Summer Connect #6 – Phenoms of the Animal Kingdom

Summer. Long hot days, short warm nights. There’s no denying what we’re experiencing now, especially in the center of the country where the BIG H hovers on the televised weather maps. Inside days, these are days to read a good book, go to a museum or a library,  or visit the aquarium.

Today’s blog piece features some interesting things about three seemingly ordinary members of the animal kingdom. These are animals that I have all seen today – maybe you have, too. And maybe one of these Q&A tidbits will inspire you to investigate common animals and find out what makes them unique.

Q: This animal can smell food that is up to six inches underground. In summer, it becomes nocturnal. What is it?

A: The armadillo (family Dasypodidae) is a placental mammal occupying the sole surviving niche in the ancient order Cingulata. Its larger relatives, now extinct, included a family of giant armadillos and a family of huge herbivores known as glyptodonts. Like the Dasypodidae, these creatures were all armor plated; the armadillo sports an outer “shell” of bony scales providing protection from predators.
    Native to the Americas, armadillos have strong legs and sharp claws that they use to find food, tearing apart logs and digging in search of ants, beetles, grubs, and other small invertebrates. They have weak eyesight but excellent hearing and an acute sense of smell. Of the 20 existing armadillo species – only one, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is found in the United States, primarily in Texas and Oklahoma. An adult of this species can stretch around three feet long, nose to tail, and weigh about 20 pounds.
    (Sorry to report that the armadillo I saw today did not make it safely across the road last night. 
Most people have only seen dead armadillos, I’m told. This roadkill is easy to distinguish because of their smashed armor-like body shell.)

Q: These birds have excellent memories; they can remember food sources from previous years. What are they?

A: Hummingbirds. Flitting from flower to flower, hummingbirds gather nectar while simultaneously transferring pollen, thereby helping plants to reproduce. These small pollinators do not live by nectar alone; they also eat small spiders and insects.
   (Oklahoma is home to the beautiful Ruby-throated hummingbird. The male bird is a brilliant green in color, with a red throat. At my home, we frequently see these birds coming to get a drink from the bubbling rock fountain on our back patio.)

Q: True or False? Spiders make their biggest webs in midsummer.

A: False. After eating insects all summer, spiders are at their largest – and make their biggest webs of the year – in late fall. Spider silk is made of complex proteins called fibroins, manufactured by the spider’s many different spinning glands. Fibroin production requires the nutrient choline, which the spider also needs for essentiall physiological processes. Spiders don’t produce choline naturally but must obtain it from their diet. So the spider must budget its available choline between web building and life support.
    (Somebody tell this factoid about the large webs to that spider who built that web stretched between two post oak trees in my back yard – the one I almost walked through this morning. I’d hate to see the size of her web come late October!)

Have a great week, nature lovers. The coolest hours of the day are between 4 and 6 a.m. – so get up early and enjoy 120 minutes of cool(er) air!

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