Friday, September 28, 2012

Eight legs at a time

Last week, In Search of Ponies focused on the plight of the male tarantula, a common sight along New Mexico roadways as they go ambling by on their grueling pilgrimages to find a mate.

Though intimidating to look at, the basically harmless tarantula is probably one of the most misunderstood critters out there and we are fortunate to have such a unique creature living in our neck of the woods.

There's lots of interesting information available about tarantulas and they are certainly intriguing, so before you squish, take a minute to learn a little more about them.

Here is a great video featuring Dr. Ralph Charlton, invertebrates curator at Albuquerque's BioPark:

New Yorker Sam Marshall grew up to be one of the foremost experts on tarantulas after seeing one during a family vacation to New Mexico. Check out this interesting story in which he shares a ton of information and explains his passion for the eight-legged ones:


Deadly mission

As featured Sept. 22, 2012, at

Even as they make their way through the world, so narrow is their focus that it’s unlikely they think of, or even notice much of what goes on around them.
In fact, they’re so preoccupied; it’s no surprise when they walk calmly into traffic.
Don’t let their rangy, menacing appearance scare you — truth is their looks really have nothing to do with you and everything to do with function.
Enduring excruciating heat, often without the relief of water, they make their way through rough and unforgiving terrain, surrounded by enemies and pushing forward to complete their life’s mission.
And while they travel up to 50 miles to accomplish that mission every fall — a seemingly insurmountable distance when it’s being covered four inches at a time — the irony is that after expending all that energy and effort, if their work pays off and they reach their destination, the success will likely be punctuated by death.
A few days ago, one such gentleman froze and crouched down against the pavement as vehicles passed overhead.
Older, or battered by his journey, or perhaps a little of both, the fur on his eight legs was patchy and sparse, with dry skin showing underneath and more skin showing through the hair on his abdomen.
But he sparked to life when shooed, scurried into the cover of grass along the ditch and carried on.
One of those unique residents that don’t go further east than the Mississippi, there are approximately 50 species of tarantula in North America, nearly 900 in the world, and none are considered deadly to humans.
Known for their docile nature, that’s not to say they’re entirely helpless.
They can bite, but usually don’t. Instead, tarantulas subscribe to the walk softly school of thought because they do carry a big stick.
When highly agitated, they are capable of kicking the hair off their abdomens toward an enemy, the small, barbed particles float through the air and into the nose, mouth and eyes.
Comparable to itching powder, the hair attack just gives an adversary something else to think about while they get away.
If there is a flaw in the gentle crawlers, it might be the fact that, alas, tarantulas live and give their lives for the ladies.
Most all tarantulas spotted out and about are mature males in search of their soul mates, and few communities have a tougher dating scene than the tarantulas.
Hidden away in burrows, the females wait to be found.
But just being found doesn’t mean the stars align and the rest is romance, because if she doesn’t approve of her suitors, they still make a good snack.
If they manage to win her affections, there’s a good chance they will still make a good snack after adding a branch to the family tree and even those fortunate enough to walk away from a job well done aren’t exactly in the clear either.
Trudging exhausted, back from whence they came, they make easy marks for the wasps, lizards, snakes, birds and others who find them delightfully nutritious.
In light of all that, it seems a bit unnecessary to go out of the way to smash them under a shoe, even if it’s too far a stretch to appreciate them on their own merits — after all, certain death awaits them anyway, if they’re just allowed to pass.
Or for the more daring, take a moment to look past the itchy hair, long legs and fangs to give a little attaboy as the multi-eyed face of determination and perseverance marches by, eight steps at a time.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Taking the lead

