About elenasuglia

I am a community ecology researcher, conservationist, and science communicator interested in translating science into positive change. My passions include environmental protection and restoration, writing, social justice, building communities, ending the stigma of mental illness, and reading great books.

Polar Play: Animals Have Fun Too

baby polar bearWe have all seen parrots talk, lionesses work as a team to hunt, and apes use tools to get the job done.  Humans tend to assign many behaviors a “human only” label; however, in reality, talking parrots are only the tip of the iceberg.

To those of us who have interacted with dogs, it is abundantly clear that animals take part in playful activity in the same way humans do.  But just how common is animal play, and why and to what extent do they do it?

cats playingWhile humans understand and expect that all animals play, we also grossly underestimate animals’ abilities to just relax and hang out.  Perhaps there is a “survival of the fittest” rule in nature, but sometimes these rules don’t apply—unless playing makes you “fit!”

When Brian La Doone’s sled dog Hudson approached a wild, hungry-looking polar bear, La Doone thought that was the end of Hudson.  But instead, he was in for a pleasant surprise.  Hudson and the bear began playing with each other, rolling around and wrestling in the snow, even embracing and nipping at each other.  Apparently the two playmates enjoyed each other’s company so much that they met for a playdate every night for a week!

bear and dogThe most amazing thing about this story is not the fact that polar bears and dogs are not the same species, but that dog and bear are natural enemies and the hungry bear, by the rules of nature, should have charged down the dog and made Hudson its next meal.  Instead of getting its meal then, the bear waited for an entire week for the ice to thicken enough for it to return to its hunting grounds, all for the sake of play.

Evolutionary psychologists believe there must be benefits to play, because usually it makes you less fit than you were at the start:  animals could become injured, expend energy, and become distracted from predators.  Some biologists believe play could prepare you for survival activities, such as dogs and lions pouncing with each other and gazelles running to become speedier, and others have discovered evidence that play is good for the brain and for building social connections.  Some scientists even think that humans should play more as adults, and that we would benefit enormously from doing so.

monkeys playingSo while it may not be a good idea to try to engage a polar bear in a wrestling match if you come across one, perhaps we would all be a little bit better off if we made a little time for play every day—I know I would!

 

 

References:

Stuart Brown’s TED Talk: “Play is More Than Fun, It’s Vital:”  http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html

Book on animal play: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/genesis-animal-play

BBC: “Why Do Animals Play?”  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130109-why-do-animals-like-to-play

Wikipedia: Polar Bear: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_bear

National Institute of Play: Introduction: http://www.nifplay.org/science_intro.html

National Institue of Play: Bibliography: http://www.nifplay.org/biblio_fin.html

A Bee’s Buzz

Where do bees get their buzz?  No, I’m not referring to the sound their vibrating wings make when they fly.  In fact, I’m talking about a much more colloquial “buzz” – the one you get from caffeine when you drink a cup of coffee.  It turns out bees also enjoy the little boost in energy they reap from coffee plants when they drink the nectar, which contains low levels of caffeine that the pollinators obtain much satisfaction from.

flowers-caffeinate-pollinators-bee-coffee_64953_600x450

Plants originally evolved caffeine as a defense against herbivory because it can be toxic at high levels.  However, at low levels, it encourages honeybees to return to the plant – thus increasing the plant’s pollination efficacy – because the honeybees’ learning and memory abilities are enhanced, and therefore the honeybee reaps a benefit from the plant.  So what began as a deterrent for herbivores is now a triple whammy for the plant, which now 1) attracts more bees because the bee enjoys the caffeine buzz, 2) ensures the bee will return because its learning and memory are enhanced due to the caffeine, and 3) repels herbivores at the same time!

“Bees on caffeine buzz pollinate better.” http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-91262-Bees-on-caffeine-buzz-pollinate-better

“Plants give bees a caffeine buzz.” http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2013/03/11/plants-give-bees-a-caffeine-buzz/

Leaf-tailed gecko: a master of disguise

leaf tailed gecko camo This amazing creature is a master of disguise, blending in to its surroundings to the point that it is nearly indistinguishable from the litter of the forest floor where it makes its home.  The gecko, which has evolved its elaborate camouflage to escape visual detection by predators, sports leaf-shaped tail and leaf-patterned skin, complete with veins, folds, and insect nibble marks.

