Newsletter December 2017

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December 2017

Santa's Sled: A Team of Strong, Powerful Women

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But did you know that they were all female reindeer? According to Perry Barboza of the Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who studies reindeer and caribou, male reindeer shed their antlers at the beginning of December when mating season ends. It is female reindeer who keep their thinner antlers on throughout all of winter, including Christmastime, when Santa flies around the globe. Andrew Hebda, a zoologist at the Nova Scotia Museum, has also suggested that Santa's reindeer must be female. He stated that while both male and female reindeer have antlers, only females have their antlers on during the winter months.

Santas reindeer, also known by their Latin name, Rangifer tarandus, are native to Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. Because of their habitats, they are well equipped for the cold, which makes them expert fliers even on the snowiest and windiest Christmas nights. They prepare for the wintry weather using hollow hairs that trap in air, keeping their bodies well insulated. This works with their circulatory systems to keep the cooler blood in their limbs from drawing heat from the warm blood in the centers of their bodies. Because of this special mechanism in their circulation, Santas reindeer are able to keep warm even in the iciest parts of the North Pole.

Although all reindeer are able to keep warm in the winter, females carry about ten times more body fat than males, which allows them to stay much warmer. This is likely why Santa chose female reindeer to carry his sleigh since they are better equipped to handle the icy wind that results from the high speeds at which he travels. Male reindeer lose much of their fatty stores during the mating season, and carry as low as five percent body fat during Christmas. Females, however, have about 50% body fat on Christmas Eve. The fat can often be a few inches thick, functioning like a warm jacket keeping their bodies nice and toasty. This allows them to keep warm in temperatures as low as negative 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Besides their ability to keep warm, Santa likely chose reindeer to lead his sleigh because of their excellent vision. For one thing, reindeer have the ability to see ultraviolet light. Neither humans nor Santa can see this type of light, though it is extremely useful in the winter, when the sun is low on the horizon. Reindeer also have a special reflective tissue behind their retinas. This tissue reflects light, enhancing their night vision and helping them to see on Christmas Eve with the help of Rudolphs nose. The tissue works in complete darkness by turning a deep blue color. This reflects less incoming light out of the eye and helps the reindeer to find their way to each childs home as they deliver presents.

Twitter users have called Santas reindeer a team of strong, powerful, underrated women. Others have said that Santa has both male and female reindeer, but only females are fliers. In order to carry on generations of magical flying reindeer, Santa must have families comprised of males and females. Regardless, scientists are reminding children that while milk and cookies are a great choice for Santa, reindeer enjoy carrots, as well as lichens, leafy greens and dried mushrooms. Dont forget to leave snacks for the Christmas team this year. These strong women need nourishment to keep on flying! 

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Octopus Intelligence

While Hank the Octopuss escape from his enclosure in the movie Finding Dory seems a little far-fetched, the truth is that octopuses are actually extremely intelligent and often escape from their enclosures in real life. In fact, a two-spotted octopus famously escaped out of its enclosure in the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California for ten hours! The octopus had disassembled a water recycling valve and directed a tube to spew out of the tank, spilling 200 gallons of seawater onto the floor. It was a nightmare for someone to clean up!

There are about 300 different species of octopus, inhabiting tropical waters around the world. These animals can change colors, squirt poison, and exert a force greater than their own body weight. One of their most interesting traits is their brains, which are remarkably large for invertebrates. Because of their intelligence, octopuses have been able to navigate through mazes, solve problems, and remember solutions.

One indication of octopus intelligence is the fact that octopuses have been known to play. Although it seems simple, playing is something that intelligent animals are known to do. At the Seattle Aquarium, scientists put octopuses in boring situations, where they were in an empty tank with nothing but a floating pill bottle. After a little while, the octopuses began to blow jets of water at the pill bottle, causing it to go over a water jet in the tank and come back to the octopus. The animals did this over and over about 20 times. Scientists say that this behavior mimics human children bouncing a ball.

The reason for these behaviors is likely linked to the octopus’s relatively large brain (their brains are large for invertebrates, but small for vertebrates). Octopuses have paired ganglia in their nervous systems. These are not very big in clams and snails, where they are scattered all over the body. However, in octopuses, all the ganglia are all condensed to form a centralized brain. Additionally, octopuses have two areas of the brain that are developed for specialized memory storage. Besides being larger and more condensed, the octopus brain has large areas dedicated to learning. Although their brains are completely different from human brains, octopuses do share this trait with humans.  

Furthermore, about one third of the octopuss nerve cells are in its brain. Octopuses have a lot of neurons in their arms, and they have a ganglion controlling each of their suckers. This gives them a great deal of local control. Though humans pride ourselves on being able to grasp things with our thumbs and forefingers, the octopus can fold the two sides of its sucker together to form a very similar grasp. Octopuses can do this with each one of their suckers, giving them excellent control and manipulation of the environments around them.

Octopuses also have personalities. Scientists have categorized octopus personalities using three different dimensions: activity, reactivity, and avoidance. Activity specifies whether the animal is active or passive. Reactivity specifies whether the animal is emotional or more blasé. And Avoidance determines how shy the animal is. Octopuses can have any mix of those traits.

Ultimately, the octopuss brain allows it to be extremely intelligent and resemble humans in more ways than one. Octopuses can open jars from the outside and from the inside, escaping like Houdini. They have also been known to make tools out of coconuts and shells. For a plastic bag with arms, thats pretty good!

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The Top Five Species Discovered in 2017

1.     A New Elephant Shrew

One of the most adorable species of 2017 was a subspecies of the elephant shrew, a tiny rodent with a long, elephant-like nose. The animal was returned to full species status this year, with scientists saying that it is more closely related to elephants, sea cows, and aardvarks than actual shrews. Genetic tools and museum specimens allowed scientists to discover this new link in traits, reclassifying the small mammals as their own species.

2.     Ghost Sharks

Several new species of ghost shark were discovered this year. The sharks are rarely encountered because they inhabit great depths of over 7,000 feet. However, as commercial fisheries move into deeper waters, they are being discovered and described at a higher rate than ever. One unique species of ghost shark has rabbit ears and a bulky head. At nearly three feet, it is the second largest species of ghost shark ever discovered. Researchers say the new species lives between South Africa and Antarctica in the southeastern Atlantic and southwestern Indian Ocean.

3.     Club-Tailed Scorpions 

After a painstaking revision of a large group of Neotropical club-tailed scorpions, three knew colorful species were discovered. The species are native to the tropical regions of North, Central, and South America. Many of these animals have the unique ability to make sounds by rubbing a specialized comb-like structure against their sandpaper-like abdomen. This produces a sound like a hiss, or a maraca shaking. It is likely a way of telling predators to back off. (And theyd better listen!) 

4.     Butterflyfish

A new species of brown and white butterflyfish was discovered this year. The species swam 7,000 miles before surprising scientists with its unknown status. Live specimens were collected from 360 feet beneath the oceans surface. They had escaped special notice until a single black fin tipped off aquarium biologists that they were unique. The new species joins 21 other fish, including a catfish from China.

5.     Snail-eating Turtle

Last but not least, the snail-eating turtle was discovered this year at a local market in Thailand. It was being sold among other species, and caught the eye of Montri Sumontha, a herpetologist at the Department of Fisheries in Thailand. The turtles were living in a canal and are continually threatened by dams and other infrastructure. Additionally, poaching and wildlife trade often threaten endangered species in these areas.

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Creature Feature: Ferrets

Have you ever wished you had a cat that stayed a kitten for its whole life? If you have, try a ferret! Ferrets are one of the most underrated household pets. They are playful and curious throughout their whole lives, much like a kitten or young cat. Ferrets are extremely intelligent, and very cute. They can play with human companions as well as each other, and form strong bonds with their owners, much like other popular pets. Ferrets have the intelligence of rats and the cuteness of guinea pigs and hamsters.

Ferrets typically have brown, black, white, or mixed fur. They average about 20 inches including their five inch tails, and weigh about 1.5-4 pounds. They generally live from seven to ten years, and have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years. Ferrets are still used for hunting rabbits in some parts of the world, but generally are kept only as pets.

Like many other animals, ferrets spend 14-18 hours per day asleep and are most active during dawn and dusk. They live happily in social groups, and a group of ferrets is commonly referred to as a “business.” (That alone is reason enough to adopt a few pet ferrets.) They are territorial, like to burrow, and prefer to sleep in an enclosed area.


Ferrets can release secretions used in scent markings like skunks when they are startled or scared. However, unlike skunks, their smell is much less potent and dissipates rapidly. Most pet ferrets in the US are sold de-scented, with their glands removed. If excited, they may perform the weasel war dance which involves frenzied sideways hops, leaps, and bumping into nearby objects. This adorable dance is often accompanied by a unique soft clucking noise, commonly referred to as dooking. Ferrets will hiss when scared and squeak softly when upset.

For many years, ferrets were used in hunting, or ferreting. Because of their long, lean build and inquisitive nature, ferrets are very well equipped to get down small holes and chase rodents out of their burrows. Ferrets have been used to control rabbit plagues among other uses in this manner. In fact, they are still used for hunting in the United Kingdom, where rabbits are considered a plague species by farmers. However, this practice is illegal in several countries, where it is feared that ferrets could unbalance the ecology. Despite this, ferreting is often chosen because it is considered to be safer and less ecologically damaging than shooting rabbits.


However, ferrets also make lovely pets. They require a wire cage at least 18 inches long and 30 inches wide or longer. They cannot be housed in aquariums because of the poor ventilation in such enclosures. Usually ferret cages have two to three different shelves to provide multiple levels. Ferrets can also be let loose around the house like a cat or dog. However, if you have other pets, it is wise not to allow them to interact with the ferrets as larger animals may attack what looks like delicious prey.

Ferrets require lots of time and attention, but they are extremely rewarding pets to own. They can be trained to do positive behaviors and avoid negative behaviors such as biting. In fact, training your ferret provides mental stimulation to the animal and strengthens the human-animal bond. Before adopting a ferret, take the time to consider the commitment that owning this pet will take. It is much more in-depth than owning a guinea pig or even a hamster. If you are looking for an adorable, energetic pet to liven your home, a ferret may be right for you!

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