Tuesday, January 31, 2012

World's Biggest - The Blue Whale

The blue whale is an animal of records. At up to 100 feet in length and weighing 400,000lbs, they are the largest mammals ever known to exist. These jumbo jet-sized whales have a heart that’s the size of a car, a tongue that’s as heavy as an elephant and inhabit nearly every ocean in the world. Their name is taken from the color they appear to be when underwater; though in fact blue whales are more a bluish-grey color, with white and yellow pigmentation on their undersides.

Blue whales have a longer, more slender appearance than most whales, with a very small dorsal fin and flippers that are 10-13ft long. They can swim quite fast, up to 31mph, but usually cruise at around 12mph; even slower for feeding. Despite its massive size, the carnivorous blue whale is not a hunter, per se. It instead feeds upon massive schools of krill, a small crustacean not unlike shrimp. Rather than teeth, the blue whale has about 300 rows of baleen plates, which are similar in makeup to fingernails, that are around 3 feet long arranged like a comb. To feed, the whale swims into a school of krill and opens its mouth, engulfing huge amounts of krill and water. The water is then expelled through the mouth, and the remaining krill, stuck in the baleen, are swallowed. Blue whales can eat up to 8000lbs of krill in a day.

Blue whales have a very long lifespan, and usually live for 80-110 years. In a recent article by Discovery News it was reported that blue whales are actually getting bigger! Apparently, when you live in the ocean getting heavier doesn’t make it any more difficult to move around!

Click here to view The Jungle Store’s selection of great whale gifts!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Meet the Shikra

Shikras (Accipiter badius) are birds of prey native to many parts of Asia and Africa. As members of the same family as goshawks, shikras are sometimes referred to as little banded goshawks.

Usually less than a foot long, shikras are quite small for birds of prey. Male shikras can be identified by their red eyes and pale grey plumage, whereas females are darker brown and have yellow eyes. Both sexes have short, rounded wings and long tails. There are six known subspecies of shikra that differ somewhat in size, appearance, and range.

Photo Copyright: Avadhesh Malik
Shikras usually hunt from perches such as tree branches, swooping down to grab common prey animals such as birds, lizards, and bats. Ariel pursuits of birds may happen occasionally, but smaller birds are often able to escape through dense brush in more heavily forested areas.

Breeding season for shikras usually occurs anywhere between January and June depending on location and in some portions of Africa may take place at any time of year. Most shikras lay anywhere from 2-4 eggs that hatch roughly a month later. Chicks are ready for fledging roughly a month after being born. Shikras have a stable global population of roughly one million, and are not currently considered threatened.

If you’re a fan of eagles, hawks and other raptors, check out The Jungle Store’s selection of unique gifts!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tyrannosaurus Rex – King of the Dinosaurs?

Tyrannosaurus Rex was a large carnivorous dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous period from approximately 67 to 65.5 million years ago. It is the largest, most wide-ranging and best known of the Tyrannosauridae family, reaching a length of up to 42 feet and an estimated weight of 15,000lbs. Tyrannosaurus Rex is recognized as one of the last terrestrial dinosaurs prior the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the cretaceous period.
"Jane" - a well-known specimen.
Tyrannosaurus Rex is best recognized by its extremely long head (up to 5 feet in length), long, powerful legs and extremely small two-fingered forelimbs. It was originally believed that bipedal dinosaurs such as T-Rex walked and stood nearly upright with their tails dragging on the ground. In the 1970’s paleontologists began to realize that such a posture would be impossible for these animals, and it has now been determined that T-Rex walked with its body nearly parallel to the ground with its massive tail helping to balance the weight of its heavy head.
Early 20th century depiction of T. Rex walking upright.
T-Rex’s life habits have long been a subject of debate. Although likely an apex predator, there are still some who believe that Tyrannosaurus was primarily a scavenger. These beliefs stem from the fact that T-Rex, with so much weight at opposite ends of its body, could not have been very agile and may have required several seconds to change direction. However, it was still likely fast enough to catch large prey, with its top speed estimated to be between 25 and 45mph. Additionally, T-Rex’s tiny forelimbs, once thought to be useless, are now believed to have been very strong and likely to hold prey down while feeding.

Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils have been found throughout what is now western North America. The T-Rex’s size, fearsome appearance and relatively large amount of remains have led it to become perhaps the world’s best known dinosaur, and a subject of many fictitious books and movies.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Snooty the Manatee

Like humans, many aquatic mammals are capable of having very long life spans, but not all of them are whales.

