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Temminck's tragopan (Tragopan temminckii)

Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii)

It’s hard for me to tell what you are thinking, but a fair guess is that you are disappointed that this blog hasn’t featured more pheasants.  These splendid Galliforme game birds have barely appeared here (except for the unbearably magnificent golden pheasant which has fascinated me ever since I met a gregarious specimen at the aviary). To remedy this lamentable deficit, allow me to present Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) a medium sized pheasant from the great forests of Southeast Asia.  These tragopans are common in the (once?) great forests of south central China.  They range west into the mountain forests of Arunachal Pradech and can be found in northern parts of Myanmar and Vietnam (and maybe Bhutan).

Temminck's tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) photo by John Corder

Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) photo by John Corder

The Temminck’s tragopan is mostly vegetarian and lives on grasses, seeds, vegetables, and fruit.  The birds are experts at surviving in the forests and, even in some of the most populous forests of Earth they are flourishing.

Females are somewhat drab and they lay small clutches of two to four eggs.  The male birds are red orange with bright white spots.  What distinguishes the male birds from other birds–and everything else other than imaginary extraterrestrials–is their bright blue inflatable lappet (with stylish red detailing) and their feathery horns.  When the males are trying to impress the females they inflate their lappets into magnificent op art displays and leap around fantastically like Buster Poindexter with wings on a hotplate!

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I’m afraid I can’t really tell you much else about Temminck’s tragopan (for example: who was Temminck?)—so this will perforce be a largely visual post—but what a striking vision!

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Today we return to the long-vanished summer world of the Eocene (the third epoch of the Cenezoic era). During most of the Eocene, there was no polar ice on Earth: a balmy temperate summer held sway from Antarctica to Svalbard. British Colombia was covered by a tropical rainforest where palm trees and cycads contended with warm weather conifers (and with the ancestors of elms, cherries, maples, and alders). Within this warm diverse forest, which thrived between 55 and 50 million years ago, lived numerous strange magnificent birds and insects. Shoals of tropical fish thronged in the acidic foaming waters (which were practically carbonated—since the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of the Eocene were probably double that of the present).   The mammals of this lovely bygone forest were equally splendid–strange proto-carnivores not closely related to today’s mammalian predators,  weird lemur analogs, and strange ur-rodents. This week the discovery of two new mammal species was announced.  These remarkable fossil finds provide us with an even better picture of the time and place.

a reconstruction of the early Eocene  in northern British Columbia, a tapir-like creature from the genus heptodon with a while tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

a reconstruction of the early Eocene in northern British Columbia: a tapir-like creature (genus Heptodon) with a tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

One of the two creatures discovered was a tapir-like perissodactyl from the genus Heptodon. The newly discover tapir was probably about the size of a large terrier. I really like tapirs (and their close relatives) but these remains are not a huge surprise–since many perissodactyls thrived in North America during the Eocene. The other fossil which paleontologists found is a surprise—an adorable surprise! Within a stone within a coal seam was a tiny jaw the size of a fingernail. Such a fossil would have been all but impossible to study in the past, but the paleontological team led by David Greenwood, sent the little fossil to be scanned by a CT scanner and then imaged with a 3D scanner. The tiny jaw was from a diminutive hedgehog relative since named Silvacola acares.  The little hedgehog grew to a maximum adult size of about 6 cm (2.3 inches) long or approximately thumb-sized. Since it probably lacked spines, this miniature hedgehog was a bit different than the modern hedgehog, but it was definitely a relative.

As discussed in previous posts, I like to imagine the balmy Eocene, when so many mammals which are now the mainstay of our familiar Holocene/Anthropocene world got their first start. It makes it even better to imagine that the thickets were filled with endearing hedgehogs the size of bumble bees.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The magnificent timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a venomous pit viper which lives throughout the populated northeastern portion of the United States of America from Texas to New England.  Ferrebeekeeper has considerable affection for the dangerous reptile (at an appropriate distance, of course!) and has already referenced the timber rattler as a metaphor for national liberty and, strangely, as a point of comparison for a large sports venue.  But timber rattlesnakes are so much more.  They were one of the first new world animals to utterly fascinate and horrify European colonizers. In the colonial period a serious rattlesnake bite was a death sentence (although we now have anti-venom) but the original natural scientists did not appreciate how complicated and remarkable the snakes were in other aspects.

As I write this, it is November and the rattlesnakes are all abed for the winter.  Because they live in areas with harsh winters, timber rattlesnakes spend more than 7 months a year in hibernation.  Large numbers will nest together in a community den—sometimes together with other snakes such as blacksnakes and copperheads.  The den is usually a rocky chasm which extends deep beneath the frost line, and rattlesnakes may travel many miles to reach their hibernation den (a bi-annual journey which puts the snakes at great risk from predators and from cars).

