Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I generally don’t think much about ducks. Mallards are the ones I’m most familiar with, and though they’re pretty, I’ve seen them so often I don’t pay much attention to them. Mandarin ducks, though — they are ducks you take notice of. I can’t imagine a more colourful, eye-catching duck. Maybe rainbow ducks, but I’m pretty sure those don’t exist.

Mandarin ducks are native to East Asia, though there are also introduced populations in the UK and US. They are migratory, breeding in Siberia, China and Japan, and heading to southern China and Japan for the winter. Mandarin ducks prefer to nest in dense forest areas, around rivers and lakes. In the winter the ducks can be found in marshes, flooded fields, as well as occasionally in costal lagoons and estuaries.

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A male and female Mandarin duck posing for the perfect contrast shot. Image credit: Francis C. Franklin via Wikipedia

As I mentioned, Mandarin ducks are quite colourful. Well, the males are bright and beautiful, and the females are rather drab. I’m not even going to try and accurately describe a male Mandarin duck’s vibrant plumage — that’s what pictures are for! Females are mostly grey with a white stripe behind their eyes. Mandarin ducks don’t reach particularly impressive sizes, measuring 41-49 cm long with wingspans of up to 75 cm.

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A stunning picture of a male Mandarin duck. Image credit: David Iliff via Wikipedia

Mandarin ducks feed primarily on plants and seeds, foraging both on land and in water. During the winter, seeds and grains form the bulk of the ducks’ diets; in spring and summer they eat more animal-based diets, including insects, snails, fish and frogs. They are crepuscular, feeding at dawn and dusk and roosting during the day.

Male Mandarin ducks use their bright colours to attract females, though they also perform courtship rituals that include strange behaviours such as mock drinking and shaking. Once a pair bond is formed, it can last for multiple seasons. Both parents search for a nesting site, though females get the last say in where they finally settle down. Between nine to twelve eggs are laid in the nest, and are incubated by the female for about a month. Male Mandarin ducks may protect females and eggs during incubation, but they do not help with incubation, and leave before the eggs hatch.

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A female with her ducklings, who had to make a huge leap of faith to get there. Image credit: London looks via Wikipedia 

Mandarin ducks start life in a bit of a quandary. They’ve just hatched, so they can’t fly, and they have to follow their mothers to the nearest bit of water so they can feed. But their nests aren’t easy to get out of; sometimes Mandarin duck nests can be as high as nine meters off the ground. Thankfully, the chicks don’t have trust issues — when their mother calls them, the chicks leap from the nest one by one. Somehow they manage to land unhurt, and can proceed to waddle to the nearest water source. The chicks learn to fly in 40 to 45 days, and are then independent from their parents.

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Okay so… I started a beautiful painting of a Mandarin duck, but it’s going to take some time, so I made this as a place holder. Get it? I absolutely love Mandarin oranges so I thought I’d draw a duck made out of them…

Mandarin ducks are currently listed as a species of Least Concern, however they do face threats to their population. Habitat destruction is a serious issue for Mandarin ducks, since they require trees for nesting. They are poached for their beautiful plumage, but thankfully they taste pretty bad so they aren’t hunted for food. Tasting terrible is an excellent survival strategy in our modern world!

Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta)

I’m not a huge fan of primates, so I tend to avoid writing about them. That being said, the less human-like a primate is, the more I like it. So lemurs are right up there as some of my favourite primate species, as they don’t look anything like people, and don’t even look that much like classic monkeys.

Lemurs are a family of primates found only on Madagascar, an island known for having strange and wondrous wildlife. There are almost 100 species of lemur, ranging in size, colour, and habitat. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to focus on the most well-known lemur, the ring-tailed lemur.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in the south and southwestern parts of Madagascar. Their favoured habitat is in gallery forests — forests located on the edge of riverbanks. They will live in other types of forest, however, including deciduous forest, dry scrub, and montane forests. Though they live in forested areas, ring-tailed lemurs are not strictly arboreal. In fact, of all the lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial, and can spend up to a third of their time on the ground.

