Thursday 7 January 2010

Central Asia

As a precursor to my ongoing island series, I'm starting a continental photo series, starting with the mountains, plateaux, steppes, desert and taiga of Central Asia, a vast area covering parts of Russia, Tibet, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states. The frozen wastes of Siberia give way to dense coniferous forest, known as taiga, which become treeless plains, called the steppe, some of which is flat, and other parts are mountainous. The Tibetan plateau is a high-altitude plain, leading southwards to the Himalayas, the highest mountain chain on Earth. Other mountain chains include the Altai and Tien Shan mountains. In the interior of the continent is the Gobi Desert where extremes of temperature require any life to adapt to the heat of the day and the cold winter nights. Here follows some of my favourite photos of Central Asian birds and mammals taken at various zoos and reserves.

Bar-headed goose
Anser indicus (Latham, 1790)
Anatidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Slimbridge Wetland Centre
September 2009

The bar-headed goose is a migratory bird spending the summer months in Central Asia. In winter, the geese make an epic journey over the Himalayas to reach India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The air is extremely thin at such altitudes (imagine Mount Everest, well, in order not to crash into it, the geese need to fly even higher than that, in fact at over 10,000 m, or 33,000' !); as a result they have extremely efficient lungs and air sacs with which to extract what little oxygen there is in the air to power their flight. Not only that, but their blood is more efficient at holding oxygen in the form of the haemoglobin in their red blood cells. The bar-headed goose's journey doesn't even take that long: they can get to their destination in a single day, due to their ability to ride the jet stream, creating an efficient and time-saving journey.

Bar-headed geese are common in captivity, and as such have often escaped. I once saw a bar-headed goose within a gaggle of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in Enfield Town, where I live, but didn't have a camera. I did send the record off to Birdtrack though.

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

Baikal teals are another migratory waterbird, spending the summer months in the eastern parts of Central Asia into the Far East. The lake from which the bird gets its name is the deepest and oldest lake in the world. It also has the second highest volume of any lake (after the Caspian Sea, which is technically a lake, although a saltwater one), and is renowned for its endemic seal (Pusa sibirica) and sturgeon (Acipense baeri baicalensis).

The Baikal teal's specific name, formosa, has two meanings: one may recognise formosa as another name for Taiwan, where the teal sometimes winters, but the name really derives from a Latin word meaning 'beautiful', which describes both the Far Eastern island and the drake's plumage aptly.

Przewalski's wild horse
Equus ferus przewalskii (Poliakov, 1881)
Equidae; Perissodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

The Przewalski's wild horse is the last remaining form of the tarpan, the name for the wild ancestor of today's domestic horses and ponies. All breeds, from tiny Falabella and Shetland ponies, to great Shire horses and mustangs, came from the tarpan, which formerly ranged across Eurasia from Britain into Central Asia. It was almost hunted completely to extinction, as only a few individuals from the remotest parts of Mongolia survived. These were the ancestors of the Przewalski's horses still found today in zoos and wildlife parks worldwide. A few small herds have been reintroduced to Mongolia from captive-bred individuals, and is now no longer considered 'Extinct in the Wild' by the IUCN.

Bos grunniens Linnaeus, 1766
Bovidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

The yak is a species of cattle endemic to Central Asia, known for its hardy nature and thick shaggy fur. It is domesticated by Tibetan and Mongolian people for its wool, meat and milk, amongst other things. I once read when I was a child that yak milk is pink... this is apparently not true but I would like to know if anyone else knows otherwise. The word 'yak' refers only to bulls; the cows are known by the term 'nak'. So technically, there's no such thing as yak milk, only nak milk.

Like the bar-headed goose, yaks are well adapted for high altitudes, having larger lungs and more efficient oxygen-carrying molecules in the blood and muscles. They are so well adapted for alpine life that they suffer at lower altitudes; their thick hair is a hindrance. Domesticated yaks are used for all sorts of things. The meat is valued, as is the milk, which is used in cheeses and butter. The fur is woven into fabrics of surprising softness, and the hides are used as leather. They are of course relied upon as beasts of burden, and their dung is used as fuel. Yaks don't moo, unlike other members of the Bos genus, which also includes domestic cattle (B. taurus), instead they grunt; this is the origin of the specific name B. grunniens. The domesticated yak are sometimes given the specific distinction of being even quieter than their wild kin, having the name B. mutus.

Yak interbreed well with other species of cattle, most notably the dzo, which is a sterile male offspring of a yak (either sex) and domestic cattle. Females are fertile, and are known as zhom or dzomo. An intergeneric experimental cross between yak and American bison (Bison bison) has apparently been successful, being given the silly name of 'yakalo'.

