Thursday, 20 October 2011

Crocodiles of the World

As a birthday treat to myself this year, on the nineteenth of September I made a trip to Crocodiles of the World in Crawley, a town just outside of Oxford in the Cotswold Hills. When I first heard about this place, about a month before, I was so excited to visit that I booked a place on a private tour for that day, knowing that I’d be passing through the area en route back to London from Gloucestershire. It’s a small facility that houses twelve species of crocodilian and a small number of other reptiles, but some of the species are found in few other captive collections. A breeding pair is sought for each species, and some are already breeding in the very short history of the centre, which only opened to the public in February this year. The centre exists due to the work of Shaun Foggett, known to viewers of a UK Channel 5 documentary as ‘Croc Man’, and he deserves high praise for the work he is doing to help conserve and educate the public about crocodilians.

All photos below were taken by Mo Hassan at Crocodiles of the World, Oxfordshire, September 2011.

Siamese crocodile
Crocodylus siamensis Schneider, 1801
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The Siamese crocodile is one of the rarest crocodiles in the world, restricted to the Indochinese Peninsula, Borneo, and possibly Java. It is a relatively small crocodile that coexists with its much larger relative, the saltwater crocodile (C. porosus) across its range, and indeed they occasionally hybridise both in the wild and in captivity. This dilution of the gene pool is a severe threat to the Siamese crocodile, as well as hunting for its skin, as in all crocodilians.

Dwarf crocodile (one-year-old juvenile above, two-day-old hatchling below)
Osteolaemus tetraspis Cope, 1861
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

As its name suggests, the dwarf crocodile is the smallest crocodile, and is native to west and central Africa. It too coexists with a larger, more well known species, the Nile crocodile, as well as the slender-snouted crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus), all of which occupy different niches so they do not suffer from interspecific competition. Dwarf crocodiles eat fish and crustaceans, not taking larger prey. As you can see, they are breeding well at the centre.

American alligator
Alligator mississippiensis (Daudin, 1802)
Alligatoridae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

American alligators need no introduction, so no introduction shall I give. Notice the maloccluded jaw on this specimen.

Cuban crocodile
Crocodylus rhombifer Cuvier, 1807
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The Cuban crocodile is a lightly built, critically endangered species of crocodile restricted in distribution to parts of Cuba and nearby small islands. It was previously more widely distributed on the island, and fossil remains have been found on other Caribbean islands. It is easily distinguished from other crocs by its ‘pebbled’ appearance and relatively long legs, which suggest it is more terrestrial, and it is. It shares its range with the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), but doesn’t clash due to differences in habitat and ecology.

Black caiman
Melanosuchus niger Spix, 1825
Alligatoridae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The largest of the six species of caiman, the black caiman hails from the river Amazon and its tributaries. It can be told apart from the other, smaller caimans by the presence of black blotches on its lower jaw and its darker coloration. When adult, the black caiman is an apex predator, eating the other large animals found in its ecosystem, including capybara, anaconda, and tapir, and are immune from attack from jaguars due to their size.

Juvenile Nile crocodiles
Crocodylus niloticus (Laurenti, 1768)
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

This is the beast that dominates much of Africa and Madagascar, unless the studies that have shown there to be two species of African Crocodylus prove to be correct. The subspecies C. n. suchus from western and central Africa, and historically from the lower reaches of the Nile, has been identified in various studies as perhaps forming a species in its own right. Part of the basis for this finding has been the study of DNA from mummified crocodiles from Egypt and the Sudan. I’ll personally wait until there have been more studies, especially morphological ones.

Schneider’s dwarf caiman
Paleosuchus trigonatus (Schneider, 1801)
Alligatoridae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Also known as the smooth-fronted caiman, this is a small little-known species from northern parts of South America in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers.

Cuvier’s dwarf caiman
Paleosuchus palpebrosus (Cuvier, 1807)
Alligatoridae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Another tiny crocodilian, in fact, the tiniest, at no more than one and a half metres in length. It is found in lowland tropical parts of South America, mostly in fast-flowing streams. At the time I visited Crocodiles of the World, the female Cuvier’s dwarf caiman had just laid a nest of eggs.

