Episode 186 – Komodo Dragon: A Toxic Debate

“…and today we’re talking about the closest thing to a traditional fire breathing dragon we’re going to get.”

Reptilians once dominated the food chain as the largest animals in their ecosystems until some natural checks and balances relegated them to smaller bodies that were better at sneaking under rocks and bushes. But nature’s memo failed to reach one island in Oceania. The Komodo dragon is a giant that lives at the top of their ecosystem, capable of taking down even large prey animals. But these unique lizards may have a tool up their sleeve besides their size. But pairing a high weight class with some unique talents is the best way to rule in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.  

Description of the Komodo Dragon

  • The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard alive today.
  • And, in fact, it looks like a giant version of the lizards you might find sunning themselves on your front porch.
  • They have long bodies and necks with short legs tipped with sharp claws for digging and tearing. 
  • Their tales are thick and muscular like a crocodile’s and end at a point for maximum whipping potential.
  • Their heads look like they were the direct inspiration for Godzilla with rounded snouts, beady black eyes, and a wide mouth filled with sharp, serrated teeth and a forked tongue that I wish Grima Wormtongue had.
    • Just like the tuatara, the Komodo dragon also has a third eye (the pineal eye) to potentially sense certain types of light. But this one is virtually invisible.
  • Their black/grey/rust-colored skin is made up of these hardened scales called osteoderms. As the name suggests, it has bone skin. The scales are reinforced with tiny bones.
    • These scales appear during adulthood and grow harder with age like a fine whiskey or Sam Elliot

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. Texel Sheep
  2. Giant Panda
  3. Gila monster
  4. Giraffe

Length

  • 2.59 m (8.5 ft)
  • How many komodo dragons go into the length of the longest ever monster truck?
  • Hint: The truck is called the Sin City Hustler and it boasts a 750-hp engine. It was built by Brad and Jen Campbell to be a novel limousine for tourists in Las Vegas.
  • 3.7 komodo dragons. The truck is 9.8 m (32 ft) long.

Weight

  • 70 kg (150 lb)
  • How many Komodo dragons go into the combined weight of soldiers treated by Marie Curie’s mobile radiology units (called petites Curies) in World War I.
    Hint: Marie Curie is the first woman to receive a nobel prize and the only woman to have the prize in two different fields. During the first world war she realized that soldiers needed surgery as soon as possible and pioneered field surgical centers with X-ray machines. Assume the soldiers weighed 170 pounds. 
  • 1,133,333 komodo dragons. The combined weight of a million soldiers is around 170,000,000 pounds.

Komodo Dragon Fast Facts

  • Range: the islands of Indonesia, particularly Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang. 
  • Diet: They mainly eat a species of Indonesian deer called Javan Rusa. They also will eat just about any scavenged corpse they find and will sometimes even eat the young of other dragons. They’ll also eat eggs, birds, monkeys, goats, boars, and even large animals like horses and water buffalo.
  • Behavior: 
    • They can live for up to 30 years
    • It will eat up to 80% of its body weight in one meal and then sits in the sun to digest.
      • They have a slow metabolism which allows them to eat as little as once a month, but they need to warm up or the food will rot in their stomachs and poison them (again, like crocodiles in winter)
    • They can be aggressive toward humans and have fatally wounded or possibly eaten several people according to reports.
  • Under certain circumstances where females are isolated, they can actually reproduce asexually – much like the mourning gecko.
    • So they can lay eggs without knocking any boots. 
    • This is called parthenogenesis and only males are produced in this way.

Major Fact: Toxic Drool

Komodo dragons are the largest lizards in the world. They’re thought to reach that size because of something called insular gigantism, which is when an isolated species grows larger than their wider-world kin.

Their large size makes them unable to sustain high speeds for long, but they are built for ambush. Dragons wait at ambush sites and spring on victims and overwhelm them with lacerating bites. 

In most cases, they kill prey in 30 minutes. In some cases, larger prey can shake off a dragon and get away. But reports say that escaped prey often dies within a few days, and then they are swarmed by hungry dragons.

