The Grey Crowned Crane

Named for its crown of stiff golden feathers, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) rules over the savannahs of Southern and Eastern Africa. They may also be found in wetter habitats such as marshes and around lakes. Although its plumage is mainly grey, it exhibits shades of white, gold, red and black. They reach around 1 metre in height and even wander around like royalty – with their entire body postured upright.

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African crowned cranes (which includes the closely related black crowned crane) are the only cranes that can grip branches, enabling them to roost up in trees. Grey crowned cranes have a spectacular breeding display. Jumping, dancing and bowing are just some of the tactics used to attract a mate. They also deploy a booming call by inflating their red gular sac (the bit of red skin beneath their chin). Once they have successfully mated and created their nest, grey crowned cranes will lay a clutch 2-5 eggs.

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A pair engaging in a courtship ritual.

Omnivorous, these birds have a varied diet. Examples include grasses, seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, worms and small fish. They have adopted an effective hunting mechanism, stamping their feet as they walk to flush out insects and other invertebrates. A similar strategy is used when they follow larger grazing herbivores such as antelopes and rhinos, except they don’t have to do any work. They simply follow these mammals and swiftly devour any small creatures turned up by the passing grazer. This is an example of commensalism. Commensalism is a form of symbiosis (a biological interaction between two organisms) in which one organisms benefits whilst the other is unaffected. In this case, the grey crowned crane benefits and the grazing mammal is unaffected.

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Sadly, these royal birds are endangered. Grey crowned cranes face a plethora of ongoing threats. Drainage of the natural wetlands in their habitat is leaving them with fewer places to nest. Overgrazing by livestock is limiting their availability of food. Pesticide pollution is interfering with the delicate ecological balance of Africa. Live capture and egg collection for commercial trade is also a detrimental threat to these cranes. However, organisations such as the International Crane Foundation are helping to conserve this species. By improving and enforcing harsher policies that strengthen the consequences of the illegal wildlife trade, they hope to reduce the atrocity of this trade. Moreover, they are encouraging methods to minimise the conflict between grey crowned cranes and traditional farmers.

One of the things I can do is to spread a wider awareness for the status of these cranes and the threats they face. As the national animal of Uganda, the grey crowned crane even appears on the country’s flag. They are unique in both appearance and behaviour and play a great ecological role. Their reign is not yet over.

 

Sources:

https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/grey-crowned-crane/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_crowned_crane

http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/grey-crowned-crane-balearica-regulorum

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Topi

Antelopes are some of my favourite animals to write about. Seemingly mundane to some, I just love the elegance and majesty of these hoofed mammals. When I picture an African sunrise, I see antelopes like impala and topi wandering across the amber horizon, just carrying out normal day-to-day activities. I think that it’s the simplicity and freedom of antelopes that draws me towards them.

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A male topi scanning over his territory.

Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) are no exception to this. A subspecies of the common tsessebe, topi may not look like the most glamorous ungulate (hoofed mammal) but they are certainly dignified and graceful. They inhabit the savannas and floodplains of East and Central Africa, where they graze on the freshest grass they can find.

Uniquely patterned, the topi has a reddish-brown coat with patches of glossy black on their upper legs and face. They also have two ringed horns which curve backwards. Topi are surprisingly territorial, including both males and females. Males will often stand on termite mounds to assert their dominance over their territory and look out for predators. Females will also help to defend their territory from any potential threats. Fights can often break out between individuals as they compete for breeding rights.

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It is thought that topi have one of the most diverse social organisations of all the antelopes. Females only come into estrus (a point of the reproductive cycle whereby females are ready to mate) for only one day every year, so mating season can get very intense. Both females and males will compete with each other to ensure their genes are passed on to the next generation. Envious females may even aggressively disrupt copulations – eventually chaos ensues.

Topi are built for speed. Their streamlined shape and lean build allows them to rapidly evade predators such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and painted wolves. Their acute hearing and keen eyesight also gives them an advantage over predators.

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Calves are well camouflaged in their environment.

Topi have quite a long gestation period (8 months) in which they give birth to a single calf. As with other antelope species, newborns have an incredible ability, they are able to wonder around and follow their mother immediately after birth. Calves are lighter in colouration, allowing them to perfectly blend in with their dry and arid savanna habitat. Topi are currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) since their future, like thousands of other extant species on earth, remains uncertain.

 

Sources:

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/topi

https://www.britannica.com/animal/topi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topi

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Slow Loris

Furry but fierce, the slow loris is the world’s only venomous genus of primate. Their genus (Nycticebus) consists of several species, all of which live in South East Asia. Aptly named, this arboreal mammal moves slowly through the tropical forests of S.E. Asia. Their nocturnal lifestyle helps them to avoid competing with other diurnal primates that share their habitat, as well as staying hidden in the darkness.

Slow Loris

The slow loris is a master of stealth. When ambling through the dense foliage, they make little to no noise. If spotted, they will freeze, remaining motionless until the threat is gone. Their natural predators include snakes, hawk-eagles and, shockingly, even orangutans. Therefore, slow lorises must stay sharp and furtive.

Omnivores, slow lorises mainly feed on insects, fruits and tree-sap. They have a few adaptations to ease the process of feeding. Firstly, they have a long, narrow tongue – one of the longest of all primates – to reach tree-sap stashed in cracks and crevices. Their hands and feet have a firm and wide grip, allowing them to maintain balance and lunge forward to capture a meal. This grip also enables them to eat using both hands whilst hanging upside down from a branch.

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Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the slow loris is their venom. The toxin is obtained from their brachial gland (a gland found on their upper arm). A slow loris will lick this gland, activating the secretion of the toxin. When mixed with saliva, this venom can cause painful swelling and near fatal anaphylactic shock in humans – though incidents are very rare. The toxin is used as a deterrent to predators, however parents will also apply the toxin to their infants’ fur as a means of protection. It is thought the venom is obtained from the variety of distasteful and toxic insects that make up the slow loris’ diet.

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The slow loris has a large cultural significance. Thought to be the gatekeepers to the heavens, they are often used in traditional medicine to ‘ward off evil’. Unfortunately, this is causing a decline in the population of slow lorises. Another major threat is the wildlife trade – they are often captured and kept as exotic pets. People sharing pictures and videos of these ‘exotic pets’ continues to fuel a vicious circle, so please don’t like or share any viral videos of these animals circulating online. Along with habitat loss, these threats are endangering the survival of slow lorises. Reducing the demand for slow lorises on the wildlife trade is the best way to stop the constant exploitation of these uniquely stealthy creatures.

 

Sources:

https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/explore-the-zoo/slow-loris

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_loris

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/microsites/the-slow-loris/slow-loris-facts/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Blue-Spotted Ribbontail Ray

Unsurprisingly, the blue-spotted ribbontail ray (Taeniura lymmais well-known for its array of electric blue spots splashed upon its murky yellow skin. These rays are found in the tropical Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean, specifically in sandy patches of coral reefs. Here, they prowl over the sandy floor, using their mouth to extract molluscs, crabs, shrimps and worms hidden beneath the surface of the sand. Although they have a barbed tail, it is only used in self-defence. If disturbed, they will usually just briskly swim away, flapping their two wing-like pectoral fins.

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Also known more simply as the blue-spotted ray, this fish uses its unique colouration as camouflage. From our perspective, these blue spots may seem like a flawed disguise but the potential of this adaptation can only be appreciated below the sea surface. The blue spots break up the ray’s outline when seen from above in the shifting sunlight of a shallow coral reef. This helps them to hide from possible predators – including hammerhead sharks and bottlenose dolphins.

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A bluespotted ray blending in with its sandy, turquoise surroundings.

The blue-spotted ribbontail ray has a tail armed with one or two sharp, barbed spines that can cause rather painful injuries. If attacked or stepped on, they may use this tail to inject venom into their attacker or repeatedly whip them, resulting in physical wounds. Although stingrays are notorious for the painful wounds they can inflict with their barbed tails, they rarely attack people. They will only launch an attack in desperate situations. Amazingly, the blue-spotted ray’s stinging barbs can be regrown if broken off.

Currently, this impressive species is considered ‘Near-Threatened’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their main threats are over-fishing and habitat degradation. In addition, they are popular among private aquarists due to their peculiar patterning, but this is endangering their wild population. Like most marine and aquatic species, the blue-spotted ray is poorly suited to a life in captivity since their wild habitat cannot be easily replicated.

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The main priorities right now should be implementing fishing quotas and specific net sizes to minimise the amount of rays caught by mistake, as well as conserving coral reefs. Coral reefs are one of the world’s most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems and yet are home to 25% of all marine life. If these ocean metropolises are not preserved, thousands of species like the blue-spotted ribbontail ray will face extinction.

 

Sources:

https://thewonderfulwildlifeofsamloem.wordpress.com/blue-spotted-ribbontail-ray-taeniura-lymma/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluespotted_ribbontail_ray

http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/oceans/coasts/coral_reefs/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Polar Bear

Last Wednesday (27/02/19) was world polar bear day – a day dedicated to the world’s largest carnivore on land. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a powerful predator, excellently adapted to the Arctic habitat in which it lives. Polar bears spend most of their time on Arctic sea ice where they hunt for seals. However, they are equally at home in the water. Their large front paws are webbed, making them strong swimmers. Polar bears have even been recorded travelling hundreds of miles from land.

Polar Bear

Polar bears are considered hypercarnivores – animals with a diet that is more than 70% meat. This differs from other bear species, such as the The Sloth Bear, which are omnivorous. Polar bears are apex predators – they have no natural predators (excluding humans). Their main prey are seals, especially ringed and bearded seals. Polar bears have developed an ingenious hunting strategy; they will stalk breathing holes and ice edges, waiting for an unlucky seal to poke its head above the sea-surface to breathe. Their extraordinary sense of smell allows them to locate seals, even below the ice. Once located, they crush them with a mighty blow from above, and drag their corpse onto the frozen ice.

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A polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay.

Admired for their ability to survive the cold and bitter Arctic, the polar bear has developed a plethora of adaptations to help its survival. For one, polar bears have a thick white coat of insulating fur, which covers a warming layer of fat. This keeps them warm in the freezing Arctic Ocean, where winter temperatures can plummet to −50 °C. Their all-white body gives these bears great camouflage in the frosty white abyss in which they live. However, their actual skin is black. Black is the most effective colour to absorb the sun’s warming rays – another adaptation to stay warm.

Young polar bears are born in the peak of winter in a hibernation den dug by their mother. During her hibernation, she nurses her cubs for three months, breaking down her own body reserves to create rich, fatty milk. When spring arrives and their hibernation is over, the mother will spend the next two years teaching her cubs to swim, hunt, defend themselves and build their own dens.

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A mother teaching her cubs how to conquer the perilous arctic obstacles.

During the summer months, the melting ice forces these mammals to retreat to land, where they may come into contact with humans. Unfortunately, as the earth’s rising temperatures obliterate more and more of the polar bear’s habitat, life for these creatures is getting much tougher. They will struggle to stealthily hunt seals on the thinner ice; mothers will have difficulty building suitable maternity dens without the ice thawing or the den roofs caving in. In addition, hostile interactions between polar bears and humans will become all the more frequent as the sea ice melts and starving bears move south to find food on land. The fate of the polar bear is ultimately in our hands – we should do all we can to help reverse the detrimental effects of climate change which threatens so many species around the world.

 

Sources:

https://www.wwf.org.uk/wildlife/polar-bears

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/polar-bear/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_bear

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.