Broad-snouted caiman
Caiman latirostris (Daudin, 1801)
Alligatoridae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The broad-snouted caiman is in the same genus as the spectacled caiman (C. crocodilus) and the yacare caiman (C. yacare), and is found in southern Brazil and neighbouring countries in marshes, swamps, mangroves, and other slow-moving water bodies. It is intermediate in size between the larger black and spectacled caimans and the smaller dwarf caimans.

The other species held at Crocodiles of the World are the Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) from southern Mexico and Central America, the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), and the spectacled caiman. There are also a few kinds of freshwater turtle, a Meller’s chameleon (Trioceros melleri, and two of the longest monitor lizards.

Crocodile monitor
Varanus salvadorii Peters & Doria, 1878
Varanidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The crocodile monitor from New Guinea reaches lengths of almost two and a half metres, truly earning its name. It’s an arboreal species and uses its prehensile tail to help with gripping to tree branches. It is the apex predator of New Guinea (despite there being an endemic crocodile, Crocodylus novaeguineae, and even saltwater crocodiles on the coasts), bringing down large mammals, like its heavier relative, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) does.

Water monitor
Varanus salvator (Laurenti, 1768)
Varanidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The water monitor was previously believed to live in much of southeast Asia, but several former subspecies have been separated, including three Philippine species, from the water monitor proper. It’s another very large monitor, among the world’s longest, and like the crocodile monitor, can take large prey.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Slimbridge Wetland Centre

A slight change of pace for this post: more of an annotated photo album, with an anecdote about being bitten by birds. I came home from Dorset and Devon via Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; a convoluted route, yes, but worth it for the places I visited whilst there. Whilst in Gloucestershire (staying in Newent in the Forest of Dean), I visited Slimbridge Wetland Centre. Slimbridge is the birthplace of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), the organisation I work for. I’ve mentioned the site and some of its inhabitants in previous posts, but briefly, the reserve at Slimbridge, located by the River Severn, was created in 1946, along with the WWT itself, by Sir Peter Scott. Scott, the son of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott, devoted much of his life to the conservation of wildfowl and wetlands, for which he was knighted in 1973. Slimbridge has become a world-renowned centre for the breeding of rare and endangered birds, some of which, like the Hawaiian goose or nene (Branta sandvicensis), Laysan teal (Anas laysanensis), and spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus)* were saved from extinction due to the efforts of the WWT.

* This species, a small wader breeding in northeastern Russia, is being raised in captivity at Slimbridge and Moscow Zoo, and is critically endangered in the wild.

Here follows a few photos I took during my last visit to Slimbridge. All photos by Mo Hassan, taken at Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire, September 2011. Those that are wild are indicated as such, otherwise the animals are part of the captive collection.

Albino xenopus toad, or African clawed frog
Xenopus laevis Daudin, 1802
Pipidae; Anura; Amphibia; Chordata

Pied avocet
Recurvirostra avosetta Linnaeus, 1758
Recurvirostridae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

Garden spider (wild)
Araneus diadematus Clerck, 1758
Araneidae; Araneae; Arachnida; Arthropoda

Puna, or James’, flamingo
Phoenicoparrus jamesi Sclater, 1886
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata

Eurasian harvest mice
Micromys minutus (Pallas, 1771)
Muridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Female (above) and male lesser Magellan geese
Chloephaga picta picta (Gmelin, 1789)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Swan goose (foreground) with lesser white-fronted goose
Anser cygnoides (Linnaeus, 1758); A. erythropus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Lesser snow goose
Chen caerulescens caerulescens (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Crested duck
Lophonetta specularioides (King, 1828)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

West Indian whistling-duck
Dendrocygna arborea (Linnaeus, 1758)
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Magpie goose
Anseranas semipalmata (Latham, 1798)
Anseranatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Black swan (cygnet)
Cygnus atratus (Latham, 1790)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Male Baer’s pochard
Aythya baeri (Radde, 1863)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata

Common crane
Grus grus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Gruidae; Gruiformes; Aves; Chordata

European eel (elver)
Anguilla anguilla (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anguillidae; Anguilliformes; Actinopterygii; Chordata

Common mudpuppy
Necturus maculosus (Rafinesque, 1818)
Proteidae; Caudata; Amphibia; Chordata

This odd-looking creature is similar in appearance to the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), a popular pet and one of my favourite creatures ever, but is not closely related. It is, however, in the same family as the olm (Proteus anguinus), a non-pigmented blind cave salamander from eastern Italy and former Yugoslavia, and is called a mudpuppy probably cause of those immense fluffy gills that look like dog ears.

