Nature’s Weirdest Events

greenhoneyPresented by Chris Packham, this programme had a bit of a The X Files feel to it, like it was investigating paranormal mysteries, but the point of it was that these events are perfectly natural rather than supernatural.

Trees bleeding have long been an effect used in the horror genre. It looks very creepy to us, seeing blood pouring from a tree when it has been chopped down. On one example mentioned a churchyard in Pembrokeshire had people coming to visit a yew tree which was said to bleed. But it isn’t blood at all, even though it performs a similar function. It is in fact sap that trees use to heal a tree when it is injured, and it sometimes appears red when it comes into contact with open air.

In the Cameroon, in Africa, is the wolverine frog. Like the X-Men character,  they have skeleton which break through the skin on their hands to act as weapons. The males are also covered in what looks very much like hair, but is actually skin.

Some of the things discussed in the programme were in the vein of those “and finally” amusing stories you sometimes get at the end of TV news, such as the ones about elephant seals coming from the sea onto beaches, very far away from Antarctica, which is usually the only place they go on land.  The two examples here were one case in 2000 in New Zealand and one in Brazil in 2013, and in both they didn’t just go on the beach, they went far in land. The New Zealand one began wrecking any parked car in its path. It was speculated to be due to the fact it was October, which is in the elephant seal’s breeding season, so he was more aggressive and trying to prove himself as the alpha male. The one who ended up in Brazil was shown going down a zebra crossing, on a road with a lot of traffic.

One of the most shocking stories was of a golf course in Australia which has some man-eating sharks in its lake! Most species of fish can’t live in both freshwater and sea water, but apparently bull sharks can. The big question was how they managed to get into a landlocked lake in the first place. It conjures up cartoonish visions of a shark’s fin tearing through green grass, but of course it wasn’t that. There was a flood from a river which leads to the Pacific ocean, and it’s likely that some young sharks were washed into the lake, where they’ve thrived as there are plenty of other fish for them to eat. The golf course like the fact they have such unusual inhabitants in their lake though. We saw the very surreal sight of golf club members feeding the sharks pieces of chicken the way a lot of people feed bread to ducks in ponds!

In the UK we will have heard of urban foxes stealing from bins, and in the US it’s not uncommon for racoons to do so, but in this programme we saw a bear stealing whole dumpsters and another bear breaking into a chocolate shop!

In March 2013 in Washington in the US, a boat was washed up covered in seaweed and sea creatures, was called by the narration a “floating aquarium”. It even had a live fish in there, which turned out to be a striped beakfish, which are found in coral reefs of East Asia. When the boat was cleaned it was discovered from the lettering on there that it was from Japan, and it was almost certainly the 2011 tsunami in Japan which caused it to end up on an American beach. The fish may have been born there or hitched a ride.

Tumbleweed is perhaps most well known as a staple of Wild West films, to show a place and/or time is quiet and desolate, and nowadays has become such a cliché it is more used for comic effect, often to show for example someone’s joke not going down well and in places where you would never find tumbleweed. But in Bakersfield, a small town in California, tumbleweed is far from solitary and quiet. There was an invasion of them, an avalanche of massive ones moving across roads and covering people’s gardens. Tumbleweed is plentiful in this area. Most of the time they are fairly indistinctive green shrubs, but in winter they dry out and become a yellowish ball. Then the wind snaps them off their stem, and they scatter thousands of seeds as they roll along. Believe it or not, tumbleweed isn’t actually native to America, but was bought over by Ukrainian settlers in the 19th century.

Many of the creatures discussed in this programme were sea creatures. They often seem “weird” to us, because the rules of living in seawater are so different to the rules of living in land and air. They also can look like they have alien origin, as many sci-fi writers took inspiration from sea life.

On a beach in Argentina, one day hundreds of strange translucent eggs with something moving inside were found washed up on from the sea. They certainly looked like something that could have been alien, but they in fact came from a marine snail, Adelomelon brasiliana. They also weren’t single eggs as such, but were more of a “nest”, capsules containing several eggs.

Divers in Tasmania saw a peculiar glowing blue tube, which looked very like something which could be alien. It turned out that it wasn’t an individual creature, but a pyrosome, a colony of animals stuck together.

The immortal jellyfish was mentioned, as it can reverse the aging process. Jellyfish have two stages in their life cycle, a polyp and a fully grown Medusa, but with this particular jellyfish it can revert back to a polyp and start the process again. Over and over again.

A fishing boat in 2010 in Alaska caught a giant pacific octopus, we were shown a video of it managing to escape by squeezing through a small hole, much smaller than its body. Octopuses are related to molluscs, oysters and snails, but unlike those they don’t have a shell. They don’t have a skeleton either, their only hard part is their beak, which is on average about 5cm. So as huge as an octopus can grow, if their beak can squeeze through somewhere, the rest of it can. Also mentioned was the mimic octopus, which, rather like a chameleon, can change colour to camouflage, and it can go further than a chameleon can by even imitating the shape of other sea creatures.

Speaking of chameleons, some in Madagascar, brookesia mica, have been found which are very small, they can fit on someone’s fingernail. It was theorised that because they live on an island, it favours those who do not need as much food.

