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10 Crimson Facts About Cardinals

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Every year, these crested songbirds add a welcome dash of color to the drab wintery months. Let’s get a little better acquainted with our rosy, non-migratory neighbors.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE SPECIES.

For the remainder of this article, we’ll be focusing on the northern cardinal, the most famous species here in the United States. But the genus to which it belongs, Cardinalis, does contain two lesser-known members: The desert cardinal (also known as pyrrhuloxia), which can be found in Mexico and the American southwest and has a distinctive scarlet and gray coat, and the radiant vermillion cardinal, which can be found in Venezuela and Colombia. There are also several closely related members of the Cardinalidae family, such as buntings, grosbeaks, and dickcissels, which are often referred to as cardinals.

2. THEY’RE NAMED AFTER THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS.

American colonists named the birds cardinals as a nod to the red-gowned religious figures (either directly or after the word cardinal had become a term for a particular shade of red). Over the past 400 years, people have also called them crested redbirds, Virginia nightingales, and—paradoxically—red blue jays. The term cardinal ultimately derives from cardo, a Latin word meaning “hinge.” In Vatican City, several important jobs—like electing Popes—do, in fact, hinge upon the cardinals (hence the name).

3. THEIR COLORING COMES FROM WHAT THEY EAT.

Northern cardinals, like flamingoes, use food—such as grapes or dogwood berries—to keep up appearances. During the digestive process, pigments from the fruit enter the bloodstream and make their way to feather follicles and crystallize. If a cardinal can't find berries to snack on, its hue will gradually start fading.

4. CARDINALS VOLUNTARILY COVER THEMSELVES WITH ANTS.

It's appropriately called anting and over 200 species of bird, from the wild turkey to the Baltimore oriole, do it. Why? Experts aren’t sure. Maybe the formic acids that these insects release help ward off lice. Or perhaps the chemicals make molting easier. At any rate, cardinals go about anting in two different ways: Sometimes, the birds mash up the insects and smear them around like sunscreen. On other occasions, they’ll simply drop live ants into their plumage.

5. SEVEN STATES CALL THE NORTHERN CARDINAL THEIR OFFICIAL BIRD.

Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia all do so, making this species the most popular state bird in America.

6. HUMANS HAVE REALLY HELPED THEM SPREAD.

Once upon a time, the northern cardinal was mainly a southern bird. In the 1880s, people rarely spotted them above the Ohio River. Obviously, this is no longer the case. In 1896, the first northern cardinal was reported in Ontario. By 1910, they’d become common throughout the Canadian province. The rise of suburbs can help explain this trend, since shrubs and small trees—which these neighborhoods have in abundance—are a cardinal’s favorite haunts. On a related note, the avians were deliberately introduced to Hawaii and and became firmly entrenched in southern California during the 1920s.

7. MALES FEED FEMALES AS PART OF THEIR COURTSHIP RITUAL.

Cardinals of the fairer sex use this custom to evaluate potential suitors. Any candidate who can fetch top-quality seeds likely has good foraging skills, a sizable territory, or, ideally, both. When the incubation process starts, a female’s partner bears total responsibility for satisfying her dietary needs—so locating good chow will be a critical part of his job description. 

8. COME WINTERTIME, THEY TEND TO CREATE BIG FLOCKS.

In the warmer months, cardinal pairs aggressively defend a plot of land sized between two and 10 acres—so you might think that they get especially territorial in winter, when food gets much scarcer than usual. Instead, cardinal pairs will often join forces in the quest for sustenance. As temperatures drop, temporary flocks consisting of five or more couples band together. Loose confederacies like this also make individual birds less vulnerable to cardinal-eating predators, which are spotted more readily by large groups. At the end of the day, there’s safety in numbers.   

9. MANY SUFFER FROM BIRDIE “BALDNESS.”   

Naked-headed cardinals don’t make for a pleasant sight. Wild specimens that suffer from a near-total lack of feathers on their heads and necks are documented every year. Many experts blame parasites, though some—like Eastern Kentucky University ornithologist Gary Ritchison—have their doubts. Ritchison has personally handled “thousands” of cardinals, including several baldies. Among those afflicted birds, he says that “None … had severe lice or mite problems.” Alternative explanations include abnormal molting patterns and cranial injuries.

10. A DUAL-SEX CARDINAL WAS PHOTOGRAPHED IN 2011.

In northern cardinals, males and females look noticeably different. The former are a vibrant shade of crimson, the latter a drab gray with a few red highlights on the wings and crest. Imagine, then, the confusion that Larry Ammann must have felt one strange January morning. Perched upon the Texan’s birdfeeder was an eye-catching cardinal whose right side was grey and whose left side was red.

A statistics professor and wildlife photographer, Ammann snapped a few shots of his guest. Intrigued, he decided to conduct a little online research—which is when things got weird. “In just a few hours, I learned … that this bird is an extremely rare bilateral gynandromorphy cardinal,” the statistician said. What does that mean? Basically, Ammann put it, “a genetic mistake occurred during the first cell division of the fertilized ovum, causing one of the cells produced by this division to be male and the other to be female. As this egg developed, the entire right side remained female and the left side remained male.”

Gynandromorphy is more commonly observed in crustaceans and insects. Still, every so often, split-sexed vertebrates turn up. In 2003, for example, a gynandromorph zebra finch made international headlines. Amazingly, biologists learned that the masculine and feminine sides of this animal’s brain behaved in two different ways—but it chirped out exclusively male calls and copulated with a female finch.

All images courtesy of iStock 

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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