Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Two male Wild Turkeys performing their characteristic "strutting" behavior.

For this quick post, I'd like to say Happy Thanksgiving to all my American followers here, and talk briefly about one of America's National emblems, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Often taken for granted by us humans, and often described as very dumb birds, Wild Turkeys are greatly misunderstood animals, which encourages me to devote a few paragraphs here to discussing them on what should be considered their own national holiday.

The Turkey is the largest living member of the Galliformes, or gamebirds, a group of about 290 species of mostly terrestrial birds that have compact bodies, small heads, short beaks, and high-wing loadings. Galliforme young are precocial, which means that they are able to walk within hours of birth, and in the case of Megapodes (large gamebirds from Australia and surrounding areas of land) their young are superprecocial, and are able to fly within their first day out of the egg.

Gamebirds as a whole are a very successful group; they've colonized every continent except Antarctica, and are found everywhere from tropical rain forests to frozen tundra. They are well known for often showing extreme forms of sexual dimorphism, and males are often larger than females and have almost excessive amounts of display plumage, which reaches its most extreme in peacocks and some pheasants. In some species of gamebird, males have an enlarged spur on their hind feet that can be used in both territorial battles, and as a defense against predators. (I think that a similar function might have encouraged the evolution of enlarged claws in dromeosaurids, iguanodontians, and prosauropods, although I doubt sauropods used their thumb claws in this way, since they seem more likely to have been used in foraging, according to recent studies.)

Male Turkey displaying coloration of 
his head and waddles
Turkeys in particular are very interesting gamebirds if you've seen them before. I've seen them myself on a few occasions, and they look and act like very proud animals. The males even have a behavior called "strutting" where they walk around displaying to both females and other males while dragging their wings, puffing up their tail and chest feathers, and pulling in their head. During this behavior, males have been known to change the color of their head based on how they're feeling, similar to what cassowaries and chameleons do, with blue heads signaling excitement, and red heads signaling aggression. They can also engorge the skin and waddles around their head with blood, causing them to swell up almost to the point where the eyes and beak are concealed.

The bare, blood-filled skin and thick body feathers in males doesn't come without consequences. Some studies has shown that overheating is a problem at times, and males will often rest in the shade for hours at a time, and have been known to pant on hot days like dogs and crocodiles do. Females, with less body plumage and more plumage on the head when compared to males, don't have as much of a problem, and are free to forage for food most of the day without resting. The diet of a Turkey includes grain, leaves (including conifer needles), nuts, seeds, berries, roots and insects. They have also been observed eating small vertebrates, including frogs, lizards, and even snakes.

Female Turkey with Chicks

As with almost all gamebirds, males play no role in parental care, and are polygamous, mating with multiple females in a season. The female is thus left entirely responsible for taking care of the offspring, which can sometimes be up to 14 juveniles. The eggs are layed about one day apart in a shallow dirt impression, and they all hatch after about 28 days and leave the nest within their first 24 hours. The female will then watch over the young for the next 8-10 months until they are large enough to take care of themselves. If confronted by a predator, turkeys prefer to run rather than fly, using their long, athletic legs to escape danger, although if forced to they have been known to be quite agile fliers, and will sometimes roost in trees to sleep in relative safety.

Native Americans have long relied on turkeys, and they were considered a vital food source for many eastern tribes. During the first Thanksgiving, the governor of Plymouth sent out four men to catch turkeys for the big feast, and came back with enough turkeys to last them a week. However, turkeys weren't the only animals being served. Deer, geese, ducks, swans, passenger pigeon, fish, eels, shellfish, mussels, clams, and lobster were also on the menu. After the first Thanksgiving, British trading ships brought the animals back to Europe as food. They were forced to travel through Constantinople in Turkey before reaching other countries. People then associated the birds with that nation, which is where their name comes from.

Sadly, it seems that food is one of the only things Turkeys are remembered for in history, but one famous historical figure thought highly of Turkeys. Benjamin Franklin wanted the Turkey to be the national bird of the United States rather than the Bald Eagle. He believed the Turkey to be a more noble and proud bird than the Bald Eagle, as he had witnessed Bald Eagles stealing food from other smaller birds, and basically bullying them into submission (many Raptors are known do this). Many disagreed with him, however, preferring the stronger and more powerful Bald Eagle over what they viewed as the comical turkey. I'm happy with the Bald Eagle as America's national bird, but I'm also glad that Franklin looked past the non-traditional beauty of the Turkey and saw an attractive and proud creature behind that plump body.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and hope you will respect the animal who gave their life for your meal today. As for me, I'm a vegetarian, so I'll be staying away from these birds today and hope those that did not end up on your plates will get fed just as well as I will today. What will I eat if not Turkey, you ask? Cauliflower bisque, herb-crusted tofu with mushroom gravy, chestnut sage stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, candied yams, and delicious pumpkin pie are all on the menu tonight. Whatever is on your menu tonight, enjoy the holiday with your family and friends! And expect a lot of posts next month, since I'm going to be off for the Holidays.

Friday, November 16, 2012

OH MY GERSH! Where's RaptorX?


A Common Potoo having a panic attack.

Hey everyone, bet you were all expecting a Croc post last week. Sadly I haven't been able to get on it yet, I've been busy working on some other things, some of which I'd like to tell you all about.
The first news is that I'm writing an article for a new online magazine, called AncientPlanet Online Journal. The magazine looks nice and I''m excited that some of my articles will be appearing in it. It's every two months though and I'm trying to balance out getting info for the articles, and getting my school work done. I also have a YouTube account now if anyone is interested in talking to me on there. I might also start making videos, but I'm not sure yet, as it'll make me even more busy than I am now.

As for Crocs, it might be a while before I get to writing that post. In the meantime you might want to go over to Darren Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology. He recently wrote a few articles on Neosuchid crocodiles, and even though I know a lot about these things, I still probably can't explain them the same way an actual scientist can.

As for the meme, it's made by yours truly. The image is of a Common Potoo, which is a type of nocturnal bird from South America related to nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds. It's an insect eater and uses its enormous mouth to gulp down moths and other insects in flight, and is famous for its amazing camouflage capabilities, being able to mimic a broken tree stump almost perfectly. It also is known for the strange call it emits, which sounds almost like a human saying "poor me, all alone." Here's some less comical images of Potoos:

Head profile of a Common Potoo. The huge mouth has tiny bristles inside which help trap any insects that get caught.
This Common Potoo was curious of the camera when this photo was taken. A Potoo's large yellow eyes are used to help them see in the dark, but give them somewhat of a bug-eyed look.
Common Potoo hiding in plain site. It might not seem wise to close its eyes when hiding from predators, but Potoos have small notches in their eyelid which allow them to see even when their eyes are closed.

Common Potoo showing its young the art of hiding. Potoos and their relatives have such good camouflage that they can fledge chicks directly on a bear tree branch, and sometimes even open ground without ever being spotted by a predator.