Getting washed up or caught from the sea is one thing, but fish coming out of water of their own accord? It has happened. In Florida, catfish were shown crawling on land after a storm. It’s similar to when the first amphibians evolved from fish. The expression “fish out of water” is true, as most fish die because their gills are equipped to extract oxygen from water, not from air. They also can’t move on land. This particular type of catfish is different, it can go on land as long as it has a lot of water along the way. They were show swimming in puddles then crawling on pavements. This is bad news for people who have fish ponds as the walking catfish go there and eat them. They go from pond to pond, waiting for a heavy rainstorm so they can move on again.  

Catfish also turned up in a later episode, in Southern Europe. While this species can’t survive on land, they can go up to river banks and catch and eat pigeons! As we well know, the predator/prey dynamic between birds and fish usually has the birds as the predators. But what is strange is how some crows have managed to go about catching fish. Crows and rooks apparently have larger brains in areas such as memory than many birds, and seem to know about delayed gratification as opposed to instant gratification. In this programme we saw a crow using bread fed to it by humans as bait to catch fish. They worked out they can use the bread to get a better meal than if they just ate that bread there and then.

Animals forming bonds with other species was seen recently in Animal Odd Couples, and this programme referred to something in that programme, Della the Irish farm cat who adopted some ducklings. There was another case discussed in this programme of Sonya, a cat in Russia, who adopted three baby hedgehogs. It’s also known for cats to adopt rabbits and squirrels. This programme again said that in the case of Della and the ducklings, it was the animals instincts plus brilliant timing that caused it to happen, the cat having recently given birth and the ducklings imprinting on her. But this programme went into more detail. The particular hormone which caused the cat’s behaviour was oxytocin, which, when a mother mammal gives birth and then suckles, promotes a caring, nurturing instinct in that animal. They also went into further detail on the theories behind imprinting. In the 1930s Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz discovered goslings followed him if he was the first thing they saw, and it possibly was because young birds are mobile from the start, while baby mammals are more vulnerable and dependent on their mothers for longer. The strange thing about imprinting though is that sometimes they can imprint on inanimate objects like watering cans. I suppose what this says is that sometimes, natural survival instincts while they have a good reason to exist, aren’t perfect.

Those of us in the UK might not be familiar with the American saying “playing possum”, or the reason behind it, but it is what possums are most famous for across the pond, that their defence strategy is to play dead. It sounds like a bad one, but it seems to be a question of what gives it a better chance. A possum is a slow moving creature, so has no real chance of outrunning its predators. But if it plays dead, the predator may assume it doesn’t need to kill it, and then may store it for later rather than eat it right away, meaning the possum can get away when the predator leaves.

There were goats in Tennessee where a similar thing happens, goats going stiff and falling on their back for a few minutes when startled. But this appears to be a genetic defect resulting from inbreeding.

Some genetic defects were noted with lobsters. Their normal colouration is a mix of orange and blue/black, but sometimes the hormones controlling the pigmentation do not work, resulting in all orange or all blue lobsters. Then there are “two-tone” lobsters, where split down the middle one half is orange and the other is blue! In those cases, they tend to have different sex organs on each side, one male one female. This can happen with butterflies too, with one half male, the other female and the wings on each side having different patterns and sizes. The reason for this is that with some creatures like lobsters and butterflies, each side develops independently, as opposed to both sides developing together.

Two headed snakes have been on a lot of internet posts recently. We see a two-headed corn snake here who was aptly named Medusa after the famous snake-haired gorgon from Ancient Greek mythology. In captivity, two headed snakes can live for quite a long time, but they have difficulty in the wild. They are conjoined twins, with the heads sharing a single spine, but each head has a single brain, so they can disagree with which direction to go. They can also fight over food if one has caught something, and even will attack one another if the other head has a scent of food on it. But there was a report of a two-headed adder found in Yorkshire only last year, which looked quite healthy and a few years old, so it’s not impossible for them to survive in the wild.

Of all the bizarre sights in this series, the most striking to me were bees making honey which is colours like green or bright blue! It looks truly strange, almost like those episodes of The Simpsons were Mr. Burns dumps nuclear waste causing it to mutate the natural surroundings. It turned out the reason for this coloured honey was from factories, but not nuclear power plants or even irresponsibility per se. The answer lies in how bees actually make honey. What they use always effects the colour of the honey. They use nectar from flowers most of the time, and that leaves the colour of the honey a range of gold, yellow and brown. But they will use anything that tastes sweet to them. In the UK, it’s been observed they used runoff from coca-cola bottling plants. In France, a range of colourful honey turned out to be because bees had been using sugar from discarded M&Ms from a processing plant. In New York, beekeeper Andrew Cote mentioned finding bright red, green and blue honey during his time beekeeping. The reason for the red honey was syrup runoff from a maraschino cherry factory. He suspected the green honey could have come from antifreeze. For these reasons, unusual coloured honey cannot be sold as food, as sometimes there’s no telling where it came from. Anti-freeze for instance, is deadly if humans ingest it. But it can be sold as a curiosity item.

The programme did what it said on the tin really, showed us some unusual events from the natural world. You can tell why in centuries past when there wasn’t as much known about science, that it was taken to be signs foretelling of an apocalypse, and why even today they can stun people. We probably still have much to learn, but it’s always interesting to see events which are out of the ordinary.

 

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