The Pig-Nosed Turtle

As you can probably imagine from their name, the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is quite an unusual looking reptile. To some, they may appear a little disturbing, but I actually find them rather adorable. Their odd features are surprisingly phenomenal adaptations to their aquatic habitat, and should be admired rather than mocked.

Pig-Nosed Turtle
Adorable? Yes….no?

The pig-nosed turtle is a freshwater species of turtle native to the lakes, streams, lagoons and rivers of Northern Australia and New Guinea. They are the only extant species in the family Carettochelyidae, which makes them incredibly unique. These reptiles are omnivorous, consuming a varied diet of crustaceans, molluscs, insects, and plant and animal matter. These nocturnal reptiles can reach up to 60cm in length, quickly outgrowing aquariums and fish tanks.

Pig-Nosed Turtle
A new born grasping the art of swimming.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the pig-nosed turtle is their countless number of specialised adaptations. Unusually for freshwater turtles, the pig-nosed turtle has forelimbs modified as flippers, resembling those of marine turtles. This adaptation helps them ‘fly’ through the water, earning them the less common name of ‘Fly River Turtle’. In addition, their protruding pig-like snout is adapted for breathing air while submerged.  Its grey or olive coloured carapace (shell) lacks the hard scutes (plates) of other turtles and tortoises, and is instead more leathery in texture. This gives the pig-nosed turtle a more streamlined shape. These are just a few of the pig-nosed turtle’s superb adaptations.

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Most people have not heard of the pig-nosed turtle and some may never know about them. The pig-nosed turtle was recently added to the IUCN Red List of endangered species and their population is on the decline. One of their biggest threats is the international pet trade – thousands, sometimes even tens of thousands, of pig-nosed turtles are taken from their natural habitat and shipped off around the world to end up in aquariums and fish tanks, resulting in a rapid decline of their native populations.. Furthermore, they are threatened by demand for their eggs. With an undeniably unique appearance and array of wonderful evolutionary adaptations, the pig-nosed turtle deserves to be protected.

The Tiger

Unbelievably powerful and expertly agile, the tiger (Panthera tigrisis the largest member of the cat family and the focus of tonight’s final episode of Dynasties. They occupy a vast but fragmented range from the dense jungles of Indonesia all the way up to the snowy expanses of Siberia – demonstrating their excellent adaptability in a plethora of different habitats and ecosystems. The largest individuals are found in Siberia, where the males can reach up to 300kg, yet still possess the power to jump as high as 10 metres – over five times the height of an average person.

Tiger

Tigers are magnificent hunters, consuming a diet of mainly hoofed animals such as Sambar deer, wild boar and water buffalo, although this diet will vary considerably depending on their habitat. The most striking feature of the tiger is their fiery orange coat marked with charcoal-black stripes. This beautiful fur pattern provides superb camouflage in the autumnal-toned vegetation. Their tail, which is also striped, helps tigers maintain balance when chasing after prey or climbing rocky tracts.

The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, but these mammals are not being given the respect they deserve. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, spread out over six subspecies, with the South China tiger being most at threat (most likely extinct in the wild). Nine subspecies of tiger used to roam our planet, but within the past century, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tiger have all become extinct – forever gone because of human’s actions.

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Tigers occupy a range of habitats from swamps to forests to snowy plains.

It is estimated that wild tiger numbers have dropped by an abhorrent 95% since the beginning of the 20th century and now all six extant subspecies are considered either endangered (the Bengal, Siberian and Indo-Chinese tigers) or critically endangered (the Malayan, South China and Sumatran tigers). The cause of their suffering is due to human conflict; habitat loss and fragmentation; and poaching. Unfortunately, tigers live in some of the most densely populated places on earth so conflict with humans is almost inevitable in our ever-increasing crowded world. Tiger parts are also used in the fruitless and detrimental practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

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A mother and her cubs enjoying a leisurely swim.

