You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘rainforest’ tag.

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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

Dusky leaf monkey, Trachypithecus obscurus - Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo by Thai National Parks.

Dusky leaf monkey, Trachypithecus obscurus – Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo by Thai National Parks.

I have been wanting to expand Ferrebeekeeper’s “mammals” categories by writing more about primates…but primates are really close cousins.  They are so near to us on the tree of life that it is tricky to write about them.  Monkeys and apes venture into the uncanny valley…that uneasy psychological chasm that contains things that are very much like humans, but clearly are not humans.

The Dusky leaf monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus)

The Dusky leaf monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus)

Therefore, in order to ease us into the subject of primatology, I am going to start with the spectacled langur aka dusky leaf monkey (or, more properly Trachypithecus obscurus).  This is a beautiful langur which lives in the dense rainforests of Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, but realtively little seems to be known about the creatures. Adult male dusky leaf monkeys weighs approximately 8.3 kilograms (18 pounds). Females are somewhat smaller.  The monkeys live in troops of about ten or a dozen and they subsist on a variety of tropical fruits and nuts (supplemented perhaps occasionally with other vegetables or small animals).  Infants are born orange, but quickly turn dark gray with the distinctive “spectacles” for which the species in known. I don’t really have a great deal of information about these monkeys, but I am blogging about them anyway because they are adorable!  Just look at these young langurs.  This is exactly the sort of cute introduction which we need to get us started on the topic of primates.  We will work on the serious grim monkeys later!

Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) photo by Petfles

Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) photo by Petfles

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The 2016 Rio Olympics are on their way and already the mascots for the 2016 games have been presented and named!  Ferrebeekeeper has been falling down at monitoring mascot news—the winning candidates were chosen back in November of 2014 (whipping up PR stories for a sports competition which is years away is a long & delicate art).

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The 2012 Olympics in London featured stupid avant-garde alien blobs Wenlock and Mandeville who were rightly pilloried by everyone (including this blog).  The 2014 Russian Olympics featured a mascot election which Vladimir Putin may have tampered with!  So what did Brazil come up with for the big game?  The nation is beloved for its beaches, beautiful mixed-race populace, and, above all, for the unrivaled biodiversity of the Amazon Basin—where the world’s largest river runs through the planet’s greatest rainforest.  Less admirable features of Brazil include deeply corrupt demagogues, insane crime, irrational love of soccer (which is a sort of agonizingly slow version of hockey), and an underperforming economic sector which has always been 20 years away from greatness.  What cartoon figure appropriately represents these dramatic juxtapositions?

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

This blog wanted a tropical armored catfish to win. Barring that, we were hoping for a beautiful Amazon riverine creature of some sort—maybe a river dolphin, a giant otter, or even a pretty toucan.  However, the committee which came up with the mascots did not want anything quite so tangible.  Instead they chose two magical animal beings which respectively represent the fauna and flora of Brazil.  Fortunately, the mascots are pretty cute (and they are both painted with a bewitching array of tropical colors).

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The Olympic mascot represents the multitudinous animals of the rainforest and his name is “Vinicius.”  Vinicius is some sort of flying monkey-cat with rainbow colored fur and a prehensile tail.  The Paralympic mascot is a sort of artichoke-looking sentient vegetable named Tom (so I guess he is male too—although, names aside, it is sometimes hard to tell with plants).

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Vinicius’ long sinuous limbs and tail make him admirably suited for illustrating the many different Olympics sports—and I really like pictures of him shooting archery, running, and lifting weights.  Tom seems a bit less suited for athletics, but his winning smile and endearing fronds are appealing in their own right.  I guess I am happy with the choice of Olympics mascots.  They do a fine job representing the world’s fifth most populous country (in so much as cartoon nature spirits can represent a place so large and diverse).  I’m looking forward to seeing more of them (even if I might dream sometimes of what could have been instead).

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots--a piranha and anteater!

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots–a piranha and anteater!

 

Giraffids--extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

Giraffids–extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

The Giraffoidea are a superfamily of artiodactyl mammals. They first evolved in the Miocene and they share a common ancestor with the deer and antelopes (and a slightly more distant common ancestor with hippos, pigs, and cows). Once the giraffes were numerous and mighty—twenty different genuses of these huge long-necked grazers spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. There were giraffids of all sizes and sorts—magnificent creatures bristling with hornlike ossicones and flourishing their long black tongues! But in the modern world the once-great family has shrunk down to two single species. The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is well known and features prominently in all sorts of cartoons and literature. The other last giraffe—the forest giraffe (more commonly known as the okapi) is much more obscure and was not known to science until 1901.

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

Legends existed of a shadowy unicorn-like beast which lived deep in the jungle. Horse-crazed European adventurers and administrators tended to imagine it as a sort of jungle zebra. Although ethereal rumors and sightings of this creature were reported, no western zoologist or biologist succeeded in finding out more about it until a strange meet-up between master trackers and a European colonial official took place late in the nineteenth century. According to the story, an evil impresario had abducted a group of pygmies in order to exhibit them in a circus (which does not make me feel any better about human nature). When the British colonial administrator of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, found out about this cartoonishly evil plot, he rescued the forest people and sent them home. In gratitude, the pygmies became his friends and shared their forest-lore with Sir Harry, showing him the tracks of an okapi. The hoofprint which was distinctly cloven—as a equine print would not be. Johnston doggedly pursued the furtive creatures through the Ituri forest and he eventually obtained a bit of striped hide and a skull. Today the Okapi’s scientific name is Okapia johnstoni (although it sounds like it should really be Okapia pygmidae).

