Tag Archives: Nature

Blackbird Hitching a Ride

blackbird hitching a ride on a hawk

Here’s an unusual shot of a redwing blackbird hitching a ride on a hawk, tweeted by the Dept. of the Interior. I’m no expert, but it seems to me this must be a really brave blackbird.

Look at the strange position of those wings. Does that mean he’s ready to take off and fly/flee for his life? Some kinds of hawk would make a meal of him. Does he know the difference? Actually, he probably knows more about hawks than I do.

A Gull Helping His Friend Against an Eagle?

A gull attacking an eagle to save another gull

This amazing picture was tweeted by the US Department of the Interior, so I assume it’s genuine.  it appears the bald eagle has captured  a gull, and another gull has attacked the eagle to rescue his friend. Or mate. Whatever.

We are informed the picture was taken by David Canales at Prince William Sound, Alaska. He writes, “This eagle flew right into a nest of these birds and just carried this guy away like nothing. A new respect for Eagles.” It gives me a new respect for gulls, too.

Appearances can be deceiving, and it’s dangerous to impute human motives to a bird.  Bald eagles prefer fish; but, when fish are scarce, they’ll eat whatever small animal they can catch. Including gulls and other birds. In such areas, prey animals (especially birds) sometimes learn to gang up on the predator. That may be exactly what is happening here.

Or maybe the Eagle happened to be too near the second bird’s nest, and he or she was trying to protect its eggs or chicks. There’s not enough information to know, so I won’t speculate further. Regardless, it’s a spectacular picture.

We are informed the attacking gull gave up, and the captured one was unable to get away.

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Zhenyuanlong sunia, feathered poodle from hell

Zhenyuanlong suni, dino feathered poodle from hell

Zhenyuanlong sunia, the “feathered poodle from hell,” was the largest known dinosaur with wings.

An almost complete and remarkably well preserved fossil skeleton of the largest winged dinosaur ever known has been discovered in northeast China and named Zhenyuanlong sunia in honor of its discoverer, Chinese paleontologist Junchang Lu. The name is reported to mean “Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon.”

Zhenyuanlong sunia, which was part of a family of feathered, carnivorous dinosaurs that was widespread during the Cretaceous Period, lived about 125 million years ago. It was about 5 feet to 6 feet long and “covered with simple hair-like feathers over much of its body, with large, quill-like feathers on its wings and long tail.” (World)

Zhenyuanlong suni, dino feathered poodle from hell fossil

While Zhenyuanlong sunia almost certainly was not a direct ancestor of modern birds, it was a close relative. It was also a cousin of velociraptor, which apparently also had feathers but not wings.

Scientists have known since the 1970s that certain species of dinosaur had feathers that apparently did not evolve for flying. Most of them were simple filaments that looked more like hair than modern bird feathers. Zhenyuanlong sunia, however, had dense, bird-like feathers covering it’s wings and tail. Recent discoveries suggests that moderately large dinosaurs with strong, complex feathers may have been more common than previously thought.

After seeing pictures of huge, 80-ton monsters eating leaves from tall tree-tops and the tyrannosaurs that preyed on them, it may seem strange to describe a six-foot dinosaur as “large;” but most dinosaurs were actually fairly small. They came in all sizes, but it has been said the “average” dinosaur was only about the size of a chicken. Larger dinosaurs with wings have never been found, although many larger ones apparently had feathers of one kind or another. (And did you ever notice those reptilian scales that still protect the legs and feet of chickens and other birds?)

There seems to be a practical limit on how large a creature can be and still have the strength to fly. This is because generally, as body length doubles in one dimension, space for flying muscles doubles in two dimensions and is multiplied by four, but body mass doubles in all three dimensions and increases by a factor of eight. For this reason, it quickly becomes impossible for larger animals of any kind to have the strength to fly. (This is just a general “rule of thumb,” not a fixed law of nature; because body shapes and designs can also change.)

Dr. Steve Brusatte, from the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh and co-author of the study, described it (the new dinosaur) as a “feisty little feathered poodle from hell.” (TechTimes)

Because of its size and its short, stubby wings, it is relatively certain these dinosaurs could not fly. The discoverers speculate their wings may have been used for display to attract mates and/or intimidate rivals or possibly to shelter their eggs and chicks. They might also have been used as an aid in jumping or running uphill, in the same ways modern flightless birds sometimes use their wings. It’s entirely possible that wings originally evolved for some of these reasons and only later became useful for flying.

Ignorance is rampant, as usual.

A group of ignoramus commenters on one of the source sites poked fun at the idea that wings might evolve for any reason other than flying. This indicates not only a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of imagination. Many modern animals all over the world use various ways to look larger than they really are. Mammals, for example, have tiny muscles attached to each hair on their bodies that make the hairs stand erect at appropriate times. This makes them look larger and therefore more impressive to potential mates and more intimidating to enemies and rivals. It also lets the hair or fur better protect the body against cold and other environmental assaults. Evolution and biology frequently use an organ for more than one purpose.

Even though humans have lost most of our body hair, we still have this reaction, which we refer to as “having goose bumps.” Feathers, especially on wings, can serve these purposes even more effectively.

