Category Archives: Organism of the Day

Organism of the Day: Aurochs!

Behold, the Aurochs (Bos primigenius)!

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Daww, it’s so small and cute!

 

It’s…a cow. I know. BUT! It is not just any mere cow. For lo, it is the ancestor to all domestic cattle. These were organisms not to be trifled with. The Aurochs is a creature that shared the land with humans in Europe and Asia for may thousands of years. It was a large beast, and yet largely swift and agile. That, matched with it’s fiery temper, made for a terrifyingly deadly combination. It makes one wonder why our ancestors decided to try to domesticate these things at all! The Aurochs were spread far and wide, and had 3 distinct subspecies, shown here with their distributions.

Bos_primigenius_map

The Aurochs was a forest dwelling bovine, with a diet that consisted of grass and leaves from trees. They played a pivotal role in the ecosystem of many of Europe’s forests, acting as the top-teir herbivores. Their absence has led to the forests falling out of balance, an issue that’s still being delt with today. So, how long has our species known these animals? Here’s a hint:

LascauxBull

 

And you thought hammer pants were ancient.

The bulls on all the cave paintings we’ve found, like this one from Lascaux, France from 17,000 years ago, are all aurochs. They certainly do have a lot of meat on them, and were probably very enticing for our ancestors. Probably less enticing was their ability to hunt you down without tiring if you pissed them off. How do we know so much about this extinct species? Well, they haven’t been long gone. The last Aurochs died in Poland in the 1600’s. There’s plenty of historical data about them. When he wasn’t busy bringing down the wrath of Mars on the Gauls, even Julius Caesar wrote about them,

…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed.

 

-Gallic War

Here’s an example of an extremely lucky man from the middle ages.

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And a less fortunate Aurochs

So, why bring these creatures up? Because we’re bringing them back. The forests of Europe quite simply aren’t the same with out them, in a similar way Yellowstone National Park wasn’t the same without its keystone species, wolves. Beech trees are over-running the forests without the massive bovines. The TaurOs and Uruz Projects are using selective breeding to bring back a breed of cattle that can replace the aurochs and be very genetically similar. And they’re getting closer.

 

Note: I do not own these images.

Organisim of the Day: The Barreleye Fish!

Behold, the Barreleye Fish (Macropinna microstoma)!
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Well, that’s a strange fish… it’s almost like its head is…HOLY CRAP IT HAS A SEE-THROUGH FACE!!!! It has those sad little eyes, a pouty-lookin’ mouth and weird, greenish…brain lobes? Not quite. M. microstoma (a.k.a. “spookfish”), as other worldly as they seem, actually come from a place much closer than the alien planet you might suspect. It lives in the deep waters off the central coast of California, about 2,000 to 2,600 feet (600-800m) below the watery surface. To even see one alive requires a submersible, as they don’t survive long once removed from their native habitat. The image above was taken by an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in 2009. That’s fairly recent, and we’ve only been aware of the existence of this species since 1939. Its “face” is composed of a transparent dome (apparently rather delicate) filled with some fluid. Now, the transparent head is odd, but not super weird or mind blowing. But why would it need that see-through dome in the first place? It doesn’t need to see out of it or anything, its eyes are at the front. Aaaaaaaaaaaannd this is where it gets weird.

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So WHAT THE F@$% IS THAT!!!! Those are barreleyes. Eyes. In the shape. Of a barrel. Those things that you probably thought were eyes? Smelling organs called nares. Although not the only barreleye fish (family Opisthoproctidae), this is first we’ve seen in it’s natural habitat. It looks straight up to look for food (with it’s body horizontal), and then rotates its eyes forward as it turns its body upward to swim for the food source. So what do these guys eat? While we haven’t fully observed its eating habits, researchers hypothesize that it finds some siphonophores (jellyfish relatives), and steals food straight from their tentacles. Actually, that’s kind of badass. You can see a short clip of some Barreleye Fish here.

Note: I don’t own these images

Organism of the Day: Chinese Giant Salamander

Amphibians used to be the dominant form of animal life on the planet, before reptiles took over. Most of the great amphibians died offf over the hundreds of millions of years since thier reign, and none we have today are as large as their giants. There is, however, a few representatives who could could give someone a glimpse of a long forgotten past.

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This is Andrias davidianus, the Chinese Giant Salamander. It is the largest amphibian in the world. Among the largest recorded lengths is 180cm (5.9feet) feet, although they average around 100cm (3.2 feet) nowadays. They live in mountain streams, including the Yellow, Pearl, and Yangtze, among others. They breed in August through September, with the female laying up to 500 eggs in an underwater cave. The male then protects this cave for 50 to 60 days until the salamanders hatch. Their population is on the decline, due to a host of factors including habitat loss and overhunting. Large ones are often found and eaten as a delicacy and used in folk medicine, so overtime their population has begun to favor smaller salamanders. It is one of the top ten EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species. This means that if this one species dies, a unique evolutionary line, and a disproportionate amount of biodiversity, would be lost. This should serve as a reminder to all of us about how special even a single species can be. The situation isn’t as dire for the only other member of it’s genus, A. japonica, the Giant Japanese Salamander. This slightly smaller cousin also lives in the mountain streams of Northern Kyushu and Western Honshu Islands of Japan. It eats fish, crustaceans, and insects, and is used occasionally in folk medicine.

