Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pholidota Spotlight: Chinese Pangolin

Okay, I got a great one for you this week! Check out the Chinese pangolin. The best way to describe this critter is something like a cross between an armadillo, a sloth, and an aardvark. As the name suggests, they can be found in China--mostly in Taiwan and southern China which includes the islands of Hainan. Right off the bat, I have to say that they are one of the coolest looking animals that I have spotlighted.

From head to tail-base, the Chinese pangolin is as much as 22 inches long with a tail that can be as long as 15 inches. Thy can weigh as much as 15 pounds. Their body is covered in layered scales that are very, VERY hard. These scales provide so much protection that they can actually be used in suits of armor. Their front claws are very long and curved much like a sloth's. Similar to an aardvark, they have long, sticky tongues.

The Chinese pangolin is a low activity creature. They tend to slowly walk around looking for food. They usually do this overnight and don't like being watched while they are busy in this way. Their armor does well to protect them from predators. When they are under attack, they will curl up into a little armored ball and wait until the predator either gives up or breaks all of its teeth. You may find it interesting that the name pangolin actually comes from a Malay word which means "something that rolls up."

As might be expected, the Chinese pangolin eats insects. They prefer either ants or termites. Now, termite mounds are very hard, but the Chinese pangolin will use its strong claws to break into them. Their long, sticky tongue is then shot out to grab the little insects. Yum!

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has given the Chinese pangolin a rating of CR (Critically Endangered.) The Chinese pangolin is exceptional at avoiding predators because of their armor, and they really pose no trouble to humans. The reason they are dying out is because they are being hunted for their scales. Some Chinese believe that these scales can help cure some diseases, which is not really true and based mostly on superstition. The scales are often sold in stores as good luck charms as well. The fact of the matter is that they are being unnecessarily hunted to the brink of extinction, and I would prefer that it be stopped.

Have Chinese pangolins been represented in fiction? The answer is yes! In the Welkin Weasels book "Heastward Ho!" by Gary Kilworth, there was a realm the characters travel too called Far Kathay which was just a goofy name used to describe China. Here, the Chinese pangolins were the most common citizens as well as its leaders. Since the bulk of the characters of the series are mustelids, seeing creatures like the Chinese pangolin really made it feel like they had entered into an alien country far from their own.

My own view of the Chinese pangolin combines their quiet demeanor with their natural armor. They would make wonderful lone warriors going out to perform good deeds. They would fight off enemies and save towns who have fallen under such tyranny. After the mission is complete, they would quietly disappear leaving the people wondering where their hero had gone to. I think the Chinese pangolin is too much of an introvert to accept any sort of thanks. He simply moves on.

Have a look at this little guy. He has a very interesting body. I can't get enough of it. I think it would be so much fun to have one as a pet and watch him roll up whenever he gets startled. The Chinese pangolin is a cute creature and is well deserving to have a spotlight of his own.

Thank you for reading my blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment below or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Feliformia Spotlight: Spotted Hyena

The spotted hyena is a lot of things, but what he is certainly not is a canine. I always thought they were, but they are not even close. All hyenas are part of the suborder known as feliformia. Sound familiar? If you were thinking "cats," then you are correct! So... does that mean hyenas are cats? Not really. Cats fall under the family called felidae, but the two creatures are very closely related. What hyenas are entirely not... is related to are dogs. I just wanted to get this out there since I think there might be an overwhelming misconception about them.

The reason I picked the spotted hyena was because that is the species most commonly nicknamed the "laughing hyena." I'll get into that a little later. There is a whole rant attached to it. Size-wise, the spotted hyena has a body length of as much as 5.41 feet with a shoulder height of 3 feet. The females are heavier at up to 141 pounds with the males at a lesser 121 pounds. They have long necks that extends forward as they walk and run.

The spotted hyena are carnivores. In fact, they are the most common carnivore in Africa. And really, there is not a lot that is off of the menu. They really don't care. If it moves, they will likely give it a taste. This includes you, so you should be careful if you happen to be up their way.

The thing I really want to get into here is the social aspects of this creature. It ties into their eating habits as well. The spotted hyena is not only a social animal; they can't get enough of each other. They form into groups--called clans--of sometimes up to 80 hyenas and spend their days yapping away at each other. Clearly, the spotted hyena is female dominated. They call the shots, and the males don't seem to mind it at all.