Zhenyuanlong suni-dino feathered poodle from hell teethEven though the creature was probably too heavy to fly with its large body and short, stubby wings, it still looked like a bird. “Zhenyuanlong was a dinosaur that really looked like a bird,” said Brusatte. “You wouldn’t think of it differently than a turkey or an emu or a big chicken.”

Well, maybe. Except for those teeth and that long, reptilian tail.

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Earliest Known Ancestor of Modern Birds Spectacularly Well Preserved

Oldest Known Bird Fossil
Oldest Known Bird Fossil

Archaeornithura meemannae pushes back the earliest known ancestor of modern birds by five million years.

Rosa Rubicondior explains, “A team of Chinese paleontologists has discovered a spectacularly well preserved fossil bird from 130 million years ago which neatly fills the gap in the fossil record between proto-birds such as archaeopteryx and modern birds.” She cleverly titled her May 5 article Early Bird Catches the Creationist Worms.

This bird’s feathers were exceptionally well preserved. “The feathers are really beautiful. It is incredible how they were preserved so well for 130 million years,” as  Min Wang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences exclaims.

It’s extremely difficult to fossilize any part of an animal except bones, shells, and teeth. That’s why we have few fossils of anything until animals developed such hard parts around 500 million years ago. These exceptional feathers allow close comparison with modern birds and make the gorgeous artist’s conception above possible.

Put yourself on the planet 130 million years ago. Most of the animals, from horned dinosaurs to swimming, predatory plesiosaurs, would be deeply alien, not to say terrifying. But rising from the wetlands and winging across the sky were birds startlingly like today’s. That’s the message from two bird skeletons—spectacularly preserved with feathers and all—reported this week. 

Science

The bird’s well developed adaptations show that most features of modern birds had already evolved. This bird was evidently capable of skillful flight; but it had long legs adapted for wading, much like today’s plovers. This shows that birds had already specialized to some degree, filling new new niches made possible by feathers and flight.

These fossils were found in northeast China by paleontologists Min Wang and Zhonghe Zhou of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology from Beijing. They are at least 5 million years older than the previously oldest-known birds. It is almost certain from the development of this specimen that the lineage is much older still.

Earliest known ancestor of modern birds was found embedded in siltstone

The hummingbird-sized creatures were embedded in siltstone slabs that were probably once a lake bed. Stubby feathers cover their bodies, except for part of the legs.

Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds
Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds

“But of all the new specimens, this is one of the most important found over the last decade,” says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds
Archaeornithura meemannae, earliest known ancestor of modern birds

Group of meat-eating dinosaurs spread their feathered wings and took to the skies.

Birds evolved around 150 million years ago when the flying dinosaurs stopped breeding with ground-bound ones, letting them evolve separately to fly better. The Ornithurae branch still survives as modern birds. Since they descended from feathered dinosaurs, birds are the last living descendants of the creatures that once dominated our planet.

Not all dinosaurs spawned surviving bird lineages. Even some dinosaurs that did evolve into animals we’d call birds didn’t make it. The Enantiornithes, for example, early birds with clawed wings and teeth apparently didn’t get the first worm after all. They went extinct along with the ground-bound dinosaurs.

Birds soon evolved huge chest muscles to power their wings. We’ve encouraged them to grow even larger in some species, and often refer to them as “chicken tenders.” Their wings grew many layers of different types of feathers for expert flight.

Before finding this bird, researchers had not known when some of these features had emerged.

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Wild Dolphin Asks Divers for Help

It was entangled in fishing line and had a hook embedded in its pectoral fin. It was so entangled in fishing line that it couldn’t move or swim properly. (I say “it” because I have no idea whether this dolphin was male or female.) It was in trouble and needed help.

If this is real — and it looks real to me — a wild dolphin in trouble seems to actually ask a human diver for help. Thankfully, this particular diver was both able and willing to provide that help.

The dolphin seems to know humans are potentially dangerous, but also that we might be able to help it. It ignores the manta rays, which have neither the intelligence to know it is in trouble nor (probably) the compassion to care. It seems to come in slowly toward the man. Cautiously. But it has little choice, because it will probably die without help.

It first swims slowly past the diver, twisting and turning as if to show the man its predicament. Then it comes back and stays as long as possible while the man works to remove the entangling fishing line — until it has to return to the surface for air.

Even then, it returns for more help and lets the diver poke and prod its body as he removes more fishing line and frees its range of motion. But eventually the dolphin swims away with the hook still in its flesh.

Why did it swim away before the rescue was complete? I have no idea. Maybe removing the fish-hook hurt too much. Maybe it could no longer control its fear of the icky humans. Figuring out why humans do what we do is difficult enough; reading the mind of a cetacean is even riskier.

Regardless, it seems to me this is one more in a long line of incidents showing how intelligent and sentient some non-human animals are.

Cat Rescues Tot

This is an amazing set of videos, evidently compiled from a home surveillance system. The pictures were obviously taken from several angles, edited, and joined into a single video to tell the story. A large dog viciously attacks a small boy on a bike without apparent provocation. It grabs him by a foot and appears to be trying to drag him away when a cat suddenly comes to the boys rescue. You have to see it!

