Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Creature Feature #193: Egret

The name Egret is given to members of the Heron Family characterised by the long plumes that they wear for the breeding season. These elegant wading birds are generally white or buff in colour. In the 19th and 20th Century these long and filamentous plumes were in high demand in both the US and Europe, where they were used to adorn hats. Many Egrets and other birds were heavily hunted, with some species being pushed to the brink of extinction. As Egrets don their plumes specifically for breeding, and Egrets are colony nesters, birds were being massacred by the hundreds. Luckily, there were those that wanted to see the trade stop, and Wildlife Refuges were founded across America, to protect the nesting birds. A similar massacre in New Zealand almost wiped out the Kotuku, a subspecies of Great White Egret with only one breeding ground.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Creature Feature #192: Eel

The European Eel is one of approximately 800 species of fish characterised by their long, slender bodies and belonging to the Order Anguilliformes. In her adult form, she is found in freshwater and, as early fisherman had never caught a baby eel, her life history was a mystery for centuries. Now it is known that her life begins in the ocean, as a tiny translucent larvae before entering freshwater and developing into a elver, a miniature version of the adult eel. She returns to the ocean one final time, to spawn and then dies. This life cycle is mirrored in numerous other freshwater eel species, including the New Zealand Longfin Eel. The European Eel was once widespread and often a favoured food, she is now listed as Critically Endangered and her wild population has dramatically decreased, pushing her to the edge of extinction.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Creature Feature #191: Edible Frog

The Edible Frog is a common European frog, named for the role he plays in the food industry, specifically frog legs. He is not a natural species, but in fact a hybrid between two other species: the Pool Frog and the Marsh Frog. These species hybridise naturally and are fertile, but when Edible Frog hybrids breed with one another, the offspring are often malformed. He is spread throughout Europe and active during the day. His main diet consists of insects and other arthropods, but he has been known to engage in cannibalism and will even eat small birds.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Creature Feature #190: Eclectus Parrot

Unusually, at least in the bird world, it is the female Eclectus Parrot that is the most colourful of the pair. With her red and blue colouring, she is so different from her green mate that at first they were considered different species. Eclectus Parrots favour a polyandrous breeding system, that is to say, one female with multiple mates (up to five). She chooses a tree hollow to nest in, and then vigorously defends it from all other females and will remain resident at this tree for up to 11 months, while her mates bring her food. Her bright colouration makes it easy for her males to find her, alerts other females to her presence and renders her difficult to see within the hollows of the tree.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Creature Feature #189: Echidna

The Echidna is a monotreme - a mammal that lays eggs. She is a relatively small, plump creature equipped with a long snout that she uses to sniff out worms and insect larvae. Her body is covered in short spines and coarse hair, offering her some protection from predators. There are three species: two Long-Beaked species, of which one is depicted here, and the Short-Beaked. All are equipped with sturdy claws for ripping apart logs and long tongues, for lapping up insects, meaning that they superficially resemble anteaters.
 In breeding season, as many as ten males will form a line, with the smallest males at the end, and trail the receptive female. Two weeks after mating, she will implant one tiny, fertile egg into her rear-facing pouch. It hatches after ten days. The infant Echidna is known as a puggle, and he will live in the pouch for 2-3 months, before being pushed out to see the world.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Creature Feature #188: Earwig

There are about 2,000 species of Earwigs, spread throughout the world and characterised by the large pincers that grace their abdomen. Nocturnal in nature, she hides within crevices during the day, favouring the damp and the dark. At night she ventures out to chew her way through foliage and flowers and is charged with damaging crops. She is a protective mother, driving her mate away shortly before laying her eggs. These she protects from predation, keeps them clean from fungi growth and may help her nymphs hatch - which they do after 7 days. Their first meal is their egg casings, and the mother proceeds to reguirgitate further meals for them. They grow through several moults, eating their old skins, until they attain their adult stage. If their mother dies before they mature, they may eat her.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Creature Feature #187: Earthworm

