Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Wrap-Up

Wow! Can you believe it’s the end of the year already? We hope you’ve enjoyed some of the fun animal facts we’ve brought you this year, and we look forward to bringing you even more in 2012.

In case you’ve missed any, here are our top five animal fact articles from the past year!

The Tiny Pygmy Jerboa – One of the world’s smallest mammals!

The Killer Whale – The true king of the sea!

The Opossum – The actor of the animal world!

Giant Chinese Salamander – 140lb amphibian!

The Vaquita – The smallest and rarest marine mammal in the world!

Happy New Year, everyone!
Image via.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Grévy's Zebra

The well-known plains zebra is perhaps one of the most familiar symbols of African wildlife. This fully striped member of the horse family has been the subject of many films and photographs, and maintains a strong presence throughout its range. However, there is another species of zebra that looks somewhat unrelated; the Grévy's zebra.
The Grévy's zebra is the largest wild member of the equine family in the world. Most measure 8-9 feet from head to tail, stand around five feet high at the shoulders and weigh 800-1000lbs. Compared to other zebras which are horse-like in appearance, the Grévy's zebra has a larger head, longer ears and thicker mane. Many experts consider the Grévy's zebra to be more closely related to donkeys than horses, and it is thus classified as the only member of the subgenus Dolichohippus. In addition to differences in physical proportions, the Grévy's zebra can be distinguished from plains zebras by their narrower, more closely-spaced stripes and pure-white undersides.
Grévy's zebras also differ in behavior from other zebra species. Whereas most zebras live in herds or harems, the Grévy's zebra often does not. Mares and their foals can be found together in loosely-defined herds, but stallions are usually territorial, occasionally living in small groups outside of mating season, or roaming alone if they are bachelors. .

Native to much of eastern Africa, Grévy's zebras can usually only be found today in isolated pockets of Kenya and Ethiopia. Though now a protected species in both countries, Grévy’s zebra populations have dropped 75% in the last fifty years to an estimated remaining wild population of 2,500 animals. The population was considered stable as of 2008.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Giant Trumpeter Swan

An increasingly common winter sight at many lakes and rivers in the United States are flocks of giant trumpeter swans. Trumpeter swans are both the largest native North American birds and the largest living waterfowl species on earth. Exceptionally sized individuals can have a total body length of six feet, wingspan of ten feet, and weigh 38lbs!
The largest number of these long-necked birds can be found in Alaska, with native populations migrating to locations throughout portions of central and western Canada and the United States seasonally. Populations that have been introduced by conservation efforts are usually year-round residents and do not migrate.

Trumpeter swans primarily feed on all manner of aquatic plants and vegetation. They often feed by upending themselves in the water and using their long necks to reach underwater plants; this technique is known as “dabbling”. In the winter, trumpeter swans will also take advantage of any remaining seeds or grains left in agricultural fields, though they prefer aquatic dining. Trumpeter swans will usually continue to nest and feed at a lake, pond or river in the winter so long as food and open water remains, often sharing their habitat with much smaller Canada geese. Once suitable wintering grounds are found, trumpeter swans may continue to return to the same site each winter for life.
Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation
Trumpeter swan pairs usually mate for life at 4-7 years of age. They are a long-lived species, with many wild swans living well into their twenties. Because of their size, adults have no real natural predators other than golden eagles. Human hunting in the 1800’s caused the trumpeter swan to nearly become extinct. Since the early twentieth century there have been conservation efforts in place in many states that have been effective to the point that these giant swans are now once again common in some areas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Inland Taipan - Fierce Snake

The inland taipan, also known as the fierce snake, is a venomous snake found in east-central Australia. It is considered by biologists to have the most powerful venom of any land snake in the world, with a bite that is reportedly 50 times more lethal than that of an Indian cobra.
Inland taipans are approximately 6-8 feet long and have scales that are brown or brownish olive-green depending on season. Dark chevrons are usually visible on the body and the head and snout are nearly black. Taipans change the shade of their scales seasonally, becoming lighter during the summer to reflect light and darker during the winter to absorb it.

