Saturday, 28 March 2020

Giant Ostriches of Europe

This post will be current as of 1st April, and that means it's time once again for... Diapsida!

The largest species of birds alive today are the ostriches. Since 2014, we have recognised two species of ostrich, but, as the fact it took us that long to notice might imply, they're about the same size, so which is actually "the largest" is debatable, although the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) tends to be the one given the honour.

Under the system of classification used throughout the 20th century, ostriches are a kind of ratite, a group of flightless birds, most of which are large, long-legged and long-necked, and all of which lack the keel on their breastbone to which the flight muscles would be anchored in other birds. In 2010, the first evidence surfaced that the ratites were not a natural evolutionary group, when it turned out that the South American tinamous formed a branch within the "ratite" family tree. Since tinamous can fly (albeit not very well) and, more importantly, do have a keel, they aren't ratites themselves, so the old terminology had to be dumped.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Small Cats: The Domestic Cat's Closest Relatives

Sand cat
The range of species included in the genus Felis has changed significantly over the years. Because of the way such things are named, it includes, by definition, the domestic cat and all its closest relatives - but how close is close?

Unsurprisingly, the genus appears in the very first catalogue of scientific names, all the way back in 1758. At the time, it included every one of the seven species of cat known to the author - wild/domestic cats, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, lynxes, and ocelots. Over the next few decades, whenever a new cat species was described (as you might imagine, cheetahs and pumas were among the first) it was added to the same genus. At the time, the modern concept of "taxonomic family" didn't exist, and, round about the same time that families became a thing and the Felidae were named, the big cats were hived off into a genus of their own, Panthera.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The Smallest Mammal Ever?

When it comes to fossil mammals, or indeed, any other kind of fossil animal, our attention is inevitably drawn to the giants. We are often fascinated by the mammoths or glyptodonts or the largest of Irish elk or the most muscular of sabretooths. Outside of mammals, it seems there's a never-ending battle to find the "largest dinosaur ever".

Indeed, one might almost get the impression that everything prehistoric was larger than today. In a number of cases, that's because larger animals really did exist in the past, perhaps being wiped out by a combination of the harsh realities of the Ice Ages and the arrival of human hunters. It's also an artefact of larger bones being easier to find in rock layers and being less fragile and likely to fragment when they fossilise. And that's before we add in the fact that most popular books on the subject tend to have a focus on the biggest and most dramatic animals of their kind.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Primate Penis Bones

At a certain level, the skeletons of all mammals follow a broadly similar pattern. Most of the bones that we see in the human skeleton are also found in the majority of mammals, and often in the same numbers. Famously, for example, a giraffe has exactly as many bones in the neck (seven) as humans do - they're just rather longer. Well, there's a reason giraffes can't bend their necks like swans.

Of course, when we get into detail, there are many exceptions to this. For instance, the default pattern for the paws of mammals is that they all have four digits with three bones each, and one with just two bones (the thumb and big toe in humans). But, obviously, this isn't true of all mammals. For instance, dogs have no big toe on their hind feet, and, while they do have a full set of ankle bones, the metatarsal that would normally connect to the big toe isn't there, either. There are rather more dramatic alterations in, say, horses and two-toed sloths, let alone dolphins.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Sharing Your Burrow

One of the key features of animal behaviour is sociality - to what extent the animal associates with others of its kind. Many mammals are solitary, meeting up to breed, but otherwise spending their adult lives alone, except when mothers are raising their young. That so many aren't is probably partly due to that period of long parental care. Mammals are defined by their ability to produce milk, which necessarily implies some degree of mother/child bonding, and it may well not take too many behavioural modifications to get from there to just not leaving home at adulthood.

Social behaviour has both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, pack hunting makes it easier to take down larger and otherwise unavailable prey, if you're a predator. If you're not, there's safety in numbers, and the more of you there are, the easier it is to spread out the duties of looking out for threats. On the downside, large numbers do make you rather more obvious, and if you're all after the exact same kind of food, there'd better be a lot of it about or some of you will go hungry.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The Cat Family: Domestic and Wildcats

European wildcat
Perhaps surprisingly, there is some confusion and debate as to the correct scientific name for the familiar domestic moggy. There are, in fact, at least three different possibilities, all of which have their supporters among the people who study such things.

Firstly, there's the option that domestication has had such radical effects on the cat that it can be considered a separate species. In this case, its correct name is Felis catus. That name was first awarded to the animal in 1758, in the oldest listing of scientific animal names still considered valid. At the time, Carl Linnaeus, who wrote the list in question, intended it to apply to both wild and domestic forms, although the domestic version was raised to subspecies status by Johann Erxleben 22 years later.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Miocene (Pt 18): Return of the Cats

Barbourofelis
For much of the Miocene, bears were represented in North America by the single genus Ursavus. This was relatively primitive, and small by the standards of modern bears, although still easily identifiable as such. It seems to have left no local descendants, but, around 7 or 8 million years ago, it was joined - and eventually replaced - by new arrivals from Asia.

