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 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.

The Giant Anteater

Native to Central and South America, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is the largest species of anteater, with a tail almost as long as its body. This terrestrial mammal is an insectivore – their diet mainly consists of ants and termites. They use their huge, sharp claws and their long, sticky tongue to dig up and catch up to 30,000 insects a day. They are found in various habitats including grassland and rainforest.

Giant Anteater
A giant anteater scouring the plains for insects.

Giant anteaters are easily distinguished from other anteater species by their large, bushy tail, long claws and unique fur pattern displaying shades of white, black and grey. They are usually solitary creatures but at some point they will find a mate and stay with them for a few days to ultimately birth a single pup. Adorably, sometimes the baby will ride on their mother’s back.

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A tireless mother and her tired pup.

Sadly, the giant anteater is considered vulnerable by the IUCN and their species is threatened by habitat loss, wildfires and poaching for bushmeat. Populations in Central America are most at risk, so much so that they have nearly disappeared from that part of the world. This mammal is a well-loved and exceptionally unique species which has a great cultural significance so deserves our protection.

The Sperm Whale

The largest living toothed animal, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is found worldwide and can reach lengths up to 20 metres, although most average at around 15 metres. They are also the largest living predator and hold the award for the biggest brain of any animal! If that wasn’t enough, they are also the second deepest diving mammal after the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale is certainly a fascinating and unique creature.

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A mother with her calf, teaching them how to survive in this blue abyss.

Sperm whales are easily recognisable with their huge square head and comparatively small lower jaw. Their name comes from an organ in their heads which is filled with a waxy substance called spermaceti oil but there is some uncertainty regarding the function of this fluid. Many biologists believe it is used to alter the whale’s buoyancy because the oil hardens when cold, allowing the whale to adjust its underwater altitude. Just before a deep dive, they will display their large, triangular tail flukes in order to propel themselves downwards. During these lengthy dives, they must hold their breath for approximately 90 minutes.

As the world’s largest predator, their diet mainly consists of medium-to-large sized squid found deep in the ocean. These whales use echolocation to target their prey and also for communication with other sperm whales. It is thought that these whales may occasionally collaborate during hunting. Sperm whales are highly social creatures, living in pods with around 20 individuals including females and their young whilst male sperm whales usually live solitary lives.

Sperm Whale

Sadly, these highly intelligent and majestic creatures are considered vulnerable by the IUCN, primarily due to mass sperm whaling between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of sperm whales. Thankfully, the demand for commercial whaling has drastically fallen and sperm whales are protected across the globe. We still have so much more to learn about these magnificent mammals.

The Sloth Bear

After recently watching The Jungle Book, I realised that Baloo is meant to be a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) and his lovable character inspired me to make this post. This shaggy, insectivorous bear is native to the Indian subcontinent where it lives in a range of habitats. Their coat is black with a white ‘v’ shaped line across their chest.They use their huge claws to open termite mounds, letting pandemonium ensue and quickly sucking up the panicking insects like a vacuum. Their diet also includes flowers and various fruits; they will even knock down honeybee nests and feast upon the delicious honeycomb (just like Baloo loves to do). They are a solitary species, usually active at night, and can grow up to 6ft (1.8m) in length.

Sloth Bear

Two subspecies of sloth bear are identified: the Indian sloth bear and the Sri Lankan sloth bear. The Sri Lankan sloth bear is smaller than the Indian sloth bear and has shorter fur. However, both populations of sloth bear are vulnerable and their former distribution has dramatically fallen over the last century, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimates that there are less than 20,000 individuals left in the wild. Mothers usually give birth to two cubs after a sixth-month gestation period and these cubs will often ride on their mother’s back – a unique trait among bears.

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Two cubs taking mother’s express route.

Sloth bears have been exploited as dancing bears since the 13th century; it used to be a form of popular entertainment in India. Dancing bears lived a harsh and unhealthy life. Their teeth were knocked out at the age of one and they were often fitted with a nose ring attached to a leash to prevent harm to the public or their slavers. Some dancing bears were found to be blind from malnutrition. Sloth bear cubs were taught to dance from as early as six-months old. A ban on this practice was enacted in 1972 but the ban was not properly enforced since hundreds of dancing bears were still enslaved on the streets on India during the late 20th century. Thankfully, after a seven-year campaign by animal welfare groups, the last dancing sloth bear was set free in 2009. However, the devastating effects of this tradition are still, at least partly, responsible for their vulnerable status.

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A dancing bear, exploited from a young age.

The sloth bear is also threatened by habitat destruction and hunting – humans have drastically reduced their population by hunting them for food and their large claws. Bizarrely,  they were also hunted for their baculum (the penis bone found in many placental mammals, although this bone is absent in humans) because some Sri Lankan people used it as a charm against barrenness. Today, many farmers also kill these vulnerable mammals due to their occasionally aggressive behaviour and for the destruction of their crops. Fortunately, now there are many conservation charities and projects, such as the Sloth Bear Welfare Project, which aim to protect sloth bears and prevent their exploitation for human entertainment.

