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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The only flightless parrot, the kakapo (Strigops habroptila) is also the heaviest parrot and appears to be an amalgamation of an owl and a parrot. Kakapos are large, nocturnal birds which are endemic to small islands around New Zealand and with a lifespan of almost 100 years, it is one of the longest living birds! The kakapo is a truly unique bird, being the only member of the genus Strigops, and they were once widespread throughout New Zealand before humans arrived. However, they have since become critically endangered due to the introduction of foreign mammals to the country which prey on this feathered wonder.
This bird can be easily identified by its moss-green plumage, dotted with patches of yellow and black, and its disc-like face (resembling the face of owls). They also have a large grey beak which they use to consume their strictly vegetarian diet made up of leaves, flowers, bark, roots, bulbs, fruit and seeds. During their mating seasons (which are summer and autumn), males make loud booming calls to attract females. Currently, they live on forested islands around New Zealand, but they used to live in a range of vegetated habitats.
In April 2018, the adult population of kakapos was recorded as a mere 149 individuals, making it one of the most endangered animals alive today. Their tragic story began when the first human settlers arrived in New Zealand (the Maori people) hundreds of years ago. But their downfall grew worse when European invaders arrived, bringing foreign predators with them such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats that killed and ate the kakapo’s eggs and chicks. By the late 20th century, less than 50 kakapos remained in New Zealand. Conservation efforts finally began and in 2012 the surviving population was moved to three separate, predator-free islands where they could live their life without human disruption.
Thankfully, there is still hope for the kakapo and conservation efforts are steadily improving their population. As I have learned more about the kakapo, I am reminded of the tragic dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and how they were driven to extinction from the island of Mauritius when humans introduced foreign animals and began hunting the defenceless birds. However, we have the power to avoid a repeat of the tale of the dodo, we can hopefully help these birds and show that we have learned from our past mistakes. Like the dodo, the kakapo has uniquely evolved to be perfectly adapted to its predator-free, vegetated island habitat and it is awful to see their adaptations being used against them.
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.
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.
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.