Episode 177 – Sea Pen: A Perfect Plume

“…and today we’re talking about the plume in the room. But more on that later.”

At the bottom of the deepest oceanic trench, you’ll find an animal that’s worth writing home about. The sea pen is a feathery friend with multiple personalities and penchant for puffing itself up when the coast is clear. But when slow-moving danger is around every corner, you have to be ready to retreat here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • The sea pen is so named because it sort of looks like a feather pen. 
  • The feathers are actually tentacle-like appendages
  • A smooth bulb anchors the sea pen in the sediment and a stock rises and curls like a fancy quill.
  • Branches from the quill have tentacles that give the organism a feathery appearance. 
  • They come in a variety of light colors from a cream color to pink. 

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We do have a Measure Up intro this week from our friend Calvin. 

Length at Sexual Maturity

  • 55 and 90 mm
  • How many sea pens go into the length of the longest feather ever recorded?
  • Hint: According to Guinness, the longest feather ever recorded was documented in 1972 in Kochi, Shikoku, Japan. The feather belonged to a phoenix fowl, also called a yokohama chicken.
  • 117.7 sea pens. The feather was 10.6 m (34 ft 9.5 in). 

Living depth

  • 6,100 m (3.7 miles)
  • How many sea pen living depths would go into the length of RNA needed to vaccinate the entire world?
  • Hint: This came from the subreddit r/theydidthemath, which I found because we’re mentioned in the comments for our measurement-based assault on mathematics. Thanks to listener Jessica for emailing to let me know that were mentioned on at least one corner of Reddit.
  • 49,709,695,400,000 depths. It would take 296 trillion km (31 light years) of RNA.

Fast Facts

Though sea pens look like plants, they live down where no plants can survive because of a lack of sunlight. They can live in shallow reef areas to deep intertidal abysses. 

They like all kinds of regions but prefer tropical and temperate water.

The entire order pennatulacea are called sea pens but only members of subselliflorae really look like feather pens. Other orders can be found in a variety of fanciful shapes from feather dusters to peacock plumage.

The fully unfurled plume is actually full of water and it can deflate like a broken arm flailing inflatable tube man. When there’s danger around, the pen will expel water to shrink down into the sand.

This particular genus has several bioluminescent species.

Some species of sea pens can use barbed nematocysts to sting and harpoon prey. 

Also, sea pens could possibly live for more than a century. Their tentacles also have stingers. They can get up to almost 6.6 ft.

Major Fact: We are Legion

I was going to talk about the fact that the sea pen is the only non-extinct animal with glide reflection symmetry, but it turns out that it involves Euclidean geometry so it’s tough to explain. Basically, it means that the pen is symmetrical, but slightly askew so it’s not symmetrical at all.

Instead, let’s talk about polyps. You may have noticed that the sub class was “octocorallia”, which is octocorals. 

So the sea pen has more in common with coral than anything else. 

Each polyp is basically a tiny jellyfish octopus – a cnidarian with eight tentacles that all come together to form a single animal. 

The first polyp will lose its tentacles and turn into the tree trunk of the pen with a large root at the bottom (otherwise known as the peduncle) and anchoring itself in the sea floor.

Then other polyps bud from it and each one specializes in a different function. Like pluripotent cells.

Some polyps become gills, others become rudimentary stomachs, and others become reproductive organs. Like a more advanced version of three kids wearing a big trenchcoat to get into a PG-13 rated movie. 

When you see a sea pen in its full glory, it’s actually mostly filled with water. If it’s threatened, it can expel that water and deflate, disappearing into the sand. This process can take up to 4 hours, but when your primary predators are sea slugs and star fish, you have time.

Ending: So anchor yourself, work on your Euclidean reflection geometry, and remember that the pen is mightier than the swordfish here in LDT.

Episode 176 – Pronghorn: Fastest in the New World

“And today we’re talking about one of the fastest ungulates west of the Mississippi. But more on that later.”

North America has a few big animals, but it’s mostly dominated by smaller fauna that have learned to thrive in the amber waves of grain. However, America was once a continent like Africa, home to great beasts that made the bison look like a midsized megafauna. It also used to have predators like lions, hyenas, and cheetahs. But there’s one relic of epochs long gone that still follows the old ways of the Pleistocene era. The pronghorn may be a product of its time but sometimes the good old-fashioned lessons still hold up in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 175 – Honeypot Ant: Living Honey Chandeliers

“…and today we’re talking about an insect that’s part ant and part dump truck. But more on that later.”

For most animals, storing food for later is for jive squares. It’s all about getting as much food as you can stomach right now and letting tomorrow take care of itself. For the more prudent, however, food storage is a life-saving hassle. The honeypot ant may not be able to create an elaborate hive like the famous honeybee, but it has an interesting way of using its workers to keep snacks for the leaner times. But using your friends as living pantries is sometimes the best way to survive here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 174 – Shield-Tailed Agama: The Aegis Posterior

“…and today we’re talking about a spike-covered tush that lives out in the bush. But more on that later.” 

The subterranean lifestyle has it’s benefits and many small animals make their beds below the earth. From the sleeping cicada to the idle fox, the shelter of a sand and soil roof provides protection from predatory prowlers. But there’s one flaw in this tactic. What if someone or something can fit in your hiding place? The shield-tailed agama isn’t willing to leave any attack unprepared for. He’s developed an interesting way to enter dreamland free of the fear of tunnel-going hunters. But covering all your bases is one way to beat insomnia in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 173 – Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse: The King of Cleaners

“…and today we’re talking about a fish that enjoys working at the carwash. More on that later.”

When you run a lucrative maritime cleaning service, you gotta protect your turf. The dominant bluestreak cleaner wrasse defends its territory, its business, and its family on a daily basis. But when the don disappears, it’s up to one of his leading ladies to fill his shoes. But being willing to fill any role is part of surviving here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 172 – Bighorn Sheep: Nature’s Hard Hats

“…and today we’re talking about the mountain lamb that the Lord provided. Literally, because it’s just a wild sheep.”

If you’re in America’s western snow capped regions and you hear a sudden crack that echoes through mountains, it might not be thunder. If that cracking continues at periodic intervals for close to an hour, you may be listening to a clash of titans. No, it’s not Greek deities battling atop Olympus. Its two rival sheep showing eachother what they’re made of in a test of strength and endurance. But sometimes victory means using your head in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • They are classified as sheep (in the genus Ovis) but they look a lot like goats (from the genus Capra)
  • Their wool/fur is short despite living in colder regions up north
  • Their coats are brownish-grey with a streak of white on their tush, legs, and snoots
  • Outside of that, the eponymous horns that the males have are large and curved, stemming from just above their eyes and swirling around their ears, coming to a sharp point alongside their snouts. 

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro this week.

  1. Bighorn Sheep
  2. Pronghorn
  3. Impala 
  4. Springbok

Male Length

  • 1.6–1.85 m (63–73 in) long
  • How many bighorns go into the height of Mount Elbert in Colorado?
  • Hint: Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest peak, and it’s the second highest peak in the US mainland. It’s second to Mount Whitney in California. It’s 14 overall with the rest of the highest peaks in Alaska.
  • 2,373.6 sheep. The mountain is 14,440 ft (4401.2 m).

Male Weight

  • 58–143 kg (128–315 lb)
  • How many bighorns go to the combined weight of the largest gathering of people dressed in gorilla costumes, assuming every single one is the average American weight?
  • Hint: Colorado holds this record for the Denver Gorilla Run 5k race, which was organized by the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund. 
  • 619 sheep. 1,061 recorded participants at an average of 184 pounds equalling 195,224 pounds.

Fast Facts about the Bighorn Sheep

  • 3 different subspecies
    • Rocky Mountain
    • Sierra Nevada
    • Desert
  • Diet: Like all bovines, they graze on grasses and plants.
  • Behavior: 
  • Predation:
    • Coyotes, bobcats, foxes, wolverines, jaguars, ocelots, lynxes, eagles, bears, wolves, mountain lions
  • They can easily catch pneumonia from asymptomatic domestic sheep and it can kill upwards of 90% of a population of bighorns
  • When courting a potential mate, a ram will use one of three strategies to win fair lady’s heart:
    • Tending: Following and defending a ewe
    • Coursing: Fighting for a ewe that already has someone tending her
    • Blocking: Stopping a ewe from going to places where tending rams are prowling
  • There is an Apsaalooka (Crow) tribal legend that a man was rescued by a herd of bighorn sheep after his dad pushed him off a cliff. The man called himself Big Metal and became the leader of the sheep, who gave him supernatural strength, wisdom, sharp eyes and ears, and sure-footedness.

Major Fact: Thick Headed

Bighorns can deliver a headbutt at 35 mph with enough power to instantly kill a human being. The impact of two males butting heads can be heard from a mile away. In fact, the impact generated by two sparing bighorns is the most force created by any sheep species. It’s estimated that they can generate 3400 N of force in a single blow. 

That’s around 764 pounds of force that bighorn sheep take for hours. Estimates suggest that it could take around 551 pounds of force to break a human skull. Sorry GoT fans, the Mountain couldn’t really do it, but mountaineering bighorn sheep could.

Bighorns have large thick horns on the top of their heads. These are distinct from antlers, which are 100% made of bone. Horns are certain that surround a boney core. Antlers usually fall off and regrow regularly, but bighorn horns stick around.

These horns connect directly to the skull and there’s a thick layer of skull at the base of each horn. This skull base also has holes in it in a honey-comb pattern. While that may sound like it makes them less durable, it actually allows their skull to absorb more impact than solid bone. 

The proteins that form the keratin sheath grow faster on the outward forward facing edge, which is useful for creating extra padding in the impact zone, but it also gives the horn it’s signature curl. These horns can grow to be up to 40 pounds on a full grown male.

The closest things humans come to experiencing this is NFL football players. Big hits can potentially reach up to 970 pounds of force, spread over their entire bodies and mitigated by padding and falling over. Bighorn sheep do this hundreds of times in an afternoon with the force concentrated directly onto their heads with almost no give to mitigate the impact. Football players routinely experience concussions and other lifelong injures, but the bighorn can do this with no problems. 

Ending: So stick together, keep an eye out for predators, and keep your head down when defending your territory like the bighorn sheep here in LDT.

Episode 171 – Grey Butcherbird: This Singing Butcher

“…and today we’re talking about Yennefer of Vengerbird, the black and white songbird downunder. But more on that later.” 

If you’re out for a stroll in the wilds of Australia, Europe, or North America, you might stumble upon a peculiar and gruesome sight: the impaled victims of the butcherbird. Setting its sights on larger prey but lacking the strength to subdue it, the butcherbird uses its environment to its advantage when hunting. But, brutal or not, a bird’s gotta do what a bird’s gotta do to survive here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

The grey butcherbird has a black head, with a white neck and belly. Their shoulders are a slate grey with black wingtips and tail feathers. Young birds have a dark brown head with white streaks and are said to look a lot like a kingfisher. 

They’re shaped kind of like a crow with a proportionally longer beak. The beak also has a distinct hook on the end of it that you wouldn’t see in every passeriform. 

Males and females share similar colors but males are slightly larger. 

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro this week.

  1. Common Black Bird
  2. Malabar Whistling Thrush
  3. Bahama Mockingbird
  4. Grey Butcherbird

Wingspan 

  • They have a body length of up to 30 cm or 11.8 inches and a wingspan between 37–43 cm (14.6-16.9 in). 
  • How many grey butcherbird wingspans go into the tallest inflatable waterslide?
  • Hint: The tallest waterslide ever is called the Hybrid XL and it was made for a pop-up water park in Perth, Australia. It was made by the U.S. based company Freestyle Slides. 
  • 52.1 wingspans. The slide is 22.4 m (73.4 feet).

Weight

  • 90 grams (3.2 oz)
  • How many butcherbirds go into a jar of Elvish Honey that you could buy for $6,800?
  • Hint: Elvish Honey is natural wild honey that’s produced in a deep cave in Turkey. The cave is said to imbue the honey with special minerals that make the product more expensive than gold. 
  • 11 butcherbirds. Elvish Honey goes for about $6,800 per kilogram. 

Fast Facts

Even though they’re known as butchers, they’re actually very talented singers. They are known to be among the premier songbirds of Australia. Their songs contain both melodious whistles and harsh dissonant sounds. 

Each member of a territorial group participates in the same territorial song. They repeat each other’s songs in a given area to let other birds know the territory belongs to their group. Sharing the same song allows the birds to spread a tune farther than if a single bird sang, like lighting the beacons of Gondor. 

When a territorial group is performing, birds from other territories shut up and listen. Songs have been recorded lasting as much as 15 minutes. Individual members usually call and respond but sometimes overlap. 

The breed in pairs between July and January and both sexes share parenting duties. Both will feed hatchlings and defend the nest but the mother incubates eggs. They may nest in a variety of habitats including woodland, shrublands, rainforests, and even urban areas. 

They mostly eat insects and other animals but they’ll sometimes eat seeds. In some cases, they’ll eat other smaller birds and vertebrates. 

Major Fact: Penchant for Poking

Butcherbirds are birds that are known for a specific and brutal style of hunting.

They aren’t all related taxonomically though. Many butcherbirds are in the shrike order of birds. I’ve seen the shrikes in South Africa. The ones in Australia, however, are more closely related to magpies.

But butcherbirds of all types practice a common predator hunting method called “sally pouncing”, which involves flying straight into prey, grabbing it with its beak, and flying back to its perch. They’ll mainly go for insects, but they’ll also eat lizards, frogs, and even mice as big as they are.

Lots of birds use the sally pounce, but where raptors have strong legs and talons to grab and carry off prey, the butcherbird has the dainty feet of a passerine, so it needs a different strategy for larger prey.

It will clamp its beak down on the spinal cord of the animal to paralyze it. After that, it will shake the prey around like a dog to break its neck.

Then, they’ll often find a nice, quiet place to impale their prey like a thorn or branch. This acts as a larder, or a place to store food. The butcherbird can come back later to eat and it makes it easier to eat as well. It is also a way for males to attract mates with a scrumptious offering.

So you can tell when a butcherbird is nearby when you see the impaled bodies of its victims on display around thorny bushes. Kinda like a mad-max scene.

Ending: So sally-pounce whenever you get the chance, sing a rollicking duet, and keep your food impaled where you can always find it like the grey butcherbird here in LDT.

Episode 170 – Gorilla: Strong of Heart

“…and today we’re talking about the biggest and the strongest primate in the world.”

The largest primate in the world is also the strongest. In fact, the eastern lowland gorilla is among the strongest animals pound for pound. Their size and strength has led to their depiction as classic monsters that Superman and Godzilla need to contend with. But though they seem to be the ultimate primal savage, that may not be the most accurate picture of our jungle friends. With one look into their soulful, knowing eyes, you may think twice about their demeanor in real Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of the Gorilla

  • Basically your standard gorilla.
  • Gorillas are large, humanoid beasts with large heads, broad shoulders, long arms, stubby legs, and tiny ears.
  • They’re covered head to toe in black fur except for their faces, hands, and feet. Some variants have patches of reddish-brown fur.
    • However, silverback males have a large patch of greyish fur on their backs and haunches.
  • They have heavy brows, close-set eyes, and a jaw that protrudes out with wide, flat nostrils.
  • Their feet have opposable thumbs as well as their hands, allowing them to grasp things just as easily with their feet.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro this week.

A) Capuchin Monkey

B) European Green Toad

C) Galago (Bush baby)

D) Giant Salamander

Height

  • Males can stand up to 5.5 feet (1.6 meters).
  • How many gorillas go into the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s tallest building?
  • Hint: The Nabema Tower is located in Brazzaville and it’s named after the country’s tallest mountain which stands at 3,346 feet. It makes Architectural Digest’s list of ugliest skyscrapers in the world, though I think it’s interesting looking. 
  • 63.2 gorillas. The tower is 347.7 feet (106 metres)

Weight

  • Their stocky builds and heavy mass make eastern lowland gorillas the largest primates in the world at 460 lbs (210 kilograms).
  • How many worker termites would a gorilla have to eat to eat its weight in termites?
  • Hint: A termite queen can weigh 30 times the weight of a typical worker. Winged alate termites are also heavier than a worker.
  • 233,333,333 termite workers. A worker termite weighs around 0.9 milligrams. 

Fast Facts about the Gorilla

Range

A small patch of jungle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in sub-Saharan Africa.

Diet

I bet you think they eat bananas don’t you? But they don’t! They’ll actually tear banana trees apart to get at the inside of the tree. Mostly they eat plants and fruit but they’ll also eat insects – as evidenced by the time Tarzan used Tantor’s trunk to blow all the termites out of their mounds for the gorillas to eat while Phil Collins sang about coming of age. They don’t really need to drink water because all their food is so saturated with water.

Behavior

Like other apes, gorillas are known to be incredibly smart – for animals. They often use tools like sticks and rocks to interact with the world around them. They can use sticks to gauge the depth of water before crossing. They also use rocks to crack open nuts. They can also learn sign language.

There’s just the best video of Robin Williams interacting with a gorilla named Koko and they got in what can only be described as the perfect tickle fight. She also took his glasses and put them on and stole his wallet.

There’s another video of her talking to Mr. Rogers and they burp in each other’s faces – but in a good way. They can live as long as 60 years in captivity.

Major Fact: Fight or Fright?

The strongest animals pound for pound are dung beetles, rhino beetles, leafcutter ants, and gorillas.

Gorillas are as much as 9 times as strong as a typical human being and they can lift around 10 times their own body weight. That’s the equivalent of the average human lifting a small car. 

They routinely show feats of strength by lifting logs, ripping plants out of the ground, rolling stones with ease. Because of their bulky size, large canine teeth, and aggressive territorial displays, they’re often depicted as the ultimate primordial big bad savage. But that may not be the full picture. 

So what is their immense strength for?

A Family Ape

Silverback gorillas are the biggest and strongest of all gorillas and they usually rise to the top of family groups. Black black males are younger and smaller and they form the rear guard of family groups, waiting in the back to make sure nothing is stalking the fam. 

Silverbacks are actually gentle fathers, able to temper their strength to play with young gorillas. Like human toddlers, rough play helps them learn the appropriate applications of strength in social settings. 

Unlike chimpanzees and some other apes that are true omnivores, gorillas are rarely meat eaters. Instead, they eat mostly vegetation, fruit, and insects. They have large canines and a bite force of 1,300 psi, which is about twice the bite force of a lion. In fact, it’s very similar to a hyena’s bite force. Despite this, it’s used to munch on tough plants rather than prey animals. 

Careful Application of Strength

The closest they come to using their full strength is when they fight other rival males to protect the family group or for mating rights. When a male reaches silverback status, they’ll leave their family group to attract females of their own. If they have other males to compete with, it may come to blows. 

However, with all that strength, fights between rival males often leave both injured or mortally wounded. They avoid other groups and are very slow to engage in conflict. But they are very territorial, but they’d rather solve conflict with territorial displays rather than a fight. 

A recent study found that they have some very human-like territorial behaviors. They have nuanced territorial behaviors. Instead of having strict boundaries that they’ll defend to the death like chimpanzees, they have loose territories and shared spaces with other groups. The center of a families territory may be strictly defended but the outer areas may be shared with other groups. 

Males will beat their chests, scream, bare their teeth, and use false charges to scare off rivals before engaging in violence. They may also use branches to shake at intruders to increase noise and threatening movements. 

Even though they rarely have to use their full strength and have high vegetable diets, their immense strength comes from genetics. Mammals tend to be larger, not because of predators, but because of mating and competition. Since the spoils go to the strongest, males have grown to be big despite their gentle natures. Their size and strength displays alone may be enough to win a contest. 

Ending: So chill out with your family, eat your leafy greens, and make sure you’re strong enough to pull the ears off a gungar like the gorilla here in LDT.

Episode 169 – Tuatara: This is Not a Lizard

“…and today we’re talking about something that looks just like an iguana but it’s apparently not a lizard at all.”

Scattered along the northern coast of New Zealand’s north island is a living fossil that was thought to be extinct: the tuatara. A laid-back lizard with a lazy lifestyle, the tuatara spends most of its time getting some sweet vitamin D in the sun and using the introspective sight of its peculiar third eye. But having insight can help with more than just character development here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 168 – Meerkat: A Mongoose Most Foul

“…and today we’re talking about a mongoose most foul. But more on that later.” 

The savannah is a brutal place for the animals that call it home. Between lions, leopards, and hyenas, many of the mammals that populate Africa’s jungles and plains are built with sharp claws and powerful jaws. But when it comes to violence against an animal’s own kind, researchers have found that these big fearsome predators aren’t the most murderous. Instead, a small, unassuming species of mongoose accept this grim accolade. But what makes the meerkat so deadly? It’s a fact that shows that nature is sometimes cruel in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.