Monday, November 4, 2013

Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies)

A live South Island Laughing Owl photographed
between 1889 and 1990. Wiki
The Laughing Owl was named for its call; a loud and doleful “cack cack cack” described as sounding like the laugh of a mad man or a small dog’s bark. This owl was last confirmed alive in the wild in 1914 but it may have persisted until the 1930s. Also known as the “Hahoke”, “Whekau”, and “Ruru Whenua”, it was unique to New Zealand.

Habitat and Distribution
Laughing Owls were widely distributed across New Zealand from North Island to Stewart Island. They inhabited rocky, low-rainfall areas as well as woodlands and forest. There were two subspecies found on North Island and South Island respectively, the North Island Laughing Owl (S. a. rufifacies) and the South Island Laughing Owl (S. a. albifacies). The North Island subspecies was slightly smaller than its South Island counterpart.

Illustration of the South Island Laughing Owl by
John Gerrard Keulemans. Wiki
Physical Attributes
The Laughing Owl’s plumage was dark brown with yellowish-brown or white striations. The facial-disc was gray around the eyes and lightened to white toward the edges. Some birds could be more of a reddish color with a brown facial disc. They had a very stumpy tail. They grew to be twice the size of the Morepork Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae), New Zealand’s other native owl, measuring 35.5 to 40cm (14 to 15.7in) long with a 26.4cm (10.4in) wingspan, and weighing up to 600g (1.3lbs). Females were slightly larger than the males.

Feeding Ecology
The diet of the Laughing Owl is well-known thanks to animal remains found at old nest sites. We know that they fed on a great diversity of prey species and that they would adapt their diet to whatever small animals where in the region in which they lived. Just one nesting site contained the remains of 41 prey species; 28 birds, 1 tuatara, 3 frogs, at least 4 geckos, 1 skink, 2 bats, and 2 fish. Sea birds such as prions were taken where the owls nested near their colonies on the coast. Inland specimens commonly hunted kiwis, native ducks, tuatara and even large earthworms. When humans arrived to New Zealand, they began to take advantage of introduced mammalian prey such as rats and later, with the arrival of Europeans, mice and rabbits. These owls were powerful predators that hunted on the ground instead of from the sky as other owls do; chasing prey on foot or stalking and pouncing on it feet-first, then carrying it to their nest.

Juvenivile South Island Laughing Owl with dead mouse. Wiki
They are known to have nested in cavities in limestone buffs, fissures, rocky ledges, under boulders, or on bare ground. Nests were lined with dried grass. Breeding season for this species was from September to October, after which the females would lay one or two eggs. Incubation lasted 25 days, during which time the female took sole nest duty while the male brought food back to the nest.

Laughing Owls were still abundant when European settlers arrived to New Zealand and quickly adapted to hunt the small mammals they brought with them. However, by 1880 they were noticeably becoming rarer. The last recorded wild specimen was found dead in Canterbury, New Zealand on July 5, 1914 and there were further unconfirmed sightings during the 1920s. Their decline is attributed to the competition and nest predation of introduced weasels and cats. Relatively unaggressive, they are known to have adjusted well to life in captivity and were easily bred. Sadly, no effort was ever made to establish a captive population. Despite this, multiple encounters with unidentified birds have been surfacing ever since the Laughing Owl’s supposed extinction. Witnesses describe seeing or hearing birds emitting a cry that sounds like maniacal laughter, opening up the possibility that remnant populations of this owl still exist.

References & Further Reading
Worthy TH (2001). "A fossil vertebrate fauna accumulated by laughing owls (Sceloglaux albifacies) on the Gouland Downs, northwest Nelson, South Island". Notornis 48(4): 223-233 <>

Blackburn A (1982). "A 1927 record of the Laughing Owl". Notornis 29(1): 79 <>

Worthy TH (1997). "A survey of historical Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) specimens in museum collections". Notornis 44(4): 241–252 <>

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chalicotheres: The Clawed Hoofed Mammals

Moropus elatus skeleton, one of the best known of the
Chalicotheres are an unusual family of perissodactyls* that appeared during the early Eocene of Mongolia. They would have appeared rather different from any animal alive today. Like tapirs they were pure browsers that inhabited lightly wooded and forested environments, like rhinos they had three toes on each foot with the middle toe bearing all the weight, and their faces would have looked somewhat horse-like. These animals are unique among ungulates in that they possess hooves that have become modified into claws. This family survived in Africa until the late Pleistocene when they all became extinct.

