Sunday, 18 April 2021

All the World's Deer: Deer With Spots

Fallow deer
The fawns of most (but not all) deer species are born with spotted coats, which likely help to camouflage them among the dappled light of a forest. In some species, the spots disappear shortly after birth, while others retain them for a while longer. In five species, however, they keep them all the way into adulthood. I've covered two of these species already: the sika deer of Japan and the um... spotted deer of the Philippines. 

To Europeans, however, the best-known is surely the fallow deer (Dama dama). This is Europe's medium-sized deer, and one of the six original species of deer identified as such in the first list of scientific names in 1758. It lives in woodland areas across most of western and central Europe, preferring broadleaf forests but happy enough with conifers or Mediterranean scrubland. They don't like deep snow, and so aren't found in the Alps or all but the most southerly parts of Scandinavia, but otherwise, they seem pretty adaptable and widespread. Yet, despite being such a familiar animal, they're arguably not really native to the continent.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

How Walruses Got Their Tusks

Titanotaria, a tuskless walrus
Few people would argue that the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is not a distinctive animal. Indeed, it is so distinctive that, despite there being only one living species, that species has been placed in a "family" all of its own since 1880, distinct from both the seals and sea lions. 

There are a number of features of walruses that make it clear, from a modern perspective, that this was the right decision to make. But the most obvious is surely that they have huge tusks. These are in many ways a remarkable feature, and while other animals, such as elephants, also have large tusks, none that's alive today has anything quite like those of the walrus. 

Walruses have a long evolutionary history, having been distinct from their closest living relatives for many millions of years. Nonetheless, those relatives are, as we might expect, the seals and sea lions and it's apparent that they entered the water long before growing the tusks. Which, in turn, means that the first walruses must have been tuskless. So when and how did this change?

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Armadillos Looking for Love

We can tell a lot about animals by simply observing where they go. While studies on wild animals can cover a wide range of different topics, many of which require close observation of what the creature is actually doing, many of the most basic simply require us to tag the animal with some sort of transmitter and watching it move remotely.

Of course, while I say 'basic', this isn't necessarily all that simple to do in practice. You need to capture the animals, ensuring that they aren't overly stressed by the experience so that they modify their behaviour after the fact, and then you do need to spend a lot of time collating all the date, likely over the course of several months. Still, we do have many such studies for most well-known mammals. Some groups, however, have been comparatively overlooked.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Before Owls Ate Mice

Most bird species are diurnal. Doubtless, if you're flying about and don't have sonar, as bats do, it helps to be able to see where you're going. Nonetheless, there are many exceptions to this general rule, and none are more obviously so than the owls.

There are well over 200 living species of owl currently recognised, ranging in size from the mighty Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) with a wingspan of up to 180 cm (6 feet) down to the tiny elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) with a wingspan of just 27 cm (10 inches). They are grouped into two closely related families; the great majority of species belong in the Strigidae family, with just 20 assigned to the barn owl family, the Tytonidae. While there are some internal differences between the two, the most visible in the living animal is that barn owls, unlike regular owls, have distinctive heart-shaped faces.

Both families have been around rather longer than most mammal families have, with fossil representatives dating back to at least the Early Oligocene, around 35 million years ago. The two families are, however, rather like pigs and peccaries, each others' closest relatives, together forming the order Strigiformes. Since few people would deny that a barn owl is, in fact, an owl, it's this order that's really the scientific counterpart of our everyday understanding of the word.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

All the World's Deer: Sambar and Rusa

Deer are predominantly woodland animals, so it's no surprise that the extensive warm forests of Southeast Asia, with their many isolated islands, are home to a number of different species. Some of these are closely related to the red deer that live in cooler environments further north, so much so that some authors have recommended moving them back into the genus Cervus to join the red deer and their immediate kin. 

Nonetheless, they do seem to form a distinct branch on the deer family tree - although how many species might be in that branch, and even which ones they might be, is debated. For much of the 20th century, just two or three species were recognised, but genetic evidence gathered in the 21st century has made it more obvious that some of the island forms have been isolated from their mainland relatives for long enough to become clearly distinct.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Miocene (Pt 25): The Large Clawed Cat-Cat and the First Dog in Africa

Today, the hyena family consists of just four species. All of them live in Africa and, generally speaking, they look somewhat like dogs. Three out of the four are scavengers, with powerful teeth adapted for cracking open bones to consume as much of a carcass as possible. The largest and fiercest of these is the spotted or "laughing" hyena, which is the one most people think of when the word "hyena" is mentioned, although there is more variety in the group than that. But even so, with just four species, it's not what you'd call a large taxonomic family.

During the Late Miocene, however, things were very different. It's hard to know the exact number of species that existed, even among the fossils we have, since some of the subtler differences may not be apparent from bones alone. But there were certainly plenty of genera, spread widely across Europe, Asia, and Africa. They were also more varied than today, and their success at the time may well have been due to the fact that actual dogs were still restricted to North America at the time, leaving the hyenas without direct competitors.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

How Rodents Can See Ultraviolet Light

Primates, including our own species, have unusually good colour vision. This is thought to be due to the need to identify when fruit is ripe and ready to eat. Most other mammals don't see the world in the same way that we do, having colour vision that's at best limited and often, so far as we can tell, absent altogether. 

But at least some animals do have an advantage that we don't: in addition to visual light, they can also see in ultraviolet.

