May 29, 2010

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Life is hard in the arctic. In the winter, temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below zero and fierce, howling winds are common. And forget about the sun...it goes down in October and doesn't come up again until March. For all appearances, it seems to be a snow and ice covered wasteland. Sure, the Northern Lights are pretty, but that is small consolation when you can't find any food and you are freezing your buns off. What could possibly live in such a place?

The answer is, actually, quite a lot. Many creatures (and some humans) have adapted beautifully to life in the frozen tundra and call the top of the world home. And one of these creatures just happens to be the largest land predator in the world today...the polar bear.


The polar bear has been given many names over the years. The Norse (as in, Vikings) referred to the polar bear as "the rider of the icebergs", "the sailor of the floe", "the whale's bane", "the seal's dread" (for good reason!), and even "white sea deer"...a particularly creative name; apparently, the mead was flowing freely on those long winter nights. They said the bear had "the strength of 12 men and the wit of 11".


The Sami people in the Lapland region of Norway won't even speak the polar bear's name, for fear of offending it. Instead, they refer to the bear as "God's dog" or "old man in a fur coat".


The Latin name for the polar bear is Ursus maritimus, which literally means "sea bear". That is a good name for this bear, because he loves to swim. Polar bears can swim for 60 miles without rest, and they can dive to 15 feet. They use their massive front paws as giant paddles to push themselves forward in the water, and they use their hind paws as rudders. He is very good in the water because he spends most of his time going from ice floe to ice floe, looking for his favorite food...ringed seals.


Polar bears just
love a ringed seal. It is by far the most common item on the menu, although they will also hunt walruses and even small whales on occasion. Seals, being just slightly more bite-size than a walrus or whale, would seem to be the easier prey. Hunting seals in the arctic, however, is not quite that easy. It takes intelligence, strength, and lots of patience. Luckily, our polar bear friend is equipped for the job. Polar bears hunt seals by finding a breathing hole in the ice and waiting by it, ready to ambush the unlucky seal who comes up for some fresh air. Seals need to come up every 5 to 15 minutes to breathe; the problem is that these seal-made breathing holes are all over the place, and the chances that a seal will come up through this particular breathing hole can be mighty slim. A bear can end up waiting at a breathing hole for hours...or even days.

That's okay, because polar bears can go for weeks without food if they have to. They don't hibernate like other bears do, but when food is scarce, they can go into a state called "walking hibernation" in which their metabolism slows way down.


But when food is plentiful, they make use of it. These guys can eat! They have huge stomachs and can eat 100 pounds of yummy seal in one sitting. Despite being such a ravenous carnivore, however, their table manners are actually rather nice (for a ravenous carnivore, that is). A polar bear will actually share his meal with other polar bears...as long as they ask him nicely first. What is asking nicely in polar bear speak, you ask? Well, guests to the dinner table basically have to beg. Begging consists of approaching in a very submissive manner, crouching low to the ground, then circling around the carcass slowly, and then touching noses...ever so gently...with the big bear in charge. If a bear does this right, he is allowed to join the meal. Large groups of polar bears have been observed peacefully sharing a big whale or walrus kill together.


Polar bears are big...very big. Males can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and females can weigh up to 550 pounds. They are extremely strong and have thick, curved claws that measure more than two inches long. All of this comes in handy when your only source of food consists 150 pound seals or 2,000 pound walruses and 4,000 pound whales.


Living in such an extreme environment means having to find ways to adapt and deal with the special challenges that a habitat like the arctic presents...and polar bears are no exception. They have some amazing adaptations to life on the ice. Their fur, for example, is very dense and well insulating and covers skin that is actually black (all the better to trap heat from the sun). Their fur is actually not white, but rather transparent...it reflects light in much the same way that ice does. The translucent fur and black skin cover a 4 1/2 inch thick layer of blubber that also helps keep in the heat. In fact, polar bears are so good at keeping warm that they actually overheat when they run!

They have huge feet...up to 12 inches across...that help them walk on ice and paddle in the water. They have longer necks than other bears, which is helpful when poking around in holes in thick ice, looking for seals.

