More on what I saw at the zoo
Wa-hey: we have images! Here are some of the long-promised Marwell Zoo pictures I wanted to post a while back (go here). Essentially this is an assortment of some of the neatest, most exciting animals you can ever expect to see in captivity.
We start with the fossa Cryptoprocta ferox. Marwell currently has one male (the animal pictured here) and one female, and they've successfully bred them. Fossas are bizarre, looking like a mixture of cat, dog, mongoose and civet. Though classified conventionally as viverrids they are actually part of an endemic Magadascan clade located at the base of Herpestidae. They can shin up vertical poles and can also climb down, head first and with their ankles rotated somewhat. More on them another time, maybe when Mary* shows up and starts telling me about her latest adventures with lemurs. We got images of the male scent-marking a tree stump: see photo below.
* Mary Blanchard, Liverpool-based primatologist working on lemurs.
Above, the back end of an Okapi Okapia johnstoni. Marwell has lots of them, and has had breeding success. Famously discovered by Harry Johnston and named by P. L. Sclater in 1901 (Johnston thought he was tracking down reports of a new forest-dwelling equid), Okapia is a short-necked forest-dwelling giraffid, though how typical it is in the grand scheme of giraffid diversity and evolution has proved controversial. Males have short curved ossicones (so this animal is a female) that they fight with, and Marwell had (until recently) a really old gnarly male with (relatively) huge lumpy ossicones. If I remember correctly he was - at 30-something years old - the oldest okapi in captivity, and thus probably the oldest okapi in the world. They're supposed to be silent, but juveniles make coughs, bleats and other noises. Lots more could be said, they're fascinating.
Also above we have a male Greater rhea Rhea americana (also called Common rhea). Nice photo. Note the lone capybara in the background. Dave and I had a discussion today about flightlessness in ratites: a single evolution of flightlessness at the base of the clade, or multiple separate origins of it within the group? Well, that's the big question isn't it. No time to discuss it now, another time. Interesting thing about Rhea: contrary to what you might think, they apparently don't like open grassland habitat, and in the wild chose open woodland environments. Males court multiple females, get them to lay their eggs in a single nest, and then take over incubation and post-hatching duties. This form of behaviour is sort of similar to the creching present in ostriches, and the parental behaviour of male cassowaries, emus and kiwis.
Here's the male fossa scent-marking (with his anal glands). Bet you've never seen that photographed before.
Gemsbok Oryx gazella, also called Beisa oryx or African oryx. That last name is particularly stupid given that all extant oryxes are African (or Afro-Arabian if you want to be more precise). As is the case in other hippotragine antelopes, males and females look alike. All oryx are dry-adapted (as is their closest extant relative, the Addax [which they also have at Marwell]), and fantastic tales are told of their physiology. Nice pigmentation they have. This is the closest I've ever got to one.
Collared peccaries Tayassu tajacu. They have loads. Until recently there was just a single wire fence seperating the peccaries from the public, and I always thought this was a bit dangerous in view of the immense teeth these animals have. They've now installed a separate barrier fence that keeps people further back from the animals. I'd like to think this is because one of the peccaries chewed someone's arm off, but sadly I lack confirmation of this fine theory. Peccaries are omnivores, though they mostly eat vegetation (predominantly roots, fruits and tubers), and the suid-like rhinarial disk they have is obviously great for rooting in soil. They have particularly short tails (with only seven caudal vertebrae or less), hind feet strongly modified for cursoriality (some of them even lack digit II), and vertically implanted canines where the lower canine fits into a special pocket on the side of the muzzle. A similar feature is seen in hippos, so some workers think that peccaries and hippos are each other's closest relatives (which, if correct, would mean either that peccaries are whippomorphs, or that Whippomorpha is not monophyletic*). Then there's the fact that peccaries haven't always been restricted to the Americas and previously occurred in Africa.
* If you're wondering what the hell I'm talking about you'll have to wait for a future post, sorry.
There are three extant peccary species (with the third being Catagonus wagneri, a taxon only discovered in living state in 1974 - go here for more). However, Mark van Roosmalen has reportedly discovered a fourth species recently. The type specimen was eaten however. For more on this go here.
And that's that. Spent all day dealing with British dinosaurs, but you don't want to hear about that.