Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a flamingo and a duck had babies? Probably not, but that’s what came to my mind when I saw a picture of today’s animal, the roseate spoonbill. There are same weird-looking birds out there, but the roseate spoonbill is definitely up there as one of the weirdest.

Roseate spoonbills belong to the family Threskiornithidae, which includes other spoonbills and ibises. They are found in North and South America, from Florida and Georgia through to Argentina. Spoonbills are wading birds, and so live near water, usually mangrove swamps and mudflats.

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A roseate spoonbill, wading happily in the water. Image credit: Charlesjharp via Wikipedia

As I said before, roseate spoonbills are pretty much flamingo/duck hybrids. They have the long legs and pink bodies of flamingoes, but at the top of the neck, a different bird’s head seems to have been welded on. Roseate spoonbills have a yellow head tinged with green, and a long, thin bill that widens and flattens at its end, which is why they’re called spoonbills. Roseate spoonbills grow to be 71-86 cm long with a 120-133 cm wingspan.

That spoon-shaped bill isn’t just for decoration — spoonbills use their bills to feed. They wade through the water, swishing their bills from side to side, catching whatever they can in the process. The funny shape of their bills allows roseate spoonbills to sift through mud very easily, leaving them with tasty morsels. Spoonbills aren’t particularly picky, feeding on crustaceans, frogs, newts, small fish, and insects.

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A wonderful picture of a roseate spoonbill. Image credit: Photo Dante via Wikipedia

Male roseate spoonbills woo females by bringing them nesting materials; this is important as spoonbills build large nests. These are made out of twigs and sticks, and usually are built in mangrove trees or shrubs. Spoonbills lay two to five eggs, which hatch in around 24 days. Both parents take care of the young, which are able to fly after eight weeks, and are sexually mature at sixteen weeks of age.

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Spoonbill chicks aren’t quite as pretty as their parents. Image credit: ladydragonflycc via Wikipedia

As is the case with many birds that have pretty feathers, roseate spoonbills were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage. Luckily, they have since recovered, and are now doing quite well in isolated areas, and are a species of least concern. Which is great news, because it would be a terrible shame for such a unique species to go extinct.

Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

I’ve written about some pretty fearsome fish on this blog; barracudas, goliath tigerfish, and electric eels are some that come to mind. Yet it seems I’ve neglected a fish with a reputation to put all the rest to shame. I think it’s about time I wrote about piranhas.

There are between 30 and 60 species of piranhas, but I am going to focus on the red-bellied piranha, as they are the species that have the most fearsome reputation. Red-bellied piranhas are found in South America, in whitewater streams east of the Andes. They occur in every country in South America except for Suriname and Chile.

Red-bellied piranhas grow to be half a meter in length, and can weigh up to 4 kilograms. Adult piranhas have characteristic red colouring on their bellies, while young fish are simply silver with dark spots. They have strong jaws and nasty, sharp teeth.

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The jawbone of a red-bellied piranha. Check out those teeth! Image credit: Sarefo via Wikipedia

While most people consider piranhas to be vicious flesh-tearing creatures, they are actually omnivorous scavengers. They mainly eat worms, insects, crustaceans and other fish. They will also consume debris, fish fins and scales, and plants. Young fish hunt during the day, while larger piranhas are active in the late afternoon and evening. Their primary method of feeding is ambush hunting, where they wait in vegetation and dark areas of the water to surprise a victim.

Though it is often thought that piranhas gather in large schools to attack big prey (a cow, for example), they actually do not hunt in groups. Red-bellied piranhas do form schools. But these are as a defence against predators, not for hunting. Stories of piranhas stripping a cow carcass in minutes are the exception — these types of events occur when the piranhas have been starved and food is very scarce. That being said, piranhas have attacked people, with some recorded fatalities. These occur when water levels are lower, and there is less food and piranha densities are higher.

Red-bellied piranhas use sounds to communicate with each other, using sonic muscles and their swim bladder to produce noises. They mainly use these sounds during aggressive interactions with one another. Low, drumming sounds are signals of mild or moderate attacks, while louder sounds are made during fierce attacks. So if you happen to hear a short, loud noise in a river in South America, get out of the water.

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Look at the cute piranhas! Image source

Mating in piranhas coincides with rises in water levels and floods in the rivers they inhabit. Females lay thousands of eggs in a nest four to five centimetres in depth, near the bottom of water plants. Females and males will swim closely together in circles; this may be a courtship display but is more likely the two parents defending the nesting site. Fish eggs are pretty tasty meals, but I’m not sure I’d want to go after some guarded by piranhas. The eggs hatch after two to three days, and the young will remain hidden in the plants until they are large and fierce and able to fight off any hungry fish.

