Witches' Butter

Here's a nifty fungus I found growing in the woods near my house. It's called witches' butter, but to me it looks like macaroni and cheese. Legend has it that this is the vomit of familiar spirits who run about at night in the form of cats, doing errands for witches, pausing here and there to gorge on whatever food they find.

I've been especially interested in fungi these last few years, ever since I looked into cedar apple rust for Discover. The same magazine will soon be publishing an article of mine on lichens. A lichen is a symbiotic life form consisting of a fungus--and its slaves. I'll keep you posted.

Photo by Parker Grice.

Our Friends, The Viruses

Long-time readers know how much I love parasitic wasps--those nifty insects that lay eggs on some other creature. The egg hatches, then eats its host alive. I wrote about some cockroach-killing parasitic wasps in this article. If memory serves, I also wrote about the spider-killing kinds in The Red Hourglass.

Another kind of parasitic wasp specializes in aphids. Scientists have recently made fascinating new discoveries about these. The aphids can develop an immunity to the wasps with the help of a virus. The virus doesn't parasitize the aphid itself, but the bacteria that live in its gut. The scientists haven't figured out all the mechanics of this situation yet, but it's a startling development. It means an animal can develop an advantageous trait simply by carrying the right virus.

More about Predatory Dogs

Here's an article that gives some useful context for predatory attacks by dogs, like the one that happened in Georgia recently.

Jungle Cats

The jungle cat (Felis chaus) has to be one of the worst-named animals. It lives in swamps and on shores and river banks. It turns up near all sorts of puddles, from oases to irrigation ditches. Its range covers most of southern Asia as far east as Vietnam and as far west as Turkey, as well as a stretch of the Nile delta. Like the coyote, it's comfortable near humans and will take up residence even in cities.

The jungle cat eat rodents, hares, reptiles, amphibians, guinea fowl and other birds, insects, and even young wild boars and chital deer. It will dive to catch fish. Humans have little to fear from it—unless they adopt it.

In recent years, breeders have been selling as pets a hybrid of jungle cat and domestic cat, called the chaussie. Predictably, these hybrids have clawed and bitten a lot of people. In 1995 one pet jungle cat seriously mauled a two-year-old girl in Downer's Grove, Illinois.

More information about jungle cats.

Eaten by Dogs

An elderly couple found mutilated on a Georgia road apparently fell victim to a pack of dogs.

Dog attacks are remarkably common in the US. I get about a dozen news stories about serious attacks in my Google Alert every day. About 800 thousand people seek medical treatment for dog bites in a given year. But most dog bites come about when the dog is trying to defend its territory or establish its dominance. (Children, by the way, are the most common victims, not only because they're vulnerable but also because a dog may perceive them as lowest in the social hierarchy and easiest to dominate.)

Though dog attacks are often covered in newspapers and on news sites, we rarely hear mention of the dog as a predator of people, probably because our "news" sources have been trained not to offend us. Nevertheless, dogs do eat people, even in major cities in the US. It's hard to get police and others to talk about these extremely upsetting events, but it would appear that predation, when it occurs, usually follows an attack prompted by the other motives I mentioned. This attack in Georgia looks fairly unusual; it may be a simple case of predation.

Mass Predation

The saltwater crocodile, a mass man-eater
Here's an interesting article about history's worst single incident of predation on humans--or was it?

The incident in question is the slaughter of hundreds of Japanese soldiers by saltwater crocodiles in the mangrove swamps of Ramree Island during World War II. As the article mentions, even greater numbers of people may have been taken by sharks after naval battles of WWII. The largest well-documented incident of mass predation is the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the South Pacific in 1945. Hundreds of men died in the water from various causes, with perhaps 200 taken mainly by tiger, mako, and oceanic whitetip sharks. The oceanic whitetip, pictured here, may have eaten more people than other species in recent history, considering its habit of turning up at shipwrecks.

Oceanic whitetip shark

Black vultures

In response to my post about the turkey vulture, reader Steve V. told me about his experiences with a similar species--the black vulture.

Steve and his dog Rosie were hiking on the Appalachian Trail a few years ago when they spotted the vultures, apparently teaching their offspring to fly--by pushing them over a little cliff. Repeatedly. And then walking them back to the top. Steve and Rosie saw the vultures many times that year and even found a foul-smelling cave where they nested.

Here's one of the pictures Steve took.

(I'm always interested in first-hand accounts and original photography of wildlife.)

