Sunday 26 May 2013

Caprines: Half-Goats and False Sheep

Himalayan tahrs
Sheep and goats are fairly closely related animals. In a sense, sheep are just goats that don't like climbing. However, even once we acknowledge that ibex, say, are really just another kind of goat, it turns out that there are a number of species that are also closely related to sheep and goats, without really being either.

Quite how they're related, and which ones are on the goat side of the tree, and which on the sheep side, has been a matter of some debate, and depends largely on whether or not you think that physical appearance is more important than genetic similarity. Even if you look only at the genetics, it seems that they're all close enough to one another that it makes a fair difference which genes you happen to consider most important.

Still, we can say that some look more like goats, and some look more like sheep. On the goat-like side are the tahrs - not to be confused with turs, which really are goats. There are three species of tahr, all of which look fairly similar to one another, and have traditionally been placed together in the genus Hemitragus - a word that literally means "half-goat". In the traditional, appearance-based, scheme it's thought that these are the closest animals to true goats, without actually being them. Genetic analysis, however, shows that this is just an illusion, and the three animals aren't especially close relatives. Two of them, therefore, have been removed from the genus, and given new scientific names to reflect their distinct nature.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Fossil Giraffes of Ethiopia

Giraffes on the Serengeti
There is some debate about exactly how many species of giraffe there are alive today. The official answer is 'just the one' (Giraffa camelopardis), but there may be two or even three, depending on how you define a 'species'. Certainly, it isn't very many, and if there really is more than one, then they all look pretty similar.

Looking slightly further afield, the entire giraffe family contains just one other living species - the okapi. Superficially, okapis may not look much like giraffes, but that's largely because, when we think 'giraffe' we tend to focus on the incredibly long legs and neck, and, perhaps, on the crazy-paving coat pattern. An okapi is quite different in both of these respects, but, when you look at the head alone, its resemblance to giraffes is much clearer.

Still, an okapi is not an actual giraffe, any more than a fox is a wolf. There may, therefore, only be one species of true giraffe alive today. But, as is so often the case with these small groups of animals, the family becomes rather larger once we include in all the extinct species. True, giraffes have never been as numerous as some other kinds of large herbivore, and the total number of species that we know of is far less than we have of, say, bovines. But it's certainly more than one.

Perhaps one of the most important questions we'd like such fossils to help us answer is why giraffes are so tall when okapis, for example, are not. This isn't as easy as it might appear. If you visit somewhere like the British Natural History Museum, or the Smithsonian, you'll see huge articulated skeletons of dinosaurs on display. It's perhaps natural to assume that what you see is more or less what somebody dug out of the ground. Sure, the original may have been squashed or distorted a bit, but generally speaking what they found was a single skeleton. Right?

Sunday 12 May 2013

Going for a Song

Aquatic mammals can be among the most difficult to study. Animals such as seals, dolphins, and whales spend a lot of their time below the water, or far from the shore, making long-term observation of them relatively difficult even compared with free-ranging animals on land. Learning more about their behaviour in the wild can therefore be a slow process. Seals and sea lions at least haul themselves onto land to breed and raise their young, which is handy for (among others) wildlife documentary makers, but, even then, that's hardly the whole of their life. Whales and dolphins, of course, don't even do that much.

So how can we study what they're up to? For land animals, there are a number of options. You could, of course, just watch them, and, for many purposes, that's enough. But if you want to know where they go on a 24-hour basis, that's not really going to work. For one thing, it's impractical, and, for another, you'll likely annoy the animal, so that (even leaving ethics aside) it isn't going to act normally. So, if you want to study an animal's movements over a long period of time, your best bet is to catch the animal, and fit it with a GPS tracking device. Then, having released it, you wait a while for it to calm down and get used to this collar thing around it's neck, and then see what it does.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Bears n the Hood

Got any apples?
One of the most significant effects on the patterns of wildlife across the world is that of the presence of humans. For many animals, it isn't such obvious culprits as pollution or hunting that are the main problem - significant though those often are. It's the mere fact that we're there at all.

Humans change the landscape around them, merely as a product of how we live. In order for our own species to survive, for instance, we need farmland, and lots of it. That brings competition with local wildlife, even if we're trying quite hard not to. Planted fields, and even open ranchland, are a change to the natural environment, and that's sure to have some effect. And that's before we start thinking about urban development.

Still, even leaving aside the fact that we can't really do without cities and towns, some animals have done quite well out of them. The house mouse is a particularly extreme example, and essentially doesn't live in the wild any more. But many other animals live in our cities, and even find them a benefit. Think of rats, pigeons, cockroaches... okay, so perhaps they aren't our most welcome neighbours, but from their perspective, we're rather a good thing.

And then there's animals that do well on the fringes, in the suburbs, or patches of urban greenery: urban foxes, badgers, raccoons, and so on. There's a balance for these animals to draw, between the risks of, for example, being hit by a car, and the advantages of nearby rubbish bins. Many of them become nocturnal, even if they aren't naturally, because that's the best time to be out and about if there's lots of humans nearby.