I’ve seen a lot of discussion on the net as to the validity of the videos. I’m no expert on video editing and assembling, but it looks real to me.

Personally, it seems to me the cat was simply rescuing a helpless member of her own family. Her pack or pride, if you prefer. It is my definite opinion that cats and dogs, as well as other mammals and birds, seldom get credit for their own intelligence and the empathy and affection that some of them show. They are more than just robots running on instinct.

I know almost nothing about the jungle cats from which modern house cats descended, but lions live in prides, feed and protect one another’s cubs, and cooperate in hunts and battles against other prides or groups of hyenas or baboons. Though it is less well known, feral house cats also form societies and cooperate with one another in various ways that appear to be for the good of the group.

Social animals like humans, wolves and dogs, some kinds of cat, porpoises, many kinds of bird, and others survive best in groups. Therefore, individuals who learn to live well as part of the group tend to survive best. This is why we develop morals and social skills that seem to benefit the group. It is actually for the benefit of the individual, but it helps everybody involved.

It seems clear to me this cat was protecting the “cub” that belonged to another member of her “pride.”

I tend to be more of a “dog person” (though my dogs never ran loose like this one). Regardless, THIS IS ONE GREAT CAT!

The Wonderful Unseen World

Things too small, too large, too fast, or too slow for us to see

When I studied physics, chemistry, and biology more than 55 years ago, we were taught it would be impossible to ever see a virus, much less a single molecule or atom. Yet here are living, moving, working molecules of DNA. A single virus. And row after row of carbon atoms.

Did you ever want to see a snail’s tongue? Well, . . .neither did I, that I remember. But there it is. And a tiny bug riding on a bigger bug’s leg. It reminds me of the old verse about the fleas, if I could only remember it. Something like “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have littler fleas, and so ad infinitem.” Yeah. That sounds right. I have no idea where it came from.

Be exceedingly careful about ever saying “We will never be able to . . .”.

Your Inner Fish

Your Inner Fish premiers tonight on Public Television (PBS). This new series is based on the book of the same name by Dr. Neil Shubin. I don’t know the time, so tune in early and watch some of the other great science programs while you wait for it. I plan to turn it on about 6:00 pm (Central Time) to be sure I don’t miss it.

“Neil Shubin (born December 22, 1960) is an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and Professor on the Committee of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago along with being the Provost of the Field Museum of Natural History. He is well known for his discovery of Tiktaalik roseae.” — Wikipedia

Neil Shubin with Tiktaalik roseae
Neil Shubin with Tiktaalik roseae

Scientists had fossils of 365-million-year-old (myo) amphibians and the 385-myo fish they had evolved from (or at least closely related species). Shubin and his group of scientists and students wanted to find the creature that lived in between them, around 375 million years ago. The creature, that is, that descended from the 385-myo fish and then gave rise to the 365-myo amphibians, from which we are descended in turn about 365 million years later.

So they collected their geological maps to see where they could find 375-myo rocks exposed at or near the ground’s surface. The only remotely suitable place they found was a Canadian island way north of the arctic circle where it was only possible to work during the short summers.

Before they went to look, they described what they expected to find: a large, fresh-water fish with lungs, a neck (which other fish do not have), and thick, muscular fins underneath that it could use to push its head above the surface of shallow water. They made their plans and went, spending several summers working before they found anything remotely like what they were looking for.

When they were out of money and ready to give up, they finally found pieces of two fish that matched very closely what they had hypothesized. This made it possible to obtain further funding and return several more times. Eventually, they found many partial and almost complete skeletons up to about 10 feet long. They named the fish Tiktaalik roseae, which means something like “big river fish” in the local Inuit language. The name that was most often used, though, was its nickname, “fishapod.” It was a fish that was almost  a tetrapod.

I’m writing most of this from memory, because I loaned  my copy of Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish, to a friend, and I can’t immediately check all my facts. If anything above is in error, I apologize. It’s the best I can do from memory.

Don’t miss the series. If it’s as good as the book, it’ll be great.

Roach Killer

Warning: It’s Gross. But it’s real.

The venom of the female jewel wasp renders her victims docile so that her offspring can feast. Scientists wonder if this strange brew might teach us a thing or two about human neurobiology.

The unusual thing about this wasp’s venom is that it doesn’t kill. It doesn’t even paralyze the cockroach prey. It just seems to take away the roach’s will to escape. Or to do anything!

When encouraged by the wasp pulling on an antenna, the roach can still walk. And it lets the wasp lead it right to the place where she will lay her egg on it and cover it up, providing a store of fresh meat for her grub.

This is the stuff of nightmares!

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention. If, for any reason, the grub doesn’t hatch in about five days, burrow into the roach, and begin eating its guts and muscles, the roach will recover from its trance and walk away more or less unharmed.

Resource: ASBMB Today, http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201404/Features/CockroachHunter/, The cockroach hunter’s spell, by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, April 2014

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