Sunday 21 July 2024

Drought and the Mother Rhino

You may be surprised to discover that the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is not internationally listed as an endangered species. This is because it is reasonably widespread across southern Africa, poaching of the species has been in decline since 2014, largely due to effective enforcement methods. While it did almost go extinct in the late 19th century, well over 10,000 of the animals are thought to be alive today, with populations in some areas still rising in recent decades. In fact, it meets all the usual criteria for a species of "least concern", one that we wouldn't normally consider even close to being threatened.

This, of course, hides a fair bit of complexity.

Sunday 14 July 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: The Giraffe-Gazelles

Despite appearances, true gazelles are not the closest living relatives of the springbok. That honour is probably tied between two other species, although there have yet to be sufficient genetic studies to absolutely nail that down - one could be closer than the other. They likely diverged from the springbok over 10 million years ago in the late Miocene, earlier than the blackbuck is thought to have diverged from the true gazelles, so it's perhaps unsurprising that they look quite different.

They also look slightly odd, and very distinctive.

The better-known of the two is the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri). The name comes from the Somali word for the animal, but it is more commonly known as the "giraffe-gazelle" in many European languages, and it's easy to see why. It is, of course, much smaller than a giraffe, with males having a shoulder height of around 100 cm (39 inches). The colour is also different, a relatively uniform reddish-brown over the back, with a paler shade in the flanks, neck, and limbs, and stark white underparts. There are also white markings on the face, around the eyes. Only the male has horns, which rise almost vertically out of the skull before curving back in an S-shape.

Sunday 7 July 2024

Giant Kangaroos: Were They Utterly Hop-less?

Most people have a clear image of what a kangaroo is: a large herbivorous animal that carries its young in a pouch and that moves by hopping about on its hind legs. There are three living species of true kangaroo, and this description does, indeed, accurately fit all of them. However, the kangaroo family, or Macropodidae, is much larger than this, with a total of 63 species, most of which can generically be described as "wallabies". 

There are also several fossil species known, stretching back to the late Oligocene, over 25 million years ago. Having only skeletal remains, and often partial ones at that, while we know that they had sufficient similarities to be placed in the same family and their teeth indicate they were herbivorous, what about the other two features: pouches and hopping? 

Sunday 30 June 2024

Cubs in the Snow

Both brown and American black bears spend much of the winter asleep. Whether this counts as true 'hibernation' is debatable, although, in recent years, most scientists no longer insist on a strict physiological definition, having given in and accepted the word as it is usually understood in English. They do this because their food is in short supply during the winter, and spending the entire time snoozing is a good way of conserving energy.

Before hibernating, they construct a den, in which they will spend the next several months, depending on the exact weather conditions. Significantly, mothers of both species give birth in the den, often while they are still asleep. All of which works for a large, omnivorous animal living somewhere that inclement weather makes it hard to forage in winter. But that's not something that will be true of all bears.

Sunday 23 June 2024

Bats in the Daytime

One of the things that we can say about almost all species of bat is that they are nocturnal. Regardless of whether they roost in caves or under the branches of trees, bats sleep through the day, wake up around dusk, fly out to get their food, and return home when the sun rises. But, when you stop to think about it, why should that be?

Consider: the great majority of bats eat insects and, sure there are plenty of insects around at night. But there's hardly a shortage during the day, either. Swallows, robins, and thrushes are all flying vertebrates that eat insects, and you see plenty of those around during the day. While for fruit bats and other herbivorous species, it's quite obviously not going to make a difference. If birds are perfectly happy flying around during the day, why not bats? It's not even as if there are only a small number of bat species that happen to occupy some narrow niche; there are well over a thousand of them.

Sunday 16 June 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: Blackbuck and Springbok

The gazelle-like body form has evolved at least three times within the "antilopine" subfamily, and arguably a few more times among antelopes more generally. A fast-running animal, able to outpace many of its predators, is clearly a useful thing to be if you're a herbivore. Only one of these three evolutionary events led to what zoologists would describe as the "true gazelles", although at least one of the others resulted in an animal so strikingly similar to gazelles that it's surprising that molecular evidence tells us it doesn't have an immediate common ancestor.

The blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), however, does not look much like a gazelle. It is one of the five currently recognised species of antelope whose scientific name dates back to the origins of modern taxonomy in 1758. In 1766, Peter Simon Pallas first distinguished antelopes from goats, creating the genus Antilope to incorporate no fewer than seventeen species - including the Dorcas gazelle, which would later go on to become the defining species of the Gazella genus when that was created in 1816. While every other living species was eventually split off elsewhere, the blackbuck remained, and its genus gives its name to the entire subfamily. (The second part of the name, incidentally, translates as "deer-goat" and remains the name of the animal in French).

Sunday 9 June 2024

Oligocene (Pt 9): Rise of the Dogs

Many of the carnivorous mammals present in North America during the Oligocene were of types also found in Eurasia. However, this far back in time, they did not necessarily belong to any family of animals we would recognise. Cats, for example, first appeared in Europe at the end of the epoch and did not reach the Americas until much later. Other groups, such as raccoons, simply didn't exist yet. 

But we do, for example, have Palaeogale, an animal also known from Europe that looked somewhat like a polecat, but was actually more closely related to cats and mongooses without, so far as we can tell, being either. Corumictis looked similar, but analysis of the skull has shown that it much closer to true mustelids. About the size of a modern weasel, it lived in Oregon at least 29 million years ago, towards the middle of the epoch. It may make it the first mustelid to reach North America from Eurasia, home to the very similar, and slightly older, Plesictis. It's far enough back that it might, however, belong to an early musteloid group rather than to the modern family (that is to say, it may be equally related to mustelids and raccoons, and thus, strictly speaking, neither). Oaxacagale is almost as old, and lived in what is now Mexico; it's probably another close relative but, it too, has so many primitive features that it's hard to place precisely.

Saturday 1 June 2024

Wombats Moving Home

There comes a time in the life of many young mammals when they have to leave home. There are at least two major reasons for this. Firstly, any given place only has so many resources, so unless your parents die as soon as they've finished raising you (unusual among mammals, although not unheard of), at some point, you have to move elsewhere or there won't be enough food for both of you. Secondly, if the whole family stays together in one place, you'll never meet new sexual partners, forcing you to mate with your siblings - and we all know where that leads.

Understanding how and when animals disperse from their place of birth can be important for conservation as well as, on a broader scale, how new species and subspecies evolve and adapt. Nor is it necessarily something that only applies to young approaching maturity, since older animals may also choose to move from one place to another and often for similar reasons - competition or a lack of suitable mates. Whether a given animal chooses to move home, and how far they travel to do so, can be influenced by several different factors. 

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Vocabulary of Sperm Whales

It's well known that whales and dolphins can communicate using sound, sometimes over long distances. In some cases, this can involve sophisticated "whalesong" that animals can use, for example, to identify each other, and that may impart other information, too. But there are a great many species of cetacean, and what is true for one won't necessarily be true for all of the others, just as what's true of chimps won't always be true for baboons or marmosets.

We'd expect the most complex messages to come from those species with the most complex social lives. In these cases, it would be useful for the animal to identify not only its gender, fitness, sexual status, and so on, but also which other whales it might associate with, and where it stands in the local hierarchy. Most (but not all) cetaceans live in pods although, for many, we haven't gotten very far in identifying how those are structured. They all, however, have relatively large brains and it can be worth asking, for any given species, just how complex their communication really is.

Sunday 19 May 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: The Largest Gazelles

Grant's gazelle
The word "gazelle", as used in everyday English is a little vague, referring to a general concept of slim, agile, antelopes but not to anything with a precise scientific definition. Strictly speaking, however, it refers to a specific group of closely related animals, and some species that are commonly called "gazelles" strictly speaking aren't. During the 20th century, all true gazelles were placed in a single genus, Gazella, and it's this that defines the more rigid definition of what does and doesn't count. 

