nature

Tender-hearted, sharply quilled

First things first: I have no idea whether porcupines are actually tender-hearted. They're very solitary animals - they have those fancy quills for protection, so don't need to live in groups for safety. Maybe that's part of why I like them so much.

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Just yesterday, I saw a porcupine in a tree while running on our bike path in town, and so I decided it was as good as time as any to give a few interesting facts about our prickly friend. As the second-largest rodent in North America (the beaver is first), they seemed deserving of a post. Plus, they held the title for longest living rodent (27 years) until a naked mole rate turned 28. Alas.

First a clarification: there are Old World porcupines that live in Europe, Asia and Africa; these guys are mostly bigger (one type weighs up to 60 pounds) and stay on the ground. But I'm going to focus on the New World porcupines that live in North American and South America. They're a bit smaller and are really good at climbing trees. So if you want to spot a porcupine, try looking up.

Porcupines are stout, round creatures, and have several defense tactics. Their quills are the main one, a type of "aposematic" defense (which just means predators can see the defense and so are warned). Their 30,000 quills are sharp, hollow, modified hairs that are coated in thick plates of keratin. Contrary to popular belief, a porcupine cannot shoot its quills at you, so you're safe getting somewhat close. But if you touch a porcupine, its needles slide out of its own skin and into yours quickly. Since the needles are barbed, they are a challenge to pull out. Just ask my dog.

When mating, porcupines hold their quills down so no one gets hurt. But porcupines keep antibiotics handy (in their own skin) to deal with repercussions of the inevitable tree fall.

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Also interestingly, when they raise their quills, it makes a white stripe along their dark brown or black body, similar to a skunk. Porcupines can release their own stink and do so as another warning, after they've raised their quills and chattered their teeth. If all else fails, they can attack, positioning their prehensile tail towards the predator and swinging it to get as many quills as possible lodged into the predator's face and body.

Porcupines are slow-moving, nearsighted and most active at night. Supposedly, they are also smart. One source said they can learn a complex maze and remember the solution up to 100 days later.

If you're lucky enough to see a porcupine, take a moment to observe it. You don't have to watch for long, as it likely won't move fast or far. But it's still pretty cool. After all, how many animals are covered with a coat of long, prickly needles? One more thing my writerly self likes about them, as it seems important to maintain a tough exterior when doing anything creative. And yet just as important to keep your insides soft.

 

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photos from Creative Commons/Pixabay

Life that glows

As a child, I loved watching fireflies light up the dark corners of our backyard. But I never thought to ask how a little bug could make it's very own light. 

Photo by  Smoken Mirror  on  Foter.com

It turns out that making light all comes down to energy and some special molecules (luciferin, and the enzyme luciferase). Those words both come from the Latin "lucifer" or "lightbringer." You might recognize "Lucifer" from the Bible - he was the angel who wanted to be more powerful than God and ended up falling from heaven to hell.

But back to glowing things (which also include certain mushrooms and marine creatures): the luciferin molecule uses energy to react with oxygen, and the luciferase enzyme speeds it all up. Through the reaction, electrons in the luciferin molecule are excited, or have a little more energy than normal. When the electrons relax and go back to their normal state, that extra energy is released as light.

Amazingly, this whole process of bioluminescence is super efficient: most of the energy (up to 80 or 90 percent) is transformed into light. An incandescent lightbulb, by comparison, transforms less than 5 percent of the energy it receives into light (90 percent turns into heat), while LEDs come in at 20 percent. So while a lightbulb gets warm when it glows, fireflies and mushrooms do not.

For fireflies, the light can help attract mates and show predators they don't taste good. For mushrooms, a recent experiment showed the light may help attract insects, which then help spread the mushroom's spores.

Unfortunately for me, there's nothing glowing in the high rockies - I'll just have to Youtube glowing creatures to get my bioluminescence fix. Unless I can grow these myself...

 

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image credits: Photo by Smoken Mirror on Foter.com