Animal Shenanigans: Slug’s Lunch

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Today in weird things that normal people don’t notice but I totally do: Linz has a lot of slugs hanging around. Well, not really hanging around as much as oozing their way around in the parks, hunting for delectable patches of veg to nosh on. It’s slow living to the max here for Linz’s slug population, so today I bring you a slug, savoring her lunch in slow-motion:

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And here are gifs, BECAUSE I CAN!

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Slug Eats

This is just a little reminder to all of us that like a slug, we should all slow down and savor life a little bit more.

Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.
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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.
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The little mushroom that could #1.
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The little mushroom that could #2.
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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.
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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.
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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.
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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.
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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.
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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.
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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.
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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.
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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.
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A salticid in a patch of grass.
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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.
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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.
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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.
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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.
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The color of moss.
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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.
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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Bugs of Russian Summer

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A long-horned beetle (maybe Agpanthia villosoviridescens) crawls around on flower buds near the shore of Lake Baikal.

It’s winter here in present-day Boston, and working my way through these Russian summer photos is a unique form of torture for someone who’s never fully adjusted to winter being a season. It looks so warm and sunny and bright in the photos, and it’s so gray and cold outside. Augh. While I was busy longing for the eternal summers in our photos, I thought I’d put together a post of all the various Russian bugs we saw. I did one for Stolby Nature Preserve already, so this will be everything else. Now you can long for summer right along with me, or if you don’t like bugs, be grateful that summer is still a ways away.

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A salticid waves hello from its perch on my finger, Ulan-Ude.
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A large black ant rests while foraging, Ulan-Ude.
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A grasshopper hides under the embellishments of an ornately-carved door at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A salticid perches atop a wooden beam at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude.
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A ladybug (perhaps Cocinella magnifica) on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Two scarce large blues (Phengaris teleius) mate on a legume flower near Lake Baikal.
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Two long-horned beetles mate on a bed of flowers near Lake Baikal.
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A bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus) climbing on flower buds along the shores of Baikal.
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A brilliantly-colored crustacean shell, cast away by its owner on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Half of a beetle shell, maybe from Cetonia magnifica, from along the shores of Baikal.
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A salticid found a park in Ulan-Ude.
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A Scallop Shell Moth (Rheumaptera undulata) rests on a window in St. Petersburg.
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A checkered blue butterfly (Scolitantides orion) rests on a granite step in Ulan-Ude.
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A horsefly perches on a wooden post at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A water snail slides over the reeds of a local pond in the countryside just beyond of Moscow.

Da Lat Bugs

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A jumping spider (perhaps of Plexippinae) crawls along a plant stem.

I’ve got more bugs for you! These ones come from all over Da Lat, whose temperate climate is surprisingly kind to insect and arachnid populations. There are butterflies, mosquito hawks, and of course your favorite, jumping spiders. I’ve tried to ID them where possible:

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A Catopsilia pomona perhces on a blade of grass.
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A jumping spider, perhaps a Hyllus spp. in Plexippinae according to abdomen patterning.
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A jumping spider, perhaps a Hyllus spp. in Plexippinae according to abdomen patterning.
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A haunting shadow of a crane fly, seen through opaque glass.
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A spider from the daddy long legs group (Pholcidae) crawls along a post edge.
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An unidentified salticid takes a ride with us on our swan boat.
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Some kind of weevil or borer. I’m a lot less patient with IDing beetles and beetle-related insects.
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Another unidentified jumping spider (UJS).
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An amazing jumping spider of the family Myrmarachne. They have evolved to look like and mimic ants!
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An amazing jumping spider of the family Myrmarachne. This one has lunch in its jaws.
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An unidentified inchworm.
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An unidentified fuzzy beetle.
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Two ants explore a nectar for flower.

The Curious Case of the Six-legged Spider

I found the most curious spider at Waipu Caves. It had the definite shape and movements of a jumping spider, from two large luminous eyes to bounding around while I tried to photograph it. But it also definitely had six legs.

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A photo where I first found the spider: hiding in the bathroom.

I managed to lure the spider out into the sun, hoping to figure out where the two extra legs were. But even in the light, there were still only six legs – the two fuzzy things at the front are the pedipalps, part of the spider’s mouthparts.

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Luring the spider out into the sun for photography. Yep, it still has six legs.
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Still six legged: those small fuzzy “limbs” next to the fangs are the pedipalps, not legs.

Baffled by this mystery and enchanted by the brilliant peridot-green of the spider’s abdomen, I took a few more shots. We don’t have much in the way of internet access out here, so figuring out whether there is indeed a six-legged spider species in New Zealand will have to wait.

