Saturday, 25 April 2009

Cyprus Update II

Yesterday I travelled to a few wild places to search for Cypriot wildlife. The first destination was the village of Geçitköy, set inland from the Mediterranean Sea amongst the foothills of the Kyrenia Mountains. The village itself is small and like many others. I saw a small pond as we entered the city, and decided to stop to look for reptiles, amphibians and birds. As I walked to the pond with my mum (a very useful translator in these parts!), a local stopped us and asked what we were doing. Mum explained on my behalf that I was there to find animals and wild flowers to photograph. The lady then mentioned that she keeps and looks after injured animals, and invited us to take a look. She first of all showed me an injured buzzard (Buteo buteo) that was found locally and given to her, as she is renowned in the village for fostering injured animals. The buzzard looked very healthy to me and was flapping about in its cage. I got some wonderful shots of it, stay tuned for those. Also she keeps chickens and guineafowl in the next aviary. As I was watching them, she went into the aviary and took out a very small chick, not more than a day old I would have thought. The lady also kept quails, chukars (Alectoris chukar, a kind of partridge), ducks, cockatiels, hamsters, spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca) and dogs. She refused to take any money as a donation; she said she does this purely for her love of the animals.

I travelled to Geçitköy to visit a large manmade reservoir which attracts much wildlife during times of drought. The lake is beautiful at this time of year, and it is easy to walk the 5 km circumference. I saw several frogs (not the marsh frogs, but I will try to ID them later), and heard two types of frog, these and another type I tended to hear coming from bushes, so I think it is a tree frog. I also travelled to the very northwest of the island.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Cyprus Update

Well, I have some time before breakfast on my third day in North Cyprus to update my beloved blog. No pictures though, haven’t been able to upload any yet.

Yesterday I had a mini-adventure. I had planned to go to Bellapais Abbey to search for the three species of lizards I had seen there in October: common, or starred, agama (Laudakia stellio); Schreiber’s fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus schreibersi); and the endemic Troodos lizard (Phoenicolacerta troodica). The abbey is some five miles from where I am staying in the coastal town of Kyrenia (Turkish name: Girne). It dates to the 13th century, and is still relatively complete, with many of the rooms still almost intact.

I began to search for the lizards, and maybe even snakes, as soon as I got there, but was beginning to become disillusioned; what had happened in the intervening six months since my last visit to the abbey to make the lizards disappear? After about half an hour of vigorous observations, I finally managed to see and photograph a single female Troodos lizard basking in the sun on a low wall. No males, no agamas, no snakes either. Since it is breeding season, I expected to see many times more than in October, with the male Troodos lizards displaying and defending their territories against other males… they turn bright blue-green at this time of year. No males sighted at Bellapais this time. Something I realized whilst there was that the weather was significantly windy and not very hot. Perhaps the reptiles were put off basking for fear of falling off their sunloungers and being eaten by the feral cats and dogs that roam the place looking for morsels of food.

In slight disillusion, I decided to try and find a lake I had heard about and had seen on Google Earth. The lake is located north of the village (town?) of Gönyeli. After asking locals where the “reservoir” is (this is what I was led to believe it was known as), we ended up at a large water barrel, not what I had in mind. At least it was high up; the vantage point gave me a clear view of the azure-blue lake not far in the distance. The road is dirt track and unpaved; my dad is driving a car without 4-wheel drive, and is getting stuck in pot-holes every couple of seconds. Needless to say, with perseverance we managed to get near enough to the edge of the lake to park the car and walk down the steep slope towards the lake margin.

The margins of the lake are what I would call polluted. Bottles, cans, and all other sorts of man-made debris litter the side, and the outer metre or so of the lake was covered in gloopy, thick algae, a sign of increased nutrients in the water from excessive nitrate input. I was on the lookout for marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) and stripe-necked terrapins (Mauremys rivulata), but found none. The lake is large (I will get an area estimate next time I check Google Earth) with a deep area in the centre which must persevere throughout severe drought periods in the Cypriot summer.

