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Hey, it’s a hedgehog!

European hedgehog

European hedgehog

Few of us in the Americas can say this, since the hedgehog habitat is Europe, Asia and Africa. Yet we see them in advertising, cartoons and video games, often with fruit stuck to their quills. We tend to assume they are vegetarians as scary as porcupines, and they must be very agile to get the food on their backs.

This is a wholly inaccurate conception. The Erinaceus europaeus is actually an omnivorous mammal more related to the shrew than the porcupine. Their spines are neither poisonous nor barbed, and are usually only shed as the teacup-sized animal reaches adulthood, much like human baby teeth being replaced with permanent teeth; this process is called “quilling”. They are shy and nocturnal, so even where they live naturally, few of the 15 species are seen during the day.

The earliest known use of the term hedgehog arose around 1450. It was found hanging around under hedgerows and has a snout similar to the pig; hence the name. Their color patterns can be salt-and-pepper, cinnamon, chocolate, snowflake, panda, mocha, cream, silver point, albino and spotted, with many variations, depending on the species.

The spines are hairs stiffened by keratin (which is the main constituent of human fingernails). In desert conditions, there are fewer spines so that the weight is lower. When threatened, the hedgehog rolls up into a ball with the spines facing outward. Having fewer spines, a  desert hedgehog might flee instead, or possibly ram an intruder with the spines. There are two large muscles on its back which control the position of the quills. On average, there are 5,000 to 6,500 quills, each filled with air pockets.

During the day, hedgehogs usually sleep under bushes, grass or rocks, or in underground dens. Wild hedgehogs will hibernate if temperature or the scarceness of food make it a good idea. When hibernating their body temperature will drop from the normal 86-95 F down to 36-41F. Those who live in deserts will sleep through heat and drought (estivation). Those in temperate locales will be active year round. While they may appear to be mute, they actually communicate with grunts, snuffles and squeals.

hedgehog-2

African pygmy hedgehog being held

On their nightly rounds, hedgehogs will eat insects, toads, lizards, snakes, snails, frogs, carrion, grass roots, bird eggs, berries, and melons. Since their eyesight is weak, they depend more on hearing and smell to find food. Sometimes people like to keep them as pets to control common garden pests. If, while wandering for food, it encounters a new scent, it will lick and bite the source, then make a scented froth in its mouth, which it deposits onto its spines with its tongue. Some people think that this “anointing” ritual allows the mammal to blend in with the surrounding scents; others think this may be a method of infecting predators with a poison.
The lifespan of a hedgehog is longer than usual for mammals of the same size. Larger ones live 4-7 years, and have even been recorded to live up to 16 years; smaller species live 2-4 years.

When reproducing, these usually-solitary animals will get together only long enough to create a family, once a year. Females carry their young for 35-58 days, with an average litter of 3-4 (larger species) or 5-6 (smaller species). They are born blind, with a protective membrane over the quills. This membrane dries and shrinks over the first few hours, when the mother may clean it off or it falls off. The quills then emerge through the skin. Four to seven weeks after birth, the young will go off on their own. Even with these sweet-looking animals, adult males will often kill newborn males. Females will eat their young if the nest is disturbed, if they don’t simply move to a new nest.

Predators for the forest hedgehogs are birds, especially owls, and ferrets. Smaller species like the long-eared hedgehog may be consumed by wolves, foxes and mongooses. Humans are ‘predators’ when cars run them over, or when they are kept as pets and not handled properly. These animals have been introduced in areas where there are no natural predators, as in New Zealand and Scotland. This was a mistake, as the hedgehogs became pests, wiping out native species such as snails, insects and ground-nesting birds. Humans have occasionally adopted hedgehogs as food. This was true in ancient Egypt and during the late middle ages in Europe. Their meat is still sold for medicine and witchcraft in Eurasia and Africa. Bedouins in the Middle East believe the meat can cure rheumatism and arthritis, and in some cultures tuberculosis. Moroccans inhale the smoke of the burned skin or quills to cure male impotence, fever, and urinary infections. Their blood is believed to cure ringworm, cracked skin and warts. Current day Romans still eat the boiled or roasted flesh.

