The wild boars of Germany

Wild boars have become a hazard in Germany. The latest boar attack found four people hiding in a dumpster, desperately cell-phoning for help. The root of the problem seems to be a porcine population explosion caused by tighter hunting restrictions. Similar situations have developed in various corners of Asia, where the problem stems from the declining populations of the pigs' predators, like tigers and wolves.

These wild boars are the same species as the domestic pig. After a few generations in the wild, they change so radically that their bodies undergo a morphological shift: they become hairier and leaner, their snouts lengthen, and their backs take on the characteristic "razorback" ridge. The pose more of a threat to crops and livestock than to humans, but a few elderly people have died of boar attacks in the last few years.

On a related matter, I've been regaling folks over at Facebook with info about the grice, a cantankerous little breed of pig that went extinct about 80 years ago. Some claim my family name derives from this critter. It all seems relevant to my eating habits this holiday season.

Beaver Attack

The Tulsa World reports that a five-year-old was bitten by a beaver. This sounds like a defensive bite, since the kid was trying to pet the animal at the time, but authorities are going to test for rabies to be sure. Rabid beavers have attacked people on several occasions, sometimes in the water. A big adult beaver goes better than 50 pounds, and its rodent incisors can penetrate deep.

Spotted hyena attack

In Kenya, a mother and son were badly injured in a nighttime brawl with a predatory hyena. Another son and some neighbors received lesser injuries. The hospital employee interviewed for this newspaper account says he's seeing hyena victims approximately every month.

The attacker here was apparently a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which is surpassed only by certain crocodilian and cat species as the major predator of humans in the world. One theory holds that people only arrived in North America recently (some 14 thousand years ago) because that's when climate change forced the spotted hyena south of the Bering Land Bridge. Before that, the hyenas were too formidable an obstacle. Another theory claims lions began to form prides because that was the only way they could survive in an Africa dominated by clans of hyena. And, while I'm doling out theories, there's also the notion that predatory pressure from hyenas forced humans and wolves to cohabit for protection. That led splinter groups of wolves to evolve into dogs, which are merely wolves after a few generations of domestication. It also allowed humans to settle down into agricultural communities and, eventually, towns and cities.

Video: Spotted hyenas vs. Lion

Insects in Food

CB wrote me with some disturbing questions:

So this friend of mine had a jar of organic tomato sauce (maybe it was paste). It was some months old by the time she opened it, but when she did, the lid popped when the vacuum seal was broken. She looked inside to find three largish maggots wiggling around in the sauce. Ew. Ew ew EW!

The question is: how is that possible? The jar was sealed; don't maggots breathe?

Also, just like with canning, the stuff was cooked, right? How could they have lived? And where could they have come from? How could whatever they were hatched from have gotten inside a sealed, sterile environment?

I'd bet the mother insect laid her eggs sometime during the canning process, say when the sauce was cooling in an open vat at the processing plant. Probably the young survived most of the months after canning as eggs, so they would have little need for air. Also, if we're talking a glass jar with a metal lid, there would probably be some air inside. It wouldn't have to be completely airless to seal properly.

In case it's any comfort, I should mention that these wouldn't necessarily be maggots. They could be the larvae of moths or beetles, for example. Moths and their caterpillars are pretty common inside sealed food, especially organic or homemade stuff. All processed food will have some minor contamination from insects. Even in a disgusting case like this, the food was probably safe to eat. (Not that I would have after seeing the bugs, but in theory.) We all swallow an occasional bug leg or rat hair without knowing it, and it does us no harm. Even if these were maggots (fly larvae), they would not necessarily be carriers of disease microbes. Flies have to be mobile adults to pick up nasty bacteria from the wider environment. If these larvae spent their entire lives in cooked food, they had no chance to pick up dangerous microbes. The US government refers to bugs in food as "aesthetic defects," because basically, it's not a health problem. It's just how food is. It's gross, but it won't hurt you.

Rat Tales

I saw Morris step suddenly back from a corner, which he was examining. We all followed his movements with our eyes, for undoubtedly some nervousness was growing on us, and we saw a whole mass of phosphorescence, which twinkled like stars. We all instinctively drew back. The whole place was becoming alive with rats. . . They seemed to swarm over the place all at once, till the lamplight, shining on their moving dark bodies and glittering, baleful eyes, made the place look like a bank of earth set with fireflies. The dogs dashed on, but at the threshold suddenly stopped and snarled, and then, simultaneously lifting their noses, began to howl . . . .
Bram Stoker

Rats are among the most phobia-inducing animals. For many people, they invoke the “disgust response” typically found in phobias directed at cockroaches and spiders. They are dangerous as vectors of disease and, under certain circumstances, as predators. They've been known to eat people who are injured or trapped in collapsed buildings. Unlike many predators, they don't trouble themselves to kill their prey before beginning the feast.

