Monday, February 25, 2008

Animal of the Week -- February 25, 2008

Morning/Afternoon/Evening all,

As the days lengthen and the sun makes itself felt, thoughts might turn to long summer days whiled away on the banks of a river...especially if a friend of your posts photos of your teenage selves enjoying such a halcyon day on Facebook. But how keen would we have been launch ourselves from the overhanging tree into the tubid stream had we suspected the presence of Channa argus (northern snakehead) or C micropeltus (giant snakehead) in the slow-moving muddy-bottomed river?

Last week, a Lincolnshire angler fishing for pike got a surprise when his sprat attracted the attention of a more exotic fresh water predator 60 cm long and with a mouth crammed with nasty sharp pointy teeth. The fish was later identified as a giant snakehead, a voracious predator from southeast Asia. Capable of growing 2 m long, giant snakeheads are valued as sports fish and food fish, but treated with caution as mothers have been known to attack people to protect their young. Snakeheads breath air rather than extract oxygen from water with their gills as most other fish do, and they can survive several days out of water, and rather terrifyingly these toothy monsters can crawl overland from pool to pool, from one water catchment to another. If you are terrified by the idea of a 2 m giant snakehead crawling into your front room in Lincoln, fear not. These fish need warm water to survive, and the one caught in Lincolnshire had likely been released only very recently by a tropical fish enthusiast whose tanks had been outgrown.

Phew! Right? The more attentive of you will note that this week's animal is also the northern snakehead as well as the giant. The former is similar to the latter in size, habits, ferocity, and ability to crawl over land, but what makes it more terrifying for those of us in temperate latitudes, is that, living in northern China and Russia, these fish can very happily survive in colder climes. Already across the USA, northern snakeheads have invaded lakes and rivers, wreaking destruction to fisheries and wildlife in their wake. One population in Maryland was thought to have become established after a man purchased a pair from a Chinese food shop to make his sick sister a traditional remedy.
Fortunately for us Europeans, trade in these leviathans is banned for both aquarists and enthusiasts of Chinese gastronomic remedies. So we are protected from the northerns for now... but what if that giant snakehead wasn't a recent escapee, it's been a mild winter after all, and what with global warming, perhaps they are breeding in the UK!! Perhaps there's a giant snakehead slithering to your door right now!!!
Thank god I live on the third floor; although I may have to rethink my summer swims in Hampstead ponds. Dammit!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Animal of the Week -- January 11, 2008

Hello and apologies for slackness,
I so enjoyed the mole the other week that I wanted to give it plenty of time to be AOTW... or I just spent the last week drunk... one of the two, let's go with the mole story.

This week's animal of the week is kind of one animal used as a representative of a whole species. For this week's animal of the week is Electra the golden eagle who has become the first eagle recipient of successful cataract removal. Golden eagles (Aquila chriseatos) are widely regarded as some of the best hunters among the birds of prey. Soaring high over highlands and wild spaces across the entire northern hemisphere from Kamchatka to Kinross in either direction, they are able to spot a mountain hair loping through the furze from two miles away.

Electra of Greek myth was complicit in the murder of her mother Clytemnestra and step father Aegisthus to avenge their murder of her father Agamemnon. Electra the eagle was named after her failure to spot -- eagle eyed indeed -- an electricity pylon in Mull. The collision resulted in severe burns. Apparently the eagle's slack judgement was not due to already poor eyesight but actually caused the traumatic cataracts, leaving poor Electra as blind as a bat -- though presumably not as blind as a spectacled bat (Pteropus conspicillatus).

Fortunately Electra was rescued and taken to Wings Over Mull, a centre for sick and injured birds in the highlands and islands. Staff noticed Electra's problem sight and ordered the first ever operation to remove cataracts from a golden Eagle. A short surgery later and Electra now has good eyesight in one eye. Though not a clean bill of health, because her eyesight is not fully recovered in both eyes she will not be able to return to the wild, but she has been housed with a male golden eagle with a broken wing.

Such pioneering operations offer hope for other animals with poor eyesight: such as the spectacled bear, the monocled fox, and the astigmatism weevil (some or none of which may be fictional).

On January 30th, the day I eventually sent the last animal of the week, by pure coincidence, the rare genius that is Howard Hardiman did a mole in his excellent when pigeons weep web cartoon series, Do have a browse, but be warned, some of the entries are a little, er, racey.
All the best!

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