You may have heard komodo dragons can do this because their bite is toxic. Legend has it that a komodo dragon’s saliva contains deadly bacteria that comes from the rotting chunks of flesh in their teeth from former meals. Conventional wisdom suggests that a single bite can make an animal fatally sick from this bacteria. 

But that’s not true.  

Some studies did find dangerous bacteria in komodo mouths, but it probably isn’t due to poor oral hygiene. Dragons apparently spend a solid 15 minutes cleaning their mouths after a meal. They will lick their lips and rub their face on dried leaves to remove excess blood and meat.

So if that’s true, why does wounded prey die?

One of the simplest explanations is that they die from infected wounds because animals with open wounds often die from infections. Komodos attack prey by inflicting lacerations from bite, not by efficiently killing blows like lions or leopards. These deep wounds typically cause animals to bleed out, but if not, it could cause infections. CErtain prey, like water buffalo, run to water when threatened. Running into unclean water with open wounds can cause them to become infected. 

However, there is another potential explanation. 

In 2005, researcher Bryan Fry found venom genes in Komodo dragons, and then in 2009 an MRI on a dragon skull found glands that could contain venom. They later took the gland out of a sick komodo and found that it contained venom proteins that could stop blood clotting and lower blood pressure. This could increase the speed an animal bleeds to death, making the komodo at least slightly venomous. 

But critics of these findings suggest that there are many purposes these proteins could serve in a reptile mouth, and may not be used as a venom. 

Ending: So enjoy sunny days, keep your toxic spit to yourself, and only swallow your prey whole if you have a special tongue lung tube like the Komodo dragon here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 185 – Surinam Toad: Back’s Got Baby

“And today we’re talking about a horror pancake. But more on that later.”

The northern region of South America is home to the Amazon Basin, which in turn hosts a wide variety of fascinating rainforest dwellers. With one of the most odd-looking being the surinam toad. What looks at first like a dead frog that’s been crushed by a car is actually just a flat toad that’s sunk to the bottom of a slow-moving river. Like any stressed out parent, she just wants her kids to get off her back. And like most kids, they tend to get under her skin. But that’s just the best way to keep your offspring safe here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 184 – White-Throated Dipper: Milk’s Favorite Bird

“…and today we’re talking about a bird that loves chocolate chip cookies. But more on that later.”

Description

  • Has an overall build of a sandpiper with a rotund body and long legs.
  • Its feathers are black or dark brown along the back, tail, and wings.
    • There’s a small rufous patch just under the shoulders and the head and face are brown
    • Of course, the throat is stark white
  • Bobby’s beak and legs are 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!

  1. Snow Leopard
  2. Snowy Owl
  3. Snowshoe Hare
  4. Arctic Fox

Length

  • 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long
  • How many white-throated dippers go into the thickness of Jostedalsbreen, Norway’s largest glacier?
  • Hint: The glacier is located in Vestland county in Fjord, Norway, and it’s not just Norway’s largest glacier, it’s the largest in continental Europe. The glacier covers 487 square kilometers. 
  • 3,333 dippers. Jostedalsbreen is 600 metres thick. 

Weight

  • 2.2 oz (62.3 grams)
  • How many White-Throated Dippers go into the heaviest shoes ever walked in?
  • Hint: The record was set by an American (heck yes) career record breaker named Ashrita Furman. Furman currently holds 531 records and has broken more than 600. The shoes were worn in Potter’s Field, London in 2010.
  • 2,349 dippers. The shoes were 146.5 kg (323 lbs).

Fast Facts

  • Diet: worms, aquatic insect larvae, beetles, clams, snails, frogs, and shrimp.
  • Behavior:
  • Range: Western and Southern Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Russia, Near East (Turkey, Iran, a few Stans)
  • It’s Norway’s national bird 

Major Fact

If the White-Throated Dipper was a toy, he’d be relegated to the Island of Misfit Toys. 

The dipper loves to spend his days by running rivers and streams. You may find him perched on a rock that’s emerging from the water, where he will perform a small, bouncy dance that’s adorable to see.

These chubby little birds look like your typical garden seed eater. They don’t have the webbed feet of water fowl or the long legs of a stork. And yet they get most of their subsistence from the water. 

