Thursday, July 12, 2012
The One with the Shoe
Photographs courtesy of Arkive.org
Imagine a carnivorous dinosaur. Give that dinosaur grey-blue feathers, wings, and long stalk-like legs. Got that pictured? Now add a ridiculous boat of a beak to its face, with one ferociously sharp point on the end instead of a mouth full of teeth. What you now have is still a dinosaur (albeit a very modern one) called a shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex).
Shoebills get their name from their most obvious feature. Other names include the less-than-kind sounding whale-headed stork, bog bird, and abu markub, which means (no surprise here) “the one with the shoe” in Arabic.
What good is having a shoe for a beak? Despite looking silly it’s actually a precision instrument. With it these birds can hunt lungfish, water snakes, frogs, and even young crocodiles. Their favorite method is to stand motionless in pools of low-oxygen water where fish have to come to the surface to breath. When they see movement they pounce, throwing their wings back at the same time so that their huge heads don’t overbalance their thin legs. That comical beak, seen in action, suddenly becomes deadly capable of decapitating prey with a single bite.
An adult shoebill is around five feet tall, not much different in stature from many of their dinosaur forbearers. A bird that big needs a fair amount of food, probably one reason that they are so intensely solitary. Even a mated pair won’t feed close together, opting instead to keep their vigils at opposite ends of their resident marsh or bog. Nests, too, often have only one egg. The babies are slow to mature, requiring two and a half months just to learn to stand. They don’t seek a mate of their own for about four years, and may live to almost 40 in captivity.
It’s probably inevitable that disagreement would arise over exactly what kind of bird these oddballs are. They are called storks, but show strong similarities to herons, hamerkops, even pelicans. It’s tempting to think that this is because they are in some sense “primitive”, closer to the rootstock of these different groups. In fact, the opposite is probably true. They are so highly specialized for their particular niche that they have developed a whole suite of adaptations that happen to echo those of other birds.
Sadly, despite the fact that their range stretches all the way from Ethiopia to Zambia, shoebills are in trouble. Their habitat is horribly fragmented by agriculture and drought while hunting pressure is severe.
Only about 6,000 remain in the world, making them good candidates for Appendix I of CITES (the most critical designation possible in the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species). Such a listing would give them a lot more protection and help ensure that we have these modern day dinosaurs around for years to come.
Posted by Brizel Handcrafts on Thursday, July 12, 2012