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When Nature Goes Long

We’re hitting the summer solstice here in the northern hemisphere, which typically marks the longest day of the year.  I hope you can get outside and soak in as much Vitamin D as possible.  Afterward, celebrate the occasion by perusing this tribute to… length?  Sure, how about we honor those members of nature who have to tote around long appendages!

Let’s start from the back.  It was easy to think of some remarkable animals sporting long tails that I’ve encountered during my travels.  A lot are birds, of course.  Many species, like the Marvelous spatuletail hummingbird, use their long tail-feathers for courtship displays.

Marvelous spatuletail

 

The peacock is another famous showoff.  I photographed wild peafowl during my India trip a couple years ago.

Peacock

 

Loads of other birds sport long tails.  In Africa, the Magpie shrike was a common sight during last year’s photo tour.

Magpie Shrike

 

Long tails come in a variety of shapes, colors and even the number of feathers vary.  The Resplendent quetzal got its name because its long tail feathers “slither” like snakes when it flies, reminding people of the snake god Quetzalcoatl.  Some species of motmot break off their tail feathers during nesting season so they can fit inside their nests, usually a hole in a mud bank.

Long-tailed birds

From left: Resplendent quetzal and Turquoise-browed motmot, Costa Rica; African paradise flycatcher, South Africa; Greater racket-tailed drongo, India

 

 

The male quetzal’s tail can’t even fit inside the nest, often giving you a pretty good clue as to whether anyone’s home.

Resplendent quetzal tail

 

Of course, birds aren’t the only animals with elongated rears.  A lot of mammals sport long tails for balance or climbing.  In Costa Rica alone, you have the coatimundi, a cousin of the raccoon whose tail sticks straight up like an antenna when it walks, while up in the trees kinkajous (another raccoon cousin) and spider monkeys use their prehensile tails to hang from branches.

Long-tailed mammals

Costa Rica’s long-tailed mammals include spider monkeys, coatis and kinkajous.

 

Even bigger predators can put long tails to good use.  Big cats such as the snow leopard and puma need their tails to maintain balance on rocky hillsides and mountain slopes.  Check out the length of the tail on this mountain lion!

Mountain lion

 

Which terrestrial animal has the longest tail?  Though it may not come to mind right away… it’s actually the giraffe.

Southern giraffes

 

Of course, everything is long about the giraffe.  That neck, obviously, defines the animal more than any other trait.  Amazingly, giraffes have the same amount of vertebrae in their necks as humans (seven).  Their legs are also incredibly long.  Though if we were measuring leg length in proportion to body size, other animals would beat the giraffe.  The appropriately-named stilt, for example.

Black-Winged Stilt

Black-winged stilt, South Africa

 

Birds seem to have cornered the market on long appendages.  Long tails, long legs… and of course, long bills!  That toucan in the cereal ads wants us to follow his nose for a reason.

Fiery-billed aracari

The Fiery-billed aracari is a species of toucan found in Costa Rica.

 

Toucan bills are great for picking and cracking open nuts and fruit.  Some birds sport even longer, skinnier beaks used for other purposes.  Check out the snout on the ibis or curlew, both excellent for digging down to grab small insects or other aquatic snacks out of the dirt, mud and water.

White-Faced Ibis

White-faced ibis, Idaho

Long-billed curlew

Long-billed curlew, Montana

 

The nasal champion of the animal kingdom may just be the Sword-billed hummingbird, whose long bill allows it to reach nectar inside larger flowers.

Sword-billed hummingbird

 

This isn’t to say some mammals can’t put a schnoz to good use as well.  Insectivores have notably prolonged faces (and long tongues!), making it easier to access narrow holes in search of ants and termites.  The tamandua is a tree-climbing anteater found in the tropical rainforests of Latin America.

Tamandua

 

Another animal that loves ants is the aardvark.  Kind of an odd fellow, with a big snout and huge ears.

Aardvark

 

Some vegetarians have an elongated face.  The moose can reach aquatic plants under the surface of lakes and ponds with its long snout.  Or what about the tapir, a cousin of the rhino whose nose is prehensile and can help it grab vegetation that may be just out reach.

Baird's tapir

 

Of course, there’s only one big animal that comes to mind when we think of long noses.

African Elephant

 

Elephants use their trunks in many ways.  From processing scents (above) to drinking water (they actually bring water to their mouth, they don’t simply use the trunk as a drinking straw) to grabbing and tearing off branches for food.  They’ll even strip bark.

Elephant stripping bark

 

So yes, size does matter in the animal kingdom.  And along those lines, I don’t mind admitting that the elephant is also pretty well off… er, down there.  But in terms of “relative size,” there’s one animal that’s better-endowed in reproductive equipment than any other.

Barnacles

 

That’s right, the barnacle!  A barnacle’s reproductive organ can reach out as much as 40-50 times its body length.  All hail the true king of beasts!

 

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