The Bee Hummingbird

The bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is the smallest species of bird on earth. Confined to Cuba, this tiny bird rarely exceeds 6cm in length. Females are slightly larger than the males but still only weigh up to 2.6 grams. To put it in perspective, the bee hummingbird is hardly larger than the diameter of a golf ball and weighs roughly the same as a penny.

Bee Hummingbird 3.jpg
A male bee hummingbird.

Despite their unbelievably small size, bee hummingbirds are swift and skilful flyers. Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of any animal in the world, and this is important because the smallest hummingbirds beat their wings over 80 times per second. This rapid wing flapping creates a humming noise, hence their name. In addition, their heart rate can reach over 1,000 beats a minute.

The hummingbird’s extraordinary in-flight adaptations allow it to hover mid-air and even fly backwards (to add to their list of achievements, hummingbirds are also the only bird able to fly backwards). The bee hummingbird is especially wondrous in this respect as it can carry out all of these elegant manoeuvres whilst being not much larger than a bee.

Bee Hummingbird
A female bee hummingbird.

Bee hummingbirds exhibit a vivid plumage during their breeding season. The males display iridescent reddish pink feathers on their head and neck with an array of ocean blues and aqua greens on their upper side. The females have green upper parts and a pale, grey underside. They are truly beautiful little birds.

The bee hummingbird’s diet almost entirely consists of nectar from flowers belonging to a few specific plant species. Bee hummingbirds have some natural predators – including other large birds such as hawks, falcons and kestrels – but their small size and agility usually gives them an edge above their enemies.

Bee Hummingbird 2.jpg
An especially vibrant male bee hummingbird.

A recent fall in the bee hummingbird’s population has raised some concerns, and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has listed their status as ‘Near Threatened’. Their primary threat is habitat loss. It would be heartbreaking to see their population dwindle any further. The bee hummingbird is the master of superlatives and I hope this post has made their brilliance clear.

 

Sources:

http://www.animalspot.net/bee-hummingbird.html

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

https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/beehum1/overview

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

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

The Orca

Commonly referred to as the ‘killer whale’, the orca (Orcinus orca) is a fearsome but misunderstood creature. I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘killer whale’, so I will only be using ‘orca’ in the rest of this post. The orca is a toothed mammal which actually belongs to the dolphin family and not the whale family. They are the largest species of dolphin, reaching up to 10 metres (33ft) in length – around the same length as your average bus.

Orca.jpg
Orcas have a large dorsal fin which pokes out of the water.

Boldly marked, these marine mammals are easily recognisable. They have a black and white colouring, with a distinctive white patch just above each of their eyes. In addition, they have a tall dorsal fin, up to 1.8 metres tall, which can be used to identify individuals. Orcas are one of the world’s most widely distributed species (besides humans); they can be found in all of our oceans and nearly all seas – exceptions being the Baltic and Black sea. Their vast distribution is a testament to the orca’s fantastic adaptability.

Orcas are at the top of the marine food chain – making them apex predators. They feed on fish, seals, sea lions, sharks and even other cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises). However, their diet varies from location to location, as different populations have specialised to hunt certain prey.

Orca 2.jpg
Orcas live in large, sociable pods.

Known as the wolves of the sea, orcas have a developed a cunning and effective hunting strategy. They hunt in pods, some pods can contain up to 40 individuals. These pods are able to wipe out whole schools of herring, huge elephant seals, great white sharks and even sperm whales. Orcas will use echolocation to communicate and hunt, making sounds travel underwater until they encounter an object, then these sound waves will bounce back, revealing the object’s location, size and shape. When these mammals work together they make a formidable force.

However, orcas are not just excellent predators; they also have a caring, sociable and empathetic side. Adolescent females often assist mothers in looking after their young and each pod makes distinctive noises to greet and communicate with each other. Moreover, orcas are highly intelligent. They live in complex societies and can be very playful – both with other orcas and humans. In fact, they are such an intelligent and complex species that there are growing concerns about keeping orcas in captivity, especially just for human entertainment.

