Monday, July 25, 2005

Animal of the Week July 25, 2005 -- Mountain beaver

Neither an inhabitant of mountains nor a real beaver, this weeks animal of the week is Aplodontia rufa (mountain beaver, sewellel). These medium-sized rodents are of an ancient North American lineage that has changed little for millions of years. Their primitive kidneys are unable to concentrate urine so they have to drink loads of water. Like several other rodents, sewellels are copraphagic–ie, they eat their own doings! Several subspecies live in a limited range in America's western states. When threatened or spooked, they secrete a thick rheumy liquid from their eyes, why they do this is not clear, and it doesn't really sound like a great defence to me, but last time I looked I wasn't a burrowing rodent of a group ancestral to squirrels. Apparently they are grumpy animals that wouldn't make good pets, but if I had a pet mountain beaver I would call it Brian. Then I could say to people that "Brian sewellel is a weepy-eyed, sh*t-eating beaver".

Monday, July 18, 2005

Animal of the Week July 18, 2005 -- Bring back the grey whale

Wow, I almost forgot about animal of the week, senility! This week's animal is Eschrichtius robustus (grey whale, gray whale, devilfish). Grey whales (15 m long, 36 tons heavy) were once widespread throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific but their love of shallow coastal waters proved disasterous when whaling really took off as an extreme sport in the 1700. By the late eighteenth century there were no more grey whales in the eastern Atlantic, soon after they were gone from the western Atlantic. Populations clung on around South Korea and around the western coast of the USA. The US population of gray whales has recovered so much that two academics from University of Lancashire at Penrith will, at a conservation meeting in Brazil, suggest that several dozen of their 26 000 whales be flown to Cumbria to re-establish an east Atlantic population. Given the joy of having the great bustard back in the UK (although I've yet to see one) and the ever growing number of red kites along the M40, I am all for this (although one is unlikely to a whale wheeling gracefully in the skies over the Stokenchurch cutting). Grey whales were named devilfish (tch! fish?!) by early whalers because mothers fiercely defend their calves when threatened. Their only natural enemies besides human beings are killer whales who apparently favour the tongue and throat.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Animal of the Week July 11, 2005 -- Fish-eating jelly-fish

Hola Animalistas,

Hope everyone is OK, and my sincerest condolences, thoughts, and good wishes to anyone who, for whatever reason, is not.
So, AOTW will now resume normal service for the foreseeable future, fulfilling the promise of its moniker by weekly delivery.
This week's animal of the week, Erenna sp, is all over the science news but probably wont cross over to general media. This newly discovered deep-sea species belonging to the same phylum (Cnidaria) as jellyfish, corals, and anemones is attracting media attention with the red fluorescent organs it uses to lure prey. Few creatures that live at great ocean depth can see red light because light with longer wavelength travels poorly through water, hence throughout evolution predatory animals at depth have lost the ability to see red light and prey animals have developed red pigmentation. However, some canny (not canned) fish have cottoned onto this fact and realised that over small distances myriad red animals stick out, quite literally, like sore thumbs (although this simile is wasted on fish) and make easy pickings. Now, this as yet unnamed species of the genus Erenna exploits the fact that some small fish hunt out the red light omitted by their prey copepods. With their red fluorescence they trick fish into thinking they are a tasty bite of tiny crustacean, when it turns out they're in reality a baguette sized bundle of stinging cells and venom. Neat!

And the best thing about the whole story is that the chief researcher is a marine biologist called Dr Steven Haddock.