Sunday 18 December 2011

Grazers and Browsers - and how to tell them apart without watching

Wildebeest are grazers - note the squarish muzzle
One advantage of studying the fossils of prehistoric mammals, as opposed to dinosaurs, is that mammals are still around today, while non-avian dinosaurs aren't. That gives us the ability to compare fossil species with living ones, and be fairly confident that our comparisons make sense. That's not to say, of course, that we can't infer quite a lot from the shape and structure of dinosaur bones, and work out details of their lifestyle and habits. But there's nothing much like non-avian dinosaurs around today, so there will inevitably be some guesswork involved when we do - educated guesswork, to be sure, but guesswork none the less.

Although the same can be said of fossil mammals - especially the stranger ones - in many cases, we can be more confident that our educated guesses are likely to be accurate. For example, sabre-tooth cats were, well... cats. So we can look at, for example, the proportions of their limbs, compare them with living cats, and deduce whether they were more like, say, jaguars, than they were like  leopards. Because leopards, jaguars, and sabre-tooths are, in many respects, quite similar, it's pretty likely that inferences drawn from the first two will apply to the third, unless there's some good reason to suppose otherwise. We know what cats are like, and sabre-tooths were cats, so that tells us a lot.

And what about herbivores? Herbivory includes a range of different diets, such as animals that feed mainly on seeds, or fruit. But large mammalian herbivores tend to have two possible feeding strategies: grazing and browsing. The best way to tell the two apart would be by examining their dung, and, failing that, the structure of their digestive systems could well be helpful. Neither, of course, are possible, if all you have is a fossil skeleton, but, fortunately, there are other clues we can examine.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Weasels in the Snow: Common Weasels and Stoats

A stoat in summer
In terms of the number of species, the weasel family is the most successful of the carnivoran families. That is, at least in part, due to their small size, allowing them to fill niches unavailable to larger animals such as bears, lions, or wolves. The members of the family that take this to the extreme are, of course, those for which it is named: the weasels themselves.

The term "weasel" isn't a truly scientific one. It's used to refer to all those musteline animals that are neither polecats, mink, nor stoats, and that isn't a natural group of animals. A true evolutionary unit should consist of a common ancestor and all of its descendants, but the term "weasel", while it would plausibly include the common ancestor, arbitrarily excludes some of that animal's descendants. In reality, therefore, the animals commonly referred to as "weasels" include some that are closer to, say, polecats, than they are to other "weasels", and, as a whole, they represent at least three, and probably four, different evolutionary lines.

The common weasel (Mustela nivalis) is the epitome of the idea that, for weasels, small is good. Known in America as the least weasel, at as little as 12 cm (5 inches) long ignoring the tail, it is the smallest member of it's family, and thus, the smallest of all carnivorans. Although it prefers forests or farmland, it is happy to live almost anywhere that there is cover, including mountains and semi-desert, and this adaptability has allowed it to inhabit a wider stretch of the world than any other carnivoran species except the wolf.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Hanging Out with Other Species

Spinner dolphin
Animals interact with members of other species in a range of different ways. Most obvious, perhaps, are predator-prey relationships, but not all interactions necessarily have to have the potential for violence. Often, we find members of different species living side by side because they simply happen to like the same habitat, or one species may steal the burrows of another rather than making the effort to dig their own. But there are also some more organised relationships, where two or more relatively large mammalian species actively congregate together for some sort of mutual benefit.

We commonly see this in herd animal, especially where one species is relatively rare within a given region. So long as they don't irritate the other species too much, it may be to the benefit of the rarer one to join the herd of the more common species, gaining the advantage from large herd sizes that it cannot achieve on its own. Aside from grazing herd animals, other social animals that often congregate with other, related, species, include examples among both primates and cetaceans. (Examples from other groups of mammal are rarer, but have been reported).

Broadly speaking, there are three different reasons why animals might want to actively hang out with members of another species. There is no particular why two or more of these reasons cannot be true at once, and disentangling them can take a fair amount of observation. Let's take a look at one recent study as an example.