I did see plenty of swallows (Hirundo rustica) around the lake, and in the village at Bellapais. Other small birds were visible, but were probably house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I think coots (Fulica atra) were present in the deeper reaches of the pond. I decided to navigate my way around about a quarter of the perimeter the pond to appreciate the stunning vista and look for wildlife. Large red dragonflies hovered about the place, but none stayed still enough in the wind to allow me to take a photograph. I pushed through tall reeds and managed to avoid putting my foot in the algal goo. After a short walk to a nice spit where I could take photos, I returned to the car, seeing several more Troodos lizards and possibly some fringe-toed lizards, but they were so fast I don’t think I photographed any.

Today I’m hoping to visit the northwestern part of the island, to an isolated village with reservoir, and to the cape at the tip, known variously as Cape Kormakitis in Greek, or Korusan in Turkish. I will report on that shortly, hopefully, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Photo of the Day #32: Dwarf Crocodile

(West African) Dwarf crocodile
Osteolaemus tetraspis Cope, 1861
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

The smallest of the crocodiles, and quite alligator-like, the dwarf crocodile is found in west and central Africa in typically wet rainforest habitat. Although maximum lengths of nearly 2 m (over 6') have been recorded, typically they grow to 1.5 m (5') in length. Osteolaemus comes from the Ancient Greek words for 'bone' and 'throat'. This is a good description of the hardened scales, known as osteoderms, present on the crocodile's underside, hence partially protecting it from predation. This species shares its range with the slender-snouted crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus), and of course the well-known Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Both could potentially make a meal out of poor little Osteolaemus!

Well, I'm off to North Cyprus again tomorrow, and this blog will (hopefully) be updated with photos and anecdotes from the trip when I get back. You may even be lucky enough to get a sneak peek at some photos as soon as I get to upload them!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Photo Special: Oh deer...

Male Reeves’ muntjac
Muntiacus reevesi (Ogilby, 1839)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

Native to China and other parts of eastern Asia, the Reeves’ muntjac is now one of the most common ‘large’ mammals in the UK. It was introduced some time in the nineteenth century into deer parks like Woburn Abbey (with a great safari park nowadays) and Whipsnade, where the deer now roam freely between exhibits. Males, as seen here, have small antlers with two prongs, but both males and females can be told from other small deer by the black mark on the forehead. This individual (also see last photo of the post) was busy masticating, I think it was chewing the cud.

Female Reeves’ muntjac
Muntiacus reevesi (Ogilby, 1839)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Shepreth Wildlife Park, Cambridgeshire
September 2008

This female muntjac followed me about the park for quite a way; I was quite shocked to see her when I emerged bleary-eyed from the nocturnal mammal area (featuring pygmy lorises, potoroos, spiny mice and bats). In its native Asia, the Reeves’ muntjac seems rarer than its more widely distributed cousin, the Indian muntjac (M. muntjak). Several more species occur in the southeast of the continent, including the leaf muntjac (M. putaoensis) from Myanmar (formerly Burma), discovered only in 1997. The genus Muntiacus extends right back to the Miocene in parts of Europe, as early as 35 million years ago, making them the most ancient of today’s true deer!

Male Chinese water deer
Hydropotes inermis (Swinhoe, 1870)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

Although all male deer lose their antlers from time to time, when they can often be confused with females, the Chinese water deer never has any. It is a member of its own subfamily, the Hydropotinae, the only subfamily never to have evolved antlers in the first place. Instead, the male Chinese water deer sports fantastic fangs, actually elongated canines, which can be seen clearly in the next picture.

Male Chinese water deer skull
Hydropotes inermis (Swinhoe, 1870)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

As you can see, not even traces of antlers or pedicels (the part of the skull where the antler grows from) are present. Male Chinese water deer probably use the tusks for intraspecific fighting (fighting between members of the same species). As their name indicates, they are native to China and Korea and frequent swampy habitats; as such, when they were introduced to England at around the same time as the Reeves’ muntjac, they didn’t spread very far and are pretty much restricted to the fenlands of East Anglia (Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk), as well as the environs of Woburn Abbey and Whipsnade. There are said to be over 600 Chinese water deer in Whipsnade (source: Wikipedia); however, I only saw two (maybe even the same one twice?)

Male Père David’s deer
Elaphurus davidianus Milne-Edwards 1866
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

With the exception of the Schomburgk’s deer (Rucervus schomburgki), which is believed extinct, the Père David’s deer is the world’s most threatened species of cervid. It is considered “Extinct in the Wild” by the IUCN, but thankfully there are many captive herds which are breeding successfully, with approximately 800 in ISIS-registered zoos worldwide. Males (not sure whether to call them stags, bucks, harts or bulls – why are there so many terms for male deer?) have impressive, tree-like antlers, as can be seen from the above photo.

