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Last week, Ferrebeekeeper promised pigeons. So this week, let’s start off with the monarch of pigeons—the magnificent Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria).  Native to the coastal forests of New Guinea, this splendid bird not only has a magnificent “crown” of lovely ornamental feathers, it is the largest living pigeon in the world.  Adult pigeons weigh up to 3.5 kg (7.7 pounds).  The plumage of the Victoria crowned pigeon is blue-gray except for the maroon chest, and pale gray wingtips.  Their crowns are made up of little gray fans with white fringes.  They have blood red eyes which are surrounded by a little black mask of feathers.

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The Victoria crowned pigeon is named in honor of Queen Victoria (who was on the throne of England when the bird was discovered by English ornithologists). The Victoria crowned pigeon is a gregarious social bird.  Parties of pigeons walk together around the swampy rainforest floor looking for fruit, which is the mainstay of the bird’s diet (although they also sometimes supplement their diet with seeds and arthropods).

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Crown pigeons built intricately crafted nests in trees where the females lay a single white egg. Both parents actively tend the egg and the nestling.  The vocalizations of Victoria crown pigeons sound like studio audience noises from nineties talk shows.  According to Wikipedia  “[mating calls consist of a] hoota-hoota-hoota-hoota-hoota sound. When defending their territories, these birds make a resounding whup-up, whup-up, whup-up call. Their contact call is a deep, muffled and rather human-like ummm or hmmm.”

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Crown pigeons are not uncommon in the wild but the live birds are collected for the pet trade and the birds are hunted for meat and for their remarkable head feathers. Humans have a weakness for trying to take their beautiful crowns to build into our own headwear.

 

 

 

 

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you.  The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn.  The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.

 Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting.  Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.

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I am combining two important science discoveries from this week into one (small) post. This week astrophysicists working on the Keplar program discovered the three smallest known exoplanets (each of which is smaller than Earth) in orbit around a little red dwarf star.  In a completely unrelated field (and scale) of science, biologists in Papua New Guinea discovered the world’s tiniest known vertebrates, two species of miniscule rain forest frogs named Paedophryne amauensis and Paedophryne swiftorum.

Artist's concept of the KOI-961 solar system (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The exoplanets were discovered by a team led by scientists from Caltech who used data from NASA’s mission in conjunction with observations from the Palomar Observatory, (outside San Diego), and the W.M. Keck Observatory (on Mauna Kea in Hawaii). The three planets orbit tiny red dwarf star KOI-961 which has a volume only one-sixth that of our sun (making the star only about 70% bigger than the planet Jupiter). The planets are all very close to their star, and the most distant, takes less than two days to orbit around KOI-961. The three worlds have volumes of 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth.

image credit: Caltech

Red dwarf stars make up four out of five stars in the galaxy, but because they are so small and dim, the Keplar probe has only been assessing a relatively tiny group of red dwarf stars for the possibility of planets.  The fact that studying a small sample of red dwarfs already revealed three terrestrial planets strongly suggests that such planets are commonly found around red dwarfs. John Johnson, of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena summarized the data by saying, “This is the tiniest solar system found so far…It’s actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.”

An adult Paedophryne amauensis posing on a dime

The discovery of the tiny frogs was made by a team of zoologists in New Guinea led by Chris Austin, a herpetologist trained at LSU.   The team was in the forest of New Guinea when they heard a faint metallic song coming from the leaf litter on the forest floor.  Unable to see the animal producing the faint chorus of “tink” noises, the biologists grabbed up handfuls of leaf litter into a large transparent bag, and began carefully sorting it–expecting a singing insect to emerge.  They were stunned when the miniscule adult frog hopped off a leaf.  The fully grown creature only measured 7.7 millimeters (less than one-third of an inch).

Named Paedophryne amauensis the little amphibians are not just the smallest known frogs–they are also believed to be the smallest free-living vertebrates on Earth (supplanting a minute 8mm long translucent Indonesian carp for that title).  The frogs do not undergo tadpole metamorphosis in water like other frogs, but are born hopping.  They spend their entire lives in the leaf litter where they prey on miniscule arthropods and other invertebrates.  A similar species Paedophryne swiftorum was also discovered by the team, although P. swiftorum frogs were nearly a millimeter larger.

In an interview, the team leader Chris Austin said, “We now believe that these creatures aren’t just biological oddities, but instead represent a previously undocumented ecological guild — they occupy a habitat niche that no other vertebrate does.”

Frequent visitors to this blog will know my longstanding fascination with the mammals of Australia.  Because of its long geographic isolation, the island continent was mostly free of eutherian (placental) mammals until very recently–meaning that magnificent non-placental oddballs such as platypuses, wombats, echidnas, quolls, and numbats had plenty of time and space to survive and flourish.  However there is one order of placental mammals which proved to be a big exception to this general narrative. Bats are eutherian mammals which can fly.  They reached Australia in the Oligocene (the Oligocene era lagerstätten at Riversleigh have yielded 35 species of microchiropterans) and have been very successful ever since.

The Spectacled Flying Fox (Pteropus conspicillatus)

Australia has 65 known species of bats, most of which are still fast tiny insect eating microchiropterans.  In recent times though a few species of large fruit-eating megabats have showed up and made inroads into the continent.  One of these megabats is the subject of this post–the spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), a big handsome bat which is widespread along the coasts of New Guinea and seems to have established a beachhead in Northern Queensland.

A pregnant female Grey-Headed Flying-Fox (photo by Ofer Levy)

Spectacled flying foxes are gregarious social animals which live in huge colonies high in the canopies of the rainforest.  At night they feed on nectar and pollen from tropical blossoms or they squeeze the juice from fruits like mangoes and figs.  Although large for bats, the animals weigh less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and their wingspan is about 1.2 meters (4 feet).  They are called spectacled bats because of the strips of yellow-tan fur around their eyes.

Spectacled Bat Close-up (Photo from CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems)

It is unclear when the bats came to Australia but the fact that they are indigenous to many of the islands around New Guinea indicates that they are powerful fliers.  Additionally, like certain other fruit bats, the spectacled flying fox can occasionally sip sea water without any ill effects.

An orphaned baby bat being cared for at Batreach in Kuranda

Even though they are hunted as bush meat in parts of New Guinea, Spectacled flying foxes are doing fairly well in that part of their range.  Unfortunately in Australia they are having trouble with deforestation and with the paralysis tick (one of the many horrifying toxic pests which abound in Australia).  Kindly and good-natured Australians frequently rescue orphaned bats, and, when not reintroduced into the wild the captive bats can live over 17 years in captivity.  The bats are social animals, so the lonely orphans often bond deeply with their human rescuers.

Sam the orphaned spectacled bat

How can some people not like bats? (This image was taken at Tolga Bat Hospital by Steve Amesbury to promote the noble cause of bat conservation: see DontShootBats.com)

Don’t shoot bats! (or otherwise hurt them!)

To borrow a page from the timeless style of Sesame Street, this week Ferrebeekeeper is brought to you by the Roman letter Q.  Each post will concern a topic which begins with that rare letter.  So quench your thirst with quinine water and wrap up in a quaint quilt. There is a reason that the letter Q is worth 10 points in scrabble but I think we can find 5 relevant topics that are not too quixotic (also I’m going to stop using extra q words for effect immediately—please don’t stop reading).

A Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)

For the first q-themed post, we must travel to the ancient arid continent of Australia. For reasons of geology and tectonics, Australia has been a wallflower in the great continental ballet and has been isolated for the last 40 million years.  Thanks to this geographic seclusion, the animals of Australia are much different than the creatures which flourish elsewhere, and Austalia’s mammals are dominated by marsupials like the kangaroos, the wombats, the koalas, and the bandicoots.  All of those creatures are herbivores, but there are insectivorous marsupials (like the numbat) and there are marsupial carnivores which prey on the others.  Some of the larger orders of marsupial predators have died off as Australia dried out, but a major order of predators remain–the catlike quolls.

Quolls (genus Dasyurus) are solitary, nocturnal mammals which seek shelter in their burrows and dens by day and hunt birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals at night. They are agile all-terrain creatures capable of swiftly moving across the forest floor or through the forest canopy.  Quolls kill their prey with a bite to the neck where it joins the head.  In addition to being predators, they also scavenge for carrion and they can sometimes be found by picnic areas and rubbish dumps. There are six species of quolls which range in size from 350 grams (12 ounces) to 3.5 kilograms (8 pounds). Four species are located across the Australian mainland while one species inhabits New Zealand.  One outlier species, the Bronze Quoll (Dasyurus Spartacus) lives in the savannah of New Guinea. The animals all share a characteristic spotted fur coat and a similar lifestyle.  The closest relatives of quolls are the formidable Tasmanian devils (the largest extant marsupial carnivores) and the superficially weasel-like mulgaras.

Unfortunately, quolls are not doing well.  Feral cats, dogs, and foxes are much more deft predators and are outcompeting the quolls or eating them outright (although the quolls do get some free meals from the invasive wave of rabbits and rats which have swept Australia).  Additionally the quolls are falling victim to an even stranger invasive species.  The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) is a toxic South American toad which was brought to Australia in order to control agricultural pests.  The toads secrete a powerful toxin which is potent enough to kill a human (some people ingest cane toad secretions in order to experience the hallucinogenic effects).  Cane toads resemble some of the natural amphibian prey species of quolls and the spotted predators eat them voraciously—only to fall sick and die.  In order to save the unlucky quolls, a project is afoot to train the predators not to eat cane toads. Wildlife researchers have been dropping small sausages made of cane toad from airplane in quoll habitats.  It is hoped that quolls will eat the sausages and become violently sick (but not fatally so).  Having had a miserable bad trip, the quolls will then presumably forbear from eating further cane toad flesh.

The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus)

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