My Little Town

After work one day, I lay on the couch beneath the picture window. Outside, the Siberian elms tossed their uncombed heads in the ceaseless wind. They were deeply involved in their senseless dance, their limbs stirring down almost to their immobile trunks. Their leaves showed a bright and beetle-eaten green that had no power to filter out the sun. I came close to a warm drowse, and probably would have succumbed except that a detail of the skyscape framed in the window above me was gradually winding its way into my consciousness. In the blue above the elms, four or five birds soared. I could see only an arc of what seemed to be a great circling flight. They were large birds, apparently black, though I couldn't be certain. Hawks?

I focused on one of them through his slow arc. The tips of his wings divided into what looked like fingers. Vultures? I quick check of a reference book satisfied me that they were indeed turkey vultures.

I lay back and watched them. I didn't recall seeing them anywhere else around my little Oklahoma town. They wheeled in a tilting disk of flight, like plates on a pole in an old Ed Sullivan Show routine. I wanted to know what they were circling.

"I'm going to watch the vultures," I said to Tracy. "Want to come with?"

"That's all right," she said.

After searching out my car keys, I was off. I drove slowly toward the center of the vultures' flight, craning my head out of the window to keep my bearings, stopping frequently to get out and look. The vultures were a tilting cursive O, and their transcription of the pattern was slow and seemed to slide gracefully over the invisible textures of the air. Either the circle shifted, or it was so ill-defined to begin with that I couldn't get centered under it. I parked on the bricks of Main Street and got out to look.

"Some bird's going to doody in your mouth," someone said beside me. It was someone I'd known, vaguely, for years, the sort of acquaintance you have in a small town, one to whom you have never been introduced but who feels free to speak familiarly to you. He looked faded, which must mean I hadn't seen him for years.

I shut my yap. "Vultures," I said. "Trying to figure out what they're circling."

"Looks like they're circling the shopping district of our fair city," he said, setting his tinted glasses a little higher on his nose. "So much for rebuilding Downtown." He stepped into his pickup and pulled away from the curb, leaving me to admire his exit line.

I asked around. People differed about the center of the vultures' flight. Some supposed it was the hog slaughterhouse, with its delightful smells, that drew them. But I thought it was too far away, on the edge of town.

"Thermals," someone told me. "Riding the thermals over town." He couldn't tell me why the town should provide more, or better, thermals than the raw countryside.

In my travels since then I've seen turkey vultures fairly close, eating carrion beside the road. Sometimes I've even seen them standing there on the shoulder, as if trying to hitch a ride. The eyes are plain black, and the naked head looks more like candle drippings than flesh.

These incredibly cool animals have been on my mind lately. I happened to pass one nestled in the grass beside a country road the other night. At first I thought it was a wild turkey—we have a lot of those in rural Wisconsin where I live now, and it pays to slow down when you see one. Besides getting a better look at the turkey, you might save your windshield. But when I got close I could see this was a turkey vulture, hunkering down there to eat something—I couldn't tell what. Then, within a couple of days, I came across this account of the species by Dr. W. J. Ralph, who's quoted in Lydekker's New Natural History. (Thanks to D'Arcy for lending me this classic book.):

When they find a dead animal they will not leave it until all (but the bones and other hard parts) has been consumed, and if it be a large one, or if it have tough skin, they will often remain near it for days, roosting by night in the trees nearby. After they have eaten—and sometimes they will gorge themselves until the food runs out of their mouths when they move—they will, if they are not too full to fly, roost in the nearest trees until their meal is partly digested, and then commence eating again. Many times have I seen these birds in company with the black vulture floating down a stream on a dead alligator, cow, or other large animal, crowded so closely together that they could hardly keep their balance, and followed by a number on the wing. In spite of this close crowding, they never seem to fight much when feeding, although one will at times peck and hiss at another; and at times two will tug at a particularly tough fragment, until it either break or the weaker bird gives up his hold.

Turkey vultures occasionally dive-bomb people, particularly people on bikes. In a weird case from 2004, one of them latched onto a guy cruising down a New Jersey highway on a motorcycle. He was trying to fight it off when he crashed into a car and was killed.

Related Post: A Congregation of Vultures

Bug-Bite Slide Show

Here's a nifty set of pix showing some insects and arachnids--and the effects of their bites. The information is oversimplified, but the photos are terrific. The one here shows a tick digging in.
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