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A map of the distribution of ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Image source: Wikipedia

The bodies of ring-tailed lemurs only get to be 39 to 46 cm in length, but their tails add a whole lot more to their overall length. Their tails can reach lengths of 56 to 63 cm, and are covered in distinctive black and white rings. The rest of the lemurs’ bodies is covered in grey or brown fur, which gets lighter on the neck and belly. Ring-tailed lemurs have a black ‘mask’ on their faces, where the fur is less dense and their black skin can show through.

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It’s incredible how long their tails are. And a bit silly, really. Image credit: Alex Dunkel via Wikipedia

You might be thinking that the large, extravagant tails of ring-tailed lemurs must make excellent climbing tools. After all, what better to wrap around tree branches than a super long tail? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work so well for these lemurs, as their tails are not prehensile. Instead, ring-tailed lemurs use their beautiful tails for balance, communication, and social cohesion.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups called troops, which range in size from six to over thirty individuals, though the average troop size is between thirteen and fifteen lemurs. Within troops, there is a strict dominance hierarchy, which is separate for males and females. Female lemurs dominate males, and often establish dominance by biting, cuffing, grabbing, and lunging at conspecifics. Lemurs will also defend their territory from other troops, using scent to mark their territories.

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Ring-tailed lemurs like to sunbathe in the mornings to warm up, and assume these wonderfully attractive sitting positions. Image credit: Keven Law via Wikipedia

Competition gets really heated during the breeding season, when males fight for the right to breed with females. Breeding season is from April to May, and females stagger their estrus so each is receptive to mating on a different day, reducing competition. Clever girls. After a 135 day gestation, female lemurs give birth to one baby, or rarely twins.

Baby lemurs are carried on their mothers’ chests for the first two weeks of their lives, and then get to piggy back on moms’ backs for the next few months. They start to eat solid food after two months, and are fully weaned at five months of age. All members of the troop can assist with rearing and protecting the young, though survival of infants can be as low as 50%. Ring-tailed lemurs reach sexual maturity at around 2.5 to 3 years.

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My attempt at drawing lemur eyes… just to creep you out! 

Unfortunately for ring-tailed lemurs, human activity has made them an endangered species. Destruction of forests for agriculture, lumber and fuel have had a serious impact on lemur populations. Lemurs are also hunted for food and as pets. Madagascar is known to have periodic droughts, which can severely impact the survival rate of young lemurs. All these factors have led to a decline in lemur populations. There are a number of reserves currently on Madagascar, where lemur populations are protected, so hopefully they can bounce back.

Cover image source: Mattis2412 via Wikipedia

Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas)

I picked today’s animal mostly based on its looks — colourful animals are just really fun to draw. Apparently my past self felt the same way as well, because I have a painting of a red-eyed tree frog I did six or seven years ago on my bedroom wall. We’ll have to compare the one I’ve done for today to that one and see if I’ve improved at all!

Red-eyed tree frogs are native to Central America, from southern Mexico in the north to Panama and a tiny bit of Colombia in the south. They live in rainforest habitats, particularly in places near rivers. If you haven’t figured it out from their name, I’ll tell you just to be super clear: red-eyed tree frogs like trees. They spend almost all their time in trees, and are primarily nocturnal.

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A map of the distribution of red-eyed tree frogs. Image source: Wikipedia

The stunning red eyes of this frog aren’t the only colourful part of its body. Their backs are mostly bright green, and they have yellow and blue vertical stripes on their sides. The upper part of their legs are a pretty, rich blue, while their feet are a startlingly brilliant orange or red. Altogether, red-eyed tree frogs are a wonderful melange of colours that makes them a joy to look at (and to draw!).

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My drawing of a red-eyed tree frog, contrasted with the painting I did in 2011. I think I’ve gotten a bit better! 

Tree frogs don’t get to be super large, reaching between about 3.5 and 7 centimetres in length. Female frogs are typically larger than males. Their long back legs make red-eyed tree frogs excellent jumpers, and suction cup-like structures on their toes means tree frogs can stick to pretty much any surface. That’s a pretty useful skill when you spend your life in trees.

