Sunday, 26 October 2014

Children of the Coal-beasts

The animals of the Pleistocene epoch, of which I've given an overview over the last couple of years, are, on the whole, readily recognisable; they may look different from those today, but it's pretty obvious which modern animals they're related to. Mammoths are clearly elephants, sabretooths are clearly cats, and so on. The further we push back into the Age of Mammals, however, the less clear such things become.

There are two main problems here. One is that the animals simply look less like the ones we have today, especially if they come from a time before the modern groups separated from one another. How do we tell which modern group (if any) an animal belongs to if it lived before that group developed the characteristics that define it today? Secondly, older fossils are both rarer and more fragmentary, so that we're literally missing pieces of the puzzle. As a result, there are a number of early groups of mammal that we know existed, but which it's hard to fit into a family tree, or, indeed, to know much about at all.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

How Elephants Bring the Rains

The largest species of land-dwelling animal alive today is, of course, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana). Especially since they're herbivores, and much of their food, such as grass, isn't terribly nutritious, they need to eat an awful lot of it to survive. Certainly not all their food is low quality, and, in fact, they'll eat just about any vegetation they can find, and they do have a digestive system that extracts more nutrition from low-calorie forage than a human one could, but even so, a full grown male has been estimated to eat about 150 kg (330 lbs) of food each day

Which isn't so bad, if you happen to live in a densely vegetated environment. The rather smaller African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) does just this, inhabiting jungles north of the Congo, but was only recognised as being a separate species in 2010. The bush elephant, while it, too, often lives in dense forest, also seems happy to inhabit less favourable habitats. For example, a significant number live in the savannah of the Serengeti in East Africa, and in similar environments. At the extreme, some live on the edges of deserts in places like Mali and Namibia.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Mysterious Songs of the Blue Whale

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is, as is fairly known, not only the largest animal alive today, but the largest that has ever lived. Far larger, for instance, than anything that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. Yet, because, like all whales, they are not that easy to study, they remain relatively mysterious, compared with large land-based mammals.

There, however, are a number of different ways in which we can study them, and one of them is to listen to their calls. Like other whales, blue whales produce 'songs' that travel for miles through the deep, and, by listening to them, we can get at least some idea of where they are, and how numerous they are, and perhaps further information besides.

Compared with cetaceans like the humpback whale, the songs of blue whale are not particularly complex - although they remain more so than deep clicking sounds of sperm whales. For the most part, blue whale songs consist of the same element repeated over and over. This element, termed a "Z-call" because of the shape it produces on a spectrograph, has three parts: a long, deep rumble, followed by a rapid dip and then a short, musical tone at an even deeper pitch. The first part is commonly somewhere about the A four below middle-C, which is the very lowest note than can be produced on a grand piano. The last part is about three or four notes lower than that, which is generally considered below the range of normal human hearing.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Mini-Monkeys: Monkeys with Manes

Golden lion tamarin
The tamarins of the Amazon jungle and the forests bordering it to the north are sometimes known as "true" tamarins, to distinguish them from their relatives further south. Even when the marmoset family was first recognised as distinct from those of other South American monkeys, and all marmosets were placed into a single genus, the tamarins were already divided into two: the "true" tamarins in the north, and the lion tamarins in the south.

More recent molecular analysis, of the sort that also showed the clear difference between the Amazonian and Atlantic Forest marmosets, has shown that our initial instinct on the tamarins was correct. Indeed, it seems to be the case that lion tamarins are actually more closely related to marmosets than they are to other tamarins, something that makes the distinction unavoidable. Having said which, there's no dispute that, anatomically, they look much more like tamarins than they do their apparently closer relatives.

What this means is that it's the tamarins, not the marmosets, that most likely resemble the original members of their family. The marmosets are specialists, having changed further from their ancestor's body form because of their heavy reliance on gum as a food source, and the need to modify their teeth, jaw muscles, and bowel structure to accommodate this odd diet. Lion tamarins, which never did that, retain the original "tusked" teeth and fruit-digesting colons of their ancestors, just as true tamarins do.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Age of Mammals: The Pliocene (Pt 1)

I suspect that when most members of the public think of prehistoric animals after the time of the dinosaurs, they think of the Pleistocene, the time of the Ice Ages. This was a time of bitter cold, the time of cave men, mammoths, and Smilodon cats. Even among scientists, it's easily the most researched of the various bygone epochs that make up the Age of Mammals, not least because it's the one closest in time to our own, and therefore the easiest to study.

But there are five other epochs that precede the Pleistocene within the Age of Mammals, and, compared with most of them, it isn't even very long. Heck, it isn't even 5% of the total. As it happens, though, the epoch that immediately preceded the Ice Ages, the Pliocene, isn't much longer. If we imagine, as we're often invited to, the entire history of the Earth as a single year, the Pliocene is, very roughly, the period between 2 and 7 p.m. on the evening of the 31st December. That's not exactly a large chunk.

On the other hand, on a human scale, the Pliocene is vast; the long autumn that leads from the summer of the Miocene into the freezing cold of the great ice sheets that follow. When I first discussed the Pleistocene, I used the example of a TV documentary that whizzes through the whole of history. In fact, it takes one minute to cover each decade of time. So the entire history of the world since the outbreak of World War I is covered in just the final ten minutes. Your life so far is, I can assume with some confidence, covered in even less time than that.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Predator v Predator

Herbivores eat plants, carnivores eat herbivores. That, at it's simplest, is how food chains work. But, of course, food chains are almost never that simple in reality. For a start, it's surely obvious that, given the chance, big carnivores eat small carnivores. They generally aren't a high proportion of their diet, not least because the sort of parasites you might find inside a small carnivore may not be very healthy for the big ones, either (mammalian carnivores being fairly closely related, in evolutionary terms). But they'll certainly do it.

Carnivores eating other carnivores is called intraguild predation, which sounds like it ought to have something to do with World of Warcraft, but doesn't. (Unless your characters eat one another, which I'm fairly sure the game doesn't allow). Inevitably, such predation means that the lifestyle of a small carnivore is somewhat different from that large one. It's not just being eaten themselves that they have to worry about, either. There's also the risk of something larger coming along and pinching the dinner that you just spent so much time catching. Which, while we're on the technical terms, is called kleptoparasitism.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Time of the Tiny Otters

An earlier fossil
(The new one still has the jaw attached to the rest of the skull)
A few months ago, the discovery of the "largest dinosaur ever" was announced. Again. Indeed, the "largest dinosaur ever" always seems to be being discovered, and, while we must at some point, surely get to the real end of the sequence, I wouldn't put any money on this latest one being it. But speaking more generally, I'd expect that when most people think of dinosaurs, "big" is going to be a fairly common adjective.

Even when we look at prehistoric mammals, it's the big ones that get most of the attention. Mammoths. Prehistoric rhinos. Enormous tank-like armadillos. Giant wombats. Big animals are cool, and there were some pretty large ones in the distant past.

Yet, at any point since their first appearance, small animals will always have been more common than large ones. Lots of small and interesting things doubtless scurried about under the feet of the dinosaurs, and so it was with the Age of Mammals, too. So today I want to look at the recently described fossil of a small mammal, and how it too, can tell us something interesting.