Sunday 18 December 2016

New Mammal Species 2016

Reticulated giraffes
2016 has, on the whole, been a bit of a rubbish year. Or so the common wisdom has it; one suspects that, for instance, the deaths of some particularly prominent celebrities at the beginning of the year has heightened our perception of those that died later on (relative to any other given year). And it's probably been quite a good year for you if happen to be a Trump supporter, or a fan of Nigel Farage.

But that debate doesn't belong here, instead, as the year draws to a close, it's time to take a survey of the species of mammal that have been newly discovered this year. Or, more accurately, newly named, since what we generally do these days is find some population of a previously known species that turns out not to belong to it, and to be something else instead. There have, as always, been a fair number of them this year, and there's no guarantee that they'll all stand the test of time, and still be considered valid species in, say, 2026.

My survey is, therefore, inevitably biased, with a just a semi-random sample of some of the species announcements I happen to have come across. Most of them are going to be small animals, since they're easier to overlook in the first place, but there are a couple of quite large ones. And, by "large", I don't mean just "wolf-sized", either.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Bovines: Prehistoric Bison and Buffalo

Steppe bison, from a cave in Altamira, Spain
In the course of this series I have described 22 species of bovine. Whether that number accurately reflects the number of species alive today depends, in part, on what you consider to be a species - not least whether or not long-term domestication is a sufficiently dramatic thing to constitute the creation a new species. But that's the number I came up with, and it's worth noting that no less than seven of these species - almost a third - are currently considered "endangered", and at high risk of extinction. Indeed, the kouprey may well already be extinct, while the species to which domestic cattle belong is extinct in the wild.

(On that last note, incidentally, I received a note after posting on the subject reminding me of the Chillingham Cattle of Northumberland. These are sometimes claimed to be aurochs, or genuinely wild cattle, but this has no foundation, and, while they have been living wild for centuries, they are actually feral animals, likely descended from escaped medieval stock).

At any rate, there have been many other species of bovine that have gone extinct over the millions of years since their first appearance, in most cases for reasons that have nothing to do with humans. So, albeit with a focus on the genuinely cow-like ones, rather than the spiral-horned antelopes and their kin, today I'm going to look at some of them.

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Alluring Scent of Bat Pee

Southern long-nosed bat
As I've mentioned many times before, scent is an important mode of communication for many mammals. A great many species possess scent glands of some kind or another, often located on the face or in the ano-genital region. In addition to their variable location, these can be of varying levels of size and complexity, arguably reaching heir apogee in the well-developed glands of animals like musk deer or the defensive sprays of skunks and zorillas. Apart from those that spend their entire lives in the water, some sort of scent producing structures seem to be present in just about all kinds of mammal; even humans have modified sweat glands in the armpits and groin that secrete something different from the normal odour-free sweat produced elsewhere on the body.

Having said that, humans can't really be considered to have scent glands in the sense that some other animals do, and our sense of smell is pretty rubbish compared with most non-primate mammals. We do not, as a general rule, communicate by wafting our smelly armpits at one another. But many other mammals do something that isn't quite so far from that, and in a variety of different ways.

Bats are no exception to this general rule. Many bat species have scent glands, often located on the throat or the upper part of the chest, and they can leave scent marks behind to communicate with others of their kind - often signalling something like sexual availability. By no means all bats have fully formed scent glands, but that doesn't mean that the others don't use scent in some way.