Sunday 19 July 2009

British Wildlife: B

Baryonyx walkeri Charig & Milner, 1986
Spinosauridae; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

A British member of one of the most impressive dinosaur families, which includes the immense Spinosaurus, Baryonyx walkeri is most well known for its heavy thumb claws.

Baryonyx walkeri was described by Alan Charig (sadly deceased) and Angela Milner. Both were based at the Natural History Museum, where the above photo was taken of a bizarrely-mounted cast of the animal (the whole dinosaur exhibit there is quite poorly lit; hence most of my photos are wobbly and amateurish).

One of my favourite dinosaurs growing up was Baryonyx. I had first read about it in a magazine series I used to collect, called Dinosaurs!, with 104 parts. The first thirty or so parts came with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark plastic which fitted together to make a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. I’ve since lost all those pieces, but still have all the magazines. Anyway, after reading that all it took was a single claw (albeit a huge one) to discover a huge new carnivorous dinosaur in England, I was hooked on dinosaurs. It would be hyperbole to say this alone sparked my interest in palaeontology, but I feel it was a major part of it. I even wrote an acrostic poem about the beast. Look!

Please excuse the lack of imagination for both ‘Y’ lines, and the last one. I was only eight years old!

Barbastella barbastellus (Schreber, 1774)
Vespertilionidae; Chiroptera; Mammalia; Chordata

There are sixteen species of flying mammal currently found in the UK. All but two belong to the vesper bat family, Vespertilionidae (the two horseshoe bats are in the Rhinolophidae). I’ve been bat-watching a few times, seeing common pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), soprano pipistrelles (P. pygmaeus), Daubenton’s bats (Myotis daubentonii) and noctules (Nyctalus noctula). One of the rarer species is the barbastelle. Having chosen only one chiropteran for my British A-Z, I’m glad I chose the barbastelle, as it isn’t one many people, outside of specialist natural history circles, have heard of. It has a squished-looking face and thick dark fur.

Beaver (European)
Castor fiber Linnaeus, 1758
Castoridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

What’s this? Beavers in the UK? Of course, they used to be found here, but were exterminated by the 16th Century. Recently, however, they have been reintroduced to the wild in Scotland, specifically Knapdale, where the first legally introduced, truly wild European beavers have been seen in Britain for over 400 years.

The above skeleton (photograph taken in Cambridge Zoology Museum) is of a specimen of Castor fiber from Pleistocene deposits in Cambridgeshire. This is proof therefore of the beaver’s natural existence in the UK before being wiped out. Evidence for this even exists in some place names, such as Beverley (meaning ‘beaver stream’) in Yorkshire.

Amongst beavers’ favourite foods are willow saplings. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. It has been known since time immemorial that willow bark has analgesic (pain-killing) properties. It’s also true, however, that the beavers can sequester the salicylic acid in their own bodies, storing it in a gland near the anus. The secretion, called castoreum, contains concentrated salicylic acid, and has also been used as an analgesic. If given the choice between chewing a bit of wood and sniffing a beaver’s behind, I think I know what I would choose!

Next week, C. We have a whale-like sauropod, a colubrid snake and a small passerine. Keep guessing!


traumador said...

that bat drawing is VERY impressive Mo! seriously one of your best!!!

Laura Brown said...

You sure get to learn and explore a lot. :)

Neil said...

Wow, castoreum is a new one on me, brilliant! Hence the common name for the Castor oil plant (used as a replacement for castoreum so says Wikipedia) -- I had never even thought to wonder about that.

And the Baryonx acrostic is fantastic, I think the repeated line gives it a nice rhythm...actually it reads like a Fall song.

m said...

thanks all of you... you're so kind!