Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of photographix.ca on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth Asia
Habitattemperate mountain forests
Nichearboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodbamboo
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 13 pounds
Threatsloss of habitat

The red panda couldn’t look more different than the better-known giant panda. Aside from a similar color pattern on its face, this member of the raccoon family is a far cry from the gigantic black and white panda in terms of looks. It’s much more raccoon-like, with a slender body and a long, bushy tail that helps it balance in the trees of Southern Asia where it lives.

Red pandas prefer dense temperate forests below the tree line on mountain slopes in Asia. The trees allow them access to the tender leaves and shoots of bamboo and as shelter from predators. Red pandas feed primarily on bamboo, but supplement their diet with fruit, grubs, eggs, and small animals. They communicate with others of their kind primarily by smell, marking territories with any number of secretions and excretions. In the world of the dense forest, animals like the red panda must rely on senses other than sight.

Females bear litters of between one and five offspring in nests built into hollow tree trunks and attend to all of the parental care. Not unlike some human relationships, the male involvement in fostering the new generation ends with mating.

Like many other animals dependent on trees, the red panda has fallen victim to loss of its natural habitat. As the forests have fallen in Southern Asia in the past half century, so have the numbers of red pandas in the wild. They are now exceedingly rare and there may be as few as 2500 left.

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 Waterbuck

 Africa, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on The Waterbuck
Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of gsz on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern, Central, and Eastern Africa
Habitatgrasslands and tropical forest
Niche large herbivore
Favorite Food grass
Lengthup to 8 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to nearly 700 pounds
Status Lower Risk for Extinction
Threatshunting, habitat loss

Waterbucks get their name from their main defense against predators on the African Savanna. When threatened, they will bolt to the nearest body of water and quickly submerge themselves. Although it’s not the most daring way to save skin, lions don’t swim. The French also gave a name to these giant antelopes that didn’t quite stick through the ages – greasy kob. The name refers to an oily secretion produced on the fur that acts as a smell signature for other waterbucks as far away as 500 miles.

Despite its ability to evade land predators, life is still difficult for a large, tasty herbivore on the vast grasslands of Africa. Fewer than 20% of males will live long enough to defend their own territory against other males during the mating season. The male waterbucks that do pass this rite of dominance are left with something besides a plentiful supply of females. Waterbuck territories are carved out bordering rivers and ponds, where the grass is greener and the avenue of escape is wider.

Waterbucks are among the more common antelope in Africa, owing to their wide distribution and better adaptability to marshy environments than their relatives. Apart from crocodiles and lions, the biggest threat to waterbucks is man. They thrive on both grassland and plentiful fresh water, so if either shrinks, then so will waterbuck populations.

The Andean Condor

 Birds, Mountains, South America  Comments Off on The Andean Condor
Jan 092010
photo provided courtesy of orchidgalore on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern South America
Habitatmountains and coastlines
Nichelarge aerial scavenger
Favorite Foodcarrion
Wingspanup to 11 feet
Weightup to 25 pounds
StatusNear Threatened
Threatshunting, poisoning, habitat loss

The largest flying bird in the world carves its home among the jagged peaks of South America’s Andes Mountains. Soaring as high as 18,000 feet on rising air currents, the Andean Condor is one of the most impressive birds on Planet Earth.

It is a giant bird, with a body measuring nearly 4 feet in length and weighing up to 25 pounds. In order to keep that kind of weight aloft in the air, the Andean Condor uses its massive wings that can stretch 11 feet from tip to tip. Although that wing length is rivaled by other birds like large storks and albatrosses, no other bird comes close to the wing area of an adult Andean Condor. It relies on these giant wings to stay aloft, preferring to gain altitude and glide on rising thermals rather than expending energy on more propulsive flight. Using only a few wing flaps, this condor can travel huge distances in its search for food thousands of feet below.

Like all other vultures, the Andean Condor is primarily a scavenger, feeding on animal carcasses that dot the mountains and coastline of western South America. It uses its keen eyesight to locate everything from dead alpacas to beached whales from dizzying heights aloft. In addition to carrion, Andean Condors also will frequent the nesting grounds of seabirds on the Peruvian Coast. They snatch eggs from the nests of other birds that are no match for their intimidating size.

Andean Condors have fared better than their critically endangered cousins to the north, the California Condors. However, they are subject to similar threats due to their breeding habits. They produce only a single egg every two years, which means that a significant reduction in population could spell disaster for the species as a whole. Luckily, the remoteness of their habitat in the unforgiving heights of the Andes and their plentiful supply of dead meat has protected them so far.

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.