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

 

Of course this latter name would not really fit Okapis—which are fairly large creatures. Adults stand 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4.9 to 6.6 ft) tall at their shoulders—and they have long necks. For such graceful animals they are also muscular and heavy–weighing from 200 to 350 kilograms (440 to 770 pounds). They live in the watery mountain rainforests in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (and perhaps slightly into Uganda). [Coincidentally, I’m sorry that I am continuing Congo week for one extra day, but I could not resist adding the okapi] Because their habitat is so constantly rainy, they have oily waterproof coats. Their distinctive brown, white, and red color pattern allows them to melt into the shadowy rainforests like wraiths.

An okapi in a rainforest

An okapi in a rainforest

Okapis are herbivores. They do not just graze on leaves but they also eat berries, shoots, fruits, and fungi (many of which are toxic to humans). They are solitary animals which wander alone along narrow forest trails. Sadly (but unsurprisingly) okapis are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Interestingly, although it took Europeans a long time to discover the forest giraffe, it was seemingly known to ancient civilization. There is a carving of one of the creatures in Persepolis—being presented as tribute from a delegation of Ethiopians.

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Today we return to the long-vanished summer world of the Eocene (the third epoch of the Cenezoic era). During most of the Eocene, there was no polar ice on Earth: a balmy temperate summer held sway from Antarctica to Svalbard. British Colombia was covered by a tropical rainforest where palm trees and cycads contended with warm weather conifers (and with the ancestors of elms, cherries, maples, and alders). Within this warm diverse forest, which thrived between 55 and 50 million years ago, lived numerous strange magnificent birds and insects. Shoals of tropical fish thronged in the acidic foaming waters (which were practically carbonated—since the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of the Eocene were probably double that of the present).   The mammals of this lovely bygone forest were equally splendid–strange proto-carnivores not closely related to today’s mammalian predators,  weird lemur analogs, and strange ur-rodents. This week the discovery of two new mammal species was announced.  These remarkable fossil finds provide us with an even better picture of the time and place.

a reconstruction of the early Eocene  in northern British Columbia, a tapir-like creature from the genus heptodon with a while tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

a reconstruction of the early Eocene in northern British Columbia: a tapir-like creature (genus Heptodon) with a tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

One of the two creatures discovered was a tapir-like perissodactyl from the genus Heptodon. The newly discover tapir was probably about the size of a large terrier. I really like tapirs (and their close relatives) but these remains are not a huge surprise–since many perissodactyls thrived in North America during the Eocene. The other fossil which paleontologists found is a surprise—an adorable surprise! Within a stone within a coal seam was a tiny jaw the size of a fingernail. Such a fossil would have been all but impossible to study in the past, but the paleontological team led by David Greenwood, sent the little fossil to be scanned by a CT scanner and then imaged with a 3D scanner. The tiny jaw was from a diminutive hedgehog relative since named Silvacola acares.  The little hedgehog grew to a maximum adult size of about 6 cm (2.3 inches) long or approximately thumb-sized. Since it probably lacked spines, this miniature hedgehog was a bit different than the modern hedgehog, but it was definitely a relative.

As discussed in previous posts, I like to imagine the balmy Eocene, when so many mammals which are now the mainstay of our familiar Holocene/Anthropocene world got their first start. It makes it even better to imagine that the thickets were filled with endearing hedgehogs the size of bumble bees.

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Last week we wrote about the strange Monito del monte—an arboreal marsupial which lives in the Valdivian temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina.  This week’s headlines are filled with exciting zoo news related to those strange forests.  A baby southern pudú (Pudu puda) was born in the Queens zoo a month ago (zoos delay the announcement of newborns in order to dramatize public introductions).  Pudús are the world’s tiniest deer: adults weigh up to 12 kilograms (26 lb), although the mightiest stags can sometimes reach 13.4 kilograms (30 lb) and loom up to 44 centimeters (17 in) tall.  Female pudús lack antlers, however the stags have tiny antlers with no forks (which can measure up to 7.5 centimeters (3.0 inches) long).  There are two species in this genus of cervids:  the southern pudú (Pudu puda) & the northern pudú (Pudu mephistophiles) which are similar in appearance and habit (although the northern pudú is smaller, and only gets up to 33 cm (13 inches) in height).

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

Pudús hide in the low growing vegetation of the miniature forests where they dwell and they feed on the same vegetation by pulling it down with their hooves or by climbing stumps and low branches to reach the leaves.  Their vocalizations are as adorable as they themselves are: the diminutive deer bark when they are alarmed.  If they become angry, their fur bristles and they shiver.  This display of wrath is not especially intimidating and many predators prey on pudús, including owls, foxes, and tiny rainforest cats (and occasionally formidable pumas).  Unfortunately, humans have introduced dogs and red deer to the delicate Andean cloud forests where the deer live and these invaders are respectively overhunting and outcompeting the winsome little deer.

