Today’s lovely photos come from Tony Eales in Queensland, and are a potpourri of plants and animals. His captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
I was recently in tropical north Queensland for work and decided to take a couple of days ‘time off in lieu’ that was owed me and visit the world heritage rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands.
Oh my ceiling cat! I managed to tick off three of my life-time bucket-list organisms in two days, along with many other amazing species which I’ll send in another email.
First the setting. I spent my days searching around the Lake Eacham National Park. The centrepiece of the park is a crater lake in an extinct volcanic caldera but I was told about an unsigned track down a closed road that went into the forest to some cascades on Wrights Creek that runs between Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine.
At night I went to Curtain Fig National Park, which is a small patch of primary forest just outside the little town of Yungaburra.
It was in this little forest that I saw my bucket-list creatures.
A Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Lophosaurus boydii). I was searching through hanging leaves at night looking for insects and spiders to photograph when I found myself almost eyeball to eyeball with this beautiful lizard.
Lucky too, for during the day they have a habit of moving around the tree trunk such that it is always between you and the lizard, thus you often pass them without ever knowing they are there.
The last night I was there I stayed in the forest on dusk, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) that I knew lived there. I gave up and went back to town to sit by the Platypus viewing platform hoping I’d have better luck with the monotremes. There, right beside the main road in a tree next to the bridge, was a tree kangaroo.
And the most exciting for me though perhaps not for everyone, I saw my first Velvet Worm. I have a real thing for small phylum. These creatures have fascinated me ever since I learned of them in high school biology then later when they were featured in David Attenborough’s 2005 documentary Life in the Undergrowth. Now I have finally seen one I am not disappointed. They are amazing to watch move but I hope one day to see one take down prey.
This one is in the family Peripatopsidae or Southern Velvet Worms—the only Velvet Worm family in Australia.
I missed out on seeing the famous Stalk-eyed Flies in Borneo that are in the family Diopsidae. However, at Curtain Fig NP I was able to ‘next-best-thing’ it with Stalk-eyed Signal Flies (Achias sp.) in the family Platystomatidae. I was very pleased.
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.
Today’s batch comes from Arthur Williams. His captions are indented, and you can click his photos to enlarge them.
Please find attached several photos I dug up from this summer and one from more recently. The butterfly is a eastern tiger swallowtail (I think): Papilio glaucus. There is an Appalachian variant, a hybrid between Canadian tiger swallowtails and Eastern tigers, that look similar, but given our location in Cincinnati, it’s likely to be the Eastern tiger. Here’s a link for the cladists in the crowd.
The nest is a bald eagle’s nest, lacking eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, but gives a notion on how big these things can get. I think there are smaller apartments in Tokyo than this behemoth structure. This thing must weigh at least two tons after a good rain. It’s been built up over the last eight years, near Norris Lake, Tennessee, with the same pair, we think, diligently adding on to the structure.
The brown-headed cowbird, Molothrus ater, isn’t so interesting for its photogenicity but for its behavior. I would see him and his harem in the summer, parading through the grass looking for seeds or insects maybe. The females apparently lay their three dozen or so eggs in other birds’ nests as a brood parasite, hoping to take advantage of a warbler’s soft spot for a doughy-eyed passerine. Apparently the juvenile cowbirds slip out of their foster nests to rendezvous with other cowbirds in order to learn how to be a cowbird and not a warbler. And their biologic mothers don’t completely abandon them, but keep tabs on their development. (More here.)
The white tail does, Odocoileus virginianus, are shown with their winter and summer coats as comparison. The prominent tarsal gland is visible on both animals, but particularly conspicuous on the summer photo. The oily glandular secretions beneath the fur mixes with urine and gives each animal a unique calling card, which they rub on trees to indicate territory or receptiveness.
The two found our pumpkins that we had composted when the pumpkins began to ferment. I wonder if the belligerence of the one doe is a result of a little loudmouth pumpkin soup.
The final two pictures are of our local red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatus, being mobbed by a smaller bird. He gets his fill of the brave but annoying dive-bombing and exits stage right.
Today we have a potpourri of pictures from various readers. First, Tony Eales sends us photos of a very bizarre spider. It was inspired by a post on this site, and you must look at that post (link below).
All contributors’ captions are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them:
This weekend I got to do the next best thing. A young friend of mine has been collecting some of these spiders and I got the chance to photograph a penultimate male Austrarchaea judyae.
Here’s a video I posted in my last post, which also has some photos of this extremely bizarre group. They make their living by hunting other spiders, and thus have to avoid being jabbed. The video is by Hannah Wood.
This photo was sent January 10 by Chris Garvey:
Here’s a photo taken yesterday of a swan on a slightly frozen Royal Canal in Dublin. It kept stretching it’s neck out over the thin layer of ice and I’m not sure why. It’s taken with my phone so the quality isn’t great.
