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

Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis)

I’m sure most, if not all of you have heard of hippopotamuses. What you may not know is that there are actually two species of hippopotami (both plurals are used, but hippopotami is more archaic, and much more fun to say): the common hippopotamus and the pigmy hippopotamus. Today I’m going to talk about the pigmy hippo, because smaller animals are more fun.

Pygmy hippopotami live in West Africa, in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. They are not found in places where common hippopotami live, and so do not compete with their larger cousins. Pigmy hippos reside in low elevation forests, avoiding any open areas. They must be near water, and so are usually found around swamps, streams or rivers.

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A pygmy hippo at the Szeged Zoo. Image credit: Tommy via Wikipedia 

Pigmy hippos grow to be 1.5 to 1.75 meters long, with weights of up to 275 kg. While that doesn’t seem to fit the name ‘pigmy’, relative to common hippos, which can weigh almost 2,700 kg, pigmy hippopotami are quite tiny. They have brown or green-black skin, that fades to a light colour on the hippos’ undersides. Pigmy hippos have longer legs and necks relative to common hippos, and have less webbing on their feet. These adaptations are thought to facilitate movement on land rather than in water.

One of the problems that hippos have to deal with is dry skin. They cope with this in a couple of ways. First, all hippos spend a lot of time in water; this keeps their skin moist and protects it from the sun. Second, both species of hippos produce an interesting secretion, known as ‘blood sweat’. This reddish substance acts like sunscreen, and has the added benefit of making hippos’ skin look pinkish.

Pigmy hippopotami are not social creatures, living alone for most of their lives. They are shy, and are mostly active at night. They spend most of the day in the water, or in burrows that they likely do not dig themselves. They spend six hours a day foraging, eating mostly ferns, leafy plants and fruits. Pigmy hippos do have a multi-chambered stomach, though they are not true ruminants and do not ferment food the same way cows do.

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In captivity pigmy hippos are monogamous, but this may not be the case in the wild. Image credit: Raimond Spekking via Wikipedia

Because pigmy hippos live in forests and are nocturnal, observing them in the wild is quite a challenge. Luckily, they breed well in captivity, and so we have been able to learn a lot about the species based on its captive behaviour (though this behaviour might be different from what the animals do in the wild). Breeding occurs at any time of the year, and gestation lasts between 190 and 210 days. Young are able to swim almost immediately after birth, and stay in water while their mother goes on land to find food. They are weaned at six to eight months of age.

Pigmy hippos are currently considered endangered, as the forests they live in are subject to extensive logging. These hippos are also considered to be quite tasty, and are illegally hunted in Liberia. Hopefully through captive breeding and better protection we can protect these (somewhat) small creatures.

Cover image source: Chuckupd via Wikipedia

Giant African Snail (Achatina fulica)

It’s pretty hard to be afraid of snails. Okay, they’re a little slimy, but they move so slowly it’s hard to get startled by one, and their little antennae make them look pretty cute. But there are some snails I would not be too pleased to stumble across, and today’s animal is one of those.

Giant African snails originate in east Africa, living on islands and the coast. They are found in their native range from Mozambique to Kenya and Somalia. These snails have been introduced to many areas of the world, including China, India, the U.S., and many Pacific and Indian Ocean islands. The giant African snails’ original habitat consists of warm, tropical climates, but they have adapted to many other climates and can live in a range of habitats. If things get too cold for these guys, they can burrow in soft soil and hibernate, and if the weather is too dry, they will aestivate, sealing themselves inside their shells to preserve moisture.

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An adult and juvenile giant African snail. Image credit: Timur V. Voronkov via Wikipedia

 

Their size, of course, is what makes giant African snails so intimidating. They can reach lengths of 30 cm, with shells ten centimetres in diameter. The shell is conical, and has different colouration depending on the environment and diet. Most snails have some shade of brown in their shell, with banding making the shell exciting and pretty.

