Sunday, 28 June 2020

What's the Closest Living Relative of Whales?

(For the TLDR crowd; just read the last paragraph).

It's been known for a long time that, at the highest level, mammals can be divided into three evolutionary groups based on their method of giving birth: marsupials, the egg-laying monotremes, and the placental mammals. That last group contains around 95% of all living mammal species, including everything from wolves to dolphins and moose to monkeys.

Given that wide variety, it's less obvious how we should divide up the placental mammals into smaller groups that genuinely reflect their evolutionary relationships. It's obvious that, say, cheetahs are members of the cat family and, at a slightly higher level, it's unsurprising that, for example, the dog and bear families are reasonably close relatives of one another. But once you get much higher than that, it becomes less so.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Giant Wolverines of South Africa

Modern wolverine
Africa is the world's second-largest continent, containing about 20% of Earth's total land area. Despite this, it's probably fair to say that its the least palaeontologically explored continent - with the obvious exception of Antarctica. But this is not to say that there aren't several very good fossil sites in Africa, many of which have contributed significantly to our knowledge of animal evolution.

The most famous of these sites are those connected with the evolution of our own species, but there are a number of sites that have yielded, for example, significant dinosaur fossils. When it comes to mammals other than humans (and whatever else was living alongside them), Kenya and South Africa have proved particularly rich sources - although, of course, there are others.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Small Cats: Lynxes of Europe and Asia

Eurasian lynx
Once we get away from the "big cats" as traditionally thought of (lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, and so on) the majority of wild cat species are at least broadly in the size range of the domestic animal. However, there are a few cats that are decidedly medium-sized on this particular scale, of which the best known in the Northern Hemisphere are probably the lynxes.

Lynxes are readily identifiable animals, and the word "lynx" itself dates back to at least the Ancient Greeks. They were also one of the original seven species of cat identified by Linnaeus in 1758 when he created the modern system for scientific naming of animals. As early as 1792, they were split off from the other cats into a subgenus of their own, now considered a full genus. This was in Robert Kerr's translation of Linnaeus' original work into English, by which point, at least four different species of lynx had been scientifically named and described (including one by Kerr himself, in the book in question).

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Miocene (Pt 20): Unicorn-Pigs and the First Hippos

Prodeinotherium
Pigs seem to have been another example of animals crossing over from Asia when that continent collided with Africa around 17 million years ago. The oldest fossil pigs in Africa date from about that time and are represented by Kenyasus from Kenya and Nguruwe from Namibia and South Africa. These were relatively small, short-snouted pigs with a primitive appearance similar to that seen in their presumed Asian ancestors.

Because of these primitive features, determining exactly where they fit in the pig family tree isn't a simple matter, but they are often placed with a group called the kubanochoerines. Assuming this is correct (and it's far from settled) they must have evolved fairly rapidly into much larger and more distinctive animals. The best-known member of the group is the giant "unicorn-pig" Kubanochoerus, which lived in China during the Late Miocene. This was an exceptionally large, long-legged animal, perhaps standing 120 cm (4 feet) high at the shoulder and - even more dramatically - sporting a long pointed horn that projected from the centre of its forehead.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Chorus of the Dolphins

It's well-known that cetaceans - dolphins, porpoises, and whales - make calls to communicate with one another, in addition to the sonar pings used to navigate. The complexity of these calls varies significantly between species, although even sperm whales, for example, producing little more than a regular pattern of clicks, while humpback whales produce what appear to be sophisticated 'songs'.

Among the most studied of such calls are those of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) which are the type most commonly seen in aquaria, making them relatively easy to observe. Having said which, it was only in 1998 that scientists confirmed that there was more than one species of bottlenose, leading to some confusion as to which one lived where and, by extension, which one any given prior study referred to. And, as I blogged about when the announcement was made back in 2011, we now know of a third one as well.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Stopping the Water Vole Killer

I have often referred on this blog to the number of mammal species that are currently faced with extinction, of being wiped totally from the face of the Earth. Depending on how strictly you want to define the threat, this could be anything up to 25% of the total known species, although it's worth noting that a great many other species have declining populations, if not ones that are likely to vanish altogether any time soon.

For many species, even if extinction is not a threat, extirpation can be. This is, essentially, a local extinction, where the species dies off entirely in some particular area, but still survives somewhere else. While it can be any area you like, in conservation terms, we tend to be talking about either countries or reasonably sized islands. Or, as is the case in Britain, both.

Many species of mammal have been extirpated from the British Isles over the course of our history. Wolves are one of the more famous examples here, with the last official record of a dead wolf dating from 1680 in Scotland (it's unlikely to have literally been the last, and rumours continued for another hundred years or so, although it's hard to know how many of them were accurate). In a number of other cases, such as the hazel dormouse, local populations today very much seem to be in decline.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Small Cats: The Manul and the Rusty-Spotted Cat

Manul
The leopard cat and its relatives form one branch in the larger feline family tree, and one that's entirely native to Asia. These live, for the most part, in tropical parts of the continent, often close to plentiful water. But at least one other close relative instead prefers to live in environments that are both much colder and much drier.

Perhaps the most popular name for the animal in English is Pallas's cat (Otocolobus manul), which tends to lead to an argument as to whether there's an 's' after the apostrophe or not. (There usually is, these days, but it's far from universal). For convenience, however, I'm going to use the alternative name of manul, which derives from the original Mongolian name of the animal.