The Pygmy Hippopotamus

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 Hippo
Very photogenic!

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.

Pygmy hippopotamus
Some mother and daughter bonding time.

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 Black Rhinoceros

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.

Black Rhino 2

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.

Black Rhino

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.

Thank you for reading.

The Narwhal

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.

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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.

Narwhal 2

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.

The Aardvark

A rather unusual mammal, the aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is a solitary, nocturnal creature, cleverly adapted to a life of digging. They inhabit savanna and bushland habitats in sub-Saharan Africa where they consume an insectivorous diet. They use their powerful front legs and shovel-shaped claws to dig into the nests of ants and termites, and then proceed to use their long, thin tongue to catch and consume huge numbers of their favourite prey.

Aardvark
An aardvark foraging for insects.

Although the aardvark looks like some sort of pig, this appearance is superficial as they are unrelated, in fact the aardvark has no close relatives alive today (being the only extant organism in the order Tubulidentata). The aardvark is a bizarre looking creature with its arched back, long ears, blunt claws and extensive snout but these features are the reason the aardvark thrives on the African plains.

As nocturnal mammals, they spend much of the day snuggled up in underground burrows – created using their specialised claws – and this allows them to stay cool in the blistering heat of the African savanna. They have a few natural predators, including lions, leopards, African wild dogs and hyenas, but aardvarks have thick skin (literally) so have some tactics to evade predators. When being pursued by a threat, they will quickly dig or run in a zigzag fashion to escape their attacker but if all else fails, they will desperately fight with their claws, hoping to hang on to their life for a few more precious minutes.

Aardvark 2
Aardvarks are nocturnal mammals.

Aardvarks are secretive by nature and therefore not often seen by humans. However, their numbers thankfully appear to be stable and they are coping well with our changing world.

The Tasmanian Devil

The largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a nocturnal hunter found in a variety of habitats across the island of Tasmania. They were once native to mainland Australia but became extinct on the mainland around 3000 years ago, most likely due to the introduction of foreign animals such as dingos.

The Tasmanian devil is around the size of a dog and is recognisable from its coal-black fur and white bands on its rump and chest. Their diet is strictly carnivorous yet versatile, consisting of various small prey (snakes, birds, insects and fish), carrion and occasionally household products if humans are living locally. When feeding, these mammals reveal their darker side. They will enter a ferocious rage when defending a meal, fighting off other devils for the best share of the feast; they will not waste a single morsel of food, consuming their victim’s hair, organs and bones.

Tasmanian Devil 2

Tasmanian devils will also become fierce beasts when threatened by a predator or fighting for a mate. This barbaric behaviour was witnessed by Early European settlers and earned them the flattering name ‘devil’. Looney Tunes also took inspiration from this wild temperament with the character of Taz (although this portrayal isn’t all too accurate since they do not spin around in manic circles like a child’s roundabout).

This marsupial can be barbarous at times, but this negative stigma has definitely been augmented by exaggerated stories and tales. In the last few centuries, the Tasmanian devil has been frequently hunted by humans as they were seen as a threat to livestock and food supplies, subsequently they are now considered an endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and could face the same tragic fate as the Thylacine (another Tasmanian mammal which used to be the largest carnivorous marsupial until they became extinct in the early 20th century). The Tasmanian devil was made a protected species in 1941 and their numbers are steadily increasing, but now they face a new threat – DFTD.

Tasmanian Devil
They’re rather cute if you ask me.

DFTD (Devil facial tumour disease) is a deadly disease which first appeared in the mid 1900s and has since lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils and sadly, it is still rapidly spreading. This disease operates in a brutally cruel way: firstly, large lumps form on the animal’s head and mouth, making it difficult for them to eat. Consequently, they struggle to consume any food and they eventually starve to death. A horrifying way to die.

Thankfully, conservation groups are trying to improve the Tasmanian devil’s population by establishing disease-free populations which can hopefully save the species from extinction.

The Bactrian Camel

Unlike the single-humped Dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), Bactrian camels have two humps and are actually divided into two distinct species: the wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) and the domesticated Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). I am going to be discussing both species of Bactrian camel throughout this post, but I will be mainly focusing on the wild species since they are considered critically endangered and desperately need our support.

Both species are large even-toed ungulates (hoofed mammals) native to the steppes of central Asia, yet the wild Bactrian camel is now restricted to small areas in Southern Mongolia and Northern China. Nearly 2 million domesticated Bactrian camels exist throughout Asia whilst there are only around 1,400 wild Bactrian camels left, subsequently they are considered the 8th most endangered large mammal in the world by the London Zoological Society.

