Saturday 28 May 2022

When White-footed Mice Invaded Michigan

When I'm describing a particular species of mammal on this blog, one of the first things I usually mention is where in the world it lives wild. Clearly, there are differences in the fauna of different continents or specific islands. Cougars, black bears, pronghorn antelope, and coyotes are all common enough in the US, but don't live in Europe. We have Eurasian and Iberian lynx, but not bobcats and Canada lynx. There are bison in Europe, but they're a different species than the American sort, and we only have wild raccoons because some were deliberately released in Germany in 1934. 

Clearly, the existence of the Atlantic Ocean is not to be sniffed at. However, this applies on a smaller scale, too, where some physical barrier that's some way short of an ocean, but is still significant, prevents an animal from advancing further across its home continent than it might like. 

And then there's the fact that animals have particular requirements as to the climate and vegetation of their native areas - even if the vegetation is only affecting the prey animals that they themselves need to feed on. The difference between this and the physical geography of rivers, mountains, and so on, is that it's changing over a much faster timescale, especially in recent decades. Animals may be forced to move to new areas, which can be a problem if the physical geography prevents them from doing so and can be a problem for other reasons even if it doesn't.

Sunday 22 May 2022

Leaf-Eating Monkeys: Sacred Langurs of India

Sacred langur

In Hinduism, the monkey god Hanuman is a companion of Rama, one of the more popular incarnations of Vishnu, and represents, among other things, loyalty and virtue. The specific type of monkey most associated with him is known by various names, including "Hanuman langur" and the rather uninspired "northern plains grey langur", but I'll stick with sacred langur (Semnopithecus entellus).

As currently defined, the sacred langur is found across almost the whole of northern India where suitable habitat exists. The biggest limitation to that habitat is elevation; sacred langurs are very much a lowland species, not found above about 400 metres (1,300 feet) - which cuts out rather a lot of the more northerly parts of the country as it reaches towards the Himalayas. Other than that, they require forest, but they seem adaptable to different types. 

In practice, they mostly live in dry tropical deciduous woodland because that's largely what there is in that part of the world, but they extend into thorny scrubland in the northwest near the deserts of Rajasthan and into damper forests in the east. They are also common, probably due in part to their reputation as a sacred animal, on the outskirts of densely settled urban areas. A population is also found in southwestern Bangladesh, but they aren't thought to be native there and were likely brought across by Hindu pilgrims in the late 19th century.

Sunday 15 May 2022

The Last Pangolin in Europe

Ground pangolin
Pangolins are undoubtedly odd creatures. Most obviously, there's the fact that they are covered with an armoured sheet of keratinous scales, making them look somewhat like an animated pine cone. No other mammal has this feature or anything much like it. But, even ignoring this, they are still unusual, with their narrow diets, conical snouts, digging claws, and long, broad tails. 

The animals that they most resemble are probably anteaters, especially the smaller species. At one time, they were even classified together with the anteaters, but there are some significant skeletal differences, especially in the structure of the backbone that indicate they are clearly distinct. Furthermore, anteaters originated in South America, while pangolins are known only from Africa and Asia, so it's long been recognised that the resemblances are actually due to parallel evolution, with the animals having a similar diet.

Sunday 8 May 2022

Spotting Ocelots

There are a number of different species of cat living in South America, including some that are not widely known by the general public. Across much of the continent, however, the most abundant are often the ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), outnumbering both the larger cats that require substantial food resources and the smaller, more localised ones. Aside from the desert regions west of the Andes, ocelots live across almost the whole of the continent from northern Argentina to the Caribbean coast and their population is large enough that they are not generally considered a threatened species.

But that broader picture, which is generally positive for the species, hides some local variation. They are not, for example, especially common in the Caatinga, the area of dry scrubland that covers the easternmost regions of Brazil. More significantly, perhaps, they also become less progressively common once you leave South America and head north. Ocelots are found throughout Central America, and along both coastal regions of Mexico, and they are even found in small numbers in southern Texas and Arizona. In both of these latter countries, however, their populations are low enough that they are listed as endangered species by the local authorities responsible for such matters - the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources.

Sunday 1 May 2022

Bats in the Megafire

A little over ten years ago, I wrote on this blog about the effect of forest fires on bats in Florida. It turned out that the bats in question, which were big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus), one of the most common bat species in the US, were actually quite happy when forest fires tore through the sandhills where they lived. This is because it improved their environment, in particular making it easier to fly about through what might otherwise be a mass of tangled vegetation and thick undergrowth. 

That was a decade ago, and further studies since that date have broadly confirmed the findings of the one I was referring to in that post. A 2019 study, for example, showed that the same was true for a number of species in Australia. Overall, it seems that, at worst, forest fires have no overall effect on bat populations and, in general, they're actually a benefit.