There is a ranking system within a clan. A female is always on top, and she will choose her officers. This helps with organization when they go out hunting. It is all very orderly. Although not unheard of, there are almost never problems in the ranks. Spotted hyenas are very comfortable with how things are set up. They don't like challenging authority, and they respect each other almost religiously.

They are likely referred to as "laughing hyenas" because of the wide range of sounds they can make to communicate with each other. Researchers have been able to identify many of these sounds. It is almost a complete language. Needless to say, the hyena is one of the most intelligent animals in the animal kingdom. Not anywhere near what it takes to be human, but they are very intelligent regardless.

I have seen hyenas in much fiction. Where the spotted hyenas really shined was in the 1994 Disney film "The Lion King." In this film the hyenas were portrayed as stupid and vicious creatures that were the minions of an evil lion. Let me make this perfectly clear: I liked that! I will always like it when hyenas or portrayed as violent idiots. It rather fits in with the whole laughing stereotype, and I have never denied myself a good animal stereotype. Biologists at the time protested the movie's depiction of hyenas. One hyena researcher actually sued Disney for "deformation of character." There are not enough words in the English language to project how stupid that was. I guarantee you that no extant hyena went to see the film, and if they had, they would not have cared.

Gnolls are a fictional anthropomorphic hyena creature originally found in Dungeons and Dragons. Since then, you can find them all over the place. They are known for being big, brutish, and not all that intelligent. I love gnolls, and I am currently writing a book about them called "Fly Me Away."

I also depicted hyenas as creatures who make a lot of puns and tell bad jokes in my published story "Ava in Fairyland." I had two hyenas in that one: a jokester named Hyjinx and a very sleepy, unemotional hyena named Duldree. They were later voiced in an audio drama for the book which is on You Tube.

So... where did we end up? We started off talking about how smart these creatures were, and then somehow, it ended up being about how they are shown as stupid beasts. Which is better? The answer: all of it! The idea of it is to let your imagination soar! You cannot limit yourself--especially because somebody says you should. Hyenas are probably seen as stupid because of the goofy sounds they make, but there is nothing wrong with that interpretation when fiction is involved. The spotted hyena is very, very interesting. They are a cold and calculating military force in the take down of a wide number of African animals. And as cool as that is, I like them even more as stupid and violent. When you are inspired, let your heart take you where it wants to go. The real hyena will not care either way. At the end of the day, they just want to eat.

Thank you for reading this blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment below, or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. Ha!

From Disney's "The Lion King"

D&D Gnoll

Duldree the Hyena

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Eulipotyphla Spotlight: Northern Short-Tailed Shrew

Remember the Platypus? What made the platypus weird was the fact that it was a mammal that laid eggs--which is more of a bird thing. Every now and then you will find an animal class that has a quality that seems more appropriate for a different class. In the case of the northern short-tailed shrew, they are mammals that have a reptilian ability--namely the ability to administer venom to its prey. That's right, it is a venomous mammal.

Size-wise, the northern short-tailed shrew can be as big as 5.5 inches from head to tail, and yes, that tail is short--sometimes only three quarters of an inch long. It weighs as much as 1.06 ounces. It can be found throughout central and eastern North America, but the bulk of them are found in the Great Lakes region of North America. They are not too picky about their habitat; although, they do prefer grassy, pleasant areas. They will ignore the presence of humans unless they are particularly targeted by them.

The northern short-tailed shrew is an omnivore insomuch as they enjoy a little subterranean fungi, but they are by and large carnivorous--feeding on earthworms, snails, and voles. You may be getting a strong underground vibe from the previous sentence. That is because this particular shrew spends much of its time underground. Of all the many types of shrews in the world, this one spends more time underground than any other one.

Similar to the common shrew, the northern short-tailed shrew goes into states of torpor as a means of rest. Throughout the day and night, they spend much of their time in torpor with these extremely active 5 minute intervals where it looks for and eats all the food it can. It has to consume three times it's weight in food every single day.

And then there is the venom. This shrew has a nasty toxin released when it bites. It causes so much pain that it produces a stunned effect in large animals. It will also outright kill smaller animals shortly after the toxin is administered. What does it do to humans? Sometimes when people handle this shrew, they might get bitten. The toxin will cause the wound to be severely painful; however, it will work itself out without harming the person. This same venom can be found in a reptile called the Mexican beaded lizard. Venomous mammals are very few in the world, but it is believed that there were more of them that have since gone extinct.

