Friday 26 June 2009

Photos of the Day #35: Binturong

Above photo and all others in this post:
Arctictis binturong (Raffles, 1821)
Viverridae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Think of a mammal with a prehensile tail: there are a few obvious choices, like spider monkey and opossum. There are, however, two species of carnivoran with tails that are not only completely muscular, but are able to grip onto tree branches and can support their weight: these are the kinkajou (Potos flavus) and the binturong.

Both are arboreal mammals that spend very little time on the ground (in the wild, at least). But neither are that closely related to each other, having adapted to an arboreal lifestyle in ways different to their closest kin. The kinkajou, related to the raccoons and coatis (see previous post), is a mostly herbivorous carnivoran (an oxymoron, if ever there was one!), eating mostly fruit, flowers and nectar. The binturong, however, is more carnivorous, but is still partial to fruit.

The binturong, or bear-cat, looks most un-civet like, betraying its kinship to the mostly spotted and less shaggy civets, genets and oyans (formerly called 'African linsangs', but the two members of the genus Poiana from Africa are unrelated to the Asiatic linsangs of the genus Prionodon, now in a family of their own, Prionodontidae). It is only when stripped down to its bare(-cat) bones that it looks truly like a civet. Binturongs are the largest civets, weighing a good 15 kg (33 lb) at times (an exceedingly obese individual tipped the scales - what a funny idiom - at 22 kg, or 50 lb!). A most interesting fact about binturongs gleaned from the internet: they apparently have a most endearing scent, likened by most to warm buttered popcorn!

In this image, you can see the naked tip to the prehensile tail of the binturong. I spent a good 15 minutes at the zoo trying to get good photos of the binturongs. In that time, I overheard a lot of people. Most saw the sign declaring "Meerkats" and assumed these were the beloved mongooses they know from TV documentaries, The Lion King and those adverts (Simples!). The two couldn't look more different if the binturongs had pink fur and wings and the meerkats were ten feet tall. The meerkats were just around the corner; use your eyes and - gord forbid - your brains, people!!!

In case you haven't already, please join my Facebook group, Tetrapod Club! Thanks!

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Photo of the Day #34: White-nosed Coati

White-nosed coati
Nasua narica (Linnaeus, 1766)
Procyonidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Also called the pizote, the white-nosed coati is the only one of four species of coatis of the genera Nasua and Nasuella to be found in the U.S.A. The more well known (in British zoos, at least) ring-tailed coati (Nasua nasua) is found throughout lowland tropical South America; the rare Cozumel coati (N. nelsoni) is restricted to the Mexican island of Cozumel, where it is one of two endemic procyonids (the raccoon species Procyon pygmaeus is the other); and the equally rare mountain coati (Nasuella olivacea) from the northern part of the Andes Mountains. The white-nosed coati is found southwards to the coastal rainforests of Ecuador, in habitats as disparate as tropical rainforest and desert.

The coati social system has been well studied in N. nasua and N. narica. In both species, females and young live communally, searching for invertebrates in the soil, using their flexible, proboscis-like noses to do so, and with their flag-like tails held erect. The males remain solitary: they even go by a different name, 'coatimundi' (once even thought to be a different species). The reason for this is that males are exiled from the group once they reach sexual maturity; they become aggressive and will kill and eat young, even their own.

Although it can't be seen in my photo, the white-nosed coati has a very long tail, which is banded, although not to the extent of the ring-tailed coati. Often the bands run together and appear to merge. The white nose and facial mask are distinctive, although shared with the Cozumel coati. It is still disputed as to whether the latter taxon actually constitutes a species in its own right. Animals from Cozumel Island may originate from mainland white-nosed coatis brought to the island by the Mayan peoples as pets. Incidentally, coatis supposedly make loyal and inquisitive pets, but I wouldn't get too close to their claws; they look as if they could do some damage. They are able to rip apart bird-eating spiders with ease.

On a related but separate note, may I take this opportunity to advertise my new Facebook group called 'Tetrapod Club'. All are welcome to join... membership is currently very low but I've only started the group a few hours ago! On there are a selection of photos and illustrations, but feel free to add your own. I hope to get some interesting discussions going on.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Diprotodont Evolution

Marsupials are one of the three major lineages of extant mammals: they are known for their extremely short gestation periods, so short that the young are born undeveloped and have to be reared by the mother in a pouch (in most forms). Marsupials do not make up a single order of mammals; however, in fact, there are seven extant orders and several more extinct ones. Those orders are: Didelphimorphia (opossums), Paucituberculata (shrew opossums, also known as rat opossums, flap-lips or caenolestids), Microbiotheria (the colocolo or monito del monte), Dasyuromorphia (marsupial carnivores, including the dunnarts, quolls, Tasmanian devil, thylacine and numbat), Notorycterimorphia (the marsupial moles), Peramelemorphia (bandicoots and bilbies), and the Diprotodontia.

Long-nosed potoroo
Potorous tridactylus (Kerr, 1792)
Family Potoroidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Diprotodontia are the largest extant marsupial order, and contain a wide range of well-known animals, from the tiny sugar glider and honey possum to the giant red and grey kangaroos, to the unusual wombats and koalas. The study by Meredith et al. (2009) in June’s edition of Molecular Phylogeny and Evolution is the first to incorporate every extant genus in the order, uncovering relationships which had been hitherto unknown.

Honey possum
Tarsipes rostratus Gervais & Verreaux, 1842
Family Tarsipedidae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Diprotodonts (meaning ‘two front teeth’, after the procumbent, or sticking out, lower medial incisors) are generally herbivorous, but there are some specialised nectarivores (i.e. the honey possum), folivores (leaf-eaters, like the koala) and insect-omnivores (such as rat kangaroos). They inhabit a wide range of ecological niches, from arboreal koalas to bipedal kangaroos, and from semi-fossorial wombats to gliding petaurids. The procumbent incisors are a synapomorphy (unique derived feature) of the order, but there are others, mostly to do with internal anatomy. A feature shared with the Peramelemorphia, the bandicoots and bilbies, is syndactylous hind feet, where the second and third digits are fused, appearing to be one digit with two claws. It is still unclear whether this commonality makes the Peramelemorphia the sister group to Diprotodontia.

Common brushtail possum
Trichosurus vulpecula (Kerr, 1792)
Family Phalangeridae; clade Phalangeroidea; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Meredith et al. carried out a molecular analysis on every extant genus of diprotodont, and members of every other extant marsupial family, and also carried out a molecular clock analysis. This estimates the dates of divergence of each clade so it can be worked out when certain lineages first arose and therefore this can be linked with climatological evidence.

Mountain pygmy possum
Burramys parvus Broom, 1896
Family Burramyidae; clade Phalangeroidea; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Among the polyprotodont marsupials (the name given to those marsupials not belonging to the Diprotodontia, having four or more upper incisors), one true monophyletic clade (a grouping with a common ancestor) was found, which also includes the Diprotodontia: the Australidelphia. The Australidelphia, as the name suggests, originated in Australia, most likely whilst it was still connected to South America (where the other marsupials are still found) via Antarctica. All but one of the australidelphians are found in Australasia today; that one is the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) from Chile, of its own order, Microbiotheria. This poses a biogeographical problem: did the Microbiotheria disperse back, or did the australidelphians disperse multiple times? The dilemma is as yet unresolved. What we do know, however, that at least by the Eocene, marsupials were present in Australia, as proven by the earliest australidelphian, Djarthia murgonensis Beck et al., 2008.

The other two orders from the Americas, Didelphimorphia and Paucituberculata, were thought to make up a clade, Ameridelphia (with their origins in America, obviously), but the study found that group to be paraphyletic (not sharing a unique common ancestor). Classically, the two clades were described on the basis of differences in the ankle joint.

Bear cuscus
Ailurops ursinus (Temminck, 1824)
Family Phalangeridae; clade Phalangeroidea; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The diprotodonts are basally split between the Vombatiformes (wombats and koalas) and Phalangerida (all the rest; don’t confuse with Phalangeridae). The previously established suborder Phalangeriformes, thought to include all possums, is proven paraphyletic, as the Macropodiformes (kangaroos and their kin) are nested neatly in between the two groups containing ‘possums’. Supposed apomorphies (derived characters) shared by all members of the ‘Phalangeriformes’ are either convergent, or were secondarily lost by the Macropodiformes.

Musky rat kangaroo
Hypsiprymnodon moschatus Ramsay, 1876
Family Hypsiprymnodontidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The musky rat kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) is definitely in a family of its own, from the inferred date of its divergence (28 million years ago) and several other factors, but it was previously thought to be the sister taxon to the Potoroidae (potoroos, bettongs and rat kangaroos). It is instead the sister to both Potoroidae + Macropodidae. This suggests that bipedal hopping and reduction of litter size evolved only once, at the root of the Macropodiformes.

Banded hare wallaby
Lagostrophus fasciatus (Peron & Lesueur, 1807)
Subfamily Sthenurinae; family Macropodidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The banded rat kangaroo (Lagostrophus fasciatus) has usually been placed close to the rat kangaroos of the genus Lagorchestes. They fall on different sides of the Macropodidae to each other, to the extent of strengthening the hypothesis that Lagostrophus is the only surviving member of the otherwise extinct subfamily Sthenurinae (containing the infamous giant kangaroos of the Pleistocene), whilst Lagorchestes is close to the larger kangaroos and wallabies of the genus Macropus. Lagostrophus diverged c. 15 million years ago in the mid-Miocene. Of course, being supposedly the only member of an extinct taxon, it is impossible to carry out more molecular studies to confirm the relationship, unless late Pleistocene proteins or DNA are found.

Common spotted cuscus
Spilocuscus maculatus (E. Geoffroy, 1803)
Family Phalangeridae; clade Phalangeroidea; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The name for a new clade has been given, Australoplagiaulacoida (what a mouthful!) to the grouping of Macropodiformes and Phalangeroidea. The derived feature is serrated premolars in the (supposed) primitive members of each family in the clade.

Red kangaroo
Macropus rufus Desmarest, 1882
Family Macropodidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The large and familiar genus Macropus, containing the largest living diprotodonts, has recently been split into several genera. The analysis defends neither corner, but the authors consider the genus to consist of subgenera. The swamp wallaby (previously Wallabia bicolor) is nested between the agile and western brush wallabies (Macropus agilis & M. irma) and the rest of Macropus, thus proving it is actually in that genus, but as a distinctive subgenus.

Striped possum
Dactylopsila trivirgata Gray, 1858
Family Petauridae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Within the Petauridae, there is a weakly supported (by bootstrap methods – too complex to explain here, and even I don’t understand the methodology too well) grouping of the Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) with the striped possum and trioks (Dactylopsila spp.). One would think, based on appearances alone, that the Leadbeater’s possum, which looks like a ‘flightless’ sugar glider, would pair with the genus Petaurus. Because the clade is weakly supported, this may be taken with a pinch of salt.

Common ringtail possum
Pseudocheirus peregrinus (Boddaert, 1785)
Family Pseudocheiridae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The Pseudocheiridae (ringtail possums and greater glider) have traditionally been grouped into three lineages: Hemibelideus + Petauroides; Pseudocheirus + Pseudochirulus; and Pseudochirops + Petropseudes. The monophyly of these groups have been confirmed, but Pseudochirops has been found to be paraphyletic. The rock ringtail possum (formerly Petropseudes dahli), despite being ecomorphogically disparate to the arboreal members of Pseudochirops, was found to be nested within that genus.

Green ringtail possum
Pseudochirops archeri (Collett, 1884)
Family Pseudocheiridae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The genus Strigocuscus, formed of two species of phalanger from eastern Indonesia, has been proven paraphyletic, with S. pelengensis finding itself closer to the genus Phalanger, so the species should probably move to that genus. Strigocuscus celebensis can stay where it is, for now.

Eastern common cuscus
Phalanger intercastellanus Thomas, 1895
Family Phalangeridae; clade Phalangeroidea; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The so-called molecular clock revealed the approximate times of divergence of every marsupial clade. Some interesting dates from the Cretaceous and Palaeogene include Vombatiformes diverging from the Phalangerida approximately 53 million years ago in the early Eocene; Australidelphia separating from the rest of the marsupials 63 million years ago in the early Palaeocene; and (extant) marsupials as a whole diverging from all other mammalian clades about 77 million years ago, predating the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction. Most of the families as we know them diverged before the end of the Oligocene, with the Potoroidae and Macropodidae diverging after 23 million years ago.

Bennett’s tree kangaroo
Dendrolagus bennettianus De Vis, 1887
Family Macropodidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Meredith et al. also looked at “ecological venue”, meaning the habitat and niche that the ancestral diprotodont and the ancestral marsupial would have occupied, linking this to the information derived from the molecular clock. It appears that the common ancestor of all diprotodonts was arboreal, using maximum likelihood. Going further back, however, it becomes more difficult to assign an ecological venue for the ancestor of all marsupials: the maximum likelihood seems to be arboreal, but could also be terrestrial, fossorial (digging), or semi-fossorial. The tree kangaroos (Dendrolagus spp.) are secondarily arboreal, as all of their close kin are terrestrial, but their distant ancestors lived in trees. The original transition from arboreal to terrestrial macropodiforms occurred between 45 and 27 million years ago, with tree kangaroos reverting to the ancestral condition much more recently, in the Pleistocene.

Phascolarctos cinereus (Goldfuss, 1817)
Family Phascolarctidae; clade Vombatiformes; order Diprotodontia

If we look at the Vombatiformes, consisting of three semi-fossorial members and one arboreal one, it is tempting to say that they started out terrestrial and only the koala took to the trees. It is more likely that the reverse is true: the direct ancestors of wombats lived in trees. The koalas diverged before the wombats, but both families kept similar adaptations for arboreality, such as the distinctive hands and fingers that unite the wombats and the koalas (not to mention the extinct giant wombats such as Diprotodon, who gave its name to the order). It is difficult to say when exactly the wombats became semi-fossorial, as it obviously happened after the divergence of the koalas, but before the different genera of wombat diverged from each other. The earliest vombatid, Rhizophascolomus crowcrofti, of the late Oligocene/early Miocene, is known only from cheek teeth; postcranial information, which is crucial to ascertain its ecological venue, is lacking.

Southern hairy-nosed wombat
Lasiorhinus latifrons (Owen, 1845)
Family Vombatidae; clade Vombatiformes; order Diprotodontia

In the Palaeocene, Australia was dominated by warm, wet rainforests. Gymnosperms (conifers, cycads and their relatives) were still dominant, with the new-fangled angiosperms (flowering plants) becoming more widespread by the start of the Eocene. Temperatures then decreased and the podocarp (coniferous gymnosperm) forests were replaced by more diverse southern beech (Nothofagus spp.) forests. The lack of divergence of marsupial groups prior to this time is put down to lack of available niches in such homogeneous podocarp forests. Marsupials were arboreal then, as we have seen, because little habitat was available at ground level. Imagine a tropical-forest dwelling wombat trying to dig its way through mulchy or pine-needle covered strata. Recall that the earliest Australian marsupial dates to the Eocene, with no marsupials recorded from the Palaeocene; this probably has much to do with this lack of niches. Djarthia possesses traits which liken it to arboreal animals, matching the molecular clock and palaeobotanical data.

Proserpine rock wallaby
Petrogale persephone Maynes, 1982
Family Macropodidae; clade Macropodiformes; clade Australoplagiaulacoida; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The lineages leading to the three major australidelphian orders, Peramelemorphia, Dasyuromorphia and Diprotodontia, were established prior to 55 million years ago, but no extant families had yet been established. The early Oligocene brought a significant decrease in rainfall in Australia, mainly caused by the formation of an ice-cap in Antarctica. The Australian plate collided with the Asian plate, causing the island of New Guinea to rise, complete with mountains. The mountains created a rain shadow, resulting in a dry continent. By the end of the Oligocene, new habitats consisting of sclerophyll (Mediterranean-like) vegetation, with scattered sedge and reed swamps, and by this time every terrestrial Australian marsupial family had been established. The rainforest canopy had thus opened, creating far more terrestrial niches. By the time of the Pliocene, grasslands were prevalent across much of Australia, with the current climatic conditions reached by the Pleistocene. The divergence of the Macropus genus coincided well with the spread of grassland in this epoch.

Greater glider
Petauroides volans (Kerr, 1792)
Family Pseudocheiridae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The study also looked at the evolution of gliding membranes. Gliding has arisen in three eutherian taxa: Petauristinae (flying squirrels); Anomaluridae (scaly-tailed squirrels); and Dermoptera (colugos). The authors confirmed the suspicion that gliding evolved, again, three times independently in the marsupials: once in the Acrobatidae; once in the Petauridae; and once in the Pseudocheiridae. Within those groups, not all members possess the gliding membranes. The feathertail possum (Distoechurus pennatus) does not possess the membrane that the feathertail glider does; only the members of the genus Petaurus can glide, unlike the genera Dactylopsila and Gymnobelideus; and only one species out of seventeen of Pseudocheiridae, the greater glider (Petauroides volans) can glide.

Feathertail glider
Acrobates pygmaeus (Shaw, 1793)
Family Acrobatidae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

The specific anatomy of the membrane differs between the three families, showing that they are not completely homologous to each other: the patagium of Petaurus stretches from the hands to the ankles; in the greater glider it stretches from the elbow to the ankle; in the feathertail glider it stretches from the elbow to below the knee joint. The latter species’ tail, which is fringed with stiffened hairs, also assists in gliding. This feature is shared with the other member of the family, the feathertail possum, which is incapable of flight. The greater glider’s sister taxon, the lemurine ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides) has flaps of skin where the membrane should be. These flaps could either be incipient membranes (i.e. haven’t formed), or formerly present but now are vestigial.

Sugar glider
Petaurus breviceps Waterhouse, 1839
Family Petauridae; clade Petauroidea; clade Phalangerida; order Diprotodontia

Gliding on the whole amongst diprotodonts coincided with the drying out of Australia’s forests at the end of the Oligocene. This transition of habitat may have been the impetus for various groups of petauroid marsupial to evolve patagia.

I leave you with a diagram, modified from the Bayesian tree (Fig. 1) from Meredith et al.’s paper, featuring some of the diprotodonts mentioned in the study and this review. The four main groups, top to bottom being Petauroidea, Macropodiformes, Phalangeroidea and Vombatiformes, are quite visible.

Beck, R. M. D., H. Godthelp, V. Weisbecker, M. Archer & S. J. Hand (2008) Australia's Oldest Marsupial Fossils and their Biogeographical Implications. In: PLoS One 3(3): e1858. doi: 10. 1371/ journal. pone. 0001858

Meredith, R. W., M. Westerman & M. S. Springer (2009) A phylogeny of Diprotodontia (Marsupialia) based on sequences for five nuclear genes. In: Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 51:554-71. doi: 10. 1016/ j. ympev. 2009. 02. 009
All illustrations:
Graphite pencil
By Mo Hassan
June 2009

Thursday 18 June 2009

R.I.P. Slash

Golden axolotl ("Slash")
Ambystoma mexicanum (Shaw, 1789)
Ambystomidae; Caudata; Amphibia; Chordata
Aquarium at home
May 2005

Yesterday I found my one and only axolotl, Slash, dead in its tank. I'm still a bit grief-stricken; apart from my cats (Scarlett, Sapphire and Dolly), Slash has been my longest lasting pet, and had been a constant joy.

I first acquired Slash in January 2005 and kept him in a tank in my bedroom. It had always been a dream of mine to own axolotls, and had planned to get a pair and call them Axl and Slash after two of the members of Guns 'n' Roses. Slash loved to watch me play guitar, and had an ear for good music. He would approach people, in his own sluggish manner, when they went to the tank to view him. At the end of that year, I acquired another two axolotls, who I named George and Mildred (after the 70s comedy spin-off), both fully grown adults. I bought a brand new tank for them and they lived together peacefully, for a while.

I thought Slash might like a playmate, but knew he/she (still not sure!) might be too small for George and Mildred, as they were twice his size (I'll stick with Slash being male, 'cause I'm just used to it). I decided to get an albino African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). As soon as Slash noticed the newcomer, he took a bite, and then another. That moment is on film. Needless to say I quickly removed Slash and transported him to the other tank, leaving the frog (then unnamed, but soon to be Elaine) on her own.

Elaine got a tankmate in the form of Kitchener (both named after Young Knives songs). Slash got on well with George and Mildred, as he had grown somewhat in that time. Slash got on especially well with Mildred, both of them resting in the same pot. Then things began to change. In mid-2007 I acquired a mussel and, hoping it would help keep the tank clean, introduced it to the axolotls' tank. I don't think Mr. Mussel had anything to do with it now, but it sure was co-incidental; Mildred started going crazy and was biting both Slash and George. Slash escaped with relatively few marks, but George had three legs missing and most of the toes on the one remaining leg were bitten off too. His tail had been truncated and gills mutilated. To top it off, Mr. Mussel was eaten! Mildred was shipped off to a pet shop and I kept a close eye on George.

It was in early 2008 that George passed away, probably from a combination of starvation and asphyxiation. He wasn't eating and I hadn't seen him eat for months. Slash was left on his own for a long while. This was until I moved him to his original tank and got him a pair of new playmates, a pair of goldfish, named Carassius and Auratus, after the scientific name for the goldfish. Auratus must've been ill when I purchased it and it died after only a few days. Carassius and Slash got on rather well, until I noticed Carassius sometimes taking little bites out of Slash's gills and tail. Examining his body a bit post-mortem, I noticed a few sores, probably also made by the goldfish.

I'm now left with a Senegal bichir (Polypterus senegalus) called Polly, a bristlemouth catfish (Ancistrus sp.) called Taka and a leopard pleco catfish (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps) called Gibbons, as well as Carassius, the baby newt and the cats. I have more dead pets than living ones in my collection now, as I have kept the bodies of several newt tadpoles (smooth, palmate and Alpine), both Xenopus toads, a mottled catfish (Chrysichthys ornatus), a black ghost knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons), George and now Slash. I've kept them in case I ever want to carry out post-mortems or use tissue samples for molecular analyses. In some people's eyes, keeping dead pets in a glass jar in a glass cabinet might make me morbid, or even creepy, but it's the scientist in me.

Damn, the Mexican cactus pot in Carassius' tank looks completely out of place now. I'll have to get something else Mexican to live with it.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Bye bye newts!

Male and female palmate newts (left) and male and female smooth newts

Yesterday I decided I wanted to release the four newts I've been keeping for a few months back to their original pond in Epping Forest. I first went there in mid-March for a Field Studies Council course on British amphibian identification and conservation, and was so taken with the dozens of smooth and palmate newts we collectively caught that I took a pair of each home with me for study and hopefully for breeding.

Male palmate (above) and male smooth newts. Note enlarged black hindfeet of palmate and enlarged black-tipped hindfeet of smooth.

The night I got them home, two of them (Mr. Palmate and Mrs. Smooth, if I remember correctly) escaped and hid underneath the radiator. Needless to say, they were a bit worse for wear; I'm just glad the cats didn't get to them! Once they were cleaned up, cooled down and rehydrated, both recovered and regained their appetites. All four of them gobbled up live bloodworms.

I noticed the first eggs after a couple of weeks, and began to harvest them by removing the leaves to which the eggs were attached and keeping them in a separate container. A week or so later, they hatched into tiny larvae. That brood didn't survive, but there were more eggs to come. They hatched, and all died. The third brood did a little better, but as they lived for more than a week, the problem arose of what to feed them. Their yolk store was enough to keep them going for their first seven days of life, but they are still far too small to eat bloodworms; even adult Daphnia dwarf them!

I was on the lookout for something suitable to feed tadpoles or fish fry, and found various plankton, including Cyclops (a copepod) and Artemia nauplii. The latter turned out to be the most successful. They are known in the aquarist trade as 'baby brine shrimp', and that's exactly what they are. They are the newly hatched eggs of what are commonly known as 'sea monkeys', and are the perfect size for my new babies to eat. So far, so good.

I left for Cyprus in late April, by which time the newest batch of young are a couple of weeks old. There were 27 larvae when I left, but I came home to 4. Despite being well cared for by their foster-foster parent, my sister Sheree, very few survived. I put it down to the fact that they were sharing a small container and were killing each other. A few were even eaten. A few days later, and I was left with one.

This single larva has survived to this day, and I am still looking after it. The picture above was taken under a low-powered microscope in Cambridge this past weekend, whilst exhibiting it and its parents/parents' friends at the Conversazione exhibition. I'm truly amazed at how large its eyes are!

Male (foreground) and female smooth newts

The adults meanwhile were getting bored of their environs, a small tank filled with water and decorated with stones and plants. I could tell they wanted to leave. The day after the exhibition finished I decided to take them back to their place of origin. They were reluctant to leave the ice-cream tub, so I placed them by the margin of the pond. It took a few minutes before any of them responded. The female smooth newt slowly approached the water, then plopped in, swimming at the surface until it reached a mat of floating vegetation. Her mate soon followed, but went down instead of across.

Male (rear) and female palmate newts

The palmate pair were reluctant to head towards the water. I even put the male in, and he climbed back out again! Clearly, they were past their aquatic phase and wanted to be on land. I released them a few metres from the pond in the undergrowth. That was where I left them, and I felt like a mother bird watching their young leave the nest. I felt sad, but also happy. The newts had provided a stimulating exhibit for the show, and had helped people learn about newts and other amphibians. I'm thinking of getting fire-bellied toads (Bombina orientalis) next, or maybe an Argentine horned frog (Ceratophrys ornatus), I still haven't decided.

Male palmate newt retreating from pond

Taxonomic information:

Smooth newt
Lissotriton vulgaris (Linnaeus, 1758)
Salamandridae; Caudata; Amphibia; Chordata

Palmate newt
Lissotriton helveticus Razoumowsky, 1789
Salamandridae; Caudata; Amphibia; Chordata

Naked-headed Dandruff

The identity of the mystery bird, well, of course Darren's right, it's the Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasis gymnocephala). A bird of unknown affinities among the Passeriformes (perching birds), and a rather ugly-looking one too. It gets its common name from the fact that its bald red head is covered in fine bristles, quite unlike any other bird feathers. It is endemic to the island of Borneo and is currently classified in its own family, Pityriaseidae. It shares its generic name Pityriasis with the name of several types of skin disorder, including pityriasis rosea. The origin of the word is from the Greek for 'dandruff'.

Saturday 13 June 2009

What's the birdy?

I don't have a lot of blogging time today, what with zipping between London and Cambridge every day this weekend. In the same vein as Darren's 'guess the tetrapod' teaser posts at Tetrapod Zoology, I give you a bird whose identity remains secret. Can you guess what it is? Enter your guess in the comments if you have any idea what it might be, even if you don't, just have a guess (I'm turning into the compulsive guessing woman on Catherine Tate). No prizes for the correct guess, just the glory of being correct. No clues either, well, just one, it's a bird.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Photo Special: Baby Primates

Young chimpanzee
Pan troglodytes (Blumenbach, 1775)
Hominidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

High five anyone? Actually, this young chimp (with lighter coloured hair than I’ve ever seen on one) was throwing a tantrum. An adult female was trying to open a locked door by pushing a twig through the bars of the door to reach the lock. The young chimp was either trying to help, or just playing about. The adult got a bit annoyed and jumped, scaring the young one in the process. At the point where I took this photo, it was screaming.

What else can I say about chimpanzees that you don’t already know? Despite there being two species, Pan troglodytes and the rarer and lesser known bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, P. paniscus. I refuse to call P. troglodytes the ‘common chimpanzee’, as how can you call an endangered species common? No, I’d prefer ‘greater chimpanzee’ in contrast with ‘pygmy’, or just plain old ‘chimpanzee’. The generic name, Pan, probably derives from the ancient Greek god of nature with the same name. The name troglodytes means ‘cave-dweller’, something that doesn’t quite describe the chimpanzee that well. The bonobo’s specific name, paniscus, means ‘Pan-like’.

Young L’Hoest’s guenon
Cercopithecus lhoesti P. Sclater, 1899
Cercopithecidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

The genus Cercopithecus contains approximately 22 species of long-tailed African monkeys often called ‘guenons’. The L’Hoest’s guenon (too many apostrophes in that name!) is from central Africa and is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Its closest relatives within the genus are the Preuss’ guenon (C. preussi) from Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and its island of Bioko, and the sun-tailed guenon (C. solatus), discovered in 1984 in Gabon. As you can see, L’Hoest’s guenons, at least juveniles, like carrots. They are mostly herbivorous in the wild.

Young mandrill
Mandrillus sphinx (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cercopithecidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Belonging to the same family of Old World monkeys as the guenons, but sharing little in common physically, the mandrill and drill (M. leucophaeus) are baboon-like monkeys from west Africa. Mandrills are easily recognised, especially the males, due to their baboon-like build and bare facial skin. In males, the nose is red and the tissue on either side of it is powder blue. The skin is even brighter in a real animal than it is in a photograph; my camera couldn’t cope with the brightness of the adult male’s face and it looks white instead of red and blue. Not only is the front end brightly coloured, but the male mandrill’s rear end is too. Red, blue and even violet colour the skin of the buttocks, perineum and scrotum, while the penis is as scarlet as his nose. It is therefore obvious that colour vision is not only well-developed in mandrills, but is extremely important to their social and sexual behaviours. The fur of mandrills of both sexes is dark with rufous patches, especially on the chest. There are even white patches behind the ears which show when the animal has its back to you. In short, in all angles, whether the mandrill is facing you or has its arse in your face, the colours cannot be ignored.

Young white-lipped tamarin
Saguinus labiatus (E. Geoffroy in Humboldt, 1812)
Callitrichidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

I just love the curious expression on this little guy’s face. The most adorable thing about marmosets and tamarins (I’ll explain the difference in a minute) to me is the way they tilt their heads from side to side when they are close to a human face. This young tamarin was doing just that, but all my photos of it doing that are blurred as it was so close, even my macro lens was failing.

Most tamarins belong to the genus Saguinus. The most familiar species of the genus are the cotton-top tamarin (S. oedipus – the oedipus meaning ‘swollen foot’, rather than the mother-lover), looking a tad like Alfred Einstein, and the emperor tamarin (S. imperator), with suitably imperial moustache. The other more well known tamarins belong to the genus Leontopithecus, the lion tamarins. Four species are known, all from the coastal forests of Brazil, the most well known being the pure orange golden lion tamarin (L. rosalia). It should be renamed the golden lion tangerine.

Marmosets are generally smaller, and belong to the genera Callithrix, Mico, Callibella and Cebuella, the latter containing the diminutive pygmy marmoset (C. pygmaea), the smallest monkey of all. Marmosets are set apart from tamarins by the presence of extra long lower incisor teeth, which they use to scrape holes in tree bark to lap the exudates (sweet sap) that the tree uses to heal the wound. Marmosets then have to rely less on fruits and insects when they are able to tap this energy-rich food source. Tamarins do not eat exudates because they lack the long incisors.

Young emperor tamarin
Saguinus imperator subgrisescens (Goeldi, 1907)
Callitrichidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

This subspecies of emperor tamarin complements its wonderful Victorian gentleman moustache with a wispy white beard. Emperor tamarins are found in the western Amazon Basin, where the high tributaries of the great river come down from the Andes in Peru.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Photos of the Day #33: Grey Wolves

Grey wolves
Canis lupus Linnaeus, 1758
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

I saw these beauties at Colchester Zoo last week, but I have no idea what subspecies they are. Here follows a list of recognised subspecies of grey wolf and their distributions.

Canis lupus lupus Linnaeus, 1758 - formerly throughout northern Europe, but now restricted to Scandinavia and Russia.
Canis lupus albus Kerr, 1792 - far north of Russia into the Arctic
Canis lupus alces Goldman, 1941 - Alaska's Kenai peninsula (extinct)
Canis lupus arabs Pocock, 1934 - Arabian Peninsula
Canis lupus arctos Pocock, 1935 - extreme northern Canada into the Arctic
Canis lupus baileyi Nelson & Goldman, 1929 - southwestern U.S.A. into Mexico
Canis lupus beothucus Allen & Barbour, 1937 - Newfoundland (extinct)
Canis lupus bernardi Anderson, 1943 - Banks Island, northern Canada (extinct)
Canis lupus campestris Dwigubski, 1804 - central Asia
Canis lupus chanco Gray, 1863 - Tibet and the Himalayan region
Canis lupus columbianus Goldman, 1941- British Columbia (extinct)
Canis lupus crassodon Hall, 1932 - Vancouver Island (extinct)
Canis lupus cubanensis Ognev, 1923 - Transcaspian region of central Asia
Canis lupus deitanus Cabrera, 1907 - Spain (extinct)
Canis lupus desertorum Bogdanov, 1882 - Ukraine
Canis lupus fuscus Richardson, 1839 - Cascade Mountains in northwestern U.S.A. (extinct)
Canis lupus griseoalbus Baird, 1858 - central Canada (extinct)
Canis lupus hattai Kishida, 1931 - Hokkaido, Japan (extinct)
Canis lupus hodophilax Temminck, 1839 - Honshu, Japan (extinct)
Canis lupus hudsonicus Goldman, 1941 - Hudson Bay region of eastern Canada (extinct)
Canis lupus irremotus Goldman, 1937 - southwestern Canada and parts of western U.S.A.
Canis lupus italicus Altobello, 1921 - central Italy
Canis lupus labradorius Goldman, 1937 - Labrador, eastern Canada
Canis lupus ligoni Goldman, 1937 - Alexander Archipelago, Alaska
Canis lupus lycaon Schreber, 1775 - eastern North America
Canis lupus mackenzii Anderson, 1943 - northwestern Canada
Canis lupus manningi Anderson, 1943 - Baffin Island, northern Canada
Canis lupus minor Ogerien, 1863 - Austria and Hungary (extinct)
Canis lupus mogollonensis Goldman, 1937 - New Mexico (extinct)
Canis lupus monstrabilis Goldman, 1937 - Texas and Louisiana (extinct)
Canis lupus nubilus Say, 1823 - central U.S.A. (extinct)
Canis lupus occidentalis Richardson, 1829 - western U.S.A.
Canis lupus orion Pocock, 1935 - northern Greenland
Canis lupus pallipes Sykes, 1831 - southern Asia from Turkey to India
Canis lupus pambasileus Elliot, 1905 - Alaska and northwestern Canada
Canis lupus signatus Cabrera, 1907 - Iberian Peninsula
Canis lupus tundrarum Miller, 1912 - northwestern Alaska
Canis lupus youngi Goldman, 1937 - southwestern U.S.A. (extinct)

I have purposefully left out C. l. dingo (the dingo), C. l. familiaris (the domestic dog) and the red wolf group (C. rufus / C. l. rufus etc. / C. x rufus) as they are likely distinct from the grey wolf complex listed here. Not all subspecies are recognised by everyone.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Cool Colchester Crocodiles

As Traumador has so enthusiastically requested, here are the two crocodilians I saw at Colchester Zoo this past Wednesday. A gorgeous place, by the way, with almost everything one could want out of a zoo. Except dinosaurs (the non-avian kind).

