A World Without Bunnies

rabbitsI hate to break it to you, but there’s really no such thing as a bunny.

Among rabbit-like animals, we have “rabbits”, “hares”, and “pikas” (by the way, NONE of these animals are rodents – rabbits and rodents diverged fifty million years ago).

Rabbits are generally smaller than hares – slightly shorter ears too. The big difference, though, occurs at birth. Rabbit young are born after a much shorter pregnancy (30 days rather than 42 days) and the babies are less developed. Just-born rabbits (“kittens”) haven’t grown any hair yet, whereas the hare babies (“leverets”) are furry.

Rabbits also enjoy a cozier household than hares. Rabbits live in underground burrows, called warrens (check out this concrete cast of a rabbit warren).  Only the Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) stays above ground like hares.

If you’re wondering how those poor Cottontails deal with cold winter weather, see this neat Urban Wildlife study by the Lincoln Park Zoo.  And while we’re on the subject of urban rabbits, read how city-rabbits are trading their sprawling suburban homes for compact city flat.

Student Illustrations on Scientific American blog!

Cicada_EOverbaugh
Cicada by E. Overbaugh

As a college professor, like all teachers, I relish my students’ successes. Today, I’m a whole jar-full of relish. My students’ work is posted all over a Scientific American blog, Symbiartic. Yay!

Please visit Symbiartic to see lots more student illustrations – and don’t forget to share with all your friends!

FrogFlukeOctopus_TBrownJLangJPark

Newts of Fire and Ice

newt

Newts 101:

Red-Spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) are the coolest animals on the planet. I should know – I worked with over 10,000 of them for two years.

Newts have four different life stages – egg, larva, eft, adult. The eft stage is most unusual since it’s completely terrestrial (for up to 7+ years!) AND incredibly poisonous (you have to eat it though). People used to think that efts were born from fire. The red color may have contributed to this folktale, but it may also be their emergence from logs thrown on the fire. Newt skin secretions can protect them from flame for a short time. It’s the reason many firefighter companies have a newt in their logo. Asbestos was once called “salamander wool”.

Frozen Newt-sicle

I researched the Red-Spotted Newt for my Master’s Degree (and fell in love with them – hence, the name of this blog). Every week, I trapped newts and recorded their spot patterns to identify each one individually. Since Red-Spotted Newts are fairly common, I trapped, identified, and released over 10,000. The scientific relevance of this work turned out to be … well… lame. Reports indicated that this population was very unusual. Turns out (sigh) it wasn’t. But I did learn a couple random things that no one else has reported.

  1. Newts can freeze solid and survive. I know because I left one out too long while I was checking traps and it was a little newt-popsicle when I returned. I took it back to the lab to use as a dissection specimen, but thankfully she’d recovered.
  2. While most experts call Red-Spotted Newts aquatic as adults, I think my study population was terrestrial with a brief aquatic period for reproduction. Even in permanent pools of water, newts leave in the fall. Only a few females overwinter in the ponds.

Animal Dads

seahorse

The animal kingdom has its share of great dads. In some species of birds and fish, males watch over a nest full of eggs and protect their young after hatching. Some insect- and frog-fathers carry offspring on their backs or in their mouths. But my award for best animal dad goes to seahorses (Hippocampus spp.). Male seahorses endure pregnancy and, after a few weeks of gestation, experience contractions when giving birth … to over 100 babies.

Currently, around 50 species of seahorses live in the world. They’re endangered though, due to over-collecting for the pet trade, souvenirs and traditional medicine.

Summertime Blues

dragonfly_bluDragonflies hover, swoop and twirl but never walk. They use their legs to trap their insect prey in a tiny six-barred prison before devouring them head-first. When guarding its territory along the water’s edge, this Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) grasps a reed or blade of grass and waves his blue abdomen as a warning for other males. Females, in general, aren’t blue at all; they’re black with yellow lines running down their bodies While the name “dragonfly” may be confusing, other names – “snake doctor” or “devil’s darning needle”, for instance – are equally perplexing. No, dragonflies do not treat ailing snakes (or bring them back to life) and the insects don’t sew up any parts of you (although my Grandmother convinced me not to lie with the threat that dragonflies would sew my lips shut if I did). And in case you were wondering about that species name, it means “long wings”… not what you were thinking.