Saturday, May 31, 2008

Symbiosis - Crocs and Plovers

It's an old joke, but here goes. What's worse than a giraffe with a sore throat? Why, a crocodile with a toothache, of course. But the crocodiles along the Nile don't have much to worry about thanks to the Eqyptian Plover.

Crocodiles are rather messy eaters. Their jaws can open and close, but can not move from side to side, neither can they use their tongues to propel food around their mouths. The arrangement of their teeth—still in prehistoric form—does not allow them to chew. All of this simply means that the crocodile is a biter, tearer and gulper of food. Such practices mean a lot of food gets caught in a crocodile's teeth, attracting parasites, bacteria and leeches.

You'd think that would lead to one sore mouth, and it would if not for the Egyptian Plover. Crocodiles invite the plover over for a meal by beaching themselves, opening their mouths wide and remaining very still. The plover will approach and actually enter the croc's mouth. Once there, the bird will set about gobbling food scraps and parasites. Another win/win.

This great photo was taken by Wally Irwin.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Symbiotic Relationship Of The Oxpecker & Its Host

On the prairies of Africa and the deltas of India and the pastures of America there are large animals and small annoying bugs. Flies buzz mercilessly around the heads of horses and cattle. Zebras are plagued by black flies and midges. With little more than a tail for a swatter the insect bombardment must drive these creatures to distraction, however, some relief is at hand in the form of avian symbiotes.

We're going to focus on one particular relationship—that of the Oxpecker and its large mammal host. Oxpeckers are medium-sized birds that feed on ticks. Ticks are a type of parasitic symbiotes, and use host animals for their own gain and offer no benefits in return. Ticks can be quite dangerous to their hosts, spreading disease and, in large numbers, causing anemia and anorexia due to blood loss.

antelope and oxpeckers
An antelope gets a "cleaning" from oxpeckers
Oxpeckers hitch a ride on zebras, giraffes, water buffalo, antelope and numerous other foraging ungulates (hoofed mammals). They traverse their host from nose to tail tip, top to bottom, in search of gorging ticks. The bird deftly plucks them from the mammal's hide, even cleaning ears, and feasts on the unwanted parasites. Another "I clean you, you feed me" relationship.

Oxpecker on water buffalo
An oxpecker sits atop its host, a large water buffalo.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Symbiosis - Cleaner Shrimp

While watching the Nemo clip yesterday, I was reminded of another great scene from the movie.

That flick is just full of symbiotic relationships, even if they aren't the traditional, recognized by science ones ("Fish are friends, not food"). Of course the cleaner shrimp, Jacques, is a scientifically recognized symbiote.

"Cleaner shrimp" is a generic name given to any of three crustacean species that specialize in . . . well . . . cleaning. Mainly they clean fish but will work on other marine animals as well. These tiny shrimp will set up "cleaning stations" in open areas among coral reefs. Kind of like setting up a body and lube shop on the corner of East and Main. Once they've established themselves at their station, the cleaner shrimp perform a dance. No, it doesn't involve dressing in costumes and spinning signs that say "open for business", but it pretty much amounts to the same thing. They want to draw attention to themselves and let fish know they are ready for business, not biting.

Fish will approach the station slowly, trying very hard to look nonthreatening. They will strike non-aggressive poses or open their mouths at odd angles, anything to let the cleaner shrimp know they are there for services not appetizers. Depending on the size of the fish, the shrimp will approach alone or in groups and start cleaning. They are looking for dead scales, parasites, even bits of food that have lodged in the fish's mouth. With tiny pinchers the shrimp pluck these items from the fish's body and eat them. Cleaner shrimp will clean the host fish inside and out, even entering through the mouth and exiting through the gills. Wonderful Symbiosis. The fish get groomed, which helps their overall health, and the shrimp get a meal with no risk of becoming one. Isn't it great when a plan comes together?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

On the 24th of November, 2004, the Animals in War memorial was unveiled in Park Lane, London, England. The memorial was erected to honor the millions of animals who gave of their health and lives in service to humans during war time. The sculptor intended to include all animals that served, and so, alongside the dogs and horses and mules you will find images of glow worms, camels, and elephants. The inscription on the Memorial reads:

Animals in War
This memorial is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.
They had no choice.

As we remember and give thanks to our service men and women this Memorial Day, perhaps you may want to take some time to remember all who sacrificed.

Happy Memorial Day

Please follow the links below to see pictures of the Animals in War Memorial. It is truly well done.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Animals In War - Pigeons

Did you know that many soldiers were sent on the D-Day invasion with pigeons in their coats? It's true. Radio silence was paramount and so pigeons became the necessary means of communication. Pigeons have been used as messenger carriers since the Middle Ages. Their natural homing instincts have made them invaluable in conveying vital information to humans locked in the struggle of war.  

Pigeons can fly quite fast, and will fly hundreds of miles in a day. One American pigeon, named G.I. Joe, managed a twenty mile flight in twenty minutes. The message he carried kept an American bomber group from decimating an Italian town that was currently occupied with allied British Forces. Joe was credited with saving over 1,000 lives that day. G.I. Joe is one of 32 pigeon recipients of the Dickin Medal, a British military honor awarded to animals who have dedicated themselves to saving human life. Of all the animal servants of war, pigeons have received the most Dickin's Medals.

Another famous pigeon was Cher Ami. In October of 1918, the "Lost Battalion" (also known as the 77th Infantry Division) was trapped behind German lines with no food or ammunition. Trying desperately to reach headquarters to tell of their plight, the 77th sent pigeon after pigeon only to watch them be shot from the sky. Cher Ami was the last pigeon left. When released, Cher Ami was also hit, but he kept flying. When he reached his home base, some 25 miles away, it was found that Cher Ami had flown with wounds to his chest and leg. The message he carried saved the battalion from capture and death. Cher Ami, who was indeed a "Dear Friend," as his name implies, was awarded the French Palm for valor.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Animals at War - Strange but True

Ever heard of bomb sniffing rats? Or Frogman killing dolphins? How about landmine detecting bees? Humans have a great appreciation for the natural abilities of animals. That appreciation can lead to bizarre, inhumane and occasionally, benignly beneficial uses of animals in wartime.

The Bizarre: History is replete with tales of dolphins rescuing humans from the perils of the sea. Relying on the dolphin's natural curiosity and affinity to humans, the US Navy began the "swimmer nullification plan." Attaching hypodermics filled with compressed CO2 to the dolphin's nose, the marine mammals were trained to find divers swimming in restricted areas and inject them. Getting injected with compressed CO2 kills you, and it also makes your body float to the surface so you're easily retrievable. Supposedly 40 Viet Cong frogmen were killed this way.

The Inhumane: Over the course of thousands of wars, numerous types of animals have been used as living incendiaries. Cats, dogs, pigs, rats, even camels have all been lit on fire and pointed at the enemy. Of course nothing prevented these animals from turning around and running back through the host forces (makes you cheer a bit). Needless to say, the practice ultimately fell out of favor.

Unfortunately, militaries discovered safer (for them) ways to use animals to decimate enemy forces. What did they do? They strapped bombs to them. Tank dogs were trained to run under enemy tanks where their bomb harnesses would be detonated. Free-tailed bats were strapped with timed incendiary devices. The plan was to release them over Japan where their natural instinct would cause them to roost in the eaves of factories and warehouses. Once there, the timing devices would go off, causing the bat, and hopefully the building, to catch fire. Cats, wearing small explosives, were to be dropped over enemy ships. With their natural dislike of water, the cats would be sure to land on the ships and then could be exploded. Thankfully, most of these projects went nowhere. The bats escaped, burning down an Air Force hanger and blowing up a general's car. The cats, mercifully, lost consciousness soon after they were ejected from the planes.

The gathering strength of worldwide Animal Rights Groups has largely brought an end to such schemes.

The Benignly Beneficial: Glow worms were used in the trenches of WWI to create enough light for soldiers to read maps by. Gambian Pouch Rats, with their incredible sense of smell, are being used to sniff out landmines. Their small size protects them from triggering the mechanisms. The rats are currently clearing mines from much needed farm land along the coast of Mozambique. Bees are also helping to find long buried landmines. Having been fed trace elements used in the making of explosives, the bees naturally swarm around buried mines that leak these elements into the atmosphere. Small "backpacks" attached to the bees help humans determine where the bees are congregating. Once the humans arrive, they can dig up and dispose of the mine. The amount of bees needed to create a hive of landmine seekers costs about $100. The bees can be trained in less than 3 hours and have a 98% success rate of finding long buried and forgotten landmines.

