Sunday 17 January 2010

Middle East

The island project is coming along very nicely, I'm about three quarters of the way through it! For now though, some photos of Middle Eastern tetrapods.

The Middle East is a convergence of two (some say three) continents and two biogeographic realms. With Turkey and Cyprus in the west being somewhat European, through the Near Eastern countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, into what is classically thought of as the Middle East itself, the Arabian Peninsula, which is undeniably Asian. If you consider Egypt as Middle Eastern, this region also covers Africa, but faunistically it is partially Afrotropical (the realm covered by sub-saharan Africa and southern Arabia). Most of the Middle East, however, is in the Palaearctic realm, which also covers Europe, north Africa up to the Sahara Desert and most of Asia north of India and southern China.

Habitat-wise, much of the Middle East is dry and arid, with deserts making up large parts of the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East. There are fresh water bodies which have endemic life (including the first animal on our list, the Levantine frog), as well as regions of high altitude which, although arid, can be bitterly cold.

Levantine frog
Pelophylax bedriagae (Camerano, 1882)
Ranidae; Anura; Amphibia; Chordata
Geçitköy Reservoir, North Cyprus
April 2009

The genus Pelophylax includes many familiar frogs including the marsh (P. ridibundus), edible (P. kl. esculentus) and pool (P. lessonae) frogs of Europe. It was recently split from the frog genus Rana which includes, in its current sense, more widely distributed species from North America and Eurasia. The Levantine frog was once considered a subspecies of the marsh frog, but has been considered specifically distinct for a number of years.

Their range includes much of Turkey and the Near East, hence the name (the Levant is a traditional term for the eastern Mediterranean, covering parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and small parts of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia). They are the only large frog in Cyprus, and I managed to get excellent views of them despite scaring quite a few off before getting the above shot.

Palestine viper
Vipera palestinae Werner, 1938
Viperidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
August 2004

This is a beautiful species of venomous snake from the viper family, also including adders. There are many species in the Middle East, all of which are venomous and potentially fatal to humans. The Palestine viper often bites people, being the most frequent-biting of Middle Eastern vipers. It is endemic to the Near East, from Syria south to Israel and Palestine.

This species of viper is boldly patterned, without a clear zig-zag which can be found in other species of the genus Vipera, like the long-nosed viper (V. ammodytes) which looks like the adder (V. berus) and European asp (V. aspis), the latter species being a notorious killer, this infamy (infamy, they've all got it in for me!) being attributed of course to the death of Cleopatra, the Egyptian Ptolemaic pharoah.

Asia Minor spiny mice
Acomys cilicicus Spitzenberger, 1978
Muridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Spiny mice belonging to the genus Acomys are widespread in Africa, southwest Asia and a few Mediterranean islands. There are twenty-odd species in the genus, and are known for the appearance of some of the guard hairs on their back, which are thickened and sharpened, resembling spines. This is probably an anti-predator adaptation. In the Middle East, there are three species: the widespread A. dimidiatus, the Cypriot endemic A. nesiotes and the Asia Minor spiny mouse.

The Cyprus spiny mouse was believed extinct until 2007 when a few individuals were found. The Asia Minor spiny mouse, which is restricted to parts of southern Turkey (the majority of the country of Turkey has traditionally been known as Asia Minor), used to be considered a Critically Endangered species by the IUCN. The most recent assessment, by the Small Nonvolant Mammal Red List Authority and Global Mammal Assessment Team, places A. cilicicus as Data Deficient. The "deficient data" is the questionable species status of the Asia Minor spiny mouse. It could be considered an isolated population of the more widespread Cairo spiny mouse (A. cahirinus) of North Africa - if so it would not need high protection by the IUCN.

Syrian brown bear
Ursus arctos syriacus Hemprich & Ehrenberg, 1828
Ursidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Colchester Zoo
some time in the mid-90s

This is a photo of Rosie, an elderly Syrian brown bear held at Colchester Zoo (in what is now the buffy-chested capuchin enclosure) for several decades until she died a decade or so ago (the details are hazy; I can't find any mention of her on t'internet but recall reading of her death some time ago). This is the subspecies of brown bear found in the Middle East, being found in parts of Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and of course Syria. Syrian bears are pale in colour and quite small for brown bears, being about 2-3 times smaller than Kodiak bears (U. a. middendorffii), the largest of the brown bear subspecies.

Persian leopard
Panthera pardus saxicolor Pocock, 1927
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Chessington World of Adventures
September 2009

Leopards are the most widespread of the big cats still around today, being found in most of Africa and a lot of Asia. There are numerous races found in a wide variety of habitats. The Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) of Far Eastern Russia is found in taiga forest with severely cold winters, and the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr) is a desert dweller. There are those from the African savannah (P. p. pardus) and dense rainforests too. In the Middle East, there are a disputed number of subspecies, but there are at least two: the Arabian and the Persian.

Persian leopards are from the more temperate regions of the area, having a thick coat of fur almost like that of a snow leopard (Uncia uncia). They range from Turkey in the west (where they are also known as Anatolian leopards under the subspecies P. p. tulliana) through the Caucasus (sometimes split as P. p. ciscaucasica) and into the Near East into Iran and beyond. Leopards from the Sinai Peninsula of eastern Egypt have been placed either in this race or in P. p. jarvisi.

Sand cat
Felis margarita Loche, 1858
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Bristol Zoo
September 2009

The sand cat is a small species of desert-dwelling felid from the Sahara Desert, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Central Asia. It is very well-adapted to life in arid areas, with such features as a broad, flat head to help keep a low profile on sand dunes when stalking prey, a pallid coat camouflaging well with sand and gravel, large ears and feet covered with thick fur to protect themselves from hot sand. The subspecies found in the Middle East is F. m. harrisoni, which is indeed the race of the animal pictured above.

Arabian oryx
Oryx leucoryx Pallas, 1766
Bovidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
London Zoo
August 2004

Oryxes are large antelopes from Africa and the Middle East of the genus Oryx. Of those, the Arabian is the smallest and the only one still living in Asia. The body is almost pure white with dark markings. It became extinct in the wild during the latter part of the last century, being saved from complete extinction by conservation efforts of zoos and wildlife parks, most notably those of London Zoo, and Phoenix Zoo in Arizona.

Apart from their size and coloration, the most distinctive feature of the Arabian oryx is its very long, straight horns. From the side, at a distance, squinting heavily, in a desert mirage, it is almost quite possible to mistake this animal for a horse, but a horse with a single horn on its forehead. Sound familiar? Yes, the Arabian oryx might be the origin of the myth of the unicorn (doesn't have a scientific name, but I'm tempted to call it Equus unicornis).

I'm off to Paris next week to visit the menagerie of animals at Jardin des Plantes and the public collections at Le Grande Gallerie de l'Évolution and Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée, all part of Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle.

1 comment:

Parviziyi said...

Thanks for the education. I'd presumed that leopards and bears wouldn't have been suffered to coexist with humans in the Middle East. That mistaken presumption is probably derived from my knowledge of the historical human culture of rural Britain. I wonder what it was about the culture of the Middle East that has allowed these big animals to keep on living there.