Archive for the ‘Wildlife Facts and Photos’ category

Talking Dolphins

July 25, 2013

While it is self-evident that God designed humans in His image, and gave us the responsibility to manage His creation (Genesis 1:26-28), it is also obvious He created other creatures with quite a bit of intelligence, too. Dolphins are a great example, and researchers are learning more about their ability to communicate with each other, even responding when their “signature whistle” is replayed to them. A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses recent research findings, and includes an audio clip of dolphins responding when their “name” is replayed back to them. Below are some video clips my family shot recently in Port Aransas, TX. Dolphins are very curious, and occasionally will come right up to the boat. In the video, you can see the dolphins, hear them echolocate (rapid clicking sounds) and communicate with each other (whistles). Some of them have also learned to wait patiently near fishermen, and when an undersized fish is caught and released, they pounce on it! They also like to “hitch a ride” at the bow of moving boats.

When around wild dolphins, remember that they are, well, wild, and they have teeth! Try to enjoy them from a distance (federal law says 50 yards), but if they come up to you, don’t gun the motor and race away from them, because you might hit one and injure it. Instead, just enjoy them! If you are swimming or wadefishing and they approach, just relax and be observant. They are curious yet cautious, which is how we should be, too.

Spotted Dolphin

May 21, 2012

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The Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) is one of about 40 species currently classified in the family Delphinidae.

A spotted dolphin comes in for a close look at my camera.

Reaching lengths of 8 feet, spotted dolphins are usually smaller than Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and tend to travel in bigger groups, or pods, of 20 or more. Like most dolphins, spotted dolphins are very family-oriented, which brings up an interesting question. Because they normally tend to stick together as a family, dolphin pods are by nature reproductively isolated. And most biologists consider reproductive isolation to be the most important factor in contributing to diversification over time. But why are there only about 40 classified species of dolphins? Some say dolphins have been around for tens of millions of years, which seems like plenty of time to have more than 40 species develop on our watery planet.

Besides reproductive isolation, dolphins are classified as different species based on traits that humans consider different enough to distinguish one population from another. But compare the 40 or so “species” of dolphins to the 150-plus “breeds” of dogs currently registered by the American Kennel Club. All breeds of dogs are considered to be one “species”, Canis familiaris, all developed over the last 2000+ years. However, just like a laborador retriever can successfully breed with a golden retriever, so too a spotted dolphin can successfully breed with the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Yet we classify them as different species, placing spotted dolphins in genus Stenella and bottlenose in genus Tursiops!

The truth is, a lot of confusion exists regarding how to define a species. Much confusion is remedied though, when we think of dolphins as one big family, or baramin. “Baramin” is the Hebrew word for “kind”, and is used many times in Scripture to describe God’s creative acts.  Scripture is clear that their are different kinds of things, and that “all flesh is not the same flesh” (I Corinthians 15:39). Also, as Peter Leithart explains, the “The Bible unveils a God who gives enough and more than enough”, and we see this attribute revealed in His creation, too. We see one family of dolphins, which God gave “enough and more than enough” to adapt and diversify over time.

So few dolphin species, so little time

And speaking of time, that brings me back to the question of “why only 40 dolphin species?” With their natural tendency towards reproductive isolation, one might think that if the earth were as old as some say, we wouldn’t have dozens, we would have hundreds of dolphin species. I believe the fact that we don’t see much diversity is good evidence that the best interpretation of earth age is the one that lines up with the genealogies recorded in Scripture. It is not-so-common knowledge that research reveals both the genetic and geneaological trends in humans point to thousands, not millions or billions of years of earth history. It certainly seems the dolphin baramin displays a similar trend.

Dolphins, oil and gas, and Christian stewardship

Here are some video clips from a May 2012 trip into the Gulf of Mexico, about 30 miles SE of Freeport, TX.

I want you to consider everything you see in the video, not just the dolphins. Included are video clips of a pod of about 18-20 spotted dolphins.  But you’ll also see a clip showing massive schools of fishes surrounding an oil and gas production platform. Think about it; what you are seeing is a man-made structure that also serves as an artificial reef, providing food and shelter for giant schools of snapper, blue runners, etc. And the spotted dolphins have come to reap the fishy harvest! Some conclusions I hope you will draw are 1) the dolphins are better off because of man’s activities in the Gulf, 2) the fish are better off because of man’s activities in the Gulf, and 3) Humans are better off because of man’s activities in the Gulf!

So, the next time you hear about the “evils of oil and gas”, or the “endangered marine mammals”, or “humans are destroying the planet”, remember this video! Followed properly, God’s dominion mandate for Christians in Genesis 1:26-28 will make our planet a more productive place, not just for mankind, but for all kinds. Only a fool would destroy the planet, but only a fool would overprotect it, too. God gave us an entire planet and then some to use, so let’s use it wisely!

Do you have a question or comment? Please post it below.

