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.

Magnificent Frigatebird
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.

The Black Rhinoceros

Yesterday (the 22nd of September) was World Rhino Day, a yearly celebration which promotes the welfare and conservation of all five extant species of rhinoceros. It is a day which aims to raise awareness for these fascinating, horned mammals since the number of rhinos across the world is disturbingly low. The illegal wildlife trade; poaching; habitat loss and civil disturbances are all fuelling the decline of this magnificent beast. World Rhino Day is certainly a great way to raise awareness for these critically endangered animals but their conservation cannot just be limited to a day, we must show our support for these rhinos throughout the year.

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I have already discussed the one-horned Javan Rhinoceros in my first post on this blog so today I chose to talk about the two-horned Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). Native to eastern and southern areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the black rhino differs from its larger ancestor (the White Rhinoceros) due to its hooked lip. Black rhinos are herbivorous browsers and this prehensile, pointed upper lip helps them grasp and consume leaves from bushes and trees whereas white rhinos have evolved to have a wide, square mouth, adapted for grazing. This subtle but vital difference between these two species is yet another testament to the intricacy and brilliance of natural selection and evolution.

Contrary to the name, black rhinos range from grey to brown in colour. They bear two horns, with the front one being longer in length – usually around 50cm long – which are both comprised of the protein keratin.

Black Rhino

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists this odd-toed ungulate as critically endangered and their main threat is illegal poaching for their prized horns. In China, some superstitiously believe that these horns have medicinal value and religious meaning which continues to augment the demand for their horns.

However, there is still a lot of hope for these creatures, emphasised by all the global support on World Rhino Day. I loved reading about all these stories and facts shared by so many like-minded individuals. It truly gave me hope that we can make a difference and save all these species on the brink of extinction so long as we continue to show our support and incorporate a global effort. Currently, just over 5,000 black rhinos roam the woodlands and plains of sub-Saharan Africa and international organisations such as the WWF and International Rhino Foundation are helping to conserve and protect this magnificent species. I plead everyone to show their support for rhinos across the world and put an end to the illegal wildlife trade which endangers so many unique animals on earth. One way you can do this is by signing this WWF petition which has nearly reached 500,000 signatures and aims for action to be taken against the illegal wildlife trade.

Thank you for reading.

The Narwhal

A rather strange looking mammal, the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) only has two teeth, one of which grows into a twisted tusk up to 3 metres long in adult males, giving them the nickname ‘Unicorn of the Sea’. This species of whale inhabits arctic waters, often covered with ice, around Greenland, Canada and Russia where it predominantly feeds on fish, molluscs and shrimp. Due to their lack of advanced dentition, they have quite a fascinating way of catching their prey. They hastily swim towards their prey and, once in a close enough range, forcefully suck their meal into their mouth.

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Narwhals belong to the same family as Beluga whales and they are both around the same size. Excluding the length of their mighty tusks, narwhals measure between 4 and 5.5 metres in length, with the males being slightly larger than the females. They are wonderfully coloured with their mottled pigmentation; dark brown-black markings on a white canvas, conveying a method of camouflaging known as countershading which is extremely common in marine animals. Unusually for whales, the narwhal lacks a dorsal fin and this is possibly an evolutionary adaptation for life under the ice.

Narwhal 2

These tusked-whales travel in groups. Generally, these groups consist of 15-20 individuals but colossal gatherings have been recorded with hundreds or even thousands of narwhals all blissfully traversing through the arctic ocean with a common purpose. Sadly, these journeys are not always so blissful since narwhals occasionally become someone else’s meal. Polar bears will ambush their breathing holes and kill their calfs; killer whales will group together to enclose and overwhelm the pod of narwhals. But humans are also a large threat to narwhals, especially the local Inuit people who are permitted to hunt the whales for their meat and tusks.

However, in the future they will likely face far larger threats and far more misfortune due to climate change as their arctic habitat grows smaller and smaller unless we adopt and sustain an environmentally-friendly way of life.

The Aardvark

A rather unusual mammal, the aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is a solitary, nocturnal creature, cleverly adapted to a life of digging. They inhabit savanna and bushland habitats in sub-Saharan Africa where they consume an insectivorous diet. They use their powerful front legs and shovel-shaped claws to dig into the nests of ants and termites, and then proceed to use their long, thin tongue to catch and consume huge numbers of their favourite prey.

Aardvark
An aardvark foraging for insects.

Although the aardvark looks like some sort of pig, this appearance is superficial as they are unrelated, in fact the aardvark has no close relatives alive today (being the only extant organism in the order Tubulidentata). The aardvark is a bizarre looking creature with its arched back, long ears, blunt claws and extensive snout but these features are the reason the aardvark thrives on the African plains.

As nocturnal mammals, they spend much of the day snuggled up in underground burrows – created using their specialised claws – and this allows them to stay cool in the blistering heat of the African savanna. They have a few natural predators, including lions, leopards, African wild dogs and hyenas, but aardvarks have thick skin (literally) so have some tactics to evade predators. When being pursued by a threat, they will quickly dig or run in a zigzag fashion to escape their attacker but if all else fails, they will desperately fight with their claws, hoping to hang on to their life for a few more precious minutes.

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Aardvarks are nocturnal mammals.

Aardvarks are secretive by nature and therefore not often seen by humans. However, their numbers thankfully appear to be stable and they are coping well with our changing world.

The Tasmanian Devil

The largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a nocturnal hunter found in a variety of habitats across the island of Tasmania. They were once native to mainland Australia but became extinct on the mainland around 3000 years ago, most likely due to the introduction of foreign animals such as dingos.

The Tasmanian devil is around the size of a dog and is recognisable from its coal-black fur and white bands on its rump and chest. Their diet is strictly carnivorous yet versatile, consisting of various small prey (snakes, birds, insects and fish), carrion and occasionally household products if humans are living locally. When feeding, these mammals reveal their darker side. They will enter a ferocious rage when defending a meal, fighting off other devils for the best share of the feast; they will not waste a single morsel of food, consuming their victim’s hair, organs and bones.

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Tasmanian devils will also become fierce beasts when threatened by a predator or fighting for a mate. This barbaric behaviour was witnessed by Early European settlers and earned them the flattering name ‘devil’. Looney Tunes also took inspiration from this wild temperament with the character of Taz (although this portrayal isn’t all too accurate since they do not spin around in manic circles like a child’s roundabout).

This marsupial can be barbarous at times, but this negative stigma has definitely been augmented by exaggerated stories and tales. In the last few centuries, the Tasmanian devil has been frequently hunted by humans as they were seen as a threat to livestock and food supplies, subsequently they are now considered an endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and could face the same tragic fate as the Thylacine (another Tasmanian mammal which used to be the largest carnivorous marsupial until they became extinct in the early 20th century). The Tasmanian devil was made a protected species in 1941 and their numbers are steadily increasing, but now they face a new threat – DFTD.

Tasmanian Devil
They’re rather cute if you ask me.

DFTD (Devil facial tumour disease) is a deadly disease which first appeared in the mid 1900s and has since lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils and sadly, it is still rapidly spreading. This disease operates in a brutally cruel way: firstly, large lumps form on the animal’s head and mouth, making it difficult for them to eat. Consequently, they struggle to consume any food and they eventually starve to death. A horrifying way to die.

Thankfully, conservation groups are trying to improve the Tasmanian devil’s population by establishing disease-free populations which can hopefully save the species from extinction.