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Slow lorises are primates from the genus Nycticebus. All five species of slow lorises live in Southern and Southeast Asia. The various species are scattered across a swath of territory running from southern India down across Southern China across the Malay Peninsula and throughout Indonesia. All of the slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal. Their large eyes help them see at night and their sense of smell is unusually acute. The primates are omnivorous and consume insects, fruit, and plant matter. Their metabolism is very low and their movements are slow and methodical.
Slow lorises are strepsirrhine primates: they have traits which biologists consider to be “ancestral” for primates such as rhinariums (i.e. “wet” noses such as dogs, cats, and bunnies have), multiple sets of nipples, and the ability to enzymatically manufacture ascorbic acid.
Slow lorises also have glands on their elbows called brachial glands which produce a strong smelling secretion. They anoint themselves with this substance and groom it through their fur using their tooth combs (which consist of needle-like teeth on the lower jaw used for grooming). Some zoological literature contends that slow lorises are poisonous and that the combination of their saliva and the secretion from their brachial glands is toxic to humans, however this is not exactly correct. Humans are allergic to slow loris secretions and sometimes go into anaphylactic shock when bitten, yet the secretions are not toxic per se.
In the wild slow lorises are preyed on by large snakes, hawk-eagles, and orangutans (who are evidently not quite as vegetarian as they are made out to be). Predictably, the hugely expanding human population of Southeast Asia constitutes the most serious threat to the various species of slow loris. Many of the little creatures are captured for the pet trade. Since slow loris bites are painful, hunters cut out captured animals’ teeth—an operation which is frequently fatal and, if successful, leaves them defenseless and lacking their principle means of cleaning themselves and interacting with other lorises (since grooming is a part of bonding).
Not only are slow lorises threatened by the pet trade. Local superstition attributes magical protection powers to the slow loris, an so their bodies are burned or cut up for various spells, potions, and nostrums (evidently the protective magic does nothing for the slow lorises themselves). David Adam, detailed some of the consequences of magical myths about lorises in an article written for The Guardian:
As a result [of superstition], the luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents.
As stupid and malicious as human reasons for hunting slow lorises are, the most serious threat to the animals comes from deforestation and habitat destruction. Hopefully the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforests will halt in time to save our big eyed cousins.
Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America. Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates). Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America. These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous. This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.
There are three coral snakes which live in the United States. The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa. All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes). Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!
Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes. Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.
Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible. This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose. Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans. Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later. In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest. Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).
Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable. There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue. Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).
*Don’t be this guy.
The Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) is not a jellyfish, in fact it is not a discreet animal at all, but instead a siphonophore—a colonial medusoid made up of specialized animal polyps working together as an organism. These siphonophores have stinging tentacles which typically measure 10 metres (30 ft) in length but can be up to 50 metres (165 ft) long. Being stung by a man o’ war does not typically cause death, but sailors and mariners who have survived the experience assert that it taught them a new definition of agony.
But the fearsome man o’ war is not the subject of this post. Instead we are concentrating on the animal which feeds on the man ‘o war (as well as other siphonophores which drift in the great blue expanses of the open ocean). One is inclined to imagine that men o’ war are eaten only by armored giants with impervious skins and great shearing beaks (and indeed the world’s largest turtles, the loggerheads, are the main predators of siphonophores), however another much less likely predator is out there in the open ocean gnawing away at the mighty stinging colonies. Glaucus atlanticus, the blue sea slug, is a tiny shell-free mollusk which lives in the open ocean. The little nudibranch only grows up to 3 cm in length but it hunts and eats a variety of large hydrozoans, pelagic mollusks, and siphonophores (including the man o’ war).
Although not quite as gaudy as its lovely cousins from tropical coral reefs, Glaucus atlanticus is a pretty animal of pale grey, silver, and deep blue with delicate blue appendages radiating out from its six appendages. The little mollusks live in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They float at the top of the water thanks to a swallowed air bubble stored in a special sack in their gastric cavity. Because of this flotation aid, the slug is able to cling upside down to the surface tension of the waves. Since it is entirely immune to the venomous nematocysts of the man o’ war, the sea slug can store some of the man o’ wars venom for its own use. The tendrils at the edge of Glaucus atlanticus’ body can produce an extremely potent sting (so it is best to leave the tiny creatures alone, if you happen to somehow come across them).
Each and every Glaucus atlanticus is a hermaphrodite with a complete set of sex organs for both genders. Incapable of mating with themselves they ventrally (and thoroughly) embrace another blue sea slug during breeding, and both parties then produce strings of eggs. The hatchling nudibranchs have a shell during their larval stages, but this vestige quickly disappears as they mature into hunters of the open ocean.
Today’s post combines two major Ferrebeekeeper topics to get an unexpectedly mild result! I imagined that by combining crowns and serpents I would get some sort of spectacular king cobra or a mythological crown made of golden serpents and rubies but what turned up instead was the Southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata), a slender dusky-colored snake with a little sand colored diadem.
The crowned snake is indigenous to the American Southeast from southern Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia to the northern panhandle of Florida. Unlike the regal snakes of my imagination, the crowned snake is a tiny snake which measures from 15 to 20 centimeters long (6 to 9 inches) and lives on small arthropods like scorpions, spiders, and insects. Although not dangerous to people or mammals, the crowned snake possesses an extremely mild venom which it slowly chews into its prey like a old man deliberately eating a biscuit.
Hmm, not what I expected from a crowned serpent!
