Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

The zoo knows how to celebrate this most important of holidays, and in the weeks leading up to Halloween, many of the exhibits and enclosures have been enlivened by jack-o-lanterns (unlit, of course, after last year’s incident with the pyromaniac prairie dog). Many animals’ diets have been enlivened by these tasty pumpkin treats, too; in fact, the small-mammal house looked a bit like a Squash Horror Show this week, with jack-o-lanterns lying on their sides, eyes and mouths nibbled on, heads gnawed.

I was lucky enough to reach Lemur Island just as the lemurs discovered their new decorations/taste sensations. First, of course, they had to investigate them, one at a time:

Or all at once:

Then they ate the carved bits out of them:

And then, truly getting into the spirit of the season, the Vampire Lemur returned!

That’s right: no squash is safe from the fangs of this ravenous primate! Mwahahahahaha!!!!


Yes, well. Whether you choose to celebrate by dressing up, giving out candy, re-watching Arsenic and Old Lace, or snarfing up a pumpkin—have a happy Halloween, everyone.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Creepy Crawlies

As we approach the best of all holidays, Halloween, it seems only right to help set the mood by reminding you of—or introducing you to—the world of invertebrates, whose shapes and behaviors are weirder and wilder than anything imagined in science fiction.

I don’t have pictures, unfortunately, of all of the creatures I’d like to talk about (most notably the deep-sea anglers, those gaping-jawed fish who draw prey in with a glowing, bioluminescent “lantern” suspended on a fleshy lure—and who exhibit an especially interesting kind of sex dimorphism where the male, about ten times smaller than the female, sniffs out a female in the vast emptiness of the deep sea and, in order to ensure he’ll stay with her now he’s found her, attaches himself to her and eventually merges into her body, getting food from her bloodstream and becoming a dangling, semi-parasitic sack of sperm)—but I do have a good number of photos of invertebrates, in particular marine organisms, whose fantastic lives seem quite appropriate for this supernatural season.

Take, for example, a tube worm like this one:

These creatures are segmented worms in the same phylum as earthworms; they’re called “sedentary polychaetes” (pronounced “polly-keets”), as opposed to their near relations the—I love this—“errant polychaetes,” which move around more and actively hunt for prey. Tube worms, on the other hand, build these tubes for themselves and live within them, extending beautiful fanlike bouquets of tentacles and gills in order to feed on floating particles in the water column and to breathe.

Or what about jellyfish, those creatures that seem like both aliens and UFOs in one?

Sure, they’re beautiful to look at, but remember that they’re rapacious predators: pulsing, translucent disks of light trailing streamers whose delicacy disguises their deadliness. Imagine being pursued by a being with no eyes, no head, no brain, even, just an insatiable mouth (that is also its anus) and reaching, grasping tentacles equipped with a paralyzing sting. They may look as ethereal as spirits, but their behavior is more ghoulish than ghostly.

And since Halloween is all about costumes and disguise, what about these creatures, which are always dressing up or camouflaging themselves?

Hermit crabs have a carapace that covers their head and thorax, but their delicate little abdomens are soft and naked: the perfect snack for a hungry predator. So they use the empty shells of dead snails, into which their curved abdomens fit perfectly, as protective armor. But, unlike the snails that originally made the shells, they can’t produce these from scratch or add on to them as they grow, so each time they get bigger, they need to find a new shell. Hermit crabs live in a state of perpetual conviction that somewhere nearby there is a better shell than the one they’re wearing, and they keep looking for it—even on other hermit crabs. They’re like the discontented guest at your Halloween party who keeps admiring other people’s costumes in a creepily covetous way.

And then there are spider crabs which, like the aptly named decorator crabs, pick off bits of sponges and algae and cultivate those organisms’ growth on their shells, the better to disguise themselves from predators (and maybe from prey as well).

And then there are stick insects like these, whose very articulations look more like the connections in a plant’s stem than the joints of an arthropod. (I can imagine a horror movie in which all the “leaves” on a tree are, you suddenly discover, stick insects—and like a fall tree in a windstorm, suddenly the limbs of the tree are bare and the insects rush down the trunk and converge on the hapless victims.)

