The Painted Dog–Wild Dog of Africa

The wild dog of Africa is best known as the Painted Dog. You can see why.  With their bright spots and big round ears, these dogs can’t be missed as they travel in packs through the savannah. Another term for them is the Cape Hunting Dog. Their stride and confidence say, “Don’t mess with us.”  For a video (without bloodshed), click here (Wild Dog Pack).

Painted Dogs are fierce enemies, but within the pack they are gentle as lambs. They like to nuzzle and brush against each other. When one gets sick, the rest nurse it back to health. They cooperate in raising litters of pups. After a successful hunt, Painted Dogs save some meat to carry home to the puppies, adults who stayed behind babysitting, and sick or injured pack members.

Life in the wild is dangerous so they take good care of each other. They don’t fight over females.  When two of them have their eyes on the same morsel of food, the competition takes a strange form.  They try to outdo each other in their begging performance.  Each puts on such a pitiful display of hunger that eventually one gives in and walks away.

The intelligence of Painted Dogs and their ability to carry out complicated hunting strategies pays off.  At least eighty percent of their hunts end in a kill—a much higher rate than that of most African predators.  Lions are lucky to bring down prey thirty percent of the time.  In fact, they often steal carcasses from Painted Dogs.

Painted Dog packs are large and need space.  With Africans taking over more land for ranching, some dogs have developed a taste for farm animals—a habit that has backfired on them. Farmers now hunt and kill Painted Dogs. The dogs also pick up diseases from farm dogs. An outbreak of rabies, distemper or parvo can threaten the lives of an entire pack.

The African Painted Dogs are among the most intelligent dogs in the world. They don’t rely on instinct alone to tell them what to do. They depend on knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation.  This includes information about hunting strategies, the best places to find water and food, and the dangers that surround them.

The wild dogs of Africa are an endangered species.  Once there were over half a million. Now there are fewer than 5000.  Painted Dogs can still be found in the countries shown on the map. Because they need such large ranges, they are hard to raise in captivity.

Raccoon Dogs–Wild Dogs of Asia

Doesn’t this look like a raccoon?

The animal in the photo isn’t even related to a raccoon.  It’s called–you guessed it–a raccoon dog.  It belongs to a species discovered in the cold regions of Asia more than two hundred years ago.

In the 1800s, Chinese trappers realized the economic potential of raccoon dogs. Their lush winter fur made great overcoats.  Traders began to hunt and trap the dogs, then export their fur. Soon, Russian entrepreneurs decided to obtain some raccoon dogs from Asia and breed them for the same purpose. Before long, other eastern European countries followed suit.

These wild dogs are about the same size as terriers but their weight fluctuates throughout the year.  In the spring, they’re at their lightest.  In summer, they start fattening up in preparation for winter—just as bears do.  Those still living in the wild spend the coldest months of the year dozing in dens and living off stored fat. Their fur thickens to help them conserve body heat.

Raccoon dogs are the only dogs that hibernate.  They don’t sleep as deeply as bears, but they slumber off and on when the snow is deep or the weather is particularly harsh.  As the skies clear and temperatures warm up, they leave their dens to hunt for food.

These little dogs are easy-going and seldom fight.  When a predator frightens them, they scream or play dead. Occasionally, male raccoon dogs courting the same female get into skirmishes, but they rarely do much damage.

They eat almost anything.  The protein in their diet comes from insects, rodents, frogs, birds, and even dead animals.  Because they swim well, fish are also on the menu.  Raccoon dogs living near water look for water bird eggs and chicks. The dogs like plant foods, too–fruit, pumpkins, tomatoes, nuts, and grain.  In Japan they’ve been seen climbing trees with their curved claws and picking fruit.  They often raid gardens, vineyards, and grain fields. Click on this link to watch a raccoon dog feeding in the wild. (free dinner).

Although raccoon dogs aren’t allowed in the U.S., many Europeans keep them as pets. They find the dogs easy to live with and safe with children. However, they can’t be trusted around gerbils or other small animals.  Feeding them is cheap as they eat almost anything.

When householders are at work, the dogs seldom get into mischief around the house, because they sleep most of the day. However, families who allow the dogs outside must take precautions to make their yards escape-proof. Raccoon dogs are expert diggers and make holes under fences.

The only thing owners complain of is how much raccoon dogs shed every spring.  As the weather warms up, the dogs get rid of their thick winter fur—which collects in large tufts around the house.

