Sunday 17 December 2017

Prehistoric Mammal Discoveries of 2017

Albertocetus meffordorum, the post-cranial anatomy of which
was described for the first time this year.
At the end of each year, I do a slightly different post to wrap up the blog for the season. The format of these has changed over the years, and this year, again, it's time to do something slightly different from previous occasions. Not that there haven't been some interesting new species discovered this last year, with, to my mind, the Skywalker gibbon (Hoolock tianxing) being the stand-out example. This was announced early in the year, having been discovered in the Chinese/Myamar border region by a group of researchers who were fans of a certain science fiction franchise ("tianxing" literally translates to "sky-walker" in Standard Chinese), and is likely already endangered.

But this year, instead of discussing just how many new kinds of bat we discovered in the last twelve months, I'm going to note that my posts on fossil mammals tend to be more popular than those on the living sort, and take a look at a partial assortment of scientific papers published on this subject in the last year that, for various reasons, didn't end up in my regular blog posts. So here goes.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Short-Necked Giraffes of Spain

The giraffe family is a classic example of a mammal 'family' that consists of very few living species. Giraffes are sufficiently distinctive, and, arguably, odd, that they clearly deserve a family of their own, yet there just aren't very many of them. Exactly how many living species there are in the family is currently the subject of a dispute, since there is good reason to suppose that the animal we actually know as "a giraffe" represents multiple species, but many researchers feel that the hard evidence for that supposition is lacking. What we can say is that, apart from the giraffes proper, there is only one other living species in the family - the okapi.

Fortunately, being large creatures, prehistoric giraffes tended to leave reasonably decent skeletons behind. They're distinctive in more ways than you might think, too, having, for example, a particularly odd canine tooth that ends in two or three (admittedly small) points, rather than just the one. So our knowledge of fossil giraffes is fairly good, and it turns out that there were a lot more species of them in the past than there are today - they were once a larger, and more widespread group.

Sunday 3 December 2017

Counting the Clouded Leopards

There's no definitive answer to the question of which group of wild mammals have the greatest public popularity, but there can be little doubt that the big cats are up there with the best of them. They are a popular subject for wildlife documentaries, and, for example, the BBC's Big Cat Diary ran for nine seasons (some under slightly different titles) between 1996 and 2008.

Because they're the easiest to film, living as they do in relatively open and accessible terrain, four species of big cat get the lion's share (ahem) of the televisual attention: lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs. But, of course, these are not the only ones. Taking a wider look, the cat family as it exists today has two major branches: the big cats, or "pantherines", and the "true felines". That latter group is the larger of the two, including not only the domestic moggie and such species as the ocelot, but even some relatively large animals, such as servals and bobcats. Perhaps more surprisingly, both the puma/cougar/mountain lion and the cheetah actually turn out to be "true felines" when you look at their evolutionary ancestry - in fact, they are closer to domestic cats than they are to, say, lynxes.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Miocene (Pt 4): Bear-Dogs and Dog-Bears

Many of the animals we would see in Early Miocene Europe, were we able to visit, would be of broadly recognisable types: deer, pigs, antelopes, rhinos, and elephant-like mastodons. True, many of these are nor animals we would expect to find in Europe today, and the individual species were, of course, different from the modern sort, and in some cases quite dramatically so. But they at least have identifiable relatives today.

But all of the animals I've just mentioned are herbivores. Yet, when it comes to the larger predators of the day, we instead find that most of them were rather different, lacking close modern relatives. While more recognisable carnivores did, in fact, turn up as the Miocene progressed, at least in the beginning, the majority were survivors from an even earlier time, before many modern kinds of animal had arisen.

Sunday 19 November 2017

The Barcoded Droppings of French Water Moles

How do you know what a given species of animal eats in the wild? The question is of more than merely academic interest. In addition to its obvious relevance to zookeepers, it can also help us to understand how a particular ecology works and what sort of harm we might do it by changing something. In the case of endangered species, it can also be important for conservation, since it's no good protecting the animal if you don't also protect its food supply.

The simplest way to answer the question is probably just to follow the animal around at a suitable distance and watch what it does. In the case of large, visible animals such as lions or moose, this is likely an effective, if somewhat time consuming, method. But it works rather less well with something small or difficult to observe, especially since small mammals spend most of their time eating. (They have to, to maintain their body temperature, since small objects lose heat more rapidly, and they need, proportionally speaking, a lot of calories).

Sunday 12 November 2017

Sex in the Slow Lane

There are many different mating systems in use across the animal kingdom, but the one that is most common among mammals is polygyny. In this system, one male mates with multiple females, typically because he won't let other males anywhere near them. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense, since a male can sire offspring with multiple partners simultaneously, while females are limited by the size of their litters, and the effort required to look after the resulting young (which is more of a consideration for mammals than it is, for example, for most fish).

In fact, it has been estimated that something like 90% of all mammal species practice polygyny to at least some degree. There are, of course, other options. For example, where it takes a particularly large amount of effort to look after young, it may really help if the male assists in doing that, something that naturally tends to favour monogamy. This is the case among humans, where childcare is both lengthy and arduous, so that two parents are better than one, where this can be managed. However, it has been observed that not all male humans are 100% loyal to their spouses (I hope this isn't too big a shock) so that monogamy isn't the absolute rule that it might be.

