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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