Monday, May 30, 2005

Animal of the Week May 30, 2005 -- Giant salamander

Dear Zoophiles (not in the dirty sense, I hope none of you are like that),

Apologies for the delay, I hope that those who had one had a good bank holiday.

This week we are back in China, but contrary to the case of Gigantopithecus blackii, we are in the present day this time with Andrias davidianus (Chinese giant salamander). I didn't realise it until after I chose this that I have probably been subconciously influenced by my sister who is currently in the region of China and does not remind me of a salamander but has told me about all the giant things she has seen their (river, dam, panda, Buddha). Chinese giant salamander's probably wont be on my sister's sightseeing list, but they should be. These are the biggest of all the living amphibians and grow up to 1.8 m in length. This one is 1.2 m; which gives you some idea of how big the men are! The salamander is in the middle of the picture being held by the two men who rescued it from a road. I would post the news story where I lifted this from but am maddened by the translator's insistence on refering to the Chinese giant salamander as a "reptile". The picture comes from a paper called the Daily Sunshine, which sounds like the kind of paper I could get in to, if only they'd get their taxonomy right! Salamanders are not reptiles! One might reasonably argue that reptiles, mammals, and birds are amphibians but that's a lesson in systematics none of us wants to go through.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Animal of the Week May 28, 2005 -- I'll have a surfeit thanks waiter

Hello One and All,
Sorry for the delay, but animal of the week takes bank holidays too. This week's animal is Lampetra fluviatilis (river lampreys). These aquatic vertebrates are not true fish, neither are their closest relatives hagfish. Rather, hagfish and lampreys are agnathans (without jaws) and represent an ancient lineage that existed before and possibly gave rise to jawed fish and all other animals with backbones, including you and me. River lampreys are found throughout Europe where they parasitise jawed fish using their round mouths with many sharp hooks to bore into the flesh of their hosts from where they suck the blood. Although they damage fishery fish they can be eaten themselves, apparently the flesh is very meaty and was thus favoured on religious fasting days when fish could be eaten. Indeed, this is the first animal of the week to have been responsible for the death of an English King -- Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror and all round good king, died from a "surfeit of lampreys" in Normandy (France) in 1135. If you can get hold of them and you fancy eating river lampreys without precipitating a civil war, try the recipe below but eat in moderation.

Lamprey au Sang
Lamprey Blood
Vegetables:Onions, Carrots,Leeks
Garlic & Bouquet Garni
Red Wine
Bleed Lamprey and keep blood aside to flavour sauce. Scald fish and remove skin Line a buttered pan with the vegetables, garlic and bouquet garni. Add lamprey and enough red wine to cover fish, boil for 12 minutes. Cook slices of leek with bacon in a buttered pan. Drain lamprey and add to pan alternating with the leek. Make a roux and moisten it with lamprey juices, pour back over fish. Simmer gently until fish is cooked. Arrange fish and vegetables on a dish. Add the reserved blood to the sauce and pour over dish Serve with fried bread.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Animal of the Week May 23, 2005 -- New monkey

Yes, you guessed it, this week's animal is Lophocebus kipunji (highland mangabey). So, this has already been called by a couple of AOTW recipients, but I never said I was unpredictable. And besides, AOTW has a long history of reporting new monkeys, some of you may recall the Arunchal macaque (Macaca munzala), which was, I believe, the first regular AOTW about 6 months ago. The highland mangabey is light brown in colour and lives up some mountains in the southern highlands and Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania. The species name kipunji is the Wanyakyusa people's name for the the monkey, of which they have known for a long time; their stories led US researchers to the fluffy wuffkins. Mangabeys are closely related to baboons. Not much more to add due to the newness of the species, besides, of course, their low-pitched "honk bark" which is apparently unique among primates. I suggest anyone who thinks this unique among primates checks out some ladies' tennis matches this summer.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Animal of the Week May 16, 2005 -- I appear to have a man in my ovaries