Mocha, May 2006 Hedgehog of the Month

Mocha, May 2006 Hedgehog of the Month

Hedgehogs also have to cope with disease. Squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer, is very common. They suffer from ringworm and will transmit it to other hedgehogs as well as human handlers. These little critters eagerly eat high-fat and high-sugar foods, though their metabolism is adapted for protein-rich low-fat insects. This taste for unhealthy foods leads to obesity, fatty liver disease and heart disease.

Curiously, along with moles, pigs, mongooses, honey badgers and opossums, hedgehogs have a natural immunity to some snake venoms.

Because they are cute, small, and quiet, it would seem that “hedgies” would be good pets. But they must be handled carefully, kept away from children, and purchased from licensed dealers. They are never ‘domesticated’ and cannot be trained. Hedgehogs are deemed exotic pets, prohibited in Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, Maine, Alabama, Hawaii and Vermont. Ownership is restricted in Maine, New Jersey, Arizona and Oregon. In some Canadian municipalities, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Italy, hedgie ownership is banned or seriously restricted.

It appears it is better to leave them to the wild, since they require a lot of care and their food and veterinary expenses are high. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where they live naturally, enjoy the garden pest control – and leave the occasional berries and melons out for dessert.

 

Behold the pika

American pika with mouthful of dried grass. Sequoia National Park, CA

American pika with mouthful of dried grass. Sequoia National Park, CA

Behold the pika… Well, if you did behold one of these furry little mammals, you were quite lucky. They are quite shy, and live in places reached only by hiking and horseback. Pikas resemble tailless mice, being grey-ish brown or a rusty red. Their soft, long fur covers their body of about 15 centimeters (6 inches) in length and they weigh between 125 and 200 grams (4.5 to 7.1 ounces).

The genus for the 29-30 species of pika is Ochotona and despite the similarity to mice, they are not rodents, but rather related to rabbits and hares. But unlike rabbits and hares, pikas are diurnal – they are active during the day.

These reticent animals are found mostly in Asia, with some in Eastern Europe. Two species are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait isthmus and now make their homes in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, or the Sierras and Rocky Mountains. They love mountainous areas and high elevations, living in rocky habitats or making burrows in steppe areas. The pikas in North America live among the rocks, rather than in burrows. Depending on their environment, pikas may be found as individuals, couples, or in family groups, sharing duties of food gathering and keeping watch.

Pikas may have a variety of calls, but in main there are two – one is a long-call or song, used to attract a mate. The other is an alarm call. The alarm call may be sounded to chase others away from their food, but is more commonly used to warn others of a predator. Remarkably, just when the predator alarm is sounded depends on the predator. For instance, if a marten is sighted, the alarm is sounded immediately, since a marten cannot follow the pika into a burrow or between rocks. However, if a weasel is sighted, the pika might wait to see if the weasel moved out of his territory, since the weasel can easily follow him into a burrow or rocky crag. Despite predators, pikas can live up to six years.

This charming recluse is an herbivore, munching on plants available according to the environment, season and climate. Like its lagomorph cousins, rabbits, a pika produces a soft green feces after eating, which it eats again to get even more nutrients, finally producing a solid fecal pellet. Or the green feces may be stored for later consumption. This fecal pellet has much more energy stored than hay.

The plants around can include grasses, sedges, thistles, flowers, shrub twigs, moss, lichen, forbs and fireweed. The pika will select plants that have the highest caloric, protein, lipid and water content when there is plenty available. While it can get its water from plants, the pika will also drink water directly when it is around. To maintain their metabolism, pikas can consume just about any plant in their neighborhood.

A unique feature about pikas is their making of hay piles, also called hay stacks. They live in cold environments but do not hibernate, so they need bedding and stored food to keep them warm and fed through the bad weather seasons. All the while they are foraging, they are also putting some plants and flowers aside for the hay piles. They can be seen carrying long stems along a log or across a meadow to add to the hay piles. They tend to prefer forbs and tall grasses for haying. Between feeding and haying they can make thirteen trips an hour with up to one hundred trips a day. The hay piles are built throughout the summer since winter comes early in their climes. There seems to be some question as to whether they lay the plants out to dry before adding them to a hay pile; probably they just let them dry on the hay stack. There are a host of calls and behaviors related just to protection of the hay piles. A pika has been known to steal from another pika’s hay pile, and the ensuing dispute can often attract predators. A pika may move its hay pile to protect it from rain or when finding a better storage spot. If, despite its diligence, the hay pile runs low of hay and feces, the pika will forage for lichen and cushion plants to complete its diet.

