Walrus

The walrus (Odobenus rosmarus, literally “tooth-walking sea-horse” (really)) is a massive arctic pinniped that represents the last surviving member of the Family Odobenidae.1 The word “walrus” itself most likely derives from an inversion of the Old Norse word hrossvalr, which means “horse-whale,” a concept that apparently came up often enough in Viking times to warrant naming.

“Anyone see any horse-whales? No? Good, let’s go sail off the edge of the earth.”

Walruses are noted for their massive size – a bull can reach up to 4,000 pounds and twelve feet in length, though females usually will top out around two-thirds that size. Of course, every so often a female walrus will be longer and heavier than most males, and they have to kind of slouch down to disguise their height and will constantly get asked to try out for the basketball team. Walruses have flat ears, poor eyesight, excellent hearing, whiskers that they use for navigation and finding food, and four-inch-thick skin that changes color according to the temperature (due to capillary constriction) and is buffeted against the cold waters by six inches of blubber underneath. And, of course, both genders have tusks that can reach up to a meter in length and weigh up to three pounds each.

“Be honest – is there something on my face?”

Tusks are used to climb onto ice, for defense, and – as with most things involving men – for displays aimed at impressing women. Male walruses engage in dominance displays wherein they fight with their tusks, two massive beasts slashing at each other in a fit of sex steroid-laden rage. Sadly, while this is going on, the female walrus is usually too busy visiting with her friends and forming lifelong friendships to even notice. Meanwhile, “tusking” injuries from these fights can lead to severe injury and even death for the males. Another victory for testosterone.

“Claire, are you even watching?!? We’re fighting with our tusks!!! Can you please look before one of us loses an eye or something?!?”

Walruses are noisy, social animals that like to congregate on land and ice flows in the thousands, where they can be heard making all kinds of awful racket. Thankfully, their size leaves them with few natural predators, with the notable exceptions of killer whales, polar bears, and bees. If attacked, they will defend each other. However, if danger approaches, walruses will stampede for open water, occasionally crushing calves in the process. This is probably why most females and calves form separate herds, and why walrus TV personal injury attorneys do so well.

A horrible drain on society.

As with all large arctic creatures, walruses were hunted to near extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to high demand for their blubber, oil, and tusks. Generally speaking, if you’re blubbery, oily, and/or tusky, you definitely did NOT want to be born in the 18th or 19th centuries. It just wasn’t a good time to be alive. Nowadays, however, only native peoples are allowed to hunt walruses, so just be sure to avoid them. Besides that, you’re probably fine, unless you end up as part of an epic fashion blunder at a British fashion show by a noted English newsreader. (N.B. this really happened. Honest.)

But she has the accent, so we can trust her.

Back to size for a moment. It is true that many animals achieve large size. But few of them do it on a diet of mollusks, snails, crabs and sea cucumbers that they get by rooting around on the bottom of the ocean, squirting jets of water from their mouths to excavate their food sources. But a walrus does – bit by bit, it eats enough tiny things to grow into an insanely massive mammal.

“I also have a thyroid issue.”

As for grading the walrus, the simple fact that they achieve such mass on a diet of such tiny things counts for a lot. And then there is also the fact that a walrus put together what is quite possibly the greatest YouTube video in history (even including Chocolate Rain).

GRADE: A-

1 Walruses use their tusks to pull themselves from the ocean on to pack ice, and it looks like they are “walking” on their tusks. It is worth noting that a walrus is often seen exiting the sea through a hole that it made by battering its head against the ice. Sometimes the best solution is as simple as it seems. Also, sometimes the best solution hurts a lot. Just a couple more important facts we really hope you walk away with here.

Pterodactyl (Pterosaur)

“Aw yeah, look who’s Pevolving! This Pguy!”

Despite what you learned in your very first dinosaur book, the Pterodactyl was not a dinosaur. Dinosaurs (at the time of this writing, at least) are defined as land-dwelling, diapsid reptiles that descended from the archosaurs. While this definition is certainly annoying (i.e. in order to get a grip on the whole affair one is now forced to look up “diapsid” and also “archosaur” and thus one quickly starts imagining other things one could be doing with one’s time), it is the accepted definition of dinosaur. Since Pterodactyls flew, they were not “land-dwelling” and are therefore not considered dinosaurs, even though they were large reptiles who lived with the dinosaurs and looked like the dinosaurs and played racquetball with the dinosaurs on Wednesdays.

Plus, Pterodactyls walked with a certain semi-upright stance that differed slightly from the stances of “real” dinosaurs. Paleontologists, it turns out, are total sticklers.

