Thursday 14 April 2011

Oddities from Rotterdam Zoo

Rotterdam Zoo, or to give it its proper name, Diergaarde Blijdorp, is by far the largest of the three zoos I visited on my recent jaunt to the Netherlands and Belgium. So large in fact that I couldn't see it all before closing time. OK, so that could be partly due to the rain and the fact that I took several rest stops, but still, it's immense, on the scale of San Diego Zoo almost. And it's still growing, apparently.

The zoo is relatively new, having built up bit by bit since the 1930s. It now has an impressive Oceanium, containing themed exhibits such as Bass Rock (see below), Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Falklands, and the Sea of Cortez, containing not just aquatic creatures but also birds, mammals, and reptiles. There are themed areas on the Arctic, with polar bear, arctic fox, and steppe lemming, and South America, with vicuna, Darwin's rhea, and scarlet ibis, before reaching the African and Asian sections, which are both massive. There is a small European section which I didn't get to see, and some wallabies which apparently constitutes an Australasian section. Finally, there is the Rivierahal containing most of the zoo's reptiles and amphibians, fishes, a tropical plant greenhouse with free-flying birds, and the indoor enclosures for the large ungulates like giraffes and hippos.

Atlantic puffin (in winter plumage)
Fratercula arctica (Linnaeus, 1758)
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata
Rotterdam Zoo, March 2011 (and all other photographs in this post)

The Bass Rock exhibit is the first in the Oceanium after you pass the California sea lions at the zoo entrance. It consists of a tank containing, appropriately, sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), and simulated cliffs for the four bird species, common guillemot (Uria aalge), razorbill (Alca torda - although I didn't see any), black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), and of course, Atlantic puffin. These are some of the more prominent species seen at the real Bass Rock off the coast of Scotland, which is an important breeding colony for these and countless other sea birds. Gannets (Morus bassanus) are probably the most famous inhabitants of Bass Rock, the place even being honoured in their specific name by Linnaeus. The puffins at Rotterdam didn't look as clean and brightly-coloured as those you see in photographs, but that's because they're in winter plumage, which is grey where the white is on the face, and the brightly-coloured beak plates are shed after breeding. Never mind, it was nice to finally see these iconic birds in the flesh, and I'll hopefully get to see them in a more natural setting next month when I go to the Farne Islands off the coast of Lincolnshire in the east of England, which is home to puffins and other auks, terns, waders, and gulls.

Cuban, or Desmarest's, hutia
Capromys pilorides Say, 1822
Capromyidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

These zoos love their unusual rodents, don't they? Hutias are an exclusively Caribbean group of fairly large rodents, with many members becoming extinct in historic times. The Cuban hutia is still common on its native island, especially in mangrove swamps. In Rotterdam Zoo, there are two hutias of different colours, one very pale one, seen above, and the other a darker shade of brown. They were in the Caribbean section of the Oceanium, with a variety of Caribbean fishes, Toco toucans, and Cuban boas completing the themed area.

Swift fox
Vulpes velox (Say, 1823)
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

I got excellent views of a pair of swift foxes, living in the Sea of Cortez exhibit within the Oceanium. The fox is smaller than the red fox but quite large for a desert fox, being found in parts of southern Canada throughout the prairies of the US south towards the border with Mexico, so it isn't really from the Sea of Cortez. That would be the kit fox (V. macrotis), its close relative. They are reminiscent of the corsac foxes (V. corsac) of central Asia that I've seen in captivity fairly often.

Asiatic golden cat
Pardofelis temmincki (Vigors & Horsfield, 1827)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

I'd been waiting for aeons to see this species, and I got fantastic views at Rotterdam in the Asian section of the zoo. Although technically a 'small cat', it's certainly not small, being at least lynx-sized, but not quite as big as a puma. It is one of the most beautifully patterned of cats, with an overall golden tone which has silvery-grey patches in parts, and a subtle spotting which is often completely absent, but sometimes quite bold. The face, as you can see, is wonderfully patterned in stripes. The tail is long and tipped with white on the underside. They are distributed in southeast Asia from Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula north to southern China and the Himalayan foothills. On Borneo, a closely related species, the bay cat (P. badia), is found, which is extremely rare and very rarely seen.