As featured Sept. 15, 2012, at

When you let your child follow you with the grocery cart, it’s usually not a matter of “if,” but more a matter of “when” you will feel the inevitable impact on your heels.
Much the same, only to a larger degree of severity, having a 900-pound animal stepping in your shadow can be a little unsettling.
With nothing but a single, symbolic rope between you and said animal, it is natural to wonder, “what if he takes off?” “What if he steps sideways?”
Leading a horse is one of those simple little tasks that are easily taken for granted and dismissed — one of those tasks that those who work with horses never think a thing of.
But for someone who’s never walked with a horse before, or who has a sudden strike of anxiety at the realization of the strength and size difference on the other end of the rope, that simple task can take on an edge.
And walking forward, it is natural to wonder why an animal that outweighs you 10-1 would follow peacefully, concerns which can lead to an angling of the body, timid steps and glances over the shoulder to be sure there’s no danger of a painful flat tire.
“Do you know where you’re going?” the instructor’s voice rang out as we made our way.
The horse was edgy and anxious, pushing forward then veering here and there, turning the short walk into a battle as I pulled forward on the rope one second then tightened it to slow him the next.
“The arena,” I answered.
“Well every time you look back, you’re telling him you aren’t sure of the path,” she replied.
I hadn’t even consciously realized I was doing it until she pointed it out, but I suddenly became aware that I was turned toward the horse so I could keep an eye on him.
Moving forward cautiously, sure enough, I was watching to be sure he didn’t clip my foot with his hoof or suddenly charge into me, which seemed completely logical and safety conscious — until she put it like that.
“Square your shoulders, look forward, and walk like you know the way,” she said. “He’ll follow you.”
She proceeded to explain that while I may have thought it safer to keep an eye on him, I was inadvertently creating a flawed and unsafe dynamic.
Inherently adverse to exerting effort, most horses would rather follow than lead, a trait they usually only deviate from if their safety comes into question.
And my mistrust and lack of confidence in the animal was being communicated as uncertainty and a lack of confidence in general. The horse, in turn, felt the need to be in front and to take the lead to ensure his own safety, a natural preference to following someone who seemed confused about the direction and who was, in every way possible, conveying danger ahead.
Mustering faith, shoulders squared and eyes forward, I focused on the arena and moved as if I expected he would follow — and he did.
The anxiety dropped out of the rope, his head relaxed, and he plodded beside me a completely different animal.
It wouldn’t have even mattered if he’d been led somewhere specific, or just taken for an aimless stroll, as long as the one at the front moved with confidence and purpose.
However, those behind one who doesn’t appear to know the way won’t be there for long.
Whether they balk, zig zag, veer or charge ahead, survival dictates they will search for a way to control their own fate — because leading the way has nothing to do with which end of the rope you are on, rather, it has everything to do with the way you lead.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

There are reasons dogs chase their tails

As featured Aug. 25, 2012, at

Everybody loves a tail chaser.
C'mon, admit it. You know you laugh when they turn in those tight little circles, round-and-round, over-and-over again at a dizzying speed.
Apparently it's “normal” to laugh.
Of course people know on some gut level that spinning around in circles trying to catch one's own backside is a bit redundant but there's something entertaining about watching a dog give it all they've got as if oblivious to the fact they already have control of the prey.
In fact, a researcher with the Royal Veterinary College in England found that when she watched 400 videos of dogs chasing their tails on YouTube, people could be heard laughing in 55 percent of them.
And, as if the laughter didn't say it, people demonstrated how much they liked it when their dogs got stuck in a loop by encouraging them to spin-on in 43 percent of the videos sampled, and a further 20 percent helped out by tugging or otherwise manipulating the dog's tails.
Every now and then a little tail chasing is normal, the researcher noted, particularly with puppies, who often attack that thing that sneaks up and taunts them from the peripheral.
A full minute of spinning, which was the average time most dogs were filmed, with an uninterruptible drive and in some cases obvious injuries, not so much.
Actually, it appears that spending copious amounts of time fixating on and going around in circles trying to catch something that is out of reach is completely illogical and not healthy.
Even more, it is a symptom of something else being amiss.
Researchers have found that the majority of dogs that chase their tails relentlessly are not getting sufficient exercise and are often starved for attention, so yeah, in a round-about way, they are doing it for entertainment and it is a self-made treadmill of sorts, but not in a good way.
Not only has chasing one's own tail has become a human cliché to represent unhealthy obsession and an inability to let go of a useless pursuit, a team of Finnish researchers at the University of Helsinki have recently confirmed it to be much the same for dogs.
In fact, it appears there are significant parallels between the behavior and human obsessive-compulsive disorder. Released last month, the study found that dogs who chase their tails are more likely to be shy, separated prematurely from their mothers, have suffered a trauma in their childhoods, they tend to exhibit other anxiety behaviors and it all begins in the first three to six months of life.
In addition to environmental triggers that seemed to somewhat explain the behavior, they also found that dogs who receive vitamin supplements and are neutered are less likely to chase their tails, though a dog's gender does not appear to determine the severity or likelihood of the behavior.
The study is being hailed as having opened the door for further studies, in part to see if there may be answers for human OCD sufferers and will surely lead to more research on genetic and other factors that cause obsession and compulsion.
In the meantime, while studies are still being conducted and scientists explore the cliché from both the human and canine sides of the spectrum, it is still possible to gain some wisdom.
First and foremost, posting videos of dogs chasing their tails on YouTube has caught the attention of the great minds in our society and while it is possibly on its way to being as politically correct as giving sugar to a diabetic to entertain one's friends, you'll have to decide for yourself if it's worth the upload.
But perhaps most importantly, science has proven that running around in circles while trying to catch up with your own backside is not productive or healthy and probably merits a visit to an expert, either veterinary or otherwise, as appropriate.
To-date, however, there has been no correlation made between known conditions and putting peanut butter on your dog's nose. Carry on ...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Animal messages can be messy