Because of their large and diverse territory, timber rattlesnakes come in different sizes, colorations, and even have different venom types.  The average timber rattlesnake grows to 100 cm (39 in) long and weighs between a half kilo and a kilogram (1 to 2 pounds).  Much larger specimens are known (although there is considerable ridiculous dispute about the upper ranges of rattlesnake size).  Female timer rattlesnakes are viviparous although, unlike mammals, rattelsankes protect their eggs within their bodies until they hatch.  Rattlesnakes give birth to litters of 6-10 fully formed, fully poisonous little baby snakes, but they can only reproduce every few years since the experience is very hard on them.

Like catfishes, timber rattlesnakes have senses which we do not possess.  Pit vipers are so named because they have nostril like spots (pits!) on the side of the head which they use to perceive infrared electromagnetic radiation. These pits are quite sensitive and act as third eyes.  Snakes (and many other animals) also have special auxiliary olfactory sense organs called Jacobson’s organs which are extremely sensitive to various smells/tastes.  Snakes characteristically pick up chemical traces with their tongues and waft these smells before their Jacobson’s organs in the characteristic tongue-flicking which is such a trademark.

Of course rattlesnakes are not just sensitive—they are also expressive.  Among all other snakes they are distinctive in that they have a specialized structure at the end of their tail for making a warning noise. Rattlesnake rattles consists of hollow button-like segments which produce a distinctive buzzing when the snakes vibrate their tails.  As a rattlesnake sheds her skin (every few months), she adds a new button to her tail.  Rattles however are not perfect records of how many times snakes have shed their skin—sometimes buttons get knocked off, or just become brittle and fall away.  The rattle has a high frequency and varies in loudness between 60-80 decibels from a distance of one meter (which falls somewhere between the noise level of an animated conversation and a garbage disposal).  Ironically, the rattlesnakes themselves are deaf.

Timber Rattlesnakes can be masters of camouflage

The venom of timber rattlesnakes varies in toxicity depending on the subspecies, but the most toxic rattlesnakes are extremely venomous.  Type A venom is a neurotoxin whereas type B venom is hemorrhagic and proteolytic (which is to say it causes bleeding and breaks down fundamental body proteins).  Type C venom is largely harmless.  In Arkansas and Louisiana, timeber rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because cross-breeding has resulted in snakes which have type AB venom (yikes!). To a lesser extent rattlesnake venom also contains esoteric myotoxins which rapidly kill muscle tissues.  This deadly cocktail of different venoms is of great interest to pharmacologists who continue to study the various toxic proteins to tease out potential medicines.

watch?v=ZIrQet2LPUg

Fortunately timber rattlesnakes are good-natured and do not generally bite without much posturing, rattling, hissing, and feinting.  They keep their retractable fangs folded up in a mouth sheath when not in use and they are capable of varying the amount of venom they inject based on how they are feeling.  It is best not to antagonize rattlesnakes lest they abandon their amiable disposition.

Timber rattlesnakes are gifted ambush predators which particularly prey on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other rodents, but they also eat amphibians and birds.  In turn rattlesnakes  are preyed on by owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, crows, skunks, and even turkeys! Rattlesnakes are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, but they face serious threats from habitat loss and traffic (cars being indifferent to the protective poison of snakes).

C. horridus eating a chipmunk by unhinging its jaw (Photo taken by Kevin Ostanek)

Not only are many rattlesnakes killed by traffic, they must also face persecution. Many are killed by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.  Gawping Texans take this to a particular extreme and organize great “rattlesnake round-ups” where huge numbers of rattlesnakes are wantonly tormented and killed for no particular reason (except perhaps to demonstrate a hatred of the world and its creatures).  This is particularly sad since rattlesnakes, like whales, or elephants (or ourselves) are k-selected animals.  They live long but reproduce slowly, which makes them especially vulnerable to population crashes.

If, by some appalling circumstance, you have read this far while a timber rattlesnake sits nearby buzzing its tail, you should run away from the snake!  Do not attempt to molest it.  If you feel threatened, call animal control.  The timber rattlesnake is already vanishing from great expanses of its territory.  It would be a shame if this beautiful and fearsome serpent were to slip away from the earth.

Timber Rattlesnake by Hazel Galloway

The Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)

The paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradise) is a very beautiful tree snake which lives in Southeast Asia.  It ranges from the Philippines and Indonesia, up through Malaysia, Myanmar and into India.  The snake particularly enjoys climbing into the crowns of coconut palms where it feeds on arborial lizards (which it immobilizes with extremely weak venom).  The snake lives in a variety of habitats including mangrove swamps, rainforests, tree plantations, gardens, and parks.  It stands out because of its attractive pattern of yellow on black (sometimes tinted with red).

Paradise Tree Snake Flying!

What really sets the paradise tree snake apart from other pretty tropical snakes however is its impressive ability to fly—or at least to glide.  The snake holds onto its launching platform with the end of its tail and dangles the majority of its body into a j-shape.  The daring reptile then swings back and forth and launches itself through the air!  The snake sucks in its stomach and flares out its ribs so as to take the shape of a flying wing and then it slithers through the air making lateral motions with its body in order to cause air pressure underneath it to push its body up.   Smaller snakes (which are better gliders) can glide up to 100 meters (over 300 feet) and are reckoned by biomechanical locomotion specialists to be finer gliders than colugos and gliding squirrels.

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