Evolution & Extinction
Chalicotheres appear to have originated in Asia and appear to share a close relationship with brontotheres. The earliest known member of this group, Protomoropus gabuniai, is known from early Eocene (55mya) of Mongolia. The family extended its range to North America by the late Eocene and they reached Africa by the early Miocene. In North America during the late Miocene, chalicotheres had been replaced by the megalonychid ground sloths which had just immigrated from South America. At the same time, chalicotheres in Eurasia and Africa were facing ever-increasing competition from large apes. Africa was the final stronghold for this family. The last chalicothere, Ancylotherium hennigi, survived in here long after its kind had gone extinct elsewhere in the world and it until the very end of the Pleistocene about 13,000ya.

Like tapirs, chalicotheres are never abundant in the fossil record and do not show significant variations in their dentition and overall body plan. This suggests that chalicotheres, early on, became specialized for a particular lifestyle (in this case as mid-level browsers) and never deviated from this general morphology throughout their history. Unlike horses and rhinos, they never evolved high-crowned cheek teeth for feeding on more abrasive types of plants found at ground level. Thus, their overall diversity was low and only a handful of species are known to science. This degree of specialization may partly explain the decline and eventual extinction of this family. Because of their extensive adaptations for browsing, the presence of chalicothere bones at a fossil site is a good indicator of an ancient woodland or forest environment.

Claws, Locomotion, & Posture
Chalicotheres possessed three toes on each foot, all of which ended in a large claw. These claws grew from and were anchored to deep fissures in the middle of the third phalanges*. This suggests that the claws of these animals were very strong and able to resist heavy impacts and tension. A similar condition can be seen in the claws of creodonts (archaic mammalian predators that preceded the order Carnivora). Like other perissodactyls, most of the animals’ body weight would have been carried on the middle digits of each foot.  To deal with this, the bones of the second manual digit are fused to form a structure that strengthens the inside edge of the hand. 

The Chalicotheriidae is divided into two subfamilies, each characterized by a different type of locomotion.
  • The Schizotheriinae had a more conventional digitigrade* posture in which the animals walked on padded toes like a dog or a cat. This is an efficient form of locomotion that increases the length of the limb to enable a longer stride. To prevent wear and to allow unhindered movement, the tips of the claws were held above the ground when walking or running thanks to tendons in the toes.
  • The chalicotheriinae preserved their claws by walking on their knuckles. For this, the bones of the front knuckles are thickened and well-developed for bearing weight. In the living animal, thickened skin pads would have covered the upper surface of the knuckles to cushion the digits and prevent abrasion. Gorillas, anteaters, and ground sloths have the same adaptation which is designed to protect either their touch-sensitive fingers or pointed claw tips. 

Chalicothere forelimbs were very muscular and were longer than the hindlimbs, causing the back to slope downward towards the tail. This feature was taken to extreme in the gorilla-like Chalicotherium. These animals would have ran in a moderately quick loping gate. To withstand the weight of the body and facilitate an upright posture, the lumbar region is shortened to increase lower-back strength. The lumbar vertebrae also had elevated dorsal processes that would have supported the tendons and muscles needed to maintain an upright posture for extended periods. 

Browsing Specialists
Chalicotheres have a number of adaptations that suggest that they were browsing specialists that fed on above-ground vegetation at shoulder level or higher.

Adult chalicotheres lacked canines and upper incisors with which to crop vegetation. Instead, they would have possessed a long, prehensile tongue and muscular lips that would pull food into their mouths. They had low-crowned, square-shaped, cheek teeth with which to grind relatively soft leaves and fruits (the name "chalicothere" was coined because the cheek teeth, in their worn state, are said to resemble a chalice or goblet). The skull itself is small but rather long and narrow, an adaptation that enables modern browsers to select individual plants and twigs from among many. Modern browsing mammals often have thick eyelashes which help to protect their eyes during feeding, and chalicotheres likely had this characteristic as well. 

Moropus elatus shown
using its long tongue and
lips to browse.
The necks of schizotheriines were long, narrow, and flexible. Elevated spinous processes on the lumbar vertebrae would have supported strong muscles and tendons that would strengthen the lower back, enabling the animals to stand on its hind legs and hold that position for extended periods of time. These animals were able to browse at many different heights either by feeding quadrupedally as most herbivores do today or by rearing up on their hindlimbs, effectively doubling their vertical reach. The modern Gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) has a similar feeding behavior in which it balances itself on its hindlimbs to feed on high tree foliage. 

Chalicotheriines had a more specialized feeding method coompared to schizotheres. They had relatively shorter necks and much longer arms, suggesting that they relied more on their forelimbs to gather food and pull it toward their mouths. Inward-facing hands were well-adapted to be used as hooks to either grip tree trunks or to pull branches close to their mouths, similar to the way modern gorillas feed. The short, yet powerful, hindlimbs were well-suited for maintaining a sitting or squatting posture for extended periods of time. Pad-supporting bone on the ischium* acted as a cushion, stabilizing them on their haunches while its torso stood fully vertical.