The Dugong

Native to the Indo-Pacific region, especially around Australia, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a herbivorous marine mammal which grazes on submerged seagrass – giving them the name ‘sea cow’. The dugong belongs to the order Sirenia (which also includes manatees) and is actually more closely related to elephants than to other marine mammals such as porpoises and dolphins.

Dugong
What a stunning, graceful mermaid?

Dugongs can be easily distinguished from manatees by their large, fluked tail – whereas manatees possess a paddle-shaped tail. Their cylindrical body has no dorsal fin or hind limbs and their downturned, muscular snout helps them to uproot delicious seagrass from the seafloor. Somewhat resembling a mermaid, the dugong is certainly not as beautiful as Ariel but they are still a truly unique mammal, being the only living member of the Dugongidae family. Some believe that the dugong was actually the inspiration for the mermaid myth. They can reach up to an impressive 10 feet in length (just over 3 metres) but their large size and dense bones do make them rather slow-moving, unfortunately not as elegant as Ariel.

Sadly, the dugong has been hunted for thousands of years for its bountiful meat, skin, bones and oil; they are consequently considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN and with a year-long gestation period only producing one calf, it will be a challenge to boost their numbers. Many cultures actually once revolved around dugong hunting, for instance, the dugong was fundamental to the lives of some Australian aborigines. Furthermore, in Kenya, many communities refer to the dugong as the ‘queen of the sea’.

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Due to the dugong being under serious threat, some countries have made efforts to conserve their population: Kenya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have all banned the hunting of dugongs within their waters, marine parks have been established along the Red Sea in order to preserve their species and habitat, and India and Sri Lanka have banned the hunting and selling of dugongs and their products.

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An adult dugong peacefully grazing along the seabed, along with a few friends.

Although hunting is still a large cause of the dugong’s low population, in modern times, they are also threatened by fishing-related fatalities and habitat destruction. Moreover, extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones can annihilate hundreds of square kilometres of seagrass meadows and even wash dugongs ashore. With the present issue of climate change, these once sporadic weather events will occur more frequently and more violently. The dugongs are yet another vulnerable species which may struggle to survive our changing planet.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the world’s largest turtle, weighing between 250 and 700 kilograms. Instead of having a bony shell like other sea turtle, the leatherback has a leathery carapace made up of skin and oily tissue. They are mainly grey/black in colour with frequent white spots in places. Their dark dorsal surface contrasts their lighter underside – demonstrating countershading.

Baby Leatherback Turtle

Countershading is an effective camouflage technique incorporated by many species so when light hits them from above, they are harder to detect by predators. This is especially important within newborn leatherbacks as they are vulnerable to a plethora of predators such as seabirds, crabs, monitor lizards, dogs, coyotes and mongooses (depending on their nesting site) and that’s just while they’re on the shore. Once the survivors reach the ocean, they face even more predation from cephalopods, sharks, other large fish and more seabirds.

The leatherback turtle has a worldwide distribution, which includes subarctic waters, and one of the largest migratory journeys. The leatherback’s diet consists almost entirely of jellyfish; Pacific leatherbacks migrate nearly 10,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean from Indonesia to California just to feed on the abundant jellyfish found there. Sadly, Californians use billions of plastic bags every year and many of these end up in the ocean where leatherbacks mistake these floating plastics for jellyfish. This is one of the causes of the leatherback’s ‘vulnerable’ status by the IUCN, but many subpopulations are listed as ‘critically endangered’. By consuming even small quantities of plastic debris, the leatherback’s digestive tract can become clogged, often leading to nutrient deficiencies or death.

Leatherback Turtle

Along with plastic rubbish, the leatherback sea turtle is also threatened by people who harvest their eggs, particularly in Southeast Asia where sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy. This has led to a complete decline in leatherback sea turtles rendering them locally extinct in countries such as Malaysia. Moreover, leatherbacks play a vital role in marine ecosystems by keeping jellyfish populations low so their decline damages the entire food chain and has had knock-on effects to other species (due to species interdependence).

The leatherback turtle is yet another species which is rapidly declining at the hands of Homo sapiens. As the only extant species in the family Dermochelyidae, this reptilian is a truly prehistoric and unique animal which faces extinction, but we can help. By reducing the demand for turtle eggs, minimising our plastic pollution and establishing conservation schemes, we can hopefully help to protect thousands of marine and aquatic species which are suffering the same torture as the leatherback. Even by just refusing a plastic bag in a supermarket, maybe one animal, somewhere in the world, can live a while longer…

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Thousands of species are having to adjust to a new world of plastic.