The Blue-Spotted Ribbontail Ray

Unsurprisingly, the blue-spotted ribbontail ray (Taeniura lymmais well-known for its array of electric blue spots splashed upon its murky yellow skin. These rays are found in the tropical Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean, specifically in sandy patches of coral reefs. Here, they prowl over the sandy floor, using their mouth to extract molluscs, crabs, shrimps and worms hidden beneath the surface of the sand. Although they have a barbed tail, it is only used in self-defence. If disturbed, they will usually just briskly swim away, flapping their two wing-like pectoral fins.

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Also known more simply as the blue-spotted ray, this fish uses its unique colouration as camouflage. From our perspective, these blue spots may seem like a flawed disguise but the potential of this adaptation can only be appreciated below the sea surface. The blue spots break up the ray’s outline when seen from above in the shifting sunlight of a shallow coral reef. This helps them to hide from possible predators – including hammerhead sharks and bottlenose dolphins.

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A bluespotted ray blending in with its sandy, turquoise surroundings.

The blue-spotted ribbontail ray has a tail armed with one or two sharp, barbed spines that can cause rather painful injuries. If attacked or stepped on, they may use this tail to inject venom into their attacker or repeatedly whip them, resulting in physical wounds. Although stingrays are notorious for the painful wounds they can inflict with their barbed tails, they rarely attack people. They will only launch an attack in desperate situations. Amazingly, the blue-spotted ray’s stinging barbs can be regrown if broken off.

Currently, this impressive species is considered ‘Near-Threatened’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their main threats are over-fishing and habitat degradation. In addition, they are popular among private aquarists due to their peculiar patterning, but this is endangering their wild population. Like most marine and aquatic species, the blue-spotted ray is poorly suited to a life in captivity since their wild habitat cannot be easily replicated.

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The main priorities right now should be implementing fishing quotas and specific net sizes to minimise the amount of rays caught by mistake, as well as conserving coral reefs. Coral reefs are one of the world’s most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems and yet are home to 25% of all marine life. If these ocean metropolises are not preserved, thousands of species like the blue-spotted ribbontail ray will face extinction.

 

Sources:

https://thewonderfulwildlifeofsamloem.wordpress.com/blue-spotted-ribbontail-ray-taeniura-lymma/

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

http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/oceans/coasts/coral_reefs/

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

The Polar Bear

Last Wednesday (27/02/19) was world polar bear day – a day dedicated to the world’s largest carnivore on land. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a powerful predator, excellently adapted to the Arctic habitat in which it lives. Polar bears spend most of their time on Arctic sea ice where they hunt for seals. However, they are equally at home in the water. Their large front paws are webbed, making them strong swimmers. Polar bears have even been recorded travelling hundreds of miles from land.

Polar Bear

Polar bears are considered hypercarnivores – animals with a diet that is more than 70% meat. This differs from other bear species, such as the The Sloth Bear, which are omnivorous. Polar bears are apex predators – they have no natural predators (excluding humans). Their main prey are seals, especially ringed and bearded seals. Polar bears have developed an ingenious hunting strategy; they will stalk breathing holes and ice edges, waiting for an unlucky seal to poke its head above the sea-surface to breathe. Their extraordinary sense of smell allows them to locate seals, even below the ice. Once located, they crush them with a mighty blow from above, and drag their corpse onto the frozen ice.

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A polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay.

Admired for their ability to survive the cold and bitter Arctic, the polar bear has developed a plethora of adaptations to help its survival. For one, polar bears have a thick white coat of insulating fur, which covers a warming layer of fat. This keeps them warm in the freezing Arctic Ocean, where winter temperatures can plummet to −50 °C. Their all-white body gives these bears great camouflage in the frosty white abyss in which they live. However, their actual skin is black. Black is the most effective colour to absorb the sun’s warming rays – another adaptation to stay warm.

Young polar bears are born in the peak of winter in a hibernation den dug by their mother. During her hibernation, she nurses her cubs for three months, breaking down her own body reserves to create rich, fatty milk. When spring arrives and their hibernation is over, the mother will spend the next two years teaching her cubs to swim, hunt, defend themselves and build their own dens.

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A mother teaching her cubs how to conquer the perilous arctic obstacles.

During the summer months, the melting ice forces these mammals to retreat to land, where they may come into contact with humans. Unfortunately, as the earth’s rising temperatures obliterate more and more of the polar bear’s habitat, life for these creatures is getting much tougher. They will struggle to stealthily hunt seals on the thinner ice; mothers will have difficulty building suitable maternity dens without the ice thawing or the den roofs caving in. In addition, hostile interactions between polar bears and humans will become all the more frequent as the sea ice melts and starving bears move south to find food on land. The fate of the polar bear is ultimately in our hands – we should do all we can to help reverse the detrimental effects of climate change which threatens so many species around the world.

 

Sources:

https://www.wwf.org.uk/wildlife/polar-bears

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/polar-bear/

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.