Photo credit: University of Illinois
Meet Snooty, the oldest known manatee in the world. Snooty was born in captivity on July 21st, 1948, making him 63 years old today. He has been a resident of the South Florida Museum’s Parker Manatee Aquarium for most of his life and has shared his tank with many other manatees while they rehabilitate before returning to the wild.

Snooty is one of the few manatees in the world that is allowed to have prolonged direct contact with his human caretakers. Unlike other manatees, Snooty has lived his whole life in captivity and is now considered too old to ever live in the wild, so human contact is allowed. A prime example of the intelligence of these animals, Snooty is able to recognize the voices of his handlers past and present, and can even remember tricks he learned at only one year old.
For more information on Snooty, you can visit his webpage; if you’re looking for great manatee gifts, you can find them at the Jungle Store!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mini-Hunter – The American Kestrel

The American kestrel is a small falcon found in North and South America. Often referred to as sparrow hawks, American kestrels are the smallest falcons in the Americas, as well as the only kestrels. They are extremely numerous, with an estimated 4 million living on the two continents. American kestrels are 7-8 inches in length and have a wingspan of less than two feet, making them very small for a bird of prey. Females tend to be larger than males and lack the blue-grey coloring found on the male’s wings and head.
American kestrels can be found from subarctic Canada all the way south to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. They prefer to live in open areas with plenty of available perches such as trees, fence posts, and power lines. This allows them to see and pounce on small prey such as grasshoppers and mice. However, when adequate hunting perches are not available, the American kestrel is capable of hovering in place using very rapid wing beats, not unlike a hummingbird.
Most American kestrels migrate south each winter, but depending on local weather conditions may become full-time residents. Regardless, in the winter most female kestrels will stay in open country with better hunting available and force the smaller males into deeper woods. Kestrels prefer to nest in cavities in trees, and will occasionally nest in holes carved out by large woodpeckers. Their desire for covered nests and open hunting ground has led them to naturally adapt to urban and suburban environments, and they nest frequently in building alcoves.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Sea Otter

The sea otter is quite the unique animal. It’s the heaviest otter in the world, reaching weights of up to 100lbs, and is also the only otter that is almost entirely aquatic. Though capable of walking on land, sea otters actually spend more time in the ocean than some seals.

Sea otters historically inhabited Pacific coastal regions in eastern Russia and western North America from Mexico to Alaska. Current populations are more sporadic, with the largest populations living in Russia.
Unlike other aquatic mammals, sea otters do not have blubber and depend entirely on their fur for insulation. Luckily, this fur happens to be the densest in the animal kingdom, with up to one million hairs per square inch! By comparison, humans only have about 2000 hairs per square inch on their heads.
Sea otters are a very important species to aquatic ecosystems. They consume a wide variety of invertebrates such as sea urchins, clams, mussels, and bivalves, helping to protect beneficial marine plants such as kelp. Conservation efforts are continuously underway to help restore this important animal to all of its former range.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Geese Don't Always Fly South

The familiar “V” shaped sight of a flock of Canada geese heading south for the winter has been a common occurrence throughout North America for as long as it has been populated. However, in recent years it seems like flocks of geese can be seen heading every direction at just about any time of year; why is this?
Canada geese have traditionally migrated south each winter in search of a reliable food supply, open water, and safety from hungry predators. However, the urbanization of many parts of North America over the last century has changed this. Golf courses and public parks are home to many man-made bodies of water that are shallow enough to not freeze. Human food waste provides a reliable meal for the geese, and the majority of their natural predators, such as golden eagles, wolves and mountain lions, are no longer present. Because of all this, Canada geese have little reason to leave many areas in the winter, and flocks often become permanent residents year-round.

Are you a waterfowl fan? Check out the Jungle Store’s selection of duck, goose, and swan gifts today!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Antiguan Racer – World’s Rarest Snake

With fewer than 500 individuals in existence, the Antiguan racer is considered to be the world’s rarest snake. They can only be found on tiny Great Bird Island, a small island off the coast of Antigua.

Antiguan racers are relatively small and non-venomous. Males are usually about three feet long and are dark brown in color with creamy blotches. Females are typically much larger and are silver-grey in color with brown blotches. These snakes are known to be gentle in temperament and pose absolutely no threat to humans.
Photo: WebEcoist
Antiguan racers are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day. Their primary prey are native Antiguan ground lizards such as anoles, for which they usually hunt by ambush, hiding under leaves until the lizard passes by; usually, Antiguan racers consume roughly two lizards per month.

