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.

LiguusFasciatusFLSubsp.jpg

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…

0_4d9a7f_644aaa5a_xl

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!

sorry-snail

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:

candy-cane-snail

Monarch Butterfly (genus Danaus)

Monarch butterflies have got to be some of the most well-known butterflies in the world. I remember in grade one our class raised monarchs from caterpillars to adult butterflies, to learn about metamorphosis. I also recall a play we had to do around the same time where I was a butterfly, and my mom made me these ridiculously awesome wings out of cardboard that were way more impressive than anyone else’s in the class (most of them had silly store-bought wings). The point is, that at least for me, monarch butterflies have been fluttering around in my consciousness for pretty much as long as I can remember. So it’s about time I blogged about  them.

There are three species of monarch butterfly, the North American monarch, the South American monarch, and the Jamaican monarch. they are found mainly in North and South America, though they also live in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands. Sometimes these pretty travellers appear in the UK, though they usually are there by accident. Monarchs are well-known for their epic migrations, in which millions of butterflies travel south to avoid chilly winters.

monarch_butterfly_in_grand_canary

Aren’t they beautiful? Photo credit: William Warby via Wikipedia

Butterfly populations west of the Rockies head down to California for the winter, while those in the east overwinter in Mexico. Those that head to Mexico travel up to 7,778 km to get to their wintering sites — quite an accomplishment for tiny butterflies! This migration is dependent on their being available plants along the route to feed the butterflies, as well as a number of climatic factors, including favourable tailwinds, appropriate temperatures, and low precipitation. If there is an early frost, the butterflies will die.

To try and boost their survival rate, monarchs enter diapause upon commencing migration. This lets the butterflies store essential nutrients needed for the long journey, such as lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. Mating and egg development is also suppressed while the butterflies are in diapause, so they can save all their sexual energy for the spring.

angangueo_monarchs

Overwintering sites for monarch butterflies. That’s a lot of little flutterbys! Image credit: bfpage via Wikipedia 

Once the butterflies get to their overwintering sites, things don’t necessarily get easier. If it’s too hot in their roosting areas, the monarch will use up their fat reserves and die before spring comes. Warm temperatures can also stimulate the butterflies to leave the wintering site too early, meaning they will die on the migration back.

This is actually true for all migratory monarch butterflies — none of them survive the migration home. But the successful ones manage to breed before dying, so their descendants can complete the trip home. In fact, it takes four generations of butterflies for the monarchs to get back north.

Monarch butterflies are pretty recognizable with their bright orange and black wings. These bright colours advertise the monarch’s poisonous nature to predators — the butterflies contain toxic cardenolide aglycones, which they get from their diet of milkweed plants. Another orange-and-black butterfly that can be easily confused with the monarch is the viceroy, which was thought to mimic the monarch’s colouring to pretend to be toxic as well. It’s now thought that both butterflies are unpalatable, and that each mimics the other. Nature is confusing…

monarch-butterfly

I’ve been wanting to get into digital painting for a while, but I’m not very good at it. Still, practice can only help, so I forced myself to do my drawing for the week digitally, and I’m pretty happy with the result!

Most monarchs have wingspans between 8.9 and 10.2 cm wide. Migrant populations have much larger wings than resident populations, as the bigger wings help the butterflies survive their long journeys. Monarchs with larger wings are much more successful during migration.

In recent years, the number of monarchs at overwintering sites has declined. This is likely due to habitat loss, herbicide use and infection by parasites. Though they are not listed as endangered, if this decline continues these beautiful butterflies could be in serious trouble.

Cover image source: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson

American Lobster (Homarus americanus)

I’ve never been much of a fan of lobster meat. I like it for the first few bites, especially dipped in butter, but then the meat gets way too rich and I get sick of it. While I might not be a fan of the meat, I do think lobsters are pretty cool animals, and it’s about time I wrote about them on here.

There are lots of different species of lobster, but I’m going to focus on the American lobster, as it is the species most people are probably familiar with. American lobsters live off the east coast of North America, from Labrador to North Carolina. They can be found in shallow or deep water, though they are more common in deeper areas. Lobsters like rocky areas, where there are lots of places for them to hide. They are nocturnal, spending the day inside their burrows, and coming out at night to feed.

homerus_americanus_distribution

The range of the American lobster. Image source: Wikipedia

American lobsters are the largest of all lobsters, and are also the owners of the title World’s Heaviest Arthropod. They can reach maximum lengths of 64 cm, and weigh over 20 kg. Most American lobsters are a greenish blue colour, but there are numerous colour morphs, such as bright blue, yellow, orange or albino. You might be familiar with bright red lobsters — but live lobsters are usually not that colour. The pigments that give lobsters their normal colour break down when they are boiled, resulting in the bright red, ready-to-eat colour.

blue_lobster

A blue lobster. The chances of finding one are about one in two million. Image credit: Dan Dorothy via Wikipedia

American lobsters have ten legs, four pairs of which are small used for moving. The fifth pair are the most fun, extending into great big claws that are supposed to have the juiciest meat. You may not have noticed when you were digging into a lobster, but the two claws are asymmetrical. One is bigger than the other, and has rounded bumps; the smaller claw has sharp, small teeth. The functions of the two claws are quite different: one is used for crushing (the bigger claw), and the other is used for cutting.

Lobsters start out as very small animals, weighing less than a tenth of gram upon hatching. They grow through a series of moults, which begin with the lobster reabsorbing the minerals that harden the shell. This makes the shell soft, so that the lobster can break through it. The softness of the shell also allows the lobster to take in water, which makes it swell in size. The new shell then hardens, and the moult is complete. A lobster can grow 10-15% in size during each moult. To reach the minimum legal catch size, American lobsters go through 25-27 moults.

Moulting serves another very important function for lobsters: females can only mate within 48 hours of a moult. The females lay their eggs between a month and fifteen months after fertilization. during this time, sperm is stored inside the females, and the eggs are fertilized as they leave the females’ bodies. Lobsters can lay between 3,000 and 75,000 eggs, depending on their body size. After the eggs have been laid, female lobsters carry them under their tails until hatching, for about ten to eleven months. The survival rate of young lobsters is very small, with only one in one thousand reaching the juvenile stage.

homarus_americanus_eggs

A female lobster carrying eggs. Her tail is notched to mark her as a breeding female. Image source: Wikipedia

Though lobsters are a popular food animal, they are currently not threatened. This is in part due to the strict regulations that protect lobsters from overfishing. Lobsters under 8.3 cm must released, and in some areas lobsters over 13 cm cannot be caught, to keep breeding males alive. If a lobster is caught carrying eggs, a notch is put in her tail, and notched animals cannot be sold or caught. These regulations ensure a large breeding population, key to the survival of lobsters.

While there are many tragic stories about overfishing in our oceans, it seems like lobsters are doing pretty well, which is great news!

lobster-silhouette

A fun silhouette I did of a lobster! 

Cover image source: Wikipedia

Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia)

I want to start off this post with announcement: Our Wild World will be switching to one post a week, on Wednesdays, instead of posts on Wednesdays and Sundays. Things have just gotten too busy for me to keep up with posts twice a week. This was originally supposed to be a weekly blog anyway, so things are just changing to how they were meant to be.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about today’s animal, the goldenrod crab spider. Goldenrod crab spiders are found in the northern hemisphere, in North America and Europe. They are found on fences, leaves, and are especially fond of flowers.

Goldenrod spiders are the largest crab spider in North America, with females growing to be 10mm excluding their legs, and males reaching 5mm. Crab spiders are named because they somewhat resemble crabs, with wide, flat bodies and long front legs that are held open.

7d_l6297

A goldenrod crab spider, in its white form. Image credit: A1xjlq1 via Wikipedia

Goldenrod spiders vary in colour, depending on where they live. You see, crab spiders are ambush predators, waiting on flowers for prey to come swooping by. When an unfortunate insect chances by, the spider grabs their victim with their front legs, and then injects venom into the insect. They feed mainly on flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and bees.

Though goldenrod spiders hang out on lots of different types of flowers, the ones they most favour are goldenrods (no surprise there), trillium, and white fleabane. To camouflage themselves, goldenrod spiders are either bright yellow or white, sometimes with dark markings on the abdomen.

The spiders can change between the two colours, switching between yellow and white depending on the type of flower they are on. They switch colours by secreting a yellow pigment into the body, and excreting the pigment when they want to go from yellow to white. Once the pigment has been jettisoned, however, the spiders have to remake the yellow pigment, so it takes longer to transition from white to yellow (10-25 days) than from yellow to white (6 days). The spiders change colours based on what they see, as crab spiders who have had their eyes painted do not change colour to reflect the colour of flower they are on.

misumena-vatia-beute-wespe-1771

A goldenrod crab spider using its excellent camouflage to catch a wasp. Image credit: Olaf Leillinger via Wikipedia

Crab spiders rely on their expert camouflage not only to catch prey, but also to avoid becoming prey themselves. Because they don’t try and actively avoid predators, crab spiders can focus on growing and reproducing. That’s why female crab spiders have such huge abdomens — and there is a direct correlation between female weight and egg clutch size, so bigger females do better reproductively.

I’m not a huge fan of spiders, and I have a lovely memory of a crab spider parking itself on my shirt when I was a child (it was a flowery shirt). But crab spiders as whole aren’t too bad. At least they are pretty colours and don’t looks as terrifying as some species of spider.

Now, I have another announcement to make: I have started a pet and wildlife portrait business! And I’ve decided to make my blog and my art work together, so from here onwards I will be making an art piece for every animal I write about on this site. Of course, this means I had to draw a spider, which was extremely difficult for me. But I did it!

spider-ink-copy

My drawing of a goldenrod crab spider, done in ink. 

Cover image source: Roqqy via Wikipedia

Gorgonian (order Alcyonacea)

Any group of animals known as ‘Gorgonians’ is bound to be amazing, right? Well, maybe. You may be picturing some monster with snakes for hair, but unfortunately gorgonians are much more tame than actual gorgons. They’re still pretty cool, though!

Gorgonians are part of the order Alcyonacea (formerly Gorgonacea), and are also known as sea whips or sea fans. I’m not going to go into individual species of gorgonians, because there are around 500 of them, and that would take quite a while. Gorgonians are found in large numbers in the western Atlantic, especially in Florida, Bermuda and the West Indies. Most species prefer shallow waters, though some do inhabit deeper waters.

venusin_vejar

You can’t deny gorgonians are pretty. Image credit: Jaro Nemčok via Wikipedia

Gorgonians are a type of soft coral, and are made up of very small individual polyps. So a single sea fan is actually a colony of thousands of tiny little animals, joined together into a big pretty structure. How cool is that? Common shapes of gorgonians are fan- and whip-like structures, though some are bushy. Colonies can get pretty large, reaching over a meter in length and height, but are usually quite thin. Different species are different colours, with common ones being red, yellow or purple.

gorgonian-mgiangrasso

A close up of a gorgonian, showing the tentacles of the polyps that make up these fascinating creatures. Image source: Wikipedia

The hardened skeletons of gorgonians are composed of different minerals, depending on the species. One such substance is known as gorgonin, which is a protein high in bromine, iodine, and tyrosine. The cool part about gorgonin is that the amount and composition of the protein varies with changes in season and climate. So for gorgonian species that are very long lived, their skeletons are useful for the study of paleoclimatology and paleoceanography.

The polyps that make up gorgonians have eight tentacles, which are used for filter feeding. To maximize the amount of food that reaches these polyps, fan-like gorgonians orient themselves across the prevailing currents. Some gorgonians don’t rely solely on filter feeding — they have symbiotic relationships with algae and zooxanthellae. These organisms are able to photosynthesize, which gives the gorgonians another source of food.

There are other creatures that make gorgonians their homes, such as hydrozoa, byrozoa and brittle stars. Pygmy seahorses are particularly fond of gorgonians, and have evolved to look like their hosts. Some species of seahorse are so dependent on this camouflage that they can’t live anywhere but on a gorgonian.

800px-hippocampus_bargibanti3

A pigmy seahorse on its gorgonian home. Image credit: Jens Petersen via Wikipedia

Corals and gorgonians might not look like the most exciting animals around, but there’s a lot more going on with these guys than you think. The colonies do look quite pretty, but they also provide homes for a number of creatures, especially cute ones like pygmy seahorses. So don’t under appreciate gorgonians!

Common Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata)

Animals that rely on camouflage are always pretty impressive. I’ve blogged about some species that adopt amazing disguises, including the kerengga ant-like jumper, the common potoo, and the pearly wood-nymph. Today’s animal fits right in with these masters of disguise.

Common walking sticks are found in a wide range of North America. They live as far north as Alberta, as far west as New Mexico, and south into Florida. These are actually the only stick insects living in Canada, so if you see one there, you now know what species it is! They mainly reside in forests, especially those that are abundant in oak and hazelnut trees, the leaves of which are their main source of food. They are also found in fields, gardens, and yards. I guess if you have ‘common’ in your name, you should do your best to live up to it.

northern_walkingstick_diapheromera_femorata_21145913579

So stick-like! Image credit: Andrew C. via Wikipedia 

Those of you who have seen walking sticks before know that they are pretty strange looking insects. They have extremely long and thin bodies, which are 75 – 95mm long, with females being larger than males. They have long antenna and legs, and while at rest, the front pair of legs is extended forward, to help disguise the insect. Male walking sticks are brown in colour, while females are more green.

Of course, the best way to describe walking sticks is that they look like twigs. This is their main defence against predators, and it’s quite effective. At least, I know I would have trouble finding a common walking stick in a tree. There are some animals that do feed on walking sticks, such as crows and robins. When a predator is near, walking sticks freeze and tuck their legs in, posing as an unappetizing twig until the danger has passed.

800px-diapheromera_femorata_mating

A pair of walking stick trying to mate. Image credit: William Paxton via Wikipedia

The breeding season in common walking sticks is in the fall, so that the eggs can hatch in the spring. The mating habits of this species are not known, but in other walking stick species, males adopt a very annoying courtship style: they grab onto the back of a female and stay there until she is ready to mate — which can take weeks. Once a female’s eggs are fertilized, she drops them from the trees onto the forest floor, one egg at a time. There the eggs stay until they hatch, which can be in spring or even a year later.

While walking sticks aren’t the prettiest of insects, they are certainly excellent imitators. They are also quite common, to the point of being pests (they defoliate trees), so these neat creatures are happily doing quite well for themselves.