One month old pudú fawn

One month old pudú fawn

I am extremely happy that there is a little pudú fawn living in Queens.  I am also glad another animal from the temperate rainforests of South Chile (the last surviving remnant of the rainforests of Antarctica) is in the news.  I desperately wish John D. Dawson would paint a picture of the eco-region so that I truly could show you how strange and lovely the plants and animals there are.  But, until that happy occasion, here is another pudú photo.

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

Long-time readers know that I love trees.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was this past weekend, when, for the first time, I visited a tropical rainforest–El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.  The only tropical rainforest under the rubric of the United States Forest Department, El Yunque is a very gentle jungle:  not only does it lack poisonous snakes or spiders, but there are not even any endemic mammals other than bats (although mongooses have crept in, thanks to a misguided introduction program long ago) and no predators larger than hawks.  What it lacks in large violent animals, El Yunque makes up for with astonishing botanical diversity.   Immense tree ferns tower over volcanic boulders.  Delicate Coquís—tree frogs which are the unofficial mascot of Puerto Rico–sing beneath the umbrella-like leaves of Cecropia trees.  The mollusks, that great strange phylum, exist in proliferation which rivals a coastline or an oyster reef.  Transparent slugs with green nuclei  are virtually invisible on stones.  Snails the size of children’s hands hang in the branches.

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

Among the flowers, frogs, and fruitbats, there are ancient giants–just not animal ones.   The most beautiful tree I saw in the rainforest was an Ausubo (Manikara bidentata) a huge, slow-growing evergreen tree rising magnificently 10 stories above the forest floor. The wood of ausubo is coveted by builders and carpenters since it is lovely to look at, rock hard, and resistant to rot and insects (the sap can also be formed into a hard resin like gutta-percha: this material, called gutta-balatá, was used to make golf balls for professional golfers until it was replaced by modern synthetics).  Ausubo was once the most important timber tree in Puerto Rico and many of the great colonial buildings feature great halls made of mighty ausubo timbers now hundreds of years old.  Today, sadly few large, ancient trees remain.  However the forest service has planted great stands of them in El Yunque and some originals still remain like the one pictured below which a sign asserted was three to four hundred years old.  It is strange to think that the tree (which is broader at the base than a person is tall) was once a tiny seed dropped by a fruit bat or a bird. It has outlasted all of the lumberjacks and hurricanes since San Juan was little more than a fort  above a colonial village.

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of "Big Tree" trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of “Big Tree” trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

A Colugo photographed in mid-glide

In the vanishing rainforests of Southeast Asia there lives a vanishing order of mammals named the Dermoptera.  The entire Demoptera order consists of only two species (for contrast, all 3000 plus different species of catfish are in a single order of fish–the Siluriformes).  The arboreal gliding Dermoptera are more commonly called Colugos.  Measuring 35 to 40 centimeters (14 to 16 in) in length and 1 to 2 kilograms (2.2 to 4.4 lb), Colugos are the size of a very small cat.  They are the most accomplished gliders among all of the mammals and they have been known to glide as far as 70 meters (230 feet) between tall rainforest trees. Both species of Colugos are complete herbivores.  They live on fruit, flowers, nuts, and shoots which they digest with highly effective stomachs and extremely long intestines.  Although colugos have digestive organs well-suited to their lives in the trees, they are unexpectedly terrible climbers.  Without opposable thumbs or powerful muscles they must awkwardly “hop” up trees while clinging desperately to the bark with sharp little claws.  Fortunately their proficiency at gliding means they can sail laterally from tree to tree without losing too much altitude.  It should be mentioned that colugos are sometimes called “flying lemurs” though they are not lemurs and can not truly fly.

Cynocephalus variegatus (© 2006 Jwee)

Very little is known about Colugos (if you really want to make a crazy nature documentary, here’s your chance). They are shy, nocturnal loners who live in the tops of huge trees.  Colugos are hunted by eagles, owls, and humans, but they adapt well to different habitats and can live in primary and secondary forests (as well as in human created monocultures such as coconut and rubber plantations). During the day they shelter in holes or cling beneath branches.  The only major exceptions to their largely solitary lives occur among nursing mothers who care for young colugos for 2 to 3 years—a remarkably long time for a small animal. Although colugos are placental mammals, they have strangely marsupial habits.  Babies are born in an undeveloped form and cling to their mother’s belly for six months (even as she glides between trees!).  Mother colugos can shelter their infants by folding their flying membranes around the little ones in a warm snuggie-like pouch.

Colugo (Cynocepahlus variegatus) and baby on a Mango Tree (Photo: Gerardo Angelo)

The lengthy period during which Colugos are dependant on their mother becomes more comprehensible when their family relationships with other mammals are untangled. Colugos are closely related to tree shrews, but, looking at them more carefully something seems oddly familiar.  That is because there is one other mammalian order which they are even more closely related to then the tree shrews—the primates.  According to molecular biologists, they are the most closely related to us of all other orders of living things.

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