Bird Fact Friday – The spectacular Resplendent Quetzal

From page 270 in The New Neotropical Companion:

Male Resplendent Quetzal, in all its splendor. Photo by Gina Nichol.

Arguably the most spectacular member of the trogon family is the Central American Resplendent Quetzal, which is said to be the inspiration for the legendary phoenix. Guatemala’s monetary unit is the quetzal, and the bird’s image appears on all currency. Quetzals inhabit the cloud forests of Middle America, migrating to lower elevations seasonally. Most striking about the quetzal’s plumage is the brilliant green male’s elongated upper tail coverts, graceful plumes that stream down well below the actual tail, making the bird’s total length fully 61 cm (24 in). Females are a duller green and lack the elaborate tail plumes.

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Big Pacific – Voracious Pacific

Watch the third episode of Big Pacific, “Voracious Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, July 5th. The companion book is available now from Princeton University Press.

The inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean are united by the need to feed, the constant quest for sustenance. Many of these inhabitants feed on each other—only a handful of the largest and most dangerous are free of the threat of becoming somebody else’s lunch. Any evolutionary adaptation that makes it easier to acquire food confers an advantage in the battle for survival, and the Pacific showcases many remarkable adaptations and specializations.

Double-crested cormorant

A double-crested cormorant dries its wings after a dive.

The double-crested cormorant dives for fish, plummeting out of the air to plunge into shallow coastal waters. The light, hollow bones that make it easy for other birds to soar would make it difficult for the cormorant to remain submerged; instead it has evolved with heavier bones, lower body fat, and feathers that absorb water, allowing it to swim underwater for up to thirty seconds at a time, propelled by its wings and webbed feet. After a dive, the now waterlogged bird will need to dry its feathers before it can fly again, and they can be easily spotted on rocky shores, standing with wings outstretched to dry in the sun. These cormorants are so well adapted to hunting underwater that their young will sometimes take to the water even before learning to fly.

Peppered moray eel

A peppered moray eel slithers across the rocks in search of crabs

If the Pacific is home to birds that hunt underwater, it is only fitting that there should also be fish that hunt on land. Moray eels have long been known as effective predators, possessed of powerful jaws from which few victims escape. Morays typically lurk in crevices or holes in underwater reefs, waiting for an unsuspecting meal to swim by, but the peppered moray takes a more proactive approach. These eels will slither out of the water at low tide, dipping in and out of rock pools to avoid suffocation, searching for crabs. The peppered moray is the only member of the moray family known to leave the water in this way.

Nomura's jellyfish

Nomura’s jellyfish is one of the largest jellyfish, but feeds though hundreds of tiny mouths.

Paradoxically, some of the largest denizens of the ocean feed on the smallest prey. The blue whale is the largest animal on the planet – a full-grown blue whale can reach a hundred feet in length and two hundred tonnes in weight—but it feeds on krill, small crustaceans barely an inch in length, filtering vast draughts of water through baleen plates in its mouth to trap the tiny krill. Manta rays feed on smaller fry still, sweeping up plankton as they glide through the water on wing-like fins that can span 23 feet in width. But perhaps the most extraordinary is the Nomura’s jellyfish. These giant jellyfish start life as a polyp the size of a pinhead with a mouth barely a millimeter wide but in the space of a year they grow to some six feet in diameter and more than 400 pounds in weight. Their mouths do not grow with them; instead the jellyfish develops hundreds of tiny mouths, allowing them to filter an Olympic swimming pool of water for plankton every day. Voracious indeed!

See dazzling footage of these animals and many more in the next episode of Big Pacific.

Bird Fact Friday – How do hummingbirds accomplish their remarkably controlled flight?

From page 277 in The New Neotropical Companion:

The Booted Racket-tail. Photo by Nancy Norman.

Hummingbirds accomplish their remarkably controlled flight both by a unique rotation of their wings through an angle of 180° and by having an extremely high metabolism. Hummingbird heart rates reach 1,260 beats per minute, and some species beat their wings approximately 80 times per second. Hummingbird metabolisms require that the birds must eat many times per day to adequately fuel their tiny bodies. Suddenly appearing at a flower, its long bill and tongue reaching deep within the blossom to sip nectar, a bird will briefly hover, move to a different flower, hover, and zoom off. The best way to see hummingbirds well is to observe at a flowering tree or shrub with the sun to your back so that the metallic, iridescent reds, greens, and blues will glow.