Female Père David’s deer
Elaphurus davidianus Milne-Edwards 1866
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

The antler-less females here are showing an adaptation to life in a marshy habitat; the hooves are splayed. The “Père David” mentioned in the name commemorates a French priest who travelled to China to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism. He has many organisms named after him, not only a deer, but also a laughingthrush (Garrulax davidi), a mole (Talpa davidiana, now T. streeti), an owl (Strix davidi), a rock squirrel (Sciurotamias davidianus), a snowfinch (Montifringilla davidiana), a tit (Poecile davidi) and a vole (Eothenomys melanogaster).

European reindeer
Rangifer tarandus tarandus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

Just like nappies and diapers, taps and faucets, and lifts and elevators, many nouns have different names in the UK and the US. There are three well-known types of deer with this problem, but the problem is exacerbated further. Alces alces is known to all Americans and some Europeans as the moose. It is also called the elk in Europe, especially the countries it inhabits (sometimes the American A. alces are called a different species, A. americanus, but this is irrelevant at the moment). Then there is Cervus canadensis (or C. elaphus canadensis), sometimes known as wapiti, after a Native American name for the animal, or also as elk! I avoid confusion by never using the word ‘elk’.

Rangifer tarandus also suffers with this problem. All youngsters know it as the reindeer from Santa Claus’ favoured mode of transportation and a certain ruddy-nosed individual called Rudolph. This, I have now come to believe, is correct only to refer to R. tarandus from Eurasia, and any in domestication. Those from the tundra and woodland of Canada, Alaska and Greenland are known as caribou. The above animal is not a caribou, but a European reindeer. I hope this is correct, I’m now against using the word ‘caribou’ unless the animal in question is of wild North American origin.

A couple of interesting thing about reindeer (and caribou, come to think of it). When they walk, their hooves ‘click’, sounding a bit like the noise humans do when bending fingers back. This is caused by a tendon locking and unlocking near the toe bones. Just as the Chinese water deer bucks the trend for antlers (pun intended), the female reindeer/caribou also does in that they have antlers like the males. The main reason for this is not to do with intraspecific fighting, but to do with finding food; when the ground is covered with snow and ice, all adult reindeer can use their antlers as snow-ploughs to uncover patches of reindeer moss (actually a lichen, but a favourite winter food for R. tarandus).

Deer oh deer, that’s enough for now! I’ll also stop with the cheesy puns.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Photo of the Day #31: Gaur

Bos (Bibos) gaurus Smith, 1827
Bovidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

I planned to post this today anyway, but feel it's quite timely as Darren Naish has posted an excellent (as usual) account on this species and another Asian wild ox, the banteng (B. javanicus) on his blog, Tetrapod Zoology. I'm adding a little something different though.

This individual had its head down, feeding or grooming itself, I couldn't tell, but then when he reared his head, I noticed he had pulled his lips back and was grinning in an unusual, but clearly identifiable way. This gesture is called the flehmen response.

The flehmen response occurs in certain mammals, including cats and ungulates, from the German word for 'curling the upper lip', quite an apt description. It occurs in both male and female individuals of such animals. The purpose of the flehmen response is to draw odours into the vomeronasal organ. Also called the Jacobson's organ, the vomeronasal organ is in the roof of the mouth above the palate. It serves the purpose of detecting certain chemicals in the air. Humans have vestigial vomeronasal organs but they have lost their purpose. It is also used by snakes to detect odours in the air; this is what a snake is doing when it flickers its tongue. Technically, it is "smelling" the air, but not using the olfactory senses. Elephants are also known to be able to feel their own vomeronasal organs using the tip of their trunk to gain additional information about what they have touched with it (according to Wikipedia, but unsourced within).

Monday, 13 April 2009

Photo of the Day #30: Indian Rhinoceros

Indian rhinoceros
Rhinoceros unicornis Linnaeus, 1758
Rhinocerotidae; Perissodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

One of five extant rhinoceros species, the Indian rhino, along with the closely related Javan rhino (R. sondaicus) is the only one with a single horn (the 'unicornis' in the specific epithet means 'one horn'). It is classified as a vulnerable species in the wild, distributed in the foothills of the Himalayas from northeastern Pakistan through northern India and Nepal to extreme northeastern India. As such, it ranks fourth in terms of most endangered rhinoceros; only the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) of Africa is more less threatened with extinction (southern subspecies only, C. s. simum).

