Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Last of the Chinese Zebra-Donkeys

Asian wild asses
With the exception of our own species, few mammals have been the subject of quite so much interest in their evolutionary history as the horse. The number of named species of fossil horse far outweighs the number of species that are alive today. A great many of these are, of course, the older three-toed horses, with all living horses being placed in the single genus Equus.

Today that genus consists of just seven widely recognised living species. But, even among just this genus, and ignoring all the older, extinct ones, there were once many more species than there are today. But just how many is that? That's a matter of considerable confusion and debate.

In a way, that's hardly surprising, especially when you consider the focus of attention that there has been on horse evolution. Even just looking at the living species, not everyone agrees that 'seven' is the appropriate number, with some authorities arguing that particular subspecies are distinct enough that they should really be species in their own right.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Small British Mammals: Ratty and the Water Voles

Four different species of vole live wild in Britain, with, perhaps, the field vole being the one that is most typical of the wider group. However, it's perhaps a different species that has the most claim to fame, appearing as one of the central characters (confusingly named "Ratty") in the popular children's book The Wind in the Willows.

Ratty is a water vole (Arvicola amphibius), an animal with a number of differences from common and field voles, despite being fairly closely related to them. Before discussing the species in more detail, we should acknowledge that, over the years, there has been considerable confusion as to what the scientific name of this animal actually is - and, for once there's quite a good reason for it.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Miocene (Pt 14): Sabre-toothed Sea Otters

Ysengrinia
When bears first entered North America is really more a matter of definition than of our understanding of the fossil evidence. Going by what is probably the most common current definition, bears first appeared in Europe about 20 million years ago, in the form of Ursavus elmensis. Noticeably smaller than modern bears, this developed into a number of species across Europe and Asia, and to the closely related Ballusia in China.

Almost immediately, however, Ursavus also crossed into North America, probably arriving around 19 million years ago. It seems to have been far less common there than it was in Europe, with the local species, Ursavus pawniensis (there were probably others, but that's the only one we know of for sure) living in relatively small populations across the west, from Nebraska to Oregon and Saskatchewan. It doesn't appear to have left any descendants, being eventually replaced by more modern species of bear from Asia rather than evolving into anything uniquely American.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

The Porcupine Sleeps Tonight

The book All Yesterdays presents, among other things, unusual, but scientifically plausible, depictions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. One picture, for example, shows a T. rex asleep - something that they must logically have spent quite a lot of time doing despite the fact that typical dinosaur books never show it.

Well, it's not as exciting as fighting a Triceratops.

In general, though, even when it comes to living animals, it's probably fair to say that behavioural scientists don't spend a lot of time thinking about how they sleep. All animals advanced to have a brain sleep in some fashion, so far as we know, and obviously, that includes mammals. To be sure, this isn't terribly obvious in the case of dolphins and the like, since they can be both asleep and awake at the same time, but everything that lives on land has to take a nap from time to time.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Screaming Monkeys

Animals, mammals included, produce a wide range of different sounds. Some species are relatively silent or have a very small repertoire of calls, but others are much more vocal, being able to tailor the nature of their call to a specific purpose. Cetaceans and primates are perhaps the most obvious here, but it's worth noting that cats, for example, can purr, mew, hiss, chatter, growl and (in some species) roar.

Some of these sounds - such as a cat's purr - are found only in a single group of related animals. (Not all wild cat species purr, of course, but many do). Others are, at least in general terms, produced by a range of different species, often in quite similar circumstances. One of these is the 'scream', an unusually loud call that is typically high-pitched. Screams also commonly include rapid, chaotic, changes in frequency and amplitude that we humans interpret as a harsh, inherently unpleasant, sound - and there's likely good reason for that.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Small British Mammals: Common and Field Voles

Field vole
In many respects, voles are extremely similar to mice. In many languages, the local word for 'mouse' also describes voles, and this was even the case in English prior to around the 19th century, when the term "vole-mouse" was borrowed from a now-extinct Scandinavian tongue, and shortly thereafter abbreviated to simply "vole". In its original language, it literally meant "field", and a similar etymology can be seen in languages such as German (Feldmaus) and French (campagnol) among many others.