A video from Michael Schrank, sent January 23. As he said, turn the sound up to hear the elk calling.
I thought you might enjoy this video we captured last Friday night. We live in Idaho and keep our horses in the foothills around Boise. In the winter we get a lot of elk coming down to steal hay from our horses. The horses are usually not too upset by this surprisingly, so the elk come almost nightly. This was a particularly busy little night. Please turn up the sound to fully enjoy.
Here’s a photo of the elk at the hay feeder. It’s tough to get a good quality shot at the hay because if you get close enough to make an interesting photo with the iPhone, then they begin to run off.
It’s really quite expensive, they eat a lot of hay. But you can spook them off only for a few minutes, they hang in the distance, wait for you to leave and come right back in. It’s just factored into the barn budget.
UPDATE: According to the AP, Phil didn’t see his shadow this morning (it’s snowing there), and so it will be another long winter, just what we expect this curséd year:
There will be six more weeks of winter, Punxsutawney Phil predicted as he emerged from his burrow on a snowy Tuesday morning to perform his Groundhog Day duties.
Members of Phil’s “inner circle” woke up the furry critter at 7:25 a.m. atGobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to see whether he would see his shadow or not.
Shortly after this year’s prediction was revealed, one of the members of the inner circle shared a message he said Phil had told him earlier in the day: “After winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.”
It’s Groundhog Day, and all eyes are fixed on Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the hapless rodent will be extracted from his cage and made to observe whether he has a shadow. The Festivities apparently begin in a few minutes, though it’s dark out there. This year’s celebration will be virtual: there will be no big gathering, but Phil will nevertheless appear, hopefully masked and socially distanced.
If Phil sees his shadow, then there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, we’ll have an early spring.
The handlers apparently see the whole event as theological, for Phil cannot be proven wrong! As Pennlive notes:
Groundhog Day lore is that Phil isn’t just any groundhog, obviously, but a magical one, gifted with longevity as well as meteorological wisdom.
But since even magical groundhogs apparently can’t speak English, it falls to the members of the Groundhog Club to interpret Phil’s predictions. According to them, Phil is always right; it’s their interpretations where issues of accuracy come into play.
When it begins (I believe the times are Eastern time, i.e., NOW):
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club will be broadcasting its in-person event this morning, and you can watch the livestream to see whether Phil sees his shadow in real time.
The broadcast starts at 6:30 with pre-recorded segments, and will switch over to a live feed at 7:15 a.m. as the inner circle of groundhog handlers consult with Phil to determine whether the beloved rodent has seen his shadow (dooming us to six more weeks of winter) or not (blessing us with an early spring).
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!
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!
Today’s photos come from a contributor whom we haven’t seen in a while: Richard Bond. His notes and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
Kenya is rightly famed for the mammal populations in its many wildlife reserves, but the extensive bird life tends to be overlooked. My ancient field guide to the birds of East Africa notes that 1033 species have been seen in Kenya alone, which makes this relatively small country worth the attention of anyone interested in birds. A big problem in photographing birds there is that it is often difficult to get close to them: the reserves (correctly) try to enforce the rule that safari vehicles keep the the tracks, leaving wide open spaces effectively inaccessible. An elephant at 100 metres is obvious; a kestrel at the same distance is a blur. These photos, though not particularly good by WEIT’s usual standards, make that point and perhaps provide some guidance for people other than serious birdwatchers, who already know this stuff, who would like to take photos of birds. They also show a bit more of the birds’ environments than better photos would!
They were taken well over a decade ago with a camera that marked my first step away from film photography. The camera boasted 5 megapixels and a zoom to 410 mm equivalent, but this modest capability replaced all of the functionality of a large briefcase stuffed with camera backs, lenses and motor drives. I think that the important lesson is that one needs a zoom lens at least twice as long and far more pixels. I am much better equipped these days, and have been planning to revisit Kenya, but the long aftermath of a serious illness followed by the pandemic enforced postponement. Anyway, here are the birds, mostly from SE Kenya.
Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Francolinus leucoscepus Very common, at least where I was, but solitary. Apparently they are heavily hunted for food.
Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca. These seem to be much commoner now than indicated by my rather ancient field guide.
Grey Crowned Crane, Balearica regulorum (and Egyptian Goose?). Very handsome birds. Described as endangered; I must have been lucky, or they were locally common, because I have seen them quite frequently. The hippos give the scale. In checking some facts about them, I came across this short video of one facing up to elephants. I think that the bird in the right background of the second photo is an Egyptian Goose.
Kori Bustard, Ardeotis kori. I suppose the best that can be said about this photo is that it demonstrates the effective camouflage of these large birds. The background is quite nice, and typical of large parts of Tsavo East.
