Thursday 25 December 2008

Four Temnospondyls

“Four Temnospondyls”
Coloured pencil illustration
August 2008

Top left:
Eryops megacephalus Cope, 1877
Eryopidae; Temnospondyli; Amphibia; Chordata
Early Permian North America

Top right:
Mastodonsaurus giganteus (Jaeger, 1828)
Mastodonsauridae; Temnospondyli; Amphibia; Chordata
Mid-Triassic Germany

Bottom left:
Platyhystrix rugosus (Case, 1910)
Dissorophidae; Temnospondyli; Amphibia; Chordata
Early Permian North America

Bottom right:
Gerrothorax pulcherrimus (Fraas, 1913)
Plagiosauridae; Temnospondyli; Amphibia; Chordata
Late Triassic Germany

Paracyclotosaurus davidi Watson, 1958
Capitosauridae; Temnospondyli; Amphibia; Chordata
Triassic Australia (and other parts of Gondwana)
Natural History Museum, London
March 2008

While the folks are all watching Eastenders, I thought I’d pop upstairs and do a quick blog post. I like temnospondyls, they are a group of amphibians long extinct that left no living descendants. The group containing all living frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians is the Lissamphibia. Temnospondyls are generally differentiated from the other amphibians by their vertebrae (the name “temnospondyl” itself is Greek for “cut vertebra”), but not all temnospondyls share this feature.

Eryops megacephalus (“big-headed, drawn-out face”) was up to 2 m (6’) long (much bigger than any axolotl I’ve seen). Mastodonsaurus giganteus (“giant nipple-toothed lizard”) was slightly smaller but looked more crocodilian than Eryops. Platyhystrix rugosus (“rough flat porcupine”) looks like an amphibian analogue of Dimetrodon or Edaphosaurus, the therapsids like those that gave rise to all mammals. If the sail served a similar function, it would be the only amphibian we know of to have the ability to thermoregulate! Gerrothorax pulcherrimus (“very pretty wicker chest”... where do these names come from?!) looks like a lemon-headed axolotl. It is known for its inability to open its lower jaw, so instead, it raises its skull when it wants to eat, like a dustbin lid.

I purposefully chose bright colours for all these temnospondyls, but the colours for Gerrothorax were particularly inspired by Stewie Griffin of Family Guy... the shape of the head reminded me too much of him so I gave it red dungarees to match its gills.

Hope you’re having/had a good Xmas, I didn’t even eat that much (yet) and I’ve been feeling queasy.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Photo of the Day #24: Rüppell's griffon vulture

Rüppell's griffon vulture
Gyps rueppelli (Brehm, 1852)
Accipitridae; Falconiformes; Aves; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Whilst in the car for the entire duration of my stay in North Cyprus in October, I pointed my face skywards to look for griffon vultures (the European species, Gyps fulvus), but didn't find any. Vultures are charismatic creatures; for all their bad reputation, they certainly have beautiful plumage, but obviously not on the head. Rüppell's griffons are found in savannah habitats of the central parts of Africa, from Guinea in the west to Tanzania in the east. There are related species found in many parts of Eurasia, with the European griffon being found in western Europe towards central Asia, and other, severely endangered Gyps species from India and surrounding areas.

Sunday 21 December 2008

Basilosaurus Bounty

Basilosaurus isis (Andrews, 1904)
Basilosauridae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Black-and-white illustration by Mo Hassan, December 2008
Photograph taken at the Natural History Museum, London, February 2008

Basilosaurus is an 18 metre (60 foot) long extinct whale from the Eocene of the USA, Egypt and Pakistan. It lived in shallow waters and was a true carnivore with large teeth. I have illustrated Basilosaurus as being coloured like an orca, as that is probably the nearest living analogue to the extinct cetacean in terms of it being a large carnivorous whale. It was first thought to be a marine reptile, hence the name “Basilosaurus”, meaning “king lizard”. It was then realised by the great anatomist and first superintendent of the NHM, Sir Richard Owen, that it was indeed a mammal.