In more recent decades, Gazella has been split in three, with the resurrection of two 19th-century names as "new" genera. The original Gazella is widespread, including animals from both Asia and North Africa, but the other two are exclusively African. Eudorcas (literally "true antelope" in Ancient Greek) includes Thomson's gazelle of the Serengeti and its various relatives, while the remaining genus is Nanger, whose name apparently comes from a local Senegalese word for one of the species.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Before Cats Could Purr

Although the differences are obvious when we can see the spots or stripes on their fur, the various species of cat are often very similar in form, and it can be hard to tell them apart based on the skeleton alone. For this reason, through much of the 20th century, all of the "purring cats" except the cheetah were placed in the single genus Felis. That's not the case today, when we distinguish genera not only for the larger purring cats, such as pumas and lynxes, but others that modern genetic evidence tells us are distinct, such as the group that includes the ocelot.

Given this, it's hardly surprising that the same should go for fossil species, too. It may well be that if we had genetic evidence on those, or could even just see their coat colour, we would be more willing to distinguish them but, when all you have is an often fragmentary skeleton, there isn't much to go on.

Sunday 5 May 2024

Squirrels, Advance!

The rapid growth of human population over the last century or so has led to a decline in many species. As I talked about last month, however, some animals can live alongside us even in urban environments, and there are many more than can tolerate us in rural - yet not truly wild - habitats, such as cropland or pasture. Any species that can do this clearly has an advantage, in many cases being able to move into new parts of the world previously inhabited by some similar, but less human-tolerant species. Thus, we can see some native species replaced by foreign invaders, as has happened, for example, with mink in continental Europe and jackrabbits in the American southwest.

In Britain, the most familiar example of this is probably the replacement of our native red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) by invasive eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Red squirrels were once common across the British Isles, but have now vanished from most of England and Wales, surviving in the far north of England and a few pockets elsewhere, but otherwise replaced by the greys. In large part this is due to the greys carrying a virus to which they are immune but the reds are not, but simple competition is another factor.

Sunday 28 April 2024

Call of the Elephants

Arguably the single most significant feature that has enabled our own species to dominate the Earth is our possession of language. This enables us to communicate and cooperate to achieve things we could not do individually, to an extent unparalleled outside of social insects, which lack our ability for complex thought in other ways. Without language, it's hard to see how we would have built cities, or maintained the incremental advance in knowledge that has marked many thousands of years of our history.

Yet language, of course, did not arise from nowhere. There is an understandable interest among scientists in determining how it might have evolved, and what from. Since we can't go back in time to perform linguistic analysis on the likes of Homo erectus, one of our major sources of information is determining how other species of mammals communicate using sound, rather than the scent marks that are so important to many of them. Much of the focus here is on primates, since these are the most likely to hold clues to our own origins, but this can be extended to other species, too. To what extent do other animals have something that could be considered ancestral to language?

Sunday 21 April 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: The Gazelles of Asia

Arabian gazelles
I suspect that, on the whole, westerners associate gazelles with Africa. We think of the ones we see in wildlife documentaries, being pursued by cheetahs or leopards across the plains of the Serengeti or similar places. However, the most current theory suggests that they may have originated in Asia and various species survive on both continents today, having split apart around 2 or 3 million years ago at or shortly before, the start of the Ice Ages.

How many species that might be is still a matter of debate, and much of it centres on what's probably the first part of Asia you'd think of to look for desert-dwelling animals: the Middle East. For much of the 20th century, there were generally regarded as being two species living here, not counting one or two then thought to be extinct. And then, well, all that fell apart for reasons I wrote about on this blog back in 2013.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Oligocene (Pt 8): The First Tapir and the Last Hoofless Horse

A close look at the evolutionary history of horses reveals that it's more complicated than sometimes presented, with numerous side branches forming a bushy tree of different species, many of which ultimately died out without descendants. This applies both to the origins of the group in its early days and its period of great diversification through the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. In the Oligocene, however, the picture, at least so far as we can tell, was rather simpler.