Giant leaf-tail gecko / reuzenbladstaartgekko (Uroplatus fimbriatus)

Both crypticity and mimicry deceive the beholder into believing that the animal is something that it is not.  Crypticity typically involves an animal avoiding detection through colors and patterns and can be visual, olfactory, or auditory (Stevens & Merilaita 2009).  Visual crypticity can include camouflage, disruptive coloration, and background-matching, and can be quite striking.  Crypticity is distinguished from a similar phenomenon, masquerading, in that masquerading involves the matching of specific inanimate object like twigs or rocks rather than matching the general background (Gullan & Cranston 2010).

ALiman_phantasticus.jpg

The majority of individuals of the few extant (living) species of leaf-tailed gecko on Earth are endemic to Madagascar and a few surrounding islands and are inextricably linked to the survival of the Madagascan rainforest, meaning that habitat destruction primarily in the form of deforestation poses a potential threat for these cool critters.  There are several protected areas in Madagascar that are therefore crucial for the leaf-tailed gecko’s continued existence.  Some of the species are of “least concern” on the IUCN’s conservation status scale, meaning that the protected areas are doing their job for the most part; however, illegal harvesting of these animals has caused some species’ numbers to drop and vary from “near threatened” to “vulnerable” status.  These little guys are unique and incredible, and offer just another reason to save the earth’s rainforests, without which many interesting species such as this one could not hope to survive!

References

Gullan, P.J. and P.S. Cranston.  The Insects.  Ed. 4.  Wiley-Blackwell: UK, 2010.

Stevens, M. & S. Merilaita. 2009. Animal camouflage: current issues and new perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364:423-427.

“Uroplatus phantasticus.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uroplatus_phantasticus

“Satanic Leaf-tailed gecko.” http://www.arkive.org/satanic-leaf-tailed-gecko/uroplatus-phantasticus/

“Leaf-tailed gecko.” http://a-z-animals.com/animals/leaf-tailed-gecko/

“Animal of the week: the satanic leaf-tailed gecko.” http://www.bite.ca/bitedaily/2013/03/animal-of-the-week-the-satanic-leaf-tailed-gecko/

Mystery underwater sand circles are actually puffer fish art

If you thought crop circles were strange, odds are you haven’t seen these:

crop circles

The underwater version of crop circles!  Some of the intrigue with crop circles faded once people stopped thinking they were made by aliens, but these sand circles are even more interesting to behold once you know where they do come from.

So who or what makes these enigmatic sculptures where they are doomed to fade into nonexistence once the ocean erodes them away?  No, not an alien race, nor a group of people from of the legendary Atlantis, but Puffer fish!

Male puffer fish craft their detailed sculptures by using a single fin to push the sand around, working day and night to finish the job, topping it off by cracking shells and placing them along the inner grooves of the circles.  Similar to bower birds, the puffer fish creates these structures to attract females.  However, the marine art serves a greater purpose than to look pretty to impress the ladies.  The puffer fish constructs his art with great care because it will become a nursery ground for his future offspring!  Watch him here:

Once the female has found the grooves, she will follow the ridges to the male in the center, mate with him, and lay her eggs.  The more ridges the circle contains, the more likely it is that the female will mate with the male, because she knows that the ridges will buffer the eggs from currents, thereby protecting the eggs from disturbance and exposure to predators.  Furthermore, the seemingly decorative seashells provide nutrients to the eggs and newborn puffer fish.

The artist at work

The artist at work

Next time you get annoyed by the sand that gets in every orifice after a day at the beach, or think humans are clever for using sand to make glass and concrete, think about how the puffer fish makes art out of sand to attract females, protect its young, and provide sustenance to its offspring just by using the raw stuff-and you might find new appreciation in sand, and the ingenuity of animals, a little more.

