Sunday 21 April 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: The Gazelles of Asia

Arabian gazelles
I suspect that, on the whole, westerners associate gazelles with Africa. We think of the ones we see in wildlife documentaries, being pursued by cheetahs or leopards across the plains of the Serengeti or similar places. However, the most current theory suggests that they may have originated in Asia and various species survive on both continents today, having split apart around 2 or 3 million years ago at or shortly before, the start of the Ice Ages.

How many species that might be is still a matter of debate, and much of it centres on what's probably the first part of Asia you'd think of to look for desert-dwelling animals: the Middle East. For much of the 20th century, there were generally regarded as being two species living here, not counting one or two then thought to be extinct. And then, well, all that fell apart for reasons I wrote about on this blog back in 2013.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Oligocene (Pt 8): The First Tapir and the Last Hoofless Horse

A close look at the evolutionary history of horses reveals that it's more complicated than sometimes presented, with numerous side branches forming a bushy tree of different species, many of which ultimately died out without descendants. This applies both to the origins of the group in its early days and its period of great diversification through the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. In the Oligocene, however, the picture, at least so far as we can tell, was rather simpler.

We know of two genera of horse that made it into the Oligocene from the preceding epoch. Mesohippus had been around for a while, Miohippus was a relative newcomer, appearing towards the very end of the Eocene. The two are rather similar, to the point that it has been argued they should be treated as different species of the same genus (which would be Miohippus, as that was named first) and they are both found in fossil beds across the United States and southern Canada, with Miohippus being known from Washington state to Florida and Mesohippus primarily in the west. The similarity also led to proposals early on that the one directly evolved into the other, but it's now clear that they lived alongside one another for millions of years, which scuppers that idea.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Wild Mammals of London

Arguably the single biggest threat to the continued survival of animal and plant species is loss of habitat. Even if an animal isn't actively hunted, the ever-growing human population means that there are simply fewer suitable places for them to live. Logging and the expansion of agriculture are probably the biggest factors here, at least in terms of the area affected, but it's hard to argue that the recent growth of urban sprawl isn't another.

The urban environment is obviously a difficult or impossible one for most wild mammals to exploit. House mice and rats are an obvious exception, and there are also domesticated pets, but for truly wild creatures it's a different matter. While it may no longer have (say) bison or wolves, upstate New York is still home to seven species of shrew, three moles, four hares or rabbits, 22 different kinds of rodent, ten bats, nine mustelids, two foxes, and three deer, plus coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, striped skunks, and black bears. Manhattan... not so much.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Flight of the Fossil Pelicans

Dalmatian pelican
Pelicans are distinctive birds with long necks, short legs, and a remarkably long beak the bottom half of which is attached to a large extensible pouch for holding captured fish. They are also large, with even the smallest species having a 180 cm (6 foot) wingspan and the largest being half that again. They are, of course, water birds, with many living along coasts or in brackish waters, but others found in lakes and rivers far inland.

They are also not mammals, which is a timely reminder that, yes, this is the post that will be live on 1st April, when I switch things about for one post a year.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: Gazelles of North Africa

Dorcas gazelle
(Brief note: My internet connection was down for three days over the weekend, which is why this post is delayed from the usual.)

One of the things that most distinguishes gazelles from other kinds of antelope is that they are adapted to dry environments. They don't come much drier than the Sahara so it should be little surprise that gazelles are relatively common here. In fact, the dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas) is one of the most widespread of all gazelle species, being found right across the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, as well as further south along the Red Sea coast in Eritrea and Djibouti and across the Sinai into extreme southern Israel. In the north, it's largely restricted to the eastern parts of the Mediterranean coast, being absent from northern Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Home-grown Shovel Tuskers?

Elephants are unique and remarkable animals, looking quite unlike any other creature. They have no close living relatives among other mammals - you have to go back almost to the time of the dinosaurs to find any common ancestor with anything else. As a result, the elephant family is placed within its own order of mammals, a ranking equivalent to that given to such groups as "primates", "rodents", or "bats". With just one family, and only three living species, it isn't quite the smallest mammalian order, but it's very close.

This changes significantly if we choose to include the known extinct species. There are a great many of these, which tend to be large, heavily built creatures with elongated tusks, and, in most cases, features on their skulls that suggest they had a trunk. Indeed, this latter is the source of the official name of the order, the proboscideans. While only the elephant family survives today, at least six others are recognised to have existed in the past, and if we could see members of most of them today they'd be instantly recognisable as, if not actually elephants, at least "elephant-like".

Sunday 10 March 2024

Jiggling on the Ecotone

It might leave a slightly different message if a human did it, but leaving piles of droppings in the territory around your home can be an important signal for many mammal species. Although making such piles visible may help other animals find them, the primary signal is, as one might expect, the smell. And not just the smell of the faeces, of course, but complex chemicals mixed in with it from urine or the secretions of anal scent glands. These can allow an animal with a sense of smell more subtle than our own to glean a lot of useful information about who left the deposit - and why.

In many species, this takes the form, not of solitary deposits, but of latrines. In the zoological sense, this refers to a single location for defecating shared by many animals of the same species. The animals who use the site may belong to a particular pack or herd, all using the same communal site, but they could equally well be rivals or neighbours leaving messages for one another. How the latrines are distributed can give researchers significant clues about what those messages might be.