The Common Octopus

With their extraordinary camouflage techniques and ingenious defences, the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is one of the most intelligent of all the invertebrates. This species is a mollusc belonging to the class Cephalopoda, and is widespread in tropical and warm temperate oceanic waters. Their vast distribution is a testament to the octopus’ ability to continuously adapt.

Common Octopus 2.jpg

The common octopus has a unique and unmistakable appearance. They have eight grasping arms, or tentacles, which are also used for crawling along the sea floor. Each tentacle can be up to 1 metre in length and is lined with two series of cup-like ‘suckers’. These give the octopus a superb grip, acting like studs on the bottom of football boots. The suckers also have receptors that enable the octopus to taste what is touching (as I said, this animal is incredibly unique). Their huge, bulbous head is actually a fleshy mantle enclosing a cavity that contains vital organs, including gills for breathing. Another magnificent feature of the common octopus is their eyesight. This mollusc has two prominent eyes with a horizontal, slit-shaped pupil which give them surprisingly excellent vision.

Common Octopus 3.jpg
Their ‘suckers’ make them excellent climbers.

This octopus is a predator of crustaceans, among other prey, and has a secret weapon hiding in its underside – a beak. Its jaws are a parrot-like peak, which is strong enough to penetrate the carapace (shell) of a crab or lobster. This beak can deliver a nasty bite and hides a venomous saliva used for subduing prey. They may also release a cloud of black ink to disorientate their meal before attacking. This ink is released from a funnel just behind its head and is mainly used as a defence mechanism. When faced with an enemy, they will release this ink (which contains chemicals that dull their attacker’s sense of smell) and swiftly flee from the scene. This funnel has two other main uses: to expel water after gills have extracted oxygen and to rapidly discharge water as jet propulsion for a quick getaway. There is no denying that this animal is exceptionally creative in its methods of predation and defence.

But their brilliance does not end there. For one, they can squeeze through minuscule cracks and crevices – any hole that’s not smaller than their beak. Furthermore, the common octopus can change colour in an instant. Their skin contains special cells called chromatophores. These contain pigment which can change the octopus’ colour and even texture, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings or to signal its mood if angry or afraid. Their camouflage is one of the best in the animal kingdom; predators such as sharks, eels, and dolphins swim by without even noticing them. I’m starting to question if there’s anything this animal can’t do.

Common Octopus.jpg
The common octopus can blend into almost any environment.

In spite of its remarkable adaptations, the common octopus is short-lived, with a lifespan of 1 to 2 years in the wild. It takes little more than a year to mature and spawn their own offspring, Both mother and father die soon after mating as their time is completely focused on caring for and brooding their eggs. Upon hatching, an infant octopus enters the big, blue world with half a million of its siblings – ready to repeat this cycle all over again. The common octopus is the first invertebrate of my blog, and deservedly so. Their exceptional array of unbelievable characteristics and adaptations make them a true wonder of wildlife.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/c/common-octopus/

http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/MarineInvertebrateZoology/Octopusvulgaris.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_octopus

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Nile Crocodile

The largest freshwater predator in Africa, the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is a formidable hunter with a great historical significance. They are widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where they feed mainly on fish – like their Indian relative, the Gharial. However, these reptiles are opportunists so will attack almost anything unfortunate enough to cross its path, including zebras, wildebeest, small hippos, warthogs, bushpigs, porcupines, birds, and even other crocodiles. Once they have made a kill, they will rip off and swallow chunks of flesh, using the classic “death roll” to tear off particularly stubborn bits of meat.

nile crocodile 2

The Nile crocodile is possibly the second largest extant reptile in the world, after the huge saltwater crocodile. They can reach up to 6 metres in length, and weigh over 1000 kilograms in extremely rare cases. Though normally, adults don’t exceed 5 metres, and weigh around 500 kilograms. These crocs are quite sociable animals; sharing their basking spots and food with others. Their hierarchy is strict and determined solely by size and strength.

