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.
The largest species of frigatebird, the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.