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.

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.

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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 Emperor Penguin

Running with the Dynasties theme, I decided that today I would write about the world’s largest penguin – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is a near-threatened species which lives in huge colonies on the Antarctic ice and in the surrounding waters. They are the only penguin which breeds in winter and during their breeding season they form breeding colonies with thousands of individuals.

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Adult males and females are similar in size, reaching up to around 45 inches tall. They have a fascinatingly beautiful plumage with a black head and back juxtaposing their white belly. Most noticeably though, they have those distinctive, bright-yellow ear patches which slowly fade into a paler colour further down the penguin’s chest.

These penguins have a tough time caring for their young. During the bitter polar winters, females will lay a single egg and males will incubate this egg whilst the females go out in search of food for the youngster. Their diet consists predominantly of fish, crustaceans and molluscs but the proportions of this prey will vary between different areas.

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The breeding season is a gruelling but rewarding time for these penguins.

For me, the most captivating thing about these birds it their wonderfully unique adaptations – a testament to the unbelievable power of evolution. First of all, a structural adaptation is the shape of their body; it is perfectly streamlined to glide through the ocean with little resistance. Moreover, to cope with the freezing polar temperatures, they have evolved a thick layer of fat and dense feathers which help to reduce heat loss. However, their thick blubber impedes their movement on land – that’s partly why they waddle around like drunk teenagers. One of their most obvious adaptations is the way they huddle together to conserve their warmth and escape from the winds of winter. The emperor penguins take turns being on the perilous edge of this crowd so no one is left exposed to the elements for too long.

Yet another adaptation is the way they survive the immense ocean pressures when they go for deep dives, these dives can last for over 20 minutes and these penguins can plummet down to 1,850 feet deep (deeper than any other bird)! During these dives, the emperor penguin’s oxygen use is greatly reduced as their heart rate drops from 70 beats per minute at resting rate to 20 beats per minute. In addition to this, their non-essential organs are shut down, meaning oxygen can be focused on their vital organs, allowing for longer dives. I could go on about this bird’s magnificent adaptations but I would be here for quite a while because there are so many.

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When underwater, these birds are agile torpedoes.

Sadly, in 2012, the emperor penguin was uplisted from least concern to near-threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their threats include habitat loss, industrial fisheries, disease, human disturbance (particularly unsustainable tourism) and most significantly, climate change. Global warming is melting the sea ice where they live. The current loss of their habitat is not sustainable and it is not slowing down. The protection and conservation of these penguins, and all other threatened species in fragile habitats, requires a global effort.

Tonight, at 8pm (UK time, GMT+0) the second episode of Dynasties airs where Sir David Attenborough will be narrating a no-doubt thrilling story about emperor penguins and the daily struggles they endure on the continent of Antarctica.