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Behold! The magnificent Melibe genus of sea slugs… These transparent nudibranch mollusks are active carnivores which trap fast-moving, free swimming prey with a powerful weapon—their head. I don’t mean this figuratively: their transparent heads are expanding nets which shoot open and engulf small animals like copepods, shrimp, hydrozoa, and tiny fish fry. Their lethal hoods are surrounded by a mane of sensory tentacles, which make the slugs superficially resemble jellyfish and Venus fly traps).
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Hooded nudibranchs of various species live in tropical and temperate waters around the world (I was unable to ascertain whether they lived in the Arctic or not…maybe because they don’t or maybe because we don’t yet know). They tend to be diminutive animals measuring under 10 cms (4 inches) long which live hidden among seaweeds and kelps. The creatures are hermaphrodites and emit a sweet smell when removed from the water. In case they were not sufficiently bizarre for you, they escape predators like crabs, fish, and cephalopods by shedding their cerate (the lateral outgrowths protruding from the slug’s body).
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I have failed to do this slug justice (because WordPress has disabled video posting), but here is a link which shows the disquieting predatory head-expansion. I can hardly think of a creature more alien in appearance or manners, and yet they are quite appealing. The amazing Eliza Heery thought so too, and dressed as one for Halloween. What a world…
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Hay Editor! Caption this - the Penguins

Ferrebeekeeper tries not to portray the world in black and white…yet some important issues are black and white. Additionally, some important issues are unable to fly. In fact some important issues live only in the southernmost reaches of the southern hemisphere and are formidable ocean predators which hunt squid, shrimp, and fish. These issues establish strong pair bonds for a season and work together to raise a single nestling. Um…which is to say that today is World Penguin Day! Ferrebeekeeper proudly salutes our many friends from the order Sphenisciformes! Everybody is familiar with these endearing, beautiful birds. Yet looking at penguins more carefully reveals that they are less familiar (and more remarkable) than we think.

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In the media, penguins are always portrayed as debonair bon vivants who are trying to kill Batman, or as the sidekick of villainous ice wizards, or as weak-minded props for Jim Carrey to fart on. Needless to say, this does them a terrible injustice. Penguins diverged from other birds before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. The first basal penguins were the contemporaries of dinosaurs and giant mosasaurs. For 70 million years the birds have evolved to simultaneously live in swirling freezing oceans and on profoundly inhospitable land environs like desert coasts and icebergs.

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Penguins look like sad little drunken gnomes when they are walking on the land (although walking on ice cliffs is no mean feat for any creature). Underwater, however, they look like next generation naval weaponry. They can turn and maneuver with preternatural speed.

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One of the most remarkable pieces of footage I have seen of any animal was an underwater reel of a Gentoo penguin hunting a school of shimmering pilchard type fish. With lightning speed, the school of fish changed to evade the bird. The school swelled into a ball and then elongated and then melted away into glistening tendrils. It formed gyres and broke into equal halves and used every advantage of the 3-d underwater habitat to get away. The fish moved faster than I could see and darted off in ways I could not anticipate or understand, but always the penguin was faster and more nimble. She out-thought the group mind of the fish. She was unfazed by their otherworldly dazzle and picked them off one after the next with relentless ballet-like grace (all while swimming underwater on a breath of air). I wish I could describe it properly (or just find the footage online). It was beautiful in an overwhelming and otherworldly way…so perfect it was scary. And it convinced me that penguins have a rightful place among the greatest predators–like lions, saltwater crocodiles, peregrine falcons, (although those creatures eat carrion or steal other animal’s dinners, whereas penguins are super predators who only eat live prey).

There are 17-20 species of penguin, depending on which ornithologist you ask. Some dwell in temperate portions of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and South America, but others are more familiar as the creatures of the extreme frozen south.  Some of these march  inland to the plains of Antartica where they spend the winter in nightmare cold and darkness. They are the only large animals to inhabit that frozen continent (unless you also count Norwegian scientists).

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The root of the word penguin is unknown. The word looks French, but it appeared in English and Dutch sources, before it appeared in French ones. Some linguists surmise that it came originally from the Welsh word for great auks which were the penguin analogue of the northern hemisphere. Great auks are forever gone from Earth…extinct since the mid nineteenth century (when they were hunted to death for their down and so their flesh could be used as fishbait).

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I bring up the sad stupid fate of the Great Auk for a reason. Penguin populations are plummeting. Usually humans kill off animals by hunting, industrial poisoning, or habitat destruction by means of development. Although it is true that the penguins which live in inhabited locations like Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, face pressure from housing development (or sometimes from oil spills like the poor guys in sweaters above).  However the penguins in the southern oceans are facing threats from the planetary changes which the oceans are undergoing.  So world penguin day is important and meaningful…but I’m not exactly sure what we need to do to help these ancient formally dressed predatory friends.

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home--Lake Erie

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home–the open waters of Lake Erie (photo by Jim McCormac)

Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.

Mergansers desport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

Mergansers disport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!

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Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Behold the terrifying ocean monster, Livyatan Melvillei! This predatory toothed whale lived 12-13 million years ago during the Miocene epoch and grew to 13.5 to 17.5 meters (45–57 feet) in length. A large adult whale could have weighed up to 50 tons. The extinct megapredator is named for Herman Melville and for the Biblical leviathan (“Livyatan” is from the Hebrew word for Leviathan). The great whale’s family is currently listed as “incertae sedis” which means “status uncertain,” a taxonomical place-holder used when biologists are trying to ascertain a creature’s relationship to other related organisms within a larger order.

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Livyatan Melvillei with smaller baleen whale

In terms of body size, the modern sperm whale is probably slightly longer and heavier, but the livyatan had stronger jaws and much larger teeth. Paleontologists describe the mighty creature as having “the biggest tetrapod bite ever found,” which is no trivial matter, since the tetrapods include all mammals, reptiles (like dinosaurs), amphibians, and birds. Of course plankton feeders (like blue whales and whale sharks) have larger mouths, but the sperm whale and the livyatan have more powerful maws filled with large sharp teeth. The 36 centimeter (1.2 foot) long teeth of livyatan are the largest known teeth from the animal world which were used for eating (which is to say the tusks of elephants, walruses, Odobenocetops, and narwhals tusks were larger, but were not used for biting into plants or animals).

Livyatan Melvillei biting a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei BITING a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei presumably swam the deep blue ocean hunting for seals, dolphins, baleen whales and whatever other sea creature was large enough to command its attention (giant sharks, huge squid, huge fish, and bizarre giant birds?). Like the sperm whale it seems to have had a spermaceti organ in its head although it is unclear if this was used for echolocation, auditory signaling, or aggressive male sexual display (i.e. head-butting).  It must have been quite a (horrifying) sight to see one of these giant monsters biting apart a 10 meter (33 foot) long baleen whale. Sadly, the ever-changing dynamic of ocean life caused the great toothed whale to go extinct at approximately the same time as megalodon, the largest known shark (which was a contemporary of the great whale).  Numerous websites speculate which great animal would have won an ocean duel–which is foolish, since whales are clever animals and thus the obvious victor.

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Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

At present, I am in no danger of coming into ownership of a yacht, but if I had one I kow what I would name it–the “Turkeyfish” a magnificent combination of my favorite bird and a lovely fish.  But “turkeyfish” is not just a funny portmanteau or an impossible chimera, there are actual turkeyfish swimming the world’s waters.

The Two-spot Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus biocellatus)

Dendrochirus is a genus of small scorpionfish which live in the Indo-Pacific region: these dwarf lionfish are also known colloquially as turkeyfish. They are members of the Pteroinae subfamily of the Scorpionfish family (a family which includes some of the world’s most poisonous fish) and, like their relatives they have fans of sharp spines coated with venomous mucus.  Because these spines are striped and shaped like the feathers of turkeys, divers fancifully call them turkeyfish (a common name which is sometimes even extended to larger lionfish of the Pterois genus).

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Turkeyfish are formidable carnivores (for their size) with large powerful mouths and the ability to lurk in shadows and stalk prey around a reef.  They mostly prey on small fish, arthropods, and mollusks but occasionally they eat big fish—or each other. The poisonous spines of turkeyfish cause large predatory fish to avoid them and their toxin is also venomous to animals other than fish (like humans which can be badly hurt, or even occasionally killed by the spines). The exquisite colors of these spines serve as a warning to predators, but have also caused the fishes to be popular in the aquarium trade.

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Some species of lionfish have even been spreading around the tropical waters of the globe after irresponsible aquarists freed them into the ocean.  It is unclear whether the turkeyfish have joined their larger cousins in invading non-native reefs but it is clear they are formidable fish.

Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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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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The lovely shell of a Venus Comb Murex

One of the most delicate and exquisite shells of the world belongs to the Venus Comb Murex (Murex pectin) a predatory snail which hunts in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific.  The snail is covered by over one hundred tapered spines which protect it from predators and support the creature (in the fashion of a snowshoe) when it traverses soft muds.  The Venus Comb Murex hunts small mollusks, tunicates, worms, and crustaceans.  When one handles the delicate 15 cm long shell it is strange to imagine that it belonged to a fearsome hunter.  The Venus Comb Murex is a member of the Murexes, medium to large gastropods within the family Muricidae.  Murexes were described by Aristotle–who used the exact same name for them.

A Murex Hunting in Shallow Warm Waters

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