Thankfully, conservation organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working closely with governments to resolve human-tiger conflicts and establish larger national parks where these tigers can hopefully live in relative peace – tigers are extremely territorial are require up to 450 kilometres squared each, so large habitats are essential. However, tigers are far from safe and their conflict with humans will only worsen unless drastic action is immediately taken. These majestic cats play such a vital ecological and cultural role in Asia that their extinction would be shamefully inexcusable.

The Painted Wolf

Also commonly known as the African wild dog, the painted wolf (Lycaon pictus) is an endangered canid native to savanna and arid habitats of sub-Saharan Africa. Although these carnivores have a range of different names, my personal favourite is the ‘painted wolf’ because it summarises their appearance perfectly. They have a wonderful, patchy coat expressing gold, black. white, brown and cream tones – like splatters of paint on a canvas. This unique pattern makes the painted wolf an unmistakable carnivore.

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Painted wolves are exceptionally social creatures, living in highly organised packs containing anywhere between 6 and 40 individuals. These packs are usually led by a monogamous breeding pair (a king and queen) which will have a litter of six to sixteen pups (the average being 10), who are cooperatively reared and cared for by the entire pack. The social life of painted wolves is admirable; they will support sick and injured-relatives by sharing their food and their love.

This carnivore is a specialised pack hunter of medium-sized antelopes and although they may not possess the speed of the cheetah, they certainly have more stamina, being able to pursue their prey at 66 km/h over 3-5 kilometres. They are diurnal predators (they hunt during daylight) and have a hugely varied diet including impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, Thomson’s gazelle, kob, reedbuck, lechwe, duiker, oribi and zebra – just to name a few. However, this diet will vary from location to location. They will usually target sick, frail or injured individuals and collaboratively take them down by cutting off escape routes and eventually isolating their meal. Their hunting strategy is one of the most effective in the world, with a hunting success rate of up to 90% in certain areas – a colossal statistic when compared with the leopard’s 30-40% success rate and the lion’s 25-30% success rate. This earns the painted wolves the respected crown for being one of the best hunters in the world.

Painted Wolf

Aside from its phenomenal endurance, painted wolves have a range other adaptations suited for survival. One of the most obvious is their blotchy coat which blends in perfectly with their golden savanna habitat. They also have huge, satellite dish ears and highly evolved noses which gives them a superb sense of hearing and smell. However, arguably their most fascinating adaptation is their ability to learn. These dogs need to know how to effectively hunt certain animals and the best tactics to survive under the harsh rule of mother nature. These necessary skills can be passed down through generations because they are quick, intelligent learners.

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A couple of painted wolf pups.

This species once roamed throughout sub-Saharan Africa but now can only be found in small fragmented locations. In 2016, they were listed as endangered by the IUCN, with an estimated total population of 6,600 individuals. Their ongoing threats include habitat loss and fragmentation, disease and human conflict. Painted wolves are one of my favourite animals – I am fascinated by their intelligence, their complex societies, their stunning coat and their expert hunting ability. With so few left, their conservation is vitally important. I am excited to witness the story of a pack of painted wolves in the upcoming episode of Dynasties – airing at 8pm tonight (GMT+0). I am sure the Dynasties team will perfectly capture the wonder and beauty of these animals.

The Common Chimpanzee

With the first episode of Sir David Attenborough’s new series, Dynasties, airing this evening, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the focus of today’s episode – the chimpanzee. The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is a great ape found in dry and moist forests and savanna woodlands across West and Central Africa. As many of you will know, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing more than 98% of our DNA. It is utterly fascinating to me that we are so similar to chimps. However, it is also utterly terrifying that we have let such an incredible species become endangered – habitat loss, poaching and disease are constantly pressuring the chimpanzee population.

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A chimp wisely pondering in the canopy.

It is depressingly unfathomable to me that we are slowly killing this species – our own common ancestor. Chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures meaning they experience pain. They experience suffering. To think that we are letting one of the most intelligent animals on earth (a species which is even capable of learning human sign language) gradually go extinct is horrifying.

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A mother playing with her child.

Homo sapiens and chimpanzees share the family Hominidae, along with the bonobo, two species of gorilla and three species of orangutan. Chimpanzees are slightly larger than their cousin the bonobo, weighing up to around 65kg. In the wild, they live to around 35-40 years old (depending on their location and other factors) and can live even longer in captivity. They are covered in course black hair, with bare patches on their face, hands and feet.

Chimpanzees are social animals. They live in troops which can contain over 100 individuals, but usually their groups include between 20 and 50 members. These societies have strict, hierarchies, with a dominant male nearly always at the top.  These primates are terrestrial and arboreal, walking on all-fours when on the ground and using their long arms to swing from tree to tree when in the canopy. Amazingly, chimps are one of the few species that uses tools regularly. For instance, they may use rocks to smash open nuts or use sticks to scoop delicious honey out of bee hives!

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A chimpanzee troop enjoying a Sunday dinner.

The common chimpanzee, like us, is omnivorous, consuming a varied diet of fruit, plants, seeds, insects, eggs and meat. They will hunt small-to-medium sized mammals, including other primates using a highly complex and ingenious hunting method. During a hunt, each chimp is assigned a role: ‘Drivers’ (these initiate the hunt and drive their prey forward), ‘Blockers’ (these are positioned below the canopy and race up the trees to block off any strays), ‘Ambushers’ (these hide and ambush prey if they come too close) and ‘Chasers’ (these rapidly move in to make the final catch).

As you can see, chimpanzees are truly magnificent animals and we should be proud that we share a lineage with such spectacular creatures. But as I mentioned, the common chimpanzee is considered endangered by the IUCN, and their population is estimated to be less than 300,000 individuals – an insignificant number when compared to the current human population of 7.7 billion (an estimate made in November 2018 by United Nations). Their population trend is not looking good so we must act before it is too late.

If you’re interested to find out more about the complexly fascinating lives of chimpanzees, make sure you check out Dynasties this evening at 8:30 pm (UK time – GMT+0) on BBC one.

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Sir David Attenborough’s new BBC documentary.

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 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 Whale Shark

The largest living fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is a huge carpet shark which cruises through tropical oceans around the world, feeding on plankton and small fish. On average, whale sharks reach 10 metres in length and weigh around 10 tonnes, however, the largest specimen discovered weighed 21.5 tonnes and was 12.65 metres in length (the equivalent weight and length of a fully-loaded bus)! They are grey in colour with a white belly; each individual also has a unique pattern of white spots. Like most sharks, they have two pectoral fins (side-fins) and two dorsal fins (back-fins).

Whale Shark

The whale shark is a truly phenomenal animal and despite their size and intimidating name, they do not pose a threat to us. Rather, they prefer to use their 1.5 metre wide mouth to trap and digest colossal amounts of plankton as they glide through the ocean. They will also feed on clouds of eggs during the mass spawning of fish and corals. Impressively, their mouth can contain up to 350 rows of tiny teeth yet these teeth play no part in the whale shark’s feeding routine – they have become vestigial teeth over the course of evolution.

Unfortunately, this mighty fish is listed as endangered by the IUCN. One of the reasons for this is because hundreds of whale sharks are illegally slaughtered in China every year for their skins, oils and fins; they are also frequently hunted in the Philippines. Additionally, they are threatened by the impacts of fisheries, by-catch losses which reduce their availability of prey, and vessel strikes. Their gestation period is unknown, but their long life-span and late maturation mean that it will be difficult to raise their population numbers.

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The whale shark’s huge size, combined with its docile nature and elegance make it almost a ‘shark of contrasts’, and it is this uniqueness which means we should help to protect them. Still very little is known about this species’ reproduction and breeding habits since neither the mating nor pupping of whale sharks has ever been documented, making their conservation all the more necessary.