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A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

Everybody knows about the Easter Bilby—the magical marsupial who brings Easter eggs and candy treats to the good children of Australia (who are scarred by years of pestilential rabbit hordes)—but what does that have to do with Christmas week?  Well, this year bilbies are taking over Christmas as well as Easter.  Taronga Zoo (the city Zoo of Sydney Australia) is celebrating the birth of the zoo’s first-ever bilby joeys!  Although the bilbies were actually “born” 10 weeks ago, they are only just now emerging from their mother’s pouch.  The gestation period for the bilby is a mere two weeks, but when they are born they are still a bit underdone so they linger in the mother’s protected pouch for 75 days!  The mother of these adorable little scamps is named Yajala.  She moved to Sydney in order to pursue romance with George, the resident male bilby.  Since their mother is still extremely secretive and protective of her new little ones, it is unclear what gender the two babies are.  Their birth is exceedingly good news for bilbies which are terribly endangered by habitat loss and invasive predatory edentates.  The bilbies are all greater bilbies (Macrotis lagotis), which is the last living species of the family Thylacomyidae.  Aren’t they adorable?

Photos by Robert Dockerill

Photos by Robert Dockerill

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Brian May is an astrophysicist who pursued a career in music. He is the guitarist for the rock band Queen and he is more famous for writing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “We Will Rock You”, & “Who Wants to Live Forever” than for anything he wrote while obtaining his Astrophysics degrees.  Brian was popularizing Galaxy Zoo on his blog (Galaxy Zoo is an online project which seeks public help in classifying vast numbers of galaxies.  A Dutch fan, Hanny van Arkel (a schoolteacher by trade), became interested in the project and started working on the site when she spotted a huge weird glowing green thing below spiral galaxy IC 2497.  She presented her findings to professional astronomers, who were also perplexed by the ghostly shape.  They duly named the object in her honor “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (which is Dutch for “Hanny’s thing”).

Hanny's Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Hanny’s Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp? The leading theory is that the supermassive black hole in the center of IC 2497 created huge jets of energy and gas as it (messily) devoured great masses of matter at the center of that galaxy.  These esoteric plumes interacted with an unrelated stream of gaseous matter hundreds of thousands of light years long (which is longer than our galaxy).  The thin clouds of glass then fluoresced like a krypton sign or a Scooby-Doo ghost.

Hanny Van Arkel

Hanny Van Arkel

Thanks Brian May and Hanny! This is one fancy voorwerp.

Mitik the Baby Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

One Brooklyn resident whose home was flooded by the hurricane was already an orphan. Mitik the baby walrus was rescued off the coast of Barrow, Alaska by fishermen after he became permanently separated from his mother.  He was extremely sick when he came to the Coney Island Aquarium about a month ago–but his health has been improving dramatically.  He started eating antibiotics and stopped taking antibiotics a week after coming to the Big Apple.  The New York Aquarium is one of the few zoos which houses walruses, but before Mitik came along they only had two cows, one of whom is advanced in years.  Walruses are social and don’t like being alone so Mitik is exactly what the aquarium needs (and vice-versa since the little walrus could not have survived without round-the-clock veterinarian care).

Mitik

Mitik had not yet made a public debut when the storm hit.   Fortunately the staff at the aquarium put in a heroic effort to keep all the life support systems running as the facility flooded.  Mitik is fine but the buildings are badly flooded and power is out (although generators are running critical systems).  A statement by the aquarium director says that the aquarium will decide tomorrow whether to move any animals.  The aquarium is closed indefinitely for repairs and rennovations.

Other than the aquarium–which is right next to the ocean–none of the city’s zoos were seriously damaged by the storm.  Thanks to all of the brave aquarium personnel for looking after all of our finned and flippered friends during the storm and good luck getting the aquarium up and running so we can all see Mitik when he finally makes his big appearance!

A Young Cheetah Threatens a Hat

Things have been a pretty grim here at Ferrebeekeeper lately, what with the inexorable takeover of the labor market by machines, the child-killing Christmas demon Krampus, and the death of the universe. To cheer things up as we go into the weekend, here is a post about baby cheetahs.  Some people may claim this topic is a cynical attempt to exploit the endearing cubs and drive up ratings.  To those naysayers I respond “baby cheetahs!”

Cheetah Cubs must survive by hiding (image from http://cutearoo.com)

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)are well known as the fastest land animal–capable of running at blazing speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph).  To run at such a velocity the cheetah was forced to forgo some offensive advantages possessed by other comparably-sized cats.  Cheetahs’ jaws are smaller and their claws are permanently fixed in place–which makes their slashing implements shorter and duller than the razor sharp claws of other hunting cats.  Because they concentrate on running prowess to hunt they can never risk a sports injury from fighting.  These adaptations make it difficult for mother cheetahs to defend their cubs from predators.  Naturally the tiny cubs can not rely on the mother cheetah’s best defense—her legendary speed.

A Mother Cheetah with her cubs at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

Female cheetahs gestate for ninety to ninety-eight days and give birth to a litter of 3 to 9 cubs which each weigh 150 to 300 g (5.3 to 11 oz.) at birth.  Since they are so small and slow, (and since they impede their mother’s hunting) cubs suffer from high mortality.  Evolution however has utilized certain tricks to minimize the danger they face.  Unlike many feline cubs, cheetahs are born already covered with spots. They are adept from a young age at hiding within thorny scrub. Additionally the cubs have a remarkable adaptation to aid their defense.  Until they are near maturity, they possess long punk-rock mantle of downy hair along their neck.  These wild manes act like ghillie suits—breaking up the cubs’ outlines when they are hidden in dense scrub.  The mantles also mimic the Don King style hair of the honey badger (well-known as one of the craziest, bravest, angriest small animals of the savannah).  No animals want to mess with honey badgers since the angry badgers despise their own lives only slightly less than those of other living things and are thus extremely unpredictable.

Cheetah Cub

Honey Badger

When cheetahs reach adolescence they lose their mantles and acquire their extraordinary speed, but they still have a certain kittenish playfulness.  I was once in the Washington DC zoo on Sunday morning (when the cheetahs are each given a frozen rabbit as a treat).  The cheetah run in the National Zoo is long and narrow giving the animals space to build up full speed.  The male adolescent cheetahs were excited for their rabbits.  They were crouching and slinking back and forth faster than most people could run.  One of the adolescent cheetahs got too close to the powerful electric fence surrounding the enclosure and there was a sizzling “pop” as he accidentally touched his delicate nose to the wire.  The young male ran off and, because cheetahs are bred to the bone for the chase, his brother ran after him.  They ran faster and faster, becoming an exquisite blur.  The elegant forms left footprints of fire behind them until the first cheetah slid to a (10 meter) sliding stop and emitted an otherworldly angry chirp-yowl. The spectacle only lasted a moment, but compared to those cheetahs, all other runners I have seen–athletes, racehorses, greyhounds, rabbits–all seemed slow and awkward.

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