Sunday 20 December 2015

New Mammal Species 2015

Brown titi monkey
As 2015 draws to a close, it's time to look at some of the species of mammal that we didn't even know existed this time last year. Of course, the reality is that, in most cases, we knew that the animals existed, we just didn't realise that they were a species. Some we thought were subspecies, and we now have enough information to promote to full species status, while others we just hadn't noticed were different at all.

Telling the difference between a subspecies and a species is a difficult, and rather subjective, art. It essentially relies on you being able to demonstrate that the animals don't usually interbreed in the wild when they get the chance. Not that they can't. Not that they don't sometimes. Just that they don't usually. You can really only do this by showing that their genetics are distinct, and even doing that may depend on how good your sample is. As a result, while new species of mammal are named every year, it's worth noting that this isn't a one-way process... it's not that unusual to demote a species back down to subspecies as more information comes in.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Dog Family: Fossil Dogs

Hesperocyon, the earliest known "dog"
Despite their variety, all dog species alive today are placed in a single subfamily of the wider historical dog family. Of course, what we consider a "subfamily", rather than some other taxonomic ranking, is entirely arbitrary, but it does indicate that what we have now represents just one branch of a much older family tree.

This living subfamily are the Caninae, and thus, strictly speaking, the term "canine" can be applied to all living dogs, even the foxes,  which are "vulpine" in more common parlance. The canines have been remarkably successful. Thanks to the existence of the dingo, dogs are one of the few terrestrial mammal families with wild representatives on every continent save Antarctica. (Although not the only one, of course... mice, in particular, get everywhere). That is, at it happens, entirely due to the canines, since the other forms of dog never left their continent of origin.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Doggy is Not the Only Style

In 1999, alternative pop group The Bloodhound Gang infamously sang "You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals / So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." (Ah, talk about highbrow cultural references...) As the rest of the song lyrics made clear, they were talking about what we can technically refer to as the dorso-ventral coital position, with the clear implication that this is the standard among non-human mammals.

By and large, this is quite correct, with the alternatives being particularly rare among typical quadrupedal mammals. Doubtless that's because, for many quadrupeds, the alternatives would be particularly awkward, but that's not necessarily the only reason. It has been proposed, for instance, that in insects this position is advantageous when at least one - and ideally both - of the sexual partners still want to be able to look about them for predators or similar threats. If so, there's no reason that that couldn't also be true for at least some mammals.

Saturday 28 November 2015

The Dog Family: Raccoon Dogs and the Fate of the Warrah

Raccoon dog
The Wikipedia page on the dog family includes, on its attached discussion page, a complaint that the article includes a picture of a raccoon - an animal that is clearly not part of the Canidae. Except, of course that there isn't (and wasn't then) any such picture. The complainant was looking at a picture of a raccoon dog.

It's an understandable mistake. The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) does look remarkably like its partial namesake. Indeed, the second half of its scientific name, first given to it by John Edward Gray in 1834, actually means "raccoon-like". The effect is achieved primarily by that dark mask over the eyes, a feature we naturally associate with raccoons, although, aside from the lack of stripes on the tail, the rest of the animal is fairly raccoon-coloured as well.

Nonetheless, it is indisputably a dog, although quite how it was related to other dogs was long a source of puzzlement. Modern studies have shown that it appears to be related to the true foxes, albeit not very closely. Its closest relative may, in fact, be the bat-eared fox of Africa, although, again, I should stress that this isn't exactly what you'd call a close relationship... just closer than anything else happens to be.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Pliocene (Pt 8): Long-Tusked Elephants and Giant Camels

America today is not a place you associate with herds of wild elephants. Go back just a few tens of thousands of years, though, and it would have been quite a different story. The "elephants" of the time were, of course, mammoths, and they were accompanied by mastodons, animals that were not actually members of the elephant family, but which, from a modern perspective, have a pretty strong resemblance to them.

Mammoths first entered North America during the early Pleistocene, not long before the Ice Ages proper got going. They were, in their origin, Asian animals, but the mastodons were a different matter. Mastodons were already in North America when the mammoths arrived, and they had been there for a very long time indeed. For millions of years, America really was a place with herds of well... things that looked a lot like elephants, at any rate.

The creature that the American mammoths would have encountered was the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), an animal that first appeared close to the end of the Pliocene. But this was the last survivor of a much longer lineage, and there had been many more kinds of American proboscidean that lived before it, often alongside one another. In fact, only a minority of them were really mastodons, including the immediate predecessors of the American mastodon, such as Mammut raki, and the somewhat older Zygolophodon. The latter also lived in the Old World, and was likely the first mastodon to reach North America, shortly before the dawn of the Pliocene. Nonetheless, one of the best skulls we have of the animal was unearthed in California, and later mastodons of the continent are likely descended from something much like them.

Sunday 15 November 2015

The Dog Family: South American Oddities

Maned wolf
Most of the living species of native dog in South America can broadly be described as "foxes", even if they are not directly related to the "true" foxes of the Old World and North America. There are, however, two exceptions, whose appearance is particularly un-fox-like. Analysis of their genes and blood chemistry shows that they do seem to be related to the South American foxes, but not very closely. Indeed, they appear to represent entirely separate colonisations of their continent, diverging from their fellows even before the crab-eating fox did much the same thing. It just so happens that their descendants in the North died out, perhaps under competition pressure from wolves and coyotes, while those in the South continued on to the present day.

The two species are, however, likely each other's closest relatives. Which is surprising when you consider how different they look.