These morphological differences suggest that chalicotheriines would have lived in more thickly forested environments where they could use their unique feeding strategy to full advantage. Schizotheriines were able to live in more open woodland and savanna environments, where their more efficient gait enabled them to travel farther distances to exploit widely dispersed food sources. Furthermore, analysis of chalicothere teeth suggests that schizotheriines were preferentially feeding on more leaves, twigs, and possibly bark, while chalicotheriines were ingesting more seeds and fruits in addition to leaves. Because of the rather long forelimbs, chalicotheres would have needed to crouch down in order to drink so that their faces could reach the water.

Other Behaviors
Skeleton of Moropus elatus. A typical schizotheriine that
demonstrates the more conventional body build with
digitigrade feet and forelimbs only slightly longer than
the hindlimbs.
Because of their body proportions, chalicotheres were relatively slow moving and unable to keep up sustained speeds for extended periods. Despite lacking the necessary speed and agility to outrun predators, or horns with which to fight them off, chalicotheres would have been a formidable target for any would be predator. Their long and sharp claws and powerful forelimbs certainly could have doubled as defensive weapons. Because the short hindlimbs carried most of the animals’ body weight, they would have been able to pivot on their hindlimbs rather quickly. Thus, when attacked from behind a chalicothere would have been able to turn rapidly so that it could face its attacker, brandishing its sharp claws in defense. Like tapirs, it is likely that chalicotheres also had thickened skin on their backs that could deflect the claws and teeth of an attacking predator long enough for the victim to free itself and fight back.

It can also be inferred that chalicotheres lived in herds as most herbivores do today. Based on their closest modern relatives, these groupings likely consisted of 3 to 30 individuals and led by an adult male. Younger males would have left their maternal herds at sexual maturity and became part of a bachelor herd until they were old enough to challenge dominant males for breeding rights. Male chalicotheres seem to have had skulls that were somewhat deeper and heavier than those of females, suggesting a fighting style similar to that of the modern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), whereby two males would stand side-by-side and swing their long necks and heads like wrecking balls until one rival submitted. The genera Tylocephalonyx and Ancylotherium possess a high, thick dome at the back of their skulls that likely evolved for such confrontations, and could have delivered punishing blows to an opponent. Like all of today's perissodactyls, chalicotheres would have given birth to a single large, fully-developed offspring after a long gestation of 10 months to a year depending on the species.

Individual Species
Marsh's Chalicothere (Moropus elatus)

Digitigrade: a type of locomotion in which only the toes touch the ground with each step.
Ischium: one of the three pelvic bones; situated below the ilium and behind the pubis.
Perissodactyl: the mammalian order which contains horses, rhinos, tapirs, and their extinct relatives.
Phalanges: the bones which comprise the fingers and toes.

References & Further Reading
Geraads D, Tsoukala E, Spassov N (2007). “A skull of Ancylotherium (Chalicotheriidae, Mammalia) from the late Miocene of Thermopigi (Serres, N. Greece) and the relationships of the genus”. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27(2): 461-466 <Full Article>

Agusti, J. & Anton, M. "Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe". Columbia University Press. New York. ISBN 0-231-11640-3 <Book>

Turner & Anton. "Evolving Eden: An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large-Mammal Fauna". Columbia University Press, New York. 2004. ISBN 0-231-11944-5 <Book>

Savage, RJG & Long, MR. "Mammal Evolution: an illustrated guide". Facts on File Publications, 1986. pp 216-220 <Book>

Coombs MC (1979). “Tylocephalonyx, a new genus of North American dome-skulled chalicotheres (Mammalia, Perissodactyla)”. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 164: 1-64 <Full Article>

Colbert EH (1935). “Distributional and phylogenetic studies on Indian fossil mammals: a classification of the Chalicotheriodea”. American Museum Novitates 798: 1-16 <Full Article>

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cenozoic Timeline: Evolving Oceans

Most of the Earth has always been covered by salt water. Starting from the late Cretaceous we begin to see the continents drifting into their modern positions. These geologic events had profound effects on global climate, which gradually became cooler and drier on average from the Eocene to the present day. Also, we see very early on how marine animals recovered following the devastation of the late Cretaceous and achieved its modern composition. Unlike terrestrial or freshwater animals, marine animals are able to achieve a truly worldwide distribution because there are no barriers to obstruct their expansion. As a result, many oceanic species are quite long-lived. The modern Great White Shark, for example, has existed for at least 16 million years, and its relative Megalodon was around for 28 million years.

Paleocene (66-56mya)
Tropical reefs like this one could be found in shallow
waters all over the world during the late Paleocene.
The oceans all around the globe were warm and free of ice during the Paleocene. As a result, sea levels were much higher than they are today: much of the eastern United States lay at the ocean floor and Europe was a series of volcanic islands similar to Indonesia. The early Paleocene featured a low diversity and abundance of marine life, the flora and fauna still recovering from the ravages of the K/T extinction event. Sharks became the top predators after the extinction of the mosasaurs. Penguins evolved 63mya, replacing the Hesperorithid birds of the late Cretaceous. Coral reefs could be found in all oceans. Apart from the absence of marine mammals and Carcharhinid sharks, the marine fauna of the late Paleocene would have been very similar to that found in tropical seas today.
Eocene (56-34mya)
Ambulocetus natans, one of the first whales of the
early Eocene. This species lived in both saltwater
and freshwater habitats.
Tropical conditions continued throughout the Eocene, with oceans teeming with fish, turtles, and crocodiles. The marine fauna was enriched significantly during the early Eocene by the debut of three important animal groups which still survive to the present day. The first requiem sharks (Carcharhinidae; the family which contains Tiger Sharks, Bull Sharks, Oceanic Whitetip Sharks, and others) appear during this time.  The first sirenians (manatees and dugongs; herbivorous marine mammals of shallow waters) evolved off the coast of Africa around 55mya, having branched off from the ancestors of today’s elephants. By far the most significant new arrival of the early Eocene were the first whales. The first whales would have had a lifestyle very similar to that of today’s seals and sea lions, feeding along the coastal waters and returning to the land periodically to rest and give birth. The late Eocene Basilosaurids became the first whales to become fully incapable of returning to the land. For the first time, mammals had become the top predators of the oceans. The toothed whales and baleen whales appeared during the latest Eocene. Meanwhile, the earlier walking whales appear to have disappeared by 36mya, corresponding with the spread of the marine Gavialids (a family of narrow-snouted crocodilians of which the modern Indian Gharial and False Gharial are the only survivors).
Dourodon atrox, a basilosaurid whale of the late Eocene.
These were the first whales to have become fully incapable
of leaving the water, having rigid flippers and vestigal
hind legs.

Two significant tectonic events occurred during the Eocene; India collided with southern Asia around 45mya, and Arabia connected with west Asia 34mya around the Eocene/Oligocene boundary. As a result, the Tethys Sea had disappeared, possibly setting in motion the cooling trend that continued from the Oligocene to the Pleistocene.

Oligocene (34-23mya)
Skeleton of Paleoparadoxia tabatai, a desmostylian. These
poorly-known animals were marine grazers that fed in the
shallows and clambered back on land to rest. Its closest
living relatives are thought to be the sirenians, the group
that includes manatees, dugongs, and sea cows.
The Oligocene sees the beginnings of modern ocean circulation, with tectonic shifts causing the opening and closing of ocean gateways. Cooling of the oceans, and of the global climate in general, had already begun by the latest Eocene. This cooling trend intensified when South America finally detached from Antarctica during the early Oligocene and started to drift north toward North America. This allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which rapidly cooled Antarctica and caused a permanent ice cap to form at the South Pole, although the fringes of the continent remained ice-free until the middle Miocene.

Reconstructed skeleton of Megalodon (Carcharocles 
megalodon) on display at the Calvert Marine Museum.
After evolving during the middle Oligocene, this giant
shark ruled the seas for almost 30 million years.
The Basilosaurids had disappeared during the early Oligocene while the toothed whales and baleen whales continued to diversify. Among the toothed whales, the diverse extinct family of shark-toothed dolphins (Squalodontidae) persisted from the late Eocene, and by the late Oligocene they were joined by river dolphins (Platanistoidea), dolphins (Delphinidae), and sperm whales (Physeteridae). Among the baleen whales, the toothed Aetocetids also carried on from the latest Eocene, and by the late Oligocene they had given rise to the toothless Cetotheriids, of which the Pygmy Right Whale is the only modern survivor. Also, a new group of marine herbivores appeared in the fossil record during this time, the desmostylians. These animals appear to have been relatives of sirenians and early elephants, and may have appeared rather strange to a modern observer. When alive, these creatures would have resembled a cross between a sea lion and a hippo. In response to this great increase in prey diversity, the giant shark Megalodon evolved in the late Oligocene about 28mya, and would survive unchallenged until the Pleistocene.

Miocene (23-5mya)
Acrophoca longirostris, a long-bodied seal closely related
to the extant Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), and
possibly ancestral to it. It is known from late Miocene
rocks off the coast of South America.
Further decreases in temperature occurred during the middle Miocene around 15mya, probably reflecting ice build-up in the Southern Hemisphere. Formally confined to the center of the continent, the permanent Antarctic ice cap expanded to its modern form at this time, covering the whole continent.

The Great White Shark (Carcharodon carharias) was the
same 15mya as it is today. It evolved in response to
the adaptive radiation of pinnipeds at that time.
The Miocene cooling may explain the gradual decline of the marine gharials, which would continue to disappear into the Pliocene leaving behind only a few freshwater species by Pleistocene times. Their decline, however, matches an increase in the diversity of pinnipeds (sea lions, walruses, and seals). The first pinnipeds of the late Oligocene, Puijila and Potamotherium, were small and otter-like, not far removed from their basal Ursid ancestors. By the early Miocene these had given rise to the archaic sea lion Enaliarctos, which would itself give rise to a number of new species 16 to 14mya. The pinniped radiation also corresponds with the extinction of the giant penguins which had existed since the early Paleocene. The Great White Shark as we know it today appeared 16mya during the middle Miocene, seemingly in response to the adaptive radiation of the pinnipeds. Cetaceans continued to grow in diversity as well. Porpoises (Phocoenidae), beaked whales (Ziphidae), rorqual whales (Balaenopteridae), and right whales (Balaenidae) all evolved in the middle Miocene, with Monodontids evolving later in the epoch. In spite of this increase in marine mammal diversity, the desmostylians become extinct during the late Miocene about 7mya.

Pliocene (5–2.5mya)
The formation of the Panamanian Land Bridge 3.5mya led
to changes in ocean circulation, which led to the formation
of the Greenland ice cap and the beginning of the glacial
activity that would characterize the Pleistocene.
Oceans were still relatively warm during the early Pliocene and subtropical conditions were present as far north as England. Another cooling event would soon transpire however. 3.5mya, the Isthmus of Panama formed when South America finally connected with North America. This event may have influenced the further cooling of the global climate; the once equatorial current which had been flowing since the Cretaceous had now been redirected to flow in a north-south course, causing cold waters from the north and warm waters from the south to mix and subsequent cold north Atlantic and north Pacific currents to circulate. Perhaps in direct correspondence, the Greenland ice cap developed during the middle Pliocene about 3mya and glacial activity would continue through the rest of the Cenozoic.
The Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) evolved during the Pliocene
and survives virtually unchanged. Later by the end of the
Pleistocene it would become the top predator of the world's
surface waters following the extinction of Megalodon.

Starting in the middle Pliocene, northern and southern parts of the world began to experience more pronounced, seasonal drops in temperature. For the first time we see the evolution of truly cold-adapted land mammals such as bison, mammoths, and lynxes. Despite these events, the marine fauna remained largely unaffected. The majority of the animals around at the time would have been very familiar to us today with modern types of cetaceans, pinnipeds, sirenians, sharks, turtles, penguins, and sea birds.

Pleistocene (2.5mya-13,000ya)
Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) evolved from Brown Bears
(Ursus arctos) during the Pleistocene and specialize
in hunting on the sea ice. During peak glacial conditions
this bear's range would extend as far south as
British Colombia.
The Pleistocene was a time if great fluctuations in climate brought on by the continual advance and retreat of glaciers. This caused sea levels to drop by several hundred meters, polar conditions to extend further south, and colder and drier conditions worldwide.

Megalodon persisted throughout the Pleistocene but disappeared toward the end along with several types of giant whales, sirens, and turtles. These animals may have died out as a result of the same event that decimated many of the land mammal populations 13,000ya. Being a large, pelagic, slow-breeding carnivore, Megalodon was particularly vulnerable to drastic changes in prey stocks, and so may have become extinct as a result. Those predators that hunted in deep waters or along the coasts were relatively unaffected because prey is more abundant in these environments. Likewise, the Sperm Whale, Killer Whale, and Great White Shark are now the largest ocean predators.

Harrison & Bryden. "Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises". Facts on File, November 1988

Haines, Tim. "Walking With Prehistoric Beasts: A Prehistoric Safari". DK Publishing, November 2001

Hooker, J. J., "Tertiary to Present", pp. 459-465, Vol. 5. of Selley, Richard C., L Robin McCocks, and Ian R. Plimer, Encyclopedia of Geology, Oxford: Elsevier Limited, 2005. ISBN 0-12-636380-3

Barron, J, Bralower, T., Huber, M., Lyle, A., Ravelo, C., Rea, D., Wilson, P. (April 2008). "Pacific Ocean and Cenozoic Evolution of Climate". Reviews of Geophysics 46 (2): 1-47

Photo Credits
  1. Reef system: Sean Conolly, 15 August 2006, Wikimedia Commons
  2. Coral Reef: Jim Maragous/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 27 March 2011, Wikimedia Commons
  3. Ambulocetus skeleton: Ghedo,13 August 2011, Wikimedia Commons
  4. Dourodon skeleton: EveK, 2 September 2007, Wikimedia Commons
  5. Megalodon skeleton: Dr. Alton C. Dooley, Wikimedia Commons
  6. Great White Shark: Hermanus Backpackers, 10 March 2009, Wikimedia Commons
  7. Ice ridges of northern Alaska: Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps, Spring 1949, Wikimedia Commons
  8. Killer Whales: Robert Pittman, 2005, Wikimedia Commons
  9. Polar Bear: Alan Wilson, 2007, Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jaguar (Panthera onca)

During the Pleistocene the Jaguar (Panthera onca) was abundant across the Northern Hemisphere and was much larger than it is today. Since the end-Pleistocene extinction event, however, it has become confined to the New World tropics and has shrunk in size. Despite being the third largest of the pantherine cats, Jaguars are exceptionally powerful predators whose strength easily matches that of their larger relatives.

The name Panthera may be derived from the Greek pan-, meaning “all”, and ther, meaning “prey”, translating literally as "predator of all animals”. The species name onca is derived from the Latin word lyncea, “lynx”. The word Jaguar comes from the Tupi (native Brazilian) word yaguara which means “beast”. Several  extinct subspecies from the Pleistocene have also been identified based on their geographic location; Eurasian specimens are referred to as P. o. gombaszoegensis while the South and North American specimens are attributed to and P. o. mesembrina and P. o. augusta respectively. This blog post will be focusing on the latter of the three while making comparisons to living representatives of the species.

Habitat & Distribution

Jaguars inhabit forest, woodland, savanna, scrubland, and wetland habitats preferring lowland areas with a permanent water source and vegetation cover. This species first appears in Eurasia about 2mya. When the Bering Land Bridge was formed during the early Pleistocene, Jaguars expanded their range to include virtually all of North and South America except for the extensive open grasslands, deserts, and mountainous areas. After the end-Pleistocene extinction event, Jaguars became extinct in the northern parts of their range until they were only left in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The northern limit for this species today are the states of Arizona and New Mexico.

Physical Attributes
Modern Jaguars display an interesting size variation through different parts of their range that appears to be tied to the abundance of large prey in their respective regions. Individuals from Central American rainforests are the smallest. The largest Jaguars are currently found in the Pantanal wetlands of South America where large prey over 100kg (220bs) is abundant and are more readily encountered than it is elsewhere in the species' range. Mature males from this region reach shoulder heights of 70cm (2ft 4in) and body weights of 158kg (350lbs), the weight of a small female Lion or Tiger. During the Pleistocene, however, Jaguars could attain shoulder heights of 90cm (3ft) and body weights of up to 210kg (465lbs), nearly the weight of a male African Lion! 
A size chart to illustrate the size difference between the Pleistocene (left) 
and the average modern Jaguar (right).
Pound-for-pound the Jaguar is the most powerful of any living cat and is comparable to saber-toothed cats of the genera Smilodon, Dinofelis, and Xenosmilus in the relative robustness of its bones. It is nearly twice the weight of a Lion, Tiger, or Leopard of the same head-and-body length. The forelimbs are particularly robust with thick bones and the body is compact and well-muscled. The hindlimbs are somewhat more lightly-built relative to the forelimbs and are adapted for acceleration and agility. Jaguars also have the shortest tail of any pantherine cat both proportionally and absolutely. As a result, Jaguars must catch their prey by leaping on it from cover rather than by chasing it. An exceptionally massive skull and jaw muscles endow this animal with the strongest relative bite force of any living cat. The canines are thick and adapted for piercing the skulls of its prey.

A melanistic Jaguar. Note that the rosette markings are
still faintly visible. 
Jaguars are often confused with the Leopard, which has a similar coat pattern. However, the former is noticeably stockier with a larger head, shorter legs and tail. The base coat color is tawny yellow with white underparts. The head, lower legs, and tail are marked with basic spots. On the neck, body, and upper legs these spots are arranged into rosettes with a light brown center, and often with one to four smaller spots within. On some individuals, the spots on the underside of the body become elongated into stripes, sometimes forming a "necklace" marking on the neck area. Many individuals born in densely forested environments are melanistic; having excess pigment producing a pure black color. However, although the the rosetted/spotted pattern may be visible when light is shined on them.

Ecology & Behavior
Jaguars are solitary ambush predators that specialize in hunting relatively large prey, generally preferring animals weighing 50 to 500kg (110 to 1,102lbs). Its strength is incredible; not only can it pull down and kill prey 4 times its size, but it can then drag such a kill a considerable distance to a secluded location to feed in peace. Although it will opportunistically take more nimble animals like deer when it can get them, Jaguars are better suited for tackling the slower-moving or more heavily-built herbivores of its environment such as tapirs, capybaras, and peccaries. During the Pleistocene, the Jaguar prey menu is likely to have included some of the smaller ground sloths, as well as juvenile glyptodonts and pampatheres. Capybaras (Hydochoerus hydrochaeris) are a favorite prey of Jaguars where they live near open marshlands. These large rodents were formerly abundant throughout North America during the Pleistocene. Another tempting prey item for Pleistocene Jaguars were giant beavers (Castoroides). Peccaries are the most common type of animal preyed upon by modern Jaguars. In addition to modern species like the Collared (Pecari tajacu) and White-lipped Peccaries (Tayassu pecari), there is evidence that Pleistocene Jaguars also hunted larger extinct species like the Long-nosed Peccary (Mylohyus nasutus) and Flat-headed Peccary (Platygonus compressus). When larger prey is unavailable Jaguars will opportunistically kill smaller animals less than 50kg, including reptiles, monkeys, armadillos, and fish.

