Sunday 17 December 2023

Prehistoric Mammal Discoveries 2023

It's the last post of the year for 2023, and that means it's time once again to take a brief look at discoveries from the last year in the world of fossil mammals that didn't make it into this blog. Because, while dinosaurs are undoubtedly popular, the study of prehistoric mammals is also a major field, aided by that, being (mostly) relatively recent they tend to be more numerous and better preserved. Of course, everyone's heard of woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats but there's plenty more out there and, if I'm going to zip through them at speed today, I'm also going to try and cover as wide a range as possible. So, let's get going...

Sunday 10 December 2023

Oligocene (Pt 6): Devil's Corkscrews and the Grasseater That Wasn't

The Grande Coupure was, strictly defined, an event unique to Europe, caused by the drying up of the water channels separating it from Asia. However, it was compounded by a dramatic worldwide cooling event, and, if the Coupure itself didn't affect more distant lands, the climate changes certainly did. Due to some particularly well-preserved geological deposits of the right age, as well as the obvious convenience for Western researchers, this is particularly well-studied in North America.

Deposits across the continent show a sudden change in the climate at around the dawn of the Oligocene. By 'sudden' in this context, we mean over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, so it's hardly something you would have noticed had you been there at the time, but it's still rapid as such things go. The exact nature of the changes, and the speed at which they appear to have happened, depend on which part of the continent we're talking about, but nowhere was unaffected.

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Other One: Red Pandas

Over the course of this year, I have looked at all the species of the raccoon and skunk families, two groups of smallish carnivorous mammals that are mostly confined to the Americas. These two families are themselves related, forming part of a larger group called the "musteloids", traditionally ranked as a "superfamily". The group is named for a third family within it, the mustelids or "weasel family", which contains a much wider - and more widespread - group of species, including otters, badgers, and wolverines. 

The musteloid superfamily, however, also contains one other living species that does not fit into any of the three main families: the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Six years ago, I took a look at the history of Western knowledge of this animal, and of how it relates to other mammal families. The upshot of that, you may recall, is that there is broad agreement that the red panda is the only living species in its family, distinct from raccoons, skunks, and weasels although quite how was unclear. Since I wrote that, a further study has come out supporting the evolutionary tree I described as "the current best bet", but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that at least one contradictory study has also been published. It's perhaps fair to say that the four families of musteloids all appeared fairly suddenly at around the same time (likely around the Grande Coupure) and the exact sequence of events is difficult to disentangle.

Saturday 25 November 2023

The First Whales to Use Sonar?

Other than their obvious physical adaptations, one of the most familiar features of dolphins and whales is their ability to use ultrasound to echolocate. All dolphins, porpoises, and toothed whales (collectively called odontocetes) can echolocate and, while some of the fine details do vary between, say, sperm whales and some of the smaller species, the basic mechanism is much the same. Ultrasound would not have been useful to the large, ground-dwelling ancestors of whales in the same way that it is for bats, so it must have evolved after they entered the water. But how soon after?

We can put some limits on this. At the younger end, since all odontocetes echolocate, it's unlikely to have evolved any later than their last common ancestor, which is estimated to have lived around 34 million years ago. On the other hand, it's notable that the toothless, baleen, whales do not use ultrasound; in fact, they are specialised in the exact opposite direction to produce sounds well below, not above, the range of human hearing. This suggests that they evolved along different lines, and that the origins of ultrasonic echolocation lie somewhere after the two split. 

Sunday 19 November 2023

Learning to Hunt at Sea

One of the distinguishing features of mammals is that they invest a lot of time and effort in caring for their young. Of course, birds do this too, as do some other vertebrates, but the provision of milk is one of the key defining traits that's true of all living mammal species. (Probably most extinct ones, too, although it's hard to tell with the very early species). This means that newborn mammals are entirely dependent on their mothers in a way that the young of, say, most reptiles are not. 

But there comes a point where any mammal has to be weaned and make its way in the wider world. Even then, the maternal investment doesn't necessarily end with the mother continuing to raise and train her offspring for what can be an extended period. Brown bears, for example, are weaned at around six months, but they commonly stay with their mothers for at least another year, and often for two or more. We can see similar patterns in other mammals including, perhaps most obviously, primates.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Defending the Troops

A few weeks ago, I talked about how group-living mammals decide when and where to move, and how their decision-making leadership is structured. But there are other aspects to how animals living in a herd or pack might travel, or, indeed, position themselves when they are not travelling. One of these is the perceived risk of predation. 

It's well-known that predators will tend to pick off weaker individuals if they can, largely to save themselves the effort of capturing something that's more able to escape or fight back. But it's also likely that some positions within a herd are going to be inherently safer than others, and merely being fit may not help much if you're an obvious target. The question then arises as to whether certain sorts of individual are likely to occupy safer or more dangerous positions and as to how the group as a whole arranges itself.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Skunks of the World: Stink Badgers!

Sunda stink badger
As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, for most of the 20th century, skunks were thought to be mustelids, members of the same animal family as weasels, polecats, badgers, and the like. They were given their own family in the 1990s, once it became clear that racoons were more closely related to mustelids than they were. But the genetic analyses that revealed this fact also provided another surprise.