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Tuesday’s Trot – Arabian

From page 374 in Horses of the World:

5 things to know about the Arabian horse:

1. This is one of the most ancient breeds in the world, existing probably for three thousand years and prized for its beauty and great sporting abilities.

2. It has had an extraordinary influence on a great number of horse breeds, and has been the most used “improver” in the world.

3. The Arabian is intelligent, sensitive, lively but docile, and bold. It is easily handled, can carry heavy loads, has exceptional endurance, and is fast. It is undemanding, and lives a long time.

4. An animal forged by the desert, it can withstand high temperatures.

5. This is the endurance horse par excellence, but it is versatile and suited to many equestrian disciplines, both for recreation and competition, as well as to light harness work. There are speed races especially conceived for the Arabian.

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

Big Pacific – Violent Pacific

Watch the second episode of Big Pacific, “Violent Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, June 28th. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

Drowned Forest

The stumps of these spruce trees are remnants of the forest drowned by the 1700 earthquake

Although its name suggests calm and tranquility, the Pacific Ocean is riven by powerful natural forces: violent tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes are common occurrences across this mighty ocean. The ocean sits within the Ring of Fire, a zone of intense tectonic activity where multiple plates meet, grinding and driving against each other with sometimes cataclysmic results. Running in a horseshoe shape from New Zealand along the western Pacific to the Aleutians and back down the western coast of the Americas, the Ring of Fire is home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes. All but three of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions in the last 12000 years have occurred in the Ring of Fire, the eruptions of Tambora and Krakatoa among them. The power and destructiveness of these eruptions and quakes is monumental—in 1700 an earthquake in Cascadia caused the coastline to drop by as much as ten feet in a matter of seconds, instantly submerging wide swathes of forest beneath the water. The shockwave took only ten hours to cross the thousands of miles of ocean to reach the coast of Japan in the form of a massive tsunami.

humpback whales

The long pectoral fins of the humpback whale can be used as weapons by battling males.

The life of animals in the Pacific can be no less violent. The struggle for survival manifests both as competition within species, and between species. It is easy to think of humpback whales as placid animals, drifting through the ocean in search of the minuscule plankton on which they feed. Their mournful song is a cliché of New Age relaxation tapes. But competition between male humpbacks over females often turns to battle: during their “heat run” contending males will swipe each other with their long pectoral fins, ram each other, and even breach the surface of the ocean to land on each other. Despite the huge bulk of these animals, mature males weighing in at up to 36 tonnes, they can move surprisingly quickly, reaching speeds of 18 miles an hour. The impact of their collisions is comparable to that of fully-loaded eighteen wheeler trucks. The victorious male earns the right to mate with the female.

Shedao Island pit viper

A Shedao Island pit viper claims another victim

But the archetypal struggle in the animal kingdom is that between predator and prey. Evolutionary adaption has made the predators at the top of the food chain near-perfect killers. The Shedao Island pit viper is found only on one tiny island in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China, where it has so effectively dominated the ecosystem that it is estimated that there is one viper for every square meter of land on the island. The sole source of food for these snakes is migratory birds: twice a year, in spring and fall, birds use Shedao Island as a staging post on the journey to and from their breeding grounds in Siberia. These two six-week periods are the only point in the year at which the viper eats. Motionless and near invisible on the branches of a tree, the viper waits for a bird to land. Its strike is near instantaneous and its victim quickly succumbs to the snake’s powerful venom. The viper will slowly swallow its meal whole, then seek another; it must consume several birds to survive the long fast between migrations.

Discover more of the violent side of the Pacific in Wednesday’s episode of Big Pacific.

Bird Fact Friday – Mashers and Gulpers

From page 163 in The New Neotropical Companion:

This Toco Toucan is plucking a fruit that it will then gulp down whole. Photo by John Kricher.

In dense interior rain forests where wind is attenuated, birds are essential for seed dispersal. There are two basic methods by which birds devour fruit. Some birds (mashers) mash up the fruit, dropping the seeds as they do, while others (gulpers) gulp the fruit whole, subsequently either regurgitating or defecating seeds. Mashers are mostly finches and tanagers, and gulpers are toucans, trogons, and manakins. Mashers appear more sensitive to taste than gulpers, showing a distinct preference for fruits rich in sugars. Gulpers swallow fruit whole and appear taste insensitive.

This Grayish Saltator is an obvious example of a masher. Photo by John Kricher.