If you are interested in catching a glimpse or hearing pikas this summer in the United States, try:

  • Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mtn. National Park, CO
  • Loveland Pass, in rocks above parking area, CO
  • Cascade Canyon Trail on west side of Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, WY

The six spotted fishing spider fishes for its dinner

Dolomedes_triton_Close-up_of_Body_-_June_2011 Most people, when they think of spiders, think of webs, Halloween, and catching flies. But there are a lot of different types of spiders with different habitats than trees and different habits than wrapping flies in silk.

One such unique genus is the Dolomedes which can walk” on water and under its surface; they walk, run, row, glide and dive. These spiders can jump straight up from the water or dive below it when being attacked by a predator. But they are not bound to water; they can walk rapidly on land as well. They can attack larger prey such as small fish, frogs, tadpoles or newts. Predators of fishing spiders include large frogs, fish and birds. Depending on which direction the predator is coming from, the spider will jump or dive. The spiders’ excellent vision allows them to see pray and predators.

Male spiders must beware. If a male approaches a female which has already mated, she will simply eat the male. Once the female has mated, she spins a silk sac to carry the eggs she lays, which she carries in her jaws to a safe place. These sacs are produced between June and September. Once a safe place is found, she makes a shelter out of leaves and stays, guarding her eggs. When the eggs hatch, the mother spider stays around until the babies (spiderlings) are ready to go off on their own after their first molt. The spiderlings will live over two winters before mating themselves.

The six-spotted fishing spider is Dolomedes triton. This species is named after the mythical Greek god Triton, since he is the messenger of the sea and son of Poseidon. They are often called dock spiders because they can be seen scampering through cracks on a boat dock if someone is walking along. Other names are the fishing spider, nursery web spider (its family is nursery web spider, Pisauridae) and raft spider.

The triton is found all across North America, except in the Rockies and Great Plains. It can also be found in southern Canada, Central America and South America. It is more closely associated with water than any of the other fishing spiders, and can be found among aquatic vegetation at the edges of streams and rivers, and floating around in lakes and residential pools. It is a strong hunter.

The mating and egg-laying habits are the same as other fishing spiders, but just before the eggs are ready to hatch, the female suspends the sac in a “nursery web” built among foliage. The male does a courtship ritual and may die right after that due to the practice of cannibalism. The young reach their first molt in about a week.

Tritons are fairly large, up to 2-1/2 inches long, including the legs. Females are larger than males. It is relatively easy to identify, with a greenish-brown body with two white stripes on the front section (cephalothorax) of its body and twelve white spots on the rear section (abdomen). Under the abdomen there are six black spots; hence the name. They have eight eyes to achieve their great vision even under water.

They like shallow, quiet water such as marshes, ponds and slow-moving streams. They can be found on the shore, on plants, or on the water surface. They like places where there are lots of plants in and around the water, so they can hide from predators and still ambush their prey. They often feed on terrestrial insects which fall into the water and can’t escape. They are diurnal, mostly active during the day, and can wait patiently with their legs spread out until stimulated by prey.

standing on the water

standing on the water

The six-spotted fishing spiders can walk underwater when they climb down a plant leaf or stem below the surface. They can also use their legs as oars to push themselves across the surface. To glide, the triton remains still, getting pushed across the surface by the wind. To dive, the spider traps an air bubble in its legs to allow it to breathe underwater. The triton is known to stay underwater, up to seven inches below the surface, for over half an hour. They will dive underwater and hold onto a plant when frightened, to avoid a predator.

The better known predators of the triton are the bluegill, yellow perch, largemouth bass, channel catfish, creek chub, great blue heron, bullfrog, southern leopard frog, common snapping turtle, black crappie and six-spotted fishing spider.

The most common observed prey of the triton are the crane fly. Common whitetail, eastern dobsonfly, northern caddis fly, field cricket, true katydid, honey bee, wood frog, spring peeper, southern leopard frog, eastern mosquitofish, creek chub, golden shiner, and eastern newt. Note that the bluegill, creek chub and southern leopard frog are both predator and prey – depending on size.

As with all spiders, the six-spotted fishing spiders are very helpful for people, controlling the insect population, and they will only bite in self-defense; they are not considered dangerous. We can leave them alone and let them balance out the ecosystem.

