Sunday, 24 June 2018

What is a Marsupial?

A possum
In America, the word "possum" is usually used to describe a moderately-sized, somewhat rat-like, animal that has grey fur, sometimes pretends to be dead, and has far too many teeth for any self-respecting land-based mammal. Officially, this creature is an "opossum", and more specifically, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). The word comes from the language of the Powhatan people of Virginia, and has been in use in English since at least the 17th century.

Over on the other side of the world, in Australia, the word "possum" is, however, used to refer to an entirely different animal. These are nocturnal, tree-dwelling creatures, typically with large eyes and long tails, and the majority of the seventy or so species are herbivorous. Early settlers, who had probably only vaguely heard of the American animal, nonetheless decided to give it the same name. Like the Americans, over time they confused "opossum" with "a possum", and shortened the word. Unlike the Americans, their shortened word became not merely colloquial, but the one formally used in zoological texts.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Pig Family: Bush Pig, Bushpig, Red River Hog

Red river hog (boar)
As zoological knowledge has advanced, the number of species that we know about has changed regularly, and not just because we keep discovering new ones. Animals that we knew about, but previously thought were subspecies get promoted to full species, and animals that we thought were separate species turn out not to be.

In fact, over time, we can sense something of a trend here. Beginning with Linnaeus in 1758, several new species are named, often by naturalists unaware, in the days before fully up-to-date reference libraries, let alone the internet, that somebody else had already given a name to the same thing. That process continues through the 19th century, with minor differences being seized on as evidence of speciation, even where it was possible to make decent comparisons. Through the 20th century, the number of genuinely new species being discovered dramatically tails off (at least, for mammals), but there's also a tendency to tidy up the great mass of inherited names from the past, merging similar animals together. Finally, from the late 20th century onwards, an increasing understanding of genetics results in numerous subspecies being promoted, often with our Victorian predecessors turning out to have been right all along.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Fast Lives of Early Sperm Whales

Livyatan melvillei, a Miocene species
(It was supposed to be 'Leviathan', but the name was
already taken)
Sperm whales are magnificent and highly distinctive animals. While they may not be quite as large as the great toothless whales, they are still pretty huge: a fully grown male is typically about 16 metres (52 feet) in length and weighs over 40 tons. So distinctive is it, in fact, that today it is usually considered to be the only living species in its family, the Physeteridae.

The caveats in that last sentence - "today", "usually", and "living" - are all significant. On the first two points, the sperm whale family used to be considered to contain no less than three living species, and some researchers still define it that way. The other two species are the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales (Kogia spp.), and they're typically (but not always) placed in their own family these days. As their names suggest they are much, much smaller than the "true" sperm whales, being more like the size of a large dolphin.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Broken Bones and Missing Toes

Woodland jumping mouse
Life can be hard, especially out in the wild. Injuries can be common, and among the most painful are broken bones. As humans, we can mitigate bone fractures using splints, braces and so on, but wild animals have no such luxury. Nonetheless, bones do heal by themselves, a process that starts with the formation of a tough fibrous scar at the injury site that at least helps to keep things fixed partially in place. Over time, the scar is mineralised to form weak, but functional, bony material, and then eventually rebuilt with as much of the original structural integrity as possible.

Without splints and braces, this is likely to be an imperfect fix, even assuming that the injury doesn't prevent the animal from feeding or otherwise kill it before the process completes. If the animal does survive, the signs of the injury are always going to be there in its skeleton, and are quite likely to cause at least some ongoing problems. But, survive they do, and bone healing wouldn't have evolved in the first place if it never worked in the wild.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Laziness of Venomous Shrews

While there are some bats that could challenge them for the title, by most measures, shrews are the smallest of all mammalian species. They typically weigh no more than about 20 grams (two-thirds of an ounce), and are often much smaller than that. Being so small poses a number of challenges, but there's one in particular that affects mammals of this size that would not affect, say, beetles.

This is because mammals are warm-blooded, and need to generate internal heat in order to keep functioning (unless they're hibernating). The smaller you are, however, the more rapidly you lose heat through your body surface, which means that shrews need a fierce metabolism to keep burning enough calories to keep themselves warm. This means that they have to eat almost constantly, but it also means that they want to exert themselves as little as possible while doing so, so as to waste the minimum amount of energy in the process.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Pig Family: The World's Largest and Smallest Pigs

Pygmy hog
By some definitions, the term "pig" can really only be applied to those species that are most closely related to the domestic animal; those included within the genus Sus. This includes the wild boar, and the various kinds of warty and bearded pig that inhabit the Indonesian and Philippine islands.

But these are not the only pig-like animals to inhabit Asia. In 1847, Brian Hodgson, a naturalist and former colonial administrator who was living in Darjeeling at the time, described and named the pygmy hog (Porcula salvania), an animal he considered so different from regular pigs in the shape of its teeth and feet that he placed it in its own, newly defined, genus, Porcula. (The scientific name, incidentally, translates as "piglet from the Sal Van", the latter being a forest that only coincidentally sounds like the Latin "silvae" meaning "woodland").

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Miocene (Pt 7): Hornless Rhinos, Long-Tusked Elephants, and Three-toed Horses

Anancus arvernensis
As the climate cooled around 11 million years ago, the forests of Europe began to thin out once more, something that favoured fast-running animals such as horses. Until this time, the only kind of horse in Europe, however, was the small, three-toed, Anchitherium, which was likely adapted to dense woodland and not so suited to the new climate. Its own ancestors had reached the continent from the east, having crossed over during one of the periodic rises of the Bering Land Bridge, but now, not coincidentally, given the colder climate, the Land Bridge rose again, and a second kind of horse followed it out of the Americas.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Diving for Your Dinner

Dinner!
Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are the best adapted of all mammals to life underwater. Their food is often found far below the waves, requiring them to dive deep to find it. But this, of course, is countered by the fact that, not being fish, they also have to return to the surface to breathe. The deeper the desirable food happens to be, the longer they will have to dive for just to reach it, and the longer they will have to spend recovering on the surface afterwards - even if the actual feeding time remains the same.

Such pay-offs are arguably particularly important for the huge rorqual whales, which feed by lunging at great masses of krill or other small prey and gulping them down. For them, it really matters that wherever they are diving is rich in food, so that they can find enough to offset the effort required to catch it. Quite how they strike that balance should depend on how good they are at diving, which relates to things such as their lung capacity and how much oxygen they need to sustain their bodies.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Out of the Caves

At least if you live in the northern, temperate, parts of the world, when you think of where to find bats, your first thought is likely to be "caves". A great number of bat species do, indeed, spend the day in caves, and this makes sense: if you're a nocturnal animal that doesn't need light to 'see', then caves are both reasonably safe places and ones with a constant, sheltered environment. Why bother trying to sleep in the wind and the rain, or even the bright sunshine, when you don't have to?

But, of course, by no means all bats are cave-dwellers. Amongst the various families of bat, the leaf-nosed bats (Phyllostomidae) of the American tropics are the most varied in terms of diet, and also in terms of their roosting habits and other behaviour. Sure, the majority of phyllostomid species do eat insects and live in caves, as most other bats do. But the group also includes some bats that feed on surprisingly large prey (such as birds) as well as the blood-drinking vampire bats.

It also includes a large number of species that are vegetarian, feeding on fruit such as figs, or subsisting almost entirely on the sugar-rich nectar that they drink from year-round tropical flowers. Many of these fruit-eating species do not live in caves at all, but simply roost in trees - as do the much larger fruit bats of the Old World

Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Pig Family: Threatened Pigs of the Philippines

Visayan warty pig (female)
When the animal we now know as the Sulawesi warty pig was first described, back in the 19th century, it was thought that it lived, not only on the island of Sulawesi, but also on a whole chain of islands to the north - the Philippines. But the pigs there didn't look exactly the same as those to the south, so in 1886, German zoologist Alfred Nehring proposed that they be regarded as a distinct subspecies.

