Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Strange Elegance of the Giraffe-Necked Antelope

Found in Eastern Africa ranging from Somalia to Kenya there is a slightly odd looking long-necked creature that is reminiscent of a giraffe but that is one thing it most certainly is not.

With large eyes and ears and an incredibly slender neck, you may be forgiven for thinking that the Giraffe-necked Antelope was actually thought up in the Disney Studio rather than occurring in the wild steppes of East Africa. This unusual and elegant beast is a great survivor – and it possibly owes its continued existence to its wonderfully long neck. When you realize how high the animals stretches in order to feed, you can imagine many an African folk-story being handed down through the generations to explain how it came to get that way.

The animal comes under a number of names – including the wonderful sounding Gerenuk. This is from the Somali language and literally means ‘neck like a giraffe’ and this is reflected in its English name. The alternative is Waller’s Gazelle, named after the European who first classified the graceful looking animal. Its Latin name is Litocranius walleri and as such is the only species in its genus, although there are two sub-species. In other words, it is effectively all alone in the world, unique but sadly under threat like so many other large mammals in Africa.

Possibly the main characteristic that gives the Giraffe-necked Antelope its rather strange cartoonish appearance is the fact it has such a small head. It is because of this rather petit cranium that its eyes and ears seem to appear so exaggeratedly large but rather than make the animal seem foolishly overdrawn (as it were, it adds to its appeal). They are about a meter in height usually, but when they go foraging for food this changes drastically. For the GNA (as we shall call it) often feeds on its hind legs. It is here that thousands and thousands of generations of evolution and breeding comes to the fore and the reason for its long neck becomes suddenly apparent. Go for it, girls.

Like the byline of a certain beer, the GNA can reach the places that other antelopes simply don’t. This has given them a distinct advantage in the arid areas which they inhabit. They live in small groups – mostly consisting of females related to each other – and of course their young. They also live in bachelor groups too, although many of the males chose to live solitary lives. You could also mistake them, in the right light, with certain extra-terrestrials from any number of TV series, such as the X-Files. The GNA, however, is right down to earth, even though it does look like a cross between ET and an antelope.

When a male lives on his own they are generally thought to be territorial. However, their ranges are so large that scientists have yet to be able to say how – or even if – they would defend their territories. Certainly the word magnificent does not immediately spring to mind – these are docile looking animals. But a look at the head of a young male, close up, may well change your mind. Stout, heavily ringed and deadly looking horns atop Bambi features – really quite exquisite.

They are made for defending their territory, certainly. The GNA has pre-orbital glands by its eyes – and these bring forth a scent with the feel and look of tar which they use to mark bushes and other plants in order to set the boundaries of their territory. There are two other places where the GNA has scent glands – and these are in unusual places (or so we might thing). The first are situated on their knees and covered by hair, the other between the splits in their hooves. When alone and aloof the male can certainly give off an air of undisputed authority. This is despite the inclination of many to make ‘aw’ type noises (which is unique, incidentally, to the human race).

The females like to give birth alone, like many animals. She goes to a quiet spot and then once the fawn has been delivered, licks it clean and eats the afterbirth. This may happen because she needs the nutrients but could also be because she doesn’t want any predators to sniff out her and her newborn. Unlike many grazing animals the GNA gives birth all year round – quite probably because its remarkable neck adaptation allows it to graze all seasons. If you really want an ‘aw’ moment, then take a look at these young GNAs.

The ecosystem in which the GNA lives is complex and so it has evolved its own specialized niche within it. GNAs feed much higher than most other antelopes and gazelles. Standing on their tip toes (or tip hooves, which doesn’t sound as good but is more accurate) they can reach up to eight feet.

They will use their forelegs to pull down branches that are even higher than they are and can get to tender new leaves that other animals cannot. As a plus, the GNA does not need to drink water at all – it gets all the moisture it needs from the plants they devour. Their main threat does not come from other animals, however. Yes, you have guessed it – humanity is the greatest threat to the existence of the GNA. The continual encroachment by humans on to their territories means that the numbers of GNA, sadly and like so many other species, is decreasing.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Jokes so Bad they will Make You Ho(a)rse

There are only two emotions that belong in the saddle; one is a sense of humor and the other is patience. That goes for both horse and rider.  Yet when it comes to jokes, horses have heard them all.  No doubt you have as well, but as they say – the old ones are, well the old ones.  At least these effervescent equines can laugh at these poor jokes with without this becoming a tale of whoa.

A horse trudges slowly into a pub and orders a drink.
“Evenin’” says the barman, “why the long face?”

