Real Monsters – The Cockatrice

cockatrice_jlweb

In medieval bestiaries, entries portrayed the cockatrice as a rooster with the tail of a snake. It’s said to hatch from the egg of a cockerel that’s been brooded by a snake or toad. Often interchanged with the basilisk, only a weasel (or Harry Potter) can kill it.

cockatrice_manuscript

Wow. Crazy, right?  Maybe not so much.

Could poultry grow a snake-ish tail? Considering the evolutionary history of birds and embryonic development, yes. Birds are the last surviving descendants of dinosaurs, and early birds (evolutionarily speaking, not the worm-getting kind) had long tails. Over time, shorter-tailed members of the group prevailed as they flew unimpeded, and with better control, among brush and between branches. Vertebrae that once grew, fused as random genetic mutations delivered more successful flight. Genetically, just a few genes (possibly just one), activated early in development, control vertebral growth and tail elongation (1). So if you can stop that gene from turning on, you might just get a tail.

The second aspect of the cockatrice/basilisk story involved being born from a rooster’s egg. Now, that can’t be true – only hens lay eggs. Well, just like in humans, sex can be confusing. Primary sexual characteristics include sexual organs. In order to lay an egg, the bird would need an ovary. But most people identify hens and roosters by secondary sexual characteristics like coloration, size, and the presence of a comb and wattle. These traits develop because of hormones. If a female bird receives a dose of male hormone, she can produce rooster-like traits. This situation is actually not so rare. Because birds only use one gonad, a disease on the ovary would cause the other to develop. Since testes and ovaries develop from the same structure, the hen could get a dose of male hormone, producing rooster-like traits, and still lay an egg (2).

Brooding by a snake or toad wouldn’t help a chicken egg hatch. However, it’s not unusual to find a snake in a nest. Snakes of course eat eggs, and some birds even use snakes as partners to protect their nests from parasites or rodents.

As for death-by-weasel, the cockatrice/basilisk story is probably getting mixed with a cobra (3). The mongoose, which looks similar to a weasel, has an amazing cellular adaptation that makes them resistant to cobra venom. Many Greek and Egyptian stories (as well as the modern tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) glorify the snake-killing abilities of the mongoose.

So next time you hear of a mystical beast that couldn’t possibly be real, give it a chance. And if you’d like to read more about the cockatrice and its devilish ties, visit awingandaway.

 

  1. Rashid DJ, Chapman SC, Larsson HCE, Organ CL, Bebin A-G, Merzdorf CS, Bradley R, and Horner JR 2014. From dinosaurs to birds: a tail of evolution. EvoDevo 2(25)
  2. Jacob J and Mather FB. 2000. Sex reversal in chickens. UFL-IFAS. FactSheet PS-53. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003037/00001
  3. Alexander, RM 1963. The evolution of the basilisk. Greece & Rome. 10(2) 170-181.
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Sometimes you DO choose your family (of geese)

gosling

What would happen if an adorable 3-day old gosling was placed between two wire enclosures, one containing a sibling, and one containing a same-age gosling from another clutch? Would the baby bird recognize its brother or sister and patter over to its relative?

The answer: yes… at least as often as dentists recommend sugarless gum*. In four out of five trials, the little puffball sidled up to its sibling rather than a stranger’s young’un.

There’s one catch. The youngest goslings (ages 3–9 days) prefer groups. Even if it’s a group of unfamiliar goslings, the little bird almost always waddled over to an unknown group rather than a single relative. By 15 days old though, the youngsters reliably reunite with their kin, no matter how small their family.

p.s. I created this image at an awesome carbon dust workshop, coordinated by GNSI-Carolinas, this weekend. Marlene Hill Donnelly from the Chicago Field Museum was our fearless instructor – she’s wonderful!

*Radesäter, T. 1976. Individual sibling recognition in juvenile Canada geese (Branta canadensis). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 54(7): 1069–1072

Signs of Spring: Robins and Lawn Mowers

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Two robins (Turdus migratorius) hopped through the yard this week – spring is on its way. The sound of lawn mowers now drift through the air, confirming the avian prediction. Shockingly, these two very distinct signs of warming weather are actually related, according to a backyard research study conducted in 1979.

L.A. Eiserer conducted a series of scientific (well, somewhat) studies examining the impacts of lawn mowing on robin-hunting behaviors. Robins spend more time foraging when grass is short, especially just after it has been mowed.

So is it the mowing or the height of the grass that impacts robin behavior? Eiserer mowed his lawn to two different heights, 2.5 and 4.5 inches. (I wonder if his neighbors complained.) The robins spent 10x as much time in the shorter patch. Apparently, the birds eat different foods when exposed to different heights of grasses. In short grass, robins go for worms; in longer grass, they pluck small insects off the blades. The short-grassed hunting grounds may just be more efficient for finding a heartier meal.

