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Nature | Animal Misfits

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Watch Wednesday, December 30, 2015 at 8pm & Sunday, January 3, 2016 at 10am on WMHT TV.

There is great diversity in the animal world, but it seems those species known for their speed, intelligence and strength are often singled out and celebrated, while creatures who may look or act differently are overlooked. Animal Misfits seeks to correct this situation by focusing on these nonconformists that are not accidents of nature, but unconventional solutions to the challenges of survival on earth.

The giant panda is certainly a misfit. It may be part of the bear family but unlike the rest of its kind, the panda is a non-meat-eating carnivore. Ninety-nine percent of its diet comes from bamboo, which contains so little energy that it cannot build up enough fat to hibernate like other bears, even eating continuously for 16 hours a day. It’s a full-time job. And reproduction is a very slow process, since female pandas are fertile only once a year for a few days. But that’s actually an advantage for an animal so reliant on just one food source.  If the panda population ever increased dramatically, there might not be enough bamboo to go around.

Then there’s the big-headed mole rat which only exists in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains. Of the 37 different species of mole rats in the world, most of which live and feed entirely underground, only the big-headed mole rat breaks with tradition and heads above ground to feed on fresh grass. This dietary preference, coupled with feeble eyesight and poor hearing makes it vulnerable to attacks by wolves. But the big-headed mole rat has a secret weapon, a sentry in the form of a bird called a moorland chat. This expert forager feeds on bugs and worms the mole rat digs up and, in turn, sings out an alarm to announce any approaching wolves.

Animal Misfits also includes creatures that may seem distinctly ill-suited to their environment, but thrive nonetheless: a tiny chameleon the size of an ant; the mudskipper, a fish that can live out of water; the ancient deep sea nautilus, whose propulsion thrusts it backwards so it can’t see what’s ahead; and New Zealand’s kakapo, a pudgy flightless parrot whose food source is up in the trees. Possibly most remarkable is the Arctic woolly bear caterpillar that lives for 7 years or more but spends most of its life frozen stiff. The list goes on. Yet these unlikely creatures are not evolutionary dead ends.  They’re highly specialized success stories, animals that prove being different can also give you an edge.

Phylogenetic trees can tell us where medical problems come from, and how to fight them.

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