Black-tailed godwit (wild)
Limosa limosa (Linnaeus, 1758)
Scolopacidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

To wrap this post up, hear me out whilst I tell you about ducks that bite. One way in which Slimbridge trumps London (over all, I prefer London) is that you can feed most of the birds in the World Wetlands area. Being eager to get closer views of many species, and also, I won’t lie, to be bitten by as many species as possible so I can run a phylogenetic analysis based on how it feels to be bitten by them (if I get bitten by a bittern I can die happy), I invested in some bird seeds and set about walking around the reserve. In total, I fed twelve different species*, and attempted several others. I can say that the throats of the smaller geese are so soft and are the gentlest feeders, feeling like a gently vibrating game controller. That’s in contrast to the Toulouse goose, a big beefy variety of the domesticated greylag, that practically hoovered up the grains I offered it, as well as most of the epithelial cells of my palm. It has a big powerful beak, but didn’t actually bite me (I’m using the term ‘bite’ although none of these birds have teeth). The most bitey bird was the swan goose, interestingly also domesticated as the Chinese goose, which actively nipped my palm and fingers as it picked up seeds. I guess it’s difficult to manipulate fine objects when you have a bill the size and shape of a children’s shoe. I expected the magpie goose to have a vicious bite, as the residents formerly at the London Wetland Centre used to bite my shoes and camera whenever I got anywhere near them, but it was surprisingly gentle in feeding.

* Those were: magpie goose, Bewick’s swan, swan goose, greylag (domestic) goose, lesser white-fronted goose, emperor goose, Ross’ goose, snow goose, barnacle goose, Hawaiian goose, red-breasted goose, and mallard.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park

After the SVPCA conference in Lyme Regis ended, I decided to visit a tiny but amazingly well-stocked little zoo about ten minutes away from the town by car. Despite this, the zoo is in Devon, while Lyme is in Dorset. Obviously, although it had escaped my attention, Lyme is very close to the border between the two counties.

Anyway, I arrived too early to get entry to Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, near the town of Axminster in, as we have already established, Devon (albeit almost in Dorset). When it opened, I would have been surprised to see a nice variety of creatures, if I hadn’t already looked up the zoo on its own website and on, the best guide to European zoos and wildlife parks on the web. I came particularly to see two rarely seen carnivores and a nice mix of unusual rodents; more on those in a bit.

There are several aviaries, each with a nice mix of species, both common-place (e.g. mallards [Anas platyrhynchos] and various breeds of chicken), and less usual (including demoiselle crane [Anthropoides virgo] and Magellan goose [Chloephaga picta]). The first ‘aviary’ (one inhabitant obviously doesn’t fly, I’ll leave that to the reader to figure out) to be seen includes: white stork (Ciconia ciconia), Puna ibis (Plegadis ridgwayi), Javan green peafowl (Pavo muticus muticus), white-cheeked turaco (Tauraco leucotis), marbled teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris), white-cheeked pintail (Anas bahamensis), and parma wallaby (Macropus parma). Another contained oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), speckled pigeon (Columba guinea), grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio poliocephalus), little egret (Egretta garzetta), and some sort of quail I was unable to identify (see below if you can help!).

Demoiselle crane
Anthropoides virgo (Linnaeus, 1758)
Gruidae; Gruiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

White-cheeked turaco
Tauraco leucotis (Rüppell, 1835)
Musophagidae; Musophagiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Normal (above) and leucistic white-cheeked pintails
Anas bahamensis Linnaeus, 1758
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Eurasian oystercatcher
Haematopus ostralegus Linnaeus, 1758
Haematopodidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Unidentified quail
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

The park is lacking in herpetofauna, with only some species of commercially available testudine (including Horsfield’s tortoise [Testudo horsfieldii] and painted turtle [Chrysemys picta]), and mainly has a good variety of relatively non-threatening mammals and birds. The order Rodentia is well-represented, with black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), Hokkaido red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis), Siberian chipmunk (Tamias sibiricus), Prevost’s squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii), degu (Octodon degus), Azara’s agouti (Dasyprocta azarae), North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), and crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata). By far my favourite of these is the Hokkaido red squirrel; it is much the same species as the red squirrel found in Europe but the coat colour is different (less red and more brown) and has extremely long ear tufts. They turned out to be extremely tough to photograph because they don’t stay still, so what you see here is the best I could manage.