Of course we know what would be best for animals as well as humans with regard to the practice of war, but conflict will occur. More than likely, our need for animal helpers in battles will also occur. Hopefully it will only be in a benignly beneficial way.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Animals at War - Dogs

Dogs have been a fixture on the battle field since the beginning of war. Perhaps not as glorified as the horse, their loyalty, trainability, adaptability and courage have made them an indispensible cog in war's machine.

Dogs used in combat were first bred and trained as fighters. The Roman army had entire companies composed of fierce, aggressive canines who would battle alongside Rome's human legions. Wearing spiked collars and anklets, the half-starved dogs would be let loose on the battlefield to terrorize and decimate Rome's enemies. Not until they met the ancient Mastiffs of Britain were the Roman dogs defeated.

Dogs soon took on larger responsibilities when it came to war. They were used as messengers, sentries, guards and pack animals. Favored breeds included the German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, and Rottweiler, but Airedales, Poodles and Irish Terriers were frequently used as ammunition carriers and messengers because of their courage, intelligence and grace under fire. During WWI the Germans put over 30,000 dogs in to service, the French, 20,000. American Marines used Dobermans to help them liberate Guam in 1944. 25 of them were killed and there is a stirring memorial to their memory and service. American forces used over 4,000 dogs as scouts and messengers during the war in Vietnam.

Many other dogs became mascots. Some were smuggled onto troop ships and into battle by their soldier-owners. Others were adopted along the way. During WWII it was rare for a platoon to be without a dog. Many of these canine companions would march and drill with their men, fall out for roll-call and join them in the trenches. Although they may not have been the fierce battle dogs of Roman history, I'm sure the services they provided—love, companionship and comfort to their humans—was even more valuable.

This photo is of the War Dog Memorial on Guam. I apologize for not citing the photographer, but the memorial was donated by the UDC (United Doberman Club). The statue is titled: Always Faithful.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Animals at War - Cats

So, we've touched upon the role of horses, mules, donkeys and elephants, but did you know the part that cats played?

Persian forces brought cats with them when they fought the Egyptians. Knowing the reverence Egyptians had for cats, the Persians "littered" the battle field with them, forcing the Egyptians to choose between harming a deity or winning the war. The Egyptians laid down their arms.

Cats are not known for being open to much training, but one Russian cat named Mourka spent the better part of the siege of Stalingrad relaying messages about German troop movements between Soviet scouts and headquarters. How they managed to make Mourka such a reliable messenger is unclear, but in a time when food was scarce and many people starved, making Mourka's "home base" the kitchen at headquarters, may have been a factor.

Trench warfare was a miserable truth in WWI and WWII. Breeding grounds of disease and death, the wet, the smell and infestations of rats and mice made the experience even more unbearable. In hopes of mitigating some of the unpleasantness, Britain shipped more than 500 to the trenches of France. Their primary role was to keep down the rat and mice population, but they were also used for a "canary in the coal mine" purpose. The cat's acute sense of smell would quickly alert them to the presence of deadly or debilitating gases. If the soldiers saw a cat high-tailing it, they knew to go for the gas masks. Cats in the trenches happened to serve another purpose which the British High Command may not have planned for. They gave comfort and companionship to the war weary men they served with.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Animals at War - Horses, part 2

Yesterday I told you about one horse who escaped the WWI draft in Britain due to the love of her owner and the compassion of a General. Some people did ask me, "What would a pony have done in the war anyway?" As I stated in that post, most horses conscripted to service were not war horses. Britain's cavalry force at the start of WWI numbered only about 100,000 men. Even with 2 horses apiece and mounts for senior officers in other branches, the number of horses required for combat service would in no reach the numbers actually used during the war.

Although the use of cavalry was considered a premiere battle tactic at the start of WWI, the advent of trench warfare soon changed that opinion. The majority of horses, as well as mules and donkeys were used to transport supplies, weapons and troops to all points where they were needed. Donkeys and mules received the more difficult duties, most involving rough terrain, narrow precipitous passageways, or harsh weather conditions. Donkeys need little forage, are naturally agile and can withstand heavy loads. Mules, crosses between horses and donkeys, seem to have genetically received the best of both parents being patient, and sure-footed like the donkey, but with the size, strength and vigor of the horse. Any wonder the United States Army chose the Mule as its mascot?

These loyal beasts of burden did receive care from their troops, but they were also considered an expendable and renewable resource – easier to come by than a soldier or truck. They were caught up in war and many died of disease, starvation and the cold. Many others were simply euthanized due to injury or wounds suffered in battle. Still, of the over 2.5 million horses treated in veterinary hospitals during the war, a surprising 2 million recovered and were able to return to duty – better odds than for soldiers.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Animals at War - Horses, part I

Shakespeare knew the importance of animals at wartime. His brilliant tragedy, Richard III reaches its climax with Richard begging: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse." Act 5, scene 4

War exacts a heavy toll on human life. During WWI alone over 2.5 million British soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines were killed or wounded. During the same war, over 8 million horses, donkeys and mules were killed. Of the 1 million horses conscripted in Britain and sent to battle in France, only 62,000 returned. The majority of these animals were not the glorified Charger, bred for war, but the farmer's plow horse, or the gentlemen's hunter, or the family's pet.

When the hostilities broke out between Britain and Germany in 1914, the Hewlett family sent 3 family members and 2 horses. Left to them were their three younger children and a 17-year old pony named Betty. Freda Hewlett (then just a schoolgirl) was particularly worried about what would happen to her dear pony. Would the military call upon the family to give over their pet? After 93 years, letters were found between Freda and Lord Kitchener, then Secretary of War. In them, Freda pleads for the safety of her pony. She tells Lord Kitchener that Betty is small and also with foal and asks him to spare her from service. Lord Kitchener's private secretary sent the following reply:

"Lord Kitchener asks me to say in reply to your letter of the 11th August, that if you will show the enclosed note to anyone who comes to ask about your pony, he thinks it will be left to you quite safely. Lord Kitchener has directed that no horses under 15 hands shall be recruited belonging to the British Family P, L and Freda Hewlett."

The above picture is of Betty, the pony. Right now, another Shakespearean quote seems apt. "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droopeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath." The Merchant of Venice. Act 4, scene 1

Monday, May 19, 2008

Animals at War - Elephants

In one week's time, we will be celebrating Memorial Day. Our government views Memorial Day as "one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values." Nowhere in the White House Memoranda does it state that those honored and revered must be human. Perhaps this Memorial Day you can also remember the millions of animals that served and gave their lives in our armed services.

Animals have been integral in manmade conflicts for thousands of years. They have not volunteered for these duties and yet military outcomes have hinged upon their service. Using elephants as living battle tanks became a mostly advantageous military practice in 4000 BC. Although some were outfitted with archery towers and lance men, elephants were mostly driven forward and used for shock value. Horses were terrified at the mere scent of them and would frequently refuse to charge. The elephants didn't have as much difficulty in charging, and when goaded by their riders into a maddened stampede it little mattered which army stood before them. This is where the idea of elephants as a military advantage could (and frequently did) fall apart.

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of the "Elephant Offense" would be Hannibal. Histories are replete with tales of him taking a herd of African elephants over the alps to fight the Romans. What the histories fail to mention is that over half of Hannibal's army and all but a few of the elephants died during the crossing. The elephants that Hannibal used to win a victory in the Battle of the Trebia River, were different elephants altogether, but elephants all the same. There were about 30 of them, positioned on the flanks of Hannibal's main forces. The elephants played their part well, fostering terror among the enemy and scattering or trampling Rome's forces. Although given credit for a successful battle, many of the elephants were mortally wounded in the fight. Those that did not die on the battle field later succumbed to the cold and Hannibal was once again elephant-less.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pollinators - Reptiles

The island of Mauritius is famous, or perhaps infamous, for having been the habitat of the Dodo bird. The dodo was a wonderful seed distributor but was probably not a pollinator. Instead that task fell to other indigenous birds like the Olive white-eye. Unfortunately, the Olive white-eye has more than just its native land in common with the dodo. The Olive white-eye is critically endangered and scientists fear only 150 nesting pairs may be left on Mauritius. The Olive white-eye was the key pollinator of the Trochetia, a plant producing pink, orange or white flowers. The Trochetia is also endangered due to invasive plant species and feral populations of monkeys and rats, but the Trochetia's fate could be more hopeful than that of the Olive white-eye.