The same thing happens with other mammal species. The species as a whole might be polygynous (or whatever), but that doesn't mean that every single individual always follows the usual pattern.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Pinnipeds: The Evolution of Seals

There are seventeen species of "true" seal alive today. Most of them are reasonably widespread and numerous animals, and, despite the effects of seal hunters, are not under any particular threat. Populations of hooded seals are in a steady decline, but, although they are still hunted in places, a 1985 ban on the use of seal fur across most of Europe has hugely reduced the demand for the animals; the main reason for the current population decline seems to be the loss of their icy breeding habitats. The two species of living monk seal, and the Caspian seal, have not been so lucky, and are all considered endangered species. And an eighteenth species, the Caribbean monk seal, went extinct in the 1950s.

Early attempts to deduce how these various species relate to one another identified a number of different sub-groups among the seals, based largely on anatomical resemblances. On this basis, it was thought for a while that the Arctic and Antarctic seals were each others' closest relatives, with the more temperate species representing older, and perhaps more ancestral, forms. But this picture began to change in the 1990s, and its replacement has subsequently been confirmed by a number of different genetic analyses. While the exact details have still not been fully settled, we do now know the broad pattern of what happened, and I've provided one consensus family tree below. Using estimated rates of evolutionary change, calibrated with the age of known fossils, we can also get a rough idea of when some of the key events in this history unfolded.

Sunday 29 October 2017

First of the Guinea Pigs

Wild Brazilian guinea pig (Cavia aperea)
Domestic guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are widely found as pets in the western world, and are still used as meat animals in parts of South America. But, of course, they didn't come from nowhere, and six species of wild guinea pig are also generally accepted to exist, two of which have only been discovered since the 1980s. They are fairly widespread across tropical and subtropical South America, and it's still not entirely clear which one is the ancestor of the domestic sort, although suspicion tends to fall on the montane guinea pig (C. tschudii) of the Andes.

The guinea pig family (Caviidae) as a whole doesn't include many more species, and most of them, such as the rock and mountain cavies, are physically rather similar to their better known kin; exceptions include the large capybaras and the long-legged and oddly rabbit-like maras. In the distant past, many other species existed, some of them even larger than capybaras, and positively gigantic for a rodent. When it comes to the guinea pigs proper, however, we don't really have much of a fossil history, and none of the living species can be definitively traced back any further than the tail end of the Ice Ages.

Saturday 21 October 2017

Endangered Mammals of the Caribbean

Mammals are found on every major land mass on Earth, except for Antarctica. The same is, however, much less true for 'minor' land masses. Here, isolation from the mainland means that, in most cases, there are less mammal species on islands than there are on neighbouring bits of continent. There are bound to be at least some, in other words, that didn't make it across, or that, if they did, didn't survive and where never replenished. This is even true, albeit to a lesser extent, on some (but by no means all) peninsulas, with fewer species towards the tip than at the connection with the mainland - there are, for example, fewer terrestrial mammal species in South Korea than, say, Manchuria.

There are a couple of important exceptions here. For one thing, the rule doesn't really apply to bats, unless the islands are really remote (such as Hawaii, for example), and we're obviously not talking about marine mammals that use the shoreline, such as seals. Secondly, particularly large islands, especially those in the tropics, don't have this effect at all, being able to provide a perfectly adequate base to evolve a large profusion of unique animals. Madagascar, New Guinea, and Borneo are just, perhaps, the most obvious examples of this. It's probably also worth noting that many islands, even if they don't have very many species in total, often have ones that aren't found anywhere else on Earth, the separation from the mainland working in both directions.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Do Kangaroos Chew the Cud?

Mammals that eat a lot of grass, or other relatively low-quality vegetation, have to process their food thoroughly to extract the maximum amount of nutrition. I've previously discussed how this works in some detail, but, in general, there are two approaches. In "fore-gut fermenters", the stomach is divided into multiple chambers, allowing the animal to ferment its food, then bring the solid parts back up to the mouth to re-chew ("chewing the cud"), before sending it back to finish the job. This is the system found in cows, deer, camels, and many other animals, collectively known as "ruminants".

The second approach is to place the fermentation chamber behind the stomach, down in the colon. This is less efficient, but quicker, and is the arrangement found in horses, rhinos, and a number of other animals. Rabbits are also "hind-gut fermenters" of this sort, but take the additional step of re-eating the fermented food once it passes out of their back end for the first time.

I mentioned in passing in my previous post that kangaroos are fore-gut fermenters, but that they are not ruminants, and have a slightly different system. Today, I'm going to explain what it is that they do do. (Much of what follows applies equally to wallabies, and, to a lesser extent, rat-kangaroos).

Sunday 8 October 2017

Pinnipeds: Killer Seals of the Antarctic

Leopard seal
As one might expect, seals, for the most part eat fish and squid, although the precise details do vary quite a bit between different species, based on such things as their diving ability, as well as where they happen to live. Two species of seal in the Antarctic, however, do have a somewhat different diet, at least in part.

Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are among the larger seals, with full-grown adults ranging from about 240 to 320 cm (8 to 10½ feet) in length. While this is still quite a bit smaller than elephant seals, the largest females - which are, unusually, larger than the males - can still weigh over half a tonne. They typically inhabit frozen waters far to the south, moving over the course of the year as the ice front expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Younger individuals seem to travel further north than full grown adults, and, while the winter range normally extends only as far as the various subantarctic islands, the Falklands, and Tierra del Fuego, they are occasional visitors to continental Chile, Tasmania, and some points even further north. A couple of reports from the middle of the last century, supported by actual skeletal remains, even refer to lone individuals getting as far north as the Cook Islands in Polynesia.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Miocene (Pt 3): The Elephants Reach Europe

Gomphotherium angustidens
At the dawn of the Miocene, Europe was still relatively isolated from much of the rest of the world. The only other continent to which is was attached by land was Asia, and even with that, perhaps due to the higher sea levels and narrower land bridges of the day, there was less exchange of animals than one might expect. As a result, for a few million years at the dawn of the epoch, Europe remained a haven for animals that had died out elsewhere, or at least retreated. Tapirs, for example, were still common; today they are restricted to South East Asia and the Americas. The European rhinos of the day were also relatively small and primitive.