Striated Heron, Butorides striatus. The light and shade were not ideal for a good photo of the bird itself, but I like the effect for the photo as a whole. Note the head of a Crowned Crane sneaking into the photo.
Woolly-necked Stork, Ciconia episcopus. Easy to see how this bird got its name! They are widespread in Africa and tropical Asia; I have seen them in Cambodia.
Marabou Stork, Leptoptilos crumeniferus (and Yellow-billed Stork, Mycteria ibis). I am reluctant to describe any bird as ugly, but… The black and white birds in the background of the second photo are Yellow-billed Storks.
African Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus. I often take a group photo first then try to follow up with a portrait of one bird. My attempt at a close-up here came out with camera shake, which only showed up later on my computer screen. Another lesson for safari photography: I realised that in twisting round to get a closer shot of the bird on the left, my left arm was jammed against the door pillar with the car engine still running. The guide/drivers are usually very good about stopping their engines if you ask, but I had forgotten.
Hadada Ibis, Hagedashia hagedash. A few days later I saw a flock of literally hundreds of these handsome birds on an exposed sandbar in a creek on the coast, but too far away to photograph.
Unidentified geese? Domestic? Despite referring to Mackworth-Praed and Grant’s bible on African birds, I could not identify these, and I suspect that they were some domestic breed. My interested was piqued, however, by the chicks: is that sexual dimorphism straight out of the egg? Perhaps they are merely hybrids, or (even more boringly) a mixed flock of two breeds.
JAC: These may be muscovy ducks.
Unidentified beetle. I could not resist this beautiful beetle as a lagniappe. I have no idea what it is. The wood on which it is perched was about 20 mm thick. Perhaps someone can identify it?
Please send in your photos, lest this feature disappear.
Today we have the second part of reader Peter’s photos of the Galápagos and its fauna. (Part 1 is here.) There are no notes save this introductory caption, but surely you can identify many of the species!
Years ago I visited the Galapagos Island and enjoyed it immensely. Here are a few of the photos that my wife and I took. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with them all.
Doug Hayes gives us part 11 of his “Breakfast Crew” series. His notes and IDs are indented; click on screenshot to make the pictures bigger.
All shots were taken in my backyard in Richmond, Virginia’s Forest Hill Park area. Bird activity has increased as the weather has turned cold and rainy. House finches and sparrows remain the most numerous, but we still get a variety of birds each day, driven out of the river and forested areas surrounding the neighborhood as food becomes scarce. Quite a few of my neighbors have feeders in their yards, so the birds have plenty to choose from. It is interesting to note that some species of birds tend to stay in certain parts of the neighborhood. I see maybe one or two mockingbirds at my feeders, but there are whole flocks of them in the churchyard a few blocks over. When it rains, dozens of red winged blackbirds show up in my backyard, but ignore my neighbor’s yard about four houses away even though she has feeders and a more heavily wooded yard.
The rain always brings out flocks of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). No matter how hard it pours, these guys will show up to eat!
A female northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) waiting in the rain for the morning rush to die down.
A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), also waiting for the mob to thin out before he grabs breakfast.
This female red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) almost always goes for the seed feeders rather than the suet feeders that the other woodpeckers seem to prefer. She will dig around in the feeder until she locates a peanut, then quickly fly off with it.
Peanut located, the woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) executes a barrel roll as she takes off.
A blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) scarfing down some suet. This one shows up almost every day now.
A rather angry looking brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) enjoying breakfast.
A house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) taking off after a leisurely meal. The finches will perch and eat, then just hang out on the feeders until driven off by other birds.
A downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). There are several of these little birds that are regulars. I have seen two males show up at the same time and proceed to chase each other around the yard.
Female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) watching a demonstration of levitation by one of their crew. Actually, she is flapping her wings and hovering a bit, action frozen by the camera’s high shutter speed.
Fight! House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) vs white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)! Apparently this feeder isn’t big enough for the two of them.
Despite having the advantage of a longer beak, the nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decides to retreat.
The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) uses its superior clinging skills to elude the finch (Haemorhous mexicanus).
Victory! The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) snags the best nut of them all – the peanut!
The eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are in a feeding frenzy right now. They must sense winter coming. They have been showing up in groups lately and frantically eat from the suet feeders, then leap over to the seed feeders and then down to the seeds spilled on the ground. Unless I manage to drive them away, they will feed all day long.
Camera info: Sony A7R4 camera body set to crop sensor mode, Sony FE 200-600 zoom lens plus 1.4X teleconverter (with the 1.5X crop sensor mode added to the lens and teleconverter combo it gives the equivalent reach of a 1,260mm lens when zoomed to the 600mm mark), ISO 5000, all shots hand held with lens and camera body image stabilization.