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.

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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 Emperor Penguin

Running with the Dynasties theme, I decided that today I would write about the world’s largest penguin – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is a near-threatened species which lives in huge colonies on the Antarctic ice and in the surrounding waters. They are the only penguin which breeds in winter and during their breeding season they form breeding colonies with thousands of individuals.

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Adult males and females are similar in size, reaching up to around 45 inches tall. They have a fascinatingly beautiful plumage with a black head and back juxtaposing their white belly. Most noticeably though, they have those distinctive, bright-yellow ear patches which slowly fade into a paler colour further down the penguin’s chest.

These penguins have a tough time caring for their young. During the bitter polar winters, females will lay a single egg and males will incubate this egg whilst the females go out in search of food for the youngster. Their diet consists predominantly of fish, crustaceans and molluscs but the proportions of this prey will vary between different areas.

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The breeding season is a gruelling but rewarding time for these penguins.

For me, the most captivating thing about these birds it their wonderfully unique adaptations – a testament to the unbelievable power of evolution. First of all, a structural adaptation is the shape of their body; it is perfectly streamlined to glide through the ocean with little resistance. Moreover, to cope with the freezing polar temperatures, they have evolved a thick layer of fat and dense feathers which help to reduce heat loss. However, their thick blubber impedes their movement on land – that’s partly why they waddle around like drunk teenagers. One of their most obvious adaptations is the way they huddle together to conserve their warmth and escape from the winds of winter. The emperor penguins take turns being on the perilous edge of this crowd so no one is left exposed to the elements for too long.

Yet another adaptation is the way they survive the immense ocean pressures when they go for deep dives, these dives can last for over 20 minutes and these penguins can plummet down to 1,850 feet deep (deeper than any other bird)! During these dives, the emperor penguin’s oxygen use is greatly reduced as their heart rate drops from 70 beats per minute at resting rate to 20 beats per minute. In addition to this, their non-essential organs are shut down, meaning oxygen can be focused on their vital organs, allowing for longer dives. I could go on about this bird’s magnificent adaptations but I would be here for quite a while because there are so many.

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When underwater, these birds are agile torpedoes.

Sadly, in 2012, the emperor penguin was uplisted from least concern to near-threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their threats include habitat loss, industrial fisheries, disease, human disturbance (particularly unsustainable tourism) and most significantly, climate change. Global warming is melting the sea ice where they live. The current loss of their habitat is not sustainable and it is not slowing down. The protection and conservation of these penguins, and all other threatened species in fragile habitats, requires a global effort.

Tonight, at 8pm (UK time, GMT+0) the second episode of Dynasties airs where Sir David Attenborough will be narrating a no-doubt thrilling story about emperor penguins and the daily struggles they endure on the continent of Antarctica.

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.

The Andean Condor

One of the world’s largest flying birds, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) can reach a wingspan of over 3 metres (around 10ft) and males can weigh up to 15kg! As the name suggests, these vultures are found throughout the Andes mountain range in South America where they feed on carrion. As scavengers, these birds have a vital ecological task by ensuring nutrients is recycled back into the food chain. Andean condors also have one of the longest lifespans of any bird, living up to 70 years in some cases.

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A male Andean condor with a large crest on its head.

These birds have an exceptionally unique appearance which varies between the different sexes. Their plumage is mostly black with a distinctive white collar around their neck; adult males have white patches on their wings and a dark reddish-black crest on the crown of their heads. As with nearly all vultures, their head and neck are bald which is an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the skin to be exposed to the sterilising effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes.

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A male condor in flight, displaying his bright, white wing feathers.

Their talons are long yet relatively blunt and weak, instead they are adapted to walking rather than catching prey. Instead, their main weapon is their sharply hooked bill which allows them to tear rotting meat. In order to locate their preferred carrion, they will use their fantastic sense of sight or by following other scavengers, such as turkey-vultures.

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A female Andean condor with a rather fancy white neck ruff.

The Andean condor is considered a near threatened species (their main threat is habitat loss) but their population currently seems to be stable – large populations can be found in national parks across western South America and quite a few captive breeding programs have been set up.