A horse walks into a smart cocktail bar.
The doorman says: “Wait you can’t come in here without a tie.”
The horse goes out to his car, looks in the trunk and gets a set of jump leads, which he ties around his neck.
He goes back in and says to the barman: “This alright?”
The barman says: “Hmm, ok... but don’t be starting anything.”

A poorly-looking horse limps into a bar with a bandage round his head. He orders a glass of champagne, a vintage brandy and two pints of Guinness.
He downs the lot and says to the barman: “I shouldn’t really be drinking this with what I’ve got?”
“Why, what have you got?”
“About $2 and a carrot.”

A racehorse owner takes his horse to the vet. “Will I be able to race this horse again?,” he asks
The vet replies: “Of course you will, and you’ll probably win!”

A stallion and a mare where due to get married, but the stallion didn't show up at the church. He got colt feet.

One day a man passed by a farm and saw a beautiful horse. Hoping to buy the animal, he said to the farmer: "I think your horse looks pretty good, so I'll give you $500 for him."
"He doesn't look so good, and he's not for sale," the farmer said.
The man insisted, "I think he looks just fine and I'll up the price to $1,000."
"He doesn't look so good," the farmer said, "but if you want him that much, he's yours."
The next day the man came back raging mad. He went up to the farmer and screamed, "You sold me a blind horse. You cheated me!"
The farmer calmly replied, "I told you he didn't look so good, didn't I?"

Three race horses stood in their stalls. One said to other others: "I ran 20 races and I won 15 of them!" he bragged. The next said with a snort, "Well, I ran 30 races and won 25 of them!" Then the third horse spoke up proudly, "Yeah, I ran 41 races and won 39 of them!" This seemed to settle the topic when the horses noticed a Greyhound outside their stalls. The Greyhound said, "I ran 100 races and I won 99 of them." The horses looked at each other in amazement and one gasped, "Wow! A talking greyhound!"

A cowboy goes into a bar, has a beer, walks outside and finds his horse has been stolen. He walks back into the bar, fires his gun through the ceiling. "Which one of you mothers stole my hoss?" he yells. No one answers. "All right, I'm gonna have one more beer and if my hoss ain't outside by the time I finish, I'm gonna do what I dun in Texas." He drinks another beer, walks outside, and his horse is back. So he gets on it and gets ready to ride out of town. The bartender walks out of the bar and asks, "Say pardner, what happened in Texas?" The cowboy turns to him, and says, "I had to bloody walk home."

A horse walked into the Ice Cream shop. "I'll have a chocolate ice cream cone," the horse said. The Ice Cream Man, John, gave the horse the cone. The horse, having a $10 bill in his wallet, gave the money to John. Since John thought the horse wouldn't know a thing about money, he gave the horse one dollar back. "Thanks for coming," John said to the horse. "We don't get that many horses around here!" The horse replied, "Well, it's no wonder for $9 a cone!"

An American tourist was driving in County Kerry in Ireland, when his motor stopped. He got out to see if he could locate the trouble. A voice behind him said, "The trouble is the carburetor." He turned around and only saw an old horse. The horse said again, "It's the carburetor that's not working." The American nearly died with fright, and dashed into the nearest pub, had a large whiskey, and told Murphy the bartender what the horse had said to him.

Murphy said, "Well, don't pay any attention to him, he knows nothing about cars anyway."

The nuns at a small convent were happy to learn that an anonymous donor had left his modest estate to them. Each nun had been left $50 in cash to give away as she saw fit.
Each nun announced how she would spend her bequest. Sister Catherine Ann decided to give her share to the first poor person she saw.
As she said this, she looked out the window and saw a man leaning against the telephone pole across the street, and he indeed looked poor.
She immediately left the convent and walked toward the man. He had obviously known better days. The good nun felt he had been sent by Heaven to receive her offering.
She pressed the $50 into the man's hands and said, "Godspeed, my good man."
As she left, the man called out to her, "What is your name?"
Shyly, she replied, "Sister Catherine Ann."
The following evening, the man returned to the convent and rang the bell. "I'd like to see Sister Catherine Ann," he said.
The nun at the door answered, "I'm sorry, but I cannot disturb her right now. She's in the chapel. May I give her a message?"
"Yes," said the man gleefully. "Give her this $100 and tell her Godspeed came in second at Belmont."

A horse walks into a bar, across the room, up the back wall, across the ceiling, down the front wall and then up to the bar. The bartender gives the horse a beer, he drinks it and leaves. A guy sitting at the bar looks perplexed and asks the bartender "Hey, what's that all about?" The bartender replies, "Don't take it personally, he never says 'Hi' to anyone."

