Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is There Really a Crocodile "Dentist"?

"I wonder if we'll ever know."

So ends the Animal Partners poem called "Croc Dentist." The story behind the poem is an interesting one.

When I was researching animal partnerships that I might want to include in my book Animal Partners, I came across a photo purporting to show an Egyptian plover sitting in the mouth of a crocodile. I had seen this image before, and just assumed it was real (not artificially created or "photoshopped").

However, further research revealed that this is not an actual photograph. The _Warren Photographic_ website displays this picture with the following disclaimer:
WP00955 / Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Egyptian Plover or Crocodile Bird (Pluvianus aegyptius) - digital reconstruction of popular myth attributed to Herodotus, 5th Century BC.  Africa. [emphasis mine]
_Bird Families of the World _ tells us that "the Egyptian Plover, aka 'Crocodile Bird' . . .   is a little known shorebird whose original claim to fame was the now discredited story that it picked the teeth of crocodiles!" [emphasis mine]

The folks at _Birdorable_ have covered this as well:
During a visit to Egypt in 459 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus noted having seen a small bird picking out food from the mouth of a crocodile. The behavior was presumed to be symbiotic, or beneficial to both animals. The crocodile got a nice teeth cleaning, and the bird got an easy meal. The bird named in Herodotus' account was an Egyptian Plover. Our first clue that this may not be true is the fact that Herodotus, while often recognized as the world's first historian, had a nickname of his own: "The Father of Lies." [emphasis mine]
So rather than perpetuate this popular myth (awesome though it may be), I decided I would include the crocodile-plover partnership in Animal Partners, but would make it clear that its authenticity has been questioned. The truth is, we have no actual photographic evidence of this relationship, and until such evidence can be provided, we cannot assume that such a relationship exists.

copyright Shennen Bersani

From Animal Partners by Scotti Cohn:

"Behold the wily crocodile.
Who will scrub his pointy smile?
Who will hop between those jaws,
defying all of nature's laws?

Some folks say a plover's beak
cleans those choppers cheek to cheek
Others say it isn't so.
I wonder if we'll ever know?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Little Mack Attack

When one animal partner uses another one to scare away predators or to attract prey, the relationship is called mutualism.

An example of this type of mutualism is the relationship between the Atlantic horse mackerel and the Portuguese man-of-war. (The Portuguese man-of-war itself is actually an animal made up of a colony of organisms working together!)

The mackerel lives between the tentacles of the Portuguese man-of-war. The sting from a man-of-war can be deadly, but the horse mackerel's immune system protects it from the venom of the man-of-war. If a larger fish -- attracted by the mackerel's brights colors and small size -- tries to grab the mackerel, the man-of-war will sting the larger fish and paralyze or kill it for its own food.

For my poem "Little Mack Attack," I imagined how the little mackerel ("Little Mack") -- safe among the tentacles of the man-of-war -- might become quite bold and saucy.

illustration copyright Shennen Bersani
text copyright Scotti Cohn

Little Mack Attack
by Scotti Cohn

Looking for lunch, my fine-finned foe?
Perhaps a mackerel snack "to go"?
It's true that you're a larger fish,
but you will never get your wish.

You think that you're the big kahuna,
but you are just a bluefin tuna.
You'll have to hunt me where I dwell:
here at the Man-of-War Hotel.

To read more about the Portuguese man-of-war, click HERE. Read a brief article about the horse mackerel's immunity to the man-of-war's venom HERE.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sea Turtle's Lament

Barnacles are crustaceans like crabs and lobsters, but barnacles cannot move on their own. Young barnacles are free floating; adult barnacles are permanently attached to the surface of the creatures on which they ride -- for example, sea turtles.

We call this arrangement "commensalism" if the barnacles don't cause any harm to their host. However, this relationship becomes "parasitism" when too many barnacles cause the host to have trouble swimming, which can harm the host.

In Animal Partners, a sea turtle has quite a few questions for the barnacle who is riding on his back.

illustration copyright Shennen Bersani
text copyright Scotti Cohn

Sea Turtle's Lament

Barnacle, o barnacle,
where'd you come from, barnacle?
Were you born or were you hatched?
How'd we come to be attached?

We're not alike, as you can see.
Why are you so stuck on me?
And why my foolish fascination
with such a clingy, crude crustacean?