Monday, January 30, 2006

Animal of the Week January 30, 2006 -- Kakapo

For me, the highlight of a weekend is likely to be the finding of a pub that serves continental lager at over £3 a pint and in which an ironic DJ plays a selection of country classics. Fortunately, most people I know seek more from their life. So while my brain slowly turns to jelly to the strains of Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman, others might be trekking up a mountain, doing an intensive trapeze course, or working in an A&E department in a foreign country (not all at the same time obviously).

The natural home for these adventurous types is, it seems, New Zealand. This remote outpost of Australasia has more than its fair share of geography, and this, combined with isolation, has created a great wealth of exciting wildlife, including Strigops habroptilus (kakapo [parrot of the night]).

The world's heaviest parrot (weighing in at up to 4 kg) is also one of the world's rarest parrots (not quite as rare as Spix's macaw or the echo parakeet of Mauritius). Kakapos are also notable for being the world's only flightless parrot, until about a thousand years ago, the only predator they had to worry about was Haast's eagle (AOTW 03/01/05), against whose sharp sight and sharper talons, looking like a heap of moss and freezing at the first hint of danger were adequate defence. The arrival of Maoris may have signalled the end for Haast's eagle, but where fate gives to the kakapo with one hand, with the other fate fills their home with rats.

As the small Polynesian rat chomped it's way through New Zealand's flightless birds, kakapos just about managed to cope, and when European's arrived they were still quite widespread. The arrival of the pakeha may have been bad news for the Polynesian rat, but where fate gives with one hand, with the other fate fills the kakapo's home with even bigger rats, cats, and stoats.

Now, 84 birds live on two mammal-free islands, having been removed from Fiordland, their last toehold on the South Island, a few years ago to protect them from predation. Kakapos might not fly, but these crazy birds are good climbers. Their future hangs in the balance, but for now at least, on a spring evening, you may still hear the deep booming mating call of the males echoing across the hills of Chalky and Codfish islands.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Animal of the Week January 23, 2006 -- Stupid Tw* the Whale

A momentous weekend for the Thames just gone. First and foremost, yours truly shifted allegiance from the tropical southern hinterland of Kennington to the windblasted northern borough of Islington. No doubt the neighbourhood taxidermist that I pass each morning and evening will provide much inspiration for future animals.

The subject of the second most prominent London Thames story of the weekend was perhaps a little too big for the art of Get Stuffed: this week's animal Hyperoodon ampullatus (northern bottlenose whale). I don't want to focus on Wally the Whale, who sadly died after beaching in Battersea (clearly it was sick), because she (for indeed it was a lady whale) sadly died.

These whales belong to a group known as beaked whales, which are less glamorous than your rorquals, less amusingly monikered than your sperm whales, and less squeaky than your dolphins so less well known than the lot of them; but they are related to dolphins and other toothed whales. Northern bottlenose whales generally live in the north Atlantic (a similar species lives in the south Atlantic, there will be no prizes for guessing what it is called) where they dive over 1000 m to find squid and sea cucumbers to eat.

Back in the day, northern bottlenose whales were regularly targetted by whalers because of two ill advised habits: swimming sluggishly around large vessels and a tendency for the pod to gather around to help injured family members -- Doh! Fortunately, they are still relatively common; although not in the Thames.

The UK's media had a field day when one bottlenose whale swam into central London this weekend, and the nation is now in a state of mourning for "Wally the Whale". Predictably, the tabloid press chose a facile alliterative name for the doomed cetacean, and although there is a nice hint at the foolishness of a marine creature landing in Battersea, I wish people would be a little more inventive. Should this happen again, I propose calling the creature Bloody Stupid Tw* the Whale.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Animal of the Week January 16, 2006 -- Pete Burns' Monkey Coat

I never thought I would be scraping such depths... but the inspiration for this week's animal of the week comes from bloomin' Celebrity Big Brother.

Yes, another bunch of desperate freaks have entered the Hertfordshire hell pit in an attempt to resuscitate careers that most of us thought had been wiped off the mortuary slab as the smell of chlorine was being Gladed away from the adjacent morgue. Along with the psychotically fame-hungry role call, this year there are the surprising additions of "credible" musician Preston of the Ordinary Boys, noncelebrity Paris Hilton lookalike Chantelle, and smarmy hypocrite terrorist-sympathiser MP George Galloway.

But to none of these luminaries does the dubious honour of animal of the week fall, rather, this week's animal is Colobus guereza (black and white colobus or guereza) as featured on Pete Burns' "gorilla" coat. Burns, himself more mineral than animal, shocked housemates and viewers when he donned the full-length fur claiming it was gorilla. Now, I happened to be watching at the time, and with no little indignation I said to my flatmate "that's no gorilla, that's the pelts of several colobus monkeys" and went and got the photos that I took of the aforementioned simians during my trip to Kenya.

Colobus monkeys are found across the central band of Africa from Kenya in the east to the west coast. The name colobus comes from the Greek "kolobus" meaning mutilated; this was not a prediction that one day their pelts would adorn the shoulders of self-mutilated 80s pop has been, rather a reference to the fact that they have no thumbs; the monkeys seem to do just fine without thumbs, although they make shocking bridge partners. Also, I don't think Monsieur Borel ever specified the type of monkey, but I reckon these guys would probably take a little longer than infinity to type the complete works of Shakespeare, or at least have to do it without spaces.

Joke courtesy of Talha Burki:
"You know that theory about a monkey given a typewriter and infinite time typing the complete works of Shakespeare? Do you think if you gave Shakespeare a guitar and infinite time he'd come up with the complete works of The Monkees..."

Monday, January 09, 2006

Animal of the Week January 09, 2006 -- Seychelle's tortoise

Hello one and all... I hope you have had a marvellous few weeks, I think I have. I'm a little rusty at this so am going to ease myself in slowly with this week's animal Dipsochelys hololissa (Seychelles giant tortoise).

Once upon a time, the islands of the Indian Ocean were home to many isolated species of giant tortoise. However, during the heyday of seafaring, traders and explorers found that such creatures were great living larders, as they were easier to keep on board than say sheep or quorn-manufacturing facilities. And so, many species of giant tortoise were condemned to the maritime marmite of history.

Until a few years ago, the famous Galapagos giant tortoises, which are unrelated but another example of the tendancy for small animals to become large when isolated on islands, and the Aldabran giant tortoises (from Aldabra -- one of the Seychelles' closest island neighbours) were thought to be the only species left. However, zookeepers around the world have noticed some strange looking tortoises originally classified as "Aldabran". In the past eight years, as many as 40 Seychelles' giant tortoises have been identified and a breeding programme to rescue the species has been started. Individuals can live up to 150 years, continue to grow for the first 40 years of their lives, and can weigh more than 250 kg.

I like the genus name Dipsochelys (lit. thirsty tortoise [from Greek]), sounds like they're drunk. The picture shows an artists impression from 1875 of an Aldabran (left) and a Seychelles (right) giant tortoise. I like to imagine that the young man in the picture was just about to hide behind the tortoise but didn't get down in time to avoid being captured for all history in the artists painstakingly accurate depiction of 1870s Indian Ocean life.