Episode 162 – Desert Locust: Ruin on the Breeze

“…and today we’re talking about a deadly insect that’s carried on the winds of change. But more on that later.”

Many animals have amazing abilities that make them especially ferocious and formidable. But few are so terrible and mighty that they can be classified as a natural disaster. No we’re not talking about a giant nuclear lizard. We’re talking about an insect so ravenous in disposition and so immense in its numbers that it strikes fear into the hearts of those in its path. The desert locust is proof that the balance of nature can shift with the wind. A breeze can be a welcome respite from the blazing sun, but it may also carry disaster in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

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 new intro from our friend Natalie. She has a cool podcast called Across the Ages in which she talks about a specific topic and its history!

Length

  • 0.5 to 3 inches (7.6 cm)
  • How many desert locusts go into the tallest sand dunes in the world?
  • Hint: The largest sand dune is Duna Frederico Kirbus in Argentina.
  • Answer: 16,184 desert locust. The dune is 4,035 ft (1,230 m).

Weight

  • 2 grams (.07 ounces)
  • How many grains of rice would a locust have to eat to eat it’s weight in rice?
  • Hint: Rice is a major crop all over the world, including East Africa. 
  • 69 grains. A grain of rice is 0.029 grams.

Fast Facts About the Desert Locust

  • Range: They live in deserts across Africa, Arabia, and into West and Southern Asia (the stans).
  • Diet: They eat anything green. Everything from grass to trees to crops to shrek, to ireland – nothing is sacred, nothing is safe.
  • Behavior: 
    • They have three major stages in their life cycle – egg, nymph (hopper), and adult.
    • Once they hatch, a hopper can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to mature into a flying adult. It all depends on the weather and availability of food.
    • Males tend to mature earlier and then start giving off a chemical smell that gets the females to mature

Major Fact: A Plague of Locusts

Desert locust swarming behavior has been observed for thousands of years. In the Bible, it’s associated with God’s wrath and in the book of Joel, a locust swarm is compared to an invading army in the totality of its destructive power. 

“At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. They charge like warriors; They scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course.” –Joel 2:6-7

Desert locusts are a species of grasshopper. Most of the time, they act like any grasshopper would. They hop around, eat leaves, and look for a mate. For the most part, they don’t spend too much time together, only coming together to procreate. This is called their solitary phase. But something strange happens when the weather changes. 

During a period of drought, vegetation is choked out and food becomes scarce. When that drought is interrupted by excessive rains, something changes in the locust. The sudden increase in water creates a breeding boom. New greenery becomes the object of intense competition among grasshoppers. They enter their gregarious phase. The change they go through isn’t just behavioral, they even look different. 

A Change is Triggered

Solitary hoppers are green or brown, depending on their surroundings. The winged adults tend to fly at night to avoid predation. When they enter the gregarious phase. Instead of blending in with their surroundings, they change to a bold black and yellow coloration. This may be an adaptation from camouflage to pattern disruption as they clump together in groups. The change also makes them ravenous. The millions of new grasshoppers all want to eat their fill, so each individual wants to eat as much as they can sink their mouth parts into. 

With new bold colors, they adapt new bold attitudes. The adults take to the skies in broad daylight in swarms that can blot out the sun. Swarms travel with the wind at the same speed as the wind. So instead of flying off in different directions to spread out their destruction, they’re concentrated onto the farms and fields downwind. Nymphs, which look like adults but have no wings, can march in huge swarms about 7 kilometers each day. As adults, they can travel 150 kilometers in a day and a swarm can have 150 million locust per square kilometer. In a single kilometer, there are enough desert locusts to circumnavigate the moon. Each square kilometer can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 people. A swarm can be as large as 460 square miles (1191.39 square kilometers).

The Current Crisis

There’s currently a locust crisis happening in East Africa that’s devastating crops in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Sudan. The origins are thought to be an abnormal amount of tropical cyclones that dumped rain onto the Rub’ Al Khali Desert, starting in 2018. Sand dunes separated thousands of lakes for the first time in 20 years. The cyclones created extreme flooding all over the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. The unusual desert weather triggered a desert locust population boom and a gregarious phase. 

In 2020, massive swarms threaten food production in regions that were already struggling with food shortage. COVID-19 has hampered attempts to get ahead of the hoppers, making 2020 seem like actual biblical plagues in the places that experienced storms, floods, locust, and the pandemic. Food shortage destabilizes the area, leading to unrest and violence. 

Researchers have found ways to curb the locust swarms by tapping into their own chemical communications. They may have identified a single chemical that turns solitary locusts into gregarious ones and attracts them together. That may allow them to set traps baited with this chemical. There may also be a way to chemically confuse the locust in their nymph stage, in order to break up swarms. But it needs to be done before they take flight and the best way to do that is to find egg clusters, which are laid in soft soil. 

Currently, a second generation has hatched and they’re forming small immature swarms in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Small swarms of adults are forming in Sudan. Hopper bands have been seen in Saudi Arabia and along the Red Sea. 

Ending: So get together, change your colors, and feast your heart out like the desert locust here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 161 – Tasmanian Devil: The Devil Down Under

“…and today we’re talking about the devil down under and his horrifying night time death screams.”

Far from the reckless, neckless monstrosity that Warner Brothers uses to move their cartoon plots along, the real Tasmanian Devil is a semi-cute mongoose pig that will eat anything that comes across its path. From its brutal and competitive birth to its habit of sumo wrestling its neighbors for food, this little carnivore lives the austere, battle-hardened life of a Viking or a Spartan. But ferocity and selfishness seem to go a long way when it comes to surviving in the wilds of Tasmania here on Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian devil looks like a little black bear with a big rat head and weasel’s fluffy tail. They’re mostly black or brown with a patch of white that runs along their chest and one that runs along their butts above the tail.

