Even without color, peafowl seems plenty proud

white-peacock

While not a “birder” in the formal sense of the word, I’m often fascinated by the beauty of feathered creatures. Given their striking variety of colors, extensive array of plumage and capacity to compose a seemingly endless arrangement of songs, it’s easy to be captivated.

Occasionally, one comes upon a bird that’s particularly breathtaking, such as the above, a white peahen seen last weekend in rural South Carolina.

After a bit of research, I came to the realization that the above was not an albino peafowl, but one with a condition called leucism, which results in an overall reduction in different types of pigment.

Peahen with normal coloring.

Peahen with normal coloring.

As a result, the bird had practically no coloration in its plumage but retained its normal eye color, rather than having red or pink eyes as an albino bird would have had.

In addition, white peafowl can mate to create white offspring.

The above bird was spotted on the edge of farm and, given the presence of innumerable predators in the area and the fact that an all-white creature would have little chance of blending in in the wild, there’s no question it was a domesticated creature.

Despite the lack of blues, browns and tans normally associated with peafowl, the bird in question still strutted around as though it were the most colorful creature in the county. Some characteristics can’t be bred out, one supposes.

White peafowl have to be somewhat rare; earlier this year, when a white peacock got loose in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, it caused a bit of a stir.

Scientists say Greenland sharks can live for 400 years

greenland shark

Researchers using radiocarbon dating have determined that Greenland sharks, slow-moving giants that live in the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic, are the longest-living vertebrates on Earth, with one recorded as being 400 years old.

Which explains the old Greenland shark quip that goes something like: “God must like practical jokes; why would He make it so female Greenland sharks reach their sexual peak at age 150 while males reach theirs at 75?

Lame jokes aside, the recent evidence uncovered by the team at the University of Copenhagen nearly doubles the age of oldest-known living vertebrate. The former record-holder was a bowhead whale estimated to be 211 years old, according to the BBC.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of 28 Greenland sharks, and estimated that one female was about 400 years old, according to research published in the journal Science.

“We had our expectations that we were dealing with an unusual animal, but I think everyone doing this research was very surprised to learn the sharks were as old as they were,” said lead author Julius Nielsen, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen.

Greenland sharks, which live farther north than any other shark species, can grow to more than 20 feet and 2,100 pounds.

Determining the age of Greenland sharks proved difficult.

“For some fish, scientists are able to examine ear bones called otoliths, which when sectioned, show a pattern of concentric rings that scientists can count as they would the rings in a tree,” according to the BBC. “Sharks are harder, but some species, such as the Great White, have calcified tissue that grows in layers on their back bones, that can also be used to age the animals.”

But because the Greenland shark is a very, very soft shark, with no hard body parts where growth layers are deposited, it was believed that the age could not be investigated, Nielsen told the BBC.

However the team discovered a means of determining the age of the sharks.

“The Greenland shark’s eye lens is composed of a specialized material – and it contains proteins that are metabolically inert,” Neilson said. “Which means after the proteins have been synthesized in the body, they are not renewed any more. So we can isolate the tissue that formed when the shark was a pup, and do radiocarbon dating.”

The team looked at 28 sharks, most of which had died after being caught in fishing nets as by-catch.

Using this technique, they established that the largest shark – a 16-foot-long female – was extremely ancient.

Because radiocarbon dating does not produce exact dates, they believe that she could have been as “young” as 272 or as old as 512. But she was most likely somewhere in the middle, or about 400 years old, the news service reported.

It means she was born between the years of 1501, or less than a decade after Columbus landed in the Western hemisphere, and 1744, or, 12 years after George Washington was born. Most likely the date of birth was in the 17th century. If she were exactly 400 years old, she would have been born the same year William Shakespeare died.

The oldest invertebrate is a 507-year-old clam called Ming. If the female Greenland shark’s age is at the upper end of the scale, she will have outlasted the long-lived clam – and certainly had a much more exciting existence.