It had been assumed that skunks (as a subfamily of mustelids) lived only in the Americas, much as racoons do. But the genetic studies showed that two species of supposed badger living in Indonesia were not, in fact, badgers at all, but members of the newly erected skunk family. These animals are collectively known as "stink badgers", although the local name of "teludu" and "pantot" are sometimes preferred.

Sunday 29 October 2023

Oligocene (Pt 5): The First Cats

As new herbivores entered Europe at the Grande Coupure, carnivores were bound to follow. As with their prey, these Asian newcomers seem to have rapidly outcompeted the native European forms, leading to a sudden turnover in the types of animals we find on the continent. Although we can say that these newcomers were "carnivorans" - the sort of mammalian carnivores we're mostly familiar with today - where exactly they place relative to the living families is harder to say.

Plesictis is an example here. It looked, so far as we can tell, rather like a polecat and was about the same size, so for much of the 20th century it was thought to be an early example of a mustelid, albeit one no more closely related to actual polecats than, say, badgers or otters are. More modern analyses are more circumspect; it may look like a mustelid in some respects, but it probably lived before those animals diverged from the raccoons and so can't be quite either. Palaeogale, which looked rather similar and was also originally assumed to be a mustelid, in fact turns out to be more related to cats and mongooses, but probably so far down the family tree that it's not yet possible to say much more than that.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Follow the Leader?

By human standards, the majority of mammal species are comparatively antisocial. Some actively avoid others of their kind outside of the mating season, but even those that are more tolerant are often found together in one place purely because that is where the food happens to be. But, of course, there are a great many exceptions to this; animals that habitually live in groups that socialise and travel together.

Animals that live like this have to have some form of decision-making process that all members of the herd, pack, or other grouping choose to abide by. The most obvious example of this would be deciding when and where to move, but it could also include, for example, determining the best way to escape predators. Lacking the sophisticated communication methods of humans, concepts of debate aren't likely to be applicable, but the decision has to be taken somehow, and, over the years, there have been many studies to determine just how egalitarian the process is and exactly which animals within the group are making the decisions if it isn't.

Sunday 15 October 2023

Attack of the Giant Hyenas

I suspect that most non-specialists would assume that hyenas are fairly closely related to dogs. They certainly look more like dogs than they do anything else, so, absent any further information, that seems reasonable enough. But, in reality, hyenas belong to the cat-like, not the dog-like, branch of the carnivoran family tree.

This isn't some new discovery on the basis of molecular evidence, like the splitting off of the skunks from the weasel family; it's been known for a long time. This is because, when you start looking at the structural details of the skull, especially the area around the ear, everything fits with a cat-like ancestry. This much was already obvious when Miklós Kretzoi formally named the two carnivoran branches while he was working at the National Museum of Hungary during World War II. Modern evidence has merely confirmed the view, showing more precisely that the closest living relatives of the hyenas are the mongooses.

Sunday 8 October 2023

Skunks of the World: Hog-nosed Skunks

American hog-nosed skunk
There are, perhaps surprisingly, at least five different species of skunk living in the US. In fairness, two of them - the spotted skunks - are so similar to one another that it took genetic tests in the 1990s to prove they were more than subspecies, while the striped and hooded skunks are at least superficially similar as well. The fifth one is the American hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leuconotus) and it's neither striped nor spotted.

If it's less familiar than the others, even to many Americans, that may be because it's only found in the southwest. It is common across Mexico, and also lives across Central America as far south as northern Nicaragua, but in the US it's restricted to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Even here, it doesn't inhabit the whole region, being found in only certain parts of those states and avoiding, for example, both the harsher deserts and dense woodland. Although it does live in some tropical habitats at the far southern end of its range, its preference is instead for grassland and mesquite scrub, often with plenty of acacia thorn bushes. 

Saturday 30 September 2023

Hammer-Toothed Snail Eaters

As is true of mammals more generally, the majority of Australian marsupial species are herbivorous, including such familiar animals as kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and possums. (The latter, of course, are not to be confused with the American opossums, which are omnivorous and not very closely related to their Australian namesakes). Most, but not all, of those that are not belong to a single order, the dasyuromorphs, sometimes called the "carnivorous marsupials" for this reason.

Although they represent almost a third of non-American marsupial species, dasyuromorphs are far less diverse than their herbivorous counterparts, with all but one of the living species belonging to a single family, the dasyurids. Although the most famous example of the dasyurids is probably the Tasmanian devil, which eats comparatively large prey, most of the other species are small shrew-like animals feeding on insects. Alongside them, we can place the numbat and the extinct thylacine ("Tasmanian tiger" or "wolf") both of which are odd enough to be placed in families of their own.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Return of the Rabbits?

This one is wearing a radio collar...
It's abundantly clear that humans have had a dramatic effect on the number and distribution of animals across the globe. (For that matter, by some measures, plants may be doing even worse). There are great swathes of the world where particular animals were once common but are not so any more. Just to take a dramatic and obvious example, Great Britain used to be home to wolves and bears but we don't see those around any more. Those are, of course, widespread elsewhere, but other animals may be less lucky.

