African Penguin

When you think of Africa, it’s not normally associated with penguins; at least not in my mind. Penguins are usually associated with snow and cold somewhere. But today’s endangered animal comes hails straight from the coastal waters of Namibia and South Africa where they are endemic. The African Penguin is known by other names such as Black-footed penguin and Jackass Penguin; the latter of which is because of the sound of their braying call which sounds very much like a donkey.

penguin-447714_640Like most other genus of penguin, these have the black and white tuxedo look. They are quite tiny in size — weighing about 4-11 pounds (2-5 kilograms) as adults. They also have wings but they don’t fly in the air; they “fly” (glide) really well in the water. Mature adults have pale pink around their eyes. Their diet consists of mostly fish including: anchovies, sardines and herring but they have been know to eat squid and other shellfish. African penguins can stay underwater for about two and a half minutes before it needs to come up for air which is why its wings are specialized in such a way that allows the penguin to swim very fast.

African penguins dig their own nesting burrows to lay eggs in. The nests usually consist of sand or guano, which, if you don’t know what guano is, I’ll tell you; it’s seabird poop. Back in the 19th century, humans were guano crazy because it’s such a rich mixture of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium that it makes very good fertilizer. It’s also a good place to incubate eggs for African penguins. A pair of African penguins are monogamous and they actually share nesting duties such as incubation. When a female lays her clutch, the offspring hatches about 30 days later. African penguins don’t reach sexual maturity until about 4 years old and can live anywhere between 10 to 25 years in the wild.african-penguin-3242888_640

African penguins are marked as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and have been that way since 2010. Population decline has been quite rapid. For example, in 1978 there were a little over 12,000 pairs in Namibia but by 2015 there were only a little over 5,000 pairs. Same for South Africa. In the 1970s there were 70,000 pairs but by 2015 there were only a little over 19,000 pairs. These are huge decreases and they’re still steadily declining. Today there are about 50,000 total individuals between Namibia and South Africa.

The major threats to this species are competition with commercial fisheries, the decrease in guano, oil spills, and in the early 20th century it was due to egg stealing. Because a combination of all of these things, African penguins have had to work harder to find food to raise their chicks, have nests out in the open instead of burrows or deal harshly with human disturbance. Conservation efforts are underway. Seabirds and their guano are strictly protected, all penguins are rehabilitated when oil spills occur, fiberglass igloo burrows have been installed around colonies so the penguins have a safe place to nest, and there are marine “no-take” zones in some parts of the ocean to combat competition against commercial fisheries.

If after reading this you decide you would like to donate to help save the African Penguin, check out The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Sea Birds (SANCCOB) and adopt a penguin!

(Sources: IUCN, OurEndangeredWorld)

Master of Disguise

Today I’m so excited to talk about a fantastic creature who has a process that spans across other oceanic creatures and even insects but this one is truly the best at this! Now we’ve all heard of or seen some type of camouflage I’m sure. They sell camo clothes for humans, especially hunters, bird watchers and nature photographers who are looking to blend into their surroundings while observing a creature without disturbing them. There are also a lot of insects and marine creatures and even reptiles who are able to change their skin to blend with their surroundings. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo?” type of challenge to find them. One creature, however, stands out above the rest.

The cuttlefish!

Cuttlefish are a type of cephlopod that roams deep ocean. A cephlopod is a predatory mollusk that is unique in that its body is very symmetrical; meaning if you cut one down the middle, both sides would be identical. The most common cephlopods that people are aware of are octopi and squids. The cuttlefish is kind of a mesh between the two because it’s back end is like that of a squid but its face is very octopus like with all it’s tentacles.

Now, octopi and squid are able to change their coloring to match their marine surroundings. It’s not an exact science and you can still spot them most times but what the cuttlefish does in comparison is quite extraordinary. Not only can it change its coloring, it can also change it’s coloring and pattern to match literally any of it’s surroundings. The article I read by NatGeo News expressed it best when they made the comparison to a high definition television. The cuttlefish has what amounts to electric skin but instead of pixels, cuttlefish have what are known as chromatophores in their muscles that are able to broadcast different colors depending on their surroundings.

The chromatophores are basically muscles the cuttlefish are able to bend and contract to form reds, yellows, browns and blacks. What’s super cool is they are able to do this even in the dark. The neurons in their brain are just that advanced. Funnily enough, cuttlefish are colorblind but their skin is like a rainbow when it comes to reflecting their surroundings because white light bounces off of them and is able to transmit any color because white is, after all, all the colors combined.

