Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis)

I definitely chose today’s animal for its looks. I was out of the country for the past two weeks for work, and couldn’t bring much with me. So I grabbed my smallest sketchbook and brought only one pen — one of those clicky ones that has multiple colours. All I had to work with was red, green, blue and black. And so I picked a snake that was mostly green, hoping I could make some kind of passable art with the supplies I had brought.

The snake I chose to draw was the green tree python, a snake that is found in Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. These snakes are aptly named, as they are green and like to live in trees. They are found in tropical rainforests, generally staying at elevations between sea level and 2000m. Younger snakes tend to stay around the edges of the forest or in canopy gaps, while adults are perfectly comfortable in closed-canopy forests.

Green tree python

My drawing of a green tree python’s eye. I think it turned out pretty well!

Green tree pythons can get pretty big, with the average length being 1.5 meters, though snakes of up to 2.2 meters have been recorded. They are long and thin, with a well-defined head. Green tree pythons are really beautiful snakes: they are bright green with white scales forming a patterned line down their backs. Juvenile snakes are easily distinguished from adults, as they are either bright yellow or red.

As I mentioned, green tree pythons are quite fond of trees. In fact, they are the most arboreal python in the world. Their long tails are prehensile, which helps them climb and navigate their forested habitat. Tree pythons have a very distinct resting posture, where they throw a few coils over a branch and then sit in a saddle position with their heads resting in the middle.

Morelia-viridis

A green tree python resting in a typical ‘saddle’ position. Image credit: Micha L. Rieser via Wikipedia

This is quite distinct from the pythons’ hunting posture. When green tree pythons are looking for prey, they extend the front part of the their bodies, ready to strike at any prey that wanders by. Snakes change between resting and hunting postures at dawn or dusk, to stay camouflaged.

Green tree snakes are carnivorous, feeding on small reptiles, amphibians and mammals. They kill their prey by constriction, and do not have any venom. Adults are nocturnal, feeding on the larger animals that emerge at night. Juvenile snakes come out during the day, and feed mainly on small reptiles. As ambush predators, green tree snakes do not actively search for prey, and don’t move very much. They are so lazy they will use the same ambush site for up to two weeks.

This strategy is quite useful for green tree snakes, as it helps them hide from predators. As adults, their green colouration and lack of movement makes them blend in to the leafy trees. Juveniles are also well camouflaged — yellow snakes camouflage well in forest edges, while brick-red juveniles blend in with tree trunks and other non-leafy backgrounds.

JBR_7494

A juvenile of the brick-red variety. Image credit: Johnkentucky via Wikipedia

We don’t know a whole lot about green tree python reproduction in the wild, as breeding has never been recorded in their natural habitat. What we do know we have learned from captive populations. Females lay 1 to 25 eggs, which she broods and protects for almost two months. The eggs hatch at the start of the wet season, in November. The hatchlings are about 30 cm long, and reach sexual maturity between two and four years of age.

Green tree pythons are popular snakes in captivity, and tend to do quite well once their needs are met. Because of their popularity, their population is under pressure from hunting for the pet trade. There are captive breeding programs however, so if you want to get a green tree python, just make sure you source it from a captive breeder!

Cover image credit: Mattstone911 via Wikipedia

Boa Constrictor (Boa Constrictor)

Yesterday my dad and I had a conversation about the eating habits of boa constrictors. It involved a goat and a lot of resting on the part of the snake. And it made me really want to do a post on boa constrictors.

Boa constrictors are found in Central and South America, from northern Mexico to northern Argentina. Their preferred habitat is rainforest, though they can also live quite happily in grasslands, thorn scrub and semi-deserts. Boas are not uncommon around human developments, particularly in agricultural areas (where I’m sure they can find lots of tasty goats to munch on). They like to hang out in trees, though younger boa constrictors spend more time in trees than adults.

