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

monk-2.jpg

Happy Chinese New Year! It is year 4713! The Year of the Fire Monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and clever but mercurial and swift. Our in-house oracle thus prognosticates that this year will be intense and intellectual…yet scattered and jumpy (and, it goes without saying, that it will rush by swiftly). 2016…er….4713 is therefore a good year for fresh starts and running leaps. However scrying is not really this blog’s metier: let’s talk about monkeys!

primates_tree

One of Ferrebeekeeper’s favorite and best topics is mammals, however I have (largely) avoided writing about primates. This is not because I dislike primates (although some species of monkeys and apes dwell in the uncanny valley where they are simultaneously so human and yet inhuman that the effect is deeply disconcerting), but because primates are very difficult to write about. Not only are they generalists who make their living through a wide range of complex behaviors, they also have elaborate social lives which require attention, sympathy and discernment to understand and present. Even primate taxonomy is complicated. There is a great divide between prosimians and anthropoids (which is now being reconceived as a divide between wet-nosed primates (non-tarsier prosimians) and the dry-nosed primates). There is a great geographic divide between New World and Old World Primates. There are 72 genera and hundreds of species–and that is only the ones that are extant—I am leaving out the extinct fossils.

primate-hands-family-tree
Primates have a similarly complex place in society, art, and mythology. Just look at Sun Wukong AKA Monkey King, the trickster god of classical Chinese mythology who is simultaneously Buddhist and animist, wicked and saintly, immense and infinitesimally miniscule. The Indian monkey god Hanuman is similarly protean and complex. And these are only the two monkey gods…the nimble arboreal creatures are found everywhere in religion, literature, and art.

hanuman-heart
Finally, and above all, we..the readers and the writer…are primates. When the silverback from marketing comes by and harasses the trapped office women before displaying his dominance by making me move his stupid credenza around, I tell myself it is just the world economy. That may be true, but it is really all stupid monkeyshines. History is an intricate tapestry of primates desperately contending for privileged status. Here in America we are seeing lots of primate behavior—after all, it is an election year, and primates are ferociously hierarchical and tribal. Primates are also stupendously aggressive. Sometimes this trait combines with that big brain to make for horrendous violence. We are going to start unpacking some of this throughout the remainder of this week, which I dub “Primate Week” in honor of the fire monkey.

human-primate-game-ars

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 Sole Extant Specimen of the parasitoid wasp Aleiodes gaga

Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms.  The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”.  The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”

Lady Gaga

The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means.  The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered.  However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.

Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms.  When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever).  A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs).  Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).

A Parasitoid Wasp injecting eggs into a paralyzed Hoverfly Larva

Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim.  When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar.  So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.

Lady Gaga wearing a red gothic crown and…um…a damask table cloth I guess.

Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy.  You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:

I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions).  Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence).  The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).

Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.

Western Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) photo by David M. Dennis

I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories.  I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird.  Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue.  Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.

Any insight or feedback would be appreciated.  I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column.  Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).

Thanks.

Lima Shovelnose Catfish (Sorubim lima)

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

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031