Terrific talkers




Not just birds, there are a few animals too who can mimic us. Take a look at them.

“Never miss a chance to shut up,” Will Roger advised. And so have the sages and wise ones over the centuries. Silence is golden. Someone has gone on to say that the easiest way to save face is to keep the lower half shut. We prefer humans to talk less (unless they’re saying good things about us). Yet, we are endlessly fascinated with animals who can talk in our voice. Say “Ram-Ram, Good Morning, Good Night, How Do You Do…” we keep teaching our rose-ringed parakeets.
If animals can’t imitate us, we get immense pleasure in imitating their voices. The largest crowd I saw in the Lucknow zoo was around the cage of a Hoolock gibbon, who called “Hooo-kooo” every few moments. But it was the people who made gibbons of themselves by calling “Hooo-kooo” many more times outside the cage before the fellow had a chance to reply.
Yes, parrots and parakeets are good at, well, parroting. They are great imitators. So are many songbirds and hummingbirds. Hill mynas are considered the greatest mimics in the world and used to be quite popular as pets. These vocal artists can mimic a voice, be it human or otherwise. The greater racket tailed drongo can even mimic warning calls of meercats. This sends them running away, while the clever drongo is left to eat the dinner by itself. But it is not only the birds who talk in our voice. There are a few animals who can do this too. And what more, even with an accent! Let’s check out a few famous talkers:
You would think that our closest relatives, the great apes, would be able to ape our talk. No, they don’t. Among the first known to do that is Tilda. This orang-utan was caught in the island of Borneo and raised in zoos in Europe. She can whistle like us, clap her hands and emit deep throated human-like sounds. Though her speech is not a perfect imitation, it is as close as a primate can get.
An elephant too has succeeded in sounding like humans. Koshik’s home is a zoo in South Korea. He’s a genius. Although the shape of an elephant’s mouth is not suited to form human words, he uses his trunk to do the job! He places his trunk inside the mouth and says words like ‘hello’, ‘sit down’ and ‘lie down’…in Korean.
Alice and George Swallow came across an orphan seal pup at a harbour. They brought him home, raised him in their bathtub, then in a pond and finally gave him to an aquarium as he grew. If you had visited Hoover (1971-1985) in the New England Aquarium in Boston, you might have heard him greet you in a thick Boston accent, “Well, hello deah!” Or he might have just told you to in his deep throated voice, “Get outta here!”
Odie, the “I love youuuuuuuuuuu” saying pug starred in the Oprah Winfrey show and made the audience go berserk. There are other famous talkers we’ll talk about in the following part of this article. But for now, as Lago, the pet parrot in Tintin’s adventure of The Castafiore Emerald says, “Blistering barnacles, that’s the end!”
The author is an Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur

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Strange as it may seem, some birds don’t fly. They have wings but it’s not possible for them to take off! So, what use are the wings?

“If I were a bird, I’d sing a song
And fly about the whole day long
And when the night comes, go to rest
Up in my cozy little nest”
When we think of fish, we think of water. When we think of birds, we think of wings. All fish can swim, but all birds can’t fly. They have wings, yes, but they’re just for flapping, distracting a predator or just expressing their annoyance at being disturbed. These flightless birds might be missing the keel of the breastbone, one which attaches to the flight muscles, but they don’t miss anything in spirit.
Other uses
Some have developed outstanding camouflage plumages, others muscular legs for running, yet others super-bird feet for wading and swimming. And even elaborate rituals to impress their mates without flying. The wings are not redundant after all, in many bird families who have given up flying. They’ve developed them for alternate uses like flippers for swimmers and brakes for runners.
Of the many fabulously flightless birds, here are a few:
Penguin: The cuddly aquatic birds, dressed in black and white tuxedos, with their flippers hanging by their side like Charlie Chaplin arms, live in the Southern Hemisphere. Fairy or the little blue penguin is the tiniest of all (40 cm) and the emperor penguin the largest (3 ft 7 in), but their prehistoric ancestors stood as tall and as heavy as an adult human. Once a year, penguins shed their feathers. No swimming or fishing is possible then, so they fatten themselves up to survive two to three weeks till they re-grow them. No wonder it is called the “catastrophic molt!”
Invisible Rail: Any guesses on why it’s called invisible? Well, yeah, it is difficult to spot. It lives in the almost impenetrable spikey sago swamps of North Maluku in Indonesia. It uses its wings to make a ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ sound along with a drumming call. Abundance of food, lack of predators and no need for migration make island birds readily lose their ability to fly. Too bad they don’t take into account humans who come walking into their island homes and hunt them to extinction. This bird is listed as threatened.
Southern Cassowary: It is a ratite — a large flightless bird like the ostrich and rhea. With intimidating three-toed legs, horn-like casque, blue face, two red wattles, a well-rounded back body and a fiery temper. Don’t fluff yourself and go too near it, it might poke holes in your body and leave you like a sponge. The second heaviest bird on earth, it can reach up to 5.9 feet in height!
Kakapo: The owl-faced Kakapo is the only parrot that doesn’t fly! What’s more, it is heavy (can reach around four kgs), lives long (between 95-120 years!), smells musty-sweet and walks for miles to gather for group dances to compete for the attention of the ladies. In the 1880s, due to the arrival of European settlers and their pets, their numbers went down drastically. Today, they are critically endangered.
We are advised now and then to spread our wings and take a flight. I’d prefer to stay on ground and live for 120 years like the Kakapo, thank you.
The writer is Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur

From the bottomless beyond

Arefa Tehsin, July 26, 2015, DHNS
A pair of Brahminy Ducks in the Lonar Lake By Adityavikram More
Lonar Lake before sunset ByAdityavikram More
Daityasudan Temple By Adityavikram More
Children bathing in the pure and perennial stream By Adityavikram More
Lonar Lake during sunset By Adityavikram More
There was a woman (I read somewhere) who told her friend — “Last year we went around the world. This year I think we’re going somewhere else.” One such ‘somewhere else’ is Lonar Crater, the world’s only salt water lake in basaltic rock, unearthly and alien.
A meteor came flying in earth’s atmosphere, right from the bottomless outer space some 50,000 years ago.
Rather than becoming a shooting star with a fleeting glory, as is the fate of small meteors that enter earth’s atmosphere, this one left a dimple on her cheek. Weighing two million tonnes, the ball of hellish fire came gushing at a speed of 90,000 km per hour on a suicide mission. And wham! The impact on the super-hard basalt rock bent its surface and ego. The impact was equivalent to an explosion of six megaton atom bombs.
Creation of the crater
Man evolved on earth and this once earth shattering crater, now a salt water lake, came to India’s share, finding a home in the Buldana district of Maharashtra. We drove down 13 hours from Mumbai to witness the splendour. You don’t need to have deep pockets to visit this crater; even patched ones would do. But the low budget didn’t motivate our friends. “Who would go to see a hole?” they sniggered. “To see how the surface of the moon looks like,” I wanted to answer, as this crater in basaltic rock is a good analogue to the impact craters on the moon.
The meteor didn’t lie there like a fall-bruised apple on an autumn morn, but it blazed and vanished, leaving a giant hole as a telling reminder of the powers that are. The lake that evolved subsequently is a wonder. It is saline and has a neutral (pH7) region in it as well. These two regions remain separate, like angels of heaven and minions of hell. It is 1.2 km in diameter and around 500 ft deep. The slopes inside the rim to the lake are forested, housing many birds, medicinal plants, gazelles and temples.
The area around the lake is as mysterious as the invisible ghost of the meteor that made the dent. Apart from the temples dotted inside the crater, there is also the famous Gomukh Temple that stands at its rim. A perennial stream with potable water and neutral pH flows from this temple and people bathe in it in the hope of purging their sins. The source of the water is unknown and it has retained its mystery by flowing even during draughts. What caught our interest was a Sati Stone on the way to Gomukh. We were told it portrays woman’s allegiance to a man till the end of time.
The Daitya Sudan Temple, with the Lonar town surrounding it, is dated to the Chalukya dynasty. An idol of Vishnu is housed inside it, standing victorious over the demon Lonasur.
Mysteries of the meteor
It is believed that a piece of the meteor split and hit the ground a little away from the rim of the main crater. Hence there is a much smaller circular depression 700 metres away, almost identical to the main crater. Near this Little Lonar is a Hanuman temple with the idol carved on a vertical rock. The flinty-eyed idol is supposed to be highly magnetic. Little Lonar has recently lost some of its characteristics as the local farmers have dug a channel to drain the water, which was affecting their crops on the sides. The water of the Lonar crater is indeed fascinating. It finds its mention in Emperor Akbar’s Ain-i-Akbari, which talks about the production of glass, soap and saltpetre from the area. It hasn’t escaped the eyes of The Smithsonian Institute, US Geological Survey and Geological Society of India among others who have studied it in detail. There is a freshwater well right at the lake’s edge. Some algae and bacteria found in this lake are said to have medicinal uses. These charmed waters abound in salts, sodas and nitrogen fixing micro-organisms. Fishy, you say? But they are fish-less.
As you walk down in the evening to the forested slopes of the crater, which look like hills, and reach the banks of the lake, the acrid smell of the waters sizzle through your nose. The timeless eye of the crater looks back at you squarely. The stillness is intercepted by swaying grasses on the banks and calls of Brahmniny Ducks, who have flown across continents to spend their summers here.
Lonar Lake has witnessed history through centuries of Ashoka’s empire, then Satvahana’s, Chalukya’s, Rashtrakuta’s, Mughal’s, Yadava’s, Nizam’s and the British. However, the lake is now losing its liberty to exist. Littering by pilgrims, household effluents, fertilisers  from fields pollute the lake year round, reducing its salinity, cutting down its magic to size.
Let’s protect this wonder. Want a brand new crater, you say? The only survivors left to see it would be the cockroaches.