Chinese giant salamander
Andrias davidianus (Blanchard, 1871)
Cryptobranchidae; Caudata; Amphibia; Chordata

It's a giant salamander. The biggest amphibian currently alive today, in fact. It's very rarely seen outside of China, although there are a few in zoos in the States, but none in the UK. As a salamander fan, I was thrilled to see this guy in the flesh. It just looked rather apathetic to see me, however. An extinct close relative, Andrias scheuchzeri, was once identified as the remains of humans living before the Biblical Great Flood. It was hastily re-examined and identified as an amphibian. Thank goodness for that.

Oreotragus oreotragus (Zimmerman, 1783)
Bovidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Meaning 'rock jumper' in Dutch and Afrikaans, the klipspringer is an extraordinary antelope. Not just for its cute-as-a-button eyes with adorable thick eyeliner and white eye shadow, or even its horns-but-not-quite-horns. No, even better than that, if you look closely at its hooves, you'll notice that the klipspringer walks on the tips of its hooves, like a ballerina. Even more impressively, it manages to do this on steep, practically vertical rock faces. Klipspringers are widespread in eastern and southern Africa, but live mostly on the kopjes, large granite rock formations. They subsist on rock foliage like crassulaceans (house leeks, or money plants), obtaining all their required moisture from their succulent leaves. They are housed in a large indoor enclosure in the African section of Rotterdam Zoo, sharing their kopje-like enclosure with a group of rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis), and giant tortoises, most likely Aldabra giant tortoises (Dipsochelys dussumieri), but I didn't stop to check. We were so pressed for time at that point, not to mention a couple were getting married and having photos taken in the kopje house, so I felt in the way a bit.

Slender-snouted crocodile
Mecistops cataphractus (Cuvier, 1825)
Crocodylidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The least known of the three African crocodiles, the other two being the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus - also found at Rotterdam Zoo, next door to this guy), and the dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis), the slender-snouted crocodiles at this zoo are the oldest of all their animals. When the zoo was located in the centre of Rotterdam by the railway sidings in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the slender-snouts were hatchlings, probably imported from the French or Belgian African colonies (I'm currently reading Heart of Darkness, thus that kind of stuff is on my mind). The zoo relocated to its current location in Blijdorp in the 1930s, and they have survived since then. This beast was huge, larger and fatter than the false gavials I saw at Artis. Slender-snouted crocodiles live in the same habitat as their larger and smaller cousins, in western and central Africa, but can co-exist due to a difference in diet. While the Nile crocodile will take larger prey (including large ungulates, as anyone who watches wildlife documentaries knows), and the dwarf croc eats small fish and crustaceans, the slender-snout will take those prey items of intermediate size. It is also able to use its snout in a different way to the broad-snouted crocodiles, in that being more slender allows the snout to enter smaller nooks on river beds and such.

Antwerp Zoo coming up soon.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Crocodile Lizard, and more...

Chinese crocodile lizard
Shinisaurus crocodilurus (Ahl, 1930)
Shinisauridae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
Artis Zoo, Amsterdam
March 2011

So, yes, that hyper-macro shot in the previous post was of the Chinese crocodile lizard. It's rare in zoos and almost as rare in the wild. The derivation of its name is obvious; it's from China and looks like a crocodile. As such, it's in its own family within the lizard and snake order Squamata, and its closest relatives within that group aren't known.

Here follow some other interesting and rarely seen mammals and reptiles, all photographed at Artis Zoo.

