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A Filefish in Lembeh

This week is World Ocean’s Week and I feel like I have somewhat dropped the ball this year (although the plight of the planetary oceans is the principal ongoing theme of my artwork).  At any rate, for tonight’s post, I am not going to write a comprehensive essay about the watery realms which make up the majority of our planet’s surface (although we will get back to that theme).  Instead of a complex analysis of how we could help the oceans, here is a cameo appearance by another amazing Tetraodontiforme fish.

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This is Aluterus scriptus, commonly known as the scrawled filefish, a master generalist of warm tropical oceans worldwide.  The scrawled filefish lives in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.  Its habitats are limited to warm seas, but within those seas it does not have a particular favorite niche: the scrawled filefish can be found swimming through coral reefs, seaweed forests, seamounts, rock fields, shipwrecks, sandy seabeds, or just out in the open water.  From close up the fish looks like crazy 1980s abstract art with a wild pattern of olive dabs, aqua crazy stripes  and black stipples.  Yet seen from a distance it blends into the water or the seafloor with shocking success.  The scrawled filefish makes use of some of the same impressionistic properties of light, color, and shape which are used in dazzle camouflage.  It is hard to find the edges of its oval (partly transparent) body because of the chaos of its patterns.  Also, like flounders and cephalopods, the filefish is capable of quickly altering its color patterns such that certain colors fade back or flare into prominence depending on the situation.

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The scrawled filefish is also omnivorous and eats all sorts of algae, small invertebrates, corals, mollusks, worms, jellyfish, tunicates, small fish, et cetera et cetera.   The fish is diurnal and makes prime use of its yellow eye to see the world, however it is also shy and solitary.  Although they are generally spotted alone, filefish are attentive parents.  A male will fertilize the eggs of 2 to 5 females who live in his territory.  The parents look after the eggs and then watch other the fry when they hatch.

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In addition to camouflage, filefish make use of the same trick as their near relatives the triggerfish: they have locking spines at the top and bottom of their body.  If attacked, they wedge themselves into tight crevices or holes and lock these spines in place.  this is also how they sleep secure at night in an ocean filled with hungry predators.

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Yesterday’s post was heartfelt and quite opulent…but it was also a bit of a downer, so today let’s get back to core strengths and feature one of those amazing Tetraodontiformes which I promised we would be seeing.

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Awww! it is a juvenile yellow boxfish…surely one of the most endearing fish in the ocean.  The yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) is not only as cute as a button, it is also extremely successful.  The fish ranges across the coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and can even be found in some parts of the south east Atlantic Ocean.  Adults grow to be 45 centimetres (18 in) and, as with all of us, their bright yellow fades with age.  The fishes mostly eat algae but they are omnivores and will also sample worms, sponges, corals, mollusks, arthropods, and even other fish.

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Because of its cube shape, the boxfish is not a swift swimmer, however it can swim very efficiently and precisely thanks to swift fluttering strokes from its nearly transparent rounded fanlike fins.  Its box shaped skeleton and armored plates gives it great strength and durability which means predators would pretty much have to eat it whole.  This would be a mistake not only because it is a difficult to swallow a hard, sharp cubical fish, but also because the boxfish is capable of releasing the neurotoxin tetrodoxin (TTX) from its skin if it stressed or frightened.  This protects the boxfish from predators (or being stuck in a dead-end job in a cubical), but it also makes this a difficult fish to have in an aquarium.

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This is why the young boxfish are so colorful:  it is a warning not to eat them (or even stress them out).  Can you imagine if this were the case in the affairs of hominids?  The 80s would have been the most poisonous decade ever.  Fortunately, color denotes other things for us primates…which is why looking at yellow boxfish is such a treat.

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The Amazon is the planet’s largest river.  The great waterway is very much in the news this week as the world turns its eyes to Brazil to watch the Olympics. My whole life I have wanted to visit the upstream backwaters of the Amazon and view its ecological treasures before it is all converted into strip malls and low-cost parking.  Unfortunately, the developers are doing a lot better in this life than I, so I am not sure that will ever happen. Thus, instead of going to Brazil in the real world, we will go there via blog! No need for visas (I hear that Brazil doesn’t really want American visitors anyway). We can check out the amazing fish, snakes, mammals, and, um, emperors of Brazil without ever leaving the internet.

The Piranha TheoryNo!

Speaking of fish, the Amazon is the home of the fearsome pirarara! No freshwater fish is more storied or more…wait “pirarara”?  What the heck is that?\

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The Pirarara is actually a giant extremely colorful catfish which grows to immense size (You knew I couldn’t get through these Olympics without writing about some of the magnificent siluriformes from the place with the greatest diversity of catfish….a place where catfish are actually found beneath the water table).

CATFISH RED TAIL PIRARARA Palm Tree Lagoon Lake amazon world record biggest fish ever caught big huge fishes records largest monster fishing giant size images pictures IGFA lb  brazil brasil

The pirarara (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) aka “the redtail catfish” is the only living representative of the genus Phractocephalus.  These catfish are omnivores which grow to 1.8 meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 80 kg (180 lb). I wonder if they wear the same sized suits as me?  I am being silly, of course: these catfish do not wear suits since nobody has found a pattern which does not clash with their brown backs, mustard yellow sides, and white stomach….and their bright ketchup-red tails.  The pirarara should really be called the condiment catfish.  The fish are popular in large aquariums, although they are so voracious that they can injure themselves by swallowing aquarium furniture and vomiting it back up.

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Redtail catfish may be the last living members of the Phractocephalus genus, but there were once many species…some of which date back to the upper Miocene (13.5 million years ago).  They lived throughout what is now Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, and Ecuador, in the great series of lakes and wetlands which made up the long-vanished Pebas mega-wetland.  The pirarara has a certain prehistoric look to it.  Can you imagine the crazy color combinations which its vanished realtives must have had as they sw3am among the super crocodiles and crazy alligators of the Pebas?

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Greater Grison (Galictis vittata) photo by Tony Hisgett

Last week, in a throwaway post about a bizarre weasel-related mishap at the world’s foremost scientific facility, I promised Ferrebeekeeper would feature more weird and magnificent mustelids.  Today we make good that promise.  This is the greater grison (Galictis vittata), a relative of weasels and badgers which lives in the great rainforests of Central America and South America (the northern part of the continent).  Adult greater grisons weigh in at 1.5 to 3.8 kilograms (3.3 to 8.5 lbs) and range from the Yucatan Peninsula down across the Amazon Basin to the Mato Grosso Plateau.  The southern reached of South America are home to a very similar but smaller grison—the lesser grison (Galictis cuja)—which only weighs 1.2 to 2.4 kg (2.6 to 5.3 lbs).

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Lesser Grison (Galictis cuja) photo by Edward Tchementchekov

Grisons are solitary hunters which live on a wide variety of small prey, particularly small vertebrates such as fish, amphibians, birds, and rodents (but also invertebrates and maybe some larger prey when the opportunity presents itself).  Their diet is not perfectly understood, but it seems to also contain a fair amount of fruits, berries, and vegetables as well. Not only are they omnivores but they can change their schedule. Though they are largely diurnal—they can operate at night when it suits them. Likewise they are predominantly terrestrial but they can swim and climb trees with great facility.   They are clever generalists capable of living in grasslands, forests, scrublands, pastures, croplands, and mountains. Grisons live in hollowed out logs or the abandoned dens of other animals.

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Grisons are sometimes tamed when young and they prove to be resourceful and adaptable domesticated animals capable of hunting chinchillas (back when there were sufficient chinchillas to hunt).  Perhaps it seems like we don’t know as much as we might about grisons in the wild…and it turns out that such is the case.  Grisons have wide necks which taper down to narrow heads—which means that behavioral zoologists have not had much luck putting radio collars on them.  Grisons are also clever and solitary, which means that their lives are not completely understood (an unusual feature in our media saturated world). Unfortunately they do have a terrible weakness:  almost all grisons that are seen, are spotted after they have been smashed by cars.  Like skunks, and armadillos, they are particularly susceptible to being killed by cruel and indifferent motorists who will never rest till every living thing not inside a protective steel box has been crushed dead.  However South America is a big place and roads don’t go everywhere yet, so grisons are still out there, biding their time.

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photo by criadourooncapintada.org

 

A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

This blog frequently describes mammals which are extinct or not well known—creatures like the pseudo-legendary saola, the furtive golden mole, or the long-vanished moeritherium, however today Ferrebeekeeper is going all out and writing about one of the wild animals which people think about most frequently.

"Oh good, humankind is thinking about us."

“Oh no! Humankind is thinking about us.”

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is beloved, feared, worshipped, hunted, despised, and glorified by humankind.  These great bears are arguably the largest land predator alive today (their only rival is their near-cousin, the polar bear).  A Kodiak brown bear can weigh up to 680 kg (1500 lbs) and stand 3 meters (10 feet) tall when on two legs.  Brown bears can run (much) faster than the fastest human sprinter.  Likewise they can climb and swim better than we can.   They are literal monsters—mountains of muscle with razor sharp teeth and claws.  However, bears have become so successful and widespread not because of their astonishing physical prowess, but because of their substantial intelligence.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

Ursus arctos live in India, China, the United States, Russia, and throughout Europe.  Because they live across such a broad swath of planet Earth, brown bears are divided into nearly twenty subspecies, but these various brown bears all share the same basic characteristics and traits.  Brown bears are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular, but they can hunt and forage during the day if it daylight suits their needs.  Since they are ingenious omnivores, they are capable of living in many different landscapes and habitats.  Usually solitary by nature, the bears sometimes gather together in large numbers if a suitable source of nutrients becomes available (such as a salmon run, a dump, or a meadow full of moth larva). The bears eat everything from tiny berries and nuts on up to bison and muskox.  Although the majority of bears live primarily by foraging, some families are extremely accomplished at hunting.  Brown bears pin their prey to the ground and then begin devouring the still living animal.  This ferocious style means that humans greatly fear bear attacks, even though such events are extremely rare everywhere but Russia (where all living things continuously attack all other living things anyhow).

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Bears are serial monogamists: they stay together with a single partner for a few weeks and then move on romantically.  The female raises the cubs entirely on her own.  Gravid bears have the remarkable ability to keep embryos alive in a suspended unimplanted state for up to six months.  In the midst of the mother bear’s hibernation, the embryos implant themselves on the uterine wall and the cubs are born eight weeks later. Remarkably, if a bear lacks suitable body fat for nursing cubs, the embryos are reabsorbed.

Entertainer Bart the Bear with his trainer/human liaison

Entertainer, Bart the Bear, poses with his trainer/human liaison

Experts believe that brown bears are as intelligent as the great apes.  There is evidence of bears using tools, planning for the future, and figuring out formidable puzzles (although they are terrible at crosswords). Their high intelligence can make bears seem endearingly human—as in the case of a beer-drinking bear from Washington State.  After drinking one can of a fancy local beer and one can of mass market Busch, the bear proceeded to ignore the Busch while drinking 36 cans of the pricier local brew before passing out. There are famous bear actors with resumes more impressive than all but the most elite film stars.  In other cases, bears and people have worked together less well.  Brown bears used to live throughout the continental United States, but they were hunted to death.

"The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems." (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

“The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems.” (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

Humans and bears have a love-hate relationship: although bears have been driven out of many places where they once lived, the practice of bear-worship was so widespread among circumpolar and ancient people that there is even a word for it: “arctolatry”.  Bear worship is well documented among the Sami, the Ainu, the Haida, and the Finns.  In pre-Roman times, bears were worshiped by the Gauls and the British.  Artemis has a she-bear form and is closely associated with Ursus Major and Ursus Minor.  Yet bear worship stretches back beyond ancient times into true prehistory.  Cult items discovered in Europe suggest that bears were worshiped in the Paleolithic and were probably of religious significance to Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens.  Indeed, some archaeologists posit that the first European deities took the form of bears.

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The Chicago Cityscape Stretching along the shore of Lake Michigan

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post yesterday.  I am traveling the Great Lakes and Canada and will try to update when I am able.  Today I am in Chicago. As I was looking out at Lake Michigan, I wondered whether there were any catfish native to the vast body of water– which is so large it might as well be considered a freshwater sea.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

As it turns out the lake is home to channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatu), the quintessential North American siluriform.  The channel catfish is a hardy omnivore which dwells in rivers, lakes, and ponds from southern Canada to northern Mexico.  They eat smaller fish, arthropods, worms, seeds, and just about any other edible thing which will fit into their mouths.  Channel catfish are nest breeders.  If the female catfish is unable to find a promising crevasse in which to lay her eggs, the male will arrange logs and rocks into a nesting bed for her.  He then guards the eggs until they hatch and even stays with the fry while they are very small (although if he is unduly disturbed he might eat the eggs and start all over again!).

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

While the channel catfish are hardly as flashy as some of the exotic catfish we have covered here, they are vastly successful organisms.  They can also grow to be fairly large and specimens measuring up to 23 kg (50 pounds) have been caught (although such giants are quite old and rare).  Although the catfish live naturally in Lake Michigan, they are also raised on farms throughout the American south (indeed they are the “Delecata” mentioned in this post about international catfish trade wars).  Channel catfish have been introduced in parts of Europe, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they are now causing havoc among native species.

But Channel catfish here in the Great lakes are facing their own invasive threats.  Lake Michigan has been colonized by wave after wave of invasive animals.  Some, like the omnipresent zebra mussels, are harmless to catfish (albeit infuriating to humans).  Others like the sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are not so benign for catfish.  The jawless lampreys are vampires which attach to the bodies of catfish (and a wide variety of other native Great Lakes fish) and then rasp a hole in the hosts’ sides by means of sharpened tongue.  Even more alarmingly, the leaping thriving all-devouring Asian carp has been making its way up Illinois’ rivers towards Lake Michigan.  The state has been trying to prevent these dangerous fish from getting to the Lake by means of increasingly horrifying devices and stratagems such as underwater electric fences and mass poisonings.  So far it has been working but there is still an underwater war raging for Lake Michigan.

Invasive Silver Carp leap from the electrified water.

A Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Happy Easter!  To celebrate, we head down under to the island continent of Australia.  There, in the arid scrubland, lives the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) an omnivorous nocturnal marsupial with long ears, silky fur, and a long black and white tail.  Bilbies belong to the Peramelemorphia order (along with bandicoots and sundry extinct kin), and they are renowned for their ability to dig elaborate spiraling burrows and for having one of the shortest gestation periods of all mammals–a dozen days from fertilization to birth.  As is the case with the loveable wombats, bilbies’ pouches face backwards to help the animals excavate burrows and dig up supper.

Baby Bilbies in a hat! (image credit: theage.com.au)

Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight.  They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit.  Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.

But wait a minute!  Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland?  Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter?  Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children).  The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.

The Easter Bunny and the Easter Bilby

Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies.  Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic.  For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:

“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.

I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation.   Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!

"I know I'm a symbol, but please put me down!"

Fennec Foxes (Vulpes zerda)

The world’s smallest fox lives in the world’s largest desert, the Sahara.  The adorable fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is actually the world’s smallest canid of any sort: they are the tiniest members of the dog family weighing in at only 1.5–3.5 lb.  Nocturnal omnivores, fennec foxes use their huge ears to listen for prey–and for predators such as the fearsome eagle owl. Additionally, since the foxes’ ears are filled with blood vessels, they provide a convenient way of cooling off in the oppressive daytime heat. Tiny pads on the foxes’ feet protect their delicate paws from hot sand and sharp rocks while muffling the noise of their movement.  They dig substantial burrows and are renowned among people of the Sahara for their cunning and cleverness.

Snuggling a fennec fox kit

The fennec fox is the one of two species of fox which can live with people as a domestic pet (the other pet fox is the domesticated silver fox, which is the end product of 60 years of crazy Soviet experimentation).  Hopefully their adorable little countenances will help you get through this extremely l…o…n…g week after the holidays.

A young fennec at a zoo (or possibly being arrested for cuteness)

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