Episode 187 – Quokka: Pragmatist Parents

“…and today we’re talking about what the internet has dubbed the world’s happiest animal.”

You know that old joke where there are two guys hiking in the woods who see a bear and one of them says “How are we gonna outrun it” and the other says “I just need to outrun you”? Well, the adorable and permanently joyful Australian marsupial known as the quokka has taken that age-old adage to heart. It just goes to show that, like clowns, perpetually smiling doesn’t mean there isn’t a psychopath lurking just underneath. But that’s just how the quokka survives here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • Quokkas are adorable fuzzy brown marsupials. 
  • Picture a rabbit, give it a mousy face and ear. 
  • Throw on a fat caboose and a short rat tail. 
  • They are actually wallabies, which look like small kangaroos. But quokkas are a little rounder and cuter.
  • They have small mouths that are curled into a permanent smile, so they always sport an adorable grin.

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. Racoon
  2. Wallaby
  3. Squirrel
  4. Rabbit

Length

  • 40 to 54 cm (16 to 21 in) long
  • How many quokkas go into the length of the Eyre Highway, Australia’s longest stretch of straight highway.
  • Hint: Australians know Eyre as the country’s most boring road as it goes across the Nullarbor plain. Nullarbor is exactly what it sounds like: no trees. It’s just flat semi-arid desert on all sides. It’s only a part of National Highway 1, which goes all the way around the coast of Australia for 14,500 km (9,000 mi).
  • 3,107,657 quokkas. 1,660-kilometre (1,030 mi)

Weight

  • 2.5 to 5.0 kg (5.5 to 11 lb)
  • How many quokkas go into the heaviest legal roadtrain in Australia?
  • Hint: A roadtrain in Australia is any truck that hauls two or more trailers. In the history of road trains, the vast majority of record breakers were in Australia. In 2006 an Australian Mack truck hauled 113 trailers 100 yards.
  • 40,000 quokkas. 200 tonnes (220 U.S. tons)

Fast Facts

  • They live on remote islands off the coast of Australia, one of which is called Rottnest Island. 
  • The name for the island came from the fact that Dutch explorers thought the quokkas were some sort of rat and called the island “rat nest.”
  • They like wet and swampy areas with tons of rainfall.
  • Quokkas enjoyed the remoteness of Australia for a long time but not the introduction of foxes, pigs, and cats have made them slightly less happy. 
  • However, there are no cats in Rottnest and the quokkas there are as happy as a Mousekewitz sailing to the land of opportunity. 
  • They are gregarious and live in groups, but that friendliness also extends to their two legged friends. 
  • Quokkas have very little fear of people and they will regularly come up close and interact with people. This may be because of how little exposure island quokkas had with people or any large predators historically. 
    • Quokka selfies became popular in the 2010s because of their gregariousness with people and the fact that they naturally look like they’re smiling.
    • However, if you visit Rottnest, it’s important to know that it’s illegal to feed them or handle them. They can and will bite sometimes if they’re bothered or startled. Harming them or being cruel to them can earn you up to a $50,000 fine or five years in prison. 

Major Fact: Nature’s Ejection Seat

So living anywhere near Australia is dangerous since nature there is like a Navy Seal that always knows 18 ways to kill you.

This is especially true if you are a small mammal – you know, the thing that is on almost every predator’s list of favorite foods.

And despite what the 60s may have tried to shove down everyone’s throats, you can’t smile your enemies into submission. Dingoes, hawks, snakes, as well as cats and dogs couldn’t care less about how photogenic you are.

Unfortunately, quokkas aren’t known for their blinding speed and agility – especially when they’re carrying a joey. They also don’t spend a lot of time in groups and they live in the relatively poor protection of a spiky plant, so avoiding predators isn’t as straightforward as it is for other mammals.

So when they’re facing down a threat they can’t outrun, guess what most quokkas will do. 

They’ll get eaten.

But females with joeys in their pouch have a horrifying strategy to live another day that is literally a last-ditch effort – ditch the baby. They will clench their pouch and pop the joey out and onto the ground, where it will make pathetic little noises for the predator to hear.

This is obviously an instant death sentence for the baby – but the astute pragmatist will instantly recognize that this makes sense.

If the female quokka didn’t decide to prince of egypt its baby, the predator will almost certainly kill and eat them both. 

So in these situations, the joey is doomed no matter how you slice it. But the mother can still survive to have more babies and propagate the quokka species.

So it’s fortunate that, when completely outclassed by an opponent, the quokka doesn’t take Captain America’s “We’ll lose together” idealism to heart and definitely will trade lives for the greater mission –  otherwise there probably wouldn’t be any quokkas left.

An unthinkable thing to do for the irrational and emotional human and a no-brainer for instinct-driven animalistic pragmatism

Reminds me of the Samaritans in 2 Kings when those two women decided to eat their kids during a famine. From a practical side, it makes a bit of sense to trade the quick, certain death of one in order to avoid the less-certain slow, painful death of the whole family. But the whole idea makes me want to tear my clothes and ask for Elisha’s head on a spike.

Ending: So don’t be a communist, don’t drink vodka from random strangers, and remember that you’re never fully dressed without a smile like the quokka 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 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.