Category Archives: Canopy Life


Yesterday I said there are no venomous birds. I didn’t say there were no poisonous birds.

Meet the pitohui, the world’s only known poisonous bird. The pitohui, found only in New Guinea, exudes a neurotoxic alkaloid through its skin and feathers, the same toxin found in the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. The poison, which affects both the nerves and the heart, is about ten times more potent than the one found in the fugu blowfish and fifteen times more powerful than curare. But neither the bird nor the frog produce the toxin themselves; they absorb it from the toxic beetles that they eat. And so poison is spread up the food chain: manufactured by a plant for its defense, a beetle gains a tolerance for it and uses the poison for its own defense. Then a bird develops an antidote, and gains the gift. And with this poison, which is in essence a life-preserving agent, comes the gift of color.

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Land of the Lost

The other day we discussed adaptive radiation, the process by which a single ancestor can split into an aardvark, an elephant, a manatee and a mole. But how do species split from one another? Usually by being physically separated for a good amount of time. The obvious illustration would be a species radiating between islands, but “islands” can occur on land, too. Even within islands.

Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t think they… oh, there’s one.

Meet the Bosavi Woolly Rat, a cuddly cat-sized rodent and the largest rat in the world. What makes it remarkable isn’t just its size, but its location. It was discovered only last year in the Bosavi volcanic crater in Papua New Guinea, along with at least 40 other amazing animal species heretofore unknown to science and native only to this one crater, including a fanged frog, a fish that “grunts,” a marsupial called the Bosavi silky cuscus, a tree kangaroo, a new family of sleestaks, an ogre-faced spider that fishes for its prey, a new species of bat, the world’s smallest parrot, a new bird-of-paradise and caterpillars that collaborate to look like a snake. These creatures had no fear of humans, having probably never seen one before. After all, they’ve been walled inside an extinct volcano for 200,000 years.

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The Komodo At The End Of The Fork

This Spring, a giant monitor lizard was discovered in the Phillipines. It is beautiful, flecked with both green and gold scales. Like its close cousin, the komodo dragon, it is huge — 6 feet long and 22 lbs — and has a double penis. Unlike the komodo, it is entirely vegetarian, peacefully stalking fruit in the treetops.

We’ll call it by its scientific name, Varanus bitatawa, because its English name, the Northern Sierra Madre Forest monitor lizard, is kind of a mouthful. That a six-foot golden lizard could remain hidden to science for so long is surprising, but the reasons fit a few familiar patterns.

1. V. bitatawa is arboreal, spending no more than 20 minutes a day on the ground. If you want to find a new species, look up or look down. The forest canopy and the deep ocean are the undiscovered continents, the vertical frontiers of biology, and it makes sense that most new terrestrial animals are found above us, where it hurts our necks to look. In fact, a host of new creatures were recently discovered in the treetops of Papua New Guinea, including the world’s smallest wallaby and a “pinocchio” frog with an inflatable nose. It is amazing how many big, obvious things can be obscured in the mess of capillaries at the ends of the Earth’s blood.

2. But when I said it was “discovered” this Spring, I lied. It was “discovered” by science recently, but it was known to natives for countless generations, as a delicious meal. In fact, it was a picture of locals posing with their lizard lunch, taken in 2001, that prompted the expedition to find it. And this is the larger truth: If it’s out there, we’ve probably eaten it. If not us, something else. Hunger is the great explorer. It causes us to try poisonous plants and strangely-colored bugs, and learn about our environment that way. Knowing what to eat, and what not to eat, is the most practical application of biology. People who know how to hunt and forage have a far more intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and often — but not always — a greater understanding of their workings. So epicureanism — food appreciation and adventurism — isn’t too far from the science of biology, an expedition on the dinner table. Hunger makes you a keen observer. Hunger makes you a scientist. If you want to find a new species of rodent, follow a hawk. If you want to find new mushrooms, follow a wild pig. I think we will soon recognize that the quickest path to finding out the secrets of the Earth is the oldest and most direct. To find the hidden creatures in a forest, ask the locals what’s on the menu.


The origins of flight are debated, but one thing is certain: it began as gliding. And, most likely, it began as gliding from tree to tree in the forest canopy. As of yet, there are only two ways to truly fly: have wings on the back (like insects), or wings on the forelimbs (like birds and bats). But nature is constantly innovating, finding new ways to get high. Today, we look at some gliding prototypes being developed in the laboratory of the rainforest canopy, and imagining what kind of flying animals they might become.

The Prototype: Flying Dragon

I love animals that sound like kung fu moves. The flying dragon of Southeast Asia has developed a different way to glide: it extends flaps of skin connected to special, movable ribs to create “wings” in its midsection; its obvious advantage is that, unlike birds or flying squirrels, its arms and legs are free, so it can read the SkyMall catalogue. It’s able to glide about 25 feet, even executing a nifty little loop-de-loop to slow its descent near landing.

The Future Model: The Butterfly Lizard

Okay, gliding lizards have existed for 144 million years. So if this design could turn into powered flight, it probably would have by now. But if you gave the lizard a keel, the breastbone in birds to which the flight muscles attach, the flying dragon could conceivably evolve into a fluttering lizard with brightly-colored wings, making short, powered jumps upwards into the canopy to catch slow-moving insects in its elongated forearms.

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Fans of Ray Bradbury are going to love this one. The animal below is a bullet ant, a remarkable creature in its own right. But the weird animal of the day is not the ant, nor an animal at all, but a fungus. Specifically, the one growing out of the ant’s cranium.

Its name is Ophiocordyceps unilateris, a member of the larger cordyceps family of predatory fungi. This species preys specifically on the carpenter ant, which lives in the rainforests of Central America. Here’s its modus operandi: An ant will accidentally tread on a spore that’s been waiting on the forest floor. The spore attaches itself and sends out hyphae (the fungal equivalent of roots) that seek out a weak spot in the ant’s exoskeleton. Once found, the hyphae enter the body and penetrate the ant’s brain.
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Meditation on Slow Angels

Something you may know about me: in college, I was a botany major. Something you may not know about me: in my junior year, my concentration was in canopy ecology. My grand plan was to go climb trees in the rainforest and inspect the animal life living in epiphytic bromeliads. (I am somewhat off-track.) But last week I found a book my dad bought second-hand and forgot to give me for Christmas, Life Above the Jungle Floor, a travelogue by a canopy ecologist working in Costa Rica, and have been enjoying ever since. And this brings me to my latest “weird animal” post:

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