They may wade into streams to catch minnows or water bugs. But their aquatic activities don’t stop there. They will also fully submerged their little bird bodies underwater for some tasty morsels. 

They may hop in from a rock or the bank, but they may also dive in with the spirit and determination of an eagle. 

The strange sight of a small bird walking or diving into the water has created some legends about this feathered fisher. 

They are said to defy the laws of buoyancy by walking into a river and hopping around the river bottom without being swept away. However, this is an inaccurate assumption. 

They can stand on a river bottom when they need to, but they do so by gripping the bottom with their feet. When they move around underwater, they will swim like they’re flying. 

They have become so good at farming rivers and streams for resources that they don’t have to fly south with other birds. Some will fly south or descend to the lowlands of their regions, but wherever there is open running water, you may find dippers through the winter months. 

With winter habits of a dipper may vary on an individual basis, with some enjoying the snowy banks and crips streams and others seeking out warmer areas. 

Aquatic life seems to be inborn in dippers. Even young featherless hatchlings will dive into the water when threatened.

If you are one for nice serene nature documentaries, there are a ton beautifully shot white-throated dipper videos on youtube. I’ll link to a good documentary by a photographer named Gunner Dressler.

Ending: So stay anchored, go where the gettin’s good, and stay 10 steps ahead of the competition like Bobbing Fischer here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 183 – Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko: The Devil’s Disguises

“…and today we’re talking about a gecko that just does what it wilsts. But more on that later.”

The 80s spawned a lot of things: Reaganomics, Terminator, Steve Perry. But it also gave rise to the Satanic Panic. And one of the most prominent kinds of Satanists that the decade produced was an evil race of tiny geckos with leaves for tails. These dastardly reptiles can hide in plain sight, and though they don’t worship the beast, they do eat beelzelbugs on the regular. But that’s just how the satanic leaf-tailed gecko operates here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko

  • The Satanic-Leaf Gecko has a flat tail, large head, and spiky eyebrows. 
  • They also have a spinal ridge that runs from the back of their necks and then splits to follow each side of their flat tails. 
  • They come in earth-tones, particularly reddish brown and pale yellow.
    • Some are two-toned while others are monochromatic with a single light brown color.
  • Their large heads are beset with big red-orange eyes.

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. Rhinoceros
  2. Gargoyle Gecko
  3. Cheetah
  4. Rock dove

Length

  • 90mm (3.5 inches)
  • How many Satanic-Leaf Geckos go into one astronomical unit?
  • Hint: An astronomical unit is often used to measure distance within the solar system. It’s equal to the distance between the center of the earth to the center of the sun.
  • 1,600,000,000,000 geckos. An AU is 149.6 million kilometers.

Weight

  • 10 to 30 grams
  • How many Satanic-Leaf Geckos go into the largest mammal on madagascar?
  • Hint: The island’s largest mammal is the fossa, a carnivorous cat-like creature. It’s in the family Eupleridae, which includes civets and mongooses. 
  • 287 geckos.

Fast Facts about the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko

They live in Madagascar and prefer highland rainforest biomes, based on the fact that they only live in the eastern highland rainforest of Madagascar.

They’re okay with lower temperatures than your average lizard and do well in their high elevation habitat.

Like other geckos and devils, the Satanic-Leaf Gecko is nocturnal and hunts for insects at night. 

They mate seasonally and lay eggs in piles of dead leaves. 

Despite their name, they’re relatively mild mannered. They sleep through the day. In captivity, they’re kept in two male, one female groups, also known as the YA-novel configuration. This is done to improve genetic diversity, but the rival males rarely ever fight. 

Even though their tales are super cool and it’s an absolute bummer to lose them, they can shed their tails to escape predators. 

Like other geckos, they have sicky scales and curve claws that make them excellent climbers. 

For once, we have a legitimate reason to be upset with the pet trade besides dominating animal SEO. The exotic pet trade is a big fan of these guys and they’re sometimes captured illegally. Though they are still classified as “least concern” there is a decreasing trend in their numbers. 

