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Top 10 weirdest, most fascinating animals in B.C.

Mar 01. 15

By Paul Luke, The Province

B.C. is crawling with weirdness. The province’s humans are surrounded by animals whose behaviour, and sometimes appearance, is savagely strange.

Their bizarre antics empower them to exploit strange and demanding ecological niches, says Wendy Pirk, a strange-creature geek and author of Weird Canadian Animals.

“We are fascinated by the weird,” says Pirk, who has a degree in ecological anthropology. “We want to figure out why some animals do things that don’t make sense to us.”

Badgers and coyotes, for example, should be competing for resources but often co-operate with each other in their quest for food, she says.

Other animals resemble nothing so much as humans who have tossed away all social inhibitions. The wolverine’s bad temper recalls the grumpiest of old men.

Some creatures have sexual kinks so spicy they would yawn through Fifty Shades Of Grey.

Take the porcupine, whose courtship consists of males saturating females with urine. (Don’t be too shocked. Did you expect whips and knotted nylons would penetrate those quills?)

With input from biologists, we’ve compiled a Top 10 list of B.C. animals with the weirdest traits and habits.

SHORT-TAILED WEASEL (Kurt Bauschardt via Flickr)

LEAN, MEAN DANCING AND KILLING MACHINES

Weasels have a reputation in the human and animal worlds for being vicious and cunning. But they don’t get the credit they deserve for being lethally charming and superb dancers.

The short-tailed weasel, also known as the ermine, eats insects and rodents but has a special weakness for rabbits.

Weasels, says Pirk, are fleet and fast but they aren’t as quick as a bunny. So they turn to a “strange and unique” form of vaudeville, she says.

A weasel will track down a rabbit den or warren. “Next, it puts on a little dance, jumping and tumbling and spinning in a maniacal boogie,” Pirk says in Weird Canadian Animals.

The rabbit, overcome by curiosity, draws closer for a look. The mesmerizing weasel edges closer to the bunny until it’s close enough to pounce.

The show ends. The takeout meal begins.

Short-tailed weasels live in B.C.’s Interior and the Lower Mainland. They’re at risk on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii.

PORCUPINE (Paul F. Burwell)

PRICKLY HEAT LEADS TO RISQUE FOREPLAY

Porcupine foreplay is not for the faint of heart.

The quilled courtship begins delicately enough. A male and female circle, do a little song and dance, moaning and nuzzling as they circle each other.

Things quickly take a turn for the bizarre. The male showers the female with urine. When she’s soaked, the female lifts her tail and the male mounts her.

The tail-lifting gesture is necessary for the survival of the species. Even the most love-crazed male porcupine would balk at getting a taste of his paramour’s 30,000 quills.

The salt-loving porcupine inhabits B.C.’s coniferous forests in the sub-alpine zone. It’s not to be confused with the hedgehog, which is far smaller and is not found in North America.

BADGER (Isabelle Groc)

HUNGRY BADGERS ARE COYOTES’ BEST FRIENDS

You’ve got to admire any animal tough enough to treat rattlesnake venom as hot sauce.

The badger considers rattlers a delicacy. If bitten, badgers appear resistant to snake venom, unless the snake strikes their snout.

Fortunately for rattlers, the badger has a taste for many other animals, including squirrels, marmots, rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, rats and mice.

And this member of the weasel family is more than a polite nibbler.

“Studies of captive badgers have estimated that they need about 2.3 ground squirrels per day to meet their energy needs,” according to a B.C. government profile.

The badger is said to be the world’s fastest-digging creature, able to burrow up to a metre a minute.

One of the most surprising things about badgers is their readiness to form a loose partnership with one of their wily competitors: the coyote.

“The coyote follows the hunting badger, catching rodents that flee their burrows through alternate holes, while the badger digs relentlessly at the main opening,” Pirk says in Weird Canadian Animals. “In return, the coyote will lead the badger to new burrows or hunting areas.

“You could argue that the coyote is getting the better end of the deal since the badger has to do all the digging.”

As humans encroach on its habitat, the badger has become one of Canada’s most endangered species, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

There are an estimated 350 remaining in B.C. and fewer than 200 in Ontario.