In the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, Nile crocodiles enjoy an annual feast. This reserve is famous for the annual migration of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, and wildebeest to and from the Serengeti every year, known as the Great Migration. During this migration, these mammals must cross the Mara river – a river that is home to hundreds of hungry crocodiles. As huge herds of desperate wildebeest and zebra charge through the river, the crocodiles relish in the free buffet. These crocodiles have adapted, ingeniously, to exploit the delicious meals on offer.

Nile Crocodile 3.jpg
A Nile crocodile hunting a wildebeest in the Mara river.

Not only are Nile crocodiles superb predators, they also have an incredible past. Modern crocodiles have been around for about 80 million years, and the fact that they are still here today is a testament to their wonderful ability to adapt. In Ancient Egypt, the Nile crocodile was seen as the biggest and most dangerous predator; feared by many. However, the Egyptian people also had some admiration for these creatures – the Egyptian deity Sobek was based upon the crocodile. Mummified crocodiles and crocodile eggs have even been found in Egyptian tombs!

These reptiles were hunted close to extinction in the mid-1900s, but local and international conservation measures have helped populations to recover in most areas. Thankfully, their status is looking secure. The Nile crocodile has an undeserved reputation of being a vicious and ruthless man-eater, however incidents between people and crocodiles are rare. It is estimated that 200 people are killed each year by the Nile crocodile, a minuscule number when compared to the 1.25 million people who die in road crashes every year.

Nile Crocodile.jpg

Nile crocodiles are opportunists – they don’t actively hunt humans but will take an easy meal if presented with one. Crocodiles have been around far longer than we have. We should show them the respect they deserve.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/n/nile-crocodile/

http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_crocodiles.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_crocodile#Hunting_and_diet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sobek

The Red Panda

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is an arboreal, solitary mammal native to the high-altitude, temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. The red panda’s unique appearance has caused some confusion among zoologists. Up until recently, some zoologists classified the red panda with the raccoons (Procyonidae), whilst others placed it in the bear family (Ursidae, a group which includes the giant panda). However, analysis of their evolutionary relationships showed that they differ so greatly from both the giant panda and raccoon that they warrant their own family, Ailuridae.

Red Panda 3.jpg
These climbers have superb balance up in the trees.

The red panda is roughly the size of a domestic cat, but unlike carnivorous cats, these climbers feed mainly on bamboo. They are not fussy creatures though, as they may also feed on birds, eggs, insects, flowers, berries and small mammals when the opportunity presents itself. Red pandas are usually crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, and live solitary lives, only coming together to mate. Common predators of the red panda include the snow leopard and martens, but if they feel threatened they will rapidly flee by climbing up the nearest tree. If they have no other option, they may even stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use their claws to desperately slash at their enemy.

Their striped, bushy tails have three main purposes: for balance up in the trees; for camouflage in their habitat of moss and lichen-covered vegetation; and for warmth, especially during the harsh Himalayan winters. Another fascinating adaptation of the red panda is their claws. They have strong, curved, semi-retractable claws which are designed to grasp and tear their main food source – bamboo.

Red Panda 4.jpg
Red pandas will use their bushy tails for warmth.

With their adorable, patchy face and their fluffy, reddish-brown coat it is hard not to adore these little guys. But sadly, many do not show the worthy respect to the red panda. The red panda is endangered and the wild population is estimated at fewer than 10,000 individuals. Their main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by widespread deforestation as agriculture and human population pressure constrict their native range. Another major threat for the red panda is poaching, especially in China where the population of red pandas has fallen by 40% in the past 50 years.

The Grévy’s Zebra

The largest wild species in the horse family (Equidae), the Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is a perissodactyl (odd-toed ungulate) found only in certain regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. They are one of three species of zebra, the other two being the Plain’s zebra (Equus quagga) and the Mountain zebra (Equus zebra). This herbivore lives in semi-arid grasslands where it grazes on many different types of grass which other species may not be able to.

Aside from their unique pattern of stripes, one of the most distinctive features of the Grévy’s zebra is their large, mickey-mouse-esque ears – much larger than the ears of their cousins. They also have long legs which allow them to reach 40mph when sprinting.

Grévy's Zebra 3.jpg
A herd of zebras, also known as a zeal or dazzle.

