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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Scarlet Ibis

Today I felt like writing about a beautiful, exotic bird, and with its vivid red plumage, the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is definitely worthy for this description. They obtain their stunning scarlet pigment from eating crustaceans (mainly shrimp and red shellfish) but their diet also heavily consists of insects. Their distinctive long, thin bills are cleverly used like a probe, to rummage for food in mud or under plants.

Scarlet Ibis
What an extraordinary scarlet plumage!

This wading bird inhabits a vast range across northern South America and many Caribbean islands. They live in flocks of 30 or more and are highly sociable birds, often they will congregate into much larger flocks with thousands of individuals creating a magical sea of radiant crimson. These flocks can be found in wetlands and other marshy habitats like rainforests and mangroves. Interestingly, they may also assemble with other South American wading birds such as spoonbills, storks, egrets, herons and ducks which give them the advantage of safety in numbers.

The scarlet ibis is a national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, along with the Cocrico (Ortalis ruficauda).  Although adults are almost entirely scarlet coloured (the tips of their wings are an inky black colour), juveniles are a mix of grey, brown and white but their plumage gradually changes as they consume more red crustaceans. Their phenomenal colouration makes them the only red shorebird in the world.

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Crimson missiles soaring over mangroves.

Thankfully, their population is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and their numbers are plentiful in many areas. However, in certain local populations they are in decline and Brazil considers them an endangered species. Therefore, we should still show our support for this marvellous species.

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.

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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.

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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 Green Basilisk Lizard

Also known as the Plumed basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) or Jesus Christ lizard (I’ll get to that later), this omnivorous reptile is native to Central America and is part of the Iguana family. In their tropical rainforest habitat, the green basilisk lizard feeds on insects, small mammals, fruits, flowers and even other lizards. They have quite a few natural predators including: snakes, birds of prey and opossums so they need to be speedy.

Green Basilisk
A male green basilisk unwinding in the sun.

One of their most distinctive features is their bright green skin covered with small whitish-blue spots. Males can be uniquely identified by their three large crests: one on their head, one on their back and one on their tail whereas females only have the head-crest.

This cold-blooded creature is quite well known since they are able to sprint short distances across water – hence the alias ‘Jesus Christ lizard’ – which can help them swiftly evade predators. This impressive skill has only been made possible through centuries of delicate evolution. The green basilisk lizard has long toes on its hind legs with flaps of skin, giving them a larger surface area on the water thus reducing the pressure exerted. Therefore, they can travel for a reasonable distance before the force of gravity takes over, but not to worry, these lizards are superb swimmers and can stay under water for up to 30 minutes.

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Our lord and saviour: the green basilisk.

Their name is obviously derived from the basilisk – a legendary reptile also referred to as the serpent king. This fictitious creature was made up in Europe and was thought to cause death with a single glance. Although if you’ve seen the basilisk in Harry Potter, you’d probably agree that he was a little more intimidating than the green basilisk lizard. Nevertheless, this reptile is an undoubtedly fascinating creature.