Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

The Academy Awards are on tonight, and to celebrate I thought I’d post photos in honor of some of the nominees:

Winter’s Bone:

The Fighter:

(The flamingo in the lower-right corner is Amy Adams.)

The Kids Are All Right:

127 Hours:

(If Aron Ralston had been a starfish like this one, he wouldn’t have worried so much about having to lose an arm—not just because he’d still have so many more, but because the arm would regenerate, as would a new body from the severed arm.)

The Social Network:

Who needs Facebook when you're in each other's faces?

True Grit (or at least true dirt):

...this lion cub has just seen Inception:

…And finally, a movie that wasn’t nominated but should have been, Get Low:

There’s a certain resemblance to Robert Duvall, wouldn’t you say?

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Flamingo Friday: Making a Splash

I’ve seen the flamingos feeding many times, and dipping their beaks in water before preening themselves with their dripping bills—but I’ve never before seen them crouch down in the water, bending their enormous legs as if about to nest in their pond, and splash around like the mallards that often visit their enclosure (and sabotage my photos).

This may be a season- or mating-related behavior that I just haven’t been around to see before, or the mallards may in fact be influencing flamingo culture. (I admit the latter’s unlikely, but knowing these ducks, I wouldn’t put it past them.)

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

One Good Shot: Mossy Frog

As I mentioned recently, there are people who approach the animals in the Reptile House as if they were part of a game called Find the Animal and Then Dismiss It. But even if you don’t see much opportunity to observe behavior with some of the less-active reptiles and amphibians, it’s worth a moment’s time simply to admire the perfection of their camouflage and the skill with which they elude our, and others’, eyes.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wild Wildlife: A Surprise for Both of Us

On a walk the other day I spotted a grey squirrel enjoying what at first appeared to be the innards of a green softball. Then I realized that the squirrel was actually eating an Osage orange.

These are amazing, bizarre fruits that look kind of like lumpy green grapefruit and are in fact about the size of giant grapefruits—or softballs. I’m familiar with them (unlike most people) because there were several Osage orange trees in the arboretum near my college, and I spent many pleasant afternoons walking through the Arb and listening to the alarming thud of enormous, heavy fruit falling down quite near my head. (Although that’s nothing compared to the time a tree fell a few yards from where a friend and I sat by the creek. Ah, those soothing college rambles…) –I’d never before seen anything eating one, though. I whipped out my camera to document the moment, but the squirrel noticed my interest:

I think it believed that I had designs on its meal, because after glaring indignantly at me, it grabbed the fruit and dragged it further off into the little growth of trees, all the while scowling at me over its shoulder.

I love nature; it’s so peaceful.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

One Good Shot: DonkeyFace

I was walking back home after visiting the Amazonia exhibit (and more on that soon) when I noticed that the “Kids’ Farm” animals were much more social than usual. That is, they were much more social with people than usual; they always seem pretty friendly with one another. The alpacas were allowing themselves to be petted, the goats, while mainly fascinated by a barrel, evinced some interest in visitors, and the donkeys were extremely curious about the human guests. I’m really not sure if this donkey wanted to be petted, wanted something to eat, or wanted to bite somebody—but it made a good photo, and I just take the pictures…

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wild Wildlife: Everyday Birds, Close-Up

A sparrow begins to cheep on the fenced bridge to the bird exhibits:

A robin swallows a yew berry:

And a cardinal is perplexed:

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

They’re Everywhere!: An Overabundance of Ophiuroids and the Mantis-Shrimp Conspiracy

I am an observant person. Not about some things, like whether my desk is a mess or someone’s flirting with me or the architecture of a house is Georgian—but about many things, in particular things zoological, I am quite perceptive. I notice hawks perched on high branches; I spot a fox resting by the creek; I see the still, golden eye of a frog just above the surface of an algae-laden pond.

Visits to the zoo, overall, don’t require a great deal of that talent, since pandas and flamingos and lions are, by and large, fairly easy to spot, even in the relatively ample space provided for them. But even the zoo’s enclosures can offer the opportunity to notice more.

This is particularly true in the invertebrate house, since some of the inhabitants (e.g. octopi and cuttlefish) are masters of camouflage and most tanks contain myriad tiny, unmentioned crustaceans and gastropods grazing on the glass or the pebbled bottom. I especially like examining the coral-reef-habitant aquarium, in part because it’s right next to the mantis shrimp’s tank and in part because it’s full of small creatures that go unremarked by the majority of visitors.

This past week I noticed something that I’d never seen before: baby ophiuroids!

This means nothing to you, right?

Ophiuroids are also known as “brittle stars,” and they’re related to, and look a lot like, starfish—but while starfish have very clearly star-like shapes, brittle stars have a central disk from which radiate long, snaky arms (hence “ophiuroid,” since “ophiuros,” or something like that, is “snake” in Greek).

[a sketch of a brittle star]

[a photo of their arms,
to give you an idea of their snakiness]

Brittle stars are pretty cool, because although they, like all echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, etc.), lack brains and even heads, individuals of light-sensitive species each have the equivalent of a compound eye. I don’t know the science perfectly, but I believe that their dorsal arm plates function as little lenses that, when all added up, make something like a compound eye, allowing the brittle stars to “see” light. (For more accuracy and more details, visit the Aizenberg lab’s research webpage, where you can even read the article they published in Nature about it). –That’s not really relevant to what I noticed at the zoo, but it is really impressive.

Brittle stars, like most echinoderms (if not all of them—I’d have to check), are what are called “broadcast spawners.” This doesn’t mean that they use a loudspeaker or radio program to announce their interest in breeding; it means that they cast their gametes (eggs or sperm) upon the waters, letting the currents intermingle them and create fertilized eggs that develop into larvae and, eventually, young brittle stars. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, compared to many other means of reproduction, but I couldn’t say for sure, and the brittle stars aren’t talking.

—All this is just by means of introduction, and to say that there must have been quite a flurry of gamete-casting a while back, because the coral-reef tank is full of little tiny brittle stars—all hidden in crevices of rock so that only a couple of their little waving arms are visible. (Visible to someone with their nose practically against the glass, that is.) If you didn’t know what brittle stars looked like, you’d never guess you were seeing mini-ones.

[arrows indicate all the little arms]

[even one under an empty shell!]

[the size of an adult, for comparison]

It was a pretty thrilling discovery for me, and one I didn’t share—although I did do some stealth educating and pointed out the adult brittle stars, a hermit crab, snails, and the mantis shrimp to several visitors.

Speaking of the mantis shrimp, I got a few good views of it as well, though its habit of briefly emerging from and then diving back into its burrow doesn’t lend itself to great photos. But I’ve been curious for a week or so now about why a nearby tank, which had used to house an impressive display of tube-worms, now seemed to have a Secret Mantis Shrimp living in it. I thought of it as a Secret Mantis Shrimp (or SMS) because it was even more retiring than the display mantis shrimp and because the tank was poorly illuminated and had no label describing its inhabitant.

[the Secret Mantis Shrimp (SMS)]

Now, however, I have more reasons to designate it a Secret Mantis Shrimp, because the zoo volunteers either don’t know about it or pretend they don’t know about it. A boy peering into the tank exclaimed impatiently, “I can’t see what’s in here!” and the nearby volunteer told him, “That’s because there’s nothing in there.”

(It’s worth mentioning that this would be inaccurate even if the SMS weren’t resident: I've learned from painful personal experience during my research that a tank full of seawater will having things living in it whether you planned them or not. For example, in addition to the SMS, this tank has a few tiny anemones or hydroids growing in it as well as a quite beautiful little tube-worm.)

Another, different volunteer, who came by to tell me things I already knew about the overt mantis shrimp, also denied the existence of the SMS. Part of it is my own fault; perhaps the shyness of the SMS rubbed off on me, because instead of just asking, “Why is there another mantis shrimp hidden in that unlit tank?” I asked, “Is there another mantis shrimp in that tank over there?”

“No,” he said decisively, and—even though I had left an opening for that answer by my stupid question—I became annoyed. Unfortunately, he went away to feed the anemones before I could confront him with his (a) misinformation or (b) lie.

[okay, it's not a high-quality shot,
but it's still worlds better than
those supposed UFO pictures]

Thus I cannot say for certain that the SMS is part of a vast Mantis Shrimp Conspiracy—but I’ll say it anyway, and what’s more, I’ll crack it wide open (to hell with Wikileaks)! So when the papers and internet are all abuzz with news of the second, surprise mantis shrimp at the Zoo’s invertebrate house, remember—you heard it here first.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Flamingo Friday: Pretty and Pink(ish)

As you may recall, a couple of months ago I commented on the fact that the younger of the two flamingos hatched this past summer was turning pink faster than her slightly older year-mate, and I speculated on the tensions this might cause between the two flamingelehs. But now, the balance of rosiness seems to have shifted in favor of age, and while the younger, # 29, has a handsome pink head and neck…

…The elder, # 28, has, like many late bloomers, blossomed:

I’m hoping that by now they’ve given up on the petty competition they had in the fall about who was looking rosier—and that, instead, they’ve decided to take a page from Adam’s Rib and each call the other “Pinkie.” (“'Y' for him, ‘ie’ for me.”)

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fond of Form

Face of a daisy, National Botanic Gardens, DC.

Every now and then you just like the look of something.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

I am sorry to say that I do not have a new animal-sex entry for today, but if you long for some information about, and photos of, animals engaged in courtship rituals or all-out mating, you can look at some of my previous posts on the subject (click on each to read about: tragopan mating displays; peacock sex; tortoise sex; barnacles’ endowments; snail sex; damselfly encounters).

Valentine’s Day is, admittedly, mainly an event designed to give money to the card, candy, and jewelry industries (as eloquently discussed by Noël Rozny on her blog), and a way for single people or others unlucky in love to feel especially miserable and alone. But if it’s done right, Valentine’s Day can be fun for anyone—all you have to do is decide that the day is an opportunity to express your affection for all those you love and care for. With that in mind, I offer you just a few photos to illustrate the day:

There’s the tender love between parents and children (at least in the moments when neither one is chewing on the other):

There’s the pleasure of combining the joy of eating with the joy of being together:

And then there’s the bond we enjoy when being with someone, cheek to cheek:

…Or cheek to cheek:

…Or cheek to cheek:

I hope that you, Readers, will be able to enjoy the day and appreciate at least some form of love, for all that matters of the heart can be a thorny affair.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Meditation

There are two kinds of visitors to the Reptile House that I really don’t like.

The first kind gets annoyed or even insulted when the subject of the exhibit is not immediately visible, as if the fact that these animals are given some room for privacy in their very small enclosure is an affront against visitors in general and this visitor in particular. S/he will then abruptly move on, complaining all the while about what s/he didn’t see.

The second kind realizes that there’s a certain challenge involved in spotting some of the more cryptic reptiles and amphibians—but that’s all s/he realizes. S/he’ll take the time to find a snake, say, and will point it out triumphantly to whomever s/he’s with—but that’s it; the game’s over, and s/he dismisses the animal without another glance.

I acknowledge that there are certain reptiles—some of the snakes, especially—that don’t really hold my attention for very long, often because they’re immobile and/or only partially visible. But I’ve never thought that this was because of some failing on the animal’s—or zoo’s—part, nor have I felt the need to scoff at the animals or treat them as my adversary in a game of hide-and-seek—and acted as if they had no value once I’d found them.

Thus I am better than those jerks.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Flamingo Friday: What a Glorious Feeling

Preenin' in the snow...

...Just preenin' in the snow...

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Slow Day at the Zoo

[a sloth-in-the-box]

As I have mentioned before, the zoo’s sloths are elusive. –Well, that’s not precisely true: the sloth in the Amazonia exhibit is elusive (to the point of having achieved invisibility), and the ones in the Small-Mammal House are immobile. All that can be seen of them is a bit of claw, a bit of fur, a mysterious stretch of what might be an arm or leg or neck—there’s no real way to tell, given the way the sloths fold themselves into their nest-boxes with the agility of long-time yoga practitioners. Although tantalizing for the viewer, the sloths’ behavior is not really surprising; they’re nocturnal, after all, so there’s no good reason for them to be gallivanting about during visiting hours.

That’s why I was especially astonished—and completely thrilled—when this Sunday the male sloth in the small-mammal house was not only moving but moving all over his exhibit. In fact, he stayed out, and active, long enough for me to go home and get Annie to come see him, too (it helps if you live five minutes’ walk from the zoo—but still).

[sloth with tamarin monkey in the background;
the volunteers explained that these monkeys,
which are, I estimate, about 50 billion times
faster than the sloths, tend to jump on the sloths
and try to take their food and/or groom them; by
the time the sloth moves his/her arm to swipe
them off, they’ve already jumped away.
Ah, the joys of cohabitation!]

The sloth’s reasons for this promenade were unclear; he wasn’t heading for his nest box or even for the rocks under which he sometimes folds himself. Instead, he circled the exhibit, strolling slowly upside-down along the many ropes that crisscross the enclosure. The zoo volunteers speculated that he was feeling frisky because Sunday was the first mild and sunny day we’ve had in a while. I’m not sure, though; I mean, I was excited about the nice weather, but would a nocturnal animal really be enthused by sunlight?

Who knows. He was animated by something, anyway, and I’m glad he was. He attracted quite a crowd, too; I think my favorite comment from the onlookers was one young woman’s observation, “His hair is the exact same color as my grandfather’s second wife’s.”

I’ll leave you with that thought.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}
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