These little devils have large heads with jaws to match. Their gaping maws look like they were who the inventor of the club sandwich was cooking for when they came up with that unwieldy lunch. 

They look like they could fit in with racoons and rodents, but of course, like many Australian mammals, they’re in the pouch gang.

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 new intro from our friend The Wizard Gandalf.

Body Length

  • 652 mm (25.7 in)
  • How many tasmanian devils go into the distance between tasmania and the australian mainland?
  • Hint: Tasmania is south of Victoria, Australia. Australia is actually made up of six states and 10 territories.
  • Answer: 369,805 devils. Tasmania is 240 km (150 mi) south of Australia. 

Weight

  • 8 kg (18 lb)
  • How many Tasmanian devils go into the weight of the Arve Giant?
  • Hint: In 2019, Tasmania experienced brush fires that took out some of the largest flowering trees in the world. In January of 2019, one of the largest was a tree called the Arve Giant was destroyed. The tree was a gum tree of the species Eucalyptus globulus.
  • Answer: 28,555 Tasmanian devils. The tree had a mass of 233 tonnes (257 US tons).

Fast Facts About the Tasmanian Devil

These little devils, of course, hail from the Island of tasmania. They used to live on the mainland but they were pushed out by competition from humans and dingos. 

Tasmanian devils enjoy the crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyles, preferring to spend their days, lounging around in holes and bushes. They do this to avoid predation from large birds of prey and other predators. I’ve seen some conflicting things about their ability to climb. I’ve read that juvenile devils may climb trees to escape predation but adults aren’t as confident arborealists. But also that they have longer forelimbs on average, expressly for the purpose of climbing. 

Tasmanian devils are so named because Europeans that came to Tasmania shuddered at the horrifying sounds they made through the night and attributed the sounds to a devil in the dark. 

The Biggest Little Predator

The fact that they’re relatively small, they’re the largest carnivorous mammals on Tasmania, and they’re the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world.

These little carnivores have a bite that lives up to their terror tones. In fact, their bite is the strongest relative to body size among mammals. This allows them to crunch down on the bones of their prey. Rightfully so, because they leave no scraps behind when they find a meal.

Despite their death screams and bone crushing bite, they’re relatively mild mannered and prefer to scavenge meals. But they do become very aggressive and loud when threatened. Though, they can bring down prey like small vertebrates and bugs.

Road Roamers

They’re often found along roadways to take advantage of roadkill. 

They live solitary lifestyles, but they often come together around meals, like you and your distant relatives during the holidays. For some reason, when one finds a meal they scream so loud it attracts all the devils in the area. Before you go thinking this is an act of altruism, they tend to bite and scratch at each other while eating. Older devils are often covered in scars from years of fighting at every meal.

Perhaps, it’s because eating makes them vulnerable and a cacophony of screams and teeth deters predators.

Major Fact: The Devil You Know

If ever there were spartans in the animal kingdom, these guys would take the cake

They’re all lone rangers that seem bred for battle and survival of the fittest.

A female will give birth to up to 30 young in one litter, but she only has room to nurse 4 of them, so it’s instantly a race to see which four will latch on. Those that don’t latch die.

Once they leave the joey pouch after 100 days, they start their lives as ravenous meat eaters.

Anything’s Edible

They’ll eat just about anything, but they definitely mostly love all kinds of meat including:

  • Hunting prey like wombats, wallabies, rabbits, kangaroo joeys, and little marsupials like bettongs and potoroos. They also hunt birds, insects, fish, frogs, snakes, and lizards
  • Vegetable matter and fruits
  • Livestock young and weak. In what might be the most horrible thing ever, they’ll eat the legs of sheep whose feet slip through the wooden planks in their shearing sheds.
  • Roadkill and even buried animals. They’ll find dead cows, sheep, or horses that have been buried, eat out their intestines, and then hang out in the cavity to munch on the rest.

Tasmanian Mania

They’re not very fast, so they can’t just chase down healthy prey. They mainly go for weak, old, and injured prey. They also follow other predators to their kills and then scare them off with their unbridled ferocity. So what often happens is another faster predator like a quoll makes a kill, a juvenile will often come and scare off the quoll since they’re more active in early dusk. 

  • Then the unholy sound of them eating will attract older, more mature devils. 
  • The dominant males will scare off the juveniles and eat their fill. Then the others can eat.
  • The sound of a feeding frenzy can be heard over 7 miles away, so many devils might show up to the party.

Jaw Strength

Their jaw strength is 1200 lb per square inch, so they can eat absolutely everything including the bones of smaller mammals. So farmers sometimes like them as scavengers since dead animals are disposed of before disease and flies take hold. They’re like land piranhas. They’ll also bite themselves out of metal traps with their jaws.

They’ll also fight each other during feeding frenzies and for mates. They sometimes bite and scratch each other, but they also stand up on their haunches and push each other with their paws like little sumo wrestlers.

Ending: So be nice, take turns, and keep an eye out for your siblings unlike the Tasmanian devil.

Episode 160 – Venus’ Flower Basket: A Structure Like Steel

“…and today we’re talking about a coveted animal crossing catch. But not much more on that later.”

