January 26 – All’s Whale That Ends Whale

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan on January 26, 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

This sperm's whale's death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters (Image courtesy USFWS)

This sperm’s whale’s death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters
(Image courtesy USFWS)

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale's carcass can provide food to other critters. (My camera)

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale’s carcass can provide food to other critters.
(My camera)

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try find where whales congregate and maybe tell the scientists about your close encounter with a whale (living or dead {the whale, not you}), then swim on over to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Marine
Mammal Sightings Database where you can search their database of whale sightings and add yours:

January 23 – Up A Tree

Today’s factismal: The common tree squirrel can rotate its back ankles 180° in order to climb down a tree head-first.

Squirrels are fun, frolicsome, and fascinating critters. They jump from limb to limb in search of nuts and acorns that they bury in profusion and they crawl on the forest floor hoping to find some tasty insects, slugs, and small birds, or snakes.Because they move from climbing up to climbing down to crawling around with such frequency, they have developed some special adaptations. Perhaps the most interesting of these is their back ankles which rotate 180°; in effect, they can put their feet on backward. Though that would make them a little awkward if they did it on the ground, it is perfect for when they want to head down a tree head-first.

Unlike many other animals, squirrels don't hibernate in the winter (My camera)

Unlike many other animals, squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter
(My camera)

But why would a squirrel want to go head-first down a tree? Because squirrels have a lot of things that like to feast on them. By going down head-first, they can keep an eye out for snakes, birds, raccoons, and automobiles to name but three. Automobiles are particularly deadly; the jerky, back and forth evasion pattern that gray squirrels have evolved to escape from predators in a forest makes it very hard to automobile drivers to avoid hitting the poor beast. As a result, the leading cause of death for gray squirrels in a city is being run over.


Despite their predator problems, squirrels remain plentiful. In part, that’s because of their fecundity. Tree squirrels become sexually mature at six months and a female can have two litters of two to six baby squirrels each year. As a result, even though they only live a short time, squirrels are in no danger of dying out. But they do provide biologists with a puzzle: where do they live? What do they eat?

A smug grey squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder (My camera)

A smug grey squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder
(My camera)

And the biologists would like your help in solving the puzzle. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a few hours, and a willingness to spy on our tree-dwelling neighbors. If you’d like to help, then why not join Project Squirrel?


January 20 – Nice Ice Babies

Today’s Factismal: Today is Penguin Awareness Day.

Today is a day of Earth-shattering importance. I do not refer to the minor affairs of politics. No! I refer to the fact that today, of all days, is Penguin Awareness Day!

Penguins are among the world’s most mis-understood animals. When they aren’t being mis-cast in cola commercials, they are being portrayed as tap-dancing dandies. In truth, the seventeen living species of penguins are far more interesting than their stereotypes. In honor of World Penguin Awareness Day, here are ten quick facts about penguins:

  1. Penguins don’t just live in Antarctica. The Galapagos Penguin lives on the Galapagos Islands, right on the Equator. In addition, there are penguins in Africa (the Africa penguin), New Zealand (Snares, Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed, and Fiordland penguins), Australia (the Little Blue penguin), and South America (King, Magellanic, and Rock-hopper penguins).

    A penguin's stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

    A penguin’s stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

  2. Penguins mostly eat krill. Though penguins enjoy fish when they can get it, they mostly dine on tiny little shrimpoids called krill. The problem with that is that krill is rich in fluoride, which can be poisonous in high concentration. In order to avoid that, penguins throw up their stomach linings, forming bright green puddles of goo on the shore.

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

  3. Penguin chicks don’t all hatch at the same time. If all of the penguin eggs were laid at the same time and hatched together, then the whole colony would be vulnerable to an unseasonable cold snap or strong storm. By staggering the clutches of eggs, the colony ensures that there will always be another generation. As a result, it is very common to see eggs, hatchlings, and young adults in the same colony.
  4. Like all birds, penguins just have one opening for pooping, peeing, and laying eggs. Called the cloaca, which is Latin for “sewer”, this arrangement is common in amphibians and reptiles as well.

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

  5. Penguins will “swim” on snow by lying on their bellies and pushing along with their feet and fins. Biologists call this “tobogganing”; everyone else just calls it cute. They do this in order to move quickly, which helps them avoid predators.

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

  6. Most penguins build their nests out of pebbles. Because penguins live in extreme environments, there isn’t much in the way of plant growth. So there aren’t any twigs to use for a nest. But there are lots of rocks. Building a nest out of rocks also allows the nest to drain quickly when it rains. But because there aren’t enough really good pebbles lying around, penguins will steal them from other penguins’ nests!

    The world's largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

    The world’s largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

  7. The world’s largest Chinstrap colony is on an active volcano. More than 200,000 chinstrap penguins live in one colony on Deception Island. This active volcano had its last eruption in 1969

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

  8. Penguin tongues have barbs. The barbs all point back into the throat, which helps the penguin as it tries to swallow things that would much rather be swimming away.

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

  9. Penguins are the fastest swimming bird. They can go as fast as 20 mph while porpoising. As the name suggests, porpoising means that the penguin jumps in and out of the water like a porpoise. This helps them move very quickly and keeps them out of the water where orcas and seals (both of whom think penguins are quite tasty) live.

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

  10. Penguins spend about three-quarters of their lives in the water, searching for food. It takes a lot of energy to be a bird, and it takes even more to be a bird that lives in a cold region. As a result, penguins must eat almost constantly in order to build up enough fat to survive the winter. Since their food lives in the water, that means that penguins must spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food.

If you’d like to watch penguins as they frolic, then please hie you to

November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:

November 10 – Beetle Bailing

Today’s factismal: Beetles represent about 40% of all insects and 25% of all animals.

If there’s one thing that drives entomologists (“people who study cut up things” – insect scientists) buggy, it is when someone calls a bug a beetle or a beetle a bug. That’s because the word “bug” (or “true bug” in entomologist-speak) and the word “beetle” each have specific meanings that help scientists understand what is being discussed.

Lady bugs are beetles (Image courtesy US FWS)

Lady bugs are beetles
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Let’s start with the bugs. Not every insect is a bug; indeed, there are only about 80,000 known species of bugs out of some million or so species of insect. So one out of every twelve insects that you meet will be a true bug. But what a lot of true bugs you can see! There are aphids and bedbugs and water bugs and cicadas. The one thing that all true bugs have in common is a mouth that is made for sucking. Aphids and cicadas suck the juice out of plants (that’s why they are pests), water bugs suck the juice out of other bugs, and bed bugs suck the juice out of you!

A wheel bug is real bug (Image courtesy US FWS)

A wheel bug is real bug
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Where true bugs are (relatively) rare, beetles are incredibly common. There are about 400,000 known species of beetle, with more being discovered every day (more on that later). Perhaps the best-known beetle is frequently called a bug: the ladybird beetle (aka, the lady bug). But the beetles includes other fascinating critters, such as the scarab, the weevil, the stag beetle, and the firefly. They live in environments ranging from Alaskan tundra to Amazonian rainforest, from dry desert to under the water of a lake, and from deepest forest to the middle of a city. And they are similarly varies in what they eat, with foods ranging from detritus (leaves and dung) to other insects to small animals, snail, or worms. About the only thing that all beetles have in common is that the front pair of wings has hardened into a shell that covers and protects the rear wings when the beetle is at rest.

But the most fascinating thing about all insects, be they true bug, beetle, or something else, is that we are still discovering new species! Some people think that there may be as many as one million more species of insect left to discover. But the entomologists can’t do it all themselves; they need your help. When you spot an unusual insect, post a picture of it on the Bug Guide website along with when and where you saw it. The folks there will help you classify the critter and let you know if you’ve seen something truly new:

October 29 – Zombee Jamboree

Today’s Factismal: Bees and ants really can turn into into zombies.

