Not a Baby, Not Yet an Adult

‘Tis the time of year when the northern hemisphere is inundated with new “teenagers” for lack of a better term. Not a baby, but not yet an adult, the most obvious of these are the hordes of juvenile birds who, although they’ve left the nest, are still largely dependent upon their parents. Perhaps you’ve seen them fluttering their wings, big fleshy-gaped mouths open and squawking in your backyard, the local park, or while out hiking.

Juvenile House Wren. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Do you remember being a teenager? For me, it was all pimples, awkwardness, and angst. So much angst. It was like a 24-7 John Hughes marathon without the catchy soundtrack and zany hi jinks. If I were to relive any age, it would not be a double-digit number beginning with 1.

I’m sure some people would love to go back to being a teenager, though. That’s completely understandable if you didn’t have to buy groceries, hold down a job, or pay taxes. But would you ever choose to be a teenager forever? That’s less John Hughes and more Peter Pan and some animals actually do live out their lives never becoming full-adults, a phenomenon called pedomorphosis, or alternately, neoteny.

Western tiger salamander larva. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pedomorphosis (from the Latin pedo for child and morphosis for the process of forming) means that juvenile characteristics are retained into adulthood. The best known example is probably the axolotl, a large, Mexican salamander. In Colorado, we have a close relative of the axolotl that also sometimes exhibits this ability, the Western tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium).

Barred Tiger Salamander
Barred Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium mavortium) from Weld County, Colorado, USA. Photo by Andrew DuBois.

In the typical life cycle of an amphibian like the Western tiger salamander, the salamander would develop from a gilled aquatic larva to a land-dwelling, sexually-mature adult. However, if conditions on land aren’t favorable–if for instance, conditions are too dry– the salamander may stay in its gilled larval form for decades until conditions change. If conditions don’t change, it may even stay a “teenager” forever, becoming able to reproduce despite not technically being an adult.

While I wouldn’t want to stay a teenager, the Western tiger salamander makes it work and is another example of the ingenuity of nature.

Citizen Science

Hey all, do you have cool pictures of birds eating arthropods (any invertebrate creature with a hard exoskeleton such as an insect, arachnid, or crustacean)? If so, consider submitting it to!

Doug Tallamy, professor at the University of Delaware, author, and proponent of planting natives, is crowd-sourcing photos of birds eating arthropods in order to identify the species birds eat. The fact is, we don’t know much about what specific species of insects, arachnids, or crustaceans birds prefer to eat and feed their young. The end-goal of finding out is protecting and restoring bird habitat. As he states on the website:

We can’t manage habitats for breeding birds without knowing what breeding birds eat while reproducing*.

So consider submitting your photos to the website!