While the millions of years that they survived might actually have been quite notable, had we been talking about the much shorter, later epochs, in the grand sweep of the Miocene, we can say that they were quite rapidly replaced by immigrants from the east. The early tapirs were gone (although more modern forms did return for a while, much later), but the rhinos were instead replaced by larger and more sturdy, distinctly Miocene species.

Sunday 24 September 2017

What is a Subspecies?

Microtus californicus californicus
I've often mentioned in past posts the difficulty of defining what a "species" is. This, despite the fact that, of all the taxonomic ranks, it's supposed to be the one that comes closest to actually having an existence in the real world. Although there are strict rules about how we name, for example, "families", quite where we draw the lines to separate those families from one another is arbitrary. We could place raccoons in the weasel family, or we could place American badgers outside that family, but, purely for the sake of convenience, we choose to do neither of those things. (For what it's worth, though, the rules would prevent us from doing both).

But a species is meant to be an actual thing, right? Certainly, when the word was coined by Linnaeus (in the biological sense; it has older meanings, too) in the 18th century, that was his intent. A hundred years later, Darwin elaborated on the term, realising, as earlier evolutionary theorists had, but Linnaeus hadn't, that species do slowly change into new forms over time. Today, the most common understanding, outside of scientific circles, is that two animals belong to different species if they can't interbreed to produce fertile offspring.

Sunday 17 September 2017

Swimming With Dinosaurs

At the highest level, all mammals alive today can be placed into one of three broad taxonomic groups. Around 94% of the known species are placental mammals, a vast group that includes everything from bats to dolphins and from anteaters to humans. Virtually all the others are marsupials, with the strange egg-laying monotremes representing just a handful of species.

But there were once others, many of them existing before placentals and marsupials (and presumably monotremes, although we don't have much in the way of fossils for them) came into existence. Technically speaking, this includes a few side-branches from the two man lines that arose before the last common ancestor of the living forms - for example, creatures close to the line that eventually gave rise to the placentals, but that arose early enough that we can't be sure that they literally had a placenta. But even once we trim out those, there are still quite a few left.

Sunday 10 September 2017

Pinnipeds: Ross and Weddell Seals

Weddell seal
The majority of 'true' seal species live in the Northern Hemisphere, with just five found south of the equator. While they were once more widespread, today, all five of these live in the extreme south, with the most widespread - the southern elephant seal - reaching Tasmania, southern New Zealand, and Patagonia. The remaining four, which are all relatively closely related to one another, do not range so far north and are exclusively Antarctic and sub-Antarctic.

The Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) is a typical example. With fully-gorwn males up to 3 metres (10 feet) in length, and weighing about half a ton, they are noticeably smaller than elephant seals, but still pretty large by the standards of seals in the north. They were first discovered during the expeditions of navigator James Weddell, who, in the 1820s, sailed further south than anyone had previously travelled, into the sea that now also bears his name. Since the seals are named for him, rather than for the body of water where they were first found, it's perhaps unsurprising that they are not unique to that sea, and are equally common right round the frozen continent. During the winter, they can travel as far north as South Georgia and other islands of the extreme South Atlantic, but they don't normally reach (for example) the Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.

Sunday 3 September 2017

When the Hippos Changed

The hippopotamus family contains just two living species, including, of course, the well-known common hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius). As is so often the case, though, the family has a long fossil history including a number of other species and genera, although, while the fossil species were more widespread than the living forms are today, it's fair to say that it was never a huge or diverse group in the way that, say, antelopes are.

Among the fossil species, several are very closely related to the living common hippo, including both the stalk-eyed hippo (H. gorgops), which probably weighed over 3 tonnes, and the pig-sized Maltese hippo (H. melitensis). Quite where the living pygmy hippo (Choeropsis liberiensis) fits in the fossil family tree is much less clear, but there are a number of species that aren't particularly close to either of the surviving forms.

Taking a broad view of the fossil history of the family, then, palaeontologists have tended to group the hippos into two subfamilies. One are the "hippopotamines", a group of broadly "modern" hippos that includes both of the living species. At least two other genera are also considered to belong to this group, one of which, Hexaprotodon, lived everywhere from Madagascar to Spain and Indonesia, taking in much of northern Africa and southern Asia on the way. Most of these lived during the Pleistocene and Pliocene epochs, which is to say, the Ice Ages and the epoch immediately preceding them. The earliest forms, including the other genus, Archaeopotamus of Kenya and Arabia, lived during the late Miocene, first appearing somewhere around 8 million years ago.

Sunday 27 August 2017

When Dolphins Emigrate

While most mammals tend to have a "home range" in which they spend most of their adult lives, there are many reasons why they might wish to move elsewhere. Perhaps most obviously, there is the movement of juvenile individuals leaving home for the first time, and so travelling out of their parent(s) home range to establish their own territory. There's also the issue, mostly with males, of travelling about in the hope of encountering fertile members of the opposite sex. On a larger scale, there can be regular migration events, including short-range movements such as goats moving down mountain slopes in winter to avoid the worst of the weather.

But large-scale movements on a one-off basis are relatively rare. In social animals, individuals may move from one herd (or other group) to another for all sorts of reasons, although, in many species, even that can carry risks. Incidents in which a large portion of a herd ups sticks and moves to a place already occupied by another herd, before trying to integrate with the locals, are relatively rare. Which also makes them difficult to study, since it largely relies on the luck of happening to already be looking at a given group when it happens to occur. It's perhaps particularly hard to do so for cetaceans, which live underwater, and can be difficult to track.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Mice, Mice, and More Mice

A common feature of my blog posts, pretty much since the beginning, has been the inclusion of cladograms, tree-like diagrams that show how different species, or groups, of mammal are related to one another. Our knowledge of these relationships is constantly evolving, as we get more and more information, or find different ways of doing the necessary measurements.

