The American badger is ready for Halloween. He always wears a mask.
This nocturnal member of the weasel family isn’t found in Pennsylvania but occurs from western Ohio to the California coast. He makes a living by digging for small burrowing animals, especially mice, squirrels and prairie dogs so his favorite places are grasslands where the soil is easy to dig and his prey is abundant. That’s a habitat rarely found in Pennsylvania.
American badgers are nature’s backhoes but they work at night and are usually alone. This makes them hard to watch and census. Even so, we can guess they’ve declined or are missing from areas where prairie dogs have been eradicated.
Leaf roosting has made him unusual in other ways, too. Most bats roost head-down but this species roosts head-up so it can exit the leaves quickly. Leaves are smooth and slippery so the bat has evolved suction cups on his wings and feet. These cups look like disks, hence his name.
Above, the bat is showing off his wing disks but his arms look really weird and stubby. To understand this it helps to know a little about bat-wing anatomy.
Bats’ wings are made of skin stretched from their armpits to their fingertips. Their four fingers, encased in thin skin, have evolved to be very long to give the wings their breadth. Bats’ thumbs, however, are not inside their wings and their thumbs are short.
In the photo above you can see the attic bats’ long fingers. The joint of the wing is at the bat’s hand/wrist. I’ve circled the tiny thumb. This one has a claw but Spix’s disk-winged bats have a suction-cup there instead.
When bats roost, they close their fingers to fold their wings. Most bats grab a perch with their feet but Spix’s uses suction cups to latch onto the inside of the leaf.
Suction cups on his feet alone are not enough. This bat is hanging on by his thumbs.
(photo of a Spix’s disk-winged bat taken near Golfo Ducle, Costa Rica by Alan Wolf. Bat wing from Wikimedia Commons. Click on each photo to see the original.)
p.s. Thanks to Peter Bell for alerting me to this fascinating bat.
On Monday I described how American Indians shaped the landscape before European arrival. We shape it too though we don’t always realize how. Case in point: There are more deer in North America now than there were before Columbus landed in 1492.
Because deer are a prey species, their abundance is tied to their predators. When American Indians ruled the continent they hunted deer for food and to control the population so the animals would not decimate their crops. They knew that either no deer or too many deer meant less food.
European Americans are still figuring out how to balance the deer population. We overdid it a century ago by uncontrolled hunting that killed all the deer in Pennsylvania. Uh oh! Pennsylvania passed hunting laws and imported deer from Virginia to repopulate our state.
Now we’ve erred on the other side. We’ve eliminated the deer’s other predators and protected them from hunting so well that their population has exploded into every nook and cranny including city neighborhoods.
Sharon Leadbitter spends a lot of time photographing nature at Allegheny Cemetery in the city’s Lawrenceville district. Deer are often her photo subjects because they’re everywhere. In a conversation with the president of the cemetery she learned that about 300 deer live there in three herds. This is way too many deer for the land to support so they move throughout the neighborhood eating gardens, shrubs, flowers and handouts.
Since most of the “inhabitants” are dead and the living come quietly to pay their respects, the cemetery’s deer are almost tame. Sharon says this is both a blessing and a curse, “Some of the blessings are that the deer will eat out of your hand if they know you. The curse would be this great interaction. People feed all manner of things to these animals. White bread, cereal, I’ve even seen a candy bar being fed. It only takes once for someone to be bitten or kicked. These are not pets but because the animals have lost most of their healthy fear, people don’t realize that they are still semi-wild.”
Deer browse and gambol among the headstones, unconcerned by living visitors. Sharon filmed a fawn playing among the tombstones last June while his mother watched.
“The cemetery is a great place to have some quiet time and reconnect with nature,” says Sharon. “Come check it out but always maintain a respectful distance, or even better stay in the car” when you visit the deer among the dead.
His small size, soft red fur, fluffy tail and big eyes are certainly cute but the red squirrel is also curious and combative. I think his food habits made him that way.
Unlike gray and fox squirrels, red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) don’t bury one nut at a time. Instead they gather food in a big cache called a midden in a hollow tree or underground. This takes a lot of time and effort: climb the trees, walk the branches, bite off the green cones, watch them fall, scurry down later and collect the cones, repeat the process. Along the way they pause to eat at the same prominent locations leaving debris piles, also called middens, that seem to say “I am here!”