And finally, of course, there is the octopus:

—that magician of the deep whose color and texture can change in an eyeblink, that Houdini who can fit through spaces the size of a keyhole, that mixture of soft, sinuous beauty, limbs like liquid, like fine silk, like the fabric of a cape flung out and left to settle in folds—and incredible strength, with muscular tentacles whose grip is strong as a cable’s; with a beak sharp as a raptor’s hidden under a flurry of suction disks.

There are many more—so many more!—but I think I’ve given you a glimpse, at least, of the diversity and magical weirdness of invertebrates. And if you haven’t picked an outfit for that party you’ve been invited to tonight, consider going as an invertebrate—a giant squid, for example, or a poisonous blue-ringed octopus. Sure, the costume might take a little work, but you’d be paying homage to the majestic, mysterious creatures of the deep—and you’d win the undying admiration of your friends.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Flamingo Friday: The Line-Up

“Now, ma’am, look closely and take your time: do any of these birds look like the one you saw on your lawn yesterday?”

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

One Good Shot: Red-Legged Seriema

A couple of these birds are now out in one of the newly finished enclosures next to the flamingos (which is where the king vulture’s been moved to as well). According to the placard outside their exhibit, they sun themselves by lying down on their backs and looking dead. I have not yet observed this behavior, but I look forward to doing so.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Proposal

One of the tigers was restless again last Friday, pacing and pacing at the edge of the water in its enclosure.

Any activity like this on the part of the large cats generates tremendous excitement in zoo visitors. Parents exhort their children to “Say, ‘Hi, kitty’!” and other dangerous phrases (“Say, ‘How long has it been since you’ve last eaten, kitty?’,” I sometimes mutter); children yell at the cats, trying to get their attention, sometimes by insulting them (again, humans: no self-preservation at all).

Some people, eyeing the half-snarling tiger with a degree of wariness that I approve of, ask uncertainly, “Can tigers swim…?” –The answer, by the way, is: yes, they can. The sides of the enclosure, however, are too high, and the electric fencing at the top too much of a deterrent, to allow the tigers to swim to freedom. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Nevertheless, I’ve always been just a little relieved that no tiger has entered the water while I’ve been watching them—and so I was surprised to hear a couple of young boys urging the tiger to “Swim! Swim!”

Now, if I had just seen a tiger gaze past the not-big-enough pool of water separating us and stare at me with a calculating expression, as if considering the value (in terms of energy expended to caloric content gained) of escaping its enclosure and eating me—I would not be so eager to encourage it in its goal. But one of the boys—driven to new, ingenious measures to convince the tiger—exclaimed, “Come on, swim! –I’ll pay you!” There was a pause as he perhaps considered, as I did, what incentive that would be for a large cat, and then he added, “I’ll pay you in chickens!”

The tiger didn’t seem too interested in taking him up on the offer. I wouldn’t have, either; there was no way a little kid like that was going to get his hands on enough chickens.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One Good Shot: End of the Season

An orange-julia butterfly (Dryas julia) in the pollination center of the Invertebrate House gets the last bits of nectar out of a late-season flower.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Serious Snoutiness

On the same day that my notebook was nearly launched into the peccary enclosure (luckily, the little kid only knocked it into a pond next to the exhibit, from which I could retrieve it intact, if slightly damp), the peccaries seemed more agitated than usual. Oh, sure, they browsed around their enclosure as they usually did, rooting around for goodies in the leaf litter—but several times they looked up as if startled, and the hair on one’s back bristled, hedgehog fashion: a sign of alarm.

But then came the truly surprising event: the two peccaries, who mere moments ago had been wandering past each other in the friendliest way possible, suddenly became aggressive, uttering loud snorting grunts and threatening each other with their tusks (so sharp that they've given the species their Spanish name, “javelina”—from “javelin”):

Then they went through the following behaviors:

Since then, I’ve done some online research on the topic, and the tusk-waving does seem to be an act of aggression, not some weird grooming or play behavior. But I don’t know what the subsequent pressing-of-snouts was about: was it a further act of measuring each other up (“My snout is bigger than your snout”)? Was it a post-hostilities make-up nuzzle? Were they just tired after their momentary anger and needed a rest?

I don’t know, and they’re unlikely to tell me (peccaries like to maintain their mystique). But I can say that within a minute of their aggressive tusk-gnashing they were back to browsing amicably.

Who knows what lurks in the minds of peccaries?

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ho Hum

Another dreary day at the zoo… Nothing to see,

Nothing to do.

Certainly no point in staying awake, especially if there’s a sibling to sleep on...

Happy Saturday, everyone.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Flamingo Friday: “it was…a tinge like a blush…”

(quote courtesy of Mrs. Dalloway)
Imagine my pleasure and surprise when I approached the flamingo enclosure yesterday morning and saw, for the first time, a hint of pink in the coloring of one of the flamingelehs!

It really did look as if the juvenile were slightly flushed from some teenage embarrassment, but I suspect that for number 29 (the younger of the two) this sign of oncoming maturity is a welcome one, especially as number 28 looks decidedly grey, still, next to her:

[note too how mallards
still sabotage my photos]

I suspect that number 29 gloats about it and makes a point of saying "Everything looks so ROSY--I mean, present company excepted" around number 28, and number 28 feigns a cool, sophisticated indifference while secretly writing melancholy poetry about the bitter injustice of plumage and the world.

But I won’t presume to speculate about the rich inner lives and jealousies of young flamingos, who no doubt Facebook about these topics themselves anyway (“Matilda has updated her status to ‘Nearly Pink’; Hepzibah and Matilda are no longer friends”). I will say, though, that it looks as if their plumage is coming in nicely, and that by next year at this time they’ll probably look like this:

Something that every young flamingo can aim for.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Scorn You All

Actually, I think this lion, rather than being snooty, was really lifting his head in order to scent the air--not a more comforting thought, frankly, since I'm pretty sure I was at least part of what was flavoring the air. I observed this behavior right after having passed by the tiger enclosure, where one of those restless animals had opened its mouth in what may have been a yawn but mainly looked like a very significant display of teeth. Maybe I'm reading into things, but I doubt it...

(By the way, I will have to ask you to forgive briefer and less photo-filled posts for a little while, since my primary computer is in the throes of some sort of breakdown. Hopefully it'll recover soon.)

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Love Lucy

I’ve recently ascertained that the orangutan who has been my best subject for portraits (see One Good Shot and Strange Encounter,) is the oldest of the zoo orangutans, a 37-year-old Bornean-Sumatran hybrid orang named Lucy. She’s also the orangutan who I think has the most ironic, and yet also most forgiving, attitude towards the zoo’s visitors—at least, that’s the impression I get from her expressions as she gazes out at us. Maybe it’s because she’s the oldest that she has the most sophisticated attitude—or maybe it’s just that, since she’s been highly socialized with humans, her expressions are the easiest for a human like me to interpret (or imagine I’m interpreting).

Not that the other orangutans don’t give me, and the rest of their audience, looks that—how shall I put it?—resonate. Bonnie (only a few years younger than Lucy, if that matters), also has a pretty powerful gaze:

But overall I’d say it’s Lucy who seems most aware of her human audience and most willing to, if not play to them—since there’s no sense of performing to entertain in her behavior—then interact with them, even if only by observing us back.

It does make me wonder what she sees of us, and in us—and if she’s aware at all, for example, of the conversation of a group of high-school kids on a class assignment, trying to answer questions about the apes and guessing that she is one of the large males named “Tang” (just a note: there’s only one large male, named Kiko, and the only orangutan with a name like that is a juvenile female, Batang). Although there was a young woman right next to the high-schoolers who was observing and recording the orangs’ behavior, they, unlike me, saw no need to refer to an authority before making their identifications.

I believe that during this time Lucy was engaged in, first, picking some edible vines growing in the trench within her enclosure, which she wore briefly before eating, and, second, sharing food and quiet contemplation with Batang, but I do wonder what she might have made of the students’ conversation. I suspect that her look, as always, would be eloquent.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

He(?)’s on the Loose

According to this link, a huge chimpanzee that was being kept, I guess as a pet, by someone in Kansas City got loose today and rampaged around the neighborhood for a while (injuring property, not people) before voluntarily climbing back into its cage.

What is even more interesting than the events of the story is the fact that the chimpanzee, named Sue, was referred to as “he” throughout this article—something that appears to have been edited since I received the link from my mother, Anca Vlasopolos, this afternoon (and a tendency I have already complained about at length in my post “He’s Pregnant”). (The article still refers to the rope around “his neck,” though.) I don’t know if this was because Sue was named in homage to the song “A Boy Named Sue” or because all rampaging, 300-pound apes are automatically considered male…

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Your Crimes Are UnOtterable



and disgraceful.

Now be off with you.


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