Sunday, 28 February 2021

All the World's Deer: The Red Deer Species Complex

Red deer
When the first list of scientific animal names was drawn up in 1758, all six known species of deer were placed in the genus Cervus - which is, of course, simply the Latin word for "deer". Over the following decades, as taxonomy became more refined, all but one of those species were moved to other genera, and when the deer family, Cervidae, was named in 1810, it had roughly the same meaning that the genus had had so many years before. As its name implies, though, Cervus was selected as the type genus of the family - the one that defines the archetypal group against which all others are compared. Although newly described species had been added since, the one species that was so obviously deer-like it had never been moved anywhere else thus became, in a sense, the defining species of its family.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

The Crab-Eating Fox That Wasn't

There are many species of "fox" native to South America. I covered all of these in a series on the dog family a few years ago and I noted at the time that they aren't really foxes in the sense of being related to the likes of red, Arctic, and fennec foxes. Instead, we know from both genetic and anatomical studies that they are more closely related to the group that includes wolves, jackals, and coyotes. 

The dog family has its origins in North America and it seems clear that what happened here is that some wolf-relative that happened to look a bit like a fox headed south at some point, where all of its remaining descendants live today. North and South America joined up relatively recently, geologically speaking, so it's likely that the origins of the South American foxes actually lie in the North, already looking somewhat like their modern form before they made the trip.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Tyranny of the Bruce Effect

Monogamy is a relatively rare phenomenon among mammal species. It tends to occur where it requires considerable investment to raise children, whether that be in terms of supplying food over a long period, or careful protection from external threats. If you can spread that effort between both parents, the child is more likely to survive and the species to be perpetuated.

That's common in birds, perhaps in part because they have to physically fetch and deliver food rather than producing milk with the calories from their own diet, not to mention the effort of incubating eggs. But, in mammals, while it certainly occurs in some species (as do the other two options) the most common pattern is polygyny. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

The Toxic Life of an Unusual Rodent

As I've often mentioned before, the largest mammal family, by number of species, is the mouse family, or Muridae. Containing around a quarter of all known mammal species, it's vast and, in many cases, the species are so similar to one another physically that they can only be told apart by genetic analysis. A few years ago, I reported on the largest attempt to determine how this great array of species are related to one another. That particular scheme showed three main evolutionary lineages within the family.

By far the largest are the "murine" or "typical" mice which contains... well, almost everything. According to that particular study, they split from the other members of the mouse family about 18 million years ago, during the Early Miocene. Then, about 16 million years ago, as the Middle Miocene dawned, the remainder split into what are now recognised as two distinct subfamilies: the gerbils and the "deomyine" mice. (The latter look almost exactly like the murine sort, and it took this sort of study to prove that they weren't). 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

The Deer Family

Doe (a deer, a female deer)
A little over eight years ago (blimey...) I began a series on members of the goat subfamily, and started it off with a discussion of the difference between horns and antlers. In short, horns are permanent structures, comprised of a central bony core surrounded by a sheath of um... horny material. Antlers, on the other hand, are regrown every year, and once they reach full size and shed the velvet on their outer surface, they consist solely of dead bone, with no sheath of any kind. Antlers are also often branched, whereas 'true' horns never are.

Antlers are, of course, the key defining feature of the deer family, the Cervidae. They are found on (almost) every species in the family, although (almost) only on the males. A large stag with branching antlers is instantly identifiable as a deer, but it may be fair to say that some of the species with unbranched antlers do have a certain resemblance to some of the smaller species of antelope.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Miocene (Pt 24): Of True Elephants and Three-toed Horses


The first horses entered Africa towards the end of the Middle Miocene, about 10 million years ago. These have commonly been assigned to the same genera, Hipparion and Hippotherium, as were found in Eurasia at the time, although the fine details of the exact relationships are unclear. Although the latter in particular seems to have been reasonably successful on the continent, a more significant immigration from an African perspective took place later on, around 8 million years ago as the drier climate heralded the start of the Late Miocene.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Sperm Whale Bromance

While there are a few exceptions, there is a general rule among mammals that males travel far from home when they approach adulthood, while females tend to stay in their local neighbourhood. The purpose of this separation is to ensure that, once they become sexually active, the females that a male is going to have the opportunity to mate with aren't all his own sisters or close cousins. Many mammals live essentially solitary lives, so this is merely an issue of the male travelling further than the female when he leaves home; other than that, their social lives aren't really all that different.

In social species, however, the end result is that herds (or other groupings) are united primarily by their female relationships. The females in a herd are likely sisters or other close relatives, while the males have travelled from elsewhere and are not only not closely related to the females, but may not even be closely related to each other, either. Often males spend some time living on their own before they find a suitable herd to join (perhaps because the existing dominant male is getting on a bit) with the result that there's a distinct female-bias in membership of the group.