Ingenious and intelligent

Dive in: Triple treat for your eyes! Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Artistic elephants, musical pigs, dancing dolphins and more… meet some smart cookies from the animal world.

By Arefa Tehsin: Author & Ex-Honorary Wildlife Warden, Udaipur
Elephants can paint, ants can farm, pigs can sing to their little ones, squirrels can pretend to hide food to confuse thieves and, crows can use humans as tools! There are many bewilderingly brainy animals — some spineless, others small, some cute, others menacing. But all of them are intelligent.
A recent study has concluded that crocodiles play! My father, naturalist Raza H. Tehsin, had once chanced upon a fly sitting on the head of a small toad and moving its legs as if to tickle it. The toad, which was only slightly bigger than the fly, had tried to catch it and only ended up catching one of its wings which it had to finally let go. The first act may be co-incidental but the four repetitions hint that they were deliberate acts of the fly. The teasing instinct in such small creatures is baffling.
Untangled Octopus: The languid, tardy, tentacled octopus lying snugly in the depths of the ocean is quite untangled in its mind. It is one of the smartest creatures of the sea with a respectable memory for an invertebrate. It can screw open the lid of a jar, navigate through mazes and solve problems. Although, how it does it all remains a mystery.
Daredevil Otters: My father had once observed a family of otters attacking and chasing away a crocodile from their river. Yes, these brave hearts do the planning and execute their plans together. They frolic, eat fish, make swanky caves with an opening in the river, clean crabs using rocks and play! Believe it or not, playing is a sign of high intelligence. But you already believe it, don’t you?
No doubt, apes are great: Great apes, particularly the chimpanzees and orangutans are frighteningly intelligent. Especially if you take into account the story of the Planet of the Apes. Chimpanzees hunt in groups, use tools (like sticks for hunting or twigs for fishing), have sharp memories and can learn sigh language to communicate with humans. Great apes are considered the smartest of all after humans on earth. Considering who has decided the hierarchy — us.
Dancing Dolphins: Acutely intelligent, dolphins are considered the third most intelligent animal to inhabit planet earth. No wonder they are the stars of aquarium shows. These social marine animals are highly emotional and make sure that others know how they’re feeling through their sophisticated language. And they know how to enjoy themselves. While sleeping, half of their brain is awake so that predators don’t catch them by surprise.
Even if we had half of our brain awake we’d know that animals — intelligent, ferocious or tame — need their homes to live and food to eat. We can’t claim everything. Imagine if the eight-legged brainy octopus decides to get into an argument with you over fish.

Who’s the smartest of them all?


If you thought humans were the most intelligent species on Earth, you will change your mind after reading this.

Oh yes, although we share 94 per cent of our DNA with them, we don’t like to compare ourselves with the chimpanzees. We laugh our heads off at their antics or get a lump in our throats when they come and give us a long warm hug, but we’re not monkeys!
Well, may be they are intelligent enough to know that it is best for them to sweet talk the humans and be in their good books. And don’t flatter yourself by thinking that they like to be compared to us. They might actually be shocked at the idea!
We may like to think that we’re the smartest of all living beings on earth but we need to think twice. There are many clever and canny animals that don’t kill their own kind — one bomb or bullet at a time — like we do. So who’s more clever, huh?
Let’s check out some of the incredibly intelligent animals that Lady Earth houses:
Elephants That Don’t Forget: Tiny eyes, long noses, flappy ears and fashionably fat. The largest land animal also has the biggest brains of all. No wonder they have formidable memories. They are highly social, can recognise hundreds of sounds and are emotional and touchy too. They use tools in the wild and have been trained by humans even to draw and paint! We’ve used them for 4,000 years in our wars, constructions and parades and to upturn their trunks to salute us. But if one of these gentle giants loses his mind, it takes him just minutes to turn a human settlement into pulp.
Ancient Ants: Ants might look like, well, ants, but they are super powerful and intelligent. Fancy yourself carrying 50 times your body weight? Bah, no big deal for ants. They evolved millions of years before humans, figured it was best for them to live in colonies (they knew there is ‘strength in numbers’ before a wise sage told them), learnt by interactive teaching and even undertook fungus farming, millions of years before humans learnt agriculture!
Crafty Crows: They might not look as dandy as a peacock or sing sweet nothings like a koel but they’re brave, scary-looking and bafflingly intelligent. They’ve found ways to use humans. They slyly come and drop their nuts at traffic lights to break their shells with passing cars. They have uncanny memories and use various tools to solve problems. Remember the thirsty crow story?
Spic-and-Span Pigs: Believe it or not, some studies point that pigs are smarter than dogs. They’re quite adaptable, social, talk to each other and sing to their little ones! They’ve even been trained to move cursor on a computer screen with their snouts. What more, they’re clean too, though they might eat poop at times.
Among other smart animals on our planet is the resourceful and cunning rat that has colonised every continent except Antarctica. According to the movie Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mice are the most intelligent forms of life. Who knows? We think we’re experimenting on rats, but maybe it’s the rats experimenting on us.

Up in arms


  • Neocapritermes taracua termites: Double up as suicide bombers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
  • Turkey Vulture: Guess its defense Mechanism. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In this concluding part, we see how the creatures have some really cool techniques to ward off trouble.

Shield of poop. Blood squirting eyes. Anal attack. Retractable claws. Sting punches.
We talked last time about some cool creatures with dodgy defences. We squirm away from animals with claws and poison. But there are others with defence mechanisms that can startle you.
Exploding backpacks
Neocapritermes taracua termites send out suicide bombers when their nest is under attack by enemy termites. The older worker termites, armed with an exploding backpack of blue toxic crystals generated over time, go into the battlefield along with the soldier termites. As soon as the enemy bites its back, the enemy’s saliva mixes with the toxic chemicals and ruptures the backpack, ejecting a deadly blue liquid. Wham! And the worker turned Kamikaze termite also gets blown up saving its comrades.
Bombardier beetles
No less than 500 species found all over the globe except Antarctica, bombardier beetles fire their way out of sticky situations with a blast. Their three chambered abdomen is a marvel of nature. Two chemicals are stored in two chambers and mixed in a third one as soon as some pesky creature disturbs them. In a fraction of a second, a jet of the mixture nearing boiling point explodes out with a loud pop aimed at the trouble maker. Potent tool to ward off your class bully. Er…are you the class bully by any chance?
Gagging goo
Hagfish, also called slime eel, are the only living creatures with a skull but no spine. While they feed on marine worms and other prey, they also enter the dead and dying sea creatures and eat them from inside out. They have existed for 300 million years in the depths of oceans. No wonder they have a defence mechanism that even send the sharks gagging away. When disturbed, they secrete a slime which combines with water to produce goo which clogs the gills of the predator. It also ties itself in a knot which not only helps it to untangle from the captor’s grip but also the slime. Shark, you say? Bring along!
Stinging vomit
Turkey vulture, found in the Americas, well, resembles a turkey. It feeds mainly on carrion like other vultures but has a nauseating defence tool — vomit. When a persistent predator approaches the vulture or its nest, it pukes out the stinking contents of its stomach. If the predator is near enough for the vomit to fall on his eyes and face, the acidic vomit stings as well.
Skin breaking spikes
Amphibians in general have a great capacity to repair their skin. And the Iberian Ribbed Newt has taken it to a different level. When attacked, the ribs of the newt puncture its skin and jut out from the sides, secreting poison at the same time, piercing the insides of the predator’s mouth. While it leaves the fellow stung and disoriented, it doesn’t cause pain to the newt. What more, these newts have been sent on space missions at least six times!
Our defence mechanism? We’ve lost our canines and claws and even the harmless tail to evolution. All we have now are external arms and ammunition. If you ask me, I’ll say what a wise one said, “All the arms we need are for hugging.”
The author is a wildlife warden at Udaipur.

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