Photos from the National Zoo; Pandas, Wolves, Gharials, and More!

15 04 2007

Looking back, Saturday seems like a dream. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that I only slept 2 and 1/2 hours before getting up at 2 AM to drive to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and spend the day with my wife and her parents. Lack of sleep aside, never have I been to a zoo with such wide species diversity, and while I still consider the Bronx Zoo to be the best I’ve ever been to, I was absolutely amazed by many of the residents of the National Zoo.

My wife and I arrived at 6:30 AM, hoping to see most of the animals in the zoo while they were still active. Unfortunately, most of the animals don’t make an appearance until later in the morning and the various houses didn’t open until 8:30 and 10:00 AM, so other than the occassional jogger there wasn’t much to see. Up in a tree, however, were two Red Pandas sleeping in, and here’s one of them in the early-morning light;

Red Pandas

A Mara, in contrast to the sleeping Red Pandas, was up and about;

Mara

Around the time that my in-laws arrived more of the animals were out on display, although before proceeding my wife wanted a picture of us together next to a statue of a sloth bear. Here it is, both of us looking rather unsettled because the sun was in our eyes and we were trying to communicate how to work my camera;

Us

One of my most favorite animals from the zoo was the Maned Wolf, although unfortunately their enclosure didn’t allow me to photograph them without a doghouse or chain fence in the background;

Maned Wolf

The miniscule Tammar Wallabies were also a highlight. Despite my appreciation for wildlife, every time I see them something in my head goes “Aww, whosanitsybitsy then?”

Tammar Wallaby

We also saw a rather old Spectacled Bear, and for some reason this particular one reminded me of Jeremy Irons. In any case, I have never seen one with an overall blond face (normally they have blond lines/patches that make them appear “spectacled”);

Spectacled Bear

I also finally got to see a Caracal in the flesh, although this was one angry cat. Frustrated that it couldn’t visit it’s other enclosure or get the birds on the outside, it wasn’t too happy when I stooped down to take its picture;

Caracal

Several cheetahs were also on display, a male desperately seeking the affection of this young female (although they were separated by a fence);

cheetah

I also got to see two 10-month old Bengal Tigers at the zoo, although their enclosure wasn’t exactly condusive to good photography. Here’s one of them after making an attempt to snag a bird that entered the enclosure;

Young Tiger

Speaking of young animals, two young sea lions were playing “king of the rock” in their enclosure;

Sea Lions

Two young otter brothers were also a bit scrappy, chasing each other about their enclosure and taking dirt/pine needle baths;

Otter

Other small mammals were also active during our visit, including a Banded Mongoose and some Meerkats;

Mongoose

Meerkats

Some of the local fauna proved to be just as interesting as the exotics; we spotted two white-tailed deer in the zoo as well as this small bird that had collected a flamingo feather for its nest;

Bird

I also finally obtained a photograph of one of my favorite animals, the Giant Elephant Shrew;

Elephant Shrew

While I am absolutely enthralled by mammals, I was also overjoyed to see a male and female Gharial up close in the Reptile House. Here’s the female, just before slipping into the water to join the male;

Gharial

The Great Ape House also provided for some good photographic opportunities, especially some young gorillas and an oranguatan that used some cardboard as a sun hat. In fact, many of the orangs at the zoo seemed to like cardboard as a hat, blanket, etc., which I had never seen before.

Gorilla

Oranguatan

Speaking of primates, this small tree shrew in the Small Mammal House slowed down long enough for me to get a good picture of it. Just seeing how it handled its food and used its hands left no doubt in my mind that primates are derived from such creatures;

Tree Shrew

I also encountered an animal I had never heard of before; the African Pygmy Falcon.

Pygmy Falcon

A Mouse Deer also made a brief appearance during our visit;

Mouse Deer

But what about the Giant Pandas? Well I was able to shoulder my way through the crowd of photographers and snag plenty of pictures of the young panda residing at the zoo;

Panda Sit

Panda Log

Panda Tree

Panda

While the young panda was certainly cute and very entertaining (i.e. watching a panda scale a tree for a good scratch), my most favorite moment from Saturday involved a female Mexican Wolf (a subspecies of Grey Wolf). When I arrived at the enclosure the three females were pacing back and forth near the back of their enclosure, stopping every now and then to look at my wife and I. There was no way I was going to get a good picture, but I discovered the cage was connected to another one the wolves could access, and after waiting a moment one of them came over to the front for a drink. After lapping up some water she took a long look at me and rejoined her pack, and here’s my favorite picture that resulted from my stroke of luck;

Wolf

While the 4 hour drive each way wasn’t very fun, I did highly enjoy myself at the zoo and hope to return soon. Even so, I would love to see these animals in the wild someday. While I certainly have some ok pictures, there’s not much of a story to them; “I walked by the enclosure and the wolf looked at me,” isn’t an experience that’s earned. Granted, in the wild I would get nowhere near as close to these animals nor be able to get them to “pose” for me, but I would much rather catch a fleeting glimpse of a wolf or jaguar than know they only exist in zoos and memories.