In some places, however, a key method in conservation may be reintroduction, bringing animals back to their native habitat, either from elsewhere, or directly from captive populations. This can help restore natural ecosystems, with the return of one originally native species helping others that are now in decline, but have yet to disappear altogether. Again taking Britain as an example, there are currently efforts underway to reintroduce beavers to the country, where they have been locally extinct since the 16th century. Similar programs for other animals exist elsewhere, but the reality is that such efforts are not always successful.

Sunday 17 September 2023

We're Up All Day to Get Lucky

One of the key characteristics that's often listed for the behaviour of a mammal species is what time of day it tends to be active. There are four basic options here, of which the most obvious are diurnality and nocturnality. The others are crepuscularity if it's most active around dawn and dusk but not in between, and cathemerality if it really doesn't care - often because it lives underground. But, either way, it's natural to assume that this behaviour is relatively fixed in an animal; either it's nocturnal or it isn't.

In reality, however, it turns out that this can have a lot to do with the circumstances. And, in the modern world, those circumstances are most likely to be shaped by... what else, but humans? 

The issue, of course, is that humans are for the most part diurnal. Which isn't much of a problem for animals that are naturally nocturnal, but can be if they, too, would prefer to be active during the daylight hours. What we see time and time again across the world, and across different mammal species, is that where humans are most likely to encounter wild animals, those animals shift their behaviour towards nocturnality to avoid the stress of meeting us too often.

Sunday 10 September 2023

Skunks of the World: Spotted Skunks

Eastern spotted skunk
At least outside of the Americas, the most familiar species of skunk is the striped sort and, as I mentioned last time, even scientifically speaking, this is the animal that defines the skunk family. It's perhaps surprising then, to note that, despite it also being very widespread and highly visible, it wasn't the first species of skunk to be named.

That honour goes to the spotted skunk, which appeared in the earliest recognised list of scientific animal names in 1758. This isn't to say that nobody knew at the time what a striped skunk was, merely that the naturalists of the day had yet to identify them as something distinct from the spotted sort, and it was the latter that happened to be described first - the striped skunk followed less than twenty years later, in 1776. Before they were given their own genus, both species were originally placed in Viverra, which comes from the Latin word for "ferret" but seems to have been used for any small, slender mammalian carnivore that didn't fit elsewhere (not including, ironically, the ferrets). 

Sunday 3 September 2023

Oligocene (Pt 4): Time of the Giants

The Grande Coupure saw many new animals pouring across from Asia into Europe. Whether or not the tapirs were among them is not immediately obvious. The oldest tapir that we know of is a fossil discovered in Germany and dated to the early Oligocene, not long after the Coupure. Named Protapirus, we know that it, or its very close relatives were found not only in Asia, but also North America, by the second half of the epoch and managed to survive, with relatively little change, into the Early Miocene that followed, dying out about 20 million years ago. 

At first glance, since the oldest fossil is German, it appears that tapirs originated in Europe and then spread east, and it's purely a coincidence that they happened to do so after the Coupure - which, after all, was a time of climatic change. The problem is, there wasn't anything remotely tapir-like living in Europe before the Coupure, but there were plenty of potential ancestors elsewhere. So it's perhaps more likely that the first true tapirs were Asian, and we simply haven't found their fossils yet. Even so, we can at least say that Protapirus, and its later relative Paratapirus (which never seems to have left Europe) really were tapirs, rather than some close relative. A key feature here is that, unlike their earlier relatives, they already had the modifications to the nasal bones that suggest the presence of the short trunk that modern tapirs have, although it was probably less prominent than in current species.

Sunday 27 August 2023

Picking the Right Crevice

It's probably fair to say that bats are commonly associated with in the public mind with caves - there's a reason that Batman's base of operations has been described as a cave since just a few years after his debut. There are good reasons for bats to sleep in caves during the day. Especially in temperate regions, bats keep warm at night by actively flying but, just as it's handy for other small mammals to sleep in burrows, when they sleep they need somewhere that's both secure and has a decent temperature. Even so, to help keep down their energy expenditure many bats in temperate regions enter torpor at night - at a state that's deeper than regular sleep, lowering the animal's body temperature significantly so that it's more like a form of short-term hibernation.

The problem with caves as a habitat, however, is that, in the grand scheme of things, they aren't all that common. Clearly, this depends on the type of landscape you're in, but many places just don't have lots of caves. In the tropics, hanging from a tree branch might well be sufficient, but where the weather is cold, especially in winter, that may not be such a good idea. So bats roost in many other places, too, such as hollows in trees and cracks and crevices in the ground that are similar to, but much smaller than, what we'd normally think of as a "cave". 

Sunday 20 August 2023

Love on the Mountain Tops

Caprines - members of the goat subfamily - are amongst the mammals most adapted to harsh environments, with the majority of species adapted to living in the cold, barren, and precipitous slopes of mountains. There are some exceptions; sheep (which are taxonomically a subtype of "goat") originally evolved to live in barren rocky hills rather than on true mountains, while some of the East Asian species inhabit forested slopes. 