Also living on the Island of Mauritius is the Blue-tailed Day Gecko. This tiny lizard is endemic to the island. A confirmed insectivore, the gecko found its food sources of insects becoming increasingly scarce and so began feeding on nectar. The Blue-tailed day gecko has been gradually taking over the duties of the Olive white-eye in becoming the Trochetia's main pollinator. In return, the Trochetia flowers have even begun to produce colored nectar, in shades of yellow and red; instead of the clear nectar other plants produce. It seems color is more important in attracting the little lizard than scent is. As the gecko dips in to the deep bell-shaped flowers, pollen falls across its throat and lips, adhering to the gecko's scales. While visiting another flower, the gecko brushes this pollen off on the flowers stigma, helping the Trochetia keep its fragile hold on the island.

Scientists are discovering that lizards are frequently the main pollinators in island communities. The Lilford's Wall Lizard is responsible for the pollination of over 20 plant species found off the coast of Spain. Lizards make very capable pollinators as they can carry a lot of pollen for long distances. Their inability to get off the island also makes them a more reliable resource than the birds.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Hansen.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pollinators - Bats

We learned that without midges there would be no chocolate. Have you ever contemplated what you'd loose if we lost the bat? Let the question percolate in your brain while you read the rest of this post. We'll talk about it again at the end.

It is true that most bat species are insectivores, but a healthy minority (about 1/3rd) is nectarivorous and feed on nectar, pollen and fruit. They prefer trees or plants with larger flowers and while invading the blossom to lick out the nectar, they dust their heads and faces with pollen. When the next flower is visited, the first flower's pollen grains are brushed against the new flower's stigma and pollination takes place. 80% of the world's plants require pollination to produce fruits and seeds. The benefits of pollinators, (as opposed to self-pollination), is an assurance of genetic diversity, an important part of a plant's health. The same bats that pollinate will generally return to consume the plant's fruit, and thereby the fruit's seeds. Bats are strong fliers and maintain large home ranges in which they forage. Since they will poop in flight, this makes the bats wonderful seed dispersers, a talent that makes the bats major factors in the regeneration of clear cut tropical forests.

Have you had a chance to think about what products we'd have to give up if bats are driven from their habitat? Keep this in mind, more than 300 Old World tropical plants rely on bats for their pollination and seed-dispersal. Some of these plants are needed as ingredients in medicines, dyes and fuel. Others are more familiar to you. The bat is directly responsible for the proliferation of mangos, bananas, guavas, cashews and dates. And let's not forget the bat's role in the pollination of the agave plant, the key ingredient in tequila. Thought that might get your attention.

Rick A. provided the delicious photo of the Margaritas. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pollinators - Bugs

Ever been driven mad by midges? Ever gone nuts because of gnats? (Think back to the 2nd game of the 2007 American League Division Series when the Yankees got swarmed by bugs and you'll know what I'm talking about.) Bugs, especially those small little no-see-ums that invade every campsite I've ever stayed in, can really make you crazy. It's not always the buzzing or the biting that gets me. It's the way they dive bomb my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my ears, seeking any moisture they can find. At times like that I want the largest can of Deep Woods Off I can find. But if there were no bugs, there'd be no chocolate.

That's right. It's true. A wee little midge is responsible for all of the chocolate in the world. The lovely tropical tree, Theobroma cocoa (which means "food of the gods") produces complex, nickel-sized white flowers that bloom at night. Once in bloom, the flower has a mere 48 hours in which to be pollinated. This is where the midge comes in. Although the flowers possess both male and female parts, they do not self-pollinate and rely on the determined visit of the midge to accomplish the task. Even so, only about 5 of every 100 flowers will be pollinated at the correct time and become cocoa pods.

