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There are about 120 living species of marine mammals (although that total may tragically become much smaller in the very near future). Of this number, only one species is herbivorous. The mighty dugong (Dugong dugon) is the last animal of its kind, a gentle lumbering remnant of the giant herds of sirenian grazers which once graced the world’s oceans. Dugongs are distinct from the three extant species of manatees (the world’s other remaining sirenians) in that they never require fresh water at any point of their lives. Additionally dugongs possess fluked tails in the manner of dolphins and whales.
Dugongs live in shallow tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. They range from Madagascar to the Philippines, but are only common along the north coast of Australia (where conservation efforts and a limited human population have allowed them to live in peace). Dugongs can swim in deep oceans for a limited time, but prefer to stay on continental shelves where they can feed on seagrass and marine algae. Their all-salad diet does not prevent them from growing to substantial size: some individuals have been known to reach more than 3.5 meters in length (11 feet) and weigh over 950 kilograms (nearly a ton). Although Dugongs can live more than seventy years, they reproduce extremely slowly. Females gestate for over a year and then suckle their calf for around 18 months. Calves may stay with their mothers for many years after being weaned and need almost contact with their mothers for security and affection until they are almost grown. Young dugongs swim with their short paddle-like flippers, but adults use their tail for propulsion and only steer with their flippers.
Dugongs have a variety of vocalizations with which they communicate. Usually they live in small family units. Great herds are not unknown but seagrasses do not grow in sufficient quantity to support such numbers together for long.
Like the other sirenians, Dugongs have dense bones with almost no marrow (a feature known as pachyostosis). It has been speculated that such heavy skeletons help them stay suspended just beneath the water in the manner of ballast. The lungs of dugongs are extremely elongated, as are their large elaborate kidneys (which must cope with only saltwater). Additionally, the blood of dugongs clots extremely rapidly.
Dugongs face a number of natural threats, particularly storms, parasites, and illnesses. Because of their large size they are only preyed upon by alpha predators such as large sharks, killer whales, and salt-water crocodiles. As with other marine animals, the greatest dangers facing dugongs come from humankind. For millennia Dugongs have been hunted for meat, oil, and ivory. Traditional medicine from various portions of their range (wrongly) imputes magical properties to parts of their bodies. Worst of all, dugongs are frequent victims of boat collisions or are killed as by-catch by fishermen trying to catch something else.
There are twenty extant species of armadillos–new world placental mammals covered with armored plates. The smallest of these armored creatures is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates) which is only 9-12 centimeters in total length (about 4 or 5 inches). The diminutive creature weighs slightly more than 100 grams when mature and inhabits the central drylands of Argentina. It has multiple hard ring-like plates of delicate pink which it can close into a box form for protection (although its first defensive strategy is to dig into the ground). The animal has tiny eyes and a torpedo-like head for pushing into the sand. The portions of the Pink Fairy Armadillo not covered with plates are covered in dense white fur. Like the golden mole of Namibia, the pink fairy armadillo is a sand swimmer: the little animal agitates the fine, dry sand with its powerful claws and literally swims through the turbulence with its hard bullet shaped body. The armadillos are also like the golden mole in that they can lower their metabolism to levels unheard of among other placental mammals. However armadillos are not closely related to the golden mole—or indeed to any other placental mammals other than fellow Xenarthra (the sloths, armadillos, and anteaters). South America spent a long portion of geological time as an island and the mammals there had a long time to develop on their own. It is still not known whether Xenarthrans like the Pink Fairy Armadillo are truly Eutherians or whether they are the descendants of the ancestors of the Eutherians (sorry: the language of cladistics does not lend itself to eloquent explanations and all of the names sound like they come from a far-away planet—for example “Xenarthrans”).
I would like to tell you more about the Pink Fairy Armadillo, but I am unable to do so. Since it lives underground, the animal is rarely seen in the wild. It is even more unusual in captivity where it does not long survive the shocks and stresses of zoo living (additionally it seems unable to live on anything other than local invertebrates). This is unfortunate as it is believed that the Pink Fairy Armadillo is struggling in the wild. It is presumed to be declining in numbers–a victim to habitat loss from human activity. I used wiggle words like “believed” and “presumed” because nobody really has any idea about the actual populations of Pink Fairy Armadillos.
In the absence of real information here is a little gallery of Pink Fairy Armadillo artwork. Enjoy these pictures, it is profoundly unlikely you will ever see a real Pink Fairy Armadillo in the real world (which is sad because I find them curiously endearing). I particularly like the cartoon of the Pink Fairy Armadillo dreaming of transcendence into a mythical fairy being.
I haven’t written about colors or about mammals for a while. In order to brighten up your day with some endearing animal pictures, I have decided to combine the two topics by writing about the color fawn. This color is a pale yellow brown which is named for the delicate coloring of fawns (baby deer). Actually the fawns of most species of deer have fawn-colored bellies while their backs are a darker brown with delicate white stipples.
The color fawn is often used to describe domestic animals such as cows, alpacas, and rabbits, however the animal which is most likely to be fawn is humankind’s best friend, the domestic dog. Great Danes, chihuahuas, French bulldogs, boxers, and bull mastiffs are all often fawn-colored–as are an immense number of mixed-breed dogs. Some scientists speculate that the ancient wolves which were first domesticated in the depths of the ice age may have had yellowish fawn-colored coats (as do some extant sub-species of smaller southern wolves).
According to the stringent rules of dog-shows fawn dogs must have black muzzles, so yellow labs do not qualify. However, judging by the photos returned when one image searches fawn dogs, it seems that many dog-fanciers are untroubled by precise use of the term.
The color fawn is also used to describe clothing. Although today the color is not at the apogee of fashion, there were times when it was. Since it was particularly appropriate for riding clothes, there are aristocratic eras when the color was regarded as the pinnacle of elegance and so it is not uncommon to come across 18th century portraits of foppish aristocrats wearing a veritable rainbow of fawn.
One of the reasons I chose mollusks as a topic is to illustrate how diverse life on our own planet is. The mollusks are an insanely heterogeneous phylum of creatures and they have been successful around the globe for the last 540 million years (at least). Even today in the ultracompetitive Holocene world, mollusks thrive just about everywhere. To illustrate this point I am showcasing the enigmatic deep water octopus Stauroteuthis, of which two species are currently known. These octopuses are only found more than 700 meters underwater in the Atlantic Ocean. Although they are most common around 2 kilometers beneath the surface the creatures have been spotted as far as 4 kilometers down. The Stauroteuthids are small benthopelagic octopuses (they are free-swimming but live in close proximity to the ocean floor).
The Tree of Life Web Project gives us the following overview of Stauroteuthid morphology:
Stauroteuthids are peculiar, gelatinous cirrates with a mantle opening that forms a complete tube around the funnel. They also have peculiar gills and internal shells and a large web that is nearly equally developed between all arms. When observed from submersibles, this octopod commonly has its arms and web formed into a bell-shape (bell-shape posture). Sometimes when the octopod is disturbed, it will inflate the web and draw the arms together at their tips to form a “balloon” with the arms and web (balloon posture). These postures are thought to be involved in feeding and/or defense.
That is nearly all we know about them—it is difficult to study creatures which live 2 kilometers underwater. However I have left out the most exciting fact: the Stauroteuthids are bioluminescent. Certain muscle cells around the suckers have been replaced with photophores which allow the Stauroteuthid octopuses to light up their eight legs like plane runways. The purpose of this luminescence is unknown but it is believed to be for predatory purposes (the lights are thought to direct prey to the octopus’ beak). Possibly the lights also help the octopuses to find and communicate with mates.
Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays: 1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011. Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.
Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.
Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order. Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage. Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen. Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes). The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.
Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved. Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy. They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own. The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.
Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children. The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes. The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot). Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s. Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).
When I was a child, I kept tropical fish. The first tank I had in my bedroom was an Amazon community tank where angelfish, neons, serpa tetras and hatchetfish lived in a little miniature paradise of plastic swordplants and petrified stone. Among the very first batch of fish I added to this tank were two adorable little masked Corydoras catfish. The Corydoras genus consists of over a hundred and fifty species of small friendly armored catfishes from South America. Corydoras means helmet-skin in Greek because these fish are armored catfish with two rows of bony plates running down their bodies (like the superfamily Loricarioidea). Most of the “cories” are only an inch or two in size.
These fish are popular with hobbyists because they are extremely endearing. They race around the tank in bursts and then root enthusiastically through sand and gravel (burying their bewhiskered snout to the level of their eyes). They like to have other cories for companions. Occasionally they dart to the top of the water for a little sip of air. Like most catfish, their fins have a leading spine for protection. Unfortunately when I got my two cories, one of the two fish freaked out and deployed his spine thereby injuring the other fish’s gills. It was very touching how the catfish which accidentally harmed its friend would hover near the hurt fish nudging him (or her) to eat and to swim up for sips of air. Unfortunately it was no good and there was no way I could help the tiny injured corydoras. After a few sad days, the poor catfish was the first fatality in my tropical tank. Death came quickly to my underwater paradise and would thereafter be a frequent guest. I was very upset. I buried the fish on a big hill in a little tiny cardboard box (according it an honor that few of my other fish ever received). It was the first of my many, many failures as an aquarium keeper, but it provided me with an abiding lesson about fish personality–which is more nuanced, deep, and likeable than most people suppose.
The other day I was outside enjoying the garden when I noticed that a piece of bark was hopping up and down the fence in a peculiar spiral pattern. When I looked more closely, I realized that it was not bark at all, but an amazingly camouflaged hunter—the brown creeper (Certhia Americana). This tiny North American songbird lives in deciduous and conifer forests, wooded meadows, and even in towns with sufficient tree cover (like Brooklyn, apparently!). Brown creepers range from the southwest United States up to the Canadian provinces…even up to southern Alaska, but I’ve never seen one before (or probably I have, I just never realized it was a bird). The pattern of its feathers, which looked so random and wood-like was actually quite beautiful and subtle when the bird was seen in the real world. I have included some professional photos because mine didn’t come out. The brown creeper also had an endearing little pale belly.
The little bird acted much like a nuthatch (of which I am greatly fond) making short rapid hops up and down the aging wood of the garden fence. It was clearly looking for tasty insects with its sharp curved beak and I believe it caught quite a few of the pests. Then in a flash it was gone. I’m used to the popular songbirds or the northeast, but I have never noticed the brown creeper and I found it rather touching. Has anyone else seen these around here (or anywhere else)?
Once again I am shamelessly trying to seize the attention of the internet’s kitty-loving throngs, this time via the unconventional path of Song dynasty artwork. The Song dynasty flowered between 960 AD and 1179AD. It was a great age for China and the great age for Chinese art. Traditional Chinese painting reached its zenith during this time: all subsequent Chinese painters have looked back to Song paintings either for inspiration or in rebellion.
Although Song artists found antecedents in the styles of Five Dynasties Period and the Tang dynasty, they vastly outdid their predecessors. Their age has become synonymous with exquisite deft naturalism. Here an unknown painter from the twelfth century has perfectly captured the likeness of a little tabby kitten. The painting accurately portrays the delicacy, naïve curiosity, and cuteness of a kitten–and yet there is also an ineffable hint of wildness in the animal’s mien which suggests what a fearsome predator a cat can actually be.