Sunday 24 November 2019

Small British Mammals: Hedgehogs

There can be few British mammals more distinctive and well-loved than the hedgehog. Indeed, a 2016 poll found that it is, by a substantial margin, Britain's favourite mammal. (For what it's worth, and by a similar margin, the robin is apparently our favourite bird).

The animal that Brits simply call "the hedgehog" is more accurately the European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), and it's found through pretty much the entirety of western Europe. In fact, across much of the continent, the eastern border of its occurrence is very roughly where the old Iron Curtain used to be. That's a simplification, of course, and aside from some border regions of former 'Eastern Bloc' countries, they are also found quite extensively in the Czech Republic, Estonia and parts of north-west Russia. They are also common on several larger islands, including Ireland, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and, in more recent times, they have been introduced to the Azores.

Sunday 17 November 2019

Don't Sleep with Your Sister

Conservation of mammals (or other animals) isn't simply a matter of providing enough suitable habitat for them to live in. One other consideration is that that habitat should not be overly fragmented - and this can be a problem as we build roads or other transport networks that cross otherwise wild terrain. The problem with fragmented habitats is that, even if there is enough space and food to support a small population of the animal in question, that population cannot reach and interact with other populations. And this leads to inbreeding.

We have known that inbreeding is a bad thing in animals since... well, probably at least since we started domesticating livestock. In our own species, there's a natural revulsion against incest, something that's reflected in moral teachings that go back at least as far as the Old Testament, and similar codes in other cultures. Animals too, avoid inbreeding when they can, perhaps finding the scent marks left by genetically similar individuals to be unpleasant.

Sunday 10 November 2019

Small British Mammals: Water Shrews

Two of the three species of shrew found in Britain are very similar to one another in appearance and habits. This is hardly surprising, given how closely related they are. The odd one out, however, is not quite such a close relative, and is rather more distinctive.

This is the Eurasian water shrew (Neomys fodiens), which unsurprisingly, is simply called the "water shrew" in Britain. Despite its differences, even at first glance, it's pretty obvious that it is a shrew: it's a small, long-tailed animal with short fur, tiny ears, small eyes, and a narrow, pointed, snout filled with sharp teeth. However, by the standards of shrews, it's unusually large. Fully grown adults can reach as much as 10cm (4 inches) in length, and weigh up to 25g (0.9 oz.), closer in size to a typical mouse than to other native shrews.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Bat Poo and Fig Trees

Seba's short-tailed bat (Carollia perspicillata)
feeding on wild pepper
If the presence of plenty of carnivores is generally bad news for herbivores, it may seem that the presence of plenty of herbivores is bad news for plants. Clearly, such problems as over-grazing do exist, but the reality can often be more complex. Fruit are a particular case in point.

Many fruits are tasty specifically to encourage herbivores to eat them, containing highly resistant seeds that pass through the herbivore's digestive tract, land in a nice pile of manure, and germinate to create more plants in future. It has been estimated that, in most wild forest environments, anything from 45% to 90% of tree species bear edible fruit of this kind. (Of course, a number of the fruits we see in supermarkets are even tastier, because we've bred them that way, with the banana being perhaps the most extreme example. But it's not as if wild apples and oranges, for example, don't exist and aren't attractive to animals).

Not all herbivores eat these kinds of fruit, as opposed to other things that botanists would call "fruit", such as grass seeds. Primates are one of the more obvious examples of mammals that do, and it's theorised that our unusually good colour vision arose in part so that we could easily tell which ones were ripe. But another group of mammals that eat a strongly fruit-based diet are, unsurprisingly, the fruit bats.