*   *   *

The Cockroach That Ran off with a Stick of Spaghetti

A friend recently told me that her aunt saw a cockroach run off with a stick of dry spaghetti.  I asked whether the aunt was in the habit of telling tall tales. My friend said no.

Now I wonder whether cockroaches can really do this. If I knew the aunt was a fibber, I would shrug it off.   But since I’m not sure, I have to go around wondering if a cockroach can really run around with a stick of spaghetti in its mouth.

The other day, I heard an acquaintance telling friends about her experience rescuing a baby squirrel from her yard.  After getting the advice of a wildlife center, she fed it from a dropper. She kept the squirrel for quite awhile, she said.

I asked, “But you couldn’t release it into the wild again, right?” No, she said, she got the wildlife center to take it.  However, while she had the squirrel, she discovered that it liked being stroked under one front leg—it’s “sweet spot”, she called it.  The other squirrels hanging around her house saw this. Since they were pretty tame, she tried it on them.  What do you know? They liked it, too.  So much that they stood in line waiting their turn for their “sweet spot” to be stroked.

Afterward, I thought, “Hold on here!” I enjoy true stories about animals’ unusual abilities.  But squirrels standing in line? I’ve had a lot of contact with squirrels over the years, and I can’t imagine them standing in line for anything. Squirrels push, shove and bully each other.

Why am I so irritated by this whopper?  After all, the woman didn’t con me out of money or do any real damage.  I guess I’m still smarting from being such a sucker.

*   *   *

Life of a Tick

The life of Mr. Tick (or Ms. Tick) starts as a single egg bunched up with thousands of others.  Once the mother has accomplished the Herculean task of giving birth, she dies.

Mr. Tick hatches as a tiny larva with six legs.  This early in life, he can go without food for months, but eventually he needs a big meal of warm blood or he will die.

Let’s say a rabbit comes along just in time, and the tick fills his belly with life-giving blood. If the rabbit has Lyme disease, this is of no concern to the tick. He is unaffected. He goes merrily on his way searching for more food.  For a passing hiker on whom the tick lands, it’s another story. The hiker is likely to pick up the virus and get sick.

With all this eating and growing, the tick needs to molt–that is, to shed the shell protecting his soft underbody.  His shell can’t expand and so it must be ditched.

Molting is a long process, lasting about a month—a dangerous time for Mr. Tick. Any passing beetle or spider can devour his soft, delicious body. If the tick escapes being eaten, he grows two more legs.  Now the tick is called a nymph even though the sex is still unclear.  (If you’re a girl, Mr. Tick, please excuse our form of address.)

Time for another big meal. Perching on a leaf or grass stem near the ground, the tick waits for a  rabbit, deer, or human to jump on. That done, he  seeks a safe crevice and digs in for dinner.  When he’s fat and full, he drops off to molt for the last time.

Now Mr. Tick (if it’s a he) is ready for romance.  He hangs out at eating establishments–that is, on warm-blooded animals–looking for love.  Mating takes place on a animal where the male and female are feeding.  After that, the old story repeats itself.  The female lays several thousand eggs and dies.  If the male is lucky, he lives to be an old man of three.

Miracle of design

The mouth of a tick is a design masterpiece.  In the center is a tube (hypostome) that comes to a point and pierces an animal’s skin. Prongs hold it in place. The tick squirts his personal glue on your skin so you can’t scratch or pull him off. The glue sits under the tick’s two palps–mouth parts that spread out on your skin.  When dinner is over, the glue conveniently dissolves.

How does the tick get by with all this biting and poking?  Easy.  His victims don’t feel a thing.  A chemical in the tick’s saliva numbs the skin and keeps the bite from getting red and itchy.  Otherwise, the jig would be up.

That’s not all.  Another chemical prevents normal blood clotting. A blood clot would be bad news for a tick, as it would plug his feeding tube.

The hunting game

Ticks are clever hunters. After they find a look-out spot, they push their front legs forward so they’ll brush against passing animals. Thousands of nerve endings in the tick’s legs sense approaching movement and warmth.  Mr. Tick can even smell exhaled carbon dioxide.

Hidden ticks can feed for days or even weeks on a single animal if they aren’t caught—stuffing themselves until they swell to many times their normal size.

Terror of the underbrush

Ticks carry more diseases than almost any other blood-sucking insect in the world. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common.

Lyme disease makes you hot and feverish.  You get frequent headaches and feel tired and depressed.  You may see a skin rash where you were bitten.  It’s red at the center surrounded by a ring of normal skin, with a big pink circle around that.

