Wild Things: Life as We Know It

Honeyeater birds, sea slugs, tree frogs, and more

horse-neighing-631.jpg
Groovnick / Flickr

On Their Own

Hawaii Oo
(Cheryl Carlin)
Five species of Hawaiian birds—all now extinct—looked so much like Asian and Australian birds called honeyeaters that scientists thought they were all in the same family. The birds had curved bills to reach inside flowers and long, brushy tongues to lap up nectar. But a new genetic analysis by Smithsonian scientists of preserved Hawaiian specimens shows that the birds constituted their own family and were unrelated to true honeyeaters. The resemblance was an extreme case of "convergent evolution," in which lineages evolve strikingly similar adaptations—in this case, for feeding from flowers.

Green Energy

sea slug
(Cheryl Carlin)
This sea slug looks like a leaf because it contains chlorophyll-rich plant structures called chloroplasts, extracted from algae it eats. Now researchers led by Texas A&M say Elysia chlorotica has also acquired from the algae at least one gene necessary for photosynthesis—a first among animals. The slug can photosynthesize on its own for months.

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Frog?

tree frog
(Cheryl Carlin)
Scientists from Zoo Atlanta and elsewhere discovered a new species of tree frog in the forested mountains of Panama. What makes Ecnomiohyla rabborum "spectacular," the researchers say, are giant webbed feet, each nearly half as long as its body. The mitts allow the frog to leap from its perch and glide to the ground from a height of 30 feet.

Gourds on the Go

Cucumbers
(Cheryl Carlin)
Hey, Cinderella, pumpkins really do travel well. A new genetic analysis of 147 species of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) by the University of Munich suggests that gourds originated in Asia and floated across oceans to other continents. In the past 60 million years, gourds reached and took root in South America, Australia and Africa multiple times and colonized Madagascar—home to a cornucopia of gourd species today—on 13 separate occasions.

Observed

horse neighing
(Image courtesy of Flickr user Groovnick)
Name: Equus caballus, the horse.
Runs With: The herd.
Recognizes: Individuals within the herd.
Unexpected Talent: Listening. In a new study, University of Sussex researchers presented a test horse with a herd mate, led the herd mate out of sight and then played a recording of a horse neighing. If it wasn't the herd mate's call, the test animal could tell—it looked fixedly in the direction of the sound, presumably surprised. It's the first demonstration of "cross-modal" recognition in animals; they identify each other by both sight and sound.