Prior to colonization, these snakes were common to all of Antigua. However, the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century brought many nonnative rats to the area that would eat, among other things, Antiguan racer eggs. Soon the rat population began to skyrocket, and settlers introduced Asian mongooses to help eradicate them. Instead of eating rats, the diurnal mongooses preferred to prey upon Antiguan racers and the lizards they depended on for food. Within a short time of mongooses being introduced, Antiguan racers vanished, and most considered to them to be extinct.

A population of 50 Antiguan racers was discovered on Great Bird Island in the early 1990’s, apparently able to survive as no mongooses had been introduced there. Since then, conservation efforts have led to the population expanding tenfold, prompting conservationists to rid more islands of mongooses and give the Antiguan racer additional habitat.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Mountain Plover Doesn't Actually Live In The Mountains

The mountain plover is a rather curiously-named bird that you certainly won’t find in the mountains. Rather, this small bird inhabits the high central plains of North America from Montana to New Mexico.

Did you know the Mountain Plover doesn't actually live in the mountains?

If its name wasn’t confusing enough, its family history certainly is. The mountain plover is a member of the Charadriidae family, a group of shorebirds that occur all over the world; however, the mountain plover lives about as far away from the ocean as is possible.

The mountain plover is a little smaller than an American robin, and is an insectivore that forages the ground for a variety of small prey. Mountain plovers prefer a short grass prairie habitat, but will make use of prairie dog towns to provide breeding habitat in tallgrass prairie areas if necessary. Though not considered endangered, these birds are classified as near threatened by the IUCN.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

American & European Mink

The term “mink” refers to two living species of mammal; the European mink (Muestela lutreola) and the American mink (Neovision vision). Although both species appear quite similar, they do not share a common genus. European Mink are more closely related to polecats than they are to American mink, which are larger and stouter animals than those in the Mustela genus.
Both species of mink are carnivores and make their homes near bodies of water. Wild mink are usually less than three feet long including tail and weigh about 2lbs, with farm-bred varieties being much heavier. The American mink in particular has a very soft, dense coat that is water-resistant and well adapted to its semi aquatic environment. The body of a wild mink is quite slender, allowing the animal to easily access the burrows of prey animals.

Mink feed on rodents, fish, crustaceans, amphibians and birds. They are very capable swimmers and are able to catch prey in water, on land and underground. Mink do have to be wary of natural predators such as owls, foxes, bobcats and coyotes. However, the vast majority of mink are killed by human activities such as hunting to protect fish populations, trapping for fur and automobile strikes.

Mink live near bodies of water and prefer to have woods nearby. Their homes may be under a log or stump, a hollow tree or in an abandoned muskrat burrow. They are primarily nocturnal animals and live solitary lives outside of the mating season, never forming pair-bonds. Mating occurs in the spring with litters of four kits born between April and June. The kits are weaned after five weeks and stay with their mother until becoming independent in the autumn. Mink can live as long as 10 years.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sea Spiders

There is a group of (often) eight-legged animals living in many of the world’s oceans, and while they might resemble our web-building friends, sea spiders are not arachnids at all.
Photo: Steve Childs
Unlike the terrestrial spiders they resemble, sea spiders can have up to twelve legs, though eight is more common. They have very thin bodies and thus have no need for a respiratory system, instead breathing through a process called diffusion.

Sea spiders can grow quite large, with some reaching diameters of up to three feet; however, most are much smaller. These animals are capable of either swimming or walking on the sea floor and spend their days hunting or scavenging for sea life such as sea-anemones and sponges.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Leopard Cats

Despite their name, leopard cats are not closely related to the big cats known as leopards. Their common name comes from the fact that they have leopard-like spots, though the color and patterns can vary greatly over the different subspecies.
Photo: F. Spangenberg
Leopard cats can be found throughout Southeast Asia from as far north as Russia and Pakistan to the Philippines and Indonesia in the south; they are the most widely distributed of all small Asian cats. On average, leopard cats are slightly larger than most domestic cats and have longer legs.

The preferred habitat for the leopard cat is tropical or subtropical forest, though they can often be found in agricultural areas as well. They are excellent climbers and commonly rest in trees; swimming is possible as well, but leopard cats prefer to avoid water.

Photo: Pontafon
As with most small wild felines, leopard cats hunt a wide variety of birds, small rodents such as hares and shrews, as well as insects such as beetles. They are solitary animals, but males usually have larger individual ranges that overlap the ranges of several females.