We know of two genera of horse that made it into the Oligocene from the preceding epoch. Mesohippus had been around for a while, Miohippus was a relative newcomer, appearing towards the very end of the Eocene. The two are rather similar, to the point that it has been argued they should be treated as different species of the same genus (which would be Miohippus, as that was named first) and they are both found in fossil beds across the United States and southern Canada, with Miohippus being known from Washington state to Florida and Mesohippus primarily in the west. The similarity also led to proposals early on that the one directly evolved into the other, but it's now clear that they lived alongside one another for millions of years, which scuppers that idea.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Wild Mammals of London

Arguably the single biggest threat to the continued survival of animal and plant species is loss of habitat. Even if an animal isn't actively hunted, the ever-growing human population means that there are simply fewer suitable places for them to live. Logging and the expansion of agriculture are probably the biggest factors here, at least in terms of the area affected, but it's hard to argue that the recent growth of urban sprawl isn't another.

The urban environment is obviously a difficult or impossible one for most wild mammals to exploit. House mice and rats are an obvious exception, and there are also domesticated pets, but for truly wild creatures it's a different matter. While it may no longer have (say) bison or wolves, upstate New York is still home to seven species of shrew, three moles, four hares or rabbits, 22 different kinds of rodent, ten bats, nine mustelids, two foxes, and three deer, plus coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, striped skunks, and black bears. Manhattan... not so much.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Flight of the Fossil Pelicans

Dalmatian pelican
Pelicans are distinctive birds with long necks, short legs, and a remarkably long beak the bottom half of which is attached to a large extensible pouch for holding captured fish. They are also large, with even the smallest species having a 180 cm (6 foot) wingspan and the largest being half that again. They are, of course, water birds, with many living along coasts or in brackish waters, but others found in lakes and rivers far inland.

They are also not mammals, which is a timely reminder that, yes, this is the post that will be live on 1st April, when I switch things about for one post a year.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Antelopine Antelopes: Gazelles of North Africa

Dorcas gazelle
(Brief note: My internet connection was down for three days over the weekend, which is why this post is delayed from the usual.)

One of the things that most distinguishes gazelles from other kinds of antelope is that they are adapted to dry environments. They don't come much drier than the Sahara so it should be little surprise that gazelles are relatively common here. In fact, the dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas) is one of the most widespread of all gazelle species, being found right across the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, as well as further south along the Red Sea coast in Eritrea and Djibouti and across the Sinai into extreme southern Israel. In the north, it's largely restricted to the eastern parts of the Mediterranean coast, being absent from northern Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Home-grown Shovel Tuskers?

Elephants are unique and remarkable animals, looking quite unlike any other creature. They have no close living relatives among other mammals - you have to go back almost to the time of the dinosaurs to find any common ancestor with anything else. As a result, the elephant family is placed within its own order of mammals, a ranking equivalent to that given to such groups as "primates", "rodents", or "bats". With just one family, and only three living species, it isn't quite the smallest mammalian order, but it's very close.

This changes significantly if we choose to include the known extinct species. There are a great many of these, which tend to be large, heavily built creatures with elongated tusks, and, in most cases, features on their skulls that suggest they had a trunk. Indeed, this latter is the source of the official name of the order, the proboscideans. While only the elephant family survives today, at least six others are recognised to have existed in the past, and if we could see members of most of them today they'd be instantly recognisable as, if not actually elephants, at least "elephant-like".

Sunday 10 March 2024

Jiggling on the Ecotone

It might leave a slightly different message if a human did it, but leaving piles of droppings in the territory around your home can be an important signal for many mammal species. Although making such piles visible may help other animals find them, the primary signal is, as one might expect, the smell. And not just the smell of the faeces, of course, but complex chemicals mixed in with it from urine or the secretions of anal scent glands. These can allow an animal with a sense of smell more subtle than our own to glean a lot of useful information about who left the deposit - and why.

In many species, this takes the form, not of solitary deposits, but of latrines. In the zoological sense, this refers to a single location for defecating shared by many animals of the same species. The animals who use the site may belong to a particular pack or herd, all using the same communal site, but they could equally well be rivals or neighbours leaving messages for one another. How the latrines are distributed can give researchers significant clues about what those messages might be.

Sunday 3 March 2024

The Rhinos of Samos

Today, rhinoceroses are rare animals, with three out of the five species on the verge of extinction. Millions of years ago, however, not only were they much more common, but there were many more species, and with greater diversity, than we have today. 

How diverse that was depends on how broadly you interpret the word "rhino" when fitting it to formal scientific classifications. Even if we take the narrowest definition, considering only animals descended from the last common ancestor of the living animals, you can still add over two dozen species to the tally, although obviously, they weren't all alive at the same time. Adding in all the "rhinoceratoids" - anything more closely related to a rhino than to any other living animal - obviously gets you a great many more, although many of them didn't look much like the creatures we'd recognise. 

Sunday 25 February 2024

Antilopine Antelopes: Tommy's Gazelle and Relatives

Thomson's gazelle
You probably don't need to live in Africa to be aware that there are a great many different kinds of antelope. (A couple of years ago I came across an online picture quiz of "can you name these African animals?" Over half of them were antelopes.) It's hard to say which of these are the most familiar to the general public, because quite a few of them probably are, at least in general terms. But one subtype of antelope that people will at least recognise are the gazelles.

Gazelles are smallish, fleet-footed animals; the word comes from the Arabic ḡhazāl, which literally means something like "slim/agile creature". Gazelles are widespread, perhaps surprisingly so, and there are many different species. Of these, the one that may be the most familiar to people outside of Africa is Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii) for the simple reason that it's the one that lives in the Serengeti and therefore gets into a lot of wildlife documentaries. Mostly getting eaten by big cats, to be sure, but it's a start.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Oligocene (Pt 7): Not Quite Camels, Not Quite Pigs

While the ruminants of Oligocene North America would have looked similar to the musk deer of today, some of the other cloven-hoofed mammals inhabiting the continent at the time were more distinctive. Protoceratids no longer survive, but they had already been around for millions of years at the dawn of the Oligocene, and would survive throughout the whole of the following epoch and a little way into the one after that - an impressive record. Despite this, they never seem to have been very common, and the only undoubted Oligocene example is Protoceras, known primarily from Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

It remains unclear exactly what protoceratids were, beyond the fact that they were obviously related to other cloven-hoofed animals. Some features suggest that they were closely related to ruminants (as was assumed when they were first discovered in the 19th century) while others indicate a close relationship to camels; it may even be that they are some early branch that doesn't fit well with either. Despite being the animal for which the group is named, Protoceras is not so well known as its later relatives, many of which notable for possessing a third horn on their snouts in addition to those in the place we'd expect to find horns on a goat or antelope. 

Sunday 11 February 2024

A Tiger's Dinner

One of the basic concepts in ecology is that of the food chain; the idea that plants are eaten by herbivores are eaten by small carnivores are eaten by large carnivores. The reality is both more complex - because, for example, omnivores exist - and simpler, because, at least on land, many of the largest carnivores eat large herbivores, not smaller carnivores. Nonetheless, there's still an underlying truth, and it introduces us to concepts such as the apex predator.