If you’re diagnosed and treated soon enough, recovery is rapid.  If not, soon your joints hurt, your heart behaves strangely, and your nervous system plays tricks on you

If a tick gives you Rocky Mountain spotted fever, you’ll get a different kind of rash– many small red spots, even on the hands. You’re likely to end up in the hospital because of breathing problems, hearing loss, and trouble speaking. You may not be able to walk properly. Antibiotics are the only cure, and they must be started promptly.

Avoiding tick bites

•       Spray your clothes with permethrin before hiking.  It kills ticks that contact the fabric.  Don’t spray it on your skin. Skin chemicals quickly break permethrin down so it doesn’t work.
•       Spray your skin with an insect repellent containing DEET.
•       If your dog hikes with you, make sure his or her flea-tick preventive is current.
•       While you’re outdoors, check your skin for ticks every few hours. If you remove them within an hour or two after they find you, infection isn’t likely.
•       If a tick is buried in your skin, pull it off and count the legs.  A six-legged tick (larva) is usually too young to carry disease.
•       Take every tick with eight legs seriously, no matter how small.  Size has nothing to do with danger.
•       Shower right after hiking to wash off ticks that haven’t latched on yet.  Ticks often spend hours looking for a soft, warm spot.
•      Put your clothes in a drier on high for 15 minutes when you get home.  That kills ticks hiding in the folds.

*   *   *

The Maned Wolf– Wild Dog of South America

The maned wolf of South America is not a wolf at all, but a wild dog–but  it looks like a cross between a wolf and a fox.  Maned wolves live in open grasslands, on the edges of forests or in the marshlands of Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.

Taller than any other wild dogs, maned wolves stand on long legs that allow them to spot prey over expanses of tall grass. Their height also helps them see approaching danger. Like many wild animals with manes, the dogs can make their fur can stand on end, making them look bigger and more threatening to enemies.

These wild dogs eat small and medium-sized animals, including rodents, rabbits, birds and fish. They turn their large ears this way and that to listen for movements in the grass, then tap the ground with their front feet to flush the prey out. While maned wolves enjoy meat just like other dogs, plants and fruits make up about half their diet. They use their sharp incisor teeth to tear meat and crush plants with their broad, flat molars.

The dogs serve as seed carriers for many of the plants they eat—starting a cycle when they defecate on ant nests.  The ants use the dung to fertilize their fungus gardens—later discarding the seeds onto piles just outside the nest. This rich environment promotes germination of the seeds. And so the plants grow to feed the wild dogs once again.

Unlike other wild dogs, maned wolves do not form packs.  They hunt alone, usually in the early evening.  A male and female may share territory but they are seldom together except to mate. Their range is criss-crossed by paths they have made when patrolling at night.  Occasionally small groups of maned wolves do meet at a plentiful food source.

Unfortunately, the maned wolf has earned many enemies because of its nocturnal activities as a chicken thief. Some farmers believe that these dogs also kill cattle and sheep, but this is now known to be untrue.

The Brazilian government has recently classified the maned wolf as an endangered species and has given it legal protection. The dogs suffer from the same loss of habitat that other wild species do.  In addition, some are struck by cars or attacked by domestic dogs.

The maned wolf is a shy animal and poses very little threat to humans.  A number of zoos have bred these dogs successfully, so they are well represented in captivity. Click here to see pups born and raised at the Houston Zoo–Pups at play.

*   *   *

Paynes Prairie State Park

Payne’s Prairie State Park lies along the shores of Lake Wauberg in north central Florida, 10 miles south of Gainesville. The lake is populated by alligators, herons, egrets, eagles, and other wildlife.

Deer, bison and wild horses roam 22,000 acres of park around the lake.

When I began kayaking on Lake Wauberg twenty years ago, alligators 10 to 12 feet long or were common.  From a distance, those in the water looked like big floating logs. As the kayak approached, they sank slowly beneath the surface—their eyes disappearing last.

Those sunning themselves on the banks or draped on tree limbs fallen over the water were harder to spot as they were as motionless as statues, not even blinking. They blended in with the surroundings.

When the kayak drew close, they suddenly came to life and splashed into the water. Now these large adults are gone, leaving only small, shy gators. According to park rangers, the adults were relocated because they frightened swimmers and boaters.

Flocks of black vultures (American vultures) sit on the highest branches of dead trees around the lake—often hundreds of them. In the early mornings, these silent birds perch on limbs with their wings outspread to let the dew evaporate. Others soar overhead in circles, catching wind currents and staying aloft with no apparent effort.

Great white egrets and herons wade onshore, walking slowly through the water on stilt-like legs.  They’re looking for small fish to spear with their long pointed beaks.  As the kayak approaches, they squawk loudly—an unseemly sound for such lovely birds. They spread their enormous wings and lift off to find more privacy further down the shore. Click the link to see an  egret lifting off.

The Anhingas, also called snake birds, gather in large groups at the end of the lake where it’s most quiet. When they’re paddling on the water, only their curved necks and heads are visible. Occasionally they dive below the surface to hide or look for food, flashing their tail feathers skyward as the last thing to be seen of them. Where their heads will bob up again no one knows.

A lone eagle may be stationed on a treetop at the water’s edge. With their excellent vision, eagles can spot fish a considerable distance from shore. As the eagle swoops down to the water, ruffly legs and talons are extended downward to take deadly purchase on the fish they’ve spotted. Then, off they fly with several pounds of thrashing fish in their grip. Click here to see an eagle fishing (Eagle Fishing).

On rare occasions, the kayaker can see a male and female eagle performing an aerial ballet of courtship, diving and soaring around each other. They mate for life.

For a brief kayak tour of Lake Wauberg with Trudy (my dog), go to Kayaking with Trudy.

*   *   *

The Wonderful Banana Spider

Walking on a pier recently in Cedar Key, Florida, my daughter Amy and I spotted a large spider web stretched over the handrails.  A banana spider the size of my hand sat in the middle.  I handed Amy my camera. Not until I transferred the photo to my computer at home did I appreciate the spider’s creation.  Now I’ll think twice before damaging a spider web.

Banana spiders (Nephila) choose locations for their webs where flying insects are likely to get caught. The web is well planned.  First, the spider spins non-sticky silk as a framework.  Then she fills in the gaps with sticky threads to trap her prey. Once a wasp or other insect is caught, the spider quickly wraps it in a silk cocoon. When the package is complete, she takes it to the center of the web where it waits until she’s hungry.  Mostly she catches mosquitoes, flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, moths and grasshoppers.  To watch a banana spider trap a wasp, click this link: Banana spider at work

Parts of the spider’s web may look haphazard, decorated with plant bits and dead insects, but the debris serves a purpose.  When an insect lands in the web, the whole structure vibrates, including the extra bits—letting the banana spider know that dinner is served.  The debris also shields the rest of the web from windblown leaves.  As a bonus, it keeps birds from flying into the web looking for a banana spider to eat.

When an enemy comes near, the spider sets up a vibrating motion in the web to scare the trespasser away.  If that doesn’t work, she uses the web’s pulsating vibration to help her jump to safety.  Or she runs to a single escape strand she’s placed in the web that leads to nearby bushes or grass where she can hide..

Because the spider’s web loses its sticky quality over time, she must repair it often.  Her building materials are sturdy. The silk spun by the banana spider is stronger than Kevlar, a material used to make bulletproof vests.  It has a tensile strength six times that of steel.

Many people think that this large, brightly colored spider is dangerous.  It’s not.  Like most spiders, the banana spider is shy.  People get bitten only if they hold or pinch it.  While the bite hurts, it’s much less severe than a bee sting and the discomfort goes away quickly.  The main symptoms are redness and blistering around the bite, and these are gone in less than 24 hours. However, people with asthma may have an allergic reaction that involves breathing problems.  The bite can also cause muscle cramps.

The banana spider is more a friend than a pest, with her ability to trap and eat biting insects.  The next time you see a banana spider sitting in a large web filled with dead mosquitoes, flies and wasps, you may appreciate what she’s done for you.

Banana spiders are valued by the fishermen along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, who use their webs daily. They shape a banana spider’s web into a ball and throw it in the water, where it unfolds and captures bait fish.

At one time, people hoped to use the spider’s silk to make cloth.  Nothing much came of this, although the American Museum of Natural History has an exhibit of shimmering golden cloth woven from the webs of over one million female banana spiders. The silk was collected and the fabric woven in Madagascar.  The spiders were released after their work was done.

*   *   *

NEWS FLASH–Louis Pasteur Busts Fruit Flies

Fruit flies appear from nowhere.  You leave a ripe peach on the kitchen counter for more than a day—Voila!  You’ve got fruit flies.  You’ve no idea how they found you.

