Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Pig Family: Warthogs

Common warthog
Warthogs are, quite possibly, the best known species of wild pig after the wild boat itself. They are relatively common animals, readily observed in the habitats where they live (rather than hiding in dense thickets, say) and, perhaps above all, they have a striking and distinctive appearance.

The common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) is widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, and is currently thought to have four different subspecies. Unlike other African hogs, they inhabit lush grasslands and open savanna, country dotted with trees and waterways, but neither densely forested nor the truly arid terrain of veldt or desert. Two subspecies live in the north, in the Sahel belt that separates the Congo rainforest from the Sahara, and are found right from the Atlantic coast of Mauritania to the shores of the Red Sea in Eritrea. The others are found across East Africa and pretty much the entire south of the continent outside the deserts, reaching as far as South Africa.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Miocene (Pt 8): Giant Honey Badgers and European Pandas

A great many predators lived in Europe in the glorious warmth of the Mid Miocene, when the continent was lush with subtropical vegetation and the herbivores that fed on it. As the climate began to turn, and the forests gave way to more open terrain, both the herbivores and the animals that preyed on them underwent a number of changes, with the latter in particular suffering some loss of diversity. (At least, so far as we can tell from the incomplete fossil record).

This affected the full gamut of mammalian carnivores, including many of the smaller, less obvious, ones. The boundary between the Middle and Late Miocene is an arbitrary one that isn't really marked by anything much in Europe, so that, to begin with, these were as numerous as ever. There were badgers, such as Sabadellictis, and even skunks, which today are not found outside the Americas.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Fishing in the Ganges

The most spectacular cetaceans are, arguably, the really big ones - sperm whales, blue whales, and so on. However, while our knowledge of the exact numbers is a little hazy, somewhere around half of the cetacean species alive today represent much smaller animals. The majority of these belong to just two taxonomic families.

By far the most numerous are the "true" or "oceanic" dolphins, a family that also includes killer whales and pilot whales - small in comparison with the like of humpbacks, but fairly large by most standards. The second family are the porpoises, which are exclusively small, by cetacean standards, and usually slightly smaller than dolphins.

But there are a few small-sized cetacean species that fall into neither group. These oddities share one thing in common: they don't live in the sea. While they are, of course, just as fully aquatic as their better-known kin, this has lead to them receiving the common collective name of "river dolphin", thus distinguishing them from the "oceanic" sort that most people are more familiar with.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

What is a Marsupial?

A possum
In America, the word "possum" is usually used to describe a moderately-sized, somewhat rat-like, animal that has grey fur, sometimes pretends to be dead, and has far too many teeth for any self-respecting land-based mammal. Officially, this creature is an "opossum", and more specifically, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). The word comes from the language of the Powhatan people of Virginia, and has been in use in English since at least the 17th century.

Over on the other side of the world, in Australia, the word "possum" is, however, used to refer to an entirely different animal. These are nocturnal, tree-dwelling creatures, typically with large eyes and long tails, and the majority of the seventy or so species are herbivorous. Early settlers, who had probably only vaguely heard of the American animal, nonetheless decided to give it the same name. Like the Americans, over time they confused "opossum" with "a possum", and shortened the word. Unlike the Americans, their shortened word became not merely colloquial, but the one formally used in zoological texts.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Pig Family: Bush Pig, Bushpig, Red River Hog

Red river hog (boar)
As zoological knowledge has advanced, the number of species that we know about has changed regularly, and not just because we keep discovering new ones. Animals that we knew about, but previously thought were subspecies get promoted to full species, and animals that we thought were separate species turn out not to be.

In fact, over time, we can sense something of a trend here. Beginning with Linnaeus in 1758, several new species are named, often by naturalists unaware, in the days before fully up-to-date reference libraries, let alone the internet, that somebody else had already given a name to the same thing. That process continues through the 19th century, with minor differences being seized on as evidence of speciation, even where it was possible to make decent comparisons. Through the 20th century, the number of genuinely new species being discovered dramatically tails off (at least, for mammals), but there's also a tendency to tidy up the great mass of inherited names from the past, merging similar animals together. Finally, from the late 20th century onwards, an increasing understanding of genetics results in numerous subspecies being promoted, often with our Victorian predecessors turning out to have been right all along.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Fast Lives of Early Sperm Whales

Livyatan melvillei, a Miocene species
(It was supposed to be 'Leviathan', but the name was
already taken)
Sperm whales are magnificent and highly distinctive animals. While they may not be quite as large as the great toothless whales, they are still pretty huge: a fully grown male is typically about 16 metres (52 feet) in length and weighs over 40 tons. So distinctive is it, in fact, that today it is usually considered to be the only living species in its family, the Physeteridae.

The caveats in that last sentence - "today", "usually", and "living" - are all significant. On the first two points, the sperm whale family used to be considered to contain no less than three living species, and some researchers still define it that way. The other two species are the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales (Kogia spp.), and they're typically (but not always) placed in their own family these days. As their names suggest they are much, much smaller than the "true" sperm whales, being more like the size of a large dolphin.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Broken Bones and Missing Toes

Woodland jumping mouse
Life can be hard, especially out in the wild. Injuries can be common, and among the most painful are broken bones. As humans, we can mitigate bone fractures using splints, braces and so on, but wild animals have no such luxury. Nonetheless, bones do heal by themselves, a process that starts with the formation of a tough fibrous scar at the injury site that at least helps to keep things fixed partially in place. Over time, the scar is mineralised to form weak, but functional, bony material, and then eventually rebuilt with as much of the original structural integrity as possible.

Without splints and braces, this is likely to be an imperfect fix, even assuming that the injury doesn't prevent the animal from feeding or otherwise kill it before the process completes. If the animal does survive, the signs of the injury are always going to be there in its skeleton, and are quite likely to cause at least some ongoing problems. But, survive they do, and bone healing wouldn't have evolved in the first place if it never worked in the wild.