The Orca

Commonly referred to as the ‘killer whale’, the orca (Orcinus orca) is a fearsome but misunderstood creature. I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘killer whale’, so I will only be using ‘orca’ in the rest of this post. The orca is a toothed mammal which actually belongs to the dolphin family and not the whale family. They are the largest species of dolphin, reaching up to 10 metres (33ft) in length – around the same length as your average bus.

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Orcas have a large dorsal fin which pokes out of the water.

Boldly marked, these marine mammals are easily recognisable. They have a black and white colouring, with a distinctive white patch just above each of their eyes. In addition, they have a tall dorsal fin, up to 1.8 metres tall, which can be used to identify individuals. Orcas are one of the world’s most widely distributed species (besides humans); they can be found in all of our oceans and nearly all seas – exceptions being the Baltic and Black sea. Their vast distribution is a testament to the orca’s fantastic adaptability.

Orcas are at the top of the marine food chain – making them apex predators. They feed on fish, seals, sea lions, sharks and even other cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises). However, their diet varies from location to location, as different populations have specialised to hunt certain prey.

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Orcas live in large, sociable pods.

Known as the wolves of the sea, orcas have a developed a cunning and effective hunting strategy. They hunt in pods, some pods can contain up to 40 individuals. These pods are able to wipe out whole schools of herring, huge elephant seals, great white sharks and even sperm whales. Orcas will use echolocation to communicate and hunt, making sounds travel underwater until they encounter an object, then these sound waves will bounce back, revealing the object’s location, size and shape. When these mammals work together they make a formidable force.

However, orcas are not just excellent predators; they also have a caring, sociable and empathetic side. Adolescent females often assist mothers in looking after their young and each pod makes distinctive noises to greet and communicate with each other. Moreover, orcas are highly intelligent. They live in complex societies and can be very playful – both with other orcas and humans. In fact, they are such an intelligent and complex species that there are growing concerns about keeping orcas in captivity, especially just for human entertainment.

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What a stunning photo.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/o/orca/

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj02rnByXBM

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

The Gerenuk

Nicknamed the ‘giraffe gazelle’, the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is a long-necked antelope found in the woodland forests and open plains of the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Tanzania). At first glance, this mammal may seem rather strange, but their unique appearance only highlights the gerenuk’s superb adaptability.

Gerenuk

Like many other species – past and present – that have evolved to have a long neck, the gerenuk uses this adaptation to browse leaves, twigs and branches growing out of the reach of other antelopes. Moreover, the gerenuk can stand straight using its slender, hindlegs. Overall, this allows the gerenuk to reach vegetation 2 metres above the ground – quite a stretch considering they are less than a metre tall when on all four legs. This adaptation has proved immensely useful for the gerenuk, especially when browsing opportunities are sparse.

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The gerenuk’s long neck and slender legs allow it to reach vegetation high off the ground.

Their magnificent horns, present only on males, are lyre-shaped, resembling an ‘S’, and can reach up to 40cm in length. Their brown coat is coffee-coloured on the top but a lighter tan colour on the sides. They also have a cream-coloured underbelly and a patch of white fur around each eye. Gerenuks have quite large eyes and ears so they can easily sense when a predator is nearby.

Gerenuks live in small social groups – each herd only contains around two to six individuals – and are usually comprised of a single sex. Due to their small herds, they can fall prey to a whole host of African predators. Major predators of the gerenuk include leopards, cheetahs, lions, spotted hyenas, painted wolves, jackals and caracals. Unlike most antelopes, the gerenuk does not have a specific breeding season, meaning they have offspring throughout the year. Therefore, they most constantly be alert for predators.

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A pair of females on the look-out for potential predators.

Although their population is estimated at around 95,000 individuals, the gerenuk is under threat. Their population has fallen by 25% in the last 14 years. As human populations grow, we build more settlements, more roads and more farms which are gradually consuming this species’ natural habitat. Their current conservation status is ‘near-threatened’, but if nothing is done, they could soon be uplisted to ‘vulnerable’.

 

Sources:

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

https://animalcorner.co.uk/animals/gerenuk/

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

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

The Mandrill

The largest of all monkeys, the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) is a vividly unique primate. The males have an unmistakable appearance – easily identifiable by the sky-blue and scarlet-red skin on their face, as well as an ombre of galaxy fading into crimson on their rump. This spectacular colouration makes the mandrill one of the most colourful of all mammals. Controlled by hormones, these colours grow brighter and starker when an individual gets excited. But these monkeys possess far more wonders than just their vivid skin.

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A dominant male mandrill foraging on the forest floor.

Found mainly in tropical rainforests across Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, the mandrill is an extremely social animal. They live in troops (occasionally called ‘hordes’) usually consisting of a dominant male, several females, a group of youngsters, and various non-breeding, lower-ranking males. These hordes can be colossal; sometimes several groups merge to form troops of 200 or more. However, mandrill society is not a tranquil utopia full of fun and games. It has a strict hierarchy. Mandrills have long canine teeth used principally for fighting and in display. Dominant males advertise their dominance with their intense colouration, and a temperament to match. Conflict can be deadly.