The arrow on the skull (notice the caption says “Prozeuglodon isis”; this is a synonym of Basilosaurus isis) illustrates where the nostrils of the animal would be. They are not at the tip of the snout, like their ancestral ungulates, nor are they at the top of the head, like the derived whales and dolphins of today. The specimen is a cast of actual skull, and is placed in between Andrewsarchus (coming soon!) and Prosqualodon, showing the movement of the nostril from snout to head in early whales and their ancestors at the Natural History Museum.

All modern whales and dolphins today (with the notable exception of this bottle-nosed dolphin) have lost their hind legs; this is most likely to with streamlining of the body for ease of movement in water, a denser medium than air. Basilosaurus still had vestigial hind limbs, as can be seen from the illustration.

I will attempt to draw other marine mammals at some stage, and will soon try Paleoparadoxia tabatai, the desmostylian. That should be fun, although I only know what the skeleton looks like and haven’t seen a reconstruction of one properly before!

Thanks to Brian Beatty for helping me with a few taxonomic issues; this post is for you and any other cetacean-lovers who read this!

Saturday 20 December 2008

Happy Holidays

To all of my readers, friends and family...

Have a happy Xmas and a prosperous New Year!

The caption competition is open until the 31st, so keep the entries coming in, then I can decide on a winner in the New Year.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Caption competition

As featured on Tetrapod Zoology, here is that odd picture I took on the Isle of Wight in May. Although what was actually happening was Dave Martill demonstrating the size of the iguanodontids that made the footprints whose reverse impressions litter this part of the coast, how about a caption competition? Prize for the best caption is an A3 drawing of the tetrapod of your choice.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Teals part 2 (photo special)

Marbled teal
Marmaronetta angustirostris (Menetries, 1832)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
June 2006

Also called the marbled duck, this "teal" is not closely related to the others, being closer to the pochards (here and here). It is found in southern Europe and parts of western Asia.

The preceding illustration, titled Marbled Teal in Blue and Orange was created using MS Paint to "paint" over the original photo using either realistic colours (the teal) or eye-catching ones (the ripples in the water). I entered this, along with this to a Natural History Museum art competition earlier this year. Unfortunately, I couldn't go to the judging because I was convalescing after my operation; alas, I didn't win anyway.

Madagascar teal
Anas bernieri (Hartlaub, 1860)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Zoo
August 2005

A small, sombre-coloured teal endemic to Madagascar. It is not as rare as the other Malagasy endemic, the Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata) which was until recently considered extinct; it was then rediscovered on a remote lake.

Male ringed teal
Callonetta leucophrys (Vieillot, 1816)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

Again, not a true teal, but a very pretty small duck from South America. Males look as pictured above, and again, females are duller.

Chestnut teals
Anas castanea (Eyton, 1838)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
December 2006

The Australian member of the teal clan, the chestnut teal is coloured as its name suggests, with the male also having green and white in his outfit, and females duller. Australia has some nice wildfowl, including the gorgeous black swan (Cygnus atratus) and aggressive and inquisitive magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata). The exhibit at the London Wetland Centre for that country is a nice walkthrough with a large pool. The magpie geese hang out in a far corner usually, and I would not advise approaching them, as they do bite, one bit my shoe once!

Brown teal
Anas chlorotis Gray, 1845
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
February 2006

New Zealand also has many endemics, including its own shoveler, shelduck and the teals. All are threatened, some more so than others, but all are brown, the males having a green sheen to the head.

I will come back to ducks at some point in the future, so stay tuned, anatophiles!

Saturday 6 December 2008

Teals part 1 (Photo special)

The word “teal” has two meanings; to some it is just a blue-green colour like a dark turquoise; to others it is a type of small duck. In Britain, that small duck is specifically the common teal (Anas crecca). In North America, there are other species, particularly the green-winged teal (A. carolinensis) that looks a lot like the common teal, the blue-winged teal (A. discors), and the cinnamon teal (A. cyanoptera). Elsewhere in the world, there are even more species of Anas that are known as teals, and even members of other duck genera. Today I will showcase 6 teals, and this will be followed by a further 5. Eleven ducks in one post will be a bit too much, even for anatophiles like myself.

