The Meerkat

A slender, vigilant and gregarious member of the mongoose family, the meerkat (Suricata suricatta) is rarely seen alone. They are found throughout the semi-deserts of Southern Africa where the live in groups (known as ‘mobs’ or ‘gangs’) of up to 50 strong. Although they may only reach 30cm tall, their size does not dismiss their determined and resilient nature. Immune to some of the most harmful toxins, these bold burrowers can take on venomous snakes and scorpions without fear.

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Aside from their courage, meerkats also possess an endearing and selfless family spirit. They work together as one efficient and productive operation; each member has a role to play. Some will babysit whilst others forage. Some will maintain the burrows whilst others stand sentry and watch for predators. If a lookout, standing on its hind legs, spots a predator, it will let out a distinctive bark. At the sound of this thundering siren, everyone scatters, bolting their way to the nearest burrow entrance.

This guarding system is especially important for meerkats who have a whole host of eager predators. Eagles, hawks and jackals are their primary threats. However, a meerkat can spot an eagle in flight more than one thousand feet away, giving them plenty of time to find safety. Planes – appearing like huge birds from below – will also send younger meerkats into panic.

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A pup being taught how to safely handle scorpions.

Meerkats are mainly insectivores, but will eat pretty much anything they can get their little hands on. This includes lizards, small mammals, eggs, plants and fungi. With their pointed nose, long claws, protective eye membrane and a body low to the ground, meerkats are expert foragers. They will scan their sandy habitat like sniffer dogs, digging up and consuming any insects they find. A meerkat has the ability to dig through a quantity of sand equal to its own weight in just seconds.

These dust-coloured mammals live in complex and extensive burrows. The Kalahari desert can reach temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius in the summer months, so these underground burrows provide a cool and serene haven from the relentless African sun. Females give birth to 2-4 pups each year in their burrows. Once born, all members of the mob help to raise the young. Siblings will play with them, teaching them vital skills of agility and alertness.

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On their own, meerkats may not seem so remarkable, but when they come together, they form a formidable and fierce force. Fighting as a mob, meerkats can even drive away jackals.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/m/meerkat/

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

https://animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/meerkat/

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

The Peacock Mantis Shrimp

Aptly named for the male’s kaleidoscope of vivid greens and blues, and their mantis-like shape, the peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarusis an intelligent and formidable predator. Native to the warm Indo-Pacific waters, this mantis shrimp is a marine wonder. Not only is it one of the most captivating creatures of our seas, it also possess some fascinating predatory techniques.

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A male peacock mantis shrimp (adorned with aqua blues and greens).

Also called the painted or clown mantis shrimp, they are not large crustaceans, only reaching a maximum length of 18cm. But what they lack in size they make up for in appearance. Males have a primarily green exoskeleton with subtle tones of sapphire, whilst females are mainly red in colour. They have elegant leopard-like spots on their upper carapace.

Impressively, these shrimps have some of the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. While we have just three receptive cones in our eyes, the peacock mantis shrimp has 16, allowing them to see a spectrum of colours we can’t even fathom – including ultraviolet light. They use these extraordinary eyes to track prey and avoid predators.

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A female peacock mantis shrimp (mainly red).

With club-like limbs the peacock mantis shrimp can deliver powerful punches. Hunting a variety of gastropods, crustaceans and bivalves, they use their strong appendages to repeatedly smash their prey until exposing the soft tissue inside. It is reported to have a punch of over 50 miles per hour – the fastest recorded punch of any animal! The acceleration of their deadly blows is similar to that of a bullet.

The peacock mantis shrimp’s vibrant colours make it popular in the aquarium industry. However, they are not easy creatures to keep. Individuals will eat many of the other fish and invertebrates in the tank, and are even capable of breaking their glass tanks with their punches. Therefore, some more perceptive aquarists actively avoid this cunning creature.

 

Sources:

https://www.aqua.org/Experience/Animal-Index/peacock-mantis-shrimp

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

https://oceana.org/marine-life/cephalopods-crustaceans-other-shellfish/peacock-mantis-shrimp

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

The Ostrich

After the extinction of the elephant birds of Madagascar and the giant moas of New Zealand less than 1,000 years ago, the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is now the world’s largest extant species of bird. Found across the savannas and semi-deserts of Africa, this huge ratite also lays the largest eggs of any living bird. The common ostrich is one of two species of ostrich, the other being the Somali ostrich.

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A male ostrich scanning over the African savanna.

Males of this species can reach a mighty 9 feet in height and weigh as much as two adult humans. Despite its size, the ostrich can hit speeds of over 40 mph – the fastest land speed of any bird. It’s clear to see that this hefty flightless bird is not lacking in world records. Ostriches exhibit sexual dimorphism; the males have a bold, black plumage whilst females have a greyish-brown plumage. Both sexes have an almost bare head and neck. It is thought that these ostriches have the largest eyes of any land vertebrate – around two inches in diameter. Their beady eyes help them to see predators from a distance.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the ostrich is their prehistoric, two-toed feet. Each toe has a long, sharp claw resembling that of a velociraptor. These feet can be powerful weapons. A kick from an adult ostrich can kill a human or a potential predator such as a lion. Most birds have four toes on each foot but the ostrich’s two-toed feet assist in running.

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You could imagine seeing this in Jurassic Park.

Ostriches mainly feed on grasses, seeds, shrubs, fruits and flowers but will also eat insects and lizards when available. Their large size and seemingly vulnerable build makes them a tasty target for a whole host of predators. Lions, cheetahs, leopards, painted wolves and spotted hyenas just to name a few. The nests where they lay their large eggs attract smaller predators in the food chain such as jackals, mongooses and vultures.

Female ostriches will lay their eggs in a communal nest. The dominant female will lay 7-10 eggs in the centre of the nest and the other females lay their eggs around them. These nests can hold up to 60 eggs. This seems like a lot of eggs, but it is thought that fewer than 10% of nests survive the 9 week incubation period, and of the surviving chicks, only 15% make it through their first year.

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A male (left) with two females (right).

Ostriches have developed an ingenious method of incubation to avoid predators. During the day, females will incubate the eggs because their dusty colouration blends in with the sand. However, during the night, males will takeover because their coal-coloured feathers make them almost indistinguishable at night. Ostrich chicks are cute and cuddly in appearance. They are cream in colour with a charming pattern of dark spots along their head and neck.

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Although ostriches occupy a vast range their numbers are declining, largely due to habitat loss. I am hopeful that the ostrich will live on for centuries to come and we won’t have repeat the history of the elephants birds of Madagascar and the giant moas of New Zealand. Today, we are knowledgeable enough to understand the consequences of our actions and we are the only ones able to control those actions.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/o/ostrich/

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

https://animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/ostrich/

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

The Pronghorn

The fastest land mammal in the Americas, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is the last surviving member of a once vast and diverse family – the Antilocapridae. Able to reach speeds of over 50 miles per hour, this hoofed mammal inhabits the expanse grasslands of North America. Superficially resembling antelopes, the pronghorn is actually more closely related to giraffes and okapis from Africa. However, they do occupy the same ecological niche as Old World antelopes from Africa and Asia.

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A majestic shot of a male pronghorn in the snow.

Pronghorns have a reddish-brown coat, accompanied by patches of white on their underside and white neck bands. One of the most distinctive features of the pronghorn is their bizarrely shaped horns. Both males and females possess these unique horns (although female horns are much smaller) which split into two curved prongs – hence their name.

As herbivores, pronghorns have quite a simplistic diet. They mainly feed on forbs, grasses, shrubs and other vegetation. Like other even-toed ungulates (hoofed mammals) pronghorns are ruminants. This means they bring up partially digested food from their stomach (known as cud) for further chewing. These speedy mammals have a few native predators including cougars, wolves, coyotes and bobcats.

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Gregarious animals, pronghorns live in herds. In the summer months, they will normally live in smaller groups but come together in much larger herds during the winter. Pronghorns mate in the autumn. Around 7-8 months later, females will give birth to one or two young, as twins are relatively common. Just a few days after being born, baby pronghorns can outrun a fully grown human.

