Sunday 25 November 2018

Twilight of the Almost-Primates

The primates are one of the major groups within placental mammals, currently considered to contain at least fourteen different living 'families', and probably more. Given this, and the fact that they are fairly distinctive, it's not surprising to discover that they are also a very ancient group. Genetic studies, back by estimates of how frequently mutations ought to occur, imply that they may date all the way back to the extinction of the dinosaurs, or at least its immediate aftermath.

The oldest undisputed fossil primate we currently know of isn't quite that old, however, and dates back 'only' 55 million years to the dawn of the Eocene epoch. I have to add the word 'undisputed' to that, though, because it wasn't alone - a number of other very primate-like animals did live at the same time, and, indeed, somewhat earlier.

These animals are collectively called 'plesiadapiforms', and it would be fair to say that there is still some considerable debate as to what they actually were. Just as with the question as to how many families of living primate there are, this depends not on how the different groups are related, but on where we choose to draw the lines between them. In the case of living families, the question is whether we consider marmosets and night monkeys to belong to the broader capuchin family, or whether we consider them different enough to count as families in their own right. In the case of the plesiadapiforms, it's whether they're really weird early primates, or whether we consider them to be merely close relatives.

Sunday 18 November 2018

How Baby Bats Learn to Fly

Small mammals, on the whole, live fast and die young; a great many of them live for only a single year. And that's assuming they don't get eaten first, which, unsurprisingly, they often are. In order to maintain their numbers, then, it is essential that they breed early and often. In particular, they tend to have large litters, which they then need to get to adult independence as quickly as possible. The common house mouse, for example, can breed at least five times a year, and gives births to litters of typically around five to eight pups at a time, each of which is sexually mature within less than two months.

This is not, however, what we see with bats.

Sunday 11 November 2018

The Grunting of Baboons

Olive baboon
While they also often have other means at their disposal, mammal species typically communicate with one another through sound. For those that live solitary lives, this tends to be fairly unsophisticated, beyond, perhaps, the need to attract and woo a mate. For social animals, sound production can, however, be more complicated, allowing the sort of short-term immediate communication for which scent-marking is not appropriate.

An obvious example are alarm calls, in which one member of a herd or other group will alert its fellows of a predator or other threat. Another are the distressed 'separation calls' that young mammals use when they can' find their mother. And then, of course, there are mating calls, or aggressive roars and the like intended to intimidate a rival.

But there are also peaceful, non-sexual, contact calls whose primary intent appears to be simply maintaining the cohesion of the group. For example, meerkats regularly use calls to decide when to move on to new foraging grounds, keeping the group together using the principle that if three or more members 'vote' to move by making the appropriate call, then everybody moves at once. African elephants can even use long-distance communication to maintain social bonds with individuals that may be literally miles away.

Sunday 4 November 2018

The Pig Family: Fossil Pigs

Kubanochoerus, the unicorn-pig
There are seventeen widely accepted species of pig alive today. Although some, notably the wild boar and the two kinds of warthog, are doing absolutely fine in the grand scheme of things, many are threatened to varying extents by hunting and loss of habitat. Three - the pygmy hog and the Visayan and Javan warty pigs - are formally listed as endangered species by the IUCN, and many of the others are just outside that category. On the bright side, no clearly identified species of pig has actually slipped over the line into extinction in the last few thousand years. But, of course, if you go back a few million years, it's a rather different story.

Indeed, in some respects, the pig family as it exists today is a shadow of its former self. Pigs have always been reasonably successful animals (at least, without human interference), given their adaptability, moderate intelligence, and willingness to eat just about anything. But, in the past, they were more varied than today. In total, there are five generally recognised subfamilies within the overarching pig family - and all but one of them are known only from fossils.