Orca 3.jpg
What a stunning photo.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/o/orca/

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj02rnByXBM

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

The Gila Monster

Covered in pink and black bead-like scales, the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is the largest lizard native to the United States. It is one of only two venomous lizards found in North America, along with Mexican beaded lizard. However, they are slow-moving and sluggish by nature so pose little threat to humans.

Gila Monster

These reptiles live in the deserts of southwestern North America, where they hunt insects and ground-dwelling vertebrates, including small mammals. Their name comes from Arizona’s Gila River basin – the area where they were first discovered. Gila monsters spend 90% of their time underground in burrows or rocky shelters, allowing them to stay cool in the desert heat.

Their oversized tails can be used to store large amounts of fat, letting Gilas to go for months without a meal. Unbelievably, these lizards may only consume as few as three big meals a year, and still maintain good health.

Gila Monster 2.jpg
You can clearly see the coloured beads that make up the Gila monster’s skin.

The Gila monster’s venom is a neurotoxin which would be extremely painful to humans, but there have been no reported deaths from being bitten by a Gila monster. Unusually for reptiles, the Gila monster does not inject its venom, instead it latches onto its victim and chews to allow neurotoxins to move through the grooves in their teeth and into the newly created wound. The most fascinating aspect of their venom is the proteins that it contains. A synthetic version of the protein exendin-4, derived from the Gila monster’s saliva, is used for the management of type 2 diabetes. Surprisingly, this protein has proved to be a highly effective treatment for diabetes, emphasising the ever-amazing wonders of wildlife.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/g/gila-monster/

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

https://www.britannica.com/animal/Gila-monster

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

The Gerenuk

Nicknamed the ‘giraffe gazelle’, the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is a long-necked antelope found in the woodland forests and open plains of the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Tanzania). At first glance, this mammal may seem rather strange, but their unique appearance only highlights the gerenuk’s superb adaptability.

Gerenuk

Like many other species – past and present – that have evolved to have a long neck, the gerenuk uses this adaptation to browse leaves, twigs and branches growing out of the reach of other antelopes. Moreover, the gerenuk can stand straight using its slender, hindlegs. Overall, this allows the gerenuk to reach vegetation 2 metres above the ground – quite a stretch considering they are less than a metre tall when on all four legs. This adaptation has proved immensely useful for the gerenuk, especially when browsing opportunities are sparse.

Gerenuk 3.jpg
The gerenuk’s long neck and slender legs allow it to reach vegetation high off the ground.

Their magnificent horns, present only on males, are lyre-shaped, resembling an ‘S’, and can reach up to 40cm in length. Their brown coat is coffee-coloured on the top but a lighter tan colour on the sides. They also have a cream-coloured underbelly and a patch of white fur around each eye. Gerenuks have quite large eyes and ears so they can easily sense when a predator is nearby.

Gerenuks live in small social groups – each herd only contains around two to six individuals – and are usually comprised of a single sex. Due to their small herds, they can fall prey to a whole host of African predators. Major predators of the gerenuk include leopards, cheetahs, lions, spotted hyenas, painted wolves, jackals and caracals. Unlike most antelopes, the gerenuk does not have a specific breeding season, meaning they have offspring throughout the year. Therefore, they most constantly be alert for predators.

Gerenuk 2.jpg
A pair of females on the look-out for potential predators.

Although their population is estimated at around 95,000 individuals, the gerenuk is under threat. Their population has fallen by 25% in the last 14 years. As human populations grow, we build more settlements, more roads and more farms which are gradually consuming this species’ natural habitat. Their current conservation status is ‘near-threatened’, but if nothing is done, they could soon be uplisted to ‘vulnerable’.

 

Sources:

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/gerenuk

https://animalcorner.co.uk/animals/gerenuk/

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

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