Sunday, 17 May 2015

Knowing Your Children

Mother mammals raise their young until they reach independence. This is hardly a surprising statement, and, while mammals are by no means unique in this regard, it is one of their distinguishing features.

The mother may, of course, receive assistance in this sometimes arduous task. In monogamous species, the father also helps in raising his young, and this is one of the main reasons for evolving monogamy in the first place - if the young require care by two parents in order to stand a decent chance of survival, then the father had really better stay around. But this is not the only source of such assistance. In many mammals that live in social groups, we see the phenomenon of alloparenting. This means that individuals other than the parents take up some of the burden of looking after the young. Usually these are younger, non-breeding, females, cooperating to raise infants communally, although it doesn't have to be.

At least 120 mammal species, and an even greater number of birds, engage in this to at least some extent. The benefit to the infants is obvious, especially where they require a significant investment in time and effort in order to reach maturity. But what's in it for the alloparent?

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Spot the Difference

Common European shrew
The shrew family contains what are, by the usual method of measuring such things, the smallest of all living mammals. Yet they are actually quite a large group, with well over 300 species so far identified, and, given their small size, probably quite a lot that we don't yet know about - especially in the tropics. Indeed, in the grand list of mammal families, they come fourth in terms of sheer number of species, beaten only by the rats and mice, the cricetids (most, of which, frankly, are also mice, although the group also includes the voles and hamsters), and the vesper bats. They may not have the greatest range of physical variation, at least to human eyes, but that's still quite a lot of diversity, and they certainly aren't "all the same".

It's perhaps worth pointing out, though, what a shrew is, and what it isn't. Firstly, while they may look kind of like mice, shrews are not rodents. Rodents are defined by the presence of great gnawing incisor teeth, and by not having the second set of incisors that rabbits have. Shrews don't look even remotely like this, having lots of small sharp teeth ideally suited for biting into insects. In fact, shrews' closest relatives are actually the moles and hedgehogs - relatively small animals that also eat a lot of invertebrates.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Dog Family: Red and Corsac Foxes

Red fox
Most members of the dog family can be described, broadly speaking, as "foxes". The term "fox" no longer has a strict scientific meaning, since it encompasses two separate lines of evolution that aren't directly related to one another. Furthermore, as we'll see in a few month's time, there are some animals within those lineages that really aren't foxes at all, as we'd normally think of the word.

Nonetheless, it's a term that's widely used, and is taken to refer to small to medium-sized canids that have have bushy tails, prominent ears, pointed snouts, moderately long legs, and so on. The archetypal such animal, and the one that most people in the Northern Hemisphere likely think of first when the term "fox" is used without any further qualification, is the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The red fox is, in fact, the largest of the "true" foxes (as opposed to those of the second, younger, evolutionary line, which are actually more related to wolves). It is also perhaps the most brightly coloured of all foxes, although there is some variation in the coat colour, with brown, yellowish, and even silvery-grey individuals. None of these match directly to any of the more than forty subspecies that have been identified over the years, although it's likely that many of those represent rather finer hair-splitting than is actually required.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Seals That Swam in Tuscany

Hawaiian monk seals
There are two species of monk seal alive in the world today. One (Monachus monachus) lives in the Mediterranean and adjacent parts of the eastern Atlantic, while the other (M. schauinslandi) lives in Hawaii. You probably don't need to be a world-class expert in geography to at least have some idea that these two places aren't exactly what you'd call close to one another.

Now, monk seals don't have have the same sort of problems when it comes to dispersal as lemurs and the like do. Given time, they can just swim across vast stretches of ocean, feeding on fish as they do so. The apparent puzzle of their wide separation is also reduced by the fact that there used to be a third species, living in the Caribbean, which sadly went extinct in the late 20th century. The Caribbean is about half way between the other two locations, and that helps rather more than you might think at first glance.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

How the Lemurs Reached Madagascar

Pygmy mouse lemur
Madagascar is an island. It's quite a large island, to be sure - at nearly 227,000 square miles, it's the fourth largest island in the world, after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. That's nearly twice the size of the UK, or, if you prefer, almost 90% the size of Texas. Even at that size, however, the fact that it's an island has been highly significant for the sorts of animals that live there.

When it comes to islands, the problem for land-dwelling mammals is how they're supposed to get there in the first place. Sure, it's not a problem for bats, which can cross all but the most ridiculous amounts of sea (although not necessarily on purpose!) But, for everything else, it's something of an issue.

Of course, one possibility is that the ancestors of whatever animals we're talking about "were there already". Britain, for example, has been an island since around 6,000 BC, so whatever animals could wander there from the continent before that were already part of the native fauna. True, many of them have been killed off since, which is why we no longer have wild wolves or bears in the UK... but they were there once. And it clearly explains why the various small mammals found on Britain, from red squirrels to harvest mice, badgers, and hedgehogs, are also native to continental Europe. We haven't been an island for that long.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Time to Breed and a Time to Die

Grey slender opossum
Looking after the children can be a stressful and exhausting activity. Other issues aside, offspring need feeding and looking after, which can put a drain on the mother's own energy reserves, never mind the need to feed the extra mouths in the first place. For mammals, one particular energetic stress is the need to provide milk, and this seems to be particularly true for marsupials, who carry their young around, permanently clamped onto teats inside their pouches, for the earliest part of their life.

Given these extra energy requirements, it's unsurprising that most mammals time their births for times when the greatest amount of food is likely to be available in their environment. Certainly there are species that breed pretty much year round, at least in the absence of unexpected drought or the like, but most have at least some kind of 'breeding season', arranged so that the young are born at the best time of the year - often the spring, in temperate climes, but more likely the rainy season near the tropics, where there isn't a winter to avoid. In the case of marsupials, the breeding season and the birthing season are pretty much the same thing, since pregnancy is an extremely brief affair, and it's the time spent in the pouch that's really crucial.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Dog Family: African and Asian Wild Dogs

African wild dog
So far, my survey of the dog family has looked at the "wolf-like" dogs, rather than the foxes and their kin. Most of these are either wolves, coyotes, or jackals, but there are two species that stand slightly apart, although modern genetic analysis has shown that they are, indeed, more closely related to wolves than they are to foxes.

The more distinctive, and probably the better known, of the two species (Lycaon pictus) has a wide number of different names. I'm going to call it the African wild dog here, but it is also known as the "African hunting dog", the "painted dog", or by some combination of these terms. (In French, Spanish, and Italian, it's simply the "lycaon", or some spelling variant thereof. The word commemorates a character from Greek mythology, who Zeus turns into a wolf).

Whatever it's called, the African wild dog is a distinctive animal. The large rounded ears and the slender, athletic body are noticeable enough in themselves, but it's the coat pattern that really makes it hard to mistake for anything else. The exact pattern varies tremendously - every animal is unique, and they can readily be distinguished one from another. Once found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, animals from the north tend to be dark with white and yellow patches, while those from further south are generally pale, with a few black patches. It was once thought that these might represent different subspecies, but they seem to blend into one another gradually as you cross the continent, which would rule that out. African wild dogs are adapted for running, and shedding the heat that results from doing so. They also, for less clear reasons, have no dewclaws on their front feet, as all other dogs do.