Indian and Javan rhinoceroses both share the distinction of having a hide that looks like armour plating. This can easily be seen in the first photo. In the lower photo, however, another individual in the same cage shows the bizarre skin on the rest of the animal, especially the legs, that looks like scales.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Photo of the Day #29: European Brown Bear

European brown bear
Ursus arctos arctos Linnaeus, 1758
Ursidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

The brown bear, also known as the grizzly, is amongst the most well known of the world's eight extant bear species. The family Ursidae contains five living genera: Ursus, with the brown, Asian black (U. thibetanus), American black (U. americanus) and polar (U. maritimus) bears; Tremarctos, with the spectacled bear (T. ornatus); Melursus, with the sloth bear (M. ursinus); Helarctos, with the sun bear (H. malayanus); and finally the genus Ailuropoda, with the giant panda (A. melanoleuca).

All of the above bears, it might be obvious to state, look bear-like. It has been disputed since its discovery whether the giant panda belongs in this family; the consensus of opinion amongst experts is that it does. Its much smaller namesake, however, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is now believed to have a family all to itself, the Ailuridae; it did have several fossil relatives. Extinct members of the bear family include the mollusc-eating Kolponomos, probably looking somewhat like a bear with a walrus' face and a sea otter's dentition; Arctodus simus, the short-faced running bear, was a relative of today's spectacled bear found in ice-age America; Ursus spelaeus and U. fossilis were extinct relatives of today's brown bears from Europe.

The brown bears photographed here originate from Europe. They belong to the nominate race of brown bear, Ursus arctos arctos. The other well known subspecies are from North America, and are the grizzly itself, U. a. horribilis and the oversized Kodiak bear, U. a. middendorffii. In all, there are around twenty recognised subspecies, although far more have been named. They range across the northern hemisphere in three continents, and formerly even in north Africa. The Atlas bear, U. a. crowtheri, lived in the Atlas Mountains of northwestern Africa until the late 19th century. The biggest races are found in Alaska, including the Kodiak from Kodiak Island and U. a. gyas from the mainland, and also in Siberia and Kamchatka in far eastern Russia. Some brown bears have even been known to hybridise with polar bears in the wild where their ranges overlap in the far north of U. arctos' range. Genetic analyses of these bears show something rather odd; there are two groups of brown bears, and the polar bear slots between the two, rendering the species U. arctos paraphyletic.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Photo of the Day #28: Cheetahs

Ethiopian cheetahs
Acinonyx jubatus soemmerringii Fitzinger, 1855
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Dunstable, Bedfordshire
April 2009

A cheeky cheetah sticks its tongue out while allogrooming its mate's head at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park earlier today. According to ISIS, the cheetahs at Whipsnade are of the subspecies A. j. soemmerringii, which ranges from Lake Chad in the north African country of Chad to Somalia and Eritrea on the north-eastern coast of Africa. Thus it would be genetically different from cheetahs found in most other zoos, which are of the east and southern African nominate race, A. j. jubatus Schreber, 1775, or of unknown race. According to ISIS, which keeps a list of the animals in almost every registered zoo in the world, there are no Asiatic cheetahs, A. j. venaticus Griffith, 1821, in captivity. Private breeding programmes are not considered, however, and there are those probably going on in Iran and neighbouring countries, where the Asiatic cheetah is found nowadays.

I saw lots of animals I've been dying to see and photograph for ages today at Whipsnade, highlights including the cheetahs, European brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos), Indian, or greater Asiatic one-horned, rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Pere David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus), wisent or European bison (Bison bonasus), and West African dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis). Photos of all of those, plus more, should hopefully following this in the next few days, if I get the chance! Two whole back-breaking days at work tomorrow and Thursday, plus a lot of interview preparation for a really cool job which I'll tell all about if I get.