An apex predator is essentially a carnivore that has no predators of its own, an animal that sits at the top of its local food chain. Many mammals fit this description, including wolves, big cats, bears, and killer whales. (The last of those, of course, being an example of a large carnivore that does mainly eat smaller carnivores). Outside the world of mammals, one could add eagles, crocodiles, and sharks, among others. Humans could count as another example, given that we obviously don't have regular predators, but this does depend on your exact definition, since we're clearly omnivorous and, in many parts of the world have a nearly or totally herbivorous diet.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Playing Squirrels

Anyone who has owned a cat or dog will know that playing with toys is not something unique to our own species. Indeed, playing in general is a widespread phenomenon among mammals, and less commonly, in other animals, too. (Crocodiles and alligators, to take just one example). It's perhaps not as thoroughly studied as some other aspects of mammalian behaviour, but it has by no means been ignored and can be useful, for instance, to enrich the lives of animals kept in zoos.

In order to study play in animals, however, we first need a clear definition of exactly what it is we're talking about. A common model used today is the one defined by Gordon Burghardt in a 2005 book on the subject, which defines play as a physical activity meeting four key criteria.

Saturday 27 January 2024

No Such Thing as an Antelope

There is no such thing as an antelope.

Or at least that's true in the same sense that there's "no such thing as a fish". Which is to say that, obviously, antelopes exist but they aren't a scientifically definable group of animals. Or that, if they were, that group wouldn't map closely to what the regular English word "antelope" is supposed to mean.

The word entered English during the Rennaissance, and descends, via Latin, from the Greek "ανθολοψ". That first appears in the 4th century (so not old enough to be Ancient Greek, as such) and referred at the time to a mythical beast said to live along the Euphrates that had horns so sharp and serrated that it used them to cut down trees. We don't know why the Byzantine Greeks called it this, but there's not some "lope" that it's "ante" to (nor, to use most other European languages, is it an anti-lope); it's just a coincidence that the word sounds that way. For all we know, they were borrowing a word from some other, older language spoken somewhere out east.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Rise of the One-Toed Horses

The horse family contains, depending on your definition, just seven or eight living species of wild animal. If you count them separately, you can add the two domesticated species to those (that is, the horse and the donkey) but that's it. Moreover, all of these species are so closely related to one another that they can interbreed, albeit usually to produce sterile offspring, and so are traditionally placed into a single genus: Equus.

The genus is noted for its members having just one toe on each foot. The story of how this happened, and the number of toes became reduced, is one of the most frequently repeated in mammalian evolution, although the detail may be more complex than is sometimes presented. The story of how the genus evolved since that point, however, is much less so.

Sunday 14 January 2024

Boys or Girls?

Generally speaking, a newborn mammal is equally likely to be male or female. The sex ratio in the resulting population may not always be a perfect 50/50 if one sex has a shorter life expectancy than the other, but it's still going to be pretty close. There is a sound reason for this, and it's called Fisher's Principle, after geneticist and mathematician Ronald Fisher, who promoted it in the 1930s (although he probably wasn't the first to have thought of it).

The argument runs like this. Let's say that a particular species produces more females than males. Then males will have more mating opportunities than females, and will, on average, have more offspring. If a mutation then arises in a given individual that makes her more likely to give birth to sons, she will tend to have more grandchildren, many of whom will carry that mutation. Since they will also have an advantage, the mutation will spread through the population... until males are more common, at which point it's preferable to have more female offspring, and so on. 

Sunday 7 January 2024

The Rarity of Gophers

What exactly does it mean to say that a species is "rare"? The general idea, of course, is that it must have a lower total population than some species that is "common", and we can certainly argue over where to draw the line between the two. But, even then, rarity can manifest in different ways and that may have an effect on our perception of it.

Take the tiger for example. Today, this is undeniably a rare animal, and it's internationally listed as an endangered species. But go back two hundred years, and tigers were found across southern Asia from the easternmost parts of Turkey to the Russian Far East. They stretched from the deserts of Central Asia to the jungles of Java. But even then, if you'd gone to any of these places, the chances of actually meeting a tiger weren't all that high. Tigers are big predators, and they need a wide area to find enough food to eat. So they may have had a high total population (certainly compared with today) but they weren't exactly abundant in any given locality. Does that count as being "rare"?