The Earthworm is a blind tube-shaped Annelid, usually found in the soil. Their diet consists of organic matter, both live and dead. Earthworms are hermaphrodites and capable of regenerating lost segments. It is a common belief that a worm split in half will regnerate into two worms, this is - for the most part - a myth, although if it were, theoretically, bissected in the right place, it is possible. For the most part however, one end will regenerate and the other end will die. Reproduction occurs above ground, usually at night. The eggs develop inside the clitellum - the thickened "saddle" near the head end of the worm - which they then slip out of, leaving behind as an incubator in which the offspring can develop. When the juveniles emerge, they resemble tiny adults. Earthworms have a simple digestive structure and play a major role in soil fertilisation. They are commonly used to decompose food scraps.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Creature Feature #186: Eagle Ray

The Eagle Ray are a group of cartilaginous fishes comprised of a number of species spread across seven Genera. Their horizontally flattened body, with their wing-like fins, is idea for swooping and soaring through the water, and they are even capable of breaching the water and soaring above for several metres before diving back in again. To hide from predators,  he comes to rest on the ocean floor, creating a shallow scrape in the sand and his cryptic, spotted colouration provides camouflage. Eagle Rays are ovoviviparous, with the female retaining the eggs until they hatch and then giving birth to up to four pups at a time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Creature Feature #185: Eagle-Owl

The Eurasian Eagle-Owl is a large, powerful bird with a wingspan of up to 200 centimetres. He is characterised by his ear tufts - which are not ears at all, but merely tufts of feathers. His large size and powerful talons mark him as a formidable predator, and he flies silently through the night, hunting mammals up to the size of a hare. After pouncing, he quickly dispatches the prey with his talors and, if necessary, a sharp peck to the head, before carrying it off to be devoured. Large prey must be consumed on the ground, with the owl risking predation, or losing his supper, to a prowling fox. Small prey is swallowed whole, with the bones and other undigestible bits being regurgitated later as a pellet.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Creature Feature #184: Eagle

The name "Eagle" is given to larger birds of prey. These are characterised by their powerful hooked bills, strong talons and a taste for meat. Most of the species are spread across Eurasia and Africa, but two species - including this Bald Eagle - occur in America. She is an apex predator, an opportunistic hunter with a taste for fish. To hunt for these, she swoops low across the water, scooping the fish up with her talons. Although she is not the largest of eagles, she can carry prey weighting over 6 kilograms for short distances. Pairs are monogamous, courting relatively early in the season with elaborate aerial displays that involve cartwheeling through the air, talons locked together. A very large nest, called an eyrie, is constructed at the top of a tree and this is added to year-by-year. In this she lays one-to-three eggs.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creature Feature #183: Devil

The Tasmanian Devil is the largest extant carnivorous marsupial. Once spread across Australia, it is suspected that hunting pressures and competition with foxes and dingo have restricted her range to the island of Tasmania. She is predominently a scavenger, although will prey on wombats and has even been known to kill kangaroo. Roadkill is a more recent favourite, and brings with it inherant risks. Although a solitary hunter, eating is a social occasion and when one Devil discovers a carcass, others will soon gather. With her powerful jaws, the entire carcass will be reduced to nothing with even fur and bone consumed. Unfortunately, the entire species is under threat due to a particularly unpleasant disease - Devil Facial Tumour Disease - a contagious cancer that affects the Devil's face and prevents it from eating leading to eventual death by starvation. Some local populations have suffered a 25-50% decline. Conservation has stepped in to do their best to save the species: removing sick animals, and quarantining healthy ones in captivity.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Creature Feature #182: Dunnart