The sponge life is a simple one. With nowhere to go and no way to get there, a sponge needs to make the most of its surroundings. To protect against the current, sponges form skeletons out of whatever’s around them. For instance, if you’re surrounded by calcium, you may make a chalk skeleton. But what if all you have around you is sand? Venus’ flower basket finds itself in such a predicament. But making a strong skeleton out of a delicate substance is just it’s lot in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of Venus’ Flower Basket

  • These things don’t really look like your typical sea sponges.
  • They’re totally tubular, which isn’t uncommon among sponges. But they have a unique white lattice structure that makes them look like a fancy doily or a medieval horn made out of dryer lint.
  • Their bodies are long and curved
  • Here is how Wikipedia describes the lattice structure: “A syconoid type of canal system is present, where ostia communicate with incurrent canals, which communicates with radial canals through prosopyles (proso-piles) which, in turn, open into spongocoel (sponge-o-ko-el) and outside through osculum (oskullum).”
  • In any case, some speculate that it uses its own bioluminescence to attract plankton to it.

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 Measure Up intro this week, which means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. Eurasian Wolf
  2. Plains Wolf
  3. Arabian Wolf
  4. Arctic Wolf

Basket Length

  • 25 cm (10 inches)
  • How many of the Brookesia nana chameleons go into Venus’s Flower basket?
  • Hint: The chameleon was discovered in Madagascar and was first described this year in 2021. It may be the smallest reptile alive. 
  • 18.8 chameleons. The chameleon is just 13.5 mm.

Fiber Length

  • The glassy fibers that attach the basket to the seafloor are as thin as a hair and about 8 inches long. 
  • How many of these fibers go into the length of Dmitriy Donskoy, TK-208.
  • Hint: The sub is a typhoon class russian navy ship and it’s the largest submarine in the world.
  • 861 fibers. The ship is 175 meters (574 feet).

Fast Facts About the Venus’ Flower Basket

  • Range: They live at the bottom of the ocean near the Philippines up to 2500 meters (8,200 ft – over a mile and a half) below the surface.
  • Diet: They eat plankton filtered out of the ocean
  • The glass sponge shrimp often spends its entire life inside the VFB. 
    • A breeding pair will sometimes swim into the sponge when they’re small and feed off the plankton.
    • However, they will grow too large to leave the sponge’s lattice structure and will have to spend their entire lives inside.
    • Their offspring will be small enough to leave and find sponges of their own.
    • The shrimp clean the sponge and the sponge provides food and protection. 
    • The love story of these two trapped shrimp lovers has made the VFB a symbol of undying love in Japan. Dried specimens are often given as wedding gifts.

Major Fact: Unbreakable Glass

The venus flower basket is literally made of glass, or more accurately, silica. Sponges all have structural elements called specials that are the building blocks that form their bodies. These silica spicules form the unique look and shape of the Venus’s flower basket.

A glass tube sounds like it would be extremely delicate, but the sponge needs to withstand ocean currents, detritus, and the occasional bump from sea life. So, the structure of the basket is said to make it as strong as steel. How?

To understand how, researchers have looked very closely at the construction of the tube as a whole and at the spicules themselves. At the most basic level, each glass fiber is actually many layers of glass. Each layer is only micrometers thick, and can be just thicker than the width of a molecule. This is something we can’t ever reproduce with glass yet. 

Layered glass is much stronger and can absorb more force than a single layer of thick glass. That’s why hurricane and bullet proof glass has multiple layers. So the fibers are already extraordinarily intricate and strong. 

Looking at the basket, it seems like it has a wicker pattern, but it’s more like a criss cross of layered apertures. Each spicule is a cross that’s slightly skewed like an italicized X. As these crosses are layered, instead of forming perfect squares windows, they form circular openings. Circles are structurally more durable than squares. 

Humans have known that for a while, which is why the portholes on the sides of ships and submarines are round. Circles maintain the integrity of the ship’s holes while corners in window panes allow stress to concentrate in particular areas. 

On top of all this, there are ribs that run perpendicular to the base grid, which reinforce the overall structure. 

Here’s the interesting part. Every other port hole has an X that reinforces the opening. Why not every opening? Because of mathematics and engineering and stuff, adding more reinforcement, wouldn’t actually add any more structural integrity. It’s like reaching a level cap, you can put more points into structure but you’re just wasting resources. The sponge, one of the most primitive animals on earth, figured out how to maximize efficiency in creating a structurally sound skeleton. 

Dr. Peter Fratzl 3D printed plastic cylinders that were inspired by the flower basket’s design and found that its was an extremely efficient design. Light, minimal, and strong. The design may spire building designs in the future so as to maximize durability and minimize waste.

Episode 159 – Hummingbird Moth: The Master of Disguise

“…and today we’re talking about an animal that I could have sworn we did before but I can’t find it in our list!”

Avoiding becoming someone else’s meal is typically priority number one for most animals. While there are many different ways to live another day in the “eat or be eaten” kingdom of Animalia, those that use disguises are sometimes the most interesting. One large moth thinks this whole disguise thing has gone to the birds. But you gotta do what you gotta do to sip that nectar here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of the Hummingbird Moth

Hummingbird moths come in several colors but they’re usually a shade of green with a reddish color on their back. They may also have shades of yellow or white on their bellies. 

Hummingbird moths have a large body compared to their wingsize, which is the opposite for most moths and butterflies. They also have two large antennas that look like bunny ears because they’re covered in black, hair-like chitinous fibers.

Hummingbird moths have a long proboscis that curls in flight and extends to suck up nectar. 

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 Measure Up intro this week, which means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. Common kestrel
  2. Northern Goshawk
  3. Red Kite
  4. Sparrow Hawk

Wingspan

  • 4 to 5.5 centimetres (1.6 to 2.2 in)
  • How many clearwing hummingbirds go into the most expensive plane ever built?
  • Hint: The B2 Spirit Stealth Bomber is the most expensive plane at $2.1 billion. It was built to beat anti-aircraft defenses through stealthiness.
  • 938 moths. The bomber has a wingspan of 172 feet.