References:

Discovery: http://news.discovery.com/earth/oceans/puffer-fish-makes-elaborate-undersea-sand-circles-120925.htm

This is Colossal: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2012/09/mysterious-underwater-crop-circle-art-discovered-off-the-coast-of-japan/

Dress to impress: bird courtship rituals

AIX GALERICULATA

Mandarin duck

Birds exhibit some of the most elaborate and bizarre courtship rituals of any animals on earth.  Here are a few of the more beautiful and zany examples:

The marvellous spatuletail hummingbird exhibits one of the most extreme courtship rituals (see video below).  The male bird has two elongated tail feathers that end in a large violet-blue disc, or spatule.  The male bird hovers in the air, waving his spatules in front of the female and making a snapping sound with his beak.  To the hummingbird, which is the size of a ping-pong ball, this display costs a lot of energy.  Spectators of this courtship ritual have reported that after he’s done dancing, the male will have to flop down on a branch, exhausted, and sit still for over an hour to regain his strength.  This species of bird is rare and endangered, and lives in only a few places in Peru.

The bird of paradise is equally stunning:

The frigate bird puffs up a large red balloon on its chest and dances about, calling to the female in question to impress her:

Mandarin ducks, both male and female, bob in and out of the water to seal their partnership, which is for life.  In Chinese culture these monogamous ducks symbolize love, marital fidelity and relationship respect.

Red capped manikins do a sort of funky moonwalk reminiscent of Michael Jackson:

The white-throated bee-eater is a rakishly plumed bird that engages in the “butterfly display,” in which the male and female both hold out their wings while calling to each other.

References:

Mandarin duck:  http://birding.about.com/od/Waterfowl/p/Mandarin-Duck.htm

Marvellous spatuletail hummingbird: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8338000/8338728.stm

White-throated bee-eater:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-throated_Bee-eater

Cicadapocalypse!

When the cicadapocalypse comes, citizens run from their homes and seek refuge in pretty much any place not overrun by whizzing, clicking, peeing monster swarms of insects.

plain language- simplify

Just kidding, no need to fear.  Although quite a sight to behold, these insects are harmless.  While you may already know that cicadas are unique insects because they hide away underground and emerge as adults every 13 or 17 years, depending on the species, you may not have heard some of the more zany tidbits about them.  Here are some interesting facts about cicadas:

  • Cicadas emerge in cycles of years that are prime numbers because predators won’t as easily guess when they’ll be out in full force.
  • Cicadas employ a strategy called “predator satiation:” by emerging in broods numbering in the millions, cicadas ensure that after predators have eaten a few hundred, they’ll be too stuffed to consume them all!
  • Cicadas are “semelparous:”  they mate, then die.  The adults only live for 2 to 3 weeks when they come out every 17 years.
  • Cicadas are tasty!  Everything out there eats them-squirrels, turkeys, dogs, even fish.  And humans eat them!  Just broil them up and eat them like fried shrimp… or you could always just eat cicada ice cream:

Cicada ice cream

  • If you walk under a forest covered in cicadas, bring an umbrella.  Cicadas eat by sucking up tree fluids, which means that they eventually need to pee it out.  It has even been dubbed “cicada rain.”
  • Every 221 years, 17 and 13 year broods of cicadas co-emerge.  I know that’s a sight I’d certainly like to see, but unfortunately it won’t happen until 2115.

cicadas color

However, the most interesting thing about cicadas may be the way they fight bacteria!  A fairly new scientific field called biomaterials in which humans use the properties of animal’s physical compositions has been growing steadily with advances in technology, and it just so happens that cicadas have a very special mechanism in which they virtually eliminate bacterial infections on their wings.

