Vampire Bat (subfamily Desmodontinae)

It’s hard not to think of vampires when you think of bats, and while many bats are harmless and helpful fruit- and insect-eaters, not all bats play so nice. There are some that embrace their vampire connections, and they are known, quite unimaginatively, as vampire bats.

There are three species of vampire bat, and each is so unique that they are placed in a separate genus (Desmodus, Diphylla, and Diaemus, for those who are interested). You can find these extra-creepy bats in Central and South America. Their preferred habitats are in tropical and subtropical areas, and they require dark places for roosting, such as caves, wells, hollow trees and buildings.

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A white-winged vampire bat. Image credt: Gcarter2 via Wikipedia 

Vampire bats are not overly large animals, with all species ranging in length from seven to nine centimetres. They have greyish brown fur, and in general, look fairly bat-like. They do not have nose leafs life fruit bats — they make do with naked nose pads with grooves in them. Vampire bats are also more suited to moving on the ground than other bat species, using their wings to propel them across the ground in a bounding gait.

You may have guessed — or already know — why vampire bats are named after the mythological Transylvanian monsters. Yes, these bats do suck blood. Common vampire bats feed primarily on mammalian blood, while hairy-legged vampire bats and white-winged vampire bats are more partial to bird blood. They feed only at night, so you don’t need to worry about being attacked by vampire bats (or vampires) when the sun is out.

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Vampire bats have distinct skulls and teeth that make feeding on blood easier. Image credit: Mokele via Wikipedia 

Subsisting solely on blood is a very specialized diet, and vampire bats have some amazing adaptations as a result. They have thermoreceptors in their noses, which are used to locate areas where blood flows close to their prey’s skin. There’s even an area in vampire bats’ brains that is similar in appearance and location to infrared receptors in snakes, as the bats are capable of using infrared to find blood on their prey.

Once the blood is located, the bats have to find a way to access it. They do this with their razor sharp teeth — teeth that lack enamel so they are always incredibly sharp. Once they slice into their poor victim’s skin, vampire bats use their saliva, which is full of anticoagulants, to keep the wound bleeding.

Vampire bats also have a special digestive system to cope with their sanguine diet. To get the nutrients they need, bats typically drink about 20 grams of blood per feeding — which is a lot for creatures that weigh an average of 40 grams. That added weight is a problem for flight animals, so the bats have to jettison some of that extra cargo before they take off and return home. Therefore, their digestive system is designed to digest the blood as soon as possible, and pass on the extra liquid to the kidneys so it can be excreted. Typically, vampire bats start to urinate within two minutes of feeding. That’s some pretty quick digestion!

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Vampire bats roosting together in a colony. On cold days, even non-resident males are invited into the colony to help keep the other bats warm. Image source

While the picture I’ve painted of vampire bats is one of evil, blood-sucking monsters, vampire bats aren’t all bad. At least, they’re nice to (most) members of their own species. Highly social animals, vampire bats live in colonies consisting groups of females and a few resident males. Non-resident males are shunned and live in separate groups.

Within colonies, vampire bats may share food with bats that are related to them, or bats that they know. A vampire bat can go only two days without feeding, so often a starving bat will beg another for food when sources of meals are scarce. The donor bat will then regurgitate a bit of blood for the beggar to consume. The exact nature of these relationships is still being studied, but it just goes to show that vampire bats are not self-serving, malicious creatures.

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I had a lot of fun drawing this guy for today. I like bats! 

Vampire bats have been known to carry rabies, but it is very rare for a vampire bat to pass the disease on to humans. So don’t be afraid of these amazing animals! They are also medically useful, with compounds in their saliva being used in medicine to increase blood flow in stroke patients. See, vampires are friendly after all!

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Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

I try and be as diverse as possible on this blog, writing about as many varied and wonderful animals as I can. Unfortunately, sometimes animals fall through the cracks, either because of personal feelings (I don’t like primates, and I’m terrified of spiders), or simply by accident. One of those accidental oversights is sea turtles, of which I’ve only written about one – the hawksbill sea turtle. Today I’ll add another lovely aquatic reptile to the list, the green sea turtle.

Green seas turtles are found around the world, in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. They prefer warmer waters, living in tropical and subtropical areas. Populations in the Pacific Ocean are genetically distinct from those in the Atlantic, with each group having separate feeding and nesting grounds. Adult sea turtles tend to stay near coastal areas, while young turtles are found in the deep waters of the open ocean.

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A green sea turtle swimming happily along (I assume). Image credit: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

As far as sea turtles go, green sea turtles look pretty normal. They aren’t even green — they’re named that because of the green colour of fat deposits under their shell. Their shells start off black, and then lighten with age. They grow to be quite large, reaching shell lengths of 100 to 120 cm, which makes green sea turtles the second largest sea turtles in the world, behind leatherback sea turtles. The largest green sea turtle ever measured had a shell length of 153 cm, and weighed 395 kg. That is one big turtle!

Adult green sea turtles are gentle, herbivorous creatures. They feed on sea grass, algae, and mosses. Hatchlings are bit of a different story: they are carnivorous, feeding on marine invertebrates and other small creatures. As they grow, green sea turtles move to a more plant-based diet, and move closer to the coast.

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Look how cute it is!!!! Image credit: Alexander Vasenin via Wikipedia

In terms of predators, adult green sea turtles are pretty safe; they’re a bit too large for most ocean-dwellers to bother with. There are some sharks, particularly tiger sharks, that enjoy a green sea turtle meal. Other than sharks, the most significant predator of adult sea turtles is humans. The same can’t be said for younger turtles, which fall victim to a myriad of predators, including crabs, marine mammals, and shorebirds, to name a few.

Green sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs, after mating near the coast. Copulation in green sea turtles can last quite a while, the longest recorded copulation being 119 hours long. Poor turtles! Females are quite selective about what beach they lay their eggs on, usually returning to the beach they themselves were born on, or finding a beach with similar sand texture and colour. Females dig a hole at the high tide line of the beach, depositing 75-200 eggs in a single clutch. Though females only breed every two to four years, they lay between one and nine clutches each season that they choose to breed in.

Hatchling sea turtles get a very rough start to life. They are left on their own after the eggs are laid, and hatch after about 30 to 90 days. The young turtles are about 5 cm in length upon hatching, and have to make a treacherous walk to the ocean. Numerous predators await the hatching of the turtles with glee, and glut themselves on the poor young turtles. Many baby turtles do not make it to the ocean; only 1% of hatchlings reach full sexual maturity, which is estimated to take 20 to 50 years. Green sea turtles are a long lived species, with wild turtles living up to 80 years.

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I decided to do a simple drawing for this week, and had fun playing with squiggly lines. 

These sea turtles migrate long distances from their feeding grounds to their nesting sites. The key to migration is that you have to be able to find your way from one place to the other, and green sea turtles have a number of super cool ways of doing this. They use wave direction, sunlight, and temperature to find their way around. As well, they have magnetic crystals in their brains that allow them to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Animals that can navigate with magnetism always amaze me — we had to invent compasses, but some species are born with them in their brains. Nature really is the coolest.

Unfortunately green sea turtles have not fared well recently, mainly thanks to human activities. They are actively hunted for their meat, skin and eggs. Turtles also get caught in fishing nets and drown, are prone to pollution and habitat destruction. They are currently listed as endangered and are protected both worldwide and by individual countries, but serious threats to these magnificent turtles remain.

Cover image source: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

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! 

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