There is no specific fiction for the northern short-tailed shrew, but I imagine the venom thing would likely make great villains out of them. It is not so much because they can poison others, but rather because the poison causes so much pain. I can see them as being torture experts for some greater villain. They might also work for an army of common shrews as a means to gather intel from their prisoners. It is a nasty vision, but from what I know of shrews, they are a nasty, nasty group of killers.

I like it when villains pop up in nature just as much as when heroes do. A good story needs both sides to be interesting. I still sees the shrews as a force to be reckoned with, and now that they are deploying a venomous character, that makes them all the more scary. Beware the shrews!

Thank you for reading my blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment below, or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. It won't hurt a bit.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Eulipotyphla Spotlight: Common Shrew

Some of these scientific animal names can be real tough to pronounce. Before I begin the blog for real, here is a pronunciation guide for eulipotyphla: [yoo - li - poe - tif - la].

I am sure that most everyone has heard of a the shrew. They are commonly mistaken for rodents, and I am not at all surprised. They look like rodents. I remember back when I was working on my Rodent Spotlights. I was all set up to write one up for shrews, and then I found out that they did not belong there. That actually upset me. The reason it really got to me was because I was working on a rodent novel at the time called "Tooth and Tail," and I was planning on adding shrews to the cast. Couldn't do it! Twice, my plans failed because of a scientific conflict of interest. Don't ever let it be said that I don't suffer for my art.

The shrews are actually related to moles, and moles are most certainly not rodents. But if I might be a little impertinent, I think that shrews should have been rodents. They certainly seem close enough, but I guess I don't have much say in such things.

The common shrew can be as big as 3.2 inches from head to tail and weigh as much as 0.4 ounces. They nearly always have velvety dark brown fur with a paler underside. The eyes of the common shrew are very small, but that's okay because it doesn't use them very much. Like moles, they have pointed snouts. Additionally, the common shrew does not live very long. They kick the bucket in only 14 months, but they stay pretty busy in that time.

On that latter note, the common shrew is known for being remarkably active. They never hibernate and stay busy looking for food day and night. So... do they sleep? Not really. I mean... they kind of do. Shrews are capable of entering into a state called torpor. This is a short period where the shrew simply shuts down many of its body's functions so that it can get a short burst of rest. It's a lot like meditation. After the torpor ends, the shrew will dash back into a state of high activity. It will go back and forth like this throughout the day and night. This is a very good thing since it will be dead in 14 months.

The common shrew is carnivorous--pretty viciously too. They love eating many insects, but they will most certainly go after rodents like small mice or other large creatures like frogs. They go into it quite violently too. They have no choice. The shrew needs to consume 300% of its body weight every single day!

The common shrew is super territorial. They pick a spot and will defend it with whatever violence is necessary. During breeding season--from April to September--the shrew will expand its territory until a mate is found. If you are a little mouse in the area during this period, you will die. When shrews do territory expansion, it is always a violent affair because they do not have time to be nice. They are not voles; they will kill you! (If you're a mouse, of course.) Anyways, the babies will be born in 25 days with a litter of 5 to 7, and it will be another 25 days before the little ones are allowed to be independent. A female will usually raise 2 to 4 litters every year, and what is cute is that the children will follow their mother in a single file line while holding onto each other's tail.

Shrews pop up in fiction all the time, but I'm going to keep it down to just a few. In one of the best animated films ever made, "The Secret of NIMH," there was a rather grumpy shrew character known only as Auntie Shrew. You know, I really loved her. It was obvious that she cared deeply for Miss Brisby and her family, but she refused to admit to it. She was grumpy and preferred to be seen that way. Simply, a fun character.

There was an army of shrews shown briefly in the 1977 movie "The Mouse and his Child." However, let's talk more about the book by Russell Hoban since the movie did not really go as deep. The army of shrews were currently expanding their territory, and the plan was everything or nothing. They were serious, these shrews! What really felt like a more docile story up to that point turned into a bloodbath. One amusing aspect of their armies were that they forced a group of mice into their ranks of which they called their "Ration Patrol." They would fight for their lives, and if the shrews ran out of food, they would eat the mice! Very grizzly, but also very effective.

