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.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

The Porcupine Sleeps Tonight

The book All Yesterdays presents, among other things, unusual, but scientifically plausible, depictions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. One picture, for example, shows a T. rex asleep - something that they must logically have spent quite a lot of time doing despite the fact that typical dinosaur books never show it.

Well, it's not as exciting as fighting a Triceratops.

In general, though, even when it comes to living animals, it's probably fair to say that behavioural scientists don't spend a lot of time thinking about how they sleep. All animals advanced to have a brain sleep in some fashion, so far as we know, and obviously, that includes mammals. To be sure, this isn't terribly obvious in the case of dolphins and the like, since they can be both asleep and awake at the same time, but everything that lives on land has to take a nap from time to time.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Screaming Monkeys

Animals, mammals included, produce a wide range of different sounds. Some species are relatively silent or have a very small repertoire of calls, but others are much more vocal, being able to tailor the nature of their call to a specific purpose. Cetaceans and primates are perhaps the most obvious here, but it's worth noting that cats, for example, can purr, mew, hiss, chatter, growl and (in some species) roar.

Some of these sounds - such as a cat's purr - are found only in a single group of related animals. (Not all wild cat species purr, of course, but many do). Others are, at least in general terms, produced by a range of different species, often in quite similar circumstances. One of these is the 'scream', an unusually loud call that is typically high-pitched. Screams also commonly include rapid, chaotic, changes in frequency and amplitude that we humans interpret as a harsh, inherently unpleasant, sound - and there's likely good reason for that.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Small British Mammals: Common and Field Voles

Field vole
In many respects, voles are extremely similar to mice. In many languages, the local word for 'mouse' also describes voles, and this was even the case in English prior to around the 19th century, when the term "vole-mouse" was borrowed from a now-extinct Scandinavian tongue, and shortly thereafter abbreviated to simply "vole". In its original language, it literally meant "field", and a similar etymology can be seen in languages such as German (Feldmaus) and French (campagnol) among many others.

Scientifically, voles have also been mixed in with the mice at different times. While they have recognised as a distinct group with their own scientific name since 1821, for much of the 20th century they were considered a subgroup within the wider mouse family. That's really only changed in the last 20 years or so, as genetic and biochemical evidence has shown that the two groups, while related, have distinct evolutionary histories.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Big African Not-a-Lion

Spot the real lion
When it comes to fossil animals, there can be little doubt that the ones most popular with the general public are the large ones. There's a reason that dinosaurs seem to hold the most enduring fascination, and that even popular science books about the whole range of prehistoric life are almost bound to have them as part of their title. (And, while some dinosaurs were small, most of the ones we know about weren't, perhaps partly because it's easier to preserve large solid bones than small fragile ones).

It's not really any different with prehistoric mammals, with mammoths, mastodons, and sabretooth cats being the ones that most people would instantly recognise and be familiar with. Even dire wolves, which weren't really all that big, are surely better known than, say, extinct foxes or weasels of the same age. Which brings up a second point: even if an animal isn't as large as an elephant or Diplodocus, being unusually large for a carnivore will still help its public profile enormously.