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Paraloricaria_vetula

Paraloricaria (image from Paul Louis Oudart – Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale)

Do you remember all of the catfish which used to be on Ferrebeekeeper?  There were underground catfish, coral reef catfish, and giant catfish.  We even featured Ancient Egyptian catfish and nightmare vampire catfish that crawl inside people!  Sigh…happy times.  That obsession with catfish was one of the factors which launched this blog.  It is extraordinary how many different species of catfish there are and how wildly diverse this one order of lifeforms is.  Catfish have extraordinary senses which humans lack entirely. They can be tender and solicitous parents and they are capable of building structures.  Ranging in size from nearly microscopic to enormous, the siluriformes are everywhere except for the deep ocean and Antarctica (and, uh, the sky).  Yet, due to human myopia, the first thing I get about catfish on Google is some weird internet mumbo-jumbo about pretending to be somebody else online?  What???

Anyway, I am trying to freshen up Ferrebeekeeper, and I am going to fold the “catfish” category into a larger “fish” category (if catfish are so inexhaustibly diverse, just imagine how diverse the larger category of fish is!).

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For old times sake, though, we are going to feature a few more posts celebrating the diversity of this enormous vertebrate order (1 out of every twenty species of vertebrates is a catfish!).  Today we feature a little gallery of the whip slender armored catfish of the Loricariinae subfamily (aka the “whip catfish”).  These small armored catfish live throughout Central America and South America East of the Andes and feed on small invertebrates of the substrate.

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Rineloricaria sp. (from bluegrassaquatics.com)

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Loricaria cataphracta (Compte rendu de l’expédition de Francis de Castelnau en Amérique du sud)

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Apistoloricaria condei (by Hippocampus-Bildarchiv)

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Aposturisoma myriodon (Image from PlanetCatfish)

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Just look at all of these beauties! It is like wandering through an art show and being continuously surprised at how many stunning variations there are on a single theme.

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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.

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The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.

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Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.

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This is Wagner’s mustached bat (Pteronotus personatus), a somewhat ridiculously named bat which is a master of echolocation.  The little flying insect hunter is tiny:  bats have a body length of 6 to 6.7 centimetres (2.4 to 2.6 in).  They are strictly nocturnal insectivores.  They fly over rivers at night feeding on moths and mosquitoes.  Wagner’s mustached bat is notable as one of only a handful of Doppler-shift compensating bats in the new world: the little animals.  To quote Michael Smotherman’s article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America , Wagner’s mustached bats “adjust the frequency of their [Constant Frequency] component to compensate for flight-speed induced Doppler shifts in the frequency of the returning echoes.” This is no mean feat for an animal without any onboard computers or slide rules.

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Wagner’s mustached bat ranges from southern Mexico, down through Central America to the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is found in a broad swatch of South America in a band through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and across central Brazil to the Atlantic.  Not only does the bat intuitively understand Doppler shift effects, it also exhibits an interesting coloration feature.  The species has two color phases: some bats are sable colored with grey underparts; others are reddish-orange with cinnamon colored underparts.   Ferrebeekeeper needs to talk about polymorphism (maybe later this week) and this little mustached creature is a good start on explaining the concept.

Pebas 17 Ma

The Amazon River is the world’s largest river and it has the world’s largest drainage basin—the vast Amazon rainforest, which stretches from the Andes in the west, to the Guiana Highlands to the north and the Brazilian Highlands in the south.   The great river drains east into the Atlantic Ocean….but it was not always so.  Before the Andes Mountains rose, the river drained west into the Pacific.  Throughout the Cenozoic, the mouth of the river moved up around the continent.  Thirteen million years ago, during the Miocene, the river drained north into the Caribbean through a huge tropical swamp–the Pebas mega-wetlands–which covered over one million square kilometers of what is now the Amazon Basin.

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An illustration of Pebas Corocodilians–Gnatusuchus is underwater, gobbling clams (art by Javier Herbozo)

Like today’s Amazon Basin, the Pebas mega-wetland was a great riverine rainforest.  And yet the ecosystem was very different from what is there today.  The marshes and swamps were filled with bivalve mollusks that thrived in the oxygen-poor waters.  Predators evolved to feed on these clams and mussels…and what predators!  This is Gnatusuchus, a caiman with spherical teeth for crushing open shellfish. Can you imagine biting through the shell of a clam?  Just thinking about it makes my jaw hurt and my teeth feel broken.  Yet Gnatusuchus bit through heavy shells for every meal!

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A life-sized reconstruction of the gigantic Purussaurus

The crocodilian grew to lengths of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) and had a short round shovel-shaped mouth to focus maximum force on biting through clams.  Life in the Pebas was not all basking and clam feasts for Gnatusuchus.  The reptile was hardly the only reptile in the swamp, but was instead one genus among a hyper-diverse group of crocodilians including giant toothy predators capable of eating Gnatusuchus.  One of these predators, Purussaurus neivensis grew to be 12.5 metres (41 ft) in lengt—making it a rival of the great Mesozoic crocodilians like Phobosuchus (maybe I should have mentioned this horrifying monster first, instead of alluding to him after the clam-eater, but Ferrebeekeeper is interested in mollusks and their predators not in giant crocodiles: this is not Peter Pan, my friend).  There were also piscivorous crocodilians with long scissor snouts foll of hooked teeth (like modern gharials), and even little crocodilians on stilt-like legs that ran around plucking up small prey in the manner of pipers or herons.

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Seven million years ago, the Pebas began to change from swamps to channels as Amazonian drainage became spread through an even more enormous basin. Still, the diversity of the creature that lived there became a heritage for the contemporary Amazon, arguably the most diverse ecosystem in the world today.

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It is the year of the fire monkey! Let’s celebrate with some magnificent screaming monkeys from Central and South America. These monkeys are loud–really loud. They are louder than Rush Limbaugh or heavy machinery–so loud that, in fact, that they are generally regarded as the loudest of all land animals. I am talking, of course, about the howler monkeys. These fifteen species make up the genus Alouatta (which lies within the family Atelidae ). They are new world monkeys ranging from the top of Central America down through South America to Uruguay.

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Howler monkeys have short snouts with keen noses (they are capable of smelling their favorite fruits and leaves from 2km away). Depending on the species and gender they range from 56 to 92 cm (22 to 36 in) in height or length…or whatever primary dimension you attribute to monkeys. This measurement does not include their tails which can be up to 5 times the length of their body. They weigh 7 to 10 kg (15 to 22 lbs) and live up to 20 years. Howler monkeys are folivore–they mostly eat leaves. This diet is widely available but it is hard to digest–which means howler monkeys are larger and slower than other New World monkeys (although they supplement their diets with fruit and eggs when they can).

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The hyoid bones of howler monkeys are pneumatized–which is to say that the u-shaped bone in the monkey’s neck contains air. Outside of the dinosaurs and their descendants, pneumatized bones are exceedingly rare. The hyoid bone anchors the tongue and the larynx and allows for vocalization. The fact that it is specialized in howler monkeys is one of the factors which allows them to vocalize with such ferocious power. There is an inverse relation between the size of the hyoid bone and the size of the male’s testes. This seemingly random fact is actually a key factor in howler society.

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Howler monkey lifestyle diverge into two very different ways of living (except for mantled howler monkeys which live together in large groups and behave somewhat differently than the other 14 species). In one model, a male, who has a larger hyoid, and smaller testes gathers a group of females together with his majestic singing (screaming?) voice and he mates with them exclusively like a sultan with his harem. In the other model several males mate with a group of several females. Seemingly, this free love model requires less loud singing and more gonad mass.

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At this point you are probably wondering a great deal about the howler monkey song. What is this primal howl which female monkeys prefer over carnal joy? Musical enthusiasts have compared the baritone shout of the male monkeys to a Gregorian chant, a monstrous belch, or a demonic snowplow.  All of these comparisons have some validity…but the sound is so much richer than that.  Why don’t you have a listen (at 1:23) and let us what you think?

 

The Guiro (by Nino)

The Guiro (manufactured by Nino)

I was busy drawing musicians playing crazy instruments for a project when the sinking feeling hit me that I would have to scrape together a blog entry for Valentine’s Day. Then it further hit me that I would also have to scrape together an additional post before that. Suddenly, there was the answer, right in front of me: scrape…weird musical instrument…the guiro!

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

The guiro is a percussion instrument with hard ribbed sides which produce an insectoid clicking when rubbed with a little stick. Musicologists classify such a thing as a scraped idiophone. The ratchet sound which the guiro produces doesn’t sound very good when I describe it, but it is delightful in traditional Latin American music (especially music from the Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.). Some sources contend that the guiro has Pre-Colombian roots and is an ancient part of the culture of the Americas, but, sadly, I couldn’t find any unimpeachable examples online (and it’s too late to bang on the Met’s door)—so believe this dubious history at your peril.

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Traditional guiros are made with gourds, wood, or horn. Modern ones can also be made of fiberglass and plastic. Although I like the sound which they make, the best part of the guiro tends to be its fanciful appearance. The instrument can be a big utilitarian cylinder, however for aesthetic reasons, it is often made in a fanciful animal shape—particularly that of a colorful fish. During music class in first grade, the teacher would sometimes dump out a huge box of simple percussion instruments—chimes, bells, triangles, castanets, maracas, tambourines, rattles, and clackers of all sorts—and we would each choose one and all play together to make a terrible cacophonous din (maybe the music teacher was trying to scare evil spirits away from Falmouth). Anyway there was always a fight for the magnificent fish guiro—which was then always allocated by the teacher to a student who was not me.

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

Below is a video demonstrating how to play the guiro (although I feel like most individuals could figure this out on their own). It does however present the rasping sound of the guiro. Another one of these little video clips put forth some useful pronunciation advice: the “g” in guiro is a Spanish “g” and is pronounced rather like a “w” in English. “Guiro” should be said sort of like “weirdo” (but with no “d” sound). Hmm…


The fish is colorful and traditional, but it is not the only animal shape which guiros come in. Here are some animal-shaped guiros which include a crocodile, an armadillo, and even a snail!

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Snail Guiro!

Snail Guiro!

These are beautiful! I wonder if I added one of these things to my music collection, would my roommates fight for it—or would they just fight me for making such musical scraping noises. Maybe we had better appreciate the guiro from afar for the moment….

A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

One of the most compelling extinct creatures from South America is not as well-known as it should be because it suffers from an incredibly confusing name.  The amazing Stegomastodon was a mighty proboscidean which lived on the great grassy lowlands east of the Andes until modern times, which is to say until about 9,500 years ago (because  paleontologists have a very different definition of modern than, say, historians or artists).  Proboscideans of course are the astonishing order of large mammals which include elephants and their many extinct relatives like mammoths, mastodons, deinotheriums,  moeritheriums…and stegomastodons.  The stegomastodons first evolved in North America during the Miocene (about 3 million years ago) and they lumbered rapidly down through South America after the Great American Interchange when the Isthmus of Panama formed between the two continents.  In North America, the stegomastodons died out because of competition from the true mastodons, which crossed over from Asia via Berengia, however deep in South America, they found ecosystems which suited them and they lasted for a long, long time.

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

Stegomastodons are neither stegodons nor mastodons, two famous and well known genera of proboscideans.  Confusingly stegomastodons are the last of the gomphotheres.  Gomphotheres wandered into Asia, became isolated and evolved into Stegodons, which, in turn, are the probable ancestors of today’s still-living elephants (assuming you are still reading this in an age when the Chinese and poachers have not wiped elephants from the globe).  If these relationships are confusing to you, you can use the proboscidean clade below (but remember that the stegomastodons are gomphotheres and they lasted much longer than is shown on the chart).

wpid-photo-aug-10-2012-1957Stegomastodons were grazers: they lived on the immense fields of grass which flourished east of the Andes in what is now Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. The creatures were smaller than modern elephants growing only to 2,8 meters (9 feet) in height and obtaining a mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds).  It is not known what wiped out the last stegomastodons, but they died quite recently, just after the Younger Dryas stadial was ending…only shortly after humankind made its way to the southern parts of South America.

Skull of stegomastodon waringii

Skull of Stegomastodon waringii

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) weighs from 3.5 to 6.7 kg (7.7 to 15 pounds) and can have a wingspan of up to  135 to 177 cm (53 to 70 in). The swans mainly eat vegetation but they supplement their diet with small arthropods and little aquatic vertebrates. They are the smallest species of swan, but the largest waterfowl of South America (where they ranges from southern Brazil to the Falkland Islands).  Wonderfully, the black-necked swan is not on the edge of extinction or even threatened, but is commonplace.  The black-necked swan like freshwater lakes and marshes.  In winter the birds fly to the north of their range, whereas they spends summer in Patagonia and Chile.  The species can be easily recognized by the distinctive black head with red knobs near the base of the bill and white stripe behind eye.  Like mute swans of Europe and Black Swans of Australia, they are almost always silent.

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

Once my parents and I were at the Central Park zoo where there was a pair of these magnificent birds swimming in a pool surrounded by glass.  My father was wearing athletic shoes which were red, black, white, and gray.  The male swan took great umbrage with these shoes, presumably thinking they were the infuriating face of a rival swan.  He would make magnificent and terrifying aquatic attacks upon the glass behind which my father was standing until finally we were driven off and he had his sweetie all to himself (with no romantic threats coming from footwear).

Argh! No shoes please!

Argh! No shoes please!

Southern Tamandua  (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Southern Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana).  Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies.  If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws).  The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals.  Tamanduas can live up to nine years.  They are widespread but comparatively scarce.

Tamandua hug

Tamandua hug

A School of Humboldt Squid

A School of Humboldt Squid

The world is ever changing.  Some organisms are incapable of changing their habitat or behavior to adapt to this mutability, whereas other animals are always doing unexpected things.  Among the latter are Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) large aggressive cephalopods which are always popping up in unexpected locations.  These squid usually live in the open ocean at water depths between 200 & 700 m (660 to 2,300 feet) however they are apparently capable of swimming higher or lower.   Similarly although they used to live predominantly in the Humboldt Current (which runs from Tierra del Fuego up through Central America), it seems they are now migrating north.  Great schools of Humboldt squid were spotted this week off the coasts of Los Angeles.  Lately they have been reported as far north as Seattle, British Columbia, and even Alaska.  Scientists speculate that the squid are moving north in response to overfishing and climate change.  It also seems that the acidification of the ocean is changing their metabolism and driving them to more shallow water (which allows for greater oxygen uptake).

A Humboldt Squid with a Diver

A Humboldt Squid with a Diver

Humboldt squid can grow up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in length and weigh as much as 50 kilograms (100 pounds).  They have eight swimming/grasping arms and two long lightning-fast hunting arms lined with toothed suckers.  The squid assemble in great schools of up to 1,200 individuals.  They communicate through bioluminescence and rapidly changing body color.  They are capable of group hunting—which makes a large school into a 50 ton super monster with ten thousand arms.  The squid feed opportunistically on everything they can catch including fish, crustaceans, and other cephalopods (sometimes including each other).  Oh, also they have large razor sharp beaks and are surprisingly intelligent. Humboldt squid have been known to attack divers (which can be a problem because of their size, spped, and sharp toothed suction cups) on the other hand they are said to be tasty is prepared correctly.

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