Image

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

Possum 2
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
Image

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)

 

Dugong 1
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
Image

5 Fun Facts About Africa’s Great Migration

You may have seen it on television – it’s an event that National Geographic has always loved to film. A grand spectacle and a treat for the senses, the Great Migration in Africa is the annual movement of the world’s largest (non-human) land animal group from one part of Africa to the other, in search of food and safer breeding grounds*.

Wildebeests, antelope, zebra and big cats congregate for five months of rigorous walking, eating, birthing and killing. Here are 5 amazing facts about it:

  1. The Great Migration starts in Tanzania at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation areas and ends at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The migration starts in the month of November and the animals reach their destination in March.
  2. A recorded 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and thousands of antelope make the migration each year. The animals travel a staggering 2900 kilometres (1800 miles) in total, from Tanzania to Kenya and back during this journey.
  3. The Great Migration follows one of the most dangerous routes in Africa. Animals making the journey have to deal with hungry predators (lions, cheetahs & crocodiles), treacherous floods, the uncaring African sun, mean-spirited tsetse flies and physical tiredness. More than 250,000 wildebeests and thousands of zebras and antelopes die each year on the journey. This is excluding the thousands of calves who are left orphaned and vulnerable to predators after their mothers die. A recorded 3000 lions follow the herds on their journey, picking off the weak and the injured.
  4. More than a foraging mission, the Great Migration is a breeding expedition. Pregnant wildebeests move from Tanzania to Kenya for better environmental conditions for calving. An estimated half a million baby wildebeests are born annually during the migration. In the peak of the calving season (February), more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born in a single day!
  5. Although they look like they’re confused and panicked all the time, the massive herds of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes actually function together as one cohesive unit. They display a tactic researchers call “swarm intelligence”, where they carefully analyse, strategise and implement a  plan of action to get safely past any threat together. There’s no “I” in this family.

 

Bonus

There is still no established and accepted explanation for the occurrence of the Great Migration.

Some scientists believe the changing chemistry of the grass could be the reason for the movement. When levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the Serengeti grassland reduces, the wildebeests may be encouraged to move elsewhere for more nutritious meals, acting as the catalyst for the Great Migration. Others believe that the migration may be the result of a co-ordinated effort helmed by a leader. But so far there has been no evidence of there ever being an alpha-wildebeest in any herd. Then there are those scientists who believe that the Great Migration is the consequence of instinct and DNA – a purely biological process that has no other reason.

Well, whatever the rationale, fossil records show that the Great Migration has been in occurrence in East Africa for over one million years.

 

Migratie-Serengeti-map
The Great Migration – Route Map (image source)

 

serengeti-migration
A sea of wildebeests, zebras and antelopes greet the eyes during the Great Migration. Often, these herds extend all the way to the horizon; but they don’t stop there. They go on & on. (image source)

 

Wildebeest-Crossing-mara-river-Serengeti-lodge
Wildebeests crossing the Mara river – this is where they are most vulnerable to attack from crocodiles. (image source)

 

wildebeest-birth-marataba-7-1024x650
A wildebeest mother with her newborn calf. (image source)

 

Video: Watch the culmination of the Great Migration – wildebeest giving birth & a newborn’s first, wobbly steps. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image
*Humans take the crown for the farthest migrations in search of food and shelter. 
Image

Deceptive Sizing: 3 Newborn Animals Who Are Ridiculously Smaller Than Their Parents

Ah baby animals…these bundles of joy have been lighting up the wild for millennia. While everyone has been raving about their cuteness, not a lot of people have spoken about their size. Let’s face it, when it comes to size, some animals are impressive…impressively small. 

Here are 3 animals whose babies are way smaller than you thought they would be: 

 

Kangaroos

Kangaroo adults can reach heights of 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) and can weigh 90 kilograms (200lbs). But their newborn joeys are smaller than gummy bears, often smaller than 25 millimeters. 

 

 

Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:

 

 

Pandas

At their heaviest, adult pandas can weigh 160 kilograms (350 lbs). But their tiny cubs weigh only 1/900th of their mother’s weight! Now that’s really tiny. 

 

Panda 2
A panda mom with her newborn cub

See that little pink floppy thing on the left side? yup, that little nugget is the cub.

Here’s a fun question; what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment! Ha ha, all jokes aside, a group of pandas is called “an embarrassment” because of the boisterous way in which panda cubs play when they’re together. It could embarrass any mum. 

Now indulge in some cub time by watching twin panda cubs embark on their first 100 days of life. 

 

 

Elephants

One of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants have longest gestation period in the wild. It takes their bodies 22 months to fully develop the calf (imagine being pregnant for almost two years!). But surprisingly, baby elephants when born are only 90 kilograms (200 lbs), while their heavy-weight mothers, aunts and sisters (and not to forget, their brothers and fathers) can reach ridiculously high weights of 3600 kilograms (4 tonnes)! 

 

 

Watch as this newborn calf, just hours old, meets his herd-mates, learns how slopes are not a baby’s friend and discovers the forest he is to grow up in. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

 

 

Image

5 Fun Facts About Possums

Posssums are marsupials (pouched mammals) that are found in North America. They are the only marsupial species found outside Australia and New Guinea. They belong to the order Didelphimorphia, to which belong 95 species of possums. 

 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

  1. Possums are renowned for their ability to “play dead”. In reality, possums don’t actually “play” dead. Their paralysis and almost-dead like state is an involuntary physiological reaction where their nerves and muscles literally freeze and stop working for hours due to stress. This in-built defense mechanism has allowed the possum to survive from pre-historic times. 
  2. Lyme disease is a tick-bite induced disease that results in terribly itchy and inflamed rashes, joint pain and fatigue. Possums in your backyard is a great defense against Lyme disease. It’s been found that possums prey on over 5000 of the ticks and fleas that spread the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. 
  3. Apart from the venom of the Coral Rattlesnake, possums are immune to all other snake venom. That’s why they regularly prey on snakes in the wild. A few years ago researchers created an anti-venom using possum peptides (short chain amino acids linked by peptide bonds), which they injected into mice. They then injected snake venom into the mice only to find the venom absolutely useless. 
  4. Rabies virus require very hot temperatures to develop and spread. But possums have very low body temperatures compared to other mammals and this makes them invulnerable to rabies. You can almost never find a possum with rabies. 
  5. Primates aren’t the only species to be gifted with opposable thumbs. Possums have opposable thumbs called “halux” on their feet and they use them to climb atop the steepest trees and into the deepest sewers in search of food. 

 

Bonus

Contrary to popular belief, possums and opposums aren’t the same animal. They also don’t belong to the same species. For one, possums belong to the Didelphimorphia order in North America, while opossums belong to the order Phalangeridae in Australia. Both animals look similar, but behave completely differently. It was because of this similarity in physical features that led scientists to confuse the opposum for a possum. 

 

Possum 3
Possums are excellent climbers and use their tails as rudders and as a fifth limb to improve their dexterity. (image source)

 

Possum 1
A possum with her young (image source- pixabay)

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image – Wikipedia 
Image

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? 

 

Bison 3.jpg
A cave painting of a bison from historic times – proof that bison roamed the lands during the olden days.

 

Bison 4
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

Image

5 Fun Facts About Sheep

  1. Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned in the world. She was born in 1996 and died in 2003 due to lung disease. Now 8 other species have been cloned after her. 
  2. Like to eat lamb or mutton? If yes to the former, you enjoy dining on young sheep. But if its the latter you like, adult sheep are your preferred meal. 
  3. A sheep’s natural diet constitutes invasive plants .i.e. plants or weeds that are not native to a geographical area and which wreak havoc on the health of native plants and animals (ex: moss, vines etc). That’s why farmers and conservationists use sheep in a process called “conservation farming“, where they consciously rear sheep to eat & clear any invasive plant species in a fragile ecosystem. 
  4. Sheep may appear dull and stupid, but they are quite intelligent and can recognize human voices and faces. They are often observed developing close bonds with specific people or animals on the farm. In fact, many sheep have “best friends” in their own flocks!
  5. Don’t you just love water-proof cosmetics? You need to thank sheep for that. Sheep produce a water-proof fatty oil called “lanolin” to keep their wool dry. It is this oil that is used as a base to produce water-proof make-up. 

 

Bonus

Apart from humans, sheep are the only animals who show a conscious lifelong preference for same-sex mates. A 1994 study showed that 8% of the males in sheep flocks prefer to partner with other males for life, even if there is no dearth of fertile females. In other animal species, a variety of factors from shortage of mates to lack of sexual pleasure can temporarily encourage homosexuality in animal groups.  

 

Sheep 4
Sheep live in tight-knit flocks. Lambs grow up playing with each other. 

 

Sheep 3
Orphan lambs are put with foster moms who have lambs of their own and are producing milk. This can be a very tricky affair for both farmers and lambs. Read all about it here

 

ap_752560517524
Sheep wool never stops growing. Sheep need to be sheared at least once a year to prevent the onset of any dermatological diseases or pest-caused diseases. In 2004, Shrek, a merino sheep from New Zealand hid inside a cave for six years because he was scared of getting sheared. By the time he was coaxed out and caught by farmers, he had enough wool on him to produce 20 full-length men’s suits!

 

Sheep 1
Bighorn Sheep from North America have horns that weigh as high as 14 kilograms. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

Image

5 Fun Facts About Rats

  1. April 4th is celebrated as World Rat Day. This day was chosen in honour of the date of incorporation of the Ratlist, a mailing list that’s dedicated to the care and upkeep of pet rats. 
  2. A rat’s whiskers are its “hearing” devices. The whiskers pick up vibrations from the ground and inform the rat the size of the object/creature coming towards it and the direction it is coming from.
  3. Rats have been observed making a high-pitched laughing noise when they play. 
  4. A rat’s teeth never stop growing. They can grow up to 5 inches per year. These teeth are so strong, they can gnaw through lead and aluminum sheeting!
  5. Rats have really good memories and can recognize faces & places. Their superb memory is one of the reasons why they don’t get lost in mazes and drain pipes. 

 

Bonus

In countries like Cambodia, Angola and Zimbabwe, Giant African rats are trained to detect landmines. In fact, these rats have saved countless lives through their super-rat landmine-detecting abilities. 

To qualify as a landmine-detector, the rats have to undergo a gruelling 6-9 months training and must pass an accreditation test. Read all about this interesting process here. You can also meet some of these heroes at Apopo

Rat 4
A rat training to detect landmines

 

Rat 2
Rats make great house pets as they are very easy to maintain.

 

Rat 3
Wild rats carry over 35 different diseases that are really dangerous to humans.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

Image

5 Fun Facts About Zorse

  1. Zorse is a real animal. It is the cross-bred offspring of a zebra stallion and a horse mare.
  2. The combination of the horse and zebra genetic material has given the Zorse a stunning genetic blueprint. A Zorse is always immune to the genetic diseases that are common to both its parents.
  3. Although its fur colour can come from either of its parents, most of the physical features of the Zorse come from the Zebra father, making it a very strong & hardy animal, fit for the wild. However, its personality and temperament are exactly like its Horse mother, making it very easy to train. That’s why the Zorse is used as a pack animal in certain places of North America.
  4. The Zorse has a 360-degree vision and can turn its eyeballs completely around to see. However, it has two blind spots – one behind the head and one directly below the nose.
  5. The Zorse is by birth sterile and can’t reproduce. However, mating behaviours have been observed in the animals, both in the wild and in captivity.

 

Bonus

Unlike Ligers and Tigons, which come from different combinations of lion and tiger mating, Zorse foals are born genetically the same irrespective of whether they are reared through a zebra stallion-horse mare mating or a horse stallion-zebra mare mating. However, since zebras are rarer and scientifically more valuable to breeding programs than horses are, no zebra owner voluntarily wastes time on having their female zebra give birth to a Zorse.

 

Zorse 4
A mother horse with her zorse foal

 

Zorses come in a variety of colours: 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

 

Image

5 Fun Facts About African Wild Dogs

  1. Each African wild dog has a unique spotting/marking on its fur. These markings serve the same purpose as human fingerprints and help researchers and gamekeepers keep track of individual pack members.
  2. Unlike in other animal groups where males leave and females stay behind; male wild dogs stay in their birth pack for life, while females leave and join other packs after reaching sexual maturity. This ensures there is no inbreeding.
  3. African wild dogs follow a community-based rearing of their young. Every adult member of the pack is responsible for the safety & upbringing of the pups and both males and females share babysitting duties.
  4. Wild dogs packs are extremely loving and caring, often taking care of the injured members of their packs for years. Healthy, adult dogs give feeding priority to pups and injured pack members, even before feeding themselves.
  5. Wild dogs are extremely intelligent and plan hunts well in advance. In fact, it’s this intelligence, coupled with team work and endurance that makes them successful in 80% of all attempted hunts. In comparison, lions are successful only 17%-19% of the time.

 

Bonus

Humans have tried to domesticate wild dogs like they did other canids, but have remained unsuccessful. Why? Wild dogs have an inherent suspicion towards any animal apart from their own pack-members and they have an intense dislike towards being touched. All domesticated dog species on the other hand, were very friendly and liked being petted, even when wild. 

 

Wild dog 4
Wild dog pups, just weeks old

 

Wild dog 1
Wild dog pack in the midst of a hunt 

 

Wild dog 3
Every adult wild dog in the pack is responsible to teach pups the ways of the wild

 

Wild dog 2
Wild dogs are very curious about their environment

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH