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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

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) is a tiny arboreal marsupial native to the temperate rainforests of Chile and Argentina.  The name “Monito del monte” means “little monkey of the mountain” and although the tiny marsupials are not even remotely related to primates, they are clever and deft.  During the cold winter months the animals hibernate in little ball-like nests which they build out of waterproof leaves and line with moss.  Like the more familiar marsupials of Australia, the females have pouches where they nurse their litters of up to four offspring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

The adult animals prey on small invertebrates which live in the trees but they also supplement their diets with fruits and seeds.  A particular species of Loranthacous mistletoe (Tristerix corymbosus) has evolved in conjunction with the monito del monte and relies entirely on the animal to spread its seeds.  This is noteworthy because “scientists speculate that the coevolution of these two species could have begun 60–70 million years ago.”  The monito del monte is not some rodentlike offshoot of the marsupial line, it is a close analog (and direct descendent) of the basal line from which all marsupials spring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

In fact, like something out of a gothic novel, the monito del monte is the only species of the sole genus of the last family of the exceedingly ancient order Microbiotheria.    During the dawn of the dinosaurs, South America, Antarctica, and Australia were amalgamated together as a supercontinent Gondwana.  The offspring of the original marsupials spread from South America, across Antarctica, to Australia, but then the continents drifted away from each other and evolution took a different direction in each ecoysytem.  The monito del monte remained in the same sort of forest as its ancestors and changed least over the years.

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Speaking of which, the Valdivian temperate rain forests where the monito del monte lives today are themselves a remnant of the great forests of Gonwana.  The trees and plants which live there now are most closely related to the living plants of Australia, New Zealand, & New Caledonia, but they are closer still to the fossilized forests which lie beneath the glaciers of Antarctica.  The Valdivian forest is the closest thing surviving to the great forests which once covered the iced over southern continent.

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

The ancestors of the monita del monte—and of all other marsupials—originated in South America and spread through the Antarctic forests to Australia before the continents drifted apart during the Cretaceous.  When the continent broke from Australia and drifted south into the prison of the circumpolar current during the Eocene, the forests died and Antarctica became an otherworldly landscape of ice.   Yet if you wish to know what the sweeping temperate forests of Antarctica were like you can visit Chile and watch the most ancient marsupial among the tree ferns and araucaria trees of the Valdivian forest.

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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

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud.  Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms.  It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America.  Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.

Cercis siliquastrum in Greece (a stunning photo by Waqas Ahmed)

The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California.  Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.

Aagh! Why you gotta be that way, religion?

Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.

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