Thursday, 17 February 2011

10 awesome animals you may not know much about (Part 2)

Without any further delay, here are more amazing creatures that have captured my imagination in some way. No elephants and polar bears here, these are the indie animals too cool for documentaries!

4) The Crab Daddy: The Giant Coconut Crab

(It came from out of rifle through your garbage!)

The largest land arthropod around in this day and age, the coconut crab is aptly named for its ability to crack open coconuts with its claws. Size isn’t everything, but in the coconut crabs case it certainly helps. These guys are known locally as the robber crab or palm thief, owing to their habit of stealing food from literally anybody and anything. They will pinch meals from tourist’s plates, break into your larder and nick not only your juiciest mango but also your pots and pans, manhandle your dog and pilfer its tasty chow and they aren’t above stealing food from each other.

Indeed these crafty crabs may well be responsible for the final disappearance of Amelia Earhart, as it turns out some remains of a white female complete with navigation equipment were found on Fiji after her disappearance. When British scientists showed up to confirm this, nearly all the bones and trinkets were gone as the locals said coconut crabs had pinched them!

Coconut crabs are hermit crabs by trade and after crawling out from the sea they get straight on with their lifelong role of stealing things and find an appropriately sized shell. Only the juveniles steal shells, and after some food and plenty of growth, they put aside this pastime and grow their own more than ample carapace.
Whilst, strong and tough the coconut crab has one major weakness, its love hate relationship with water. Its larvae are released by females into the sea and grow there, but when they come ashore as juveniles they loose their ability to breathe water. As such one of the major means of coconut crab death is by drowning!

If ever attacked by one of these big boys then there is one secret technique supposed to get them to let go (which they just won’t do otherwise). Apparently they go in for a little bit of light titillation on their softer undersides with some kind of soft material. Once you have performed this service they are more than happy to let you go and scuttle off.

3) You shall be known as Hellbender saviour of the frog men! The giant salamander

(Not as huggable as this makes it seem)

Just the common name of this American giant salamander is enough to make the list, the hellbender! Apparently the rather paranoid and easily frightened settlers in the new world (obviously nothing like that today) thought that its skin reminded them of ‘horrible tortures of the infernal regions'. I think they just look cool!

The hellbender, whilst impressive in name, is dwarfed by the Japanese and Chinese giant salamander. These are some of the largest amphibians around getting up to 1.8 meters and living up to 75 years.

The family branch is known as the corpulent salamanders, a reference to their flabby appearance. The extra folding and wrinkling aids in performing kickass belly flops, but is mainly to provide extra surface area for oxygen absorption.

The giant salamanders also have a giant sized secret. They are immune to the ravages of the Chytrid fungus. This nasty piece of work is partly responsible for the global collapse in amphibian populations, it causes thickening of the skin (literally growing keratin, the stuff that nails are made of) until the amphibian dies. It is literally killing of millions of amphibians yearly and has wiped out whole species.
The big salamanders seem to harbour a novel type of bacteria that is a chytrid repellent. Us science types have gotten hold of this stuff and may be able to grow similar anti fungal bacteria to save our endangered frogs, all thanks to the giant salamander. They shall be known as heroes among frog kind!

(also available in Orange)

2) Grace, elegance and amazing mileage: the Swift

(Style speaks for itself really)

Those of you that know me are most likely aware of the fact I’m not a big fan of birds. This stems from three reasons, birdy people have a huge monopoly on nerdy bird knowledge that makes getting into the game late an almost unassailable challenge, birds are one of the top predators of many of my fishy and insect friends, and generally they just don’t push my biology buttons (I’m sorry bird fans!). There are however a few particularly awesome birds that can blast through my innate bias and the swifts are just such a group of critters.

The swifts are a family of super aerial birds; many spend virtually no time at all on the ground and will not voluntarily settle on the earth, they are birds to the max. Their group name Apodidae actually comes from the Greek ‘without feet’ owing to the belief that they simply didn’t have any legs.

When it comes to flying these guys are the masters, cruising speed 14 meters per second (that’s 31 mph) with a max speed of 60 meters per second (a pretty nice 134 mph). Manoeuvrability is also critical for critter that needs to catch insets on the wing; swifts are capable of break neck turns and dives and can be spotted by the characteristic flicking action of their flight.

But it’s not just speed that the swifts can break out; they also win out on miles per gallon too. Per year they cover at least 200,000km with certain swifts covering nearly double this distance annually.

So we have speed, agility and mileage, but what about the cool extras? Swifts deliver here too; the adorably named swiftlet has developed a form of echolocation that makes bats jealous. Nearly all species can sleep whilst flying and some can even enter torpor, a hibernation like state, whilst still on the wing!
On top of that they have pretty cool sex lives too. The main call of the common swift is a scream, high for females and a little lower for males. They gather together to have screaming parties (again the actual technical term) in summer evenings, where a dozen or so birds fly in circles screaming at each other. After the sexy party, comes the actual sex, which is again performed whilst flying...doing it in style!

(Doing the aerial nasty)

1) Small, sneaky, super cute and ludicrously deadly; the blue ringed octopus

Another miniature champ (12-20cm), the blue ringed octopus adopts its brilliant yellow with blue ringed colour pattern when startled or angry. When really wound up, the blue rings actually pulsate and dark brown patches appear. These tiny cephalopods look brilliant but it is a deadly warning. The blue ringed octopus carries one of the world’s most deadly poisons, the deadly tetrodotoxin.
Now they usually hunt crabs and small fish, but the blue ringed ones are without fear. They will defend themselves and their territory against vastly larger aggressors, including humans. The tetrodotoxin causes muscular paralysis and it is strong enough to kill humans.

Now heed my advice! If you every have the misfortune of being bitten by one of these little blue bundles of toxin (or indeed eat badly prepared pufferfish at a Japanese restaurant as the toxin is the same) , you will begin to feel numbness, cramps and pain virtually straight away. Make sure someone knows what got you, for in a few minutes you will be conscious but completely paralysed. Not just your external muscles, but your respiratory and cardiac muscles will be paralysed. In short you won’t be able to breathe and your heart will stop. There is no anti toxin for blue ringed octopus venom.

Now fear not! If someone performs CPR on you, you stand a good chance of making it through, chest compression and ventilation if done correctly will treat your only lethal symptoms. If you make it to hospital and get artificial respiration you stand a very good chance of making it through!

The horrific part is that many people who are poisoned are given up on by those that are trying to resuscitate them (as is normal CPR practice for cardiac arrest). They then rapidly die in front of their saviours whilst still fully conscious, knowing that what was being done before could save their lives...scary! Just one of these pretty little things has enough venom for 26 adult humans, still it won’t stop me going diving in Australia.


  1. Awesome - is the giant salamander population growing because of their immunity to the Chrytid fungus?

  2. Well they are listed as the Endangered on the IUCN red list, but I think this is due to the risk associated with being big, slow reproducing, long lived and potential habitat loss.

    Aside from that stuff they are doing pretty well I think...but I'm no expert. I will ask Stephen in the office, he is the Amphibian guy.