Tag Archives: adaptations

Weekly Puzzler Answer #133

On last week’s puzzler, you had a 50-50 chance. Which way did you go? With the dog or the bear? Who has the better nose?


The BEAR has the better nose!

If you said the bear you are correct! While it is true that dogs have an AMAZING sense of smell, the sense of smell in bears is even greater, which is hard to believe, but that’s what research says.

A black bear and a grizzly bear (also called a brown bear) has a smell that’s 7 times GREATER than a bloodhound! They have over a billion scent receptors in that giant nose of theirs and though their brain is just 1/3 the size of a human’s, the olfactory bulb region of the brain is 5 times larger. That’s because unlike people, bears rely on their fabulous sense of smell for survival. They find food, keep track of their cubs, find mates and “look out” for predators–all with their nose. Some estimates that I found online suggested that bears can smell a dead animal 18 miles away, but I can’t say with certainty that this is not an exaggeration. I can say however that their sense of smell is MUCH better than a dog’s–and that’s saying a lot!

Now on to the next puzzler!

And as always, have a fabulous weekend! See you again soon.

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #132

Did you see the three birds in last week’s puzzler? They are the official bird of the state of Alaska–a fabulously camouflaged bird called a ptarmigan. (in pronouncing this the p is silent) They are the smallest member of the grouse family in North America.

birdWhile backpacking in Denali National Park we saw many ptarmigans–not because they are easy to see but because we were walking through their territory, right where they were and saw them because they moved. There were several occasions when I nearly stepped on one, not noticing it until the last second. They blend in perfectly with the lichen-covered rocks on the hillsides and unless they move, they are difficult to spot. Staying still and remaining undetected is their best defense against predators like fox, wolves, bobcats and hawks.


Can you spot the ptarmigan in this photo?

Rock ptarmigan are one of three species of ptarmigan in Alaska.  They have the most amazing camouflage of any bird I have ever seen. In winter they are white so they blend in with the snow-covered landscape and in summer they are a mottled gray to blend in with the rocks.


Ptarmigan have feathers that go all the way down to their feet–like boots or leg warmers!–to help them stay warm during the arctic winters. And in winter they will burrow deep into the snow to roost for the night and avoid predators. They eat plants, seeds and berries. Wondering what they could possibly eat during winter when the ground is covered with snow? They dig through the snow to find moss underneath. And, since their diet in winter is rather dry,  they actually eat snow! Lots and lots of snow! Just like kids. (or at least I ate snow when I was a kid. I can’t speak for kids these days.)


So let’s check out the next puzzler–another one about an animal found in Alaska.

Have a fabulous weekend!! See you again soon.

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #122

Did you recognize the tail in last week’s puzzler? It is from North America’s largest rodent–the Beaver! If you’ve ever spent any time around a lake or river “up north” you’ve probably seen the work of these amazing engineers. Or perhaps you’ve heard the slap of their tail just before they disappear under water. Do you know why they do that?

122-5017Or how they use their large, flat tails?

Actually, Beavers use their tails for a number of jobs, as they are much like a swiss army knife.

When swimming, the tail is used as a rudder, to steer them through the water, or to propel them deeper.

On land their tails act like a kick stand, giving them stability when chopping down a tree.

Fat is stored in the tail to help them make it through the winter and of course

the  slap their tails on the water to warn other beavers about potential predators.

Contrary to popular belief, they do not use their tails to pack mud onto their lodge or dam!


Do you know how long beavers can stay underwater or how they survive winter? Do you know where they live or what they eat? Check out my past post about nature’s master engineer–10 Things you Might not know about Beavers. If you’ve never heard the slap of a beaver’s tail on water, here’s your chance!

Here’s the next puzzler–one last one on the subject of Animal Tails.

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #118

A few people knew the answer to last week’s puzzler. Were you one of them?

Can you see why they are called organ-pipe mud daubers?

Can you see why they are called organ-pipe mud daubers?

If you came to my house for a visit, you would find many, many of these small tubes around the property–they are on our house in numerous places and on the walls of a small pavilion in the front yard. When we see them, we let them be, knowing enough about the insects who make them to know they do us no harm. In my opinion, their tunnels are amazing works of art!

The insects responsible for them are called organ-pipe mud daubers, or, Trypoxylon politum. Other common names include dirt daubers, and blue devils, though the latter name couldn’t be more incorrect, as this beautiful iridescent blue/black wasp is solitary and is not likely to sting a person unless you attempt to hold her in your hand or grab her. Mud daubers are an inch long,

A female mud dauber works on her nest

A female mud dauber works on her nest

blueish black with a thin waist.

Mud dauber females gather mud and especially, clay, which they fashion into long half-inch wide tubes that resemble organ pipes, hence one of their common names. Next, they go out and search for spiders, usually orb-weaving spiders, that they will paralyze and bring back to their clay tubes. They will put 1-4 spiders inside, then lay an egg and seal the tube with more clay. So in each long tube you see in the picture below, wasp-8955there will be several chambers, each with some spiders and an egg. When the egg hatches into a larva, it will consume the spiders until it forms a pupa and will then overwinter in the tube. Come spring, it will emerge as an adult wasp-3555and chew its way out of the tube to fly off and continue the lifecycle.