Jaguars tend to be crepuscular or nocturnal, but they will hunt during the day when given the opportunity. It actively tracks down its prey by moving silently along game trails. Once its prey is detected it stalks it carefully, easily getting to within 2 or 3 meters from an intended target. It then launches itself from cover in its prey's blind spot, landing on its back in one or two leaps. Its short and powerful arms enable it to cling on and grapple with large, struggling animals and position it for the killing bite. It will employ any of three killing techniques depending on the type of prey, though its preferred method is to bite through the temporal bones of its prey's skull and pierce the brain. For this reason, it has developed the strongest jaws and teeth of any living cat. It also employs the throat and nape bites used by other cats. Larger kills may be fed upon for days. 

A female Jaguar preparing to move her cub.
Although adult Jaguars spend most of their time alone, they seem to be surprisingly tolerant of each other to the point that they allow other adults to feed from their kills. Noticeable feeding hierarchies exist with males feeding from large carcasses first and females moving in after he leaves. Even adult males (as long as a receptive female is not in the vicinity) will tolerate each other's presence as long as one shows submission. Breeding can take place at any time of the year with females remaining in estrus for 6 to 17 days within a 37-day cycle. Females give birth to up to 4 cubs after a gestation of 90 to 105 days. Cubs remain in their mothers company for 1 or 2 years with males usually departing earlier.

References & Further Reading
Nye, April Season, "Pleistocene peccaries from Guy Wilson Cave, Sullivan County, Tennessee." (2007). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2115. <Full text>

Lange. Ian M. “Ice Age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre”. Mountain Press Publishing Company 2002. Missoula, Montana <Book>

Cuvier M, Johnson WE, Pecon-Slattery J, O’Brien SJ (2000). “Genomic Ancestry of the American Puma”. Journal of Heredity 91(3): 186-97. doi: 10.1093/jhered/91.3.186. PMID 10833043 <Full article>

Nuanez R, Miller B, Lindzey F (2000). “Food habits of Jaguars and pumas in Jalisco, Mexico”. Journal of Zoology 252 (3): 373 <Full article>

Turner A (1997). The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10229-1 <Book>

Macdonald, David W. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009. 750-751 <Book>

Kurten B & Anderson E. “Pleistocene Mammals of North America”. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1980. 192 <Book>

Agustin IJ, Franklin WL, Warren JE, Kent RH (1990). “Biogeographic variation of food habits and body size of the South American puma”. Oecologia 85(2): 185. doi: 10.1007/BF00319400 <Full article>

Schultz CB, Martin LD, Schultz MR (1985). “A Pleistocene Jaguar from North-Central Nebraska”. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies. Paper 228 <Full Article>

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ecological Importance of Beavers

An American Beaver gnawing through a tree
In addition to being prey animals for several mid-sized predators, the two extant beaver species (American Beaver, Castor canadensis, and Eurasian Beaver, Castor fiber) are keystone species whose presence in an area improves wetland health and increases biodiversity. Beavers are most renowned for their construction activities, particularly in the felling of trees to be used in the building of dams. Their permanently sharp, chisel-shaped incisors are ideal for gnawing through wood. Trees 5cm (2in) in diameter are felled in minutes. When felling trees, beavers gnaw through the tree trunks just enough so that the tree remains standing. They then retreat and allow the wind to complete the task. This technique requires months to perfect and young beavers are occasionally injured or killed in the process. The visible damage to trees may seem detrimental, but the trees that beavers favor (aspens, poplars, cottonwoods, and willows) are characterized by rapid growth and beaver pruning of these trees stimulates reinvigorated growth the following spring. 

Dam Structure
Dam building is most intense in the spring and fall, although lighter construction activities may go on at other times of the year. Beaver dams are preferably built across streams less than 6m (20ft) across and less than 1m (3.3ft) deep. However, the animals continually add new material to the structure resulting in dams that may be 100m (330ft) long and 3m (10ft) high over a period of years. Wood and stones are bound together by tightly compacted mud, which is applied by hand and not with their flattened tails contrary to popular belief. The mud, stones, sticks, and branches that beavers use to build their dams make for a very robust and solid structure, behind which a substantial pond is formed. By impounding a large body of water they effectively surround their home with a moat, increasing their security from predators. Moreover, a bigger lake means that the resident beavers have wider access by water to distant feeding areas.

An abandoned beaver dam with new vegetation growing
from the built up sediment within.
Benefits to Other Species
In addition, the large areas of wetland that dams create reduce erosion damage and improve biodiversity. By slowing the flow of rivers and streams, beaver dams boost sediment deposition, a natural filtration system that removes potentially harmful impurities from the water. Increased sedimentation also brings more nutrients to the soil in and around the water resulting in abundant and healthy aquatic and riverside vegetation. Small aquatic animals such as larval fishes and frogs, in turn, use this vegetation as shelter, and of course herbivores use these plants as a food source. Beaver ponds provide refuge and habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, fish, amphibians, turtles, and aquatic mammals. Eventually, the buildup of sediment around the dam becomes too great overtime and the resident beaver colony is forced to move on. The abandoned, silted-up beaver dam creates the basis for a rich, new ecosystem, developing into a wetland meadow whose soil, enriched by decaying plant matter and beaver feces, support reeds, sedges, and eventually large trees. Also, trees that are drowned by rising water levels caused by beaver dams become ideal nesting sites for birds such as owls and woodpeckers.

Canal Building
Of all the construction activities carried out by beavers, canal building is the least complex. They use their hands to loosen mud and sediment from the bottom of shallow streams and marshy trails, pushing it out of the way to the sides. The resulting channels enable the beavers to stay in the water while moving between ponds and feeding areas. This behavior occurs more often in summer when water levels are low. Other aquatic animals benefit from this activity as it can be a lifeline during drier periods. When one pond dries up, they can use the beaver channels to travel to another.

An example of a beaver lodge.
Burrowing Activity
Beavers are highly efficient diggers, usually excavating multiple burrows within the family territory. Hollowed into the bank of a stream or pond, a burrow may be a single tunnel or a whole maze ending in one or more chambers. In many beaver habitats, beaver families use burrows as the primary residence. Abandoned beaver burrows can in turn, be utilized by other animals such as otters or minks. 

Beaver Lodges
Alternative riverside accommodation is provided by the lodge, a conical pile of logs and branches sited on the bank or isolated in the middle of a beaver pond. Lodges average 3-4m (10-13ft) in diameter, with rooms measuring 1-2m (3.3-6.6ft), and always incorporates a living chamber above water level. Sometimes there is also a dining area nearer the water. The entrance to the lodge is underwater out of sight of potential predators and usually includes a back exit. Occasionally, aquatic birds will set up their nests on top of beaver lodges, taking advantage of the structure's high vantage point and distance from the shore and any terrestrial predators. 

A Canada Goose sits on its nest on top of a American
Beaver's lodge.
The beaver lodge is, in actuality, a highly specialized burrow composed mainly of organic materials rather than earth. Clearly, beavers are not far removed from their subterranean ancestors as environmental engineers. The extinct Miocene genus Palaeocastor, which were analogous to extant prairie dogs (Cynomys), were themselves keystone species whose digging activity helped to channel rainwater into the water table to prevent erosion. These animals would have also changed the local soil composition, and subsequently effected the flora and fauna of the area.

Beavers & Humans
True to their reputation, beavers are highly industrious animals whose construction work not only ensures their own survival, but the health of other organisms and the environment as a whole. When removed from an area, the aquatic habitat undergoes a noticeable loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately, intense hunting for their fur has lead to the extirpation of beavers on both sides of the Northern Hemisphere, with the Eurasian species in particular suffering a critical drop in numbers. Fortunately, hunting of these animals has largely ceased and populations are restoring themselves. The American species has regained much of its former range in the midwestern and eastern states, and its Eurasian cousin has grown from eight relic populations with an estimated 1,200 individuals in the early 1900s to over 600,000 today, revitalizing their ecosystems as their ranges expand. Sadly, this comeback ha not been without its backlashes. Beavers and humans come into conflict when beavers convert agricultural land into wetland. Beavers are a keystone species in wetland habitats and it remains for humans to acknowledge their environmental contributions and develop strategies that allow both humans and beavers to share the same landscape.

References & Further Reading
Macdonald, David W. "The Princton Encyclopedia of Mammals. Princeton", New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009. 142-145

Catalogue of Organisms. “Beaver Fever” (2012). Retrieved November 3, 2012 from

Beaver Pictures and Facts. Retrieved November 3, 2012 from  

Photo Credits
  1. Beaver gnawing tree: D. Gordon E. Robertson, 31 January 2010, Gatinaeu Park, Quebec, Wikimedia Commons
  2. Whitefish Channel beaver dam: Fungus Guy, 2 July 2006, Wikimedia Commons
  3. Abandoned beaver dam: July 2008, Wikimedia Commons
  4. Beaver lodge: Paulyang, 28 July 2007, Wikimedia Commons
  5. Canada Goose on beaver lodge: Frederic C. Brenner, 1960, Wikimedia Commons