Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Half-Colored Cardinal Explained

This week on Ask Your Weird Animal Questions, we’ll focus on winged creatures, so let’s fly right to the first query.

Is this [photo of a half-male, half-female cardinal] accurate? Is the phenomenon of gynandromorphs real? —Alex Colina via Facebook

Sometimes nature is even more inventive than Photoshop. Such is the case with gynandromorphs, or animals with some male and some female physical characteristics—which Merriam-Webster refers to rather poetically as “a sexual mosaic.”

The phenomenon is the result of a genetic error in cell divisions just after an egg is fertilized, according a report from the University of Texas, Dallas. (Related: “Half-Male, Half-Female Chicken Mystery Solved.”)

Especially striking and rare are bilateral gynandromorphs, in which the male-female sexual characteristics are split straight down the middle, as is the case in the cardinal spotted by the reader on the UT-Dallas’s website. UT-Dallas’s Larry Amman photographed the bird in his backyard, and it’s especially striking because male and female cardinals have distinctly different markings.

Gynandromorphs can also occur in insects, like this carpenter bee pictured on the website of the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Guardian reported in 2011 on a gyandromorph butterfly that stunned curators at the Natural History Museum in London.

The condition isn’t restricted to winged creatures: The Lobster Conservancy says the condition can crop up in those crustaceans as well. (Related: “Lobster Caught ‘Half Cooked’ in Maine.”)

A white ibis hunts for food in shallow duckweed-covered water. Photograph by Raymond Gehman

Why are there so many white ibis [in Florida] this year? What has led to their population explosion? —Jim Crescitelli via Facebook

White ibis, Eudocimus albus, is a wading bird with a long red bill that’s found throughout much of the U.S. South. (See a full map of its range on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.)

In Florida the birds are often as much a part of the neighborhood as the mailman: They roam the suburbs seeking out the frogs, insects, snakes, crabs, and fish that make up their diet, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which describes them as a protected species.

That human-provided buffet explains why the bird’s numbers are growing, said David Steadman, curator of ornithology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Ibis have “adapted to feeding regularly in urban and suburban settings,” a habit that began in the last decade when the birds “moved a lot of their foraging habits into human habitats, such as lawns,” Steadman said.

Even so, he cautioned, “people should not feed ibises, no matter how tempting it may be,” since it can encourage unnatural habits and could put the birds at risk.

Photo of a wasp.
Photograph by Fritz Rauschenbach, Corbis

While I was stopped for a traffic light, a wasp landed on the hood of my car. The light turned green, and I started going, and the wasp held on… It finally left the hood miles from where it got on. Would it be able to find its way back to its own colony? How far can a wasp fly? Can it join another colony? —Ken Towery via Facebook

Sadly—or perhaps not, depending on how you feel about wasps—this accidental passenger probably didn’t fare too well after its joyride.

University of Michigan ecologist Elizabeth Tibbetts said via email that “wasps are capable of flying long distances, but they are thought to use landmarks to navigate to their nests. As a result the wasp wouldn’t be able to find her way home unless she was familiar with the area.” (Watch video: Hairy Spider vs. Wasp.)

The wasp probably didn’t realize it was traveling that far and would likely have been lost and confused when it finally flew away.

Moreover, the wayward insect wouldn’t get a warm welcome from the local wasps.

“Wasps from different colonies smell different,” Tibbetts said, and will “attack individuals that smell like non-nestmates. Some workers occasionally join other colonies, and queens occasionally take over other queens’ nests. However a wasp who can’t find her colony is usually out of luck.”

Bet you never thought you’d feel bad for a wasp.

Got a question about the wild and wonderful animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.


Meet the Author
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at