If you spend any time around marinas and fishing piers, you will no doubt encounter the peculiar bird with the long bill and broad wings. The unmistakable Pelican is usually seen perched on posts or roaming the docks looking to steal fish wherever it may find them.
Pelicans are among the largest of all flighted birds. They typically inhabit warm regions around the globe, especially along coastal zones. Easily distinguished by the expandable pouches attached to their large bills, there are 8 species of these marine birds.
The Dalmation Pelican is considered largest species, the Great White Pelican is the heaviest while the Brown Pelican is the lightest and smallest of the group. Other species include the American white, Australian, Peruvian, pink-backed and the spot-billed pelican.
With strong legs and four webbed toes, they are very good swimmers. Feeding primarily on fish, pelicans may also eat amphibians, crustaceans and even other bird species found in their habitat.
Pelicans, like other marine birds such as penguins, gulls and albatrosses are able to drink seawater. They possess a special gland and tube-like ducts that allow them to secrete the excess salt from their body.
Pelicans do not carry food in their pouches but first drain their pouch before swallowing fish whole. A pelican’s pouch, also known as the gular, can hold about 3 times as much as their stomach.
Most species feed from by scooping up fish while sitting on the surface of the water. The Brown Pelican and it’s close relative the larger Peruvian Pelican are the only two species that plunge-dive into the water to feed. From heights as high as 100 feet, the brown pelicans dive toward the water, stunning their prey on impact, they then scoop them easily into their pouch, also known as the gular.
Many types of pelican are known to work together in groups when feeding by surrounding or corralling the fish into shallow waters where they can be more easily caught. Larger fish are grabbed by the tip of the bill and tossed into the air and caught inside the expanded pouch and swallowed head first.
When a pelican has scooped up fish, while draining it’s pouch of excess water, other birds, such as gulls or even other pelicans, may sometimes snatch the food from them. In return, pelicans are known to steal food from other birds such as cormorants who will often share space with them.
A behavior sometimes seen in these birds, is their version of panting. They will open their bills and vibrate the hanging pouch side to side. This motion aids in cooling the pelican and prevents them from overheating.
During mating season pelicans are found in groups of nesting colonies. Many species tend to form these colonies on inland islands. Many pelicans tend to nest on the ground, while some may build a nest in small shrubs or trees. The male usually provides the nesting material and both sexes will incubate the eggs.
A newly hatched chick cannot lift it’s heavy bill until it is about 3 weeks old. They cannot fly until nine or ten weeks old. A great white pelican chick needs as much as 150 pounds of food before it is old enough to search for food on its own. Due to this demand on the parents, often only one of the two chicks survives to adulthood.
The Dalmatian pelican may have a wingspan up to 11 feet and is considered to be the world’s heaviest flying species. They are found in a region from eastern Europe to China. They build their nests near swamps, shallow lakes and lagoons.
The Australian pelican is found not only in Australia but near large open bodies of water across New Zealand and parts of Indonesia. According to the Guinness World Records, the Australian pelican possess the longest bill of any living bird.
The spot-billed pelican, also known as the grey or Philippine pelican, is one of the most endangered pelican species in the world. They have a large, spotted bill that is pinkish on top and the tip of the bill is yellow or orange. The are found in limited ranges of southern India and Cambodia.
North America is home to two species. The American white pelican is one of the largest birds in North America. The body can measure more than four feet in length, with a wingspan of more than eight feet. The American white pelican is a migratory bird, breeding across inland Canada and the northern United States, they travel south to Gulf Coast wetlands in the spring. They are also found in some coastal regions of southern Mexico.
The brown pelican is found along the southern and western coast of the United States. Like the peregrine falcon, the brown pelican nearly became extinct in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to pesticides entering the food chain. In 1970, Brown Pelicans were federally listed as endangered. Following a ban on DDT, their numbers slowly began to rise. Though the Brown Pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, they had to be reintroduced to that state and by 2009 their population had returned to pre-pesticide numbers. Abandoned fishing line also threatens this species along with many marine animals. It has been estimated that more than 700 pelicans die each year in Florida alone from entanglement in sport-fishing gear.