Generally, males weigh around 30kg whereas females usually weigh less than half of that, with an average weight of 12kg. Mandrills are one of the most sexually dimorphic animals, meaning the two sexes exhibit different characteristics. Whilst the males have this bulky and vivid image, the females have a far less obnoxious appearance. The female’s colouration is darker, but that does not mean they lack character; female mandrills have the vital role of raising the next generation.

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A female (left) grooming a male (right).

Primarily terrestrial primates, mandrills forage on the ground for fruits, roots, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Although, they have been known to consume the young of other species of monkey, and even small antelope when desperately hungry. Mandrills have short, but fully opposable thumbs – like those of the great apes – for grasping food and manipulating objects. They also have powerful jaw muscles, allowing them to crush tough plant foods.

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Sadly, the mandrill is considered vulnerable by the ICUN. They are often hunted for bushmeat, and many African cultures consider them a delicacy. In some areas, they are considered a pest because they will destroy crops of local villages, and are subsequently killed. Deforestation, urbanisation and the growth of agriculture are also rapidly constricting their natural habitat. Thankfully, conservation and re-introduction schemes are helping to conserve the mandrill population. Charles Darwin once said “no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner as the adult male mandrill’s”. Such an impressive mammal deserves protection.

 

Sources:

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

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

https://www.monkeyworlds.com/mandrill/

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

The Red Panda

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is an arboreal, solitary mammal native to the high-altitude, temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. The red panda’s unique appearance has caused some confusion among zoologists. Up until recently, some zoologists classified the red panda with the raccoons (Procyonidae), whilst others placed it in the bear family (Ursidae, a group which includes the giant panda). However, analysis of their evolutionary relationships showed that they differ so greatly from both the giant panda and raccoon that they warrant their own family, Ailuridae.

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These climbers have superb balance up in the trees.

The red panda is roughly the size of a domestic cat, but unlike carnivorous cats, these climbers feed mainly on bamboo. They are not fussy creatures though, as they may also feed on birds, eggs, insects, flowers, berries and small mammals when the opportunity presents itself. Red pandas are usually crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, and live solitary lives, only coming together to mate. Common predators of the red panda include the snow leopard and martens, but if they feel threatened they will rapidly flee by climbing up the nearest tree. If they have no other option, they may even stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use their claws to desperately slash at their enemy.

Their striped, bushy tails have three main purposes: for balance up in the trees; for camouflage in their habitat of moss and lichen-covered vegetation; and for warmth, especially during the harsh Himalayan winters. Another fascinating adaptation of the red panda is their claws. They have strong, curved, semi-retractable claws which are designed to grasp and tear their main food source – bamboo.

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Red pandas will use their bushy tails for warmth.

With their adorable, patchy face and their fluffy, reddish-brown coat it is hard not to adore these little guys. But sadly, many do not show the worthy respect to the red panda. The red panda is endangered and the wild population is estimated at fewer than 10,000 individuals. Their main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by widespread deforestation as agriculture and human population pressure constrict their native range. Another major threat for the red panda is poaching, especially in China where the population of red pandas has fallen by 40% in the past 50 years.

The Grévy’s Zebra

The largest wild species in the horse family (Equidae), the Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is a perissodactyl (odd-toed ungulate) found only in certain regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. They are one of three species of zebra, the other two being the Plain’s zebra (Equus quagga) and the Mountain zebra (Equus zebra). This herbivore lives in semi-arid grasslands where it grazes on many different types of grass which other species may not be able to.

Aside from their unique pattern of stripes, one of the most distinctive features of the Grévy’s zebra is their large, mickey-mouse-esque ears – much larger than the ears of their cousins. They also have long legs which allow them to reach 40mph when sprinting.

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A herd of zebras, also known as a zeal or dazzle.

Unlike the plains zebra, Grévy’s do not live in harems – a group of females controlled by a dominant male (called a stallion). Instead, they live in herds with loose social structures and lack a particular dominant male. These social groups may contain foals who, unlike their parents, have a brown and white striping which gradually darkens into a black and white coat as they grow. Grévy’s zebras have a relatively long gestation period of 13 months resulting in the birth of a single foal. Amazingly, newborn foals can stand after six minutes, walk after 20 minutes, and they can run after an hour. This adaptation means foals can join the herd and evade predators just after they have been born.

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Foals have a brown and white striping.

Grévy’s zebra once roamed a vast area of East Africa but have since become restricted to the horn of Africa. They are now considered endangered, with their wild population totalling no more than 2,500 individuals. In the past, their main threat was poaching for their striped skin but now their main threats seems to be habitat loss and competition with livestock, cattle in particular. Moreover, with their current population being so small and fragmented, this species may soon find it difficult to reproduce and expand the gene pool.

The Grévy’s zebra got its name in 1882 when the government in Abyssinia (the Ethiopian empire) sent one of these zebras to France. The president at the time was Jules Grévy and subsequently this new species was named in his honour. Although I would have personally preferred Mickey’s zebra.