Cocoa trees thrive in the damp and shade of the tropical rainforest where they can tap into the nutrient-rich soil and are protected from strong winds by larger trees. The midges that pollinate the cocoa trees also thrive there, enjoying the damp and the decaying plant and animal life. It seems counter-productive that cocoa harvesters have been creating vast, cultivated, open-air cocoa tree plantations. To do this, they chop down the shade trees and clear the decaying plants and basically give the pollinating midge no habitat. Is it any surprise that instead of 5 in every 100 flowers becoming cocoa pods, as happens in the forest, the plantation's trees fall far short? Only 3 in every 1,000 blossoms will create cocoa pods, and that means less chocolate.

So, before you swat your next fly, remember your last bite of chocolate cake, or your last bite of Hershey's Special Dark, or your last bite of dusted truffle. Without the bugs, it could be your last bite.

Thank you to Kurt Stueber for the photo.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pollinators - Interconnectedness

There is a rare and beautiful flower growing along one small stretch of dunes on the California coast. Small and delicate, this white evening primrose blooms from March until September. This primrose is listed as endangered and is protected in the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. Set about on all sides by fast-growing, aggressive, weedy neighbors, the primrose has needed all the human intervention it can get to keep a sandy toe-hold. Unfortunately, the plants still produce few fruits and viable seed counts remains low. For all our human care, we can not make them thrive. Only the Hawk Moth can do that.

The hawk moth is the main pollinator of the Antioch Dune primrose. Due to pesticide spraying at nearby vineyards, the population of hawk moths has declined, and so has the population of Antioch Dune primroses. Food crops are not the only plants that rely on pollinators (birds, bats, bees and other insects) and if we want to maintain the beauty and diversity of our world we need to keep in mind the connectedness of the world's living things. Designating pesticide free zones and maintaining buffers of natural land full of diverse, native plants will allow pollinators the habitat they need to keep up with their vital work. Plowing under a meadow of flowers to create another field for corn may be disturbing a vital "nectar highway" for pollinators. Due to their inability to span the disrupted area in a day, the pollinator will either starve while trying, or remain stranded on one side, unable to reach its food source on the other and continue its migration. Plant species disruption and decline is the result and that will simply be the first domino to fall.

The Federal Government does a careful job of protecting, tracking, counting and reporting on endangered species, be they plant or animal. One thing they have not been checking, even for endangered plants, is the availability of pollinators for those plants. The hawk moth enjoys a vigorous world wide population. There are close to 1200 species of hawk moth classified into 200 genera. That seems an awful lot of hawk moths. But there aren't enough of them on the Antioch Dunes in Contra Costa County, California. The primroses can tell you that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pollinators - Honey Bees

The garden is beautiful. My lilies and roses are close to a first bloom. The lavender's beginning its wild rampage on the South side of our house and the sedum has claimed yet another acre of rock wall. Year after year these glories happen and, although I notice them and appreciate them, I never really notice or appreciate the little critters that make it all possible.

Over 80% of our food crops are dependent upon the help of birds, bats, bees or other insects for pollination. It is not a process we humans can replicate with tool or machine, and yes, we have tried. When humans attempt it, the process can only be accomplished on a small scale and is still not very successful.

Perhaps the most well-known pollinator is the honey bee. When my lavender blooms, their little black and yellow bodies are constantly weaving about the purple flowers. While searching for nectar, the honey bee dusts itself with pollen from one flower and transfers it to the next flower it lands on, thereby enabling the plant to reproduce and bear fruit, seeds or more flowers. Honey bees are responsible for the reproduction of apple trees, blueberry bushes, cucumber plants, sunflowers and many more crops we humans rely upon. In the year 2000, Cornell University conducted a study and found, "the direct value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14.6 billion." Let's hope the bees don't expect to collect.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Good Mothers - Humans

These are two of the best mothers it has been my privilege to know. They’ve stayed with one mate, raised strong, resourceful daughters, and caring, gentle sons. They’ve kept their extended family “herds” intact and passed down a genetic predisposition to see the humor in life all while accomplishing their own personal goals and dreams. Not easy tasks, but these moms have made them appear effortless.