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The mystery spider patiently sits for a photoshoot.
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A head-on view of the spider. It’s curious about the camera, or it sees its own reflection and considers it another spider.

Update: I did some research and this isn’t a spiffy spider species that sports only six legs. It’s an unfortunate individual of the Trite genus (insert joke about the name lacking originality here), probably Trite planiceps (although it looks closer to this unidentified Trite species). These spiders normally come with eight legs, but this individual had his/her front two leg torn off, likely from an encounter with a predator or in a territorial battle with another spider. You can even see the stump of one leg to the left of the chelicerae and pedipalps in photos 2 and 4 above. Ouch. 

Thankfully, these spiders frequently lose their front limbs and carry on with their normal lives in terms of hunting and survival. But they do have some worse luck in fighting battles against other spiders and in mating – there’s a whole thesis on it here.

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The spider on the door lock, for size scale.

Funky Fungi and Lichens of the Salkantay

As creatures in the “not animals” category, fungi and lichens are another ubiquitous inhabitant along trails that don’t get enough love. But they come in some of the brightest colors and weirdest shapes, attesting to the creativity of nature’s palette. Here are some of the funkiest little fungi and lichens we encountered during our hike.

Note: I’ve made some broad attempts to identify these, but fungi can be notoriously hard to pin down (even into Families) without extensive analysis of microscopic details. We didn’t have a microscope on the trail, so that’s the best I can do. That being said, if there’s a field guide floating around out there that covers the fungi of the Peruvian Andes, TELL ME!!

Second note: We hiked in January (the rainy season), the abundance we saw may be due to the increased rain.

Friendly Fungi

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I’m guessing a type of Basidiomycete, perhaps an immature stinkhorn or earth star. This is one of the more unusual shapes I’ve seen for a mushroom.
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A vividly orange Ascomycete that is probably a relative of the orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) we see in North America.
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A pair of young puffballs. Judging from their somewhat spiky exterior, I would guess they’re from the genus Lycoperdon.
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Small purple mushrooms found along the railway to Machu Picchu. Beyond Basidiomycota, I couldn’t tell you much else except that it seems to have fairly irregular gill formation.
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Tiny white mushrooms growing from a dead tree stump along the railway to Machu Picchu.

Loveable Lichens

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Lichens growing on a rock in the Andes; there are probably a couple of different species here, including squamulose and fruticose forms.
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An intense foliose lichen, probably of the Dictyonema genus.
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Another foliose lichen, this time growing on a tree trunk.
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An intensely orange fruticose lichen, maybe something in the genus Teloschistes

References

Wikipedia article on orange peel fungus

Wikipedia article on Puffballs

Getting to Know Lichens

Lichen Mophology

Dictyonema Wikipedia Article

Plants along the Salkantay Trail

One of the best things about the Salkantay Trail is that it takes you through at least five* different Andean habitats, each with its own unique flora and fauna. And while everyone wants to spot the animals, you’re much more likely to see plants along the trail because 1) there are more plants than animals and 2) they don’t move so they don’t flee when you come down the trail. So it can be far more rewarding on a hike to take some time and admire the plants.

Below are some of the plants we encountered on our hike along the Salkantay Trail in January 2017. There’s an abundance of plant life everywhere on the trek, from the familiar to the strange, and the rainy season meant a plethora of flowers in bloom and in some places, fresh fruit. I’ve tried to identify species where I can, but if you have any info please feel free to comment below.

Alpine Habitat

This ecosystem stretches from Salkantaypampa to a few kilometers after the village of Wayramachay and includes the Salkantay Pass. Plants here grow low or spindly, battered by cold and high winds on the mountainside.

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Small, stunted lupines (Lupinus mutabilis) grow near the Salkantay Pass
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We thought this might be a type of dandelion, but on closer inspection it looks closer to wood avens (Geum urbanum). However, that’s a Europe/Middle East plant, so this could be a close relative or an invader.
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I’m guessing this is an actual member of the dandelion family, from it’s cheerful yellow flower to the shovel-shaped leaves that grow in a cluster.
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The radial leaves of an unknown annual crowd surround a tuft of moss along the trail.
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Unripe wild blueberries growing along the trail, identified mostly by their small, leathery leaves and the unmistakeable crown n the bottom of the berry.

Tropical Highland Wet

The alpine region gave way to a hot, humid, and much more tropical-feeling region that included an abundance of plant species. Plant size ranged from tiny mossess and small annuals to huge brambles, shoots, and trees. Some species even eschewed dirt and grew on other plants.

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An unripe blackberry grows along the trail. Judging by the size of the fruit and the location, I’d guess it’s the eponymous Andean blackbery (Rubus glaucus).
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I’m not sure what this flower is, but I’ve ruled out fuchsia and cantua. My best guess is Alstromeria isabellina, but even that doesn’t seem quite right.
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Young leaves of a native bamboo (probably Chusquea spp.) still wet with morning dew.
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The strangest plant we saw on our trip; I couldn’t find any leads on it online.
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A native orchid known as Wiñay Wayna in Peru. It’s scientific name is Epidendrum secundum. We also saw a similar plant in a New Zealand garden, so you might be able to get this orchid species commercially.

Tropical Highland Semi-arid/Disturbed Habitat

As we walked along the vehicle road to Playa, there air seemed to be hotter and drier and the dirt appeared to be harder packed. This may be an actual change in climate, or just be the case on the day we were hiking. Either way, this ecosystem is different than the one along the trail; the plants are different, probably because the area is disturbed by frequent human activity.

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A yellow-flowered legume along the trail, perhaps of the genus Retama. You can easily identify legumes by the presence of pea/bean-like pods and the hooded flowers. You could also dig up the roots and find they have nodules, but that wouldn’t be very nice.
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An unknown, rather fuzzy plant growing along the trail.
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A wild bee or wasp pollinates an unnamed wildflower. I couldn’t get any leads on this one, either.
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A giant wild taro plant grows alongside the trail.

Again, if you have info on any of these unidentified plants, let me know in the comments! Cheers,

– Natalie

*There are probably more than five habitats, but this is what I could identify on the hike: conifer forest (may be manmade), grassland/pampas, alpine, tropical highland wet, tropical  highland semi-arid

Salticids along the Salkantay Trail

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A jumping spider (Frigga spp.) from day 3 of our hike

I really like spiders. They’re interesting animals, from their web-building to their role in eating what we humans generally consider pests (like mosquitoes). They exist nearly everywhere in the world, and there are tons of species, so there’s always something new to learn. But a lot of people don’t like spiders, and I understand that. But hear me out below.

Jumping spiders (salticids) are the adorable stars of the spider world. And while the words “jumping” and “spider” together might horrify you, it’s not as scary as you might think. Jumping spiders are small, nonaggressive, and none of them (as far as I know) are venomous enough to seriously hurt you. You can play with them, as they’re highly sensitive to motion and will react to you putting a finger (or stick, or leaf) near them by jumping on it or jumping away. And their huge eyes make them really cute. Seriously, they’re so cute that I’ve already helped one person conquer their fear of spiders through observing them. So if you’re currently not keen on spiders, jumping spiders might be your chance to see spiders in a new light.

And if you’re already an enthusiast of Salticidae, welcome! Hope you like the pictures, and if you’ve got any identification information please pass it along here or on Project Noah (a website dedicated to cataloging images of all life on Earth).

Lastly, the Swedish word for jumping spider is…’hoppspindlar’. Yes, it is. No, I’m not making this up.

Before the Salkantay Pass

We didn’t encounter many jumping spiders on this side of the pass, although that might be the result of us hiking as quickly as possible and not taking many breaks. We did see this little guy at Parador Hornada Pata. He was stubborn and retreated before we could take any good photos:

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After the Salkantay Pass

Our first jumping spider on the north side of the Salkantay Pass showed up on the trail after Wayramachay, probably at around 2,800 feet. This little lady was shy and trying to avoid the sun, so getting a good picture is hard:

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Hiding out from the sun
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Looking right at us

We saw nearly half a dozen jumping spiders in the span of an hour at Winaypocco, in the valley of river Santa Teresa/Salkantay. All of these seem to be in the genus Frigga, which live throughout South America (and a bit of Central America). We managed to get good pictures of three of them:

Frigga spp. #1

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This spider is looking up at my finger
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The spider checks out a tiny mite (yellow smudge) that crawls by next to her
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Just before hopping off into the underbrush

Frigga spp. #2

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Nice lunch you got there, spider-friend.

Frigga spp. #3

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I got this one to jump onto a leaf for easier photography
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He didn’t have much patience, though, and quickly hopped off into the grass
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What he looks like, mid jump
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These shots are just four of about thirty for this particular spider. They’re sprightly and can be hard to photograph.

