Monday, October 29, 2007

Animal of the Week -- October 29, 2007


Bets have no doubt been placed on what this week's animal of the week will be. I hear Ladbrookes were offering 3 to 1 on the least weasel, and William Hill had stopped taking bets on the Yeti (a bear with mange? No way Jose! Sunday at 6 pm.
Those among you thinking that I might reprise the Androscoggin beast ( or vampire bat ( in honour of Hallowe'en, are sorely mistaken: I simply don't have enough weeks to repeat animals. No, this week's animal is more frightful and terrifying than the unlikely offspring of the all four. For this week's animal is the undying, undead, perhaps immortal Arctica islandica (ocean quahog clam, Icelandic cyprine).

Over 400 years ago, as Shakespeare was writing some of his finest comedies and The Merry Wives of Windsor, as British settlers were staking a claim to parts of North America, as the Dutch were routing the Spanish at the Battle of Gibraltar, as the Ming Dynasty was ruling China, as Menzies Campbell was contemplating joining the Liberal Democrats, and as Joan Rivers was having her first course of botox, a quahog was taking up residence on the north Atlantic seabed. Little did it know that having weathered four centuries of sucking the life out of sea water, this clam would be dredged up by scientists from Bangor University (oh, the shame, Welsh!) and slice apart in the name of science. Its ignominious end at the hands of marine biologists has secured a place for this mollusc in the record books as the oldest know animal.

For comparison, the oldest know human was Jeanne Calment, a French chain smoker who outlived her grandchildren and eventually pop her clogs at the ripe old age of 122 and the oldest know tortoise was Adwaita, Clive of India's tortoise, which died last year after an innings thought to be about 250 years. This quahog, the age of which was determined by counting growth increments in its shell as one might count the rings in a cut tree, knocks both into a cocked hat and surpasses other records for its own species by about 30 years. Doesn't really have much on the various pine tree species that live upwards of 10 000 years, but who gives a fig about plants?

Well done that clam!

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Animal of the Week -- October 22, 2007

Distressing news Ani-freaks, the devil facial tumour virus that is wiping out Tasmanian devils has spread to a previously uninfected population that had been viewed as a safeguard for the species' future. Now conservationists think that finding uninfected wild devils may be impossible from the middle of next year. Once infected the tumours impede feeding and lead to starvation within 6 months. Eeek! Could this be it for the inspiration for a much loved cartoon character? Could the Tasmanian devil soon be heading the same way as this week's animal of the week, its larger, more ferocious, and more extinct cousin Thylacinus cynocephalus (Tasmanian tiger, Tasmanian wolf, thylacine)?

Neither tigers nor wolves, thylacines were the largest marsupial predators to survive into modern times and were a little smaller than a wolf. Once widespread across New Guinea, mainland Australia, and Tasmania, they became extinct on the mainland about 2000 years ago, and by the time Europeans arrived, their range was, like that of the devil, restricted to Tasmania. Viewed as a threat to livestock, a bounty of £1 for adults and 10 shillings for pups, was paid for their capture; at about the same time in Tasmania the bounty for aborigines was £5 for adults £2 for children.

By 1900, thylacines were hard to find (the aborigines were impossible to find by this time) and a conservation programme was set up in 1901 to safeguard the species for addition to collections and zoos. However, the combination of persecution, habitat loss, and disease had sent the species into terminal decline. Benjamin, captured in 1933, was the last known living thylacine, and he resided in Hobart zoo until his death in 1936. There have been many reported sighting of thylacines from New Guinea to Tasmania since 1936, but none has been verified, although many people believe they still cling on in remote regions, in 1986 they were declared officially extinct and any attempt to study their presence in the wild is branded as cryptozoology.

Although named Benjamin, the gender of the last thylacine was unknown. While we're on the subject of gender, thylacines were one of only two types of marsupial in which the male had a pouch. The pouch was unlike the females' pouches, but like those of the male South American water opossums, the male thylacine's pouch was used to support their pendulous scrotum!

