lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are the only birds in the world whose diet subsists mostly of bones. they’re enormous–with a wingspan between 7-9 feet (to compare, condors have the largest wingspan in the world, 10 feet). on top of all of it, they look kind of like dragons.

these metal birds can swallow bones whole, because their super-acidic stomach can digest whole bones in about 24 hours. for bones that are too large to eat whole, bearded vultures have developed the special tactic dropping bones from the sky, which conveniently breaks them into edible pieces.

bone-eating is such a useful adaption. lammergeiers usually live alongside other giant predators or scavengers, such as griffon vultures or golden eages, and eat the bones that the other top-level carnivores leave behind. additionally, they have no need to cache meat as some animals do; bones don’t rot, nor are they of value to other predators.

(skip to 3:00 or so if you’re impatient for lammergeier action)

to be fair, these vultures don’t eat only bones, but bone matter does make up about three-quarters of their diet. when they eat flesh, they generally go after tortoises, hares, hyraxen, etc. supposedly they’ve even carried off children, but that seems a bit sensational at best.

lammergeiers aren’t classified as a threatened species, but since there are something like 2.000-10,000 left in the wild (and their range is enormous, from northern europe to south africa, to china!), let’s pause for a moment and appreciate how beautiful & terrifying this giant bird is! they’re like dinosaurs, or the dancing headless things in the labyrinth, or skeksis…nightmare beauty bird indeed.


holy cannoli! a catbear!

okay, old news to 98% of the internet, but as this is an animal-focused blog i couldn’t overlook yesterday’s announcement of a new carnivorous species which was discovered in the andes!  they live in cloud forests, which sound like the most heavenly places on earth but may be more like this jungle, but i digress.   here’s a picture of the olinguito, for your perusal!

not a whole lot is known about these guys: they live high up in trees, eating fruit & insects, weigh only 1 kg, and have really cute ears.  they are part of the raccoon family, which includes them in the category “cute/scary”. it’s not an official linnean classifier, but so many things fit the category that it must be a real thing (eg: possums, aye ayes, star-nosed mole, tube nosed fruit bat, etc).

lichtenberg figures/lightning tattoos

as an impressionable, romantic teenager i came across a haunting, poetic novel, fugitive pieces, and a passage struck me:

Sometimes, when lightning passes through objects and then through human tissue, it imprints the objects onto a hand, an arm, a belly – leaving a permanent shadow, a skin photograph. Whole landscapes have appeared on the sides of animals. Across the courtyard, I imagined Petra had the divine tattoo: in the middle of her back, a Lichtenberg flower. I imagined she’d been imprinted as a child, that the rubber tiles of her bicycle had saved her.  In the small of her brown silky back, past an invisible down of hair, the faint breath of electricity remained.  A flower so faint you feel it could be washed away or, like a frost flower, vanish with your gasp. “From your lips to the ear of God.” But your adoration will not have the slightest effect.  The flower is ghostly and permanent’ maddening stigmata.

at the time i first encountered these words, i searched the internet for photo proof of such things, cows with landscapes tattooed by lightning, but i didn’t find anything and indeed forgot about it until seeing these photos last week.

to be clear, a lichtenberg figure is not just a fractal pattern left by high voltage on skin; the fractal can be seen in acrylic blocks, plates coated with reactive dust, on grass that’s had a lightning strike.

sweet baby tapir toes

it has recently been brought to my attention that tapirs are the cutest animal that is related to both horses and rhinoceri.  niche category, you say? no matter, say i!

SWEET BABY TAPIR TOES is also great as an exlamation.

tapirs kind of look like pigs but with prehensile noses. there are four species of tapir (malayan, brazilian, baird’s, and mountain) and all known populations are endangered or vulnerable.

tapir snouts are prehensile, like elephants, kind of. if english was a language made up of compound words like german, maybe we’d call tapirs ‘elephantpigs’ instead of tapirs.

elephant pigs can grow to be quite large (2m long/1m tall) and are herbivores, eating up to 40kg of fruits, berries & leafy shoots per day.






another reason not to shoot prairie dogs

it wasn’t until i had lived in the city for a few years that i realized how redneck it is to go hang out with one’s family in the back of a pickup truck and shoot at prairie dogs (“gophers”, who am i kidding).  it was a treasured pastime in the westendorf family and i endured it until i became a teenager and figured out that i could shrug out of it to stay home and play civilization 2 instead.  there’s this prairie myth that gopher holes cause cows and horses to break their legs, and that’s the pretext for going out and shooting these dudes!  [ok, i admit that it’s entirely possible for livestock to break a leg in a hole, but i’ve never heard of it actually happening, which leads me to believe it’s vanishingly rare]

anyway, apart from the ethics of shooting an animal just because it exists, now we have a new reason not to shoot gophers!  it turns out that the have a startlingly complex language.

this article from cbc gives further details on the study of prairie dog language.  it seems that, like crows, they can even tell individual humans apart!


this research, along with complementary research into language in birds, is so necessary in breaking the egotistical barriers humans have placed between us and other species.  the belief that we are the only ones with linguistic ability is so limiting.  perhaps not every animal is an alex or koko, able to communicate with us in our own language, but to think that animals are not capable of complex communication within a species is completely ridiculous.

falling in love with ‘the silent world’

on a whim, i picked up the jacques cousteau classic the silent world.  although he was a native french speaker, he wrote the book in english, and i was shocked at how similar his prose is to the (translated) works i’ve read by antione de sainte-exupery, wind, sand and stars in particular.  the story of cousteau and his team, exploring the oceans as the first ‘menfish’ is so captivating; i had never before considered those early days of sea exploration and how little we truly knew about the world beneath the waves.

although cousteau later gained the reputation of a conservationist, in seems many of his undersea experiments involve harming animals out of curiosity.  will the shark die if you harpoon its head?  why not just harpoon this whale and see how long it takes to die?  oh, you’ve discovered a colony of monk seals, a species thought to be extinct for 300 years, so  why not kidnap (his own words) a juvenile and raise it for a couple months until you realise how vast its appetite, and then release it to a zoo?  although some of the things his team did, such as dissecting manta rays, led to greater scientific understanding of the species, many of the incidents served to highlight the difference in attitudes toward animals then and now.

anyway, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book–i adored it and wished there was more to it, but that’s always the way with a good book.

One Sunday morning in 1936 at Le Mourillon, near Toulon, I waded into the Mediterranean and looked into it through Fernez goggles.  I was a regular Navy gunner, a good swimmer interested only in perfecting my crawl style.  The sea was merely a salty obstacle that burned my eyes. I was astounded by what I saw in the shallow single at Le Mourillon, rocks covered with green, brown and silver forests of algae and fishes unknown to me, swimming in crystalline water. Standing up to breathe I saw a trolley car, people, electric-light poles. I put my eyes under again and civilization vanished with one last bow. I was in a jungle never seen by those who floated on the opaque roof.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me at Le Mourillon on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea.

newly discovered spider: decoy spiders

holy cats, you guys! even though i have spent the whole day laying on the couch, being ineffective (except for the part where i dragged myself to the doctor to learn that i have strep throat), i had to share this with you all! at one point in the past, this blog kind of celebrated weird animal wednesdays, right…?

okay, onto the spider. it was recently discovered in the peruvian amazon and is noteworthy because it piles debris onto its web in order to make a spider shape much larger than its own body.  some of the decoy spiders even have eight legs.  is this an example of self-awareness in an insect?

here is a video of its discovery:

you can read more about the arachnid itself here.