Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta)

I’m not a huge fan of primates, so I tend to avoid writing about them. That being said, the less human-like a primate is, the more I like it. So lemurs are right up there as some of my favourite primate species, as they don’t look anything like people, and don’t even look that much like classic monkeys.

Lemurs are a family of primates found only on Madagascar, an island known for having strange and wondrous wildlife. There are almost 100 species of lemur, ranging in size, colour, and habitat. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to focus on the most well-known lemur, the ring-tailed lemur.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in the south and southwestern parts of Madagascar. Their favoured habitat is in gallery forests — forests located on the edge of riverbanks. They will live in other types of forest, however, including deciduous forest, dry scrub, and montane forests. Though they live in forested areas, ring-tailed lemurs are not strictly arboreal. In fact, of all the lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are the most terrestrial, and can spend up to a third of their time on the ground.

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A map of the distribution of ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Image source: Wikipedia

The bodies of ring-tailed lemurs only get to be 39 to 46 cm in length, but their tails add a whole lot more to their overall length. Their tails can reach lengths of 56 to 63 cm, and are covered in distinctive black and white rings. The rest of the lemurs’ bodies is covered in grey or brown fur, which gets lighter on the neck and belly. Ring-tailed lemurs have a black ‘mask’ on their faces, where the fur is less dense and their black skin can show through.

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It’s incredible how long their tails are. And a bit silly, really. Image credit: Alex Dunkel via Wikipedia

You might be thinking that the large, extravagant tails of ring-tailed lemurs must make excellent climbing tools. After all, what better to wrap around tree branches than a super long tail? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work so well for these lemurs, as their tails are not prehensile. Instead, ring-tailed lemurs use their beautiful tails for balance, communication, and social cohesion.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups called troops, which range in size from six to over thirty individuals, though the average troop size is between thirteen and fifteen lemurs. Within troops, there is a strict dominance hierarchy, which is separate for males and females. Female lemurs dominate males, and often establish dominance by biting, cuffing, grabbing, and lunging at conspecifics. Lemurs will also defend their territory from other troops, using scent to mark their territories.

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Ring-tailed lemurs like to sunbathe in the mornings to warm up, and assume these wonderfully attractive sitting positions. Image credit: Keven Law via Wikipedia

Competition gets really heated during the breeding season, when males fight for the right to breed with females. Breeding season is from April to May, and females stagger their estrus so each is receptive to mating on a different day, reducing competition. Clever girls. After a 135 day gestation, female lemurs give birth to one baby, or rarely twins.

Baby lemurs are carried on their mothers’ chests for the first two weeks of their lives, and then get to piggy back on moms’ backs for the next few months. They start to eat solid food after two months, and are fully weaned at five months of age. All members of the troop can assist with rearing and protecting the young, though survival of infants can be as low as 50%. Ring-tailed lemurs reach sexual maturity at around 2.5 to 3 years.

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My attempt at drawing lemur eyes… just to creep you out! 

Unfortunately for ring-tailed lemurs, human activity has made them an endangered species. Destruction of forests for agriculture, lumber and fuel have had a serious impact on lemur populations. Lemurs are also hunted for food and as pets. Madagascar is known to have periodic droughts, which can severely impact the survival rate of young lemurs. All these factors have led to a decline in lemur populations. There are a number of reserves currently on Madagascar, where lemur populations are protected, so hopefully they can bounce back.

Cover image source: Mattis2412 via Wikipedia

Springhare (genus Pedetes)

I first saw a springhare (though not a live one) at the Field Museum in Chicago. I don’t remember seeing it (there was lots to look at), but I must of seen it because the springhare is on my list of future blog posts. More recently, I was at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, and saw live springhares leaping around. I was looking for a rodent to blog about, and so it seemed like fate that I should write about springhares today.

And yes, springhares (known as springhaas, if you’re South African), are rodents. They may be named after hares, and have a kangaroo-like hop, but they are neither lagomorphs nor marsupials. There are two species of springhare, the South African springhare and the east African springhare. Springhares are found in relatively dry areas, though they are also reasonably common in agricultural areas.

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They’re pretty cute, aren’t they? Image source 

Springhares are pretty big for rodents, reaching lengths of 35 to 45 cm. They have great big ears, each of which can be up to nine centimetres long. Springhares come in a range of browns, and have white bellies. They have big long tails, that are made more impressive by their bushiness.