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Note: I don’t own these images

Organism of the Day: Oarfish!

Finally, a fish! Jeez, it took me long enough! As usual, this is UNusual. Why? It’s big. Oh so very big

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RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!

I told you. It’s. Big. Oarfish are a family of fish, Regalecidae, with only 2 genera and 4 species. The largest species, Regalecus glesne, has reached a recorded 56 FREAKIN’ FEET LONG. It has earned it’s title as the longest bony fish on the planet. It’s relatives aren’t anything to sneeze at, though. They too can reach big lengths. Oarfish are not commonly found, at least by humans. They are deep sea dwellers, and live all over the world, excluding near the poles. They occupy the depths between 656 ft below the surface up to 3,280ft (although rarely). Believe it or not their goal in life is not to eat your face. They eat plankton, squid, crabs, and krill, with one specimen having around 10,000 krill inside of it at it’s time of death. They capture prey using special gill rakes on the inside of their moths (gill rakes sort of look like they sound). It’s body is, interestingly enough, not covered in scales like most fish, but rather in a silvery coat of guanine over it’s sensitive skin. They can have bright coloration when they’re alive. Despite what you may initially think, it doesn’t wriggle it’s body around to move. The fish keeps straight as an arrow, and has it’s dorsal fin, which runs along almost the entirety of it’s back, ungulate instead like a wavy ribbon. Pretty Trippy. It’s amazing we know so much about it, considering that the fist time we caught one on camera alive was in 2001. So, how do humans come across these peaceful, mainly loner fish? Well, when they’re dead, frankly. When diseased or pushed from their home by some reason, they come to the surface, most of the time dead. This odd fish spawned the legends of sea serpents. Look at this 1860 depiction of one that washed on shore, and tell me you wouldn’t have believed the sailor’s tales after that.

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So why bring up the Oarfish? Several days ago, an Oarfish washed ashore on the beaches of Southern California, followed by another one several days later. Some people (like the Japanese) have folk tales that when the fish are found in high numbers on the beach, an earthquake is soon to follow. Scientists are trying to see if there is any truth in this adage, since the fish do live a lot closer to some geologic activity and may be able to detect this. Here are the 2 Oarfish that have washed on our shores in the past few days.

oarfish-5-things_72659_600x450The crew of sailing school vessel Tole Mour and Catalina Island Marine Institute instructors hold an 18-foot-long oarfish that was found in the waters of Toyon Bay on Santa Catalina Island

Organism of the Day: Bowerbirds!

Wow, who’s the A-hole who dumped all that plastic on that bird? And why did they have an affinity for blue?

5670617_origWell, that would be the bird itself, the Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus). You see, no one dumped that plastic there, the bird brought it. And that love of blue? Yeah, that’s the bird as well. Bowerbirds are family of birds (Ptilonorhynchidae) that live those two nests of biodiversity, Australia (AKA Land of Everything that Wants to Kill You) and Papua New Guinea. Why are they special? Every animal tries to impress mates in some way (Biology is, as my High School AP Bio teacher once said, “…the study of Sex and Death). But Bowerbirds take it to the next level, and actually make artistic landscape designs, complete with structures, color schemes, and even forced prospective to give the illusion of depth in an attempt to woo a female mate. All the designers are male. And over millennia, they have perfected the art. Here’s a cool part; every single Bowerbird has their own distinct sense of style, from color schemes to placement of stick structures to the architecture of said structures. And although the males may achieve their own personal ideal of beauty, it is ultimately the female’s decision to choose which abode is the most dazzling, and the winner gets to mate with her. Truly, it’s one of the most unique, and aesthetically pleasing, mating rituals in the Animal Kingdom. I’m sure Art Majors would get a blast from having a conversation with these Avian Dinosaurs, assuming they could talk. Here is the finished product from above, and a few other examples of these bird’s impeccable sense of design.

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Note: I don’t own these images.

Organism of the Day: Thor’s Hero Shrew

Ah, the Adorable, yet mighty Thor’s Hero Shrew (Scutisorex thori)!

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These little guys were discovered recently. They are not a new genus, although they are awesome nonetheless. Hero Shrews are from Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The people living there, the Mangbetu, already had named these creatures Hero Shrews along way back. Why? Because the thing is practically indestructible. Simply put, Hero Shrews (Thor’s being the newest discovery) have spines where the lumbar vertebrae interlock (8 in Thor’s, 11 in the first described species, the African Hero Shrew S. somereni). They can have an enormous amount of weight on their backs, and emerge unscathed. The Mangbetu people display this by stepping on a shrew with a single leg for several minutes, and when they step off, the shrew runs away. Why they have spines of steel is unknown, but it has been hypothesized that they use it as a brace to push up heavy pieces of palm trees to access the nutrient rich grubs that live in them. They have the strongest spine of any mammal. Note: the first spine is of a typical shrew, the other 2 (b and c) belong to Hero Shrews, with the last being Thor’s Hero Shrew.