Once considered a subspecies of brown pelican, the Peruvian pelican is actually twice as large, has a turquoise-blue pouch and is found along the Pacific coasts of South America.
In addition to their large bills and pouches, pelicans are also known for their slow, methodical flight and v-shaped glide patterns. Sometimes catching drafts from ocean waves or travelling on upper atmosphere thermals, these amazing birds can travel long distances over land and sea.
Found in the lowland rain forests of Central America. Never far from water sources such as streams and rivers, these reptiles spend much of their time basking on overhanging vegetation or foraging for food.
Members of the iguana family, there are four species of basilisk lizards, they include the Red Headed, the Brown, the Common and the most familiar Green – sometimes called Green Crested or Plumed – Basilisk.
The brown basilisk is found primarily along the eastern Atlantic-coastal side of Central America and is known to prefer coconut groves and other beach areas. The Red Headed basilisk is more commonly seen on the opposite coast and is sometimes referred to as the Western basilisk.
The brightest and most colorful of the species is the Green basilisk. It’s rich green body is usually marked with light-blue or white markings. The underside of its body is a lighter green and the tail may be marked with thin black bands.
The green basilisk’s head is triangular with eyes set forward on its head. The lizard’s skin is covered with small granular scales and hind legs that are much longer than its front limbs. A long tail makes up the majority of the animals length, basilisks can grow up to three feet long.
One notable physical characteristic is the four crests that the male lizard’s possess. With a pair on the head, a smaller crest behind the eyes and a larger one at the back of the head, a third long central fin down the middle of its back and a final crest along the tail, their appearance can be quite stunning.
The lizard’s scientific name is derived from the Greek word “basiliskos” meaning “little king.” Though the mythological creature, the basilisk, was known as the king of the serpents and reportedly able to turn others to stone with a single glance, it is actually the crown-like white mark on all basilisk lizards’ heads that most likely gained them the descriptive name.
Despite the famous name and stunning appearance, the most famous trait of the Basilisk lizard inspired yet another name by which it is known. Also called the Jesus Christ Lizard, the basilisk is capable of running across the surface of water. An ability used primarily to avoid potential predators, such as birds, snakes, mammals and even some other lizard species.
With the long tail acting as a rudder and counter-balance, the basilisk actually rises on it’s two hind limbs for the duration of the sprint. A unique posture among lizards in the animal kingdom.
Due to long, flattened toes on the back feet and an extra flap of skin that spread out giving a greater surface area that traps air underneath, the basilisk lizard is able to run up to 5 feet per second and travel across the top of the water. This remarkable run can last up to 50 feet as long as they maintain speed.
Once slowing down however, basilisk lizards will sink into the water, but they are excellent swimmers. They can also remain underwater up to 10 minutes, usually long enough to let a would-be attacker give up the chase.
Basilisk lizards are omnivores, eating a variety of vegetation such as flowers and fruits, as well as insects, other reptiles and sometimes smaller mammals. They are primarily a diurnal species which is most active in daytime hours hunting on the forest floor and returning to trees and bushes to sleep at night.
While there are variances among the species and certain populations throughout their habitats, basilisk lizards can reproduce almost year-round. About three weeks after mating, the female will dig a burrow to lay between 15 and 18 eggs. Many times, females will lay multiple clutches during a breeding season. Eggs hatch about eight to 10 weeks later. Young lizards will mature in 18 to 24 months.
The main threat to basilisk lizards is habitat destruction among the fragile rain forest and water sources upon which they depend. Basilisks are also found in the exotic pet trade, though most are captive bred. In the past, many of these remarkable animals were often poorly cared for and sometimes released into local areas creating a greater problem not only for the basilisk but for the native animals co-existing in the habitat.
Though not the feared and dangerous monster of ancient myth and legend, the basilisk lizard’s appearance and incredible abilities certainly make it one of nature’s most amazing wildlife.