Many people think of boa constrictors as some of the biggest snakes in the world. This is not true, as there are a number of snakes bigger than boa constrictors. They do get reasonably large, however, reaching maximum lengths of 4.3 m, with sizes between two and three meters being more common. Female boas are usually larger than males. They are brown to cream coloured, with saddle shaped bands covering their bodies. The markings darken as they approach the tail, turning into a reddish brown colour. The snakes have distinctive head markings, which I could describe, but it’s much easier for me to show you a picture, so here’s one:

The head patterns of a boa constrictor.  Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikipedia

The head patterns of a boa constrictor.
Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikipedia

Boas have two spurs on each side of their cloacas, which are left over from long ago when snakes thought having legs might be helpful. Today, these spurs are used in courtship and to grip the female during copulation, and thus are larger in males than females. Males also have a double penis, known as hemipenes. They usually only use one side of the hemipenis, though, so it’s not quite as nice as it may sound. Females give birth to live young after a five to eight month gestation period. A litter is usually 25 young, but can be as high as 64. Thankfully, the mother doesn’t invest any care in her young after birth, so she doesn’t have to look after 64 babies.

Boa constrictors use a variety of senses to navigate their environment. They flick their tongues in and out of their mouths, which brings odours into the vomeronasal organ, located at the top of their mouths. They do not have heat sensing pits like other species of  boa, but can sense heat on their lips. Boa constrictors have quite good vision, and can see ultraviolet light. They don’t have external ears, but can sense vibrations in the ground and air through their jaw bones.

As boas get older, they get heavier, and start becoming more terrestrial.  Image source: http://www.slideshare.net/buchmannbio2011/aaron-dal-poggetto-5-boa-constrictor

As boas get older, they get heavier, and start becoming more terrestrial.
Image source: http://www.slideshare.net/buchmannbio2011/aaron-dal-poggetto-5-boa-constrictor

Boas don’t usually actively hunt, instead preferring to ambush prey. They consume any animal that will fit in their mouths, generally eating small mammals and birds (probably not many goats). The snakes catch the prey with their teeth, and then wrap themselves around it, using their bodies to cut off the victim’s circulation, thus killing it. Constriction seems to be something the boas can’t help — they will constrict an animal even if it is already dead. Digestion of the prey takes four to six days, and the snake doesn’t have to eat for a few months afterwards, as it possesses a very slow metabolism.

Venomous snakes are neat, because highly toxic substances are always impressive. But those that squeeze their prey to death are also pretty awesome, because what’s not to love about an animal that crushes things so hard their blood stops flowing? Still, I’ve always been a snake fan, so I’m probably biased. If there were constricting spiders, I have a feeling I wouldn’t like them nearly so much.

Cover image source: http://www.ecohealthypets.com/browse_animals/reptiles/44-common_boa_or_boa_constrictor

Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)

Bats are some of my favourite animals. It isn’t so much their ability to fly that makes me like them so much, but the fact that they use a combination of flight and echolocation to navigate their world. That’s just super cool. Of course, as long as there are bats in the world, there will be creatures that eat bats. Today’s animal, the bat falcon, makes a fairly good living catching and eating the lovely flying mammals I’m so fond of.

Bat falcons live in Central and South America, ranging from northern Argentina to Mexico. They prefer areas of undisturbed rainforest, but can live in parts of the forest that have been disturbed by human activity.

OFalco_rufigularis_Bat_Falcon

A bat falcon hanging out on a tree. Image source: Wikipedia

Bat falcons are not overly large raptors; males have wingspans of 58 cm, while females are slightly larger, with 67 cm wingspans. They have black heads and backsides, with white and tan underparts. The bat falcon has dark irises, unlike the typical bright yellow eyes associated with most raptors. It is thought that these brown eyes may help the falcon camouflage itself while it’s hunting in the dark.

Mating in bat falcons occurs in the dry season, with courtship occurring between February and April, depending on location. While they are solitary outside of breeding, both parents will actively defend the nest. These birds are not great nest builders, instead laying their eggs in tree cavities, which are often abandoned nest sites from other birds. They will also nest in man-made structures or on cliffs. The female lays two to four eggs, which hatch after four to seven weeks. During their youth, the male bat falcon provides most of the food to the chicks. In just over a month, the chicks are feathered and can eat prey on their own.

