Nature’s Giants: The world’s biggest critters

Meet the world’s biggest critters — a surprisingly diverse array of the largest beasts on land and beneath the seas. From apes to spiders to really huge birds, we grow ’em big here on Earth.


The reportedly largest pig ever (nicknamed “Hogzilla II”) was killed by an 11-year-old Alabama boy while hunting with his father. The boy’s father claims the pig weighed 1,051 lbs and was 9-foot-4 from the tip of its snout to its tail. That would make it roughly 250 pounds larger than the original Hogzilla, a wild hog killed in Georgia in 2004.

Source: AP

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Shark-tooth weapons reveal lost species

By Stephanie Pappas

Published April 04, 2013


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    A Gilbert Islands shark tooth weapon in the collections of Chicago’s Field Museum. (Drew J, Philipp C, Westneat MW (2013) Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLOS ONE 8(4): e59855. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059855.)

A collection of vicious weapons made of shark teeth reveals that two species of sharks vanished from the reefs of Kiribati before scientists even noticed the species were there.

Until about 130 years ago, residents of the Gilbert Islands, which make up much of the Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, used teeth from dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscrus) and spotfin sharks (Carcharhinus sorrah) to make swords, spears, daggers and other fearsome weapons. Today, spotfin sharks can be found near Australia and Indonesia, and dusky sharks can be spotted near Fiji ? but neither plies the waters around Kiribati.

“We’re losing species before we even know that they existed,” said study researcher Joshua Drew, an ichthyologist at Columbia University. “That just resonates with me as fundamentally tragic.”

Toothy weapons
Sharks have long been a major part of the Gilbert Islands’ culture, as the animals played a role in Kiribati myths and rituals, Drew told LiveScience. The first European visitors to the islands in the late 1700s noted the native inhabitants’ craftsmanship of weapons made of shark teeth. Weapon-makers would drill tiny holes in the teeth and secure them to wooden handles using coconut fibers and human hair. The results were daunting: all sharp points and serrated sides. [Image Gallery: Amazing Great White Sharks]


‘We’re losing species before we even know that they existed.’

– Joshua Drew, an ichthyologist at Columbia University


Drew and his colleagues were looking for ways to tie sharks into their culture in order to get people excited about conservation. They were “poking around” in the anthropology collections of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, when museum anthropologist Christopher Philipp, also one of the study authors, asked if they’d like to see some shark-tooth weapons.

“Anytime anybody asks you that question, your natural response is ‘Yeah!'” Drew said. “They’re cool.”

The weapons were scientifically cool, too. Shape, serration patterns and other features of shark teeth were enough for researchers to identify the species. That meant Drew and his colleagues could figure out what kind of sharks the people of the Gilbert Islands were catching before scientific expeditions to the atolls were ever launched.

Vanished species
Using field guides and the museum’s collections of shark jaws, the researchers identified teeth from eight species of shark on 122 weapons and teeth collections from the Gilbert Islands. The most common of those species was the silvertip shark (C. albimarginatus), whose teeth graced 34 weapons. Gilbert Islands weapon-makers also used teeth from silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, tiger sharks, blue sharks and hammerheads.

Most surprising to scientists, however, was the discovery of dusky and spotfin sharks’ teeth, as no scientist has ever recorded those sharks in Gilbert Islands reefs. It’s unlikely that these two commercially valuable species would have been overlooked, the researchers wrote in a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, so it seems that the sharks simply vanished before anyone started taking a census.

“Probably, they were fished out,” Drew said. Extensive shark-finning operations started in the region by the early 1900s, and in 1950 alone, fisherman pulled almost 7,716 pounds of shark fins (and only fins) from Gilbert Island waters. (Scientists now estimate that 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year.)

The findings underscore the connection between Gilbert Islanders and sharks, Drew said. Kiribati has been a world leader in marine conservation, he said, adding that he hopes the findings will encourage more of that work. The discovery of previously unknown sharks in the area also pushes conservationists not to “set the bar too low” for Gilbert Islands reefs, Drew said, given that at one point, they supported more biodiversity than they do today.

“We shouldn’t pack up and call it a day because we have two species of sharks there,” Drew said. “We can do better.”

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Double-headed shark fetus netted by fisherman

By Douglas Main

Published March 26, 2013


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    A radiograph of the two-headed shark. (Journal of Fish Biology / C. M. Wagner et al)

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    The two-headed bull shark fetus. It’s about 8 inches (20 centimeters) from head to head. (Journal of Fish Biology / C. M. Wagner et al)

When a fisherman caught a bull shark recently off the Florida Keys, he came across an unlikely surprise: One of the shark’s live fetuses had two heads.

The fisherman kept the odd specimen, and shared it with scientists, who described it in a study published online Monday, March 25, in the Journal of Fish Biology. It’s one of the very few examples of a two-headed shark ever recorded — there about six instances in published reports — and the first time this has been seen in a bull shark, said Michael Wagner, a study co-author and researcher at Michigan State University.


‘It had very developed heads, but a very stunted body.’

– Michael Wagner, a researcher at Michigan State University


Technically called “axial bifurcation,” the deformity is a result of the embryo beginning to split into two separate organisms, or twins, but doing so incompletely, Wagner told OurAmazingPlanet. It’s a very rare mutation that occurs across different animals, including humans.

“Halfway through the process of forming twins, the embryo stops dividing,” he said.

The two-headed fetus likely wouldn’t have lived for very long in the wild, he said. “When you’re a predator that needs to move fast to catch other fast-moving fish … that’d be nearly impossible with this mutation,” he said. [See the two-headed shark.]

Wagner said the description of the deformed shark may someday help better understand how these deformities arise in sharks and other animals.

Two-headed snakes and turtles can be bought from certain specialty breeders, and there is a small market for such creatures, Wagner said.

Several of the few examples of two-headed sharks available today come from museum specimens from the late 1800s, when deformed animals and other macabre curiosities fetched high prices, he said.

Another reason the two-headed shark likely wouldn’t have survived: its small body. “It had very developed heads, but a very stunted body,” Wagner said. There’s only so much energy that can go into the body’s development, and it went into the shark’s double noggins, he added.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Deep-sea monsters have surprising DNA

By Jennifer Viegas

Published March 20, 2013

Discovery News

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    Footage captured by NHK and Discovery Channel in July 2012 shows a giant squid in the sea near Chichi island. (NHK/NEP/Discovery Channel)

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    Footage captured by NHK and Discovery Channel in July 2012 shows a giant squid in the sea near Chichi island. (Discovery Channel)

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    Footage captured by NHK and Discovery Channel in July 2012 shows a giant squid in the sea near Chichi island. (Discovery Channel)

Giant squid, which can grow to an astounding 43 feet long, have equally extraordinary DNA, a new study concludes.

The long-awaited report, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, finds that there is “exceptionally low” genetic diversity among giant squid from around the world.

“These observations are consistent with the hypotheses that there is only one global species of giant squid, Architeuthis dux,” wrote Inger Winkelmann and colleagues, who suggested that the squid could have one of the largest known ranges of any species.

NEWS: Giant Squid: Still a Deep Mystery

Little is known about giant squid, which can live some 3,300 feet below the surface. Mostly we know about them from fantasy adventure books, like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and images of them dead, with their long tentacles dangling far beyond the picture frame. Giant squid are rarely captured alive, with most found stranded on beaches or seen floating dead on the water’s surface. Unfortunately, some are also retrieved by fisheries as by-catch .

Winkelmann, from the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark, and colleagues studied the mitochondrial genome of tissue samples from 43 such giant squid. “Mitochondrial” refers to a type of DNA inherited only through the female line. The squid came from all over the world, including waters off of California, Florida, Spain, Japan and New Zealand.

Incredibly, all had the same basic mitochondrial genomes. If there is just one giant squid species, as the researchers suspect, then adults must travel huge distances. Younger squid might disperse via drifting.

BLOG: Giant Squid Filmed in Pacific Depths

Giant squid might also be more plentiful than previously thought. But the lack of genetic diversity could make this species more vulnerable to human impact. Back in the day, fishermen rarely encountered the deep-dwelling squid. Now, with modern trawling equipment and huge fishing operations, the squid are more likely to become by-catch.

Pollution and climate change could also hurt the squid, as could loss of their food sources. They are thought to primarily feed on deep sea fish and other, smaller types of squid.

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Bat-eating spiders are everywhere, study finds

By Charles Choi

Published March 18, 2013


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    Bat-eating spiders are common and apparently creep around every continent, except Antarctica, devouring various bat species. Here, a dead bat (Rhinolophus cornutus orii) caught in the web of a female Nephila pilipes on Amami-O (Photo by Yasunori Maezono, Kyoto University, Japan)

There’s only one place in the world to escape bat-catching spiders: Antarctica. These arachnids ensnare and pounce on bats everywhere else in the world, researchers say.

Bats rank among the most successful groups of mammals, with the more than 1,200 species of bats comprising about one-fifth of all mammal species. Other than owls, hawks and snakes, bats have few natural enemies.

Still, invertebrates — creatures without backbones — have been known to dine on bats. For instance, giant centipedes in a cave in Venezuela were seen killing and eating bats, and the arachnids known as whip spiders were spotted feeding on dead bats in caves of the Caribbean. Cockroaches have been observed feeding on bat pups that have fallen to the floor of caves.

Spider-eat-bat world
Accidental deaths of bats in spiderwebs were known as well, but were thought to happen very rarely. Still, spiders are known to occasionally dine on a variety of vertebrates — creatures with backbones. For instance, fishing spiders capture and devour fish and frogs; some species of wolf spiders, huntsman spiders, tarantulas and related spiders have been seen killing and eating frogs and lizards; and tarantulas and comb-footed spiders have apparently fed on snakes and mice. There are also numerous reports of spiders killing other flying vertebrates, snagging birds with large orb webs.

Recent studies of a web-building spider species (Argiope savignyi) and a tarantula species (Poecilotheria rufilata) both killing small bats led researchers to suggest that bat captures and kills due to spiders might be more frequent than previously thought. So they analyzed 100 years’ worth of scientific reports, interviews of bat and spider researchers and the staff of bat hospitals, and scans of image and video sites. The search revealed 52 cases of bat-catching spiders worldwide. [See Photos of Bat-Eating Spiders in Action]

Giant webs
Approximately 90 percent of known bat-catching spiders live in the warmer areas of the globe, in the third of the Earth surrounding the equator. About 40 percent live in the neotropics — the whole of South America, and the tropical regions of North America — while nearly a third live in Asia and more than a sixth live in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Eighty-eight percent of the reported cases of bat catches were due to web-building spiders, with giant tropical orb-weaving spiders with a leg-span of 4 to 6 inches seen catching bats in huge, strong orb-webs up to 5 feet wide.

In instances seen in Costa Rica and Panama, the spiders had built their webs near buildings inhabited by bat colonies. Bat-catching via spiderwebs was also witnessed particularly often in the parks and forests of the greater Hong Kong area. Future research may investigate whether the huge webs that sometimes block the entrances of tropical bat caves in east and southeast Asia and the neotropics may occasionally snag any members of the giant swarms of bats that emerge from the caves at night. [Photos: Creepy, Crawly & Incredible Spiders]

The other 12 percent of cases of spider kills of bats were from spiders that hunt without webs. For instance, tarantulas were seen eating small bats in tropical rainforests in Peru and eastern Ecuador and on the forest floor in northeastern Brazil. A reddish parachute tarantula (Poecilotheria rufilata) was also seen predating on a small bat in Kerala, India, while a huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria) was observed capturing and killing a small bat in a shed near Kolkata, India. An attempt by a large fishing spider (Dolomedes triton) to kill a bat pup was also witnessed below a bridge in Indiana.

The victims
Most bat prey of spiders are small or juvenile insect-eating bats, and usually are among the most common bat species of their areas. Bats entangled in webs were usually 4 to 9.5 inches in wingspan, including some of the smallest species of bats in the world, and they sometimes died of exhaustion, starvation, dehydration or overheating — but there were many cases where spiders were seen actively attacking, killing and eating these victims.

Bats are likely capable of detecting spiderwebs via echolocation, their biological sonar. Even if bats do collide with spiderwebs, only the strongest traps are likely capable of withstanding the energy of such an impact without breaking. As such, bat captures are likely rare.

Still, as scarce as spider captures of bats likely are, they would prove well worth the effort. The catch of a 2-gram bat by the giant orb-weaving spider Nephila pilipes, a common killer of bats, would be a bonanza about 10 times the mass of the average daily catch of insect prey, researchers noted.

Martin Nyffeler and Mirjam Knörnschild detailed their findings online March 13 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Lion mauls, kills female intern at California animal sanctuary

Published March 07, 2013

Authorities are trying to determine what caused a lion to maul and fatally attack a female intern volunteer at a private wild animal park in California Wednesday.

Q13 Fox reports 24-year-old Seattle native Dianna Hanson was identified as the victim of the attack by her father, Paul Hanson.

“Please honor Dianna’s memory by helping her favorite cause: preserving the remaining big cats in the world,” Paul Hansen said in a statement. “She would ask us to do that for her.”

Paul Hansen said his daughter was thrilled to begin her six-month long internship, and that she frequently posted pictures of the animals on her Facebook page, including the lion that killed her.

The victim was attacked and killed when she entered the lion’s enclosure, Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson said. Anderson was crying as he read a one-sentence statement about the fatal mauling at the exotic animal zoo he has operated since 1993.

KMPH reports deputies shot and killed the lion, a 4-year-old named Cous Cous that has been raised at Cat Haven since it was 8 months old, in order to provide medical attention to Hansen.

Sheriff’s deputies responding to an emergency call from Cat Haven, in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 45 miles east of Fresno, found the woman severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the lion nearby, Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Bob Miller said.

Investigators were trying to determine why the intern was inside the enclosure and what might have provoked the attack, sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Collins said. The facility is normally closed on Wednesdays, and only one other worker was there when the mauling happened, Collins said.

Cat Haven is a 100-acre facility just west of Kings Canyon National Park. Since the property opened in 1993, it has housed numerous big cats, including tigers, leopards and other exotic species. It is permitted to house exotic animals by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and is regulated as a zoo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Results of the last 13 inspections by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service show no violations dating back to March 2010. The most recent inspection was Feb. 4, USDA records show.

Despite state regulations that require annual inspections, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife most recently inspected the facility in January 2011.

“We have to do the best we can with the resources we’re provided,” said department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso.

The inspector’s written comments were “facility in good condition.” The inspector checked gates, enclosures, water supplies, drainage, cleanliness, ventilation and the general health of the animals.

Department spokeswoman Janice Mackey said she was unaware if any state regulations would prohibit an employee from entering an exotic animal’s enclosure.

She said each species is identified on the permit, and the animals must be used for scientific or educational purposes only.

“We don’t allow them to be used as pets,” Mackey said.

Actress Tippi Hedren, who founded the Shambala Preserve in Southern California, home to 53 seized or abandoned exotic pets, expressed dismay over the killing of the lion.

“It wasn’t the lion’s fault. It’s the human’s fault always. I’ve got 40 years behind me. I know what I’m talking about,” Hedren said.

A movie was made at Shambala several years ago and several people were injured. “Two were nearly killed,” she said.

“Lions are one of the four most dangerous animals in the world. There is nothing you can do. When they get a thought pattern, there is nothing short of a bullet to the brain that will stop them,” Hedren said.

Nicole Paquette, vice president of the Human Society of the United States, voiced similar concerns.

“She should have never been in the enclosure with him,” Paquette said of the victim. “These are big cats that are extremely dangerous, and they placed a volunteer in the actual cage with a wild animal. That should have never happened.”

Officials at another big cat sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., told The Associated Press last year that at least 21 people, including five children, have been killed and 246 mauled by exotic cats since 1990. Over that period, 254 cats escaped and 143 were killed.

Tatiana, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, was killed by police after jumping out of its enclosure and fatally mauling a 17-year-old boy and injuring two other people in 2007.