Deer, cats, and scat; Friday Photoblogging

13 04 2007

It’s Friday, so why not have some fun to round out the week? I haven’t gone to any zoos or museums since February, so I don’t have much in the way of neat animals to show you (but just you wait; I’m visiting the National Zoo tomorrow) but I have a few more “common” specimens to share.

This is my little cat Charlotte; she was the runt of her little but she’s a little ball of affection (and trouble) that likes to sleep upside-down and doing an impression of Superman, at least she was when I woke her up by taking this picture.

kitty

Charlotte also likes to sit in the windowsill and yip and yowl at the birds in the tree outside, and when she gets angry she attacks the blinds (there are lots of little holes from needle canines in the bottom ones).

kitty

Chase is the other cat around here, adopted from friends of ours, and he likes to remind me that it’s my duty to share my ice cream with him whenever I’m enjoying some.

chase share

While petsitting a few weeks ago, I walked along a deer path through some brush and came across these bones. I assume they’re leg bones from a small deer, but I couldn’t find anything else except these partially buried pieces.

bones

Associated with the bones I also found what appeared to be scat at first, but upon pulling the lumps apart I found them to be made up entirely of hair, all that was left of what I assume to be shrews and small rodents. It’s likely that whatever buried the bones also left these, possibly a coyote.

hair

What led me out into the woods in the first place was a small group of deer (with at least one fawn) moving through the backyard. I was able to get reasonably close, although my camera didn’t have enough zoom as I would like and the thick brush made it hard to get a clear shot. Anyway, here’s one of the deer that’s awfully wary of the biped moving awkwardly through the bushes.

deer

That’s all for today, but check back on Sunday or Mondy; I’ll likely have a slew of photos from my trip to Washington, D.C. tomorrow.





Overwhelming Annoyance 3: Revenge of the Baramin

6 04 2007

Fairly early in the life of this blog, I deconstructed a post (and a feeble reply) from the creationist weblog community Overwhelming Evidence, only to receive an e-mail saying that the post was a hoax, an attempt to accurately stereotype the creationist position. I have not heard from the author (who promised a public announcement of the post being a hoax) in some time, but regardless of whether the post was a joke or made in all seriousness, it’s actual content should not be regarded as serious science by anyone. Being that it’s Friday night and I’m a little bored, I decided to dip back into the OE blogs and see if there was anything worth ripping apart; I was not disappointed.

The post, entitled “micro vs. macro evolution – where to draw the line?” starts off with a clarification of the author’s position; they do not accept intelligent design + common descent a la Behe, but rather take a more standard creationist position of belief in created “kinds” (or baramin). Nothing that remarkable there, but the 2nd half of the paragraph better clarifies the overall attitude of the writer;

…at this point I have to make an unpleasant conceit to godless evolutionists: the designs of many parts of our body appear to be modified versions of those used in the design of apes. Yes, these smelly, dirty, brutish animals served as a launching point for our design and, though we certainly didn’t descend from them, we have a certain designerly connection to them, much as Windows Vista does to Windows Millennium Edition.

Ok, so we have something of a hypothesis of the designer’s intent here; rather than taking the finalist view of Homo sapiens being designed in God’s image, the designer coopted designs used in apes to construct humans in a reversal of Christian tradition. The comments about apes being “smelly, dirty, [and] brutish” reminded me of something Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man;

For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs-as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives life slaves, knows no deceny, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

While the author of the OE post clearly despises primates, I do not; although they can be brutal, they can also be quite charming, intelligent, caring, and are not “lower” organisms merely serving as experiments to get human design just right. My visits to the Bronx Zoo in the springtime, when the Congo gorillas are outside and playing with the newborns, have certainly influenced my own opinions on this matter. That aside, the “Windows connection” closer to the paragraph is also rather flimsy and the metaphor is never expounded further, so I won’t comment on it further since it doesn’t hold much relevance to the discussion here.

The next paragraph starts out with the usual “I can accept micro-evolution but not macroevolution” junk, but the second half reveals this little gem;

A dog cannot evolve into a cat. In ten million years, I contend, a dog’s descendants will still be recognizable dogs. Indeed, even after a billion years of microevolution, a dog’s descendants will still be something other than cats. They will be dogs, recognizable to you and me as such, and eager to chase any available cats up the nearest tree. The same is true of a horse or an oak tree or even a fruit fly. While it’s true that breeding can greatly change the form of an animal, poodles look nothing like cats, and neither do Chihuahuas.

