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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

Cheetah, Namibia

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.

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Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.

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An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.

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With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.

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A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

Yesterday this blog took us to the depths of space to explore the frozen ice-moon of Triton.  Today we atone for that cold voyage with a trip to the inviting tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific.  In these vibrant waters can be found one of the greatest living gastropods, a prince among predatory sea snails, the mighty Charonia tritonis, (commonly known as the giant triton or Triton’s trumpet).

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

Charonia tritonis grows to over half a meter (20 inches) in length: it is one of the largest living snails in the world (and it is not much smaller than the biggest extant snails). Equipped with a powerful muscular foot, acute senses (particularly smell), and an agile tentacle-like proboscis, the snails are formidable hunters.  Additionally they are protected from predators—even big fierce ones–by their beautiful spiral shells which are vibrantly colored orange, brown, yellow, and cream.  Of course such a shell would become a liability for the snail if an animal ever evolved which killed the snails in order to harvest the magnificent shells solely for their beauty (but what are the chances of that?).

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell--which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell–which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

Giant tritons hunt at night.  Their main prey are echinoderms—starfish, which can be large powerful and armored.  Fortunately the snails are not just equipped with powerful muscles and superior brains.  They also have salivary glands that produce sulfuric acid AND a chemical which paralyzes starfish.  The tritons find starfish—even big spiny poisonous starfish like the invasive and all-consuming crown-of-thorns which bedevils the reefs of the Indo-Pacific—then hold them down and inject saliva into them.  As the starfish dissolves from within, the snails rip them apart and feast!

A triton kills a crown of thorns

A triton kills a crown of thorns

Tritons have a specific gender—they are male or female.  They seek each other out for courtship and the female then lays a large clutch of eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the young snails become part of the oceanic plankton for a (poorly understood) time before developing into adults.  Triton shells are esteemed by many cultures as sacred musical instruments.  The shells themselves are collector’s items and are arguably better known then the formidable long-lived predators which make them.  Although the snails are not threatened with extinction as such, there are fewer and fewer really big adult ones (or even small ones) on today’s reefs. This is a real shame, since those same reefs are being devoured by the horrible crown-of-thorns. Hopefully a new generation of divers and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the triton on the reef and leave them to their invaluable hunting.  Resist the urge to buy the beautiful shells and help save the reefs of the Indo Pacific!

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A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) photo by Steve Berliner

Judging by its name alone, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) sounds a little bland but it is actually one of the most colorful little waterfowl of North America. The male wood duck in particular is covered with iridescent green and red feathers which are grouped apart by lovely white and black demarcation lines.  In addition, male wood ducks have bright red eyes, orange beaks, yellow feet and white bellies.  The female wood duck is colored more subtly but is also very beautiful, as explained in a quote from artist and conservationist Robert Bateman who states, “the subtlety and form of the females display a classic elegance which suggests the wild and vulnerable wooded wetlands of this world.”

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

Wood ducks measure 47 to 54 cm (19 to 21 in) in length.  They feed on acorns, seeds, and berries from the land and on aquatic invertebrates and water weeds when on water.  Not only are they omnivores, but they can swim, dive, run, and fly quite well.  Wood ducks are close relatives of the equally beautiful mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) of East Asia—the two species must have shared a Northern ancestor which lived near the dividing lines between the great continents.

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

 

The wood duck’s plumage is so lovely and vibrant that the species went into dreadful decline in the late nineteenth century as a result of the millinery industry (which was converting all the male ducks into ladies’ hats). Fortunately, today people do not set such high esteem by fancy hats. Additionally, conservation efforts have been adding to the ducks’ habitat (as have beavers, which, when spreading back to traditional habitats, create ponds where the ducks live) and waterfowl enthusiasts have been building little duck houses to help the ducks breed and nest.  Careful stewardship of hunting permits has kept duck hunters as avid partners in duck restoration and the wood duck is slowly regaining its (webbed) foothold as a part of the wild and quasi-wild places in North America.

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

The list of presidential pets is many and astonishing. Each executive stands revealed by his choice of companion animal.  Additionally the animals’ remarkable names reflect different eras of American history.  George Washington, the father of the nation, started the trend magnificently with a gigantic donkey named Royal Gift and a pack of three American staghounds called Sweet Lips, Scentwell, and Vulcan. Thomas Jefferson owned a mockingbird named Dick.  Andrew Jackson kept fighting cocks (names unknown) whereas Martin Van Buren favored tiger cubs–at least until they stopped being cuddly. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln kept goats in the white house yard as well as Jack, a pet tom turkey. Benjamin Harrison had a pair of gentleman opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. Naturally, Teddy Roosevelt kept a veritable menagerie of terriers, hunting dogs, cats, and farm animals, however his bristling nature stands most revealed by his free-ranging pet badger, Josiah, and his beloved garter snake, Emily Spinach.

John Quincy Adams, who swam nude in the Potomac every morning, kept an American Alligator in the guest bathroom of the White House!

Enjoy your stay at the Executive Mansion....

For the moment, I’m going to ignore the larger ramifications of that crazy list and simply use it as the lead-in to a biography of one particular presidential pet.  Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was a small government conservative from New England known for his taciturn silence.  But Coolidge loved animals.  In addition to more familiar housepets, Coolidge’s collection included a wallaby, a miniature antelope, a black bear, canaries, a donkey, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a pair of lions.  In 1927, Silent Cal came into possession of one of the most remarkable animal figures in American history, a pygmy hippopotamus named William Johnson Hippopotamus, (1920s – October 11, 1955) AKA “Billy”.  The rubber baron Harvey Firestone presented Billy to Coolidge after workers on one of Firestone’s giant latex plantations in Liberia captured the 6 foot long 600 pound pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis—there is a taxonomical controversy surrounding the correct name).  Since the White House had limited space for the large semi-aquatic artiodactyls, Billy quickly found himself at the National Zoo–today called the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (although the attentive Coolidge visited him there frequently).

An adult pygmy hippopotamus (I couldn't find one of Billy, but I'll keep looking)

Billy’s life and times straddled a great dividing point for wild animals in captivity.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, zoos were more or less for entertainment purposes only.  Creatures were captured and exhibited for profit in circuses or for status in menageries.  When the animals died of stress, disease, or malnutrition, new specimens were obtained.  The National Zoo and the Bronx Zoo were both feeling their way towards nobler scientific and conservation ends, however there was still a whiff of the nobleman’s menagerie about them.  Good animal husbandry was frequently unknown or subsumed for larger aesthetic or cultural reasons.

Billy was a very “frisky” hippo and a mate named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Unfortunately Billy and Hannah’s first three offspring met hasty ends.  Although the Washington Post quickly concluded that “inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise,” it seems that human ignorance was more to blame. The pygmy hippos were initially kept in the lion house (a stressful environment for pregnant pygmy hippos!). When the pair was moved to their own lion-free facilities, their offspring did fine. Pygmy hippos became one of the first great success stories of the zoo.  Billy had many offspring and his celebrity continued to grow.  He attended the World’s Fair in 1939, and then acquired an additional mate in 1940 (when the zoo director ignored geopolitical rumblings to personally visit Liberia and capture a new pygmy hippo female).   Billy died on October 11, 1955 having outlived Coolidge by 23 years.  His last offspring, Gumdrop XVIII was born five months later.

Baby Pygmy Hippo!

Billy left a tremendous legacy.  The majority of pygmy hippos in America’s zoos are his direct descendants, and, as zoos improve their conservation programs (and their international ties), his progeny are spreading around the planet.  Additionally, thanks to his fecundity, his longevity, and his highly placed political and business connections (and even his simple hippo joie de vivre) Billy helped popularize a new conception of zoos.  Zoological parks are no longer a novelty or a diversion but a critical tool to understanding wildlife.  They are also a conservation measure of last resort in a dangerous world of ever diminishing wilderness habitat.

An orphaned baby pygmy hippo taken in by the London Zoo last year

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