Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

The Albino Tree: Real or Fairytale?

Often in films, animations and especially during Christmas time, we see these images of beautiful white trees; they can be a pine tree, a spruce or even a fir and they stand tall in a decorated home or a frozen forest. Whenever we think or a nice cold Winter we imagine big trees covered with snow, tiny chubby birds trying to survive and nice warm fireplaces. But how often have we actually seen a real white tree? Not a green tree covered with snow or white decorations or even a grey tree on its’ last days, but a true perfectly white tree? Maybe not that often considered that there are only 50 or 60 individuals on our planet Earth.

 

So, does that mean that there is such a thing as an albino tree?
Ah, not so fast!
Before we start answering this very interesting question we must first define albinism.

 

What is albinism?
Albinism is a disorder characterised by the absence of melanin in the organism.
Melanin is the pigmentation that exists in animals that allows us to have a certain hair colour, skin colour and even eye colour. Without it our body is unable to create the colour our genes are ordering our body to produce.
Imagine giving an artist an animal to paint but forgetting to give him the colours to do so. The animal will still exists but without the “correct” look.

 

Now that we know what albinism is..

The white needles of an albino redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens)

The white needles of an albino redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens)

Are there albino trees?
Well, technically not because plants don’t have melanin so they would not have a disorder based on the lack of such pigmentation.
The colour we seen in trees (mostly green) is due to the presence of chlorophyll, a biomolecule responsible for photosynthesis, which enables plants (and a few other organisms) to receive energy from sunlight.
The “albino” tree we see in the picture on the right has an absence of chlorophyll and not melanin (as in the case of albinism), although the end result is quite similar.

But if not having a production of melanin in one’s body is hard for animals since it makes them hard to camouflage with the environment and/or deal with environmental conditions such as extreme heat, then not being able to produce chlorophyll in plants is much much worse.

 

If plants can’t produce energy from light how will they even grow up and survive?

The “albino” Coast Redwood or California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) manages to survive by, almost like a vampire, sucking the life of a nearby tree by connecting their roots with the closest healthy tree, usually the parent. By doing so, they are able to gain the nutrients they need to develop without using the photosynthesis process. Because of this, the white tree is only able to survive as long as the parent lets it. If times get hard and the parent requires all the nutrients it can get, it will “disallow” the parasitic tree to keep reaching for its resources, therefore condemning it to its death.

 

Now that we know that they do exist (even though technically not “albino”)..

Where can we find these often white trees, often called “phantoms of the forest”?
Unfortunately because they are so rare and vulnerable, most of their location is kept secret. But not all!
There are six “albino” redwood trees located in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the Redwood Empire on the Northern California coast in the United States of America.
People that have seen these rare “albino” redwoods claim that their white needles feel like wax, their growth rings are very close to one another which suggest a slow growth and their wood is quite weak but, overall, they are definitely gorgeous looking trees!

 

In conclusion, albino trees do exist and although they are technically not albino, they sure look like they come from a fairytale.

I hope you enjoyed learning about this curious topic and if you ever go visit these fantastic specimens in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park make sure you take a picture and send it to us!

 

Até à próxima.

~Sofia.

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Mating for Life Part 4: Why are Animals Monogamous?

  • Why are animals monogamous?

As we’ve seen in previous posts (about birds, mammals and insects), monogamy is common in some parts of the animal kingdom and rare in others, but the way in which it is practised varies a great deal. But what are the advantages of being faithful to a mating partner? Generally speaking, it makes sense for animals to be promiscuous; mating with a lot of partners increases the chance of producing a large number of offspring as well as increasing the chance of having the opportunity to mate with the most desirable partner. However, monogamy does have some advantages, as demonstrated by many of the species we have already discussed.

Warthog Family

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) are promiscuous animals; the males wander around large areas, mating with any females they come across. They sacrifice selectivity for increased chances of producing young every breeding season. Photo Credits.

Monogamy does have its advantages: Many animals, such as Azara’s night monkey males (Aotus azarae) invest a huge amount of time and energy into raising their young and so they are motivated to minimise the risk of accidentally raising another male’s offspring; they do this by having a system of mating for life and staying faithful to their partners, ensuring that their chosen female will birth only his offspring. Some animals practice ‘mate guarding‘ in order to secure reproductive success; once a male has mated with a female, he stands guard over her to ensure that no other males will also mate with her. This may not entirely qualify as monogamy, however, it may explain why partners stay together for at least as long the gestation period (until the offspring is born).