This amazing method of camouflage is literally the difference between life or death for the cuttlefish. Most mollusk species have a hard outer shell. The cuttlefish is completely squishy so not only does the color change help them capture unsuspecting prey, it keeps them from being prey themselves. One of the coolest things however is besides the color change, they can shape shift! Yep, you read that right.

The best example is when it’s mating season. Not all male cuttlefish are the same size and it’s always a huge competition to get to the female and inject her with their baby makers. One such incidence, which happened to be caught on video, shows a male cuttlefish on the smaller side trying to get his chance at the female and being barred and even attacked by the bigger males. This cunning little cuttlefish then does the genius thing and changes not only his coloring, but his body to make him look like a female! The males surrounding him can’t tell the difference and he’s able to get through them to the female. Success! Check it out below:

Have you heard of the cuttlefish? Would you agree that the cuttlefish is a master of disguise? Isn’t that male cuttlefish in the video a genius? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Right Whale

Today’s endangered animal comes to you from the Atlantic oceans of North America. There are three types of right whales: the North Atlantic, Pacific and Southern right whales. The one I will be discussing today is the North Atlantic because it’s been cropping up a lot in the news lately as it is estimated to be on the brink of extinction.

North Atlantic right whales have a very distinctive appearance. They are about 95% black in color all over with a few having white spots speckled here and there around their face. This was interesting to me because the only whale with black on it that I’d known about before were Orcas (killer whales). Another distinctive feature of the right whale is it does not have a dorsal fin. Instead it has large pectoral fins and a giant tale that create powerful strokes through the ocean. Right whales are larger than orcas and about two steps below blue whales which are the largest mammals in the world. Right whales are about 45-60 feet long in comparison to killer whales that are only 23-31 feet or blue whales that are 60-90+ feet long.

There are two types of whale species based on their teeth: Odontoceti and Mysticeti. The former have teeth whereas the later have baleen plates. Right whales fall into the second group. They have large baleen plates that help them capture and eat the most microscopic sea organisms. What they do is take a huge gulp of water and then the water filters out of their baleen plates while these really fine, densely packed hairs capture plankton, krill and larval stages of barnacles which are about the size of a grain of rice. Then the right whale will scrape its baleen with its tongue and swallow its tiny prey. Right whales have two blowholes on the top of their head in which they breathe air from and because they are a vertebrate, they also have a backbone.

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Right whales travel in small pods of 2-3 usually. Sometimes if food is plentiful, pods of up to 12 can be seen. They feed in the temperate waters of the North and the migrate South around the coasts of Florida and Georgia to breed and give birth; between December and March. Female right whales aren’t sexually mature until they’re about 10 years old. Gestation is about 12 months and then mom will give birth to one offspring who will nurse and stay with her for 9-12 months. Female right whales only bear offspring once every 3 years. The general lifespan of a right whale is about 30 years.

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North Atlantic white whales are currently listed on the IUCN database as endangered. Their name is derived from early whalers who considered these whales easy targets because they hang close to the shore, swim very slow (about 6 mph), and are very friendly toward whaling boats making them the “right” whale to hunt. Commercial whaling was huge between the 11th and 20th century. Right whales were decimated by the thousands for their baleen and oil. It wasn’t until 1935 when commercial whaling became illegal that humans realized how depleted the species had become.

Today there are about 300-350 North Atlantic individuals left in the wild and their numbers are still declining. The main threats to this species are still due to human activity; collisions with boats, fishing net entanglement and water pollution, acoustic smog (which is the sounds from boat horns and drilling that inhibit whales from communicating with each other) and climate change are the main factors. Scientists and conservationists have been following a pod of individuals and it’s been noted that no offspring have been born in several decades, or if they have, it’s every 9 years instead of every 3, which is a huge problem considering how long it takes for these whales to breed in the first place.

Conservation efforts have been going on for many years. One main operation involves improving shipping lanes between northern US and Canada to reduce ship collisions. Another route is conversation programs and initiatives for people to get involved in spreading awareness. WWF suggests buying only seafood that’s MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified because they promote healthy, sustainable fishing practices.

If after reading all of this, you decide you would like to support the cause, check out the New England Aquarium website HERE where you can adopt a right whale and buy merchandise where the proceeds go to right whale conservation research and development.

(Sources: Arkive, Ocean Portal, Defenders of Wildlife, WWF Panda)
(Pics: Featured, Mom+Calf, Baleen)