Bar-headed geese cross Himalayas in one night

By on June 4th 2011 in science
Bar-headed geese migration

Beautiful photo of two bar-headed geese migrating. Photo by John Downer.

Bar-headed geese are known for their exhausting migration route over the Himalayas, reaching extreme heights up to 10,175m and traveling distances of 1500km in a single day. Although it was already known these high-flyers are physiologically and biochemically adapted to flying at these altitudes where oxygen levels and temperatures are both extremely low, it remained unclear how they performed this incredible energy-costly feat.


World’s largest island within a lake on an island within a lake on an island

By on April 25th 2011 in Nature
World largest island vulcan point

A special world largest island: An island within a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the pacific… Picture that!

Among the many amazing features of our planet this is one I think you should definitely know about: The world largest island within a lake on an island within a lake on an island! Can you picture that? Vulcan point is a small volcanic island within the 2km large Crater Lake of the Taal Volcano on Volcano Island in Taal lake on Luzon Island, Phillippines, in the pacific ocean.

Vulcan point island

The small Vulcan Point is only some 40m across and is populated by schrubs and small trees. Photo by world wanderings.

The Crater Lake in which it resides consists of very dark water that contains a diluted form of sulfuric acid with high concentration of boron, magnesium, aluminum and sodium. Nevertheless, some suggest you can still swim inside the lake. Taal volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines and has produced some of its most powerful historical eruptions with the last eruption being in 1977. Therefore its Crater Lake contains very dark water that contains a diluted form of sulfuric acid with high concentration of boron, magnesium, aluminum and sodium. Nevertheless, some still suggest you can swim there. The record-braking-island Vulcan Point is only some 40m across and is populated by a large range of small trees and schrubs.

World record non-stop flight for the Bar-Tailed Godwit

By on July 16th 2010 in science
Bar-tailed godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit’s make world record flights across the world.

Alaskan Bar-Tailed Godwits just look like an ordinary shorebird. Recent research however has discovered that these waders are the new world record holders for non-stop flight. Every autumn, these extreme migrators fly an astonishing 11.000km from Alaska to New Zealand without any stopovers to rest or refuel. This roughly doubles the previous maximum known non-stop distance for migratory birds.

The non-stop flight of the godwit’s is even more impressive if one takes into account that the current world-record for a manmade flying device is 82 hours, less than half that of the godwits.

Gill and colleagues (2009) used satellite telemetry to track 23 birds on their trip across the pacific. By this relatively new technique in which the position of each individual bird is sent to a satellite every six hours, the authors found out the birds need on average 8 days to make the crossing.

Bar-tailed godwit record flight

Southward flight tracks of nine bar-tailed godwits fitted with satellite transmitters.

These extraordinary non-stop flights establish new extremes for the flight performance of birds. There are birds however with even longer migrations than that of the Alaska Bar-Tailed Godwit. For example the pectoral sandpiper which flies 16000km with at least one break in between, and the impressive 24000km northbound spring migration of the arctic tern. The difference is that these birds have the opportunity to feed and rest at sea as they go and thus do not need to fly non-stop.

So how are these birds able to fly non-stop for 8 days across the pacific? Professor Hedenström assessed the unbelievable aerial feat in a interesting paper published in PLoS Biology this spring. He calculated that the birds only use some 0.41% of their body mass per hour which is the lowest value thus far for any powered animal flight. This is important because the godwits have to take just as much on board before departure to sustain them for the 8 day flight. Furthermore, it is important the birds have exactly the right body weight to size and have an aerodynamic body shape. Very crucial for the godwit’s journey is their high flight speed which makes them relatively immune for crosswinds.

Bar-tailed godwit

A bar-tailed godwit standing in the grass.

Gill and colleagues propose that the reason why these birds travel along this transoceanic route because it may function as a safe corridor, providing a wind-assisted passage relatively free of hungry predators and harmful pathogens.

The amazing feat of the bar-tailed godwit leaves us with many new questions. How can the birds orientate while flying over the vast stretches of ocean? How do they manage to exert such high levels of exercise for such an amount of time? And how do they deal with dehydration and sleep deprivation? This is a good example again of how new scientific discoveries will often lead to even more unsolved questions. That’s the beauty of science.

Gill, R., Tibbitts, T., Douglas, D., Handel, C., Mulcahy, D., Gottschalck, J., Warnock, N., McCaffery, B., Battley, P., & Piersma, T. (2009). Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: ecological corridor rather than barrier? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1656), 447-457 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1142

Hedenström, A. (2010). Extreme Endurance Migration: What Is the Limit to Non-Stop Flight? PLoS Biology, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000362

World’s toughest animal: the water bear

By on March 26th 2010 in Animals

Meet the water bear, the world’s toughest animal. Despite what their name may let you believe, these water-dwelling creatures are very very small, measuring less than a millimeter. Having the unique ability to basically die and come back to live again, these rather adorable animals can survive even the most hostile conditions and environments.

Water bear

The water bear, the world’ thoughest animal.