There are 21 species of Dunnart, a mouse-sized marsupial found in Australia and New Guinea. Her diet consists predominently of invertebrates and small vertebrates such as frogs. Some species, like this Fat-Tailed Dunnart, can survive in very arid environments. Every night she consumes her weight in food, storing the excess nutrients in her tail in the form of fat. This provides an energy reserve. If conditions get too cold, and food too scarce, she can enter into a state of torpor. Her body temperature lowers, heart rate drops. The Dunnart is unique in being the only mammal capable of doing this while also nursing young. She has also been known to share burrow space, and warmth, with the common mouse - a risky business for the mouse, because she is a predator and has been known to hunt small rodents.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Creature Feature #181: Dung Beetle

The Dung Beetle plays an important role as nature's "clean-up crew". His diet consists partly, or entirely, upon the feces of vertebretes, specifically herbivores, althogh some species supplement their diet with mushrooms, decaying leaves and fruit. He uses his sensitive sense of smell to locate the dung and then rolls it up into a ball - sometimes up to ten times his weight. Sometimes the male and the smaller female will roll the ball together, with her riding on top, or following behind and occassionally assisting. The ball is always rolled straight, regardless of any obstacles. It will be buried in a soft patch of soil and the pair will then mate, the eggs being laid inside this warm brood ball. They then remain to guard their developing larvae.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Creature Feature #180: Dumbo Octopus

The Dumbo Octopus earns her name from her two ear-like fins, which reminded her discoveries of Disney's flying elephant, Dumbo. She is a deep-sea dweller, living at depths of over 3,000 metres and is thus the deepest diving of any octopus species. She hovers above the ocean floor, searching for invertebrates to scoop up with her barb-covered arms and swallow whole. To move she uses a combination of her fins, her limbs and also by shooting water through her siphon: a funnel that she can use to hold water within her mantle, and then expel it at high speed, thus propelling herself forward.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Creature Feature #179: Dugong

The Dugong is a gentle ocean dweller, quite closer related to the elephant. It is thought that she inspired early tales of  mermaids, for her tendency to stand upright in the water. She is often referred to as the Sea Cow, named for her tendency to graze on sea grasses. Her hind limbs have been modified into a divided tail fluke, like that of a dolphin, and which she uses to manouvere herself languidly through the water. She had been greatly exploited in the past, hunted significantly throughout her range and now suffers under the fishing industry. She is long-lived - can live for over 70 years - and a slow breeder, and like too many animals, is suffering from population decline.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Creature Feature #178: Duck

Ducks are a Family of waterbirds, comprising of over 140 species and closely related to geese and swans. They are small-to-medium sized birds well adapted for life afloat, with sturdy webbed feet for terrestrial foraging. Typically, most species are vegetarian and grazers, but some prefer an insectivorous diet whilst others, the mergansers, favour fish. The male Mallard featured here is one of the most instantly recognisable - his kind have been domesticated and bred for the table. He has also been introduced into many countries, and now domainates the waterways across the world.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Creature Feature #177: Drongo

The term "Drongo" originates from Madagascar, but is now attributed to 26 different species spread throughout the Old World tropics. He is a bird of relatively small size with an aggressive termperament, fearlessly defending his territory from intruders. His main diet consists of insects, although he will taste fruit and nectar as well. Rather a vocal bird, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo of Asia is noted to imitate the alarm calls of other birds and will, on occasion, join mixed-species flocks. Within these flocks, he may mimic the hunting cry of a raptor and, when the other birds panic and flee, take the opportunity to steal their food.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Creature Feature #176: Dragonfly

Dragonflies are an Order of insects characterised by powerful wings, where the hind wing is broader than the fore wing, large multifaceted eyes, and long, streamlined body. Dragonflies are hunters on the wing, skimming low across the water to snatch up smaller insects, including mosquitos, ants, flies, wasps and occasionally butterflies. There are almost 6,000 species ranging in length from several millimetres to the bulky petaltail of Australia - which can measure up to 125 millimetres long. Dragonfly larvae are known as naiads and hatch from eggs laid in the water. Here he preys on mosquito larvae and even tadpoles or small fish. Eventually he  climbs out of the water, outer skin cracking open and out he will climb, a fresh new dragonfly.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creature Feature #175: Dragonfish

What a horrifying creature of the deep! What a nightmare it must be to meet one of these whilst exploringthe ocean!

