Spotted Ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei)

A lot of fish are named after land animals — catfish, dogfish, rabbitfish, porcupine fish, kangaroo fish (that last one does’t actually exist, but I wish it did).  Today’s animal, the ratfish, seems to have gotten the short end of the naming stick. I like rats, but I don’t think I’d want to be named after them.

Ratfish belong to the family Chimaeridae, otherwise known as shortnose chimaeras. Chimaeras are an odd group of fish that have cartilaginous skeletons like those of sharks and rays. In fact, their closest relatives are sharks. Almost all chimaeras are deep water fish, and are therefore difficult to find and to study. So today I’m going to focus on one of the few chimaera species that hangs around in shallow waters, the spotted ratfish.

Spotted ratfish live in the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Baja California. They have been found at depths of up to 913 m, but are much more common in areas between 50 and 400 m deep. In the spring and autumn spotted ratfish tend to hang out in shallower waters, moving to deeper areas in the summer and winter. They prefer to live on the ocean floor, particularly on sandy, muddy or rocky reefs.

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These guys are a little strange looking…     Image source

Spotted ratfish are named for their spots, and for their long, ratlike tails. They can grow to be up to a meter in length, and females are much larger than males. Ratfish tails can make up almost half of the fish’s length, and are long and thin. Spotted ratfish have silvery-bronze skin, and are covered in fun white spots. They have big huge adorable eyes, which reflect light like those of a cat or dog.

Spotted ratfish hunt during the night, using their sense of smell to locate prey. They swim slowly above the ocean floor, looking for shrimp, worms, fish, crustaceans and sea stars. Ratfish particularly enjoy foods with some crunch to them, such as crabs and clams. They have incisor like teeth that act as grinders to help break up their yummy diet.

Spotted ratfish may be hunters, but they themselves fall victim to predators. Sharks, halibut, pinnipeds and pigeon guillemots are all known to consume spotted ratfish. Eating a ratfish is not always a pleasant experience, however. They are equipped with a venomous spine on their dorsal fin, which can cause painful wounds. The spine can also be deadly if ingested: harbour seals have died after a ratfish spine penetrated the stomach or esophagus. The lesson here: don’t eat ratfish, unless you posses spine-removal tools.

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A spotted ratfish egg sack. Image source

Breeding season in spotted ratfish occurs from spring to autumn. Female ratfish lay one or two fertilized eggs into sandy or muddy areas every two weeks or so. Egg laying can last for four to six days, which is a long time, but is necessary, considering the size of the egg sacks. Each sack is twelve centimetres long, and is basically a leather pouch. The eggs take a long time to develop and hatch, sometimes staying inside the egg case for up to a year.

Unfortunately for spotted ratfish, the appearance of their eggs, and the extensive time it takes for the eggs to hatch means that the eggs are sometimes mistaken as inanimate objects by divers. But the news isn’t all bad: the overall population of spotted ratfish is doing just fine, in part because they don’t taste that good. I guess the key to surviving in the modern world is to taste bad, and not look too pretty.

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A quick sketch of a spotted ratfish, emphasizing its big cute eye. 

Cover image credit: Clark Anderson via Wikipedia

Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.

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Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.

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A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.

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An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

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A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

I have always loved cats, and have been particularly fascinated by big cats. It’s hard to pick which of the big cats is my favourite — one day it will be cheetahs, another jaguars, and so on. I think I should stop trying to pick a favourite and just admit that I love them all. That certainly goes for today’s animal, the beautiful and reclusive snow leopard.

A note before I begin: the term ‘big cat’ is used a lot, and means different things. It is often used to refer to the cat species that can roar, which are tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards (which, along with the snow leopard, make up the genus Panthera). Some people include other species in the definition, such as snow leopards, pumas, clouded leopards, and cheetahs. That’s how I use the term, so now you won’t be confused.

Snow leopards don’t usually come into contact with people, partly because they live in one of the most forbidding habitats on Earth. They are found in Central Asia, in high altitude mountain ranges. This of course includes the Himalayas, but also extends into Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia. They prefer areas with steep and rocky terrain. Snow leopards are usually found between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,500 meters, but can move to lower altitudes to follow their prey during the winter.