Red-bellied piranhas are not currently endangered or threatened, though capture for aquaria may put some pressure on the species. Yes, that’s right, people like to keep piranhas as pets. Personally I wouldn’t want a piranha in my house, but I guess some people like them.

Cover image credit: Gregory Moine via Wikipedia

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

The other day I was working at a local country fair, and I happened to spot a birds of prey show on my way to the washrooms. So I timed my lunch break to coincide with one of the shows, because I absolutely love birds, and especially birds of prey. I ended up seeing parts of the show three times that weekend, and fell in love with all the birds in it. Some of them I have blogged about (the American kestrel, and the great horned owl) but I will definitely be writing about the others at some point.

Today’s bird, the turkey vulture, was one of the most impressive birds at the show. I thought he was beautiful, though I’m sure some people would disagree with me. Turkey vultures are quite big, with wingspans of 160-183 cm, and weights of up to 2.3 kg. Their plumage is brown black, and they have the distinctive unfeathered vulture head. Both the head and legs and feet are pink, though the feet often appear white. This is because turkey vultures defecate on their legs, which helps cool them down, as the water in the excretion evaporates.

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A turkey vulture perched majestically on a tree. So pretty! Image credit: Don DeBold via Wikipedia

Vultures, of course, are known for their disgusting food habits. They eat almost exclusively carrion, which is gross, but someone has to eat dead things, so good on turkey vultures for cleaning up our roads. This lovely diet is why they have no feathers on their heads — can you imagine having to stick a feathered head into a rotting carcass? I don’t think it would be very pleasant.

Turkey vultures find their meals with a highly developed sense of smell. This is a rare ability among avian species, and other birds take advantage of the turkey vulture’s excellent nose. King vultures, black vultures and condors will follow turkey vultures to find carrion, and thanks to their larger size, get first pick of the meat on the carcass. It isn’t all bad for the turkey vulture though; their beaks are very weak, and so they cannot tear through the skin of many dead animals. The other vultures and condors do this for them, so everyone is happy.

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Turkey vultures have nostrils that go straight through their heads, to increase the area available for smelling. Image credit: Dori via Wikipedia

Turkey vultures roost in large flocks, though they hunt solitarily. Mating involves a courtship ‘dance’, where several birds come together in a circle, and hop around with their wings spread. It makes me think of some kind of pagan ritual, and who knows, maybe to the vultures it is. Female vultures lay two eggs in a protected site, such as a cave, cliff, or thicket. She doesn’t build a nest, but both parents incubate and later feed the chicks until they are ten or eleven weeks old. If the nest is threatened, turkey vultures have a nasty way of defending themselves: they will regurgitate half digested, rotten food into the faces of their attackers. If I were a predator, I would definitely stay away from turkey vultures.

You may be wondering where you can find these amazing birds. They live in the Americas, from southern Canada all the way through South America. They have recently expanded north, thanks to the construction of highways, which provide the birds with plenty of thermals on which to soar (and also lots of tasty roadkill). They can live in a wide range of environments (after all, things die in every habitat), and are quite common birds. In fact, I saw one at the side of the road the other day, munching on some poor dead animal. It was super cool!

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Tent-making Bat (Uroderma bilobatum)

Doesn’t the idea of tent-making bats sound fun? I feel like they’d be excellent camping partners, because if you were ever stuck without shelter they could just whip up a tent for everyone to sleep in. Actual tent-making bats really do make tents, but they certainly aren’t large enough for people to stay in. Still, it’s a pretty cool way to build a roost.

Tent-making bats are found in Central and South America, from Mexico to Peru and Brazil. They live in forests, usually at elevations below 600 m. These bats mainly eat fruit, so they need to live in places where there are enough fruits to sustain them.

Tent-making bats are kind of cute, in a batty kind of way. They are not very large, growing to lengths of 5.9-6.9 cm. Their faces are decorated with a modest noseleaf, as well as four distinct white stripes. Each bat also has a white stripe that runs along the back to the base of the tail. The rest of their fur is grey-brown.

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See they’re pretty cute! Image source

These bats are known for their roosting behaviour, which of course involves constructing tents. They do this by chewing at special spots along the middle of large leaves, so that they fold and create a tent-like structure. Tent-making bats usually choose banana or palm leaves for their roosts, and pick trees that are tall, but not overly so. It’s thought that this is because tall trees are better protected against predators, but that very tall trees are more exposed to weather.

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Some tent-making bats in a nice cosy roost. Image credit: Charlesjsharp via Wikipedia

The downside about this tent-making process is that it takes a few nights, and the bats have to build a new one every couple of months, as the leaves dry out and fall off. Luckily the bats have friends to share in the work, as up to 59 bats will share a single roost.