In general, though, what happens is that scientists measure a number of different features from the animals that they want to study, and compare which ones have the most in common. These days, these are most likely to be physical measurements, such as fine details of the shape of the skull or teeth, if at least some of the creatures we're looking at happen to be fossils. Otherwise, it's much more likely that the things being compared are stretches of genetic code. The further apart two animals are, evolutionarily speaking, the more differences there are likely to be, and if we pick a gene that both animals possess, and that can accumulate a reasonable number of changes without stopping working altogether, we have a good basis for comparison.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Pinnipeds: The Mighty Elephant Seals

Northern elephant seal (male)
The largest of all seals are, of course, the elephant seals. These were one of the original species of seal to be scientifically named, back in 1758. They were originally given the name Phoca leonina, which literally translates as "seal-lion", suggesting some possible confusion on Linnaeus's part about which exact animal he was describing. For a long time, it was thought there was only one species, but we now know that the populations in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres represent two different, but closely related species.

Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) live off the western coast of North America, with breeding colonies on offshore islands and occasional isolated patches of continental coast in California and Baja California. It's probably here that they are more commonly seen, since they not only spend the winter breeding season ashore, but they also visit the same beaches during the summer for their annual moult, when they are unable to enter the water for weeks at a time. Surprisingly, then, they spend the rest of the year somewhere else entirely, travelling hundreds of miles from their colonies to feed in the north-east Pacific, and spending spring and autumn as far north as the Aleutian Islands and, on occasion, as far west as Hawaii. Quite why they'd do something as seemingly daft as to make the same long-distance migration twice a year isn't entirely clear, although it presumably has something to do with the ideal weather for each activity.

Sunday 6 August 2017

Bed Time for Wild Hamsters

Golden hamster
After the mice, the second largest family of mammals is the hamster family, with somewhere in the region of 600 known species. The vast majority of these species are, however, not hamsters, and I refer to it as the "hamster family" only because that is the literal meaning of its scientific name, the Cricetidae. Over half of the cricetids, for instance, are "New World mice" visibly more or less indistinguishable from the "true" mice of the Old World. Most of the remainder are voles, and a mere couple of dozen or so are actually hamsters.

The species most people think of when they think of hamsters is the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus), which is the animal commonly seen in pet shops. While a few other species are sometimes also kept as pets, most of the varieties named on the basis of things such as hair colour and length are just domesticated breeds of the golden hamster. They are found in the wild only in one relatively small area on the Turkish-Syrian border, just north of Aleppo. Which, right at the moment, does make it somewhat difficult to study their behaviour in their natural environment.

But then, given that there are so many of them in captivity, and that they aren't exactly obscure animals, you might think that we know pretty much all there is to know about them. Certainly, compared with many other species, they are well-studied creatures. Indeed, they are common laboratory animals, due to the ease of breeding them in large numbers and their apparent comfort in indoor environments. On the other hand, while there are obvious advantages, such as not being eaten by predators, hamsters do not naturally live in cages... so maybe they behave differently when given the free run of the countryside?

Sunday 30 July 2017

Miocene (Pt 2): Before There Were Mice

After a brief cold snap at the very dawn of the epoch, the world of the Miocene warmed rapidly. Europe became, if not truly tropical, at least subtropical, with the interior covered by great forests of oak, laurel, and cinnamon, with magnolia and figs joining pine trees in the highlands. Along the coasts, the hot, damp, climate encouraged the growth of mangrove swamps and palm trees as warm sea currents flowed in from the Indian Ocean - still connected to the Mediterranean at this time. With no ice caps at the North Pole, and relatively few at the South, sea levels were much higher, and parts of continental Europe may, in those days, have still been islands. Certainly, Aqutaine in south-western France and the lower Rhône valley in the south-east were shallow bays stretching some way inland, as was what is now the Tagus valley in Spain and Portugal.

This rich and verdant landscape was home to a wide range of animals, many of them survivors of even earlier times. Many of these, such as the tapirs, didn't survive long in Europe, but a great many did, with musk deer, pigs, and rhinos dominating the herbivorous fauna, and animals less familiar to modern eyes taking the lead among the large carnivores.

But then, as now, the great majority of mammal species were small. While the sight of Diaceratherium rhinos wallowing in the lush swamps of the Swiss shoreline is the sort of thing that would draw the immediate attention of a time-travelling tourist, there was also plenty going on underfoot. Yet the two most common groups of small non-flying mammals that we have in Europe today - the mice and the voles - did not yet exist. So what was there?

Sunday 23 July 2017

Is the Dormouse an Endangered Species?

At first glance, this seems a fairly daft question. A moment's search on the internet will reveal that only is the dormouse not an endangered species, it isn't even under any significant threat of becoming one. It's about as safe as any species that doesn't specifically rely on human beings can be. There is no risk that we are going to, at any point in the foreseeable future, even come close to running out of dormice.