The taipan’s diet consists of rodents, small mammals and birds. Native rats are common in much of the inland taipan’s habitat, and in years where the rats are plentiful they will become the snake’s primary food source. They hunt by stunning their prey with a single bite, after which the taipan retreats to a crack in the arid dirt or other safe place while its venom takes effect. Once the prey has expired the taipan will return to consume it.

Despite their dangerous reputation, inland taipans are very reclusive and there has never been a report of a bite to a human other than to herpetologists actually handling the snake, and all bite victims survived through the administration of antivenin.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reindeer & Caribou

Reindeer, known as caribou in the United States and Canada, are a type of deer indigenous to the northern regions of North America, Greenland, Asia and Europe, and are a well-known component of the story of Santa Claus. There are 9 subspecies of caribou, most of which represent the only types of deer in which both sexes grow antlers. 
The size of caribou depends largely on sex and subspecies. Female reindeer usually weigh between 170-260lbs, with males ranging from 200-700lbs; both sexes are between 33 and 59 inches tall at the shoulders. Compared to their body size, caribou have extremely large antlers. Males can possess racks up to 39 inches in width and 53 inches in beam length. The only deer with larger antlers is the moose. All species of caribou have insulated double-layer coats and are well suited to brutally cold life on the tundra.

Caribou are migratory animals, and venture farther each year than any other terrestrial mammal; sometimes over 3000 miles in a year. The herds during these migrations can contain up to 500,000 animals. Reindeer are very capable at covering ground, with an average traveling distance of 12-34 miles per day. They are excellent sprinters as well, and can run at speeds up to 50mph. Water is frequently and easily traversed on migration routes, as reindeer can swim at speeds in excess of 6mph.
Caribou and reindeer are ruminants, and eat primarily tundra grass in the summer. In the winter, lichen is their main food source, but they have also been known to consume leaves, seeds, eggs, and small rodents.

Reindeer have been hunted by native peoples since nearly the beginning of human history. Their meat and fur is a staple in northern tribal life, where most species are still actively hunted. Though never fully domesticated like horses or working dogs, reindeer have been used throughout history as draught animals to pull sleds. However, the vast majority keep their hooves on the ground!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Snowy Owls in Missouri?

The large and powerful snowy owl is best known in its Arctic tundra summer home of northern Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia. Like all snowy owls, North American birds are nomadic and usually migrate as far south as southern Canada each winter in search of food. However, during the annual Christmas Bird Count this year participants have counted over a dozen snowy owls in Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa; an incredibly high number so far south.
Snowy Owl at Smithville Lake 12/2011. Courtesy Missouri Dept. of Conservation
Being as we at the Jungle Store are located in the Kansas City area, this is exciting news for local birdwatchers. Seeing a single snowy owl wintering this far south is extremely rare, and this year alone three have already been spotted in the Smithville Lake area just north of Kansas City.

As carnivores, snowy owls tend to move whenever food becomes scarce. Their primary food source in the Arctic is the lemming, an animal that is notorious for experiencing huge population booms and declines every four years. Missouri conservationists believe that this southward migration has to do with a lemming population crash in the north, as snowy owls haven’t been seen in this area in several years.
Although they’re not native residents, it is a treat to catch a glimpse of these massive owls in our own backyards for a short while.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Great Dane - Gentle Giant

Though not typically as large and heavy as some mastiffs and St. Bernard’s, Great Danes are nonetheless the best known of the giant dog breeds. Their easygoing temperament and playful nature has made them an extremely popular and enduring breed, with evidence of their existence dating back some 5000 years.