Scientifically, voles have also been mixed in with the mice at different times. While they have recognised as a distinct group with their own scientific name since 1821, for much of the 20th century they were considered a subgroup within the wider mouse family. That's really only changed in the last 20 years or so, as genetic and biochemical evidence has shown that the two groups, while related, have distinct evolutionary histories.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Big African Not-a-Lion

Spot the real lion
When it comes to fossil animals, there can be little doubt that the ones most popular with the general public are the large ones. There's a reason that dinosaurs seem to hold the most enduring fascination, and that even popular science books about the whole range of prehistoric life are almost bound to have them as part of their title. (And, while some dinosaurs were small, most of the ones we know about weren't, perhaps partly because it's easier to preserve large solid bones than small fragile ones).

It's not really any different with prehistoric mammals, with mammoths, mastodons, and sabretooth cats being the ones that most people would instantly recognise and be familiar with. Even dire wolves, which weren't really all that big, are surely better known than, say, extinct foxes or weasels of the same age. Which brings up a second point: even if an animal isn't as large as an elephant or Diplodocus, being unusually large for a carnivore will still help its public profile enormously.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Lots of Little Deer Mice

If a sexually reproducing animal is to preserve its species without population loss, each pair of parents has to produce, on average, two offspring that will themselves live long enough to reproduce. This is just basic arithmetic, but there are at least three different ways that an animal can achieve this result and which one is used varies from species to species.

One approach is to maximise the chances of each of your offspring surviving. This is called the K-selection strategy, and results in the population being as close to the maximum capacity of the local habitat as possible. (The 'K' stands for 'capacity'... in German). Such animals don't need to reproduce very often, or produce very many offspring when they do, but they have to invest a lot of resources in their survival. They tend to be relatively large animals, with few predators... elephants, primates, and whales are all good examples among mammals. Humans are a particularly extreme example, given how long it takes us to raise our children, and, as with other strong K-selectors, twins are rare in our species.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

With a Little Help from My Friends

There are a number of disadvantages to living in groups. Some of the more obvious are that the group will be, collectively, easier for predators to spot, and that they will all have to compete for the same resources. Other problems, which might be less obvious, include the fact that infections and parasites are more likely to spread amongst a group of similar animals that remain in close contact. All of these are good reasons for solitary living, as seen in a great many mammal species.

Despite which, of course, there are many mammals that do live communally. For these animals, whatever costs there may be are obviously outweighed by the benefits, of which there are several. While a large group of animals may be easier to see, it's also easier for them to keep a lookout, since not everyone needs to be actively scanning the horizon (or whatever) all of the time. They can also share in communal tasks, such as child-rearing, putting less strain on the individuals. Predators that hunt in packs can take down prey far too large for any one of them to kill on their own. Even huddling together against the cold can be a worthwhile benefit.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Small British Mammals: Rats!

Brown rat
The term "rat", as commonly used, has no defined biological meaning. A "rat" is simply any rodent that looks at least somewhat like a mouse, but is larger. Animals fitting this description have evolved multiple times, so that rats do not form a single evolutionary group, and not all of them are even members of the mouse family.

Nonetheless, there is a biological group that we can call, for lack of a better term, the "true rats" (technically the "Rattini") which includes the animals that most people likely think of when the term "rat" is used with qualification. There are two species of this kind of animal in Britain, not least because both of them are found just about everywhere else as well.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Miocene (Pt 13): The Time of No Cats

Aelurodon
Today, there are a number of native cat species in America. The North has its bobcats, lynxes, and puma/cougar/mountain lions while, further south, there are even more species (ocelots and jaguars being merely the most obvious). At the dawn of the Miocene, 23 million years ago, however, it was a somewhat different story.