Male and female common teals
Anas crecca Linnaeus, 1758
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
January 2008

The common teal is a resident of Britain, but becomes more numerous in winter when migrants come in from cooler areas. They are my favourite of the winter ducks, especially due to their dinky size and the male’s colourful plumage, consisting of a brown and teal head, grey body and a buffy rump with a black border.

Male Baikal teal
Anas formosa Georgi, 1775
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

Baikal teals are an Asian species that is threatened with extinction. It looks a lot like a common teal, but has buff on the head as well as brown and teal.

Male falcated teal
Anas falcata Georgi, 1775
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

The falcated teal is another Asian species, but is larger than other teals, so is sometimes known as the falcated duck (there’s no real difference, just that smaller ducks are called teals). Its similarity to both the common and Baikal teals suggests it should be called a teal. “Falcated” means “sickle-shaped”, and this probably describes some of the feathers on the male’s sides quite well.

Speckled teal
Anas flavirostris Vieillot, 1816
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

Male and female speckled teals, with their yellow and black bills and neat brown-spotted plumage, do not differ. They are found in South America.

Puna teal
Anas puna Tschudi, 1844
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

The South American puna teal gets its name from the Andean region where it comes from, with an alpine cold climate, also inhabited by the puna flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi) amongst other unique species. They have a distinctive bright blue bill along with black cap and white cheeks. The closely-related silver teal (Anas versicolor) lacks the blue bill but is otherwise very similar, and is even sometimes regarded as conspecific.

Laysan teal
Anas laysanensis Rothschild, 1892
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

You might think the Laysan teal looks a lot like a female mallard, and you’d not be wrong to think that, as it is often regarded as a subspecies of that cosmopolitan species. The Laysan teal is native to Hawaii and the nearby Laysan Island and is incredibly rare, Critically Endangered even. Drakes do not have the distinctive green head, white collar and chestnut chest of mallards; instead both males and females have a white patch around the eye.

In the next post, Madagascar, chestnut, brown, ringed and marbled teals! Stay tuned!

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Photo of the Day #23: Pochard

Aythya ferina (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Enfield Town, North London
November 2008

Top photo: male
Bottom photo: female

The pochard, sometimes known as the common pochard to distinguish it from other similar species, is a species of diving duck from Eurasia. I look forward to winter where I live because the resident population of waterfowl in my local river is boosted by wintering tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula) and pochards. The male is very pretty with his russet red head, scarlet eye and pale grey and black body plumage; the female is a more muted version of her mate without the red eye. Relatives of the pochard found across the world include birds known as redheads, canvasbacks, hardheads, scaups and the ferruginous duck. There is another genus of pochards, Netta, but they are not very closely related to the Aythya ducks.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Photo of the Day #22: Egyptian Goose

Egyptian goose
Alopochen aegyptiacus (Linnaeus, 1766)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

One of my favourite of London's wildfowl, the Egyptian goose is not native to Britain, but was introduced from Africa as a decorative bird for stately homes. It hasn't gotten very far from where it was released (southeast England), and have seen it only in Norfolk and in a few areas in southwest London; this is the opposite of the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) of course, which has spread all over the country, displacing native species and being an all-round nuisance and even a cold-blooded killer (I once witnessed a Canada goose drown a coot chick just for the fun of it).

Monday 1 December 2008

Photo of the Day #21: Rothschild's Giraffe Silhouette

Rothschild's giraffe
Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi Lydekker, 1903
Giraffidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

On a gloomy, rainy November day in Camden, where would a giraffe rather be than inside?

Sunday 30 November 2008

Testudines (Photo special)

Testudines, or Chelonia, is the name given to the order of reptiles which contains the shelled reptiles, that is, tortoises, turtles and terrapins. Over the last few months I have seen quite a few of the Testudines, and as they are not exactly fast movers, I have managed to get good photographs of them.

Balkan stripe-necked terrapin
Mauremys rivulata (Valenciennes, 1843)
Geoemydidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Famagusta, North Cyprus
October 2008

The small, freshwater chelonians are generally known as terrapins. Not always, though. The Balkan stripe-necked terrapin is one of a few related stripe-necked terrapins from parts of Europe and Asia, with M. rivulata being the one found wild in Cyprus and parts of eastern Europe. This specimen was not wild, however. We were sitting in a cafe in Famagusta which had a small aviary containing doves, cockatiels, budgerigars and canaries, and a large indoor fountain with two terrapins: one of which was this one; the other was a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), the terrapin commonly sold as a household pet. It was difficult to tell that were real, as they weren’t moving, until I got close to the stripe-necked terrapin, and it retracted its head like it was wearing a pullover and its ears were cold. The white eye is distinctive.

African spurred tortoise
Geochelone sulcata (Miller, 1779)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Van Hage Animal Garden, Ware, Hertfordshire
November 2008

Before I talk about the tortoise, I have to mention the place where it was photographed. The Van Hage garden centre is near Ware in Hertfordshire, and is a short walk from the train station, which is set in the wonderful surrounds of a canal and a nearby wetland, and there is an excellent pub nearby, the John Gilpin. The garden centre is fairly standard, with the usual things you find in one, but it is unique in having a small “animal garden” at the back. It is a fully licensed zoo, except it is free to get into! They have the usual pets and farm animals, including ferrets, finches, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and pygmy goats, as well as the less every-day striped skunk, ring-tailed coatis, meerkats, Edward’s pheasants and barn owls. I recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

The last time I visited, it was raining, but I was surprised to see a new addition to their collection, the African spurred tortoise. It was sitting in its indoor enclosure (it had the choice of an outdoor run, but it was November and of not good weather), under a heat lamp, with vegetables to munch on. I hadn’t seen this species before, which gets its name from the sharply keeled scales on the legs.

Aldabra giant tortoise
Dipsochelys dussumieri (Gray, 1831)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

When most people think of giant tortoises, their thoughts often go to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin, or the one from the title sequence of One Foot in the Grave. There are other species of giant tortoises, however, and the one photographed here is from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles. They are now believed to belong to a different genus though; both were included in Geochelone for a long time, but the Aldabra species is now in Dipsochelys with its close relatives, and the Galapagos one is in Chelonoidis with some other, much smaller, South American tortoises.

The specimen I saw at London Zoo was probably not fully grown, as it wasn’t very giant. It was sharing its enclosure with another reptile, not a chelonian, but a Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), quite an unlikely bedfellow.

Radiated tortoises
Astrochelys radiata (Shaw, 1802)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Found only in Madagascar and the nearby islands of Reunion and Mauritius, the radiated tortoise (named after its “rays” on its shell) is considered Critically Endangered, as it is threatened by habitat loss (as usual), hunting for food and the pet trade. There is a captive breeding programme, however, and London Zoo is taking part in this, although their latest inventory states they have four individuals of “unknown sex”, which would not be helpful in breeding!

Pancake tortoise
Malacochersus tornieri (Siebenrock, 1903)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Most tortoises have rounded or peaked shells, but the pancake tortoise does not. As its name suggests, it has a flat shell, which helps it to hide in crevices that other tortoises could not.

Spur-thighed tortoise
Testudo graeca Linnaeus, 1758
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Shepreth Wildlife Park, Cambridgeshire
September 2008

I caught these two spur-thighed tortoises in the process of making more spur-thighed tortoises. The male, as is common in tortoises, makes odd noises during copulation, which never fails to entertain. The prelude (foreplay?) to this act was the male headbutting the female’s shell, quite hard, might I add. I thought at first it was aggression, but no, soon after, he mounted her and began procreating.

Saturday 29 November 2008

Arctic Wildfowl (Photo special)

The London Wetland Centre is an excellent place for wildfowl conservation. From anywhere in the city you can hop on a tube train, then a bus, and you are at an oasis for ducks, geese, swans, waders, birds of prey, and a whole host of other birds, not to mention other wildlife too. For me, the part where the Centre really shines is its World Wetlands collection. There are 14 sections in which one or more species of wildfowl (the term includes all ducks, geese, swans, whistling-ducks and the magpie goose) are kept according to their habitat and distribution. In the Australian section, for example, are black swans (Cygnus atratus), maned ducks (Chenonetta jubata), hardheads (Aythya australis) and magpie geese (Anseranas semipalmata).

The three birds I have chosen to profile here are kept in two different sections, but are all naturally found in Europe, especially the northern parts, hence the name for this post, "Arctic Wildfowl".

Bewick's swan
Cygnus bewickii (Yarrell, 1830)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

The Bewick's swan is one of three species of swan to be found in Britain: the ubiquitous mute swan (Cygnus olor) is resident year-round, but the whooper swan (C. cygnus) and the Bewick's swan are winter visitors only, breeding in the high Arctic. The Bewick's swan is the smallest of the three; it is sometimes referred to as a subspecies of the more widespread tundra swan (C. columbianus).

Above three photos:
Common eider
Somateria mollissima (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
January/October 2008

Top photo: adult male
Middle photo: subadult male
Bottom photo: adult female

Most people have heard of the eider in the context of its feathers; it is the soft down feathers that the female eider uses to protect her eggs that are harvested for use in pillows. Eiders are found year-round in the UK but is more numerous in winter when arctic birds migrate south, congregating especially around the coasts. Eiders make the most unusual sound for a duck, reminiscent of old ladies going "oooh" at something.

Above two photos:
Common goldeneye
Bucephala clangula (Linnaeus, 1758)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
October 2008

Top photo: adult male not yet in breeding plumage
Bottom photo: adult female

With a name reminiscent of a 90s Bond film and the theme tume from it, the goldeneye is a species of duck from across the northern hemisphere, especially in areas of boreal forest (evergreen conifers). In Scotland it is present year-round, breeding in Scots pines and other such trees, while it is a winter visitor to reservoirs and large lakes in the rest of the UK. Males have the distinctive golden eye, with a glossy green head and black and white body plumage, while the females have a more subdued dark brown head and a white eye.

Friday 28 November 2008

Photo of the Day #20: Burrowing owl

Burrowing owl
Speotyto cunicularia (Molina, 1782)
Strigidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

The burrowing owl is a widespread species of owl found throughout South America, north to the southern half of North America. It is well known for being the only owl species, indeed, one of the only birds, to nest underground; it does so to avoid predation from larger animals, as it lives mostly on treeless plains.

In the above photograph, you may notice one pupil looks larger than the other; I think this is to do with the owl's left eye being in shade and its right eye in the sun, hence the difference in size in the pupils.

R.I.P. Cornf

I came home from work today and found my black ghost knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons), called Cornf, dead and sticking out of Pyrite's, my ornate bagrid catfish (Chrysichthys ornatus), mouth. I don't know how it died, only that I think it was already dead before Pyrite attempted to swallow it. I managed to salvage the body and have preserved it along with George the axolotl, Kitchener the xenopus toad, and the baby newts I hatched, in a jar of alcohol. R.I.P. Cornf.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Rogue Taxidermy

I mentioned in the previous post that Guzelyurt Museum of Nature and Archaeology is my least favourite museum of all that I have been to. I admire the fact that northern Cyprus has a museum dedicated to its natural and historical treasures, but I can’t help but feel a little disheartened by the way the specimens look, and the fact that many are misidentified.

Take the following pair of photographs for example: both are of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), the well known fox from most of the Northern Hemisphere and Australia as well.

One is a specimen from Manchester Museum, and the other from Guzelyurt Museum. The former is a beautifully presented, almost life-like, image of the fox in a relaxed posture with pristine coat and healthy look. The latter, well, what can I say? My mum was giggling when she saw the poor thing in the museum, and my sister Mini commented on the photo on Facebook, saying the thing would give her nightmares. If the specimen was meant to give the visitor an idea of what a living fox looks like, I think Guzelyurt’s atrocities (there were more than one!) would not get that point across.

Many of the scientific names were incorrect: the names for the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) and the green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) were swapped around, for example, two species of very similar eagle were swapped round, and the name on the white pelican’s tag was not Pelecanus onocrotalus, the species native to Europe, but P. erythrorhynchus, the American white pelican. The curator must have fancifully thought the white goose in their collection was a rare snow goose (Anser caerulescens), and not the more bog-standard, every-day domestic goose (A. anser). These mistakes may seem trivial, but for those who don’t know what they are looking at, it can mean being led to believe something which is wrong. I don’t know whether the names on many of the stuffed fishes were correct, as I am not skilled in identifying Mediterranean marine fishes, so I put my faith in the Museum’s label for them, as well as the numerous butterflies and other insects pinned in frames.

I do wonder whether I ought to point these errors out to the Museum, or whether they wouldn’t take any notice, and retort that they don’t get many visitors anyway, and those that do walk round in 20 seconds and go upstairs to the much better presented and more complete archaeology section. My parents are going back to Cyprus in a few days, what do you think readers, should I give them a letter to hand to the curator? They don’t appear to have a website and I don’t have their address either.

Something else to give you nightmares:

The best specimens in Guzelyurt Museum were the two-headed and two-bodied lamb, the latter of which I nicknamed "Spider lamb", as it does have eight legs. I don't know how common these deformities are in Cyprus, but if they are rare, surely the Museum should advertise and publicise more.

By the way, the title for this post, “Rogue Taxidermy” comes from the term applied to the taxidermy of mythical creatures or made up animals, such as sewing bits of eagles and lions together to create a griffin! I used the term to refer to Guzelyurt’s practice of the art.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

My Favourite Museum

My favourite museum is undoubtedly the Natural History Museum, London. Of course I love almost every museum I have been to (the exception being Guzelyurt Museum of Nature and Archaeology; more on that in a future post!), but the NHM stands out for me, as it has been the most prominent institution in my life so far.

It all started for me almost twenty years ago when I was a wee lad of five or six and went to the Museum on a school trip. I don’t remember much of that excursion; however, one event sticks in my mind. A life-size animatronic roaring Tyrannosaurus rex (probably a relative of Traumador’s) shouted at me, and I ran and hid behind the teacher. This picture of me at the Museum with various felids on a subsequent visit is a vision of things to come!

I would visit the Museum every few years or so throughout my childhood and even through my teens. I started to use the General/Zoology library for casual carnivore research when I was about 15 years old, and kept returning until the present.

My affiliation with the Museum became stronger when I started the Masters course there last year. I was given the run of the place, and soon became a volunteer in the Palaeontology department, sorting fossil fish. I am now working in the greatest library in the world as a shelving assistant.

My past has always been associated with the NHM, and I hope my future will be too. The Museum has imparted chunks of wisdom to me and I endeavour to pass on this knowledge to others in years to come.

I hope you enjoyed this post; I was inspired to write it for the Boneyard XXVI, hosted by Traumador the Tyrannosaur at The Tyrannosaur Chronicles this month. If you didn’t arrive here via that blog, go read about the tales of a lovelorn living fossil!

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Thylacoleo and Thylacosmilus

“Thylacoleo and Thylacosmilus”
Graphite pencil illustration, November 2008

Thylacoleo carnifex Owen, 1859
Thylacoleonidae; Diprotodontia; Mammalia; Chordata
Pleistocene Australia

Thylacosmilus atrox Riggs, 1933
Thylacosmilidae; Sparassodonta; Mammalia; Chordata
Miocene to Pleistocene South America

Thylacoleo carnifex means “executioner pouched lion”. The “pouched” part of its name refers to the fact that it is a marsupial, just like the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisi) and Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine (the last name itself deriving for the Greek for “pouched dog”). But unlike those famous marsupial carnivores, it belongs to the same marsupial order as the koala, kangaroos, wombats and their kin (an exclusively Australasian group), the Diprotodontia, while the devil and wolf belong to the Dasyuromorphia, a group of mostly carnivorous and insectivorous marsupials from Australia and New Guinea. There were also carnivorous kangaroos in times gone.

