March 21, 2011

African Lion (Panthera leo)

There are few humans indeed who will not recognize our next animal. It is a relative of yours truly, Mr. Hoo, and possibly the most famous member of the cat family. He is known as the king of the jungle, the king of beasts; an apex predator at the very top of the food chain in his native Africa. He is, of course, the lion.

The image of the majestic lion ruling over the savannah is a familiar one. Humans have used this image over and over again in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood movies. Medieval kings used the lion as the symbol of their kingship, comparing themselves to what they saw as their animal counterpart. If someone is considered brave and strong, they are said to be like a lion. Nothing else compares to the fearsome and regal King of Beasts.

Except for, perhaps, the queen of beasts. Lion prides are made up mainly of females and cubs, with only a few adult males. For as much as the male lion looks the part with his big fangs and flowing mane, most of the “dominating of the savannah” stuff is actually done by the females. The big male lions get all of the publicity, but as scary as a large male lion would be to a herd of zebra or wildebeest, a group of female lions approaching is much more frightening and much more dangerous.

This is because the female lions do almost all of the hunting, and they do it as a team. They work together to coordinate their attacks and herd the prey so that it runs exactly where they want it to go. A few females will chase the prey to where other females are waiting, hiding in the tall grass, to ambush it. In this way, the female lions provide for and feed the entire pride.

And what is the big strong male lion doing during all of this? Sleeping, probably. The males almost never help the females hunt; they just wait until the females catch something, and then they run over and take the first seat at the dinner table. This may seem rather selfish, and on certain level, it is. But there are other reasons for it. For example, the males, with their huge bulk and large flamboyant manes, would actually be a hindrance to the hunt. The females are sleeker and faster, and the hulking males are too bulky and brawny to chase down antelope and zebra the way the females can. The males also have a harder time concealing themselves in the grass…their size and their manes often give them away. So the females really have an easier time hunting if the males just stay home.

So, you may ask, what’s the point of being a huge, majestically maned lion if it hurts your ability to hunt? What good are they if the females do all the work? Well, the males do have one job, and it is a very important and dangerous job. The males are there to protect the pride…from other males.

You see, lion society is based on power and dominance, and the way young male lions get a pride of their own is by taking over another male’s pride. This is where the huge, muscular body comes into play. Resident males must defend themselves and their pride against attacks from outside males seeking to take their place. And it is serious business, because if a resident male loses a fight and is killed or driven off, the new males then go around and kill all of the cubs in the pride. They do this because they do not want to raise and defend another male’s children. They want to have their own. The females are too much smaller than the males to fend them off and prevent this from happening, so they depend on the resident males to protect them. So the stakes are high for the males, and to keep their pride intact, they always need to be the biggest and strongest lions around. The cubs that survive to adulthood are the ones whose fathers were big enough and strong enough to continually win these battles, and therefore the bloodline of the lions is the strongest possible, as all the weaker lions’ offspring have been killed off. It’s brutal, to be sure, but the life of a lion is not for the feint of heart.

Given this high pressure lifestyle, it is no wonder that lions like to spend their off hours doing…well, nothing really. When not fighting or killing something, lions like to sleep…a lot. They can sleep up to 20 hours a day. This may look like laziness, but it is actually a way to save up energy for the explosive bursts of violence that will inevitably come. Lions hunt the largest animals in Africa, and it takes incredible feats of strength just to put dinner on the table. So lions spend as much time as they can resting…except for the cubs, who seem to be in play mode 24/7…

With a beast this fierce it would seem that nothing could challenge its dominance, but lions are threatened. Lions don’t really have any predators, but they do have enemies. Hyenas seem to have a particular hatred for lions and will kill cubs or adult lions, if they can catch them alone. Hyenas are no match for a pride of lions, but a single lion, even a male, can be killed by a group of hyenas.

As with many animals you will meet here, however, the lion’s main threat is Man. Precisely because of their image as the fierce king of beasts, lions are hunted for sport. Many hunters like to kill lions so that they can later boast that they bested the fiercest predator in Africa…although, I don’t really understand why that is so impressive when they use a high powered rifle to do it. Silly humans. You pulled a trigger. Big deal. Take on a lion with a rock or your own hands, and then get back to me. If you can.

Lions are also considered a pest animal by cattle ranchers. The increase in cattle farms in Africa has greatly reduced the lions’ traditional hunting grounds, resulting in an increase of lions taking domestic cattle. Political strife can also affect lions (as well as all wildlife), as they do not understand political borders and fences really have no meaning for them. A lion pride’s territory may straddle lands in two different African countries, one where they are protected by law from poaching, and one where they are not. You can see how that will end.