The best known of these were Indarctos and Agriotherium, bears that were widespread across the Northern Hemisphere of the time, and common enough in both Asia and Europe. Indarctos was the smaller of the two, roughly the size of a black bear, and with what was probably a similarly omnivorous diet. It was likely more closely related to pandas than to other modern bears, and died out as the Miocene ended.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Male Chauvinist Seals

There are four basic mating systems that can be seen in mammals, or, indeed, any other creature that possesses two clearly defined sexes. In monogamous systems, a male and female pair mate with one another and then typically remain together to raise their young. This tends to occur wherever raising young is an energy-intensive task that requires the full-time attention of two adults to work.

In polygynous systems, one male mates with multiple females, to maximise the number of offspring he can sire. In the polyandrous system, it's the other way round, with a single female mating with multiple males (some mole rats do this, but it's rare in mammals). The final option is a promiscuous system, where both sexes have multiple partners.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

A History of the Bamboo Rats

In terms of number of species, the mouse-like rodents are the most successful group of mammals alive today. The group is typically considered to consist of six families, with the vast majority of species crammed into just two - the mouse family itself, and the cricetids, which includes the voles and hamsters. These, however, are relatively late arrivals, and there are two families that split from the main line of mouse-like rodents long before the ancestors of the mice and voles diverged from one another.

One of these consists of a grand total of three species (maybe), living in the forests of southern Asia. The other goes by the technical name of the Spalacidae, and it consists of animals that have the rather unusual trait of spending almost their entire lives underground. There are at least 35 species of these animals, found in various places across Europe, Asia, and Africa. This is a fairly wide distribution, which raises the interesting question of how they managed to spread that far when they seem to have fairly narrow habitat preferences. Until recently, the evolutionary history of these oddities has been something of a mystery but now, it seems, we are starting to get enough information to piece together an overview.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

The Cat Family: Felidae

It is sometimes said, perhaps only half-jokingly, that the growth of the internet has been largely driven by two things: pornography and pictures of cats. I can't do much about the first of those here, but cats are a different matter.

In fact, the reason that I haven't looked at cats so far in my annual surveys of mammal families is precisely because, if there's one group of mammals that has substantial coverage on the internet already, it's cats. Lions, leopards, and so on are also amongst the most popular of subjects for TV wildlife documentaries, and it's hard to see that I have much to add. But, nonetheless, and while I have, of course, covered cats before in individual posts, exploring the family is a gap that I eventually had to fill. So here we go.

Compared with some, more diverse, mammal families, members of the cat family, Felidae, are all readily identifiable as such. Cats have short faces, lacking the long snout of dogs, with large eyes and ears, and prominent whiskers. Their bodies are generally sleek, usually (although not always) with long tails, and they have muscular limbs and sharp claws. Indeed, apart from size and coat colour, most species of cat are remarkably similar in physical appearance. If you removed the skins of a lion and a tiger, only a real expert would have any chance of telling them apart.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Ancient Musk Deer of Barcelona

Micromeryx
The deer constitute the second-largest family of ruminants, in terms of living species, after the huge "cattle family", which includes just about everything with true horns, from bison to goats to impalas. Historically, they have been divided into two main subfamilies: the cervines, which include such things red deer and fallow deer, and the capreolines, which include roe deer, reindeer, and moose, among many others. But there was always one species of deer that just didn't fit, shunted off into a subfamily all by itself because of its many peculiarities.

This was the musk deer (Moschus moschiferus). The most obviously strange thing about, for a deer, is that it doesn't have antlers. Less immediately apparent is the fact that it's the only kind of deer to have a gallbladder, and there are some other anatomical oddities, too. The former could be explained by it having lost them at some point in its evolution - and, indeed, there are other known species of deer where this has quite obviously happened. However, it's a bit trickier to explain why a gallbladder would come back after vanishing, so the assumption was that musk deer were a very primitive form of deer that had never lost it in the first place.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Voyage of the Kinkajous

For much of the time since the extinction of the dinosaurs, South America was an island continent. Developing in isolation, the mammals living there developed a number of unusual forms not seen elsewhere. Around 2.8 million years ago, however, South America became joined to its northern counterpart via the Isthmus of Panama. Northern animals flooded south, and relatively few headed in the opposite direction. As a result, unlike Australia, which remains an island continent today, the mammalian fauna of South America includes many animals at least broadly familiar from elsewhere.

Among the first mammal families to make the crossing was that of the raccoons. Although this had first appeared in Asia, living species are now found only in the Americas (ignoring some recent man-made introductions) with most of them found in tropical habitats. In fact, they reached South America almost ridiculously early, something we know because we have a fossil example that's around 7 million years old... at least 4 million years before the land crossing we'd expect them to have used had formed.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Digging in a Winter Wonderland

Humans have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to snow, greeting it either with joy and wonder or with concern and frustration, in large part depending on how old you happen to be. It decorates Christmas cards, covers the countryside in pristine white, and provides plentiful opportunities for play. On the other hand, it makes travel difficult, and may even interrupt deliveries of food, making our lives awkward. (Plus, if you're in a city, it may not stay white for very long).

If heavy snow makes it difficult for us to get around and obtain sustenance, the same obviously goes for animals that live in the relevant parts of the world. Different species have different strategies for how to cope with its arrival. Some hibernate, while others avoid the problem by migrating somewhere else for the winter, but there are, of course, a number of species that simply have to put up with it. Those that live particularly far north may even have to do so for over half the year, and the difficulty of doing this is probably at least part of the reason why relatively few species do.