The Common Chimpanzee

With the first episode of Sir David Attenborough’s new series, Dynasties, airing this evening, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the focus of today’s episode – the chimpanzee. The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is a great ape found in dry and moist forests and savanna woodlands across West and Central Africa. As many of you will know, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing more than 98% of our DNA. It is utterly fascinating to me that we are so similar to chimps. However, it is also utterly terrifying that we have let such an incredible species become endangered – habitat loss, poaching and disease are constantly pressuring the chimpanzee population.

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A chimp wisely pondering in the canopy.

It is depressingly unfathomable to me that we are slowly killing this species – our own common ancestor. Chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures meaning they experience pain. They experience suffering. To think that we are letting one of the most intelligent animals on earth (a species which is even capable of learning human sign language) gradually go extinct is horrifying.

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A mother playing with her child.

Homo sapiens and chimpanzees share the family Hominidae, along with the bonobo, two species of gorilla and three species of orangutan. Chimpanzees are slightly larger than their cousin the bonobo, weighing up to around 65kg. In the wild, they live to around 35-40 years old (depending on their location and other factors) and can live even longer in captivity. They are covered in course black hair, with bare patches on their face, hands and feet.

Chimpanzees are social animals. They live in troops which can contain over 100 individuals, but usually their groups include between 20 and 50 members. These societies have strict, hierarchies, with a dominant male nearly always at the top.  These primates are terrestrial and arboreal, walking on all-fours when on the ground and using their long arms to swing from tree to tree when in the canopy. Amazingly, chimps are one of the few species that uses tools regularly. For instance, they may use rocks to smash open nuts or use sticks to scoop delicious honey out of bee hives!

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A chimpanzee troop enjoying a Sunday dinner.

The common chimpanzee, like us, is omnivorous, consuming a varied diet of fruit, plants, seeds, insects, eggs and meat. They will hunt small-to-medium sized mammals, including other primates using a highly complex and ingenious hunting method. During a hunt, each chimp is assigned a role: ‘Drivers’ (these initiate the hunt and drive their prey forward), ‘Blockers’ (these are positioned below the canopy and race up the trees to block off any strays), ‘Ambushers’ (these hide and ambush prey if they come too close) and ‘Chasers’ (these rapidly move in to make the final catch).

As you can see, chimpanzees are truly magnificent animals and we should be proud that we share a lineage with such spectacular creatures. But as I mentioned, the common chimpanzee is considered endangered by the IUCN, and their population is estimated to be less than 300,000 individuals – an insignificant number when compared to the current human population of 7.7 billion (an estimate made in November 2018 by United Nations). Their population trend is not looking good so we must act before it is too late.

If you’re interested to find out more about the complexly fascinating lives of chimpanzees, make sure you check out Dynasties this evening at 8:30 pm (UK time – GMT+0) on BBC one.

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Sir David Attenborough’s new BBC documentary.

The Leopard

This adaptable, wonderfully camouflaged big cat has a large distribution – found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the most widespread of the five species in the genus Panthera. Despite their wide range, they are vulnerable, particularly in parts of Asia, and their population is on the decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Leopard

Leopards have a distinctive and beautiful golden coat, covered with black spots and rosettes (rose-shaped spots). This spot pattern is unique to each individual, allowing different leopards to be identified. Leopards are often confused with jaguars since they share this black pattern of spots, however, jaguars usually have rosettes with spots within them whilst leopards do not. Melanism is a recessive trait found in some leopards which can result in melanistic leopards, more commonly known as black panthers. These individuals appear to be almost completely black and their black spots are often hidden by the charcoal coat.

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A melanistic leopard, also known as a black panther.

These predators are usually nocturnal hunters and they will stalk their prey in the tall grass before pouncing. Their carnivorous diet mainly consists of antelope but they will usually take whatever they can get because they are opportunistic hunters. After making a kill, leopards will often use their muscular build to haul their meal up into a tree – protected from scavengers such as hyenas or other leopards.

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A female leopard and her cub.

The leopard is split into many subspecies, many of which are critically endangered. There estimated to be fewer than 250 Javan leopards left in the wild, whilst the Amur leopard population has around 60 individuals and the Arabian leopard even fewer than that. Their former range has dramatically dwindled in the last century and leopards are struggling to cope with this change. Leopards are undeniably stunning creatures with their own unique personalities and behaviours. They play a key role in African and Asian ecosystems and therefore their conservation is vital.

The Andean Condor

One of the world’s largest flying birds, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) can reach a wingspan of over 3 metres (around 10ft) and males can weigh up to 15kg! As the name suggests, these vultures are found throughout the Andes mountain range in South America where they feed on carrion. As scavengers, these birds have a vital ecological task by ensuring nutrients is recycled back into the food chain. Andean condors also have one of the longest lifespans of any bird, living up to 70 years in some cases.

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A male Andean condor with a large crest on its head.

These birds have an exceptionally unique appearance which varies between the different sexes. Their plumage is mostly black with a distinctive white collar around their neck; adult males have white patches on their wings and a dark reddish-black crest on the crown of their heads. As with nearly all vultures, their head and neck are bald which is an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the skin to be exposed to the sterilising effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes.

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A male condor in flight, displaying his bright, white wing feathers.

Their talons are long yet relatively blunt and weak, instead they are adapted to walking rather than catching prey. Instead, their main weapon is their sharply hooked bill which allows them to tear rotting meat. In order to locate their preferred carrion, they will use their fantastic sense of sight or by following other scavengers, such as turkey-vultures.

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A female Andean condor with a rather fancy white neck ruff.

The Andean condor is considered a near threatened species (their main threat is habitat loss) but their population currently seems to be stable – large populations can be found in national parks across western South America and quite a few captive breeding programs have been set up.