You can find these fascinating creatures about everywhere: on the bottom of the ocean, under meters of ice, in hot springs, and on the top of the himalaya! Prefering to live on moist lichens and mosses with up to 25000 of their little friends, you can bet that some water bears will be very close to you; even in your backyard! Go search for them yourself!

Water bears really are miniature animals, having tiny legs, claws, eyes, mouth, stomach, and even nerves. They have such precise muscle control that they can even move like higher order animals.

Water bears are able to survive the most extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. They can take temperatures close to absolute zero and hotter than boiling water, withstand over 1000 times more radiation than humans, can live over a decade without water, endure six times the water pressure in the deepest ocean trench, and even survived in the vacuum of space, making them the only animals to do so.

The key of their remarkable durability is that they are capable of decreasing their metabolism with a factor of 10000 and decrease their water content to 1% of normal. When conditions get though, they basically die, stopping any process in their miniature bodies for up to 120 years! When conditions get better again, they revive and go on with their lives.

Water bear tardigrade

This miniature ‘bear’ measures less than a millimeter.

These fascinating creatures got their name from their miniature resemblance of a bear, as is so nicely put by Johann August Ephraim Goeze (1773) who was the first to ever describe them:

Strange is this little animal, because of its exceptional and strange morphology and because it closely resembles a bear en miniature. That is the reason why I decided to call it little water bear.

The world smallest monkey, the Pygmy Marmoset

By on March 4th 2010 in Animals

The tiny pygmy marmoset is the smallest monkey in the world. Measuring only some 13 centimeters (5in), this tawny colored primate is as big as a soda can! They have long hair on their heads and chests, giving the appearance of a mane, and a huge tail that can be as long as their body.

Pygmy marmoset

Pygmy marmoset twin clinging on to a finger

These petite primates inhabit the Amazon basin, living primarily in lowland, tropical rainforests. Because of their small size and long tails they are perfectly suited for the understory layer of the rainforest with its long bendable braches and many vines for the Pygmy Marmosets to sleep on.

Pygmy marmoset on a tree

The pygmy marmoset lives in the lower layers of tropical amazon rainforest

Pygmy marmosets are very active and agile creatues, that run along branches, up and down trunks and occasionally leap between trees. Although they feed on fruits, buds and small insects, most of their diet comes from tapping trees for sap! Using its elongated sharp incisors and claw-like nails, this cute primate spends the majority of its time gouging holes to collect its gummy sap.

Pygmy marmoset, world smallest monkey

Pygmy marmoset are the world smallest monkey

This tree-dwelling primate lives in small groups or family units consisting of two to nine individuals. Like other primates, daily social behaviours of Pygmy Marmosets include grooming, huddling, and play. Interestingly, the two litters that the female usually produces each year have a high chance to consist of twins or even triplets – over 70% of the births are twins!

George, the world largest dog

By on February 27th 2010 in Animals

A Great Dane named George has been crowned the world largest dog, Guinness World Record officials anounced this week. Giant George measures 110 centimeters (43in) from paw to shoulder.

World largest dog

The massively large “George”

This 111 kilograms of dog stands an incredible 2.2 meter when on his hind legs. George is not only the official record holder for both the tallest living dog, he even is the tallest dog ever. However, some argue that the previous record holder, a Dane named Titan, is still the world tallest. In contrast with George, the world smallest dog only measures some 8 centimeters.

World largest dog

George, the world largest dog

The stunning Pistol shrimp

By on February 12th 2010 in Animals

Pistol shrimps are fascinating crustaceans that have a very special way of hunting. By an extremely rapid closing of their oversized claw, the shrimp produce a loud snapping sound that stuns their prey. The noise made by the pistol shrimp is not caused by the claws hitting each other – as scientists used to believe – but by a jet of water created by the impact that shoots out at 100 km/h.

Pistol shrimp in crevice

The pistol shrimp stun their prey by snapping their large claw

Scientists revealed that as the bubble collapses the bubble reaches temperatures of over 5,000 degress Kelvin, similar to the surface temperature of the sun, and even emits a short flash of light.

Although the snapping sound, which can be heard from great distances, is mainly used for hunting, pistol shrimps also use it for communication.

Cute Pygmy Jerboa is world smallest rodent

By on January 25th 2010 in Animals

Exploring the animal kingdom for its fascinating and intriguing species I was struck by the Baluchistan Pygmy Jerboa, one of the smallest mammals in the world. This species, only found in the hot deserts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is said to be the world’s smallest rodent, measuring 5 cm long on average.

For the title of the smallest mammal in the world, it’s only competitors are the bumblebee bat and species of the shrew family.

Jerboas are a group of jumping desert rodents that resemble a mouse with a long tufted tail and very long hind legs. They are a great example of convergent evolution – unrelated animals that develop similar characteristics because of living in similar conditions. In all the world’s major desert regions you will find animals that mainly use hopping as locomotion, a very energy-efficient way of avoiding predators when you have the space.

People have a strong tendency to like short faces and big eyes. The combination of it’s small size, large eyes and short face therefore make the Pygmy Jerboa one of the cutest mammals in the world! What do you think? ;)
The o-so-cute Pygmy Jerboa