By far the larger of the two is the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), which is found in southern Brazil, and in neighbouring regions of Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and far northern Argentina. It is undeniably a distinctive animal, most obviously because of its remarkably long legs and slender, graceful body. Add to that its unusually long reddish-gold fur, large and mobile ears, and the black mane that runs from the nape of its neck part-way down its back, and we have something that's quite clearly a dog, but which perhaps resembles some domestic breeds more than it does any other wild species. It is also, at least in my entirely subjective opinion, the most beautiful of all the wild dogs.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Do Voles Climb Trees?

A great many species of mammal (and, of course, other creatures) live up trees, spending as much of their lives up in the branches as they can. This is true of the great majority of primates, for instance, which might travel along the ground if they have to get between two trees that aren't very close to one another, but, by and large, would prefer not to descend if they can help it.

The technical term for an animal that climbs regularly is scansorial. Not all scansorial animals are actually arboreal - that is, spending their lives in trees. Many of them live on the ground for much of the time, but will climb trees to, for example, escape from something that's chasing them. So it' perhaps not surprising that scansoriality has evolved many times, and that the physical adaptations associated with climbing are seen in many different, often relatively unrelated, mammals.

Indeed, there are good grounds to suppose that many of the earliest mammals that we know of were at least scansorial, if not fully tree-dwelling. These are the archetypal small shrew-like animals that hid in the trees out of sight the dinosaurs, just waiting for the asteroid to strike so that they could take their turn. (The reality is, of course, more complex than that - but it isn't entirely untrue, either).

Sunday 1 November 2015

Teeth of the Giant Honey Badger

Skeleton of a modern honey badger
Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) have something of a reputation as particularly fierce animals. As is often the case, the reputation is somewhat exaggerated, but it isn't entirely false, either, and they are rather more purely carnivorous than the European badgers of Hufflepuff fame. They are, of course, members of the weasel family, on which I have posted at some length before, and, these days, are usually considered distinct enough to warrant their own subfamily within that group.

According to one study of the evolutionary relationships between mustelids, honey badgers represent one of the earliest branches of the weasel family tree. Assuming a relatively constant rate of genetic change between species after they diverge, and calibrating with the ages of some known fossils, the same study estimated that they should have first appeared about 11 million years ago, during the mid Miocene epoch, and probably in Asia. Naturally, for most of that time, they would not have been the same species that they are today, something that likely arrived much later - it's just that none of their closer relatives survived until the present day.

Sunday 25 October 2015

The Dog Family: Bat-eared and Crab-eating Foxes

Bat-eared fox
The species of the dog family can, broadly speaking, be placed into three main subgroups: the wolf-like dogs (including, for example, coyotes), the true foxes (that is, those related to the red fox of the Northern Hemisphere), and the South American, or "false" foxes. However, there are a few species whose placement in the family tree is rather less certain. One of these is the grey fox of the eastern US, but there's another that's so peculiar it was once placed in a subfamily all of its own, as if it weren't really a fox at all.

The bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) lives in eastern and southern Africa, although, interestingly, not in between. They can, for instance, be found in far northern Zambia and Malawi, and in far southern Mozambique, but that's as close as the two populations get. Which, to save you the trouble of getting out a map, is a gap of about 1,000 miles or so. Given their complete lack of contact with one another, it is perhaps unsurprising that the two populations are considered separate subspecies.

Modern genetic analysis has shown that bat-eared foxes probably are real foxes, albeit ones whose ancestors diverged from the line that led to all the other true foxes very early on. It has to be said, though, that that isn't 100% certain, and it's possible that the divergence was so early that they just go at the base of the tree, not closely related to anything.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Fossorial Fossils

Skeleton of a European mole
(Note the odd-looking humerus and shoulder girdle)
The mole family includes over 40 species, found across the Northern Hemisphere. They are, of course, most noted for living underground, burrowing their way through the soil in search of worms and similar food. But, in fact, this is by no means true of all members of the family.

Indeed, we can divide the lifestyles of these animals into three broad categories. First, there are the truly fossorial moles, meaning those that spend virtually their entire lives underground. This is the case for about three quarters of the living species, including the familiar ones that so annoy gardeners. But there are also the semi-fossorial "shrew-moles", that do quite a lot of digging, but spend much of their life above ground, retreating to their burrows primarily to sleep, and perhaps to supplement their surface diet. And, finally, there are a few species in the family that are semi-aquatic, spending their time swimming in rivers, even if they, too, have burrows to rest in.

It's generally thought that it's the shrew-moles that most resemble the earliest prehistoric members of the family. That, in other words, while moles may always have dug holes, the specialised features that allow them to spend their whole lives below the soil took some time to evolve. Which is probably what you'd expect anyway, especially since the closest relatives of moles alive today are the shrews and hedgehogs.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Monkeys in the Snow

When we're considering how an animal interacts with its environment, and the other life around it, diet is understandably one of the most important features we look for. That isn't to say that there aren't other important factors, too - what eats the animal, when and where does it sleep, how fast does it breed, does it physically alter its environment, and so on. But what sorts of things the animal eats is fairly high on the list.

But that's not always as simple a question to answer as one might like. If the animal is an extreme specialist, then it's not such an issue - it eats whatever it eats and that's that. But most creatures have at least some variety in their diet, and, in practice, not all of them will be eating exactly the same mix of foods. In most parts of the world, for instance, diet will change with the seasons. In temperate environments, different foods are available throughout the year, with fruits and seeds, for example, being most available in the autumn, and insects being more readily available in summer than in winter. Even in the tropics, there are usually wet seasons and dry seasons, which affect both the plant life and the creatures that feed upon it, which, in turn, affects the carnivores.

Then there are animals that inhabit different habitats across their range. Here, diet can be affected simply by where you happen to live. In turn, what, and how much, food is available can affect other aspects of the animal's behaviour. For example, it may affect how they interact with others of their kind, how big an area they need to forage in if they are to keep themselves healthy, and such things as birth rates and mortality.

