Wednesday 18 February 2009

Philippine Reptiles

Philippine crocodile
Crocodylus mindorensis Schmidt, 1935
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

An extremely endangered crocodilian, and quite a small one, the Philippine crocodile was previously thought to be a subspecies of the New Guinean crocodile (C. novaeguineae). It’s excellent that London Zoo should be keeping, and hopefully breeding, such a beautiful reptile, and it makes up for the lack of Chinese alligators that have been a staple in the Reptile House for as long as I can remember.

Philippine water monitor
Varanus cumingi Martin, 1839
Varanidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Again, this species has recently been freed from being a subspecies, this time of the widespread water monitor (V. salvator). This is a poorly known species; there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry on it.

Saturday 14 February 2009


Happy Valentine's Day from me and the lolducks! They are maned ducks Chenonetta jubata (Latham, 1802), both females, I think, photographed at the London Wetland Centre in December 2008.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy 200th birthday, Charles Darwin, and happy Darwin Day to all my readers!

Darwin's zorro
Lycalopex fulvipes Martin, 1837
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

The illustrations were created in MS Paint in 2004 by "painting" over the original photograph (from the Web) with a simplified range of colours, for a pop-art style. The second one (black background) was a fortuitous mistake, so I saved it!

Darwin's zorro is a South American canid (member of the dog family) often called "Darwin's fox", although it is more closely related, and shares more of a resemblance, to wolves. It bears the birthday boy's name due to him describing the animal's remarkable tameness on his visit to Chile on the Voyage of the Beagle; he was able to strike it dead with a geological hammer as it approached him. For most of the last two centuries, the species was treated as a subspecies of the more widespread grey zorro, or South American grey fox (L. griseus), but in the light of its clear morphological and molecular differences, the Darwin's zorro was named as a species in its own right. Incidentally, the genus name Lycalopex is often referred to as Pseudalopex (although the former is the more senior name, thus it gets priority), and even Dusicyon, which is usually reserved for the now extinct Falkland zorro (D. australis), also known as the warrah or Falkland Island wolf. Darwin's zorro is critically endangered, and threatened by habitat loss and competition from dogs. Little more than 300 of this beautiful animal remain, and none are held in captivity (as far as I know).

Darwin's rhea (or lesser rhea) skull
Pterocnemia pennata (or Rhea pennata) d'Orbigny, 1834
Rheidae; Rheiformes; Aves; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

Another of Darwin's namesakes, the lesser rhea is, obviously, smaller than the more common greater rhea (Rhea americana). The two can be seen side-by-side at the Darwin: Big Idea exhibition now open at the Natural History Museum, London. It was Chuckie D. who first noticed that two similar, yet clearly different, rhea species both inhabit the pampas and plains of southern South America. A junior synonym of Rhea pennata, R. darwinii Gould, 1837, seems more fitting to this bird, but R. pennata (meaning 'feathered' - all birds are feathered) takes precedence.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Photo of the Day #26: Giant Anteater

Giant anteater
Myrmecophaga tridactyla Linnaeus, 1758
Myrmecophagidae; Xenarthra; Mammalia; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

One of the most peculiar mammals, a relict from the times when South America was an island, the giant anteater is amongst my favourite of all animals. For an animal that pretty much eats only termites (not ants!), it reaches a huge size and can defend itself pretty well.

I’ve been coming to London Zoo for years, and since the giant anteaters moved in a few years ago, I’ve tried my hardest to see them. They have a fairly large outdoor pen (where the grey wolves used to be in the 90s), as well as an indoor enclosure with a low-level window for us to peer into. The first few times I visited the anteaters, I couldn’t see them outside or indoors. In 2005, I bent down to find them in the indoor enclosure. I saw a striped lump, took a bad picture, and dissatisfied, withdrew from the niche, but in an undignified manner. I banged my head hard on the roof of the nook, and felt concussed as I walked through the squirrel monkey enclosure. That was a painful and embarrassing experience with anteaters; I felt I deserved it though, as I was taking flash photographs in the Moonlight World exhibit not long before, despite the fact that the lorises and bushbabies were getting a bit freaked out.

The last time I visited the zoo, I saw both adult anteaters, and this one paraded about inside the indoor enclosure, this being the best photo I took. I made sure not to bang my head this time.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Anhinga anhinga

Male anhinga
Anhinga anhinga (Linnaeus, 1766)
Anhingidae; Pelecaniformes; Aves; Chordata

Colour pencil and pen-outlined illustration by Mo Hassan, August 2008
Photograph taken in Everglades National Park, Florida, August 2008

I had wanted to visit the Everglades in southern Florida for a very long time, and two summers ago I got the chance. I stayed in a motel in Homestead, a town very close to the entrance to the National Park for one night with my parents. After arriving from Orlando, we checked into the motel and dumped our stuff then went to the Everglades, despite the threat of a thunderstorm, as is usual in the late afternoon in August in that part of the world. I was unimpressed with the park that day, seeing only a couple of American crows (Corvus brachydactylus) and a few mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), before the rains came and we turned back to Homestead.

The next morning though, we left early and took a drive through the park, to the Eco Lake in the southernmost part of the park. There, I saw a few gorgeously-coloured roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) and my first ever osprey (Pandion haliaetus). We then took a walk in the northern part of the park, and saw two huge American alligators (photo of one of them here), and the beautiful anhinga you can see above. We were not very far from it, seemingly insistent that it couldn’t be seen amongst the reeds. Rather aptly, the name of the trail we chose to walk on that morning was the Anhinga trail.

The illustration is part of a series that I tried to carry out when I got back to the UK, featuring all of the bird species I had seen in my two weeks in Florida. I drew most of the herons and the double-crested cormorant and anhinga, then gave up... I was using about 6 books to get the right pose, colour and plumage details in order to copy them. The best of them all, I have to say, is the drawing of a male anhinga you see here. I normally don’t have the patience or willpower to draw white on black with pencil (it’s impossible to draw white pencil onto black pencil, so you have to leave gaps amongst the dark areas), so naturally I was shocked that it turned out so good. I’ve been urged to put this drawing on this blog by my mum.

Blissful Snow

The snowfalls the last few years in London have been puny and weak; but all of this city and much of southeast England ground to a halt yesterday as buses stopped running, trains and underground services were severely disrupted, cars skidded all over the place, and pedestrians slipped about like Bambi on ice. I awoke yesterday morning to a scene from a Christmas card: snow atop of every surface, and still falling from the clouds and settling everywhere. Nobody had been outside, not even the cats, so the snow was as pure as could be. I wrapped up warm and went outside, regressing 15 years to my childhood. Snow is the best anti-depressant there is, all worries evaporate and fall back down as joy in hexagonal crystalline form.

The view down the path to the rear section of our garden, before being spoiled by footprints.

The holly bush, which you can see in the right of the first photo, was a nice opportunity for some macro photography.

The magical scene which awaited as we passed the "middle section" of the garden. The snow here was thicker and crunched blissfully underfoot.

I wish I knew what the tiny plant in this tiny plant pot was thinking when it was buried in several centimetres of powdery, fluffy snow.

Rain and water from the gutters crystallised into stalactite-like icicles. One such spike was gigantic in size, hanging from an ivy leaf, and tasted like ice-cold bottled water (the ice in this part wasn't from the gutters!)

The snow covered almost everything that wasn't properly sheltered: this hosepipe-winding contraption looks like Santa Claus... !

The blackbird with revolving wings was frozen in motion, although he seems to be waving at us. Yes, all that snow is on his head.

Mr. Blackbird's relative, Mr. Peacock, was similarly snowed under.

This is me on the rear lawn, about to create my first snow angel...

Alright, I went a bit heavy with the feet, but I liked the way it turned out

Here's to more snow-filled British winters, and boo to hot sticky summers!!

Sunday 1 February 2009

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

I've just finished watching the BBC documentary Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, presented by Sir David Attenborough. Overall, it was a good summary of the man's life and his (and Wallace's) theory of evolution by natural selection, with footage of Attenborough in his younger days dotted about between clips of him as he is now in places such as Down House and the Natural History Museum. There was a lot of footage of my darling Museum, which I was glad to see, and was even a bit surprised when I saw Sir Dave talking in the Earth Sciences library where I am currently employed about twenty minutes into the documentary. I noticed the Richard Owen statue was at the rear of the Central Hall at the top of the first set of stairs, where Charlie Darwin now sits, as the two were moved late last year. Towards the very end of the programme, the uprooting of Owen to the dark recesses of the first floor near the Botany department, and his rightful replacement by Darwin was shown.

I noticed one biographical flaw; Attenborough stated that Darwin had studied both botany and geology at Cambridge University before going on the Voyage of the Beagle. It is well known that he had never formally studied any of the natural sciences at university, and learned Theology in Cambridge at Christ's College, which I used to pass near enough every day when I spent my undergraduate years in that city. It is true, however, that Darwin approached professors such as Adam Sedgwick to learn about geology in his free time. It should have been made clear that Darwin had no formal grounding in geology or other branch of natural history, in my opinion.

When Attenborough was explaining the wonders of the platypus, he made the fatal error of saying the platypus is a "primitive mammal". Of course it is not, it is just one which retained the same way of life as its ancestors have done for tens of million years. There was also the fact that the mass extinction of the Cretaceous-Tertiary was mentioned as "catastrophic", but not a single mention of the earlier, much more "catastrophic" Permian-Triassic one. Other than these, the programme was well put together, and Attenborough makes a grand effort at simplifying things for the masses to understand, without oversimplifying them too much. I even learnt a new tidbit of information; I was not aware that neither Darwin nor Wallace were present during the reading of their thesis to the Linnean Society in 1858, as Wallace was still in the East Indies and Darwin was mourning the death of his son.

If you want a free "Tree of Life" poster from the Beeb, you can go to this website, where there is also more information on this programme and the others in the 200th b-day celebrations series. This is not an advertisement for the BBC, they get enough of our money through licence fees.

Answers to Cranial Challenge

First of all, well done to Neil Kelley, who got all 26 questions correct! So, here are the answers to Cranial Challenge:

A: Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus, Hyaenidae)
B: Babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa, Suidae)
C: Cassowary, southern (Casuarius casuarius, Casuariidae)
D: Dugong (Dugong dugon, Dugongidae)
E: Echidna, short-beaked (Tachyglossus aculeatus, Tachyglossidae)
F: Fox, red (Vulpes vulpes, Canidae)
G: Gharial/gavial (Gavialis gangeticus, Gavialidae)
H: Hornbill, Malabar pied (Anthracoceros coronatus, Bucerotidae)
I: Ichthyosaurus communis, Ichthyosauridae
J: Jerboa, Mongolian five-toed (Allactaga sibirica, Dipodidae)
K: Kangaroo, eastern grey (Macropus giganteus, Macropodidae)
L: Lemur, brown (Eulemur fulvus, Lemuridae)
M: Mastodon, American (Mammut americanus, Mammutidae)
N: Narwhal (Monodon monoceros, Monodontidae)
O: Orca (Orcinus orca, Delphinidae)
P: Pangolin, long-tailed (Manis longicaudata, Manidae)
Q: Quetzalcoatlus sp., Azhdarchidae
R: Rhinoceros, Sumatran (Dicerorhinus sumatraensis, Rhinocerotidae)
S: Shoveler, northern (Anas clypeata, Anatidae)
T: Thylacine/Tasmanian wolf/Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus, Thylacinidae)
U: Ursus spelaeus (cave bear), Ursidae
V: Velociraptor mongoliensis, Dromaeosauridae
W: Whale, bowhead (Balaena mysticetus, Balaenidae)
X: Xiphias gladius (swordfish), Xiphiidae
Y: Yak (Bos grunniens, Bovidae)
Z: Zebra, Burchell’s (Equus burchellii, Equidae)

I hope you all learned a little something, and had fun having a go.