Look how dark and brooding he is. What a pretty bird. Image source: http://www.hoteltinamu.com/birds-colombia/

Look how dark and brooding he is. What a pretty bird.
Image source: http://www.hoteltinamu.com/birds-colombia/

While they are named after their propensity to consume bats, the majority of the bat falcon’s diet consists of other birds and insects. Females tend to eat more bats, as they are larger, while males generally subsist off flying insects, such as dragonflies. Bat falcon diets vary by season, based on the abundance of prey — in the winter there are more insects, while in the summer birds tend to be more plentiful. Bat falcons follow the habits of their favourite prey, hunting at dusk and dawn.

Though I love bats, I also love raptors, and so it’s difficult for me to dislike bat falcons. Especially since I have quite a lot of respect for animals that hunt aerial prey. It cannot be an easy thing to catch bats in the semi-darkness, but bat falcons manage it.

Cover image source: Wikipedia

Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus)

Some birds are stunningly beautiful — I’ve written about some of them: Peafowland the Resplendent Quetzal are two that come to mind. Other birds are strangely ornamented, and though I’m sure they look attractive to the females of their species, they end up just looking silly to me.

Today’s bird, the three-wattled bellbird, is one of these animals. The males’ plumage is rather plain, with their heads and necks covered in white feathers and the rest of the body in brown, but these bellbirds make up for it with the three large wattles that sprout from the birds’ beaks. Females are even drabber than males, with olive-green feather and no wattles at all. Size ranges from 25 to 30 cm long, with males being larger than females.

A drawing of a male and female three-wattled bellbird.  Image source: Wikipedia

A drawing of a male and female three-wattled bellbird.
Image source: Wikipedia

The wattles of male bellbirds can grow to be quite long, up to 10 cm in length. The birds can’t control their wattles, instead letting them hang down uselessly, and let’s be honest, rather stupidly. The wattles come into play during the breeding season, when the male birds sing and shake them around.

The three-wattled bellbird is one of four species of bellbird, all of which are found in tropical regions of Central and South America. Three-wattled bellbirds are found from Honduras to Panama. They spend the non-breeding season in lowland forests, migrating to highlands to mate.

One of the most distinctive features of the three-wattled bellbird (other than its wattles) is its call. This is where the name ‘bellbird’ comes from, as the calls of male bellbirds consist of ‘bonk’ noises. Very loud bonk noises. Bellbird calls can be heard half a mile away, and are considered one of the loudest bird songs on earth. Apparently bellbirds will call loudly at any other bellbird that tries to invade its perch, often resulting in the invader falling off the branch. I can’t really imagine a more comical scene.

Imagine him doing this right in your face. I'm sure you'd fall out of a tree.  Image source: http://globalclassroom.net/?page_id=58

Imagine him doing this right in your face. I’m sure you’d fall out of a tree.
Image source: http://globalclassroom.net/?page_id=58

There’s one other reason everybody should love three-wattled bellbirds, other than their dashing looks and thunderous calls — bellbirds love to eat wild avocados, and are one of the primary dispersers of avocado trees’ seeds. Any creature that likes avocados is automatically a friend of mine.

Bellbirds are quite secretive animals; mostly they are heard and not seen. Still, they pretty neat birds, and I’d love to see one someday.

Black-spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus rufoniger)

I don’t know exactly how to pronounce this animal’s name, but I’m definitely reading it like couscous, and it’s making me hungry. From what I can gather from a quick google search, it’s pronounced more like ‘cuss-cuss’. Still, I read it as couscous, so I’ll probably have to get some for dinner tonight to satisfy my couscous craving.

Cuscuses are marsupials that are found in Australia and New Guinea. The black-spotted cuscus is found only in Papua New Guinea, and has had its habitat restricted to the northern parts of the island. They live in tropical forests, particularly those with thick underbrush that are undisturbed by people.

