Sunday, 21 July 2019

Being Top Cat

If you happen to own a cat, especially an un-neutered male, you may have noticed that they sometimes pee on things. Shocking, I know.

Spraying is just one way that cats leave scent marks, whether to warn other cats away from 'their' territory, or to advertise their availability to members of the opposite sex. And, as we'd reasonably expect, this is as much true of large wild cats as it is of the domestic moggy. Indeed, we have a reasonable understanding of how some wild cats use these markings. For instance, we know that, just as in the domestic animal, male North American cougars spray more than females, both to mark their territory and to advertise for females.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Small British Mammals: Dormice

Hazel dormouse
The general body plan of looking like a mouse or rat is one that's proven very successful for rodents; a huge number of rodent species, not all of which are closely related, broadly fit this description. Both the mouse family and the "hamster family" (which includes deer mice, pack rats, and voles, among others) are considered to be part of a larger grouping of related rodent families called the Myomorpha. This roughly translates as "mouse-like rodents" and it's a group that includes, under the most common current system, seven different families.

Historically, the Myomorpha was defined based on the structure of the jaw muscles, so that it included some animals, such as jerboas, that don't necessarily look all that much like regular mice. But modern genetic analysis has shown that this anatomic feature isn't as unique as we'd thought, and seems to have evolved at least twice, perhaps in response to a similar dietary requirement in the two different groups. As it happens, the jerboas got to stay in the "mouse-like" group (if only just), but one family of animals that manifestly do look like mice turned out to be something else entirely, and about as unrelated to true mice as it's actually possible to be among living rodent species.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Down, Down, Deeper and Down

Ictidosuchoides also survived the extinction
We've all heard of the extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, leaving the mammals free to diversify and take their current role (along with the birds) as the most visibly numerous land-dwelling vertebrates. But this was not the only major extinction event in the history of the Earth.

How many there actually were rather depends on how big one has to be before being considered 'major'. Part of the reason that we can divide geologic history into so many periods and other subdivisions is that many of them ended with an extinction event of some sort, so that the creatures living afterwards looked different from those living beforehand. But that's not always the case, and, anyway, not all extinctions were equally large and dramatic - at least so far as we can tell from the fossils left behind.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Small British Mammals: Bank Voles

I had intended to wrap up voles a couple of weeks ago, but it turned out that there was so much to say about water voles in particular that it made more sense to add in an extra post to cover everything else. So, here we are with the fourth and final species of vole found in Britain: the bank vole (Myodes glareolus).

Although water voles are more closely related to common voles and their kin than the bank voles, it is the latter that have the closest physical resemblance. While most voles are broadly similar in shape, bank voles are also roughly the same size as the common and field voles, and can be distinguished (without close examination of the skeleton) by the fact that the fur on their backs typically has a distinct reddish tinge. A few instances of individuals with other colours have been noted - including a pure white one that had somehow survived to adulthood without being eaten - but these are rare.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Last of the Chinese Zebra-Donkeys

Asian wild asses
With the exception of our own species, few mammals have been the subject of quite so much interest in their evolutionary history as the horse. The number of named species of fossil horse far outweighs the number of species that are alive today. A great many of these are, of course, the older three-toed horses, with all living horses being placed in the single genus Equus.

Today that genus consists of just seven widely recognised living species. But, even among just this genus, and ignoring all the older, extinct ones, there were once many more species than there are today. But just how many is that? That's a matter of considerable confusion and debate.

In a way, that's hardly surprising, especially when you consider the focus of attention that there has been on horse evolution. Even just looking at the living species, not everyone agrees that 'seven' is the appropriate number, with some authorities arguing that particular subspecies are distinct enough that they should really be species in their own right.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Small British Mammals: Ratty and the Water Voles

Four different species of vole live wild in Britain, with, perhaps, the field vole being the one that is most typical of the wider group. However, it's perhaps a different species that has the most claim to fame, appearing as one of the central characters (confusingly named "Ratty") in the popular children's book The Wind in the Willows.

Ratty is a water vole (Arvicola amphibius), an animal with a number of differences from common and field voles, despite being fairly closely related to them. Before discussing the species in more detail, we should acknowledge that, over the years, there has been considerable confusion as to what the scientific name of this animal actually is - and, for once there's quite a good reason for it.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Miocene (Pt 14): Sabre-toothed Sea Otters

When bears first entered North America is really more a matter of definition than of our understanding of the fossil evidence. Going by what is probably the most common current definition, bears first appeared in Europe about 20 million years ago, in the form of Ursavus elmensis. Noticeably smaller than modern bears, this developed into a number of species across Europe and Asia, and to the closely related Ballusia in China.

Almost immediately, however, Ursavus also crossed into North America, probably arriving around 19 million years ago. It seems to have been far less common there than it was in Europe, with the local species, Ursavus pawniensis (there were probably others, but that's the only one we know of for sure) living in relatively small populations across the west, from Nebraska to Oregon and Saskatchewan. It doesn't appear to have left any descendants, being eventually replaced by more modern species of bear from Asia rather than evolving into anything uniquely American.