Tent-making bats breed twice a year, in February and June. This is when plants are fruiting and flowering, which provides food for the pregnant bats and their young. The bats give birth to only one pup after four to five months. The babies are kept in communal roosts, and are independent a month after birth.

Although leaf homes might not seem like the greatest of shelters, this system seems to work pretty well for the tent-making bats. They are currently doing very well in their range, and hopefully will continue to do so.

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KodKod (Leopardus guigna)

Generally the species I am most familiar with are mammals, and within that group I know the Carnivores best, and am particularly fond of the felids. Therefore when I came across a cat species I had never heard of, I got very excited and knew I had to blog about it.

Kodkods are small cats that live primarily in Chile (they are also known as Chilean cats). They range across most of Chile, and also venture into western Argentina. Kodkods are found in forests, particularly those that have bamboo in them. They are happy in mountainous forests, up to 2,500 meters.

Kodkods are the smallest cats in the Americas, being about the size of a house cat. They generally don’t get bigger than 52 cm in body length and 3 kg in weight. They have thick, bushy tails and big paws, which help them climb trees. Most kodkods are brown in colour with spots on their bodies and stripes on their tails and backs. Some kodkods are melanistic, meaning they are almost black, though their spots and stripes remain visible in bright light.

Kodkods are both nocturnal and diurnal, depending on where they live. Those that live near people tend to venture out more at night, while those that live in undisturbed areas are generally more diurnal. They are excellent climbers (thanks to those big paws), and will climb to avoid predators, locate shelter, or find prey. They will eat a variety of small animals, including rodents, birds, reptiles and insects.

Very little is known about mating in kodkods, as they are secretive and quite rare. Males range over a large territory in search of females, but how they attract lovely lady kodkods is unknown. Gestation lasts for two and a half months, and females give birth to one to three kittens. Kodkod kittens reach sexual maturity at around two years of age.

Kodkods are vulnerable to population declines, thanks to habitat loss, predation, and hunting. Kodkods do tend to do fairly well in disturbed habitats, so they are not currently endangered, though they may be heading that way. Hopefully we can protect them before they are in serious jeopardy!

Cover image credit: Mauro Tammone via Wikipedia

Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

I’ve written about a lot of strange and hilarious animals on this blog, but sadly I’ve neglected one of the silliest animals around: the giant anteater. Don’t get me wrong, anything that big that survives by eating ants is a pretty amazing creature, but they do look quite funny. Something about that long snout and the way they lumber around is definitely chuckle-worthy.

Giant anteaters live in South and Central America, primarily in Brazil. Within their range, they are found in a wide variety of habitats, such as forests, swamps, and grasslands, in both urban and rural areas.  Unlike other anteaters and sloths (their close relatives), the giant anteater spends most of its time on the ground instead of in trees. It’s pretty hard to picture something as big as a giant anteater climbing, though apparently they are good at climbing out of captive enclosures.

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A giant anteater. Can you spot the giant panda in the picture? Image credit: Maylene Thyssen via Wikipedia

The word giant probably tips you off that this anteater is fairly large, but how big is giant? Pretty massive, I’d say. Their head and body can reach lengths of 1.2 m, with an additional 90 cm of tail. They can weigh over 40 kg. Anteaters have long, coarse fur that is brown and black with various white stripes.

Giant anteaters have massive claws on their forefeet, which they use to dig up their favourite food: ants (surprise!) and termites. They have no teeth, but have a snaky tongue that can be 61 cm in length, and is covered in spines. The tongue is coated in sticky saliva and makes the perfect tool for scooping up copious amounts of insects. Anteaters can eat thousands of bugs in just a few minutes. They find their prey using their acute sense of smell, which is 40 times that of humans.

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An anteater sleeping under its tail and showing off its great big claws. Image credit: Mateus Hidalgo via Wikipedia

Anteaters are usually solitary, only coming together to mate. If they do happen to pass each other in the wild, they will often simply ignore one another, only occasionally bothering to fight. Giant anteaters don’t really look like they’re built to fight, but when they rear up on their hind legs and use those long claws to swipe at their enemies, I imagine they’d be pretty formidable.

Reproduction in giant anteaters can occur at any time of the year. Males and females spend a few days together, feeding at the same locations and mating a few times. The female anteater gives birth to a single baby after 190 days. The baby anteater, which weighs just over a kilogram, immediately climbs onto its mother’s back, where she will carry it until it is ix to nine months old. Young giant anteaters reach sexual maturity between two and four years of age.

It’s pretty impressive for something so large to subsist solely on insects, which makes me appreciate giant anteaters. I’m also a fan of their awkwardness, so that’s two points for these guys. Anteaters are awesome.

Cover image source: http://www.sfzoo.org/images/gallery/anteater/img_anteater_mw_large.jpg