Major Fact: The Devil’s Disguises

As we mentioned earlier, Aleister looks a lot like a leaf. Its tail even has chunks missing to make it look like parts have rotted or been eaten by bugs.

But just like the spiny leaf insect, it has both passive and active camo – meaning it can turn completely invisible instantly. But the reality is that it looks like a leaf, but it also goes the extra mile to play the part.

It can choose between two major roles to play – it can be the leaf on the wind or the bark with no bite. As a leaf, it can attach its feet to a branch and hang off it like a dead leaf – even going so far as to sway in the breeze. Diurnal predators usually rely heavily on sight, so being still when everything else is moving draws as much attention as the opposite.As bark, Aleister will give the branch a big bear hug and flatten his body, rounding it so that it conforms to the sensual curves of the branch.

The gecko’s coloration allows it to blend into the surrounding bark, but that doesn’t always work for sharp-eyed predators. By flattening out its body, it also extends frills and flaps along its edges that obscure its outline in what is called “pattern disruption” so a predator can’t really tell where the bark ends and the gecko begins.

And, like many lizards and geckos, they can shed their tails and grow a new one.

Ending: So keep a low profile, play your Led Zeppelin vinyl backward, and become a master of disguise like the satanic leaf-tailed gecko here in LDT.

Episode 182 – Toucan: A Cool Snoot for Fruit

“…we’re talking about a colorful jungle bird that follows his nose for froot… I mean fruit. But more on that later.”

The jungle is a paradise of delectable nectar and fantastic fruit. For those that can reach these delights, the jungle provides everything you need. But it takes some special equipment to take advantage of such decadent prizes. But nature can throw all kinds of challenges your way, so the toucan carries a multitool on the front of its face. It’s a lesson in being prepared for anything, in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of a Toco Toucan

  • This is your quintessential toucan
  • It has a passerine-esque body (crow-like) with jet-black feathers on its body
  • Its throat and lower half of its face are covered with a super Nintendo controller-shaped patch that’s stark white with a well-defined border, giving it an orca-like coloration.
  • It also has a small patch of white feathers on its rump just above the tail feathers with a bright red patch on the flipside underneath the tail
  • But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’ve ever heard of the toucan, you know that its most defining characteristic is its…eyes
  • Its eyes are black and beady – like a bird’s. But the eyes are ringed with a bright blue circle and the area around the circle is yellowish-orange.
  • Ok for real though, the toucan’s bill is the real reason you’re listening to this episode. 
    • Where a normal bird’s forehead and face would be, the toucan has a massive bill jutting out.
    • It’s shaped like a huge crab claw that hooks downward at the tip
    • The bill is bright orange and yellow – like Slash’s signature sunburst les paul. The upper half is a brighter yellow with the lower half being a rich orange
    • There’s a black patch near the end where the top half hooks down like an eagle’s beak and a black ring where the bill meets the toucan’s head – like an o-ring making sure no toucan leaks out from the seams
  • Now it’s time for: Know the Difference
    • Joe, do you know the difference between a beak and a bill?
    • According to ornathology.com – a sketchy-looking wordpress site, there is no difference – the two terms are interchangeable. Just people tend to use “beak” as a subset of bills used for killing things.

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 this week from Nora! 

Length

  • 55–65 cm (21.5–25.5 in)
  • How many toucan lengths would it take to reach the highest restaurant in the world?
  • Hint: The restaurant is at the Chacaltaya ski resort in Bolivia. Unfortunately, the resort is barren these days. It was opened in the 1930s and skiers could enjoy snowy slopes all year round atop a 18,000 year old glacier. However, by 2009, the glacier was gone and no tourists were interested in sliding down rocky slopes. You can still get a hot meal there though.
  • 8,215 toucans. The restaurant was at 5340m (17,519 ft).

Weight

  • Males weigh 723 g (1 lb 9.5 oz)
  • How many toucans go into the weight of lions it would take to destroy the sun?
  • Hint: A popular meme format includes a simple image of two things with a vs in the middle. One of these memes that was going around the internet was 1 trillion lions versus the sun. A Youtuber called Eklectic found that a trillion lions would be barely visible next to the sun and do nothing at all to hinder it. So he crunched the numbers and calculated how many lions in a great ball of lions it would take to crush into a black hole and swallow the sun (and destroy the solar system).
  • 2.13307615 × 10^40  toucans. It took 1.8 x 10^36 lions. 