Black Skimmer

May 6, 2011

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The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is my favorite bird. It is a bird with incredible abilities. Below is a photo of a Black Skimmer that will help you see where it got the name “skimmer”:

Copyright 2010, David E. Shormann, PhD

As you can see in the photo below, the skimmer family (Rynchopidae) differs from all other bird families because their bottom mandible, or bill, is much longer than their upper mandible:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

The longer, knifelike lower mandible, or bill, helps the Black Skimmer catch fish. The base of the bill is red-orange and the tip is black. The bird flies slowly along leeward shorelines, where wave action is less pronounced, and skims its lower bill just beneath the surface. Precision flying is required to keep the bill in the water for any distance, and the relatively long wings (up to 48 inches) of the skimmer, relative to its body (16-20 inches), help it maintain a level glide. Notice the long wings in the photo below:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

When a fish hits the Black Skimmer’s lower bill, the bird’s head will automatically bend down and back, which traps the fish. The skimmer then flies up and swallows the fish. Here’s a short YouTube video by EstuaryLiveTV showing a Black Skimmer capturing a fish:

If the skimmer’s fish-catching techniques are not impressive enough, consider that it also does this at night! That is why its upper surface is black, to camouflage it for night-fishing. Also, notice when its bill is open, the only color a fish that is in front of it would see is black. It would not see the orange-red section. What an incredible design!

The skimmer family, Rynchopidae, consists of only two other species, one from Africa (R. flavirostris) and the other from Asia (R. Albicollis). All skimmers look essentially the same, with slight differences in color patterns and calls. All skimmers live along rivers and estuaries, and lay their eggs on open areas like sandy beaches and shell reefs. They typically nest in colonies, often with other birds like terns. Here is a video of a small Black Skimmer colony nesting in a remote section of East Matagorda Bay in Texas. Listen for the distinct “kaup” call of the Black Skimmer, compared to the terns that are also quite vocal:

Black Skimmers, like many other bird species (and like humans are supposed to do!), mate with one individual for life. After the eggs are laid, the couple takes turns incubating them. In the following photo, the mate farthest from the camera is incubating a pair of eggs:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

According to the Outdoor Alabama website, the typical Black Skimmer clutch averages four eggs.   The pair above only had two eggs, and this could be because 1) the female still had more eggs to lay, or 2) storms washed the other eggs away. Black Skimmers along the Gulf of Mexico Coast typically lay their eggs in May, and the eggs take about 3 weeks to hatch. Here is a photo of this couple’s clutch in early May, 2011:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

As you can tell, the eggs are designed to be camouflaged against their shelly background. See if you can find the same eggs in the photo below. Click on the photo to enlarge it:

Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

Give up? They are in the top right corner of the photo.

If you are not impressed by the incredible design of the Black Skimmer, then I’m afraid nothing will impress you! In His goodness, God made this bird incredibly special and unique. Some bird groups, a.k.a. “baramins”, like warblers, have more diversity since the Genesis Flood, but not skimmers. Three “species” (maybe not really species?) exist worldwide. Skimmers catch dinner by skimming their enlarged lower mandible through shallow water, somehow avoiding all underwater obstacles (I’ve never seen a skimmer “crash!”), and they even do it on the blackest of  nights! They lay well-camouflaged eggs, and the parents, who mate for life, take turn incubating the eggs and raising the young. Awesome!

Click here for a coloring page of the Black Skimmer. Remember, the Black Skimmer is black on top, so use the thin line that is beneath the eye as your border between the black and white.


November 14, 2010

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Ling, a.k.a lemonfish, or cobia (Rachycentron canadum).

A pair of ling swimming near an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Copyright 2008, David E. Shormann


With their large, triangular dorsal fin, together with their tendency to swim near the surface, adult ling look a lot like a shark. Their shark-like shape, together with their curious nature can be rather disconcerting when scuba diving. On more than one dive I have seen a large shark-like fish approaching rapidly, but thankfully it has almost always been a ling. They will get so close sometimes that you can scratch their backs. Females are usually larger than males, and often have one or more suitors in pursuit. Cobia get big, over 100 lbs!

Ling were designed to prefer coastal waters, and they like salinities around 30 ppt, not as salty as average ocean seawater (35 ppt), and not as fresh as the typical estuary. Ling like to hang out around Gulf Coast oil production platforms, and upon approaching a platform, will often be the first fishes to greet your boat. Notice the lower lip extends past the upper, indicating ling were designed to attack their prey from beneath. Note the small sharksucker hitching a ride on this ling’s back.


Ling, with sharksucker attached. Copyright 2008, David E. Shormann


Juvenile ling look very much like these sharksuckers, minus the suction cup on top of their head:

Sharksuckers attached to the hull of my boat. The stripe along the side of their face, along with their general body style, is very similar to a young ling's. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann.

Ling prefer water temperatures above 68 °F (20 °C), and prefer to spawn in waters between 75 and 84 °F (24 and 29 °C). They have extremely high fecundities, and can lay hundreds of thousands to millions of eggs per year. Eggs are small, a little more than 1 mm diameter, and buyoant. They hatch within 24-36 hours, and grow rapidly. Ling grow very fast, plus they taste great, so it is no surprise that commercial farming of ling is on the rise worldwide. Ling reach a marketable size of 10-13 pounds (4-6 kg) in about 1 year.

