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!

Cover image source

Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.

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Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.

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A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.

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An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

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A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

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

Spiny Bush Viper (Atheris hispida)

I think all snakes are quite beautiful, though I know many people might disagree. That being said, some snakes are more attractive than others, and today’s animal is definitely one of the more flashy ones.

Spiny bush vipers are found in central Africa, in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC. Within this range, bush vipers are found in isolated populations. They are nocturnal, and mainly found in forests, as they are highly arboreal species. Spiny vipers can be seen basking on top of flowers and leaves, soaking up the sun from their leafy vantage points.

Spiny bush vipers are medium sized snakes, growing to be 58-73 cm long, with males being longer and thinner than females. As their name suggests, spiny bush vipers have highly keeled scales, which give the snakes a spiny or bristly appearance. Members of the genus Atheris, known as bush vipers, are known for being very colourful snakes, with much variety in the genus and within species. Spiny bush vipers are no exception, and these beautiful reptiles come in a variety of colours.

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A nice picture showing off how pretty these snakes are. Image credit: Bree Mc via Wikipedia

These snakes are venomous, though not a whole lot is known about their venom. The venom is neurotoxic, and can vary in strength depending on the snake, its locality, and even weather and altitude. Bites can be fatal to people, causing hemorrhaging of internal organs, and there is no specific antivenin for Atheris species. Fortunately bites from this species are rare, thanks to their isolated location and nocturnal nature.

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Don’t the scales look a bit like miniature leaves? Helpful when you live in a forest! Image source

Bush vipers use their venom to hunt, typically hanging from trees until they can ambush prey. Once the victims are killed by the snakes’ venom, they are swallowed whole. Spiny bush vipers eat a variety of small animals, including mammals, frogs, and lizards.

While I might not want to meet a spiny bush viper in the wild, I can’t deny that they are unique, beautiful animals. I wonder what those spiny scales feel like? It’s probably not a good idea to get close enough to find out.

Turaco (family Musophagidae)

Turacos fit many of the criteria I look for when I’m searching for an animal to write about. They have a funny name, they are quite beautiful and interesting looking, and they are neat animals. So let’s learn about turacos!

Turacos are members of the family Musophagidae, and may be in an order of their own, though this is still disputed. There are about 18 species of turaco, separated into eight genera. They are found in sub-Saharan Africa, and like to hang around in forests, woodlands, and savanna. They are not great fliers, but are excellent climbers and move well on the ground.

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A great blue turaco, the largest species of turaco. Image source: Wikipedia

Turacos can grow to be reasonably large, ranging in length from 40-75 cm. These birds have a very flexible fourth toe, which can either be held at the back or the front of the foot. While some turacos are plainly coloured, with grey and white feathers, others are much more colourful. Brightly coloured turacos are mainly blue, purple or green. Almost all species have some form of ornamentation, from fancy crests to long, beautiful tails.

The pigment that makes green turacos green is called turacoverdin. This is the only true green pigment currently known in birds. Other birds that appear green simply have yellow pigments in their feathers, combined with fancy feathers that scatter light, making them appear blue. Another pigment, turacin, makes the turacos’ feathers red. In all other birds, red colour is caused by carotenoids (the pigment responsible for making carrots orange). So turacos are special, because they’re not cool enough to have refracting feathers, and they are cool enough to have a different red pigment from the rest of the bird world.

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A green turaco, showing off his turacoverdin-coloured feathers. Image credit: Ian Wilson via Wikipedia 

The name Musophagidae means ‘banana eater’, and true to that name, turacos like to eat bananas. They are also quite fond of grapes and papayas. Other foods turacos have been known to eat include leaves, flowers, and various invertebrates, such as slugs and insects. Turacos are so in love with bananas that if you feed them enough, they will become tame, and will take bananas right out of your hand.

Turacos live in flocks, usually of up to ten birds. They are known to be noisy, but the loudest of the family are the go-away-birds. These birds make very loud alarm calls, which serve to warn any animal in the vicinity that a predator a approaches. The birds get their common name from this call, as the screech sounds like ‘go-way’.

Turacos really are pretty (if somewhat funny looking) birds. I suggest you go look up pictures of different turaco species, because they are all beautiful, and I can’t include all of them here.

Cover image credit: Dick Daniels via Wikipedia