There are, as with many animal groups, more species of caprine than one might at first think, and I covered them all individually about ten years ago. Looking through that series, it should be possible to appreciate that the group is also varied, not only inhabiting a range of environments but also living varied lifestyles, from those that are near-solitary to those that prefer large herds. This is also reflected in their mating habits which, are as one might expect, related to the size of the community in which they live. One would also expect that the habitat would have some effect on how the animals choose to live, and, in turn, on that mating behaviour.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Skunks of the World: Striped and Hooded Skunks

Striped skunk
It's probably fair to say that when most people think of "skunks" the first animal to come to mind is a black, cat-sized creature with white stripes down its back and a bushy tail. That certainly seems to have been the case for Charles Bonaparte when he first erected the skunk family in 1845, since that is the animal he named it for. More accurately, the type species of the type genus for the family - in a sense, the defining species against which all other skunks are compared - is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). The fact that it has that doubled ("tautonymous") name suggests that, back in 1795, when they named the genus itself, Geoffroy and Cuvier thought much the same thing.

It's hardly surprising; the striped skunk is the most widespread and common of all the species of skunk and surely the most familiar to most North Americans and hence, indirectly, to most Europeans. (For what it's worth, while all the naturalists named above were French, Bonaparte had at least spent a few years working in the US, and was probably much more familiar with skunks than his predecessors). Indeed, the striped skunk lives across the whole of the contiguous US, save only the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin of southern Nevada. It's also found across most of southern and central Canada, and, being no respecter of the US Immigration Service, also into northern Mexico. 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Not-Quite Placentals of the Gobi Desert

I have sometimes been asked whether marsupials count as mammals. The answer, of course, is "yes" but the question illustrates a possible point of confusion among some people. It's not that they think marsupials are reptiles, or whatever, but more likely that they lack a word for "placental mammals" and blur the concept of those animals with mammals more generally. Given that, sometimes, the scientific definition of a group doesn't match the vernacular one, it's actually not an unreasonable question. After all, the marsupials (and the egg-laying monotremes) are outside the placental mammal group; a different sort of animal, albeit a related one that, due to such features as their production of milk, does, officially, belong to the same class.

The great majority of living mammals species are placental mammals, the marsupials representing what is, today, a comparatively small side-group. They are distinguished by the young gestating in the womb for a comparatively long period of time, taking in nutrients through a fully-formed placenta. There are other features that unite them, too, such as the basic number of teeth, although these are often obscured by the considerable evolution and change of form that has occurred in some placental groups to create animals as diverse as horses and dolphins.

Sunday 23 July 2023

A Puma's Larder

Most animals, mammals included, spend a considerable proportion of their time either eating or searching for something to eat. Foraging for food is not necessarily difficult in the case of grazing animals, since grass is usually plentiful where they live, but for most others, it is not quite so simple. There is generally a pay-off of some kind to be made between how nutritious the food might be and the amount of energy that would be expended in finding it - as measured by the time spent searching and the area that needs to be covered to do so. And then there's the amount of energy that will be expended in acquiring the food once you've found it; easy enough if you're a herbivore or even a scavenger, but possibly requiring a fair bit of effort if you're trying to kill something.

But that's not necessarily the end of the story. Many animals cache a proportion of their food, saving it for later. One immediately thinks, perhaps, of squirrels storing their nuts so that they can come back to them in winter when food is in short supply. Many burrowing rodents do something similar, hoarding food in underground chambers that can return to at their leisure. But carnivores can cache food, too, despite the fact that meat tends to go off more quickly than properly stored nuts or grain.

Sunday 16 July 2023

The Stinky Family: Skunks

Unlike raccoons, there was relatively little confusion on the part of early zoologists as to what general sort of animal the skunks were. Since the animals are not native to Europe, the first Europeans knew of them was when they reached the Americas. The closest analogy they could think of among familiar animals was a polecat, and in some parts of America, they are still referred to as such today. However, an indigenous name for the animal (probably Algonquian) won out in English, and "skunks" they became.

Skunks did make it on to the first recognised list of scientific animal names in 1758, as Viverra putorius - the latter half of which, again, means "polecat". The first half indicates that Linnaeus, probably having only a minimal description to go on at the time, considered them to belong with the civets and mongooses, as a sort of generic small, bitey, mammal. That did not last; in 1795, an encyclopedia jointly published by  Cuvier and Geoffroy gave them their own genus. The name for this, Mephitis, comes from a goddess of noxious underground gases worshipped in pre-Roman and Roman Italy - the sort of thing that only tribes living near a volcano are likely to come up with. 

Sunday 9 July 2023

Oligocene (Pt 3): From Musk Deer to Hell-Pigs

The Grande Coupure that marked the beginning of the Oligocene in Europe did not have as dramatic an effect on the cloven-hoofed animals as it did on some other mammalian groups. But the change was nonetheless noticeable, with several primitive forms that had once inhabited the continent suddenly dying out as it merged with Asia. Others, however, survived through the break, and the absence of their earlier competitors may even have helped them prosper.

These include the gelocids, which first appeared close to the end of the previous epoch. Few of the known fossils of these animals are in good condition, and there is some debate as to whether they are a true group of animals at all, or just a vague term used to collect similar-looking creatures that we can't place elsewhere. That aside, we can at least say that they physically resembled (but were probably not related to) musk deer. That is, they were relatively small, hornless animals with long legs suited for running fast, but lacking the large fang/tusks that mark true musk deer. They did well enough that some, such as Pseudogelocus, are known not only from France and Germany, but also Mongolia, suggesting that they crossed over in the opposite direction to most other mammal groups.

