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.

The Lion

With the recent release of the live-action Lion King movie trailer and the next episode of Dynasties focusing on a pride of lions airing later tonight, I thought this fascinating feline would be a perfect species to talk about today. The lion (Panthera leo) is Africa’s apex predator and the only cat that lives in groups, known as prides. A lion pride usually consists of a few males, related females and cubs although as the males grow up, they will leave the pride and establish their own family elsewhere.

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Lion prides are exceptionally loving and intimate; they try to keep their bonds strong.

Once upon a time, lions roamed across a vast portion of the Old World; from Greece to India. However, lions have since been eradicated from Europe and only a small population of Asiatic lions remains in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, western India. African lions, which once roamed throughout the continent, are now only found in certain hotspots dotted across sub-Saharan Africa. They are mainly found in grassy plains and savannas, especially areas with large trees, such as acacia trees, that provide a nice bit of shade to keep the lions cool.

Lions are sexually dimorphic – this means that males and females exhibit different characteristics, aside from their genitalia. The main difference in lions is that males develop a thick mane as they grow up whereas females do not. Both sexes display a remarkable, golden coat and a muscular build, sometimes faint spots may be seen on their legs and underparts which they acquired when they were a cub.

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A lion cub displaying their faint spots adapted for camouflage.

Males usually take on the role of defending the pride’s territory whilst females do most of the hunting. Groups of females will often work together to bring down large prey – usually ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as plains zebra, blue wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thomson’s gazelle, gemsbok and even giraffes. After a group hunt, the pride will squabble over the kill, with those at the top of the social order getting first pick whilst those at the bottom of the pecking order (cubs) will have to sit and wait their turn.

Although lions are an apex predator, that doesn’t mean they will pass on a free meal. As opportunists, they will occasionally steal kills from hyenas or wild dogs. Lions and spotted hyenas occupy a very similar ecological niche, and that results in a lot of competition between these two species. These two carnivores will often fight each other for meals and territory, causing some nasty injuries. If you watch Episode 3 of Dynasties at 8pm later tonight (GMT+0), you will see how the competition between these two fierce species can lead to some rather gruesome scenes.

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An image of pure majesty.

Life as a lion is not easy. But on top of all their natural threats, they also suffer at the hands of us humans. Habitat loss and conflict with local people are their major threats and they are thus listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Lions are such adaptable hunters that they will seek out livestock in local villages, and the locals often respond with violence. Lions play such a crucial role in our global culture – in sculptures, in films, in paintings, in literature, in sport and in national flags. They are the quintessential image of bravery, resilience and collaboration. Therefore, lions must be protected and appreciated because they are truly wonderful creatures.

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 Leopard

This adaptable, wonderfully camouflaged big cat has a large distribution – found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the most widespread of the five species in the genus Panthera. Despite their wide range, they are vulnerable, particularly in parts of Asia, and their population is on the decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Leopard

Leopards have a distinctive and beautiful golden coat, covered with black spots and rosettes (rose-shaped spots). This spot pattern is unique to each individual, allowing different leopards to be identified. Leopards are often confused with jaguars since they share this black pattern of spots, however, jaguars usually have rosettes with spots within them whilst leopards do not. Melanism is a recessive trait found in some leopards which can result in melanistic leopards, more commonly known as black panthers. These individuals appear to be almost completely black and their black spots are often hidden by the charcoal coat.

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A melanistic leopard, also known as a black panther.

These predators are usually nocturnal hunters and they will stalk their prey in the tall grass before pouncing. Their carnivorous diet mainly consists of antelope but they will usually take whatever they can get because they are opportunistic hunters. After making a kill, leopards will often use their muscular build to haul their meal up into a tree – protected from scavengers such as hyenas or other leopards.

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A female leopard and her cub.

The leopard is split into many subspecies, many of which are critically endangered. There estimated to be fewer than 250 Javan leopards left in the wild, whilst the Amur leopard population has around 60 individuals and the Arabian leopard even fewer than that. Their former range has dramatically dwindled in the last century and leopards are struggling to cope with this change. Leopards are undeniably stunning creatures with their own unique personalities and behaviours. They play a key role in African and Asian ecosystems and therefore their conservation is vital.