Saturday, 28 May 2016

Memory Tests for Mouse Lemurs

The ability to learn and remember things is a vital ability for just about any animal, albeit the sort of things that (say) monkeys are able to learn can be a good deal more complex than those flatworms can manage. There are, however, multiple different types of memory, rather than it being a single process that takes place in our brains and works the same way every time. There is the difference between short-term and long-term memory, for one thing (and there's actually more than two of those), but also between what are termed procedural and declarative memory.

Procedural memory is the ability to remember how to do something. Once you've learned whatever the task is, you don't need to think about it, it just comes automatically, like riding a bicycle. Exactly like riding a bicycle, in fact. Declarative memory, on the other hand, is the sort of thing you have to think about, such as remembering what happened to you the last time you were in a specific situation. If you're a human, this includes the ability to remember things like Vespertilio being a genus of bat (well, it is if you're me), but it also encompasses a much wider range of knowledge about the world and your own experiences in it.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Bovines: Almost-Cows of Southeast Asia

Banteng female
So far, in my survey of the Bovinae subfamily, I've mostly looked at species that most Westerners are, if not personally familiar with, at least well aware of: domestic cattle, yak, and bison. The exception, perhaps, is the gaur, an unusually large (or, at least, tall) species of bovine native to Southeast Asia. The gaur, however, is not alone, for there are two other very closely related species that are native to the same general area.

The better known of these is likely the banteng (Bos javanicus), an animal that was once found from eastern India to southern China, and across the whole of the Southeast Asian peninsula; there are even distinct subspecies on Borneo and Java. Today, the wild animal is extinct in India and Bangladesh, and found only in a few limited patches elsewhere. It has been formally listed as an endangered species since 1996, but the species as a whole is in much better shape than that would suggest... because this is another species that has been successfully domesticated.

The domesticated animals are known as Bali cattle, and they are in wide use across Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Over the years, a number have escaped from captivity, with the result that at least some feral populations are now found on a number of Indonesian islands that did not (so far as we can tell) ever host the genuinely wild form. More dramatically, British troops took some of them to the Northern Territory of Australia in 1849, but released them all just one year later when crop failure forced them to abandon their new settlement. The resulting feral animals are still there, and, while there are several thousand of them, all in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park near Darwin, since they are descended from just 20 imported animals, it's perhaps unsurprising that they are now highly inbred.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Toothless Old Fossils

Artwork depicting extinct animals almost invariably shows them physically fit, unless they're actively engaged in some life-or-death battle. They're usually either adults in the prime of life, or still juveniles (often newborn). And this is actually quite reasonable, since few animals get to live to an old age out in the wild. Most will, after all, be eaten before then, and if they have any serious illness or crippling injury, they're not going to last long. Senescence, the gradual decline of biological function associated with becoming elderly, is not something we see much in the wild, for all that it's common in humans and domestic animals.

Which isn't to say that we don't see it at all, especially in very large animals that have few, if any, natural predators once they reach adulthood. The same must also have been true in the distant past, and it's reasonable to assume that at least some fossils, at least of the larger animals, belong to elderly individuals. It isn't, however, necessarily going to be all that obvious, especially if the skeleton is incomplete in the first place. Nonetheless, a recent report does describe a jawbone that the authors believe belonged to an elderly animal, and, if they're right, this offers some unusual insights into the creature in question.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Friends and Family Among the Degus

A great many mammals are solitary. They spend most of their adult lives more or less alone, only meeting up with others of their kind in order to mate. Apart from a mother with her young, the extent of their social lives outside the mating season is just driving off rivals. But, of course, there are a great many that are sociable amongst themselves, forming herds, packs, or other associations. For a herbivore this often provides safety in numbers, while a pack-hunting predator may have the ability to take down larger prey than it otherwise could.

How does social living get started, in evolutionary terms? Perhaps the simplest way is that children simply fail to leave their mother, creating a fairly permanent family group. According to one theory, such groups are likely to become particularly stable if there are not enough resources around (for whatever reason) to allow the children to wander off and have young of their own. In these situations, the theory proposes that the older children hang around in order to help their close kin, such as younger siblings, and thus have at least some chance of passing their genes on to the next generation.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Largest Weasel Ever?

The weasel family were the first group of mammals that I decided to spend a year describing in detail on this blog, back in 2011-12. I concluded the series with a look at their fossil history, stating, among other things, that the fossil genus Enhydrodion "may" have been the largest member of the family to have lived. This, however, relies on guesswork relating the size of the body of the animal to its skull, which is all we have in any completeness. But there are, in fact a number of other fossil members of the family with even larger skulls, so a lot rests on their exact bodily proportions, which are often a mystery.

Such examples include the giant wolverine Plesiogulo (for which we have not only the skull, but, just possibly, the penis bone), the giant hypercarnivorous honey badger Eomellivora, and the relatively long-legged Ekorus, whose relationship to other mustelids is unclear. But, according to a new analysis, the largest mustelid skull known belongs to an animal called Megalictis ferox.

Of course, calling Megalictis a "weasel" is a bit of a stretch. The weasel family is very diverse, including such animals as otters, badgers, and wolverines, as well as more obvious examples such as polecats and stoats. So, yes, it's really only a weasel in the same sense that a badger is... and that's assuming it's a member of the weasel family at all. So, let's start with that - what is this animal, and is it really a mustelid?