Cicada wings have tiny spikes called “nanopillars” on their wings that kill bacterial cells on contact via physical structure alone.  Watch the video below to see how it works:

The exciting thing about structural defenses like these is that they usually aren’t too difficult to construct, given today’s technology and engineering abilities.  If we could engineer this type of material, it would be too small to feel, and thus could be applied to nearly every surface that could conceivably attract and spread bacteria-doorknobs, toilets, countertops, hospital beds, etc.  So if you are lucky enough to experience a cicadapocalpyse, don’t be too frustrated by the loud, peeing, overwhelmingly numerous little buggers.  After all, following their lead on disease fighting may lead to the virtual elimination of bacterial infections in the future.

References

“Cicadapocalypse 2013: what you need to know.” http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/cicadapocalypse-2013-what-you-need-to-know

“The most interesting 17 year cicada facts.” http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/the-most-interesting-17-year-cicada-facts/

“Cicada.” http://www.thaibugs.com/?page_id=117

“Cicadas’ antibacterial trick may help humans.” http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/cicadas-antibacterial-trick-may-help-humans

Dragon dance

sea dragon

Meet Nessie the sea dragon.  No, she’s not the monster that has popularized a certain Scottish loch, but is in fact a very real animal related to seahorses and pipefish that roams the weedy beds off the coast of Australia.  Like a dragon, Nessie has a plated body to protect herself.  She is one of the masters of camouflage, a method of crypsis many animals use to conceal themselves from predators.

There are two types of sea dragons, the leafy sea dragon and the weedy sea dragon. Nessie is a leafy seadragon, and indeed she looks just like a leaf to blend into her seaweedy surroundings, swaying in the water to heighten the masquerade.

Leafy_sea_dragon_by_Ta-graphy

Nessie spends much of her life floating happily in the seaweed beds, sucking up microscopic food out of the water with her long snout.  In fact, sea dragons have been observed to remain in one location for up to 68 hours, just eating.  But when it comes to courting a male, she departs her rather mundane life of plankton-slurping and embarks on an epic romance.  Well, epic for a fish.

When it comes time to find a partner, sea dragons perform a special courtship dance in spring under the fading light of sunset.  In the video below, Nessie and her mate mirror each other’s every movement in this elaborate courtship ritual.

Perhaps you wouldn’t normally think of fish as being hopeless romantics, but it gets even stranger.  After the courtship ritual is complete, the male is “pregnant.”  Like the sea dragon’s cousin, the seahorse, the male protects and provides for the eggs during their development.  You see, the dragon dance is not just a dance.  During the courtship ritual, the female lays 150 to 200 eggs in an area under the male’s tail called a brood patch.  The father’s blood feeds the eggs for two months, then the eggs hatch and fully formed baby sea dragons emerge, ready to brave the world completely without aid from either parent.  Seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish are the only fish species in which the males carry and raise the young.

Leafy_Seadragon

These special fish are subject to many threats, but the sea dragon is an example of a conservation success story.  In the early 1990s the Australian government placed a complete protection on sea dragons (the leafy sea dragon is the official marine emblem of the state of South Australia), and since then their numbers have risen so that they are now classified as “near threatened.”  To raise awareness and celebrate these strange yet beautiful animals, a biennial Leafy Sea Dragon Festival is held in South Australia and an animated short film was made in 2006 and distributed to all primary schools in the state.  Weedy sea dragons’ populations are monitored in Australia as well.  Because of their uniqueness and the intrigue they provide for many people, sea dragons could become “flagship” animals, which are animals that humans have an emotional attachment to, such as panda bears and elephants.  Flagship species are often used by conservation efforts in order to encourage more people to join their cause.

Hopefully, with the efforts of Australians and other conservationists, Nessie the sea dragon will enter the hearts of more people around the world.  Perhaps then we can focus more of our attention on preserving unique and special animals like sea dragons than the other, admittedly more enigmatic but fictional loch-dwelling Nessie.

References

McCall, Gerrie.  Weird and Wonderful Fish.  Nature’s Monsters, Water Creatures Series.  Gareth Stevens, 2005.

Wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leafy_sea_dragon

Ghostly “Dance of a Sea Dragon,”  BBC:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8330000/8330705.stm

“Sea Dragon,” National Geographic:  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/sea-dragon/

“Phyllopteryx,” Wikipedia.org:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllopteryx