Monday, March 10, 2008

Animal of the Week -- March 10, 2008

Where the hell has the time gone? March is half way over already. But the rapid passing of a few months is nothing for this week's animal of the week Pseudobulweria becki (Beck's petrel), which has been missing, presumed extinct, for the past 80 years.

Petrels are sea birds related to fulmars and albatrosses, collectively known as the tubenoses due to the structure of their nostrils atop their bills. Some petrels are among the most numerous species of sea birds. But not Beck's petrel -- known from two specimens collected in the 1920s, it had not been reliably spotted since 1929. Repeated unconfirmed sitings kept alive the hopes that a population of this species was clinging on in the western Pacific, but the similarity of Beck's and the closely related Tahiti petrel made many ornithologists sceptical of their survival.

Last week, however, Hadoram Shirihai -- an Israeli ornithologist with a rep for discovering new species and the only person to have visited all sub-Antarctic islands to see all the species of albatross -- reported photographing 30 or so birds feeding alongside Tahiti petrels in the Bismark Archipelago northeast of New Guinea. Smaller in size than their companions, he recognised them as the errant Beck's petrel. The group contained adults and juvenile birds, showing that a breeding population is hanging on somewhere in the region. The discoverer of the species, Rollo Beck, suggested that this species bred in low lying atolls in Melanesia. Secretive birds, most petrels return to breeding grounds at night making them especially difficult to track.

Petrels have a habit of hovering above the surface of the sea, their feet just touching the water as they pick off surface dwelling plankton and small fish. This habit is the origin of their name, which is derived from St Peter who was said to have walked on water, his feelings towards plankton, however, are lost to hagiography.

The exciting news about the rediscovery of the Beck's petrel resurrects hope for other missing species such as the Newcastle Brown Whale, the Guiness Black Stoat, the Famous Grouse and the Kronenbourg sixteen-sixty-doormouse.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Animal of the Week -- March 03, 2008

Hello All!

I apologise if any of you chaps had nightmares about the snakeheads slithering their way to your doors with the limb-like fins and toothy jaws. I dare say that the majority of you living in the UK had any piscine pursuers shaken from your dreams as you were shaken from your beds. It is a curious coincidence that shortly before Britain's biggest earthquake in nearly 20 years, I was reading a passage in Darwin's peerless journal The Voyage of the Beagle that described an enormous earthquake in Chile. On February 20, 1835, the edge of Chile was shifted nearly a foot upwards by tectonic activity. Fortunately for Darwin, at that time visiting the Chiloe archipelago, he experienced only tremors of the earthquake. Concepcion, the city above the epicentre was utterly ruined when Darwin arrived a few days later, the devestation too harrowing for Darwin to put into words.

Also present on the Chiloe archipelago on February 20, 1835 were representatives of this week's animal of the week Pseudalopex fulvipes (Darwin's fox or Darwin's zorro). This small fox-like dog, dark grey with rufous trim, is related to other South American grey foxes on the mainland, but is proportionately longer in body and shorter in limb. Until the 1970s, the species was thought confined to Chiloe, but a small population was discovered some 600 km away on the mainland, at the other end of the now submerged land bridge that linked Chiloe to the mainland until sea-levels rose at the end of the last ice age.

Darwin's fox is critically endangered with fewer than 100 in the mainland population and around 250–500 on Chiloe. Charles Darwin was the first European scientist to observe the fox, specifically one fox watching curiously the officers of The Beagle work on the ship, at which point he made his own contribution to the endangerment of the canine that would come to bear his name as this, typically dry yet amusing, passage from The Voyage shows:

A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.


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