Good pictures of these guys are hard to find, since they are nocturnal and live in thick jungles.  Image source: http://kvippo.ru/?cat=18

Good pictures of these guys are hard to find, since they are nocturnal and live in thick jungles. But this one is adorable.
Image source: http://kvippo.ru/?cat=18

Black-spotted cuscuses are among the largest of the cuscuses, reaching 70 cm from head to base of the tail, and weighing 7 kg. Females are larger than males, and have a larger dark patch on their backs. Both sexes have quite pretty colouration, with red fur punctuated by a black-spotted area near the rump.

They have large eyes to help them see in the dark, and have a short snout with tiny external ears. Their feet are highly modified to suit their arboreal lifestyle, with the first and second toes opposable to the rest on the front feet; on the hind feet, the big toe is opposable and the second and third toes are fused. The tails of cuscuses are also designed for life in the trees — they are prehensile, and have a naked patch at the end which is covered in calluses to aid in grasping.

See the black spotty patch of fur? Makes them look pretty neat.  Image source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/6a/08/82/6a0882e93f75a8c7dfcb7d5e4db9349c.jpg

See the black spotty patch of fur? Makes them look pretty neat.
Image source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/6a/08/82/6a0882e93f75a8c7dfcb7d5e4db9349c.jpg

We know that cuscuses are marsupials, and therefore that the mothers nurse their young in the four pouches they have, but otherwise there’s not a whole lot known about black-spotted cuscus reproduction. They are generally solitary creatures, with interactions between individuals resulting in aggression. So presumably at some point a male and a female must meet and decide not to attack each other — apparently courtship occurs in trees, but that’s about all that is known about cuscus reproduction.

We also don’t know much about development, dietary habits, and general behaviour of this species. Instead of studying them to learn these things, we’ve decided to destroy their habitat and hunt them for meat and fur. So now they are critically endangered, and if we don’t change some things soon, we’ll never know how that male cuscus gets the female to like him.

Basilisk (genus Basiliscus)

I chose to write about the basilisk today because my roommates and I decided to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. You may not know that there is an actual, real-life animal called the basilisk. It is not a giant snake that kills people with its stare and scares spiders. Nope, real basilisks are small genus of lizards. Maybe the real basilisks don’t have the same lethal, awe-inducing presence of the Harry Potter monster, but the lizards are definitely pretty cool.

There are four species of basilisk, all of which live in Central and South America. There is also an introduced population of basilisks in Florida, where the animals survive the colder winters by hiding under leaf litter. The rest of the basilisk population lives in lovely warm tropical rainforests where winter isn’t really an issue. They spend their days on the ground, sticking close to sources of water, but climb trees at night to sleep, sometimes finding perches up to 20 meters high.

A brown basilisk lazing in the sun, preparing for some sprints across a pond.  Image source: Wikipedia

A brown basilisk lazing in the sun, preparing for some sprints across a pond.
Image source: Wikipedia

Basilisks range in size from around two to three feet, depending on the species. Different species also vary in colouration, from brown to bright green. They are quite pretty lizards, with interesting markings and crests on the head, back and tail, which are more prominent in males. One notable feature of basilisks is large feet, equipped with sharp claws and webbed toes.

A basilisk doing what it does best.  Image source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8304000/8304139.stm

A basilisk doing what it does best.
Image source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8304000/8304139.stm

The claws make basilisks great climbers, while the webbed toes mean that basilisks are excellent swimmers. Oh yeah, they can also walk on water. Well, not walk so much as run very fast. When threatened, basilisks rise up on their hind legs and sprint across nearby water, sometimes reaching distances of twenty or more meters before sinking into the water and swimming. The toe webbing creates a larger surface area and air pockets that help basilisks run on water. This famous behaviour of basilisks has earned the lizards the nickname ‘Jesus Christ lizard’. If no water is nearby and a basilisk is threatened, it will bury itself in sand or dirt. They have specialized muscles around their noses that prevent any grains from entering.

So even though basilisks can’t kill people with a glance, they can run on water, which the monster definitely couldn’t do. I don’t know which skill is more impressive, but I do know I won’t get any nightmares from real basilisks.

Cover image source: Marcel Burkhard via Wikipedia