Cat Haven has housed Bengal tigers, Siberian lynx, caracals, jaguars and leopards of various types as well as bobcats native to the area. Anderson described the private zoo several years ago as one of a handful of facilities across the U.S. that has all of the big cat species in one place.

The facility’s website says it promotes conservation and preservation of wild cats in their native habitats and offers visitors tours and educational outreach.

Anderson said Project Survival would investigate to see if the intern and the other worker who was on-site followed the group’s protocols.

“We take every precaution to ensure the safety of our staff, animals and guests,” he said in a written statement.

Click for more from Q13 Fox.

Click for more from KMPH. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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THE DAILY DISHMore on PawNation: Fish and MarineTalentedThe DishTravel

By Kelli Bender Mar 6th 2013

Now here is a deadly catch. According to Orange News, British angler Steve Townson achieved his dream of catching a giant wild arapaima fish in Guyana, South America.

The wild arapaima is the largest freshwater fish in the world. Townson’s massive catch weighed over 250 lbs and was plucked from the Essequibo River.

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Townson achieved his fishy feat by using a 2-lb piranha as bait. The angler has traveled the world, especially South America, hooking exotic and unusual fish for a living. He has even started a company to help others do the same, calling it Amazon Angler.

After posing for photos, Townson allowed the fish to be released back into the water.

“The Arapaima is one of the world’s biggest and mightiest freshwater fish, and to catch them in the wild is a rare privilege,” Townson shared with Orange News. “They are protected and cannot be removed by law for the table, but our partners in Guyana are working on strictly catch and release with the local Amerindians.”

Townson assured animal lovers that the fish was never removed from the water during the catch. Since the behemoths are actually quite fragile, the angler handled the arapaima with care and then let it swim away “to fight another day.”

Surprisingly, Townson’s arapaima was not the biggest on record; a 339-lb arapaima caught recently by a different angler holds the current record.

Now that Towson has crossed this goal off the list, he hopes to bring the same experience to others. The angler is looking to start trips to the river for supervised arapaima catching.

Giant Mutant Fish & More Bizarre Animals:

Mysterious beasts discovered near Loch Ness

By Tim Wall

Nature’s Mysteries

Published March 06, 2013

Discovery News

  • Nessie statue.jpg

    A Nessie-like statue. (Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons)

A creature with a long, snake-like body, many legs and a voracious appetite was recently discovered near Loch Ness in northern Scotland.

No, it wasn’t Nessie, the infamous Loch Ness monster.

This newly discovered creature would only terrorize a leaf. It was a sawfly larvae, which resembles a caterpillar.

The new species of sawfly was one of the eight previously undiscovered species found by a biological survey of Dundreggan Estate in Scotland, reported Sky News. The other species were an aphid, two types of aphid parasites, three fungus gnats and a type of mite.

ANALYSIS: Finding Nessie Worth 1,000 Pounds

The new species join a list of more than 2,800 plants and animals cataloged at the 10,000-acre Dundreggan Estate in the County of Inverness, Scotland. The rugged highland landscape of the region is home to 20 mammals, 269 plants, 341 lichens, 92 birds, 354 beetles, 207 moths and 125 sawflies.

Studies related to a reforestation effort by the conservation group Trees for Life cataloged the species, 67 of which are now considered priorities for conservation.

“The surprisingly rich variety of life at Dundreggan highlights the vital importance of conservation work, and of protecting and enhancing habitats across the Highlands,” Trees for Life’s executive director Alan Watson Featherstone said in Sky News.”The discoveries are not only demonstrating that the estate is a special site for biological diversity; they are also revealing that there is still much to learn about Scotland’s biodiversity.”

ANALYSIS: Enormous Prehistoric Camel Roamed Arctic

Trees for Life has been working to restore 1,000 square miles of the Caledonian Forest on Dundreggan Estate. The Caledonian Forest once covered much of northern Scotland, but has been reduced to less than one percent of its original area. That remnant represents the western-most extension of the vast boreal forests that came to dominate northern Eurasia after the last Ice Age.

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