Wild Things: Great Whites, Tree Snakes, Drongos and More

These animals redefine life as we know it

Shrieking caterpillar
Jayne Yack

More Than They Can Chew

great white shark
(Richard Herrmann / Oxford Scientific / Photolibrary)

Great white sharks have the strongest known bite of any living animal. But until they grow to about ten feet in length, says study leader Toni Ferrara of the University of New South Wales, they are “awkward teenagers.” Their jaws don’t have enough stiff cartilage to withstand the stress of chomping on large prey. This may explain why juvenile sharks that attack human swimmers often shy away after the first nibble.

Learn more about the great white shark at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Observed

paradise tree snake
(Jake Socha)

Name: The paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), native to Asia.
Airborne: This snake can launch from
a branch and travel as far as 330 feet.
Gliding? In a new study, not one of the four test snakes achieved true gliding equilibrium, which involves moving
at constant velocity at a constant angle to the horizon. Still, the researchers say their test flights may have been too short.
Flying? Maybe. By flattening and undulating their bodies, the snakes could at times briefly rise in altitude. “Quite an impressive feat for a snake,” says lead author John Socha of Virginia Tech.

Learn more about the paradise tree snake at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Extortion Scheme

Fork-tailed drongos
(Philippe Clement / NaturePL.com)

Fork-tailed drongos in the Kalahari Desert act as sentinels, scanning for predators and producing regular “all clear” calls so other birds can spend more time looking for food. It’s cooperative behavior, but it’s also a protection racket: drongos make false alarm calls and snatch the abandoned food.

Learn more about the fork-tailed drongo at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Shrieking Caterpillar

sphinx caterpillar
(Jayne Yack)

North America’s walnut sphinx caterpillar employs a newly discovered defense when under attack: it whistles. Researchers from Canada’s Carleton University and elsewhere found that it forces air through tiny abdominal openings called spiracles, producing high-frequency sounds barely audible to people. In laboratory tests, the alarm startled birds and made them fly away.

Learn more about the walnut sphinx at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Shady Characters

violet
(Hiroshi Moriyama)

The violet Viola hondoensis, which lives on forest floors in Japan and Korea, sheds leaves in the spring, when most plants are unfurling new ones. Scientists in Japan tested possible triggers, such as temperature changes, but the culprit is the violet itself: new leaves high up on the stem plunge those below into oppressive shade.

Learn more about the violet Viola hondoensis at the Encyclopedia of Life.