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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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Common Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) photo by Waterdragon62

Common Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) photo by Waterdragon62

This is the common spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) an arboreal marsupial from the Cape York region of Australia and New Guinea.  The furtive nocturnal animal is seldom seen by humans, but it is quite successful and has spread through Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, and the Cape York Peninsula. The common spotted cuscus is a species of possums, a group of approximately 70 species of arboreal marsupials which are native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi.  The Indo-Australian possums are analogous in lifestyle to the opossums of the Americas. Because of their furtive lifestyles most possums and opossums are unknown except to specialist zoologists (with the exception of the incredibly successful Virginia opossum).

Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus)

Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus)

The common spotted cuscus is about the size of a housecat and weighs from 1.5 to 6 kilograms (3.3 to 13.2 pounds). The name is something of a sexist misnomer—among adults, only the males have blotchy spots on their grey/brown pelts.  The spotted cuscus has numerous specialized features for its tree-dwelling lifestyle including nimble clawed digits on both its hands and feet, a prehensile tail, and strongly binocular vision.  Its paws are particularly adapted for grabbing trees: the “palms” of its hands and feet are bare with special striations to give the animal a nimble clinging grip.  Both its hands and feet have opposable grips—in fact the first and second digits of a cuscus’ forefoot are opposable to the other three digits so it can hold on to limbs with a deathlock.  The cuscus has few natural enemies other than pythons and predatory birds, but if it is threatened it will bark aggressively and attack with its forepaws.

Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) by Mark Moffet

Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) by Mark Moffet

The spotted cuscus mostly lives on a wide variety of plant products—leaves, fruits, seeds, and nectar, however, given the opportunity, the cuscus also eats small animals and eggs. A mother cuscus usually has only one infant, which she raises in her pouch till it is big enough to ride on her back (although occasional larger litters of up to three are known).

Infant common spotted cuscus (photo by Ryan Photographic)

Infant common spotted cuscus (photo by Ryan Photographic)

The common spotted cuscus lives in dense tropical forests and mangroves.  It has a lifespan of up to eleven years.  So far the common spotted cuscus has not been threatened by habitat loss and indeed remains common (although increased logging in New Guinea may put pressure on some populations).

22 Oct 2007, Tufi, Papua New Guinea --- A hand-raised spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus), a member of the opossum family, in Tufi, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. --- Image by © Michele Westmorland/Science Faction/Corbis

22 Oct 2007, Tufi, Papua New Guinea — A hand-raised spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus), a member of the opossum family, in Tufi, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. — Image by © Michele Westmorland/Science Faction/Corbis

Nepenthes hamata

Nepenthes hamata

The Nepenthes are a genus of pitcher plants which live in tropical forests of the old world.  The carnivorous plants occur in a vast range which stretches from South China to Australia, and from the Philippines, to Madagascar, however the greatest diversity of nepenthes plants is found in Borneo and Sumatra.  Although some of these plants are found in environments where it is always hot or always cold, the majority of Nepenthe species live on tropical mountain slopes where it is hot during the day and cool at night.  They also tend to grow in nutrient-poor soils where they face stiff competition from ultra-competitive tropical trees, vines, and flowers.

Nepenthes ventricosa

Nepenthes ventricosa

In order to produce the nutrients they need (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) nepenthes have evolved an ingenious solution: they capture small animals inside elegant cup-like traps and digest them as fertilizer. To attract prey, nepenthes produce sugary nectars, sweet perfumes, and vibrant colors. Pitcher plants usually trap insects and other small arthropods, however the very largest of these plants can catch lizards, frogs, rodents, and even birds.

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat (from Redfern Natural History)

The traps of pitcher plants are highly modified leaves (which sometimes have lid-like operculums to keep rain out).  At the bottom of each trap is a pool of fluid containing compounds which prevent the prey from escaping.  In some cases biopolymers make the trap extremely sticky/syrupy, however in other cases the liquid at the bottom of pitcher plants seems watery (although it still has an effect on insects and myriapoda).  The lip of the nepenthe plant is extremely slippery and the waxy throat prevents the plant’s victims from clambering out.

Nepenthes attenboroughii

Nepenthes attenboroughii

The name of the nepenthe might be the most sinister thing about this sinister plant.  In the Odyssey (and other classical Greek sources), nepenthe was a magical fluid which erased cares and worries completely from the mind.  The nepenthe does remove all worries from small guests who come to call on it—albeit by killing them and digesting their bodies.

Nepenthes izumiae

Nepenthes izumiae

Unfortunately many nepenthes are threatened by habitat loss (particularly as the great rainforests around the Indian Ocean are destroyed by loggers and farmers). Fortunately human beings are fond of nepenthes (partly because of our shared nature and partly because of the plants’ racy good looks) and fanciers produce great moist greenhouses of beautiful malicious hybrids.

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance.  There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake.  One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond.  At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area.  It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish.  I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks.  They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago.   The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago).  Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia.  During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea.  Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process).  Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda.  Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly.  Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The magnificent timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a venomous pit viper which lives throughout the populated northeastern portion of the United States of America from Texas to New England.  Ferrebeekeeper has considerable affection for the dangerous reptile (at an appropriate distance, of course!) and has already referenced the timber rattler as a metaphor for national liberty and, strangely, as a point of comparison for a large sports venue.  But timber rattlesnakes are so much more.  They were one of the first new world animals to utterly fascinate and horrify European colonizers. In the colonial period a serious rattlesnake bite was a death sentence (although we now have anti-venom) but the original natural scientists did not appreciate how complicated and remarkable the snakes were in other aspects.

As I write this, it is November and the rattlesnakes are all abed for the winter.  Because they live in areas with harsh winters, timber rattlesnakes spend more than 7 months a year in hibernation.  Large numbers will nest together in a community den—sometimes together with other snakes such as blacksnakes and copperheads.  The den is usually a rocky chasm which extends deep beneath the frost line, and rattlesnakes may travel many miles to reach their hibernation den (a bi-annual journey which puts the snakes at great risk from predators and from cars).

Because of their large and diverse territory, timber rattlesnakes come in different sizes, colorations, and even have different venom types.  The average timber rattlesnake grows to 100 cm (39 in) long and weighs between a half kilo and a kilogram (1 to 2 pounds).  Much larger specimens are known (although there is considerable ridiculous dispute about the upper ranges of rattlesnake size).  Female timer rattlesnakes are viviparous although, unlike mammals, rattelsankes protect their eggs within their bodies until they hatch.  Rattlesnakes give birth to litters of 6-10 fully formed, fully poisonous little baby snakes, but they can only reproduce every few years since the experience is very hard on them.

Like catfishes, timber rattlesnakes have senses which we do not possess.  Pit vipers are so named because they have nostril like spots (pits!) on the side of the head which they use to perceive infrared electromagnetic radiation. These pits are quite sensitive and act as third eyes.  Snakes (and many other animals) also have special auxiliary olfactory sense organs called Jacobson’s organs which are extremely sensitive to various smells/tastes.  Snakes characteristically pick up chemical traces with their tongues and waft these smells before their Jacobson’s organs in the characteristic tongue-flicking which is such a trademark.

Of course rattlesnakes are not just sensitive—they are also expressive.  Among all other snakes they are distinctive in that they have a specialized structure at the end of their tail for making a warning noise. Rattlesnake rattles consists of hollow button-like segments which produce a distinctive buzzing when the snakes vibrate their tails.  As a rattlesnake sheds her skin (every few months), she adds a new button to her tail.  Rattles however are not perfect records of how many times snakes have shed their skin—sometimes buttons get knocked off, or just become brittle and fall away.  The rattle has a high frequency and varies in loudness between 60-80 decibels from a distance of one meter (which falls somewhere between the noise level of an animated conversation and a garbage disposal).  Ironically, the rattlesnakes themselves are deaf.

Timber Rattlesnakes can be masters of camouflage

The venom of timber rattlesnakes varies in toxicity depending on the subspecies, but the most toxic rattlesnakes are extremely venomous.  Type A venom is a neurotoxin whereas type B venom is hemorrhagic and proteolytic (which is to say it causes bleeding and breaks down fundamental body proteins).  Type C venom is largely harmless.  In Arkansas and Louisiana, timeber rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because cross-breeding has resulted in snakes which have type AB venom (yikes!). To a lesser extent rattlesnake venom also contains esoteric myotoxins which rapidly kill muscle tissues.  This deadly cocktail of different venoms is of great interest to pharmacologists who continue to study the various toxic proteins to tease out potential medicines.

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Fortunately timber rattlesnakes are good-natured and do not generally bite without much posturing, rattling, hissing, and feinting.  They keep their retractable fangs folded up in a mouth sheath when not in use and they are capable of varying the amount of venom they inject based on how they are feeling.  It is best not to antagonize rattlesnakes lest they abandon their amiable disposition.

Timber rattlesnakes are gifted ambush predators which particularly prey on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other rodents, but they also eat amphibians and birds.  In turn rattlesnakes  are preyed on by owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, crows, skunks, and even turkeys! Rattlesnakes are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, but they face serious threats from habitat loss and traffic (cars being indifferent to the protective poison of snakes).

C. horridus eating a chipmunk by unhinging its jaw (Photo taken by Kevin Ostanek)

Not only are many rattlesnakes killed by traffic, they must also face persecution. Many are killed by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.  Gawping Texans take this to a particular extreme and organize great “rattlesnake round-ups” where huge numbers of rattlesnakes are wantonly tormented and killed for no particular reason (except perhaps to demonstrate a hatred of the world and its creatures).  This is particularly sad since rattlesnakes, like whales, or elephants (or ourselves) are k-selected animals.  They live long but reproduce slowly, which makes them especially vulnerable to population crashes.

If, by some appalling circumstance, you have read this far while a timber rattlesnake sits nearby buzzing its tail, you should run away from the snake!  Do not attempt to molest it.  If you feel threatened, call animal control.  The timber rattlesnake is already vanishing from great expanses of its territory.  It would be a shame if this beautiful and fearsome serpent were to slip away from the earth.

Timber Rattlesnake by Hazel Galloway

Adult Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

Otters (subfamily Lutrinae) are the aquatic branch of the splendid Mustelidae family which includes all sorts of highly successful predators like weasels, ferrets, polecats, otters, fishers, and wolverines.  We have already described the giant river otter of the Amazon, a magnificent apex predator which lives on anacondas and piranhas but there are also 12 other species of otters living throughout the Americas, Eurasia, and North Africa (and in the ocean).

European Otter (Lutra lutra)

All of the otters partake of the tremendous strength (and weakness) of the Mustelidae family.  They are ridiculously fast, powerful, and agile, but in order to keep up their swift lifestyles they have huge metabolic intake.  This means they must eat all of the time, and as predators their life is one endless hectic hunt.  Northern otters are at a particular disadvantage since they live in freezing rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In cold weather, European river otters have to eat 15% of their weight every day, while Sea otters must daily down an incredible 25% of their mass.  Fortunately a fast metabolism brings its own incredible reward: otters (like weasels and ferrets) seem to be effortlessly moving while everything else is standing still.

A group of sea otters (Enhydra lutris)

Otters eat a startling variety of prey.  Although fish is the staple of their diet they also opportunistically eat snakes, frogs, lizards, birds, eggs, small mammals, mollusks, crustaceans, and sundry other invertebrates.  Their need for calories keeps them from being too picky.  Despite their speedy metabolisms, otters live as long as dogs (and can survive even longer in captivity).  Different otters have different levels of sociability—the Oriental small clawed otters and the river otters are quite clannish and live in big playful groups.

Baby Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

In addition to being great hunters (and eaters) otters are famous for playing.  Their frolicksome antics are a joy to behold, so I found some video on Youtube, but be warned: the sound on my computer is broken so I have no idea what the narrator/soundtrack/music is like.  It might be slidewhistles or it might be 2 minutes and 56 second of the foulest curse words.  Maybe you should watch it on mute.

 

 

Perhaps because otters seem to appreciate life, people have a reverence for them (not that reverence stopped furriers from nearly driving several species extinct during the course of the past three centuries).  In the  the shapeshifting dwarf Otr prefers to spend his time as an otter until he is killed by the malicious trickster god Loki.  Loki is forced to cover the otter skin with treasure, but one whisker remains uncovered and so Loki was forced to part with his magic ring of power (which went on to wreak havoc, as magic ring inevitably do).  To Zoroastrians, the otter was reckoned to be truly pure–and thus sacred to Ahura Mazda, the uncreated god who represents the apogee of wisdom, light, and goodness in their pantheon.  So if, by bad luck, the evil dragon Ahriman happens to burn his way into this world and begins to destroy existence you might want to go be near some otters.  You know, even without the evil dragon, you should go spend time watching otters.  They’re just great animals.

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis)

The Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)

The genus Lynx consists of four furtive species of medium-sized wildcats which inhabit giant swaths of the northern hemisphere.  The cats are solitary hunters which prey on a wide range of animals including lagomorphs (rabbits and pikas), rodents, foxes, sheep, goats, various species of deer and chamois, as well as gamebirds such as grouses, turkeys, ptarmigans, and waterfowl.  This list is hardly comprehensive–all four species of lynx are opportunistic predators which will catch and eat all sorts of insects, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.

A Lynx Finishes Off a Hare.

Lynxes share common features such as bobbed tails, large paws, tufted ears, buff spotted coats, ruffs under the neck, and long whiskers.  All four species also utilize a common reproductive strategy.  Lynxes and bobcats mate in winter and the female then raises her litter of two to four kittens over the course of a second winter.  After one winter with their mother, the young adults move out on their own. Lynxes like to sleep in sheltered dens provided by caves, deadfalls, or hollow logs.  They are strongly territorial (although males maintain larger territories which overlap each other and may contain the territories of many females).

Baby Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Although the classification of the family Felidae is continuously being revised, the current members of the Lynx genus are as follow:

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the largest lynx, which ranges from Europe, across all of Siberia to China.  Male Eurasian Lynxes weigh from18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and can stand up to 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder.  Like all lynxes, the Eurasian lynx is a stalking predator which silently shadows its prey before pouncing for the kill.

The Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) a specialist of the arctic forests of Canada which preys largely on snowfoot hares.  The Canadian lynx has huge paws which spread its weight out over the snow in the manner of snowshoes.  In winter the Canadian lynx grows a thick multilayered coat.

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is an adaptable predator which ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Southern Canada deep into Mexico’s deserts.  An adaptable generalist, the bobcat can live in any type of forest, as well as in deserts, swamps, and mountains.  The successful creatures even live in agricultural or developed lands.

In contrast to the bobcat, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is the world’s most endangered cat species. At present there may be fewer than a hundred left in the wild.  Once overhunted, the Iberian lynx now suffers from habitat loss (thanks to overdevelopment) and attendant traffic fatalities.  In Spain and Portugal rabbit populations (the Iberian lynx’s preferred prey) have crashed because of myxomatosis, a viral disease from the Americas which was introduced to Europe by a short-sighted French bacteriologist.  Finally, the once diverse forests of Iberia were replaced with agricultural monoculture which exacerbated the ecosystem destruction.

The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

If the Iberian lynx does indeed go extinct, it will be the first cat to do so since Smilodon.  Fortunately the other 3 lynxes are all relatively secure in numbers (although habitat destruction sometimes drives them out of specific areas–particularly in Western Europe).

There is a bobcat (Lynx rufus) somewhere in there I think.

Superb stealthiness, nocturnal habits, and highly effective camouflage render the lynxes nearly invisible to humans (although people do sometimes hear their unearthly haunting yowls at night).  Because of this elusiveness (combined with their keen eyesight and hearing) lynxes have acquired a somewhat otherworldly reputation in folklore and myth.  In ancient legends and stories, bobcats and lynxes were said to hold secret wisdom hidden from the comprehension of men or other creatures.  They were animals of augury and foresight which occasionally appeared to sorcerers, oracles, and shamans with occult knowledge.  According to “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews, “The Greeks believed the lynx could see through solid objects. In fact it is named for Lynceus, a mythological character who could also do this.” During the middle ages and the Renaissance, the lynx’s ability to see without being seen was linked with the omniscient vision of Christ.

The Crest of Accademia dei Lincei

The long association of lynxes with sharp-sightedness lingered into the early modern world where the lynx’s piercing vision became a metaphor for scholarly insight and scientific breakthrough.   The world’s first Academy of Science (well, the first one which wasn’t disbanded by the Inquisition) took its name from the lynx:  The Accademia dei Lincei, (“Academy of the Lynx-Eyed”, or Lincean Academy), was an Italian science academy founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi, an aristocrat from Umbria.  Cesi was passionate about natural science (particularly botany) and he gathered a group of polymaths and geniuses together to observe the natural world and explain it by means of experiments and the inductive method.  The society was one of the first to use lenses for scientific purposes and they produced an important collection of micrographs—drawings created with the newly invented microscope.  Their most famous member, Galileo Galilei was famous the discoveries he made with a telescope—discoveries which altered the way humankind perceived the universe.  Even as the Church turned the zealous eye of the Inquisition upon Galileo, the society supported him and made sure his books were published and his ideas were disseminated (thanks largely to Cesi’s aristocratic connections and fortune).  In fact, after joining the society, Galileo always signed his name as Galileo Galilei Linceo.

Frontispiece of Galileo’s Istoria e Dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari

A Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) which I photographed at the Central Park Zoo

Today we present the lovable red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal which is the only species of the only genus of the family Ailuridae.  Weighing up to 15 pounds red pandas are shaped like cats—indeed their scientific name means “shining cats”—however they are not at all closely related to cats and their nearest cousins are in the superfamily Musteloidea (which includes raccoons, coatis, skunks, as well as mustelids like otters, weasels, and badgers).  These kinship bonds between the red panda and the other Musteloidea are not especially close:  the red panda is a living fossil and taxonomists are still arguing about where to put it.

During the Miocene era (approximately 20 million years ago to 5 million years ago), close relatives of the red panda spread around the temperate forests of earth. Remains of a very similar creature, Pristinailurus bristoli, were found in the magnificent Gray fossil site of Tennessee and fossils of other red panda like creatures have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  However, today the family consists of one last surviving species which is indigenous only to the high temperate forests of the Himalayan. The animal can be found in India (in Sikkim & Assam), Tibet, Bhutan, in the northern tip of Myanmar, and in southwestern China in the high forests of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Unfortunately, throughout its range the red panda is endangered from hunting and habitat loss. They are hunted for their glorious red striped coats and bushy tails which help the creatures survive the cold and blend in with lichen-covered trees (but unfortunately attract our primate eyes).

Red pandas predominantly dine on bamboo, but they are omnivores who also consume small mammals, birds, eggs, blossoms, and berries.  In captivity they have been observed to eat the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of maples, beeches, and especially mulberries (perhaps this is what their extinct relatives in Europe and the New World ate).  They are solitary arboreal animals who carefully guard their forest territories and seek each others’ company only during mating season.

…although apparently they do fine together when they are eating pumpkins carved with their faces….

The red panda was not well known during the twentieth century, but because it flourishes in zoos it is becoming ever more famous among new generations of zoo-goers.  To reiterate, the animal flourishes in zoos even as it vanishes in the wild, so some day the red panda might be like that other magnificent orange Asian mammal, the tiger (which are now far more numerous in captivity than in the wild).  Thanks to their success in wildlife centers, red pandas are growing more popular in the media world: in the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda” an animated red panda was featured as the venerable dojo master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman (who has admitted to knowing very little about the red panda before taking on the role).  Sikkim has adopted the animal as its official state animal and red pandas are also the mascots for the Darjeeling tea festival.  All of this matters in a ever more human-dominated planet where a species’ charisma to people is what is likely to keep it from going extinct.

Concept Drawings of Master Shifu, the Red Panda Sage from “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks Studios

Speaking of charismatic red pandas, the world’s most famous (real) red panda is a male red panda named Babu who lives at Birmingham Nature Centre, in England. In 2005 Babu escaped into the suburban woods and, like Mia the cobra, attained media stardom before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted Brummie of the year (A Brummie apparently being a resident of Birmingham).  I have often watched Red Pandas at the Bronx, Central Park, and Prospect Park Zoos and I am surprised they do not have a similar designation in New York City.  No animal could be more designed to tickle human tastes or appeal more directly to the “cuteness” short circuit of our brain—at least until the red pandas smile and reveal that their jaws are filled with needle sharp teeth.

A Chinese Painting of a Red Panda (I can’t translate the name of the gifted artist) from auction.artxun.com

A Dugong and Diver (photograph by Duane Yates)

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.

Dugong Range

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.

Dugong and Calf

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.

Close-up of a Dugong (Julien Willem)

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