Many animals spend a lot of time and energy acquiring mates; performing elaborate displays and courtship rituals. This behaviour ensures that animals select the best mates possible (strongest, fastest, most agile etc.), it makes sense for animals to stick with their partner once they have been selected so that the process does not have to be repeated; they have a reliable partner who can provide offspring without having to waste time and energy each mating season. This is best exemplified by albatrosses (family: Diomedeidae) who invest the first 10 – 15 years of their life practicing and then attempting to secure mates; once they get one, they stick with them for life.

Black Browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys)

Albatrosses, such as these black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys), mate for life, eliminating the need to perform mating rituals every breeding season. Photo Credits.

One significant advantage of mating for life, or at least being monogamous for a significant period of time is that young animals can have both parents around in their early life to help raise them. This system of rearing young is efficient as parents can take turns finding food while the other stays behind to protect the infant(s) and is best demonstrated by the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) where parents take turns doing a 200km round trip to get food from the sea and return to the inland colony in Antarctica.

Emperor Penguin Family

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) are serially monogamous meaning they form very close social bonds with their partners, but pick new ones each breeding season. Photo Credits.

There have been many studies that have attempted to demonstrate and explain the origins of monogamy in animals. It has been suggested that infanticide (the killing of youngsters) caused the development of monogamy. In some species, such as lions (Panthera leo), when a male takes control over a group of females from another male, he will kill all of his predecessor’s cubs so that the females will become sexually receptive once again. Monogamy counteracts this by evolving a system where males will stay with their females long-term in order to ensure that their offspring grow up to independence successfully.

African Lions (Panthera leo)

Male lions (Panthera leo) practice infanticide; when taking over a new pride (group) they will kill the offspring of their predecessor to make the females receptive to mating again. Photo Credits.

There is also evidence that hormones can contribute to monogamy. A chemical called oxytocin is found in mammals (including humans (Homo sapiens)) and seems to be released into the body during moments such as child birth, copulation and suckling. Oxytocin might be released in animals’ bodies to promote proximity and bonding between individuals. In humans, it’s the chemical that makes you feel good when thinking about people you love.

As always, the animal kingdom is full of complexity and fascinating behaviour. Although most animals do not show faithful monogamy to a partner, the ones that do have some very good reasons to do so. I hope you enjoyed this series and learned something along the way!

Much love,

-Nick

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Mating for Life Part 3: Monogamy in Insects

We’ve seen in part 1 (birds) and part 2 (mammals) of this series that there is a lot of variation in monogamy in the animal kingdom. It is worth mentioning one more group of animals before we carry on.

  • Do insects mate for life?

In the invertebrate world, there is a countless variety of mating techniques, but even amidst this variety there are some examples of monogamy and mating for life. Termites (infraorder: Isoptera) are colonial animals where a single queen produces all the offspring that then grow up to service the collective. A termite queen constantly produces offspring, most of which become workers and soldiers that serve the colony, but each year, the queen will produce a generation of breeding individuals. These ‘breeders’, called alates, are males and females with wings that fly away from the home colony to found their own. Females breed and then head underground where they will stay for the rest of their lives producing young. In many species of termite, a queen will keep a single male at her side, a king, who will mate with her throughout her life and he will be her sole partner and father to the entire colony.

Termites surrounding a queen

A termite queen is a huge, egg producing machine (she is the blob in the middle of this picture); all termites in her colony are her offspring but sometimes she is accompanied by a king for her entire life. Photo Credits.

Many species of insect, such as mosquitoes (family: Culicidae) are monogamous because they do not live long enough to be anything else! They hatch from their eggs as larva and spend most of their lives in a larval form. Eventually, the larvae transform into their adult form and emerge, they will then seek to find a single mate with whom they will reproduce and then die. The adult stage of many insects’ lives are dedicated to the sole purpose of producing a single batch of eggs. You could argue whether this counts as monogamous or is just the force of circumstance.

Mosquito

Mosquitos are monogamous mostly because they die not long after they mate for the first time! Photo Credits.

The invertebrates make up the majority of animals on Earth and there is of course a lot of variation within their behaviours, however, monogamy and mating for life is very much uncommon.

In the next post, we will look more at the advantages of monogamy and faithfulness to a mating partner and some explanations as to why some animals have adopted this mating technique.

Much love,

-Nick

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