Monday, August 30, 2010

Everybody Itches

[cedar waxwing scratching its ear]

This observation is not, I acknowledge, particularly profound, but it does have the virtue of being true, and I have the photographic evidence to prove it. I never really thought about it myself until I started noticing just how many pictures I have of animals scratching. These were not deliberately acquired —I didn’t set out to collect photographs of scratching animals—and yet here they are. I can only conclude, therefore, that everyone itches—and can only speculate that it must be even worse for nonhuman animals than it is for us. Just imagine having none of the protection of clothes or insect repellent! –For someone who, as it is, gets mobbed by mosquitoes the minute she goes out her door, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

(I did try to come up with a better, punnier title for today’s entry, and I thought of a few, but I just couldn’t decide on one. Should it be “Life’s an Itch and then You Die”?

Or “From Scratch”?

Or “The Wicked Itch of the East”?

Or “A Scratch Made in Heaven”?

So hard to choose...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Reptile House

There are considerably fewer exclamations of “Oh how cute!” in here than in the small-mammal house, although I happen to think that the frogs in particular are very personable. There are, however, far more cries of “I found it!”, since a number of the lizards and snakes—and frogs—are incredibly well camouflaged and difficult to find, even when they’re right in front of you. It does give one a pleasant feeling of accomplishment to finally spot the chameleon or mossy frog that’s been eluding your searching eyes.

And of course these animals, while they lack the fuzzy charm of mammals, have the romance of danger. I myself don’t have a lot of time for snakes that aren’t doing much of anything—and aren’t doing it in a photogenic way—but I’ve seen kids and adults with their faces almost pressed to the glass, riveted by the sight of a python or a particularly venomous viper. The knowledge that only that thin pane of glass separates them from something that could coil them into oblivion or kill them with a bite—it’s irresistible.

For me, the reptile house is filled with a number of aesthetic marvels. The textures of reptiles’ scales and spines, the colors of poison-dart frogs, with skin so smooth and startlingly bright that they look like plastic models—that’s what impresses me. I only wish I were more talented at capturing their shapes and colors, their gem-like, liquid eyes glistening within skin dry as stone.

A certain degree of awe creeps up on you as you go through the reptile house; these animals have a foreign, ancient quality to them. The giant snapping turtle, with its gaping mouth and tongue from which suspends a fleshy lure, is clearly a prehistoric monster, somehow transported to the present day and condescending, for the moment, to be gawked at by fascinated humans.

The toad with its heavy eyebrow ridges is a creature out of dark German forests, one that inspired the Grimm brothers when they wrote of sprites and hobgoblins. The tortoises and crocodilians are reminders of what used to overrun the earth while mammals were wide-eyed nocturnal scuttlers, scurrying through the underbrush and peering cautiously from trees.

Not that these animals themselves are dinosaurs (though surely their ancestors were present at the time when those giants walked the earth)—in fact, dinosaurs, physiology-wise, were probably more similar to big bald birds than to alligators or turtles. Still, to the untrained observer—and I include myself in this category—their appearance strikes a chord. And it does make me wonder if the world wasn’t a somewhat better place when scaly things were almost all you saw, before mammals diversified as much as they have. At least when reptiles and dinosaurs were the dominant species they didn’t have the capacity to precipitate environmental disasters as we have—no oil-drilling explosions for them.

In any case, the world is different now, and some mammals have skipped out on a crepuscular existence and started doing all sorts of things by sunlight. Including, in some cases, going to the zoo to look at reptiles and imagine being transported to a past they can’t even begin to remember.

Or just saying, “Cool! I want one of those!”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Flamingo Friday: You Used to Be a Beautiful Baby...

The flamingelehs are flamingelehs no longer. In just two short months--almost exactly—they’ve gone from being adorable little white fuzzies to slightly more awkward grey fuzzies to, now, ungainly adolescents with the beginnings of real feathers but none of the elegance of their adult counterparts.

Just as a reminder, here’s what they looked like just a few days after hatching:

To give you the best sense of just how bad the poor things look now, I’ve included an adult in the picture below, as a reminder of what flamingos are supposed to look like when they’re not babies:

It’s sad, isn’t it? –That they grow up so fast and so badly. On the other hand, maybe when the rest of their adult feathers come in and they’re less messy-looking with dark-grey down, they’ll be a bit more elegant, even if they remain a drab color for the next year or so. …Although I have my doubts:

They really have to fend for themselves now, too. The adults, no longer protective, threaten these guys with their beaks just as they do one another; no more concerned attention and crop-milk for these fledglings.

