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.