Lions embody the spirit of strength and bravery, but for all their power and ferocity, lions are actually threatened today. Their numbers are decreasing as the real king of beasts, humans, spread out and take over. Can you humans learn to coexist with these animals that you venerate, or will the lion end up a relic in a museum or a cartoon in a picture book? I cannot say. I am but a mere tuxedo cat and, though very well dressed, powerless to affect the situation. Only you humans can do that. The power, and the consequences, are yours.

December 16, 2010

Bennett's Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus)

Australia has some strange animals. Being an island cut off from the other continents and tucked away at the bottom of the world, Australia has seen evolution take a different approach. Where most mammals on earth are placentals (meaning that the baby develops in a placenta inside the mother’s body), in Australia the marsupial is the dominant mammal. Marsupials are born premature and crawl up into a pouch outside the mother’s body where they nurse and finish developing. Australia has many types of marsupials, but by far the most recognizable are the kangaroo and wallaby.

A wallaby is a close relative of the kangaroo, a bit smaller in size, but similar in all other aspects. The Bennett’s Wallaby, sometimes called the Red-Necked Wallaby, is native to Australia and Tasmania and is one of the largest breeds of wallaby. It is so large, in fact, that it is often mistaken for a kangaroo! Adult males can weigh up to 50 pounds and yes, they do have boxing matches. Males will box each other to determine breeding hierarchy; sometimes these boxing bouts will devolve into kick boxing matches. They have HUGE feet, and they are not afraid to use them. They belong to the “macropod” family, which literally means “big foot”. No kidding.

Wallabies have a unique way of getting around. They hop. Their giant feet look ungainly, but don’t let that fool you. When they get moving, they can be very fast and agile. They can easily outrun a human…or out-hop, as the case may be…

Wallabies live in loose groups called mobs. They are somewhat solitary, but they will gather together in groups to graze. Their favorite food is grass and leaves. They generally prefer open fields so they can spot danger more easily, but they will venture into forested areas looking for yummy leaves.

Like most marsupials, the lifecycle of the Bennett's Wallaby is quite interesting. They usually give birth in February and March, and always have only one baby. The Bennett's Wallaby is unique, because it is capable of halting the growth of an embryo; if an egg is fertilized before a baby, or "joey," is out of its mother's pouch, the female Wallaby can slow the growth of the embryo. Joeys are born after a gestation period of only a few weeks, when they are not yet fully formed. After birth, they crawl into their mother's pouch where they suckle for five to eleven months, until they are mature. The rate of growth of the Joey depends on the mother's diet: the better the mother's diet, the more nutritious her milk and the faster the baby grows.

Wallabies don’t have that much to fear these days, now that the Tasmanian tiger is no longer around to hunt them, but they do still fall prey to feral dogs and cats as well as the Tasmanian devil. By far, though, people are the wallaby’s biggest threat. They face a great danger from hunters and farmers who consider them a pest.

One rather interesting side note: Tasmania is the world’s largest producer of legally grown opium. It is grown for the pharmaceutical market. The problem, however, is that the wallabies don’t know this, and they have a habit of raiding the poppy fields and eating the crops. The farmers report gangs of wallabies who get “high as a kite” and then just hop around in circles. It is unknown at this point whether the authorities want to treat this problem as an illness or a crime…

June 26, 2010

Yellow Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes)

Birds have done the unthinkable...I have been known to make myself airborne on occasion (particularly when I launch myself from the top of the wardrobe down to the bed where my unsuspecting human is sleeping at 3 a.m.)...but birds have really taken flying and made it an art form. They are powerful and graceful masters of the sky.

Well, most of them are, anyway. And then you have the penguin.

At some point long ago, penguins decided that the sea was a better place to make a living than the sky, and they traded in their wings for flippers. Oh, they can still fly; they just prefer to do it under water. They are excellent swimmers. They are as agile and graceful in the water as any bird up in the sky. On land, though...well, you can't win them all.

Penguins come in many shapes and sizes, but one of the rarest and most interesting penguins is the Yellow Eyed penguin. The Yellow Eyed penguin gets its name from its yellow eyes and the distinctive yellow stripe that runs around its head. These guys are the most ancient species of penguin and the only member of its genus, Megadyptes. It is a fairly big penguin; it is the 4th largest overall. It is most likely the rarest penguin in the world and only lives on the coasts of New Zealand and its accompanying islands.

