Category Archives: Mammals

Nature’s Perfect Partners: PBS NATURE May 11

Barbell fish clean hippo's skin and teeth (photo courtesy PBS Nature © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)
Barbell fish clean hippo's skin and teeth (photo courtesy PBS Nature © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)

Oh my!  Is the hippo eating these fish?!?

No. He could eat them if he wanted to but these barbell fish are his helpers.  They eat ticks from his skin and food from his teeth.  It's a symbiotic relationship.

The hippo and the barbell fish are just one example of the unlikely partnerships animals make with other species.  Watch the premiere of Nature's Perfect Partners on Wednesday May 11 to learn about many more -- lizards with lions, a fish with a blind shrimp, toads with tarantulas.

Here's a preview:

Don't miss Nature's Perfect Partners this Wednesday May 11 at 8pm EDT/ 9pm CDT on PBS.  In Pittsburgh it's on WQED.


(photo courtesy PBS NATURE © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)

Get Ready For Groundhog Day!

Get ready for Groundhog Day!

Tomorrow is the mid-point of winter, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  February 2 is also the day when a very special rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges from his den to predict the weather for the next six weeks.

Phil never makes his prediction in isolation.  His day in the sun (or shade) spawns a huge celebration in Punxsutawney, PA.  Preview the excitement in his eight minute promo video above.

If you don't like winter, then hope for an overcast sky so that Phil has a day in the shade.  Here's why.



(video from Punxsutawney Phil on YouTube)

Unicorns At Sea

Narwhals "tusking" (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know there's a whale with a horn like a unicorn?

The narhwal (Monodon monoceros) is an arctic whale, closely related to the beluga whom it resembles.

Close relatives: Beluga whale and narwhal (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Close relatives: Beluga whale and narwhal (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

Like the beluga, it has teeth though it doesn't use them for chewing.  All but two of the teeth are vestigial but one of those, the left canine, grows though the male's upper lip spiraling counter-clockwise, straight out, in a single tusk as much as nine feet long.

The tusk is not a sword.  Instead, like our teeth it's made up of layers but it's hollow inside and much more sensitive.  The outer layer is permeable, allowing seawater to pass through the dentin into the hollow core filled with millions of nerves. Scientists know the tusks can sense salinity but they probably can sense a lot more. When narwhals surface to breathe and rub tusk to tusk they're not fighting, they're communicating.

Narwhals are so specialized it may lead to their extinction.  They live only in the Arctic Ocean where they depend on its icy habitat for food and shelter.  They roam in pods of 5-10 individuals and may migrate in groups of 1,000 but they seem more loyal to their favorite sites than to following their food.  As climate change heats the water and melts the arctic ice, narwhals will have less food and fewer places to live. Like the polar bear, narwhals are threatened by climate change.

If or when this whale goes extinct it may pass into mythology, like the unicorn.

Unicorn in the Book of the properties of Bartholomew the Englishman, early fifteenth century (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Unicorn in the Book of the properties of Bartholomew the Englishman, early fifteenth century (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Why The Apple Tree Came Down

One autumn evening in Sweden, a man came home from his nighttime job and heard a strange bellowing in the dark coming from his neighbor's apple tree.

A drunken moose was calling for help!

To rescue the moose they had to chop down the tree.

And that's why the apple tree came down.


(video from YouTube)

p.s. The moose had been eating fermented apples.


Caracara, Capybara

Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hawk on pig?  Well, almost...

Caracara on capybara.

The bird is a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima), a member of the falcon family native to South America(*) and similar in size to a Cooper's hawk.

The mammal is a capybara (Hydrochoeris hydrochaeris), the world's largest rodent. Its scientific name is Greek for "water pig."  Its English name means "eats slender leaves" in the extinct Tupi language of Brazil.

Semi-aquatic, vegetarian, and closely related to the guinea pig, capybaras swim a lot.  They eat grass and aquatic plants which fortunately wear down their continuously growing teeth.  They also eat their own feces to get more nutrition out of their partially digested food.

Capybaras are big.  They stand as tall as a German shepherd but of course they're not the same shape and they weigh a lot more.  For a sense of scale, here's a group of capybaras grazing in a park in Brazil.

Capybaras grazing at Parque Barigüi, Curitiba, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Capybaras grazing at Parque Barigüi, Curitiba, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These groups are typical.  Capybaras are very social and live with 10-20 and up to 100 other individuals.  The round bump on their snouts is a scent gland called a morillo which they rub on everything to say "I'm here."  They also use anal scent glands and urine for the same purpose.  Obviously capybaras do not make good pets.

As for the bird, why is the caracara on the capybara?

More on that tomorrow.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

(*) Both the bird and the mammal have increased their range into southern Central America.

Natural Born Hustlers: PBS NATURE

Are humans the only species that fools others to survive, find food, and mate?  Not at all!

This month PBS NATURE premieres a new three-part series, Natural Born Hustlers, airing on PBS on Wednesdays, January 13, 20 and 27 at 8:00pm (ET) (check local listings).

Episode One, Staying Alive, focuses on survival techniques:  camouflage, dominance tricks, audio mimics and playing dead.  Early on I was amazed to learn how zebras' stripes create an optical illusion.  You have to see them in motion to believe it!

Other fascinating finds are the amazing skin-morphing camouflage of cuttlefish, the lizard that walks like a stinky beetle, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys who calculate whether they're needed in battle.  "More capuchins are killed by their own kind than by predators," says the episode.  What an unfortunate trait to have in common with humans.