A guy walks into a bar and there is a horse behind the bar serving drinks. The guy is just staring at the horse, when the horse says, "What are you staring at? Haven't you ever seen a horse serving drinks before?" The guy says, "No, I never thought the parrot would sell the place."

A cowboy walks into a bar. Upon leaving, he realizes that someone has painted his horse. The cowboy yells, "Which one of you painted my horse?" A seven foot tall hulk of a man says, menacingly, "I did." The cowboy realizes he is in trouble and replies, "Why, thank you - the first coat's dry!"

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Incredible Glasswing Butterfly

A butterfly with transparent wings? Surely not. Yet there is a species that exhibits this trait. Take a close look at the incredible Glasswing, an enchanting species that confounds science.

Greta oto may sound like the name of a silent movie star from Eastern Europe but is in fact the scientific name for one of the most exquisite – and little known – species of butterfly on the planer. This butterfly’s claim to fame is that its wings, spanning up to six centimeters, are almost completely transparent. That’s right, you can see just about right through them.

The common English name for this remarkable butterfly is glasswing, which in itself speaks volumes about the appearance of this small but unusual insect. However, it takes the romance languages to step in and give the butterfly the name which, for many, suits it best. The Spanish name for the glasswing is ‘espejitos’. Literally translated, this means little mirrors. Just a glance at the insect in question and one can imagine the thrill of pleasure when the moment of inspiration that came to its Hispanic name giver.

A close look at Greta oto reveals that between the veins of its wings the tissue is virtually see through) or, properly, translucent). Most other butterflies have colored scales which pattern the wings, quite often to ward off predators. The glasswing has another way of doing this entirely, but over the millennia it has evolved these specific wings to hide itself from predators rather than to warn them off. The only way that you can tell that it has wings at all are the borders, which are of a dark hue, sometimes bordering on the orange. Were it not for these borders, the glasswing would be more or less invisible to the human eye.

The glasswing is part of a specific clade of butterfly. Now for the science, as Jennifer Aniston used to say. A clade is a ‘branch’ and is a term used in the taxonomy of species. When groups of species has a single common ancestor (which does not necessarily need to be extant) then it is known as monophyletic. The common ancestor of the glasswing is long extinct but the clade it belongs to is known as the clearwing clade.

Transparency in nature is not something that has been very well understood. In order to achieve transparency the tissue must not absorb light. Neither can it scatter light, as this is the major obstacle to being see-through. Humans, for example, will never be able to be transparent because they have chemical and biological compounds that all have different refraction.

The wings of the glasswing must, therefore, have the same refractive index all the way through them as otherwise this transparency could not possibly occur. It is thought (a postulation at the moment rather than sure fire fact) that the surface of the wing has a covering of protrusions that are so small they can be called submicroscopic. They have a single refractive index and so do not scatter light, so making the wings transparent.

As with most butterflies it is a delicate looking species, but those who breed it in captivity have found it to be quite resilient and its wings are no less strong than those of other species. Another relief is the fact that in its native habitat it is quite common. Unless you live in South America, however, the only chance you will get of seeing the glasswing alive is in a butterfly house or farm.

If you want to see ‘little mirrors’ in the wild, however, you will have to take a trip – anywhere from Mexico to Panama in Central America will do the trick. You will also have to locate the nearest rainforest as the understory of this environment is where the glasswing prospers. They feed off the nectar of a variety of rainforest flowers but when it comes to laying their eggs and ensuring the survival of the next generation, the glasswing has a fine trick up its (metaphorical) sleeve.

The glasswing, where possible, will lay its eggs on a plant of the genus ‘Cestrum’. Its common name, to you and I, is the nightshade and it is highly poisonous. The caterpillars, which are striped in bright purple and red to warn possible predators, are thus a snack that birds and other animals will not enjoy at all. The alkaloids, a chemical in the plants that occurs naturally and is full of nitrogen, stay in the bodies of the glasswing in to adulthood meaning that even then they will not be an attractive meal.

During mating, which can last for many hours, usually starting in the early afternoon, the males will convert some of these alkaloids in to pheromones which will attract the females to them. The glasswing is also noted for its long migrations and the fact that the males of the species, when about to meet, practice lekking. This is when a host of males gather together to show off their best features en masse – the females then choosing the most dominant and visually exciting.

The glasswing, while not rare as a species, is one of very few land based animals that have successfully mastered the act of transparency. Now you see it, now you don’t.



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