Apparently the writer of the post isn’t well versed in their evolutionary history. Dogs and cats (Family Canidae and Felidae, respectively) both belong to the Order Carnivora, extant carnivores derived from what was likely analagous to a modern-day civet (Family Viverridae) over 60 million years ago. Thus, dogs would not evolve into cats nor cats into dogs as they have been evolving along their own separate lineages for millions of years. Given enough time and the right pressures, perhaps evolution could produce a dog that looked superficially like a cat, but it would not exactly resemble extinct or extant cats in the finer points of its anatomy, much in the same way that the extinct Thylacines (or Tasmanian Tigers) may kinda/sorta resemble canids, but any detailed look at their anatomy would belie their marsupial heritage. I also detest the use of the terms micro- and macro-evolution for this reason; small, generational changes accumulate to change species through time, so if you look at an extant dog like the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) and the last common ancestor it shared with cats, you’d see a big difference even though saltations (drastic changes in one generation) were not involved. Unfortunately for modern evolutionists, these terms mean something different to everyone (just as G.G. Simpson noted that everyone had a different idea of orthogenesis during the 1950′s), many people equating macroevolution with saltation rather than larger scale changes over the course of history (which require microevolution, but also other disciplines like biogeography, ecology, etc.).

The author then tries to play the hybrid card;

But where do we draw the line between kinds, between microevolution and macroevolution? Can a donkey be bred from a horse? Can an alpaca be bred from a camel? Can a tiger be bred from a lion? These all may sound in some way ridiculous, but all of these animal pairs can interbreed, which suggests that they may be of the same kind.

Indeed, I recently saw an issue of Creation (formerly AiG’s Technical Journal) trying to define a goat “kind” based upon interbreeding/hybridization. The author of this piece, however, seems confused. A donkey cannot be bred from a horse; donkeys and horses are disctinct, donkeys having 62 chromosomes and horses having 64. While horses and donkeys do interbreed, the typically sterile offspring of a horse and donkey (a mule) has 63 chromosomes, and hence you cannot a donkey from a horse. Does the fact that they can produce fertile offspring belie close common ancestry? Indeed it does, but the observation of this does nothing to prove a created “kind” unless creationist doctrine is accepted as the scientific philosophy. The same goes for the other examples the author lists; while all the examples listed interbreed and can produce hybrids from time to time, you’re not getting a tiger from a lion at all (you get a “liger“). If we continue to follow lion and tiger evolution through history (given we’re around long enough to do so, as well as the cats themselves) it would be expected that the more the species diverge and change, the less likely it will be that they can produce viable offspring (male ligers are sterile, so we can’t use reproduction as our criteria) until it’s no longer possible to do so. Once again, hybridization does nothing to prove creation unless you’ve already accepted creationism as your doctrine.

The end of the post is rather confusing and fizzles out, the author asserting that they could accept all birds having a common ancestor (“from hummingbirds to ostriches”) based upon species plasticity and microevolutionary change. Humans, of course, are not included in any plan of common ancestry (even within a “kind”), the author asserting;

I myself could never believe such a thing [as the descent of humans from apes], since I find it revolting to think my ancestors might have been animals.

I hate to say it, but it sounds like “quintilis” is stuck in an archaic mindset where the very thought of being related to other lifeforms on this planet is utterly repulsive. How could we, in all our glorious arrogance, be related to “lower” forms of life? For my own part I agree with Darwin (see above) and find it heartening to know I share aspects of my own body construction with various organisms (multicellularity, a jaw, tetrapod body plan, etc.) and have an inherent kinship with them because of common ancestry, which would be true if I recognized it or not.





Harp Seals in trouble?

5 04 2007

Every year around this time, the issue of the annual seal hunt becomes front-page news again. Previously, it seemed to be characterized as a debate between super-liberal animals rights activists and fishermen trying to make a living in the off-season, but the debate has taken on a new dimension this year. According to this article from a few weeks ago, states that warming temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have depleted the amount of ice available for expectant mothers to haul out onto and give birth. Hence, many mothers are forced to give birth at sea, and the pups drown as a result, setting up the potential for a major population problem when pressure from the hunt is applied.

The entire seal-hunting issue is a complicated one, mostly because of the concept of sacrifice. Seal fur isn’t exactly a popular item, and so many of the seals harvested end up supplying the ever-kooky (and insatiable) Chinese Traditional Medicine market. As with any ecological debate, we must remember that people are involved here as well, Newfoundland fishermen already suffering from mismanaged cod stocks and financial strain, the seal hunt providing extra income not otherwise available in the “off-season.” Indeed, the mismanagement of fish stocks have led many fisherman and officials to become convinced the seals are at fault, and somehow reducing the number of seals will make fish stocks bounce back. This is a frequent argument (i.e. sea lions are eating our salmon, wolves are killing our cattle, etc.) but it does not hold up and cod makes up only a very small part of the seal diet, so little as to be practically negligible. Even so, the fact remains that these people have had fishing be the family tradition for generations, and now they’re feeling the financial squeeze; a recent National Geographic article described how one young man couldn’t even sell a new boat he had purchased only approximately 2 years ago, and fishing as a way of life is dying out in Newfoundland.

While these harp seals are certainly not in danger of extinction, the inclusion of ecological change due to global climate shifts must be considered, otherwise the seal populations will crash just like the cod stocks. If there is going to be any solution to this problem (and as is often the case with hunting/poaching practices), it is going to have to benefit the people doing the hunting, at least giving them some way of supporting themselves that doesn’t involve seal-hunting. It’s hard to care about the environment when you don’t know if you’re going to have food for your family next week, and ignoring the plight of the Newfoundland fisherman in this issue would be a mistake and only cause further division.





Coyotes like Quizno’s better

5 04 2007

I almost feel dirty posting a YouTube video from Fox News, but it’s the only footage available at the moment of an injured coyote that stopped by a Chicago Quizno’s, resting for a bit in a cooler. Here’s the video;

No comment on the flagellating devils from El Salvador in the second half; I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.

Anyway, I’ve been developing an increasing interest in coyotes, especially since they’re becoming more and more adapted to urban and suburban habitats. They’ve been known to frequent graveyards in New York, hop on mass transit from time to time, get into office building elevators, run in through doggie doors and disembowel poodles, and now visit the occassional sandwhich shop. This summer I’m going to try and track some down in my own area (lots of nighttime hikes are being planned), but I respect the scrappy canids, the underdogs of habitats invaded by suburban sprawl.





Otters holding paws

31 03 2007

I noticed this video on YouTube among those featured on the main page, and it makes me wonder about otter behavior beyond the “Awww”s from the crowd;

In the wild, sea otters wrap themselves in kelp when they go to sleep so they don’t drift away. While there are predators within the kelp environment, the chances of getting hit by a great white shark are greater at the surface outside of the kelp forests. I can’t help but wonder if this “hand holding” behavior from the aquarium stems from the need to feel secure when asleep, a wild behavior that has been deferred to one that merely looks cute to the casual observer. Even if I’m wrong in the sense of the otters need to feel physically connected to something else, perhaps it reflects the need to feel (dare I say it) emotionally secure. For those who have read the book Born Free, you’ll recall Elsa was described as sucking Joy Adamsons thumb whenever she felt nervous. What reason the otters would have to feel nervous/insecure in the aquarium, I don’t know, but I can’t rule it out. If the otters are indeed a “couple,” other mammals have been known to have pair bonding behaviors, some primates sitting together with tails entwined during their courtship. Granted, the examples of Elsa and primates may not apply because behavior is not standard across the board for mammals, but I simply bring them up to convey the possibilities for why this behavior was exhibited. While I have no proof and I’m not an expert, I prefer the physical security hypothesis, but I could be entirely wrong.

Update: Upon some further research, there seems to be anecdotal evidence of otters sleeping together in groups called “rafts” and holding paws to stay together, a phenomenon also seen sometimes with youngsters and their mothers. Once again, whether this is for physical security, emotional security, or (likely) some combination thereof is not mentioned. In my opinion, it probably serves a dual purpose of making the otters feel physically secure and also assists with bonding of individuals in a group, so it seems to be advantageous from either viewpoint. Also, I owe a thank-you to WordPress for featuring this post as the “Blog of the Minute.”





Giraffes tastier on the inside?

31 03 2007

In quest to develop a somewhat intelligent post about giraffes and their evolution, I came across this video of a spotted hyena eating a giraffe from the inside out, literally lying down in the dead animals body cavity and having a grand old time (warning: it’s a bit messy)

While hyenas are often shown hunting in groups (or more often trying to steal lion kills in groups) many hunt on their own and are very effective solitary hunters. This is not to suggest that this hyena actually took down this giraffe, but it is important to note that hyenas do often hunt on their own. Why this one is alone with a giraffe carcass, without harassment from other hyenas, lions, or other scavengers however, I don’t know. Anyway, back to the carnage;





Photo of the Day: Amur Leopard

30 03 2007

Here’s another one of my favorite shots of the Philadelphia Zoo’s Amur Leopard;

Amur Leopard

The leopard, as usual, was resting right in front of the glass, perfect to get some good profile shots. Unfortunately for me, however, there was a much more serious photographer (or at least his equipment looked much more serious) trying to get some photos as well, so I had to defer. The leopard wasn’t sure what to do with all this attention, however, and every so often would look from the other cameraman to me almost as if to say “Are you done bothering me yet?”