Look past the headlines though, and things do become a little more complicated. No, the dormouse is not an endangered species, but its population is under threat in certain parts of its range, particularly in the northwest. Some of these populations are isolated from the main bulk of the species in mainland Europe by the presence of various seas, and perhaps the most obvious of those is the British population. Since this population lives on a (relatively) northerly island, and since there are, apparently, risks to the dormouse in the north of its range, it is, in fact, reasonable to ask whether or not the dormouse is an endangered species in Britain.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Pinnipeds: Decline of the Monk Seals

Mediterranean monk seal
(museum specimen)
The great majority of seal species are found in cold, often freezing waters. Even harbour and elephant seals, which are frequently found in temperate, or even subtropical, climes, also inhabit colder latitudes for at least part of the year. There are just three modern species of true seal that are found solely in warm waters, and they all happen to be closely related. These are the monk seals.

It's not actually known why these animals are called "monk" seals. The oldest known reference to the term comes from Johann Hermann in 1779, when he wrote the first scientific description of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), and gave it its scientific name. The only reason he gave for doing so was that he'd heard that the animal was called that in France, and thought that maybe that was because, seen from behind, the head and shoulders looked a bit like a robed and hooded man. But he was guessing about that latter part, and there doesn't seem to be any independent corroboration that the animal really was called a "monk seal" in France (or, indeed, anywhere else) prior to his naming of it. Presumably, he'd got the name from somewhere, but, for all we know, he might have misremembered the details.

Sunday 9 July 2017

First and Last of the South Asian River Dolphins

South Asian river dolphin skeleton -
note the strange shape of the skull
Although the whales are undeniably spectacular, the majority of cetacean species are much smaller; the sort of animals we generally refer to as "dolphins". The great majority of these belong to the family Dephinidae, variously termed the "oceanic dolphins", "pelagic dolphins", or even "true dolphins". This is a large family, with nearly forty species, including killer whales and pilot whales alongside their smaller kin.

Whatever we call this family, it, in turn, belongs to the larger group of the "delphinoid cetaceans", which also includes the six species of the porpoise family and two other whales - the narwhal and beluga. Taken together, these animals and their extinct relatives have dominated the count of cetacean species across the world for millions of years, forming a key part of the ocean ecology. Of all the other cetacean groups, only the mysterious deep-sea beaked whales come close in terms of the number of species, and even they don't appear to be as varied.

Sunday 2 July 2017

The Social Lives of Elephants

Indian elephant
Elephants are the largest land-dwelling animals alive today. They are also among the most intelligent non-primate species, with complex social lives, and, as I noted in passing a few weeks ago, seem to be able to pass the Mirror Test for self-awareness - the only mammal, other than apes or dolphins, for which there is reasonable evidence of this ability.

There are many reasons that we'd like to know more about the lives and habits of elephants; even leaving pure curiosity aside, on a practical level it might help us to find ways to manage elephant populations so that they can peacefully co-exist with our expanding agricultural and residential footprint.

But there is a problem to really getting to grips with elephant "societies" and how they function. That's because, in addition to being large, elephants are also remarkably long-lived. If you go out into the wild and study a herd of elephants for five years, you will get a lot of information, but it's really just a snapshot of what's going on in the course of their lives. Elephants can live for at least seventy years, and a generation lasts for about 25 years, so getting a really good picture of an elephant's life would take... well, a human lifetime.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Rain Down on Me: Wild Boar and the Weather

Wild boar (Sus scrofa) are very far from being an endangered species. They are found across continental Europe and Asia, and on a number of nearby islands, from the Mediterranean to Japan. We have no idea how large their global population is, but it's clearly pretty big, and they are common animals in many places. But even if their very existence isn't in danger, that doesn't mean that we have no need to figure out how to properly manage their populations in the wild, so as to cause neither humans, nor the boars themselves, any inconvenience.

This is in part because the influence of wild boars on humans is mixed. On the one hand, they can be quite a nuisance. They cause significant damage to crops, can spread diseases to farm animals (most obviously, pigs), and caused almost a thousand traffic accidents a year in northwestern Spain. Clearly, these are all good reasons to keep their numbers down, at least in places where humans are common - which, let's face it, mean pretty much the whole of Europe. On the other hand, wild boar are generally regarded as quite tasty, which, while it's not a great thing to be from the boar's point of view, does at least mean that hunters don't want to drive them away into really remote and inaccessible areas.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Pinnipeds: Hooded and Bearded Seals

Hooded seal pup
Most of the species of seal found in the waters of the North Atlantic are roughly the size of harbour seals, with full-grown males measuring about 160 cm (5' 3") in length, and weighing around 120 kg (265 lbs); females, of course, are somewhat smaller. Of the three species that are significantly larger than this, the biggest of all are the hooded seals (Cystophora cristata). While not a patch on the largest seals of the Pacific, with males up to 270 cm (8'9") and weighting around 300 kg (660 lbs), they're still pretty hefty.

Hooded seals live relatively far north in the Atlantic, spending most of their time in cold waters northward from Nova Scotia to the coasts of Greenland and Iceland, and some of the remote islands that lie to the north of Europe. They are known to have four, relatively small geographic areas in which they do their breeding - the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, off the north coast of Newfoundland, the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island, and around Jan Mayen island east of Greenland. Although these appear to be quite distinct, there is no evidence of any significant genetic difference between the populations, and hence, no recognised subspecies of the animal.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Age of Mammals: The Miocene (Pt 1)

Five years ago, I started a series of posts in which I looked at the world, and its mammalian fauna, during the time of the Ice Ages. My plans as to how I was going to do that changed quite rapidly, and the earlier posts aren't really in the same format that I later settled in to. Nonetheless, since that time I have covered not only the Pleistocene epoch of the Ice Ages, but also the Pliocene, which immediately preceded it. Yet, even taken together, these two epochs represent only a relatively short slice of the Age of Mammals.

