Sunday 27 October 2019

How Sloths Turned Upside Down

One of the things that sloths are noted for is spending a lot of time hanging upside down. This isn't, of course, something they literally spend their entire lives doing; they come down out of the trees to defecate, and they do sometimes travel over the ground - or swim across rivers - to move from one tree to another. They have also been observed, especially in zoos, casually sitting about in what we'd consider a fairly normal posture. But even so, being upside down is how they spend most of their time.

This is obviously pretty odd, from the perspective of a mammal (or, indeed, most other animals). You might think that what must have happened is that, at some point in the distant past, some ancestral tree sloth first headed up into the branches, decided to do so by hanging from them rather than by the more obvious method favoured by (say) primates, and that all of its descendants simply happened to do the same thing. In other words, it's a one-off quirk of evolution.

Except that can't be right.

Sunday 20 October 2019

The Smallest British Mammals: Shrews

Common shrew
For some reason that I no longer recall, a picture of a shrew cropped up while I was talking with a friend on the internet. "That's a mouse," she insisted. "No," I said, "it's a shrew." "Mouse!"

It was only later that I remembered that the German word for "shrew" is spitzmaus (literally "sharp/pointed mouse") and, since my friend was Austrian, she wasn't necessarily entirely wrong. From a certain perspective, perhaps to German-speakers, all these small, furry, long-tailed things are mäusen.

And it's certainly true that shrews do look, superficially, quite like mice. They tend to be smaller, with narrower snouts, and very small ears and eyes, but there is something quite mouse-like about them. Nonetheless, shrews (unlike, say, voles) are not rodents. In fact, as placental mammals go, they aren't even particularly related to rodents - humans are more closely related to mice than shrews are.

Sunday 13 October 2019

The Curiosity of Lemmings

The reason that there are so many different animal species in the world is that they all have different living requirements; it's no secret that a tiger has different needs from a hedgehog. In most land-based habitats, we can look around and see a fair variety of mammal species and it's obvious that, while they may compete in other ways (by eating each other, for example), they can all survive because they are using their chosen habitat in different ways.

But, in some cases, it's quite hard to find more than a handful of species - especially if we're going to restrict ourselves to mammals, and ignore all the birds, insects, and so on. This is often true of city centres, for example, where you may not have much aside from rats, mice, and urban foxes. But in the wild, however, we are typically talking about particularly marginal habitats, such as deserts, high mountains and other desolate wastes.

Sunday 6 October 2019

A Hole of Your Own

Many animals dig burrows for shelter, whether from the weather or from predators. In some cases these are complex or extensive burrow systems, such as we find with rabbits or gophers, and some animals, such as moles, try not to leave their burrows at all, adapting to a subterranean life. Most are much simpler than this, a basic hole in the ground in which the animal can rest securely at night - or during the day, as the case may be.

At the opposite extreme to the specialised diggers, however, are those animals that don't dig burrows at all, but still find it useful to seek shelter in this manner. These are creatures that will either use natural cavities or take over an abandoned burrow originally dug by something else. If they can't find one, it's usually not a disaster, although it may make life a little uncomfortable. But that's not necessarily true when it comes to time to breed.