And all those cute cartoons you've seen of polar bears and penguins playing together? Well, you can forget it. Polar bears and penguins live on opposite ends of the earth and never come into contact with each other. Polar bears are exclusively in the northern hemisphere, and penguins are in the southern hemisphere. A good way to remember this is by simply understanding what the terms "arctic" and "antarctic" mean. "Arctic" comes from the Greek word for "bear", and "antarctic" is Greek for "without bear". Easy, huh?

Polar bears are being talked about a lot in the news now because of global warming, but what exactly does that mean? Why is climate change such a threat to polar bears? Well, it all has to do with ice. Ice is a must for polar bears. They depend on it for their survival. Predators go where their food goes, and in the case of the polar bear, that is the arctic ice. Seals, walruses, and whales are all marine mammals and spend most or all of their time in the ocean. Polar bears are great swimmers, but they are no match for a seal in open water. The only access a hungry polar bear has to his food is where the ice meets the ocean. Polar bears follow the ice floes, sometimes swimming for miles to reach the next floe in search of seals. As this ice melts, the bears have to swim farther and farther to find suitable hunting grounds. As a result, many bears starve to death or simply die from exhaustion or drowning because the swimming distance has become too great.

The arctic is experiencing the warmest climate in four centuries. The rapid shrinking of the sea ice is making it harder and harder for polar bears to make a living. They are superbly adapted to life in their arctic environment, but now that environment is changing, and the changes are happening too fast for the polar bear to adjust. Less ice means that the polar bears can't reach their prey, and shorter hunting seasons means more chance for starvation and population decline.
The polar bear is an amazing animal, but one that is in danger. His way of life is quickly becoming a thing of the past. His habitat is literally disappearing beneath his feet. Hardly a fitting treatment for "God's dog"...


May 15, 2010

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

What IS that? Is it a raccoon? Is is a bear? Is it a fox? Why is a fox up in a tree?

It may look like a raccoon in a red fox suit, but this little guy is actually a panda. Its giant black and white namesake may hog all the attention, but he's not the only bamboo chomper in the forest. This is the red panda...much smaller, but all panda nonetheless. In fact, it can be argued that this guy is the original panda, as it was first described in 1821...over 40 years before the giant panda was discovered. And he can give the giant panda a good run for its money in the adorable department, as well.

Both red and giant pandas live in the forests of Asia and both have a serious bamboo addiction, but aside from that are not actually that closely related. It seems they just have similar hobbies.

But while the giant panda is a bamboo purist, the red panda will sometimes supplement the oh-so-delectable bamboo with other foods, such as roots, fruit, eggs, and even a lizard or small bird on occasion. Meat on the dinner table is not that common, however, because if the critter can move at all fast, this guy ain't gonna catch it. He's not exactly what you would call a type "A" personality. Possibly due to the poor nutrient content in bamboo, red pandas have a very slow metabolism and spend most of the day up in the trees sleeping and chewing on that yummy (and slow moving) bamboo.

The red panda is very well adapted to life in the trees...his hind legs are longer than his front legs (great for climbing up things), he has long claws that help him grab tree branches, and he even has an "extra" thumb which is useful for holding on. It always helps to have an extra digit to hang on to the tree with. These adaptations make him a little less than graceful on the ground, however. And that's fine, because the red panda prefers to stay in the trees anyway; it's safer up there. Staying in the trees helps the red panda stay off the menu of the snow leopard, who finds panda tar-tar to be very tasty.

One of the most distinctive features of the red panda is his long, bushy tail. The long tail helps him keep his balance in the trees. The tail is not prehensile, however, so you will never see a red panda swinging from his tail like a monkey. For him to try something like that would be a Bad Idea, indeed.

One thing that tail is very good for, though, is warmth. In cold weather, the red panda will curl up and wrap that long bushy tail around his body to keep himself nice and cozy. And that's no small thing; a built-in wraparound blanket comes in handy during a himalayan winter. The red panda also has a thick fur coat to protect and insulate its entire body...even the soles of the feet!

He's cute, he has a gorgeous firey red fur coat, he has weird extra appendages on his hands, and he has furry feet. The red panda...what's not to love?