Penguins are known for being very social, but not this guy. The Yellow Eyed penguin is actually the least social of any penguin species and requires the largest territory size of any penguin. It will also not nest in sight of other birds. Instead, it prefers to build its nest in tall grass or behind a tree or a log. It will hang out on the beach with other Yellow Eyed penguins, but not too close, please. In a way, it is sort of the Greta Garbo of penguins. It likes its privacy, thank you very much.

The scientific name for the Yellow Eyed penguin, Megadyptes antipodes, literally means "big diver of the southern lands". Mega means "big", dyptes is "diver", and antipodes is, yes you guessed it, "southern lands". That's a good name for this penguin, because this guy is a big diver, indeed. The Yellow Eyed penguin can dive over 400 feet deep and hold its breath for 4 minutes. Its favorite food is fish and squid, and it can travel up to 30 miles from shore in search of dinner.
Of course, looking for dinner in the ocean also carries the danger that the diner may become the dinner, and a Yellow Eyed penguin is just the ticket for seals and sharks who would love to add a yummy bird entree to their fish-heavy menu. A Yellow Eyed penguin has got to be on his toes...or, flippers...when he's out in the ocean looking for squid.

Land is usually the safest place for the Yellow Eyed penguin to be, as New Zealand has no natural predators of the penguin. Unfortunately, it now has plenty of introduced ones, so the rarest penguin in the world has gotten a whole lot rarer in the last century. Animals not native to New Zealand, such as cats, dogs, ferrets, and stoats, were brought over by humans and have taken a heavy toll on native birds that are not used to dealing with these new predators. And on land, a penguin really has no ability to get away from a predator; his chances are actually much better in the sea with the seals and sharks, because at least in the water he can swim really fast.

Luckily, the New Zealand government has recognized the threat and has taken steps to help their unique penguin, including reducing habitat loss by establishing private, protected areas and easing hunting pressure by trapping the non-native predators in those areas. It's all designed to give the Yellow Eyed penguin a break and some room to breathe. And that's a good thing, because if there's one thing a shy Yellow Eyed penguin likes, it's having a room of one's own.

May 29, 2010

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Life is hard in the arctic. In the winter, temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below zero and fierce, howling winds are common. And forget about the goes down in October and doesn't come up again until March. For all appearances, it seems to be a snow and ice covered wasteland. Sure, the Northern Lights are pretty, but that is small consolation when you can't find any food and you are freezing your buns off. What could possibly live in such a place?

The answer is, actually, quite a lot. Many creatures (and some humans) have adapted beautifully to life in the frozen tundra and call the top of the world home. And one of these creatures just happens to be the largest land predator in the world today...the polar bear.

The polar bear has been given many names over the years. The Norse (as in, Vikings) referred to the polar bear as "the rider of the icebergs", "the sailor of the floe", "the whale's bane", "the seal's dread" (for good reason!), and even "white sea deer"...a particularly creative name; apparently, the mead was flowing freely on those long winter nights. They said the bear had "the strength of 12 men and the wit of 11".

The Sami people in the Lapland region of Norway won't even speak the polar bear's name, for fear of offending it. Instead, they refer to the bear as "God's dog" or "old man in a fur coat".

The Latin name for the polar bear is Ursus maritimus, which literally means "sea bear". That is a good name for this bear, because he loves to swim. Polar bears can swim for 60 miles without rest, and they can dive to 15 feet. They use their massive front paws as giant paddles to push themselves forward in the water, and they use their hind paws as rudders. He is very good in the water because he spends most of his time going from ice floe to ice floe, looking for his favorite food...ringed seals.

Polar bears just
love a ringed seal. It is by far the most common item on the menu, although they will also hunt walruses and even small whales on occasion. Seals, being just slightly more bite-size than a walrus or whale, would seem to be the easier prey. Hunting seals in the arctic, however, is not quite that easy. It takes intelligence, strength, and lots of patience. Luckily, our polar bear friend is equipped for the job. Polar bears hunt seals by finding a breathing hole in the ice and waiting by it, ready to ambush the unlucky seal who comes up for some fresh air. Seals need to come up every 5 to 15 minutes to breathe; the problem is that these seal-made breathing holes are all over the place, and the chances that a seal will come up through this particular breathing hole can be mighty slim. A bear can end up waiting at a breathing hole for hours...or even days.

That's okay, because polar bears can go for weeks without food if they have to. They don't hibernate like other bears do, but when food is scarce, they can go into a state called "walking hibernation" in which their metabolism slows way down.

