A potpourri of 2021 natural history goodies

Ken Baker, Ph.D.

According to my writing partner, Dictionary.com, one definition of medley is “any mixture, especially of unrelated objects, subjects, etc.”

So a potpourri, today, of natural history goodies from 2021. Just a few new research junk that caught my eye over the year and that I thought I’d share. .

Beginning with kleptotrichi – from the Greek “klepto” for stealing, and “trich” for hair. Many birds weave pieces of animal hair into the lining of their nests, apparently to help cushion and insulate their eggs and nestlings.

It turns out that at least some birds (a common bird in our region is the crested tit) brazenly steal tufts of hair from living mammals. Take a look at the incredible Mark Hauber video from the Univ. from Illinois to Urbana-Champaign captured of a crested tit pulling the hair of a sleeping gray fox. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqjidqAmWpE)

Red-tailed hawks:Ken Baker: The Red-tailed Hawk adapts to almost any habitat

Female gypsy.

Not to be outdone in the weirdness, Swedish geneticist Leif Andersson has reported a mutation in a gene (known as RORB) in a breed of domestic rabbit that appears to trigger a behavioral quirk that sends the rabbit into a pear tree when pressed.

The idea is that the mutated gene interferes with the animal’s ability to coordinate its hind and front legs to jump, so it walks on its front legs instead. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-5c9AyjJx0)

There is more to the story

While there is most likely more to the story, it is interesting that a 2017 study found that lab mice with a similar mutation in their RORB gene also go into a pear tree position when they are start to run. More than a mere curiosity, the study is of interest for research into how animals (including humans) integrate the movement of their limbs during locomotion.

The larvae of the gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar, are one of the most destructive pests of hardwood forests in North America and virtually all temperate regions of Europe and Asia. The much-despised pest has been observed to feed on more than 500 species of trees, shrubs and other plants. Even its genus name, Lymantria, comes from Latin for “destroyer”.

About some birds:Baker: Bartlett groups reached 100,000th pigeon

In July, the Entomological Society of America announced it was removing “Gypsy” from the moth’s common name as part of its efforts to replace racist or offensive species names.

The Roma people (colloquially known as Roma) have long regarded the term as derogatory and see its elimination as “a moral, necessary and long-awaited change”, said Roma rights activist Margareta Matache of Harvard. More than 100 possible replacement names are under consideration.

In fact, the names of racist species are being reconsidered in all areas of biology. The American Ornithological Society, for example, changed the name of McCown’s Sparrow – from the name of a Confederate general – to Thick-billed Sparrow. Currently under consideration are Scott’s Oriole, named after General Winfield Scott who oversaw the forcible removal of the Cherokee from their homeland to Georgia in 1838, and Bachman’s Sparrow, named after Lutheran minister John Bachman, a ardent defender of slavery.

And so, let’s move on to the spiders

In May, Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel and J. Whitfield Gibbons of the University of Georgia discovered, in a review of the literature, 319 verified cases from around the world of spiders capturing, killing and feeding on snakes. Snakes captured were mostly small (10 inches on average) but included poisonous snakes like corals and rattlesnakes.

Tangled web spiders like the black and brown widows of the United States and the red back of Australia were the most effective snake predators, but the orbian web spiders have also been shown to have had some success. Although these spiders are thought to feed on snakes only occasionally, there are several South American tarantulas that specialize in snakes and frogs.

Reversing the roles on the spiders, there is a group of insects known as the Wire-legged Assassin bugs. While most insects use their needle-shaped proboscis to suck fluids from plant leaves, Assassin insects use theirs to prey on other invertebrates.

In a September article, Anne Wignall of Massey University in New Zealand and Fernando Soley of the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica reported on the Thread-legged’s surprising hunting technique.

The slender-legged bugs crawl carefully along a spider’s web until they reach the arachnid, which they first lightly tap with their antennae, then grab and inject a paralyzing venom. Laboratory studies have shown that tapping reduces the aggressiveness of the spider (possibly by mimicking the presence of a potential mate).

Now about potty training cows

And finally, the cows in the cleanliness. Using standard food reward techniques, a group of German researchers successfully trained 16 calves to use a small fenced area with an artificial turf floor as a bathroom. The average cow urinates gallons every day, and with over a billion cattle around the world, that’s a lot of potential pollution.

But training a large herd to use the “MooLoo” would require the development and implementation of large-scale automated facilities to be practical. Interesting, however.

Ken Baker is a retired professor of biology and environmental studies. If you have a natural history topic that you would like Dr. Baker to consider for an upcoming column, please send your idea to [email protected]

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