Archive for the ‘Herbivores’ Category

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On little coot feet

July 21, 2010

The American coot looks like a little round black duck. With a white snoot. And mad red eyes.

But it is not, not a duck.

After you look for a while, it also looks like a young chicken, a pullet, with a football shape, but rounder than a football.

A chicken, getting warmer.

Coots are in fact related to chickens, and more closely, to mudhens. (Go Toledo!)

While we think of them as northern wetland animals,  you can actually find them in the Sonoran desert, on some of the occasional lakes in the desert. They swim around, most often in pairs, and dive to gather vegetation, and the, um, scum from the bottom that they eat.

But the most amazing thing about coots is their feet. They have very strange feet. Not just plain chicken feet. But not duck feet, webbed paddling feet either.

They have these strange little flaps on the sides of their toes, very clever flaps actually, that make their toes very wide when they step down, or when they push against the water, but fold up to slender claw-width when they lift their feet, or bring them forward in the water, or take off in flight.

They are not easy to spot– you have to be quite close, or have the coots pose just right, then you can see them.

So if you see a round black swimming chicken-duck-bird with a white bill-beak and crazy red eyes, make sure you look for their really crazy black and gray flapped coot feet.

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A thorny issue

June 23, 2010

Related to the last post, it is amazing how many kinds of thorns, bristles, hooks, spikes, prickers, sharp edges, pointed leaves, pointed branches, as well as claws, scales, fangs, spines, and hooves you find in the Sonoran desert, and generally in the arid western USA.

In a contrary kind of way, almost all of these indicate that there’s probably a nice, juicy, succulent hunk of flesh nearby.

But you’ll get hurt if you try to get at it!

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Why does the cactus look like that?

June 16, 2010

The first thing you notice about a cactus is generally the spines. Some have short, nasty little almost invisible fishhooks, some inches-long needles. Then there’s the form of the plant. Most cacti are plump, rounded, often stubby. They tend to be grayish-green in color. And they usually do not have obvious leaves.

Why?

Whenever you come across questions like this, think about the ecosystem where the organism lives. Cacti live in dry climates with a lot of sun, and few other plants, especially leafy ones.

So keeping cool is an issue. A light neutral color does not absorb a huge amount of the sun’s heat. There are very few plants with dark bark, or skins, or leaves in the desert.

Retaining moisture is perhaps the most important issue for a desert plant. The blunt, compact shape of cacti, their thick skins, and lack of leaves are all moisture-conserving features.

And lastly, toothsome, moist leaves would attract all kinds of herbivores. So the lack of leaves discourages plant-eaters, and the big spines and tough hide protect any soft, moist tissue a cactus does have.