Episode 254 – Pelican Eel: Sea Shovel

“…and today we’re talking about a big-mouthed, deep-living, inflatable tube man. But more on that later.”

Americans have just enjoyed a holiday of abundance. Many of us have funneled turkey into our gobblers with mirth and glee. But what if you lived in a place where food was less abundant. That’s where the spirit of thankfulness comes in. At the bottom of the sea, the pelican eel really does become a funnel to make the most of the marine snow that trickles down from above. But this year, we can all be thankful that we don’t live in the deep ocean for our entire Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 253 – Red-Sided Garter Snake: Tying the Knot

“…And today we’re talking about an American noodle of many varieties. But more on that later.”

The Manitoban city of Narcisse is a small, quaint place with not much tourism for most of the year. However, for a few days of every spring, the ground erupts in a slithering mass of red-sided garter snakes. Why do these living noodles get together in such massive numbers? What are they doing for so long underground? Well, not surprisingly, it’s all about surviving long enough to pass along those genes. It is, after all, the true meaning of Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Garter Snake

  • Common garter snakes are long thin noodles.
  • Most have multicolored stripes that run the length of their bodies from head to tail.
  • Common garter snakes come in several colors, including green, blue, yellow, gold, red, orange, brown, and black.

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!

Length

  • Up to four feet long
  • How many garter snakes go into the height of the tallest tier in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?
  • Hint: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are among the seven wonders of the ancient world. The gardens were built on a stepped pyramid shaped building, covered in plants and vegetation. The gardens were said to be a gift from King Nebuchadnezzar II to his wife Queen Amytis of Media. Media was a green, mountainous country and she was sick of the flat plains of Babylon. So he built her a mountain. 
  • 18.75 snakes. The uppermost gallery was described as 50 cubits high (75 feet).

Weight 

  • 5 ounces
  • How many garter snakes go into the weight of the Big Bud 16V-747 when it is fully ballasted?
  • Hint: The Big Bud 16V-747 is the biggest tractor ever. The top of the cab is 14 feet high. Ballast is usually a liquid or foamy material that’s used to fill the tire to add weight, which increases traction and cuts down on horsepower imbalance. 
  • 432,000 snakes. Big Bud weighs 135,000 pounds.

Fast Facts about the Garter Snake

Habitat

Garter snakes are found in forests, fields, prairies, streams, wetlands, meadows, marshes, and ponds–often found near water. 

Range

Geographically, they are found as far south as the southernmost tip of Florida and as far north as Canada’s Northwest territories. 

Diet

They eat frogs, newts, earthworms, leeches, slugs, fish, lizards, crustaceans, and insects.

Other Facts

Garter snake bites aren’t dangerous to humans, but their bite can cause itching and irritation. They don’t have fangs like a viper, but many garter snake species have very small teeth. 

Their saliva has a mild venom that can be toxic to small prey species. 

Some subspecies ooze a stinky liquid when they are threatened.

They are resistant to poisons that might kill a human, including the toxic poisons found on toads and newts.

Major Fact: Tying the Knot (10,000 Snakes in their Dens)

With Thanksgiving coming up, many of us are prepping for large family gatherings – you ain’t got nothin on this snake though, even though its biggest gatherings happen in Canada where they’re apparently not thankful for anything.

Each year, the red-sided garter snake migrates to the Inner Lake of Manitoba, near Winnipeg, creating the largest gathering of snakes in the world.

In an area known as the Narcisse Snake Dens, some 70,000 snakes come to nest in the clefts of the rocks. That scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is dropped in that pit of snakes? Yeah that’s more than fiction in Manitoba.

As long as you’re not squeamish around snakes, I highly recommend the Nat Geo video covering it. Seeing that many snakes all together in one pit is fascinating.

The reason they congregate like this is that they’re cold-blooded reptiles living in Canada. Temperatures can reach down to -50F, colder than the surface of Mars. This is definitely cold enough to kill any animal that needs to manually regulate its body temperature.

That’s why you almost never see snakes outside of the tropics or subtropics. So they brumate, the reptile version of hibernating just without the sleeping part. For reptiles, it’s as much about maintaining body temperature as it is about slowing metabolism to conserve energy.

These snakes brumate inside of sinkholes made in the limestone that allows them to hang out below the frost line.

Since there are only a few sinkholes that are large and deep enough to act as dens, all the snakes in the area need to congregate at just four locations, each den being about the size of a living room but housing tens of thousands of snakes.

All of them wriggling around apparently sounds like wind rushing through trees loudly. It would be like a giant looking down at a small college football stadium filled to capacity.

They also mate in the spring once they come back up out of their dens. Females are larger and less numerous than males (1:100), so the males need to navigate an ocean of writhing angel hair pasta to find one pasta strand that’s slightly larger than the rest. 

Using pheromones, they’ll track down a female. Sometimes so many males pile onto one female that they can tumble down slopes in a big mating ball.

The goal for the males is literally to irritate her until she opens up a gland to spray a repellant odor that also leaves her open to mate.

This area was actually the site of one of Manitoba’s first labor strikes. The workers at a construction site refused to continue working until these massive snake dens were cleared.

There’s even a giant statue of two garter snakes named Sara and Sam.

The u-haul I saw this on called it one of the largest gatherings of vertebrates in the world, but Adelie penguins have colonies of up to half a million.

Ending: So stay warm, don’t neglect to gather together, and irritate your females like the red-sided garter snake here in LDT.

Episode 252 – Silverfish: Real Bookworms

“…and today we’re talking about a bookworm. Literally, but also not literally. More on that later.”

In the dark of an academy library, a shining silverfish ponders some of life’s greatest questions, like, “what is a tastier snack, the pages of War and Peace or its bindings?” A true scholar, the silverfish must test his hypothesis before making any definitive judgements. You and I don’t have the stomach for such studies, but expanding your palate is a great way to experience Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 251 – Mossy Frog: Who’s the Dummy Now?

“…and today we’re talking about moss that grows fat on a rolling toad. But more on that later.”

Whether you’re a hungry predator or just a curious researcher, finding yourself a Vietnamese Mossy Frog isn’t going to be easy. They’re not only in the Disguisee family, but they can also deceive you with just their adorable little ribbit, leaving you to run around in circles, chasing your proverbial or literal tail, never to find found. But throwing your heart, skin, and voice into your getup is what being a master of disguise looks like here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 250 – Common Spotted Cuscus: A Claimed Staked

“…and today we are talking about an animal that stands for what they believe in. But more on that later.”

What do you do when you’ve saved the last slice of cake but there are other hungry eyes with thoughts of treachery. Anyone with siblings knows that you have to stake your claim quickly. Licking or taking a bite of the sugary delight is enough to deter most shifty sisters and betraying brothers. The common spotted cuscus doesn’t guard baked goods. Rather, he has to guard his territory. But that doesn’t stop him from using this familiar strategy in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 249 – Sperm Whale: Monstrous Maestro

“…and today we’re talking about a deep diving jelly-headed leviathan. But more on that later.”

Deep in the water where the fish hang out lives a massive tanky mammal with a quite impressive shout. 

This blockheaded blubber boi is looking for a fight, he uses his ticks and tricks to hunt with little light.

But piercing the eardrums of every nearby fish, allows him to eat up all the squid that he could wish.

He’s big, he’s belligerent and noisy as can be, but it’s just how you live in Life Death and Taxonomy.

Episode 248 – Marabou Stork: Enter the Undertaker

“…And today we’re talking about a dastardly death–hunter, but more on that later.”

The African savannah is a place where many fall to powerful predators and environmental challenges. While the dangers are many, the continent has an undertaker ready to go to work. The Marabou stork is a sinister looking bird that wears a black cloak of wings. Where disaster strikes it is soon to follow. In nature, a bust can be a boon if you know how to make the most of Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 247 – Chinese Giant Salamander: Skin Deep

“…and today we’re talking about an animal whose official name violated the order force rule of grammar and I hate that. But more on that later.”

The rivers in China are home to one of the largest salamanders—nay, one of the largest amphibians—in the world. Blending in with the rocks that line the riverbeds, the Chinese Giant Salamander spends its entire life beneath the rushing waters. This long-lived wriggle monster can breathe, see, and even heal itself using nothing but its unique skin. It just goes to show that skincare can sometimes be a matter of Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 246 – Tailorbird: A Rivet Run Through It

“…and today we’re talking about a bird that sings a song which is soft but it’s clear, as if maybe someone could hear. But more on that later.”

Sewing is a human tradition that is as old as the shame of Adam and Eve. What started as a way to protect yourself from the elements and embarrassment has become a cultural touchstone all over the world. But human textiles and tapestries aren’t the only examples of sewing in nature. A tiny tailor lives in tropical Asia, sewing its heart out for hearth and home. But perfecting a skill is a noble pursuit in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Common Tailorbird

  • Small, finch-shaped bird with a long kingfisher-esque beak – similar to a stubby sandpiper.
  • Not a ton of sexual dimorphism here. Both males and females have pale green backs with white bellies and red tufts on their crowns. 
  • They have wiry pink legs with a long green tail.
  • They also have black patches under their necks that is more visible when they sing. But these are actually black patches of bare skin rather than a tuft of feathers.

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 from Melissa.

Length 

  • 10 to 14 centimeters (3.9 to 5.5 in)
  • How many tailorbirds go into the length of the t-shirt made by Plastindia Foundation in 2018?
  • Hint: The t-shirt was made from 200,000 plastic bottles and features a green and white striped pattern.
  • 693 birds. The shirt was 96.86 m (317.78 ft) long.

Weight

  • 6 to 10 grams (0.21 to 0.35 oz)
  • How many tailorbirds go into the weight of Fantasy by Gail Be, the world’s largest beaded wedding dress.
  • Hint: I discovered this dress looking for heavy fabrics because of the tailoring/ sewing theme. Ironically, this dress has no thread at all. It’s all beads. The dress’s train is more than 20 feet long. The dress has more than seven miles of beading wire and more than a million beads.
  • 18,285.7 tailorbirds. The dress is more than 400 lbs.

Fast Facts about the Common Tailorbird

  • Range: They live all over the place in south and southeast Asia including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all the way to China and into Indonesia.
  • Diet: They eat a variety of bugs and beetles but they also enjoy fruit and nectar from flowers.
  • Behavior: After breeding, the female will lay a clutch of about 3 eggs that will take a fortnight to hatch and another fortnight for the chicks to fledge
    • Tailorbirds are easy targets for the cuckoo bird’s brood parasitism

Major Fact: Sewing, Soaring, and Snoring

Common tailorbirds actually sew. Like for real. While they are actual seamstresses, they aren’t actually tailors, since they aren’t out there making tiny suits and dresses. 

Instead, the sew for nesting purposes. 

First, the female will find a suitable leaf for nesting. The leaf has to be large and fresh, able to bend without breaking. She’ll use her feet to wrap the leaf around her to test its size.

When she finds a good candidate, she’ll use her slender beak to puncture holes around the edge of the leaf. The holes are so small that they don’t damage the leaf or cause it to brown. 

Next, she’ll find fine fibers to fill the fissures. They’ll use spider silk, cotton fibers, caterpillar cocoons, and lint as thread. Thread joins holes together. The tailorbird isn’t tying knots, but the course threads grip the elastic, supple leaves without coming undone. 

Nests also include a roof that provides shade and rain protection. 

In some cases, nests are made from a one, large leaf that is sewn to itself. But if she can’t find a large enough leaf, she’ll sew several together. 

Ending: So eat a delicious beetle, don’t forget to add a light drizzle of nectar, and stitch yourself a house like the tailorbird here in LDT.

Episode 245 – North American Beaver: Great Beaver Bombing

“…Today we’re talking about some rodents that make darns out of their own food. But more on that later.”

If you look up into the sky and see a box parachuting toward you, it could be a Call of Duty care package, a cargo cult’s answered prayer, or a mid-century beaver relocation project. As humans encroached on the territory of the North American Beaver, we found that these slap-happy rodents are more difficult to move than you might think. But one intrepid employee of Idaho’s Fish and Game Department was given some money, a few parachutes, and way too many green lights to solve the problem. But sometimes you gotta drop your problems into the middle of nowhere here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the North American Beaver

  • Beavers are large thick-furred and thick-bodied rodents. 
  • They are almost always brown.
  • They have broad heads with beady little eyes.
  • Their front teeth are extremely large and durable, constantly growing. 
  • Beavers have a famously flat tail that they will slap the water with to communicate. 
  • They also have webbed feet that make them adept swimmers. 

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 from Melissa.

Body Length

  • 74–90 cm (29–35 in)
  • How many Beavers go into the length of the Fort Peck Dam in the Missouri River?
  • Hint: The Fort Peck Dam is the largest in the U.S. by volume with 125,628,000 cu yards of water. It was built by the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s.
  • 7,208.9 beavers. The dam is 21,026 ft (6,409 m) long.

Weight

  • 20 kg (44 lb)
  • How many buckets of bacon grease, available at Buc-ees, goes into the weight of a beaver?
  • Hint: Buc-ees is a Texas based convenience store where everything is bigger. You can buy all kinds of things from buc-ees, including jerky from about a 20 foot jerky counter, deer feeders, BBQ brisket, tents, Beaver nuggets, and savory beaver nuggets called Buc-ees Nuggees.
  • 6 buckets. You can buy a 7.3 pound bucket of bacon grease. 

Fast Facts about the North American Beaver

Beavers live in North America from Mexico to Canada. They were once more ubiquitous than they are now, but the fur trade caused their numbers to drop dramatically between the 17th and 19th century. Beaver populations were saved when people stopped being interested in fur hats.

Beavers are semi-aquatic and spend a ton of time in the water and on land. They are probably most famous for building dams or lodges, which are aquatic structures made of wood. 

Beavers eat wood, which is something that sounds like a myth but is actually true. They also eat all kinds of vegetation, including leaves, tigs, inner bark, and shoots. Their strong incisors are capable of chomping down trees, which they use to construct dams.They also use rocks, mud, and vegetation. 

Beavers are sent into a building and repair frenzy if they hear the sound of trickling water. Researchers tested this by playing a recording of trickling water in the middle of a dry field, which the beavers covered with sticks and mud. The largest dam ever discovered was 2,790 ft (850 m) long.

Watching beavers do this is adorable. 

Dams are built to maintain high water levels in an area, which floods surrounding woodlands and gives beavers more access to food sources. Beavers can move around on land just fine, but they are much faster in the water. They also dig channels that lead further into the woods from their ponds.

Beavers will carry fresh branches to their lodges and stick them in the mud deep under the dam. In winter, the surface of the pond freezes and preserves vegetation to be eaten through the winter. Because of this method, beavers don’t need to hibernate. 

A beaver lodge also contains a dry nesting chamber above the waterline. The entrance to the lodge is underwater, and difficult to access for many of the beavers’ most common predators. Winter causes snow and ice to cover the lodge creating a warm igloo-like chamber. 

They secrete a chemical from their butts that smells just like vanilla and is an FDA-approved natural vanilla flavoring in food.

Up until the 11th century, many people believed an ancient Egyptian myth that beavers knew that hunters were after the castoreum oil in their testicles and would gnaw them off. However, their bucky’s nuggies are inside their bodies and no one has ever seen a healthy beaver do this.

Major Fact: The Great Beaver Bombing of 1948

In 1948, beavers were a major problem for people in Idaho, so the state packed them into boxes and dropped them into the remote Chamberlain Basin from airplanes using old parachutes from WWII.

A Popular Mechanics article from 1949 had some baffling things to say about it.

First, they said that they couldn’t load them into a truck and drive them to the new location because “the animals often perished because they were kept away from water too long”

But beavers aren’t like axolotls, they don’t need to be covered in water to survive.

They do need to drink water, but that’s true of pretty much every animal. So I think a better solution would have been to drive them over and give them water to drink. You know, take care of the animals you’re trying to take care of.

However, a 2015 from the Boise State Public Radio mentions that the Basin is in what is now known as the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, which is a protected forest. So there weren’t really any drivable roads, even to this day, which meant that transporting the beavers would require horses or mules.

The problem is that horses and mules get easily spooked by beavers for some reason, so it wasn’t really viable to haul the beavers several days into the River of No Return.

Secondly, the 1949 Popular Mechanics article talks about how a skilled mountain pilot needs to drop the boxes of beavers a few hundred feet above the ground and try to get them as close to a stream as possible.

It mentioned that a male and female are planted close together so they can start a family but I couldn’t find how the beavers got out of their boxes once they landed.

Like the aquarium fish in Finding Nemo

The Boise Radio article had an answer for this one too. Turns out, Beavers like to eat wood – like they really like to eat wood. And when eating their favorite thing coincides with gaining their freedom, a wooden box was no match. 

Like you being trapped in a Kinder Egg or a Flavor-Blasted Goldfish.

The beavers would start to eat their way out immediately and they didn’t want that happening while they were in the plane or, say, on their way to the ground like the whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

So the guy they pegged to solve this issue, Elmo Heter, designed a special box that was weighted to break on impact.

But he needed to test it. So he found an old male beaver, named him Geronimo, put him in the box, and dropped him over and over again.

Here is a quote from Elmo “Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.”

His reward was that he was the first beaver to be dropped into the River of No Return with three plucky female beavers. Like if Adam had been a Mormon.

Fortunately, only one beaver in 76 died during this insane beaver bombing.

Overall, everyone seems to consider this a success. Elmo said in his report, Transplanting Beavers: “The savings in man hours, and in the mortality of animals, is quite evident. Sex ratios are maintained. The beavers are healthier, and in better condition to establish a colony.”

Ending: So build your house upon the rock, don’t bite off your Bucky’s Nuggies beaver bits, and parachute into your own polygamous Eden like Geronimo the beaver here in LDT.