We currently divide the Age of Mammals - the time since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs - into three broad periods: the Paleogene, Neogene, and Quaternary. The last of those includes only the Pleistocene and the brief, human-dominated, time since it ended. The Neogene, however, is also dominated by more-or-less modern kinds of animal, and it is further divided into two epochs: the later Pliocene, which I have already covered, and the earlier Miocene, which I haven't.

Perhaps the first thing to grasp about the Miocene is that, compared with the epochs that followed, it is remarkably long. It lasted, as currently defined, from about 23 million to 5 million years ago. That makes it over three times as long as the Pliocene and Pleistocene put together. As you might expect, the world changed far more over this timespan than it did during the subsequent epochs; we're not just talking a couple of million years here, but it a much more substantial chunk of time. It's only because it's so much further back that it makes sense to do this - we just don't have the same sort of fine detail available, since so much of it has been erased in the time since it all happened.

Monday 5 June 2017

Are Horses Self-Aware?

I'd imagine that the first response from anyone who regularly deals with horses to the above would be "well, of course they are!" Your horse shows not just awareness and recognition, and is clearly a fairly intelligent animal, but there seems to be something going on behind those eyes. Horses seem, for example, to be aware of the emotional state of their handlers, and respond appropriately. There is surely more to their actions than simple, pre-programmed instinct.

And, if that is your response, let's face it, you're not wrong.

But then, awareness isn't a simple "all or nothing" phenomenon. All living things respond to their environment in some way; it's part of the definition of being alive. But even once we exclude say, tomato plants, there's still a massive gulf between jellyfish and humans. Once we get specifically to mammals, there is clearly more going in their mental and emotional states than is the case for, say, starfish or parasitic worms. But even then, there is no sharp line between the full consciousness of an adult human and the awareness of every other sort of mammal.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Just What Is a Red Panda, Anyway?

Last week, as it sometimes does, the topic of red pandas came up in conversation. The person I was speaking to was well aware that red pandas are not very closely related to the more famous giant pandas... but he had no idea what they actually are related to. It occurs to me that, while I've often posted on the evolutionary relationships of closely related animals within the various mammal families, I've posted rather less about how the different families are related to one another. So, let's look at that, from the perspective of trying to figure out which mammal family it is that the red panda belongs to.

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) was first formally described by Frédéric Cuvier, brother of the much more famous Georges Cuvier, in 1825. He gave it the scientific name that it still bears, which translates to "shining cat" because of what he thought it looked like. Of course, this was long before Darwin, so he wasn't suggesting that the animal was literally related to cats, since, like his brother, he presumably thought that all species were created independently. In fact, probably because of the bushy striped tail and the shape of the teeth, he instead placed it within the recently named raccoon family, the Procyonidae.

Sunday 21 May 2017

Secret Origins of the First Hippos

Hippos are somewhat strange animals. They are large, amphibious, almost entirely hairless animals that are clearly related to the big hoofed herbivores, but do not themselves have hoofs. Still, it came as something of a surprise to everyone when, in the late '80s, it turned out that their closest living relatives were not pigs, as had previously been thought, but whales and dolphins. Which, granted, are also large hairless animals living in the water, but which (among other things) are anything but herbivorous.

Still, while whales and dolphins may be their closest living relatives, the latter have been around for a very long time, and it follows that the hippo lineage must have been around equally long. So, especially given that they aren't exactly small and easy to overlook, it's reasonable to expect that there should be a number of fossil species that are a good deal closer to living hippos than anything we have today.

And, indeed, there are.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Pinnipeds: Freshwater Seals

Caspian seal
Seals live, generally speaking, in the world's seas and oceans. But, as I noted last time, there is one species of ocean-going seal with a population found in freshwater. This is the ringed seal of the Arctic and Baltic, one population of which became cut off during the last Ice Age and now has descendants living in Lakes Ladoga and Saimaa in Russia and Finland. Lake Saimaa drains into Lake Ladoga, which in turn drains, via the Neva River, into the Baltic, so while seals do not regularly swim in that river, the geographic isolation is, at least in theory, not absolute.

However, two other populations of ringed seals (or their immediate ancestor), became separated from their kin at a much earlier date. Unlike the Ladoga and Saimaa populations, they had the time and isolation to develop into entirely new species, notably different from their relatives out in the ocean.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Compare the Mongoose

The mongoose family includes over 30 different species, found across Africa and southern Asia. That's excluding a few species of "mongoose" found on Madagascar, which were discovered, back in the last decade, to be more closely related to some of the other carnivores of the island than they were to the "true" mongooses on the mainland. On the other hand, it does include a small number of species that aren't commonly called "mongooses" in English. Ironically, in fact, it's one of these latter that's probably the most familiar of all mongoose species to westerners: the meerkat (Suricata suricatta).

(As an aside, the word "meerkat" is Afrikaans... which is a bit odd, since it means something completely different in Dutch).

Even when they aren't singing Hakuna Matata or trying to sell you car insurance, meerkats are common features on wildlife documentaries (at least they are in Britain; I can't speak for other countries) and in zoos across the world. In part, this is because they're rather cute, sociable animals, with complex, telegenic, lives that involve a lot of cooperation. But, while meerkats are probably the most social of all mongooses, they are by no means the only ones. Another example, for instance, is the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), which lives in groups almost as large as those of meerkats.

Sunday 30 April 2017

Perils of the Big Snooze

There are over 280 recognised species of squirrel, only a little over a half of which spend any significant time up trees; the others include an array of more or less ground-dwelling species, from chipmunks to susliks. They live in almost every terrestrial habitat imaginable, from tropical rainforest to semi-desert. One of the few habitats they don't live in is, unsurprisingly, polar ice cap, but, even then, there's one group of squirrels that at least gets sort of close.

These are the fifteen species of marmot (Marmota spp.), most of which inhabit mountainous regions, often above the tree line. Marmots are the largest of all squirrels, being at least twice the weight of, say, prairie dogs. However, the weight of marmots isn't necessarily the easiest thing to quantify, because it changes so much over the course of the year, which is in turn due to their need to bulk up before entering hibernation. And the reason for hibernation in marmots? Well, that brings us back to the crappy habitat.

Sunday 23 April 2017

Pinnipeds: Ribbon and Ringed Seals

Ribbon seal (male)
Although there is, perhaps, more variety amongst seals than one might at first expect, when it comes to colouration, there isn't all that much to distinguish the different species. The majority are brown or grey, often with black or pale splotches of some kind. I've already described one exception, the harp seal, but arguably the most distinctive of all seal coat patterns belongs to its close relative, the ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata).

Male ribbon seals are black, or very dark brown, with clear, wide bands of pure white fur around their necks, shoulders, and just above the hips. Females are medium-brown with light tan stripes, so the pattern is less striking, but it's still present, and in the same shape. Neither sex is born like this; even once baby ribbon seals shed their pure white fur at around a month of age, they are initially plain in colour, only fully developing the stripes by the time they are two years old.

Sunday 16 April 2017

Pliocene (Pt 16): The Pliocene Oceans

Over the last two and a half years, I have talked about a range of mammal species found across the Pliocene world. So far, I have only looked at the continents, and the various animals that lived on land. But the Pliocene seas were, of course, equally teeming with animal life. Much of this naturally consisted of either fish (most famously the giant "megalodon" shark) or invertebrates of various kinds. Sea turtles also existed, including some quite large ones, but, in keeping with the scope of this blog, I'm going  to focus on the mammals.

While we often tend to think that prehistoric animals tended to be larger than those alive today, this, was however, rather less true of whales, which have grown more or less steadily in size over the course of their evolution, perhaps in part to make it increasingly difficult for anything else to eat them. So, for example, the Pliocene killer whale (Orcinus citoniensis) was around 4 metres (12 feet) in length, barely more than half that of the modern species - although still quite impressive on a human scale.

Sunday 9 April 2017

Dolphin Vaginas

If you look at any really detailed description of the physical appearance of a mammal species, you will find a lot of intricate information on the shape of the teeth (especially the molars and premolars) and the dimensions of the skull. There will also be discussions of the shape and proportion of the limbs and the exact colour of the fur, as well as any horns or antlers it might have. And there's a high probability that there will be quite a lot of information about the shape of its penis and the size of its testicles.

Obviously, reproductive anatomy is an important field if we want to really understand how an animal functions and behaves. Testicular size, for example, can tell us about its mating strategies. This is because the rule is not simply "the bigger the animal, the bigger its gonads". In order to gather a harem of receptive females around itself, a male has not only attract them to itself with suitably impressive antlers (or whatever) it also has to fight off rivals, and it's going to have to be big and muscular to do that. But if the females are sexually promiscuous, that's pointless. Instead, what you really need is to produce so much sperm that yours swamps that of your rivals. So, in those species, the males tend to be smaller, but their testicles larger (proportionately speaking). Alternatively, if your species is monogamous then neither of these things are much of a concern.

So male reproductive anatomy can tell us quite a bit. But you won't typically find, in most descriptions, is quite so much information on the female reproductive tract. There's probably some information on the shape of the uterus, which can relate to things like litter size, and maybe for a few other features besides, but it tends to be rather less than you'll find for the males.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Deadly Demon Ducks of Doom

Since today is 1st April, although I'm not doing a spoof post, I am taking my annual break from mammals to talk about birds. Specifically demon ducks, although I nearly went with flightless boobies. It's that sort of day.

Australia is the most isolated continent to possess native mammals, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the mammals that live there are particularly unusual, often only distantly related to those elsewhere. Birds, however, have an advantage that most mammals don't, in that they can fly long distances between land masses without dying. (They may not be doing so deliberately, of course, but being blown off course in a storm is the sort of risk they have to put up with). It's notable, in fact, that one of the two groups of native placental mammals in Australia are the bats, which are also also found further out in the Pacific islands.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that the birds of Australia frequently fall into taxonomic groups familiar from elsewhere in the world; Australia has owls, doves, seagulls, and parrots, among many others. At the same time, however, it is isolated enough that it does include some unique kinds of bird that are not found on other continents - less than the number of unique mammal groups, to be sure, but a number nonetheless. For example, lyrebirds are endemic to Australia, and are considered to form the oldest living branch of the songbird family tree.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Pinnipeds: Grey and Harp Seals

Grey seal
There are four different species of seal that live off the coasts of northern continental Europe. Perhaps the best known is the harbour seal, or "common seal", which is also the most widespread of all seal species, being found across both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific. When the scientific naming of species was introduced in 1758, it was the only such species recognised from the area, but it only took a few decades for proper scientific descriptions of the others to follow, recognising that they were distinct from their "common" cousin.

The last of the four to be split off was the animal we now know as the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), in 1791. While that's still fairly early as such things go, the fact that it was the last of the local seals to be formally identified as something different from the regular sort is likely down to the fact that it does look very similar to the harbour seal. Although, in fairness, it was first named by an entomologist, so clearly you don't have to be a mammal specialist to tell them apart.

Sunday 19 March 2017

The Giant Chinese Badger-Otter

Otters and badgers are both members of the weasel family, the Mustelidae. As a result, while they are visibly quite different, they have a number of anatomical similarities, reflecting their shared ancestry. Indeed, some of the similarities, such as those in the precise shape of their teeth, are rather greater than one might expect simply from them belonging to the same family. On the basis of this, it was being suggested as recently as the 1990s that otters were essentially aquatic badgers - descendants of early badger species that had entered the water, developing webbed feet, a long muscular tail, and so on, in the process.

We now know, from various genetic and molecular studies, that this isn't so. The closest living relatives of otters are probably the weasels themselves and/or the zorillas and their kin, with badgers representing a rather earlier branch in the mustelid family tree. Given this, the apparent strong similarities between the two are either a case of parallel evolution, perhaps due to the fact that, by the standards of weasels, they're both fairly large animals, or, perhaps more likely, that they are ancient features of the group that happen to have been lost in their other relatives.

Sunday 12 March 2017

A Side Order of Flies

Most species of bat eat insects, whether caught on the wing or plucked from leaves or other surfaces. But this is by no means true of all species, with the second most common diet - perhaps representing around a quarter of known species - being one based on fruit. Indeed, fruit-eating had evolved more than once among bats, with the giant fruit bats of the Old World not being especially close relatives of the much smaller ones found in the Americas.

While a great many herbivorous and omnivorous mammals include fruit as part of their diet, one estimate is that only around 10% of mammalian species rely on it as their primary source of food - most of them bats or primates. While that's not exactly a tiny proportion, given the number of mammalian herbivores in general, it isn't a huge one either. This, it has been suggested, is because, while fruit are great as a source of calories, they tend not to be high in protein, and a healthy animal needs a supply of both.

In the case of humans, eating plenty of fruit is well known to be a good thing, but trying to eat nothing but fruit for any extended period of time is likely to be a problem. Not only are you likely to suffer from lack of protein in your diet, but you will also suffer deficiencies in certain minerals and vitamins. That one of the main vitamins you would be short of is vitamin D, which promotes calcium absorption in the gut, is a particular problem, bearing in mind that there isn't much calcium in fruit to start with. For this reason, fruit-only diets can be a real problem for children, who need that calcium to grow their bones.

Sunday 5 March 2017

By the Light of the Silvery Moon

Why bother being nocturnal? Being active only at night makes it much harder to see what you're doing, and while it's possible to develop good night vision to minimise the problem, this is evolutionary costly. Well, if you're a herbivore, the advantage of being active at night is that it's much easier to hide from predators, since, they, too, would have to evolve good night vision to find you. And, if you're a predator, the advantage is that at least some of your competitors won't be around at night, allowing you to snack on nocturnal herbivores and not have to share your food supply.

But this, of course, cuts both ways. For example, while darkness hides you from predators, it also makes it more difficult to spot predators coming if they have seen you. As so often, this leads to a balance, and different species taking advantage of different points on the continuum of possible behaviours.

We can see some of the effects of this in how animals respond to different levels of darkness. Not all nights are equal, after all. The most predictable change is in the amount of moonlight, with the night of a full moon being considerably brighter than a night without a visible moon. Somewhat less predictably, of course, there's the weather, unless, perhaps, you live in a desert where overcast skies are fairly unlikely. So, if you're a nocturnal herbivore, should you be more active on the night of a full moon, or less?

Sunday 26 February 2017

Pinnipeds: Harbour and Spotted Seals

Harbour seal
When the modern system of scientific names for organisms was devised, and the first recognised catalogue of such things was published in 1758, Carl Linnaeus named four species of seal. Two of these are, for anatomical reasons explained in my previous post, no longer considered members of the "true" seal family. One of the others was the elephant seal, which Linnaeus had presumably only heard of by reputation. The remaining one, however, was likely an animal he was much more familiar with, given that they are found around the coasts of his native Sweden.

In fact, when Linnaeus described what was essentially a typical "seal-like" animal, he would have been thinking of what we now know to constitute, like the "elephant seal", a number of different species. The one that was likely the most familiar to him, however, is the one that retains the scientific name that he gave it, and which is known in many parts of the world simply as "the common seal". In more recent times, the alternative name of harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) has become more widely used, and it's this that I'll use to describe the animal to which, taxonomically speaking, all other seals are in some sense compared.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Pliocene (Pt 15): Life on the Australian Grasslands

Kolopsis, a diprotodontid
At the dawn of the Pliocene, Australia was a relatively green continent, with plenty of rich, tropical and subtropical, vegetation. That changed as millions of years passed, with the continent becoming steadily drier and the grasslands and semi-desert of the Outback came into being. This was, of course, bad news for many of the animals that had lived there in the wetter past, many of which went extinct, but it also saw a noticeable increase in the number of grazing animals, for which wider grasslands were clearly a boon.

Elsewhere in the world, this sort of thing was benefiting animals such as horses, goats, and antelopes. But Australia was different. It wasn't, of course, the only island continent of the day, but it was the oldest by some margin, having separated from its neighbours long before South America split from Antarctica, or before animals stopped crossing between Eurasia and North America (even ignoring the Ice Age crossings of the Bering land bridge, which were, at this point, still in the future).

Sunday 12 February 2017

Scaring Off Snakes

Animals would, on the whole, prefer not to be eaten. As a result, they have evolved a number of ways of avoiding this fate. Being particularly large and fearsome is one tactic - very little eats lions, after all - but that obviously won't work for more most creatures. Many other defensive measures are passive, such as camouflage, or involve hiding or only coming out at a time of day when the local predators aren't around much.

An approach that's essentially the exact opposite of camouflage is the "aposematic display", in which the animal has stark, highly visible, colour markings that warn predators it is dangerous. Of course, you really need something to back this up, or the predators will eat you anyway, and, moreover, find you quite easily. Among mammals, among the clearest example of this are the skunks, with their dramatic black-and-white colouring that warns potential predators that they might get a face full of stink if they try anything.