Creature of the Week #7: Coquerel’s Sifaka

After the Indri, the Sifakas are the largest members of the lemur family, and the Coquerel’s Sifaka Propithecus coquereli is one of 9 species that inhabits the lemur homeland of Madagascar. With physical barriers such as rivers proving an un-passable barrier for most lemurs, the speciation of these different sifakas has been allowed to occur, each adapted to their own specific region and habitat. In the Coquerel’s case, this is the dry forests on the Mid-Western edge of the Island.

While many lemurs are unsurprisingly shy of humans due to the Malagasy’s fondness of the primates as dinner, the indri and sifakas are taboo to hunt, as they are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of their dead ancestors. Subsequently, they are far less wary of people, and the sifaka in this photo was just many I saw whilst on an expedition to the Mahavamo Forest with Operation Wallacea this Summer that would take no heed of us, both on forest surveys and whilst in camp, allowing great photo opportunities as they sat above our heads crunching fruit.

Unfortunately, like most lemurs (and in fact most of Madagascar’s fauna) all sifakas are threatened to an extent, and the Coquerel’s Sifaka is currently listed as ‘Endangered’ on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The terrifyingly rapid decimation of Madagascar’s forests for development and agriculture of course play a large part, but ironically the stronger presence of conservation science on the island has convinced many communities that there is nothing spiritual about sifakas; not only are they as tasty as any other lemur, but easier to catch. As conservation might as well not be bothered with if you can’t get the support from the locals, changing their perceptions of the sifaka whilst not intruding too heavily on their own needs and cultural values will, and is, proving an interesting challenge.

Creature of the Week #6: European Lynx

The beautiful European Lynx (Lynx lynx) is not only one of Europe’s largest predators, but one of its most elusive. Even people who live right out in the middle of remote lynx country, such as Poland’s Bialowieza Forest or the Carpathian Mountains, can go years between seeing one. This was still the case when it was widespread across the continent, including the British Isles; whilst bears and wolves were ubiquitous enough to demand bounties for their capture and places within folklore and fairy tales, the lynx slipped by unseen. (Among the few folk tales surrounding lynx that exist, the most bizarre is that if it urinates into a hole it will solidify into a ruby!)

This secretive nature is a key to the lynx’s success as a predator, working by stealth and ambush rather than sprinting down its prey when it can be avoided. Adaptations to this technique are apparent across its physiology; Muscular legs to generate the energy for that killer pounce, large, soft paws that muffle the sound of it’s movements, and when you don’t need a long tail for balance in sprinting a short, stubby one is present so as not to betray its presence. Even the ear tufts, which were often thought to have little use, have been found by researchers to be a potential advantage in detecting low frequency sounds for it’s radar-like ears.

As a predator of anything from rabbits and ground birds to roe deer, lynx play a crucial role in their ecosystems as top predators; yet sadly, their demise from much of their former range, largely as a result of suitable forest habitat, has lead their former habitats to be a lot less biodiverse as a result. This is due to the de-establisment of a trophic cascade; these are the ways in which top predators; such as the lynx and wolf, maintain the health of their ecosystems by controlling not only the populations, but the feeding patterns, of their prey. With predator pressure a deer will only eat a few leaves of a plant and quickly move on, rather than spending time devouring it entirely or overgrazing a small area. This increases plant diversity, increases invertebrate numbers, thus increasing woodland birds, and so on.

And Britain’s woodlands are in severe need of these, with too many deer that have lost fear of predation, as well as the rapid spread of introduced muntjac deer. With issues over livestock security making it less likely for the wolf to make a comeback in the UK, the elusive lynx is a far better candidate. Able to live alongside without us even knowing, less inclined to kill livestock, with roe and muntjac deer in particular as perfect-size prey and added economic incentive from ecotourism, I personally feel the lynx is an ideal candidate for reintroduction. It isn’t just a moral need to bring this incredible animal back to our shores, but an urgent one for the sake of our wildlife.

(Photos taken at Whipsnade Zoo & the New Forest Wildlife Park)



Creature of the Week #4: Great Hornbill

‘Great’ in both senses of the word, the Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis is the largest and arguably most dazzling of the hornbill family. With Great Hornbills, they’re physiology is as much about spectacle as practicality, with it’s dazzling yellow neck and beak and hollow casque largely the result of sexual selection. These come to the fore in the bird’s breeding season, when the booming and repetitive roars and barks of promiscuous hornbills resound through the tropical forests of South-east Asia and Western India.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of these animal’s breeding ecology however is their nesting behaviour. As the female begins to incubate eggs, she imprisons herself within a nest cavity in a hollow tree by sealing up the entrance with mud, till only a teeny gap remains for her mate to feed her and for her to deposit her faeces. In many ways, a sound strategy; practically a zero risk of predators taking the eggs, and the maximum amount of energy that can be put into incubating eggs is utilised. It’s just ensuring nothing happens to Daddy, who becomes her and their chicks literal lifeline for over 50 days!

The individual in this photo (a female, as indicated by the pale-coloured iris) is a captive bird at the Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire. The Great Hornbill’s complicated nesting behaviour makes them difficult to breed in captivity, yet the Park was among the first to succeed in doing so, and continues to be part of the bird’s International Captive Breeding Programme.

Creature of the Week #2: Giant Otter

Truly one of the most bizarre, alien and incredible mammals in the World, the Giant Otter Pteronura brasiliensis is an animal that seems to be in a transitional stage of evolution between the rest of its otter relatives in the family Lutrinae and the far more aquatically-adapted pinnipeds (street name ‘seals’). It’s more spherically-shaped skull, oversized, goose-like webbed feet and huge oar-shaped tail and perhaps more obviously, its huge size of up to 6 feet long set it apart from other otter genera which, like the native european otter, have a much more weasel-like physiology. Another of the giant otter’s key characteristics is its vast vocal range of frankly weird sounds. From constant low purrs that sound like an electric Chewbacca to shrill ‘squelps’ like a radio going badly out of signal, these, combined with its appearance, would lead you to think it dropped off Mars.

Of course, it (allegedly) hasn’t, originating from the rainforests and great rivers of South America, including the Amazon & Pantanal. Here they hunt in huge family groups, the result of which leads to them becoming one of their ecosystem’s top predators; the nickname ‘river wolves’ is one rightly earned. Few animals dare to challenge them, even caiman and anaconda which may fall prey to these families, and they will happily munch away at piranhas; head first of course, so it can’t bite back.

But like most animals from the rainforests we seek to convert to agriculture or settlement as soon as we can, giant otters are yet another large predator classified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN red list. The otter in this photo is one of two brothers, Simuni & Akuri, who reside at the New Forest Wildlife Park. Akuri however will shortly be sent to Trinidad to breed with a wild-born female, and they’re offspring could be among the first captive bred giant otters to be released to the wild. This is just one small step in the effort to preserve the great families of giant otters patrolling the South American waterways, in addition to habitat preservation, local education and international conservation breeding efforts. So here’s to river wolves for centuries to come.