A lot of brightly coloured animals are poisonous, their striking colours a warning to any predator that might think about eating them. This is not the case with the red-eyed tree frog. Their bright green colouring actually helps them camouflage against tree leaves. During the day red-eyed tree frogs sit on leaves with their eyes closed and their blue spots covered by their hind legs, praying no hungry animal notices them.

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A red-eyed tree frog trying to camouflage itself against a leaf. I don’t know why this one is so pale… maybe it’s the lighting? Image credit: John J. Mosesso via Wikipedia

If a predator does happen by, the frogs open their eyes suddenly, staring right at the predator. Bright red eyes coming from a green lump may startle the predator just long enough to allow the frog to leap away. I’m not quite sure how effective this defensive strategy is, but red-eyed tree frogs seem to be doing pretty well.

Reproduction in red-eyed tree frogs begins with males advertising their presence to any females in the area. They do this by calling loudly, and quivering on leaves to establish territory. Once a female shows up, all the males in the area jump on her back, vying of the best position. Occasionally multiple males will cling to a female’s back while she is trying to find a good spot to lay her eggs, and she may have to carry them around for hours, sometimes even days.

Females lay clutches of around 40 eggs, on leaves that hang over puddles or ponds. Males stay on the females’ backs while they lay their eggs, fertilizing them as they are laid. The eggs develop into tadpoles quite quickly, and the tadpoles swim around inside the eggs until they rupture. Once the eggs have ruptured, the tadpoles are washed down into the pond waiting below, where they can complete their metamorphosis and become adults.

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Coincidentally, I also had this souvenir shot glass in my office (I use it for painting), so apparently I have a thing about red-eyed tree frogs… 

Thanks to their beautiful colouring, red-eyed tree frogs are popular in the pet trade. Thankfully, they are not yet threatened, though their population has been declining. Pollution, habitat destruction and deforestation are all significant threats to red-eyed tree frogs, so we ned to keep an eye on these guys to ensure they stick around!

Cover image credit: Carey James Balboa via Wikipedia

Common Pill Bug (Armadillidium vulgare)

It’s funny how sometimes the most common animals are the ones I know the least about. I know a fair bit about tenrecs, cheetahs and lyrebirds, but know next to nothing about pill-bugs. In fact, I’ve barely even thought about them, asides from when I played with them as a kid. But this blog is a place for people to learn about animals (me included), so let’s talk about pill-bugs!

Pill-bugs are crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, and belong to the genus Armadillidium, which currently has 178 known species. That’s an awful lot of species to cover, so I’m going to focus on one of the most common, and the most studied, species: Armadillidium vulgare, otherwise known as the common pill-bug. Common pill-bugs originated in Europe, near the Mediterranean, but have since been introduced around the world, with particularly dense populations in the United States.

Pill-bugs require moist soil to survive, as they do not possess a waxy cuticle to prevent themselves from drying out. As well, pill-bugs breathe from psuedotrachea, a type of modified lung that must be moist to function. Humidity levels of around 50-60% or more are ideal for pill-bugs. They are most common in temperate or Mediterranean-like climates, and are often found under debris, such as logs, stones, or human waste.

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I think pill-bugs are kind of cute, what do you think? Image credit: Franco Folini via Wikipedia

Common pill-bugs are oval shaped, and have armour-like plates along their bodies. They are not overly large, reaching sizes of 18 millimetres. Most pill-bugs are darkly coloured, with some having spots along their backs that can be yellow, brown or red. Common pill-bugs have seven pairs of legs, and a single pair of antennae.

Pill-bugs have to constantly worry about drying out, so much of their behaviour is centred around conserving moisture. When humidity is high, pill-bugs move slowly, and when humidity drops, they start to move more quickly, to search out moister areas. They move almost twice as much during the summer than in winter, and tend to be more active during the night, when moisture loss is reduced. When temperatures get to be 20 to 30 degrees celsius, pill-bugs release pheromones that cause them to bunch together, which reduces the surface area of individuals in the group, meaning less moisture is lost.

