We’ve already had a lot of snow this season – it started just before Halloween and seems to keep coming. After every new snowfall I find myself staring at a framed copy of Bill Watterson’s last Calvin and Hobbes comic, which hangs by my desk. It features the beloved Calvin and his ever-present buddy, Hobbes, facing a new day blanketed in snow and armed with a sled.
This last cartoon was published on December 31, 1995. So as we approach another new year, I thought it appropriate to showcase that cartoon again because it so perfectly captures how I feel about the natural world – how I wish everyone felt. It is a magical world. Go explore.
PHOTO CREDIT: San Diego Zoo
Given the season, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about reindeer. Or is it caribou? The answer is, it’s both! Reindeer and caribou are, in fact, the same animal. What we call them depends on location. In Europe they are called reindeer. In North America, it gets more complicated. Wild herds are called caribou, while the domesticated animals are called reindeer.
Which brings me to my next point. Since Santa’s herd is clearly domesticated, they are called reindeer. But for the record, Rudolf was a girl. And, actually, Santa’s entire team was female! These animals are part of the deer family. Like other members of the deer family, they grow antlers. In the case of reindeer/caribou, though, BOTH males and females grow them. And here’s how we know that Rudolf was female – male reindeer/caribou shed their antlers every November. Females, on the other hand, don’t shed theirs until calves are born – in May. Like so many things in our past, it seems as though history needs to be rewritten. In the meantime, should you come across a reindeer/caribou with antlers in the coming weeks, say hello to HER.
Happy book birthday! Animal Conservationists makes its way into the world this month, celebrating the ongoing work of scientists to save species at risk in the face of climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species. The work of these scientists includes monitoring bats affected with white-nose syndrome and collaboration between groups to find practical solutions to the epidemic. Others have focused their efforts on preserving or restoring habitats, including the Everglades in Florida. Breeding programs have also helped species like the California condor; thanks to the efforts of conservationists, the population of these birds has recovered from 22 in 1982, to over 400 in 2018. In zoos, scientists use animal matchmaking to determine genetically ideal matches in order to help recover species populations. Coral breeding programs are likewise helping to restore coral colonies. In addition, technology is playing an increasingly important role in species conservation. These animal conservationists on the front lines of saving species at risk are doing amazing work – work that should be celebrated and highlighted!
If you look like the leaf you’re sitting on, you are a lot less likely to be singled out as a meal by a predator. And, if you don’t get eaten, you are also more likely to live long enough to reproduce. Chances are, your offspring will also look a lot like a leaf too. Hopefully they don’t get eaten either.
Meet the satanic leaf-tailed gecko of Madagascar. Through millions of years of evolution its camouflage is so precise it really does look like a leaf. And if some sharp-eyed predator (birds, snakes, and rats) does happen to spot one of these geckos, the gecko will resort to plan B. They scream. Plan C is to leap to a new branch. But take a look at the picture. Can you spot the gecko? I’ll be plan A works most of the time!
In my lifetime I’ve watched many, many documentaries, but none have made me laugh out loud like Dancing with the Birds. I also think I set a new record for the number of times I said, “WHOA!” All the birds in the documentary were fantastic, yet the male MacGregor’s bowerbird stole the show. This bird builds a bower on a platform of moss that’s more like a tower of woven sticks and twigs – it’s over 3 feet tall! The bird may spend months or years perfecting its bower and maintaining it. He also decorates, hanging plant sap and caterpillar feces among the lower branches much like humans decorate Christmas trees.
Once perfected, he awaits a female. When one arrives, he begins a show of vocalizations. MacGregor’s bowerbirds imitate other birds’ song as well as human voices and the sound of children playing. To say that this is amazing is an understatement. You gotta hear it to believe it. Then, once the female arrives at the bower they begin a lengthy game of hide-and-seek around the tower. They flit and jump round and round, back and forth. And hopefully, for him, she is as impressed as I was.