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Paul Strode: Teaching The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn January of 2016 I was asked by Laura Bonetta at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to write a teacher’s guide for the short film Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades. At the same time, Molecular Biologist Sean B. Carroll, the HHMI Vice President of Science Education, was putting the finishing touches on his new book, The Serengeti Rules. To help expedite my research for writing the teacher’s guide for the short film, Laura sent me a pre-pub copy of the book and suggested I read Chapter Six: “Some Animals Are More Equal than Others.”

Instead of going straight to Chapter Six, I started reading from the beginning.

Before I was even halfway through the first chapter, I thought to myself, this book is going to change the way I teach. At the core of Carroll’s storytelling is the observation that everything is regulated, from molecules to megafauna. Indeed, for most of my career teaching biology I have kept my focus on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s argument that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But Carroll has now made it clear that nothing in biology also makes sense except in the light of regulation.

To make a long story short, I wrote the short film teachers guide with the help of Chapter Six in The Serengeti Rules and immediately followed that task by reviewing the book for The American Biology Teacher so that other teachers might benefit from reading the book. In my review, I argued that The Serengeti Rules “should be required reading for students in all fields of science, but especially those pursuing careers in biology education.” My review caught the attention of Carroll’s editor at Princeton University Press, Alison Kalett. Alison was curious to know if teachers like me that planned to use Carroll’s book to enhance their biology courses would find it useful if educational supplementary materials were made available… for free. Alison and I came up with a plan and I began to write.

The Serengeti Rules came out in March of 2016 and one of Carroll’s first public discussions about the book was at the annual Professional Development Conference of the National Association of Biology Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island. Several hundred teachers showed up to hear from Dr. Carroll and it was standing room only. As word got out that supplementary materials were being prepared for Carroll’s book, inquiries began to pop up on social media.

Carroll

The Educational Supplement was released in May and is a document that a teacher can use immediately in the classroom.

Carroll

The questions come in various styles and are designed to invoke classroom discussion, require students to synthesize and connect various biological concepts, get students to engage with ecological data from the published journal articles, and have students analyze and graph data that relate to what they are reading in The Serengeti Rules. For example, the question below relates to Chapter Four of The Serengeti Rules, “Fat, Feedback, and a Miracle Fungus.” The question can be used as a formative assessment question that marries real data with the nature of science and covers several components of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate biology course content.

Carroll

Teachers have already begun planning to use The Serengeti Rules to enhance their courses and since the release of the supplement have expressed their gratitude that it is available and free!

Carroll

And of course, I have assigned The Serengeti Rules as summer reading for my 65 AP/IB biology students and I am looking forward to using the questions in the fall to incite discussion and enhance learning and understanding.

Thank you, Sean B. Carroll, for giving us The Serengeti Rules!

Big Pacific – Mysterious Pacific

Watch the first episode of Big Pacific, “Mysterious Pacific,” tonight on PBS at 8pm Eastern. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

The scale of the Pacific Ocean is almost incomprehensible. This single body of water covers a greater area than all six continents combined; its deepest point, the Marianas Trench, lies far further below the surface than the summit of Everest stands above it. Much of this vast realm is unexplored, inaccessible to the human eye, and even the shallow waters with which we are familiar are home to many strange and mysterious things.

Horseshoe Crab

The horseshoe crab – one of the planet’s “living fossils”

Among them are species that predate humankind, and indeed all mammals, by hundreds of millions of years. The four species of horseshoe crabs are the last remaining members of a family that first appears in the fossil record some 450 million years ago. Horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, being more closely related to arachnids such as spiders and scorpions. Despite their long tenure on this planet, horseshoe crab populations are in decline. Pollution, overfishing, and development along the Pacific shorelines where they mate are all taking a toll on these living fossils, and efforts are underway to protect them and improve their survival rate.

Nan Madol

The abandoned city of Nan Madol

Even the short span of human history presents enigmas. Off the eastern shore of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei lies the magnificent complex of Nan Madol. Comprised of over ninety artificial islets linked by a network of canals, Nan Madol is thought to have been home to the political and religious elite of Pohnpei. Construction of the complex was a monumental task: some 750,000 tonnes of black basalt were transported from the far side of Pohnpei to build monumental structures with walls up to 49 feet in height and 16 feet in thickness. More remarkable still, it seems to have been achieved without even the benefit of simple machines such as pulleys or levers—the building methods used remain unknown. Despite the enormous efforts that went into the building of Nan Madol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the site was abandoned in the sixteenth century after the Saudeleur dynasty was toppled by invasion from without. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site.