Sunday 2 July 2023

The Sex Lives of Female Jaguars

There are many ways of classifying mating systems in animals, but one of the most basic uses four main types. In polygynous species, the male mates with as many females as he can get away with, driving away or out-competing any potential rivals. This ensures he can sire as many children as possible, while the female gains the advantage of a strong father for her offspring. This pattern is perhaps seen most strongly in deer and seals, but it's also seen, for example, in lions and gorillas. 

Monogamy is somewhat less common. Sometimes, it happens only because the species is sufficiently widespread that any given male is unlikely to find more than one receptive female during the breeding season, but it can also occur by choice, typically where raising young is a sufficiently arduous task that the father has to stay around after the birth to help. This is commonly associated with birds, but many mammals also form pair bonds for raising young. These include species of gibbon and small antelope that, in paternity tests, have shown essentially 100% loyalty to their mates. The prairie vole is well-studied in this regard, with the formation of the pair bond through prolonged and repeated mating having been linked to, among other things, the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin.

Sunday 25 June 2023

Pennsylvania Elk with a Wyoming Accent

We're familiar enough with the idea that humans in different parts of the world speak with different accents and vocabulary, even if they are otherwise speaking the same language. ("Faucet, railroad, trashcan, truck, don't say 'sidewalk' or you suck.") This is true of all languages that are spread over a sufficiently large geographic area; for instance, European and Brazilian Portuguese are at least as different as UK and US English. Even within a single national dialect, we can often distinguish local accents and some differences in spoken grammar and terminology - few native English speakers could confuse a blue-collar Texan with a New Yorker.

Since animals don't have language in the human sense, we might not expect the same thing to be true of them. Animals have distinct vocal repertoires, but these are largely instinctive, and a cat goes 'miaow' regardless of where it lives. (Well, arguably it goes 'meow' if it's American and 'nyan' if it's Japanese, but you get the point). It's perhaps not surprising that there is variation between individual songbirds of the same species, or among cetaceans, given the complexity of their calls, but we might not think of it among terrestrial mammals.

Sunday 18 June 2023

The Raccoon Family: Olingos

Northern olingo
While it's probably fair to say that the members of the raccoon family unique to Latin America are less well-known to those of us in the English-speaking world than are their northern counterparts, the olingos are likely the least well-known of all. Raccoons, coatis, and kinkajous were all scientifically described back in the 18th century - at least in general terms, if not all of the species recognised today. The cacomistle, while known to the Aztecs, didn't reach the scientific literature until 1830, but we have to wait another four decades before anyone European seems to have noticed the olingo.

This was William Gabb, who had been asked by the government of Costa Rica to conduct a three-year biological survey of the Talamanca region, on their eastern border with Panama. He completed the survey in 1876, but died two years later from malaria contracted while on the expedition. His real expertise was in dinosaur fossils so when he discovered a previously unknown species of living mammal, he sent the skull and pelt to Joel Asaph Allen at Harvard. Granted, he was an ornithologist (he would later help to set up the Audubon Society) but he did also have an interest in mammals, and was able to identify the animal as a new member of the raccoon family "as unlike [raccoons and coatis] as these... are unlike each other".

Sunday 11 June 2023

A Tale of Three Ground Sloths

Today, sloths are slow-moving tree-dwelling animals found only in South and Central America. For most of their evolutionary history, however, the majority of sloths have been ground-dwellers, in many cases too large to have climbed a tree even if they had wanted to. In comparison, tree sloths are a relatively recent evolutionary development. 

Ground sloths, however, are not a single type of animal in the strict biological sense. This is because the two-toed and three-toed sloths that we have today are not especially close relatives, last sharing a common ancestor at least 28 million years ago. In fact, tree sloths evolved twice, in separate branches of the sloth family tree, and some ground sloths were more closely related to one or the other. On this basis, we used to divide the ground sloths into two families, but the fact that some of lived recently enough that we can recover and analyse DNA from their fossils gave us some surprising detail and a key 2019 study suggested that we should consider there to be no fewer than six different families of ground sloth.

So whatever we can say about one sort of ground sloth isn't necessarily true of all the others, even on quite a broad scale.

Sunday 4 June 2023

Social Posting - Bear Style

Communication between animals is an important feature of all mammalian species. For those living in groups, it can help to maintain social bonds and provide urgent information, such as the unexpected arrival of a predator. If a mother has young, she may need to find them if they become lost or attend to them if are distressed, and so on. Even solitary adult animals need to communicate with others of their species, whether it be to mark out a territory and ensure that others don't poach their food source, or to find a mate at the appropriate time.

At least among mammals, there are two primary modes of communication that are generally studied by researchers. Perhaps the more obvious of these to we humans is vocal communication, since that's the main one we used in pre-literate societies. Not all species are especially vocal, but many are, and some are using sound outside of the human hearing range - such as the ultrasound squeaks of many small rodents such as mice. One estimate suggests that around 95% of mammal species use acoustic communication and this may be on the low side (it's 100% in birds and 90% in amphibians, but apparently less than 5% in reptiles, suggesting that it has evolved at least three times).