The one that’s three days older, #28, seems pretty unconcerned by these changes, preening away without a care in the world:

But—and, yes, I acknowledge that I’m anthropomorphizing like mad—I think #29 looks a bit wistful about the good old days when she was cute and doted upon:

Poor things. Adolescence is tough. But it will all get better once they get to college…

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Something Tells Me It's All Happening at the Zoo

I had just started my walk through the zoo yesterday morning, having paused for a while to admire (and photograph) the butterflies on a butterfly bush, when I heard a strange sound: a somewhat resonant, but very low, sort of groan. I looked around: I was near the frog pond, across from the Reptile House and the alligator pond, and for a while I thought it could be the alligator making some kind of restrained bellow. But the alligator wasn’t out.

The groan continued. Could it be an ape? After all, the gibbons had produced sounds I had not believed could come from a living organism. But no; the orangutans weren’t out, and it seemed too far away for the noise to be carried from the gorillas, even supposing they would make such a sound.

I kept walking, past the entrance to the Reptile House, and—there: in the outdoor tortoise enclosure, the mystery was solved. Two of the immensely large Aldabra tortoises were mating. The male, on top, would every now and then lift his hind legs off of the ground, and the groans—or perhaps moans—were in time with this movement.

I admit, though I’m a little embarrassed, that I was profoundly shocked. Even after having read Gerald Durrell’s excellent book, My Family and Other Animals, which includes a passage describing the sex lives of (smaller) Greek tortoises, I just…didn’t expect this. Insects mating, of course. Birds and mammals—well, sure. Mollusks—not when I needed them to for my dissertation, but otherwise, yes. But somehow I had not anticipated sex among these enormous, ancient-looking creatures—and I’m not being ageist: I mean they look like prehistoric creatures, not old ones. (Well, they look old, too, but that wasn’t the problem.)

That and the moaning. That was something else.

But of course, even in the midst of my minor trauma, I took some pictures:

[an image of the action]

[a close-up; the much smaller female
is just visible]

[the leg-lifts that accompanied the sound]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Leaping Lemurs!

What I like best about lemurs is their capacity to appear scandalized.

And then completely bored:

I don’t know much about their behaviors or personality, since I rarely see them, and when I do, they’re almost always sleeping in the shade of their little huts-on-stilts in their enclosure.

I did see one being active once:

But maybe that was its year’s-worth of energy expenditure, because I haven’t seen anything like it in the months since.

[the end]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wild Wildlife Returns!

Actually, it’s always there; it’s just that I only rarely get good pictures of these other animals and/or write entries about them. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of birds and insects around the zoo, and luckily for me, at least some of them behaved photogenic-ly.

The monarch above was hanging around the milkweed behind the invertebrate house, just on the outside of their butterfly house. A few people leaving the exhibit were worried that the monarch had escaped from inside. (To my mind, they should be more worried about the children and adults in the butterfly house who try to catch the butterflies.)

And this mysterious bug (well, mysterious only because I don’t know what it is) appeared to be watching the elephants:

And these ladybugs were trying to have an intimate moment when I voyeuristically interrupted them:

This catbird had a very involved preening session near the otter enclosure:

And this goldfinch was very intent on getting every last seed out of these coneflowers:

And this bee, while she moved too fast to be really obliging, did pose herself alongside a beautiful waterlily:

Flamingo Friday: A Strainer Among Us

It occurred to me recently that flamingos are the whales of the bird world. No, they’re not the largest of all birds. No, they’re not marine. No, they don’t breach. –Stop second-guessing me, will you?

They’re the whales of the bird world because they, like baleen whales, are filter feeders. Their bizarre, upside-down-looking beaks allow them to dip their bills in shallow water and make it turbid, stirring up everything from bit of algae to tiny crustaceans. Then they take this whole muddy soup into their mouths and proceed to expel the water.

All the creatures and particles that they eat stay in their mouths because the inside of their beaks are full of ridges that capture the non-liquid elements. Then they use their tongues, which apparently have little hooks on them, to rasp all the good stuff off of the inside of their bills and swallow it.

[the ridges in its bill are visible]

See? Just like whales. Only with ridges instead of baleen, and I don’t know what the tongue-hooks correspond to. But otherwise it’s a perfect analogy, thank you very much.

[& of course, there's always one
that gets really carried away
by the whole process...]

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where the Wild Things Were

The double-wattled cassowary is one of those perfect living proofs of evolution: look at one, and you have no trouble believing that birds evolved from dinosaur-like ancestors. The only difficulty you might have is in believing that they’ve evolved very much

The double-wattled cassowary lives in Australia—or, at least, it is trying to live there. Much of its habitat (rainforests, for the most part) is being destroyed or subdivided by human development, and, while it is not currently listed as a threatened or endangered species, that designation could change.

The cassowary’s situation is not unique. The number-one cause of extinctions worldwide is habitat loss and degradation, and the majority of that destruction and degradation is due, directly or indirectly, to human activities. (Polar bears and pikas are just two of the species whose habitats are disappearing because of global climate change, a process initiated and increased by human behaviors [for more information on climate change, see these sites from the Worldwatch Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the World Wildlife Fund].)

[American pika]

Initially, I considered doing profiles on every animal at the zoo whose habitat is threatened by human activity—and then I realized I’d be profiling virtually every animal there. Of course, some species are doing well in the wild, and some animals whose populations were low are now recovering (often thanks in part to zoo “Species Survival Plans”). But many species are threatened or endangered, and habitat loss is often a factor contributing to, if not causing, their situations.

To make sure that you’re suitably touched by their plight, I’ll give you one more example of an at-risk animal, this one actually listed as endangered. It’s one of those species referred to by scientists (or at least the ones I hang around with) as “charismatic macrofauna”: a big cute animal that everyone can like and feel sorry for—the kind that are often used to get people to care about threatened ecosystems, since few very people become teary-eyed at the sight of an endangered slime mold, no matter how important it may be to an ecological community.

My example is the red panda:

Cute, right?

Although they’re more closely related to raccoons than bears, red pandas, like giant pandas, live in bamboo forests (although the ranges of the two species only partially overlap). Also like giant pandas, red pandas’ habitats are disappearing. Logging and other human-development activities within their forests not only destroy their habitat outright but indirectly alter it: the disturbances that these human actions create lead to changes in the structure and composition of the forests. For example, activities that affect the soil and increase erosion can lead to changes in the community of tree species, since some trees’ roots may be less able to support them in loose or shallow soil, or because these changes in soil can allow opportunistic species to enter the environment and outcompete the original species. That’s one of the ways that red pandas’ homes, along with those of so many other species, can disappear.

I’m not mentioning all of this simply to be depressing. After all, some of these species may yet be capable of adapting to changing conditions—although, depending on whether or not that includes overcoming their fear of humans, their adaptations could lead to all sorts of new problems for them and us. But I do think it’s worth remembering that we destroy habitats for all kinds of different reasons: to build sub-suburban homes, to clear land for coffee and other farming, to get rid of our garbage, to build more power plants or mine more coal or drill more oil to satisfy our insatiable demand for energy. Mind you, I like my espresso as much as the next person (or probably much more than them), and I certainly make enough use of my laptop and digital camera. I just think it doesn’t hurt, from time to time, to consider all of the resources that we consume on a daily level, from electricity to gas to water to food, or to spend a few moments finding out where our old outdated laptops or cellphones or iPods will go when we’re done with them. In doing so, we can feel less guilt and take more pleasure in looking at red pandas and other adorable animals. And we can feel better about the slime molds, too. Even if we don’t want to look at them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fresh from the Zoo This Morning

The photo and presumably the bamboo as well.

A brisk walk this morning took us past the pandas, who were enjoying breakfast, or perhaps second-breakfast, or maybe just one-of-many-breakfasts in their day of continuous munching. (I was accused of being hard on the pandas because I commented on their constant eating, but I didn't intend my observation as a criticism. In fact, I myself would definitely join the order of Our Lady of Perpetual Snacking if there were such an organization, provided it didn't have a religious component.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Small-Mammal House Part II: Enough with the Philosophizing; Let’s Look at Tamarins

I took a lot of pictures of tamarins—and some other animals—in the small-mammal house, and while most of them did not turn out well at all (animals that move quickly in poorly lit areas do not lend themselves to crisply focused photography), there were a few I was happy with.

1. Portrait (the Albert Einstein look):

2. The Noble Pose:



3. Portrait (the Animal-from-the-Muppets look):

4. And finally, a meerkat being pious, or maybe checking for rain:

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