Sunday 4 October 2015

How Not to be Eaten

This picture is far less cute if you're a mouse
Animals, on the whole, want to avoid being eaten. There are a number of ways of achieving this, including being well armed or armoured, or just being too large for most predators to bother with. For relatively small and inoffensive animals, however, we're left with being difficult to find, and being good at escaping when you are detected.

But even this can cover a range of different strategies, or combinations of strategies, not least because there are a lot of different predators out there, and what may be good for escaping from one may be less effective against another. Moreover, if every animal evolved to avoid, say, the open grasslands in favour of forest cover, then there'd be an awful lot of potential food out there going begging. Inevitably, something would evolve to take that risk. There's always a pay-off involved.

It's as a result of things like this that there are so many species of small mammal, with subtle differences between them that are not always obvious to the casual observer. To understand the predator-prey dynamics of a particular habitat, we really need to look at a whole range of creatures. So many, perhaps, that it's beyond our ability to easily analyse in its entirety, but we can at least take a stab at a manageable group of species in one particular place, trying to see what makes them different, and why what works for some does not always work for another.

Saturday 26 September 2015

The Dog Family: The Marks of Zorros

When North and South America collided towards the end of the Pliocene epoch a little over two million years ago, dogs were, for the first time, able to cross to the southern continent, a place that had previously been somewhat lacking in large mammalian carnivores. The dogs that crossed over all seem to have been related to wolves, rather than foxes. However, the fox body plan and lifestyle, with its high adaptability, proved so useful that most of the living descendants of these animals look just like foxes.

However, they are not "true" foxes, but rather, wolf-like animals that evolved into creatures that happened to closely resemble the members of the much older lineage that we find on the other continents (red foxes, Arctic foxes, the various kinds that we find in Africa, and so on). Recognising the distinction surprisingly early, some nineteenth century naturalists called them "fox-tailed wolves", and there has been a (largely unsuccessful) move to call the animals "zorros" in English, to distinguish them from the true foxes. That this didn't take off is perhaps due to the fact that "zorro" simply means "fox" in Spanish, and most of the researchers studying the animals are likely to be Spanish speakers... so it's not really a lot of help.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Pliocene (Pt 7): Home, Home on the Steppe

The beginning of the Pliocene epoch in North America was not marked by any great cataclysmic event, such as happened in Europe at that time. Nonetheless, while we're not far enough back that North America is unrecognisable, or in a different place, or anything like that, there would have been clear differences if we could see it from space.

Perhaps the most obvious difference would be that the Great Lakes didn't exist yet, since they were carved out by the advancing glaciers of the Ice Ages - which have yet to happen. With sea levels higher, Florida (then, as now, not a place known for its mountain ranges) is largely underwater, and there were probably many other changes around the coast, too.

Arguably the most important difference, however, is further south. Mexico is not so different, at least in its general outline, but beyond that things start to change. Depending on the exact point within the Pliocene we're talking about, you could perhaps have walked as far as Nicaragua without getting your feet wet. Beyond that, however, the Central American peninsula tapers to a point, and where Costa Rica and Panama should be, there is nothing but a chain of tropical islands, a southern counterpoint to the much larger chain of the Caribbean further north.

Sunday 13 September 2015

A Forest Fit for Sloths

One of the main problems facing the continued survival of wild animal species across the world is loss of habitat. (Naturally, this goes for all kinds of animals, and plants, too, even if we're mainly interested in mammals here). As humans expand in numbers and push into the wilderness, we turn a lot of it into farmland to feed ourselves, use it for logging or mining, or simply build roads across it. The animals that are least concerned about this are those that we have domesticated, whether as pets or as livestock, with supremely adaptable generalists such as rats and pigeons following not far behind.

At the opposite extreme, of course, are the specialists, those that require one very specific sort of land to live in. In between there are a great spectrum of other animals, that can cope with some change, but not too much, that find orchards and plantations a reasonable substitute for forest, and so on. If we're interested in conserving particular animals, one of the first things we need to understand is just what their requirements are.

Even then, it's not enough to know that a particular animal "likes forests". What kind of forests? Do they really have to be primeval and untouched, or are there are at least some viable alternatives? Are there, perhaps, particular parts of the forest that they like more than others? In the grand scheme of things, just leaving stuff alone is probably the best answer from a conservation perspective, but, since human numbers aren't going to start falling any time soon, compromise is often inevitable. So the question then becomes: on what can we compromise?

Sunday 6 September 2015

A History of the Strange-Jointed Beasts

All living species of mammal fall into one of three major groups, representing the lowest branches of the mammalian family tree: the placental mammals, the marsupials, and the bizarre, egg-laying, monotremes. Well over 90% of identified living species fall into the first of those groups, which prompts the interesting question of how we divide those up - what, in short, are the next branches on the tree?

In the strict, old-style, system of classification, the next major level down is that of the "order", groups of broadly similar creatures that are in turn, divided into more than one hundred "families". Primates, for instance, are an order.

What the orders are, and how many of them there might be, has varied a little down the years, but nineteen or twenty would be a good, modern estimate. But, of course, the orders themselves are entirely arbitrary, and, even if they weren't, it isn't as if they all sprang simultaneously from the same stock. In evolutionary terms, there must have been some early branches in the placental family tree from which the "orders" that we know today descended.

The question of how to group the orders together into some higher level pattern is one that mammalogists have been been pondering for well over a hundred years. The problem is that the orders are pretty distinctive - is a moose more like a wolf than it is a monkey? When all you have to go in is physical anatomy, these are not the simplest questions to answer, and it's not surprising that people have come up with different answers.