Oodles of confusion

29 03 2007

There’s been quite a few news reports over the past 24 hours involving a new paper in the upcoming issue of nature entitled “The delayed rise of present day mammals.” The conventional wisdom is this; modern mammal groups were generally prevented from evolving and diversifying into the forms we would see post K/P extinction by the presence of dinosaurs. Once the dinosaurs were out of the picture, the mammals had lots of space and resources to evolve into a variety of forms. The new paper, however, suggests that modern mammal groups were already relatively diverse during the time of the dinosaurs (the paper states that this diversification occurred about 93 million years ago), but then placental mammal group diversity fell off, not to rise again until well after the K/P extinction.

While there is some amount of controversy surrounding the paper (being based on phylogenetic supertrees and some palentologists pulling the emergence dates for the mammal groups into question), the popular articles covering this story have certainly made things confusing. While many of the articles do mention that some mammal groups did diversify (only to lead to dead ends), the articles sport titles like “Dinosaur demise didn’t lead to new species” and don’t give readers the requisite background information as to what mammal groups existed during the time to get a good picture of what this study says occurred. This study also brings to mind something my paleontology professor discussed last semester (I wish I knew what paper/study he was referring to), in which the diversity of North American fauna dropped dramatically across the K/P boundary, warm-blooded and large animals (even mammals) faring worst of all. If I remember correctly, the professor stated there was only one surviving mammal group in North America, although until I find the study he was citing for myself I won’t put this forward as absolute fact. Even so, it does make sense; if North America was flash-fried by the impact of a meteor in the Yucatan, very little would survive. As I said, I am not an expert in these matters (so please correct me if I’m wrong), but in order to fully understand what happened to evolution through the K/P extinction we need not only to know what existed, but where and when (i.e. biogeography) and always be comparing the fossil evidence with the phylogenetic evidence.

I was also a bit puzzled by this inclusion into the ScienceDaily article on the topic;

The tree of life shows that after the MEE, certain mammals did experience a rapid period of diversification and evolution. However, most of these groups have since either died out completely, such as Andrewsarchus (an aggressive wolf-like cow), or declined in diversity, such as the group containing sloths and armadillos.

Andrewsarchus has long been a media-darling, despite the fact that the actual fossil material we have is exceedingly limited (the primary part being a skull, on display at the American Museum of Natural History). This beast (almost always striped like a tiger in life reconstructions) belonged to the Order Mesonychia (or Mesonychids, once thought to be the ancestors of whales), and was an angulate (hoofed-mammal), although there has been much debate over how closely related ungulate groups really are. While the Order Andrewsarchus belonged to became entirely extinct, the “agressive wolf-like cow” description does nothing but confuse. Andrewsarchus was not a cow, nor a wolf, but a variety of large carnivore that cannot be shoehorned into modern placental mammal groups, and referring to it as some sort of meat-eating cow certainly doesn’t do Andrewsarchus justice.

Like I said, while the study is interesting, I believe the treatment that it has gotten from many media outlets has been a little confusing (such is what you have [I'm assuming] non-scientists trying to cover such a story). Rather than a big paradigm shift, this study poses some new questions; why did placental mammal groups diversify, decline, and then diversify once more long after the dinosaurs became extinct? What sort of competition was there? Were modern mammal groups “held down” by other groups in the same way they weren’t allowed to diversify under the dinosaurs? If so, what caused this change that allowed the rise of modern mammal groups? Hopefully as more fossil material is collected and fine-tuning of phylogenetic study occurs, more on the oscillation of modern-mammal diversity will be illuminated, but until then it still is clear that the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs did leave the door open for mammal diversity to rise, even if it wasn’t among the lineages that would lead to extant taxa.





Photo of the Day: Cheetah

29 03 2007

A few days after Christmas I headed down to the Philadelphia Zoo, and after waiting almost all day for the cheetahs to become active (they were content to rest and give tongue-baths to the dominant male most of the day), I was able to get some good shots. This one is my most favorite;

Cheetah

The problem with the enclosure is that it is rather small and its perimeter is made up of a wooden fence, so it was difficult to shoot the animals without having it look like they were strolling around someone’s backyard.








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