Though they are large, giant African snails are herbivores, and so aren’t too scary. They have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them locate suitable foods. They are not picky eaters, and will eat living or dead plant matter, as well as fruits and vegetables. One of the primary nutrients these snails need is calcium — this supports the growth of their enormous shells. To get the calcium they need, African snails will consume rocks, sand, bones and concrete. So they do eat bones, which is a little creepy.

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A nice picture showing the size of giant African snail eggs. Image credit: Ken Walker via Wikipedia

Giant African snails have the exciting distinction of being hermaphroditic, with each snail possessing both female and male reproductive organs. If two snails of similar size meet, they will exchange gametes, so that both snails become fertilized. If the size difference is too great, the larger snail will act as a female, while the smaller one provides the male gametes.

Like all things snails do, mating is quite slow. There is a courtship period that can last up to a half hour, with snails rubbing their heads against one another and acting pretty cute. Actual copulation between the snails can last for two hours. The snails can lay 200 eggs per clutch, with five to six clutches a year. Snails grow to adult size at six months, and can live for up to ten years.

Because they eat agricultural and garden crops, giant African snails are considered pests in many places. They also harbour parasites that can cause serious infections in humans. On the other hand, if they are cooked properly, giant African snails are a tasty meal and an important source of food for many. Still, most consider this species a pest, and it is listed as one of the top 100 invasive species on the planet. Good for you, giant African snail. You may be frighteningly large, but I can respect your tenacity.

Cover image credit: Alexander R. Jenner via Wikipedia

Bagheera Kiplingi (Bagheera kiplingi)

As much as spiders terrify me, they are fascinating creatures. I can’t help blogging about such diverse and amazing creatures, even though looking at pictures of them makes me squirm with anxiety. Today’s spider, Bagheera kiplingi, is perhaps not quite as scary as most, thanks to its diet.

Bagheera kiplingi are a species of jumping spider, and are named after Bagheera the panther from The Jungle Book, and the author, Rudyard Kipling. They are mainly found where their food is found, in Central America. They are present in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

Like most jumping spiders, kiplingi are quite small, only reaching sizes of five to six millimetres. Males and females are different in appearance, with the cephalothorax in males being green and red; and red and black-brown in females. The two genders can be further told apart by the shape and size of their abdomens: they are thin and small in males and wide and large in females.

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A male kiplingi spider. Image credit: Maximillian Paradiz via Wikipedia

Kiplingi spiders are known for having an ethically acceptable diet, as they are almost completely vegetarian. This is very unusual for a spider, and Bagheera kiplingi is the most herbivorous species of spider in the world. They feed on what are known as Beltian bodies, which are protein, lipid, and sugar rich nubs that grow on the leaves of acacia trees and related plants. When Beltian bodies are scarce, the spiders will also feed on nectar, ant larvae, and other kiplingi spiders. So they aren’t entirely vegetarian, but they do their best in a tough world.

Acacia trees have a lovely symbiotic relationship with certain species of ants. The ants feed on the nutrient rich Beltian bodies on the trees, and guard these food sources vigilantly. For their efforts, the trees get a well equipped army to protect them from nasty herbivores. Of course, this doesn’t work too well when kiplingi spiders are around.

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kiplingi spider munching on a Beltian body. Image source

While most jumping spiders use their agility and speed to catch prey, kiplingi are experts at avoiding ants. They will jump from leaf to leaf to avoid ant patrols, and stay away from any buds that are too well protected.  To ensure they aren’t ambushed in their sleep, kiplingi build their nests on old dead leaves, where there are no ants.

I usually have a favourite animal in every group — for example, my favourite fox is the fennec fox, and my favourite large cat is the cheetah. Until now, I have not had favourite species of spider. They have been sorted into Terrifying and Slightly Less Terrifying. But I think I can say that Bagheera kiplingi is probably my favourite spider species. After all, there isn’t much to fear from a vegetarian spider, is there?