Ling have many other common names, including cobia, lemonfish, and crabeater. They don’t eat lemons, but they do eat crabs, and a fresh blue crab is a good bait for them. Many offshore fishermen like to keep a rod ready with about a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook and 30-50 lb test line. If a ling is spotted, they will quickly attach a crab or other bait, pitch it towards the ling, and hang on. Sometimes ling will eat almost anything, while other times they are extremely finicky and difficult to catch.

Ling have an almost worldwide distribution, and while I don’t know about other places, I do know that in Texas, late April through October are the best times to catch them. Ling are sometimes caught near the shore at piers and jetties, but the best places to catch them are offshore around oil production platforms and floating patches of sargassum. I sure enjoyed catching, and eating, this one:

38 lb. ling I caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann

As always, before fishing, check your local regulations for ling size and posession limits.  I mentioned earlier that ling have a high fecundity, and since the one in the above photo was a gravid female, I decided to estimate the number of eggs she was carrying. Like most fishes, ling have two ovaries, and the combined weight of her eggs was about 1 kg (2.2 lbs), about the weight of most of the fish I’m used to catching! To estimate the fecundity, I weighed two separate and smaller clumps of eggs. The clumps weighed 0.10 and 0.09 g, and had 318 and 326 eggs respectively, which averaged to 322 eggs per 0.095 g. Using this ratio as a conversion factor, I calculated this ling held about 3.4 million eggs!

Strong, curious, tasty, big, and extremely productive, ling are an amazing creation enjoyed by millions of people all over the world!

Click here for a COLORING PAGE: ling

Bottlenose Dolphin

November 10, 2010

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Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)are a common sight along the Gulf Coast. These images are from Port Aransas, Texas. The photo below was used on the cover of the October 1, 2009 edition of the Port Aransas “South Jetty” weekly newspaper:

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Adult dolphins reach lengths up to 12 feet (4 meters), and males are normally larger than females. Dolphins typically live 20-30 years, but have been known to live up to 50 years. Bottlenose are dark gray on top, fading to white or pink underneath. An average sized (550 lb) dolphin will eat 20-50 pounds of fish each day! Dolphins find fish to eat using sight, but they can also hunt at night and in murky water by using echolocation. When a dolphin uses echolocation, it is basically creating a picture of its environment using sound. Although dolphins produce a range of sounds, the most useful sounds for echolocation appear to be clicks of short duration released in single pulses or trains of pulses. These clicks may be repeated up to 800 times per second. Dolphins have no vocal chords, so the sounds they produce are believed to be created by forcing air through their nasal passages and nasal sacs. The bulbous head of the bottlenose is filled with fatty tissue, and is believed to act like a lens, concentrating the clicks into a “beam” of sound. Their sounds can travel over half a mile, and they can even use their sounds to stun prey. So not to confuse outgoing sounds with returning sounds, outside sounds enter through the lower jaw and travel through the skull by bone conduction. Fat and oil bodies within the lower jaw vibrate, adn the sound is channeled directly to the middle ear. The hearing center in a dolphin’s brain is well-developed, probably so that it can analyze and interpret returning sound messages. For comparison, a human ear can hear in the range of 16 to 20,000 vibrations per second. A bottlenose dolphin responds to frequencies above 150,000 vibrations per second!

A dolphin’s vision is not as good as human’s, and it is believed they have no sense of smell, but they can taste. Dolphins reproduce sexually, and like all mammals, give birth to a baby that feeds on its mother’s milk. Dolphins have an 11-month gestation period, with babies being born mainly in the spring. Dolphins swim in groups or pods of related dolphins, and work together to trap fish, squid, and other food items.

Sometimes dolphins like to jump in the bow wake of large ships, like these three dolphins are doing:

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Sometimes they jump for no apparent reason!

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Here is a video of dolphins jumping in the bow wake of a tanker:

While the dolphins in these photos and video are jumping, they also like to dive, and have been recorded to dive to depths of about 1,000 feet (300 m)! They have a horizontally-positioned caudal fin, which they move up and down for propulsion. This is different than in fishes, which move their vertically-positioned tails from side to side. A rigid dorsal fin and a pair of flippers are used for stability and turning. Dolphin’s skin is smooth and slippery, allowing them to attain speeds up to 25 miles per hour (16 kph).

Dolphins rank second in intelligence only to us humans, but even as smart as they are, their creative abilities are less than toddler’s. Only humans, who were created in God’s image, were designed to be anywhwere near as creative as Him. You won’t see dolphins building skyscrapers, composing music, or drawing self-portraits! Dolphins are capable of learning many things though, and are easy to train in a way that shows off their incredible strength and agility, as shown in this video from the Texas State Aquarium:

The Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids harassing, feeding, or interfering with a dolphin’s normal activities. Sometimes, their “normal” activities include being extremely curious and approaching humans within just a few feet.

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

If you visit the Gulf Coast, you may not be greeted by a dolphin in such a personal way, but if you are, turn the boat motor off, keep out of the water (dolphins may bite), and enjoy the show!

Click on this link to print a COLORING PAGE:       bottlenose dolphin