It’s the big ears that make springhares look like hares, but the kangaroo part is all in their hind end. Springhares have massive hind legs that can propel them quite far. I saw these guys in action at the zoo, and man can they jump! They can leap over two meters in a single hop. Springhares hop around to avoid predators, but move on all four feet when they are calmer.

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A springhare happily hopping along. Image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

Another way springhares avoid predation is by being nocturnal, and hiding underground during the day. They spend the day safely inside tunnels that they dig themselves. Often a springhare will plug the entrance to their tunnels with soil, for extra protection.

Springhares specialize in using areas of land that other herbivores cannot utilize effectively. Where springhares live, grasses are too sparse to support large grazers, and the land is open, which means small animals are susceptible to weather and predation. Springhares have adapted to these regions quiet well: they are small enough to make efficient use of the available plants, and large and mobile enough to escape predation.

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A work in progress – I am practicing with my new pencil crayons and really have to start making my pictures darker! But I ran out of time and patience, so he’ll have to wait. 

Mating in springhares can occur year round, and happens more than once a year. While most rodents are quite fecund, giving birth to multiple offspring at a time, springhares give birth to a single baby after a gestation of 78-82 days. The young are born furred, and open their eyes after three days. At seven weeks of age, when the young are about half grown, they will leave their mother and set out into the world.

Springhares were once listed as a vulnerable species, but they have since been downgraded to a species of least concern. They are vulnerable to hunting, as well as to habitat loss. Thankfully these cute fellas no longer seem to be experiencing a population decline, which is certainly good news!

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Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

I have always loved cats, and have been particularly fascinated by big cats. It’s hard to pick which of the big cats is my favourite — one day it will be cheetahs, another jaguars, and so on. I think I should stop trying to pick a favourite and just admit that I love them all. That certainly goes for today’s animal, the beautiful and reclusive snow leopard.

A note before I begin: the term ‘big cat’ is used a lot, and means different things. It is often used to refer to the cat species that can roar, which are tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards (which, along with the snow leopard, make up the genus Panthera). Some people include other species in the definition, such as snow leopards, pumas, clouded leopards, and cheetahs. That’s how I use the term, so now you won’t be confused.

Snow leopards don’t usually come into contact with people, partly because they live in one of the most forbidding habitats on Earth. They are found in Central Asia, in high altitude mountain ranges. This of course includes the Himalayas, but also extends into Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia. They prefer areas with steep and rocky terrain. Snow leopards are usually found between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,500 meters, but can move to lower altitudes to follow their prey during the winter.

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A map of the range of the snow leopard. Image source: Wikipedia

Snow leopards are certainly big, but they are not as quite as large as the other Panthera cats. They range in size from 75 to 150 cm in length, and weigh between 27 and 55 kg. Snow leopards have grey or creamy-yellow coats, that are covered in black spots and rosettes. They have beautiful blue-green or aqua eyes.

Mountains are cold, especially really, really high ones. So snow leopards have find a way to stay warm. Snow leopards have stocky bodies, thick fur, and small, rounded ears, all of which help prevent heat loss (ears are an excellent way to lose heat, which is why desert animals have such big ones). Their tails are used to store fat, and have extra-thick fur on them. When the cats get cold, they can wrap their tails around themselves like a blanket and stay warm.

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Snow leopards blend into their habitats extremely well. Image credit: Tashi Lonchay via Wikipedia

Cold isn’t the only treacherous aspect of alpine habitats. The mountains that snow leopards live in are steep, rocky, and often covered in deep snow. The air is cold and thin and difficult to breathe. Snow leopards have a number of ways of meeting these challenges. Their tails are long, reaching 80 to 100 cm in length, which is the longest relative to body size of any cat except the marbled cat and the domestic cat. These super long tails help the leopards balance on the rocky slopes. They also have wide paws, which help them walk on snow. Their back legs are long, which helps them jump and move with agility across rough terrain. Snow leopards posses large nasal cavities, to help them breathe in mountain air.

Snow leopards are pretty much hermits, living in the mountains and avoiding contact with others. They are solitary and secretive animals, coming together only to mate. This occurs in winter, from January to March. Female snow leopards announce their readiness to mate by yowling loudly to the mountains. If a male shows up, females further entice him by walking in front of him with their tails raised. If all goes well, mating ensues.