As featured Sept. 1, 2012, at

Sometimes things are just plain misleading.
Take, for instance, a BBC video titled "Giant panda does handstand."
Oh sure, it's a film following a giant panda around the woods, and yes, he does a handstand, but there's a little more to the film than a cute bear doing acrobatics.
To be more precise, the film consists of four action-packed minutes of panda bathroom rituals, which do include the panda doing a handstand — with the sole purpose of positioning himself to "go" higher up on the trunk of a tree.
Thankfully, an accompanying story described the scientific knowledge gained from observing the potty patterns of Sir Panda, namely the fact that not only do pandas stand on their front legs to direct their stream higher, they're also surprisingly selective about the trees they choose to tag, choosing trees with rougher, "deep tread" bark, presumably so the scent markings have more longevity.
And the handstand?
Well, by positioning the scent marking higher on the tree, researchers believe it is likely to reach out further through the forest. Since pandas, whose populations are incidentally dwindling, use their scent markings to communicate personal information to one another, such as age and gender, they want those messages to get out far and wide.
Pandas, as we all know, aren't the only ones to use their naturally given "spray paint" to write each other notes or advertise within their communities. In one way or another, most animals recycle their byproducts as a messaging system, whether it's to warn an enemy away, post city limits signs, or put out a singles ad.
Of course it doesn't really impact humans (except for the ones that unknowingly click on the video) if a panda does a handstand to raise the spray, but just because an animal is "domesticated" doesn't mean they stop "communicating" and they can do it in some pretty creative ways.
Learning about the inventive rituals of the panda instantly brought some other creative critters to mind.
While the rest of the herd would traipse to the far corner where they had a designated "in box," there was the horse that would lick his food bucket clean, then return the dish full.
It didn't seem to matter where the bucket was placed, on the ground or hooked to the fence, he went to great lengths, and at some points surely had to have stretched and aimed with great effort, to make sure it was never empty.
A cat who learned open suitcases meant lonely days ahead, always made sure his opinion was known and at the same time, found devious ways to be sure he packed a surprise of his own.
Frustrated that the big white machines cleaned all the scents away, one cat made it her mission to seek out laundry baskets and another cat found a dark corner under a bed to write messages in private.
While the manners of civilized humans adhere to the latter method, to most critters, sending messages in private is just plain old illogical.
Naturally, when it comes to the house sharing communicators, there must be compromise in order to reconcile the disparity in styles and thus we have devised clever boxes filled with perfumed rocks for them to mail their letters and sometimes we even run around behind them with baggies, presumably collecting the messages to send later.
But when compromise collapses and there's an unexpected communication, it could be we're not getting the point.
Sure, it could be as simple as, "I couldn't wait," but it's also possible the paper towel swipes are eradicating the greatest love letters of all time or an exceptionally polite thank you note that reads, "Hey, thanks for all the grub. I don't have much, but please accept this token of my appreciation."
Don't be too hard on the messenger.