Interestingly, there are other insects, mainly some flies and other wasps who are just like the brown-headed cowbird. Remember that puzzler from last week? The female doesn’t create a nest but instead, lays her eggs in other birds’ nests? Well these other insects– kleptoparasites as they are called (they steal food) — just like the cowbird female, will watch the mud dauber female and when she leaves to go find more spiders, will lay eggs in the mud daubers’s tube! Then, her eggs will hatch and devour the spiders, leaving no food for the mud dauber larva, who then will die.

Sometimes birds will raid the tubes during the long winter months, looking for a small bite to eat. Thus, a hole in the tubes before spring might indicate a bird has been by.

I can’t help but shake my head in amazement at the adaptations of animals! So many interesting life cycles! And ways to survive.

A mini pot created by a potter wasp!

A mini pot created by a potter wasp!

There are other species of wasps who also make structures in which to lay eggs and provide invertebrate food for their growing young–for instance, check out these tiny pots in the photo here. They are made by potter wasps and just like the organ-pipe mud daubers, they make the structures from clay and then provision them with food–not spiders, but beetle larvae or caterpillars, which they paralyze and leave inside the pots along with an egg…. and then of course you probably can guess that when the egg hatches out into a larva it consumes the insect and then eventually emerges from the pot and flies off as an adult…. Amazing, right!

Have you ever seen these tiny pots? Or the long, mud dauber tubes? Well next time you see them you’ll know a bit more about how they came to be and who made them!

Check out the next puzzler HERE…. and as always, have a great weekend!

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Amazed By My Dog’s Ability to do This

schr-1063If you’ve been following along you might remember that I adopted a puppy in December, after fostering him and his two siblings for 5 weeks after their mother was killed by a car. Well Schroeder, the puppy, is now just about 7 months old. A lot has changed in that time, including that he no longer sleeps in his crate, an adjustment that has taken some time getting used to because he growls and then barks at every unfamiliar sound in the night–though this has gotten better as he is learning we are not fans of this.

…and you remember I said I lived in the woods, right? Well all kinds of animals are out and about when we are trying to sleep. There’s no telling how many raccoons, opossums, fox, coyotes, owls, bats, bears, deer, skunks, and other animals pass by the house in the dead of night.

Outside of our house... a deer in a sunbeam

Outside of our house… a deer in a sunbeam

Last night Schroeder woke us up at 3:30am, and it was pretty obvious from his loud and insistent bark that this was more than a mouse scurrying through the underbrush. We thanked him for alerting us, then hushed him and listened quietly, hearing an odd sound that was hard to identify.

Now fully awake, I got out of bed and tiptoed to the kitchen in the dark to turn on the spotlight. And waited a few minutes. At first there was nothing, but then, very quietly despite his GIANT size, a lone black bear came around the bend of the deck and strolled out into the backyard, schr-6063disappearing into the woods.

When I checked this morning, all 3 of our hanging hummingbird feeders were empty, though interestingly, still hanging perfectly. This bear has learned that 1. sugar water is good, 2.that we have sugar water and 3.that he can get it without  breaking or knocking the feeders to the ground. I imagine him standing on his hind legs, using his front feet to tip the feeder, drinking from the feeder like a person would drink a beer! (We will bring the hummingbird feeders in for a few nights after this in case he is still in the area and hoping for more sweetness)

We learned that our dog has AMAZING senses, as do all dogs. He can be asleep in his bed on the floor at the foot of our bed, the windows closed, and yet he is aware of a bear outside the house. His bark telling us a bear is present is much different than other animals that pass by. How does he do it?

From my research on the senses of dogs it seems the answer is SMELL.

Schroeder as a smaller puppy

Schroeder as a smaller puppy

Dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell, so much more acute than ours that it is hard for us to fathom. They have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses–to our 6 million. According to a page about dogs on Nova’s website, “Dogs’ sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute, scientists say. “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better,” says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who, with several colleagues, came up with that jaw-dropping estimate during a rigorously designed, oft-cited study. “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.”

Schroder a month ago

Schroder a month ago

…”Put another way, dogs can detect some odors in parts per trillion. What does that mean in terms we might understand? Well, in her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth. Another dog scientist likened their ability to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels.” (Click HERE to read more of that article from Nova or HERE to read 10 things you may not know about bears.)

Amazing right? If the senses of dogs is that amazing, imagine what it must be like in other animals–like fox, coyote, bears etc. Knowing that, it seems amazing that we ever get to see them in the wild! And fully illustrates why every time I get a glimpse, however brief, of a wild animal in its natural habitat, I feel lucky. Do you? What animal encounters have you had lately?

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #100

Did you know the answer to last week’s puzzler about the relationship of ants to aphids? Have you seen these two insects together in your garden and wondered about them?ants-

Everyone knows ants love sweet things, so it likely comes as no surprise that ants hang out with aphids in order to drink the sweet liquid–called honeydew– that the aphids expel from their butts. Yum! What’s not to love about sugar water! But what about the aphids? Do they get anything from the relationship? As one reader, Elena said, “There is a symbiotic relationship between the ants and the aphids…” The ants ” actually take care of the little insects and protect them from enemies.”

Ladybugs eat aphids

Ladybugs eat aphids

The ants protect the aphids from predators like ladybugs and other insects, even destroying ladybug eggs if they find them on the host plant. Some species of ants even carry “their aphids” to their underground nest where they will keep them until after the winter.

Many ants actually “farm” the aphids, much like a sheep farmer tends his flock. The ants will move the aphids to better feeding areas and if a rainstorm is approaching, they will move the aphid colony to a sheltered spot out of the storm. How the ants know about the impending weather is still in question.

Ants observed in colonies of aphids can be seen stroking the backs of the aphids with their antennae, or “milking” them as it is called. The stroking causes the aphids to expel a yummy droplet of honeydew which the ants readily drink up. Some aphid species have even lost the ability to “poop” on their own and will only do so after an ant has given them a little love.

Lots of aphids!

Lots of aphids sucking the juices from this Milkweed plant!

For many years it seemed like the relationship was 50/50, with both parties getting and sharing equally: ants get honeydew, aphids get protection. But a study by a team at the Imperial College London, Royal Holloway University of London discovered that things aren’t always exactly how they seem. They learned that the ants wear the pants in this relationship–not only do the ants sometimes clip the wings of the aphids so they can’t fly off, they also drug them with chemicals found on their feet. The study showed that aphids who have walked in the pathways of the ants move slower than those not tended by ants and those chemicals inhibit the growth of wings in the aphids–again, causing them to stay in the colony rather than fly off.  Aphid colonies tended by ants tend to be larger than those where ants aren’t present–so more honeydew for the ants. Also, if the ants get hungry for something besides sugar water, the aphids are fair game. You can read more from that study HERE.

Or, if you’d rather watch a video, check out this awesome one about some ants in Indonesia and their relationship with mealy bugs–a small insect that is related to aphids and scale insects. I bet you didn’t know that ants were such sophisticated farmers! Don’t you agree that we live in an amazing world! Animals have such incredible adaptations!

Check out the next puzzler HERE, and don’t forget to use the comment box to write your guess. Last week Elena and Caroline commented and so were added to the names for the drawing. All the correct answers will be eligible to be part of the drawing on the Vernal Equinox–March 20th to win the a few greeting cards  from my collection. Hope to hear from you soon!

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #94

Coyotes have red eyeshine

Coyotes have red eyeshine

Do you have any ideas about last week’s puzzler?

Did you know that many vertebrates, especially those that are nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), have a special reflective surface in the backs of their eyes, behind their retinas, that allow them to see better in low light conditions? This layer, called a tapetum lucidum,  (pronounced HERE) acts like a mirror, sending light back through the retina and thus increasing light available to the photoreceptors in the eye. It is often referred to as eyeshine and is just another example of Nature’s amazing adaptations! It makes sense that if you are an animal out in the dark, you would have an adaptation that would allow you to fully utilize ALL available light. Not all animals have this layer, including most primates, squirrels and many birds.

Squirrels do not have eye shine

Squirrels do not have eyeshine

Interestingly  according to Cynthia Powell, a veterinary ophthalmologist at Colorado State University. “Not all eyes animals’ glow the same color. This is due to different substances — like riboflavin or zinc — in an animal’s tapetum. Also, there are varying amounts of pigment within the retina, and that can affect the color. Age and other factors also can change the color, so even two dogs of the same species could have eyes that glow different colors.” The angle at which the eyes are viewed can also affect the color of the light.

I used to think that the red eye you get in people from using a flash was caused by this tapetum, but just learned this is not true, as humans actually lack this tapetum lucidum. Instead, the red eye happens because the light from the flash occurs too fast for the pupil to close, so much of the bright light passes into the eye. The camera records this reflected light off the ample blood in the connective tissue in the back of the eye, behind the retina. Hence, the red eye so visible with flash photography!

Cats usually have green eye shine

Cats usually have green eyeshine

If you go out at night with a bright light, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of an animal’s eyeshine. Fish, including walleye have white eyeshine. Horses and many mammals have blue eyeshine. Cats, dogs and raccoons have green eyeshine and coyotes, rodents, opossums and some birds have red eyeshine. I do not have pictures of the eyeshine of any of these! because I don’t usually take my camera out at night… you will have to go out some dark night and see it for yourself! It will be a fun experiment!

Have a fabulous weekend–did you get snow where you live? We did here in western North Carolina and WOW, it’s going to be a fun day playing in the snow! I can’t wait….

Click HERE for the next puzzler!

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