Sunday 30 August 2015

The Dog Family: Arctic and Grey Foxes

Arctic fox
The same generalist habits and adaptability that have allowed foxes to colonise the deserts have also allowed them to evolve to suit one of the other great barren ecosystems: the Arctic tundra. Here, where even wolves are not particularly common, we find what else but the Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus)?

Arctic foxes are truly creatures of cold and desolate habitats. In Europe, they are found only in Norway, Iceland, and the coasts of the White and Barent's seas in northern Russia. Indeed, it is one of only two species of land-dwelling mammal native to Iceland - the other is the wood mouse, although there are some human-introduced animals there as well. Elsewhere Arctic foxes are found right round the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, in northern Siberia, in northern and western Alaska, northern Canada and its islands, and even in Greenland. Despite this wide, multi-continental, distribution, most belong to just one subspecies, although those living in Iceland, Greenland, and Svalbard form one or two distinct subspecies between them, and there are also distinct subspecies on the isolated Pribilof and Commander Islands in the Bering Sea.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Tuskless Walruses of Japan

There are a number of mammal "families" that contain just one living species. Of course, what constitutes a "family" of animals is an arbitrary distinction, rather like the one that says Pluto isn't a planet. So, really, all we're saying is that there are some mammal species that, in our subjective and pro-mammalian opinion, are do distinct and unusual that we feel they ought to be placed in a group all of their own. If they were insects, or snails, or something like that, we'd probably feel differently. But they're mammals, like us, so we don't.

One such family is the walrus family, containing - you've guessed it - the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus). Walruses are pinnipeds, which is to say, they are related to seals and sea lions. Just by looking at them, we can tell that walruses can walk on all fours like sea lions and fur seals, but unlike "true" seals, yet lack the external ears that sea lions and fur seals have and true seals don't. When you get to the interior structure of the skeleton, and so on, there are a number of technical differences that tell us that, no, this isn't just our imagination, they really are a bit different from all the others. And, there's, you know... the tusks.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Hearing Through (Part of) Your Jaw

The skull of Diademodon, a 6 foot long cynodont
The most defining feature of mammals alive is that they give milk to their young. We can be reasonably sure that most fossil mammals that we know of did the same, but it's of no use for fossils at the very origin of the group. Neither are most of the other features that we might use to identify mammals today, such as the presence of sweat glands, or, given that the earliest mammals won't have been as water-adapted as dolphins, hair.

Instead, as I've discussed elsewhere, we have to pick a feature that survives in skeletons. Any decision we come to has to be arbitrary, and it's not going to line up with the very first point that mammals started giving milk to their young, since we don't know when that was. But one has to draw the line somewhere, and the one we've picked is the structure of the middle ear.

The mammalian middle ear consists of a cavity in the skull crossed by three tiny bones, connecting the outer ear (the visible bit, and the tube that runs in from it) to the inner ear, where sound is converted into neural signals that can be sent to the brain for interpretation. The first of these three bones is the malleus, or "hammer", which attaches to the inside of the eardrum at one end and to the second bone, the incus or "anvil", at the other. Finally, the incus connects to the innermost bone, the stapes, or "stirrup", which is attached, at its other end, to a particular part of the inner ear called the fenestra ovalis or "oval window".

Sunday 9 August 2015

Of Moon Bears and Skunk Cabbages

One of the major debates in the study of human behaviour is that of "nature versus nurture". How much of what we do is the result of inbuilt tendencies and how much to the habitat we are raised in, including those things that we are taught? With non-human animals, the debate is, perhaps, less central, but there is still the question of inborn instinct versus learned behaviour.

Mammals being reasonably sophisticated animals, the possibility of some behaviour being learned - and moreover, of being learned socially, from other individuals, rather than by personal trial-and-error - is clearly one worth considering. For a great many behaviours in fact, there is going to be a bit of both; a mixture of instinct and learning.

For example, one of the things that most animals spend a large part of their time doing is searching for food. Much of the way that they do this is inborn. Cats, for instance, are born with the knowledge that anything that's small and scampering about is probably going to be tasty, and they instinctively know how to pounce on it, even if they have to practice to perfect the technique. On the other hand, social learning can also be important, both in determining what to eat, and where to find it. An example here is common marmosets, where the infants have been shown to avoid new and unfamiliar food unless an adult shows them that its safe to eat.

Saturday 1 August 2015

The Dog Family: Foxes of Africa

Fennec fox
The fact that foxes will eat pretty well anything that's small enough has meant that some species have been able to colonise surprisingly harsh environments. The kit fox, for example, inhabits the desert shrublands of much of the western US, while Blanford's fox lives in the dry hills of the Middle East and south-central Asia. No fox, however, is more desert adapted than the fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) of North Africa.

Fennec foxes (sometimes simply called "fennecs") are also among the most distinctive of foxes. For one thing, they're the smallest wild members of the dog family, with particularly small adults as little as 33 cm (13 inches) in length, plus tail, and weighing just 800 g (28 oz.)  They have pale sandy-and-white fur, which is unusually long and soft - they even have fur on the pads of their feet, to give them some protection from baking hot sand. And, of course, there are the huge ears, quite out of proportion to the rest of the animal, which help to radiate away heat in an animal that would rather not lose too much water by panting.

Fennec foxes live across almost the whole of the Sahara Desert, from the Atlantic coast to the Nile valley. They are not typically found east of the Nile, where the closely related Blanford's foxes are found instead, but there are a few exceptions, and, for example, both species inhabit the Sinai. In fact, fennec foxes actually prefer the open sand dunes of the desert interior, an exceptionally harsh and arid environment.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Pliocene (Pt 6): Attack of the Hyenas

Pachycrocuta brevirostris
Pliocene Europe was a continent as yet untouched by human hand - although, as I've noted, not of non-human primates. One might think that, in the absence of humans, sabretooth cats were probably the thing that other animals had to fear the most. There's probably a lot of truth in that, but they were far from the only carnivores in Europe at the time, and some of them were pretty fearsome.