No wonder people use to believe in “spontaneous generation”—the theory that insects and other small living things can arise from dead matter without going through a cycle of birth, reproduction and death. Fruit flies (Drosophila) were thought to come from rotting meat. In 1859, Louis Pasteur, a French scientist, debunked this theory.  His laboratory experiments proved that fruit flies mated and had tiny offspring just like other living things.

Fruit flies spend their whole lives on decaying fruits and vegetables. Mama Drosophila lays her eggs on a piece of fruit, they hatch there, and her offspring eat their bedding. Nature gave them the perfect mouth for extracting moisture from fruit flesh.  Because their eyesight is excellent, they can see danger approaching. Even a shadow cast across the kitchen counter spooks them. Off they fly, zigzagging out of reach.

Wikipedia calls fruit flies “major pests in the world.”  The only way to escape them is to move to Antarctica.

Fruit flies aren’t completely useless. They help genetic researchers study inherited diseases. Over half of the diseases afflicting humans have a match in the genetic code of fruit flies.  Laboratory scientists always have a fresh supply on hand because Drosophila live only a few days and produce about a gazillion eggs.

*   *   *

Got Coyotes?

Got coyotes in your neighborhood?  

Don’t laugh.  Coyotes now live in almost every state in the U.S. Not just in the countryside, either. Many have found their way into cities.  According to a recent wildlife study, Chicago now has over 2000 resident coyotes. These feral dogs, once found only in the West, have slowly migrated east over the last 100 years.

Coyotes have learned that the living is much easier near human settlements.  They sneak into suburban areas late at night to raid dumpsters, tip over garbage bins, and steal seeds from bird feeders. They break into farmers’ chicken coops and leave dead poultry behind. Unfortunately, they also prey on small dogs and cats.  The coyote life is tougher in the wild, where the dogs must spend long hours searching for food.

Coyotes are smart.  Their intelligence is apparent in the strategies they devise for big-game hunting.  Working as a team, each dog has an assigned role in the chase and take-down.  They’ve also developed creative tactics for escaping wolves—their main enemy.  In hilly country, coyotes take advantage of their lighter weight, agility, and skills at darting and dodging. More often than not, the coyote vanishes in the distance, leaving the wolf behind–frustrated and panting. On flat terrain, wolves have the advantage and it takes several coyotes to chase off the enemy (click here).

Coyotes sometimes pair up with badgers to hunt cooperatively.  The coyote, a fast runner, chases a rodent along the ground as the badger watches. When the prey reaches its burrow and dives in, the badger claws away the dirt.  Then dinner is served!

Why aren’t coyotes sighted more often?  These smart canines know that people are hazardous to their health.  They take great pains to stay hidden and save their criminal activity for the middle of the night.  As a result, they’re rarely seen.  People seldom suspect coyotes when trash barrels are tipped over or cats start disappearing in the neighborhood.

Farmers whose chicken coups are raided generally  blame foxes, raccoons, or domestic dogs. In most cases, it doesn’t occur to them that coyotes are the perpetrators. The angry farmer sets traps or sits up all night with a shotgun. Usually, the coyotes are too smart to get caught, but they know the jig is up. So they move on to safer locales.

Paste this link into your browser to see and hear a coyote barking and howling http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SIf6epg9cU&feature=related

Three crows

Three crows patrol the entrance to my neighborhood.  They stay close to each other, pecking in the grass or flying from tree to tree near the street waiting for fresh roadkill.  In flight, they call to each other—two or three brisk “caws” at a time.   They can be heard for blocks. [Crow calling]

Hardly a day passes without a squirrel or two being squashed by cars entering and leaving the neighborhood.  Most of the squirrels panic in the face of an oncoming car.  They dart back and forth indecisively until they escape or are crushed by a wheel. The three crows descend quickly and begin spearing pieces of flesh with their sharp beaks.  Before long, all traces of fur, blood and entrails are gone. Then they return to their vigil.

The crows’ calls energize the silent neighborhood off and on through the day.  It’s hard to believe these cheerful birds are considered harbingers of doom in some cultures.  They were once known to circle bloody fields of battle waiting for the carnage to end so they could feast on corpses.  (Crows appear to enjoy human carrion much as squirrel meat.)

Ravens are not, as some people think, crows. The wingspan of a raven is almost twice that of a crow and the bird weighs four times as much. The call of a crow is simpler and more strident than that of a raven.  The raven’s cry has more range and throatiness. [Raven calling in flight]