In a book series I mention a lot in these blogs--that being the "Welkin Weasel" books by Gary Kilworth--Shrews were depicted as ne'er-do-wells that selfishly caused trouble to anyone they could. The fun thing about them happened when they were caught. They would always run away while making a long line of goofy threats. They were very vengeful and hated anyone who tried to mess up their fun. I loved how shameless they were.

I'm a little conflicted on my own feelings for shrews. I loved all three of the above examples. When I was going to incorporate them into my book, the plan was going to be a bit more like the war-making type seen in "The Mouse and his Child." I like them militant! I want them to go out and make a bloody mess! Violence, violence, and more violence! I think they would make a very difficult force to fight off. The shrew is just so hardwired to keep moving. They don't take many breaks! Can you imagine fighting a force who never sleeps? Just be glad that you don't have to.

That's why I love shrews. I love how they hit the ground running in life. Nothing stands in their way. It's do or die! I love them as a villainous force, and I would enjoy seeing how a battle would go with them. Bring it on!

Thank you for reading my blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment bellow, or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. Where there's a whip... (WH-TCH!) there's a way...

Auntie Shrew

Shrew Army from "The Mouse and his Child"

Orgibucket the Shrew from "Welkin Weasels: Gaslight Geezers"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Squamata Spotlight: Skink

Two weeks ago, I was coming home from work. As I opened the storm door to my house, something large and black jumped off of the door and stuck itself to the brickwork around the door frame. Of course, I was startled. It had moved so fast that I was not sure what it was. After looking at it for a little bit, I realized that this was a very large lizard. It had to be, at least, a foot long and almost an inch wide. I asked my dad about it, and he said it as probably a skink--which is basically a very large lizard species that can be found all over the world.

I stayed outside and watched it for a while. As heavy looking as it was, it managed to walk along the outer wall of my house without falling. I noticed that it moved in a zigzag pattern, and I first thought that he was having trouble keeping himself stuck to the wall. A little research I did later explained the movements better.

Skinks are not to be confused with what we commonly know as "true lizards." True lizards are known to be much smaller with some exceptions such as the iguana. Heck, there are some skinks that don't even have legs. Some skinks can be quite large too; although, the largest of them have since gone extinct. True lizards are not as diverse as skinks, and that is really the main difference; however, the term lizard still applies because both types still fall under the order of Squamata.

Skinks are burrowers. in fact, it could be said that they are burrowing enthusiasts. They love digging and do it sometimes for no reason. They love being underground far more than above, and this is likely why they aren't spotted very often. Imagine my surprise finding one on top of my door. He must have been the weirdo of the bunch.

Like most reptiles, the skink is a carnivore. Depending on their size, they will hunt down insects as small as a fly with the bigger ones going after mice. They detect scent by flicking out their tongue and will chase down their prey until it gets cornered. They will then get close enough to bite it once before swallowing the prey whole.

As I have said already, the skink can come in many sizes. I thought the one on my door was pretty big; however, the biggest skink in the world is known as the Solomon Islands skink. It is 32 inches long from head to tail-tip. There have been bigger ones in the past, but the next size up went extinct in 2013.

Remember how I commented on the odd way the skink was walking along the side of my house? The zigzag motion comes from the fact that skinks are closely related to snakes. The order of Squamata covers a wide range of reptile species which include some of the most dangerous snakes on Earth. I think skinks take more from their snake cousins than the true lizards do, and that, happily, makes them more creepy. It is not wrong to think of them as snakes with legs.

I have only encountered the skink once in fiction. In "Welkin Weasels: Heastward Ho!" by Gary Kilworth, the heroes of the story were captured by a middle eastern tribe of skink bandits for the crime of stealing water from their well. They threatened their jerboa guide with death and even forced him to go through a funny trial where the little rodent would have to walk along a tightrope over a bed of sharp knives. If that was not enough, they all tossed loofahs at him to make him fall. The skinks were actually not as bad as they looked and they really just wanted to scare the adventurers a little before they let them go on their way. Pretty mean of them, I have to admit.