It’s not surprising, then, that horror stories have made excellent use of rats. As a Christmas treat, I’m presenting some of the best rat tales, by authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan LeFanu, HP Lovecraft, and George Orwell. Click here to read these Rat Tales. I don't usually post fiction here, but I'm doing so now because it's Christmas time and because the rat has a special place in the lore of the holiday. Seems to me rats must account for a lot of haunted-house stories—they would certainly explain a lot of nocturnal sounds and curtains that move without wind. Christmas was traditionally the time for scary stories in the English-speaking countries, though Halloween has supplanted it in the last century or so.

If you prefer your rat horrors real, check out The Book of Deadly Animals. The rodent chapter is my favorite part of the book.

Zoo bear mauls man

It's amazing how many zoo visitors find it necessary to jump into animal pens. In 2006 a man climbed into a lion enclosure at the Kiev zoo and proclaimed that God would save him, if He existed. Turns out the lion was an atheist. A few years before that, a woman committed suicide in Singapore by jumping into a crocodile exhibit. Earlier this year there was a case of attempted suicide involving polar bears. Of course, many people who do this sort of thing turn out to be either schizophrenic or clinically depressed.

The latest case happened in Bern, Switzerland. A mentally handicapped man deliberately jumped into an enclosure housing two brown bears. One of the bears mauled him. Police shot the bear to save him. The man is in the hospital with serious head and leg injuries. The bear is being treated with antibiotics to prevent infection of his bullet wounds. Because the bullet fragmented on entry, veterinarians deemed it unwise to operate.

Related Post: Russian Bear Attacks

Whitetailed deer attack

In a back yard in the Oklahoma community of Enville, a woman was attacked by a white-tailed deer buck. The woman escaped with some injuries. The deer remained outside her home, apparently looking for more trouble. He got it in the form of a deputy sheriff. The buck charged at the lawman and was shot dead.

The news report I've linked to describes the attack as "shocking," but deer attacks aren't that unusual. Bucks become extremely pugnacious in mating season. Mostly they duel each other for mating privileges, but occasionally they take out their frustrations on other species.

There's a greater danger than attacks, however. About 100 people a year die in vehicle collisions with whitetailed deer. The species is found in most of the US and southern parts of Canada.

Llama Attacks

Llamas may look silly, but they can be formidable. When used as guards for sheep, they've been known to kick coyotes to death. In a recent attack, a Texas man was kicked, boxed, bitten and thrown. He needed more than 700 stitches.

Like other members of the camel family, llamas have cleft palates and long necks. Their hooves, such as they are, ride high, the same way our toenails do; they walk on the bottoms of their two toes. They are cud-chewers with triple stomachs. Sometimes they hock cud-riddled loogies from deep within that complicated gut—a way of disciplining herd-mates or people. Their red blood cells are oval—most mammals have disk-shaped cells.

Experts claim attacks on people usually happen only if the llama has been reared with too much human contact. It comes to see people as herd-mates and may feel the need to rise above them in the pecking order. That may be what happened in this Texas case. Or it may be the llama perceived the man as a threat.

More about llamas as guard animals.

Chimpanzee Victim Speaks

Charla Nash, who was mauled by Travis the chimpanzee, was on TV yesterday. Here are highlights of her appearance on Oprah. Ms. Nash's injuries are gruesome, so let the squeamish beware.

I feel dirty for even mentioning Oprah, but since she's the one with access, I'll also link to her website, where another video tells of Nash's daily routine.

Spiders and Insects Enlarged

Andrew L. pointed me to the work of Thomas Shahan, a student who takes beautiful photographs of arthropods. Here's Shahan on the Today Show. I wish they had let him show more of his work, but not to worry: here's his work on Flickr.

An Urban Hawk

Reader Steve V. sent in these photos taken by his friend Mike H. They show a hawk perched on a minivan in the middle of a grocery store parking lot in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. It has just taken a rabbit, which can be seen in its talons. Camp Hill has a population of 3552 people per square mile, so this is not the sort of place you'd expect a hawk to feel comfortable. You can see people standing surprisingly near, and Steve tells me the area lies among active roads and stores. Mike snapped the photos with his cell phone.

Steve wonders about hawks adapting to hectic city life. I've never seen anything quite like this with hawks, but I do recall some city encounters with other birds of prey. Once while my family and I were driving in suburban St. Paul, a bald eagle took a squirrel from the road right in front of me. We were going about 50 miles per hour, and I thought I would hit the eagle. It was so close to my car that I lost sight of it as it dipped beneath my hood. However, it rose immediately, unharmed, and as we swept past I saw the gray squirrel motionless in its grip.

Fatal Coyote Attack

Taylor Mitchell, a young folk singer on tour in Nova Scotia, has been killed by coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is the only case I know about of coyotes killing an adult, though others have bitten adults, and one killed a toddler a few years back.

The usual cause of coyote attacks on adults is rabies, but disease doesn't seem to be the case here. Instead, this looks like a predatory attack. Like many of the big cats, canids can go through a period of experimentation as they part from their parents and move into new territories. They need time to find out what sort of animals make suitable prey. During this experimental phase, they can become dangerous to people.

If they have discouraging encounters with humans, or simply don't encounter them, then they are unlikely to trouble people later in life. That's why the unsuccessful actions of police in this case may prove surprisingly effective. The attack didn't succeed in getting the animals a meal, but it did result in humans scaring the coyotes away and wounding one of them. Coyotes are social animals. They communicate fear of humans to other coyotes.

Public reaction in cases like this usually comes down to a debate between two points of view. Some folks would like to see the animals killed. That's apparently what the RCMP has in mind at this point. They've already killed a coyote, though they don't feel sure it's one of the attackers. If they do hunt down the attackers, they'll be undoing the good they've already accomplished in the initial skirmish. The attackers can't communicate the idea that humans are dangerous if they're dead.

Other folks prefer to see the animals left alone, believing that an animal acting according to its nature shouldn't be persecuted. Ms. Mitchell's mother has already said that her daughter, a lover of nature, wouldn't have wanted to see the coyotes killed. (Thanks to reader Carole N. for the news tip.) That alternative does nothing to discourage further attacks on people. Considering the perverse workings of human politics, the laissez-faire style of wildlife management may eventually result in mass cullings.

It's a brutal truth that terror is the probably the best answer to a problem like this. I realize that opinion isn't likely to please anyone, but to me, neither extermination nor further attacks on people is a good answer either. By scaring away predators and teaching them to avoid people, we save the lives of humans and animals. Scaring them might include such simple steps as making noise when one hikes. It might involve more brutal methods: wounding or killing animals that do attack. I used to see coyote carcasses draped across barbed wire fences. It was a way for farmers and ranchers to tell other coyotes where the danger zones lay. That primitive method is certain to repel city sensibilities. Its only virtue is that it seemed to work as a deterrent.

But why not work toward a more humane solution? The smell of dead animals can be bottled. The sensitive nose of a canid can detect it at a considerable distance. If we mark wildlife trails with the scent of dead coyotes, we may reduce the likelihood of attacks.

I should note that the coyotes of Eastern Canada and New England are sometimes considerably larger than the ones I knew on the Great Plains. The smaller coyotes in most parts of North America are less dangerous than the ones Ms. Mitchell encountered. Biologists suspect the Northeastern ones are hybrids of gray wolf and coyote. The coyote (Canis lupus latrans), like the domestic dog, is a subspecies of wolf, so they can interbreed.

Taylor Mitchell's music can be heard on MySpace. Her plays look to have tripled since yesterday, doubtless driven by news of her gruesome death.

A Chimpanzee Hunt

An 1870 entry in the journal of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone contains this interesting remark:
The soko kills the leopard occasionally, by seizing both paws, and biting them so as to disable them, he then goes up a tree, groans over his wounds, and sometimes recovers, while the leopard dies: at other times, both soko and leopard die.
The "soko" he's talking about is the animal now known as the chimpanzee. In recent years, pet chimps have bitten the hands or fingers off several Americans, including a Connecticut woman earlier this year. This behavior would seem to be a way of disabling the claws of enemies.

The picture is from Livingstone's Last Journals. It shows a hunt he witnessed, in which the local people killed four chimps. Here's his account:
An extensive grass-burning forced them out of their usual haunt, and coming on the plain they were speared. They often go erect, but place the hand on the head, as if to steady the body. When seen thus, the soko is an ungainly beast. The most sentimental young lady would not call him a "dear," but a bandy-legged, pot-bellied, low-looking villain, without a particle of the gentleman in him. Other animals, especially the antelopes, are graceful, and it is pleasant to see them, either at rest or in motion: the natives also are well made, lithe and comely to behold, but the soko, if large, would do well to stand for a picture of the Devil.

He takes away my appetite by his disgusting bestiality of appearance. His light-yellow face shows off his ugly whiskers, and faint apology for a beard; the forehead villainously low, with high ears, is well in the back-ground of the great dog-mouth; the teeth are slightly human, but the canines show the beast by their large development. The hands, or rather the fingers, are like those of the natives. The flesh of the feet is yellow, and the eagerness with which the Manyuema [the local people] devour it leaves the impression that eating sokos was the first stage by which they arrived at being cannibals; they say the flesh is delicious. The soko is represented by some to be extremely knowing, successfully stalking men and women while at their work, kidnapping children, and running up trees with them--he seems to be amused by the sight of the young native in his arms, but comes down when tempted by a bunch of bananas, and as he lifts that, drops the child: the young soko in such a case would cling closely to the armpit of the elder. One man was cutting out honey from a tree, and naked, when a soko suddenly appeared and caught him, then let him go: another man was hunting, and missed in his attempt to stab a soko: it seized the spear and broke it, then grappled with the man, who called to his companions, "Soko has caught me," the soko bit off the ends of his fingers and escaped unharmed. Both men are now alive at Bambarré.

The soko is so cunning, and has such sharp eyes, that no one can stalk him in front without being seen, hence, when shot, it is always in the back; when surrounded by men and nets, he is generally speared in the back too, otherwise he is not a very formidable beast: he is nothing, as compared in power of damaging his assailant, to a leopard or lion, but is more like a man unarmed, for it does not occur to him to use his canine teeth, which are long and formidable. Numbers of them come down in the forest, within a hundred yards of our camp, and would be unknown but for giving tongue like fox-hounds: this is their nearest approach to speech. A man hoeing was stalked by a soko, and seized; he roared out, but the soko giggled and grinned, and left him as if he had done it in play. A child caught up by a soko is often abused by being pinched and scratched, and let fall.

Grizzly Jumps Hunters

In British Columbia, a grizzly bear inflicted minor wounds on a couple of hunters. The men were sleeping in their tent when the bear attacked. After their skirmish, the men backtracked and discovered the bear had been stalking them for some time.

Most grizzly attacks don't start out predatory. They're more likely to happen when people surprise the bear or approach its cubs. That's why playing dead sometimes works: the bear isn't looking for a meal, it just wants to intimidate. Unfortunately, once the action starts, a grizzly sometimes decides to make a meal even if it didn't start out looking for one. That's why playing dead doesn't always work.

Alligator vs. Golfer

You've heard of hazards on golf courses? In South Carolina, a 77-year-old golfer trying to retrieve his ball lost his arm to an American alligator. Here's an article about the gator-versus-golfer issue. It mentions several other cases.

Discover Lichens

The November issue of Discover has an article of mine on the lichens of the Ozarks.

Black Bear Attack

A Pennsylvania woman was killed while cleaning the cage of an American black bear. Her children and others summoned a neighbor, who shot the bear to death, but the woman had already been mortally wounded. The woman and her husband apparently kept various exotic animals. Several news stories mention a Bengal tiger and a lion. Another mentions that they kept a jaguar and other exotic cats in the past, though it's not clear whether these are still on the premises.
[Thanks to Steve V. for the tip.]

Elephant Attack

The African elephant is the most formidable animal on land. It isn't always interested in hurting you, but when it is, it does the best job. A British tourist recently had the merest hint of this fact on safari. The link takes you to a story with a gruesome picture of his injured leg. This is a minor injury for a person who's tangled with an elephant. When I was writing Deadly Kingdom, my publishers asked me in literally hundreds of passages to tone down the violence and gore. (I wasn't being gratuitous; animals mauling people just isn't a uniformly cheerful topic.) A lot of those disputed spots were in the elephant chapter, and they involved such phrases as "his head exploded" and "plucked off his limbs."

Moon Bear Attacks

Here's a report and video of a recent incident in Japan: a moon bear beat the hell out of nine tourists, then was shot dead by hunters. The moon bear, also known as the Asian black, Tibetan, or Himalayan bear, is about the same size as the North American black bear, topping out at about 330 pounds, but this seems to have been a small one.

The report says, "It is unusual for Asian black bears to attack humans so it is unclear what prompted the creature to go on the rampage." Actually, the only mystery is why it attacked the first man. After that, another man beat it with a stick. When the bear grabbed him, people tried to help by scaring the bear off with their car horns. A scared bear is a dangerous bear.

Like its North American cousin, the moon bear occasionally eats people. Bile farmers also get mauled once in a while. Yes, I said bile farmers. Bear bile is supposed to have medicinal properties, so farmers keep the animals in pens and drain their bile with catheters. In a 2005 case, half a dozen moon bears got their paws on a bile farmer named Han Shigen. They tore him to pieces and were in the midst of eating him when police arrived. Every career has its pitfalls, I suppose.

Related Posts:

Russian Bear Attacks

Grizzly Kills Man at Yellowstone

Zoo Bear Mauls Man (Not for the squeamish)

Bear Attacks in the News (Attacks galore)

Wolf and Coyote Attacks

A hunter received minor injuries when a wolf attacked him near his campsite on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska. The hunter's brother killed the wolf; its carcass tested positive for rabies. The hunter will be fine.

Meanwhile, coyotes bit a couple of folks in Los Angeles. These seem to be very minor incidents. Coyotes have occasionally tried to snatch children in Southern California, even killing a girl in one case, but they are generally more dangerous to pets than people.

Lamprey attacks

Most of the primitive fish known as lampreys spend their childhoods as filter-feeders, taking nutrition from the organic scraps floating in the water. As adults, many lamprey species turn parasitic. A lamprey latches onto a fish with its sucking mouthparts, then gouges into its flesh with teeth and a tongue like a drill bit. It drinks the blood of its host and sometimes grinds up muscle tissue as well. A lamprey attack can kill its host.

The species pictured above, the sea lamprey, may be familiar to many readers for its well-publicized invasion of the Great Lakes, where it has depleted indigenous species like lake trout. Recently, though, the sea lamprey has made its return to the Balkan Sea. The lampreys announced their return by attacking a couple of swimmers. Lampreys are a fairly minor danger to a creature with hands to remove them--but the removing isn't much fun.

Agelinid spiders

My son Parker came back from a state park the other day with these images. The spider is a member of the family Agelinidae (I'm not sure which species). This kind of spider builds a sheet-like web with a funnel-like retreat at the edge. Most of them, including this one, are harmless. A potentially dangerous member of the family is the hobo spider. It's been accused of causing necrotic lesions like those that sometimes result from the bites of the brown recluse.

Not-So-Canid Attacks

An Indian newspaper reports that four people were hurt by a jackal. This would be the species known as the golden jackal, which has the roughly the same size and eating habits as the American coyote.

A canid launching seemingly pointless attacks like these is almost surely rabid. The article mentions another jackal hurting 20 people a couple of months ago, and there are a few deaths from jackal attacks in the historical record. Jackals are not considered dangerous to people except when rabid.

(I wrote about jackals in the Middle East in The Red Hourglass.)

UPDATE: The Times of India is now blaming a hyena, not a jackal, and the attacks have continued. A few years ago in India, a rabid striped hyena injured 70 people. These animals are about the size of German shepherds, but their jaws are more powerful. They occasionally prey on children. These, however, are clearly not predatory attacks. They would seem to be the work of a rabid animal in the mad phase of the disease. It will die soon; the only question is how many it will hurt before it does.

Brief video of a striped hyena captured on a US military base in Iraq:

Video of a striped hyena eating:

Canine Attacks

A couple of canine attacks in the news this week. First, a fox attack. I don't often mention the antics of rabid foxes, because they're so frequent it would get tedious. A fox isn't big enough to prey on people, but in the throes of rabies, it will bite without provocation. But here's a new twist: a woman was sitting on her porch swing when the fox attacked, and she was rescued by her cat!

Coyote attacks on people are far less common. This week's happened in a yard in Fort Smith, Arkansas. This, too, was probably a case of rabies. Coyotes have (very rarely) launched predatory attacks on people.

Witches' Butter

Here's a nifty fungus I found growing in the woods near my house. It's called witches' butter, but to me it looks like macaroni and cheese. Legend has it that this is the vomit of familiar spirits who run about at night in the form of cats, doing errands for witches, pausing here and there to gorge on whatever food they find.

I've been especially interested in fungi these last few years, ever since I looked into cedar apple rust for Discover. The same magazine will soon be publishing an article of mine on lichens. A lichen is a symbiotic life form consisting of a fungus--and its slaves. I'll keep you posted.

Photo by Parker Grice.

Our Friends, The Viruses

Long-time readers know how much I love parasitic wasps--those nifty insects that lay eggs on some other creature. The egg hatches, then eats its host alive. I wrote about some cockroach-killing parasitic wasps in this article. If memory serves, I also wrote about the spider-killing kinds in The Red Hourglass.

Another kind of parasitic wasp specializes in aphids. Scientists have recently made fascinating new discoveries about these. The aphids can develop an immunity to the wasps with the help of a virus. The virus doesn't parasitize the aphid itself, but the bacteria that live in its gut. The scientists haven't figured out all the mechanics of this situation yet, but it's a startling development. It means an animal can develop an advantageous trait simply by carrying the right virus.

More about Predatory Dogs

Here's an article that gives some useful context for predatory attacks by dogs, like the one that happened in Georgia recently.

Jungle Cats

The jungle cat (Felis chaus) has to be one of the worst-named animals. It lives in swamps and on shores and river banks. It turns up near all sorts of puddles, from oases to irrigation ditches. Its range covers most of southern Asia as far east as Vietnam and as far west as Turkey, as well as a stretch of the Nile delta. Like the coyote, it's comfortable near humans and will take up residence even in cities.

The jungle cat eat rodents, hares, reptiles, amphibians, guinea fowl and other birds, insects, and even young wild boars and chital deer. It will dive to catch fish. Humans have little to fear from it—unless they adopt it.

In recent years, breeders have been selling as pets a hybrid of jungle cat and domestic cat, called the chaussie. Predictably, these hybrids have clawed and bitten a lot of people. In 1995 one pet jungle cat seriously mauled a two-year-old girl in Downer's Grove, Illinois.

More information about jungle cats.

Eaten by Dogs

An elderly couple found mutilated on a Georgia road apparently fell victim to a pack of dogs.

Dog attacks are remarkably common in the US. I get about a dozen news stories about serious attacks in my Google Alert every day. About 800 thousand people seek medical treatment for dog bites in a given year. But most dog bites come about when the dog is trying to defend its territory or establish its dominance. (Children, by the way, are the most common victims, not only because they're vulnerable but also because a dog may perceive them as lowest in the social hierarchy and easiest to dominate.)

Though dog attacks are often covered in newspapers and on news sites, we rarely hear mention of the dog as a predator of people, probably because our "news" sources have been trained not to offend us. Nevertheless, dogs do eat people, even in major cities in the US. It's hard to get police and others to talk about these extremely upsetting events, but it would appear that predation, when it occurs, usually follows an attack prompted by the other motives I mentioned. This attack in Georgia looks fairly unusual; it may be a simple case of predation.

Mass Predation

The saltwater crocodile, a mass man-eater
Here's an interesting article about history's worst single incident of predation on humans--or was it?

The incident in question is the slaughter of hundreds of Japanese soldiers by saltwater crocodiles in the mangrove swamps of Ramree Island during World War II. As the article mentions, even greater numbers of people may have been taken by sharks after naval battles of WWII. The largest well-documented incident of mass predation is the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the South Pacific in 1945. Hundreds of men died in the water from various causes, with perhaps 200 taken mainly by tiger, mako, and oceanic whitetip sharks. The oceanic whitetip, pictured here, may have eaten more people than other species in recent history, considering its habit of turning up at shipwrecks.

Oceanic whitetip shark

Black vultures

In response to my post about the turkey vulture, reader Steve V. told me about his experiences with a similar species--the black vulture.

Steve and his dog Rosie were hiking on the Appalachian Trail a few years ago when they spotted the vultures, apparently teaching their offspring to fly--by pushing them over a little cliff. Repeatedly. And then walking them back to the top. Steve and Rosie saw the vultures many times that year and even found a foul-smelling cave where they nested.

Here's one of the pictures Steve took.

(I'm always interested in first-hand accounts and original photography of wildlife.)

Turkey Vultures

These incredibly cool animals have been on my mind lately. I happened to pass one nestled in the grass beside a country road the other night. At first I thought it was a wild turkey—we have a lot of those in rural Wisconsin where I live now, and it pays to slow down when you see one. Besides getting a better look at the turkey, you might save your windshield. But when I got close I could see this was a turkey vulture, hunkering down there to eat something—I couldn't tell what. Then, within a couple of days, I came across this account of the species by Dr. W. J. Ralph, who's quoted in Lydekker's New Natural History. (Thanks to D'Arcy for lending me this classic book.):

When they find a dead animal they will not leave it until all (but the bones and other hard parts) has been consumed, and if it be a large one, or if it have tough skin, they will often remain near it for days, roosting by night in the trees nearby. After they have eaten—and sometimes they will gorge themselves until the food runs out of their mouths when they move—they will, if they are not too full to fly, roost in the nearest trees until their meal is partly digested, and then commence eating again. Many times have I seen these birds in company with the black vulture floating down a stream on a dead alligator, cow, or other large animal, crowded so closely together that they could hardly keep their balance, and followed by a number on the wing. In spite of this close crowding, they never seem to fight much when feeding, although one will at times peck and hiss at another; and at times two will tug at a particularly tough fragment, until it either break or the weaker bird gives up his hold.

Turkey vultures occasionally dive-bomb people, particularly people on bikes. In a weird case from 2004, one of them latched onto a guy cruising down a New Jersey highway on a motorcycle. He was trying to fight it off when he crashed into a car and was killed.

Related Post: A Congregation of Vultures

Bug-Bite Slide Show

Here's a nifty set of pix showing some insects and arachnids--and the effects of their bites. The information is oversimplified, but the photos are terrific. The one here shows a tick digging in.

Would you buy this book?

Here's the proposed cover for Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. I think it's pretty cool, but would be interested to hear your views. Would this cover make you pick up a book and consider buying it?

Top: The front
Below: The back.

The book is now set to hit stores on May 4 next year.

Black widow vs. Windscorpion

Here's a terrific photo sequence on black widow spiders. Among the menu items here is a windscorpion (here called a sun scorpion, which is a new one on me, and also known as a camelspider). I wrote about the interactions of these two arachnids in The Red Hourglass.

Death Cycle Part 6: The Conclusion

In the morning the chickadees took fright. They went scattering among the pines and took shelter there, invisible but loud. The squirrels took up the alarm next, machine gunning their screams across the yard.

The cause soon soared into view: two birds of prey, so high their colors were uncertain except for their creamy bellies; but even at that height they looked massive. One of them rolled beneath the other. They fell as they coupled, losing only a little elevation before they broke apart again. They coupled again and again, all the while tending north. When they had gone, it took the smaller denizens of the yard a good loud while to recover their composure. Only the butterflies, little fellows the color of, well, butter, seemed unaffected. They stumbled across the yard like oblivious drunkards. There were bits of cottonwood fluff in the air, a luxuriously slow snowfall.

The dead squirrel remained on the roof of the shed. As he dried, he was coming to look like a twisted strap of red leather. The flies and wasps were at him again. Each time I returned with my camera, the mosquitoes drove me away within a few minutes. The mosquitoes are clumsy this year, slow, much later than usual. It was only in the past few days that they started to bite me effectively. Mosquitoes embody the truth that you can never observe something without changing it. They were only active near the carcass because I was there looking at it, smelling delicious.

Speaking of smells, the carcass was beginning to stink. This problem had never been far from my mind. Even at our house, the smell of decay is not welcome in the yard. I realized I might have to abort the experiment to save my marriage. However, the problem was about to be solved for me.

All afternoon I worked at my desk, looking out of my basement window from time to time. No scavenger big enough to see appeared, though I heard the crows of the neighborhood as usual. At five in the afternoon, I looked out and couldn't see the carcass. I figured the shadows of the pines had made it harder to see at that hour, so I didn't rush out to investigate. When I finally did go ambling out an hour later, I found nothing of the dead squirrel except those few gobbets of jaw.

I searched the surrounding flower beds and grass and woods. Nothing. Even its smell had vanished.

What took it? It's tempting to suspect those awesome hawks, but I'll bet we'd have heard some real noise from the chickadees and live squirrels if a hawk had dropped that low. I'm pretty sure the shed roof is out of reach for the neighborhood cats, because when I first tried to set up a crow feeder I had to experiment to find a place where cats couldn't take all the meat. I'm putting my money on the crows, but I suppose I'll never know.

Sorting the Daddylonglegses

Before I barrel on with the ending of the dead squirrel thing, I thought I might take another stab at clearing up the daddylonglegs question, since people have asked about it. Basically, three totally different animals have been called by the name dadylonglegs:

1. Spiders of the family Pholcidae. These spiders are notable for their defensive habit of vibrating as if possessed by demons. If you don't believe me, find one in its web, poke it, and see what happens. They are also called cellar spiders, but so are lots of other things, so don't get me started.

2. Crane flies. These guys look like over-sized mosquitoes, but they actually make up their own family of flies.

3. Harvestmen. These look a lot like spiders, but actually belong to a different group of arachnids. In the picture here, you can see that the body is not divided into two different sections, which would be the case with a real spider. These critters are the ones I wrote about yesterday, so scroll down for a couple more pictures of them if the spirit moves you.

None of these animals hurts people. (Yes, I know this is supposed to be the dangerous animal blog; sue me.) All of them come up in versions of a myth. Supposedly, they have some devastating venom, but can't break human skin with their delicate mouthparts. It's not true of any of them. The spider can definitely bite a human, as I somehow managed to get myself bitten once, but it only hurt for a second.

Death Cycle 5: The Nocturnal Scavengers

At four in the morning I went out with a flashlight to look at the dead squirrel. It was 58 degrees, a good 20 degrees cooler than it had been in the bright day. A rim of lighter gray ringed the sky, but it was still essentially dark. I heard some sort of night birds singing before I went out, but everything went still when I stepped onto the porch. I thought of circling round from the front again, in case big sensitive-eared or –eyed scavengers like cats or raccoons were at work, but I didn't really feel much like going out at that hour and took the lazy man's approach, slipping a bit on the dewy grass.

As I approached the carcass, I heard no noise and saw no movement. The flashlight revealed far more damage than at last look. The head seemed to have been turned inside out and the upper body was massively depleted. It had all dried into a red topography. At first I saw nothing on the carcass, but then a dreamy, unfolding movement caught my eye. It was a harvestman. I looked closer to see what it was doing. It squatted, or rather lowered itself on its many legs, and seemed to be drinking or nibbling from the flesh. And then I realized harvestmen squatted all over the carcass, their bodies lowered to let their mouthparts latch onto the flesh.

The harvestman, also called a daddylonglegs, is often mistaken for a spider, but it's actually a different kind of arachnid. Like a spider, it has eight legs, but the main part of its body is an oval with no obvious divisions. (A spider has two body sections.) To add to the confusion, the name daddylonglegs is casually applied to some spiders and even crane flies.

I see harvestmen often in my yard, spindly-legged fellows hard to distinguish from the rotted leaf-stems they walk among. I have seen them clustered like a clump of mud under a dripping spigot. Sometimes a tangle of string hanging from the fence turns out to be a cluster of harvestmen; they run scattering at a touch. If I accidentally step on one, it will run away, leaving a leg or two behind. The disembodied legs spasm as if fighting a rear-guard action.

The harvestmen have no silk and no venom. They differ from most arachnids in being able to swallow not just liquids, but also solid chunks—for example, bits of flesh. They are said to repel attackers with a bad-smelling fluid, but I've never noticed the smell. In fact, I've never noticed much about them. For years I had the impression that they subsisted only on plant juices. Then I read that they scavenged a bit as well and even took small arthropods as prey. That made them seem worth investigating, but further years passed while other organisms held my attention. Henceforth, I'll be paying closer attention to harvestmen. Now I know what they get up to in the night.

Death Cycle Part 4: Dentistry

A crow was eating the squirrel an hour after we put it atop the shed. It seemed to work mostly at the head. From indoors, we saw it pull out gobbets. We took photos through the windows, since we knew opening the door would probably scare the crows away. Eventually Griffin and I tried to sneak outside for better pictures. We went out the front door, which was on the far side of the house from the carcass, and along a row of pines my kids call Mushroom Pass, but we weren't sneaky enough. As we approached, the crow hopped up to the highest part of the shed's roof, then swung casually away. I never got a clear shot.

On closer look, we could see three gobbets of flesh, each about an inch across, littering the shed roof. The squirrel carcass had been pulled around to a different angle. We had a good look at its bloody face. We still didn't see any real damage, though the gobbets made it clear that some had been done. While the crow was eating, I had the impression it might be digging in through the mouth, avoiding the difficult job of breaking the hide. A crow is lousy at tearing hide, and in fact will sometimes guide a bigger scavenger to a carcass so it will do that work and leave the crow some scraps.

A crow swung by about 20 feet up as we stood near the shed, as if checking to see whether we'd gone. We heard another crow calling, irritably as it seemed to me, apparently in communication with the first. I was afraid our presence might contaminate the scene, make the crows reluctant to return even after we'd left. On the other hand, I've seen crows standing on the same deer carcass beside a bald eagle, so they aren't exactly timid. I also recall a time when Beckett left his sandwich on a picnic table. He noticed crows nibbling at it, so he chased them off, waving his arms and screaming. While he was telling Tracy about it a moment later, she saw the crows a few feet behind him, carrying the slices of bread away.

Later on, I found that those morsels of flesh extracted by the crow had dried a bit. One remained a mere vague lump, but the other two were now recognizable. Both were parts of jaws, lined with little molars. One of them had a big rodent incisor far forward of the molars, with a characteristic rodent gap where many mammals would have a canine tooth.

Next: The Nocturnal Scavengers.

Death Cycle Part 3: The Insects

Within half an hour of its death, the roadkilled squirrel was agleam with golden-green blowflies. They clustered especially around the bloody face. I could see them packing themselves into the mouth. Others were clustered under the belly. Maybe the squirrel had been wounded there, though I hadn't noticed any wounds when I placed the carcass on the roof.

Blowflies are often the first scavengers to arrive at a kill. They can smell death from miles away. Their mission is not only to eat, but to lay eggs. Their maggots often do more than any other animal to dismantle a carcass. In hot weather, their eggs may progress to larvae and then to pupae in only a few days.

I wasn't surprised to see the flies, but I was surprised by what I saw flying among them. It was a yellow-and-black wasp. I don't know the name of the species, though I've seen it many times buzzing innocuously around my yard. It's a smallish wasp, hardly bigger than the blowflies. I'd really never even been concerned about its sting, because I see so many more formidable wasps. I'd also never given much thought to what this kind of wasp eats.

As the wasp flew around, it seemed remarkably clumsy, because it kept colliding with flies. I thought it was trying to muscle through the flies for a better feeding position on the carcass. Then the wasp and a blowfly fell struggling to the shed roof, grappling on the shingle. In a moment the wasp flew away, graceful now, and the blowfly was in her grip. Since they were roughly equal in size, I was surprised the wasp could lift her victim and cruise away with such apparent ease.

The wasp, or one who looked just like her, returned and took another victim. This time I saw her flying among the flies but didn't see her grapple with one. She flew away and I thought she was going empty-handed, but as she turned in the air I saw the dark gleam of a blowfly.

A wasp, depending on its species, make several uses of a fly. Some worker wasps chew up other insects as food for the young of the hive, spitting it directly into the waving mouthparts of the larvae. Among solitary wasps, many paralyze other arthropods with a sting, lay eggs on them, and seal them up in nest of some sort. The hatchling wasp larva then eats the victim, usually without killing it for a long time.

I saw several of these wasps at work over the course of this little adventure. They were the first scavengers to arrive when light came the next day, three of them struggling to get into the squirrel's mouth or under its belly. I wasn't sure what they were doing at that point, since there were no blowflies to prey on at that cool hour. They may have been eating flesh from the carcass. Or could they have been interested in the eggs and larvae of the flies?

There's more to come, including a startling scavenger in the night.


Death Cycle Part 2: The Squirrels Hold a Funeral

After we put the roadkilled squirrel on the roof of the shed, I went inside. Half an hour later, there was news. Tracy said the squirrels were pitching a fit. She added, not necessarily seriously, "They're holding a funeral."

I went outside. At first I had a hard time hearing them. Someone was mowing a lawn, and my sons Beckett and Griffin were on the patio knocking their action figures into the wading pool; a blue jay was complaining about something, and a crow barked like a chainsaw with asthma. But then I heard the squirrel voices, some small and soft, some louder. They all chanted in short steady barks. They took breaks, but the pattern once they started up again was the same, a monotonous and steady chant. I walked out toward the shed, keeping an eye open for squirrels. The sounds told me I was getting closer. When I neared the shed, all but one soft squirrel voice stopped. That one voice was close, and I spotted its source on a pine branch near the shed. It was a small squirrel, its fur very red and fresh-looking.

Until then I hadn't really thought about what species of squirrel I'd tossed on the shed. It seems clear, though, that it was a gray squirrel, whereas these chatterers, or at least the one I could see, were American reds. These species are enemies. The little red kept chirping. It seemed to be looking down at the carcass. When it saw me, it didn't panic, but slowly moved away along the branches until I lost sight of it.

I hadn't at all anticipated this reaction from the other squirrels of the neighborhood. How to explain it? Before I realized the chatterers were a different species, I had imagined they were spreading news—"Hey, Charlie's dead!"

A little reading tells me that scientists have made some headway in understanding squirrel communication. Apparently, when grays chant slowly, it means some danger has passed. I don't know whether the reds have a similar system, but I suppose it would make sense here—they noticed their enemy was dead and they told their friends.

As I stood looking that first afternoon, the live squirrels thrashed around in the trees near me quite a while. At one point a little rain of pine needles fell as some violent motion stirred the branches. I saw the little red several times. The picture shows—well, nothing. They were always too fast for me. The next morning, Tracy reported a lot of squirrel chatter from the yard, with some fast, high voices and some slower, deeper ones. They all fell silent when the crows began to call.

However, a lot happened before that. More in my next installment.


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