Sunday 4 September 2022

600th Synapsida

The time has come around once again for my approximately biennial piece of navel-gazing, as I celebrate this blog reaching its 600th post, almost 12 years after it first started. Since the 500th post, the world has (mostly) emerged from the perils of COVID and now tends to have other issues on its mind that biological science is less likely to be helpful with - not that I deal with epidemiology or virology here anyway. But let's take the traditional look back at what did appear on the blog during that timeframe and, allowing for the fact that I usually pick the topic on the day the post goes up, what might be coming over the next two years.

Animal behaviour and evolution remain the two most popular topics of my posts, and it's unlikely that that's going to change too much. However, there were also several posts on sociability specifically, as well as things such as diet and habitat and a more than usual number of posts on anatomy. In terms of the types of animals covered, where posts were on a particular species and not part of an ongoing series, rodents top the list, followed by bats. These are, of course, the top two mammalian groups in terms of number of species, but, while rodents are relatively easy to study, bats are rather less so... but perhaps that just means that studies on them tend to stand out more and pique my interest.

As always when I do these posts I am struck by the mammal families that still haven't been covered. That's largely a factor of the way I write these things, picking the subject on the day rather than planning it in advance and having some grand scheme to even things out in the medium to long term. If nobody published anything new about tapirs, I'm probably not going to mention them unless they crop up in a survey on some larger topic.

It can be difficult to judge which new posts have proved the most popular, since some will have had two years to accumulate views, and some just a handful of weeks. However, if the number of views can be relied on as a genuine measure, there's no doubt that the clear winner was the post on Gloger's Rule - the idea that animals are darker in the tropics even if their fur is already protecting them from the UV radiation that drives skin colour in humans. Other posts that seem significantly more popular than others of the same age include one on the purpose of sinuses, and those about fallow deer, the evolution of honey badgers and pandas, the nature of whiskers and, more recently, prehistoric sea-sloths.

So mostly hits for fossils (as usual) and anatomy there.

Anatomy is a plus for me, since familiarity with the human version of it is a key part of my day job and it's always interesting to see how things vary among other species. In that vein, I particularly enjoyed writing the post about the skeletal structure of mammalian tails; something that's absent in humans and has more hidden complexity to it than you might imagine. Other posts I'm particularly pleased with but that don't particularly draw page views from the wider internet audience include the on the crested rat with its poison fur, the Bruce Effect whereby mothers terminate their pregnancies when there's a risk of an incoming male killing any newborns, flesh-eating bats, and why the domestication of dogs may not necessarily have happened the way it's often said to have done. And, given what was still going on in the world at the time, I have a fondness for the post about bats using "face masks" to make themselves attractive.

When the 500th post rolled round, my annual series on mammal families was focussing on cats which proved popular despite the fact that are quite a few mentions of cats already on the internet. By far the most popular post in that series - which predates post #500 - was the one on the closest relatives of the domestic animal, but the one on some of the more obscure small Asian species came a surprising second. 

For 2021, I moved to deer. This initially proved popular, and it was always fun to write, but the number of hits tailed off as I reached both the more obscure species and those that are already most familiar to Americans. As noted above, fallow deer proved the most popular and, realistically, the number of google hits is going to be affected by the title I picked, which may explain why describing the moose as the "world's largest deer" (which it is) helped give it a boost; the internet likes superlatives.

That was followed by leaf-eating monkeys, which I'll admit has not worked as well as I initially hoped. I'm not referring to the number of hits, which I never expected to be high for this one (and isn't terrible) but the nature of the posts. The large number of species to be covered, many of them only recently described, has meant that the posts have tended to turn into mere lists of animals, most of which aren't terribly different from one another. Still, that will become less true after I finally finish the langurs next week, and cover the smaller number of comparatively odd-looking species of the third subgroup in the last few posts.

Next year shouldn't suffer from that problem - fewer species to cover, including some that are rather well-known and others that are much less so. It's also a little bit of a departure from the usual, as you'll see once I get there.

Which, of course, brings me to the Miocene series. I said back in post #500 that I didn't think I'd manage to finish it before this one rolled around, and clearly, my prediction was correct. It's an absolutely huge topic, because of the long span of that particular epoch, and the many changes that the series has to cover. Still, this time I am close to the end; the current plan is for three more posts to wrap it up, meaning that it will have taken me nearly six years to do it all! But wrap up it will, and I don't think any of the following series will be as long as it has been, since the further we go back in time the less we know about the detail. Which I think is just as well, all things considered.

By this time in 2024, I should know whether that has proved correct...

[Montage by "The Explaner" from original photos by "5Snake5", "Lonely Shrimp", "Appaloosa", and A.J.T. Johnsingh, from Wikimedia Commons.]

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