The Egyptian Vulture

 Africa, Asia, Birds, Deserts, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mountains  Comments Off on The Egyptian Vulture
May 062010
HomeAfrica, Asia, Southern Europe
HabitatHot, dry regions
Favorite FoodCarrion, eggs, cow manure, rotted plants
LengthUp to 28 inches
WeightUp to 4 pounds
Threatspoaching, poisoning

With its wrinkled yellow face and feathery locks like white hair, the Egyptian vulture has a strangely human look of cunning. Once a common sight across the dry expanses of Africa and Asia, these small scavengers are now endangered, driven to the fringes of their former range by forces out of their control.

Egyptian vultures are small for carrion birds, not much bigger than crows. And like crows, they have a broader capacity for problem solving than most birds. There’s no better example of their ingenuity than their behavior around ostrich eggs on the African savannah. An unguarded ostrich nest is a boon for any animal, especially a scavenger in regions with fierce competition for food. However, such a small bird can’t get into such an imposing egg without help. So over thousands of years, these crafty vultures have developed proficiency in a very powerful adaptation. Tools.

That’s right. Tools aren’t just for humans and those in the animal world most like us. Egyptian vultures are one of the few birds that can truly make use of tools in the wild. Once a bird has located an egg, it will search the surrounding ground for a suitable stone, pick it up in its beak, and hurl it down on the egg repeatedly. All it needs is a crack in order to pry the egg open with its beak before 300 pounds of angry ostrich mother discovers what it’s up to.

Egyptian vultures need to be wily because they so often get muscled out of the pecking order at carcasses by other vultures. Even if they do reach a dead animal first, they’re not powerful enough to tear meat from a fresh kill. They must wait for stronger scavengers like hyenas and white-backed vultures to shred the flesh for them.

Nowadays, the Egyptian vulture is a rare sight in much of Africa and Asia where up until very recently it boasted impressive numbers. Ironically, these birds that help stall the spread of disease to humans have been pushed to the brink under the mistaken belief that they spread it. Also, improved veterinary medicine has done wonders for livestock, but has wreaked havoc on these birds once certain chemicals enter the food chain and poison them. Strange how the first bird ever protected by law (in Ancient Egypt) is now facing such grim prospects in a more enlightened age.

*filmstrip photo provided courtesy of belgianchocolate on Flickr Creative Commons

The Orangutan

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Orangutan
May 042010
Home – Borneo and Sumatra (South Pacific)
Habitat – Tropical forests
Niche – Arboreal herbivore
Favorite Food – Fruit (especially figs)
Height – Up to 4.5 feet
Weight – up to 300 pounds
Status – Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, Bornean orangutans endangered
Threats – Loss of Habitat, illegal pet trade, poaching

Of all the faces of the forest, few look so much like our own. The “Man of the Woods,” a great ape covered head to foot in thick red hair, lives in the forests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in the South Pacific. He is the orangutan.

Orangutans are the largest apes on earth after the gorillas of Africa, but shaped much differently. Gorillas are heavy and stocky, suited for life on the floor of the dense jungle canopy. Orangutans are built for life in the trees above. Long limbs power these swinging great apes from tree to tree bent under their weight to shorten distances. Young orangutans are lighter and able to swing further than the oldest and heaviest who live life at a slower pace. In a way, the youngsters move like their slimmer cousins to the north, the gibbons.

The man of the woods doesn’t kill animals to eat unless you count insects. Most of what an orangutan puts in his mouth is fruit and he’s content with what the trees provide. Food, shelter, and recreation are all found in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra for these mostly solitary folk on a life journey that can last many decades.

The man of the woods can’t live without it, and there’s not much left. Many years ago, people set aside national parks to protect patches of forest from the fate they’d likely suffer if unprotected. For a while, the heat of fires and roar of power saws were kept at bay. But wads of cash under the table go far in the developing world. Those who can afford it have a taste for wooden furniture and palm oil, and when there’s demand, supply follows. On islands with small economies and high levels of poverty, timber and agriculture are crucial to those who call them home. Economies, laws, and livelihoods collide in this unique corner of the South Pacific. For the orangutan, things are complicated indeed.

There aren’t many men of the woods still living in the great Indonesian forests. On Sumatra, several thousand remain, enough to fill a small town in your own corner of America. In Borneo, tens of thousands of orangutans still roam the forests not yet felled. Things could be worse. 60,000 orangutans is better than 10. But the numbers aren’t going up.

*filmstrip photo provided by Chi King

Jan 152010
photo provided courtesy of Hamed Saber on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeworldwide
Habitattropical and temperate forests, grassland, suburban
Nichemost are herbivorous, some species feed on other insects
Favorite Foodplant juices
Lengthup to 1 inch
Notable Featurethey produce a foul-smelling liquid to ward off predators

There are over 5,000 species of stink bugs worldwide, and they range in color from drab green and brown to brightly-colored red and yellow. Most species suck juices from trees and shrubs, but a few prey on other insects. As a result of their feeding habits on commercially-valuable crops, some species are serious pests to humans.

Stink bugs are also known as shield-bugs because of the shape of their bodies. They have broad “shoulders” that taper into their abdomens below their folded wings. They have strong angular legs for gripping plant stems and have specialized mouthparts for piercing and slurping. They are very common insects and can be found nearly everywhere in the world where there’s vegetation.

Stink bugs are so-named because of their defense against predators. If they’re disturbed, they will eject a noxious liquid from special glands in their thorax. The smell and taste of this bitter chemical weapon is enough to deter many predators and to put off a casual human collector. The bright coloration of many species is a warning sign to predators that it doesn’t taste very good. Sometimes coloration alone in the animal kingdom does the trick without needing to deploy the weapon being advertised.

Jan 152010
photo provided courtesy of mybulldog on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeNorth and South America
Habitatvaried: tropical and temperate forest, grassland, desert, and mountains
Nichenocturnal hunter
Favorite Foodsmall mammals
Lengthup to 2 feet
Weightup to 5 pounds
ThreatsHabitat destruction

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl in North America, and its range extends from Northern Canada down to Tierra del Fuego. It gets its name from the tufts of feathers on either side of its head that resemble horns from a distance. A silent killer of the night, it is one of the world’s most successful birds.

Great Horned Owls are some of the most sedentary birds in the world, rarely venturing far from their home tree. Because of their adaptations, they don’t need to fly far in search of food. Small mammals are plentiful across the Great Horned Owl’s wide range across North and South America, and this amazing bird has an extensive hunting arsenal. Its binocular vision is so acute that it can spy a mouse over 100 feet away, and its hearing can detect tiny movement in the leaf litter below its tree. Although owls can’t move their eyes in their sockets, they can turn their heads almost completely around their axis, allowing them to zero-in on prey. Finally, the soft feathers of an owl muffles the sound of flight, making its deadly approach nearly silent up until the point it sinks its razor-sharp talons into an unfortunate animal.

Great Horned Owls make their nests in trees, usually in a hollowed-out trunk or the abandoned nest of a hawk or crow. In sparser areas, they will nest in rocky alcoves. Although the female is the one to incubate the eggs, both parents will tend to the fledgling chicks for about 6 weeks until they leave the nest. Great Horned Owls are very territorial birds, even when not rearing young, but will defend their nests with resolve. They have been known to dive-bomb humans to frighten them away from their trees if they get too close.

Habitat destruction is the greatest threat facing Great Horned Owls because of their dependence on trees for nesting. However, their wide range has afforded them a buffer against encroachment, and they are still common in many regions of North and South America.

The Red-Eyed Treefrog

 Amphibians, Central America, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Red-Eyed Treefrog
Jan 112010
photo provided courtesy of flickrfavorites on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral America
Habitat Tropical Forest
Nicheamphibious insectivore
Favorite Foodinsects
Lengthup to about 3 inches
StatusLocally Common
Threatshabitat loss, pollution, climate change

The red-eyed treefrog inhabits tropical forests of Central America, using its squishy toe pads to gain footing on wet branches in its search for insects. Because of the constant humidity in its habitat, adult red-eyed treefrogs and other treefrogs are able to live a mostly terrestrial life and only need standing water during the mating season. It is one of the most colorful frogs in the world, with striking red eyes, orange feet, and blue decals along the sides its green body.

Mating is an interesting affair for red-eyed treefrogs. Although they don’t need to mate in standing water like many other frogs, they still need to gather an amount of freshwater to allow the movement of sperm and eggs. This task falls on the female, and she carts the male on her back down to a pool of water to gather enough to lay 50 or so eggs on a chosen leaf. Ever the hard-worker, the female will continue this process a few times until she has finished laying eggs. The loafer on her back will then leave, having fulfilled his purpose of providing sperm. The eggs only take about 5 days to hatch and the newborn tadpoles will drop off of the egg-laden leaves into water. Like all amphibians, quantity of eggs laid is important. Since the eggs are so attractive to predators, only batches of hundreds will produce enough offspring with a chance to reach adulthood.

Red-eyed treefrogs are still locally common in the remaining stretches of tropical forest across Central America. As deforestation continues to reduce tree cover to make way for farmland, treefrog numbers will continue to decrease. However, loss of trees is not the only threat facing red-eyed treefrogs and others of their kind. Amphibians are notoriously vulnerable to even small changes in temperature, and the quality of water and air. Industrial pollution, even in minute amounts, has triggered massive die-offs of frogs, toads, and salamanders in all regions of the world.