The mother on the left happens to be my mother. The mother on the right is my Mom’s best friend. (I’m honored to say she is one of my best friends too.) If you define mothering as the investment of time in the life and development of offspring, no animal can top the investment a human mother provides her child. Humans are the only species that commit to the process for a lifetime. That’s why having a Good Mother in your corner is such a great gift.
Thanks for the effort, Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Manatees Make Good Mothers

Manatees are very attentive and doting mothers. They usually give birth to a single calf in a quiet and secluded area. Once the calf is born, the mother will stay very close, ensuring the calf can take its first breath on its own. The calf will vocalize immediately and the mother will call back. Scientists believe this is crucial to the pair's early bonding process. 

Manatee mothers have been seen floating perpendicularly and holding their calves against their bodies. In this pose they look very much like a human mother nursing her child. Calves begin to nurse a few hours after birth.

For manatees, the sense of touch is important and mother and calf will frequently swim pressed against each other. Manatees are generally solitary animals. If you see two manatees swimming together, chances are they are mother and child.

When the manatee calf is only a few weeks old, it will begin nibbling on plants. The calf will not be fully weaned until it is closer to a year old but will stay with its mother for a year of more after that. During this time, the mother is busy teaching her offspring which plants to eat, where to find safe resting areas and warm water refuges, as well as which migratory routes to follow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Good Mothers - Elephants

Hello, Readership! I was not lost in the deepest darkest parts of Africa. I've been on Jury Duty. Some may consider that comparable, but it was actually quite interesting to see the inner workings of our judicial system.

This week, or for what's left of it, I'm going to write about the Good Mother, since we'll be celebrating Mother's Day this coming Sunday, May 11th. You know, when we see someone acting horribly or out-of-control, we say they're "behaving like an animal." That is patently unfair to animals. They are not all creatures of mere instinct and habit. Animals can form complex social structures and develop deep attachments to each other and humans.

Elephants are such animals. Their bonds are lifelong and even last past death. After a gestation period of 22 months (yes, 22 months), the soon-to-be-mother will choose an "Auntie" from the predominantly female herd and retire to a secluded area to give birth. The Auntie is there to help the mother and protect her and the calf during labor and the birthing process.

Elephant mothers dote on their young, investing 4 or more years in suckling alone. They take great care in guiding and teaching their children, even meting out discipline in the form of a trunk slap on the flank or rump. Mothers are aided in their child-rearing by the entire herd, which is made up of sisters, nieces, cousins, mothers and grandmothers. Daughters will stay with their mothers and the herd they are born into for the rest of their lives. Sons will remain with their mother until they are approximately 15 years old, when they will join smaller male groups.

Photo taken by Sandra Fenley

Friday, May 2, 2008

Animal Architects - Wasps

I'm sorry to say I've had "dealings" with our next architect. As interesting and complex as their nests are, I have no love of wasps. They are aggressive and their stings Hurt!

Paper wasps make their own version of paper to build their nests. Wasps collect wood fibers with their mandibles. They look for sources with exposed wood, such as fences, telephone poles, buildings or damaged trees. They will even visit trash sites or dumps and scrap the fibers from cardboard or paper bags. They mix the pulp with their own saliva, and sometimes with their own poo, to get the fibers soft and moist. Once it is in a paste-like form, the wasp spreads it along an exposed leading edge of the nest, using both mandibles and legs. Once the substance dries, it becomes a strong and durable paper.

You may think making your home out of paper is unwise, but it works beautifully for the wasp. The pockets of air trapped between paper layers keep the nest temperature regulated. Need to cool the nest off? Peel off some paper. Getting too cold? Spread more layers on.

Unfortunately, paper wasps tend to build their homes near or on our homes. Wasps eat other insects and spiders, which is good, but they are also aggressive and highly territorial, which is bad. If you need to remove wasps that have decided to become your neighbors, do so at dusk. They are less active then. Even so, make sure you have a clear route of escape as they will not be happy.

Wasp photo by Susan Ellis.
Nest photo by Mensatic.