Who’s the real Villain of the Animal World?

With “Jaws” making a comeback at my local cinema and all manner of critters doing their utmost to make life unpleasant for the “Men in Black 3”, it is not surprising my mind’s been focussing on the villains of the animal kingdom.

Willow the Vampire lives in rural Stinkforthshire in England, where she does her best to protect her friends, family and local wildlife from those who’d like to harm them. When she’s not too busy, she likes to save the world.

Willow loves animals, be they daytime or nocturnal creatures, but even a vampire might draw the line at choosing a cane toad for a friend. The villain of this blog post is not at all like the pet toad owned by Neville Longbottom in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but is more like Ron Weasley’s rat in nature.

English: A young Bufo marinus (Cane Toad). Dar...

Bufo marinos, as the cane toad is officially called, was once introduced into the sugarcane fields of Puerto Rico to exercise a little insect pest control.

Sugarcane growers in Queensland, Australia heard about this and promptly wanted their own cane toad population to deal with their local insects. They imported 100 adult cane toads with the view to breed their own pest control army.

Eventually, when they had bred 62,000 teenage cane toads, they released them to give hell to the grayback cane beetle that infested the sugarcane plantations (1935). Unfortunately, the pesky cane toad has no natural enemies other than humans in Queensland, so toad populations exploded and instead of dealing with grayback cane beetle infestations, the local human population was battling it out with very nasty toads which had plague-like proportions in their numbers.

Cane toads being rather adaptable, they soon found that they could munch their way through anything that was smaller than themselves, even going into competition with the local dog population, pinching the dog food out of their bowls at night. So far nobody knows how to effectively deal with the cane toad invasion.

Can toads have excellent defences. When they feel threatened, they inflate their plump bodies and start to sweat a latex-like, milky white fluid from their paratoid glands. They are able to project this secretion up to 3 feet into the air, hurling their poison at the perceived aggressor. The poison is only fatal when ingested and is so strong, it has been used as a hallucinogenic drug.

Cane toad

The poison has already had a devastating effect on the snake population in Australia. While some people think this is a good thing (yes you, visitingmissoury, I know your thoughts on all things snaky!), a dying snake population means all sorts of other pests will multiply more quickly, in turn provide even more food for the cane toad and PUFF, there you have it, Australia is now being ruled by cane toads instead of plain politicians (although the difference is not always apparent at first glance).

Animals who might look upon the cane toad as a tasty snack soon regret their decision. At 2 pounds in weight the cane toad packs a poisonous punch when swallowed and birds, dingos, monitor lizards and similar predators have been known to die from the toxic liquid. Equally, fish die from eating cane toad tadpoles, which are already able to secrete this toxic stuff upon their person. In South America, several Peruvian Indians are said to have died after eating a cane toad egg soup.

Female cane toads lay about 13,000 eggs at a time. Tadpoles transform quickly and don’t need much to survive, really just water and algae will do nicely, thanks very much. They might need a number of years to mature into adulthood, but cane toads can live up to 20 years – that’s an awful lot of tadpoles…

Their mating calls are so loud that they interfere with the vocal love life of the indigenous frog population. As they grow up to 9 inches (23 cm) in size, cane toads can weigh up to 2 pounds and have even been known to swallow a pygmy possum or two for their supper.

The cane toad is perhaps a villain in its own right for wiping out such a large number of animals, but to be fair , I cannot wholly blame this particular creature of the night for what is mostly a human error. Cane toads didn’t ask to be transported to South America and Australia, but probably found upon getting there, that life was sweet among the sugarcane fields and gardens without predators to worry about and hapless humans shrieking “What have we done, Sheila, there’s toads everywhere…even the outback’s overrun!”

What’s your favourite villain of the animal world?

(photographs by Wikipedia, source of animation: heathersanimation.com)

Mustelid Magic

We often equate people to animals, when we think of the character traits and behaviour they display. Upon meeting someone for the first time, we sometimes think he or she’s a bit like a weasel, a stoat, an otter or badger…and in some extreme cases the word skunk springs to mind!

Heubach European Otter

Heubach European Otter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What all of the above animals have in common is that they belong to the family of mustelids.

The lovely young Polish lady, who has joined my German language group on Tuesday evenings, prompted me to think more about mustelids (in a good way!) and I shall devote several blogs to describe the members of this misunderstood, hunted and reviled family of splendid animals.

While many mustelids are being (ab-)used to describe negative qualities in humans, the otter stands for everything that’s good about a person and frankly, everything that makes life worth living!

Just as the young Polish lady believes a positive attitude will help us achieve whatever we set our hearts on in life, the otter stands for the sheer joy of living, the exuberance and agility of youth, the happiness simple pleasures in life can bring to those who look for beauty in all things.

There are 65 different species in the family of mustelids, all of which are carnivores. With the exception of Australia, some small islands and Antarctica, mustelids occupy diverse habitats across the globe. I’m not sure how otters will fit into Willow the Vampire’s next adventure, but I’m determined to have one of my favourite animals crop up at regular intervals in Willow’s second instalment!

Mustelids can live in tundras, deserts, forests, fresh and salt water; they can be arboreal, burrowing, terrestrial, semiaquatic and even fully aquatic. Most mustelids are quite small or medium sized, weighing just a few pounds, but wolverines and sea otters can weigh up to 25 kg (55 pounds) and are the largest members of the mustelid family. While most of them live solitary lives, coming together only when mating time approaches, some mustelids like badgers and giant river otters for example, live in large family groups.

Otters are playful creatures, charming and quite mysterious. Not all mustelids are strictly nocturnal, some hunt at night, some at dusk and others come out at dawn. While all otters have dextrous paws, some otters have more webbing than others and some have claws and others don’t. Most river otters, which includes the European otter, have webbed paws for swimming and long claws for digging, which are rounded, so they can walk comfortably on land.

Lontra canadensis English: North American Rive...

Lontra canadensis English: North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis (per Schreber, 1777. More commonly used, but allegedly incorrect latin name: Lutra canadensis). I took the photo in San Francisco Zoo on August 29, 2005. Français : Loutre de rivière, Lontra canadensis. Image prise au zoo de San Fransisco le 29 Août 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apart from the aforementioned European otters, there are also the Giant otters, a beautiful sleek creation that could rival cats in grace, elegance and softness of fur, the Spotted-necked otter, the Neotropical otter, the Smooth-coated otter and the Cape clawless otter and various others.t

Sea otters often use stones to crack open shells of sea urchins, crabs and shellfish. They even have a special pouch or skin fold under their armpit to keep hold of their favourite flat stone, while they are swimming.

Giant river otters live along the riverbanks of slow-moving, sluggish water, or in marshes, swamps, wetlands and forests of South America, where these otters use their superb swimming skills, large feet and highly developed webbing between their toes to catch fish.

All otters love to play and, just like kids love to slide in the mud, snow or on ice, otters use their forepaw and tail power to slither down slimy riverbanks, snow-covered slopes or muddy, leaf-mulch covered embankments. They can tuck in their legs to reach maximum speed during sliding and they adore landing with a belly flop in the river or other water at the bottom of a slope. Some otters even play tag and indulge in mock fights to pass the time.

Inquisitive, intelligent and fun-seeking, otters are gradually making a come-back to European landscapes, after having been hunted almost to extinction and driven out of their natural habitats by Earth’s most evil villains, humans.

Otters are natural fishermen, something that has over the centuries brought them into conflict with humans, who believe everything on this planet belongs to them. Otters love to hunt eels, snakes, crayfish and various species of fish. Since their fur is rather luxurious with a long-haired outer layer and a thick undercoat to protect them from the cold when in water, otters were often hunted for their fur, so that stupid, vain mend and women could wear them as a collar around their scrawny, perfumed necks.

Whatever other writers might do with the vampire genre in the future, my toothy little heroine will never be adverse to biting insurance salesmen and estate agents or eating bankers and politicians (the latter are best served when marinated first in red wine and herbs, then BBQ-ed over a small flame; they tend to taste a little bitter and the acid in the wine helps to take the sliminess off).

Scientists who torture animals for the fun of finding out, if a particular mascara might give some brainless bimbo a rash, will always have a special place in the Band’s household – namely in their cauldron hanging over a fire. As for people in fur coats…

Animals will find a powerful protector in Willow and her vampy family… so watch out, Earth’s most evil villains, Willow’s on the prowl!