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.