May 10, 2010

Hooker's Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)

Mate for life? What's that? These guys don't play that game. This is the Hooker's Sea Lion, and he's all about the ladies. (the name, while funny, is just an unfortunate coincidence)

He is also known as the New Zealand sea lion, because that is the only place on earth that this fella calls home. And he's a big boy. This bruiser weighs in at just under 1,000 pounds, while his many lady friends are a more demure 350 pounds.

The fun begins in November, when the males, called bulls, arrive at the rookeries and start beating the tar out of each other. They are establishing dominance, you see, to see who will become the "beach master" and, subsequently, an undeniable chick magnet. It seems the girls, who arrive at the rookeries a few weeks later, really like a winner. The beach masters develop harems of anywhere from 8 to 25 females as part of their hard won territories. And the males who didn't win those territorial fights? Well, there's always next year.

These big animals have big appetites...they can dive more than 1,000 feet deep in search of the squid and fish they like to eat...but during the breeding season, the male has more important things on his mind. He doesn't eat at all during the entire breeding season (November to January). He can't, because if he leaves to go fishing, some other guy will grab his territory and his females. So he must stay on the beach, wooing the ladies and fighting off rivals. That's one serious Cassanova.

Despite all this attention to love, however, the Hooker's sea lion is one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world. Why is this? They were hunted heavily by native Maori people and European settlers for their skins and oil and were almost wiped out. They did not receive protected status until 1893. While they are no longer hunted, a number of them are still killed every year when they get entangled in the nets of squid fishing boats and drown. They are powerful swimmers and great divers, but they do still have to breathe air.

Although still threatened, the New Zealand government has stepped in to protect the Hooker's sea lion, so the future is looking up for the big guy. Perhaps he should celebrate by taking a leisurely stroll on the beach with a special lady...or 15...

May 9, 2010

Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora)

What could be cooler than flying? How about being able to fly for years without landing, and without ever having to flap your wings? How about having a wingspan that measures 10 feet across?

Meet the Royal Albatross.


This guy is one of the largest flying birds in the world, and he's not kidding around. Albatrosses travel around 100,000 miles per year, and they can reach speeds of 70 mph...all without flapping their wings. They do this by being expert gliders. They spend their lives circling around the Southern ocean, riding on updrafts of air from the ocean waves. This system works great, with one drawback: the albatross needs wind in order to fly. If the wind drops, the albatross may be forced to float on the ocean until the wind picks up again. Then he just spreads out his wings, and up he goes. He is the picture of grace in the air...take off and landing, though, are not quite as graceful. They tend to land on their face as often as their feet. They don't land very often, though; they spend most of their lives in the air and only go to land to breed and raise their young.

Albatrosses mate for life. If his mate is killed, it could take many years for him to find another mate...if he finds one at all. After the business of finding a mate (or reuniting with a mate) is done, the albatross pair lays one egg and both parents take care of the chick together. And it's a big baby...the chick can weigh 22 pounds! The chick stays in the nest for about 240 days, after which it is ready to try out its wings. It will practice running and flying around the colony for a bit, and then eventually, it will take off for real. And when it does, that's it. It will not return to land again for several YEARS.

That's one cool bird.


May 8, 2010

An Introduction...


Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Hoo. Sometimes known as Mr. Hoo-Hoo, the Hoo Man, Hoo Hat...but Mr. Hoo will do just fine, thank you.

We have a bit of a problem. You see, the animals of the world feel that we are getting the short end of the stick, as it were, from you humans. We feed you, clothe you, pollinate your crops, entertain you, and even put up with those silly little outfits you make some of us wear. Do you really think your dog wants to wear that ballerina dress and be carried around in a purse? Seriously. And yet, we don't seem to get much respect.

In short, we feel that we are not being appreciated properly by you humans, possibly because you just don't know enough about who we are and what we do on this planet. It seems that we have a P.R. problem. And so, the animals have contracted my services as an ambassador to your kind and to show you a bit about the creatures you share this place with.

I will be your guide to the weird, funny, beautiful, and super cool world of animals. So come on in and let me introduce you to the neighbors. We really are an interesting bunch. And there are a lot more of us on this planet than you. Just sayin'...