Sunday 24 April 2022

Leaf-Eating Monkeys: Red and Olive Colobuses

Zanzibar red colobus
The strict food requirements of red colobus monkeys make them one of the most endangered groups of African primates but they are still found across a surprisingly wide swathe of the continent. While we used to recognise only three or four species (albeit with many subspecies), it has become clear over the last thirty years or so that there are many more, around half of which are now restricted to very small areas. In most cases, this is because of the obvious reason that their old habitat has been destroyed and that they used to range further afield. Some, however, have never strayed far from home.

The easternmost species of red colobus falls into this latter category. Named the Zanzibar red colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii) this has historically restricted to the eponymous island. Since 1964, this has been the "zan" part of Tanzania, and lies just over 20 miles off the east coast of the mainland with an area of a little under 1,500 km² (565 square miles). With a human population of around 1,500,000 it is, as one might expect, substantially given over to agriculture and other development. As a result, while they once ranged across the island, they are now primarily found in the less settled eastern half of the island, where there are some inland national parks. In the 1970s, a small population was re-introduced to a patch of land on the west coast north of the main urban areas and others were translocated to Pemba Island to the north, where the species has never existed naturally. While one of the latter groups did survive and breed, their descendants are likely quite inbred and it has been argued that we'd be better off supporting the main population in their original home.

Sunday 17 April 2022

Miocene (Pt 32): Time of the Sea-Sloths

In the absence of the sorts of herbivore more familiar to us today - and already current in the Northern Hemisphere of the day - the large herbivores of Late Miocene South America were nonetheless varied. Many took up habits similar to those of their northern counterparts, so that, at a brief glance, they would not necessarily have appeared so odd to a passing time traveller. 

The mesotheres are a possible case in point. They were a group of notoungulates, one of the two orders of native hoofed mammal that had survived into the Late Miocene along with the litopterns. Earlier in the Miocene, they had perhaps looked even less remarkable, digging herbivores of a similar size and shape to wombats. But as the epoch wore on, they gradually increased in size, while still retaining the adaptations to digging, which they would likely have used to get at tasty roots, and possibly for constructing burrows in which to live.

Sunday 10 April 2022

Monitoring Mandrill Movement

Understanding how animals move about during their daily lives can be important for a number of reasons. It's a crucial part of their behaviour and ecology and, perhaps more significantly, it can provide information that we need if we are to help conserve those that are endangered. How much space do they need? What sort of places do they go to that we might need to ensure they have access to? And so on.

There are many ways of determining where animals travel on a regular basis and different methods will work better for some animals than they do for others. For example, we hear a lot in modern times about the use of remote telemetry, attaching GPS tags to animals and watching to see where they go. This is a useful technique, especially for tracking long-distance migrations. But it still requires that you capture your animal to fit it with the tag and then hope that having the thing attached won't affect its behaviour... which may, in turn, depend on how large it has to be. Not to mention the risk that it might fall off.

Sunday 3 April 2022

Wolves at the Campfire

There's an internet meme, which exists in several different variants, that makes a half-serious joke about dog domestication. A typical version shows a picture of a wolf ostensibly heading to a camp of stone age hunters, hoping to get some food, and thinking "what's the worst that could happen?"... followed by a second picture captioned "thousands of years later" and showing an inbred domestic dog dressed in ridiculous knitwear. The second part is an accurate enough description of what thousands of years of domestication and directed breeding have done to at least some dog breeds. 

But what about the first part? That's showing what's probably a common understanding of how wolves originally became domesticated and turned into dogs. Essentially, dogs domesticated themselves, with those wolves that were least wary of humans, due to whatever quirk in their individual personalities, being the ones most likely to get close to them. Over time, there was further selection in this direction, with the friendliest wolves also becoming the most popular/useful to the humans until, eventually, domesticated breeding was able to take over.