Adult male Great Danes usually stand 30-34 inches high at the shoulders and weigh 120-200lbs, with females being slightly smaller and lighter. However, some Great Danes can grow significantly larger. The current Guinness record holder for world’s tallest dog is a six year old blue male from Arizona named Giant George. George stands 43 inches tall at the withers and weighs 245lbs, making him both the tallest living dog and tallest dog ever recorded.
Giant George
Though originally bred for boar hunting, Great Danes are now primarily considered companion pets. Their personalities can make them ideal family dogs even around children. However, owners must establish a strong pack leader position early on with this breed, as Danes don’t stay small for long and can otherwise think of themselves as giant lap dogs; something some owners have no problem with!
Image via DanesOnline

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Hirola - Four-Eyed Antelope

The hirola is a critically endangered species of antelope that inhabits the arid plains between Somalia and Kenya. It is the only living member of the Beatragus genus and has declined in population in recent years to a current estimate of only 500 to 1200 remaining animals.

The hirola’s “four-eyed antelope” nickname stems from the large scent glands these animals have just below their eyes. When the hirola becomes excited these glands become enlarged, giving them the appearance of having a second set of eyes. Hirolas can also be characterized by their large and fearsome horns, which make for a formidable weapon to be used against rivals.

Photo credit: ARKive
Hirolas generally weigh between 175 and 260lbs and feed on the course grasses that grow in their arid habitat. Females and young hirolas live in groups of 5-40 animals, with mature males either living with a group or defending their own territories depending upon population density and food supply. Like many animals that live in dry climates, hirolas can survive for exceedingly long periods without water. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Vicuña

A wild ancestor to llamas and alpacas, the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is one of two South American camelids that has never been widely domesticated, with the other being the guanaco. Vicuñas are native to the central Andes of Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina.
Vicuñas are considerably smaller than most camelids. On average they stand about three feet high at the shoulders and weigh 100-150lbs. Unlike alpacas, vicuñas do not vary much in coat color, and are usually light brown on their backs with longer white fur covering their necks and undersides.

Vicuñas typically live in family groups consisting of 5-20 animals. This includes a single adult male, several adult females and their young. Most family groups live in two territories, a daytime grazing area, usually in lowlands with nutrient-rich grasses, and a nighttime sleeping area higher up in the mountains. The dominant male in these groups never allows family members to venture farther than 200 feet from one another at any time.
Though vicuñas do face natural threats from pumas and foxes, their largest threat comes from humans. Unrestricted hunting from the time of the Spanish conquests through the 1960’s had reduced the vicuña population to only about 6,000 individuals. They were declared endangered in 1974; since then, conservation efforts have allowed the vicuña population to soar to a current level of 350,000.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Blue Tigers?

Although most of us are familiar with white tigers, a rare color morph of the Bengal tiger, documented sightings of Maltese or “blue” tigers have also been reported throughout history.
Artist's rendering of what a Maltese tiger might look like.
As with domestic cats, the Maltese name refers to a “blue” fur coloration that is actually slate grey. Sightings of Maltese tigers have occurred numerous times throughout the 20th century in both the Fujian Province of China and Korea. It is assumed that these blue tigers were most closely related to the now critically endangered South China tiger. If they still exist, Maltese tigers may be some of the rarest animals on earth.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Greenland Shark

The Greenland shark isn’t the type of predator that often gets mentioned on TV shows or dramatized in movies. However, this giant, slow-moving resident of the North Atlantic may deserve the spotlight every once in a while for its potentially record-setting size and lifespan.
Photo: Discovery
Also known as sleeper sharks, the largest Greenland shark ever recorded was 21 feet long. However, it is believed that these sharks can exceed 24 feet in length. If this is the case, the Greenland shark would be the largest predatory shark in the world, even surpassing the great white; only filter-feeding basking sharks and whale sharks are larger.

Part of the reason this shark is so difficult to study is because of the extreme depths at which it lives. Greenland sharks have been recorded at depths of more than 7000 feet, and usually only come to the surface near ice floes in the winter.

Greenland sharks are thought to be ambush predators, pinning and consuming a large variety of bottom-dwelling fish and crustaceans. They are also known to be scavengers, and like many sharks will eat just about anything, living or not, that they can find. Despite their size, Greenland sharks are notoriously sluggish by nature and are not considered dangerous to humans.

The exact lifespan of the Greenland shark is uncertain. However, scientists have determined that they grow at an extremely slow rate of less than one centimeter per year. If this is the case, fully grown adults specimens may be well over 200 years old, making this shark the longest-lived vertebrate on the planet.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Skimmers - Expert Fish Hunters

Skimmers are tern-like seabirds that comprise the Rynchopidae family, and are named as such because of their particular feeding habits.
Skimmers are unique in that their large beaks are longer on the bottom than on the top. This allows them to hunt by flying just above the water with the lower half of their beaks partially submerged. Any small fish that isn’t able to dart out of the way gets quickly snapped into the skimmer’s mouth and becomes lunch.
There are three known species of skimmers; the black skimmer of North and South America, the African skimmer, and the Indian skimmer of southern Asia.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Backyard Nature - The Ringtail

Though nocturnal and not regularly seen, the ringtail is a relatively common animal throughout the southwestern United States and most of Mexico. This small mammal is named for the 14-16 black and white stripes that ring its tail; a tail that may exceed the animal’s body length.
Often referred to as a ring-tailed cat, miner’s cat, or civet cat, ringtails actually belong to the raccoon family and are not closely related to felines. Smaller than housecats, most ringtails have body lengths of less than sixteen inches and weigh no more than three pounds. The ringtail’s lithe body, long tail and 180-degree rotating ankles allow it to quickly move through rocky and tight terrain, even performing cartwheels and ricochet moves to change direction or negotiate obstacles.

Ringtails are extremely solitary animals and usually only socialize for mating purposes. They spend nighttime hours hunting and foraging for an omnivorous diet that includes berries, fruits, mice, insects, and birds. Their ability as mouse hunters combined with their tame nature led many miners in the nineteenth century to domesticate ringtails to rid cabins of vermin, hence the “miner’s cat” nickname.

The ringtail is currently the state mammal of Arizona.

Monday, December 12, 2011

High-Flying Spinner Dolphins

Though not as recognizable as their larger bottlenose cousins, spinner dolphins are one of the most playful and entertaining to watch of all dolphin species.
There are four recognized subspecies of spinner dolphins inhabiting tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world. At only 50-200lbs fully grown, spinner dolphins are quite small, but make up for their lack of size with amazing athletic ability. The species gets its name from its ability to leap out of the water and perform up to five and a half longitudinal spins in mid-air.
Hawaiian spinner dolphins usually live in pods of up to 200 individuals, with some in the Costa Rican region living in groups of 1,000 or more. Most spinner dolphins are nocturnal feeders and travel offshore each evening to hunt a variety of fish, squid and crustaceans. During the daylight hours the pod will return to the warm, shallow waters near the coast to play and rest. Although spinner dolphins are quite friendly towards people, tourists are often asked not to disturb resting groups during the day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Turkey Vulture

One of the most common large birds in many parts of North America, the majestically-soaring turkey vulture is rarely as appreciated as eagles, hawks, or even the closely-related California condor.
Part of the reason the turkey vulture never gets its due may have to do with its looks. The bird gets its name from its bald head and dark plumage resembling that of a wild turkey. However, once this vulture spreads its six foot wings and begins soaring, it’s obvious this is no turkey.
Often incorrectly referred to as buzzards, which is actually a European term for many buteo species of hawks, turkey vultures can be found throughout South America, Central America, and southern parts of the United States year-round; in warmer months they may live as far north as Canada. They primarily live in large roosts of up to several hundred birds and prefer open country over heavily forested areas.

Turkey vultures are scavengers that feed almost exclusively on carrion. By removing and consuming animal carcasses, they perform an important role in local ecosystems by reducing the spread of disease.

Turkey vultures are sometimes unjustly blamed for killing newborn cattle. In reality, this is usually the work of the black vulture, a similarly-sized bird that sometimes does roost with turkey vultures.

Though not currently endangered or threatened, the turkey vulture is protected under Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Killing or possessing a turkey vulture can result in a $15,000 fine and six months in prison.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scientists to Clone Wooly Mammoth

One of the best known and most studied prehistoric mammals; the wooly mammoth was an enormous elephant-like land animal that existed from roughly 150,000 years ago until 1700 BC.
Warmer temperatures in eastern Russia have recently allowed scientists to unearth several well-preserved mammoths, including one containing preserved bone marrow. It may be possible for scientists to extract the DNA from this marrow and combine it with that from an elephant, allowing them to clone the mammoth.

Discovery News reports that Russian and Japanese scientists plan to clone a mammoth within five years. If they are successful, the result would likely be pretty controversial. After all, most of us are familiar with the story of Jurassic Park!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Christmas Bird Count

Every year from mid-December to early January thousands of ornithologists, conservationists and bird-lovers across the Western Hemisphere take place in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Started by the National Audubon Society in 1900 as an alternative to winter bird hunting, the Christmas Bird Count has grown significantly since it began, regularly drawing over 50,000 participants worldwide. The process is quite simple; observers are assigned to a “count circle” 15 miles in diameter along with other participants from their area. Over a period of 24 hours the group will follow an assigned route and count as many birds as they see, noting species.
Female cardinal in winter.
Although this “bird census” isn’t completely accurate, it does provide valuable information about migration and the winter ranges of various types of birds, not to mention some fantastic nature-watching opportunities. Participation is open to all. To find out when a Christmas Bird Count is happening in your area, visit the National Audubon Society.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Peccary - Not a Pig

The peccary is known by a lot of names; javelina, musk hog, skunk pig and Mexican hog being just a few. And while these desert-dwelling North and Central American mammals may resemble wild hogs or razorbacks, they actually represent their own family of animals separate from the Suidae family pigs belong to, which originated in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Photo: Photo Bee 1
There are four species of peccary, with the most common species, the collared peccary, being found as far north as the Southwestern United States. Peccaries are usually 3-4 feet long and weigh 40-80lbs. Like pigs, peccaries are omnivores and feed on a wide variety of small animals, grass, fruit and cacti. They have fairly large tusks that sharpen themselves when the mouth is opened and closed that can be used as a weapon.

Most peccaries are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, and live in groups of six to nine members. Like pigs, peccaries are unable to sweat or pant to cool off, so they spend the hottest part of the day near water sources or relaxing in the shade. The peccary gets its “skunk pig” nickname from the oil glands on its rump which secrete a strong, distinctive smell.

Though peccaries do face natural threats from jaguars and coyotes, they are very capable of using their tusks to defend themselves. Residents in urban areas are warned not to feed peccaries as this can lead to them losing their fear of humans and possibly becoming aggressive towards people.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Macaroni Penguin

Though you might be thinking pasta, the macaroni penguin received its name for a very different reason. The bird’s bright yellow crest reminded British sailors in the early 1800s of a flamboyant style popular in England at the time called maccaronism. Individuals who adopted this style were often referred to as macaronis; and thus the name stuck.
Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki
Macaroni penguins are thought to be the most abundant species of penguin on earth, with an estimated breeding population of over eleven million pairs. They can be found in and around the southern tip of South America, northern Antarctica and many chains of islands stretching east to South Africa.
Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki
Macaroni penguins are closely related to royal penguins. They are very social animals that often live in colonies of up to 100,000 individuals. Macaroni penguins primarily feed on Antarctic krill during the breeding season, but also hunt a wide variety of other crustaceans, squid and fish. Though still very numerous, macaroni penguins are now classified as vulnerable due to population decline over the last thirty years.