NORTHERN RUBBER BOA (Todd Battey via Flickr)

SNEAKY SNAKE FULL OF DIRTY TRICKS

The rubber boa wants you to think it’s B.C.’s only two-headed snake. But it’s actually more of a two-faced schemer.

Resembling a thick rubber hose, the boa is tapered at each end of a body that grows up to 80 centimetres long.
Embedded in that tubular body are eyes so tiny it’s hard to tell the boa’s head from its tail.

The boa tries to confuse attackers about which end is which by curling into a ball and hiding its head under its body. The tail, which is armoured with a small, hard cap, is brandished as a decoy.

“The snake often will jab its tail about as if striking,” says the website bcreptiles.ca. “This way, the snake avoids any harm to its vital head region.

“If the predator remains undeterred, rubber boas can release a smelly musk from their vent.”

The boa resorts to this dirty trick because it never bites. When hungry, the snake adapts the strangling routine made notorious by its cousins the python and anaconda.

It wraps itself around its prey, constricting it until it can’t breathe.

The rubber boa, which prefers humid, mountainous areas, ranges from southern B.C. to as far north as Williams Lake.

BURROWING OWL (Robert McCaw)

B.C.’S WORST HOUSEKEEPER

The burrowing owl could be called the worst housekeeper in B.C.

The tiny owl decorates the opening of its burrow with the droppings of larger animals such as deer or cattle, says science writer Pirk.

“The piles of stool catch the attention of dung beetles — one of the burrowing owl’s favourite prey items,” Pirk writes.

“When it is feeling peckish, the owl can simply stroll up to the tunnel entrance and tuck into the beetles gathered there.”

The burrowing owl can hiss like a rattlesnake tail to deter predators.

Smaller than a pigeon at 19 to 20 centimetres tall, the owl can’t be bothered to dig the domiciles it adorns with dung. It nests in burrows abandoned by small animals such as badgers and ground squirrels.

In B.C., it’s found in the Okanagan and Kamloops regions. It’s one of the most endangered birds in the four western provinces.

SEA OTTER (Isabelle Groc)

THE THICKEST COAT OF FUR IN THE WORLD

The sea otter is a sleek bundle of brains, beauty and bad luck. It’s also the world’s only purse-loving creature who will never shop at Louis Vuitton.

The otter is the only mammal other than humans, monkeys and apes known to use tools.

After scooping a mussel, clam, scallop or crab from the sea bed, the otter floats on its back, turning its belly into a picnic table.

It then extracts a rock stored in its purse — an armpit pouch of loose skin — and hammers the shellfish morsel until it breaks open.

If you think an armpit purse sounds yucky, try telling that to the hunters who had exterminated the sea otter in B.C. waters by 1929. They were after its beautiful pelt, a legacy of the otter’s having the thickest fur of any living animal — at least 100,000 hairs per square centimetre.

Sea otters from Alaska were released in B.C. waters between 1969 and 1972. The province’s otter population has recovered to almost 5,000, although they remain a species at risk.

One last testament to the otter’s ingenuity: It has turned the marine snooze into a thing of beauty. When it feels a nap coming on, the otter anchors itself to a kelp forest, wrapping long strands of the seaweed around its body.

NORTHERN PACIFIC RATTLESNAKE (Sequoia Hughes via Flickr)

RATTLERS TAKE DIETING TO THE EXTREME

Talk about a brutal diet.

The female northern Pacific rattlesnake does not eat while pregnant and often hibernates soon after giving birth.

A female may go more than a year without eating. The result is that female rattlers reproduce only every two to three years because they need time to regain the weight lost during pregnancy.

When it does get around to eating, the rattler locates prey through heat-sensing pits in its face.

The northern Pacific rattler, which grows up to 1.5 metres long, is the only truly venomous snake in B.C. It lives only in the Thompson Okanagan region.

Reflecting the vulnerability of its habitat, the northern Pacific rattlesnake is listed by the B.C. government as a species of special concern.

PACIFIC WATER SHREW 

‘JESUS SHREW’ CAN WALK ON WATER

West Coast surfers might be tempted to retire in shame when they learn of the Pacific water shrew’s aquatic prowess.

This tiny shrew has no need of boards or big waves to dance on the water. It’s blessed with hairy-fringed feet that trap air bubbles, enabling it to run on the surface for up to five seconds.