And so things remained for a hundred years, until scientists began to look more closely at the animal's genetics. When they did so, they discovered something fairly surprising. Pigs typically have 38 chromosomes (compared with 48 in humans), but it turned out that the warty pigs from the Philippines had only 36 - an entire pair had disappeared, its genetic material shuffled around elsewhere in the genome.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Curious Necks of Giant Rodents

Josephoartigasia
We tend to think of rodents as small mammals, and the great majority of them are: mice, voles, hamsters, tree squirrels, and so on. Even rats and gophers aren't really all that big. Indeed, when most people think of rodents they probably aren't mentally including the largest ones, such as porcupines and beavers. In fact, the very largest rodent alive today is the capybara, a sort of giant guinea pig that is around 120 cm (4 feet) long and weighs something like 50 kg (110 lbs).

This, you probably won't be surprised to learn, is as nothing compared to some of the fossil species.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

No Boys Allowed

Even in mammals that are otherwise social, it is quite common for males and females to live apart for most of the year. The most common pattern involves females living in groups with their children, until the latter approach adulthood, while males either live alone, or in much smaller bands, outside of the mating season. In many hoofed herd animals, however, the males live in herds that aren't much smaller than those of the females - in other words, both sexes live in herds, but the two don't mix until it's time to do the necessary.

Clearly, these are creatures that benefit from the group protection that living in herds provides, and, while there's obviously a limit on how large a herd can be before there isn't enough food to support them all, it's not always so clear why the herds should be single-sex. Why, in short, do so many hoofed herd animals practice sexual segregation?

There are a number of theories, and, as is often the case, they aren't mutually exclusive. Nor is it likely that the reason - or the balance of reasons, if there's more than one - will be the same for every species. It's something we have to examine on a case-by-case basis.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

First of the Flightless Penguins

Waimanu
Penguins are unusual birds. They walk fully upright, have short legs that force them to waddle, and have wings adapted into flippers to propel them through the water. Compared with many other bird groups, there aren't all that many of them - there are no more than twenty living species, and possibly less, depending on who you talk to.

Surprisingly, perhaps, we have, however, named many more fossil species than living ones, and our understanding of penguin evolution is rather better than that of most families of flying bird - which tend to have light and fragile bones that don't fossilise well. Unfortunately, as is often the way, it's the earliest and most interesting part of that fossil history that's most obscure, since, being older, these are the fossils least likely to be preserved.

But that doesn't mean we have nothing from that time.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Pig Family: Wild Pigs of Indonesia

Bearded pig
Thanks to their adaptability, wild boar are a remarkably widespread species, being found from Portugal to Japan. All of their close living relatives, however, are much more restricted, each being isolated on different islands or island chains off the south-east coast of Asia.

The largest such island, and, indeed, the third largest island in the world, is Borneo. This is home to the bearded pig (Sus barbatus), which is also found, not only on the neighbouring island of Sumatra, but also on the Malaysian mainland. The Bornean and Sumatran forms of the animal are widely regarded as different subspecies - the latter going by the rather brilliant name of S. b. oi - although quite which of these two the Malaysian pigs belong to has been a matter of mild controversy.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Miocene (Pt 6): The Coming of the Mice

Palaeotragus
The Early and Mid parts of the Miocene epoch were, for the most part, times when the world was much warmer than it is today. It wasn't a steady pattern, however, and I've already described how the fluctuations in climate, over the course of many millions of years, affected the rodents of Europe. It was a time when the most common small mammals in Europe were not mice and voles, but dormice, accompanied by early hamsters, squirrels, and the gliding eomyids.

By 10 million years ago, however, the colder, drier climate had become locked in for the long term. We know that the forests of Europe changed dramatically at this time, the old subtropical trees, such as figs and palms, being replaced by oak, alder, and elm. Likely as a result of this change in the available food supply, most of the dormice died out, leaving only a few close relatives of the relatively small number of species we have today.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Crusty Forearms of Male Bats

Bats, of course, are not blind. There eyesight is, in fact, pretty good in the majority of species. Which makes sense for an animal that has to fly around at night when the light is dim but not entirely absent. It's only for animals like moles, which live underground, where the light can't penetrate at all, that vision becomes an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

Having said that, many species of bat do spend a lot of time in caves, and, in there it really is too dark to see anything, no matter how good your night vision might be. As a result, the other senses of bats are often highly tuned. Hearing is the obvious one, since bats rely on that for their sonar abilities, but many species also have well-developed senses of smell. In particular, since bats also tend to be highly social, scent often forms a crucial part of their ability to communicate with one another - as it does for many other mammal species.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Silence of the Pacas

Whether or not a given species of animal lives in groups is something of a trade-off. Several different factors are involved, but just one example is that you will simultaneously be more visible to predators and be protected from them by "safety in numbers". For many animals, the benefits outweigh the downsides, although a lot depends on the individual environments and lifestyles of those creatures.

