By Roger Di Silvestro, Ocean Conservancy
The tuxedo seems to have two separate origins. Why the fashion industry came up with the tux and why it hasn't vanished with the top hat, is tough to say. But why penguins evolved into tuxedo-wearing birds is pretty clear: The white belly makes them harder to spot when viewed in water from below against the surface of a sunlit sea and the black back does the same against the dark ocean surface. It's all about tricking predators. The survival of this monochromatic color scheme in all 17 penguin species is a measure of how well it has worked in nature's often-unforgiving game of survival.
Here are 10 other fun facts to know about penguins.
1. Penguins are birds designed by evolution for swimming rather than flying. Their wings have turned into flippers and though they usually walk upright on land, some drop on to their bellies to scoot over ice. Most species cruise underwater at an average speed of 4-7 miles per hour, but the Gentoo can speed up to 22 miles per hour.
2. All penguins live south of the equator. Although we often associate them with Antarctic, they also occur farther north on beaches and rocky shores in coastal South America, the Galapagos Islands, Australia and South Africa.
3. The largest penguin you will ever see trundling around the Antarctic is the emperor, which can stand in excess of 3.5 feet tall and weigh nearly 80 pounds, roughly the weight of two or three Thanksgiving turkeys. The emperor is also the only bird species that nests in the Antarctic during the winter, when temperatures can drop below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. The smallest penguin is the little blue or fairy penguin, which grows barely more than two pounds and 16 inches tall and is found in Australia and New Zealand.
5. The largest known penguin of all time is Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi or giant penguin, which lived more than 37 million years ago, stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Its rival in size, the New Zealand giant, dates from around 30 million years ago, stood 5 feet tall and weighed close to 130 pounds.
6. Small penguins usually feed at the surface of the sea, rarely diving for more than a couple minutes. The emperor, however, can dive for more than 20 minutes, reaching depths in excess of 1,800 feet to feed on fish, squid, krill and other crustaceans.
7. Penguins can drink sea water. Salt is filtered from the blood by special glands and the salt is secreted from the nasal passages.
8. With the exception of yellow-eyed and Fiordland penguins, these birds are colonial nesters, gathering in breeding groups that range in number from 100 pairs among gentoo penguins to several hundred thousand in the king, macaroni and chinstrap species. In most species, each pair produces two eggs, though emperor and king penguins—the two largest living species—usually lay only one egg. Among emperors, males incubate the eggs, but in all other species mom and dad take turns. The little blue penguin lays the smallest eggs, about 2 ounces and the emperor pops out the largest, which can weigh a full pound.
9. In the Antarctic, penguins have no land predators, though skuas—gull-like, predatory birds—may feed on eggs and hatchlings. Consequently, penguins have no fear of people and may approach to with a few feet of Antarctic visitors. This defenseless behavior might have proved fatal for penguin species, as it did for other flightless birds such as the dodo and the great auk, wiped out centuries ago by ship crews who took them for food. But Antarctic penguins got lucky. Surrounded by dangerously rough seas and harsh climate, the Antarctic proved a penguin haven. No human set foot there until the 1800s.
10. The oldest known penguin species, Waimanu manneringi, was found in New Zealand as a 62-million-year-old fossil. Looking something like a loon, it had short wings designed for diving but not flight.
The Ocean Conservancy is using science-based solutions to tackle the biggest threats to our ocean, including ones that threaten penguins and other wildlife. See how you can take action here.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
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