Friday, 3 April 2009

A day at the (free) zoo

I spent a few hours on Thursday the 2nd of April at the Van Hage Garden Centre in Great Amwell in Hertfordshire, near the town of Ware. Not only is it a garden centre, but it has a small animal collection open to the public, for free, might I add, that includes mostly domesticated and child-friendly animals, but have had a few weird and wonderful creatures, like a genet (Genetta sp.), striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and raccoons (Procyon lotor). Here's a short photo tour, featuring pictures I had taken only on the 2nd of April.

Dwarf rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Other breeds there include giants, English lops and the big spotty ones (that's their technical name anyway!).

Suricates (Suricata suricatta), more commonly known as meerkats. There are two there, and both are quite photogenic, but the fine mesh coupled with wooden outer barrier make for poor photos.

Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), actually a small species of parrot related to the larger cockatoos and galahs. Other birds in the aviary include a lovely superb parakeet (Polytelis swainsoni), budgerigars (or budgies, Melopsittacus undulatus), peach-faced lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) and Japanese quails (Coturnix japonica).

A Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum), one of a pair of these large relatives of the guinea pig. They live in a paddock with various fowl and waterfowl, including a couple of grotesque-looking turkeys.

Peahen and peacock, of the species Pavo cristatus, the blue or Indian peafowl. The male doesn't have his spectacular trail, so looks much like the female, except for his blue neck plumage and head plumes.

A pair of Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata), in the same enclosure as the maras and peafowl above.

Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), who shares a large enclosure with rabbits, domestic chickens, pygmy goats and a small pig.

A cocky cock (Gallus gallus), who was content with being stroked. I can't remember ever stroking a living chicken before (note, I didn't say "cock"), he was lovely and silky.

The largest of the pygmy goats (Capra hircus) in the enclosure.

One of a pair of barn owls (Tyto alba) in a large aviary. They seemed to be tethered to the post, remind me to ask why next time I go. They have a large stuffed toy of a Canada goose to play with.

A dunnock (Prunella modularis), also known as "hedge sparrow", or, more correctly, as "hedge accentor", as it is not closely related to sparrows, but to an exclusively Eurasian group of mostly mountainous birds known as accentors (Prunellidae). Not an excellent photo, I know, but by far the best I've ever gotten of a dunnock! They don't keep still for long enough.

A pair of ring-tailed coatis (Nasua nasua). They have a large indoor and outdoor enclosure, but were content with lying in half sun/half shade in their indoor part, although it felt like a spring day, for once!

The Siberian chipmunks (Tamias sibiricus) come in both "normal" striped and albinistic white forms at Van Hage, and share their run with a lot of guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), some of which are freakishly fluffy and look almost unreal, if it weren't for their twitching noses! In the neighbouring cage are the ever-shy chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) and degus (Octodon degus), but neither were out and about today.

A male blackbird (Turdus merula) I caught singing from a fence post between the coatis and the meerkats.

Albino domestic ferrets (Mustela putorius, or M. furo, depending on who you believe). There are other ferrets in the large enclosure, including more polecat-like darker ones.

Finally, a beautiful male Edwards' pheasant (Lophura edwardsi), a beautiful bird from Vietnam, who lives with his drably-coloured mate in a very leafy enclosure.

Taxonomy of featured mammals and birds:

Domestic rabbits
Oryctolagus cuniculus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Leporidae; Lagomorpha; Mammalia; Chordata

Suricata suricatta (Schreber, 1766)
Herpestidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Nymphicus hollandicus (Kerr, 1792)
Psittacidae; Psittaciformes; Aves; Chordata

Patagonian mara
Dolichotis patagonum (Zimmermann, 1780)
Caviidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Blue peafowl
Pavo cristatus Linnaeus, 1758
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata

Muscovy ducks
Cairina moschata (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Helmeted guineafowl
Numida meleagris Linnaeus, 1758
Numididae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata

Domestic fowl
Gallus gallus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata

Domestic goat
Capra hircus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Bovidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Barn owls
Tyto alba (Scopoli, 1769)
Tytonidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata

Prunella modularis (Linnaeus, 1758)
Prunellidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

Ring-tailed coatis
Nasua nasua (Linnaeus, 1766)
Procyonidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Siberian chipmunk
Tamias sibiricus Laxmann, 1769
Sciuridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Eurasian blackbird
Turdus merula Linnaeus, 1758
Turdidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

Domestic ferret
Mustela putorius (Linnaeus, 1758)
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Edwards' pheasant
Lophura edwardsi (Oustalet, 1896)
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata