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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 (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!
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.
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.