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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, the 14th of April, is World Dolphin Day. This is a day dedicated to the hugely intelligent and wonderfully inquisitive cetaceans that roam our oceans and rivers. Also known as the pink river dolphin, or boto, the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is a freshwater dolphin that inhabits the waterways of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers of South America.
The largest river dolphin species in the world, these marine mammals can reach 2.5m in length and weigh over 180kg in males. They are often called pink river dolphins as the adults develop a pinkish tint, thought to be caused by repeated abrasion of the skin surface. Males tend to be pinker than females because they are involved in more intra-species conflict.
Strictly carnivorous, the Amazon river dolphin feeds on a plethora of aquatic animals; they are known to consume up to 53 species of fish – one of the widest ranging diets among all toothed cetaceans! Common menu items include catfish, piranhas, river turtles and freshwater crabs.
The aim of World Dolphin Day is to ultimately raise awareness for these species and the threats they face. For pink river dolphins, their only threat is us. Fishermen see them as pests, and may hunt them to reduce the competition for fish. Moreover, these dolphins can easily get tangled up in fishing nets or suffer wounds colliding with boats. The petroleum industry is also a major threat – oil leaks cause irreparable damage to the fragile aquatic ecosystems in which these dolphins live.
Amazon river dolphins were once seen as magical creatures by traditional Amazonian people, believing they had special powers. For this reason, they were spared from mankind’s destructive hands. However, now we seem to have forgotten the phenomenal majesty of these dolphins, subsequently they are listed as endangered. Humans need to re-establish the humble connection we once had with our wildlife.
A couple of days ago, Netflix released a stunning new series called ‘Our Planet‘. It is a nature documentary series hosted by Sir David Attenborough that aims to explore earth’s extraordinary species and wildlife spectacles. However, this 8-part series also highlights how our planet’s beauty could disappear if we do not act soon. The devastating consequences of climate change are being seen across the entire world; from the frozen poles to the deepest of seas.
I recently finished watching the second episode of Our Planet titled Frozen Worlds. The final few minutes of the episode focused on a massive herd of Pacific walruses on the north-eastern coast of Russia. It is the largest gathering of walruses in the world – secluded to a small island as the sea ice they usually live upon has retreated further north. One scene showed how hundreds of walruses on cliff faces plummet to their death as they desperately try to return to the sea. It was a harrowing but necessary scene. In this post I want to share the wonder of the walrus and the threats this tusked mammal faces. I want to share how we can help and hopefully avoid further tragedies in the future.
Native to the frozen waters of the Arctic, the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is an enormous tusked seal. They have a huge, blubbery body, long ivory tusks, and a moustache of sensitive whiskers for detecting food. The males can be twice the size of the females, weighing over a tonne, but both sexes posses tusks. Walruses are highly sociable, gathering in herds of thousands of individuals on beaches and ice floes.
Walruses are not particularly deep divers but they can remain submerged for up to 30 minutes. They have a diverse and varied diet. Their menu is predominantly made up of clams and other bivalve molluscs. However, they will readily eat shrimp, crabs, sea cucumbers, corals, tube worms and even parts of other pinnipeds (seals). Due to their size, they only really have two natural predators – orcas and polar bears.
There are three subspecies of walrus. These are (in order of increasing population) the Laptev Sea walrus (O. r. laptevi), the Atlantic walrus (O. r. rosmarus) and the Pacific walrus (O. r. divergens). I’m sure you can guess where all three are found. The Pacific walrus is the largest subspecies of walrus and one of the largest of all seals – exceeded in size by only the elephant seal.
Arguably, the most intriguing aspect of the walrus is their 1m long elongated canines – their tusks. These seemingly redundant teeth are actually a great evolutionary adaptation to their Arctic habitat. They serve a variety of uses including helping them to haul themselves out of water, break breathing holes into ice from below and win battles against rivalling males (bulls) to retain control of their females (cows).
Aside from their ivory tusks, walruses have many other adaptations making them perfectly suited to a life on the ice. For one, they have a tremendously thick layer of blubber to keep them warm in the freezing Arctic waters. Moreover, they will use their sensitive whiskers to scan the sea floor, foraging for a suitable meal. Their streamlined body and paddle-like front flippers allow them to breeze through the ocean with ease (the same cannot be said for on land).
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the walrus as ‘vulnerable’. In the 18th and 19th century the main threat for the walrus was American and European sealers and whalers who hunted the Atlantic population to almost extinction. Although hunting of walruses is still a threat to the species, the rate of killing has significantly slowed down; only certain Indigenous groups such as the Inuit are permitted to hunt them at a sustainable rate. To these communities, they provide a significant supply of meat for nutrition, tusks and bones for tools, oil for warmth, and tough hide for rope and building coverings. Global trade in walrus ivory is strictly prohibited by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Presently, the main threat to the walrus is climate change. Our planet is changing at an unprecedented rate. Our planet’s species cannot possibly keep up. As the Arctic ice retreats further and further towards the poles, walruses have fewer resting grounds to breed. This is forcing them to congregate on crowded beaches, resulting in hundreds of stampeding deaths.
Paradoxically, the walrus’ superb adaptations to Arctic life have been their downfall. As our unsustainable rate of destructive development causes greenhouse gas emissions to rise, our planet warms. Coral reefs dwindle and die. Weather conditions intensify. Migration patterns are altered. Ice melts. The effects of climate change are real and they are here.
We must stay hopeful and determined though. One person can still make a difference. By reducing our energy consumption, using greener means of transport, eating a more sustainable diet, investing in renewable sources of energy, urging governments to help and telling the world, we can help combat climate change. The shocking walrus scene on Our Planet was not enjoyable to watch, but it was vital. It inspired me to write this post and gave me an extra push to make a difference.
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.
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.
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.
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.