But that doesn’t discount the act of mowing. Observations over the same time of day show the birds prefer hunting in a freshly mowed yard rather than the day after. No difference in grass height, but perhaps the act of mowing disturbs invertebrates, allowing for a more successful hunt.

Overall, I miss the days when a researcher could sit on a suburban porch and time how long a couple of robins spend looking for food. As I struggle to teach my students how to think like scientists, reading a study like this makes me long for the good old days.

 

Eiserer, L.A. 1980. Effects of Grass Length and Mowing on Foraging Behavior of the American Robin. The Auk. 97(3) 576-580.

Snowbird Shape-shifters

snowbirds850_JML

Those small slate-and-white sparrows hopping across the frozen ground are true snowbirds. They spend summer in Canada and move south to the U.S. during the winter. Some, like their human counterparts, even migrate to Florida.

In the late 1800s, R.W. Shufeldt wrote of two birds called “snowbirds.” One medium-sized bird, the Snow Bunting, became known as the “snowflake.” The smaller bird, the Dark-eyed Junco, was unequivocally called the “snowbird.” Shufeldt expressed his displeasure at the bird’s new moniker “junco” – he tried to determine, unsuccessfully, the etymology of the word (it means “reeds or rushes”) since the Dark-eyed Junco does not live among reeds or rushes.

Shufeldt’s article also referenced Alexander Wilson’s description of Junco folklore. New Englanders told Wilson that Dark-eyed Juncos change their plumage to become the Chipping Sparrows of summer. Before you laugh (or after you’re through), many birds significantly alter their plumage during the breeding season… although the Dark-eyed Junco does not. These two birds are both sparrows, trill similar songs, and feed on the ground.

While Dark-eyed Juncos do not morph into Chipping Sparrows, they have their own form of transmutation. Those round balls of bird aren’t fat, they’re fluffy. Feathers trap air, an excellent insulator. The birds puff up their feathers, a downy winter coat, keeping them toasty warm.

p.s. Red and the Peanut wrote a great post about the name “snowbird.” I recommend it!

G’night, Groundhog

groundhog

It may seem like an odd time for a post about groundhogs (Marmota monax) – a couple months early, right? But I think now is an even better time. Groundhogs (a.k.a. woodchucks or whistle-pigs) are considered one of the few true hibernators of winter.

What about bears? This is where we get into an issue of degrees (pun totally intended). Bears lower their metabolism and body temperature, and by doing so, conserve energy in winter when food supplies dwindle. Normally, bear body temperature is ~98.6⁰ F (37⁰ C), just like humans. In torpor (like a mild hibernation), their body temperatures drop to 86⁰ F (30⁰ C).

The groundhog, in comparison, can lower its body temperature from 99⁰F to 37⁰ F (5⁰ C)! That’s hibernation! It allows the rodent to decrease its energy use to 1% of normal.

Think of torpor and hibernation like changing the temperature settings in your house. In torpor, you drop the settings a couple of degrees while you’re at work. Hibernation is like shutting temps way down, just enough to keep the pipes from freezing, while you head to Florida for a month-long vacation.

Some scientists study how the groundhog accomplishes this marvelous feat. Figuring out those specifics could impact healthcare and space travel for humans.

p.s. Some animals hibernate in the summer, but this is called aestivation (est-eh-VAY-shun).

p.p.s. This watercolor is now available on RedNewtGallery’s Etsy site. (yay!)

Winter’s “Toasted Marshmallow” Egg Case

MantisEggs

This “toasted marshmallow on a stick” is the egg case of a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis), containing hundreds of developing youngsters. The eggs overwinter in this protective case until the spring’s warm weather triggers the eggs to hatch into tiny nymphs (mini-mantids). Nymphs grow into adults who enjoy their summer, snacking on any and all insects who cross their paths. In the fall, Praying Mantises mate, lay their eggs, and pass away.

A female mantid’s work may all be for naught if a tiny parasitic wasp interferes. The mantis lays her eggs in a frothy matrix that hardens around her offspring; but this mini wasp (sporting a ridiculously long ovipositor and rear legs that look like the mantids’ front legs) can lay her eggs inside the mantis case before it hardens. Since the wasps hatch first, they’ll use the mantis eggs as food.

Thanks to Mike Dunn (Roads End Naturalist) who recently presented a guide to winter wildlife – tracks, chew marks, and insect sign. Not only was I awed by his amazing photos, Mike also brought samples of all sorts of wintertime insect egg cases (including this one), cocoons, nests, tracks and galls.

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.