Mystery Creature revealed – the Silkhenge spider

Mystery Creature revealed – the Silkhenge spider

How did you do with this week’s mystery creature (or more accurately… mystery structure). A few of you got it spot on, well done.


Image credit:Phil Torres (with permission)

This stunning piece of architecture was built by…

The Silkhenge spider!

This tiny structure is made up of two parts, a central spire on the inside and an outer (round) fence like structure,  a little more than 0.5 cm in diameter. The entire structure is made of silk and there are threads attaching both the inner column and the outer ring.

This structure is amazing for so many reasons;

Firstly, it was only discovered as recently as 2013, by Troy Alexander, in the Tambopota Research Centre in the South Eastern Peruvian Amazon. Originally there was much speculation as to whether a spider was actually the creator at all. Some suggested it was the work of a caterpillar, others thought it was a fungal structure of some sort.

Secondly, no spider has ever actually been seen creating these structures! Researchers did finally observe small spiderlings that had hatched from the central structure. Usually there is just one solo spiderling , occasionally there are two. This is extremely rare for spiders, as you are much more likely to find tens, or even hundreds of eggs within the one egg sac. It is possible that the female spider that makes these structures, makes many, maybe there are better chances if survival of the eggs are dispersed over a wider area. A literal case of not putting all your eggs in one basket?

Check out this fantastic video by Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz as they capture the moment two spiderlings hatch (it really captures an exciting moment in the discovery process)…

Video Credit:Phil Torres

Thirdly, scientists are still unsure what purpose the structures serve. Do they have a protective role: a fence to keep out predators? Or do they act like a typical web, trapping insects and filling the nursery larder with a food supply for the hungry hatchling?

Finally, the most bizarre part of this story is that the adult spider, the skilled architect behind these constructions, is still unknown. As mentioned in the video above, DNA barcoding has not yielded any positive results. No doubt the answer will come soon, but in the meantime, it is still a case of speculation and wonder, often a very fun part of scientific research 🙂

I’ll be posting March’s mystery creature next Monday so remember to stop by! 


How do snails get their shells and can slime mend a broken heart?

How do snails get their shells and can slime mend a broken heart?

It is all about snails here this week; snail questions, bad weather and midterm break. I was planning a written blog in response to all his questions, but, spirits were high this morning (in the kids, not me!) so writing time was limited. Instead we went for something a little different and if you like it, I think it could become a regular feature.

We made a little video, the snail questioning one and I. So go get a cuppa and settle down for five minutes with us… it’s time to TAKE FIVE!

So what do you think? We hope you liked it, let us know what you think in the comments below and, if you have a question you’d like covered in a TAKE FIVE video, let us know!

Have a great weekend!

Mystery Creature February 2017

Mystery Creature February 2017

This month’s Mystery Creature is a little different; The picture below shows what the creature can build, can you tell what the creature is?


Image credit: Phil Torres

I’ll admit that this one is particularly tough so here is a clue: there is a hint in the structure, it resembles a pre-historic monument that features in the creature’s name!

Have fun researching this one and remember to check back soon when I’ll post the answer with some pretty amazing facts about this creature.

Mystery Creature revealed – the Cassowary

Mystery Creature revealed – the Cassowary

How did you do with January’s Mystery Creature? It was a Cassowary, a Southern Cassowary to be exact. Did you guess it? I know that seven year-old Daniel from Singapore did, well done Daniel!

Here are ten interesting facts about the Cassowary:


Image Credit: Magdalene-b

Ten facts about the Cassowary

  1. Cassowaries are large flightless birds.

    There are three species currently recognised, the Southern Cassowary, the Northern Cassowary and the dwarf Cassowary. They are all considered endangered species. The Southern Cassowary is the largest, growing up to 1.6 M in height, making them the third largest bird on Earth (behind the Ostrich and the Emu).

  2. Cassowaries live in New Guinea and surrounding Islands as well as north-eastern Australia.

    The Southern Cassowaries are the only ones found in Australia.

  3. They are shy creatures by nature, usually keeping to the dense habitat of tropical forests.

    They may also be found in shrub lands, grasslands and swaps on the outskirts of dense forests. They are easily spooked and tend to run away if approached.

  4.  Cassawaries are considered very dangerous birds.

    Although shy by nature, if cornered, these birds can attack with serious consequences. They have a very powerful kick and a large, spiked nail on their middle toe can cut a deep gash in a victim.

  5. They can run very fast;

    Cassowaries can run at speeds of up to 50 km/hr.