Oh hello... it's you... welcome. It's been a while, well, a week. Come in, sit down, put your feet up.... how rude of me, how terribly rude, let me introduce you to Bonellia viridis (green spoon worm), this week's Animal of the Week. Green spoon worms were brought to my attention by the recent Channel 4 tv series Dr Tatiana's Sex Guide to All Creation. These worms live in the Pacific ocean and are special for three main reasons. 1: They have the greatest sexual dimorphism of any species, but unlike many familiar species, in which the males are bigger (eg, humans), female green spoon worms are bigger than males, 1000–2000 times bigger to be approximately precise. 2: Males live inside the ovaries of females in a chamber called the androecium, they absorb nutrients through their skin because their mouths are too busy spewing sperm. 3: Even though they have this bizarrely extreme and extremely bizarre differentiation between the sexes, their sex is not genetically determined; whereas, for example, mammal males have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome and females have two X chromosomes, green spoon worms have no gender-defining genetics. Their sex is determined by the events in the first three weeks of their lives; if they don't meet another green spoon worm they settle down on a rock and become a 2 m long female; however, if they run into one of these mammoth worms they are swallowed by her and become a male, never growing bigger than 1–2 mm.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Animal of the Week May 09, 2005 -- The largest primate ever

Good Monday one and all,
Well, it seems like a while since I have done a terrestrial mammal, so, here's one. Unlike last week's animal which was recently rediscovered, this week's animal, Gigantopithecus blacki, is very much extinct. The origins of the genus Gigantopithecus are somewhat hazy, but they were likely distant cousins to orangutans and even more distant cousins to humans, chimps, and gorillas; this species was roaming around China and parts of southeast Asia 1.5 million to 500 000 years ago. What makes G blacki such a noteworthy species is that it was the largest known primate to have ever lived. Your modern day gorilla and extinct giant lemurs and baboons come nowhere close. Conservative estimates put G blacki at 8 ft tall and about 800 lbs, but some people reckon males might have reached 1200 lbs (about the size of a cow!). G blacki was identified from fossilised teeth sold in chinese apothecaries as "dragon bones", which palaeoanthropologist von Koeningswald realised must have belonged to a massive primate. Despite its size, evidence of silica granules in the teeth suggest that G blacki ate bamboo -- no one is quite sure why G blacki became extinct, but it is just possible that these are the only animals ever to have been outcompeted by giant pandas. Although there is no evidence of their existence beyond about 400 000 years ago, some people suggest that elusive extant G blacki are behind the stories of yetis and bigfoot.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Animal of the Week May 02, 2005 -- Phoenix woodpecker

Dear Friends,
This week's animal of the week is Campephilus principalis (ivory-billed woodpecker). You've probably all heard a lot about this species, and I'm sure you followed with great interest the story of its rediscovery in the Big Woods of Arkansas last week, but I am so excited about this I can't not have it as AOTW! Indeed, one put-upon recipient is hearing about this from me for the second time. Anyway, ivory billed woodpeckers were thought to have become extinct on the North American mainland as a result of habitat destruction in the 1940s; the Cuban subspecies was last sighted in 1986 and is also feared extinct. However, the rediscovery of its mainland cousin gives hope that the Cuban is still hanging on in remote forests. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are the third largest woodpeckers and are predominantly black and white, males have a red crest (presumably the Cuban subspecies is more red). Numbers and range of the birds in North America are unknown, but for them to have survived the past 60 years there must be a short-term sustainable breeding population. The latin name Campephilus does not mean "lover of drag acts", rather "lover of grubs". I like to imagine that the pair in this picture by the father of American natural history, John James Audobon, are planning where they can hide out for a century or so before surprising a naturalist or a naturist.
Other notable mention: while we are on the subject of phoenix like reappearences, Hippotragus niger variani (giant sable) deserves a namecheck. Thought to have been killed off by local hunters 30 years ago it has been rediscovered recently in an area of Angola only reachable on foot (there a tasteless joke there, but I'll let those of you with such minds come up with the punchline yourselves).
This week, Animal of the Week reaches Outer Mongolia and Cornwall.