If you think that zombies are just found in the movies, then think again. There are real live zombies out there, and they may be in your neighborhood. But what is a zombie, really? And how did it get that way?

Put simply, to a biologist a zombie is any animal that no longer acts under its own control but is instead controlled by a parasite. The best known example of this in the animal kingdom is the poor leafcutter ant. In forests across Brazil, Thailand, and Africa, leafcutter ants are regularly attacked by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“Single fruiting body poking out of the head”, which describes how it reproduces). This disease primarily preys on leafcutter ants that make their homes in masses of bound together leaves, far above the ground.

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it (Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it
(Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

As soon as an ant has this disease, it begins to twitch and thrash until it either falls out of the nest or is thrown by colony members who don’t want to catch it themselves. The infected ant finds a leaf, grabs on with its mandibles, and has its brain eaten by the fungus. As soon as the fungus has nibbled all of the goodies to be found in this ant, it then cracks open the ant’s head and grows a stalk with a fruiting body on the tip. The fruiting body releases spores and the whole cycle starts all over again.

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane (Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane
(Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

And it isn’t just funguses that can cause this behavior. There are bacteria, wasps, and even flies that do this. Most ominous of those is the fly Apocephalus borealis, which turns honeybees into zombies. This “scuttle fly” is much smaller than a honeybee, but is capable of infecting dozens of honeybees with its eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae that then eat their way to the bee’s brain and drive it insane. (Bwah-hah-hah!) The bee then does stupid things, like flying at night or in the rain, which spreads the larvae further than they could go on their own. The larvae finally finish off the bee and eat their way out of the poor, dead, bee.

This is a severe problem for people because we rely on honeybees to fertilize many of the crops that we eat. Without honeybees, we’d be very hungry indeed. If you’d like to help spot zombees and track the spread of the zombee apocalypse, then join the ZombeeWatch:

September 27 – Bird In The Hand

Today’s factismal: Birds are born with belly buttons but they lose them as they grow older.

At first blush, it seems like an odd question: “Do birds have belly buttons?” but it turns out that, as is usually the case in science, it is the odd questions that are the most revealing and interesting.

A boy bonds with his chick over their shared love of belly buttons (Image courtesy National Library of Medicine)

A boy bonds with his chick over their shared love of belly buttons
(Image courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Before talking about birds and their vanishing belly buttons, it would help to review why mammals have belly buttons. Most mammals have a few things in common: they are warm-blooded, have hair, the females nurse their young with milk, and give live birth to young. (The only exceptions to that last are the duck-billed platypus and the echidnas.) That last is the important part because it means that the mammals need some way to feed the fetus while it grows inside the mother; for most mammals, that way is the placenta which links to the growing baby critter with an umbilical cord. When they are born, that umbilical cord dries up and falls away, leaving a scar that we call a “belly button”.

Though birds don’t give live birth, they do have to feed the developing chick as it grows in the egg. And the way that they do that is with a large sack of fat, protein, and minerals that we call a yolk and biologists call a vitellus (Latin for “yolk”). The yolk attaches to the chick with a cord similar to the umbilical cord. And, like the umbilical cord, the yolk sack withers away and drops off as the chick gets ready to hatch. This leaves a tiny little scar – a belly button of sorts. But after the bird hatches and gets older, the scar fades and is covered with feathers; the belly button has disappeared!

The chick has a bell button. The adult penguin, not so much (My camera)

The chick has a bell button. The adult penguin, not so much
(My camera)

If you think the disappearing belly button is neat, then wait until you find out what else birds do! And the best way to do that is to head over to Celebrate Urban Birds, where they have tons of facts about birds, an opportunity for groups to earn mini-grants to support urban bird watching activities, and even a place for you to enter information about the birds that you’ve seen!