Fast Facts About the Toco Toucan

  • Range: They live in the open plains and woodlands of central South America Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. There are also sparse populations in the Guianas. They are the only members of the Ramphastos genus that don’t live in the jungle.
  • Diet: they are omnivorous and eat everything from fruits and berries to lizards, rodents, small birds, and insects.

Major Fact: The Nose Knows

A toucan’s beak is probably it’s most defining feature. It’s big and colorful. But as is often the case in nature, the toucan’s most striking feature may also be its most functional.

The beak’s first function is for foraging. These 8 inch long appendages are usefuling in plucking fruit off of branches in otherwise hard to reach places. In fact, their beaks are also serrated like a steak knife or a saw for ripping appart food.

But the beaks are also used for other purposes, including defense, attracting mates, and in temperature regulation. 

Yes, we have another nose for personal climate control. Toucan beaks are thin and if you look closely, you can see veins running through it. Having such a large, thin surface area for their blood to run through allows them to cool down in the sweltering heat of South America. 

However, at night the temperature can drop. To avoid losing heat at night, they’ll tuck their beaks up along their bodies and sleep with their beak on top of them.

Built Toucan Tough

The beak is both incredibly strong and surprisingly lightweight. The beak makes up a third of the bird’s length and only a 20th of its weight. Despite its weight allowing the bird to maintain its ability to fly, their beaks are also super durable. 

An article in AskNature.org says, “The beak’s solid outer shell sandwiches within it a closed-cell, foam-like structure made of struts which, together with thin protein membranes, enclose variably shaped air spaces. The solid shell layer is built of overlapping, hexagonally-shaped thin plates of keratin protein held together by an organic glue.”

This structure makes their beaks useful for defense, and able to take significant impacts. The article goes on to suggest this structural design could be integrated into cars to make them more crash resistant without sacrificing fuel economy by adding weight. 


Ending: So use your bill to keep you chill, expand your diet, and always follow your nose like the Toco toucan Sam here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 181 – Saiga Antelope: The Nose Knows

“…and today we’re talking about the tibetan fox of antelopes. By that I mean it looks like a child’s drawing of the antelope that isn’t quite right. But more on that later.”

On the steppes of the stans in Central Asia, a goofy-looking antelope grazes around the countryside, using its odd snout to sniff the ground as it walks. But having such a problematic proboscis can be more trouble than it’s worth, as a silent killer stalks these nefarious noses. But having a slinky snout is just how the Saiga antelope stays cool here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • The saiga antelope has a stocky deer-like body with thin legs. It doesn’t look as thin and lithe as an impala or springbok. 
  • Females are hornless and males have horns that go straight up with a twist. 
  • They have an almost uniform tan color except for a dark to light gradient for countershading. The color changes to be reddish in the summer and grey-brown in the winter. 
  • It has a large head with a nose that makes it look like it drinks at the Mos Eisley Cantina. 

Measure Up

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

  1. Common Eland
  2. Texas Longhorn
  3. Whitetail Buck
  4. Siberian Musk Deer

Height at the shoulder

  • 61–81 cm (24–32 in)
  • How many saiga antelopes go into the flagpole in National Flag Square in Baku, Azerbaijan?
  • Hint: The pole once held the record for the longest flag pole but it was surpassed by poles in Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia. 
  • 199.3 antelopes. The flagpole was 162 meters (531.4 feet).

Weight

  • 26–69 kg (57–152 lb)
  • How many saiga antelopes go into the combined weight of horses in the largest horse rider parade in the world, assuming they were all the average weight of mongol horses?
  • Hint: A mongol horse is a small but stocky breed of horses that is said to be unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan. The parade took place in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the oldest rider was 90 and the youngest was under three years old.
  • 40,254 antelopes. The horses are around 550 lbs on average and there were 11,125 of them making them weigh 6,118,750 pounds together. 