Above photos:
Cuban crocodile
Crocodylus rhombifer Cuvier, 1807
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Among the most endangered of the crocodilians (the 'privileged' species to be Critically Endangered are the gavial [Gavialis gangeticus], Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis], Orinoco crocodile [Crocodylus intermedius], Philippine crocodile [C. mindorensis], Cuban crocodile and Siamese crocodile [C. siamensis]), the Cuban crocodile is found obviously in Cuba, but also on the nearby island which goes by the names of Isla de Juventud, Isle of Youth or Isle of Pines. It formerly ranged on other northern Caribbean islands. C. rhombifer looks quite distinctive for a crocodile, with dark and pale scales on its sides.

Slender-snouted crocodile
Mecistops cataphractus (Cuvier, 1825)
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009
Sorry for the quality of the photo, but I had to include it. The slender-snouted crocodile is quite aptly named, as you can see. I almost mistook it for a gavial, except I knew there weren't any in Colchester Zoo. Note the genus is no longer Crocodylus (where the majority of crocodiles 'live'), but Mecistops (meaning 'longest face'). M. cataphractus is a fairly widespread species from western and central Africa, thus sharing its range with two other crocodilians, the well known Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) and the tiny dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis). The slender snout with smaller, finer teeth indicate that it relies on daintier prey than the Nile crocodile. This makes sense; if the two were in direct competition, the bigger, beefier Nile croc would always win. I spoke about Osteolaemus in a previous illustrated blog post.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Drawing Day - Three Prehistoric Mammals

To celebrate Drawing Day, I give you three original illustrations. None are particularly recent, all drawn last year, but I've been meaning to upload these for quite a while now!

Paleoparadoxia tabatai Tokunaga, 1929
Paleoparadoxiidae; Desmostylia; Mammalia; Chordata
Graphite pencil illustration from original cast at Natural History Museum
December 2008

What an unusual beast Paleoparadoxia must've been. Somewhat like a hippo crossed with a manatee crossed with a fur seal, this beast lived in Miocene Japan and North America (10 to 20 million years ago). The desmostylians were an unusual order of animals placed in the Afrotheria (a superorder of mammals containing those animals with an origin in Africa, such as elephants, hyraxes, sea cows and elephant shrews). Their most unusual feature, which cannot be made out in my illustration (nor the original cast!) is their teeth. 'Desmostylia' means 'bonded pillars', and this is an excellent description of the cheek teeth; you don't believe me, do you? See this illustrated web page. In some ways, these teeth resemble aardvarks', since they completely lack a centre to the teeth.

Smilodon fatalis (Leidy, 1868)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Graphite pencil illustration from original cast at Natural History Museum
December 2008

Every-one knows the sabre-toothed tiger (more properly called 'sabre-toothed cat', as it is distantly related to tigers, let alone the other species of cat). This doesn't make it any less of a good specimen to draw. I had a lot of fun drawing this specimen and Paleoparadoxia. I drew both on the same day, around Xmas, and as such had lots of critics and admirers in the form of kids. Most were really complimentary, but all asked questions. It's always fun to draw in public, and I wish I could do it more often. The only times I get to see any of the specimens nowadays is when I'm zooming between libraries carrying a huge sackful of books and journals.

Andrewsarchus mongoliensis Pao, 1923
Triisodontidae; Mesonychia; Mammalia; Chordata
Colour pencil illustration
November 2008

Looking like a giant hoofed hyaena, Andrewsarchus must have been a terrifying animal to come across. It is larger than any land-based carnivore found today (yes, larger than a polar bear!) and has many menacing teeth. It isn't related to today's carnivores, however, being more closely related to sheep. You might say it's a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Andrewsarchus ("Andrews' ruler") may have been an active hunter, but was more likely to have scavenged on the bones of larger ungulates and even sea turtles. It lived in central Asia, but it wasn't 'central' at the time. During the late Eocene (40 million years ago), the Indian subcontinent hadn't collided with central Asia, so there would have been coastlines in northern Pakistan, Mongolia and Tibet, now totally landlocked. Incidentally, once India became one with Asia, the last remnants of the Tethys Ocean were gone.

I will be back this week with some rather good photos from Colchester Zoo. Have your say, what would you like to see first? A half-blind seal? A prehensile-tailed carnivoran? A female atelid impersonating a male? A balding monkey? An angry white tiger? A mixed pack of wolves? A gorgeous Cuban crocodile? A high-fiving chimp? The choice is yours.