Proboscis length

  • 19–21 millimetres (0.75–0.83 in)
  • How many hummingbird moth proboscises go into the length of the longest straw chain?
  • Hint: The longest straw chain was made by 27 students, including Petru Pogonaru and Marcu Cristi in Buzau, Romania in 2008.
  • 535,907 proboscises. The chain was 11,298 m (37,066 ft 10 in) and included 58,469 straws.

Fast Facts about the Hummingbird Moth

Hummingbird moths can be found all over the world, but this particular species is native to the Americas. It’s a migratory moth that can be found all over including Alaska, Ontario, Texas and everywhere in between. 

It likes to hang out in meadows, forest edges, and even suburban gardens. They tend to follow the flowers, looking for that sweet sweet nectar. 

Moths lay their eggs on plants that hatch into hornworms, which are fairly famous in their own right. They are green with a little flexible spine on their butts. While their parents are welcome in gardens, the kids are considered pests and are known to feed on crops like tomatoes.

When the hungry hungry caterpillar gets full, they pupate in a pile of leaf litter, with the tardigrades whispering sweet dreams of air travel. When they emerge, they have a few weeks to eat nectar, breed, and lay eggs before they die.  

Major Fact: Float Like a Butterfly, Sit Like a Bird

You may not have gathered it from Joe’s description, but when you look at this moth, especially from a distance, it looks a lot like a hummingbird.

Needless to say, being mistaken for a bird goes a long way toward not getting eaten by birds

The key to the illusion is doing what hummingbirds do. Flying around and sipping nectar from flowers comes naturally to most moths, but it’s coming out during the day that seems very un-mothy-like. This makes it pretty vulnerable to birds and other predators that hunt during the day.

But they also have another key factor – their clear wings.A typical hummingbird beats its wings about 70 times a second or 4,000 times per minute, which is why its wings appear invisible. The hummingbird moth can do the same, but trouble comes when it stops flapping.

But predators that are used to seeing hummingbirds as little feathered torsos floating around flowers without wings will see right through the disguise of the moth if the wings are visible when the moth is perched.

That’s why it has mostly clear wings. That way, by flapping its wings normally, and even by not flapping and just resting on a flower, it can maintain the appearance of being a hummingbird beating its wings 4,000 times a minute.

The piece de resistance is the fact that it can emit a hum that’s similar to a hummingbird’s when it flaps its wings.

If you’re in a garden and you see an exceptionally small hummingbird darting from flower to flower, you’re probably looking at a hummingbird moth.

Ending: So put on your best disguise, keep your wings a-flappin, and don’t forget about your proboscis whenever you’re sipping some nectar like the hummingbird moth here in LDT.

Episode 158 – Thorn Bug: Thorin Oaken-eater

“…and today we’re talking about a bug with a prickly personality. But more on that later.” 

The tropics are teaming with life. That means there’s an abundance of resources for you and your brood to enjoy. It also means that there’s plenty of competition looking to eat your food or eat you. Protecting yourself can mean developing one of several tactics. You could focus on defense, you could try to blend in, or you could try to go for both at once. The thorn bug has done just that. But with great tools, the next thing is to perfect their application in real Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of the Thorn Bug

  • These guys ain’t called thorn bugs for nothing. 
  • Start with a typical oblong cicada shape with those folded clearish wings
  • They have green heads with large, bright-red eyes and six legs coming out from underneath the body
  • Then add a giant thorn on top of its back – called the pronotal horn. From the crown of its head, the green thorn sticks up and curves slightly backward with a sharp reddish tip before cresting back down to the end of the abdomen
  • It goes without saying that the goal is to look as much like a thorn as possible. This deters predators (mainly birds) not only because they have sharp bodies but also because birds generally don’t want their toes poked

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 Measure Up intro this week, which means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. Gibbon
  2. Lemur
  3. Marmot
  4. Baboon

Length

  • 10 millimetres (0.39 in)
  • How many thorn bugs go into the length of the average thorn from a honey locust tree?
  • Hint: The tree is a deciduous tree that’s native to North America, especially states around the Mississippi River. 
  • 10 thorn bugs. Thorns can be 3–10 cm (1.2–3.9 in) long.

Egg Cluster Size

  • 100
  • How many thorn bug egg clusters go into the largest group of passenger pigeons ever recorded?
  • Hint: Passenger pigeons are a now extinct species of American pigeons, that were once so numerous in American skies that a flock could take hours to pass overhead. In 1866, a gathering was recorded as being a mile wide and 300 miles long. Hunting, deforestation, and other variables are said to have driven the bird to extinction.
  • 35 million clusters. The flock was estimated to be 3.5 billion members strong. 

Fast Facts about the Thorn Bug

  • Range: Lives on trees in the tropical and subtropical zones of southern North America and northern South America. If the temperature ever drops below 0, up to 90% of the population could die off.
  • Diet: they exclusively eat the sap inside the plants they hang out on

Major Fact: Nymph Defense System

The thorn bug is an attentive mom and, unlike some other bugs, watches over her brood in the nymph stage. Mothers will find an ideal host plant to lay her eggs in. She does this by carving out a groove in the stem of the plant and depositing eggs inside it. 

Moms may even sit on eggs like a chicken, in order to protect them from would-be predators. When eggs hatch, mothers will continue to protect the clutch of nymphs until they’re big enough to strike out on their own. 

Every time a predator approaches, it’s a gamble. Should the mother maintain the illusion that she is just a thorn, or should she attack and ward off the potential danger. The gamble is fairly high. If the mother breaks the illusion and fails to fight off the predator, the clutch survival rate drops from 53% to 27%.

In order to maximize intel about the potential threat, the nymphs will help by scanning the area. When they perceive a threat, they send out a chemical signal to the mother. But mom won’t attack unless all the nymphs send out a chemical report in unison. When one nymph sends out a signal, the next either immediately responds by lighting the beacons of Gondor or not. The brood essentially decides whether or not the mother should be deployed, based on the potential danger of the threat.

Once the mother is dispatched and returns without being dispatched from this mortal coil, she decides when the threat is over and calms the brood. 

If she goes the way of Bambi’s mother, the brood may be adopted by a nearby thorn bug mom. Though, combining clutches lowers the survival rate.

Large clutches can drain resources quickly. So much so as to stunt the growth of an entire tree or kill it outright. For that reason, very successful moms may produce many small thorn bugs. Small females may still have the chops to reproduce successfully like their mother before them. But small males struggle to compete for mates and food. This has led to a disparity in the ratio between the sexes with more females than male thorn bugs. 

Ending: So stick to your branch, keep an eye out for danger, and honor the chemically-induced vibration signals from your brood mother like the thorn bug here in LDT

Episode 157 – Blobfish: Blobby Fisher

“…and today we’re talking about a waterlogged football with eyes and a taste for shrimp. But more on that later.”

The blobfish might be the subject of cruel internet memes for many a year, but that digital ridicule may be unduly bestowed upon our deep-sea friend. He may look goofy, but that’s just because he’s far outside his natural habitat. Living at the bottom of the ocean, the blobfish actually has a pretty remarkable way of keeping it all together here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Blobfish

The blobfish are your typical fish shape with fin profile similar to a sea bass. Though the have more rounded fins. Their dorsal fins run down the length of their backs coming to a palm-shaped tail-fin. They also have broad elephant ear style pectoral fins.

Unlike a seabase, they have a large dome or bell-shaped head with a large mouth that’s positioned toward the bottom of their face. They also have large eyes that peer into the abyss of the sea, searching in vain for a scrap of light. 

They come in lighter pale colors like ashy grey to pale 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 new Measure Up intro from Nora!

Length

  • 30 cm (12 in)
  • How many blobfish would it take to get from New Zealand’s South Island to the Antipodes Islands.
  • Hint: New Zealand is made up of more than 700 islands.
  • 1,848,000 blobfish. The Antipodes Islands are 350 miles from South Island.

Depth

  • 600 – 1,200 m (2,000 – 3,900 ft)
  • How many blobfish living depths go into the length of New Zealand along it’s north-north-east axis?
  • Hint: New Zealand is a long narrow country with two main islands. South Island has a spine of snow capped Alps that we’ve come to know and love in the Lord of the Rings. 
  • 1,346 blobfish. New Zealand is 1,600 kilometres (990 mi) long.

Fast Facts About the Blobfish

The blobfish troll the bottom of the ocean’s desolate rocky plains around the waters of Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. 

The blobfish has the unique hunting style of sitting motionless while thinking about nothing at all. They’re covered in little protrusions that may help them look like coral or rocks and they just wait around pondering the same inquiries that a rock might. And just when the blobfish is about to forget it’s own existence to join the great multitude of ocean detritus, a piece of edible matter, usually in the form of a crustacean, sonters past its face and gets eaten. 

Another event that may disturb the blobfish’s dissociation might be an ocean trawling fishing vessel that catches the blobfish by mistake, though the acidic nature of blobfish flesh makes it unwanted bycatch for fishermen. 

The blobfish is thrown back, but not before the harsh lask or pressure of the surface turns them into that coveted ocean detritus. Now all that’s left is to sink to the sea floor, to feed the kin of the crabs the blobfish once zealously gobbled up. 

Major Fact: False Frumps

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve likely seen a picture of the blobfish. You’ve even likely seen a plush toy that looks like the blobfish. Good Mythical Morning called it the ugliest animal ever.

But the reality is that we don’t have any pictures of a blobfish in its natural state. This is because it lives almost 4,000 feet below the surface at 120 times the pressure at sea level. The only time we’ve ever really seen a blobfish is when they get caught in deep-sea fishermen’s nets and are brought to the surface.

Going from 120 atms to 1 does things to a living thing – what kind of things, you ask? Blob kinds of things.

Under Pressure

Living at such high pressures means that using a gas bladder for buoyancy like most fish wouldn’t be very effective. Instead, the blobfish’s body is made of a gelatinous material that is slightly less dense than the water around it. Rather than having a real skeleton, it uses the water around it as its own structural support.

Because of this, it can hover just above the ocean floor without having to swim. It doesn’t really have any muscle, so it’s pretty important that it doesn’t have to swim.

The side effect of this is that, while the water pressure keeps its jell-o body looking trim and slim like a normal-ish fish, not having that pressure means that the blobfish physically and mentally has a meltdown – making him look like a frumpy Jim Henson muppet.

Needless to say, all of the pictures we have of the blobfish are of dead blobfish that have basically meltploded.

On the flip side, this jelly body allows it to live and look like a regular fish in a place that would turn you into some sort of point of singularity.

Ending: So stay at your depth, keep your insides together, and have a cold bath like the blobfish here in LDT.

Episode 156 – Purple Frog: Born in the Storm

“…and today we’re talking about a frog with a secret underground life. But more on that later.”

The forests of India’s Western Ghats, are teaming with life. Many amphibian species live there, and many have only been discovered in the last few decades. As frogs hop from log to log and branch to branch, one species doesn’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to life in the sun. The bizarre looking purple frog prefers the subterranean lifestyle and nothing could make them come out of their soft soiled homes. Well, nothing except one thing… But an offbeat lifestyle away from predators is just one of many strategies in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of the Purple Frog

  • This is a pretty weird looking frog
  • It looks like an inflated version of one of those puffed-up desert rain frogs
    • It just looks like it’s constantly holding its breath
  • Its body is bifurcated so there are two large puffed-up sections… kinda like a lil tush
  • It has smooth, slimy skin that’s a brownish-purplish color (some google images look pretty purple but on the whole it seems more brownish)
  • The head is short, squat and triangular – it kinda looks like a mole’s face
  • Its eyes are a lot smaller than most frogs’
  • There is also a ridge of skin extending from each eye to its pointy little nose. Plus there’s a ridge that extends out like a frown from below the nose.
    • So it looks like a star-nosed mole, but at certain angles it also looks like it has eye stalks like a slug.
  • Basically, it’s a frog, a star-nosed mole, and a soft-shelled turtle all rolled into one. It’s the platypus of amphibians.

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 new Measure Up intro from Mason!

Length

  • 52.8 mm to 89.9 mm
  • How many purple frogs go into India’s tallest waterfall?
  • Hint: Kunchikal falls is a cascading type, which means that it falls in stages, like a staircase. 
  • 5,061 frogs. The waterfall is 455 metres (1,493 ft).

Weight

  • 165 grams
  • How many frogs go into India’s largest animal, the indian elephant?
  • Hint: Indian elephants are smaller than African elephants and tend to live in jungle areas where their smaller size is an advantage.
  • 24,191 frogs. Indian elephants are 8,800 pounds (3,992 kg).

Fast Facts About the Purple Frog

  • Range: Small sliver slightly inland near the southwestern shore of India called the Palghat Gap. It lives in loose, damp soil at low elevations.
  • Diet: Mostly eats termites but will also eat other little insects and bugs
  • Behavior: Some local communities will make amulets out of these frogs and give them to children to reduce their fear of storms.

Major Fact: The Storm Born Frog

Purple frogs lead an interesting lifestyle in that they spend the vast majority of their life underground. Because of that, they’re very elusive. They were only first officially discovered in 2003, though the locals already knew about them and some papers described the species before 2003. They went undiscovered for a long time because they only come out when field scientists are cozied up by their lab computers to get out of the rain. 

Even now, much of their underground activities are unknown to researchers. It lives underground all year round except for when it emerges for two weeks out of the year to breed. Purple frogs come out during the monsoon season when rainfall increases. During that time, males call out to females over the din of waterfalls and rain. They only have two weeks to find a mate or their magic runs out and they can no longer be Santa Frog. 

Above ground, they look kind of weird. Their bloated little bodies and small heads make them look like a frog in a funhouse mirror. Their weird bodies are designed to burrow like a drill underground. Their pointed noses seem like they would be ideal for drilling into soft soil. Underground living isn’t new for frogs, but most of them burrow underground and emerge at night to feed. Not so with our purple friend. They feed entirely underground on a diet of mostly termites. They have a special buccal groove that helps them feed underground.

Tadpoles that are born in the rainy season are especially adapted to living in torrents and waterfalls. They have special mouths with keratinized teeth that allow them to cling to rocks. They use their mouths to climb up moist rock faces, especially near waterfalls. These weird teeth are continuously replaced like a shark’s. 

Ending: So go singing in the rain, burrow your way into obscurity, and help children overcome their fear of storms like the purple frog here in LDT

Episode 155 – White Rhino: Crash and the Birds

“…And today we’re talking about Marco Polo’s thick unicorn! But more on that later.”

Grazing along the African savannah, the white rhino keeps his ears peeled for the danger bird – despite not having many predators to worry about. When opportunity squawks, the rhino definitely listens. But the classic symbiotic relationship between the rhino the oxpecker may benefit the bird more than the mammal. But animals take what they can and give nothin’ back here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the White Rhino

  • White rhinos are large organic tanks with keratin horns coming out of their faces.
  • White rhinos have two horns with a larger horn in the front of the face and a smaller one directly behind it.
  • They have a hump on the backs of their necks and trunk like legs and feet. 
  • Unlike an elephant their feet flair out at the bottom like a bell, with three toes.
  • They have mouths that form a vague square shape.
  • They’re skin is leathery and think, contributing to it’s armored appearance. 
  • White rhinos can range in color from a yellowish brown to a dark grey.
  • They are said to have the widest set nostrils of any land animal. Olfactory systems in their brain are larger than the rest of their brain put together. 

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 so that means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. American Bison
  2. Wildebeest 
  3. Guar
  4. Nilgai

Length

  • 3.7 to 4 m (12.1 to 13.1 ft)
  • How many 1964 Hess Tanker Trailer replicas go into the length of a male rhino?
  • Hint: Hess started to sell replicas of their trucks in gas stations in 1964 as a thank you to their customers. The 1964 Hess Tanker Trailer was their first, modeled after the company’s first B61 Mack truck. Only 150,000 were made and if you have one in excellent condition today, it could go for $2,000.
  • 13.1 trucks. The trucks are 12 inches.

Weight

  • 2,300 kg (5,070 lb)
  • How many Rhinos go into a Mack Granite heavy duty truck’s maximum loaded weight?
  • Hint: Loaded weight refers to the weight that is transferred to the road from a fully-loaded vehicle’s axle. The federal limit of gross weight on a federal road is 80,000 lbs.
  • 18 Rhinos. The mack granite’s max load is 92,000 pounds (42,000 kg).

Fast Facts about the White Rhino

The white rhino is a herbivore graser, which means it has a lifestyle kind of like a cow, looking for tasty grass and plants to eat. They spend about half the day eating and a third of it resting, leaving four hours for fun stuff like mating, rolling in mud holes, and video games.

Grown males prefer the company of their own thoughts and spend most of their time alone, pondering the universe. Adolescents will hang out with one another and with adult females. These groups can be as large as 14 members.

Rhinos have good hearing and even better smell but they don’t have great eyesight. Something moving silently from downwind could sneak up on a rhino. An activity I wouldn’t recommend. But to prevent this, rhinos allow Oxpecker birds to sit on their backs, eating flies and parasites that may bother the rhino. They also act as an alarm system when danger approaches. 

Females reach maturity around age 6 but they can only date older boys, because it takes males between 10 and 12 years to reach maturity. Little unborn rhinos take about 16 months to gestate. Newborn calves can weigh up to 140 pounds.

Major Fact: Scaredy Crash

Rhinos are big, fierce, and heavily armored. They’re the second-largest land animals on the planet. They have huge, sharp horn-like appendages coming out of their faces. And they have 2-inch thick armored skin. They have no natural predators, which is surprising because even elephants have to deal with lions. But I imagine the baby rhinos get gobbles. So you’d think that these guys would be able to saunter across the savannah with confidence right? The reality is that they’re pretty easily spooked.

Rhinos have really good hearing. Their ears can almost turn the full 360 degrees around their heads. 

But they have pretty poor eyesight. If they’re startled, they’ll either run away or just charge the thing they think is after them–even if it’s just a bush or a tree.

They also make use of that rare jewel in the animal kingdom: cooperation! (interspecies cooperation, that is) symbiosis. There’s a bird they befriend called an oxpecker. They perch on the backs of rhinos as they graze. The oxpeckers get a free meal of ticks and other parasites that can latch onto the rhino. Also, there aren’t any animals that would try and nab a bird sitting on a rhino’s back.

The rhino gets a nice skin cleaning, but what it really wants is the bird’s natural alarm system. If the oxpecker spots danger, it will tweet. Then the rhino just wildly mauls the bush or runs away. The oxpecker is called “askari wa kifaru” in Swahili which means “the rhino’s guard.” But you probably already knew that.

But this famous symbiotic relationship may be more parasitic than you thought. Ticks suck…literally. All of them do – but the oxpecker actually likes to eat rhino blood, so it only eats the fat ones.

It’s selective and self-serving. In fact, it’s main food source is rhino blood. The bird will also find infected or infested wounds on the rhino and eat any larvae or parasites living there. But it will also eat the scabs and open the wound even more.

Ending: So armor up, sharpen your horn-like appendages, and keep helpful birds on your shoulder like the white rhino here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 154 – Pygmy Hedgehog: The Adorable Pincushion

“…Today we’re talking about a prickly bush pig, though it’s not a pig at all. But more on that later.”

The cutest and most mild mannered animals often find themselves in the pet trade. But in the wild world of woodland creatures, cute doesn’t get you very far. For those creatures that tread the line between those two worlds, not fully domestic but harmless enough to live in homes, they may exhibit some behaviors that baffle their human household companions. These holdovers from their wild-kin show us a picture of their life in the wild. The adorable pygmy hedgehog may have some behaviors not dignified in civilized company, though they are vital for their survival in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Pygmy Hedgehog

  • It’s the classic adorable poke mouse that teenagers like to keep curled up in their oversized sweaters
  • It has an oval-shaped body with a tiny mousy face and little mousey people hands
    • However, it only has four toes on its hind legs instead of five, which is what most other hedgehogs have
  • It has beady black eyes and a little snout with small, rounded ears.
  • But it’s defining characteristic is the sheet of spikes that cover its back
    • We’ve done the spiked tenrec before, but take those spikes and double them.
  • The quills on the back are a mottled brown and cream mix while the underside is usually cream-colored. The snout is brownish-greyish

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 so that means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. Frog
  2. Turtle
  3. Mouse
  4. Hedgehog

Length

  • 5 and 12 inches (13 and 30 cm)
  • How many hedgehogs go into the deepest dive into Boesmansgat, a cave in South Africa, also called Bushman’s Hole.
  • Hint: The cave is a submerged freshwater sinkhole that is thought to be first explored in modern times in 1977. The deepest recorded dive was achieved by scuba diver Nuno Gomes in 1996. The dive is tough because the hole starts at an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,921 ft) and complicated decompression. 
  • 972 hedgehogs. The dive was 282.6 metres (927 ft). When Gomes reached the bottom of the hole, he got stuck in the mud for two minutes before freeing himself.

Weight

  • 14 and 39 ounces (400 and 1,110 g)
  • How many hedgehogs go into the heaviest pig in history?
  • Hint: The pig was named Big Bill, and he was a Poland-China breed. He was owned by a man named Elias Buford Butler and made record weight in Jackson, Tennessee in 1933.
  • 1,046.9 hedgehogs The pig weighed 1,157 kg (2,552 lb).

Fast Facts About the Pygmy Hedgehog

Range:

  • They’re all over the world as pets, but they’re native to a belt stretching across central Africa from Sierra Leone all the way to Somalia and Tanzania. From sea to pirate sea.
  • It loves grassy fields, open woodlands at low elevations. It prefers dry, warm places.

Diet:

  • Bugs, grubs, snails, spiders, some plants, and even scorpions and snakes (it has a high tolerance for toxins)

Behavior:

  • Since it likes warm climates, it will go into estivation (rest, low metabolism) when it gets cooler and even hibernate when it gets really cold.
  • Sonic is nocturnal and usually spends its nights hunting alone
  • It has some tenacious predators including the eagle-owl, jackal, and the honey badger

Major Fact: Sticky Spines or Something

Hedgehogs have 5,000 spines that are made of keratin, the stuff hair, nails, and mammal horns are made of. They’re nearly hollow, though not as hollow as bones. Muscles on the hedgehog’s back allow them to smooth down their spines or make them stand up when they feel threatened. These semi-hollow spines are light but strong, acting as a pointy deterrent to predators. They don’t release barbed quills like a porcupine, but most predators would think twice about putting a spike ball down their throats.