Many of you probably know that pill-bugs curl into balls, but do you know why? There are two likely reasons, the first being that all the soft, squishy parts of pill-bugs are located under their shells, so by curling into a ball pill-bugs can protect their vulnerable parts. The second is that rolling up into a ball helps prevent moisture loss, and as we’ve seen, moisture conservation is of paramount importance to these little guys.

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A pill-bug unrolling from a defensive curl. Image credit: Franco Folini via Wikipedia 

Pill-bugs fall prey to a number of animals, including birds and arthropods. They are not entirely defenceless — in addition to their armour and their rolling-in-a-ball technique, pill-bugs can release nasty secretions when threatened. Unfortunately, pill-bugs’ defences only really work against small invertebrates, and birds will readily snatch these guys up. Also, a clever genus of ants have super long mandibles that can pry open a pill-bug when it’s curled in a ball.

Pill-bugs don’t have a particularly yummy diet — they feed on leaf litter and other decaying organic matter. They are, however, quite adaptable, able to survive for several months without food, and when food is scarce, readily switch to other sources of nutrients. Pill-bugs will eat the roots of plants, seeds, fruit, other pill bugs, and even their own poop.

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I had a lot of fun drawing this fella! 

The mating season in pill-bugs depends on the climate, with mating usually occurring in warmer times. Thus in regions with mild winters, mating can occur year round, while in other areas mating usually starts in the spring. Both male and female pill-bugs mate with multiple partners, and females can store sperm for up to a year. Pill-bugs moult regularly on a 29 day cycle, during which time the bugs cannot move or eat, and are extremely vulnerable. A special moulting cycle occurs in females, called the parturial moult. Mating can only occur during a female’s parturial moult, so males have to be prepared! Female pill-bugs retain their eggs in a pouch until they hatch, for about two to three months. The little pill-bugs stay in the pouch for a few days, and after moulting a few times, are independent from their mothers.

Hopefully by now you realize just how fascinating pill-bugs are, and have a greater appreciation for them. I certainly do! These are some awesome little insects (and they’re pretty cute!)

Dragonet (family Callionymidae)

I’ve loved dragons ever since I can remember loving anything. I think they’ve always been my favourite mythical creature. So any real-life animal that is named after dragons always sparks my interest. Which is how I came across today’s group of animals, the dragonets.

Dragonets belong to the family Callionymidae, which consists of 139 fish species in nineteen genera. They live in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and enjoy hanging around in warm, tropical waters. Dragonets are bottom dwelling fish, residing on the sandy ocean floors at depths of up to 200 meters.

Dragonets, as their name implies, are not overly large fish. The largest species of dragonet reaches lengths of only 30 cm. Many species of dragonet are brightly coloured, and have wonderful patterns along their bodies. Males and females have different colour patterns, and although the fins of all dragonets are large, males are known for having particularly impressive dorsal fins.

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A very colourful mandarin fish, look for a post on these guys in the future, they’re super cool! Image source

They may look pretty, but dragonets are not friendly fish, and males are especially aggressive during courtship and mating. They will charge each another, biting the other fish’s mouth, and twist around one another. Both their large spines and bright colours are required to achieve dominance, and thus gain access to mates. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost: males are more likely to die than females, both from fights with one another and from predation, since they are easier to find, thanks to their bright and beautiful colouration.

Reproduction in dragonets begins with courtship, with both sexes (though more commonly males) displaying to one another. Displays include spreading of the fins, as well as swimming around one another. Males will also open and close their mouths, and position themselves on top of females and rub them. Once a pair has been formed, the two prepare to spawn.

To spawn, dragonets swim upwards, rising together in a semicircular pattern. They don’t move very quickly, and have to take a rest after rising about fifteen centimetres. Once they proceed to the second part of their rising swim, the dragonets start to spawn, with both sexes releasing their gametes into the water. The buoyant eggs stay floating in the water, and travel away with the current. Once spawning is done, male dragonets go back to the depths and look for more females to mate with.

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A picturesque dragonet, looking spotty and colourful. Image source

Dragonets feed on benthic organisms, primarily small invertebrates. They have large mouths, and can extend their jaws towards their prey, sucking the unfortunate victim into their mouth. When dragonets themselves are threatened, they will bury themselves in the sand, so that only their eyes are visible. Other defences depend on the species; some spines on dragonets have been reported to be venomous, while many species are able to secrete nasty tasting substances that deter predators.