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A map of the range of the snow leopard. Image source: Wikipedia

Snow leopards are certainly big, but they are not as quite as large as the other Panthera cats. They range in size from 75 to 150 cm in length, and weigh between 27 and 55 kg. Snow leopards have grey or creamy-yellow coats, that are covered in black spots and rosettes. They have beautiful blue-green or aqua eyes.

Mountains are cold, especially really, really high ones. So snow leopards have find a way to stay warm. Snow leopards have stocky bodies, thick fur, and small, rounded ears, all of which help prevent heat loss (ears are an excellent way to lose heat, which is why desert animals have such big ones). Their tails are used to store fat, and have extra-thick fur on them. When the cats get cold, they can wrap their tails around themselves like a blanket and stay warm.

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Snow leopards blend into their habitats extremely well. Image credit: Tashi Lonchay via Wikipedia

Cold isn’t the only treacherous aspect of alpine habitats. The mountains that snow leopards live in are steep, rocky, and often covered in deep snow. The air is cold and thin and difficult to breathe. Snow leopards have a number of ways of meeting these challenges. Their tails are long, reaching 80 to 100 cm in length, which is the longest relative to body size of any cat except the marbled cat and the domestic cat. These super long tails help the leopards balance on the rocky slopes. They also have wide paws, which help them walk on snow. Their back legs are long, which helps them jump and move with agility across rough terrain. Snow leopards posses large nasal cavities, to help them breathe in mountain air.

Snow leopards are pretty much hermits, living in the mountains and avoiding contact with others. They are solitary and secretive animals, coming together only to mate. This occurs in winter, from January to March. Female snow leopards announce their readiness to mate by yowling loudly to the mountains. If a male shows up, females further entice him by walking in front of him with their tails raised. If all goes well, mating ensues.

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Look how cute these little guys are!!!! Image credit: Dingopup via Wikipedia

After a gestation of 90 to 100 days, female snow leopards give birth to one to five cubs (usually two or three) in April and June. The cubs are born in a cave or crevice, with shed fur from their mom lining the den. The cubs are able to walk at five weeks of age, and are weaned at ten weeks. They stay with their mothers long after this, however, and are entirely dependent on her for food, protection, and learning for the first year of their lives.

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My drawing of a snow leopard, done in pencil crayon and a brush and ink.  

Unfortunately snow leopards are quite rare, and are currently listed as endangered. Thanks to habitat loss, prey loss, and poaching, snow leopards numbers have been in decline. Another threat to snow leopards is climate change, which over time will increase the temperature in snow leopard habitats, meaning the tree line will move up, and increase competition for snow leopards. We have a lot of trouble keeping track of snow leopard numbers, however. They are hard to count, since most of the time we can’t even find them in the mountains, as they blend in really well, are well-known for being shy. There are many conservation efforts in place to protect snow leopards, so with luck we will be able to keep these amazing cats from going extinct.

Cover image source

Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus)

Some salamanders are super cool looking, and are covered in awesome bright colours and fun patterns. Others are not, and today’s animal is one of those poor unfortunate amphibians that simply looks slimy and gross. But I would be the first to stress that just because an animal got shortchanged in the looks department, that doesn’t mean it is any less amazing. And dusty salamanders are no exception.

Dusky salamanders live in North America, in the eastern parts of Canada and the United States. In different parts of their range, the salamanders prefer different habitats. In the north, they like clear mountain springs, while in the south they seem to enjoy floodplains, sloughs, and muddy streams. Dusky salamanders spend most of their time hidden under rocks or logs. They are hidden from sight for as much as 70% of their lives, so don’t expect to see these guys darting around when you go for a walk in the woods.

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See how not-interesting looking these guys are? But I guess beauty is all in the eyes of the beholder. Image source

As salamanders go, these guys are fairly average. Their average length is 9.4 cm for males and 8.6 cm for females. They range in colour from brown to grey to olive green, with some darker spots. Their colour lightens on their bellies, and is covered in speckles. As I said, dusky salamanders are really not very exciting looking.