But living in groups also brings its own requirements, perhaps most notably the need to communicate with other members of your herd or pack. Safety in numbers, after all, is of limited utility if one member of the group can't warn others of something dangerous it's just seen. And this isn't simply a yes/no situation; the more complex the group structure, it is argued, the more sophisticated the communication needs to be.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Pig Family: Wild Boar and the Domestication of Pigs

European wild boar
Generally speaking, the wild ancestors of agricultural animals have not fared particularly well. Wild goats are a threatened species, wild horses are an endangered one, camels are doing even worse, and wild cattle have been extinct for centuries. Wild sheep haven't done quite so badly, although they're hardly widespread, but, in general, one of the main problems facing such animals is that the sort of places they like to live are exactly the ones we want to turn into agricultural land to raise their domesticated kin.

Indeed, only two wild ancestors of widely domesticated herbivore are doing well: chickens and pigs. (This may, of course, depend on your definition of "widely"; I'm ignoring, say, rabbits). Indeed, the wild ancestor of the domestic pig is not only reasonably common, it's the single most widespread of any species of wild pig.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Early Whales of the North Pacific

The majority of living cetacean species belong to a group called the odontocetes, or "toothed whales". Most of them aren't really what we think of as "whales" at all, since the group includes all of the dolphins and porpoises. The group does, however, include a number of much larger species - some of them just really big dolphins, such as the killer whales, but others being less closely related, such as sperm whales, beaked whales, and narwhals.

The odontocetes as a whole stretch back far into the fossil record, with the oldest known examples dating back to around the dawn of the Oligocene epoch 34 million years ago. They rapidly spread across the globe, unhindered by the geographical barriers that often affect more land-based mammals. (The continents were all separate at the time, which would have helped, since it was possible to swim right around the globe without leaving the mid-latitudes).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Jackals on the Motorway

Mammals tend to have a particular area in which they live most of their lives and conduct their various activities. This is known as the animal's "home range", and it's not quite the same thing as a "territory". That's because the latter is an actively defended bit of land, that the animal strives to keep clear of rivals, perhaps marking it with scent as a warning, and using aggression against intruders if they have to. The majority of mammal species don't bother to defend territories, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a home range - after all, they have to live somewhere.

One key difference between a territory and a home range is that the former, by definition, is not shared with any neighbours. Of course, the animal might be social, living in herds, packs or other kinds of band, so that all members of the group share a single territory, but, again, it's not shared with outsiders. A home range, on the other hand, almost always overlaps with at least some others used by members of the same species, especially if they happen to be of the opposite sex. Breeding would be problematic if they didn't.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

How Mothers Stop Their Daughters from Sleeping Around

Northern mole-vole (E. talpinus)
Generally speaking, mammals are equally likely to be born as either males or females. The exact proportion may vary a little, and it doesn't follow that both sexes form 50% of the adult population, because one or the other may be more likely to die young. It's even less the case that all males, or all females, are equally likely to pair up and have offspring of their own.

This disparity is known as reproductive skew, and it varies considerably between species, and sometimes even between populations of the same species. At one extreme, it's essentially zero. This happens if the species is basically monogamous, usually because child rearing is a sufficiently draining exercise that being able to share the duties between two individuals is really helpful. It can also happen for what might be regarded as the exact opposite reason - if the species is highly promiscuous so that the females will mate with absolutely anyone, once again, everyone's chances of reproducing are the same. There's just less of that courtship stuff to worry about, off-set by having a single-parent family once you're done.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Pig Family: Suids, Suines, and Swine

The pigs occupy an an interesting position in the mammalian family tree. The pig family, or Suidae, belongs to the order Artiodactyla, consisting of the cloven-footed mammals and a few of their closest relatives. (I will, at this point, note that I'm going to be using "artiodactyl" in the traditional, non-molecular sense, in this post. Paraphyly be damned, at least for today.)

This is unsurprising, given that pigs do, indeed, have cloven hooves. However, there are other features that almost all artiodactyls have in common, most significantly, that they are purely herbivorous animals with multi-chambered stomachs that they use to "chew the cud". Pigs, however, do not, and while they may not be the only non-ruminating artiodactyls, they are by far the most species-rich group to fit this description.

Traditionally, this was thought to be because they are more "primitive", having evolved before their relatives got round to developing more complex digestive systems. In a more modern way of looking at things, we'd instead note that, compared with other artiodactyls, pigs are omnivorous; they haven't developed more efficient ways of digesting tough plant matter because they don't need to. That they've survived as well as they have, evolving over many millions of years without ever being wiped out, shows that this has been a pretty successful tactic for them.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Miocene (Pt 5): Hyenas in the Treetops

The first hyenas somewhat resembled this African civet
When we think of prehistoric carnivorous mammals, the first image that probably pops to most people's minds is that of sabretooth cats. It will therefore be no surprise that, were we to visit Middle Miocene Europe, one of the most widespread carnivores that we would find would be a moderately-sized cat-like animal with enlarged, serrated canine teeth in its upper jaw. What might be a little more surprising is that it wouldn't actually be a sabretooth cat.

The animal was called Prosansanosmilus, and it is known to have lived at least across what is now western Europe, from Spain to Germany. It, or its immediate ancestor, had probably first evolved in northern Africa, and arrived in Europe not long after that continent had collided with its northern neighbour - one of many animals to cross over as part of the so-called "Proboscidean Event". In life, it would surely have looked much like a cat, albeit with shorter legs and flatter paws less suited to pouncing and other rapid movement. But, in fact, it was not a cat, but a member of a family that, like the bear-dogs, no longer exists; that of the barbourofelids, or "false sabretooths".

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Strong, Silent Type?

Compared with many other kinds of animal, mammals can often have complex social lives. While many kinds of mammal live in packs or herds, with sophisticated dominance hierarchies and the like, the most complex of all mammal societies (at least as defined by we humans) belong to species belonging to one of just three mammalian orders. It's likely no coincidence that these also happen to be the three orders with the proportionately largest brains.

Perhaps the most obvious of these are the primates, the group that includes our own species. Many species of monkey have flexible social structures where members join and leave groups, adjusting their social positions accordingly, and relying on sophisticated interactions with one another to keep everything functioning. However, the social lives of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) can be equally complex, with, for example, multi-level associations between different pods. The third group to exhibit this sort of behaviour are the elephants.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Making Hay on a Mountaintop

As I write this, the weather across much of the US is not great. According to Google, it is, right now, -12°C (10°F) in Washington, DC, and that's ignoring the effects of wind chill. And it's a nippy 16°C (61°F) in Arizona... okay, so perhaps that latter one isn't the best example. But the point is, this is harsh, and, if it isn't fun for humans, then it isn't for wild animals, either.

Indeed, winter in general is a tough time for animals living in temperate climes, as much due to the lack of food resources as to the need to shelter from the cold. There are a number of different strategies they use to mitigate this time of enforced starvation. Some animals, of course, simply brave the conditions, using thick winter coats, and perhaps some means of digging out food from beneath a blanket of snow. But others take more active steps, and there are basically three ways of doing this. One is to hibernate, so that you don't need much in the way of food until the spring. A second is to simply move elsewhere, either migrating to warmer climes or, if you live on a mountain, just heading downhill a bit.

A third approach is to collect food in the autumn and then store it somewhere through the winter, so that you have ready access to it. This, naturally, poses a number of problems. You have to remember where you put the food, hope that somebody else isn't going to find and eat it, and ensure that it doesn't spoil. Even so, a number of smaller mammals do exactly this, and it's clearly something that works for them.