Fast Facts

Saiga Antelope live on the Eurasian Steppe, but they used to have a larger range spanning all the way across the bering strait to Alaska and Canada. 

They eat grass and shrubs. Their diet is so versatile that they can eat some plants that are poisonous to other animals. 

Males fight for mates and victorious bucks can control groups of up to 50 females. The females exclusively mate with the male that controls their group. They often give birth to two fawns at a time. 

Like other bovids, antelope newborns are able to walk and run shortly after they’re born. This gives them an edge against the Eurasian predators that would love to make a meal out of them, including foxes, wolves, dogs, and eagles.

The antelopes are able to live in plains that can reach very high and very low temperatures. And they have anatomical protections against the elements.

Major Fact: The Nose Knows

  • Because they live under the blazing suns of the spicy stans (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), overheating is a serious issue for mammals.
  • While they’re still not completely sure what the odd-looking noses do, it seems like their primary purpose is to help cool the saiga’s face since there are lots of blood vessels close to the skin and cools the blood as air flows over it.
  • Its shape and downward direction help to filter out dust that could be kicked up by the herd.
  • However, it turns out this nose has a serious downside
  • The saiga has recently plummeted in numbers over the last few years. 
    • While many point to hunting since saiga horn is used in superstitious remedies
    • In fact, from 1955 to 1985, hunters killed over 5 million of them 
    • But the fatal blow was struck back in the spring 2015 when a massive epidemic wiped out a full half of their population
    • After a long period of gob-smackedness, researchers found a special bacteria that grew in the blood vessels of the saiga’s noses called pasteurella multocida
    • This causes blood poisoning, which has a herd mortality rate of 100%
    • They used to live as far as the UK and even in Canada, but now they just live in Russia and the Stans.

Ending: So sharpen your horns and fluff your snout cause this sad antelope’s got reason to pout here in LDT

Episode 180 – Eastern Screech Owl: Snakes in the Nest

“…and today we’re talking about an owl with an eye for allies. But more on that later.”

Small things slithering across the woodlands know to watch the skies. A killer approaches silently as it glides from high perches. For most small mammals and invertebrates that meet this aerial doom, it’s time to say goodbye to this mortal coil. But when a particular snake comes face-to-beak with the eastern screech owl, they have one more chance to prove their worth. But sometimes, combating deadly predators is a matter of being worth more alive than dead in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 179 – Brown-Throated Sloth: The Slowest Mammal

“…and today we’re talking about the sloooowest mammal in the world. But more on that later.”

The Amazon jungle is home to a wide variety of animals both fast and slow, with one of the slowest being the brown-throated sloth. But with so many fierce predators on the jungle floor, it helps to spend all your time hanging out in the trees. The only problem is, there aren’t a lot of good things to eat way high up in the trees. So to stay healthy, and stay slow, the sloth has some unorthodox ways of getting his vitamins here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 178 – Spiny Leaf Insect: Egg Mimicry

“…and today we’re talking about a bug that looks like a deep fried praying mantis. But more on that later.”

The forest is a dangerous place for an egg. They are packed with proteins and fats in order to grow the new creature inside, but those qualities also make them tasty morsels for foragers. Moms of all sizes search high and low for a safe place to deposit her ovum, except for one insect. The spiny leaf insect perches high in a tree and flicks her eggs out onto the forest floor, never to be seen again. But she’s not neglectful, she knows they have all they need to make it in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description

  • Looks like a combination of sticks and leaves. 
  • Long, narrow body and six long legs with flattened sections to resemble leaves
  • Its abdomen curls up behind it like a scorpion when it’s threatened 
  • It has a teardrop-shaped head with two long antennae sticking out. Its head actually looks a lot like an ant’s

Measure Up

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

Female Length 

  • 5 to 8 inches (20 cm)
  • How many female spiny leaf insects go into the longest ever knitted scarf?
  • Hint: The scarf was made by Helge Johansen in Oslo, Norway in 2013. The scarf was rolled into a tight ball which he unrolled in a sports arena. 
  • 22,467.8 stick insects. The scarf was 4,565.46 m (14,978 ft 6.16 in).

