Chip n’ Dale were some dirty rodents.
“Like a piece of intestine with legs on it,” according to British naturalist and TV presenter Nick Barker, there’s nothing in the world quite like a Mexican mole lizard.
Neither mole nor lizard, the Mexican mole lizard (Bipes biporus) lives up to a third of its name by being a native of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Not a whole lot is known about this very secretive animal, but what we do know of the Mexican mole lizard is that everything you see here makes this little guy perfectly suited to a life lived in the dirt.
Mexican mole lizards live almost exclusively in a shallow underground environment made of loose or sandy soil, but can dig burrows up to 15 centimetres below the surface in search of food, a good place to mate, or just some valuable time away from all that desert heat. They belong to a lgenus called Bipes, which means “two legs”, and yep, all four species within this genus have them. These legs are extremely special adaptations – within a larger group of legless reptiles called Amphisbaenia, the four Bipes are the only species out of almost 200 close relatives to have ended up with them. At first glance, those rather disproportionately stumpy limbs might not look like much, but wait till you get a look at these very impressive digging claws.
Mexican mole lizards are so good at adapting, they once had two back legs, but got rid of them because they weren’t using them. We know this because when you X-ray a Mexican mole lizard, you can see the remnants of its missing legs poking out in its bone structure.
The tube-like body of the Mexican mole lizard tends to reach around 20 cm long and less than 1cm wide, and its scales are a rather pretty shade of pastel pink. And not only do these guys have scales on their bellies to help propel themselves through the soil the same way snakes do, but their bodies are highly segmented, which means they also move along just like earthworms.
If, like me, you think Mexican mole worms are adorable – just look at that face – then we have no problems, but if you think they’re creepy, let me put creepy in perspective for you. This is a caecilian, which basically looks like a Mexican mole lizard, except that it’s purple, has no legs, and looks like its face has been stuffed into a condom, nice and tight. Caecilians they move their segmented worm-like bodies around like, well, worms; they live their entire lives underground; and are only found in warm environments – all of which isn’t so different from the Mexican mole worm.
Except that when certain species of caecilians are born, they spend the first few weeks of their lives eating their mums alive. One newly discovered species of caecilian that engages in this practice has been named Microcaecilia dermatophaga (which literally means “little skin-feeding caecilian”), and investigations into the species’ behaviour in French Guiana last year revealed that the babies are born with little razer-sharp teeth, specifically designed to tear the flesh off their doting mother until they’re big enough to go out on their own and find less disgusting food. How great is our little Mexican friend looking now? All it eats is insects.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Jen A. Miller
Visiting the abandoned Warner Bros. Jungle Habitat safari park in North Jersey
Hey, nightmares are pretty bad, but how about two nightmares combined into one horrible amalgamation of terrifying animals whose entire existence revolves around hunting and killing? Meet the spider-tailed viper, a strange reptile found in the Arabian Desert.
In 1968, a group of scientists travelled to Iran to collect a bunch of native species for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Among the reptiles they collected was what looked like a strange mutated snake. All bottled up and preserved in alcohol, the specimen, named FMNH 170292, appeared to have a large camel spider attached to the end of its tail. Further examination revealed it to be a peculiar growth that looked exactly like a spider.
It was the only snake like this that had ever been found. It was impossible to say whether the mutation was genetic, or maybe it was a tumor, or perhaps a reaction to some sort of parasite.
Four decades came and went, until 2003, when zoologist Hamid Bostanchi collected a second snake with the exact same tail ornamentation. Having examined it and the museum specimen, Bostanchi declared the snake a new species and named it Pseudocerastes urarachnoides. ‘Pseudocerastes’ means ‘false horns’, these vipers have horn-like structures above their eyes that are formed by a build-up of small scales, and ‘urarachnoides’ means literally ‘a tail similar to a spider’. Rivaled only by the rattles employed by the venomous pit vipers of North America, the spider-tailed viper has the most elaborate tail embellishment ever seen in a species of snake.
