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101 Animal Shots You'll Go Wild Over

Snowbird Snuggles In

A gray jay nests in the Canadian winter.

(Image credit: Dan Strickland)

Nothing like a nice nest of twigs and snow to keep you warm on a winter's night. The gray jay takes the weather in stride, though — these Canadian birds don't fly south for the winter, and they start their breeding season in mid-February when temperatures are below 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius).

A new study by researchers at the University of Guelph finds that these birds survive in their winter wasteland by storing berries, fungi, insects and even bits of scavenged meat in the nooks and crannies of trees. The new research, published in the journal Oecologia, revealed that spruce and pine trees make better treasure troves than deciduous trees, perhaps because the resin in conifers helps preserve the birds' food. The findings explain why gray jays seem to be disappearing from areas without much pine and spruce.

Blood-Red Bats Take to the Skies

A thermal image of bats in the night sky.

(Image credit: © Margrit Betke, Boston University, via TPWD)

We couldn’t wait until Halloween to share this spooky thermal image of bats in flight. Provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, this image was taken by Boston University researchers trying to better understand how bats navigate the air in response to weather, bug activity and climate change.

According to the United State Geological Survey, bats save farmers at least $3 billion a year by scarfing down insects that would otherwise eat crops. But bats are threatened by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that kills them, as well as by deadly collisions with wind turbines.

Researchers estimate that the loss of one million bats in the Northeast alone has probably resulted in between 660 and 1320 metric tons fewer insects being eaten by bats each year. Now that's scarier than blood-red bats any day.

Thumb-Sucking Acrobat

An acrobatic baby orangutan sucks its "thumb.'"

(Image credit: i359702, Shutterstock)

A baby orangutan takes thumb-sucking to a new level thanks to prehensile feet. Much like human children, baby orangutans remain dependent on their moms for a long time, sometimes being carried most of the time until they're 5 years old. Young orangutans normally don't leave mom's side until they're 10 or so, and even when they do strike out on their own, they often return to "visit" for the next few years.

Miniature Monster

Philippine spider water beetles live under the water.

(Image credit: H. Freitag (2009))

This creepy-crawly is a spider water beetle, a water-loving bug that lives in mountain rivers on Palawan Island in the Philippines. The beetles get their name from their long, spindly legs (imagine if this fellow stretched his out!). They also create their own little scuba-diving bubbles called "plastrons," which allow them to live permanently under the water.

Do You Hear Something Rattling?

A rattlesnake is ready to strike.

(Image credit: Bill Love)

Look out, this rattler is ready to strike. Fortunately, rattlesnakes really are more afraid of you than you are of them. They rarely bite unless provoked and would much prefer to warn you away. Only about 7,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and only about 0.2 percent of bites result in death, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Halloween Treat?

photo shows a gastropod mollusk called the flamingo tongue snail

(Image credit: Casey Dunn lab, Brown University)

It's hard to miss a flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum), with its mantle splotched with a pattern of irregularly shaped orange, white and black spots. Considered gastropod mollusks, the snails are members of the Mollusca phylum, which includes octopuses and oysters, and the class Gastropoda, which includes marine snails with and without shells.

Mollusks encompass a wide variety of animals, with the lineage dating back some 500 million years. Just recently, in a study published in the Oct. 27, 2011, issue of the journal Nature, Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University, and colleagues put together the most comprehensive evolutionary tree of mollusks.

The researchers found that a mysterious group of deep-ocean animals that resemble limpets, called monoplacophorans, are a sister clade to cephalopods, which include octopuses, squid and nautiluses. "Cephalopods are so different from all other mollusks, it was very difficult to understand what they are related to. They don't fit in with the rest," Dunn said. "Now, we have a situation where two of the most enigmatic groups within the mollusks turn out to be sister groups." [Amazing Mollusks: Images of Strange & Slimy Snails]

Sleepy Seal

elephant seal in bull kelp in the Southern Ocean

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Christopher J. Brown)

Even though the oceans tend to warm slower than the land, researchers report in the Nov. 4 issue of the journal Science that similar movement rates are needed for organisms to stay ahead of climate change on land and in the oceans.

After analyzing 50 years of global temperature and climate data, Michael Burrows of the Scottish Marine Institute in Argyll and his colleagues found that the speed and direction of climate change, along with the arrival time of various seasons, is happening just as fast in the oceans as on land. The research team says that this climate-change velocity and seasonal shifts can be used to predict shifts in habitat ranges and life-cycle changes in a warming world.

For instance, organisms like these marine sea slugs and even elephant seals (shown here in bull kelp in the Southern Ocean) must adapt to new temperatures or move to new areas to stay in an optimal habitat.

Jellies In Leopard-Print

Spotted jellyfish in the ocean.

(Image credit: Matt Gove, National Ocean Service)

These leopard-spotted jellies are appropriately decorated, considering they're terrifying predators — if you're a plankton. This species, Mastigias papua is known as the spotted jelly or the lagoon jelly. They live in coastal waters in the South Pacific and grow about 5.5 inches (14 to 16 centimeters) in diameter.

But what makes spotted jellies really cool is that they grow their own gardens. The jellies get their greenish-brown tinge from algae that they harbor. The algae is a handy food source for the jellies. Some of the larger individuals will even keep extra hangers-on: Little minnows that live inside the jellyfish's bell until they're large enough to face the wider ocean.

Jellyfish facts courtesy the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Scary Clown of the Animal Kingdom

A colorful mantis shrimp hides.

(Image credit: Justin Marshall, University of Queensland, via NSF)

This colorful creature acts more like Stephen King's "It" than Bozo the Clown. The mantis shrimp, a predator that is neither a mantis nor a shrimp, spears and dismembers prey with its powerful claws. Mantis shrimp are also capable of using their claws as hammers to crush snail shells, and larger species can even muster enough force to crack aquarium glass.

Mantis shrimp look shrimp-like, but they're actually their own subgroup of crustacean. According to new research from the University of Queensland, mantis shrimp have a unique way of seeing the world. They detect circular polarized light, a type of light beam that spirals either to the left or right. Filters in their eyes re-orient this light to turn it into the linear polarized light. To the human eye, linear polarized light is only a glare, the sort that requires the need for polarized sunglasses.

Researchers aren't yet sure how the mantis shrimp make use of this ability to filter circular polarized light. It's possible that this visual ability allows animals to see light patterns reflected off the shells of male animals — possible courtship displays visible only to the species that needs to see them.

Incoming!

A gene switch enables high-tension fast-moving fly wing muscles.

(Image credit: Frank Schnorrer / MPI of Biochemistry)

Flies are quite adept at buzzing around, despite the fact that their wings are small in comparison to their bulky bodies. Now, new research published Nov. 17 in the journal Nature has uncovered the gene switch responsible for building the flight muscles in flies.

Much like hummingbirds, flies have to flap their wings extremely fast to stay aloft. The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster contracts and relaxes its flight muscles 200 times a second. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany have found that a gene transcription factor called "spalt" creates these specialized muscles. Spalt is an important go-between that ensures that genes get translated into functional proteins. Without it, flies develop only slow-moving leg muscles.

Humans can't fly, but our heart muscles contain spalt, according to study researcher Frank Schnorrer. That could mean that the factor is important in regulating heartbeat, although more research is needed.