While there was nothing similar in the south, there had been plenty of cat-like animals on the northern continent before. True, they had not literally been cats, but rather nimravids, a group of remarkably cat-like animals that lived long before actual cats existed. The climatic changes of the Early Miocene seem not have suited them, however, and almost died out as the new epoch dawned. It's possible that one, Dinictis, a bobcat-sized sabretooth, did manage to struggle on for a few million years, but even that is debatable. But, otherwise, while their relatives, the barbourofelids, continued on in Europe, to eventually be replaced by actual cats, in North America... there was nothing.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

The Spikiness of Tenrecs

Being a small mammal (or, indeed, any other kind of animal) can be tough; there's always something out there that wants to try and eat you. There are a whole host of adaptations that animals use to try and avoid this fate. Running fast and being good at hiding or camouflage are, perhaps, the most obvious and widespread defensive methods. Another approach is to live somewhere that it's really difficult for most predators to find you, such as spending your entire life in an underground burrow.

Fighting back, as larger horned animals might do, generally isn't so effective, although skunks (for example) have certainly found a way of doing that. But there is also the option of body armour. It's something we see quite a lot in reptiles and, in living mammals, it's perhaps best developed in armadillos. But body armour doesn't have to be a bony or keratinous shell, for something that wants to avoid being eaten, spines can also be an effective deterrent.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

On the Origin of Ducks

Presbyornis
This is the post that will be current as of 1st April, when Synapsida traditionally hands over to the Lords of Misrule. Or, failing that, birds.

The fossil history of birds is less well-studied than that of mammals. This is hardly to say that it has been ignored, and we do know a reasonable amount about it. But a key problem with bird fossils is that, in order to fly, birds have light and fragile bones. These don't tend to survive the fossilisation process intact (bats don't do much better) and birds also lack the great standby of palaeontologists specialising in mammals - teeth.

Of course, a notable exception to this are the flightless birds, which can be enormous, and tend to have reasonably solid bones even when they aren't. It's a lot easier to find a reasonably intact skeleton of a terror bird, or even a penguin or fossil ostrich, than it is of something that flies. There's a reason that the previous posts in this April series have all focussed on the flightless sort.

But most birds do fly and are, let's be honest, well known for it. And, despite the difficulties, we do have a number of fossils of flying birds of various kinds - all the way back to Archaeopteryx - so that their evolutionary history is very far from being a blank book.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Small British Mammals: The Smallest Mice

The smallest species of mouse native to Britain, and, indeed, one of the smallest species of mice anywhere in the world, is the harvest mouse (Micromys minutus). With a typical adult weight of around 7 grams (0.25 oz.) or so, it's only around a quarter of the weight of a typical house mouse, and is known by terms translating as "dwarf mouse" in a number of European languages, including both German and Greek.

Harvest mice are widespread, being found across much of Europe, and in a band across Asia that reaches as far as Japan and Taiwan in the east. A 2009 study from Vietnam suggested that the harvest mice there might be a separate species, but it was small scale and not yet fully accepted. Certainly, it's an unusually hot climate for harvest mice which, in Europe, are found only in northern Spain and Italy, only sporadically in Greece, and not in Portugal at all. On the other hand, while they are reasonably common in central and southern Finland and southern Scotland, they are rare in Sweden and absent from Norway. (They also don't reach Ireland, but the sea is the likely barrier there, rather than the climate).

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Beaches of Bakersfield

Modern walrus skull
Seals have a moderately long fossil history, with some of the oldest examples dating from Europe, around 15 million years ago. Although they are now found worldwide, back in those early times, they seem only to have lived in the North Atlantic, reaching the Pacific only around 11 million years ago (probably by the simple expedient of swimming through the seas that then covered what is now Central America).

However, one of the world's best fossil sites for recovering fossil aquatic mammals is at Sharktooth Hill, just outside of Bakersfield, California. Part of the larger Temblor Formation, the deposits here consist of silts and sands, laid down just over 15 million years ago, when California was sweltering in the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum, a time of unusually high worldwide temperatures - and correspondingly high sea levels. This was before seals had reached so far west, but that does not mean that a number of similar animals did not already live there at the time.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Breeding Cats in Captivity

The Sumatran tiger is a critically endangered subspecies
Although the actual number may be higher, depending on the status of certain subspecies, there are 38 widely recognised species of wild cat. Of these, five are formally considered to be "endangered species", and a further thirteen are "threatened", but not sufficiently so to fall into the riskier bracket. Taken together, that's almost half of the total species, and it ignores the significant number of species that are threatened in parts of their natural range, but survive well enough somewhere else.

The primary reasons for this are habitat loss and poaching, and virtually every species of cat - even those, such as the puma/cougar/mountain lion, that aren't threatened overall - has a declining population. Fortunately, the same thing that makes wild cats attractive to poachers - their undeniable charisma and beauty - also inspires conservation efforts of the sort that, say, the Ethiopian amphibious rat (Nilopegamys plumbeus) could only dream of.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Fluorescent Pink Squirrels

In visible light...
I don't normally cover stories that have been in the news recently, but this was too good to pass up, and, anyway, it wasn't that prominent so some people may have missed it. Fluorescent pink squirrels, oh yeah!

Our story begins in May 2017 with, of all things, a professor of forestry. He was conducting a preliminary survey of the plants and lichens growing in a forest in northern Wisconsin, Many kinds of lichen, and some flowers, fluoresce under UV light, so one way of finding them is to wander around in a forest at night, carrying a UV flashlight. So far, so perfectly normal for the people who study this sort of thing. But, on this occasion, the researcher discovered something entirely unexpected: when he directed his flashlight at a nearby squirrel, it fluoresced a brilliant pink.

This is not something one generally expects squirrels to do. Clearly, more research was called for.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Small British Mammals: Field Mice

Wood mouse
While the common house mouse is likely one of the most familiar of all animals living wild in Britain, it is only one of four species of mouse native to the islands. (France and Germany, for comparison, have six each, although they aren't the same six). Of the other three, the closest relatives of the house mouse are the two species of field mouse, which are also found widely on continental Europe.

Field mice have benefited less from the presence of humans than house mice, since they tend to avoid human dwellings, and there are rather a lot of those in Europe. Given their common name, however, one might suppose that they have at least benefited from the spread of agricultural land. This, however, only true of one of the British species. This is the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), sometimes also known as the "long-tailed field mouse". In Britain, when the term "field mouse" is used without qualification, it typically means this one.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Miocene (Pt 12): American Rhinos and Horse-Headed Lopers

Moropus
The warming climate of Early Miocene North America was host to a variety of animals, both familiar and unfamiliar. Even in the former category, some of the creatures would have looked a little odd too modern eyes, but we can still say that a three-toed horse is, at least in general terms, still a horse. One group of animals that would be a little harder to place were the oreodonts (or, more technically, "merycoidodontids"), which were already fairly diverse when the Miocene dawned.

These creatures were unique to the continent and were medium-sized herbivores. They would have looked vaguely like pigs, although without the flattened nose-disc of those animals, and with four functional toes on each foot. As far as we can tell from their teeth, they were mostly browsing animals and were spread quite widely across the continent.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Land Mines and Scent Marks

For primates such as humans, vision is our primary sense. For the majority of mammal species, however, the most important sense is probably that of smell. In addition to using this sense to scope out the natural environment around them, many mammals leave scent marks as messages to one another, marking out a territory, advertising their willingness to mate, or whatever else they wish to convey.

Much research on the nature of scent marking focuses on how and where the animal leaves these messages, or how they may differ based on sex, maturity, and so on. This is obviously important if we want to understand why they're doing it, and what it is that they're trying to 'say'. But, naturally, it's also useful to understand how other animals of the same species respond to those marks - there's no point leaving a message if everyone else is just going to ignore it.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Hybrids are Coming

Hybrid domestic pig x wild boar
Conservation - whether it be of mammals or any other kind of animal or plant - tends to focus on the species level. These are the discrete kinds of living creature that can be most easily identified and preserved, ensuring that the mix and variety of the natural world remains as close to its original state as possible. Preservation of subspecies is often a lower priority, which makes sense if you really have to make the choice, but it, too, can be important if we want to preserve such things as genetic variation within a species.

The common understanding of a 'species' is that it consists of a group of animals that cannot interbreed with animals outside that species to create fertile offspring. This, however, is an oversimplification; lines blur, and not always in neat and tidy ways. Scientifically, there are multiple different ways of defining what a 'species' is, but the general idea is that it has to be a group of animals that can be readily identified as different from their relatives. Which tends to mean that, even if they can interbreed with other species, they generally don't, at least in the wild, and maintain a separate gene pool.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Small British Mammals: House Mice

Over the last few years, I have done a roughly annual series covering particular groups of mammals, exploring all the different species, familiar and unfamiliar, that belong to them. (If you haven't read the past ones, the link "Synapsida Series" points to the list of them; note that the individual posts appear in reverse chronological order once you select a series to view). One problem with selecting which groups to cover in a given year is that only some groups will really work, and, even then, some are clearly better than others.

One problem, for example, is that some groups are simply too large, and if you split them down into narrower groups that are more easily handled, there's no longer enough variety for it to be worth it. Such is particularly true of small mammals. There are over 700 species in the mouse family, for instance, with over 500 of those in the "murine" subfamily, which includes all of the familiar ones. Even if it would be practical to describe them all, most of the individual species haven't been studied in any detail, so you'd rapidly get a long list of "looks mouse-like, lives in XX".

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Murderous Whales of the Eocene Oceans

The relationships between what animals eat can be thought of as a pyramid. At the bottom are plants, which are eaten by herbivores, which are eaten by carnivores, which are eaten by larger carnivores. The reality is much more complex, and is more accurately thought of as a web (omnivores exist, large carnivores also eat herbivores, etc.), but the general principle is broadly true. In particular, the further up the ladder you go, the fewer animals there are, since the transfer of energy from one level to the next can never be 100% perfect.

At the top of the pyramid are the "apex predators". These are the carnivores that have no predators of their own, that are able to feed without fear of being eaten themselves. Again, the reality is more complex - an adult of one apex predator might occasionally kill and eat the young of a different kind, for instance. And, of course, everything gets eaten by worms (or whatever) once they're dead. Nonetheless, really big scary predators clearly do exist, even if, by their nature, they aren't very common.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Requiem for a Dolphin

Dolphins are social animals, living in pods and engaging in what seems to be fairly sophisticated communication. It's likely that such behaviour is part of the reason for their success, with well over 30 species spread across the world's oceans... and that's excluding porpoises, and some other "dolphin-like" animals outside the dolphin family proper.

Sociability involves a number of different traits and behaviours, but one that's known to exist in cetaceans and relatively little else, other than primates, is what's technically known as epimeletic behaviour. This is, in essence, the act of helping other members of your species when they are in trouble, typically due to an injury of some kind. (For what it's worth, this compares with etepimeletic behaviour, which is acting in such a way as to make it easier for others to care for you).

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Gerbil versus Rattlesnake

Sidewinder
Deserts are harsh environments, and living in them poses animals a number of problems, not least of which are daytime heat and an absence of water. In order to survive in such a place, animals need to evolve suitable adaptations - extremely efficient kidneys to reduce water loss are one such example.

But the thing about deserts is that, while there are some geographic differences between them, the challenges of living in one are at least broadly similar regardless of which desert it happens to be. And while, say, the world's seas are all connected, the deserts aren't. So animals, including mammals, have had to evolve means of surviving in them several times over, re-developing the necessary features each time they encounter a new one.