Saturday, 29 September 2018

Lions in the Carpathians

When I last talked about Eurasian cave lions, back in 2013, I said that there was some debate as to whether they were a distinct species, or just an unusual subspecies of the modern, living, lion. Although the issue is, perhaps, still not entirely resolved, it's probably fair to say that the clear majority opinion these days is that they were a separate species (Panthera spelaea).

This swing in opinion has been helped by new genetic data, something that we can obtain because the animals died out so recently - around 12,000 BC by most estimates. Specifically, an analysis published in 2016 was able to obtain the full mitochondrial genome of a pair of cave lions, allowing a more detailed genetic analysis than ever before. This showed that, as expected based on earlier studies, cave lions really were "lions" in the sense that they were more closely related to modern lions than thy were to, say, leopards.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Hunting Grounds of Small Cats

The big cats - lions, tigers, leopards, and so on - are arguably amongst the well-known of all wild animals. They frequently figure in zoos and nature documentaries, and, from the scientific perspective, they have been the subject of numerous studies down the years. Even the medium-sized cats, such as lynxes, bobcats, and ocelots, are well known, and, at least in the case of the European and North American species, also well-studied.

We know somewhat less about the assorted species of genuinely small cat - the ones that are about the size of the typical domestic moggy. Yet there are an awful lot of them, even if most members of the public would likely have a hard time naming more than one or two.

One such example is Geoffroy's cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) named for - though not discovered by - the pioneering French naturalist √Čtienne Geoffroy St Hilaire. This lives in southern South America, reaching Bolivia, Paraguay, and the southern tip of Brazil in the north, and also found just over the border in Chile, but mainly inhabiting Argentina and Uruguay. While they prefer terrain with scattered trees and plenty of bushes, the also live in open grassland, and are found right down to the very southern coast of South America, although not on the islands beyond.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Modified Munchies of Many Mouse-eared Myotises

In the modern system of taxonomy for the classification of living things, a genus is  group of closely related species. It is the lowest mandatory level of classification, apart from 'species' itself, and forms the first half of a creature's scientific name. Thus, Panthera, for example, is the genus containing lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, and jaguars.

As such, we'd typically expect a genus to contain only a small number of species - it is, after all, the smallest standard grouping of species that there is. And, at least for mammals, this is typically the case. Many genera, in fact, have only one known species, or at least only one that isn't extinct (as is the case for our own genus, Homo, for example). But there are some exceptions, cases where there are so many incredibly similar species that we just have to lump them all together.

The single largest mammal genus, as commonly defined today, is Crocidura, which represents nearly half of every species of shrew we know about. But even the second largest, Myotis, is a whopper.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Pig Family: Peccaries Are Not Pigs

Over the the year so far, this series has described every living species of pig. Yet there are some animals that might seem to be missing. Found across much of Latin America, and up into the southwestern USA, we can find animals known as peccaries. These certainly look like pigs, and, unlike razorbacks, which can also be found in the US, they are genuinely wild animals, not the descendants of domesticated ones that happen to have escaped.

The reason I haven't mentioned them so far is, as the title of the post makes apparent, that they aren't actually pigs. So why the heck not, and what are they, if they're not pigs?

Sunday, 2 September 2018

400th Synapsida

With this being the 400th post at Synapsida, it is once again time for my biennial piece of navel-gazing, in which I see what has happened over the last 100 posts, and where I might be going next.

There's no change to the most frequently used tags over the last 100 posts, with evolution and behaviour topping the list, as might be expected, given the general theme of the blog. (I'm ignoring tags directly related to particular 'series' here, of course). Bubbling under are topics related to diet, sociability, and reproduction. Given some of the animals I have been looking at, it is unsurprising - if rather depressing - that endangered species are also mentioned quite frequently.