I have written before about the beautiful cuttlefish (marine mollusks of the order Sepiida). Cuttlefish are closely related to another order of mollusks, the Sepiolida, or bobtail squid, which are perhaps even more endearing. With huge expressive eyes, tiny little tentacles, and opalescent skin, bobtail squids look like they were designed by a Sanrio artist having a strange day. Sepiolida cephalopods appear to be all head (they are also known as dumpling squid or stubby squid because of this shape)–and their large rounded navigation fins, which stick out like Dumbo’s ears only add to the impression. Members of the Sepiolida do not have cuttlebones but they are far more similar to cuttlefish than to other squid—perhaps their taxonomical classification will change as they are better understood.
There are approximately 70 known species of bobtail squid living in the shallow coastal waters from the Mediterranean, to the Indian Ocean, to the Pacific. To quote the Tree of Life Website, “Members of the Sepiolida are short (mostly 2-8 cm), broad cephalopods with a rounded posterior mantle.” The animals are gifted hunters which eat shrimp, arthropods, and other small animals which they chomp apart with a horny beak at the center of their arms. During the day, bobtail squid bury themselves in the sand with only their eyes protruding and then they hunt at night. Certain species of bobtail squid are known to be poisonous, like the lovely Striped Pyjama Squid (Sepioloidea lineolata). This poison is not well understood and may be contained in the slime produced by the creatures.
Bobtail squid are bioluminescent and they use this ability to disguise their profile when viewed from below–a helpful sort of camouflage which serves them as predators and prevents them from becoming prey. Young bobtail squid are not born with the bioluminescent bacteria but must capture them from the water column in order to start the symbiotic colony within their own bodies. The symbiotic relation between the bobtail squid and the bacterial colony has been much studied in the laboratory.
It was thanks to such studies that scientists first began to understand the method through which bacteria communicate with each other. Called “quorum sensing”, such communication takes place within a group of bacteria by means of signaling molecules. The chemical conversations allow bacteria to respond quickly and in aggregate to changes in their environment (to such a degree that a bobtail squid can tell the bacteria within its own tissues how much to fluoresce and can thereby determine its own luminosity by communicating with millions of living entities inside itself). I have written before about how critical bacteria are to the planet and the Earth’s ecosystem. Studying the bobtail squid provided the first understanding of the way that bacteria communicate with each other, but we are now beginning to suspect that such communication might take place on a vast—perhaps even a global—scale.
The coral reef is a super-competitive ecosystem where every surface hides a hidden mouth, a poison dart, or a camouflaged hunter. However the reef is also a place rich in resources where it is possible to make a good living. It is sort of the New York City of ocean habitats. Some animals have been part of reef-like ecosystems for a tremendously long time, but one of my favorite reef animals, the banded sea snake or yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a latecomer. Like the coral reef catfish (which descended from freshwater river fish ancestors but evolved into a saltwater coral reef dweller), the krait has put its land-dwelling roots behind it and moved out into the ocean—although it remains an air-breather like all snakes and it must also come ashore to drink freshwater since it has not yet evolved the super kidneys necessary for dealing with saltwater. Yellow-lipped sea kraits are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They grow up to 2.2 meters (6 and a half feet long).
An accomplished hunter, the banded sea snake lives on cuttlefish, squid, fish, fish eggs, and small arthropods which throng the shallow reef. The krait’s venom is among the most poisonous on earth, but fortunately the creatures have easy going dispositions (and small fangs) and they rarely bite humans. Their closest relatives among the land snakes are the cobras.
Yellow-lipped sea kraits shed their skin far more often than do land snakes in order to protect themselves from parasites: sometimes they change skins as often as every fortnight. Kraits are viviparous and do not bear eggs but rather give birth to completely autonomous baby snakes which are born with their parents’ swimming and hunting ability. The snakes are such gifted swimmers thanks not just too their sinuous bodies but also to laterally compressed tails which they use like paddles to propel themselves through the water. Another feature which the kraits possess to deal with their watery habitat is nostrils which clamp shut
The kraits are extremely beautiful: their bodies are banded with black and pale blue rings. They have a balck head with a yellow snout. Their beauty gives them a special place in art and literature. I like to imagine that the yellow-lipped krait was one of the mysterious beautiful “water-snakes” who caused the ancient mariners unconscious epiphany which broke the curse he labored under and marked the climax of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a profoundly beautiful miniature epic about the importance of treating animals kindly):
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions. To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols. Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!
Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background). This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem. The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.” There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism. the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.
Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background. Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag. That rattlesnake is not kidding around. It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake. Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem. In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships. The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.
After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal. In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later. Franklin famously did not care for the eagle. Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):
For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.
This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder. on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).
Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating. Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem. These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole. Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).
Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above. There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas! It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!] Happy Fourth!
The Striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus) lives in the reefs of the Indo-Pacific ranging from the Red Sea to Australia up to Japan. The Plotosus genus of catfish are notable for abandoning freshwater (where catfish evolved and where the majority of catfishes live) in favor of the oceans. Plotosus lineatus is entirely oceanic: the species makes its home in the colorful and dangerous world of the coral reef. Young Striped eel catfish live in schools which can be composed of hundreds of fish however older individuals lose their schooling instinct.
The catfish grub through the sand for tiny invertebrates, shrimp, and minnows. They possess electrosensory organs which allow them to sense the prey’s nervous system beneath the sand. Although they are very endearing walking along the sand on their little whiskers, you should not pick them up! These catfish have venomous spines on both sides of their body. The poison is acutely painful but not always lethal for adult humans.