Snow leopard
Uncia uncia (Schreber, 1775)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Paradise Wildlife Park
May 2008

The snow leopard, or ounce, is the big cat best adapted for high altitude life. It is found across the Altai, Tien Shan and Himalayan mountain ranges of Central Asia, not being found below 3000 metres (10,000') in elevation. They are, of course, an endangered species, being targeted for its beautiful fur. Snow leopards were previously placed in the genus Panthera, which contains the other big cats, the tiger (P. tigris), leopard (P. pardus), jaguar (P. onca) and lion (P. leo), as well as several extinct species. It differs from the Panthera big cats mainly in its inability to roar. They can make an impressive array of other sounds though.

Snow leopards are highly predatory and prey upon a wide variety of large to medium-sized mammals, including ibexes (Capra sibirica), markhors (C. falconeri), urials (Ovis vignei), bharals (Pseudois nayaur), yaks asses (Equus spp.), marmots (Marmota spp.), hares (Lepus spp.) and pikas (Ochotona spp.), as well as birds and the odd dog or young bear. Despite some conflicts with livestock, most Central Asian peoples revere the snow leopard, and it appears in several countries' coats of arms.

Siberian lynx
Lynx lynx wrangeli (Ognev, 1928)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Paradise Wildlife Park
September 2009

The Eurasian lynx is Europe's largest cat and formerly ranged across Eurasia. It is still widespread in Asia but has been exterminated from many parts of Europe where it has come into conflict with humans. The subspecies from parts of Siberia is known as the Siberian lynx, and is a beautiful cat with tipped ears and a short black-tipped tail. Lynxes will prey on ungulates such as deer, but the majority of the prey base is made of lagomorphs, mostly hares. In many populations of lynx around the world, most notably Canada lynx (L. canadensis), the population of lynx is closely linked to the population of its prey, so as numbers of hares increase, the numbers of lynx also increase to take advantage of the abundance of prey, until hares start to decrease, when lynxes also follow. This cycle takes about decade to revolve and has been noticed by fur trappers since the 19th century.

Pallas' cat
Otocolobus manul Pallas, 1776
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Paradise Wildlife Park
September 2009

One of my favourite of all felids is the Pallas' cat, or manul. It has a distinctive appearance: long, luxuriant grey fur and a broad flat head, low ears and a dappling of black spots on the forehead. The eyes are narrow and are surrounded by stripes and spots. It is slightly reminiscent of the Persian cat, a breed of domestic cat, and was once thought to be ancestral to it. This is now most likely untrue. Pallas' cats are a major predator of pikas and other lagomorphs, rodents and partridges.

In the wild they inhabit mid-altitude regions of Central Asia from southern Russia and Mongolia through Tibet into northern India and Nepal. They are rarely seen in the wild, not least due to its elusive nature, remote habitat and nocturnal or crepuscular habits. Thankfully, they can be observed well in zoos, and I always delight in visiting this individual at a local zoo. The challenge is always to find it, as it's often high up in the rafters of the enclosure, away from prying eyes.

Corsac fox
Vulpes corsac (Linnaeus, 1768)
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Paradise Wildlife Park
September 2009

Foxes of the genus Vulpes are amongst the most familiar wild mammals: one species or another is found wild or feral in all continents except South America and Antarctica (South America has its own unique group of fox-like canids, the zorros, more on them at some point...). The red fox (V. vulpes) is undoubtedly the most familiar, being native to North America, Eurasia and parts of North Africa, and introduced to Australia. There are several other species, some adapted to cool climates, like the arctic fox (V. lagopus - also sometimes placed in its own genus, Alopex) and others to deserts, like the fennec (V. zerda). The Central Asian region has four species of fox, the red fox, Tibetan fox (V. ferrilata), Blanford's fox (V. cana) and the corsac fox pictured above.

The corsac fox ranges across Russia and other parts of Central Asia, being a social predator of pikas and other small vertebrates. Canids are not known for their tree-climbing abilities, but corsac foxes are among the best tree-climbers, often raiding birds' nests. It bears quite a resemblance to a small red fox, with paler fur, and looks very much like the swift fox (V. velox) of the prairies of North America.

Bactrian camel
Camelus ferus Przewalski, 1878
Camelidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
April 2009

Truly wild Bactrian camels are rare. They are a critically endangered species, with less than a thousand remaining in remote parts of China and Mongolia. In its feral and domesticated state, however, the Bactrian camel is a familiar sight. Bigger than the one-humped dromedary (C. dromedarius), the name of the Bactrian camel derives from Bactria, the name for a region now occupied by Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (lots of 'Stans there). Bactrian camels are adapted to a life in cold desert; they have many of the adaptations that camels have for coping in the heat, but with a thick winter pelt to retain heat when needed.

Next time, I'll move southwest towards the Middle East, where we can find venomous snakes, more desert cats and perhaps the origin of the myth of the unicorn...


Kathy said...

Beautiful photos.

Sanjeev Neelakantan said...

Keep up the good work.