Quarter horse – the American breed

Equus ferus caballus

Equus ferus caballus

Americans are a very practical people. After all, they left their home countries with all the amenities to live in a raw land where they had to do everything themselves. Part of this heritage is the quarter horse, commonly called “America’s Horse” and the “World’s Fastest Athlete”.

Spanish explorers and traders brought the first horses to the American continent. These were the Arabian, Turk, Iberian and Barb breeds. Eventually these steeds were let loose in the wild for a variety of reasons. The Native Americans thought at first that a man on a horse was a new monster. Eventually the Chickasaw  Indians realized that the horse was a separate being, and they took to them quite naturally. The wild mustangs were also domesticated by the Comanche, Shoshoni and Nez Perce tribes.

In 1611, the actual quarter horse breed was begun, as the feral horses were cross-bred with Spanish-breed stallions shipped in from England. It is also believed that Irish Hobbies and Galloways from Northern England were included in this process of cross-breeding. The cross breed, Equus caballus, emerged as an animal perfectly suited to the needs of colonial America. While typical English thoroughbred horses were slim, with long legs suited to long distance racing, the new breed was stockier, somewhat short (15-16 hands), compact, very muscular, especially in the hind quarters, and stronger, making it perfect for pulling carriages, hauling goods, riding and short-distance racing. With the infusion of wild genes to the high-strung thoroughbreds, the quarter horse is known for an even disposition.

The quarter horse was so named because it was the fastest type of horse to run a straightaway quarter mile, coming home in 21 seconds or less, at clocked speeds of up to 55 mph (88.5 km/h). But well beyond the racing capabilities, its build made it an excellent cow horse, able to stop abruptly from a full gallop and turn quickly. The ability to be both agile and swift made it very adaptable to the needs of handling cattle and ranch chores. These abilities are regularly tested, for both horse and rider, at American rodeos to this day.

Quarter horses became an integral part of colonial America. Flat racing became popular as the eastern United States civilization developed, often across simply a flat stretch of road or open land. These sprinters shined and gained in popularity, racing against other quarter horses. This style of racing became an economic boom for breeders, and often more thoroughbred blood was infused using Arabian and Morgan blood.

As America expanded westward, the quarter horse became part of the scenery in the west, as it could easily pull Conestoga wagons, farm wagons and plows. It battled Native Americans, contained herds of cattle, carried pony express riders, rushed doctors to injured frontiersmen, and even brought preachers to isolated worshipers. It was just right for ranches, cutting cattle, roping and branding calves, and traveling through brush and raw land. These horses were part of the frontiersmen’s tools, not a luxury, so blood lines were of no interest. Instead, they were bred for utility. The new breed emerging was discovered to have an innate “cow sense”, a natural instinct for working with cattle. Even with the advent of the automobile, these horses are irreplaceable for handling livestock on the range.

The Darley Arabian, one of the three traditional foundation sires of the thoroughbred

The Darley Arabian, one of the three traditional foundation sires of the thoroughbred

In 1940, in Amarillo, Texas, a group of horsemen and ranchers decided to preserve the pedigrees of these widely popular quarter horses by establishing the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). By registering their animals with this Association, breeders established the quarter horse as a distinct breed and could trace lineage. In 1951, the Ohio Quarter Horse Association was established. Today, over three million horses are registered with the AQHA (making it the largest breed registry in the world) and over 49,000 with the Ohio Association, testimony to the popularity of the breed. Through these registries, stud fees can be collected and increased. Since these lists are still open to new types, some breeders have separated to form registries of the original type, called “Foundation” Quarter Horses. The registries have identified several genetic diseases of concern to breeders, and the required DNA tests have allowed breeders to keep these in mind. The quarter horse is now exported and listed with other countries’ registries as well.

Because of its practical origin, the American Quarter Horse has a wide variety of characteristics. Weighing in under 1,500 pounds, the quarter horse is considered a light breed of the stock body type class (as opposed to hunter/racing or saddle types); Other body types are registered as well, but the stock type is the most common. There are seventeen recognized colors: sorrel, grullo,  bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, perlino, dun, red dun, gray, palomino, red roan, blue roan, bay roan, and cremello.

quarter horse-3Despite the proliferation of technology today, the American quarter horse has maintained a place in the hearts of its country through the 21st century. Not only is it found on ranches and racetracks, it has established a place in show arenas, bridle trails, back yards and rodeos, being easy to keep and maintain. It dominates the sports of cutting and reining. The quarter horse has gained recognition in English Pleasure riding, jumping, western pleasure riding, dressage, mounted police, and of course, racing. This unique breed can hold its mane high and compete with any other breed in the world with ease.

the Picasso Triggerfish

humuhumu-1Triggerfish get their name from a dorsal spine which normally lies flat on the top of their bodies. When they are alarmed or aggressive this fin pops up and looks like a trigger on an upside-down revolver. The spine is used to lock the fish into rocks and corals where it sleeps for the night.

The first triggerfish to gain popularity for aquariums is the Picasso trigger. And it is still one of the most popular triggerfish to collect. In the 1970s, Bonnie and Bob Sackett used to import saltwater aquarium fish for resale to pet stores. When they started importing from Hawaii, they saw their first Picasso triggerfish and quickly adopted him for their home aquarium. They named him Scoop, since he looked like the intake on a jet plane. Saltwater aquaria were a new phenomenon at the time, and all people involved shared knowledge and experience with each other, since there were no marine-animals-for-dummies books. While Scoop was unusual, it was easy to learn how to keep him – Scoop got rid of all other fish in the aquarium except a moray eel who was bigger than him, and survived on brine shrimp, meat and chopped fish; pH changes and water changes could not keep him down. He was by far the hardiest marine fish the Sacketts ever kept.

At that time, the term “Picasso triggerfish” had not been coined – they were referred to as huma-humas. The actual Hawaiian name is Humuhumunukunukuapau’a, and the full name was popularized in a song from the swing era. This Hawaiian name means, approximately, “fish with a pig-nosed face.”

All triggerfish are shaped like an almond, or diamond, and have the trigger-like dorsal spine fin center top. What distinguishes the Picasso is a set of stripes between its independently-working eyes, over the top of the head, which alternate teal and blue or purple. There is a swipe of yellow leading from the small mouth to right below the eye on its cream-colored body. The rest of the fish may vary, but it always appears to have been painted, hence the name Picasso.

The Picasso triggerfish offers a great deal of entertainment, especially if they share the tank with compatible species. The Picasso has sharp teeth which are used for moving rocks, but they will also use them aggressively if threatened, so be careful when working in the aquarium. The teeth are ever-growing, so in the wild they eat a lot of hard-shelled shrimp to grind the teeth down. In a tank, they may do this with coral and rocks. They use their mouths to blow over invertebrates and attack them in their soft undersides, and can become very aggressive when eating, so be careful during feeding time. Often they will actually sleep on their sides.

humuhumu-2The best way to know how to keep a fish is to understand its native environment. From the family Balistidae, the scientific name Rhinecanthus aculeatus was given to this fish by Linnaeus in 1758. Other common names for the Picasso trigger are Humu-humu, Aculeate, Lagoon, Prickly, Pig-nosed, Painted, Whitebanded and Blackbar triggerfish.

These fish can be found in the wild from Hawaii and the Marquesas Islands, through Polynesia, to Micronesia, Melanasia and the Philippines, as well as the coast of China, and in the East Indies. Their waters include the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, coast of Africa and the Red Sea. To meet these water conditions, the tank should be 72-78° F, with a dKH of 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg of 1.020-1.025.

The Picasso triggerfish should not be kept in a reef tank; he would eat all the smaller reef fish. He prefers the shallower waters inside and outside a reef, subtidal reef flats and protected lagoons where there are lots of rocks, crevices and caves to hide in and search for food. His jaws are strong enough to move rocks and crush coral, and he is known to move rocks around to build hideouts. But they also need open water to swim in. For this reason, the tank should be a minimum of 75 gallons with plenty of room and shelter in the form of rocks and caves. Triggerfish are territorial and will show much less aggression if they can each have their own space. He eats a wide variety of crustaceans and invertebrates, so these should be kept out of his tank unless supplied for food. While they may come into the tank at about three inches, the Picasso trigger usually grows to nine inches and can even reach a foot long. Even if the habitat looks great, the Picasso will rearrange the landscape as it wanders in and out of the caves.

The primary like squid, shrimp, krill, mussels, worms, corals, tunicates forams, eggs, starfish, sea urchins, shellfish, with a smattering of spirulina, algae and fried seaweed. Because of their small mouths and foraging behavior, these fish should be fed a little bit, very often, at least two to three times a day. If the fish starts fading, the diet needs to be enriched.

The predators of Picasso triggerfish are larger triggerfish and, of course, mankind. While they will eat smaller fish, the Picasso trigger is the most peaceful of the triggers. They tend to do better without another Picasso trigger in the tank, but protein eaters such as groupers, surgeonfishes and basses would be welcome, as well as some eels and puffers. Some good choices for tank mates are snowflake eels, sailfin tangs and lionfish. Having other triggerfish (a single one of each species) can keep the tank entertaining as long as the tank is big enough. The Picasso will tend to be the king of the hill, and rustling for the best cave will occur whenever the rocks are rearranged.

There is no way to sex Picasso triggerfish, but in the wild the males seem to be larger and will have multiple females in its territory. The female builds a nest (more like a pit in the sand) and cares for the eggs and newly hatched juveniles. Breeding in aquaria is unsuccessful.

The Picasso triggers are susceptible to most saltwater fish disease and respond well to most of the standard medicines and treatments. Quarantine any new arrivals for a period of 2 – 3 weeks before introducing them into your main tank.

Since the triggers are very hardy and have a life span of five to ten years, the Picasso Triggerfish offer a very unique and entertaining tank for a long time. Their beautiful markings and king-of-the-hill behaviors trigger a lot of conversations.

The elusive oarfish

oarfish

On October 16, 2013, CNN mentioned the discovery of an 18-foot-long, silvery fish. This fish, found fifteen feet below the surface off the southern California coast, had reddish fins and eyes the size of a half-dollar. Jasmine Santana, the marine science instructor, recognized the fish and dragged the dead carcass to shore.

But few outside of marine biologists would know what this huge animal was, since oarfish dive over 3,000 feet deep in their native temperate and tropical waters and are usually only seen on the surface when they are dead and not eaten up by undersea scavengers.

The most common scientific name for this fish is Regalecus glesne, dubbed in 1772 by Ascanius, but there are at least fourteen other scientific named assigned to the same fish between 1788 and 1914, giving it the genus Regalecidae, Cepola, Gymnetrus, or Cephalepis. Because of its rarity, these are probably all the same fish; with modern communications such a confusion no longer exists. The name comes from the Latin regalis, meaning royal. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, this is the longest bony fish alive. The common name, oarfish, probably comes from the old belief that it propels itself through the water by “rowing” with the  pelvic fins. Other common names include ribbon fish, king of herrings, slender oarfish, “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace” and sea serpent. In Japan, there is a tale that when “ryugu no tsukai” comes to the shore, an earthquake is imminent. There might be some credence to this myth, since oarfish swim so deep, near fault limes, and may be able to sense the vibrations.

1Oarfish that washed ashore in Bermuda in 1860, originally described as a sea serpent (Wikipedia Commons public domain image)

1Oarfish that washed ashore in Bermuda in 1860, originally described as a sea serpent
(Wikipedia Commons public domain image)

Its habitat is from 600 feet (200 meters) to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) deep, in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific Ocean from Topango Beach, southern California to Chile. However, this is only anecdotal, by sightings; scientists believe it could range any ocean or large sea except in polar regions. They have been known to come to the surface at night, apparently attracted to lights on boats.

What is known or assumed about the oarfish comes from specimens which have washed ashore or from those caught by fishermen. It is not fished commercially because its gelatinous flesh is considered inedible, but there have been occasions when oarfish were fished for sport.

2Oarfish stranded on a rocky shore (Wikipedia Commons public image)

2Oarfish stranded on a rocky shore
(Wikipedia Commons public image)

Reaching a length of over 50 feet (15 meters), weighing as much as 600 pounds (272 kg), Regalecus glesne has no scales, a silver to silvery blue skin, and a dorsal fin the entire body length that is red and forms a type of crest at the head. This dorsal fin is rather ornate, with a tiny spine projecting above each of over 400 fin rays. The oar-like pelvic fins are also red. Since the oarfish has a small mouth with no visible teeth, its diet consists of plankton, small crustaceans and small squid strained from the water by gill rakes in the mouth. . It is believed that sharks and other large fish might be the predators of the oarfish.

Besides “rowing” with the pelvic fins, oarfish have been observed swimming in a vertical position (perhaps searching for food) as well as undulating the long dorsal fin while keeping the body straight.

Oarfish are believed to be solitary as adults. They have been observed spawning off the Mexican coast between July and December, abandoning the eggs which contain droplets of oil to float on the ocean surface until they hatch, which takes up to three weeks. The hatched larvae feed on plankton until they mature. It isn’t known if there are other spawning areas nor what type of migration these fish may follow.

When you think about how elusive the oarfish is, how rare a sighting is, how cosmopolitan its range of habitat, and how large it usually is in length, it is not surprising that this may well be the source of so many sightings of “sea serpents” around the globe.

A 23-foot long oarfish found dead by the U.S. Military in 1996

A 23-foot long oarfish found dead by the U.S. Military in 1996

The smallest mammal in the world

Etruscan shrewMeet the Etruscan shrew. Also known as a Pygmy White-toothed Shrew, Savi’s Pygmy Shrew, and White-toothed Pygmy Shrew, the scientific name for this miniscule animal is Suncus etruscus. This shrew has a wide distribution, an assumed large population, a tolerance of habitat changes and several protected areas in which it lives.

Shrews look like long-nosed mice, but in fact they are not rodents, but more closely related to moles, having sharp, spike-like teeth rather than gnawing front incisors. The Etruscan shrew, as indicated by its name, is found in the Mediterranean climate zone of Europe, the Near East and North Africa. It is also found in the Central and South Asia, and can live in any altitude from sea level to 3,000 meters, preferring abandoned olive groves, vineyards, gardens, cultivated areas overrun by Mediterranean shrubs, and open forest if there are dry stones to use as shelter. It will avoid sand dunes, dense forests and highly cultivated land. In general, if there is a temperate or tropical environment, savanna, grassland, forest or scrub forest, with adequate shelter material, the Etruscan shrew is at home.

Weighing in at between 1.8 and 3 grams, at 35 to 50 mm in length (almost two inches at most), excluding the tail, which is longer than half the body, this shrew is considered one of the smallest mammals living today.  It is usually a gray-brown color, light gray on the stomach, with uniquely small hind legs.

Because of its small size and its ability to elude capture, there is a lot still unknown about this little animal. There is no overt difference in the appearance by gender; litters of two to six offspring have a gestation period of about 27 days, and reach maturity in anywhere from 12- 24 months. The parenting habits of this shrew are unknown; since parenting by closely related shrews vary widely, no supposition is made in the case of the Etruscan shrew. It is believed to be solitary and territorial except during breeding season. The lifespan may range from one to five years.

This mammal is hard to keep in captivity due to its size and large energy requirements, which keep it very active foraging for food. It is constantly poking its long nose’s whiskers around to search for small insects, mealworms, young frogs, lizards, larvae and crickets, especially at night, reaching maximum activity at dawn. It eats about 1-1/2 to two times its own body weight per day. It has been known to hunt individual prey as large as itself, but it has difficulty with large chunks of food, and prefers small portions. It will avoid ants, preferring species with a soft, thin exoskeleton. With large prey, the shrew will kill by a bite to the head, then eat the prey immediately. With smaller prey such as insects, it will take them back to the nest.

When not eating, it will groom itself constantly. Rest consists of short periods of hiding among rocks and under leaves, and a lot of activity appears to be searching for these habitats to rest for as little as half an hour. Day time activity is geared to the resting, grooming, and looking for new habitats. Defending its territory consists of making chirping noises and showing aggressive behavior toward intruders. If it is startled and cannot flee, it will make a harsh shrieking call. When on the move, it makes a clicking sound, possibly for echolocation. Its only known predator is the owl. While playing a role in insect control, the Etruscan shrew is no danger to its environment or humans.

Because it has a very fast heart beat and a relatively large heart muscle mass, the white-toothed pygmy shrew has been used in studies to determine the relationship between  heart rate and oxygen diffusion, as compared to humans. The oxygen consumption rate of the shrew is 67 times higher than that of man, which is achieved by a heart rate which is only twelve times the human rate.

This smallest of mammals, the Etruscan shrew, is an intriguing and elusive character, keeping secrets about its life style despite its wide range of habitat.

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