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I don’t own these images

Organism of the Day: Mixopterus

Today, I bring you the long extinct genus, Mixopterus. Because sometimes, Evolution dabbles with the fabric of Nightmares.

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Click on it and play the music from Psycho for full effect!

This is the species Mixopterus kiaeri. Some of you may have questions like, “Is that thing a scorpion?”, “…is that monster is almost 2 feet long?”,  “Will this hell-spawn haunt my waking dreams?”, or “HOLY CRAP! IS THAT A MURDER SPIKE ON IT’S TAIL????”. The answer to all of these questions are, respectively, maybe, yes, most likely, and ohhhhhhhhhhh yes it is. Thankfully, no human has ever come in contact with a living Mixopterus. It is now my great pleasure to inform you that it is dead, and has been dead, for 354 million years, and we had no idea of it’s existence until we found some in the rocks (the above comes from Norway). These things are part of the Order Eurypterida, which were scorpion-looking arthropods who roamed the vast seas of the Late Silurian Period. For reference, plants had just begun to come up on land, but animals were unheard of. That is part of what makes eurypterids so special; Some believe that they may have made short trips on land at a time where essentially no animals were up there. The body plan is that of a versatile predator. It had powerful muscles, legs, and paddle-like structures, meaning that it could walk on the ocean floor or swim to cover more distance. It’s spike was probably used to attack prey (some speculation says it may have had poison in it). They had large pincers, with long sharp spines, that could hold a prey down. The prey? Trilobites, a common arthropod for hundreds of millions of years. It is possible that this may be the ancestor of scorpions, which in my opinion, are a lot less terrifying than this dude, and, to be honest, slightly less badass.

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I don’t own these images

Organism of the Day: Halobacterium

Ok, I think these little guys are awesome.

These are Halobacterium!

Halobacteria

Aren’t they adorable? No? Whatever. Not everything I put up here is adorable, damn it, but they can be freakin’ awesome. Halobacterium isn’t actually a species, it’s a genus, of the class Halobacteria (I know, truly confusing). AUTHOR’S NOTE:Also, I sense a theme that I keep giving you guys confusing organisms; I’ll try to stop that.

Halobacterium are of the domain Archaea. No, they are not, as their name suggests, bacteria. True, they are prokaryotes just like bacteria, however the way they replicate their DNA is actually more like a Eukaryote than a bacterium, and their cell walls have their own special composition (this applies to all Archaea). But, you have to be aware, we humans only found out that archaea weren’t bacteria very recently. So why are these guys so cool? They are part of a group called, in a rare case of Biology terms sounding awesome, Extremophiles. These are organisms that thrive in conditions that would kill almost any other organism. More specifically, they are Halophiles, “halo” meaning salt and “phile” meaning loving (Author’s Note: I freaking love salt). These guys live in extreme areas of hyper salinity, like the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake, and here in the salt ponds of the San Francisco Bay . They conduct photosynthesis, but not with chlorophyll, the compound used in plants and algae.  Theirs is called Bacteriorhodopsin, and it comes off as purple, leading to the trippy sights you see in places like the South San Francisco Bay, as seen below.

399px-Salt_ponds_SF_Bay_(dro!d)  Harvesting-Salt-South-San-Francisco-Bay

I don’t own these images

Organism of the Day: Monkey Puzzle Tree

Behold, the Monkey Puzzle Tree!

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The Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria aracana) grows in central and southern Chile, and a little bit of western Argentina. It has several different names, but Monkey Puzzle is the most common. It is so called due to a comment by an Englishman when he first saw it, observing that even a monkey would be puzzled climbing this tree. The tree branches sort of haphazardly, and the branches (below) are covered in spike-like leaves a few centimeters long in a whorl pattern. The leaves can live for 10-15 years. The tree produces male and female cones on separate plants (dioecious), and can grow to be over 100 feet tall (one grew 150 feet). They have scale like bark, leaving some with the impression of reptile skin. It is SUPER old, evolutionarily speaking (although they can live to be 800 years old). It is a living fossil, and we start to see it appear 300-250 MILLION years ago (for the record, dinosaurs didn’t even exist yet), and is relatively unchanged since then. Some botanists consider it the oldest conifer alive. Being so unique and special, it is the National Tree of Chile.

monkey-puzzle-tree-fibanacciI don’t own these images

Organism(s) of the Day: Californian Legless Lizards

Handout of a Bakersfield Legless Lizard

Recently, 4 species of legless lizards have been discovered in California. They belong to the Anniella genus, and their species names are as follows: A. grinnelli (shown), A. stebbinsi, A. alexanderae, and A. campi. These, contrary to what most people tend to immediately say when they see them, are not snakes. They are lizards, and unlike snakes, they have eyelids. Their unusual form is used to bury in soft earth, with one species preferring the soft earth beneath a little place called LAX.

Handout of a Bakersfield Legless Lizard

I do not own these images