Pronghorns were hunted almost to extinction in the early 20th century. In the 1920s hunting pressure had reduced their population to a mere 13,000. However, since then, conservation schemes have been implemented and national parks created to allow their population to return to its former glory. Today, it is estimated that 500,000 – 1,000,000 pronghorns roam the plains of North America, although declines have been recorded in a few localised populations. The pronghorn is legally hunted in western states for the purposes of population control and food in a surprisingly sustainable way.

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Their main threats now are habitat loss and fragmentation. The construction of roads, fences and other barriers blocks their traditional migratory routes which is having a damaging ecological impact. Whilst the species is not considered endangered, one subspecies (the Sonoran pronghorn) is severely under threat, with a remaining population of only 200. Dedicated conservation work has helped to revive the pronghorn species so I’m hopeful the same strategy will be applied with the Sonoran subspecies.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/pronghorn/

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

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

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

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

The Green Sea Turtle

Extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is one of the thousands of species which faces extinction due to climate change. This endangered reptile has a vast range, inhabiting tropical and subtropical seas all around our planet. These turtles spend most of their time in seagrass beds, salt marshes and coral reefs around coastal areas. However, with rising sea temperatures, their natural habitat (particularly coral reefs) may soon disappear.

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Most adult green sea turtles are strictly herbivorous. Much of their diet consists of algae and sea grass. Their serrated jaw helps them gnaw through the vegetation. By biting off the tips of the seagrass, they help to keep the seagrass healthy and maintain ecological sustainability. Adult turtles have few predators – only humans and large sharks. In contrast, juveniles and new hatchlings feed a whole variety of coastal creatures, including crabs, small marine mammals and seabirds. The fact that these turtles play such a huge ecological role makes them a keystone species – their presence is vital to the survival and maintenance of coastal habitats.

Green sea turtles undertake lengthy migrations from feeding sites to nesting grounds throughout their life. Some swim more than 2,600 kilometres to reach their breeding grounds. These turtles return to the beaches on which they were born to lay their eggs. To lay their eggs, females haul themselves up onto the beach, dig a pit in the sand with their flippers and fill it with anywhere between 100 and 200 eggs. The female then returns to sea and the eggs will hatch within about 2 months.

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Once the baby turtles have hatched, they face a perilous journey. During the darkness of the night, the babies instinctively head towards the sea. It is thought that they are drawn to the water by the ocean’s light. This comes with its own problem – the light produced by our cities is causing hatchlings to wander astray and towards our busy roads. If they manage to go in the correct direction, they still face predation from the aforementioned animals. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings reach sexual maturity.

Classified as endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), green sea turtles seem to have a bleak future. They are threatened by over harvesting of their eggs, hunting of adults, capture in fishing gear, plastic pollution, habitat loss and climate change. We are losing these creatures at an unsustainable rate because of our actions.

Green Sea Turtle

The incubation temperature of green sea turtle’s eggs actually determines offspring’s sex. Warmer temperatures are more likely to produce females whereas cooler temperatures are more likely to produce males. Increased temperatures caused by global warming are therefore producing more females than males. This threatens the genetic diversity and, ultimately, the survival of this species. A recent study conducted in the northern Great Barrier Reef found that of turtles from warmer nesting beaches, 99.1% of juveniles, 99.8% of subadults, and 86.8% of adults were female.

These threats not only endanger the survival of green sea turtles, but also the survival of entire ecosystems. There are many things we can do to combat the growing issue of climate change. Here are a few:

  1. Produce less waste – eat all the food you purchase and buy higher quality items that last for longer.
  2. Completely avoid air-freighted food – air freight emits more greenhouse gases per food mile than any other mode of transport.
  3. Reduce meat and dairy consumption.
  4. Make your voice heard – Homo sapiens are the reason for climate change but we can also be the ones who stop it.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/g/green-sea-turtle/

https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/how-climate-change-is-turning-green-turtle-populations-female-in-the-northern-great-barrier-reef

https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/fall-2015/articles/animals-affected-by-climate-change

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/green-turtle

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

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/food-miles-the-true-cost-of-putting-imported-food-on-your-plate-5333264.html#r3z-addoor

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