Unlike the plains zebra, Grévy’s do not live in harems – a group of females controlled by a dominant male (called a stallion). Instead, they live in herds with loose social structures and lack a particular dominant male. These social groups may contain foals who, unlike their parents, have a brown and white striping which gradually darkens into a black and white coat as they grow. Grévy’s zebras have a relatively long gestation period of 13 months resulting in the birth of a single foal. Amazingly, newborn foals can stand after six minutes, walk after 20 minutes, and they can run after an hour. This adaptation means foals can join the herd and evade predators just after they have been born.

Grévy's Zebra 2.jpeg
Foals have a brown and white striping.

Grévy’s zebra once roamed a vast area of East Africa but have since become restricted to the horn of Africa. They are now considered endangered, with their wild population totalling no more than 2,500 individuals. In the past, their main threat was poaching for their striped skin but now their main threats seems to be habitat loss and competition with livestock, cattle in particular. Moreover, with their current population being so small and fragmented, this species may soon find it difficult to reproduce and expand the gene pool.

The Grévy’s zebra got its name in 1882 when the government in Abyssinia (the Ethiopian empire) sent one of these zebras to France. The president at the time was Jules Grévy and subsequently this new species was named in his honour. Although I would have personally preferred Mickey’s zebra.

The Wild Turkey

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be nice to pay some appreciation to the quintessential Christmas meat – the turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a fascinating, ground-dwelling bird native to North America, and carries a huge historical significance. Their name originates from Britain, whereby domesticated turkeys were being imported to Britain in ships arriving from a region in and around the country of Turkey.

Wild Turkey 2.jpg
An adult male turkey displaying his magnificent plumage.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous birds that typically feed on forest floors, consuming a varied diet of nuts, seeds, insects, fruits and salamanders. They prefer hardwood forests with scattered openings such as marshes, swamps, grasslands, fields and orchards.

Prior to America’s colonisation, the Native Americans regularly hunted wild turkeys for their undoubtedly delicious meat. When Europeans arrived, they quickly domesticated the birds and wild turkeys were unsustainably hunted, causing their numbers to plummet during the 19th and 20th century, and their status became increasingly insecure. Thankfully, in the 1940s, reintroduction programmes began which established new populations in recovering forests and woodlands across North America.

Wild Turkey.jpg
An adult male (left) and female (right) competing in a staring contest.

Male and female turkeys are dissimilar in appearance, exhibiting a range of different characteristics (this is known as sexual dimorphism). Adult males, also called toms or gobblers, are much larger than females, known as hens, and have a thick, glossy black plumage, sometimes showing areas of purple, red, copper and bronze. They also have a white-tipped tail which becomes fanned out when displaying to a potential partner. However, most noticeably, males have an intense bald, reddish head with red wattles drooping down from their throat and neck. Additionally, they flaunt a long, red fleshy flap over their beak – called a snood. In contrast, female turkeys have a duller plumage of brown and grey tones and lack many of the distinctive characteristics of the males.

Wild Turkey 3.jpg
A lone female turkey.

Males can weigh up to 10kg, whereas females seldom exceed 5kg. Despite their relatively large weight, wild turkeys are agile, fast flyers and can comfortably traverse through the obstacles in their woodland habitat. Wild turkeys share their habitat with a plethora of predators including coyotes, gray wolves, cougars, bobcats, Canadian lynx, black bears and eagles – but these seemingly slow-witted birds are not completely defenceless. Adult turkeys, especially males, can be quite aggressive to potential threats; they may kick, bite or even ram in order to deter predators. Surprisingly, wild turkeys can run 40 kilometres per hour in short bursts – nearly as fast as Usain Bolt’s maximum sprinting speed.

I hope this post allowed you to learn a bit more about the turkey, and gave you a greater appreciation for their lifestyle, unique characteristics and abilities. Happy Holidays!

The Pig-Nosed Turtle

As you can probably imagine from their name, the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is quite an unusual looking reptile. To some, they may appear a little disturbing, but I actually find them rather adorable. Their odd features are surprisingly phenomenal adaptations to their aquatic habitat, and should be admired rather than mocked.

