Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nature Most Wanted - The Blue Dragon

In the world there are plenty of animal species. So many to embarrass the human race, at least when it comes to quantity and variety. But what about some of the most mysterious species around. Are you sure to know what kind of strange and wonderful creatures live in the deepest oceans and in the highest skies? This new section of Snooping Around is here to take you to an extraordinary journey to discover some of the most unknown animals nature has ever created. Snoopers, welcome to “Nature Most Wanted”.

Let’s start with the bluest waters. Hidden underneath the world there is a little sea slug, floating upside down on the surface tension of the water. Carried along by winds and ocean currents. It’s the Glaucus Atlanticus, also known as Blue Dragon. This tiny creature is known by lots of names like sea swallow, blue angel, blue glaucus and blue ocean slug . The scientific name, Glaucus Atlanticus,  has been given after the Greek god of the sea, Glaucus. This sea god was forced to live in the sea for eternity.

The Portoguese Man-O'-War, the Blue Dragon's favorite meal
The creature was first studied by Forster in the 17th Century. Blue dragon was once thought to be a marine insect and was later classified as marine gastropod in 19th Century. This little shell-less mollusk lives in the waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Ocean. What keeps it floating on the surface of the water is the air bubble that it fills in its belly. Anyway the wind blows, it takes this little creature along with it. So you might think all it does is relaxing. Well, this is what it actually does, but this little boy should not be underestimated. In fact, beside its carefree behavior,  this creature is not that harmless. This 3 cm long invertebrate is known for its appetite for hydrozoans (the same group of jellyfish. Discover some Random Facts about Jellyfish here) and its most favorite ones are the most poisonous, Portuguese Man-O’-War (maybe it’s just me, but to me this poisonous jellyfish looks like little a plastic bag).
Two Blue Dragons attacking a Man-O'-War

The Portuguese Man-O’-War are known to be fatal for human and its sting is extremely painful, but the little Blue Dragon can swallow it without getting hurt. How can it do that? Well, inside its skin are hard disks that acts like a barrier and it also releases mucus that forms a protective layer against stings.


But its skills are not so briefly limited. Another fantastic trick this creature can perform is storing the poison of its enemies for future uses. The poison is sucked in by cerata, which are finger like structures sticking out from its body. Inside this structures there are sacs called cnidosacs, where the poison is kept and then used against other predators. This is one of the cleverest and most vengeful strategies I’ve ever heard of ! Scientists say that the Glaucus can have more deadly sting than the Man-O’-War depending on the amount of venom it has collected in its body. So it can be quite a bad neighbor. This can be a good method for feeding, but sure the Blue Dragon has no mercy for its friends. It has been known to cannibalize as well in situations where there not enough prey available to feed on.

Wait...this cute (I use that term loosely) animal has got so many other skills. It’s also feared because of its capability of fooling predators by camouflaging. The exact name of its technique is countershading. As mentioned before, this creature floats upside down meaning ventral side up and dorsal side down wards. This sounds a little bit weird. Why living your life upside down? How does it help? The color is the answer. As you can see in the pictures, this animal is astonishing. Bright skin and a wonderful shape, just like a magical creature. The ventral side is bright blue which helps it blend into the ocean’s surface while the grayish dorsal side merges with the inner surface of the water. This trick is used for both swimming and flying predators. Maybe you were nearby one of these Dragons but you didn't notice him. He is very good at hide ‘n’ seek!

A Blue Dragon attacking a Porpita, another kind of jellifish.
Now for the brutal part. These sea slugs are also known to be Hermaphrodites. When two sea slugs mate, they both produce egg strings. They lay their eggs on driftwood and most of the times on the skeletons of their prey. And before the air sac is fully developed, the young Blue Dragons cannot live on the surface of the water. Once they have learnt to float on the surface, they instinctively learn their colors and they decide the right way to flip sides. This creature can barely live on land. In fact when out of water these creatures tend to roll themselves turning into a spiny ball. As soon as they get back into the water they open up again.


This is a very rare animal, so keep your eyes open and be careful if you find one of these magically dangerous creatures.

Only because it's very small, it doesn't mean it cannot hurt you. It's completely the opposite. Smaller means Deadliest. Remember it O.O

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Urban Legends - The Fascinating Tale of the Exploding Toads and The Clever Crows

Nature can be very mysterious and The Fascinating Story of the Exploding Toads and The Clever Crows is the perfect example. Maybe, if this is the first time you've ever heard of this, you’d probably think I’m going to talk about a fairy tale. Interesting, but simply a funny story. And maybe with some kind of moral in the end. Believe me, this actually happened. When I first heard of it, I was extremely surprised. Now let’s go back in the spring of 2005, shall we?

In Hamburg (Germany) a documented film about the phenomenon reported this:

About 1.000 dead toads were discovered lying around the edges. Their bodies appeared to have exploded. Eye-witnesses said they swelled up to about three-and-a-half times their normal size and then simply burst. And they burst with such an explosive force that their entrails were blown over several square meters.

As you just read, toads randomly began exploding. Spewing guts, blood and skin for nearly a yard in every direction. For several weeks, the European toads received an international attention. Scientists were totally confused. Nobody was able to provide a scientific explanation for the unnatural deaths. Some of the little animals were observed near two ponds during that spring, one in the Altona district of Hamburg and the other near Laasby in Jutland, Denmark, and some of the explosions were actually witnessed by environmentalists and scientists.

First, they began with several minutes of agonized twitching, followed by the toads blowing up like joyful  balloons and then exploding. And just to make the thing a little bit more disturbing, when the toads burst, the entrails slid out. But the animals weren't immediately dead, they keep struggling for long amounts of time.

Health officials panicked . They thought a strange virus was spreading by South American race horses from a nearby track. The press had a field day with the area, affectionately calling it “The Pond of Death”. Things got worse when the epidemic spread across the border to a nearby Danish lake.

Still with no explanation at hand, scientists collaborated  with Hamburg’s Institute for Hygiene and the Environment. They started testing the pond’s water, searching for this elusive fungus or virus. It was even considered the exceedingly fantastical notion that the toads were killing themselves to prevent overpopulation. 

Mass Suicide…..Something is not working here.

Each of these theories were completely rejected and authorities were forced to warn residents away from the pools. Until finally an answer was found. An eminent amphibian expert from Berlin, Dr. Frank Mutschmann, carefully examined live and dead specimens and cracked the case. The explanation was unbelievable.

The massacre was, apparently, the work of a highly intelligent species of crows (if you wanna discover something more about this fantastic bird click here). Dr. Mutschmann found out something very strange. Looking at the anatomy of the poor animals, there were identical circular incisions on their backs, just the size of a bird’s beak. He also figured out that all the amphibians had their livers missing. Knowing how clever crows are, Dr. Mutschmann theorized the birds were aware that the toad’s skin was poisonous, but that the nutritious liver could easily be popped out with a little toxic exposure. In fact, he actually said:

There were no bite or scratch marks, so we knew the toads weren't being attacked by a raccoon or a rat, which would have also eaten the entire toad. It was clearly the work of crows, which are clever enough to know the toad’s skin is toxic and realize the liver is the only part worth eating. Only once the liver is gone does the toad realize it’s been attacked. It puffs itself up as a natural defense mechanism. But since it doesn't have a diaphragm or ribs, without the liver there is nothing to hold the rest of its organs in. The lungs stretch out of all proportion and rip; the rest of the organs simply expel themselves.


His theory also explained how the toads’ exploding reaction appeared to come well after they lost their livers. Since it was mating season, the toads were very attracted to one another. So they would have been so distracted by their biological imperative that they wouldn't have paid heed to a few quick pecks. In fact, Dr. Mutschmann also said:


They would have noticed something as the crow pecked at them, but it wouldn't have been particularly painful

The documentary about the phenomenon claimed:

No one knows how they (the crows) learned where the liver was located. But we do know that toad’s skin is so poisonous that many animals can have a fatal reaction to it. But the liver is so nutritious it’s worth working out how to extract it safely.

And this is what actually happened. The crows were so clever that were able to extract the liver from the toads, without letting them know what a disaster they were causing.

One of the world’s earliest cases of exploding toads was recorded in Germany in 1968. Similar cases have been observed in Belgium, Denmark and the US. But no other case was as gruesome as the Hamburg incident. This because toads are very much loved by the Germans. In fact, they are a protected species over there. Some citizens were so concerned about the massacre they started e-mailing Dr. Mutschmann. But he engagingly replied:

There’s no reason to worry. It’s just a part of nature


What do you think about this story? I personally believe that has all that is needed to become a popular fairy tale. This is one of the mysteries of nature. It can blow up your mind. If we were toads, it would literally do.
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