Though I picked these fish as my animal for the week because of their name, they turned out to be a lot of fun to draw too. Their bright colours and pretty patterns made a lovely subject to paint. Isn’t it nice when things work out like that?

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My watercolour painting of an oscillated dragonet. I decided to highlight the splash of colour on its dorsal fin by keeping the rest monochrome.

Wedge-Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax)

I picked today’s animal because lately I’ve had a hankering to draw some kind of claw or talon. When I think of impressive talons, I immediately think of eagles, so I searched around until I found a suitable candidate. And lo! The wedge-tailed eagle popped up, and I couldn’t have found a better bird to draw and to write about.

The wedge-tailed eagle is found in Australia, so I’m shocked it’s not venomous. There are also populations in New Guinea and Indonesia. Wedge-tailed eagles are fairly flexible about where they live: they can be found in almost all habitats in Australia, including rainforest, forests, savanna and mountainous areas. Though they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, they do tend to prefer more open areas, such as woodlands and grasslands.

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An angry-looking wedge-tailed eagle. Image credit: Susan via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are big, and are in fact the largest birds of prey in Australia. Like all raptor species, females are bigger than males, measuring up to 2.84 m in wingspan. This is the largest wingspan recorded for a species of eagle. This does not classify wedge-tailed eagles as the largest species in the world, however. Their wings and tails are long for their body size, and so a number of other eagle species outweigh wedge-tailed eagles.

These eagles get their name from the long, wedge-shaped tail that is unique to their species. They are dark brown or black, with reddish brown feathers under their wings and around their neck and shoulders. Young eagles are golden brown or reddish brown, and darken as they age.

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A great picture showing the wedge-tailed eagle’s wedged tail. Image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are gliders, soaring at very high heights for hours. They will often be found soaring at altitiudes of over 1,800 m. They spend most of their time perching and surveying their lands. These birds aggressively defend their territory, soaring in arcs and diving to advertise their ownership. If an unfortunate bird does enter a wedge-tailed eagle’s home range, the eagle will dive and attack the intruder. They will also attack hang gliders and paragliders that enter their territory, which is presumably an unsettling experience for the gliders.

Wedge-tailed eagles hunt and scavenge for their food. Their main source of prey are rabbits and hares — both of which are introduced species. Eagles will also hunt foxes, cats, wallabies, kangaroos, koalas and other birds. On rare occasions, wedge-tailed eagles will work together to hunt larger prey, such as red kangaroos. They are known to chase goats off hillsides so that they injure themselves, and will isolate weaker animals from flocks for easy hunting. Wedge-tailed eagles are adaptable, and are not above scavenging. They will chase crows away from carrion and are often seen feeding on roadkill.

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My drawing of wedge-tailed eagle talons. It’s done in charcoal, which I rarely use, but will probably start doing more of, because I really enjoyed drawing this!

Like many birds, wedge-tailed eagles are monogamous. They choose one partner for life, and will stick together until one of the pair dies. Breeding season occurs from June to August. The birds build a nest from sticks and leaves, usually in trees or on cliffs or hillsides. The nests are used from year to year, and can reach sizes of 1.8 m wide and 3 m deep after years of use.

Females lay one to three eggs in the nest, which do not hatch simultaneously. This means that the first chick to hatch has an advantage over its siblings. When food is scarce, the elder chick will often kill the other young, by outcompeting them or through a direct attack. The young fledge at 75 to 95 days of age, and are dependent on their parents for another three to five months. Sexual maturity is reached at about three years of age, but eagles usually will not mate until they have their adult plumage, which occurs around six years of age.

Thankfully this majestic species is not currently threatened, though the Tasmanian subspecies is considered to be endangered. As adults, wedge-tailed eagles have no natural predators, but they were once hunted by humans who wanted to protect their livestock. It has since been shown that wedge-tailed eagles do not have a large impact on livestock populations, so farmers can now leave them alone, which is fabulous news for both famers and the eagles.

Cover image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia