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Why Are Marsupials Found Only In Australia?

Take a look at global animal distribution and you’ll notice how each country in the world has a specific type or species of animal, that isn’t found anywhere else.

One such group of animals is the Marsupials – animals that possess a pouch which they use to raise their young in. Some of the best examples of Marsupials are kangaroos, koalas, possums and wombats.

When we think about marsupials, we always associate them with the Land Down Under. Why is it that marsupials are found only in Australia?

Okay, let’s take a moment to set the record straight. Marsupials aren’t found only in Australia. They are also found in South America, Central America and certain parts of North America & Southern Canada. The best example of an American marsupial is the Opossum

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An opossum

Scientists believe that the first marsupials were actually born in South America and they crossed Antarctica to finally land on and inhabit Australia. This was 180 million years ago, when Australia, Antarctica and South America were a single super-continent called Gondwana. A common marsupial ancestor born in South America branched into two distinct species, with one residing in the Americas and the other migrating to Australia. Today, over 200 species of marsupials are found in Australia, 100 in South America and 13 in Central America – all descendants of the single American ancestor. 

Gondwana
A representative image of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana (image source)

So, the question we should be asking now is – “Why are a majority of the animals that are found in Australia, marsupial?” Or, a better question would be, “Why are so many marsupials still alive in Australia, when most of their American counterparts are extinct?” What makes Australia such a fertile ground for the birth (& survival) of so many marsupial species?. 

The answer can be two-pronged. One line of thinking states that the geography of the country-continent is the reason for a high percentage of marsupials in Australia.

Australia has been a landmass that has remained largely separate from other continents for millions of years. This meant, it was subject to weather and soil conditions that was completely different from what was found on other continents. In turn, this affected the type of plants that grew on the continent, which changed the diet of the Australian marsupials significantly from their American counterparts. The researchers who support this theory believe that the diet offered by Australia was more conducive to the development of the marsupial species as a whole, compared to the diet elsewhere.

The second theory is that, since Australia was largely and for a very long time secluded and protected from the invasion of foreign species, the marsupials of yore didn’t have much competition to face for shelter, food and water. Additionally, the predominantly marsupial population ensured the birth of more marsupials and over time, the continent was soon overrun by marsupials. 

On the other hand, the Americas blossomed with many distinct species of animals, leading to intense competition for resources and as a result, the extinction of many marsupial species. We need to remember here that marsupial babies are born underdeveloped due to the lack of a placenta. They need additional time compared to their placental or egg-born cousins to grow into strong & mature creatures. With so many threats lurking around and such few resources to be shared by thousands of animals, it was just a matter of time before the genetically-weaker marsupial species in the Americas went extinct. 

Placenta vs marsupial
A short list of placental mammals and marsupials commonly found in the wild (image source)

The future of Australia’s marsupials

So, what’s next for our pouched friends?

Species around the world are experiencing the brunt of habitat loss and governments are implementing conservation projects to keep them safe. In Australia, the kangaroo is given protected status – with criminals found injuring or killing them, getting a one-way ticket to prison. But not all marsupials have been afforded this luxury, making conservation a challenging endeavour.

Additionally, some species like the antechinus, are going extinct for another (never-anticipated) reason – their suicidal mating tendencies – and have stumped scientists. Experts are now scrambling to save these almost-extinct species, but it may already be too late. 

In terms of whether we’ll see any new marsupial species being discovered anytime soon; only time will tell. For now, the focus is on preserving the population that is present in the Land Down Under.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Pixabay
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5 Fun Facts About Dugongs

Dugongs are marine animals which belong to the family Dugongidae. They are part of the order called Sirenia aka sea cows, which also includes the manatees. They can be found dispersed across the Indian ocean, Pacific ocean and the region between East Africa & Australia. 

Here are five facts about them: 

  1. Apart from manatees, dugongs are the only marine animals that are strictly herbivorous, eating sea grass, weeds and aquatic plants. All other marine animals are omnivorous. 
  2. The closest relative of dugongs is the Steller’s Sea Cow, which was driven to extinction in the mid-1700s.
  3. A dugong’s gestation period lasts one year and females give birth once every 3-7 years. 
  4. Although they resemble seals and walruses in appearance, dugongs are actually more genetically similar to elephants. That’s because these animals evolved from the same ancestor. 
  5. According to the IUCN Red List, dugongs have a “Vulnerable” classification; meaning they are very vulnerable to becoming extinct if conservation efforts aren’t set in place. As of today, less than 7500 dugongs are alive in the world.  

 

Bonus

The name “dugong” comes from the Malay word “duyung“, which means “Lady of the Sea“. Before scientists officially documented this species, sailors & fishermen out at sea assumed dugongs (and their cousins, the manatees) to be mermaids, sirens and other mystical creatures. This was predominantly because of the way these animals swam.

Dugongs and manatees rise out from the underneath the water and perform tail-stands (where they stand & balance on the tip of their tails) when coming up for air. This prompted sailors & fishermen to assume they were the mythical sea-dwelling creatures they grew up hearing about. 

 

 

Steller's Sea Cow
A representative image of a Steller’s Sea Cow – the extinct relative of the dugong (image source)

 

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Some more facts about dugongs (image source: pinterest)

 

Video: Now let’s see a dugong in action

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: National Geographic; Dugong vs Manatee: Indigoscuba
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5 Differences Between Turtles & Tortoises

Turtles & Tortoises must have been the source of the “Find the difference” game, because they are two animals that most people can’t distinguish between. 

Turtles & tortoises are both reptiles which belong to the Testudines family of animals – animals which developed a bony/cartilaginous layer on their backs, which cover their bodies as a shield. They belong to the same group as crocodiles and snakes. 

A lot of times, many aspiring pet owners don’t know how to differentiate between a turtle and a tortoise and end up caring for them the wrong way. They give them the wrong food and expose them to the wrong living conditions. This results in many animal deaths. Those owners who try to do right by their pets by releasing them back into the wild, release turtles & tortoises in environments they actually aren’t supposed to, leading to more deaths. 

So, how can we stop this vicious cycle? By learning more about them of course. Here are the top 5 differences between turtles & tortoises

  1. Turtles can swim, tortoises can’t. That’s why turtles have webbed feet (sea turtles have full-fledged flippers) and tortoises have feet that have toes (like that of an elephant) which they use to walk & climb. 
  2. With the exception of the Sonoran mud turtles and Box turtles, all other turtle species have a streamlined and flat shell. All tortoises have deep, domed shells. The streamlined shells of turtles are highly-aerodynamic and reduce drag in the water. Tortoises never needed to evolve a flat shell because they never needed to swim. 
  3. Turtles live on an average for 80 years. Tortoises for 150 years. There have been instances where turtles and tortoises in healthy captive conditions lived well beyond their natural lifespans, some reaching an estimated 250 years of age. 
  4. Turtles are omnivores and like to eat a mix of plants and meat like larvae, insects, small fish and jellyfish. Tortoises are mostly herbivores and love their green leaves, with only a handful of species choosing to eat meat. 
  5. Female turtles come on shore only to lay eggs and will return to the water immediately after. Female tortoises on the other hand, often stay a few days protecting the nest and will return to their territories much later. If you’ve seen a turtle/tortoise lay her eggs near your property and you want to do your bit to give these eggs a chance to hatch (and not get eaten by predators), read this really-informative article by the Tortoise Protection Group here

Bonus

Okay, here’s a fun fact that can turn everything you’ve just learnt on its head. 

Scientifically speaking, there’s no distinct species called “tortoise”!

Okay, before you drop your device in shock, let me just clarify that there’s more to it.

So, according to taxonomy (the science of classification), all animals that have shells which cover their body completely are called “turtles”. What this means is that all tortoises are in reality a type of turtle

Let’s break it down further. The species called “turtles” includes – tortoises, terrapins (yep, that’s a new one) and turtles.

  • Tortoises are turtles which live exclusively on land.
  • Terrapins are turtles whose shells resemble those of sea turtles (only smaller), but whose legs look like those on tortoises and they swim in freshwater.
  • Turtles are actually sea-turtles which live in the ocean and do not remain long on land. 

Basically, all tortoises and terrapins are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises and terrapins. 

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An Australian sea turtle (image source)
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A Galapagos giant tortoise (image source)
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A Terrapin – see how they look like a cross between a turtle and a tortoise. Their shells are flat and streamlined, but their feet are only slightly-webbed with long claws attached, making them perfect for both land and water-based living.  (image source)
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Turtles & tortoises have different types of feet. (image source)

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image
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5 Fun Facts About Bison

Bison, also called the American Buffalo, are a species of Bovine found in North America. They are a Near Threatened species with only 500,000 left in the wild. 

Here are 5 fun facts about them:

  1. Bison have lived in the area that is now known as Yellowstone National Park since prehistoric times. Researchers believe these animals are more than 2 million years old and have survived the ice age. 
  2. Adult bison can weigh up to 2000 pounds. Although its such a heavy animal, a bison can run at record speeds of 35 miles/hour. That’s faster than Usain Bolt’s Olympic record speed of 27.8 miles/hour. 
  3. You can easily tell how a bison is feeling by looking at its tail. Calm bison will leave their tails down and swish it around – the movement seems effortless. But an angry bison, especially one that’s about to charge, will have its tail straight upwards, pointing towards the sky. 
  4. Bison calves are called “red dogs” because of the colour of their fur. When bison calves are born, they are orange-red in colour and they turn brown-black as they age. 
  5. A bison’s hump is made of strong muscles. This lump of muscle, supported by the animal’s strong vertebral column, helps the bison shovel large amounts of snow and dirt from the ground when its foraging for food. Unlike the camel (which uses its fat-filled hump as a source of energy during times of scarcity), a bison can’t use its hump as anything other than a snow/dirt shovel. 

 

Bonus

Analysis of migratory patterns show that the bison made their way to North America from Asia during the Pliocene Epoch via the natural land bridge that connected Asia to North America, before the split of the Pangaea. So, although the bison is now the USA’s national mammal, it was never their indigenous species. 

 

Video: Two juggernauts go head-to-head in a fight to the finish for land and ladies. What happens next? 

 

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A cave painting of a bison from historic times – proof that bison roamed the lands during the olden days.

 

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A newborn bison calf with its mother. You can see the remnants of the birth coming from the bison mother.

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Photo Credits: Pixabay

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5 Fun Facts About Orchids

  1. There are more than 25,000 documented species of orchids in the world and they’ve been around since before the continental drift 200 million years ago.
  2. The smallest orchid in the world is in Ecuador. It is only 2.1mm long and it requires a microscope to examine. It’s petals are so thin and transparent, scientists believe they resemble the size and texture of human cells.
  3. There is an orchid called the Bee Orchid, whose petals and fragrance resemble a bee. The orchid uses its unique appearance and fragrance to attract male bees, to stimulate pollination.
  4. Orchid seeds are really tiny – smaller than a dust particle. That’s why some orchids take up to 15 years just to germinate. Many of the full-grown potted orchids found in stores are often decades old!
  5. Rare orchids can get really expensive. Some of the most expensive orchid plants are – Rotchschild’s orchid ($5,000 per plant), Fire lilies ($10-$20 per stem), Yellow And Purple Lady Slipper (Critically endangered – Priceless) and Ghost Orchid (Critically endangered – Priceless).

Bonus

That vanilla-flavoured ice cream you love so much? It’s derived from an orchid. The Vanilla planifolia is a type of orchid, whose leaves are used to derive the vanilla flavouring used in food and beverages. Additionally, when someone talks about “vanilla beans”, they’re actually referring to orchid seeds.

Orchid 15
Rothshild’s slipper orchid
Orchid 16
Ghost orchid
orchid 17
Purple lady slipper orchid 
Orchid 1
Rare blue orchids
Orchid 2
Praying Angel orchid
Orchid 5
Bee orchid
Orchid 8
Platystele Jungermannioides – the smallest orchid in the world
Orchid 9
Moth orchid 
Orchid 10
Monkey orchid
Orchid 13
Swaddled baby orchid
Orchid 14
Flying duck orchid

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Dendrobium orchid 

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5 Fun Facts About Indri

  1. Indris are a type of lemur found in Madagascar. They are very rare and an estimated 10,000 are left in the wild, making them critically endangered species.
  2. Indris produce songs to communicate with each other, which comprise of a series of roars and grunts. These songs are so hauntingly beautiful, they’re thought to be as good as the vocalizations humpback whales make as part of their mating ritual.
  3. Indris are a matriarchal society. A female leads the troop for foraging and determines the troop hierarchy.
  4. Indris mate for life and only seek out a new partner when their mates die.
  5. Female indris are fertile only for a single day in the year and they must mate then to ensure pregnancy.

Bonus

Unlike in other lemurs, the indris’ small tail doesn’t serve any purpose and doesn’t help them walk or jump. Instead, indris depend on their muscular legs to jump from tree branch to tree branch. They can jump 10 feet across in a single leap.

Video:

Sir David Attenborough meets an Indri

Indri
An indri 
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A baby indri
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A mother-baby pair

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Puma

  1. Pumas are known by 80 different names around the world. Some of the ones you may have heard of are – Cougar, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount & Shadow Cat.
  2. Puma cubs are born with spots on their fur, which they lose as they begin to age.
  3. Big cats roar, while small cats snarl. Unlike lions & tigers, puma can’t roar, but they can snarl. This makes them small cats, despite being the fourth heaviest cat species in the world.
  4. There are only 50,000 breeding Pumas in the wild, making them “Near Threatened” according to the IUCN Endangered Species list.
  5. Puma cubs start hunting small prey at 6 months of age. That’s the fastest of all the cats.

 

Bonus

Pumas are excellent jumpers. They can jump as high as 5.4 meters upwards onto a tree. That’s almost twice as high as the World Record high jump of 2.45 meters by Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor.

 

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A puma resting 

 

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A puma hunting a bear cub. The mother bear runs to save its cub. 

 

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A puma cub

 

Puma 3
A puma running

 

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A mother-cub pair

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Chevrotain aka Mouse Deer

  1. Chevrotain are found only in Asia and Africa.
  2. Chevrotain are super small in size. The various sub-species of the mouse deer range in size between that of a Chihuahua and a Jack Russell Terrier.
  3. Although they resemble deer and have mousey faces, the chevrotain are not related to either of the animals. In fact, they belong to a separate, mostly-extinct species called Tragulidae, of which they are the only surviving members.
  4. They have very long and sharp fangs which they use during battle for territory and mates. Their bites can put even Dracula to shame.
  5. Female chevrotain are pregnant for most of their adult lives. They mate and get pregnant within a few hours of giving birth.

 

Bonus

Chevrotains walk down into the river bottom and remain submerged for up to 4 minutes at a time when they sense the presence of predators.  They may also create secondary burrows for themselves underwater where they stay until the danger passes. To see what this is like, watch the video below.

 

Mouse deer 1
A chevrotain’s fangs are very sharp and long. Males have longer and sharper fangs than females.
Mouse deer 4
Chevrotain mating
Mouse Deer 5
A mother chevrotain feeding a fawn. Mothers stand on three legs, lift a leg in the air and feed their fawns. 
Mouse Deer 6
Fawns are one of the smallest creatures in the wild
male Lesser Mouse-deer
A mouse deer in the Thai forest

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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5 Fun Facts About Bald Uakari

(pronunciation: wakari)

 

  1. The Bald Uakari are very unique to look at, with their completely hairless, red ballooned faces and extremely short tails. Their fur ranges from pure white to reddish-brown to orange.
  2. Uakari have one of the most powerful jaws in primates and can cut open a hard Brazilian beetle nut with a quick bite.
  3. Uakari females give birth just once every two years.
  4.  Uakari live in groups called ‘troops’ which can contain up to a 100 monkeys.
  5. Uakari are considered vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List, due to extensive hunting by indigenous tribes in its native habitat of South America.

 

Bonus

Uakari are very susceptible to malaria and often fall ill, which reduces the redness of their faces. Animals with paler red faces are rejected by potential mates as they indicate traces of ill health. This can be especially hard for Uakari who have never had the disease, but have pale faces due to genetics.

 

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A reddish-brown uakari

 

Uakari 3
A white uakari

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Okapi

  1. Okapi have tongues that are 30 cms long, which is approximately double the length of a standard television remote and three times the length of the average human tongue.
  2. Okapi diet is as diverse as it is colourful. Okapi eat over 100 types of plants & fungi, red clay and charcoal. This type of diet ensures they get all the nutrients they need to be healthy.
  3. New born okapi don’t poop until they are four to ten weeks old. Researchers believe this may be a tactic to avoid drawing predators through smell.
  4. Mother okapi speak to their babies in infrasound, sounds that are too low for humans to hear.
  5. Okapi release a black tar-like substance from their feet, which leaves marks when they walk. This could be a way of marking territory.

 

Bonus

Okapi are extremely shy and live in secluded areas of the forest. Apart from calf-mother pairs, they seldom interact with any species, including their own. Till the time they were discovered in 1901 by British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, Okapi were called ‘African Unicorns’ because people thought they were a myth and didn’t really exist. It was only the indigenous tribes living in the Congo-Ugandan region who had occasionally seen the animals till then. Now they are found only in the Congo and are the country’s national animal.

 

Video: An okapi in the wild

 

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An okapi 

 

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The Okapi Wildlife Reserve established in Congo helps safeguard this Rare & Endangered species. There are currently only 25,000 documented okapi in the wild. 
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The Congolese franc uses okapi as the image for their 50 franc notes.
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A mother-calf pair feeding

 

-NISHA PRAKASH