Episode 216 – Atlantic Bay Scallop: Lord of the Eyes

“…and today we’re talking about a familiar creature with a Lovecraftian feature. But more on that later.”

The sea is full of creatures aberrant to polite society. They swim in the murky depths or live in dark crevasses. But even a familiar sea creature may be alien to you when you really get to know them in their environment. To seafood lovers, the scallop is a known entity. A delicious dish with butter and lemon. But the creature alive and in its shell may bear some features that may astonish you. But it shouldn’t be surprising that the ocean hides the strangest secrets in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 215 – Amazon River Dolphin: The Pink Torpedo

“…and today we’re talking about the pink panther of the river. But more on that later.”

The Amazon River is one of the world’s longest rivers and flows through some of the most biologically fascinating places on Earth. It’s home to all manner of animals, but what you may not have known is that it’s also home to an apex predator. It’s not the jaguar, the caiman, the anaconda, or even the giant otter – it’s a dolphin. A pinkish smiling fish-killer, the Amazon River Dolphin uses a well-known but not well-understood method for staying on the hunt in the murky waters of the Amazon. But sometimes you just gotta use your melon to stay at the top here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 214 – Panther Chameleon: The Color King

“…and today we’re talking about a reptilian mood ring. But more on that later.”

You ain’t been blue till you’ve had that mood indigo? Maybe you’ve experienced red hot anger. For humans, it’s mostly metaphor, but there’s one animal that does display real mood-ring-like qualities. The chameleon is an alien looking reptile, a fact that makes it famously photogenic and a highly sought after exotic pet. But with fame comes misconceptions. The panther chameleon has an amazing talent that few people actually understand. But even creatures that seem alien are natural parts of Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

 Description of the Panther Chameleon

Karma is a squat-bodied lizard with a vertically flat torso, large head, and long-curved tail.

Its triangular head juts straight out from its body and has a short ridge rising from its skull. Its head is also flanked by two massive eyeballs that stick out from their sockets.

These eyes are almost completely covered with their scaled eyelids, leaving only the pupil exposed. So it doesn’t have a lot of peripheral vision. To make up for this, it can rotate its eyes in a 180-degree arc. Plus its eyes can move and focus independently of each other, meaning it has a full 360-degree range of vision and can look at two different objects at the same time.

They also have good depth perception despite only seeing things with one eye at a time. This is because they don’t use stereopsis like we do (joining images from two eyes to judge distances), but they use monocular depth perception. This allows them to see small insects more than 30 feet away. That’s like seeing a hamster clearly from over 115 feet away for humans.

Chameleons actually have the highest magnification for their size of any vertebrate in the animal kingdom.

Chameleons also have knobbly legs with five-toed feet at the ends. Their toes are split into two groups – three on one side and five on the other – leading to a forked appearance (hence the furcifer part of their name) and this allows them to grip branches really well.

Their tails are long and prehensile, meaning they are controlled intentionally like a finger. A dog’s tail is basically just a furry meat stick they wag back and forth, so it’s not prehensile. However, a capuchin monkey can wrap its tail around branches and even pick things up, so it’s prehensile like the Chameleon’s.

They can see ultraviolet light and it even changes their social and mating behaviors. Lastly, their tongues are just like a frog’s. They fling their stickly tongues out at insects in 0.07 seconds. It accelerates from 0 to 60 in 1/100 of a second – twice as fast as the fastest car.

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! 

  1. Humpback whale
  2. Orca
  3. Baluga
  4. Whale shark

Length

  • 16 – 20″ (40 – 51cm) long
  • How many panther chameleons go into the longest single journey taken by a mammal?
  • Hint: The journey is taken by the humpback whale that travels vast distances in search of food. A female was sighted off the coast of Brazil in August 1999 and it was later photographed in Madagascar in September 2001. 
  • 19,289,952 chameleons. The journey is 9,800 km (6,089 mi) long.

Male Weight

  • 200 – 220 grams (7.05 ounces)
  • How many chameleons go into the heaviest bird of all time?
  • Hint: The bird is Aepyornis maximus or the giant elephant bird, which once lived in madagascar. It looks similar to an emu but it’s actually a close relative to the kiwi. 
  • 2,045 chameleons. The bird was 450 kg (1,000 lb).

Fast Facts about the Panther Chameleon

  • Rang.: Lives in the forests of northeastern Madagascar
  • Diet. In the wild, they usually eat mainly insects like worms, grubs, crickets, and grasshoppers. People often keep them as pets and feed them roaches, silkworms, and wax worms
  • Behavior. They usually live about 3-6 years with females living only about 3 due to the strain of laying eggs.

Major Fact: Mood Ring Reptiles

We’ve mentioned before that the chameleon is thought to change colors to match their surroundings, but that’s actually a common misconception. In fact, there are several factors that trigger the color change, including light, mood, temperature and potentially sheer force of will. 

Why do they change their color?

They are thought to change colors for two reasons and the first is communication. They are relatively solitary animals, but they do come together when it’s time to mate. When two males come together, they will puff themselves up and change color to establish dominance with the loser changing to a dull dark color. 

They also change colors to manage thermoregulation. As cold blooded animals, controlling body temperature is essential. Darker colors allow them to absorb more heat and brighter colors reflect more light and heat. The changing colors allows them to fine tune more than just sitting on a warm rock.   

Of course when it comes to camouflage, they have pattern disruption and countershading like other animals.

How do they change color? 

Their color change can be stark, but it’s not as sophisticated as some cephalopods. And it’s a completely different mechanism. 

Cephalopods primarily use chromatophores, but chameleons use something called iridophores. Iridophores aren’t pigments. Instead, they are crystalline structures that change shape. When they are at rest, they are an iridescent blue. When these crystals are excited, they change shape and change the wavelength of light that they reflect. When they are calm, the crystals bunch together. When they are stressed or excited, the crystals loosen, reflecting reds, yellows, and white.

There’s a second layer of iridophores that acts as a sun shield that the lizard can adjust to let in more or less sunlight. 

We don’t know exactly how they control this, but it’s likely hormonal or neuronal.

But that’s not all. Panther chameleons have several layers of skin that aid in color changing. Including both iridophores and chromatophores.

  • The top layer is a mix of xanthophores, which produce yellow, and erythrophores, which produce red-orange.
  • Iridescent, light producing iridophores are also mixed into the top layer.
  • Next is the reflective iridophore layer, for thermoregulation.
  • Finally, is a brown melanophore layer. 

So they change their actual skin color with the chromatophores, but they also adjust how you see those pigments by adjusting the iridophores. Green is an example of how they work together. Without the iridophores, chameleons would be red, yellow, or brown. But to make green, they change their skin pigment to yellow with the top layer of chromatophores and relax their iridophores to produce a blue light, creating green. 

Finally, and less related. If you shine a UV light on a chameleon in the dark they will glow, but not their skin. Their bones.

Episode 213 – Sea Cucumber: Liquid Luck

“…and today we’re talking about the most romantic sea creature. A brown lump! But more on that later.”

At the bottom of the ocean, a brown lump inches along the coral and sands, keeping its notable lack of eyes out for potential predators. But when trouble does come a-sniffin, the slow sea cucumber has a defense mechanism that takes a heavy toll. Using an ability unique to its phylum, this ocean pickle has a pretty nasty way of staying mostly off the menu. But sometimes you just need to win a pyrrhic victory like the sea cucumber here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • Sea cucumbers are fairly simple lifeforms and they are called cucumbers because of their oval shape.
  • The brown sea cucumber has a half dome shape with the middle rising and tapering to the sides. 
  • Their bodies are covered in evenly spaced bumps or cones that are soft, though they look like spikes.
  • Most of the time they are brown, though some could be dark greenish with yellow spikes. 
  • Males and females are almost identical, except when it’s mating time. 
    • Cucumber reproductive organs are feathery or spaghetti like appendages that are kept inside the body and can be extended out. 
    • When they are ready, which is grotesquely called ripe, they change color. 
    • Males are white and females are orange. 

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! 

  1. Iguana
  2. Bull Snake
  3. Soft shelled sea turtle
  4. Komodo dragon

Length

  • 40 cm (15 inches)
  • How many sea cucumbers go into the average depth of the shallowest ocean?
  • Hint: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the arctic ocean is the smallest and shallowest ocean in the world. 
  • 14,602.368 sea cucumbers. The arctic has an average depth of 12,000 ft (3,657 m).

Weight

  • 830 grams (1.8 pounds)
  • How many brown sea cucumbers go into the James Webb Space Telescope weight on earth?
  • Hint: Webb has reached the lagrange point two where it is waiting while it cools down before beginning it’s operations. It’s unique among other space telescopes for its ability to see in infrared better than other telescopes like hubble. Infrared technology works better in cool temperatures, which is why Webb has a sophisticated sun shield. One of it’s primary missions is to take deep space pictures, but it may also be able to see dark objects within the solar system, like the theorized Planet X that may be a gravitational influence in the Kuiper belt.
  • 7,944.4 cucumbers. The James Webb Space Telescope is 14,300 lbs (6,486 kilograms).

Fast Facts

Sea cucumbers are ocean cleaners. They typically feed on detritus, tiny animals, and algae and they leave behind neat waste on the ocean floor. So, in a sense they are trash collectors and compactors. 

They get around with tube feet. Even though they don’t have a muscular system , they move their feet with hydraulics. They have a water vascular system that can inflate and deflate appendages to move them.

Even species without tube feet can contract their bodies to move on the seafloor.

They sort of have bones and a skeleton but not really. Cucumbers have microscopic ossicles that are embedded just beneath the skin to give their bodies some structure and protection. 

Many sea cucumbers have respiratory systems that are branched respiratory trees that sap oxygen out of the water.

Sea cucumbers are brainless, but they do have some nerve

They are a highly sought after food source in east asia, and fishing all over the world is unsustainable. For that reason, they are listed as endangered on the Red List.

Major Fact: Liquid Luck

All echinoderms have something called mutable collagenous tissues (MCT) that act like the nanobots in Marvel. They’re tissues that can change their properties to serve whatever the plot demands. Starfish use it to detach and regenerate their limbs. Sea fans can stiffen to get better filter feeding. Sand dollars can regrow their teeth with it.

Sea cucumbers use MCTs to eviscerate their bowels.

Here is the sentence from the European Synchrotron that sums it up in a nice, understandable way: At the ultrastructural level, MCT consists of spindle-shaped collagen fibrils in an interfibrillar matrix of proteoglycans and noncollageneous proteins like tensilin and stiparin, which along with fibrillin-rich microfibrils comprise the extracellular matrix.

Basically, all animals are made up of quite a bit of collagen, which makes our bones, ligaments, and skin. However, in most things with collagen, like humans, the collagen takes a long time to change once it’s formed.

Things like muscle strengthening or deterioration as well as some of the changes that women undergo during pregnancy are due to gradual changes in collagen. Sea cucumbers can make these changes in seconds.

It also allows them to liquify their intestines and shoot them out of their mouths in order to give the predator something to feed on while the cucumber escapes.

It’s horrifying lovecraftian goodness.

Ending: So  get a good score on your MCTs, and always remember to expel your liquid intestines out of your mouth if someone tries to eat you like the sea cucumber here in LDT.

Episode 212 – Black Widow Spider: Bad Reputation

“…And today we’re talking about a woman who doesn’t give a darn about her bad reputation.”

The black widow spider is nature’s ultimate example of the femme fatale. An unyielding queen in the middle of her silken throne, waiting for the lowly male, driven to her by an instinct most basic.  Though her signature red hourglass may be a reminder that our days are numbered, the widow’s reputation may not paint the full picture. Still, she’s just one of many animals that engage in a sinister practice that’s common in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 211 – Reindeer: Lobos and Lichens

“…and today we’re talking about the titans of the tundra, the cervids of Santa. But more on that later.”

Reindeer are famous for flying, being rude to those that are different from them, and fiercely defending Johnny’s Turbo Man action figure. But one reindeer has an unusual nose that’s even more famous. Researchers have spent entire minutes figuring out why red color is best color for glow nose so that we can have a better understanding of the story’s scientific accuracy. But it turns out that seeing red is actually a good thing if you’re a reindeer here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy..

Episode 210 – Rock Hyrax: The Petra Pachyderm

“…and today we forgot to say an intro blurb because we had housekeeping stuff.”

Life among the rocks provides cover from predators and a quick escape when necessary, but it also comes with its challenges. But the rock hyrax has accepted the task of adapting to this rugged terrain. For a nice warm spot to take a nap, these unique little mammals have the perfect bodies for their rough environment. But we know adaptation is the name of the game in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 209 – Giant River Otter: Apex in the Amazon

“…And today we’re walking about a lanky tooth missile that isn’t scared of nobody. But more on that later.”

The Amazon is home to many of the western hemisphere’s most successful predators. But the most surprising apex predator isn’t the piranha, the anaconda, or even the legendary jaguar – it’s the giant otter! Alone, they can take on lots of different opponents. Together, there’s nothing that they can’t handle. You definitely don’t want to put your feet up on this otterman. But being on the top of the food chain definitely has its perks as the Giant Otter knows here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 208 – Atlas Moth: To Kill a Mothingbird

“…and today we’re talking about an insect that wants you to think it floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”

What would you do if you only had energy from the food you ate when you were a kid? You may move as little as possible, and only when you had to. That’s what the Atlas moth does, since it doesn’t have a mouth designed for eating food. But what does it do when predators show up looking to snack on a gentle, defenseless, insect? Sometimes a bluff goes a long way in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • As a caterpillar, atlas is green with spines that are white and waxy – like the Jimmy Fallon exhibit at madame tussauds
  • Their cocoons look like brown dried leaves – mostly because they are dried leaves
  • Once they become moths (or the imago stage), they have large rust red wings with cream-colored tips that have no other interesting design features whatsoever
  • Their wings also have fang or claw-shaped patterns on each side.
  • Their bodies are also rust-colored with cream-colored stripes.
  • They have long, feathered antennae that look a lot like the sea pen that are very sensitive chemoreceptors

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. 

  1. Moose
  2. Mouse
  3. Mink
  4. Skink

Wingspan

  • 24 cm (9.4 in)
  • How many atlas moths go into the height of the smallest elephant in the world?
  • Hint: The Borneo Pygmy elephant is native to forests of Malaysia. It’s the fourth officially recognized subspecies of Asian elephant. 
  • 7 moths. 1.7 m (5 ft 6 in)

Larva Length

  • 11.5 cm (4.5 in)
  • How many moth larvae go into the height of the tallest living tropical tree?
  • Hint: The tree was found in Borneo via a flyover. In 2019, the tree was climbed and measured. It’s a species of yellow meranti. 
  • 857 larvae. The tree is 98.53 m (323 ft 3.1 in) tall.

Fast Facts

  • Range: South, East, and Southeast Asia from the Stans to Japans
    • They like forests and shrublands
  • Diet:
    • As caterpillars they eat leaves, unsurprisingly. They primarily eat citrus, cinnamon, guava, and evergreen leaves. Though they eat their egg shell first after hatching.
    • As full-blown moths, their diet gets very interesting – and by interesting I mean nonexistent. 
      • They don’t have developed mouthparts so they can’t eat as adults. So they live for just a couple of weeks while they look for a soulmate
      • They live and love off of the fat they stored up as a caterpillar
  • Behavior:
    • When the caterpillar gets to max length (4.5”) they spin a cocoon out of silk and dry leaves and live in it for a month before emerging as adult moths with the world on their shoulders
    • Because of the fact that they can’t eat, they need to conserve energy
      • Each flight can take literal days off of their life
    • So females hang out pretty close to their cocoons and release hormones into the air currents to attract males to them. This way, she can always have enough energy to lay her eggs once they’re fertilized.
  • May have been the inspiration for the legendary monster Mothra
  • The males have antennae that are so sensitive that they can detect a few molecules of female pheromone in the air.

Major Fact: Snake in the Grass

Atlas moths are large insects, but they are delicate and vulnerable to fast moving predators. When flight can’t carry them to safety, they have to rely on something else to avoid becoming lunch.


Atlas moths have extensions on the tips of their forewings that look incredibly like snake heads. I don’t mean it’s sort of like the size and shape of a snake head. There is countershading, a black spot for an eye, and a line for a mouth. 

Of course, having the appearance of a snake is great for smaller predators, but there’s probably several birds and mammals that wouldn’t mind chowing down on a snake either. But the Atlas moth doesn’t just look like any snake. It’s coloration and shape makes it look like a cobra.

Borneo is a tropical paradise and home to many reptiles, including the Malayan spitting cobra. This cobra’s venom is extremely venomous, including neurotoxins and cardio toxins, which means it damages your brain and heart. The toxin has an LD50 in mice of 0.5 micrograms. Most animals stay far away from it.

When the moth is threatened it will land and start fanning it’s wings to appear as snake-like as possible. There’s a picture of them on a tree branch and it straight up looks like a coil of several snakes. 

Ending: So eat your eggs, stay beautiful, and keep your snake hands to yourself like the atlas moth here in LDT.

Episode 207 – Wood Frog: Deep Freeze

“…and today we’re talking about a chill amphibian with a cool pair of sunglasses. But more on that later.”

Being cold blooded is usually fine, as long as you live in a warm-ish area. But what about the chilly-bloods living in the less-than-warm regions of the world? Some dig into the ground, some just die, and others, like the wood frog, take the cold like a champ. Find out how this frigid frog avoids becoming a permanent frogsicle here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.