These are the references I used to ID the above species:

Reference 1

Reference 2

Wikipedia page (for where they normally live)

Galapagos Marine Iguanas Are Underappreciatedly Awesome

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The Galapagos marine iguana, in all of his glory
They’re everywhere in the Galapagos, on every island, hanging out on the beach, clinging to rocks on the shore, and scrabbling up steep cliffsides. They collect in the hundreds, sunning their gray-black bodies between trips to the water’s edge to munch on the algae that sustains them. Darwin famously called them “imps of darkness”. People think they look ugly and stupid. And few come to the Galapagos specifically to see them. They’re the Galapagos marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), and their unpopularity is totally unwarranted.
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The Galapagos marine iguana’s appearance doesn’t do it any favors, but it looks this way because of the harsh Galapagos environment. The marine iguana’s snout is short and stout compared to other lizards, a change that helps them eat their primary food, marine algae. The iguana’s skin has also darkened to deep green, grays, and blacks, enabling it to absorb more heat from the sun’s rays after swimming in the frigid Galapagos ocean. And the iguana has developed long, sharp claws; these help it cling to rocks on the shore, against  in the face of pounding waves and merciless surf. So despite the consequence of appearance, the marine iguana is a highly capable creature adapted to life in the Galapagos.
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Post meal food coma iguana. If you look closely enough, you can see some leftovers on his face.
Besides winning in the ‘surviving the Galapagos’ contest (which by the way, humans have frequently lost), these iguanas also have some adorable quirks. As you walk by them on the shore, you’ll hear brief hissing noises, like someone incredibly tiny blowing their nose. This is the marine iguana sneeze. Like saltwater crocodiles, these iguanas have to get rid of the excess salt they pick up in the ocean and the algae they eat. But unlike crocodiles, who cry ‘crocodile tears’, iguanas have opted to sneeze it out. So don’t worry, they’re not suffering from the flu.
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“*sneeze* Ugh, Candice, I’m dying. This flu is kiiiilling me.” “Stop it, Anna. You don’t even have the flu.”
You’ll also often see iguanas wobble their heads up and down, as if they were some sort of living bobble-head. This is the marine iguana signal that it’s time to mate, a sort of “Hey bby :)” for the females and a “GTFO” for other males. Smaller males will take the hint and leave, but if the males are the same size, the other male will challenge the first with his own head bobble. Then the two iguanas will sit there for a few minutes, bobbling heads at each other, until one of them finally gives in and leaves or (very rarely) a serious fight goes down.
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Two large males compete in a game of ‘bobble head’
Then there’s the basking, which takes up more of the iguana’s day than eating, sneezing, mating, and fighting combined. Because the water of the Galapagos is seriously cold, the iguanas spend most of their days either preparing to go into the ocean or recovering from swimming in it by basking in the sun. They’ll do this for hours, while sitting alone or socializing together, sitting up awake or collapsed napping on the sand. Most reptiles do some variation of this, but have you ever seen one look so happy to feel the sun’s warmth?
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LOOK AT THEM
Haters gonna hate, but the Galapagos marine iguanas are happy nonetheless.
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Happy iguanas, and not like that. They tend to crawl all over each other for warmth.

The Galápagos Opuntia

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The Galápagos Opuntia, prickles and all

Plants are underappreciated. I learned this in undergrad, when one of my professors (a botanist) showed a photograph in class and asked students to name all of the living things in it. The students named the animals easily – bear, rabbit, wolf, bird – but failed to point out a single plant in the photograph (for the record, I think there were four). If you want to see this same disregard in action for yourself, type “endangered species” into Google Search or Google Images and scroll through the results. Despite plants comprising nearly half the endangered species in the world (46% as of 2012), there are no plant results on the first page of either search. None. Zero.

In light of this and the fact that plants support nearly all life on Earth, here’s a plant appreciation post. Below is the Galápagos Opuntia (Opuntia echios), a type of prickly pair native only to the Galápagos and listed as vulnerable to extinction:

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A Galápagos Opuntia that’s over 3 meters high. The “trunk” is made of old, dead cactus pads that harden and fuse as the cactus grows.

The Opuntia is amazing for two reasons: it thrives in the harsh Galápagos environment and serves as a source of food for the charismatic fauna people know and love. The Opuntia start out as normal looking cacti, but as they grow their old pads harden and fuse to become a “trunk” for the cactus. They essentially takes the form of a tree, and at over 3 meters tall they are some of the largest plants on the Galápagos. These cacti don’t just survive here, they dominate.

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Spines on the Opuntia’s pads. These don’t always deter local animals.

Their flowers attract birds and flies that pollinate, and the fruit and cactus pads feed land iguanas and giant tortoises in all seasons. Without these sources of food, I’d wager there’d be fewer animals and fewer species here.

And these cacti have a beauty all their own, embeded in the fractal patterns of their skeletons:

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A close-up shot of the dried skeleton from a single cactus pad (like the one above)

Is that not a plant species worth saving?