Well, unless you are a tiny fish, you have nothing to fear - for this deep sea denizen measures a mere 15 centimetres in length. Found at depths of 1,500 meters, her entire life is spent in near-permanent darkness and thus - like many of her ray-finned compatriots - she has developed some rather creative ways in which to capture her prey (although given her size, she's got many larger fish to fear). These take the form of bioluminescence - both in her barbel and along her length, as well as a patch beneath her eye. She uses her barbel as a lure, flashing it and waving it to tempt smaller fish into reach of her gaping mouth and fierce teeth. As a lot of her prey is also bioluminscent, her stomach is black-lined, so that the light cannot leak out and alert potential predators to her presence as she digests her meal.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Creature Feature #174: Dragonet

Dragonets are small Perciform fish, displaying an array of cryptic colours. You may think that there is nothing cryptic about this fellow - the Mandarin Dragonet - but in his coral reef home, his psychedelic blend of colours make him extremely difficult to pinpoint as he creeps across the ocean bed,  gobbling up small crustaceans and other invertebrates. Fiercely territorial, he will live happily with a female but will quickly see off any potential rivals. He is a popular addition to saltwater aquariums, but his feeding requirements are very specific and some will no adapt to captivity and die of starvation.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Creature Feature #173: Dragon

There are a number of Dragons inhabiting Australia, a common name given to three different Genera of agamid lizards: the Bearded, the Water and this fellow - the Forest (the Boyd's Forest, to be precise). You can find him in the rainforests of Northern Queensland (we found three on our night amble in the Daintree!) where he clings to the trunks or branches of trees. Here he waits for his prey - primarily invertebrates - to venture past. One of his favoured foods is earthworms, and for these he will descend from his lofty perch and amble along the forest floor. Unlike most lizards, he does not bask in the sun and prefers to allow his body temperature to fluctuate with that of the air - although being in Queensland, it's pretty humid and warm all of the time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Creature Feature #172: Dove

The name "Dove" is Germanic, derived from the bird's diving flight. Whilst there is no technical difference between Doves and Pigeons, the term Dove is generally given to the smaller birds within the Columbidae Family. This fine specimen is a Turtle Dove, a migratory species widespread across Europe. The term "turtle" is linked to her cooing call of "turrr-turrrr". Due to this mournful, plaintive call and her tendency to form strong pair bond, the Dove has become an emblem of peace and devoted love. After a courtship dance, two eggs are laid in a rather flimsy twig nest. The belief that these would always hatch both a male and a female chick is the origins of the terminology "pigeon pair". These chicks are fed on reguigitated "milk", which is secreted from the lining of the parents' crops. It apparently resembles cottage cheese.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Creature Feature #171: Douroucouli

The Douroucouli, or Owl Monkey, are a Genus of nocturnal monkeys inhabiting the forests of South America. His eyes are large and round, giving him excellent night vision and he has good spatial awareness, making him adept at catching insects, although he also enjoys a diet of fruit, flowers and leaves. Unusual among New World monkeys, he has no colour vision. He establishes a monogamous bond with his mate, and they produce one offspring a year. The mother carries the infant for the first few weeks of its life, and then it is put into the care of its father. Groups consist of the pair and their immature offspring, with maturity reached at between 2 and 5 years of age, depending on species.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Creature Feature #170: Douc

The Douc are a Genus of striking langur monkeys found in Southeast Asia. This fellow is the Red-Shanked species and he is occasionally referred to as the "costumed ape" (although he is not an ape at all). Troops consist of between 4 and 15 members, with up to 50 recorded, and with twice as many females as males. An aerial specialist - the males lead the troops through the treetops, making soaring leaps of up to 6 meters. He is a very expressive monkey, with individuals communicating emotion through facial expression. Gentle and peaceful, the troop gather in the branches to chew on leaves and will share tidbits with one another.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Creature Feature #169: Dormouse

The Dormice are a Family of small rodents spread across Europe, Africa and Asia, although the name is most commonly used to refer to this little critter - the Hazel Dormouse. She is nocturnal and spends her nights clambering through branches in search of fruits, berries, flowers and hazelnuts. Her existence is almost entirely arboreal and she will rarely, if ever, come to ground and will make detours to avoid having to descend. During the days she sleeps in a nest woven from honeysuckle bark, leaves and grasses. If the weather is cold and wet, she will sink into a deep sleep - a torpor, to save energy. In this manner she also hibernates through winter, thus spending a decent proportion of her life asleep (as illustrated in the book Alice in Wonderland)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Creature Feature #168: Dorado

The Dorado, or Dolphinfish, is a surface-dwelling rayfinned fish also known as mahi-mahi. He is short-lived, with most living no more than 4-5 years, but grows very fast and matures at around 4-5 months of age, and can breed year round with females producing between 80,000 and 1,000,000 eggs each spawning event. Of these massive numbers, only a small proportion will survive, but it is enough to keep the population stable. His Spanish name - Dorado - translates as "golden", and when out of the water his scales do change colour, eventually fading to a muted yellow-grey upon death. A popular recreational fish, the Dorado is considered of "least concern" and appears on many menus.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Creature Feature #167: Donkey

The Donkey is a domesticated species, descended from this equine, the African Wild Donkey, or Ass. Two subspecies exist, but only 570 individuals are known to survive. Her life is adapted to a dry, desert environment. The large ears are not only sensitive to sound, but also act in thermoregulation. She lives in herds, lead by a dominant male, although other males are tolerated. Each herd holds a large territory, the male marking the boundaries with his dung. Due to their open and sparse environment, herds may become quite spread out and they communicate with one another making loud braying calls. Her diet mostly consists of dry grass, bark and leaves; despite having a tough digestive system she does need to drink every two-three days.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Creature Feature #166: Domino Beetle

The Domino Beetle is so named for the ten distinctive spots upon his back. He can be found across Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and the UAE, where he colonises desert scrubland and plains. Well adapted for a terrestrial existence, has has long, slender legs and strong eyesight to help him hunt for prey. If threatened, he can squirt jets of formic acid to burn the potential predator and also creating a foul aroma. Nocturnal in nature, he remains hidden away during the daylight hours. During the night he hunts for smaller invertebrates.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Creature Feature #165: Dolphin

The Dolphin is a fully aquatic mammal, noted for her intelligence and playful behaviour. There are almost forty species of dolphin, with the most widely recognised being the Bottlenose Dolphin - named for the shape of her snout. Despite being reliant on the water for survival, the Dolphin still needs to breath air through a single blowhole on the top of her head. Her body is streamlined and sleek with fore limbs modified into powerful flippers and her spine tapering into a propelling tail. Her hearing and eyesight are sharp, with her hearing being linked to her lower jaw. She emits high-pitched sound, sonar, to navigate underwater via echolocation.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Creature Feature #164: Dropbear

The Dropbear is the koala's larger, and more dangerous, cousin. He is about the size of a large dog and can weigh in at up to 120 kg. His preferred habitat is dense forest, with sturdy tree branches and thick canopy, in which he lurks and waits for his prey. Dropbear have a unique method of hunting and one that is well suited to the koala's sedantary way of life - he waits until a potential victim wanders beneath his branch and then drops from it. Often his weight will stun the prey, and it is then quickly dispatched with his specially adapted "killing claw". All koala have two thumbs, but in the Dropbear the claw of the inner thumb has modified into a knife. Unlike most predators (and despite popular rumour), the Dropbear does not sport elongated canine teeth, in fact his most dangerous are his pre-molars, which are razor-edged and powerful. His natural prey is large macropods - kangaroos - but with  more and more humans encroaching on his habitat, attacks of people have become all too commonplace. It is said that anointing oneself with vegemite will act as a sort of Dropbear repellent.