The video excerpt above gives you a good idea of animals' ingenuity.  California ground squirrels use their enemy's scent as protective camouflage.  Their arch enemy is the rattlesnake, so if you hate to look at snakes this video will make you flinch.

And fair warning to those afraid of snakes:  Staying Alive has quite a few snakes in it including a match-up in North Carolina of a harmless species that mimics the coral snake.  The bonus is that you can identify birds by song on the audio track.


(Natural Born Hustlers trailer from PBS NATURE)

In The Beavers’ County

Chopped! Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Chopped! at the Wetlands Trail, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month I hiked the Wetlands Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County where I found many small trees chopped down next to Traverse Creek lake.  Across the water, cut treetops and shrubs lay in a messy half-submerged brush pile against the opposite shore.

The stumps don't show the straight-edge cut of human activity.  If you look closely you see tooth marks.  Big incisors were at work.


The remains of a stand of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
The remains of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are obviously here now, but that wasn't always the case.

When Beaver County was named for the Beaver River in 1800, their namesake was already hard to find.  The North American beaver population was 100 to 400 million before Europeans arrived to trap them but 300 years of over-hunting took its toll.  According to the PA Game Commission, "the last few beavers known to naturally exist in Pennsylvania were killed in Elk, Cameron, and Centre counties between 1850 and 1865."

Game laws and reintroduction programs have brought beavers back to 10% of their former population. Today there are 10 to 15 million beavers in North America.

In Pennsylvania one indication of the beavers' success is the number of complaints they generate, mostly about flooding including plugged culverts and flooded roads.  A lot of complaints often means there are a lot of beavers.

Where were the most complaints in 2008 in southwestern Pennsylvania?

In Beaver County.


(photos by Kate St. John)

Another Alien Invader

Little brown bat with white nose syndrome (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)
Little brown bat with white nose syndrome (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

Here's news that surprised me about white nose syndrome, the disease that's wiping out bat populations in eastern North America.

White nose syndrome (WNS) is caused by a cold-loving fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that thrives in temperatures 40-200 C (390- 680 F), which happens to be the winter temperature in caves where bats hibernate.

The fungus attaches to the bat's exposed skin -- nose, wings, ears -- where it looks like white powder.  It doesn't kill bats directly. Instead it eats away at their skin, causing irritation, dehydration, and higher metabolism that burns up their fat stores.(*)  The bats rouse themselves and fly around on mid-winter days looking for food.  There aren't any flying insects to eat so they starve and die. Millions of them.

Since white nose syndrome first appeared nine years ago near Albany, NY the toll has been devastating.  The fungus has spread rapidly from state to state and into Canada, ultimately reducing some bat populations by 95%.  It was confirmed in western Pennsylvania in the winter of 2010-2011 and this year in Oklahoma.  There's a real possibility that the little brown bat will go extinct in the next 15 years.

Bat researchers are now in a race against time to stop the fungus.  Meanwhile they found out where it came from: Europe.

How did it get here?

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Elizabeth Kolbert describes its probable path as told by NY DEC's Al Hicks.  The first record -- in 2006 -- was photographed in "a cave connected to Howes Cave, a popular tourist destination which offers, among other attractions, flashlight tours and underground boat trips.  "It's kind of interesting that the first record we have of this is photographs from a commercial cave in New York that gets about two hundred thousand visits a year," Hicks told me."

And so it's likely that someone with spores on their clothing or gear got on a plane in Europe and visited a cave near Albany.

It's amazingly easy to introduce an alien invader.


(photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I highly recommend The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert.  It's a great book, full of detective stories like this one.

(*) Click here for an article that answers the question: How Does White Nose Syndrome Kill Bats? Thanks to Deb Grove for the link.

The Acorn Plot

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)
Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Acorn abundance varies every year.  Some years there are lots of acorns, other years not so many.  This variation is an oak survival mechanism that alternately floods and dries up the market to insure that some of their nuts survive hungry predation by squirrels, turkeys and deer.

Back in December 2008 there were so few acorns in the Washington, D.C. area that the situation made national news and people put out store-bought delicacies for squirrels.

Were the squirrels begging for attention? Click here to read this 2008 article: The Acorn Plot.


p.s. Pennsylvania's squirrels have nothing to worry about this winter and next. The PA Game Commission says the acorn crop will be abundant this year and in 2016. Click here to read more.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

What Happens At A Clearcut?

Tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Before I retired from WQED in September 2014, this was the view outside my window ... except there were trees.

Last month contractors removed all the trees on the hillside between CMU's new Tepper Quad and Central Catholic's football field.  By the time I saw it a week ago it looked like this.

Hillside denuded by tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To give you an idea of what it used to look like, here's a view of the remaining trees behind WQED.

Trees remaining on hillside behind WQED, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the grand scheme of things this was a small woodlot surrounded by parking lots and an astroturf field, host to many invasive species.

Does it matter that humans removed this small landscape?

It does to the animals who lived there.

In the remaining woodlot behind WQED two squirrels fought a territorial battle. The loud one said, "This is mine! You have to leave!" The other cowered but stayed nearby. Probably a refugee.

Winter or a predator will determine who survives.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Does anyone know whose project this is (CMU or Central Catholic?) and why it was done?

UPDATE:  I haven't been back to the site for a week but friends confirm that this is a CMU project and that all the trees are gone now.  Every single one.