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Cool Creatures, Special Post

Christmas special: The Twelve Factoids of Creatures – part 1

So it’s Christmas in less than a week! But, instead of your typical Christmas-themed post, here is a ‘Nature is anything but simple’ twist on a yuletide classic: the Twelve Days of Christmas. In my next two posts, I will countdown through ‘Twelve Factoids of Creatures’ that are inspired loosely (in some cases very loosely) by the gifts in this song. This first post runs from twelve woodpeckers drumming to seven sturgeons-a-swimming:

//Twelve woodpeckers drumming:

As anyone spending Christmas with small children will know, the gift of one drum is enough to give you a headache. But imagine if the drummers actually hit out the beat with their heads. The woodpecker is sometimes referred to as ‘a songbird without a song’—and instead uses its beak to ‘drum’ out a tune on a tree trunk. Like birdsong, a woodpecker’s drumming is used to attract a mate, or mark out a territory; and woodpeckers have extremely thickened skulls to cushion their brains from slamming their beaks against wood with a force 1,000 times that of gravity.


//Eleven pipers probing:

As if the sound of drumming wasn’t enough, how about we add some pipers to the ensemble? Sandpipers are small- to medium-sized wading birds, often with a long, narrow bill and a piping call. The tips of their bills contain highly sensitive nerve endings—which allow the birds to probe in the mud and sand to find unseen prey.

Western sandpiper | Image by Dominic Sherony

Western sandpiper | Image by Dominic Sherony

//Ten ‘boks-a-pronking:

A dectet of jumping gentry would be a bizarre sight, even at Christmas. Likewise the ‘stotting’ or ‘pronking’ of a springbok would be odd to watch too. This gazelle from south-western Africa will repeatedly spring up to two metres into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously—its legs held awkwardly stiff, its back arched, and its head pointed downwards. While the exact cause of this behaviour is unknown, it is thought to possibly alert to predators that they’ve been spotted, or that the gazelle is fit and healthy enough to easily escape, to dissuade the predator from taking chase in the first place.

A young springbok stetting in Namibia | Image by Yathin SK

A young springbok stetting in Namibia | Image by Yathin SK

//Nine honeybees dancing:

At many a work Christmas party, people have undoubtedly relished the chance to hit the dance floor, and bust a few moves. Dance has been called “the hidden language of the soul”, and female honeybees use their characteristic ‘waggle dance’ to share information about the locations of particularly good foraging sites with sister workers. Different species of honeybee have different ‘dialects’ of waggle dance, each with their own distinctive features—however workers living in mixed colonies are able to learn the meaning of the waggle dances of the other species.

//Eight pups-a-milking:

On Christmas Eve, Santa will probably drink a fair few glasses of milk, and eat more than a couple of cookies. With his cholesterol levels in mind, it’s probably best if he sticks to skimmed milk, as whole milk typically has around 4% fat. However, things could be much worse if we drank seal’s milk rather than cow’s milk. Harp seal milk contains a whopping 48% fat—which explains why a suckling pup can gain over 2.2 kg in body weight per day.

Harp seal mother with suckling pup | Image by ilovegreenland

A Harp seal mother with her suckling pup | Image by ilovegreenland

//Seven sturgeons-a-swimming:

In the UK, the Queen’s Christmas Message is a national tradition, but her Majesty is unlikely to mention that she technically owns all unmarked mute swans swimming on open water. As such—like the Queen herself—they are considered a ‘Royal Bird’ (Please forgive me Ma’am); and for the same reasons, whales and sturgeons are considered ‘Royal Fish’. Sturgeons have been referred to as both the Leviathans and Methuselahs of freshwater fish. They are among the largest and the longest lived of fish—some are reported to have reached over 5.5 m in length, weigh about 2000 kg, and live for well over 100 years.

Atlantic sturgeon | Image by Duane Raver

Atlantic sturgeon | Illustration by Duane Raver

Be sure check back on Monday (December 23rd) for the Twelve Factoids of Creatures – part 2, the countdown from six to one…

But until then, Merry Christmas!


About StuartKing

Hi, I'm Stuart, an Assistant Features Editor at eLife and recent life sciences PhD graduate. I blog about evolution and its weird and wonderful creations.

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