The only species of penguin to breed in tropical waters, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to the Ecuadorian archipelago known as the Galapagos islands. They are also the only penguin which lives north of the equator in the wild. They can survive in their tropical habitat due to the cool waters brought about by the Humboldt current which flows along the western coast of South America.
This flightless bird is the second smallest species of penguin (after the aptly named Little Penguin) and nests in rock crevices found across their island habitat. They can be identified by their bands of black and white colouration. As with all species which live on the Galapagos islands, this penguin has been forced to adapt to this extremely niche environment. Their populations are mainly found along the coast of Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island where they feed on small fish, sardines and crustaceans. When in the water, their small size makes them a tasty meal for sharks, fur seals and sea lions but the penguin’s nimble and swift nature can often help them escape their doom.
One of the main struggles for the Galapagos penguin is the warm weather and blazing sun so they have evolved to use methods of thermoregulation to help them survive. For instance, they stretch out their flippers and hunch forward to keep the sun from shining on their feet, since they can lose heat from their flippers due to the blood flow there. This is an example of a behavioural adaptation which makes them better suited to their environment. They also pant, using evaporation to cool their throat and airways. Although, if they get too cold, they can always go for a quick swim in the cold ocean waters surrounding their home. Cleverly, they lay their eggs in deep rock crevices to protect them from the hot weather.
Sadly, this unique bird is classified as an endangered species by the IUCN, and the WWF estimates that their population is fewer than 2000 individuals, meaning the Galapagos penguin has the smallest population size of any penguin species. Threats to their species include over-fishing, oil-spills, becoming caught in fishing nets and the introduction of foreign animals to the archipelago such as dogs, cats, and rats which attack the penguins and annihilate their nests.
The American Bison (Bison bison), also referred to as the American buffalo, is a large, even-toed ungulate which once roamed throughout the vast grasslands of North America in colossal herds but almost went extinct in the late 19th century due to bovine diseases and excessive commercial hunting for their meat and hides.
Bison are herbivorous mammals which feed on grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. They regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion. Males (bulls) can weigh up to 1,000 kilograms (a tonne) whereas females (cows) don’t usually exceed 550 kilograms.
American bison live in relatively small herds but come together to form much larger herds during the summer mating season. They have a thick, dark-brown winter coat and a shorter and lighter summer coat which helps them to stay comfortable in the varying temperatures of North America.
Culturally, the American buffalo was vitally important to the indigenous people of North America and they utilised each and every component of the bison’s body. For instance, their fat was used for cooking oil and soaps; their horns were used for cups, spoons and ladles; their tails were used for decorations, whips and brushes and their tongue was considered the best part of the meat. Before the 1800s, approximately 60 million bison roamed the plains of N.America but during the 19th century, settlers slaughtered over 50 million bison for food, sport and to deprive the native populations of their fundamental cornerstone. At the start of the 20th century, only a few hundred individuals survived the brutal massacre. Conservation areas were setup to help preserve this mistreated species and now their population is up to around 500,000. However, this number is still dwarfed by their original population and they are still considered a near-threatened species by the IUCN. Subsequently, these conservation projects must be continued and supported by us so the American bison may return to its former range.
Defined as a new species in 2017 (distinct from the Bornean and Sumatran oragutans), the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) is a critically endangered great ape which is native to South Tapanuli in Sumatra.
In 2017, genetic studies compared the genomes of the three extant orangutan species which showed that the Tapanuli orangutan diverged from the Sumatran species over 3.4 million years ago and become isolated from the Bornean orangutans around 674,000 years ago. The skull of the Tapanuli orangutan was also compared with the other two species and it was found that the skull and teeth were significantly different from their ancestors. Subsequently, the Tapanuli orangutan was declared as a separate species in late 2017.
Similar to Sumatran orangutans in physical appearance, this primate has the typical long, orange fur, however, they have smaller heads and flatter faces than the Sumatran species. Unlike Bornean orangutans, both the males and females of the Tapanuli species have the ginger, ‘Gandalf’ beards.
Unfortunately, with fewer than 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and is the rarest species of great ape. The entire species is restricted to an area of around 1,000 kilometres squared. Their endangered status is, once again, due to human activity; they are threatened by hunting, conflict with humans, habitat destruction, deforestation, subsistence agriculture, mining, mineral extraction and the illegal wildlife trade. Moreover, a hydroelectric power scheme is being planned in the core of their habitat which could massively damage their already minuscule population.
We are also great apes but we have subjected our fellow ancestors to doom. We are responsible to help this critically endangered primate – the Tapanuli orangutan is such a beautiful and intelligent species, we must learn from our past mistakes and not let this species fade away.
Restricted to the dense rainforests of Central Africa, the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is a large even-toed ungulate which is closely related to the giraffe. Although the okapi and giraffe are very different in appearance and habitat, they both possess a long, flexible tongue, ossicones (horns covered in skin), and lobed canine teeth.
The okapi is around 1.5 metres tall and can weigh up to 350kg. They have a chocolate-brown coat with white stripes around their legs, giving them a zebra-like appearance. This unusual pattern acts as an effective camouflage technique in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to which it is uniquely endemic. As herbivores, they feed on various leaves, grasses, ferns, buds, fruits and fungi during daylight hours (okapis are diurnal).
The okapi only became known to the Western world in the early 20th century due to its rare and elusive nature. I find this mammal very intriguing as it seems to perfectly fill its own unique niche and has an impressive colouration. I also like their appropriate nickname – the forest giraffe.
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the okapi as an endangered species due to its low population and critically restricted range. They are threatened by logging, urbanisation, excessive hunting, and mining which have caused the okapi’s population to rapidly dwindle. Along with the giraffes, the okapi is one of the last members of the family Giraffidae so their conservation is vital. The Okapi Conservation Project was established in 1987 in order to protect this wondrous and elusive species. With a gestation period of 450 days (15 months), the conservation of the okapi will not be a quick nor easy process. In order to help the rare okapi, the D.R.C must make a cooperative effort with conservation organisations to reduce the damage caused to their forest habitat.
Extinct in the wild, the Alagoas curassow (Mitu mitu) is a species of bird which used to be found in forests across northeastern Brazil but now they can only be found in captivity. This pheasant-like bird was last recorded in the wild in the late 1980s. There are around 130 individuals, split into two separate captive populations.
They have a glossy, black plumage with a dark, blue-purple hue. The tips of their feathers are brown in colour which gives them their chestnut-coloured underbelly. They also have a large, bright red bill which it uses to consume a diet of fruit and nuts.
In 2000 there were only 44 alagoas curassows but now there are over 130 individuals. However, it is estimated that 35% of these birds are hybrids with razor-billed curassows (Mitu tuberosum). A reintroduction plan is being organised but there are many potential problems due to this species’ massively reduced gene pool and there are human threats (for instance, deforestation) which have limited possible reintroduction zones.
Alagoas curassows have been eliminated from the wild due to deforestation in northeastern Brazil since forests were destroyed to make way for sugarcane plantations. Pesticides used in sugarcane fields had a detrimental effect on their remaining habitat, and hunting also played a part in their demise. Deforestation and poaching almost led this bird to extinction and illegal hunting would be another concern if they were reintroduced into the wild. It is deeply saddening to think about how humans have caused this bird to become extinct in the wild but hopefully we can learn from this tragedy and one day allow this bird to roam freely through the lowland forests of Brazil once again.