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KCWolf

Ok…there is one last rat post for our musophobic friends to suffer through, and, after that, they can peacefully enjoy the rest of the year (ummm….of the rat).  Yesterday, during the Superbowl there was a delirious moment of joy, when I thought my post today would be truly timely and appropriate, since I saw that the Kansas City Chiefs mascot was a giant rat! (presumably since whatever appalling Chief Wahoo-style mascot they used to have got ushered into sudden retirement before the franchise hit the national stage).  Alas, it turns out that KC Wolf (pictured above) is actually a wolf.  I don’t know how I got the wrong idea about his identity.  It does bring us to the issue of rat mascots though.

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Scabby the Rat (different sizes for different strikes!)

I assumed that despite the fear and alarm engendered by rats there would be some prominent sports franchises and events that adopted the rat as a mascot (since rats are universally known, if not necessarily universally loved.  Alas, how wrong I was–the biggest rat mascot I could find (both in terms of popularity and literally in terms of size) was “Scabby the Rat” an inflatable labor union prop who comes out whenever a picket line goes up.   The other rats, in a big anonymous amalgamated lump are below.

I don’t think any of them are particularly famous.  One or two might even properly be mouse mascots (in which case we could have put Mickey in here and finally gotten famous through the time-honored American rite of being sued by Disney).  They are fun to look at though and they invite reflections on the downright strangeness of mascots.

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There is however one culturally significant rat, whom I want to call out in this mascot post.  Technically he is not a mascot, but instead a vahana–one of the animal mounts/vehicles ridden by the Hindu gods.  Each of the ranking devas has their own particular animal they ride: Indra has an elephant; Brahma has a swan; fierce Durga rides a tiger; while Parvati rides a lion.  However, in a complete reversal of the western myth, Ganesha, the beautiful and beloved elephant-headed god of wisdom, art, and science rides upon the greater Indian bandicoot rat ((Bandicota indica).  It is open to interpretation why Ganesha chose such an unusual and incongruous beast as his loyal accessory.  Some scholars have suggested that the rat symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to overcome all obstacles, while others have opined that the rat represents Ganesha’s ability to master challenges of the physical world (like rat-induced famine).  Some gurus say that Ganesha’s vahana is more symbolic and represents the great deity’s ability to master thoughts which proliferate in crazy ways like rats in the dark.  Based on our last post, though I wonder if it might evoke Ganesha’s renowned compassion and open-mindedness.  Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy compassion and open-mindedness  throughout this rat year.  I feel like we might all need it! Om and Happy New Year, one last time.

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Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth.  Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous.  Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppediusSteatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.  The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese.  It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).

Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered.  Perhaps it will have the last laugh.  It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture.  This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal).  I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!

The Gobi Desert

When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses.  Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth.  The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.

The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia.  The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily.  It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.

The Long-eared Jerboa, (Euchoreutes naso)

The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail.  Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day.  Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.

From time to time, Ferrebeeekeeper indulges in a theme week.  Last Halloween featured Greek Monster Week, which highlighted the mythical spawn of Echidna, the great serpent mother of classical mythology.  Other theme weeks have included Tree Week and Small Furry Animals Week (which described the groundhog, the pika, the hyrax, the rabbit, and the wombat).  In order to combat malaise in the world construction markets, Ferrebeekeeper now presents Builders Week, five posts dedicated to great builders and the edifices they have created.  To start off the week, this post is dedicated to the beaver, the most accomplished and tireless builder of the animal kingdom–save perhaps for corals, termites, and humans.  Not only is the busy building beaver a keystone species to ecosystems around the Northern hemisphere, the furry rodent holds a key place in American history.

Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) photo by zooadmin

There are two species of beaver, the North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber).  Although similar in appearance and habit, the two species are not genetically compatible and, when mated, do not produce living offspring.  Like the other giant rodents (capybara, nutrias, etc) beavers are semi aquatic and spend nearly as much time in the water as on land. In order to get around on land and water, beavers have webbed clawed feet and a flat, hairless paddle-like tail.  Their ears and nostrils clamp shut under water and a special membrane snaps over their eyes.  In order to keep warm in harsh northern winters, beavers have a layer of subcutaneous fat as well as a dense coat which they waterproof with oily castoreum (produced from a scent gland).  To round out their special features, beavers possess formidable upper and lower incisors with which they gnaw down trees. Adult beavers can weigh up to 30 Kilograms (about 60 pounds) and attain lengths of 1.3 meters (about 4 feet).

North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)

Beavers are intelligent animals which form close family bonds. According to the website Beaver: Wetlands and Wildlife:

Wildlife rehabilitators find beavers to be gentle, reasoning beings who enjoy playing practical jokes…. Beavers mate for life during their third year. Both parents care for the kits (usually one to four) that are born in the spring. The youngsters normally stay with their parents for two years, and the yearlings become babysitters for the new litter. After weaning, their favorite foods include water lily tubers, apples and the leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen and other fast-growing trees.

Above all, the beaver is a masterful builder capable of cutting down large trees and moving them into place to serve as the foundation of a dam.  Reinforced with mud, and “planted” with living green shoots (which grow into the structures and thus add stability), beaver dams curve backwards against the current and are capable of holding immense volumes of water. Not only do beavers fell trees and create timberworks and earthworks, the creatures also excavate canals to provide a quick escape into the artificial lakes produced by their dam building. Within these lakes the beavers build lodges as escape shelters and winter homes.

Cross-section of a Beaver Lodge (DEA Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library)

Such lodges can only be entered through hidden underwater entrances.  Crafted in sprawling mounds from logs, branches, and mud, the structures contain rooms for dying off and rooms for habitation.  Before winter the beavers coat their lodges with mud which freezes into a hard coat which makes the structures impervious to bears and wolverines. Beavers harvest tender shoots from their favorite softwoods and embed them deep in the mud of the coldest deepest part of their lakes.  In winter when the top of the lake is frozen, the animals can dive down and retrieve food from their underwater refrigerator.

The Largest Known Beaver Dam Photographed from Space

Beavers are ambitious in their work. To date the largest beaver dam discovered was over 850 meters in length (2,790 feet)–more than twice the width of Hoover Dam. Located in the forests of Alberta in Canada the huge dam was spotted from space via Google Earth.

The flooded lands formed by these dams provide a habitat for waterfowl, turtles, frogs, and other aquatic creatures (as well as protected nurseries for salmon fry). Additionally the dams alleviate flooding, allow the water table to recharge, and act as filters which soak up nitrogen and chemicals.  Some writers have (poetically?) described beaver dams and related lakes as the kidneys of a watershed. Since beaver dams are depositional environments, they silt up into rich bottom land when abandoned by their builders. This process is vital to forests and rivers in North America and Europe, where soft quick growing trees have evolved to deal with beavers’ appetite and industry. However beavers have caused disastrous flooding and environmental mayhem when furriers introduced them to areas (like Tierra del Fuega) where trees do not coppice.

The Fur Trade

Furriers have a long dark history with the beaver. Eurasian beavers were over-harvested to the point of near extinction by medieval trappers for their lustrous coats.  When the New World was being conquered and colonized by European nations, the valuable fur of North American beavers was one of the first economic incentives for exploration.  Trappers, traders, and runners-of-the-woods traveled deep into North America for the pelts of all manner of creatures: but they sought beaver hides foremost.  The dense fur was ideal for making the fashionable flamboyant hats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (additionally beavers were classified as fish by the Catholic church and their flesh had special allure for hungry devout French trappers during Friday fasts). Competition between French and English fur traders for the pelts from the territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi combined with long brewing national conflict to start the French and Indian War which in turn determined the course of civilization in North America.

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