Pufferfish circle

The tiny white spotted pufferfish at the center of his circle

Recent years have brought to light a smaller but no less fascinating construction project. In 1995 divers off the coast of Japan noticed unusual circular patterns in the seabed. Formed too perfectly to be the work of chance, these circles featured concentric rings of sand with furrows radiating from the central point like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It was not until nearly twenty years later, in 2013, that the mysterious architect of these circles was identified. Despite the scale of the circles, up to six feet in diameter, they are the work of a species of small pufferfish, only a few inches in length. The male pufferfish works diligently, fanning the sand with his fins or using his body to shovel it aside, in order to construct his circle, which he then maintains carefully in the hope of attracting a mate. Even if he is successful in doing so, the female pufferfish does not stick around to admire his homemaking skills—having laid her eggs, she quickly departs leaving the male to care for and defend them.

With the vast depths of the Pacific largely unexplored, we can be sure that it has many more mysteries to offer us.

Watch the trailer to learn more.

Tuesday’s Trot – Shetland Pony

From page 34 in Horses of the World:

5 things to know about the Shetland Pony:

1. The Shetland Pony is one of the smallest breeds in the world, with such a particular look that it can’t be confused with any other breed. The winter coat is very thick and very long, giving it the look of a big stuffed animal.

2. Its origins are largely unknown, but it is extremely ancient, probably the direct descendant of primitive Celtic ponies.

3. Due to its isolation, it has not undergone crossbreeding. Its small size is the result of natural selection in a difficult environment, and of good adaptation to the cold and vegetation that offers little nutrition.

4. It has excellent endurance and is powerful for its size, capable of pulling and transporting heavy loads.

5. Of exceptional rusticity, this hardy pony has a tendency to get fat quickly, which is dangerous for its health.

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

Bird Fact Friday – The dancing manakins

From page 166 in The New Neotropical Companion:

Photo by Jill Lapato.

The White-bearded Manakin’s name comes from its throat feathers, which are puffed outward during courtship, forming a kind of beard. Thirty or more males may occupy a lek, a single small area in the forest understory. Each male makes his own “court” by clearing an oval-shaped area of forest floor about 1 m (39 in) across. Each court must contain two or more thin vertical saplings, as these are crucial in the manakin’s courtship dance. The male begins courtship by repeatedly jumping back and forth between the two saplings, making a loud snap with each jump. In addition to the snap, the male’s short wing feathers make an insect-like buzzing when he flies, and thus active manakin leks can become a buzzing, snapping frenzy when a female visits. The intensity of the male’s jumping between saplings increases until he suddenly jumps from sapling to ground, and then appears to ricochet back to another sapling, from which he slides vertically downward, like a fireman on a pole.

 

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Tuesday’s Trot – Misaki

From page 374 in Horses of the World:

5 things you should know about the Misaki:

1. The Misaki is recognized as a national natural treasure in Japan.

2. The Misaki is resilient and adapted to life in the open throughout the year in its natural environment.

3. This small horse left in the wild has become an extraordinary tourist attraction. Japanese tourists enthusiastically come all year long to take its picture, and, being used to the presence of people, it tolerates the admiring crowds.

4. In 2011 the breed suffered from equine infectious anemia and fell from 115 individuals in 2008 to 82 in 2012, but it climbed back to 91 in 2013.

5. The horses are encountering a few problems of overgrazing in the grassy zones and are tending to go into the forests to find food.

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

Bird Fact Friday – Why does the Toucan have such a large, colorful bill?

From page 273 in The New Neotropical Companion:

Photo by James Adams

Perhaps more than any other kind of bird, toucans symbolize the American tropics. With a prominent boat-shaped, colorful bill almost equal in length to the body, the toucan silhouette is instantly recognizable. Toucans’ seemingly oversize bills are actually lightweight. Colorful patterns adorn most ramphastid bills; they may possibly be used for signaling in mate selection. Recent studies on the Toco Toucan have demonstrated that the birds are able to radiate excess heat from their long, vascularized bills. In a paper by Glenn Tattersall and colleagues, the researchers conclude that the toucan bill is “relative to its size, one of the largest thermal windows in the animal kingdom, rivaling elephants’ ears in its ability to radiate body heat.”

Toko Toucan. Photo by John Kricher

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.