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Look how cute these little guys are!!!! Image credit: Dingopup via Wikipedia

After a gestation of 90 to 100 days, female snow leopards give birth to one to five cubs (usually two or three) in April and June. The cubs are born in a cave or crevice, with shed fur from their mom lining the den. The cubs are able to walk at five weeks of age, and are weaned at ten weeks. They stay with their mothers long after this, however, and are entirely dependent on her for food, protection, and learning for the first year of their lives.

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My drawing of a snow leopard, done in pencil crayon and a brush and ink.  

Unfortunately snow leopards are quite rare, and are currently listed as endangered. Thanks to habitat loss, prey loss, and poaching, snow leopards numbers have been in decline. Another threat to snow leopards is climate change, which over time will increase the temperature in snow leopard habitats, meaning the tree line will move up, and increase competition for snow leopards. We have a lot of trouble keeping track of snow leopard numbers, however. They are hard to count, since most of the time we can’t even find them in the mountains, as they blend in really well, are well-known for being shy. There are many conservation efforts in place to protect snow leopards, so with luck we will be able to keep these amazing cats from going extinct.

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Pangolin (family Manidae)

I find it quite shocking that I have not written about pangolins yet. These guys are some of my all-time favourite mammals, and yet I’ve ignored them for nearly four years of blogging and over four hundred posts. I know I’ve considered writing about them, but perhaps the time was never quite right. Well, today is the big day for pangolins, because these amazing animals are going to get their very own blog post!

There are eight species of pangolins, all of which belong to the family Manidae. Pangolins can be found in Africa, India and southeast Asia. All species live in tropical areas, though they differe in their lifestyle choices, with some being arboreal and some preferring to live on the ground. Most pangolins are nocturnal, with only one species, the long-tailed pangolin, being active during the daytime.

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A map showing the distribution of pangolins in Africa and Asia. Image credit: Craig Pemberton via Wikipedia

Pangolins vary in size depending on the species, ranging from 30 to 100 cm long. The most notable feature of pangolins is their overlapping scales that look extremely out of place on a mammal. These scales are made of keratin, and harden as the animal matures. They may look funny, but the scales provide pangolins with an excellent mode of defence. When a pangolin feels threatened, it curls up into a ball, tucking its head under its tail, leaving the predator with only a hard, spiky ball to look at.

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This pangolin seems to have stumped these lions with his ‘curl-in-a-ball’ defence. Image credit: Sandip Kumar via Wikipedia

Pangolins are at home in a number of different environments. They happily climb trees, with some species of arboreal pangolin having prehensile tails that they can use while climbing. Ground dwelling pangolins dig burrows, which can reach depths of three and a half meters. Some species of pangolins will walk with their front claws folded under their feet, and others will sometimes rear up and perform some behaviours bi-pedally, even walking on two legs for small periods. But climbing, digging and walking aren’t the only things pangolins can do; they can also swim quite well. That’s pretty impressive for such awkward looking animals.

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A Sunda pangolin showing off its climbing skills. Image credit: Piekfrosch via Wikipedia

So what do these strange and wonderful animals eat? Pangolins like to feast on tasty and nutritious insects. They use their strong claws to dig up bug nests in trees and on the ground, and then stick out their tongues to gobble them up. Pangolins have incredibly long tongues, which are coated in saliva from glands in the animals’ chests, making them extra sticky, and thus the perfect insect grabbers. Though insects are tasty, they are small, so pangolins have to eat a lot of them. They eat between 140 to 200 g of food a day, and are quite picky, generally eating only one or two species of insect.

Another weird thing about pangolins: they don’t have teeth. They get around this by having a very muscular chamber in their stomachs, complete with spikes that help grind up food. Pangolins will also swallow stones or pebbles that assist in grinding up any food they eat.

Pangolins live solitary lives, coming together only to reproduce. There is no set mating seasons, and pangolins usually mate once a year. Pangolins are a little backwards when it comes to mating — instead of males heading out to find mates, females are lured to spots marked by male pangolin urine or dung. There is some competition over females; when this occurs male pangolins establish dominance by swinging their tails at one another.

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A little baby pangolin riding on its mama’s tail. Image source

Gestation in pangolins ranges from 70 to 140 days. Litter size depends on the species, and can be one to three baby pangolins. When they are born, the scales of young pangolins are soft (imagine giving birth to a baby armoured with spiky scales!), and these harden after several days. While the scales are still soft, mother pangolins are very protective of their young, wrapping themselves around their babies if they feel threatened. After a few weeks the young pangolins ride around on their mother’s tails, and they are weaned at around three months of age. They become sexually mature at two years of age.

There is, of course, a sad side to the pangolin story. They are hunted for their meat and their scales, as pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in many areas, and their scales are thought to have medicinal qualities. Pangolins have the upsetting title of being the Most Illegally Trafficked Animal in the world. All pangolin species are currently threatened, and two are listed as critically endangered. Though they are protected species, illegal trafficking remains a serious threat to the pangolin population. On that sad note, I’ll leave you with a cute drawing of a baby pangolin.

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A quick little sketch I made of a pangolin. So many scales to draw! 

Cover image source

Giraffe (genus Giraffa)

It is always surprising to me when I find a very well-known animal that I haven’t blogged about. I suppose I do try to find weird and wonderful animals to write about, so it makes sense that I would skip over some obvious ones. Still, I think it’s a bit of a crime that I haven’t written about giraffes yet.

While it used to be thought that there was only one species of giraffe, recent studies have shown that there are actually four to six distinct species of giraffe. All species can be found in Africa, in scattered pockets from Chad to South Africa, and from Niger to Somalia. Giraffes live in savannah, grasslands or open woodlands, and are particularly fond of anywhere where Acacia trees grow.

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The range of the species of giraffe. Image credit: Narayanese via Wikipedia

Giraffes have both the title of World’s Tallest Mammal and Largest Ruminant. Male giraffes can reach heights of 5.7 meters to their horns, and can weigh almost 2,000 kg. Females are smaller, with the largest female recorded at 5.17 meters, and the largest weight recorded at 1,180 kg. Giraffes are famous for their fun, spotted coats. These coats help giraffes camouflage, and vary depending on where the giraffe lives.

One of the coolest things about giraffes is their prehensile tongues. These are around 45 cm long, and are black. It is thought that giraffe tongues are coloured in this way to prevent the tongue from being sunburnt while the giraffe is feeding. Giraffes feed on trees, shrubs, fruit and grass, preferring the thorny trees in the subfamily Acacieae. Their lips, tongues, and inside of their mouths have thick papillae to protect against the thorny food they eat. Giraffe necks allow these animals to feed at a greater height than their competitors, as they can feed at heights of 4.5m, while their largest competitors can only reach 2m in height.

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Giraffe horns are used in competition between males, but they may also play a role in thermoregulation, as they are vascularized. Image credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia

While the giraffe’s long neck lets it eat leaves and branches in high places, this has its disadvantages. Giraffe necks can reach lengths of up to two and a half meters, and result from elongated vertebrae, not extra vertebrae. These long necks mean that giraffes have to bend down quite a ways to get water — in fact, giraffes can only drink if they splay their front legs or bend their knees. If you think you get dizzy after bending down and standing up suddenly, just imagine how giraffes feel.

Actually, giraffes have a way of dealing with this problem. They have a special area of closely packed veins and arteries in their necks, known as a rete mirabile. This prevents too much blood from flowing into the brain when they lower their heads, and when the giraffe stands back up, the vessels constrict and send blood to the brain, preventing fainting. Giraffes’ hearts have to do a lot more work than other mammals’ — to keep a steady blood flow to the brain a giraffe’s heart has to create double the blood pressure that a human heart would need to. Because of this, giraffes’ hearts are very large, weighing 11 kg and having walls as much as 7.5 cm thick.

Giraffes live in groups, though these are somewhat loose, with individuals leaving and rejoining the group. Females are more social than males, and males will engage in ‘necking’ to establish dominance. There are two forms of necking, low and high intensity. In the first instance, male giraffes simply lean against one another, rubbing their necks against one another to see who gives way first. In high intensity necking, the giraffes activity swing their necks at one another, trying to hit each other with their horns. These fights can last over half an hour, and though injuries do not usually occur, the blows can break jaws, necks and cause death.

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After a round of ‘necking’, male giraffes can get awfully fond of one another, caressing and mounting one another. These instances have been found to be more frequent than heterosexual mating. Image source: Luca Galuzzi

Mating in giraffe happens during the rainy season. A bull male will approach a female in estrus, rubbing his head on her hindquarters and resting it on her back. He will then lick her tail and raise a foreleg to ask if she is ready for copulation. If she is, she will circle her suitor and then raise her tail, at which point the male will mount the female.

Females give birth to a single calf (twins occur rarely) after a 450 day gestation. Being born must be an unpleasant experience for any creature, but it’s particularly rough for giraffe calves: females give birth standing up, so the calves drop two meters to ground after leaving the womb. Calves are weaned after twelve to sixteen months; females reach sexual maturity at three or four years of age, while males are mature at four to five years, though they only start to breed at seven years of age.

For a long time giraffes have been thought to have had a relatively stable population. However, in 2016 their status was changed from Least Concern to Vulnerable, thanks to habitat destruction and hunting. Giraffes are protected throughout most of their range, so hopefully we can stop these funny guys from becoming endangered.

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A quick sketch of a giraffe I did. Isn’t he cute? 

Cover image credit: Fir002 via Wikipedia

Yak (Bos mutus)

Two weekends ago I was working at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and every morning I walked to our booth I went past the cow ring where there were always lots of adorable cows being shown. So when I had to find a mammal to write about for today, cows immediately came to mind. Of course, this blog is called Our Wild World, so I had to choose a wild relative of the cow. And what bovine is more silly and adorable than the yak?

There are domesticated yaks, but I will mainly be talking about the wild population in this post. Wild yaks live in a very restricted area, on the Tibetan Plateau. This of course includes the Tibet region and parts of China proper. Yaks used to be found in Nepal and Bhutan, but are now extinct in those countries. Wild yaks like cold areas, but need enough vegetation to sustain themselves. They are most commonly found at 3,000 to 5,500 meters, in treeless areas where there are grasses and sedges.

Yaks are large animals, and are the second largest bovid on the planet. They grow to be 1.6 to 2.2 meters at the shoulder, and can weigh as much as 1,000 kg. Female yaks are much smaller than males, and domesticated yaks are smaller than wild ones, with domesticated males only reaching weights of 580 kg. Both sexes have horns, though the horns of males are larger and can reach lengths of almost a meter. Yak fur is long and shaggy, and is usually dark brown or black.

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Look how handsome he is. Image source

Due to the extremely high altitudes yaks inhabit, these animals have a number of special adaptations. They have a very thick undercoat that is kept matted by a sticky substance secreted in their sweat; this helps with insulation. They also have a very thick layer of fat under their skin, to help protect against the cold.

Yaks have larger hearts and lungs than cattle that live at lower elevations, and higher concentrations of haemoglobin in their blood than other cattle. This allows yaks to breathe and function at the high altitudes in which they live. Yaks also have larger rumens than domestic cattle, which helps extract the most possible nutrition out of yaks’ low quality diet. While domestic cows have to eat 3% of their body weight daily, yaks only need to eat 1% for maintenance. Because of their extensive adaptations to the climate they live in, yaks do not do well at lower elevations, or in warm weather. They can suffer from heat exhaustion above temperatures of 15 degrees celsius.

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A herd of wild yaks mixed with domesticated ones. Image source

Yaks are herd animals, though for most of the year males and females live separately. Females live in large herds of up to 200 animals, while males form much smaller bachelor herds of around six animals. Mating season occurs between July and September. At this time the males rut, fighting one another for dominance. Displays during this time include bellowing, scraping their horns along the ground, as well as charging at one another.

Calves are born from May to June after a gestation of between 257 and 270 days. Calves can walk almost immediately after birth, and are weaned at a year of age. Yaks generally give birth every other year, and reach sexual maturity around three or four years of age.

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A drawing I did of a yak in charcoal – I haven’t sprayed it yet so I had to take a pretty poor picture with my phone instead of scanning it. 

Though wild yaks are not yet endangered, they are a vulnerable species and are threatened by a number of human activities. Hunting is one of the biggest problems facing wild yak, as people hunt them for food. Domestic yaks can also be a problem, because of transmission of diseases and competition for grazing. Hopefully we can protect these silly but majestic animals and keep them around in the wild for a long time to come!