Put a metatarsal on the metacarpal table and get ready for an earful.

The second, more immediate problem with putting the Pterodactyl in dinosaur books is that there is (was) no such animal.  The term “Ptero-dactyle” was first coined by French Naturalist/Zoologist Georges Cuvier in 1809. Around that time, science had been turning up some bizarre fossils with beaks and large, wing-like structures. For some reason, to Cuvier, a hyphenated name beginning with a silent P seemed like an awesome way to describe these organisms. Eventually, “Ptero-dactyle” became “Pterodactylus,” and every fossil with wings that looked like a dinosaur was tossed into the old metaphorical Pterodactylus bucket in the corner. However, the term Pterodactyl stuck in the vernacular because the public, for one, had had enough already and just wanted to see the exhibit and go home.

Eventually, science got its act together and renamed the entire group of flying reptiles “Pterosaurs” (from the Greek meaning “wing lizard”). Each was then given a proper scientific name. Today, we recognize only two Pterodactylus species: Pterodactylus antiquus and Pterodactylus longicollum. And just FYI, knowing this simple fact officially makes you a nerd.

Long story short, there is no “Pterodactyl.”

Also, this never happened. Modern paleontology is chock full of disappointments.

Now that we’ve got all that sorted out, what you really need to know about Pterosaurs is that they were an order of terrifying, flying, carnivorous reptiles that dominated the skies of the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. The smallest was about the size of a sparrow, while the largest, Quetzalcoatlus, had a tip-to-tip wingspan that reached up to 40 feet, which is equivalent to that of your average fighter jet. Quetzalcoatlus wasn’t just the biggest of the Pterosaurs. And it wasn’t just the biggest thing to ever poop on a T. Rex.

“Whoa! Not cool, man.”

Quetzalcoatlus, according to scientific consensus, was the largest animal that ever flew. Who needs Pterodactyls anyway?

It’s probably also important to know that present-day birds share many flying-specific features with Quetzalcoatlus and Pterosaurs in general (relatively small bodies/hollow bones for lightness and large brains/good eyesight for, you know, not crashing) but present-day birds did not evolve from Pterosaurs. Of this much, science is very close to absolutely sure. It’s rare when you get certitude like that from scientists, the very same people who will tell you that a particularly good movie or book or Super Bowl party is “consistent with being enjoyable.” So revel in this almost-truth: Pterosaurs did not evolve into birds. Like everything else that ended in –saur, they were wiped out by an asteroid (or a super volcano, or something). Birds gradually evolved from the small, land-based animals that survived the event.

The fact that Pterosaurs and pigeons have similar adaptations for flight is a nice example of what scientists call convergent evolution: Two unrelated animals evolving similar features to tackle a certain problem (flight), without once getting on conference call to make sure “everyone was on the same page.” Perhaps it makes sense that some challenges in nature yield predictable results, regardless of time or place. After all, one probably wouldn’t be surprised to find a bank on a civilized alien planet that has some sort of transparent-yet-high-security wall between its tellers and its customers. That alien bank, if its still around, no doubt also learned that giving volatile, adjustable-rate mortgages to their alien customers  with insufficient income to support their monthly payments was just a terrible idea. Convergent evolution at work.

Okay. Anyway. Back to Pterosaurs. In summary, a flying lizard as big as an airplane is undeniably cool. Unless you just got your T. rex washed.

GRADE: A-

BEING-A-DINOSAUR GRADE: F-



Triceratops

The Triceratops (from the Greek for “three-horned face,” which makes you wonder at the foresight of someone including that word in a Greek dictionary 2,500 years ago) was a massive herbivore of the Late Cretaceous Period that inhabited Western North America.  Weighing as much as 12 tons and reaching up to 30 feet in length, the Triceratops was a very large dinosaur, and, if the fossil record is to be believed, it was also among the smelliest.

“OK, look, nobody knows how I smelled. But since you’re asking, I smelled fine. Nice, even.” [BEAT] “What? No, I can’t prove it.” [BEAT] “I hate you.”

Little is really known about Triceratops. As always, that’s caused no hesitation in wild speculation on the part of paleontologists. For instance, it is now argued that while Triceratops was once believed to live a solitary life, they actually lived in herds. The fossil record is used here, one assumes, despite the fact that a complete Triceratops skeleton has never been found. This is why nobody has ever seen fit to consult paleontologists about anything that might actually matter.

They’ve also got a theory about male pattern baldness.

Some things that do seem to pass past mere speculation include the belief that Triceratops had four limbs (so far so good), the fore limbs being shorter and having five hooves (OK, cool) and the rear limbs being longer, with four hooves (nice job, everyone). They also had strong bodies (sure…) and the largest skulls of any land animal, ever (except the ones we haven’t found yet). Apparently they also had thick skin (hey, why not). At any given time, they had between 430 and 800 teeth (important for attacking surfers). Despite being herbivores, they were quite ferocious (wha….?). And they also almost certainly hated wearing tuxedos.

Stupid weddings.

One thing is for sure: Triceratops had three large horns, one above its nostrils and the other two were above its two eyes. These were as long as hockey sticks and may (or may not) have been used to knock down trees to eat or – let’s hope – fighting Tyrannosaurus rex.

They battled for the love, for glory, and for freedom. Or not.

Given what we know (and don’t know), the Triceratops certainly seems impressive: massive, horned, and possessed of one of the most beautifully melancholy mating songs in history (maybe).

GRADE: B+

(A for horns, A+ for horns-on-head, D- for hygiene, B+ is the average. Basically.)


*Update* – Truly Insane Video

Recently the Animal Review was forwarded this video.

There really aren’t good words for this sort of thing, other than that these sharks must have been asleep at the eating switch that day.

Wow.

Tyrannosaurus rex

In the long, often boring, and generally disappointing history of evolution, nothing has managed to capture our imagination quite like the dinosaurs.1 The simple fact that there were once giant, terrifying reptiles with tiny brains who “ruled the Earth”2 is enough to inspire awe, but that they then disappeared prior to the invention of the camera phone really compounds it. On the cosmic scale of things, the fact that grizzly bears frighten us is a bit laughable, for if they stepped out of a time machine and into the age of the dinosaurs, grizzly bears would spend the majority of their short lives screaming like children and running away from everything they saw – including the plants, probably – and wondering what the hell was going on here (and also kicking themselves for not just stopping the time machine in 1929 and shorting the stock market, like they had planned).

‘I’m short oil, I’m short steel, I’m short railroads…I’m short pretty much everything. Oh, I’m from the future.’

Of all the dinosaurs, none is so iconic as Tyrannosaurus rex (lit. ‘Tyrant-Lizard King (not the band)’). Hailing from the late Cretaceous between 85 and 65 million years ago, Tyrannosaurus rex (or T. rex, as it preferred to be called), was, from what we can suss out based on skeletal remains, one of the largest carnivores ever, standing 15 feet tall, reaching up to 40 feet long, and weighing somewhere around 7,000 pounds. According to people who estimate things that are impossible to estimate, its 700 pound head could, with the aid of serrated teeth the size of bananas, tear off up to 500 pounds of meat in a single bite. But what’s most breathtaking about T. rex was that it was, at one point, real. T. rexes roamed Western North America for millions of years, and in a time when dinosaurs ruled, they were king.

‘More mead and serving wenches! And tell my younger brother to calm down. I can’t handle his psychodrama right now.’

Or so we’re led to believe. The truth is that everything we know about T. rex comes from fossilized remains – reptilian bone slowly replaced by minerals over the course of millions of years – and a few Spielberg movies. And from these sources, our best and brightest scientists can only make rough deductions about T. rex based on a knowledge of biomechanics and animal anatomy comparisons drawn from extant fauna. What this means is that, while it certainly looked like a carnivorous tyrant-lizard king, for all we really know, T. rex actually liked eating flowers and hugging. Only one thing is for sure—leaving behind a giant skeleton with massive teeth the size of bananas is a surefire way to get lots of kids books written about yourself.

His one wish was that some future species educate their offspring about his work.

As with all other dinosaurs, there are no T. rexes frozen in ice (unlike the wooly mammoth), no T. rex photographs, no T. rex audio recordings, and only the crudest of T. rex diary entries, leaving a vast chasm of T. rex knowledge that is open to interpretation, speculation, and prolific grant-writing by bearded paleontologists who spend their adult lives hoping that PBS interviews them in their Indiana Jones hat at least once.

‘Believe it or not, I’m a bit of a rebel. I mean, I got the hat and everything.’

For instance, some paleontologists believe that all tyrannosaurs, including T. rex, must have been covered in feathers at some point during their life cycles (most likely after hatching). If nothing else, a feather-covered T. rex was surely a lot less intimidating, not to mention a lot more upsetting for his dad. But we don’t know. We also don’t know whether T. rex was a hunter or a scavenger. While a massive dinosaur with a mouthful of banana teeth that could deliver a bite with 1440 pounds of force in the front part of its jaw and 3011 in the back would seem to be a bit of a no-brainer in the hunting department, some paleontologists suggest that their massive legs may have prevented them from running as fast as their potential prey (biomechanics pins their top speed at about 18 mph, which is slightly faster than a human being can run). They also had relatively large olfactory lobes, which could (could!) mean a powerful sense of smell for locating rotten meat (similar to New World vultures, which are award-winning, world-class scavengers). And then, of course, there was the issue of T. rex’s hilariously undersized forearms, which could not even reach their own mouth (meaning that, however they got their food, they never wiped their mouth after dinner). These almost vestigial forearms were likely little use for grasping prey, and they were almost certainly worthless in push up contests.

‘Well they’ll work just fine for Xbox. When’s that coming out again?’

But others dissent from this view and remain convinced T. rex was a hunter, pointing to its stereoscopic vision (and, you know, the spiky banana teeth). Still others think the shreds of rotten, bacteria-infested meat lodged in its numerous teeth gave T. rex a “septic bite,” which caused an initial bite wound to become infected, making these tyrannosaurs among the very first bioterrorists. And, for what it’s worth, this would also explain why two T. rex fossils have never been found locked in a passionate kiss.

The most complete T. rex skeleton ever found was discovered in South Dakota in 1990. Currently on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, ‘Sue’ has shed a great deal of new light on the Tyrannosaurus rex. For instance, we now know that we don’t know whether Sue was a male or a female. We do know, however, that Sue died at some point in what is now South Dakota. Probably. For all we know, she or he passed away in what is now Montana, but the other T. rexes brought her to South Dakota for an incredibly elaborate funeral procession that featured a full marching band and several push up contests.

‘By the way, I was also pink. Everything was. Long story.’

However, using a little bit of common sense, we can probably make the reasonable leap and conclude that T. rex was a hunter; after all, T. rex-esque wounds have been found in other dinosaur skeletons. Of course, these may have been inflicted post-mortem. But let’s be honest–does anyone think that something with banana teeth and a brain smaller than a quart of milk was reluctant to bite anything and everything around it?

Obviously, grading an animal that no longer exists – and about whom so much remains murky – presents a challenge. But after much meditation and consideration, one is stuck with the words ‘banana teeth,’ and grading T. rex, unlike every other aspect of its investigation, becomes quite simple.

GRADE: A+

1 The notable exception being the great white shark.

2 A small minority of experts think that the dinosaurs were brought down by an overextended state budget, bread riots, an overreliance on mercenaries, and general internal decadence. This minority is very, very small.

Nutria

A web-footed, semi-aquatic rodent that can weigh up to 22 pounds, which is definitely not okay, but still nowhere near the size of the largest extant rodent, the nutria (Myocastor coypus, lit. ‘I’m looking for the one-armed man’) is the escaped-convict-turned-wily-fugitive of the natural world.

Originally imported from South America by fur traders and trappers hoping to create a booming market for horrifying rodent fur in the United States, nutria were either released on purpose, or escaped from their fur farms, or took advantage of the situation when their prison bus swerved off the road and collided with a train. However it happened, the fact remains that nutria did escape into the wild in many US states, and there they scurry to this day, eluding capture, breeding like rabbits, and causing all manner of mischief.

Unfortunately, they don’t look like rabbits. Nutria look like a mentally-challenged beaver with orange teeth. Yes, these oversized rodents have bright orange incisors, thanks to an iron-rich pigment that clearly got confused as to exactly where it should be expressing itself. One can only imagine the frustration this has caused for generations of wildlife photographers.

“Here we go now, big smile! Uh, okay, yeah, you know what…let’s take a few steps back here and maybe try some where you’re looking more pensive.’

A huge concentration of fugitive rat-beavers with bright orange incisors roaming the countryside is, if taken in isolation, totally awesome. Unfortunately, nutria are a threat to the environment. They have an irrepressible taste for soil-binding vegetation and nowhere is their constant orange-toothed gnawing more of a problem than it is in New Orleans.

Nutria devour the plants that keep river banks from eroding, canal walls from collapsing and endangered wetlands from becoming more endangered-erd. And with nutria populations all but out of control in New Orleans, the damage has been in the millions of dollars. The solution is tricky, because like most complicated environmental issues in coastal Louisiana, this too requires that elected officials be sober and also not in jail.

‘You simply have to try this critical, load-bearing vegetation. It is sublime.’

To say that nutria are fugitives is no exaggeration. Since their introduction to New Orleans in the 1930s1, the city has been chasing them well into the depths of obsession. In Jefferson Parish, which is particularly at risk to weakened canals, nutria have been hunted by nearly every means and every person, with the possible exception of Tommy Lee Jones.

Over the years, a host of creative measures have been tried. They’ve tracked nutria down with trained terriers, gassed their burrows, floated poison-laced fruit down the canals, issued a $5-per-tail bounty to the general public, encouraged Steven Seagal to eat them, and even sent the SWAT snipers after them. No joke. The Jefferson Parish SWAT and sheriff teams actually hunt nutria with spot lights and scoped rifles as a matter of public policy. If you don’t now love New Orleans, you never will.


Photo Credit: Darrin DuFord, OmnivorousTraveler.com.

‘It’s on a sloped embankment? Leading to a populated apartment complex with tons of front-facing windows? Hell yeah you’re cleared to fire! Oh, also, there’s a 211 in progress at Bank of America. Just FYI.’

In the final analysis, it’s difficult to deny that all of this is kind of wonderful. Especially compared to the incredibly boring back story of other rodents (never sit across from a squirrel at a dinner party unless you have a Kindle). On the other hand, nutria are selfishly picking on a beloved American city that definitely doesn’t need another environmental problem right now. However, a professional animal reviewer must look at the big picture: Can one really fail a large, invasive, semi-aquatic rodent with webbed feet and bright orange teeth that’s running from SWAT snipers even as you read this? Answer: Not on our watch.

GRADE: B

1 The story of the nutria’s introduction to New Orleans is shrouded in mystery and as you might expect, it involves hot sauce. Until recently, the most accepted explanation placed the blame squarely on E.A. McIlhenny, former president of the McIlhenny Company which, of course, is famous for the Tabasco brand. Rumor had it that E.A. McIlhenny was the first to import nutria to New Orleans in order to establish a fur farm in the late 1930s. Rumor also had it that he intentionally set some free and/or the nutria escaped after a hurricane smashed their cages in 1937.

About seven years ago, in an effort to combat the negative oral history swirling around their namesake, the McIlhenny family commissioned a historian to dig up the real facts. The historian found that while McIlhenny did set nutria loose intentionally, he was not the first to do so, but rather the second or third, and definitely not the last. The historian also found that there was no truth to the 1937 hurricane story, and then we’re guessing that historian promptly deposited a check from the McIlhenny’s that amounted to his or her annual academic salary in one lump sum. Anyway, the entire defense, according to the Mclhenny historian, can be found at:

http://www.tabasco.com/tabasco_history/faqs.cfm#faq-11.

Just something to think about over your next Bloody Mary.

Supplemental Reading

If one’s passing affection for The Animal Review has anything at all to do with an interest in the natural world, then Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals by Gordon Grice may well be for you. It is, in short, a bone-chilling look into the wide and surprisingly terrifying Kingdom Animalia. Centered on animals that can kill people, Deadly Kingdom will scare you. A lot. It will make you never want to go outside again. And you will read it in a few days, tops. And then you’ll go back to it again for more terrifying reading, because you can’t sleep at night.

Everyone knows about the famous maneaters – sharks, lions, tigers, bears – but what of pigs? Whales? Elephants? Turns out many, many animals have been known to kill people in all kinds of awful I-really-shouldn’t-look-but-I-can’t-help-it ways. And information is power, so read Deadly Kingdom, and get ready to view the Animal Kingdom with a whole new respect (by which we mean fear).

And to think that all this time we thought nature was funny. Boy were we wrong.

Combining deep research and serious science with a narrative style that is at once journalistic in its objectivity and child-like in its awe of Nature’s raw power, Deadly Kingdom makes an excellent, addictive read. Both of us got through the entire book in a few days, and then spent several more days after that worrying about leaving the house and encountering wild dogs (or worse, hyenas, whose jaws, it turns out, are powerful enough to crush bone, and…well, just avoid hyenas).

Deadly Kingdom is many things Animal Review is not, funny being the first. But if you enjoyed Animal Review, then Deadly Kingdom may well be for you. And if you didn’t enjoy Animal Review and were one of the people who complained that we didn’t do a good job making it clear which statements were jokes and which statements were in fact true, then Deadly Kingdom is definitely for you.

GRADE: A*

*We would give an A+, but King Cobra has been calling a lot and acting weird. We think he might be in one of his many moods, and we don’t want to aggravate him if he sees us giving out an A+ to someone who isn’t him.**

**King Cobra, if you’re reading this, we’re not talking about you.