Monday, March 26, 2007

Animal of the Week March 26, 2007 -- Beautiful punctuation

Regular readers of the animal of the week mailout, particularly last week's effort, may be surprised to discover that I was once, and to most intents and purposes (earning money while I study to become a taxonomist) still am, a copyeditor. In recognition of the fact that I do not always create the most grammatically pleasing of emails, this week's animal of the week is Polygonia c-album (comma).

A comma is a beautiful butterfly of Europe, Asia, and north Africa. Orange and brown on the upper side of the wing, with wings folded, a brown underside with a small white mark resembling a comma (hence the name) is revealed. The wings have a crinkled edge so that the adults resemble a fallen leaf. The caterpillars are brown with a white mark on their posterior so that they resemble bird droppings. Now that's camouflage.

Anyway, bad punctuation, misspelling, appalling puns, abject failure to inject humour or fact into a supposedly entertaining and informative mailout, I am guilty of all of these things. But at least I did not insert unnecessary hyphenation into the scientific name of a species named after a punctuation mark... never rely on a taxonomist for a joke.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Animal of the Week March 19, 2007 -- New leopard

Well, it's fast turning into mammal of the week around here, I was very much going to not have a mammal as animal of the week, but then a new species of beautiful big cat is named, so this week's animal of the week is, of course, Neofelis diardii (Bornean clouded leopard).

Clouded leopards are members of the group of big cats including snow leopards, tigers, leopards, lions, and jaguars, although they are generally thought to be the cats that diverged from the others in this group earliest. Previously the cats on Borneo and Sumatra were thought to be a subspecies of the Neofelis nebulosa, but genetic studies suggest that they diverged from the mainland cats over 1 million years ago when they spread out into the Malay archipelago before it was divided by the sea, and they are distinct enough to have species status themselves.

Although the clouded leopards are small big cats, on Borneo they are the largest predator, on Sumatra, the few tigers that remain put them firmly into second place. Despite their diminutive stature they are finely honed predators and along with jaguars, they have, relative to their body size, the strongest bite of the big cats. Clouded leopards also have the longest canines relative to body size. What all this means, I know not.

Should you be faced with having to tell the two species of clouded leopard appart and you do not have the facility to sequence their mitochondrial genes, the Bornean clouded leopard is much darker than the mainland species and has spots within its cloudy markings. It will also be on Borneo and Sumatra and not on the mainland.

So there you go, what does this new speices status mean? It means more funding for conservation efforts, and more awareness for plight of Borneo's forests threatened by the lumber and palm oil industries. And what does that mean, that means that maybe this isn't really a separate species at all, just a subspecies as previously thought, raised in status by duplicitous conservationists. It all depends whose side you're on really.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Animal of the Week March 12, 2007 -- Come to the tea party

So, as it is now March, this week's animal of the week is Lepus europaeus (european or brown hare). The March Hare, a sartorially elegant guest at the famed tea party of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Brown hares rarely, if ever, wear jackets or, for that matter drink tea. Rather, they bomb around the fields of northern Europe and western Asia as speeds of 70 kilometres per hour.

At this time of year, you may well see hares careening around meadows, leaping over one another, and engaging in the famous boxing behaviour. Although for many years, people believed these sparring couples were males competing for access to females. But turns out, that they are females fending off unwanted attention too early in the breeding season. When the females are ready, they stop boxing, go at it like rabbits (not very often, just quite similar in shape and mechanics), and a few weeks later they give birth to their young, leverets, in a small hollow or flattened patch of grass, a form, on the surface, not in a burrow.

Keeping a low profile for the main part of the year, their sudden appearence in spring and mysterious habits for the remainder of the year mean that hares have featured prominently in European folklore and religions. The pre-Christian English goddess Eostre whose festivals were celebrated in Spring, could transform herself into a hare, that is if she ever existed, and wasn't a creation of the Venerable Bede's. The association of hares with Eostre's festivals and with the Ostara festival in pagan Germany may be the origins of the Easter bunny.

Maybe they ain't. The phrase "mad as a March hare" was widely used in Lewis Carroll's time, the earliest written record is in John Heywood's 1546 collection of proverbs. Heywood may have mis-spelled his name, but he collected a great many pithy sayings: "While the sun shineth, make hay", "lve me love my dog", "This hitteth the nail on the head", and "All is well that ends well" among them.

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