Otters: playful, inquisitive members of the Mustelidae family – the group of small carnivorous mammals that also includes weasels, ferrets, badgers, and wolverines.
There are 13 species of otter. The largest is South America’s giant otter. Measuring up to six feet in length, males can weigh up to 70 lbs, females are only slightly smaller.
Giants otters have a blunt, sloping muzzle and can close their ears and nostrils underwater. They are one of the few carnivores to have a fur covered nose.
An otter’s body has two layers of fur; guard hairs help repel water and trap air to keep the undercoat dry and warm. The fur is so dense that water may never even touch the skin.
Giant otters have the shortest fur of all otter species. It is typically chocolate brown and appears nearly black when wet. Each individual has unique markings of white or cream colored fur on the throat and chin, allowing individuals to be identified from birth.
Their whiskers, or vibrissae (Vie-briss’-ee), can detect changes in water pressure and currents, helping detect prey as it moves nearby.
Made for life in the rivers: large, fully webbed feet, a body shaped like a torpedo and a thick flat tail combine to make these huge Amazon residents powerful swimmers and one of the formidable top predators of their ecosystems.
Native to the Amazon, Orinoco and La Plata river systems, they are often found in family groups of ten or more individuals. Highly social and known for their pack hunting, they are sometimes called “river wolves.”
They mark their territory with scent gland secretions, urine and feces and communicate through a variety of vocalizations.
Considered the most vocal of all otter species. Researchers have identified more than 20 unique and complex sounds used by Giant Otters. That is more than double the vocabulary of Sea Otters and the smaller river otters of Asia and North America.
Very active animals with a high metabolism they need to eat six to ten pounds of food a day. While they feed mainly on fish like cichlids, catfish, perch and even piranha, giant otters may also eat crustaceans, snakes and small caimans – a local species of crocodilian found in the Amazon region.
Young otters (often referred to as kits, pups or cubs) must be taught how to swim when they are a couple of months old, lacking the ability at birth. They become mature at around two years of age and can live up to 15 years in the wild.
While they may compete with some species for food, adult giant otters have very few natural enemies. Young otters are more vulnerable and may be taken by large predators such as the anaconda and black caiman.
The biggest threats to their survival are habitat destruction and polluted waterways. They are also hunted for their pelts. Over-fishing is also a problem as it reduces the natural food sources available to them and other animals in the region. Currently, the rare giant otter is listed as endangered.
Say flamingo and you probably have an image in your mind. A funny long necked bird perched on one leg, living the life on a warm tropical beach or maybe standing guard as your neighbor’s lawn ornament.
In fact, many of the six flamingo species live in some very harsh, cold, and sometimes deadly environments.
South America is home to three species. The Chilean, Andean and James’s (or puna) flamingos all live among the Andes mountain ranges including the high altitude plateaus of Peru and Chile.
The largest and smallest of species are found in parts of Africa and south west Asia. These include the three to five foot tall Greater flamingos, found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean regions. And the Lesser flamingo, at only 2 and a half feet tall, who makes eastern Africa and parts of India and Pakistan home.
Of course, some flamingos are no stranger to the island life, but only one species is found in the Caribbean Sea, the appropriately named Caribbean or American flamingo.
In whatever region they live, flamingos may be found in a variety of habitats such as lagoons and mudflats. The Lesser flamingo even visits African salt lakes, some of which are too dangerous for most other animals, including possible predators, to survive in. One tough bird, the Flamingos leathery skin on their legs help them tolerate the salt levels that can burn human skin on contact.
To feed, flamingos stomp their webbed feet to stir up the mud and food, then plunge their long, curved bill upside down underwater. They use a unique pumping action of their tongue to suck up their meal. Their upper and lower jaws have ridged edges that serve as a filter, straining out water and mud at the sides of the bill.
The famous flamingo color comes from their diet. The tiny animals like crustaceans and insects as well as the algae they eat contain carotenoid pigments, similar to the pigments found in vegetables that make carrots orange and beets red. Depending on the species and the mix of their diet, flamingos range from pale pink to reddish orange.
The Caribbean species has perhaps the boldest and brightest colored feathers of all flamingos.
Flamingos can fly, but need to run a few paces in order gain enough speed. They fly with their necks and legs stretched out with their wings flapping rapidly. They usually fly together in large flocks, sometimes referred to as a “flamboyance.” These flocks can range from just a few individuals to several hundreds or even thousands of birds.
A very vocal and social bird species. They communicate through vocalizations like nasal honking and grunting as well as visual displays such as “head-flagging” and “wing-saluting.”
A flamingo’s nest is a mound made of mud, stones, straw and feathers that measures 12-24 inches tall. On top of the mound, the female typically lays a single egg in a shallow hole. Both the male and female take turns incubating the chalky white oblong egg that are about the size of an avocado.