The Giant Anteater

Native to Central and South America, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is the largest species of anteater, with a tail almost as long as its body. This terrestrial mammal is an insectivore – their diet mainly consists of ants and termites. They use their huge, sharp claws and their long, sticky tongue to dig up and catch up to 30,000 insects a day. They are found in various habitats including grassland and rainforest.

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A giant anteater scouring the plains for insects.

Giant anteaters are easily distinguished from other anteater species by their large, bushy tail, long claws and unique fur pattern displaying shades of white, black and grey. They are usually solitary creatures but at some point they will find a mate and stay with them for a few days to ultimately birth a single pup. Adorably, sometimes the baby will ride on their mother’s back.

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A tireless mother and her tired pup.

Sadly, the giant anteater is considered vulnerable by the IUCN and their species is threatened by habitat loss, wildfires and poaching for bushmeat. Populations in Central America are most at risk, so much so that they have nearly disappeared from that part of the world. This mammal is a well-loved and exceptionally unique species which has a great cultural significance so deserves our protection.

The Sperm Whale

The largest living toothed animal, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is found worldwide and can reach lengths up to 20 metres, although most average at around 15 metres. They are also the largest living predator and hold the award for the biggest brain of any animal! If that wasn’t enough, they are also the second deepest diving mammal after the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale is certainly a fascinating and unique creature.

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A mother with her calf, teaching them how to survive in this blue abyss.

Sperm whales are easily recognisable with their huge square head and comparatively small lower jaw. Their name comes from an organ in their heads which is filled with a waxy substance called spermaceti oil but there is some uncertainty regarding the function of this fluid. Many biologists believe it is used to alter the whale’s buoyancy because the oil hardens when cold, allowing the whale to adjust its underwater altitude. Just before a deep dive, they will display their large, triangular tail flukes in order to propel themselves downwards. During these lengthy dives, they must hold their breath for approximately 90 minutes.

As the world’s largest predator, their diet mainly consists of medium-to-large sized squid found deep in the ocean. These whales use echolocation to target their prey and also for communication with other sperm whales. It is thought that these whales may occasionally collaborate during hunting. Sperm whales are highly social creatures, living in pods with around 20 individuals including females and their young whilst male sperm whales usually live solitary lives.

Sperm Whale

Sadly, these highly intelligent and majestic creatures are considered vulnerable by the IUCN, primarily due to mass sperm whaling between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of sperm whales. Thankfully, the demand for commercial whaling has drastically fallen and sperm whales are protected across the globe. We still have so much more to learn about these magnificent mammals.

The Pygmy Hippopotamus

The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) is one of two extant species of hippo. This rather adorable mammal inhabits forested swamps across West Africa but their population has declined in recent years due to drastic habitat loss. This pygmy species is very similar in shape to its larger relative, the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), and they both share a semi-aquatic, herbivorous lifestyle. However, the pygmy hippo weighs between 180 to 275 kilograms whereas the common hippo can reach an extraordinary 1,500 kg!

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Very photogenic!

Pygmy hippos are nocturnal mammals thus making them quite secretive creatures. Their diet consists of various grasses, fruits, ferns and other plants found in their forest habitat. Pygmy hippos have a dark brown-black skin colouration that is darker than the pinkish-grey hue of common hippos.

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Some mother and daughter bonding time.

This mammal is a cute and unique species but unfortunately they are classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List and face a range of human dangers that threaten their survival. The greatest threat is habitat loss; unsustainable logging of their forested habitat is causing the population of pygmy hippos to become fragmented. Subsequently, each divided population has less genetic diversity, shrinking the species’ gene pool and due to their elusive nature, their wild population size is uncertain. The pygmy hippopotamus is not well known and their endangered status even less so, therefore we need to help raise awareness for this species and encourage sustainable logging throughout West Africa.

The Magnificent Frigatebird

The largest species of frigatebird, the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificensis a seabird found over tropical and sub-tropical waters around the Americas. Interestingly, there are also populations on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Frigatebirds endure infrequent feeding opportunities and long hours in flight which has caused them to inherit a low breeding rate and the longest period of parental care of any bird.

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A male magnificent frigatebird attempting to woo a female.

In terms of appearance, the magnificent frigatebird has a blackish-brown plumage, extensive narrow wings and a recognisable forked tail which look like little legs when they’re soaring in the sky. However, the most prominent feature, and the feature many people associate with the frigatebird, is their intensely vivid, red gular sac. This is just an area of red, featherless skin which connects the lower mandible of the bird’s beak to its neck, and is only present in male frigatebirds. Males inflate this red sac in order to attract a mate – a clever, evolutionary advantage which looks undeniably impressive.

Females are slightly larger than males and do not posses a red gular sac, instead, they have a white breast and belly. They are coastal birds so their diet consists mainly of fish, but frigatebirds don’t usually dive for their meal, they feed on fish taken in flight from the ocean’s surface (often flying fish). These birds may also obtain a free meal by harassing other coastal birds to force them to regurgitate their food and then diving and catching the stolen meal before it hits the surface of the water – a nasty but effective tactic. Depending on their location and availability of food, the magnificent frigate bird may also feed on squid, jellyfish, and crustaceans.

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A female frigatebird looking like a kite.

A recent genetic study of different magnificent frigatebird populations found that the Galapagos population is genetically distinct from the other populations and has not exchanged any genes with their mainland counterpart for several hundred thousand of years, they are so genetically distinct that the Galapagos population could even be classified as its own species. If they were classified as a separate species, the Galapagos species would be highly vulnerable to extinction since the population of Galapagos frigatebirds stands as around 2,000 individuals. For now though, they are all classified under the same species – the magnificent, magnificent friagtebird.