Dusky salamanders belong to the family Plethodontidae, also known as lungless salamanders. Which means, of course, that these guys don’t have any lungs. Instead of breathing like most normal terrestrial animals, lungless salamanders absorb the oxygen they need from the air. This is done through their skin and special membranes in their mouth and throat.

Another distinct trait of lungless salamanders is a special slit known as the nasolabial groove. This is located on the snout of the salamanders and helps the salamanders with chemoreception. The salamanders use this sense to find mates and potential food items. You may now be wondering: what do dusky salamanders eat? The answer: gross things, like earthworms, slugs, a wide variety of insects, spiders and crustaceans.

As small animals, dusky salamanders are quite susceptible to predation themselves. They fall victim to raccoons, birds, skunks, shrews, snakes and other salamanders. Dusky salamanders are quick and agile, and have particularly slippery skin. This makes them quite difficult for a predator to grab. If a salamander feels really threatened, it can drop its tail and as a distraction for the predator, and then scamper away. The tail will then regrow, though it will not look the same as the original.

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I guess they are kind of cute… In a way. Image source 

Dusky salamanders mate in the spring and fall, on land, but close to streams. A male dusky salamander has a peculiar dance he uses to approach a female: he does a ‘butterfly walk’, in which he swings his front legs like a swimmer performing a butterfly stroke. This is followed by tail wags and nudges on the female’s back. He then arches his body while pressing down on the female, and then straightens quickly, so that he is thrown back, sometimes as far as five to ten centimetres away. This process is repeated until the male makes his way to the female’s head.

Once the female is enamoured (thanks to the male’s bizarre advances), it is her turn to stimulate the male. She does this by touching the base of his tail with her chin. After staying like this for a while, the male will deposit a package of sperm called a spermatophore onto the ground, which the female will walk over and then pick up with her vent. The sperm is then stored inside her body until it is needed in the summer (meaning salamanders that mate in the fall store the sperm over winter), when the eggs are laid.

Female dusky salamanders lay between 12 and 51 eggs, which she lays under rocks, logs or other debris. She lays these near water, as the young are aquatic, and mother salamanders guard their nests until hatching. This occurs after 40 to 80 days, and the young sometimes stay with the mother for days or weeks before moving to water.

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A quick little sketch I did of a dusky salamander.

Although they are quite common overall, dusky salamanders are threatened in certain areas by habitat destruction and pollution. Removal of trees lets sun shine down onto salamander habitats, which heats up the water and lowers humidity. This is a big problem for salamanders that need to stay moist so they can breathe. Still, dusky salamanders are doing quite well, and let’s hope they continue to do so.

Liguus Snail (genus Liguus)

Okay, I’ll admit it — I picked this week’s animal solely because it looked super fun to draw. When I think of brightly coloured, beautiful animals, snails don’t usually come to mind. But there’s a certain genus of snails, known as Liguus, that are well-known for their amazingly vivid shells.

There are currently five species of Liguus snail, though there are many subspecies classified under each species of Liguus. Originally some of the subspecies were thought to be completely different species because their shells were very different in colour, but it turns out these snails just have a lot of intraspecific variety in their shells. Liguus fasciatus alone is known to have more than 120 different colour varieties.

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Amazingly, all these shells are from the same species, Liguus fasciatus. Image credit: Henry A. Pilsbry via Wikipedia

Liguus snails are found in a relatively small range, with most species restricted to Cuba and Hispaniola. One species, Liguus fasciatus, is also found in southern Florida. Liguus snails are terrestrial, and spend most of their time in trees, and prefer trees that have smooth bark. I guess if you have to slime your way across a surface, you wouldn’t want it to be super rough.