Known as a beast of great ferocity and extraordinary strength. This powerful and feared animal has been the subject of elaborate North American folklore tales. A rare and fascinating creature, it has even earned the respect of it’s fellow predators. Indian mythology described the animal as a trickster-hero, and a link to the spirit world. From a scientific name meaning “glutton,” this is the wolverine.
With a head and body length between 2 and 3 feet plus a 7 to 10 inch tail, they are one of the largest members of the Mustelid, or weasel family. The North American population is considered a subspecies of the slightly larger Eurasian wolverine.
They have dark brown fur with tannish-colored stripes on both sides of their stocky, muscular body. Wolverines typically possess a lighter colored fur on their throat and chest.
Know as the “skunk bear” by some indigenous people, they resemble small bears and will often mark their territory, and even food, with a strong musky odor.
Though they do not live exclusively in trees, wolverines are fast and efficient climbers. They are also excellent swimmers, making them a well-rounded top predator of their ecosystem.
Wolverines are found in the boreal forest and tundra regions of the northern hemisphere. These northern most forest regions stretch across North America, Europe and Asia. This harsh habitat has long, dry and extremely cold winters and a shorter, wet and often hot summer season.
Wolverines benefit from the long periods of snow covered ground, where their large feet keep them agile and they can gain an advantage over it’s snow-bound prey.
Typically they hunt small mammals such as squirrels, porcupine and rabbits, but the wolverine can also take down much larger animals such as deer, caribou and even moose, especially if the weakened prey is stuck in the deep snow.
They are opportunistic eaters that often feed on carrion, and have even been seen scavenging dead whales, seals, and walrus along some coastal regions.
Wolverines will often store some of their food for later feedings. This behavior is known as “food-caching” and is performed most often when food is plentiful.
As with many weasels, they are often described as hyperactive, cunning, even ruthless. They are extremely strong for their size and very aggressive when it comes to hunting.
They have very powerful jaws capable of crushing bones. Along with an upper molar tooth that is rotated 90 degrees; they are able to easily tear frozen meat from a carcass.
Wolverines are active both day and night scavenging their meals. They do not hibernate during the winter season but may travel several miles a day in search of food.
Predominately a meat eater, during the shorter summer season, wolverines will also feed on vegetation such as plants, berries and nuts.
Wolverines are typically solitary animals and females will establish their own non-overlapping territories. While a single male will claim a larger area encompassing several of these female controlled regions. Highly territorial, male wolverines will defend their claimed areas ferociously against other rival males.
Wolverines are considered polygamous, where one male usually mates with several of the females within his territory. Most mating occurs during June and July. Wolverines exhibit a phenomenon known as delayed implantation, where the fertilized eggs remains dormant for a period of time before fully developing.
Young are born after a gestation period of only 30 – 50 days usually in the late winter or early spring. At birth, the cubs, also known as kits, possess white fur which aids in camouflaging in the late winter snow. Kits will stay with their mother for up to two years before leaving to establish their own territory.
Mountain lions, wolves and bears are known to prey on wolverines though many times these larger predators will actually back away from an overly-aggressive animal. Humans are considered their only true predators.
Similar to otters, the wolverine’s oily fur and guard hairs repel water which makes it resistant to frost and snow. This trait, known as hydrophobic, made their fur popular for use in jackets and parkas. During the early 1900s, the wolverine was nearly hunted into extinction through parts of the northwestern United States as trappers sought them for their pelts.
Due to limited human contact across much of their habitat range and a reputation based more on sensationalism rather than science, not too much is known about the lifestyle and habits of the wolverine.
Efforts are underway to gain more insight through field research studies conducted by the non-profit Wolverine Foundation and through captive breeding programs across accredited North American and European facilities such as the Detroit Zoo and the Minnesota Zoo. The hope is to preserve a genetically diverse line of wolverines for future generations.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their research, education and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo
San Francisco Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
The Wolverine Foundation
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