December 27, 2011
In Greek mythology, Echidna was half snake and half woman, and she was the mother of all monsters. The animal echidna, with its stocky body covered in defensive spines, doesn’t look much like a monster, but as a type of mammal called a monotreme, it does share features with both snakes and humans. Like reptiles, echidnas lay eggs–just one a year–but they keep that egg and the resulting baby, called a puggle, in a pouch, like many marsupials do. And like all mammals, that baby will lap up milk until it grows old enough to eat solid food.
Also known as “spiny anteaters,” echidnas come in two varieties. The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) lives throughout Australia and New Guinea and is well adapted to a wide range of habitats, including deserts and rain forests. Its long-beaked cousin (Zaglossus bruijni), however, is found only in the tropical rain forests of New Guinea. These rare animals are officially endangered, their numbers brought low because of land clearing and hunting made easier with dogs and guns–the people of New Guinea consider the echidna, roasted over the coals of a fire, a delicacy.
The first western person to encounter an echidna and write about it was William Bligh, infamous captain of the Bounty. In 1792, his ship stopped in Tasmania on its way to Tahiti. On February 7 he wrote:
An animal shot at Adventure Bay. It had a Beak like a Duck – a thick brown coat of Hair, through which the points of numerous Quills of an Inch long projected these very sharp – It was 14 inches long & walked about on 2 legs. Has very small Eyes & five claws on each foot – Its mouth has a small opening at the end of the Bill & had a very small tongue.
The ship’s officer, George Tobin, who shot the poor animal reported: “The animal was roasted and found of a delicate flavour.”
Echidnas are as weird as Bligh reported all those years ago. The animal uses its snout, or “beak,” to unearth termites, ants and worms that it laps up with its long tongue. An echidnas has no teeth, though, so it has to use its tongue to grind its food against the roof of its mouth, turning it into a paste it can swallow.
An echidna isn’t good at running. It has short legs that, in the rear, point backwards to help it dig. An extra-long claw on one toe allows them to clean between their spines. If an echidna encounters a predator or enemy, it won’t run away or fight. Instead, it will curl into a ball, sharp spines pointing out, sometimes wedging itself into a space beneath a rock or burrowing into the soil to escape predators such as dogs and eagles.
The echidna isn’t the world’s only monotreme. Do you know the other?
November 1, 2011
Its name means “honey bear,” but it’s not a bear. It’s a carnivore, though it mostly eats fruit. It has a prehensile tail, but it’s not a primate.
The kinkajou is awash in contradictions. But what is it?
This mammal is a procyonid, a member of a group of small animals with long tails that includes raccoons. Kinkajous can be found in tropical forests from southern Mexico to Brazil. They fill the same ecological niche as the New World monkeys they sort-of resemble, but unlike the monkeys, they’re nocturnal and they don’t use their tails for grabbing food. The kinkajou’s tail helps it to balance as it reaches for food–it’ll grab a branch with its tail as it reaches. And if it falls and catches itself with its tail, the kinkajou can twist itself in such a way that it can climb back up its own tail.
Like other members of the procyonid family, kinkajous aren’t too big, only about 16 to 22 inches in body length, and about double that if you add in the tail. Wild cats such as jaguars, ocelots and margays will prey on kinkajous, but kinkajous have a hidden talent that helps them escape: They can rotate their feet so that they can run backwards just as fast they run forwards. They also have sharp hearing that lets them detect quiet predators like snakes.
Kinkajous have long tongues that they use to slurp up the insides of fruit, nectar from flowers and honey from beehives (that’s where the name “honey bear” derives). They’re not complete vegetarians, though, and have been known to eat insects, eggs and even small vertebrates.
These are mostly solitary animals (though a few have been seen playing, grooming and sleeping in small groups), and the females raise their young alone. She’ll give birth to usually one baby in a tree hollow. And those babies grow up pretty fast—by the age of two weeks, the little kinkajou will be eating solid food, and it’ll be hanging by its own tail by seven weeks. It’ll reach maturity after 18 to 20 months. In a zoo, it might live as long as 40 years.
Kinkajous aren’t endangered, but their numbers are thought to be decreasing. Their forest habitat is being disturbed and destroyed in many places. They’ve been hunted for their meat and their pelts. And they’ve been captured for the pet trade, though, due to their painful bite and propensity for nocturnal mayhem (just think what they’d do to your home while you sleep), kinkajous, as with all wild animals, make for lousy, dangerous pets.
September 26, 2011
What is the land animal most closely related to the elephant?
It’s the rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), a small furry mammal that lives in rocky landscapes across sub-Saharan Africa and along the coast of the Arabian peninsula. Though it looks nothing like its cousin, the elephant, the rock hyrax’s toes, teeth and skull share several features with the pachyderm. It has two teeth, for example, that give it the look of a rodent but are actually tiny tusks. (It’s been some 60 million years since their common ancestor existed; obviously evolution had plenty of time to introduce differences.)
Rock hyraxes look something like large guinea pigs. They grow up to two feet in length and 12 pounds in weight. Their feet are adapted to their rock-bound lives; the rubbery soles lift up in the middle and can act like suction cups, letting them cling to smooth surfaces. The hyrax’s bacteria-laden three-chambered stomach lets it digest leaves and grasses, but it will also eat birds’ eggs, lizards and insects. Babies aren’t born with the bacteria they need for digestion, though, so they eat the poo of adult hyraxes.
These mammals live in colonies of up to 50 individuals. They’ll sleep together, look for food together and even raise their babies together (who then all play together). To watch out for predators—such as leopards, pythons, servals and birds—rock hyraxes will form a circle. They can spot danger from more than 3,000 feet away. When they’re feeding, the dominant male in the group keeps watch and sends out a shriek of alarm if he sees anything worrisome, sending the group to run for cover. (Rock hyraxes are very vocal and make at least 21 different sounds; you can hear one in the video below.)
If you spot one in the wild, it’s likely to be resting, as that’s how hyraxes spend the majority of their time, lying out, basking in the sun. Their days generally start out with several hours of sunbathing, which warms them up before they go out to search for food.
Sounds like a good life, except, perhaps, for having to eat poo when you’re a kid.
August 22, 2011
Did you hear that there’s a capybara on the loose in Los Angeles California? It’s been roaming the Paso Robles wastewater treatment plant since at least last month, possibly for years. And it’s likely to stay there–game wardens won’t do anything as long as the animal appears healthy and isn’t harming anyone or anything (though if someone decides a capybara would make a good hunting trophy, they’ll change that policy and capture the animal for its own protection).
But what is a capybara anyway?
The capybara is the world’s largest rodent and can grow four or more feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds. It’s a native of South America and though there may be a small population in Florida (established after a few animals escaped from a research facility), the Los Angeles California rodent is likely just a lonely animal who has managed to survive after escaping (or being released by) its owner. “Somebody probably brought it in as a pet, and they either got away or people couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan told the Los Angeles Times.
Capybaras like to hang out in semi-aquatic environments, among the dense vegetation near lakes and swamps and marshes. (Maybe a wastewater treatment plant feels like home.) They’re herbivores that feast on grasses and aquatic plants. They hide from predators by diving beneath the water’s surface, where they can stay for up to five minutes.
Solitary living is not the norm for the capybara. In the wild, they gather in groups of 10 to 20 (and up to 100 during the dry season) headed by a dominant male. They’re a social bunch that likes to chatter; when they feel threatened, capybaras bark like a dog.
Some people in South America eat capybaras (they’re numerous enough that they’re not threatened by hunting). It’s said that the meat tastes like pork.