Male Length

  • 11 cm (4.3 inches)
  • How many males go into the diameter of the smallest known star in the universe?
  • Hint: The star is called EBLM J0555-57Ab and it’s in the Milky Way Galaxy with us, about 600 lightyears away. It’s pushing the limits when it comes to small stars. If it were any smaller, there wouldn’t be enough mass putting pressure on the core for the hydrogen fusion process to take place. 
  • 1,058,758,160 male stick insects. The star is about the same size as Saturn which is 72,367 mi.

Fast Facts

  • Diet: Like the humble Koala, SLI mostly just eats Eucalyptus leaves. They can eat other kinds of leaves, but they don’t get as big and have different coloration
  • Behavior: 
    • SLI Cooper has an arsenal of defense mechanisms to hide from and ward off predators.
    • For starters, they have passive camouflage (meaning they don’t have to do anything) – since they, you know, look like sticks. Just hanging out on their favorite Eucalyptus perches keeps them pretty well hidden.
    • They’ll also use active camouflage (meaning they have agency). When the wind blows the tree they’re in, they’ll sway back and forth so that it’s not obvious that they’re the only thing not moving.
    • On top of that, if the camouflage doesn’t work, this stick bug is also covered in thorns so that it can David Hyde Pierce its enemies.
    • When threatened, it will use its spiny rear legs to poke attackers.
    • As nymphs, they look almost exactly like ants to avoid predation
    • Males have wings and are good flyers 

Major Fact: Egg Mimicry 

There are many plants around the world that get benefits from producing tasty seeds. While it seems counter productive, animals that eat seeds disperse them wherever they leave droppings. And the seeds are robust enough to make it through digestion without being destroyed.

This technique helps plants to distribute their offspring far and wide without sapping all of the resources out of a particular area. Some animals could benefit from a similar method. If you’re a stick insect, you don’t want your family to eat all the food in your area and then starve. But how to achieve optimal dispersal.

Certain plants in the leaf insect’s home range drop oval seeds with a tasty white cap. The cap attracts ants that pull the seeds underground to be stored and eaten. The remaining bits of the seed germinate and grow new plants.

The leaf insect and several of its cousins drop eggs that look almost identical to these seeds. It even sports that fat capsule that attracts ants. So stick insects simply sit in a tree and lay an egg that tumbles to the forest floor. Not nesting or hunting for the perfect burrow. They just plop it on the ground. 

The ants do the rest. Scouts will find the egg and pull it into their stores underground. But when the egg reaches the inspection team, someone says, this thing is no seed, it’s breed! Most eggs get ignored by the ants after that. Once they’re underground, they’re safe from other predators, as eggs and once they hatch.

It’s a good thing too because these eggs need a safe place for a long time. They could take up to three years to hatch. 

Researchers thought that maybe these eggs are more like seeds than we thought. Maybe they can even survive gestation like some seeds. So in 2011, scientists feed stick insect eggs to some birds to see what would happen. The birds loved them but the eggs were completely digested. 

Since birds seem to like these eggs and totally destroy them, researchers believe there must be a way that the risk of this egg laying method is covered in nature. Perhaps the ants are more of a crucial part of the stick insect’s life cycle than we thought. 

What About Males?

Now, you’re smart and you might have some good questions about this method. Like what happens when the baby hatches in the middle of an ant nest? Well, hatchlings look a lot like ants. They have thin bodies and legs with a big head. Still, once they hatch, baby stick insects make a break for the nearest tree as soon as possible. 

You may also ask, “What about mating? When do males fertilize these eggs?” Stick insects to produce sexually, but they don’t have to. An unfertilized egg can produce a baby insect no problem. When this happens, the hatchling is always female. If a male happens to find one of these egg drops, a fertilized egg can produce a male or a female.  

Ending: So blend in, keep your thorns sharp, and throw your young into the dens of better parents like the spiny leaf insect here in LDT.

Episode 177 – Sea Pen: A Perfect Plume

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

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

Description

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

Measure Up

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

Length at Sexual Maturity

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

Living depth

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

Fast Facts

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

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

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

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

This particular genus has several bioluminescent species.

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

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

Major Fact: We are Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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