In terms of physics, there's no real difference between visual light and ultraviolet; the latter simply has a higher wavelength. In a sense, as its name suggests, it's just a colour (or range of colours) that are more violet than violet. Our own inability to see it naturally gives us something of a bias here, but, in principle, there's no real reason why an animal shouldn't be able to see UV light if it would be useful to do so.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

All the World's Deer: The Red Deer Species Complex

Red deer
When the first list of scientific animal names was drawn up in 1758, all six known species of deer were placed in the genus Cervus - which is, of course, simply the Latin word for "deer". Over the following decades, as taxonomy became more refined, all but one of those species were moved to other genera, and when the deer family, Cervidae, was named in 1810, it had roughly the same meaning that the genus had had so many years before. As its name implies, though, Cervus was selected as the type genus of the family - the one that defines the archetypal group against which all others are compared. Although newly described species had been added since, the one species that was so obviously deer-like it had never been moved anywhere else thus became, in a sense, the defining species of its family.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

The Crab-Eating Fox That Wasn't

There are many species of "fox" native to South America. I covered all of these in a series on the dog family a few years ago and I noted at the time that they aren't really foxes in the sense of being related to the likes of red, Arctic, and fennec foxes. Instead, we know from both genetic and anatomical studies that they are more closely related to the group that includes wolves, jackals, and coyotes. 

The dog family has its origins in North America and it seems clear that what happened here is that some wolf-relative that happened to look a bit like a fox headed south at some point, where all of its remaining descendants live today. North and South America joined up relatively recently, geologically speaking, so it's likely that the origins of the South American foxes actually lie in the North, already looking somewhat like their modern form before they made the trip.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Tyranny of the Bruce Effect

Monogamy is a relatively rare phenomenon among mammal species. It tends to occur where it requires considerable investment to raise children, whether that be in terms of supplying food over a long period, or careful protection from external threats. If you can spread that effort between both parents, the child is more likely to survive and the species to be perpetuated.

That's common in birds, perhaps in part because they have to physically fetch and deliver food rather than producing milk with the calories from their own diet, not to mention the effort of incubating eggs. But, in mammals, while it certainly occurs in some species (as do the other two options) the most common pattern is polygyny. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

The Toxic Life of an Unusual Rodent

As I've often mentioned before, the largest mammal family, by number of species, is the mouse family, or Muridae. Containing around a quarter of all known mammal species, it's vast and, in many cases, the species are so similar to one another physically that they can only be told apart by genetic analysis. A few years ago, I reported on the largest attempt to determine how this great array of species are related to one another. That particular scheme showed three main evolutionary lineages within the family.

By far the largest are the "murine" or "typical" mice which contains... well, almost everything. According to that particular study, they split from the other members of the mouse family about 18 million years ago, during the Early Miocene. Then, about 16 million years ago, as the Middle Miocene dawned, the remainder split into what are now recognised as two distinct subfamilies: the gerbils and the "deomyine" mice. (The latter look almost exactly like the murine sort, and it took this sort of study to prove that they weren't). 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

The Deer Family

Doe (a deer, a female deer)
A little over eight years ago (blimey...) I began a series on members of the goat subfamily, and started it off with a discussion of the difference between horns and antlers. In short, horns are permanent structures, comprised of a central bony core surrounded by a sheath of um... horny material. Antlers, on the other hand, are regrown every year, and once they reach full size and shed the velvet on their outer surface, they consist solely of dead bone, with no sheath of any kind. Antlers are also often branched, whereas 'true' horns never are.

Antlers are, of course, the key defining feature of the deer family, the Cervidae. They are found on (almost) every species in the family, although (almost) only on the males. A large stag with branching antlers is instantly identifiable as a deer, but it may be fair to say that some of the species with unbranched antlers do have a certain resemblance to some of the smaller species of antelope.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Miocene (Pt 24): Of True Elephants and Three-toed Horses


The first horses entered Africa towards the end of the Middle Miocene, about 10 million years ago. These have commonly been assigned to the same genera, Hipparion and Hippotherium, as were found in Eurasia at the time, although the fine details of the exact relationships are unclear. Although the latter in particular seems to have been reasonably successful on the continent, a more significant immigration from an African perspective took place later on, around 8 million years ago as the drier climate heralded the start of the Late Miocene.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Sperm Whale Bromance

While there are a few exceptions, there is a general rule among mammals that males travel far from home when they approach adulthood, while females tend to stay in their local neighbourhood. The purpose of this separation is to ensure that, once they become sexually active, the females that a male is going to have the opportunity to mate with aren't all his own sisters or close cousins. Many mammals live essentially solitary lives, so this is merely an issue of the male travelling further than the female when he leaves home; other than that, their social lives aren't really all that different.

In social species, however, the end result is that herds (or other groupings) are united primarily by their female relationships. The females in a herd are likely sisters or other close relatives, while the males have travelled from elsewhere and are not only not closely related to the females, but may not even be closely related to each other, either. Often males spend some time living on their own before they find a suitable herd to join (perhaps because the existing dominant male is getting on a bit) with the result that there's a distinct female-bias in membership of the group. 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Sexy Face-Masks of Lekking Bats

The mating behaviour of mammals is, unsurprisingly, highly varied across different groups and species. We would hardly expect the behaviour of dolphins to resemble that of reindeer, for example, or hedgehogs to resemble cheetahs. Reproductive information is one of the key biological factors we tend to look at when describing a species, even if it isn't quite as easy to evaluate as, say, diet or habitat. (Or anatomy, of course, which doesn't even necessarily require the animal to be alive). Look at almost any write-up of a mammal species in an encyclopedia, and there'll be something on reproduction - assuming we know it.

But, for a great many mammal species, we don't. This may be because it's rare, or difficult to observe in the wild, or perhaps that it's a newly discovered species that we can reasonably assume isn't that different from close relatives we already knew about. But, at least when it comes to reproductive behaviour, one of the biggest gaps in our knowledge concerns the bats.