Creature of the Week #8: the Budgerigar

Coming to you a bit late this week — I kept picking this up late at night, then holding onto it for hours when folks are more likely to actually be awake. 😉 Hope that you all have had a good week, and hope that all of you on the east coast are staying safe.

This week’s Creature of the Week is one of the most widely known pet birds in the western world — but some quick announcements first!

If you’re into podcasts, interviews, fantasy, video games, gryphons, or fun hosts, you might want to check out this podcast interview courteously given by Shaun and Jen at Skiffy and Fanty. Origins of Andovar, and (I think) its place in the greater world of fantasy fiction, with nods to player rights, gryphons, escapism, and more.

A few reviews came in this week: [info]rdansky‘s review is in the lovely latest issue of Bull Spec. It’s not in the sample this time, but the issue (like the others) is well worth purchasing. Shaun of the aforementioned Skiffy and Fanty has also posted a review of Sword of Fire and Sea up at his blog, in which he says, in part:

In many respects, Hoffman’s balance between adventure, manipulated cliche, and character make for a compelling novel that is a lot of fun to read. Personally, I am not an adventure fantasy fan, and I have a very short leash for the trappings of the fantasy genre. But Sword of Fire and Sea navigated those trappings in a way that allowed me to get lost in the excitement.

Finally, Jon Sprunk has some kind words for Sword, available on Amazon or GoodReads:

Erin Hoffman’s debut shows a remarkable deftness in storytelling and beautiful language. Some of her descriptions are so good they actually made me stop and read them again just to appreciate the lilt of the prose. This is an adventure story with heart.

If you enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea, you might also enjoy Jon’s Shadow’s Son, assassin-focused fantasy with a rich world and characters I liked and connected with immediately. (And really, who isn’t down with the stabby-stabby? Jerks, that’s who.) Amazon seems to like to pair our books together.

Now back to the budgie!

Chances are you already know what a budgie (formally “budgerigar”) is, even if you call it a “parakeet” — but there’s also quite a lot you might not know about them. They’re colony breeders, and remarkably tough for such little birds — high survival attributes that also made them very adaptable to captivity. Their small size and relative ease of care also make them very common pets. Perhaps because they are so common — and inexpensive — their intelligence is not widely recognized, even though they’re among the smartest birds in the world.

Larger African Grey Parrots (like Vasya) and performing Amazons are well known for their intelligence and ability to mimic — but to this day, the bird with the largest human vocabulary in the world (an amazing 1,728 words documented by the Guinness World Records) was a budgie named Puck. By comparison, the famous Alex the African Grey — who at the time of his death was learning to read and understood the concept of zero, among other feats — had a vocabulary of only about a hundred words.

The use of the budgie’s remarkable mimicking ability in the wild has also been studied with regard to communication in a budgie flock. Budgies in the wild live in gigantic colonies of up to thousands of birds. Considering each bird’s amazing ability to communicate and express a huge variety of sounds, the patterns of sound communication through a budgie flock can be fascinating. Studies have been done on budgie flocks where scientists isolate a handful of birds, teach them a unique sound pattern, then release them back into the flock. The instructed sound pattern will be mimicked throughout the flock, passing through it like a wildfire — for a certain time. The birds teach the sound to each other, but then one bird will modify the sound and pass along the modified version — kind of like a game of “Telephone” — and the sound mutates it, turning it into something else, and the old version dies out entirely. These morphing patterns of communication and sound have been compared to human slang, or could be compared to any sort of memetic communication (lolcat, anyone?). Not only can budgies rapidly learn sound patterns and teach them to other birds, they make up their own language tokens and spread those as well.

So, in addition to having some of the most amazing eyes in the animal kingdom (almost all birds are tetrachromatic in addition to seeing ultraviolet and having amazing motion perception), budgies in particular have amazing ears, and hear at a rate of approximately 10x faster than humans — which is why their warbles sound so garbled to us! Slow that sound down and you experience it more like a budgie, the Micromachine Man of the bird world. Budgies also have a superhuman ability to recover from deafness if the cilia in their ears are damaged (in a human, such loss is permanent).

