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.

Horned Lizards

 Central America, Deserts, North America, Reptiles  Comments Off on Horned Lizards
Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of soulsurvivor08 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouthern North America, Central America
Favorite Foodants
Length6 inches or less
StatusSome Species Threatened
Threatshabitat destruction, pesticides, invasive ant species

Of all the animals that can scrape out a living in the world’s deserts, lizards are among the most adapted to such harsh environments. Their hard scales provide a barrier against water loss and the abrasiveness of wind and sand. They obtain most of their water from their diverse diets and can survive long stretches of time without food. Horned lizards are among the most successful group of desert reptiles and comprise 14 different species of lizards that live in the arid regions of North and Central America.

As their name implies, horned lizards have a number of spiked projections on their head, body, and tail. In addition to their flattened, toad-like bodies, horned lizards are often referred to as horned toads or horny toads. The horns are used in courtship displays and also act as a defense against predators. However, it’s their rough, mottled skin blending seamlessly with their rocky surroundings that affords them the best protection. As long as the lizard remains still, it is virtually invisible to most predators. Some horned lizards possess more specialized defenses, like shooting blood from the eyes to confuse and frighten predators.

One of the most pressing issues of life in the desert is regulating body temperature. Like all reptiles, horned lizards are at the mercy of their surroundings when it comes to their internal heat. In order to maintain optimal temperature in the desert land of extremes, horned lizards will burrow into the sand or soil to avoid the murderous midday sun and cold temperatures at night. As the morning sun creeps over the horizon, they will raise their heads out of their burrow in order to first warm their brains. As soon as all systems are operational in the nervous system, horned lizards will then remove the rest of their bodies from the sand and begin their daily routines of basking in the sun and searching for ants to gobble up.

photo provided courtesy of Ben Goodwyn on Flickr Creative CommonsHorned lizards are still common across the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Since they live in an environment that is inhospitable to man, they have been spared much of the trouble that has befallen many of their lizard relatives in other regions of the world. However, human development in arid regions still poses a looming threat.

The Plumed Basilisk

 Central America, Reptiles, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Plumed Basilisk
Jan 092010
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral America
Habitattropical forest
NicheArboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodanything it can fit in its mouth
Lengthup to 30 inches
Weighta few pounds
StatusLocally Common
Threatshabitat destruction

When it comes to walking on water, there are a few animals that carry on the miracle’s legacy. One is the plumed basilisk, a bright green lizard of Central America that grows to over two feet in length. Because of their unique ability to evade predators by traversing the surface of a pool of water, these tropical reptiles have earned the nickname “Jesus Christ lizard.”

The secret to the Jesus walk is in the plumed basilisk’s feet. The lizard will slap the water with a hind foot with enough force to create a pocket of air between the foot and the surrounding water. Then, with lightning speed, it will pull the foot up before the air pocket fills with water. Using this method, the plumed basilisk can scamper across the surface of several feet of water in order to evade predators that can’t follow.

Basilisks are the ultimate omnivores in the tropical forests of Central America, feeding on insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians, and even certain flowers and fruits. They are active by night and day in tree branches, waiting for prey to come within range. These lizards choose their perches over water so that they can drop in and escape if the need arises. In addition to their ability to run across the surface, plumed basilisks are also excellent swimmers. The raised crests on the head, back, and tail allow propulsion through the water for a quick getaway.

Male plumed basilisks are fiercely territorial during the mating season and will defend their turf with gusto if challenged by another male. The dominant males earn the right to mate with several females in their range, increasing the chance their genes will be passed on to the next generation. Females will lay a clutch of around 20 eggs several weeks after mating. As with all reptiles, the chance of youngsters reaching adulthood is low due to predation, so laying many eggs increases the chance that at least one will survive.

Plumed basilisks are still common in the forests of Central America due to their adaptability and unspecialized diet. However, they can’t live without trees, and as logging continues to clear habitat in the land bridge between the Americas, the Jesus Christ lizard might find that its tricks are not enough to overcome.