Saturday 27 May 2023

When the Desert is Too Dry

The round-tailed ground squirrel lives
further east, and is not threatened
Many mammal species are territorial, carving out a patch of land for themselves which they then defend from same-sex members of their own species. Typically, they are less bothered about members of the opposite sex, for obvious reasons, and such territories will often overlap. Male territories tend to be larger than those defended by females, making it easier for them to meet as many females as possible. 

The size and relative location of such territories naturally vary between species, but also depend on the local conditions of terrain, climate and so on. The harder it is to find food, for instance, the larger your territory will need to be. As young animals grow up and leave home, they will need to find unoccupied territories to inhabit, or else somehow drive an existing resident out and take over. Males commonly travel further than females so that they don't end up with only their sisters or close cousins as potential mating partners, although there are a few species where it works the opposite way around.

Sunday 21 May 2023

The Raccoon Family: Kinkajous - the primate-like "raccoons"

Raccoons proper are well-known animals, both familiar and distinctive even to those of us living in countries where they are not native. Among the other members of the raccoon family, coatis are at least familiar to people in the southern US. Ringtails ("cacomistles") are probably more obscure, being smaller and mostly active high up in trees at night, but at least, they too, live in the US. The remaining species, however, live only in Latin America and it's probably fair to say that they are much less familiar to English speakers than those groups with more northerly representatives.

Perhaps the most distinctive, and certainly the most studied, of these is a genus with just one species: the kinkajou (Potos flavus). It was first scientifically described by Johann Schreber in 1774, in an earlier volume of the book in which he would later describe (among other things) cheetahs, snow leopards, and bobcats. While he was understandably clear those were all cats, the identity of the kinkajou was not so obvious. In the days before Darwin, this may not have held any deep meaning for him, but his conclusion was that his new animal was a kind of lemur.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Oligocene (Pt 2): Europe's Big Break

The dawn of the Oligocene is marked by a sudden cooling of the Earth's climate, of which the most obvious consequence was the creation of the Antarctic ice sheets. These locked up so much water that sea levels dropped worldwide, reshaping coastlines. Nowhere were the consequences of this more apparent than Europe, despite its great distance from Antarctica.

Prior to the Oligocene, it would have been possible for a hypothetical traveller to sail from what is now the eastern Mediterranean, through the Paratethys Sea (now the Black and Caspian Seas) due north and into the Arctic Ocean. The body of water that made this possible, the Turgai Strait, was already becoming shallower and narrower as the Oligocene approached, and the sudden dip in sea level finished it off altogether, closing off the sea route that had once run along the eastern flank of the Ural Mountains. 

Sunday 7 May 2023

Cheetahs and Wild Sheep

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is surely one of the most familiar of African animals, due in large part to their prominence in wildlife documentaries such as Cheetah Family & Me. They are charismatic, distinctive, and not especially rare or difficult to find. Unlike, say, tigers, they are not internationally listed as an endangered species, although their population has declined rapidly enough over the last few decades that they do qualify for the lesser rating of "threatened" or "vulnerable" species. 

This does, however, disguise some significant regional variation.

How we should divide the cheetah into subspecies is not absolutely clear. From at least the 1970s, five subspecies were recognised, Two of those were merged in 2017, on the grounds that the East African form could not be reliably separated from its southern relative genetically. Even then, cheetahs have so little genetic variation across their range - due to an apparent population bottleneck when they almost died out at the end of the Last Ice Age - that support for the existence of two of the other subspecies remains a little shaky. Still, four subspecies is, for the time being, the general consensus.

Sunday 30 April 2023

The Pandas of Bulgaria

The bear family as it exists today contains relatively few species. All but two of these species are placed in a single subfamily, the ursine bears, which includes the familiar black, brown, and polar varieties along with a couple of species unique to southern Asia. A second subfamily, the short-faced bears, includes the living spectacled bear of South America and several, often exceptionally large, fossil species. They are thought to have split from the ursine bears around 12 million years ago, towards the end of the Middle Miocene. The third living subfamily is both much older and more distinctive.

This, of course, is the subfamily of the pandas, the Ailuropodinae. Pandas are sufficiently odd that it was unclear for a time whether they were really bears, or something else, although their status hasn't really been in doubt since the 1980s when genetic evidence proved what had, even then, been suspected for a couple of decades. Today, only one species of ailuropodine exists, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and it is found only in China. The same evidence used to estimate the split between the other living subfamilies puts the date of the split between pandas and other bears much further back, to around 20 million years ago, not long after the dawn of the Miocene. 

Sunday 23 April 2023

The Raccoon Family: Cacomistles

While true raccoons and coatis were first scientifically described during the 18th century, the third member of the raccoon family that's native to the United States was not described until 1830, by Heinrich Lichtenstein - who later went on to found the Berlin Zoo. It's unclear (at least to me) exactly what he thought the animal was. So far as I can translate the original German, his original description says that it's somewhere between a civet and a coati in appearance, but also looks quite like a fox. Based on which, he gave it the scientific name Bassaris astutus, a mixture of Greek and Latin that roughly translates as "cunning fox".