After an incubation of around 30 days, the chick hatches, covered in fuzzy white or gray down feathers. At birth they possess a straight bill that curves as they mature. Parents can recognize their chick’s call and are able to locate them in a group at feeding time. The adults feed their young it a secretion from their upper digestive track referred to as “milk”.
Chicks begin to grow their flight feathers in about 11 weeks and gradually loose their gray or white color and begin to turn pink over a two or three year period. The become fully mature at about 3-6 years of age.
Flamingos appear to have a backwards bending knee, but they actually stand on their tip-toes. That prominent joint on their leg is actually their ankle! Their true knee is hidden by the feathers close to their body.
Flamingos are famous for standing on one leg. There are many theories why:
It may be to conserve body heat as they stand in the water.
Perhaps they have the ability to shut down half their brain, so while one side is awake, allowing the bird to stand, the other gets to rest.
Or maybe it’s easier and requires little to no energy to do. In fact, scientists and researchers have found that the body of a deceased flamingo was actually able to stand on one leg, just like a live bird could.
The average life expectancy for a flamingo is around 20-40 years, but may live into their 50s or longer.
Vultures, storks and birds of prey may hunt and eat eggs and young flamingos. Flamingos may also be preyed upon by wild cat and canine species.
These birds also face threats from people, such as habitat loss and pollution. In some parts of the world, flamingos and their eggs may be a primary food source or delicacy.
Though not exclusively tropical, the flamingo has long been an iconic image associated with many such locations, including the state of Florida in the U.S., and with good reason. According to the National Audubon Society: “Until about 1900, flocks of flamingos from the Bahamas regularly migrated to Florida Bay, in what is now Everglades National Park. Today, most flamingos seen on the loose in North America are considered suspect, as possible escapees from aviaries or zoos. However, some of those appearing in Florida Bay may still be wanderers from Bahamian colonies, and some seen in coastal Texas may come from colonies on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.”
The frozen seas of the north. A harsh and sometimes inhospitable environment, yet many creatures thrive in these waters. One may have even inspired a fantastic myth. While this amazing marine mammal may seem like the stuff of fairy tales, it is in fact very real.
Beautiful, strange, unmistakable – the legendary narwhal has been called the “unicorn of the sea.”
Living in pods, found in the Arctic Ocean around Canada, Greenland, and Russia. ‘The name narwhal is said to have come from an Old Norse word ‘nar’ meaning ‘corpse’, referring to its mottled grey and white skin.
They measure up to 16 ft long and weigh between 2,000 and 4,000 lbs, females being smaller than males. They feed on halibut, cod, squid and shrimp. Like it’s close relative the beluga whale, narwhals lack a dorsal fin. Instead, they have a dorsal ridge. This helps reduce heat loss and allows them to swim more easily under the vast sheets of ice to find breathing holes.
Their most iconic feature is of course their horn. The narwhal’s scientific name, Monodon monoceros, means “one tooth, one horn”.
But this so-called “horn” is actually not a horn at all but a special modified tooth that spirals counterclockwise. Narwhals only possess two teeth. It is the left tooth that protrudes from their upper lip to form their famous tusk. Tusks mainly form in males, though females may sometimes have a small one. Some males may even develop two tusks.
What narwhals truly use their tusk for remained a mystery for ages. It could be used to establish dominance within the pod, in mating rituals or perhaps even serve as a sensory organ.
The tusk are full of nerves and covered in tiny holes that allow seawater to enter. This gives the tusks a sensitivity that could possibly help narwhals detect changes in their environment, such as temperature or water salinity.
However, a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund – Canada has discovered narwhals using the tusk, not to spear fish, but by using jagged, quick movements, they would strike and stun their prey, making the fish easier to feast upon. Aerial drone footage was able to capture this hunting technique, previously unseen due to the remote regions in which the whales live.
Narwhals are also said to be some the deepest diving mammals in the world. Though they may tend to stay closer to the surface, narwhals are able to dive as deep as a mile.
To accomplish such deep dives, which can last for about 25 minutes, the narwhal has several special features that allow it endure the intense pressure and lack of oxygen.
They have a compressible rib cage that squeezes and flexes as the water depth increases. Their bodies are streamlined which allow them to more easily glide through the water, which means they use less energy. Their muscles are suited for endurance swimming and are less oxygen demanding. Narwhals can even shut down blood flow to non-critical body parts and organs during these dives.
Narwhals may live 30-40 years. Two of the biggest natural predators of narwhal are polar bears and the killer whale. Inuit people hunt them for their tusks and skin, a major source of vitamin C in their diet.
Vikings once hunted these elusive creatures and sold their tusks to European traders claiming to be the horn of the fabled unicorn but never revealing their true origin.
Though the myth of the unicorn may live on only in the imagination, the “unicorn whale” truly survives among the cold deep waters of the Arctic.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their research, education and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
The National Aviary
NOAA Ocean Explorer
San Diego Zoo
Saint Louis Zoo
SeaWorld’s Animal Guide
WWF – World Wildlife Fund
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: