Thursday, November 29, 2007


Dear Critter Readers,

How are you? Happy last day of November!

Lately I have been thinking of eels. My sis JB mentioned that she disliked eel sushi; I concur. Then eels were featured on the "New Scandinavian Kitchen" show on PBS. Maven recently mentioned one of the hosts, Claus Meyer, on her blog. Finally, I think Elian used tiny eels in some of his Spanish-flavored cooking last year on "Top Chef".

We must learn about the eel, don't you think?

This is the American eel, Anguilla rostrata.

Taxonomically, eels are an Order of the fish family Class Actinopterygius, or ray-finned fishes. There are about 400 species of eels throughout the world. Eels usually live in either shallow water or very deep (up to 4,000 meters down!) in the ocean. Some reside in holes, called, mysteriously, eel holes. Many eels are most active at night and bury themselves in sand, pebbles or other materials during the day. Most eels are carnivorous, and the eels in North America and Europe are beneficial as they are scavengers as well.

American eels, are most commonly found on the east coast of the United States, around Chesapeake Bay and and the Hudson River. Females are larger and can reach four feet long and weigh up to seven pounds. The upper, or dorsal fin connects to the lower, or anal fin, creating one large fin covering the end of the eels body. Two small pectoral fins aid in maneuvering. Eels have very small, fine scales.

For a long time, no one knew where baby eels, or leptocephali, came from. Small eels, or elver, were found at river mouths, and adult eels were found inland in Europe and North America. After searching for fourteen years, the Dutch scientist Johannes Schmidt finally discovered the birthplace of eels in 1922. By measuring the size of eel larvae, Schmidt determined that the tiniest leptocephali were found in the Sargasso sea, an area of two million square miles within the Atlantic Ocean. He hypothesized that the eels must breed there, but no one has ever seen adults near the surface of the Sargasso sea, so scientists assume they mate deep in the water.

But check it; not only are American eels found out east, but also HERE IN MINNESOTA! The Mississippi River is home to these wriggly guys, along with Lake Superior and even rivers in South Dakota! Eels are catadromes, that is, creatures that live in freshwater but must breed in the ocean. So, all eels here in Minnesota have traveled all the way from the Sargasso Sea near Burmuda! And all of them will travel back there to breed at the end of their lives!

Sargasso Sea = Far away from Minnesota. The numbers and millimeters listed above refer to the size of the leptocephali as they eat plankton, grow and travel away from their birthplace.

Isn't that crazy? Eels have permeable skin which allows them to survive brief overland excursions between rivers. Some kind people even put "eel ladders" alongside dams, which allow the fish to wriggle further upstream. Sometimes eels congregate together to form masses, which can move more easily over obstructions. Obviously, dams, loss of wetlands and hydroelectric plants can disrupt the flow of eel travel. While they're not endangered, conservationists have placed eels on a list of threatened animals.

The European eel! Doesn't he have a cute face?

Unfortunately, eel nooky remains mysterious. Let's start with the adults. After about ten years in freshwater, eels somehow know it's time to travel back to the Sargasso sea. They start gorging themselves with food, because during the journey, they gradually stop eating, and their digestive tracts eventually wither away. The eels turn silvery in color and their eyes grow, and some people call them "big eyes" or "silver eels" at this point in their lives. Scientists don't know what happens once the eels reach the ocean. It is known that female eels can release millions of eggs at a time. Males must fertilize the eggs, but no adults return to their freshwater homes after mating.

For a long time, eels in the larval stage, the leaf-shaped leptocephalus, were thought to be a unique species of fish.


Newborn leptocephali are only 6 mm long, and eat plankton. As they grow to several inches in size, baby eels are called elver, or glass eels. They are very popular as a food source during this time. Once they are large enough, the American and European eels (which appear similar, but are genetically and physically different) begin their journey back to an ancestral river. Scientists don't know how they navigate so specifically. Floating on ocean currents, the American elvers take about a year to reach freshwater, while the European eels take around three years to hit the British Isles and the European mainland.


Recently, eels have become more desirable as a food source; Japan and Germany are huge consumers of the fish. While the Japanese have been using aquaculture to raise eels, (they have their own breeding ground near Japan) a parasitic nematode in that species has started to infect the European and American eels. The number of glass eels has dropped in recent years, and like all oceanic fish, eels probably face serious issues as the climate changes and the demand for fish increases.

Have any of you caught an eel? Seen one? Maybe I should get a pet eel for my aquarium! Remember, eels are not the same as eelpout, which are a member of the cod family. Eels are also a band! Check out this L.A. group here!

Aren't eels fascinating?


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Critters of today.

How are you? Did you have a good Thanksgiving? Ours was lovely. As promised, here are photos once again illustrating the cuteness of our nephew Baby B.

He is getting a tooth.

Note how Baby B resembles R:

Our drive to and from the B family estate was filled with hawk sightings. I saw a bunch on several thrifting excursions. (I had the most luck at the Unique Thrift Store on Rice and Larpenteur...but if you need ice skates, ski boots or skis check out any location.)


Last night we decorated our Christmas tree:
I think it needs a string of red beads or something. It's bigger than last year's and maybe could use more lights, too. Can you see our fluffy white polar bear ornament?!

Today I spotted several birds and a squirrel in the backyard.

Chickadees are so cute!

Also, peckity pecking:
Either a downy woodpecker or a lesser woodpecker; I couldn't tell.

The squirrel by our driveway was very fat. It begged the question; where is the fattest gray squirrel in the U.S.? Wouldn't you like to see it? The squirrel then climbed up a tree and disappeared onto the roof of our apartment building. I wonder if they've ghetto-rigged a cable TV up there, and are currently keeping track of the football game, munching on acorns. You never know!

Have you spotted any critters lately?

I must say I'm excited to go back to work. I have about two stressful weeks left and then the semester will be over and...unemployment! Hopefully I can find a jorb before the spring semester starts up. Maybe the squirrels up on the roof will need a cocktail waitress for holiday parties, or something.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Critters in your house/Spiders

Greetings and Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you all have wonderful plans for the holiday. R and I are having a sleepover at the B homestead tonight! That should be fun, and I'm sure I'll be able to post some adorable photos of our nephew, Baby B! It's great spending time with family, but one of my favorite Thanksgivings was spent with my grad school friends, eating a gourmet spread and hanging out all day.

Currently my entire ass-leg is on fire from the "Straight Up Strength" class I took at the gym yesterday.

It's a big week for Critter News!

Squirrels: The Revolution Begins.

An innocent goat is killed!

Related to today's critter entry; a arachnid larger than a person!

So, what critters are currently in your house? Here's a photo collection from our own apartment building.

Dead millipedes in the front entryway. I think they've been killed by spiders; but what are the millipedes doing inside anyway? I wonder if they eat tiny plant particles indoors or something.

Some Asian beetles, hiding in this paint chip next to the upper landing light fixture. Don't they look cute and cozy?

One of the few remaining box elder bugs in our stairwell. I hope he didn't notice this:

Eeee! The box elder bug graveyard on the carpet of the landing! (Our apartment does not have a caretaker, can you tell? Also, can you guess who is the only person who has been vacuuming the stairwell? Um, not lately.)

On to the Critter Feature: Spiders. Yesterday, there was a lovely spider in the shower with me; I wish I would have taken a picture because today it has disappeared. Like some of my other entries, arachnids are a huge category and I'll just present an overview today. R and I like spiders, and usually allow them to share our apartment; they might get squished if they are crawling across the comforter or something.

This sac spider was my guest in the shower yesterday, I think.

Within the Arachnid Class, spiders are part of the Order Araneae, which include scorpions, mites and ticks. Scientists have placed 40,000 species into 111 families, but think there may be 150,000 more species yet to be identified or discovered!

Spiders are physically different from insects in that they have two segments instead of three. In spiders, the head and thorax are fused together, which results in what is called a cephalothorax. The thin "waist" of most spiders is called a pedicle, and allows it to move freely in all directions. Unlike the faceted compound eyes of insects, spiders have eyes made of a single lens. Most spiders have eight eyes, but some have six, four or two. Depending on the nature of a spider, they will either have very poor or very sharp vision. As you can expect, jumping spiders and net-casting spiders need excellent eyesight to pounce on their prey! Some web-making spiders rely more on the vibration of their web than the visual scanning of potential meals.

Here is a cute jumping spider, common in the Midwest:
I see six eyes, what about you?!

Spiders have varied ways of breathing. Some have what are called book lungs, because of their folded appearance. These folded layers, probably evolved from gills, allow for oxygen absorption. Some have a tracheal system, where openings along the body, called spiracles, allow oxygen (moisture, etc) to enter the arachnid and reach the tissues using tubes called tracheoles. Hemolyph, the blood of arachnids, doesn't carry oxygen, which some scientists think limit the size of the spiders. (Hmmm, check out the news headline above for crazy arachnid size!)

Spider nooky is very interesting! A male spider will build a small platform of web and ejaculate onto it. Then he places special bulbed pedipelps (small legs) into the sperm and sets off to find a female! Again, depending on the eyesight of the species, he might go into a complicated mating ritual (wolf spiders or jumping spiders) to let the female know he is not a candidate for dinner! Some males even offer the females a morsel, like a dead fly for example, to quell her hunger before he approaches! Once the male has safely approached the female, he places his pedipelp inside her epigyne, or female opening. The sperm is then stored until it comes in contact with the eggs. There are many species of spiders that engage in cannibalism after mating, most famously black widow spiders, but sometimes a male black widow will live on the female's net for several days after mating. Scientists think the death of the male after mating is good for the species, as the males don't help raise the babies anyway and at least he can provide a good meal for the pregnant female. After all, she is carrying his DNA.

A giant house spider in the W family ancestral bathroom:

Spiders have three steps in their life cycle; embryo, larval and nympho-imaginal; during the latter the spider enters into sexual maturity.

All spiders are predators and most bite their prey immediately upon contact. The venom either liquifies the interior of the prey or paralyzes it with a neurotoxin. Spiders mostly can eat only in a liquid form, but some spiders with especially strong chelicerae (fangs) will chew edible parts of an insect. Some spiders can spit their venom! There are about 200 species of spiders that can harm humans, but many more that can cause a painful bite.

The main feature of the spiders abdomen are its spinnerets, which spin the silk. Spider webs take on many forms:
* Funnels
* Trapdoors
* Tangled mazes
* Diving bells
* Burrows
* The standard spiral web

Spiders live all over the world, from the Arctic, to my shower, jungles, caves and the highest mountains. The largest species are from the tarantula family, which can grow 3.5 inches long with a legspan of 10 inches; the tiniest species are only 1 millimeter in size.

A close-up of the giant house spider.

Fun fact: Daddy longlegs, or harvestmen, are part of the Opiliones family of arachnids, and contrary to the popular wive's tale, actually don't have venom. They actually chew their food, and are more omnivorous than other spiders. FYI.

Well, have you learned about spiders? I know some of you are scared of them, and I definitely don't want one to bite me, but they are excellent bug killers. I keep them around my crib in the hopes that they will kill one of these:

Pumpkin pie,

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Warthog!

Greetings and welcome to my new website! Obviously I will be making some changes to the template, etc., so thanks in advance for your patience.

Yesterday I competed in the Metropolitan Opera Regional Council Auditions. I think I met my goal of feeling good about the performance; I was so proud as I left the stage! The judges had positive things to say as well. Friends AA and BB were among the prize winners.

Critter News:
Bad Monkey!

Save the Turtles!

Mice and roaches love expensive restaurants!

When I was in elementary school, I was a geek. But there was another girl, perhaps even MORE of a nerd, who called me a name that has scarred me to this day. She called me a "warthog". This was a source of humor for my whole family. So today, let us learn about this creature, and together, decide if I resemble a warthog!

Part of Order Artiodactyla, or even-toed ungulates (along with deer, camels, etc.) warthogs are part of Family Suidae, which includes pigs and hippos. These sub-Saharan pigs are the sole members of the Genus Phacochoerus, although some scientists group them in two species, P. africanus and P. aethiopicus.

Fer cute!

Can you see the four "warts", or protuberances on the warthogs head? These animals range from three to five feet long, 30 inches high and weigh 100 to 330 pounds. The following National Geographic photo clearly shows the two sets of tusks. See how the top tusks curve upward in a half circle? Apparently the lower tusks, which are straight, are the more dangerous of the two sets, as they are polished into razor-sharpness by the upper set. Warthogs use their teeth to dig, as well as protection from predators and to fight each other during mating time.


A group of warthogs is called a sounder! Usually a sounder consists of several sows and their piglets, totaling three to 10 animals. The sounders usually have a range of about 150 to 950 acres, consisting of open areas as well as forested ones. Active in the mornings and evenings, the pigs might travel four miles per day in search of food.

Warthogs enjoy every kind of food, from grasses that they kneel to eat, to carrion, to roots, tubers and rhizomes, fungi, berries and even small animals. While their vision is poor, warthogs use their sense of smell to find food and keen hearing to sense predators.

Enemies of the warthog include humans, lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and cheetahs.

While warthogs will fight to protect themselves, more often than not they will run and hide, as they can't run as fast or as far as other prey animals, such as antelope. Even so, a warthog can run over 30 miles per hour! Warthogs utilize hideyholes, which they dig themselves, or more often steal from aardvarks. The pigs back themselves into the holes, so they can burst outwards with tusks bared for attack!


Warthog nooky takes place at the end of the rainy season (spring). Male sounders will join the groups of females as they're coming into heat. The animals are promiscuous and fights break out amongst the males as they compete for fertile ladies. About 165 days later, at the beginning of the next rainy season, the piglets are born. The momma warthog will kick out her former litter, and line her burrow with grass to keep the babies warm. Usually two to eight piglets are born, but warthogs only have four teats. Each baby clings to the same teat each time he nurses, even if one of the nipples is being unused. Other nursing mothers will accept orphaned babies, however, especially if the mothers are related. The piglets nurse for four months, but get most of their nutrition from grazing by two months.

Like other animals that must survive hot climates, warthogs have adjusted to withstand a higher body temperature. They are the only pigs that can survive without water for several months! Because they are lean and have only bristly hair, warthogs conserve heat and stay cool inside of their burrows.

Aren't warthogs cute!? I like them, and feel less sad about being labeled as one during elementary school than I used to!

A few months ago R and I watched a really cool show about pigs gone wild, here in our very own USA! The thing about domesticated pigs is that they are the same as wild pigs, and quickly grow hair and tusks upon escaping into the wild. The range of these big wild pigs is rapidly growing northward. See, these North Dakota pigs don't look too different from their African warthog cousins!

Except the piglets have those adorable spots and stripes OMG cuteness!

Have a good week!
Warthog Wendell