The spider-tailed snake is a desert species, rarely seen but found in the North Arabian Desert from Sinai and southern Israel, Jordan, Iraq, southwestern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern Oman. Only Bostanchi had seen one alive at this point, so there was no way of knowing what the tail was actually used for, but he suspected it worked like a fisherman’s lure to attract the birds that hunt camel spiders. Makes sense, he said, because he found the remains of a bird in the stomach of one of the specimens.
A few years later, biologist Behzad Fathinia from Razi University in Iran decided to test Bostanchi’s theory. With a group of colleagues, Fathinia caught a live snake and took it back to the lab. They put a chick in its enclosure to see what it would do. The snake moved its tail embellishment exactly like a spider. “We were able to observe and film the [tail] luring. It was very attractive and looked exactly like a spider moving rapidly,” they reported in 2009. “After approximately half an hour the chick went toward the tail and pecked the knob-like structure. The viper pulled the tail structure toward itself, struck and bit the chick in less than 0.5 seconds.”
They also put an ill-fated male sparrow in with their viper and when the viper saw it, it moved in the corner of the enclosure, formed a coil with its body and positioned its spider tail right in front of its mouth for easy striking. The team concluded that it was not only birds that were caught by the spider-tailed viper’s spider-lure, but also reptiles and even mammals such as shrews; all were the likely prey of these bizarre desert killing machines.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
Should You Fear the Pizzly Bear? by Moises Velasquez-Manoff
As climate change alters habitats, once-disparate animals are shacking up, creating hybrids that challenge our notion of what it means to be a species.
What a cool name. I wish I could have a name as cool as the GoldenPalace.com Monkey. Even its more serious name, the Madidi titi is pretty great. One of just a handful of new primate species discovered over the past decade, this little monkey was found in 2004, deep in the tropical forests of the Madidi National Park of western Bolivia.
Located at the foot of the Andes, the Madidi National Park is a little-explored area of Bolivia that scientists are calling the most biologically diverse piece of protected land in the world. Some 900 species of birds have been registered here, despite entire areas having never been explored by biologists. Between 1999 and 2004, six sites in the Madidi were surveyed by a team of biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bolivia, and their search turned up two unidentified adult monkey specimens – a male and a female. The team also captured video footage of a number of these monkeys interacting in family groups, and through physical, genetic and molecular analyses, was able to classify them as a brand new species.
The most recognizable feature of these monkeys is their dense, gorgeous pelt. They wear a crown of yellow-gold fur, and the grey that covers much of their bodies gives way to a lovely rusty brown colour along their backs. Their beards, chests and bellies are an unmistakable bright orange, and their long, grey tails taper out to a white tip. Their arms, legs, feet and hands are a dark burgundy, and they have little black naked faces with round amber eyes.
Faced with a new species that needed immediate attention from conservation groups, the research team auctioned off the naming rights in 2004. And who’s got more money than anyone to burn on a killer PR campaign? Internet casinos. Specifically, the GoldenPalace.com Internet casino. They paid $650,000 to win the naming rights, and the GoldenPalace.com Monkey was born. And because they paid the big bucks, they got the scientific name too – Callicebus aureipalatii. “Aureipalatii” means “of the Golden Palace”.
While it needs to be said that this is the same Internet casino that paid $28,000 for a 10-year-old partly eaten grilled cheese sandwich with the face of the Virgin Mary on it – that same year, no less – their monkey bid wasn’t as gross as it sounds. One hundred percent of the funds were put towards protecting the Madidi National Park, including the specific areas that these monkeys were known to live and breed.
Like other titi monkeys, GoldenPalace.com Monkeys are monogamous, mating for life and setting themselves up in a territory that they’ll fiercely defend from other titis through loud and constant threatening calls. Once an infant is born, it’s the male’s job to carry it around on his back, teaching it the rules of survival as he patrols and gathers food.
While individuals are sometimes killed by local hunters and used as fishing bait, the GoldenPalace.com Monkey has done pretty well for itself, and so far there are no major threats to any of its populations. Which is just as well, because the CEO of GoldenPalace.com, Richard Rowe, is counting on their longevity – “This species will bear our name for as long as it exist. Hundreds, even thousands of years from now, the GoldenPalace.com Monkey will live to carry our name through the ages.”
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels is redesigning the zoo experience to create an integrated space where there are no cages, and wildlife and humans are able to co-exist peacefully. Building upon an existing zoological park originally founded in the 1960s in southern Denmark, ZOOTOPIA will feature three continents—Asia, Africa, and America—connected by loops that begin in one central location. The key to this experience and design is in the camouflage of the structures, which will not be buildings so much as bunkers. Utilizing pods and paths, visitors will be able to fly, sail, bike, or hike through the park, all the while not disrupting the inhabitants. But the real question is, what if the inhabitants start disrupting the visitors? Cages or not, Zoo animals are only as free as their confines allow.
Patrice O’Neal, Animal Lover
“It has been a long battle but we can safely say that they are now reintegrated into elephant society and in some cases even have families of their own.”
Four heroin addicted elephants used for smuggling drugs across the border between China and Myanmar are clean after undergoing a year-long rehab program involving megadoses of methadone. By feeding the elephants opium-laced bananas, gangsters were able to control the large pachyderms, forcing them to do anything they wished in order to get “the next fix.”
Is anyone else feeling really uncomfortable right now? That moth looks like something you’d see hovering in the distance, and then you’d blink and it’s right there in front of your face, ready to crawl through your eye sockets to devour your soul.
Fortunately though, this is just a simple plume moth, and it doesn’t even know what souls are. Called the White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyl), this particular species hails from Europe and Central Asia, but members of the plume moth family Pterophoroidea are found all over the world. They all have those large shredded fairy wings, and when they’re not flying, they hold them high and perpendicular to the rest of their long, thin bodies. Sometimes they’ll fold them right up to create a perfect ’T’.
While the White Plume Moth only has a wingspan of up to 35 mm, it’s considered the largest plume moth in the world. They spend the winter months as caterpillars and transform into moths around May or June, and fly around gardens and grasslands in search of morning glory vines. They only come out at night, fluttering around with their feathery wing plumes, looking like tiny white ghosts. The ghosts of children perhaps?
In Romanian folklore, it’s believed that when someone dies, the soul lingers on Earth for at least 40 days before passing over to paradise. One version of the lore stipulates that the elderly remain for seven years, the young for five years, and children remain for three years. It’s thought that if you see a moth flying towards a lamp during the night, it’s carrying the soul of dead child, trying to return to the home it had when it was alive. To injure a moth means messing with a dead kid’s soul, so um, just don’t.
Unless of course it’s a Death’s-head Hawkmoth, which refers to all three species in the genus Acherontia – Acherontia atropos, Acherontia styx and Acherontia lachesis. Found in Europe and Asia, these moths are at the centre of another aspect of Romanian folklore that says they contain the soul of a vampire, who is trying to bring disease into your house. But the Romanians must be a forgiving people, and so advise that rather than killing a Deaths-head Hawkmoth, you should just gently put it outside to spread disease elsewhere, because no one deserves to die twice.
In a particular county in Romania, called Vâlcea, if a child has contracted some kind of “Deaths-head disease”, their parents will have to catch a moth, burn it, and make the child drink the gross moth ashes in water.
Moths have also found themselves at the centre of a more recent, and much less creepy mythology, surrounding the origins of that “bug” in your computer that needs to be “debugged”. Harvard computer programmer Grace Hopper once had to extract a moth from one of her team’s computer circuits, and 40 years later, was credited for coining the phrase. But neither moths nor Harvard scientists can match the greatness of “bug’s” true origin – it was none other than Thomas Edison, who complained of “bugs” holding up the progress of his great inventions.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
A film by Aaron Rose