By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is a song my in-laws love to hate. Unfortunately for them, it’s a song I’ve always loved. (Ross, I await your text message.)
Although I enjoy it, I’ve never thought about the lyrics too deeply, even though they feature a number of animals, and I’m, you know, the Animals desk editor. It turns out, however, my colleagues have thought about the lyrics quite a bit. Senior editor Christine Dell’Amore recently pointed me to this story from a few years back: DO PARTRIDGES REALLY LIVE IN PEAR TREES? (The answer? Not quite.)
The song also features seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, four colly birds*, three French hens, and two turtle doves.
(*Before you @ me, that’s not a typo—the original lyrics referred to colly birds, not calling birds, Liz Langley writes. “Colly” is an Old English term for something black, like a blackbird. The more you know.)
Speaking of vital information for your everyday life, did you know female gray partridges court males, not the other way around? We’ve got a whole page of partridge trivia for you right here. You may want to consider skipping The Night Before Christmas this evening and trying this one out instead. Happy holidays! (Pictured above, a red-legged partridge in the eastern English county of Norfolk.)
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Today in a minute
Drunk squirrel: That may be the case with a squirrel in Minnesota that ate old pears that a homeowner had put in a feeder, the Sacramento Bee reports. A video shows that the squirrel could not stand up straight after consuming pears that had likely fermented. (Don’t worry, the squirrel was fine the next day at the feeder, the homeowner says.) Squirrels aren’t the only animals who get drunk; butterflies love brew, we wrote in 2015. “I’ve gotten butterflies out of beer cans before,” entomologistKaty Prudic told us then.
How cats get their stripes (or spots): Researchers have tracked down a mutated gene that can give domestic cats spots instead of stripes, Science reports. The work supports a seven-decade-old theory by computer pioneer Alan Turing, explaining that patterns in nature holds true for fur color in cats (pictured above, a European silver spotted tabby). With a mutated gene, a tabby cat can display black blotches instead of its usual dark stripes. The same pattern holds for cheetahs, the researchers found.
Turing was right about monkeyflowers, too: Before their work on cats, the researchers in the item above studied the alluring, astoundingly diverse flowers, testing Turing’s common template for many of nature’s most enigmatic designs. In the wildly distinctive colors and dots on monkeyflowers, “a relatively simple system can give rise to this complexity,” plant biologist Benjamin Blackman tells Nat Geo. Turing had proposed that just two mutant genes can act or inhibit pigmentation in a reaction-diffusion model. Check out images of these monkeyflowers to see what he was talking about.
Insect of the Year: Yes, there is one. The designation, made by a group of European entomologists, goes to the prolific (but short-lived) Danish mayfly, Erin Blakemore reports. The mayflies come from eggs laid in river water. The larvae hatch but remain in the bottom of the riverbed for up to three years. Then one day, they float to the surface, take wing—and begin mating, dropping eggs in the water. They live only a day or two, Blakemore says.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Blue for you: In the world of the blue-footed booby, bluer is better. The male courts the female by trotting around with excessive strides. Then they walk around each other for hours, showing off their feet in a slow ballet. Nearly a half-million people have liked Mattias Klum’s image on our Instagram page.
The big takeaway
The Christmas tree thieves: It’s the scent of the endangered Guatemalan pinabete fir that attracts the poachers. It has been called “the Chanel No. 5” of Christmas trees. The pinabete, or Abies guatemalensis, is the southernmost member of the Abies genus, composed of about 50 species of the evergreen coniferous trees many of us refer to collectively as “Christmas trees” for their pleasant scent and distinctive shape. Cross-border trade is banned, and the pinabete is only found scattered in the high-altitude forests of the mountainous nation, Gena Steffens reports. (Pictured above, armed guards such as Felipe Lares patrol Guatemala’s forests to prevent poaching of this valuable evergreen.)
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Tapped out? The frankincense tree is the provider of the fragrant spices said to have been gifted to the newborn Jesus. Today, thousands of tons of it are traded every year to be used by Catholic priests as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits. As the market for essential oils has boomed, tappers are taking so much sap from the trees that they are killing the trees’ immune systems, Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar reports. (Pictured above, sap oozing from a frankincense tree.)