On the other hand, there were also much smaller carnivores, too. At the bottom of the scale, weasels, badgers, otters, and martens already existed on the continent, and may have been quite common in the forests of the time. Foxes also survived the Zanclean Flood, and have continued living in Europe, right through the Ice Ages, up to the present day. In fact, Pliocene foxes would have looked remarkably similar to those of today, and are generally placed within the same genus, Vulpes.

Similarly, the largest carnivores of the European Pliocene would also have looked familiar. These were the bears, dominated by the gianr Agriotherium, which may have been slightly larger than a modern polar bear. Another woodland creature, it had perhaps been more common in the previous epoch, but survived throughout almost the whole of the Pliocene, dying out not long before the Ice Ages began in earnest.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Greeting Old Friends

There are two species of chimpanzee currently recognised. Until recently, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) was by far the better known of the two. Today, it's probably fair to say, though, that the other species, the pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo (Pan pansicus), is well-known enough that when people say "chimpanzee" they often mean "as opposed to a bonobo", rather than referring to both species collectively. For clarity, I'm going to use the more specific term of "common chimp" for P. troglodytes in this post.

At any rate, being very closely related, the two species have a lot in common. (Neither, incidentally, is closer to humans than the other, in much the same way that if your aunt has two children, neither of those children is more closely related to you than the other). But there are also striking differences, particularly in the way that they interact with one another socially. A recent study, for example, shows that bonobos make eye contact with one another more frequently than common chimps do with their own kind. This is the sort of finding we would expect for an animal where social cooperation and coordination are all-important; in contrast, common chimps are more likely to focus on the mouth, and on whatever object their fellow is currently interested in himself.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Bats in the City

Common pipistrelle
Many mammal species change the environment around them to suit themselves, whether it be by digging burrows or building beaver dams. Yet none has had an effect even close to that of humanity. Sometimes we reclaim land from the sea, or flood valleys to make reservoirs, but we also chop down trees to make room for agricultural land, and divide natural habitats with roads and railways. Arguably the most dramatic alteration we make to the landscape, however, is the construction of urban areas - an entirely new kind of habitat, unknown on Earth before our arrival.

Urban areas, are not, of course, entirely devoid of animal life. Many animals wander into the peripheries, and sometimes even into the centres, of our towns and cities. A general term for such animals used to be synurbic, but, over the last few years, this term has become more precisely defined, not to mean just any wild animal that is happy to live in urban environments, but those that actually prefer to do so. That is, there are more of them per unit area in cities than there are in the wild.

Sunday 5 July 2015

The Dog Family: Foxes of the American West

Swift fox (in summer coat)
There are six living species of fox native to the North American continent. One of those is the red fox, which is also found through much of Asia and Europe. Three others, including the grey fox of the southern US, are not traditionally considered to belong to the genus Vulpes, and I will be returning to these at a later date. Which leaves two close relatives of the red fox that are unique to the continent. Both, as it happens, live out in the wilds of the American West.

Heading out into the west, the first of these two species we come to is the swift fox (Vulpes velox). The native range of this animal happens to line pretty up well with a series of interstate borders, and it's found from northwestern Texas/eastern New Mexico in the south to western South Dakota/eastern Wyoming in the north.

As one might imagine, given this area, they like flat, wide open short grass prairie, and apparently avoid everything else, although they don't seem to have a great problem with cropland. They are small foxes, standing only about 30 cm (one foot) high, similar in height to a small terrier or a King Charles spaniel, although, due to a slim build, they are also considerably lighter than those dog breeds. During the winter, they have a dark grizzled grey back with tan markings on the flanks and legs, but, aside from the black tip to the tail and the pale belly, the whole animal takes on a browner hue in the summer, when it sheds its thick pelt.

Sunday 28 June 2015

The Beardogs that Travelled the World

Dogs and bears are two quite distinct families of carnivoran mammal, and nobody today is likely to mistake one for the other. They both belong to the same half of the carnivoran family tree, separate from the one that gave rise to such creatures as cats and mongooses. However, their half of the tree also included such animals as weasels, seals, and raccoons, so it is quite diverse. Furthermore, within that branch, bears and dogs are not particularly closely related, last having shared a common ancestor something like 50 million years ago.

However, before we get back that far in evolutionary history we discover that, for much of the Age of Mammals, there was an additional family of animals belonging to the broad group that includes both bears and dogs, and which is no longer with us. These were the beardogs, more technically known as amphicyonids.

Beardogs were not, despite the name, the ancestors of bears and dogs. They were a separate family, one containing animals that looked a bit like bears and a bit like dogs, and which needed a common name of their own. "Beardogs" gets across both those physical features and the fact that they are, indeed, related to the two living families... having said which, it is not at all clear which, if either, of the two they are closer to, in part because the first of them appeared so early.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Seals, Sea Lions, and Finding Your Children

As I discussed just a few weeks ago, there are advantages to being able to identify your own children. It really does save the mother a lot of effort, especially when she can only look after a limited number of children at a time. As I pointed out then, mistakes do happen, and there are sometimes good reasons to look after other mothers' children, especially if the other mother happens to be your sister or something. But, generally speaking, getting the right child is a good idea.

Mother mammals can use three different methods to identify which child is their own, and likely often use a combination of them. Perhaps the most common method is smell, since most mammal species have a quite remarkable sense in this regard. If each child has a unique smell, or even if it just smells of you, that's a good way of identifying it. The other possibilities are identifying them by the sound of their voice, and, finally, by what they look like. For we primates, the latter may seem the most obvious, but facial recognition is something we're particularly good at.

Sunday 14 June 2015

First, Find Your Marmot

Rodents are, on the whole, small animals, with mice, voles, and squirrels being among the most familiar examples. Yet, even within those families, much larger animals also exist. In the mouse family, of course, there are the rats, some of which are, indeed, rodents of unusual size. The largest of the squirrels, on the other hand, are the marmots.

Marmots, of course, are ground squirrels, not the tree-dwelling sort, and their closest relatives include animals like prairie dogs, along with assorted other species across the Northern Hemisphere. They are, for the most part, mountain-dwelling species, with the groundhog of Canada and the eastern US being a well-known exception. Groundhogs, like other North American species, and, for that matter, the Alpine marmot of Europe, are a well studied species, about which we know a fair bit. The various species found across Asia - and there are at least six - are generally less well-known.

Sunday 7 June 2015

The Dog Family: Foxes of Asia

Blanford's fox
Asia is a large and varied continent, home to no less than seven species of fox, even using the most narrow of definitions for that term. Three of these, the red, Arctic, and Rüppell's foxes, are also widespread on other continents; the red foxes of Japan, for instance, belong to the same species as those found in Britain and North America. Of the four that are (mostly) confined to Asia, I have already covered the corsac fox of the central steppe lands, but three still remain.

Heading east from Europe the first such species we come to is Blanford's fox (Vulpes cana). This is named for William Thomas Blanford, who first described it as a unique species in 1877 while working for the Geological Survey of India. Blanford, who discovered the animal in what is now Pakistan, seems to have been somewhat surprised that he was first European naturalist to notice it. He may have had a point, since it's fairly distinctive.

Sunday 31 May 2015

Pliocene (Pt 5): The Last Sabretooths in Europe

Apologies for the absence of a post last week. This was due to personal circumstances that meant I just couldn't bring myself to write. Normal service has now been resumed.

Six million years ago, there were many different kinds of sabretooth cat in Europe. That, however, all came to an end with the Zanclean Flood and the dawn of the Pliocene epoch. It's not that they literally drowned in the flood, of course - almost by definition, most of the parts of Europe we know today were above where the flood waters stopped. But Europe changed in the aftermath of the flood, seeing, over an admittedly long period of time to human eyes, a change in the nature of the herbivores that lived there. And, when the herbivores change, so do the animals that have to eat them.

Most of the European sabretooths died out in the very earliest part of the Pliocene. The one exception was the "terror cat" Dinofelis, which became perhaps the dominant large predator in Europe for the next million years or so. However, once the climate took a turn for the worse, and the long prelude to the Ice Ages began around three million years ago, Dinofelis followed its relatives into extinction.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Knowing Your Children

Mother mammals raise their young until they reach independence. This is hardly a surprising statement, and, while mammals are by no means unique in this regard, it is one of their distinguishing features.

The mother may, of course, receive assistance in this sometimes arduous task. In monogamous species, the father also helps in raising his young, and this is one of the main reasons for evolving monogamy in the first place - if the young require care by two parents in order to stand a decent chance of survival, then the father had really better stay around. But this is not the only source of such assistance. In many mammals that live in social groups, we see the phenomenon of alloparenting. This means that individuals other than the parents take up some of the burden of looking after the young. Usually these are younger, non-breeding, females, cooperating to raise infants communally, although it doesn't have to be.

At least 120 mammal species, and an even greater number of birds, engage in this to at least some extent. The benefit to the infants is obvious, especially where they require a significant investment in time and effort in order to reach maturity. But what's in it for the alloparent?

Sunday 10 May 2015

Spot the Difference

Common European shrew
The shrew family contains what are, by the usual method of measuring such things, the smallest of all living mammals. Yet they are actually quite a large group, with well over 300 species so far identified, and, given their small size, probably quite a lot that we don't yet know about - especially in the tropics. Indeed, in the grand list of mammal families, they come fourth in terms of sheer number of species, beaten only by the rats and mice, the cricetids (most, of which, frankly, are also mice, although the group also includes the voles and hamsters), and the vesper bats. They may not have the greatest range of physical variation, at least to human eyes, but that's still quite a lot of diversity, and they certainly aren't "all the same".

It's perhaps worth pointing out, though, what a shrew is, and what it isn't. Firstly, while they may look kind of like mice, shrews are not rodents. Rodents are defined by the presence of great gnawing incisor teeth, and by not having the second set of incisors that rabbits have. Shrews don't look even remotely like this, having lots of small sharp teeth ideally suited for biting into insects. In fact, shrews' closest relatives are actually the moles and hedgehogs - relatively small animals that also eat a lot of invertebrates.

Sunday 3 May 2015

The Dog Family: Red and Corsac Foxes

Red fox
Most members of the dog family can be described, broadly speaking, as "foxes". The term "fox" no longer has a strict scientific meaning, since it encompasses two separate lines of evolution that aren't directly related to one another. Furthermore, as we'll see in a few month's time, there are some animals within those lineages that really aren't foxes at all, as we'd normally think of the word.

Nonetheless, it's a term that's widely used, and is taken to refer to small to medium-sized canids that have have bushy tails, prominent ears, pointed snouts, moderately long legs, and so on. The archetypal such animal, and the one that most people in the Northern Hemisphere likely think of first when the term "fox" is used without any further qualification, is the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The red fox is, in fact, the largest of the "true" foxes (as opposed to those of the second, younger, evolutionary line, which are actually more related to wolves). It is also perhaps the most brightly coloured of all foxes, although there is some variation in the coat colour, with brown, yellowish, and even silvery-grey individuals. None of these match directly to any of the more than forty subspecies that have been identified over the years, although it's likely that many of those represent rather finer hair-splitting than is actually required.