You may have seen these adorable pincushions floating on their backs in bath tubs. They have a unique ability to do this because air pockets in the spines can turn their back into a little boat. In domestic life it serves the function of looking super cute. In the wild, I bet that ability comes in pretty handy in floods and puddles.

But that’s not the end of interesting stuff they do with their spines. They’ve also been known to practice something called self-anointing. No, they don’t declare themselves king by divine right, it means they rub aromatic substances all over their bodies. 

When they find a particularly strong smelling substance, they will shew it up and mix it into their own saliva until it’s a foamy liquid. Then they’ll spread the substance all over their spines. It’s not 100 percent clear why they do that, but the main theory is that it’s a defense mechanism. They’ve been observed doing this with bad tasting, pungent, or irritating substances like tobacco, soap, and fecal matter. Ostensibly, this would add to the aversion to eating a hedgehog. 

They also do this with poisonous substances like toxins found on frog skin. It’s possible that poisonous frogs are the main reason they developed this practice. However, hedgehog pet owners may be confused because they have also been observed doing this with food like dog treats and other things they might enjoy eating. However, it may be behavior born from a genetic instinct. Hedgehogs as young as 15 days old have been seen doing this using substances they find on their mother’s spines. 

Thanks

Thank you to Casy for creating our theme song. To hear more of Casy’s music search Casy Michelle on Youtube

Thank you to Brian for creating the episode art. See more of Brian’s art at xNamaru on Instagram or Twitter.

Thank you to Nora who suggested the pygmy hedgehog!

Episode 153 – Blanket Octopus: Let the Octopus Win

“…Today we’re talking about a cephalopod that wears a beautiful gown. But more on that later.”

The ocean is home to many a strange and wondrous creature, but few are so strange as the blanket octopus. Worthy of its name, the blocktopus drifts and flutters with dazzling colors across the pelagic seas. But unfurling your snuggie has consequences in the deep blue, so the blanket octopus needs to have some improvised weapons at its disposal. But that’s just how you survive here in LDT.

Description of the Blanket Octopus

The blanket octopus has a high degree of sexual dimorphism in terms of size and look. They both have the typical octopus head and arm shape with arms growing to double their total length. Males have one longer arm, but more on that later.

Four of the eight female legs are webbed and that webbing can be longer than the length over her body.

Like other octopuses, they come in many colors and can change colors for camouflage. 

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 so that means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is.

  1. Alpaca
  2. Deer
  3. Llama
  4. Camel

Female Length

  • 2 meters
  • How many female octopuses go into the length of a galleon?
  • Hint: The São João Baptista, also called the Botafogo, was a portuguese war ship which was considered the biggest in the world at the time in the 16th century. The ship is famous for its bombardment of the La Goletta, in the conquest of Tunis in 1535.
  • 24.3 blanket octopuses. Galleons were around 160 feet for 500 tons. The Botafogo was 1,000 tons.

Male Length

  • 2.4 cm
  • How many male octopuses go into the automobile mileage record?
  • Hint: The record is held by Irvin Gordon, of Long Island, in a 1966 Volvo P1800. A retired teacher, he bought the car in 1966 for $4,150. He loves to drive and said he would drive to Montreal or Maine just for dinner. He said the car has never broken down or failed to start because he followed care directions like changing the oil after certain mileage. Gordon predicted that the car would outlast him in the summer before his death in 2018.
  • 217,949,233,392 octopuses. Gordon drove the car 3,250,257 miles.

Fast Facts about the Blanket Octopus

The reason for the vast difference in size between the males and females is reproduction. Larger females that can carry more large eggs. Large eggs eliminate the threat from small egg thieves and larger numbers of eggs increase the chance that some will make it to adulthood. 

While most octopuses start as tiny plankton that travel with the currents until they get big enough to settle down on the ocean floor, in reefs, or among rocks, blankets continue to wander the seas into adulthood.

Forsaking the shelter of rock caves comes with its dangers. Sea nomads are vulnerable to predation from the large animals that dominate the open ocean, including dolphins, blue sharks, billfish, orcas, and tuna. However, the blanket boys and girls know it’s dangerous to go alone and take a few defense mechanisms. Like Linus, females never leave home without their trusty blanket. They’re webbed arms can drag behind them like the flowing train of a gown, increasing their appearance of their size. Small predators need not apply.

The blanket can be rolled up and suddenly unfurled for maximum jump scare potential. But if a predator is not threatened by this caped crusader, she can do something else with it. Evidence suggests that they can detach the blanket like a lizard’s tail to confuse and placate attackers. This skill is in addition to other octopus-style defenses like ink sacks and color changing skin.

Major Fact: Let the Blanket Octopus Win

Octopuses are famous for their methods of defending themselves. Some use camouflage, most use ink, others even mimic their enemies. But the chewbacctopus has a penchant for ripping arms out of sockets.

It uses arms in two different ways.

First, the males—those poor tiny little fellas—to reproduce, they’ll put their “genetic material” into a specialized arm called a hectocotylus and rips it off to give to the female. She can then use it to fertilize her eggs at her leisure.

Second, the females will find Portugese man o’ wars (men o’ war?) and rip off their arms. They’re actually immune to man o’ war venom, so they’ll use those arms as defensive weapons.

It will attack man o’ war arms its four dorsal arms. Researchers aren’t sure if chewbacctopus uses the arms for offense as well. It could use the man o’ war venom to catch prey.

Ending: So spread your blankets, use arms to your advantage, and save your hectocotylus for someone special like chewbacctopus here in LDT.

Thanks

Thank you to Casy for creating our theme song. To hear more of Casy’s music search Casy Michelle on Youtube

Thank you to Brian for creating the episode art. See more of Brian’s art at xNamaru on Instagram or Twitter.