Due to the tropical climate, there is no specific breeding season throughout much of the leopard cat’s range, and mating will occur any time the weather is mild enough to support newborns. Most litters consist of 2-4 kittens that will become independent after 7-10 months. Leopard cats are known to live for up to 13 years in captivity.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Crab-Eating Fox

The crab-eating fox is a small wild canine native to northern and eastern South America in the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, and northern Argentina. Most are about 2 feet in length and weigh 10-17lbs.
Photo: David Monniaux
The crab-eating fox gets its common name from its feeding habits. The fox often hunts on muddy floodplains during the rainy season, at which time crabs can make up nearly one third of its diet. Far from just a seafood lover, the crab-eating fox also hunts a variety of small rodents, lizards, amphibians and will dine on carrion whenever it is available.

Most crab-eating foxes live in mated teams and spend their leisure time resting in abandoned burrows. Crab-eating foxes pose no danger to livestock and are not actively hunted; in fact, they are known to be quite easily domesticated.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Backyard Nature - The Meadowlark

Meadowlarks are the eight species birds that make up the Sturnella genus. Though most are referred to as meadowlarks, two members of the genus are commonly called blackbirds; the red-breasted blackbird and the white-browed blackbird, though neither is closely related to other blackbirds.
Photo: Kevin Cole
The most common members of the genus throughout North America are Western and Eastern meadowlarks. They can both be identified by their yellow undersides and a prominent black “V” just below the throat. Though similar in appearance, the two species have different songs and do not hybridize regularly when their ranges overlap.

Most meadowlarks nest in fields, meadows or abandoned pastures on the ground, often in a depression if possible. These nests are made out of local material the bird can gather and sometimes have a complete roof with a tunnel leading to the nesting area. Because meadowlarks often nest in agricultural areas they can be disturbed or lose eggs to commercial mowing operations. Meadowlarks are not tolerant of a human presence and may abandon a nest if disturbed too often.
Meadowlarks are primarily insectivores, but they do also eat grains and seeds when food is scarce. Meadowlarks forage for insects on the ground by inserting their beaks into soil or a tree and using unusually strong jaw muscles to make a wider hole. This technique is called “gaping”, and allows the birds to access insects that others cannot. The meadowlark’s copious insect consumption makes its presence beneficial to both farmers and homeowners. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Barreleye - Spook Fish

Yes, this photo is real; this fish has a transparent head. The Pacific barreleye, AKA spook fish, is one of fourteen species of barreleye fish that can be found in tropical and subtropical waters at depths of 1,300 to 8,500 feet.
Those green orbs you see are actually the fish’s eyes. They protrude outside the skull but are encased inside a transparent dome. Though they can be aimed forward, the eyes are usually pointed up searching for the silhouette of prey (usually small zooplankton) in near total darkness.

Photo credits: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Tomato Frog

This appropriately-named frog may look somewhat like a tomato, but the tomato frog is not an animal anyone - or any snake would want to eat.
Tomato frogs are native to the island of Madagascar where they feed on a variety of larvae and insects. If the tomato frog is threatened it will puff itself up into a ball to appear larger. If a predator attempts to eat the frog anyway, it will secrete a glue-like substance from its skin. This toxin will begin to gum up the predator’s mouth and eyes, forcing it to release the frog. Though this substance is not deadly, it can take several days for a snake to clean it out of its mouth. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Gray Whale - Bottom Feeder

At 40 feet in length and weighing up to 40 tons, gray whales certainly look similar to other giant whales such as the humpback and blue whale. However, gray whales feed in a manner that it very different from other baleen whales.
Instead of teeth, most large whales have comb-like plates in their mouths called baleen. These plates are made from a material that is similar to human hair and fingernails, and serve to trap small animals such as plankton and krill between their rows when the whale feeds.

Baleen plates
Whereas other baleen whales feed by swimming through schools of plankton with their mouths agape, the gray whale feeds by diving to the sea floor, turning on its right side and scooping sediment into its mouth. The tiny crustaceans and tubeworms in the sediment become entangled in the baleen plates, and then the water and sand in the whale’s mouth can be expelled. Being as almost all gray whales feed by turning on their right sides, it is common for older whales to lose sight in their right eyes due to damage from the sea floor.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Hyrax

Though the hyrax may seem to resemble a rodent or guinea pig, it is actually more closely related to elephants.
Yellow-spotted rock hyrax
Hyraxes can trace their history back some 37 million years, and in prehistoric times were dominant animals in Africa. The largest of these ancient animals were nearly the size of horses, but over time began to be pushed out of their ecological niche by more advanced animals such as antelope. Today there are four living species of hyrax, most of which are between 1-2 feet long, weighing 5-11lbs.