Sunday 26 April 2015

The Seals That Swam in Tuscany

Hawaiian monk seals
There are two species of monk seal alive in the world today. One (Monachus monachus) lives in the Mediterranean and adjacent parts of the eastern Atlantic, while the other (M. schauinslandi) lives in Hawaii. You probably don't need to be a world-class expert in geography to at least have some idea that these two places aren't exactly what you'd call close to one another.

Now, monk seals don't have have the same sort of problems when it comes to dispersal as lemurs and the like do. Given time, they can just swim across vast stretches of ocean, feeding on fish as they do so. The apparent puzzle of their wide separation is also reduced by the fact that there used to be a third species, living in the Caribbean, which sadly went extinct in the late 20th century. The Caribbean is about half way between the other two locations, and that helps rather more than you might think at first glance.

Sunday 19 April 2015

How the Lemurs Reached Madagascar

Pygmy mouse lemur
Madagascar is an island. It's quite a large island, to be sure - at nearly 227,000 square miles, it's the fourth largest island in the world, after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. That's nearly twice the size of the UK, or, if you prefer, almost 90% the size of Texas. Even at that size, however, the fact that it's an island has been highly significant for the sorts of animals that live there.

When it comes to islands, the problem for land-dwelling mammals is how they're supposed to get there in the first place. Sure, it's not a problem for bats, which can cross all but the most ridiculous amounts of sea (although not necessarily on purpose!) But, for everything else, it's something of an issue.

Of course, one possibility is that the ancestors of whatever animals we're talking about "were there already". Britain, for example, has been an island since around 6,000 BC, so whatever animals could wander there from the continent before that were already part of the native fauna. True, many of them have been killed off since, which is why we no longer have wild wolves or bears in the UK... but they were there once. And it clearly explains why the various small mammals found on Britain, from red squirrels to harvest mice, badgers, and hedgehogs, are also native to continental Europe. We haven't been an island for that long.

Sunday 12 April 2015

A Time to Breed and a Time to Die

Grey slender opossum
Looking after the children can be a stressful and exhausting activity. Other issues aside, offspring need feeding and looking after, which can put a drain on the mother's own energy reserves, never mind the need to feed the extra mouths in the first place. For mammals, one particular energetic stress is the need to provide milk, and this seems to be particularly true for marsupials, who carry their young around, permanently clamped onto teats inside their pouches, for the earliest part of their life.

Given these extra energy requirements, it's unsurprising that most mammals time their births for times when the greatest amount of food is likely to be available in their environment. Certainly there are species that breed pretty much year round, at least in the absence of unexpected drought or the like, but most have at least some kind of 'breeding season', arranged so that the young are born at the best time of the year - often the spring, in temperate climes, but more likely the rainy season near the tropics, where there isn't a winter to avoid. In the case of marsupials, the breeding season and the birthing season are pretty much the same thing, since pregnancy is an extremely brief affair, and it's the time spent in the pouch that's really crucial.

Sunday 5 April 2015

The Dog Family: African and Asian Wild Dogs

African wild dog
So far, my survey of the dog family has looked at the "wolf-like" dogs, rather than the foxes and their kin. Most of these are either wolves, coyotes, or jackals, but there are two species that stand slightly apart, although modern genetic analysis has shown that they are, indeed, more closely related to wolves than they are to foxes.

The more distinctive, and probably the better known, of the two species (Lycaon pictus) has a wide number of different names. I'm going to call it the African wild dog here, but it is also known as the "African hunting dog", the "painted dog", or by some combination of these terms. (In French, Spanish, and Italian, it's simply the "lycaon", or some spelling variant thereof. The word commemorates a character from Greek mythology, who Zeus turns into a wolf).

Whatever it's called, the African wild dog is a distinctive animal. The large rounded ears and the slender, athletic body are noticeable enough in themselves, but it's the coat pattern that really makes it hard to mistake for anything else. The exact pattern varies tremendously - every animal is unique, and they can readily be distinguished one from another. Once found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, animals from the north tend to be dark with white and yellow patches, while those from further south are generally pale, with a few black patches. It was once thought that these might represent different subspecies, but they seem to blend into one another gradually as you cross the continent, which would rule that out. African wild dogs are adapted for running, and shedding the heat that results from doing so. They also, for less clear reasons, have no dewclaws on their front feet, as all other dogs do.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Terror Birds!

The terror bird Titanis
This will be the Synapsida post that is current as of 1st April this year. Now, I'm not going to do an April Fool's post, not least because this won't actually go up on the 1st. But, nonetheless, as a sort of reversal-of-expectations, why not, just this once, do something a little bit different?

So here we go: a post about a bird! Gasp!

Birds, despite being warm-blooded, air-breathing vertebrates, are, of course, not mammals, or even synapsids. Instead, they are diapsids, part of an evolutionary line that parted company from the synapsid/mammalian line over 300 million years ago, and which today also includes most, perhaps even all, of the reptiles. (The position of turtles is, to the best of my knowledge, still slightly contentious - they don't look anatomically like diapsids, but there are reasons to think that might be misleading. This is, however, a subject well beyond the scope of this post).

As a result of this long evolutionary separation, birds and mammals are substantially different in a number of ways. The most obvious is perhaps that birds have feathers, and mammals (usually) have hair, but there are many more differences 'under the skin'. For example, the wings of bats and those of birds, while performing the same function, have quite a different skeletal structure to them.

Sunday 22 March 2015

Pliocene (Pt 4): Before the Mammoths

Anancus arvernensis
One of the markers for the end of the Pliocene is the "Mammoth-Horse Event" when the slide into autumnal temperatures that had defined the later part of the epoch reached the point that significant quantities of ice began to build up in the Northern Hemisphere - notably in Greenland, where it still remains today. In Europe, this cooler weather brought an end to many of the more northerly forests, replacing them with open tundra-like grassland. Many aspects of the local fauna didn't change all that much, although they likely edged a bit further south.

But the arrival of the grasslands did herald the appearance of single-toed horses, and of mammoths - albeit not the woolly ones that most people immediately think of. Mammoths are perhaps the poster-child for the Ice Ages, but Europe was, of course, not devoid of such large animals before their coming.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Ultrasonic Hamsters

Animals can make a lot of different calls, for a lot of different purposes. There are alarm calls, aggressive warning growls, mating calls, the contact calls between a mother and her young, and so on. Not all of these sounds, however, are audible to us; some are at such a high ultrasonic pitch that we humans simply can't hear them.

The most obvious example is, perhaps, the sonar of bats, but bats are not the only mammals to make ultrasonic calls. We know, for example, of fifty species of rodent that use ultrasonics, and, since such studies are still largely in their infancy, and there are over 2,000 species of rodent to pick from, it's a fair bet that there are far, far more we don't know about yet. Obviously, though, the rodents aren't using these calls for sonar (at least, not that we can tell) so what's the point of it?

It's likely just that there's no particular reason why a rodent should want to make sounds that humans happen to be able to hear. So far as they're concerned, their ultrasonic calls aren't really any different from all of their others, and they're using them for much the same sorts of purpose. For the most part, they have been observed during courtship, suggesting that they're basically mating calls. That's probably not the only thing they're used for, and there's evidence that mice, for example, can encode information for quite complex social interactions in their calls, but it does seem to be a common one.

Sunday 8 March 2015

The Dog Family: Three Jackals and a Wolf

Black-backed jackal
The genus Canis groups together all the most wolf-like of the wolf-like dogs. It includes the grey wolf (which itself includes both the domestic dog and the dingo), the coyote, and, assuming we recognise it as distinct, the red wolf. All of the other living species in the genus have, at one point or another, been called "jackals". Biologically speaking, then, the term "jackal" doesn't really mean anything - it's just what you've got left over once you've left out the wolves and coyotes. But, it has to be said that the three species we still call jackals today do have a certain physical similarity, and it's not hard to see why the fine details of their genetic relationship had us fooled.

Perhaps the most visibly distinctive of the jackals is the black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), sometimes called the "silver-backed jackal", since, aside from a stripe down each flank, the back can hardly be described as pure black. Black-backed jackals have a somewhat odd distribution. They are common in southern Africa, from southern Angola and Mozambique down to the Cape region, but they're also found in eastern Africa, from Tanzania to Eritrea, and throughout the Horn of Africa.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Dog-toothed Beasts from the Time Before Dinosaurs

What sort of animals did mammals evolve from? For birds, the answer is simple: they evolved from reptiles, and specifically, from dinosaurs. (Which is why we say, using the modern definitions of things, that birds are dinosaurs). With mammals, though, the situation isn't quite the same.

The first mammals appeared around 225 million years ago, not long after the first dinosaurs did. However, they were not descended from reptiles, but from an entirely separate evolutionary line - the Synapsida - that had lived alongside the reptiles for a very long time. Yes, if you go back far enough, reptiles and mammals do have a common ancestor, and that animal would have looked, to modern eyes, more like a reptile than it does a mammal. But it wasn't a reptile, not in the modern scientific sense, and it belonged to a group of animals that just aren't around any more.

But between the point when that animal lived, and the first mammals appeared, there were a whole host of other, non-mammalian, synapsids. We often divide these creatures into two broad "grades" of evolution: the early, reptile-like, pelycosaurs, and the later, more mammal-like, therapsids. (In fact, of course, the two lived together for quite some time - it's not that one simply turned into the other. Evolution is more complicated than that). A greatly simplified tree of the "true" therapsids is included below, and shows that early mammals had rather a lot of relatives.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Eau de Raccoon

Most mammals have a better sense of smell than we do. They are able to use this in a range of different ways that suit whatever their particular needs are, such as identifying food, avoiding predators, and so on. But another key use, one that's essentially lost in humans, is as a means of communication. For the most part, this means scent marking, that practice, so familiar to dog owners, of leaving signals around for other members of your species to identify.

There are basically three ways that mammals leave scent marks. There's urinating, leaving dung around, and using glands specifically evolved to create smelly secretions. Having abandoned scent marking, we humans lack proper scent glands, and the closest we get are some modified sweat glands in the armpits and groin that create a special kind of sweat that smells, instead of the usual odourless watery stuff that the rest of our skin makes. And, really, compared with proper scent glands, that's pretty pathetic.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Infidelity Among the Aardwolves?

This year's Synapsida survey of the species in a family of mammals is, of course, that of the dog family. I've already covered wolves and coyotes, jackals will be up next, and then, alongside a few others, you're going to see an awful lot of foxes. What you won't see any of are hyenas.

That's because hyenas, physical appearance notwithstanding, are not dogs. In fact, they're actually more closely related to cats than they are to dogs. (Although they're closer to mongooses than to either, for what it's worth). One of these days I may get round to a description of the hyena family, and how it's different to that of the dogs, but that won't be a terribly long series of posts, because there are only four living species.

There's the one everybody knows, which is the spotted or "laughing" hyena, and there's a couple of smaller, rarer hyenas related to it. And then, there's the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Aardwolves are, to be honest, pretty strange animals, and there's a lot to be said about them, their feeding habits, and so on. This, however, is not that post. Because, yesterday being Valentine's Day and all, it's time to talk about mating behaviour.