  6. Cassowaries are omnivores.

    They prefer a dies of fruit and seeds but will also eat small vertebrates and invertebrates. They are very important seed distributors within the rain forest.

  7. The female Cassowary is stronger and larger than her male counterpart.

    Unlike with many other bird species, the female is also equally as colourful.

  8. Parenting is a father-only affair.

    Once the female lays her eggs she disappears, leaving the male to sit on the eggs and rear the young. The egg incubation period lasts for about 50 days and the male can loose a third of his body weight during this time. Juvenile cassowaries have a dull brown plumage.

  9. Cassowaries can live for decades.

    In captivity they will often live up to 50 years.

  10. They have a bizzare structure on top of their heads, called a casque.

    This is a hollow horn like crest and the purpose of this appendage is unknown. There are many theories though as to its role or function; something it is serves a protective function; cassowaries tend to run through the forests at great speed with their head down, perhaps the casque acts as a type of helmet if they accidentally hit a tree. Or they may protect from large falling seeds as the cassowaries often hang out under trees waiting to eat falling fruit. The casque may serve as a sexual ornament, to attract a mate. It make be a handy tool for digging for seeds or other foods. Perhaps the most likely role for this unusual appendage is a resonating device, helping in some way to amplify the low frequency sounds made by the birds.


Southern Cassowary - Image Credit: Ronnie23

I think these amazing creatures serve as a great visual reminder to the fact that birds are living decedents of dinosaurs.

Check back next Monday for a new Mystery Creature!

Mystery Creature – January 2017

Mystery Creature – January 2017

A new year and a good time to renew the Mystery Creature spot; This year I think I will do just one a month, posting the animal at the start of the month and revealing what the animal was and some facts about it, at the end of that week. As always, if you think you know what it might be, leave a comment, share some facts or ask some questions!

First up is this fairly prehistoric looking bird, do you know what it is?


photo credit: uccsbiology Cassowary via photopin (license)

[Edit]… and here is the post that reveals what the mystery creature is along with some interesting facts about it.

Five Fun Facts about Pigs

Five Fun Facts about Pigs

Pigs are a common topic in this house because they are my youngest’s FAVOURITE animal! So much so that we have had to rename bacon, ham and sausages when serving them for dinner! The swine related questions come in a constant stream. Here are just dome of the facts we have uncovered about these lovely animals.

Five Fun Facts about Pigs



If you would like to find out more about these fascinating animals, check out my latest column in the Irish Examiner and read all about whether pigs dream or not and other random facts. If you have a question you would like me to answer in the column, just send it to me at


Mystery Creature Revealed – the Sea Squirt

Mystery Creature Revealed – the Sea Squirt

Well done to six-year-old Daniel who correctly identified the Mystery Creature (again). Daniel really knows his animals! The Mystery Creature was a sea squirt… a very interesting animal, here are just a few reasons why.

  • Sea squirts come in many shapes and sizes, there are more than 3,000 species of them. They are officially called tunicates (the name refers to their tunic like exterior). Depending on their size and shape they are also called sea pork, sea tulips, sea pineapples and sea liver. Sea squirts get their name from their tendency to compress their bodies and squirt out water when disturbed.


Sea Pineapple: Image credit: Project Manhattan; Image source: wiki commons
  • Tunicates are widely distributed through the World’s oceans, but most are found in warm seas. Although there are exceptions, most sea squirts spend their adult lives attached to a solid object, usually on the seabed.
  • They start their lives in egg form but quickly grow into tadpole-like larvae (often within a matter of hours), with a tail and a basic type of backbone, called a notochord. In this form, they are unable to feed and their primary function is to find a suitable place to attach themselves, for the rest of their lives. Some species, such as the larvaceans never anchor, instead, they retain their tails which help to propel them through the water.
  • Once the sea squirt larva (tadpole-like form) finds a suitable place to anchor, it will attach, head first, glueing itself in place with a sticky like secretion. Next comes a large transformation, it reabsorbed much of its body (including its tail, notochord and basic eye) and recycles them into its adult structure.
  • The adult structure of most sea squirts consists of a sac-like body with two siphons – water is sucked into one and forced out of the other. Most sea squirts are filter feeders, they take in seawater and filter our plankton and nutrients, ejecting the filtered water back out of their bodies.


Image credit: Silke Baron; Image source: Wiki commons

  • During the transformation from larva to adult, the sea squirt reabsorbed many parts of its body,transforming them into adult organs. Sea squirts are known for ‘eating their own brain‘ in this manner, as they reabsorb the basic brain of the larva during the transformation. It is not quite as simple, or dramatic as the statement suggests, though, adults do contain a hollow cerebral ganglion, a brain type structure with nerves feeding out to certain parts of the body.
  • Most sea squirts are hermaphrodites, meaning that they contain both male and female organs. Many can also reproduce by budding, a process whereby a new animal buds off and grows from the parent, eventually disconnecting once fully formed.
  • Although there are some solitary species of sea squirts, most live in groups or colonies.

Thanks again to Daniel for correctly identifying this Mystery Creature, it really is quite an amazing animal. Check back next week for another new Mystery Creature!




Mystery Creature Revealed – the Hoatzin

Mystery Creature Revealed – the Hoatzin

Last week’s mystery creature, a very unusual looking bird, was the Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin). Well done to six-year-old David who knew what it was. David is an avid animal lover who currently lives in Singapore.


Image credit: Bill Bouton, Image source: wiki commons.
  • Hoatzin are very unusal among birds for a variety of reasons and have intrigued scientists since they were first described in 1776, by German zoologist Statius Müller. Here are just some of facts about these amazing creatures.
  • Hoatzin are herbivores – but most of their diet consists of leaves, which is unique among birds. In order to digest this cellulose rich diet they have a digestive system more similar to cows (and ruminants) than to any other bird.
  • They have developed very large crops and the leaves they digest are fermented within their digestive systems. This process begins in their crop and is aided by anaerobic bacteria found throughout their guts, which feed on the leaves and help break down the tough cellulose within them.
  • They digest their food very slowly and are often seen sitting around, appearing to do very little at all.
  • The development of their large crop to aid digestion comes at a price; these birds have little space left in their chest and their breast-bones are very simple. Their pectoral muscles are small and weak. These are the muscles that power flight, so these birds are poor flyers and appear quite awkward and ungainly.
  • There is one other thing about their diet and digestion that makes these birds very distinctive, it is their smell! They are often referred to as Stink Birds, as the fermentation of leaves does not create an odour that humans find attractive. Because of this foul smell, people have no wish to eat them so they are not hunted. Sometimes it pays to be smelly!
  • Hoatzin live very social lives, often found in large flocks of up to 40 birds. They are found in the rainforests of the Amazon – usually in trees along a river or beside a lake or some other water source. They are very vocal birds with a variety of sounds from calls, to hisses, grunts and croaks.
  • The appearance of the Hoatzin is very striking and gives them the reputation as a ‘pre-historic’ bird. They have bright blue faces with dark red eyes. They have a strip of long feathers on their head, a crest, giving them a mohawk-type feature. They belong to the family called Opisthocomidae which comes from the greek for ‘have long hair behind‘ – referring to these mohawk styles.
  • Hoatzin are so unique among bird that they are the only species in this Opisthocomidae family.
  • The chicks of these birds have claws on their wings (wich disappear after about three months). If the nest is threatened the chicks will often flee and hide, they are even able to escape to the water if necessary and are good underwater swimmers. Once the coast is clear they will use their clawed wings to help them climb back up a tree, to the nest.
  • Based on their dinosaur-like appearance, and the wing claw of their chicks, there has long been a fascination with the evolution of this bird. Some thought they were the link between reptiles and birds. Others thought they were a modern day version of the Archaeopteryx, a bird attributed as an evolutionary step from dinosaur to bird. There were also similarities in appearance between the Hoatzin and the Archaeopteryx. Recent genetic sequencing of Hoatzin genome now suggests that it is the only surviving member of a lineage that branched off some 64 million years ago (not long after many dinosaurs became extinct) and that it evolved its traits indepedent of the archaopteryx lineage.


I found this one of the most fascinating Mystery Creatured to date, I hope you enjoyed it too. As always, if you have any suggestions for the Mystery Creature spot, please get in contact! 

Mystery Creature – July 25th, 2016

Mystery Creature – July 25th, 2016

Another week, another Mystery Creature; this one is fascinating. Some of its characteristics include being poor at flying and eating only plants (a herbivore), which is fairly uncommon among birds. This unusual bird also shares a feature with the prehistoric bird-like dinosaur called Archaeopteryx.

Do you know what that feature is and can you name the bird?

Mystery Creature 25.7.16

Photo credit: Kate

Remember to ask questions if you want help working out this week’s Mystery Creature… and check back at the end of the week to find out what it is and some amazing facts about this very unusual bird!