Wild Bactrian Camel
A wild Bactrian camel taking a hike in the blistering heat.

Bactrian camels are brown/ beige in colour and have exceptionally tough mouths which can withstand spikes and thorns. Their adapted mouths allow them to ingest virtually any kind of vegetation, including many plants which other animals would not be able to digest. They swallow their food whole and then regurgitate and re-chew it to aid digestion. Occasionally, they are unable to find these nutrients and will instead feed on carcasses, skin and flesh. Starving individuals have even been known to eat rope, leather, sandals and tents. When you live in such an unforgiving environment with very little sustenance, you can’t be a picky eater.

Originally, wild Bactrian camels were thought to just be feral populations of their domesticated ancestors, but recent genetic studies have proven they are two genetically distinct species. Although there are feral populations of Camelus bactrianus, they are not considered wild meaning Camelus ferus is actually the only species of camel which is truly wild.

Bactrian Camel 2
A domesticated Bactrian camel in its winter coat; very similar to its wild relatives.

Both species are very similar in appearance and behaviour, as well as sharing a range of unique adaptations. As you will probably know, camels use their humps as fat reserves which is an ingenious way to survive the harsh desert life. The fat can be converted into water and energy when sustenance is scarce meaning these camels can go without food or water for weeks. Furthermore, by concentrating their fat in their humps, they have less insulating fat spread throughout their body and can thus lose heat more easily, which is vital for the Bactrian camel where temperatures can reach up to 40℃ in the summer. During winter months however, temperatures can fall to nearly -30℃ in certain areas of Central Asia so Bactrian camels develop a thick winter coat that keeps the camel warm and also protects them from sunburn. This shaggy coat is quickly shed after winter as to not overheat. Both species of Bactrian camel are also able to eat snow to obtain water, an adaptation which very few mammals possess. All of these adaptations, and many more, make the Bactrian camel a complete evolutionary masterpiece.

Wild Bactrian Camel 2
Another wild Bactrian camel enjoying the cool breeze.

Unfortunately, the wild Bactrian camel is considered critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and with a 13 month gestation period, it will take some time to rebuild their population. Currently, approximately 600 wild Bactrian camels live in the Gobi desert in northwest China and around 800 in the Mongolian desert. The main threat to their species is hunting but nature reserves have been established to conserve their dramatically small population in the hopes they will one day roam throughout the deserts of Central Asia.

The Kabomani Tapir

Tapirs are one of my favourite animals, and the Kabomani Tapir (Tapirus kabomani) is arguably the most interesting out of all of them. Very little is known about this South American mammal. Tapirs are pig-like, odd-toed ungulates meaning they have an odd number of toes on their feet, other odd-toed ungulates include horses, zebras, and rhinos. The existence of the kabomani tapir was only announced in 2013, making it the first odd-toed ungulate to be discovered in over 100 years. Prior to its discovery, the mountain tapir was thought to be the smallest tapir species, but now we know the kabomani is actually the smallest.

Kabomani Tapir 2

This mysterious mammal is found in the Amazon rainforest, where it shares its habitat alongside the Brazilian tapir (also known as the South American tapir). In zoology, two species which live in the same geographical area and thus frequently encounter one another are referred to as sympatric species. In their forest habitat, the kabomani tapir feeds on palm tree leaves and seeds but still very little is known about their diet and feeding habits. So far, zoologists know that they are a nocturnal species which generally lives a solitary life but more research is required to fully understand their behaviour.

From a descriptive perspective, the kabomani tapir is very similar to the South American tapir (so much so that some scientists dispute whether the kabomani is actually a distinct species) however the kabomani is far smaller – only weighing up to 110kg – and has a darker brown coat.

Kabomani Tapir

Unfortunately, the kabomani tapir faces many threats from humans and they are considered endangered in certain areas. Deforestation, population growth and the construction of dams and large roads are all reducing the tapir’s habitat, a habitat which is shared with thousands of other spectacular species. Moreover, some indigenous tribes like the Karitiana tribe often hunt these tapirs, further dwindling their population.

The fact that this species was only discovered in 2013 makes me realise how incomprehensibly huge our earth is and how much of it is still unknown to us, and for me, there is something wonderful about that. The world is a glorious place, but we don’t seem to show our home, and the life it provides, the proper respect. I know I am going on somewhat of a tangent here but let me get back to my point: the kabomani tapir is yet another species threatened by humans and it just makes you grasp how significant our actions are and how far their consequences reach.