Hokkaido red squirrel
Sciurus vulgaris orientis Thomas, 1906
Sciuridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

As for carnivorans, the list includes Asiatic short-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea), North American raccoon (Procyon lotor), ring-tailed coati (Nasua nasua), banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), yellow mongoose (Cynictis penicillata), suricate (Suricata suricatta, you know, the thing everyone else calls ‘meerkat’), and two critters I came all this way to see: common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), and raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides).

Common palm civet
Paradoxurus hermaphroditus (Pallas, 1777)
Viverridae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

The common palm civet, or toddy cat, is a widespread small viverrid from south and southeast Asia and is found in many urban areas such as Singapore. It’s a surprise they’re not more well known than they are, for a number of reasons. Firstly, civets (albeit not palm civets but civets proper) are partly responsible for the perfume industry, by producing a pungent musk from glands around the anus. The common palm civets do smell wonderfully musky, a bit foxy or ferret-like, only stronger. Also, the common palm civet is known to be partial to fermenting palm juice, hence its alternate name of ‘toddy cat’. But the species has gained notoriety in recent years for being responsible for kopi luwak. If you think you haven’t heard of that, you’re probably wrong. You may not have known it was a civet that was responsible for this, but palm civets that enjoy eating coffee beans are tracked down somehow and their excreta are sorted and sterilised (hopefully), as the coffee beans have passed through their digestive tract almost unchanged, only the bitter coating from the beans has been digested. The resulting coffee, which is rather expensive, might I add, is apparently excellent-tasting without any of the bitterness otherwise associated with coffee. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried kopi luwak, but I’d certainly try it if I was offered it.

Raccoon dogs
Nyctereutes procyonoides (Gray, 1834)
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

The raccoon dog is another species not seen much in western zoos. It is a species of dog, supposedly rather basal within the Canidae, but could be closely allied with the zorros or South American foxes. It is native to eastern Asia from Far Eastern Russia south through Korea and China into northern Indochina, as well as Japan. It is known as tanuki in that latter nation, and is well known as part of ancient Japanese folklore. One of the things about male Japanese raccoon dogs which I’ve failed to notice is that they have disproportionately large testicles (apparently…), and this is represented in tanuki statues as backpacks flung over their shoulders. There’s even a children’s schoolyard song mentioning this. Tanukis are also known for their shape-shifting ability (I’m still talking mythologically here). Raccoon dogs are otherwised famed for their luxurious fur. Russian dogs were exported from the Far East to eastern Europe and as is the case with many fur-bearers, some escaped and have been spreading throughout continental Europe over the past century. Another reason raccoon dogs should be better known is their domesticity. It’s a myth that the only canid that has been domesticated is the grey wolf (Canis lupus). You may have also heard of domesticated Russian silver foxes (actually a colour morph of the cosmopolitan red fox, Vulpes vulpes), but raccoon dogs are mild-tempered and apparently domesticate well. They even come in alternate colour morphs, including a pure white one, but this probably derives from the selective breeding involved in the fur industry rather than from domesticity. I’ve yet to see raccoon dogs for sale in the pet trade, but it’s only a matter of time, I reckon.

Anyway, here are some photos of some of the other cool creatures at Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park:

European great grey owl
Strix nebulosa lapponica Thunberg, 1798
Strigidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Timneh grey parrot
Psittacus erithacus timneh Fraser, 1844
Psittacidae; Psittaciformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Blue eared-pheasant
Crossoptilon auritum (Pallas, 1811)
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Southern white-faced owls
Ptilopsis granti (Kollibay, 1910)
Strigidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Western roe deer fawn
Capreolus capreolus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Sarus crane
Grus antigone (Linnaeus, 1758)
Gruidae; Gruiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Cape Barren goose
Cereopsis novaehollandiae Latham, 1801
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Leucistic greater rhea
Rhea americana (Linnaeus, 1758)
Rheidae; Rheiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Tawny owl
Strix aluco Linnaeus, 1758
Strigidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata
Axe Valley Bird and Animal Park, Devon
September 2011

Just one more thing, notice the lack of bars around the tawny owl? Not just good camera work there, I suspect it’s a wild owl not just a feral or escaped one.