But when food is plentiful, they make use of it. These guys can eat! They have huge stomachs and can eat 100 pounds of yummy seal in one sitting. Despite being such a ravenous carnivore, however, their table manners are actually rather nice (for a ravenous carnivore, that is). A polar bear will actually share his meal with other polar long as they ask him nicely first. What is asking nicely in polar bear speak, you ask? Well, guests to the dinner table basically have to beg. Begging consists of approaching in a very submissive manner, crouching low to the ground, then circling around the carcass slowly, and then touching noses...ever so gently...with the big bear in charge. If a bear does this right, he is allowed to join the meal. Large groups of polar bears have been observed peacefully sharing a big whale or walrus kill together.

Polar bears are big...very big. Males can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and females can weigh up to 550 pounds. They are extremely strong and have thick, curved claws that measure more than two inches long. All of this comes in handy when your only source of food consists 150 pound seals or 2,000 pound walruses and 4,000 pound whales.

Living in such an extreme environment means having to find ways to adapt and deal with the special challenges that a habitat like the arctic presents...and polar bears are no exception. They have some amazing adaptations to life on the ice. Their fur, for example, is very dense and well insulating and covers skin that is actually black (all the better to trap heat from the sun). Their fur is actually not white, but rather reflects light in much the same way that ice does. The translucent fur and black skin cover a 4 1/2 inch thick layer of blubber that also helps keep in the heat. In fact, polar bears are so good at keeping warm that they actually overheat when they run!

They have huge feet...up to 12 inches across...that help them walk on ice and paddle in the water. They have longer necks than other bears, which is helpful when poking around in holes in thick ice, looking for seals.

And all those cute cartoons you've seen of polar bears and penguins playing together? Well, you can forget it. Polar bears and penguins live on opposite ends of the earth and never come into contact with each other. Polar bears are exclusively in the northern hemisphere, and penguins are in the southern hemisphere. A good way to remember this is by simply understanding what the terms "arctic" and "antarctic" mean. "Arctic" comes from the Greek word for "bear", and "antarctic" is Greek for "without bear". Easy, huh?

Polar bears are being talked about a lot in the news now because of global warming, but what exactly does that mean? Why is climate change such a threat to polar bears? Well, it all has to do with ice. Ice is a must for polar bears. They depend on it for their survival. Predators go where their food goes, and in the case of the polar bear, that is the arctic ice. Seals, walruses, and whales are all marine mammals and spend most or all of their time in the ocean. Polar bears are great swimmers, but they are no match for a seal in open water. The only access a hungry polar bear has to his food is where the ice meets the ocean. Polar bears follow the ice floes, sometimes swimming for miles to reach the next floe in search of seals. As this ice melts, the bears have to swim farther and farther to find suitable hunting grounds. As a result, many bears starve to death or simply die from exhaustion or drowning because the swimming distance has become too great.

The arctic is experiencing the warmest climate in four centuries. The rapid shrinking of the sea ice is making it harder and harder for polar bears to make a living. They are superbly adapted to life in their arctic environment, but now that environment is changing, and the changes are happening too fast for the polar bear to adjust. Less ice means that the polar bears can't reach their prey, and shorter hunting seasons means more chance for starvation and population decline.
The polar bear is an amazing animal, but one that is in danger. His way of life is quickly becoming a thing of the past. His habitat is literally disappearing beneath his feet. Hardly a fitting treatment for "God's dog"...

May 15, 2010

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

What IS that? Is it a raccoon? Is is a bear? Is it a fox? Why is a fox up in a tree?

It may look like a raccoon in a red fox suit, but this little guy is actually a panda. Its giant black and white namesake may hog all the attention, but he's not the only bamboo chomper in the forest. This is the red panda...much smaller, but all panda nonetheless. In fact, it can be argued that this guy is the original panda, as it was first described in 1821...over 40 years before the giant panda was discovered. And he can give the giant panda a good run for its money in the adorable department, as well.

Both red and giant pandas live in the forests of Asia and both have a serious bamboo addiction, but aside from that are not actually that closely related. It seems they just have similar hobbies.

But while the giant panda is a bamboo purist, the red panda will sometimes supplement the oh-so-delectable bamboo with other foods, such as roots, fruit, eggs, and even a lizard or small bird on occasion. Meat on the dinner table is not that common, however, because if the critter can move at all fast, this guy ain't gonna catch it. He's not exactly what you would call a type "A" personality. Possibly due to the poor nutrient content in bamboo, red pandas have a very slow metabolism and spend most of the day up in the trees sleeping and chewing on that yummy (and slow moving) bamboo.

