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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week: Week Sixty-Four

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 31 December 2012

Scary MonkeyBack in the days when ancient Rome was modern, to them, the Romans had a whole host of gods and goddesses. My personal favourite is Mercury, god of travel. If he exists, he has indeed been kind to me during my life time. I also like him because he is allegedly mischievous, a character trait I can empathise with. New Year’s day however, belongs to a different god. Janus, is reportedly the god of transitions and new beginnings. He also looks after gates, doors, and doorways, though in a more metaphorical than architectural sense I suspect. Janus has two heads, a useful trait that allows him to look both to the future and the past, at the same time. The month of January was so named by the Romans. It marked the beginning of the year and it made sense therefore to use it to honour the god of new beginnings; Janus. Sadly, we do not have a two headed god of new beginnings in the Grant Museum. But we do have another two-headed beasty (and naturally so, not X-Men style crazy genes so) which is a super species worth peering through hangover addled eyes to read about. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…


**The Thorny Devil**


Thorny devil (Moloch horridus) at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

Thorny devil (Moloch
) at the Grant
Museum of Zoology. LDUCZ-X1415

1) The thorny devil has a name worthy of a gold status Magic the Gathering card; Moloch horridus. Cool eh? They have a really quite ingenious method of defence against predators in the guise of a false head. Ok so it may not be able to simultaneously look at the past and the future, but it is still worthy of some respect and, probably explanation, I’d say. The false head sits on the neck just behind the real head. When a predator attacks, the thorny devil tucks its real head under its body, thus confusing the predator into attacking a less vulnerable body part and potentially saving the thorny devil’s bacon. The false head is actually a lump made of fat, adorned with large spines to give it a likeness to the real head.


2) The thorny devil is covered by large thorn-like spines because it would be a silly name for the species if it were not. If the false head impersonation doesn’t avoid the attack of the predator looking for lunch, the thorny devil  can puff itself up with air like a terrestrial puffer fish. This has the effect of making the sharp spines stick out even more. Presumably if the predator does eat the thorny devil, this extra spine-age will have the effect of ‘if I’m going down, I’m taking you with me’. Fair enough I’d say.


Close up of the spines

Close up of the spines

3) The thorny devil comes in a lovely array of shades of brown and beige, though if it feels like a change of outfit, it can alter its skin tone to from light to dark. This skill is most normally associated with trying to blend in to its surroundings. The final defence mechanism of the thorny devil is to get drunk. Or at least, look like someone who’s drunk. They move slowly, rocking unsteadily backwards and forwards as they go. Rather than looking like an easy, inebriated target for a pickpocket, this behaviour is thought to make them look like dry leaves blowing in the wind, rather than a tasty hors d’oeuvre . Clever.


4) The thorny devil does think about things other than the art of defence. Such as food and water. The large spines also serve as an ingenious contraption for water collection, worthy of Brunel himself. Any rain or dew that falls on to the devil is channelled by the spines towards the head, allowing the thorny devil to drink it.


Thorny devil. Image taken by Steven D. Miller. Naturepl.com

Thorny devil. Image taken by Steven D.
Miller. Naturepl.com

5) Thorny devils are really fussy eaters. Hugely fussy. To the extent where they will only eat one species of ant. They are also very conscious of their mother’s warnings received as children, of getting indigestion by eating too quickly. Subsequently, they only ever eat one ant at a time. Actually, I don’t know the reason. But they do. It can take quite a long time to fill up a thorny devil’s tummy this way, (typically requiring up to 3000 ants) and so an individual will sit by an ant’s nest for literally hours, catching an ant every so often with a flick of the tongue. Imagine going on a blind-date with someone who turns out to be a real bore, and having to sit there for hours on end while you finish your dinner. Pffff.

Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology


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