With an enormous gape and an incredibly strong jaw (pound for pound they probably had the greatest bite pressure of any mammalian carnivore), thylacines were fearsome beasts. Although there is no evidence to suggest that they were a threat to humans, as this week's photo shows they could easily fit the head of a prat with a dodgy moustache into their mouths (the moustache is also extinct, or at least hiding very well in a protobeard).

OK, bye then!

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Animal of the Week -- October 15, 2007


I tell you what, I am sorely tempted to revisit an old animal of the week Great quantities of harlequin ladybirds hang in the air outside and off the external walls of the flat looking for a way in. A cluster of the blighters having formed around the curtain-pole fitting in my landlady's room, her application of brief squirt of insecticide spray quickly had a shower of these pernicious beetles clattering to the floor. Don't feel too bad about this, they are a non-native species (unless you live in the far east) and, well, even though it won't make a difference to their inexorable march across Europe or North America, it's one in the eye for the native ladybirds. Obviously, if you choose to annihilate the plagueybirds, be careful that you are killing the harlequins and not native species of ladybirds, which need all the help we can give them.

But why should I give such a creature two weeks? So, this week's animal is Antidorcas marsupialis (springbok). Their name is a conflation of the Afrikaans words for jump and antelope, and springboks are graceful gazelle like creatures from south and southwest Africa. With a dramatic black stripe along either flank and sweeping lyre-shaped horns springboks are instantly recognisable. And if in any doubt about whether you are looking at a springbok or not, scare it. When agitated, springboks jump stiff leggedly into the air with their heads pointed to the ground, taking off again as soon as they land, they also raise a flap of skin along their back that splays long white hairs coated in a floral scent. This activity known as pronking might be a signal to predators that they have been spotted and that the springbok can outrun them, or it might be an indication that the pronking springbok is in excellent health and that the predator would be better off going for a non-pronker.

And what are the predators of springboks that induce such pronking in the wild? Yeah, that's right, lions... If only I could make this topical in some way...

If I had a pet springbok, ok, I would probably have to have a licence, but most importantly I would call him Rodney, I'd take him for a walk down the road to Peckham, I'd stand him outside one of those butchers that sell every kind of meat imaginable, most with the heads still on with their glassy clouded eyes staring accusingly at the pedestrians, until he became nervy and started his display. I'd then stand there and point at him loudly exclaiming "Oh Rodney, you pronker". I'd then run away giggling, a disdainful and slightly hurt springbok trailing behind me on a string.

Thanks chaps,

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

ps, having struggled this far through AOTW, you will be shocked to learn that I am both an editor and a writer. Now that my MSc is over and before I have to return to selling what god gave me for £20 a pop above a Soho hairdressers, I am looking for freelance/temporary/permanent work. Do you know anyone who needs any editing and/or writing done? If so, please let me know.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Animal of the Week -- October 8, 2007

There's somebody at the door, there's somebody at the door!

Those of you who observe the days of the Saints may have marked October 4, the feast day of renowned hermit and animal lover Francis of Assisi, by having your pet blessed at your local catholic congregation on this Sunday just gone. And what pet did you have blessed? Maybe a cat or a dog, or a cat, or a dog, or another dog? Poor priests, the highlight of their day would be some batty ageing zealot bringing in a fluffy toilet-seat cover. Well, here's some wonderful news for priests in the UK, next year's animals may include any one, or perhaps all, of 33 species for which a special licence is no-longer required to keep them as pets. And what a list of species--do you fancy owning a kodkod (a miniature spotted cat), a cacomistle like Paris Hilton's Baby Luv, perhaps a raccoon called Bert, or maybe this week's animal of the week Dromaius novaehollandiae (emu).

An emu is approximately the length of a man's arm from rear to beak, its blue-purple shiny plumage and bright red neck make the bird instantly recognisable. Emu can afford to be showy and conspicuous, because its terrible temper ensures that it has no natural enemies but for a fat green witch, but when threatened the emu seeks shelter in a pink windmill with a bunch of kids and a strange old man who looks for all the world like the love child of Willy Wonker and Wurzel Gummage. JUST KIDDING, THAT WAS A KIDS TV PROGRAMME FROM MY YOUTH YOU SILLIES! (Although I didn't watch it because it was on ITV.)

At 2 m tall, emus are the largest birds of Australia and the second largest extant birds. Like their cousins, ostriches, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis they are flightless. Rod Hull's emu, much like the man himself[thanks A Watts], was also flightless, but real emus are brown-grey with a blue-grey neck, and very rarely have a man hanging out of their bottoms...mind you, some parts of Australia are very remote and a man could get lonely. Able to run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour for sustained periods of time, emus leg muscles make up a similar portion of their body weight as do the wing muscles of birds that have not lost the power of flight, and like turkey breasts, the legs of emus are a tasty low calorie treat. Besides their meat, emus are farmed in Australia, North America, Argentina, and Chile for their leather, feathers, eggs, and oil. Yes, their oil...used mostly in cosmetics and dietary supplements, emu oil is also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.

So, there you go UK folks, no longer do you need to worry about getting a licence for your emu, hiding it when the inspectors come around, or insisting you only use it to watch DVDs. Get one, rejoice, and next feast day of St Francis, take it to your priest and brighten up his day with a little variety. Or simply feast on your emu if you aren't that bothered about saints.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Animal of the Week -- October 1, 2007

Hello one, hello all,

There are probably more than just a few fans of Sandi Toksvig (and no that is not code) among the readership of AOTW, so I would like to apologise up front for the recycling of a joke made by the diminutive Dane on the News Quiz last week. The joke will naturally stick out like a sore thumb among the remainder of my humourless rambling.

This week's animal is Crocodilus porosus (saltwater or estuarine crocodile), the largest reptiles alive in the world today. All around the eastern Indian Ocean and into parts of the western Pacific, these humongous reptiles inhabit the coastal waters and freshwater swamps, rivers, lakes, and billabongs. Pretty much anything is on the menu for salties, from dragonflies and tadpoles for the chicks, to people, dingoes, leopards, kangaroos, and water buffalo for adult males. The largest male ever recorded was 8.6 m (28.3 ft) long, for such a beast Toksvig would have been a mere morsel.

Saltwater crocodiles are thought to be the only animals that think of people as regular prey and they cause about 300 deaths worldwide annually. Although the big question is who would win in a fight between a shark and a crocodile. The largest great white and the largest bull saltie are well matched in size, although sadly for them as love a good "who would win discussion", they'd never meet, crocodiles having a tropical range (and the largest ones mostly fresh water) and great whites being animals of temperate regions. Should the crocodiles meet the slightly more diminutive tiger sharks, the two would probably ignore each other, both preferring easier prey, the shark might take smaller crocs, and the croc maybe smaller sharks (see pic).

Of the 23 species of crocodile or alligator in the world today, the saltie is the least endangered, although in parts of south Asia and the Pacific these magnificent beasts have become locally extinct due to habitat loss and conflict with people Fortunately the vast empty expanses of northern Australia and New Guinea and these animals remarkable ability to disperse through deep ocean water means that the species should be safe.

Where they do come into conflict with human beings in Australia, policy has been to transport them from residential areas and pleasure beaches to areas not frequented by people. However, researchers tracking relocated animals were surprised to discover that some had navigated up to 150 miles to make it back to the area from where they were removed. Turns out that saltwater crocodiles, particularly the males, are highly territorial. They travel great distances through rivers and coastal waters to find patches not already inhabited to which they can stake their claim and once they find them, they stick to them.

Will this discovery see Yorkshire folk forsaking their homing pigeons in favour of these distant relatives of birds for crocodile races? Probably not until global warming really kicks in. Although the ability of these cold-blooded, dangerous, ancient reptiles to traverse great distances to navigate home after long periods of time does at least explain Margaret Thatcher's recent reappearance at Number 10 (thanks Toksvig).


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