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It is International Cat Day!  I should probably feature my beloved pets Sepia & Sumi, but, although I love them with all of my heart and never tire of their astonishing antics and loving personalities, I am not very good at photographing them (in real life, Sumi is the cutest person in the world, but in photos she always just looks like a squiggling black blob with scary needle teeth).

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Scary?

So, until I master cat photography, cat bios of my two little friends will have to wait, and today’s post whisks us off instead to the great inclement steppelands of Mongolia and Central Asia.  Here in the endless desolation is the habitat of nature’s grumpiest-looking cat, the irascible yet magnificent Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).  Pallas’ cats are almost the same size as housecats, however because they are lower to the ground and have incredibly long two-layer coats, they look like comically puffed-up owlcats.  The cats live in steppes, deserts, mountains, and scrub forest from Afghanistan through the Hindu Kush and Pakistan up into Russia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia (China).  They are solitary predators living on whatever birds, invertebrates, lizards, rodents, and other small mammals they can catch in their range. Pallas’ cats give birth to litters of 2-6 kittens and they live up to eleven years in captivity.

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Like all cats, Pallas’ cats are astonishingly adept predators, but the barrenness of their range, climate change, and habitat loss makes life chancy for even the most gifted hunters.  Additionally,  humankind has long overexploited the cats for their astonishingly warm fur.  The outer fur and the dense inner fur form an airtight insulation around the cats which keep the tiny creatures toasty even in the godforsaken peaks of the Hindu Kush or in Gobi desert winters.  Portions of the cats are also used by worthless dumbasses for ineffectual traditional medicine.  As you might gather, the species are not exactly doing great, but their range is so large and SO inhospitable that humans haven’t pushed them to the edge of extinction yet.

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For a long time, the Prospect Park Zoo had a pair of Pallas’ cats named Nicholas and Alexandra.  Nicholas looked pretty sweet–like a big furry gray marshmallow, but Alexandra looked like she ate the devil-cat from “Pet Semetary” for breakfast.  She liked to sit in her rocky enclosure and stare through the thick glass at the tamarin enclosure across the corridor.  If zoogoers got in her sightline, she would put her ears back (and they were tiny ears to begin with), and hurl herself at the glass hissing and clawing.  The effect was sort of like being attacked by Yul Brenner’s demonic disembodied head (if it were fat and covered with fur).   I once saw her clambering on the high granite boulders in her habitat and poor Nicholas jumped up to see what she was doing.  She hurled him off the 10 foot tall rocks (onto some other sharper, lower rocks) with nary a qualm, like a kid tossing his schoolbag on the floor.  Her casual ease with ultra-violence was chilling. For a while there was a video online which featured a solemn cat-loving child asking a Brooklyn zookeeper if Pallas’ cats could be kept as pets and the young zookeeper got a scared look and said “That, um, would be a really bad idea.”

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Apparently Pallas’ cats have trouble reproducing in captivity for some reason, but I have always hoped that Alexandra clawed a hole in causality and had kittens. Also, on International Cat Day I like to hold Sepia in my lap as she purrs happily (in my 98 degree bedroom) and imagine the wild Pallas’ cats leaping magestically through the high mountain peaks of the jagged mountains of Central Asia.  May it ever be so and may cats of all sorts ever flourish.

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To borrow a page from the timeless style of Sesame Street, this week Ferrebeekeeper is brought to you by the Roman letter Q.  Each post will concern a topic which begins with that rare letter.  So quench your thirst with quinine water and wrap up in a quaint quilt. There is a reason that the letter Q is worth 10 points in scrabble but I think we can find 5 relevant topics that are not too quixotic (also I’m going to stop using extra q words for effect immediately—please don’t stop reading).

A Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)

For the first q-themed post, we must travel to the ancient arid continent of Australia. For reasons of geology and tectonics, Australia has been a wallflower in the great continental ballet and has been isolated for the last 40 million years.  Thanks to this geographic seclusion, the animals of Australia are much different than the creatures which flourish elsewhere, and Austalia’s mammals are dominated by marsupials like the kangaroos, the wombats, the koalas, and the bandicoots.  All of those creatures are herbivores, but there are insectivorous marsupials (like the numbat) and there are marsupial carnivores which prey on the others.  Some of the larger orders of marsupial predators have died off as Australia dried out, but a major order of predators remain–the catlike quolls.

Quolls (genus Dasyurus) are solitary, nocturnal mammals which seek shelter in their burrows and dens by day and hunt birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals at night. They are agile all-terrain creatures capable of swiftly moving across the forest floor or through the forest canopy.  Quolls kill their prey with a bite to the neck where it joins the head.  In addition to being predators, they also scavenge for carrion and they can sometimes be found by picnic areas and rubbish dumps. There are six species of quolls which range in size from 350 grams (12 ounces) to 3.5 kilograms (8 pounds). Four species are located across the Australian mainland while one species inhabits New Zealand.  One outlier species, the Bronze Quoll (Dasyurus Spartacus) lives in the savannah of New Guinea. The animals all share a characteristic spotted fur coat and a similar lifestyle.  The closest relatives of quolls are the formidable Tasmanian devils (the largest extant marsupial carnivores) and the superficially weasel-like mulgaras.

Unfortunately, quolls are not doing well.  Feral cats, dogs, and foxes are much more deft predators and are outcompeting the quolls or eating them outright (although the quolls do get some free meals from the invasive wave of rabbits and rats which have swept Australia).  Additionally the quolls are falling victim to an even stranger invasive species.  The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) is a toxic South American toad which was brought to Australia in order to control agricultural pests.  The toads secrete a powerful toxin which is potent enough to kill a human (some people ingest cane toad secretions in order to experience the hallucinogenic effects).  Cane toads resemble some of the natural amphibian prey species of quolls and the spotted predators eat them voraciously—only to fall sick and die.  In order to save the unlucky quolls, a project is afoot to train the predators not to eat cane toads. Wildlife researchers have been dropping small sausages made of cane toad from airplane in quoll habitats.  It is hoped that quolls will eat the sausages and become violently sick (but not fatally so).  Having had a miserable bad trip, the quolls will then presumably forbear from eating further cane toad flesh.

The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus)

A pika (from a breathtaking gallery of photos of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by Yathin)

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.

A Pika Gathers Hay

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.

Another pika (I'm sorry--online sources never tell me which species)

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).

Pikachu Float in the 2005 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

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