Thylacosmilus atrox means “fierce pouched sabre”. Again a marsupial, but also in a different order containing uniquely South American beasts, which were able to become the dominant mammalian carnivores there because at the time (mid-Tertiary to early Quaternary), South America was an island continent, not connected to North America by the Central American land-bridge. The large carnivores of today’s South America, the jaguar, puma, maned wolf and zorros, had not yet reached the continent, so the niche for large carnivore was available to the sparassodontans.

The name Thylacosmilus also alludes to its similarity to northern hemisphere true sabre-toothed cats of the subfamily Machairodontinae (family Felidae), which are completely unrelated to the marsupials (as distant as you and I are to the kangaroo). In fact, enlarged canine teeth have evolved separately in at least 6 different mammalian lineages: the sparassodontans (like Thylacosmilus), the creodonts (like Machaeroides), the machairodontines (like Smilodon, the sabre-toothed “tiger”), the barbourofelids (family Barbourofelidae, order Carnivora; close relatives of the cats), the nimravids (family Nimravidae, order Carnivora; distant relatives of the cats), and also the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus). Also, it has been noted that the clouded leopards (genus Neofelis) have enlarged canines, and may either be close relatives of the true sabre-teeth, or they represent another convergence of this trend.

I'm going out for a while...

“I’m going out for a while,
So I can get high with my friends, I will;
I’m going out for a while,
Don’t wait up ‘cause I won’t be home today.”

Lyrics from High by Feeder, from the album Polythene (1997).

Me with Grant Nicholas, guitarist, vocalist and song-writer with Feeder, in January 2003.

One of my favourite bands, as all who know me know, is Feeder. I have loved them since 2001 and have seen them 8 times (I think!). The last two times were this week: here is the set list for their show on Monday 17th November 2008 at Brixton Academy, London:

Intro (“We are one”)
We are the people
Feeling a moment
Come back around
Who’s the enemy?
We can’t rewind
Pushing the senses
Just the way I’m feeling
Tracing lines
Buck Rogers
Comfort in sound
Lost & found2

Silent cry3
Tumble & fall
Seven days in the sun
Just a day

1: Dedicated to their road crew whose tour bus was involved in an accident; the crew lost all their equipment, but luckily no-one was hurt, and more importantly, the band’s instruments were OK.

2: With an interlude of Foo Fighter’s All my life started by the band but sung mostly by the audience.

3: Played on acoustic guitar accompanied only by electric guitar.

The set for last night’s performance at the soon-to-be-destroyed Astoria in Tottenham Ct. Road was very similar but I left before the very end so I don’t know if the encore was different. I went to the Brixton show with my mum who has liked Feeder, casually, for as long as I have, and particularly likes High, the chorus of which is quoted above. She thoroughly enjoyed her first modern rock concert (she had been to see the Beatles at the Astoria 40 odd years ago) and was singing along to her favourites.

Monday 17 November 2008

Magellanic & Humboldt Penguins

The final penguins in the series in today’s post are the Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) and the Humboldt penguin (S. humboldti). Both are from South America and are superficially very similar to the Jackass penguin (S. demersus).

Magellanic penguin
Spheniscus magellanicus (Forster, 1781)

Adult Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

Distribution: breeds on Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern South America from Cape Horn to 42oS on the Atlantic side, and Tierra del Fuego to 29oS on the Pacific side, and the Falkland Islands; non-breeding range extends to southern Brazil and southern Peru; vagrant to Australia, New Zealand, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Size: 70 cm (27½"); males weigh a maximum of 7.8 kg (17 lb) but more usually weigh c.5 kg (about 11 lb); females weigh a maximum of 6.5 kg (14 lb) but 4.5 kg (10 lb) is more usual.

Habitat: bare, grassy, bushy or forested islands and coasts, cliffs and flatter areas.

Diet: mainly small fish, cephalopods (squid) and crustaceans (such as the squat lobster).

Etymology: Spheniscus = “little wedge” in Greek; magellanicus = of the Straits of Magellan, those being named for Ferdinand Magellan the explorer.

Immature Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

Humboldt penguin
Spheniscus humboldti Meyen, 1834

Adult Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti)

Distribution: mainland Pacific coastal South America from 5oS (Peru) to 33oS (C Chile), also breeding at 42oS in Southern Chile.

Size: 65 cm (25½"); males 4.1-5.7 kg (9-12½ lb), females 3.6-5.8 kg (8-13 lb).

Habitat: breeds on rocky coasts, sea caves or boulders; their range is heavily influenced by the Humboldt Current.

Diet: anchovy and sardine.

Etymology: Spheniscus = see S. magellanicus; humboldti = of the Humboldt Current, itself named for Alexander von Humboldt the explorer and naturalist.

Humboldt penguin chicks (Spheniscus humboldti) of different ages

Sunday 16 November 2008

Jackass & Galapagos Penguins

Here are the penultimate penguins: Jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) and Galapagos penguin (S. mendiculus). The Jackass penguin is also known as the black-footed penguin, or the African penguin. Penguins, in Africa? Are you bonkers? What’s next, polar bears in the Sahara? No, don’t be silly. There is a cold-water current responsible for this bird’s distribution, the Benguela Current, bringing nutrient-rich cold water from the Southern Ocean to the south-west Atlantic via South Africa and Namibia.

The Galapagos penguin is the most northerly species of penguin, it is even found at the Equator! This is even more crazy than the idea of an African penguin. Why would a classically cold-climate bird be found in the Tropics? The answer also lies in the ocean currents: cold waters from the Antarctic flow up the Pacific coast of South America towards the Galapagos Islands, bringing nutrients. This current, the so-called Humboldt Current, also gives its name to another species of penguin from the coast of South America, covered in the next post. As a result of warmer air temperatures, the penguins of Galapagos, south Africa and other places are smaller. Other than the little blue penguin of Australia and New Zealand, the four penguins of the genus Spheniscus are the smallest.

Jackass penguin
Spheniscus demersus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Adult Jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Distribution: southern Africa from 24o38’S to 33o50’S; vagrant to other parts of Africa.

Size: 70 cm (27½”); males and females weigh 2.4-4.2 kg (5 lb 5 oz – 9 lb 9 oz), with males larger than females.

Habitat: breeds on Benguela Current influenced coasts, in burrows with suitable substrate or using bushes and boulders as shelter.

Diet: small fish, cephalopods (such as squid), crustaceans and polychaete worms.

Etymology: Spheniscus = “little wedge” in Greek; demersus = “diving” in Latin.

Immature Jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Galapagos penguin
Spheniscus mendiculus Sundevall, 1871

Adult Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

Distribution: restricted to the Galapagos Islands; breeds on Fernandina and Isabela, and maybe on Bartholomew and Santiago Islands; non-breeding range extends to other islands of the archipelago.

Size: 53 cm (21”); the smallest Spheniscus penguin; males weigh 1.7-2.6 kg (3 lb 11 oz – 5 lb 11 oz); females weigh 1.7-2.5 kg (3 lb 11 oz – 5½ lb).

Habitat: low-lying volcanic coastal desert.

Diet: fish (such as mullet and sardine) and crustaceans (such as krill).

Etymology: Spheniscus = as S. demersus; mendiculus = “little beggar” in Latin.

Immature Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

Oh, and while we're on the topic of Galapagos... if you're in London for the next few months, make sure you visit the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Darwin: The Big Idea. There is a stuffed Galapagos penguin there, as well as numerous other animals and plants from the archipelago, and two live animals: Charlie the green iguana (Iguana iguana) and Sumo the Argentine horned frog (Ceratophrys ornata). Not to mention a lot of original material from Charles Robert Darwin's epic voyage that first sparked his theory of evolution by natural selection.