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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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!


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:


American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Is there a songbird in North America that is more recognizable than the American robin? Bluejays give them a good run for the title, but I still think robins are more well known. I may be slightly biased, though, because my mom’s name is Robin — but my point is robins are very common birds, and yet it’s taken me four years to write about them. Time to fix that!

American robins are well-known in North America because they are widespread across the continent. They can be found year-round in the southern parts of Canada, throughout the US and into Mexico. Robins travel as far south as southern Mexico during the winter, and head north to the Canadian Territories and Alaska in the summer. Robins are at home in a variety of habitats, though they like short grass and open ground, with trees or shrubs for perching and nesting. Many suburban and agricultural areas provide ideal habitats for robins, which is why they are so common in populated areas.


A map of the range of the American robin. Yellow is the birds’ breeding range, green is where robins can be found year-round, while blue is the robins’ winter range. Image source: Wikipedia

Robins are not overly large birds, ranging from 23 to 28 cm in length, with wingspans of up to 41 cm. They have dark grey or black heads and wings, with white markings on their throats and around their eyes. Their bills are yellow, and they have brown legs and feet. Of course, you probably know that robins have red breasts, but just in case you didn’t, I drew this picture to emphasize it.


Of course, the red on their breast stays inside the lines, but I took some artistic license with this picture

Robins are gregarious birds, roosting together in large flocks at nighttime. During the day, the flocks break up into smaller feeding groups. American robins feed on a wide variety of foods, including insects, fruits, and berries. They hunt insects using sight and sound, hopping around on the ground and then cocking their heads to listen fro their prey. Though insects make up a large portion of their diet, berries and fruits tend to be the staple of the robin’s diet. This is quite advantageous for the birds, as they can winter farther north than other similar species, thanks to their varied diet.


A male American robin. Females look pretty similar, but are duller in colour. Image credit: Dakota Lynch via Wikipedia

After the birds finish their migrations in the spring, breeding starts. The breeding season starts in April and lasts into July. They lay their first clutch very early in the season, and often will have two or three broods each year. Robins build nests in bushes, trees or on manmade structures, usually five to fifteen feet off the ground. Nests are not reused; the robins must build a new nest for each brood they raise (apparently robins are not very efficient).

Clutch sizes vary from three to five eggs, which hatch after about two weeks. Female robins will continue to brood their young for a few days after hatching, and then will only brood during bad weather. Two weeks after they hatch, the young birds leave the nest, though they are still dependent on their parents for food and protection during this time. Robin chicks learn to fly quite quickly, and are able to sustain flight two weeks after fledging.


Juvenile robins are spotted and funny looking, to help them stay camouflaged. Image credit: Laurent Bélanger via Wikipedia

Unfortunately for robins, they are susceptible to predation. Only 25% of American robins make it through their first year. Robin eggs and chicks are preyed upon by squirrels, snakes, and other birds, such as blue jays, grackles, and crows. Robin parents protect their eggs by mobbing predators, as well as making chirping warning calls. Adult robins are themselves the targets of predators, falling victim to hawks, cats, and snakes.

Despite high levels of predation, American robin numbers are still doing just fine. They are one of the most abundant land birds in North America, with an estimated population of 320 million. They used to be killed for their meat, but have since become protected by the Migratory Birds Act, so all is well in the world of robins. As a final note, I would like to point out that the genus name of the American name is Turdus. Maybe I’m being immature, but I think turdus is a pretty funny name…

Cover image credit: Arustleund via Wikipedia

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.


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.


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…


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

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

As you may have noticed, I now accompany each Our Wild World post with a piece of original artwork. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and it’s a nice exercise where I can try out different styles. This week was a little different, as I let my art supplies decide what animal I was going to blog about instead of the other way around. I had my friend pick out a few art supplies from our local art store, and then made a piece using only those materials (plus paper). So I was quite restricted in what animal I could choose, but the eastern bluebird turned out to be the perfect one.

Eastern bluebirds are found in North and Central America, east of the Rockies. They range from southern Canada to Mexico and Honduras. These birds like open areas with some trees, which means farmlands are perfect for these guys. They are also found in parks, backyards, and golf courses.


The distribution of eastern bluebirds – yellow is their breeding range, green is where the birds occur year round, and blue is their wintering range. Image source: Wikipedia

Eastern bluebirds are not overly large, reaching between 16 and 21 cm in length with 25 to 32 cm wingspans. They are bright birds, with blue wings and tails and red breasts. It’s this colouration pattern which made these guys perfect art subjects — I was given blue and orange-pink inks to work with. Female eastern bluebirds are similarly coloured to males, though they are quite a bit duller.


A male and female bluebird hanging out on a branch. Image credit: Snowmanradio via Wikipedia

Bluebirds eat a variety of foods, including numerous insects and fruits. In the summer their diet consists mostly of insects, such as beetles, crickets, caterpillars and grasshoppers. In the winter when insect life becomes scarce, the birds rely more heavily on fruits and berries. They feed by swooping down from perches close to the ground to snag any unfortunate insects.

Eastern bluebirds are both highly social and quite territorial. They can gather in large flocks reaching over 100 birds. But bluebirds are protective of their nests during the breeding season, and defend choice feeding spots in the winter. Eastern bluebirds are partially migratory, flying to southern areas when food is scarce or temperatures get particularly nasty.


Even bluebird eggs are pretty. Image credit: Basil via Wikipedia

The breeding season in eastern bluebirds occurs in spring and summer. Females construct their nests in tree cavities, such as woodpecker holes. Though eastern bluebirds are generally monogamous, this is not always the case. The females lay three to seven blue eggs, which hatch after thirteen to sixteen days. The chicks grow quite quickly, fledging after only fifteen to twenty days. The chicks hang around for about three weeks after they have left the nest, and their parents will continue feeding them during this time. Sometimes the grateful chicks will stick around to help their parents raise a second brood, if their parents raised them right.


I got to experiment with pink and blue ink, and a white gel pen. Fun times! 

Though eastern bluebirds are fairly abundant, there have been significant declines for the species in some areas. This has mainly been do to habitat destruction (particularly of nesting sites) and competition with introduced species, such as house sparrows and European starlings. The good news is that placing nest boxes in bluebird habitats is a good way of keeping numbers of bluebirds up, so hopefully we can keep implementing such effective conservation programs. After all, it would be a terrible shame for such beautiful birds to become endangered.

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.


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.


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!


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

Cover image source: Roqqy via Wikipedia