This water-walking ability has earned the PWS the nickname of “the Jesus shrew,” reports Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee. The fringed feet also make the shrew an impressive swimmer and diver. It can dive as deep as two metres for up to 60 seconds.

The tiny shrew — which is about 15 centimetres long — inhabits streamsides, wetlands, lake beaches and other water bodies from Hope to West Vancouver.

The elusive, difficult-to-trap shrew is a species at risk as a result of habitat loss from urban development and logging.

WESTERN SKINK (Wilderness Committee)

LOUNGE LIZARD IN A LOUD SUIT

You could forgive the western skink for being vain. It’s easily the most dazzling lounge lizard in B.C. — at least until survival gets in the way of its good looks.

One of B.C.’s few lizard species, the skink was handed an exquisite wardrobe by nature. The juvenile skink sports an almost fluorescent blue tail.

That blue contrasts with brown back, grey sides and four creamy stripes running from head to tail.

When threatened, the skink will try to wriggle to safety under a nearby rock or shrub. If that tactic fails and it’s grabbed by a predator, the skink will bite and release its tail.

The severed appendage will thrash and twitch for a few minutes.

This is especially distracting to a predator, especially when the tail is bright blue.

The tail slowly regenerates, potentially becoming as big as or bigger than the original. But the new tail hardly ever comes back blue.

It’s enough to give the skink, a resident of south-central B.C., the blues.

WOLVERINE (Scott Calleja via Flickr)

FIERCEST CREATURE ON EARTH

The wolverine has been described as the fiercest creature on earth. It may also have the worst temper.

Wolverines are “ferocious bastards” that pack 20 to 30 pounds of bad attitude, says Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee.

Wolverines can drive a grizzly bear off a kill and single-handedly take down a moose or caribou. But they prefer scavenging to hunting and usually rely on other predators, such as wolves, to do the killing.

The wolverine’s strong teeth, formidable neck and shoulder muscles and semi-retractable claws enable it to crunch through large bones and gorge on frozen flesh.

The wolverine, which belongs to the weasel family, is sometimes called a “skunk-bear” for its striped coat and habit of marking food and landmarks with urine and musk.

Its taste for carrion makes the wolverine a contender for the worst breath of any mammal in B.C.

For all its odiferous malice, the wolverine has been described as gorgeous, with glossy fur that can shed frost.

Males roam through territories of more than 1,500 square kilometres. The wilds of B.C. and Yukon are among the wolverine’s remaining strongholds.

“They are endangered, as a huge area is needed to support a breeding population,” says Joan Sharp, senior lecturer with Simon Fraser University’s department of biological sciences.

THE RUNNERS-UP

Bubbling under our list of the most fascinating oddities of B.C.’s animal kingdom is a menagerie of other quirky creatures.

Here are a few runners-up:

•  The spadefoot toad: Actually, scientists say it’s neither toad nor frog. Whatever it is, it grows up fast.
This amphibian roars from egg to finished spadefoot in as little as two weeks as it races to maturity before its water-puddle home dries up. That gives it the fastest known cycle of any frog or toad.

The endangered mountain beaver is the most primitive rodent alive. 

• The mountain beaver: A shy rodent that lives in mountain streams, the mountain beaver is like nothing else in the world. It has no close relatives going back many millions of years, says Simon Fraser University biology professor Arne Mooers.

“I was told by my grad student that they must live very close to running water because they have only one poorly working kidney, so spend hours just sitting in the stream, peeing,” Mooers says.

• The humpback whale: If the humpback could see human cowboys, it might think: “Herding cattle with whips? How primitive. And those songs they sing around the campfire? Awful.”

These whales have evolved a sophisticated way to herd and harvest fish. They spiral beneath a school of fish, blowing a wall of bubbles through which the fish will not swim.

Trapped fish are forced to the surface in a concentrated mass. The humpbacks then move in for a meal, grabbing large mouthfuls as they transform themselves from shepherds to fish-processing plants.

The humpbacks are even more accomplished as singers. Males warble complex songs that last up to 30 minutes.
In Canada, humpbacks are a species of special concern.

FAST B.C. ANIMAL KINGDOM FACTS:

• Average number of quills on a porcupine: 30,000

• Weasels mesmerize their prey by dancing.

• The sea otter has the thickest fur of any living animal: at least 100,000 hairs per square centimetre.

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