And, for the record, Greenland sharks, both male and female, appear to reach sexual maturity at around age 150.

Nine-banded armadillos: Not just roadkill anymore

silverstreet 8 8 2016 007

Armadillos are like possums in that they are more often seen dead along the side of the road than alive.

In fact, given the abundance of deceased armadillos and possums that are evident throughout much of the year two thoughts come to mind: a) how exactly do the two species remain vibrant?; and b) just how many of each exist in the wild that they can withstand such wilting assaults from vehicles?

While possums have been a regular feature in my neck of the woods for, likely, tens of thousands of years, armadillos are relative newcomers, having only migrated into South Carolina about 25 years ago.

I’d seen the remains of a number of armadillos that had gone mano a mano with cars and lost, but Monday I experienced my first live sighting in the Palmetto State. Driving through the small town of Silverstreet (population 216, not counting interloping armadillos), I spotted Dasypus novemcinctus, or the nine-banded, long-nosed armadillo, in the middle of a yard, rooting around.

The yard was a large, one-acre lot without fencing, so I pulled over, grabbed my camera and walked the 50 yards or so toward the insectivore. It ignored me until I got within perhaps 10 feet of it, then it trundled ahead, keeping a small distance between us.

Each time I moved slowly toward it, it kept ahead of me, but didn’t pay me a lot of attention.

Photo of armadillo taken by someone who actually knows how to operate a camera.

Photo of armadillo taken by someone who actually knows how to operate a camera.

The nine-banded armadillo has been described as a cross between a turtle and piglet, a depiction both entertaining and accurate. Apparently, the creature got its name from Spanish conquistadors, with “armadillo” meaning “little man in armor” in Spanish.

The armadillo’s shell isn’t solid like that of a turtle, but made up of a series of scutes, or bony plates, which overlap and telescope, giving the creature flexibility.

Their expansion into large swathes of the US hasn’t exactly been well received. Not only do they damage lawns, gardens and structures with their digging, but can cause havoc in the poultry and egg-producing industries. In addition, they also eat the eggs of ground-nesting creatures such as rice birds and gopher tortoises.

One of the interesting aspects of armadillos is that they give birth to identical quadruplets, which are usually born in the spring.

Looking at the mammal as it poked around, I was struck by the length and width of its tail and the diminutive size of its head. It was as though someone had stuck a camper shell on a bicycle.

Though this particular armadillo may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing, it was certainly fleet of foot. Once I moved in for a closeup, it skedaddled toward what it thought was a burrow. However, said burrow turned out to be only about 12 inches deep.

It turned around and paused for about 30 seconds, enabling me to snap a few pictures, than made for, in this case, low ground, galloping at pretty good clip across well-manicured grass before disappearing into a culvert.

Given the relatively few number of cars in the area this particular armadillo inhabits, it’s likely it will survive and mate, which will mean more “little men in armor” as time progresses.

(Top: Armadillo trying to hide from nosey blogger in Silverstreet, SC.)

 

Wooly mammoth died off due to depletion of drinking water

woolymammoth

Wooly mammoths, the prehistoric pachyderms renowned for their popularity in Ice Age-genre movies and their ability to scatter tribes of primitive man with little more than a bellowing roar – at least according to Ice Age-genre movies – died out because of lack of potable water, according to a new study.

The last group of wooly mammoths, living on St. Paul Island in the Bering Strait, fell victim to fresh water being contaminated by nearby ocean water, according to research led by Penn State University professor Dr. Russell Graham and published in this week’s edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to BBC News and the Daily Mail, post-Ice Age warming of the planet caused the sea levels to rise and the mammoths’ island habitat to shrink in size.

“Furthermore, some of the freshwater lakes that they used to keep hydrated were flooded by saltwater from the ocean, leading to increased competition for the few remaining watering holes. The increasing number of mammoths using these lakes ultimately made them unusable as well, Dr. Graham said.