False gavial (or gharial)
Tomistoma schlegelii Muller, 1838
Gavialidae; Crocodilia; Sauropsida; Chordata

There were two false gavials in their indoor enclosure, one relatively small and slender, and the other, pictured above, who was huge. Never underestimate the apparent sluggishness of a crocodilian at rest; they can leap up without warning, as I discovered that day. If I hadn't been behind the extra barrier, which I wanted to jump over to get better photos, I might have been a goner. I can truly appreciate the terror that such a dangerous animal makes people feel.

White-bellied lizard (female)
Darevskia unisexualis (Darevsky, 1966)
Lacertidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

I know this critter is a female not because of any distinctive markings, or a size difference, or obvious genitalia, but because there are no males. Not all animals have to mate to produce offspring. There are a few lizard species that are able to reproduce asexually, with the resultant offspring being exact genetic clones of their mother. As such, they are all female, all each other's sisters and their own mothers... I'm confused too. Anyhow, parthenogenesis (from the Ancient Greek, meaning 'virgin birth') is now being found in many species of reptile, and may be a viable form of reproduction when no males are present.

Spectacled bear
Tremarctos ornatus (Cuvier, 1825)
Ursidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

The spectacled bear is the only surviving member of the short-faced bear lineage (Tremarctinae), which were found in North and South America. The short-faced bear itself, Arctodus simus, was a huge, long-legged beast capable of running after its prey. The closest thing we have to it today is the spectacled bear, a mostly herbivorous mammal from the cloud forests of South America. I'd been waiting to see this species for years, and have finally seen all the world's eight living bear species in zoos.

Round-eared elephant shrew (or sengi)
Macroscelides proboscideus (Shaw, 1800)
Macroscelididae; Macroscelidea; Mammalia; Chordata

Elephant shrews, or sengis, are an exclusively African group of mammals in the group Afrotheria, which also contains the outwardly dissimilar aardvark, tenrecs, golden moles, manatees, hyraxes, and elephants. The round-eared elephant shrew from South Africa is one of the smaller members of the group, being similar in size to a small mouse.

Yellow-throated marten
Martes flavigula (Boddaert, 1785)
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

This beautiful creature comes from Asia, from the cold forests of southern Russia and the Himalayas to the tropical rainforests of Malaysia and Borneo. It is vividly coloured in shades of brown from near black through to yellow and white. It is the largest of the eight marten species distributed throughout the northern Hemisphere, with the pine marten (M. martes) being the most well known in the UK, and the fisher (M. pennanti) and American marten (M. americana) being the two New World species.

Rock cavy, or moco
Kerodon rupestris Wied-Neuwied, 1820
Caviidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Cavies are also known as guinea pigs, the species Cavia porcellus being the one kept as pets and laboratory subjects the world over. There are a number of other species, the largest being the Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum). The rock cavy, however, is rarely seen in captivity. It's found only in Brazil, and are adept climbers, scaling near vertical walls like the ecologically similar rock hyrax (Procavia capensis). According to Wikipedia, they have been recorded displaying homosexual behaviour. 

Common gundi
Ctenodactylus gundi (Rothmann, 1776)
Ctenodactylidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Another rodent oddity, the gundis are a North African family from the dunes and mountains of the Sahara Desert. They have unusual external ears, having almost no pinna (flap). The generic name Ctenodactylus means 'comb finger', as the gundi has comb-like claws which it uses for grooming.

Coypu (or nutria)
Myocastor coypus (Molina, 1782)
Myocastoridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Despite looking somewhat like a beaver, the coypu (called the nutria in North America, from the Spanish word for otter) is more closely related to cavies and chinchillas, and is thus placed in the Caviomorpha with them. It differs externally from the beaver by having a slender, unflattened tail, and thick orange enamel on the front teeth. Originally from South America, they have been reared in captivity for their cheap yet luxuriant fur, and have escaped numerous times, forming feral populations in East Anglia (now presumed extinct), other parts of Europe, in swampy parts of North America, as well as parts of east Africa. Like a giant rat, they are considered pests, as they destroy crops, but are relatively free from disease.