooze. Here are two videos of the preening:

And single shots of the preening. Rosie is the main subject.

Note the serrations (“teeth”) on the bill, which act as strainers when the ducks dabble, taking in mouthfuls of mud and water that are then expelled with the goodies retained—much like a baleen whale.

Honey and Rosie: BFFs. Remember how Honey and Dorothy were BFFs too last year? That is, until they produced ducklings within two days of each other.

Honey’s Armada (Honey to the right):


Honey courted and mated!

March 2, 2021 • 11:15 am

Well, Honey didn’t lose any time after arriving at Botany Pond; she got down to business within two days. Yesterday she engaged in several courtship bouts with the unnamed drake, and below is a video of one of them. The mutual head bobbing may be a way for the mates to check out each other’s vigor, or it may simply strengthen an already-formed bond.

And there was even more salacious behavior at about 10:30 this morning, for I watched Honey and the drake mate.  I was looking at the ducks through binoculars (my office window overlooks the pond) and saw some more head bobbing between the pair. All of a sudden, the drake mounted Honey from behind, forced almost all of her body underwater, and mated with her for about ten seconds.

Now I’m not sure if this resulted in insemination, for mating takes place several times between pairs of ducks, but it’s clear that Honey will soon be preggers if she’s not now.

After the mating was over, Honey flapped her wings vigorously, rising up out of the water, and then lit a cigarette (I’m only kidding about the cigarette). There’s another hen there, too, and I bet this drake will mate with both of them, since there are no other drakes around.

At any rate, if my guess is correct, Honey will start building a nest in a few weeks and we’ll have ducklings by the end of April or the beginning of May. I hope both hens don’t produce offspring at the same time, because, as we learned last year, Honey has a tendency to kidnap another hen’s brood.

And we need a name for the other hen as well as for the drake. Feel free to suggest names.


Baby otter cam!

February 13, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Below is a livecam of Joey, a rescued baby sea otter, and his friends, disporting themselves at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in Vancouver (I’ve been there!). As I write this, it’s snowing, and the otters are having a fine old time. And no worries about the animals: they’re being rehabbed for release, and are getting the finest of care!

Joey is actually a teenager now, as he entered the Centre in July. You can watch an adorable video of his early days here.

h/t: Jean

Why do wombats poop cubes?

February 1, 2021 • 11:00 am

There are three species of wombat, and all of them produce cubic poop. No other mammal can do this.  Voilà:

Now when you ask yourself “Why do wombats poop cubes?”, there are two ways of getting an answer. The first is the proximal explanation: what physiological and mechanical aspects of wombat digestion and excretion turn the ingested vegetation (they’re herbivores) into cubes? That’s the question the new paper below addresses (click on screenshot). The authors, a consortium of American and Aussie scientists, don’t really answer that question definitively, but at least suggest some approaches.

But the second way of answering it, which I find more interesting, is the ultimate explanation—the evolutionary one. Given that these species are the world’s only mammals with cubic poop, what is the evolutionary advantage of doing that? Of course, cubic turds may not be a directly adaptive trait; it could be an epiphenomenon or a byproduct of some other trait. Maybe wombats have square buttholes! The authors do in fact address that question (see below). But let’s see if there’s anything about having cubic scats that might be useful to a wombat. More on that in a short while.

The paper is at the first screenshot below, the pdf is here, and the full reference is at the bottom of the post.

If you have the mentality of a teenager, you’ll find the journal where this was published amusing:

Before we look at the model, we can dispose of one hypothesis: wombats have cubic poop because they have square buttholes. This is the “pasta theory”, which is that the soft, pliable feces would assume the shape of the extrusion opening. The authors reject this hypothesis in one of the more amusing parts of the paper:

If wombats were to make cubes similar to the way we make noodles, we would expect a square anal sphincter. In 2019, we obtain a CT scan of a live adult female wombat (Video S1, ESI). The scan shows that the wombat’s anus is round, a feature consistent with all other animals. Also, the pelvic bones, which the feces were once proposed to glide past, are nowhere in the vicinity of the colon. We thus conclude that wombats do not change their feces shape through extrusion.

Note that there are videos!

But I don’t understand why the authors couldn’t just lift the creature’s tail to see if it has a square anus. I guess that would be unsophisticated.

Here’s a picture of the species they studied, the bare-nosed  or common wombat (Vombatus ursinus). It produces about 100 cubic turds per day, many of them deposited on “latrines”: logs, rocks or rises that harbor the scats of five or more individuals, giving a clue to why the feces may be cubic (more later). A) shows the adorable creatures, and b) a latrine. Photos c) and d) show the production of the separated cubic turds in the long intestine, with the anal (distal) end to the lower right in d). Look at all the poop lined up, like planes queueing to land at O’Hare!

(From paper): Fig. 1 Wombats form cubic feces. All scalebars represent 5 cm. (a) A female wombat with her joey. (b) A typical wombat latrine consisting of feces placed on a low rock or stump. (c) A 2019 dissection of a wombat shows the cubic feces fully formed within the mid-distal colon, (d) the excised 3 m of wombat intestine shows feces transforming from a yellow yogurt-like slurry near the stomach to darkened dry cubes near the anus.

At any rate, let’s proceed to the intestinal dynamics.

The authors dissected three euthanized wombats that had been badly injured by cars, and found that the herbivores have long intestines that alternate between stiff sections and softer sections of muscle.  They then made a model in which poop would traverse areas of soft versus hard intestine, and be squeezed more in the latter bits. They also made a number of assumptions about the elastic properties of wombat turds, including “Reynolds numbers”, strength of contractions, and so on, producing a series of Fecal Equations. They also had to construct an index of “turd squareness” to see how the various squeezings of the feces, which would also extract water, making them hard, would result in cubes.

The upshot is that they could get approximately square shapes with just 10 rounds of intestinal squeezing, but didn’t try to model the estimated 100,000 bouts of squeezing that each turd actually experiences in the gut. But the result depend critically on the assumptions, like the “Reynold’s number” (a flow parameter) of the feces. Not knowing these parameters, all they can say is that in some simulations under some assumptions, they can get squarish turds, but not necessarily ones as square as the wombats actually produce.

But the more interesting issue is “why do wombats want to produce cubic turds?”, remembering that I’m using “want” here as shorthand for “what is the adaptive advantage (if any) to a wombat that poops cubes instead of the normally-shaped turds of its relatives (and ancestors)?”  The authors mention two hypotheses, which aren’t mutually exclusive:

1.) Cubic turds don’t roll off of the latrines. Latrines presumably are either territorial markers or ways of informing groups of “who’s in the group?” If you poop on a latrine, you want your poop to stay put, and cubes will do that better than spheres or log-shaped turds. The authors even did experiments with dough balls, showing that if dropped on an incline, cubical doughballs roll significantly shorter distances than do spherical ones. I like this hypothesis. Once wombats evolve the habit of putting their poop in given spots as a territorial or olfactory marker, then selection might act to favor those individuals whose turds tend to stay put when deposited.

2.) A cubic shape produces more surface area for olfactory communication. As the authors hypothesize:

It is possible that the feces’ cubic shape increases the surface area so that it can facilitate olfactory communication. Elevated scent-marking is a common behavior in many mammals and is hypothesized to increase scent dispersal and visibility. The purpose of scent-marking is typically territorial, however there is evidence that feces are also used in social communication or communicating reproductive status.

And it is true that cubes do have a higher surface area to volume ratio than do spheres (for a unit volume, a cube has the surface area of 6 compared to 4.83 for a sphere. (Tetrahedrons are even better, but presumably would be hard to form!).  But you’d have an even higher ratio if you pooped out a ton of very small turds, like a rabbit, or laid down a ribbon of feces, with a large surface area and small volume. On the other hand, a greater surface area means that you dry out faster, and with it the olfactory cues diminish. The authors don’t discuss the possibility of such a tradeoff.

I don’t think that this second explanation is on the mark, as I can’t imagine the marginal advantage of having more squarish turds can give you that much of an “olfactory advantage.” (But of course evolution works on very small margins, so I may be wrong.)

At any rate, the evolutionary hypothesis seems easier to investigate than the one that requires dissection and modeling. You could, for example, change the shape of wombat poop after it’s produced and see what, if any, changes occur in social interaction, odor profile and strength, and so on.

As the papers say, “There is much work to be done,” though I don’t think I want to be the one to do it!

h/t: Neil


Yang, P. J., A. B. Lee, M. Chan, M. Kowalski, K. Qiu, C. Waid, G. Cervantes, B. Magondu, M. Biagioni, L. Vogelnest, A. Martin, A. Edwards, S. Carver, and D. L. Hu. 2021. Intestines of non-uniform stiffness mold the corners of wombat feces. Soft Matter 17:475-488.

Bear plays with soccer ball!

January 29, 2021 • 2:30 pm

I hate to end the work week on a political note, so here’s a video of an adult black bear having fun with a soccer ball. I don’t think it’s trying to eat it; it’s just having fun!   Some people say that animals don’t do anything for pure fun: it’s always practicing to be a predator, or to avoid being eaten by one, or so on. I don’t think this is any of that.

The YouTube video notes:

“This video was taken in a very rural area. We watched the bear as s/he played in the backyard from the safety of our house. He spent a good 20 minutes playing with my son’s soccer ball and climbing trees. My youngest son is two and the oldest is nine. It was a quarantine highlight.”