The scientific name didn't stand, because it turned out that the first part of it had already been used for a kind of butterfly. Furthermore, while he originally referred to the animal by its Spanish name "cacomixtle", since the specimen he knew of came from somewhere near Mexico City, in English we now call it a ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) or, less accurately, a "ring-tailed cat". Even so, in many parts of the US, an Anglicised form of the Spanish name is still in wide use. 

Sunday 16 April 2023

The Life and Habits of the Father of Cats

Today, all large land-dwelling carnivorous placental mammals belong to a single group named, appropriately enough, the Carnivora. This includes all the cats, dogs, bears, badgers, and many others besides, and it has long been clear that they are a genuine biological group, all more closely related to each other than to anything else. Indeed, the similarities between these animals are sufficient that, even though the current name only dates from 1821, it's essentially identical to the "Ferae" order first described back in the 18th century.

Even if we look at the fossil record, we find that for millions of years, the great majority of such animals were also members of the Carnivora even if, in some cases, their specific family no longer exists. The great majority, but not all. In 1875, American palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope coined the term "creodont" for a collection of early carnivorous mammals that lacked the key defining features of the carnivorans. His original definition was relatively narrow, but over the next few decades it was expanded until, in 1909, it came to include essentially all of the large land-dwelling carnivorous placentals that weren't carnivorans.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Decline of the Sea Otters

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are an endangered species, native to the coasts of the northern Pacific from Japan to California. I've discussed them in detail before, but suffice it to say here that they are remarkable creatures, able to survive without setting foot on land, digging no dens as other otters do, and even giving birth at sea. They also have the densest fur of any mammal, making it especially valuable.

Which, of course, explains how they became an endangered species in the first place.

Humans have been hunting sea otters for their fur for many centuries, but for much of history, this was small scale, with the local tribes being unable to make any lasting dent in their numbers even if they had wished to. Estimates for the worldwide population of sea otters prior to the 18th century are naturally difficult to come by, but it may have been as high as 300,000. The herald of coming doom came in 1741.

Saturday 1 April 2023

First of the Falcons?

Crested caracara
As I write this, it's 1st April, and that means, in lieu of trying to make a joke that somebody in the future will think is a real science item when they fail to notice the date, that it's time for: birds!

Trying to figure out the higher-level evolutionary relationships among animals can be tricky. Until the last few decades, we had to rely on physical comparisons and visible points of similarity, essentially a more sophisticated and well-informed version of what Linnaeus did back in the 18th century. With lower-level groups this can be reliable; nobody is surprised to discover that a moose is a type of deer or that rats are related to mice. But even here, parallel evolution can leave a misleading signal. It is not, for example, obvious that hyenas are more closely related to cats than to dogs (although, of course, they're neither). 

This problem gets bigger when we move to higher-level groups where physical similarity is no longer a reliable guide at all. Is a mouse more closely related to a dolphin than an elephant? That's not an easy one to answer on physical grounds alone. (Dolphin, probably, before anyone asks). It's much the same with birds.

Sunday 26 March 2023

The Raccoon Family: Coatis

White-nosed coati
The common raccoon is the only member of the family whose scientific name dates back to the official dawn of biological taxonomy in 1758. However, people continued sending him new specimens to catalogue and, just eight years later, in a later edition of the same work, Linnaeus added two further species that we would now also place in the raccoon family - albeit, he initially described them as civets.

These two animals were coatis (or "coatimundis"), with one first identified from Mexico, and the other from Brazil. They were given their own genus by Gottlieb Storr in 1780 when he first named the raccoon family. It's probably fair to say that, to modern eyes, Storr's classification seems the more reasonable of the two; coatis look a lot more like raccoons than they do like civets.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Age of Mammals: The Oligocene (Pt 1)

It's been over a decade since I started including bimonthly looks at specific slices of Earth's past in this blog. In that time, I have covered three epochs: the Pleistocene, Pliocene, and Miocene. Together with the current Holocene epoch, these comprise what we currently consider to be two "periods": the Quaternary and Neogene. Both of these are dominated, more or less, by mammals of the sort we'd generally recognise today, even if the details are different. All of the earlier chunks of time since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, however, constitute a different period, the Paleogene, where this was much less true.

When Charles Lyell devised the current system of dividing the "Age of Mammals" into epochs in 1833, he originally defined four. A few years later, he revised this to five, but even then, the entirety of what we'd now call the Paleogene was placed into a single epoch, the Eocene. In 1854, however, German palaeontologist Heinrich Beyrich, split off the later part of the Eocene into a new epoch, which he saw as a distinct period of transition in the development of fossil seashells. He called this the Oligocene, and it proved useful beyond his original mollusc-based definition, and so has remained in use to this day. (Beyrich's wife, incidentally, was a children's author, and made the unusual step of favourably commenting on the work of Charles Darwin in a novel for young girls at a time when it was still controversial).

Sunday 12 March 2023

Fruit Bats of Madagascar

While most attention tends to focus on large charismatic animals such as rhinos and tigers, it will probably come as no surprise to discover that many species of bat are endangered. Here in Britain, all bats are legally protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to disturb their roots. That's perhaps an unusually robust example, but other protections and conservation efforts exist across the world.

On the other hand, it is true that the majority of bat species are not especially threatened, at least on a worldwide scale - although things may be different locally. Bearing in mind that around one in six bat species are so recently identified and so little studied that we simply don't know how common they are, only around another one in six are rare enough to be listed as "threatened" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Still, that's not exactly a small proportion, and since there are somewhere around 1,400 named species of bat, it's not small in absolute terms, either.

Tha bats are a highly diverse group, representing no fewer than 21 taxonomic families, none of which are likely as familiar to the layman as terms such as "cat family" or "deer family". Some of these contain very few species, representing oddities that don't quite fit into any of the main subgroups, but there are still five families with over a hundred species each. Of these, the one that contains the highest proportion of threatened species is the fruit bat or "flying fox" family, the Pteropodidae.

Sunday 5 March 2023

Friendship and Fission-Fusion

Mammal species have a wide range od different social systems into which they organise themselves. Many are essentially solitary outside the breeding season, others form long-lasting pair bonds, and others live in larger associations which may themselves have varying different structures. Among the latter, one common pattern is that of the fission-fusion society.

Here, rather than having a long-lasting association, perhaps bonded by ties of family, the animals live in groups but the membership of that group is not constant. New animals are constantly wandering in, while others break off and leave for other groups. On a larger scale, it may be that the individual fission-fusion groups - the actual bands of animals you would see travelling together - are themselves gathered into larger social networks that may have a relatively consistent structure. That is, the new animals joining the group aren't random; they're individuals already known to the group, and rival social networks may exist nearby that do not mix their members.

Sunday 26 February 2023

The Raccoon Family: The True Raccoons

Common raccoon
While the raccoon family contains more species than most people likely realise, by far its best-known example is the animal for which it is named. The common raccoon (Procyon lotor), alternatively known as the "northern raccoon" or simply "the raccoon" was the first species in the family to be scientifically described, no doubt because it's not only common and widespread, but because it's a very distinctive animal. Everyone must surely be familiar with what they look like, and, if you're North American, there's a decent chance that's from first-hand experience.

The common raccoon is found across almost the whole of the contiguous United States, barring only some of the drier parts of the Great Basin, as well as across southern Canada and virtually all of Mexico and Central America. Furthermore, raccoons were introduced to Germany as a hunting animal in 1927 and, with the help of others that escaped from fur farms, since around the 1970s they have been expanding rapidly across Europe. Over the last couple of decades, they have established populations from Spain and France in the west across to Russia and Ukraine in the east. In the 1990s, they were also introduced to Japan and they have also been introduced to Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, probably following escapes from fur farms.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Tree-Dwelling Almost-Lemurs of the Canadian Arctic

Northern Canada, it has sometimes been noted, can get a bit cold. The northern coasts, and the islands beyond them, are covered in treeless tundra, the permanently frozen subsoil preventing anything that needs deep roots from growing there. The interiors of the more northerly islands don't even have that much, just permanent fields of ice and snow. 

The most northerly island in Canada is Ellesmere Island, whose most northerly point is not far from being the most northerly piece of solid land on the planet, only beaten by parts of Greenland. Midsummer temperatures reach a daily high of about 9°C (49°F) in midsummer, and it often snows in July. Winter temperatures regularly drop below -35°C (-31°F) on January nights. So, yeah, that's uncomfortable.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Benefits of a Deadly Predator

A basic concept in ecology is that of the trophic level, a concept that lines up life forms by where they sit in the food chain. Plants are at the bottom level, taking energy directly from the sun, then the next level up are the herbivores, which eat the plants. Above that we have primary predators eating the herbivores, and then secondary predators eating the primary ones. Because the transfer of energy is never perfect, each level will be smaller than the one below it, with fewer individual life forms in it, thus forming a pyramidal pattern.

The reality is more complex than this. Secondary predators also eat herbivores, omnivores are common, really large herbivores aren't likely to be eaten by anything, there may be more than two steps in the chain of carnivores, and we can't forget the detritivores and fungi. And so on. So what we actually have is a "trophic web", a complicated set of interactions where some animals don't fit neatly into a single level on the pyramid. Nonetheless, that doesn't make the basic idea useless and one of the concepts it leads to is the apex predator - the large carnivores that have no predators of their own (at least as adults).

Sunday 5 February 2023

Haring About

One of the reasons that there is such a large number of mammal species in the world is that many of them are restricted to relatively small areas. There are a great many species that can be found only in one place, perhaps because it's a remote island or otherwise physically difficult to leave, or perhaps because they have very specific requirements and can't traverse the terrain between the patches of land that meet them. Others, of course, may have lived across wider areas in the past, but are now endangered, perhaps because their land has been converted to agriculture or urban areas, or because they are seen as either especially tasty or a threat to humans or their crops.

On the other hand, many species are widespread with large populations and seem to be happy in a variety of different habitats. Often, these are animals with a broad diet, able to eat a range of different foods and still remain healthy - the red fox is a good example of this, especially once it started exploiting suburban habitats in the 20th century. Typically, they will not be as good at finding or processing these foods as those that specialise in one particular type but the fact that they can switch food sources easily makes up for this. Indeed, this can be a driver for evolution - an animal becomes really good at exploiting one narrow food source, out-competing the generalists, but the latter remain in the background and, when the world changes and the narrow food source is replaced by something different, become the basic stock from which the next round of specialists will arise.