The red squirrel defends a 1 – 8 acre territory against everyone, especially other red squirrels. He’s curious about new arrivals but then, watch out!
First line of defense? Shout at the competition! Burst into a sudden loud chatter that slows to a wheezy hiccup. Really mad? Jerk your tail and stamp your feet. Really, really mad? Chase!
In coniferous forests that’s usually another red squirrel but in mixed forests gray squirrels also get a verbal beating and relentless pursuit. Though the red squirrels are only 1/2 to 1/3 the size of the grays, the red ones always win.
I, too, have been ejected from a red squirrel’s territory. He used his voice. Click here to read about it.
Now that winter is coming the red squirrels are changing into their drabber winter coats and rushing to increase their middens. They have no patience for anyone.
Looking for some excitement? Want to see large animals go head to head this fall?
This week Paul Staniszewski of Elk County reminded me that the elk rut has begun. He wrote:
Labor Day usually marks the end of summer. For the Pennsylvania elk herd the shortening length of daylight hours each day triggers an annual event known as the “rut”. The rut usually lasts from late August until mid-October. … A lot of sparring between bulls takes place that makes for dramatic photographing opportunities.
Male elk bugle and spar to establish dominance in the mating hierarchy. They’re so preoccupied that Paul has captured some great photos, especially near the Visitor Center on Winslow Hill Rd in Benezette.
Benezette is a 2.65-hour drive from Pittsburgh so you might want to make a weekend of it. Plan your trip and learn more about the elk here.
Using underwater microphones they recorded dolphins’ voices and discovered that each one had his own unique whistle, a signature sound. Having matched the signatures to individuals they then played back the sounds, one at a time. The dolphin who “owned” the sound responded.
This is just like what humans do. If you call out “Kate,” I’ll respond — if I hear you.
Hearing is probably the reason why dolphins have named themselves. They live in a world where it’s hard to see but easy to hear (sound travels better in water than in air). They also live in a social group that’s always on the move. When a friend has swum out of sight they call him and the friend answers. This makes it easy for the group to stay together.
Researcher Vincent Janik points out that individual communication is also important for mothers and calves. Baby dolphins rely on their mothers’ milk until they are three years old yet they’re just as mobile as their mothers. What an advantage that they can call each other by name!
In the arctic where day and night last for months a circadian rhythm would be annoying if not a handicap. Since “day” has no meaning, arctic reindeer solved the problem by turning off their internal 24-hour clocks.
In mammals the circadian rhythm causes melatonin levels to rise at night and fall during the day. This happens whether or not the sun gives us a cue.
Scientists studying reindeer in Norway (Rangifer tarandus, the same species as caribou) found that they have no rhythmic melatonin cycle. Instead their melatonin rises or falls abruptly in response to light. On or off. No daily clock.
Reindeer need to know the time of year so they can synchronize migration and breeding, but this is easy to do at the equinox when the sun rises and sets.
On Svalbard where this reindeer lives, the sun rose on April 16 and won’t set until August 27.
No wonder he doesn’t care what time it is. Some days I wish I didn’t care either.
When I saw this cute photo by Meredith Lombard I knew I had to write about baby porcupines but I soon learned that the truth about these rodents is stranger than fiction.
For starters, baby porcupines are called porcupettes.
Each porcupette is a precocial only child, born with open eyes, well formed teeth, a full coat of fur, and able to climb trees a few hours after birth. In only two weeks he eats green plants. In three months, he’s weaned.
Like his parents he has three kinds of fur: a wooly undercoat, long coarse guard hairs, and sharp hollow quills with barbs at the tip that slant backward. When born his quills are soft and harmless (good thing for his mother!) but within half an hour they’ve stiffened into the protective coat that saves his life. The only place he doesn’t have quills is on his belly — just like his parents.
Neither he nor his parents “throw” their quills but the quills are so loosely attached that they stick easily to any critter that comes close. That includes dad when he approaches mom to conceive a porcupette. Needless to say copulation is a very careful business. No hugs are involved, but there’s a lot of courting to get her in the mood. Dad whines and dances on three legs, showing her his equipment. When she says “You’re the one” he showers her with urine. Then they mate.
I’m not kidding.
All of this happens in October or November. Seven months later: a porcupette.