Do you know what snails eat? I had never actually thought about it. Liguus snails feed on a tasty and nutritious diet of moss, fungi and algae. They forage for their meals on the trees they live on, scraping these lovely morsels off the bark. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

Liguus snails are fairly big for snails, with their average size being about four centimeters in length, though they can get up to six centimetres long. As I mentioned before, these snails are known for their magnificently coloured shells. One species, Liguus virgineus, is commonly known as the candy cane snail because its striped shell looks a lot like a a candy cane (in snail form). Though I’m not quite sure what flavour candy cane it would be…

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A candy cane snail, also known as Liguus virgineus. Image source

There is certainly a downside to having such colourful shells: people think they are pretty, so they collect them. Over-harvesting of Liguus snails have led to a decline in the species, and habitat destruction isn’t helping the problem. It is now illegal to collect Liguus shells, so hopefully that helps keep these guys around for a while.

And I must end on a bit of a shameful note: after picking these animals to write about so I could draw one, I have not been able to complete the piece in time for this post. Rather than put a substandard and rushed picture on here, I’ll leave you with this, and I promise to get the real picture up in the next few days!

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Update: Finished my art for the blog! I’m going to leave the Sorry Snail in there because he’s pretty cute, but here’s my finished candy cane snail:

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Bluespotted Fantail Ray (Taeniura lymma)

There’s something so graceful and beautiful about rays that I can’t help admiring them. I think it’s the way they move through the water, with their undulating ‘wings’ — they are such marvellous but strange creatures. I’ve written about a few rays before: the manta ray and the giant freshwater stingray, and today I’m going to talk about the bluespotted ribbontail, or fantail, ray.

Bluespotted ribbontail rays live in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. They are found in shallow coastal waters, rarely venturing beyond 25 meters in depth. Bluespotted rays prefer to live in and around coral reefs and sandy flats, so they have places to hide during the day. The rays will also venture into intertidal zones and tidal pools.

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Aren’t these guys amazingly beautiful? Image credit: Jens Petersen via Wikipedia

These stingrays are easily recognized by the bright blue spots that cover their bodies, though they are not the only species of ray known as bluespotted stingrays. They are, however, quite distinctive, as they have more and brighter spots than other species, as well as having two bright blue stripes on their tails. Bluespotted fantail rays do not get overly large, reaching maximum widths of 35 cm. They are oval in shape, with a smooth, yellowish-green disc.

Bluespotted fantail rays are nocturnal, spending the day hidden in caves, shipwrecks, or coral reefs. At night, these guys emerge and head to the shallows, following the high tide into tidal flats in search of tasty meals. They feed on a wide variety of animals, including crabs, shrimp, fish, and sand worms. They detect their prey using electroreceptors, and trap them by pressing their discs into the ocean floor. Once the prey is caught, the rays move around until their meal is directed into their mouths, which are located on the underside of their bodies. Bluespotted rays have 15-24 rows of teeth arranged into plates, which can easily crush the shells of molluscs.

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A close up of a bluespotted ray’s eyes, which makes it look pretty creepy. Image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikipedia

Bluespotted rays themselves are targeted as prey; both hammerhead sharks and bottlenose dolphins are known to feed on these rays. When threatened, bluespotted rays prefer to run away, swimming in zigzags to try and confuse predators. These rays have another method of defence, however — they have lovely venomous spines at the tips of their tails, which can deliver a nasty sting to anyone foolish enough to get close to them. Hammerhead sharks get around this by using their hammer-shaped heads to pin the stingrays down while they eat them.

Bluespotted rays mate in the spring and summer, when males start to follow females around. They eventually start nipping at the females’ discs, and then hold on while the pair copulate. The exact gestation period of bluespotted fantails is uncertain, but after four to twelve months females give birth to up to seven pups, which look like miniature versions of their parents.

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A quick sketch of a bluespotted fantail ray.

Bluespotted fantail rays are popular in home aquaria, in spite of their dangerous spines. They are also very difficult to keep in captivity, with many refusing to eat or dying for unknown reasons. But people still try and keep them for some reason, and the rays are also suffering from degradation of their natural habitat. They are still fairly abundant in the wild, but have been assessed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Hopefully these beautiful creatures can stick around for a while.

Cover image credit: Jon Hanson via Wikipedia