“As the other lakes dried up, the animals congregated around the water holes. They were milling around, which would destroy the vegetation – we see this with modern elephants,” he told BBC News. “And this allows for the erosion of sediments to go into the lake, which is creating less and less fresh water. The mammoths were contributing to their own demise.”

While most of the world’s wooly mammoth population died out by approximately 10,500 years ago, the group on St. Paul Island managed to survive for another 5,000 years before lack of fresh water brought about their extinction.

“Graham and his colleagues reached this conclusion after analyzing the remains of 14 wooly mammoths using radiocarbon dating, and collecting sediments from underneath the lake floor in order to study their contents in order to determine what the lake environment was like at various points throughout history,” according to the online science website Red Orbit.

Researchers believe the mammoths on St. Paul Island survived 5,000 years longer than other mammoths when they became trapped on the island after a land bridge was submerged by rising sea levels.

They survived until conditions worsened, and the influx of saltwater combined with the lack of freshwater from melting snow or rain caused their sources of drinking water to become increasingly limited, according to Red Orbit.

“We do know modern elephants require between 70 and 200 liters of water daily,” Dr. Graham told BBC News. “We assume mammoths did the same thing. It wouldn’t have taken long if the water hole had dried up. If it had only dried up for a month, it could have been fatal.”

Riding the rails with a small green unrelenting reptile

anole 1 cropped

How tough are times in parts of the US these days? Look at the grade of hobo that can be found wandering the rails of the Deep South.

The above Carolina anole, about six inches long, kept up a steady pace about four feet in front of me as I walked down the Norfolk Southern tracks in the late afternoon hours near Silverstreet, SC, earlier this week. That the steel tracks, having baked in the broiling sun all day, were quite hot didn’t dissuade the diminutive reptile from its smooth, straight path.

When I would attempt to get a close-up photo, the anole would hop off the rail, scamper across a railroad tie and jump up onto the other rail. This went on for several minutes before it finally grew tired and sat atop the track with its mouth agape, a threat of sorts, one supposes.

Carolina anoles have the ability to change colors, from dark brown to bright green, depending on their background, though they’re not considered true chameleons.

While their bite is relatively painless, anoles will grip hard enough and with enough tenacity that they can dangle from an earlobe and even a nose if given the opportunity. This tends to be more entertaining for children than spouses, or so I have heard.

I eventually took the above critter, worn out from its rail-hopping antics, and placed it in a patch of cool, leafy shade. It scuttled away into the green grass, blending in quickly.

anole 3

Napoleon’s famed steed Vizir to be restored at Paris museum

vizir

Some 190 years ago, Vizir, among the most beloved of the scores of horses Napoleon rode into combat, died, having outlived his master and likely all 130 of the other horses the French emperor used during his 14-year reign.

Today, the remains of Vizir, who accompanied the famed warrior at the Battle of Jena in October 1806, in many other battles in the Prussian and Polish campaigns, into exile on the island of Elba in 1814 and then back to France again during The Hundred Days, stands in a glass cabinet in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, not far from the final repose of Napoleon himself.

Time has left Vizir, a gray-white Arabian stallion, in rough shape, and in May the museum launched a funding effort to enable it to restore the remains of the steed.

More than $23,130 was raised and a pair of taxidermists who are specialists in the restoration of organic material are at work on Vizir’s degraded hide, according to The History Blog.

“They have X-rayed him and are working on a thorough cleaning, rehydrating the hide, filling in several large cracks and restoring the color which has turned a sallow yellowish color over the years, a far cry from the white-gray he was famous for,’’ according to the blog. “The project is expected to take about four weeks. Once the restoration is complete, Vizir will be displayed in a new climate-controlled case which will prevent further degradation.”

The project, which will take about a month, involves repairing tears and cracks, notably a gaping fissure running down one shoulder. The taxidermists will also rehydrate the mounted beast and give it a good dusting, according to Agence-France Presse.

Vizir was born in 1793 in the Ottoman Empire and presented by Sultan Selim III to Napoleon, then-First Consul of France, in 1802, a diplomatic gift marking the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and France after three years of war.

Napoleon’s horses were trained to withstand battle, an important consideration given that as many as 20 were shot from under him during his many years of waging war.

Vizir, branded with an N topped with a crown, was fortunate in that he was not enlisted for duty during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign or the subsequent ones in Germany and France because as a 20-year-old he was considered too old for battle. He was at Waterloo in 1815, but kept behind the lines.

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena, Vizir was retired and was taken in by Philippe de Chaulaire, a squire of the imperial stables. The horse died on July 30, 1826, at age 33.

Chaulaire had him taxidermied but fearing the anti-Napoleonic political climate of the Bourbon Restoration sold Vizir to William Clark, an Englishman living in northern France.

Clark felt the same political pressure after Louis-Napoleon’s failed coup in 1836 and three years later passed Vizir along to another Englishman, John Greaves. Greaves smuggled the stuffed horse out of France into England by dumping the framing, unstitching his skin and stashing it in his suitcase.

Safe in England, Vizir was remounted and put on display at Manchester’s Natural History Museum in 1843.

Vizir returned to France in 1868 when the museum, forced to close its doors due to financial problems, gifted him to Louis-Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III, during a visit to England.

Not knowing what else to do with a large stuffed horse, Napoleon III stored it in the Louvre where it remained out of sight for 30 years until it was rediscovered in 1904 and transferred to the newly founded Musée de l’Armée in 1905.

Today, Vizir is one of thousands of attractions in the museum, alongside the likes of the 16th century sword of King Francis I and a World War I Renault FT17, one of France’s first tanks.

The equine is showcased just a short distance from his master, who rests under the Dome of Les Invalides.

(Top: Professionals work on restoring the remains of Vizir, one of Napoleon’s best-known battle horses.)

Locusts: Not just for stripping crops anymore

bomb sniffing locusts

Technophobes worry about a world dominated by robots bent on enslaving humans. Others are vexed by the thought of a society corrupted by an over-reliance on technology that leaves humans unable to function on their own. I say: Beware the cyborg insects!

Lest one think that last bit is just another of this blog’s idiotic rants (which, for the uninitiated, it is), consider what’s being attempted at Washington University in St. Louis:

Researchers are trying to take locusts, the same insects that love to strip the fields of already-starving populations, and marry their keen sense of smell with nanotechnology in a bid to create living bomb detectors.

A “heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the insects can allow the team to control where they fly, while a small computer attached to its body will capture their neural signals,” according to Red Orbit. “The computer will then decode the signals as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ message, which will be sent back to the team. There, it will cause a red or green LED to light up, signaling either that a bomb is present or that it is not.”

While relying on an insect over a bomb-sniffing drone or dog might seem fanciful, the bottom line, according to team leader Baranidharan Raman, is that simpler is better.

Dogs have one of the most powerful senses of smell amongst animals, but require years of training – and a great deal of expense; locusts have a strong sense of smell, and can be directed much more simply, according to Red Orbit. Plus, the locust system might perform better than man-made ones.

“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings,” Raman told the BBC. “The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.

“Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types,” he added.

And, let’s face it, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get attached to “Elijah,” the bomb-sniffing locust, making him considerably more expendable than a police squad’s bomb dog or an expensive robot.

These “cyborg” locusts are currently in their early phase of testing, but Raman believes that the technology could become available within two years.

Raman’s team recently received a grant of $750,000 from the US Office of Naval Research for his project.

That will either move the project considerably along or, if they’re already in the advanced stages, procure a whole mess of locusts.

(A researcher holds a locust that has sensors implanted in its brain to decode neural activity. Photo courtesy of Baranidharan Raman, Washington University, St. Louis.)