Birdsong in particular has been studied by several genera of scientists for centuries, both for its communication insight and for sound processing. Studies have shown that not only can small “twittering” birds hear at radically different rates than we can, their brains enable them to sift through types of sound much more efficiently than ours, enabling them to hear each other and communicate across long distances even in noisy environments. Think about that the next time you consider calling someone “bird-brained”!

While its ubiquity in homes all over the world makes it easy to underestimate, the budgie is an amazing creature, worthy of consideration and care. Sometimes the most amazing features of nature are right where you least expect them!

Creature of the Week #7: The Immortal Jellyfish

This week’s creature comes a little later in the evening than usual, but it’s still Friday! Hope you all are having a good one.

Third place on the World of Andovar voting page was “Something from the Sea”, so here this week we have the immortal jellyfish!

Usually when a creature has an evocative name like “immortal” it isn’t intended literally — not so in the case of the biological-rules-defying immortal jelly! These critters are thought to be literally immortal, cycling their life phases from mature back to youthful infinitely.

All jellyfish belong to the Cnidaria phylum and have at least two life phases: mobile swimming medusae (which we recognize as the iconic jellyfish) and stationary polyps. The jellyfish life cycle typically starts as a little cyst ejected from a mature swimming jellyfish that latches onto the sea floor, grows into a polyp, possibly multiplies, and then the polyp breaks up into multiple layers, each of which becomes a mature medusa.

Once the adult medusa has lived out its life and spat out some eggs (or sperm) to create the next generation, it usually winds down — reproducing a few times and then dying. Some medusae live only hours. The bizarre and amazing immortal jellyfish, though, does something different: once it has cruised around as a medusa for awhile, it skips that whole death thing and turns back into a polyp.

Scientists have verified this transformational ability — which is similar to a starfish regrowing its arm, but unique in the known biological world in that the entire animal is regenerated — in the lab, but because jellyfish are so migratory (and because Turritopsis nutricul is so tiny — only about 1cm in adulthood), determining one’s full age in the wild has not yet been possible. BUT all the immortal jellies around the world are genetically identical. And they’re spreading.

So here we have one of the strangest things in the sea, a single species of jellyfish that has not only figured out how to defy death, but may be the biological equivalent of grey goo. Sorry nanotech — nature beat you to it! I have a feeling Philip K. Dick would have loved this creature.

Creature of the Week #6: The Burrowing Owl

Welcome to Creature of the Week #6! First a public service announcement: Sword of Fire and Sea is live on Amazon Kindle! It’s been up for about a day and has popped onto a “top 100” list, so many of you have found it already, but this is a more persistent heads-up. 🙂 Two nice reviews have also come in, one from Scott Barnes at NewMyths.com, who calls SWORD “a swashbuckling fantasy adventure reminiscent of the golden age of high fantasy dominated by the likes of Terry Brooks and Tad Williams.” He also offers up an observation on fantasy politics:

Hoffman has created a fun world populated by gryphons, elemental witches, pirates, and goddesses. I greatly enjoyed the maritime setting, the salty air and cry of gulls never far from my imagination. Many high fantasies ignore commerce all together, as if the economies of their worlds ran on warfare alone and food grew in people’s bellies. But Hoffman’s world is based on politics and trade and the correct assumption (very relevant in today’s political climate) that people in power have the most to lose from change and often will accept a worse fate for their countries in exchange for the status quo.

Thanks, Scott!

This week’s creature was also chosen by voting on the the World of Andovar page! It is, in a way, a hybrid of the two top vote-getters, being both “something from the sky” and “something from down below the earth”: the fabulous little burrowing owl. These guys are so cute that it’s hard to pick just a couple of photos of them, but I did my best.

Burrowing owls have attracted recent attention from conservationists as habitat destruction has driven them into endangered species status in Canada. They’re threatened in Mexico, and under observation in the western US, which comprises the rest of their range. According to Defenders of Wildlife, their wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 breeding pairs.

The burrowing owl isn’t the smallest owl in the world (that’d be the elf owl, but it’s pretty close! With length averaging between 6-10″, males and females being the same size (unusual in raptors). Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are not completely nocturnal, and hunt (insects and small rodents mostly) during the day. They strike prey with their feet, and makes its nest in holes dug out of the ground. Baby burrowing owl chicks can fly at six weeks of age, and make a rattlesnake-like hissing noise when threatened.

Cute enough for the silver screen, the latest highly recognizable Hollywood burrowing owl is Digger, first appearing in Kathryn Lasky’s The Capture, and one of the main characters if the stunning Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole AnimalLogic film.

What do you think? Would you want to meet an owl gryphon?

Just saying… 😉

(Okay, can’t help it. Some more photos, these guys are too cute.)

Creature of the Week #5: The Olm

What, you didn’t catch the last fourteen creatures of the week? They were stealthy, ninja-like creatures, beneath the reckoning of the lugubrious internet.

…Okay, I was finishing Lance of Earth and Sky, in addition to work and blah blah blah blah, so there was a bit of a creature pileup. But it’s back, and better than ever! Thank you to those (surprisingly many of you) who emailed or messaged asking when the next one would be. <3

This week’s creature was chosen by the World of Andovar! You wanted it, you got it! The race was a close one, but “Something from Down Below the Earth” edged out “Something from the Sky” by two votes. So, this week, meet the mighty Olm!

As you can see, a photograph of the olm (Proteus anguinus), a blind cave-dwelling amphibian from southeastern Europe, could easily be mistaken for a sighting of Falcor, the dragon from the Never-Ending Story (the film anyway; if you haven’t read the book, you really should, it’s wonderful!). In Slovenia, when flash flooding from rains would fill the caves and wash helpless olms (also appropriately called “white salamanders”) to the surface, people thought that they were baby dragons.

Olms are troglobites: they live exclusively underground and have adapted to completely dark environments, in the olm’s case to the point of getting rid of eyes entirely. Most troglobites are spiders, fish, and insects; in addition to being unusual as an amphibian troglobite, the olm is an unusual amphibian in that it is exclusively aquatic. With its pink external gills and stubby almost useless legs (it has only ten toes on its entire body; six in front, four in back), it spends its entire life in underground pools (making it also a stygobite, a sub-class of troglobite that is aquatic).

The study of cave biology in western culture is relatively recent, but still fast-growing, and, like creatures that live in the deep sea, valuable in that it broadens our standards for the environmental conditions that can sustain life. The phenomenal pressure and coldness of the deep sea was for centuries thought to be empty and sterile, but chemosynthetic life and ecosystems thrive around hot vents in the earth’s crust. Similarly, one of the most recent expansions to our ‘standard’ for habitable environments comes from chemosynthetic cave life. In Romania, not far from the olm’s habitat, there is a cave called Peştera Movile (“Movile Cave”), discovered in 1986, containing life that has been separated from the rest of the earth for the last 5.5million years — an underground Galapagos! And because there was CO2 and hydrogen sulfide, but almost no oxygen, the life there — all 48 species of it — is chemosynthetic.

The discovery of chemosynthetic life, and species that exist and thrive in environments we mammals can’t imagine, has fueled speculation that there may well be life within our solar system, beneath the ice of Europa or, most recently making the news, in recently-discovered flowing liquid saltwater on Mars.

One of my favorite fictional explorations of this expanding-boundary expression of biology is Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life”, which, because it was nominated for (and later won) the Hugo in 2002, you can read on Analog’s website (or in his superb collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow. Looking at the olm, ghostly subterranean dragon, it isn’t hard to imagine that life can be stranger than our wildest alien expectations.