The red panda is very well adapted to life in the trees...his hind legs are longer than his front legs (great for climbing up things), he has long claws that help him grab tree branches, and he even has an "extra" thumb which is useful for holding on. It always helps to have an extra digit to hang on to the tree with. These adaptations make him a little less than graceful on the ground, however. And that's fine, because the red panda prefers to stay in the trees anyway; it's safer up there. Staying in the trees helps the red panda stay off the menu of the snow leopard, who finds panda tar-tar to be very tasty.

One of the most distinctive features of the red panda is his long, bushy tail. The long tail helps him keep his balance in the trees. The tail is not prehensile, however, so you will never see a red panda swinging from his tail like a monkey. For him to try something like that would be a Bad Idea, indeed.

One thing that tail is very good for, though, is warmth. In cold weather, the red panda will curl up and wrap that long bushy tail around his body to keep himself nice and cozy. And that's no small thing; a built-in wraparound blanket comes in handy during a himalayan winter. The red panda also has a thick fur coat to protect and insulate its entire body...even the soles of the feet!

He's cute, he has a gorgeous firey red fur coat, he has weird extra appendages on his hands, and he has furry feet. The red panda...what's not to love?

May 10, 2010

Hooker's Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)

Mate for life? What's that? These guys don't play that game. This is the Hooker's Sea Lion, and he's all about the ladies. (the name, while funny, is just an unfortunate coincidence)

He is also known as the New Zealand sea lion, because that is the only place on earth that this fella calls home. And he's a big boy. This bruiser weighs in at just under 1,000 pounds, while his many lady friends are a more demure 350 pounds.

The fun begins in November, when the males, called bulls, arrive at the rookeries and start beating the tar out of each other. They are establishing dominance, you see, to see who will become the "beach master" and, subsequently, an undeniable chick magnet. It seems the girls, who arrive at the rookeries a few weeks later, really like a winner. The beach masters develop harems of anywhere from 8 to 25 females as part of their hard won territories. And the males who didn't win those territorial fights? Well, there's always next year.

These big animals have big appetites...they can dive more than 1,000 feet deep in search of the squid and fish they like to eat...but during the breeding season, the male has more important things on his mind. He doesn't eat at all during the entire breeding season (November to January). He can't, because if he leaves to go fishing, some other guy will grab his territory and his females. So he must stay on the beach, wooing the ladies and fighting off rivals. That's one serious Cassanova.

Despite all this attention to love, however, the Hooker's sea lion is one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world. Why is this? They were hunted heavily by native Maori people and European settlers for their skins and oil and were almost wiped out. They did not receive protected status until 1893. While they are no longer hunted, a number of them are still killed every year when they get entangled in the nets of squid fishing boats and drown. They are powerful swimmers and great divers, but they do still have to breathe air.

Although still threatened, the New Zealand government has stepped in to protect the Hooker's sea lion, so the future is looking up for the big guy. Perhaps he should celebrate by taking a leisurely stroll on the beach with a special lady...or 15...

May 9, 2010

Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora)

What could be cooler than flying? How about being able to fly for years without landing, and without ever having to flap your wings? How about having a wingspan that measures 10 feet across?

Meet the Royal Albatross.

This guy is one of the largest flying birds in the world, and he's not kidding around. Albatrosses travel around 100,000 miles per year, and they can reach speeds of 70 mph...all without flapping their wings. They do this by being expert gliders. They spend their lives circling around the Southern ocean, riding on updrafts of air from the ocean waves. This system works great, with one drawback: the albatross needs wind in order to fly. If the wind drops, the albatross may be forced to float on the ocean until the wind picks up again. Then he just spreads out his wings, and up he goes. He is the picture of grace in the air...take off and landing, though, are not quite as graceful. They tend to land on their face as often as their feet. They don't land very often, though; they spend most of their lives in the air and only go to land to breed and raise their young.

Albatrosses mate for life. If his mate is killed, it could take many years for him to find another mate...if he finds one at all. After the business of finding a mate (or reuniting with a mate) is done, the albatross pair lays one egg and both parents take care of the chick together. And it's a big baby...the chick can weigh 22 pounds! The chick stays in the nest for about 240 days, after which it is ready to try out its wings. It will practice running and flying around the colony for a bit, and then eventually, it will take off for real. And when it does, that's it. It will not return to land again for several YEARS.

That's one cool bird.