Western tree hyrax
Hyraxes are herbivores that feed on a variety of grasses, shrubs, fruits, and berries. Unlike more highly-evolved mammals, hyraxes have poor thermoregulation abilities, meaning they are unable to completely regulate their body temperatures. Like reptiles, hyraxes must bask in the sun upon emerging in the morning to warm up before becoming active.
Rock hyrax basking in the sun
Hyraxes live in herds of up to 80 individuals and must defend themselves against a large variety of African predators such as leopards, eagles, and cobras. Despite these dangers, hyraxes are not considered endangered, and are numerous enough to be considered pests in some areas due to their noisy nature.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Axolotl – The Salamander that Never Grows Up

Most salamanders are born as aquatic animals without legs or lungs and must undergo a metamorphosis to develop these essential body parts on their way to becoming land-dwelling adults. While the shape, size and characteristics of adults vary greatly over the roughly 500 species of salamanders, most undergo dramatic changes from birth to adulthood.

However, one salamander native to a few Mexican lakes never really grows up; the axolotl. Even after reaching adulthood axolotls still remain aquatic with gills and underdeveloped legs, usually resembling the larval stage of several other salamanders that eventually grow to live on land such as waterdogs.
Though there are other salamanders that keep their youthful shapes throughout life, the axolotl is the only species that is able to transform itself into a land-dwelling salamander with working limbs and lungs if conditions warrant. In most cases this will never happen, however if the animal’s water habitat starts to slowly drain and it is no longer able to submerge itself, it can transform in a matter of weeks. Scientists have also been able to induce this by injecting captive axolotls with iodine.
Though many exist in captivity, the axolotl is critically endangered in the wild. Lake Chalco, one of its two native habitats, has already been drained. The only remaining body of water in which it lives, Lake Xochimilco, has been largely drained and heavily polluted by the growth of Mexico City; though a protected area on the lake has been established to hopefully save this very unique animal. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Marmots, Groundhogs & Rock Chucks

Marmots are large ground squirrels of the Marmota genus. There are 14 species of marmots split among two sub-genera. The marmota sub-genus contains all European and Asian marmots as well as the American woodchuck (or groundhog). The remaining American marmots, sometimes referred to as rock chucks, are contained within the petromarmota sub-genus.

Yellow bellied marmot
Marmots can be found throughout North America, Europe and Asia in mountainous regions such as the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, the Himalayas and the Carpathians up to elevations of 14,000 feet. The one exception to this is the woodchuck, a lowland-dwelling marmot found in the eastern United States and most of Canada.
Most marmots can be up to 22 inches in length and weigh 7-18lbs. Fur color differs by species and molting occurs each spring. Marmots usually live in self-dug burrows, or in the case of the yellow-bellied marmot, under rock piles; they hibernate 7-8 months out of the year.

Marmots are primarily herbivores and eat a wide variety of plants, flowers and seeds. However they have been known on rare occasions to eat insects as well. .
The Alpine marmot of central and southern Europe
Marmots are social animals and usually live either in mated pairs or in a harem consisting of one breeding male, several female mates and their young. They communicate with each other using a variety of visual and audio signals such as whistles, screams and tooth chattering. Scent glands are also used for territorial marking and conflict resolution between males.

Marmots usually mate and give birth in the spring after emerging from hibernation. Litters of four are average, and all will be expected to disperse and find their own territories at one year of age.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What is a Sloth Bear?

Despite its confusing name, the sloth bear is not a sloth. A member of the bear family, this animal gets its name from its long and thick claws, and the fact that it lacks upper middle incisor teeth, both sloth-like traits.
Sloth bears have a total body length of 5-6 feet and weigh 120-310lbs, with males being slightly larger than females. They can be identified by their shaggy brown coats, white muzzles, and a splash of white fur on their chests in the shape of a “Y”, “O”, or “U”. Sloth bears are native to India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal; their range has shrunk considerably in recent decades due to habitat loss.

Sloth bears are primarily solitary and nocturnal. They spend their nights feeding on termites and ants, using their massive claws to rip apart nest mounds or rotting logs, then sucking the insects into their mouths between the gaps in their front teeth. This whole process is very noisy, and the slurping can be heard over 300 feet away! In addition to insects, sloth bears are known for climbing trees to eat honeycomb as well as a variety of fruits and flowers.

Despite their preferred diet of bugs, sloth bears have a reputation for being aggressive animals and are still illegally hunted in India. Although altercations between sloth bears and humans have occurred, these animals are usually not a threat unless confronted, and their noisy habits make them quite easy to steer clear of.