Monday, December 31, 2007

Animal of the Week -- December 31, 2007

Happy gnu deer!

It seems only right that I should ring in 2008 with at least a passing reference to the new species of giant rat and ungiant opossum discovered in the Foja mountains of Indonesia's Western Papua province a couple of weeks back. But there was a slew of marsupial AOTW in may, and you'll already know all about that giant rat, Mallomys -- unafraid of humans, five times the size of a city rat, closely related to several other species of giant rat found on the same island -- so why bother with Mallomys when there are other gianter rats, twice the size, that save human lives.

This week's animal is the 3 kg Cricetomys gambianus (Gambian pouch rat). Distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, from Nigeria to Zululand, these animals take their name from the Gambia where some of them live, the cheek pouches that allow them to transport fruit, seeds, and other foods, and from their rattiness. Although they are not actually that closely related to Norwegian or black rats with which you may be more familiar if you haven't spent substantial time in Africa.

You can distinguish Gambian pouch rats from their close relatives, Emin's pouch rats, not by their ability to make a bed or their sobriety on TV, but by their coarser brown fur and their single-note squeal which contrast with the latter's silky grey fur and multi-pitch squeaking (presumably the link to Emin).

Able to have nine litters a year, these animals occasionally reach pest proportions in some towns and agricultural land where they can destroy crops. The rats have no natural predators, because, while the occasional one might be eaten by opportunist snakes, cats, dogs, eagles, and mongooses, these giant rats, when threatened, band together and rear up on their hind legs to see off aggressors.

If you are feeling uneasy about the prospect of bands of bipedal squealing giant rats, don't worry. Humans have the upper hand, both species of pouched rat are highly regarded as food in much of their range. More pleasingly though, these animals are increasingly kept as pets. Humans have also begun to exploit the rats' excellent sense of smell, in Mozambique they have been trained to sniff out undetonated landmines, and even more implausibly they are now being trained to diagnose tuberculosis by smelling saliva samples. No, really, they can get through hundreds of samples in much less time than humans using conventional diagnostics and they are much cheaper, more portable, and less likely to go wrong in tropical Africa than other tests.

What wonderful rats!

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Animal of the Week -- December 17/24, 2007

You know, sometimes, when the pressure is on, I get performance anxiety and and I just can't deliver? And I am also sorry that I missed Animal of the Week last week.

I've done—in the sense of having covered them in Animal of the Week—turkeys, donkeys, and, of course, in last year's special, 364 animals (, so what is there left for me to do at this time of year? What festive animals are left—the chuckwallah, the mangabey, the roadrunner? Well no, this week I bring you, dear reader, a gift of the animals that bore the Magi with their presents into The Gospel of Matthew, Camelus dromedarius (dromedary, one humped camel)

If you were a wise man from the east looking for a fictional king of kings in the middle east 2007 years ago, guided by naught but a star, you could do much worse than take a dromedary as your steed. Able to travel huge distances in arid deserts, losing 30% of their body water, while carrying a huge load of gold, frankinsense, and myrrh, one-humped camels were the ultimate in desert transport; due to the lack of water, ships are pretty useless.

With their double row of eyelashes, ability to drink 100 L of water in 10 minutes, and a hump containing 35 kg of fat meaning they can go two weeks without food, dromedaries are supremely well adapted to the desert. The camel hoof is less well adapted to the desert as it doesn't half itch when the sand gets in. But dromedaries are pretty much the best animal to have in the desert and so rapidly did the craze for camels as desert transport catch on, that soon after the first bright spark had the idea to domesticate them, all the dromedaries were snapped up, and there is now not a single wild one left across their original range in West Asia and the Arabian Penninsular. There are, however, half a million feral camels in the Australian outback. Having lost their crown as Australia's best adapted desert mammal, the red kangaroos haven't half got the hump. Australia's honey-pot ants, in which a certain caste has grossly distended abdomens filled with a honey like sugar, are thought to feel totally unthreatened by the camels' presence in their status as Australia's foremost dessert animal.

Ho ho ho.

You've seen this before I am sure, but here's a song about the dromedaries' South American cousins, llamas

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Animal of the Week -- December 3, 2007

Apologies if last week you didn't receive an image with AOTW, so distracted was I by the handfuls of straws and the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel all around me that I neglected to send an image. Mind you, as it was an extinct animal, the images weren't that great, but you can see an impression of the beast here:

This week I am somewhat spoiled for pictures. For the animal is a vision of grace and beauty, very much alive, and seemingly up for posing for a good shot or two. This week's animal is Python molurus bivittatus (Burmese python), one of the world's longest, heaviest, and apparently friendliest snakes. In the Cambodian village of Sit Tbow, Chamreun, a 4.8 m long snake has adopted Sambeth Uon as her companion. Having first crawled into Sambeth's crib when he was a boy and she a 50 cm snakelet, Chamreun has returned to Sambeth after each of several attempts by his parents to relocate her from their home to the wild. Sambeth now says that he loves the python like a sister, and the family's neighbours have adopted the snake as a village mascot believing that she brings luck, she also brings a bloody great feeding bill, munching her way through forty chickens a week.

Growing up to 8 m in length, Brumese pythons are typically wary of people and would rarely seek out human company. Even when kept as pets they aren't renowned as the most affectionate snakes. In 1992, a Florida teenager was killed by his pet Burmese python, the 24 kg snake constricting the 60 kg boy. Suffocating him with a series of deadly coils wrapped around his neck and chest. The snake did not attempt to eat the Florida teenager, although there are records of larger Burmese pythons eating adult humans. Burmese pythons are able to eat food up to one quarter their length and the same weight as them, so Chamreun could make short work of Sambeth, but the boy doesn't seem at all worried about this prospect, saying "She is my best friend and protects me from danger. All my other friends are jealous of her." I am not sure jealousy is quite right, perhaps you want to try terrified, Sambeth.

Popular as pets, escaped populations of these leviathan snakes have established themselves in Australia and the USA. An Australian farmer was surprised when, after the disappearance of several sheep, he went out one morning to find a Burmese python with a sheep sized bulge in its belly trapped under his newly erected electric fence. And an Everglades ranger was a little more than surprised when he came across the grizzly scene in one of this week's photographs a couple of years back, a Burmese python ruptured during the act of swallowing an Alligator, both reptiles dead in a gruesome tableau.

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