I like the idea of a snake-like personality without actually being a snake. Snakes are difficult to make characters with because they are missing limbs. We often have to fudge it with creatures like nagas to make it work. Here we have a walking snake all set up with all his limbs intact. I see them as quiet but not brooding. They probably are very good at concealing what they are feeling or thinking. They are very likely predators through and through.

So, after going through my research, I guess I know what the skink was doing up on my door. He had probably followed his prey up there in an attempt to corner it, and I ruined the hunt when I had to get into my house. Still, I loved looking at it. It was a fascinating creatures who did not mind going to extremes to get the food it wanted. Either way, I am sure it was happy to get back underground where giant doors would never be a problem.

Thank you for reading my blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment below, or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. Hiss!

Similar to the one on my door.

Solomon Islands Skink

Solomon Islands Skink

Illustration from "Heastward Ho!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Primate Spotlight: Aye-aye

I am not really a fan of primate species such as chimps, gorillas, and so forth. I see people look at them and call them beautiful, and I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. Knowing this, you may find it super weird that I decided to write a spotlight on a supremely ugly primate called an aye-aye (pronounced like saying the long "I" sound twice). My reasons have origins within my imagination, and I will try to explain as I go.

The aye-aye--when young--is a silver colored primate with large ears and a stripe down its back. When they grow up, their fur will fill out better, the stripe will mostly disappear, and some yellow and brown will mix itself into the scheme. The adults grow up to be about 3 feet long with a tail as long as its body. Its large ears work similarly to bats--a process called echolocation; however, it does not actually cry out like bats to. It makes taps with its fingers and uses the sound to measure distance. It can also use this ability to figure out where predators are.

Aye-ayes live in trees like most small primates do; however, these creatures can only be found up and down the coasts of Madagascar. They make little nests and sometimes share them with other aye-ayes--although, never at the same time. I found it interesting that males will often cohabitate with others males in quite a friendly way. This relationship remains quite friendly until mating season, and then there is war. Yes, the males who have been great friends up until that point will suddenly be enemies--all in the name of getting the female.

The diet of the aye-aye is mostly fruit and berries; however, they are also fond of bug larvae. This officially makes them omnivores. They spend the three hours after sunset looking for food. They usually do this in groups--helping each other out.

The thing that really blows me away about these creatures is how they look. They are rather frightening--especially at a young age; they don't look quite as bad as adults. Their face remind me something of the gremlins of the movie with the same name. It is kind of uncanny to see them, and it sort of feels like you are seeing some sort of tiny monster. The other aspect of them that weirds me out are their fingers. They have these incredibly long bony fingers that they use for a number of actions. It reminds me a lot of pictures of aliens which are usually shown having similarly long fingers. It's very creepy, in my opinion.

There are a lot of theories of where the aye-aye's name came from. Many believe that it came from someone's first encounter with the creature. They say he shouted, "Aye aye!" as an expression of surprise. The most interesting origin comes from the Malagasy people who claim that the term aye-aye translates into something like "heh heh" which doesn't actually mean anything. They would make that noise in place of naming the creature in case the aye-aye was of magical origin. Having seen it, I don't really blame them.

The fiction of the aye-aye is tied up in folk tales. It is unsurprising that many believe that the aye-aye is a harbinger of evil. It is said that if the creature points its longest bony finger directly at a person, that person is marked for death. The Sakalava people fear that the aye-aye will use that same creepy finger to punch in a person's aorta while they sleep at night. None of this is true, but the human imagination has regularly turned these primates into monsters.

I am personally fine with the monster angle for the aye-aye. If I were to use them in a story, they would be something like creepy goblins going about looking for victims. There have been a few times I have ignored reality for the far more interesting fiction; however, I will say that it is not a good thing for these creatures to be killed for this superstition. They really are harmless.

In closing, I want to point out that the aye-aye are marked as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They are really being killed based on the local beliefs that there are evil. That is not fair, and I wish it would stop. There is a captive breeding program set up to restore their population taking place at the Duke Lemur Center located in Durham, North Carolina. I wish them much success in their endeavor. It is a shame that a creature that has inspired the imagination so much is being killed for that very same reason. I love the aye-aye because they look like monsters. They are the perfect inspiration for a good, solid Halloween story. Let's keep them around just for that.

Thank you for reading this blog! If you enjoyed it, you can comment below, or you can email me at tkwadeauthor@gmail.com. Thank you!


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