Pig-Nosed Turtle
Adorable? Yes….no?

The pig-nosed turtle is a freshwater species of turtle native to the lakes, streams, lagoons and rivers of Northern Australia and New Guinea. They are the only extant species in the family Carettochelyidae, which makes them incredibly unique. These reptiles are omnivorous, consuming a varied diet of crustaceans, molluscs, insects, and plant and animal matter. These nocturnal reptiles can reach up to 60cm in length, quickly outgrowing aquariums and fish tanks.

Pig-Nosed Turtle
A new born grasping the art of swimming.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the pig-nosed turtle is their countless number of specialised adaptations. Unusually for freshwater turtles, the pig-nosed turtle has forelimbs modified as flippers, resembling those of marine turtles. This adaptation helps them ‘fly’ through the water, earning them the less common name of ‘Fly River Turtle’. In addition, their protruding pig-like snout is adapted for breathing air while submerged.  Its grey or olive coloured carapace (shell) lacks the hard scutes (plates) of other turtles and tortoises, and is instead more leathery in texture. This gives the pig-nosed turtle a more streamlined shape. These are just a few of the pig-nosed turtle’s superb adaptations.

Pig-Nosed Turtle 3

Most people have not heard of the pig-nosed turtle and some may never know about them. The pig-nosed turtle was recently added to the IUCN Red List of endangered species and their population is on the decline. One of their biggest threats is the international pet trade – thousands, sometimes even tens of thousands, of pig-nosed turtles are taken from their natural habitat and shipped off around the world to end up in aquariums and fish tanks, resulting in a rapid decline of their native populations.. Furthermore, they are threatened by demand for their eggs. With an undeniably unique appearance and array of wonderful evolutionary adaptations, the pig-nosed turtle deserves to be protected.

The Tiger

Unbelievably powerful and expertly agile, the tiger (Panthera tigrisis the largest member of the cat family and the focus of tonight’s final episode of Dynasties. They occupy a vast but fragmented range from the dense jungles of Indonesia all the way up to the snowy expanses of Siberia – demonstrating their excellent adaptability in a plethora of different habitats and ecosystems. The largest individuals are found in Siberia, where the males can reach up to 300kg, yet still possess the power to jump as high as 10 metres – over five times the height of an average person.

Tiger

Tigers are magnificent hunters, consuming a diet of mainly hoofed animals such as Sambar deer, wild boar and water buffalo, although this diet will vary considerably depending on their habitat. The most striking feature of the tiger is their fiery orange coat marked with charcoal-black stripes. This beautiful fur pattern provides superb camouflage in the autumnal-toned vegetation. Their tail, which is also striped, helps tigers maintain balance when chasing after prey or climbing rocky tracts.

The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, but these mammals are not being given the respect they deserve. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, spread out over six subspecies, with the South China tiger being most at threat (most likely extinct in the wild). Nine subspecies of tiger used to roam our planet, but within the past century, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tiger have all become extinct – forever gone because of human’s actions.

Tiger 3.jpg
Tigers occupy a range of habitats from swamps to forests to snowy plains.

It is estimated that wild tiger numbers have dropped by an abhorrent 95% since the beginning of the 20th century and now all six extant subspecies are considered either endangered (the Bengal, Siberian and Indo-Chinese tigers) or critically endangered (the Malayan, South China and Sumatran tigers). The cause of their suffering is due to human conflict; habitat loss and fragmentation; and poaching. Unfortunately, tigers live in some of the most densely populated places on earth so conflict with humans is almost inevitable in our ever-increasing crowded world. Tiger parts are also used in the fruitless and detrimental practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

Tiger 4.jpg
A mother and her cubs enjoying a leisurely swim.

Thankfully, conservation organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working closely with governments to resolve human-tiger conflicts and establish larger national parks where these tigers can hopefully live in relative peace – tigers are extremely territorial are require up to 450 kilometres squared each, so large habitats are essential. However, tigers are far from safe and their conflict with humans will only worsen unless drastic action is immediately taken. These majestic cats play such a vital ecological and cultural role in Asia that their extinction would be shamefully inexcusable.