Archive for the 'Mammals' Category

Mar 03 2015

A Mimic On Two Levels

Published by under Mammals

Margay cat or "tree ocelot" (photo from iStockphoto/Jeff Grabert via Science Daily)

One glance tells you this wild cat’s fur mimics his dappled forest habitat.  Amazingly, he can mimic on another level, too.

The margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a nocturnal feline of Central and South America that looks like a small ocelot.  Longer and lighter weight than a pampered house cat, he weighs 5.7-8.8 pounds and is 32-51 inches long (including his long tail!).

The margay lives in trees in the tropical forest and rarely comes to the ground because he doesn’t need to.  He’s so well adapted to climbing that his ankles rotate 180 degrees so he can walk down trees head first.  He can also leap 12 feet straight up to capture small mammals, birds, lizards and tree frogs.

In Brazil one mammal on the margay’s menu is the pied tamarin (Saguinus bicolor), a small primate the size of a squirrel.

Pied tamarin (photo by Whaldener Endo via Wikimedia Commons)

Native Amazonians have long known that the margay can mimic the sound of this monkey, but it wasn’t recently that the rest of the world found out.

In 2005 researchers watched a group of eight pied tamarins feeding high in a ficus tree when a margay, hidden in dense liana vines, tried to lure them by mimicking the call of a tamarin pup. A tamarin “sentinel” climbed down to investigate the noise, then started to warn the rest of the group, but four other tamarins were so confounded by the baby tamarin sound that they too climbed down to see.  At that moment, the margay emerged from the foliage, walking head first down the trunk, and jumped toward the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and all the tamarins fled. (*)

The Wildlife Conservation Society reported this incident in 2010, the first recorded instance of a wild cat species in the Americas mimicking the calls of its prey.

Pied tamarins are endangered and the margay is “near threatened.”  Large primates (humans) have killed the margay for its fur and the pied tamarin for food.  We’re lucky to have heard of this mimickry trick before it disappeared.

Read more about it here in Science Daily.


(Margay photo from iStockphoto/Jeff Grabert via Science Daily. Pied tamarin photo from Wikimedia Commons/Whaldener Endo, Creative Commons license. Click on the images to see their originals.)

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Feb 16 2015

Tracks In The Snow

Published by under Mammals

Deer mouse and squirrel tracks in the snow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t feel trapped indoors on this cold bank holiday.  There’s snow outside and there are animal tracks in it!   Identify the tracks and you can read their story.

You don’t have to stand out in the snow to identify them.  Bundle up and take a camera or cellphone and a ruler.  (The ruler is important! In your photos it will show you the size of the paw print and the distance between prints.)

Run out to the feeder, set the ruler near some tracks and take a bunch of pictures.  Then come inside and identify the tracks at your leisure. Here are some tracking guides to help:

Using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder booklet, I identified the squirrel tracks beneath my bird feeder. It helps that I saw the squirrels make them.  😉


(photo of deer mouse tracks(across the middle) and squirrel tracks (in the back left corner) from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original by Jomegat.)


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Jan 19 2015

Non-Verbal Communication

Published by under Mammals

Emmalina in the Victory Zone (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s blog post is about animal behavior, though not about a wild animal.

I am always fascinated by birds’ and mammals’ ability to communicate without complicated language.  Gestures and eye contact are often so effective that the one who sees the look or gesture knows exactly what to do.  I’ve noticed this on the webcams among nesting peregrines and eagles who don’t have language but certainly get the point across — often with just a pointed look in the youngster’s direction.

Can gestures and eye contact achieve communication between species?  I think so.

Shown above is the animal I watch most closely.  Her name is Emmalina (or Emmy or Emmaline).  Though domesticated her heart is wild.

Emmalina makes a few sounds I understand but the rule in our house (my rule) is that meowing doesn’t get you anywhere.  If you want a treat, “sit pretty” and silently in the Treat Zone (where she’s sitting right now) and you’ll get one.  If I don’t notice her sitting there she makes a very faint “mewp” to get my attention and then sits silently.  I congratulate myself that I’ve trained her to do this.

We’ve always fed our cats in the basement, just down the kitchen stairs.  Emmalina is 8 years old and she knows the routine.  She usually runs downstairs ahead of me to be in place when her dish arrives, but last week she started to run away when I went downstairs.  She wouldn’t come down and she wouldn’t eat anything in the basement — not her canned food, not the dry food.  I began to wonder if she was ill.  (Nope! I could tell she was hungry.)   Would I have to call the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic to figure out what was going on?

Last Friday the problem was solved in such an amazing way that it generated this open letter to Cornell.

Dear Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic:

The training program was successful at last.  After two weeks of non-verbal instruction the humans have figured out that I want to eat upstairs.  It was worth refusing a week’s worth of dinners in the basement.

Relieved and vindicated,

Emmalina St. John

Notice her dish in the Treat Zone now!  She says the basement floor is too cold in winter.

Non-verbal communication does work … eventually.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic is a great resource.  As part of the Veterinary College they have extensive experience with companion animals and can tell you exactly what the behavior means and how to address it.  Don’t hesitate to look them up if you have a behavior problem with a dog or cat.

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Jan 02 2015

First Day Findings

Published by under Hiking,Mammals,Plants

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you find outdoors on January 1 in Pittsburgh?  Nine intrepid naturalists from the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Wissahickon Nature Club hiked at North Park to find out.

Though yesterday was quite sunny the temperature hovered just below freezing and the wind was strong.  We bundled up to look at seeds, trees, dry weeds, and birds.

Above, a wingstem seed pod looks just like a dried version of the flower’s central disk.  Below, in the thicket we found juncoes, titmice and chickadees … and then changed our focus to identify the trees.
Participants on the New Year's Day hike at Irwin Rd (photo by Kate St. John)

Dianne Machesney found this still-red scarlet oak leaf.  I held it to take its picture.
Scarlet oak leaf, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground wasn’t frozen but the creek had glimmering white ice.

Ice on Irwin Run, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

After the hike, some of the party drove up Pearce Mill Road to check on the beaver dams on the North Fork of Pine Creek.

The beavers were snug in their beds while we braved the cold.

Beaver dam on the North Fork of Pine Creek (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


(photo credits: wingstem, hikers and oak leaf photos by Kate St. John.
Creek ice and beaver dam photos by Dianne Machesney

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Nov 13 2014

Black Gray Squirrels

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

Black gray squirrel in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Last month when the leaves changed color I began to notice the many black squirrels in Schenley Park.  During the summer they were hidden by leafy shadows but they stand out now among the bare trees and fallen leaves.

Black squirrels aren’t a separate species.  They’re just “eastern gray squirrels” (Sciurus carolinensis) that are melanistic.  This one isn’t 100% black.  He has white whiskers.

Read more about melanism and squirrels in this article from 2010 entitled This Is A Gray Squirrel.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 11 2014

Road Closed For Ocelots

Published by under Mammals

Ocelot (phti by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

At the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival I visited many birding hotspots but didn’t have time to see Laguna Atascosa. Exploring it on my own would not have helped.  The 15-mile Bayside Drive loop road is closed for ocelots.

Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are about the size of a Maine Coon cat (15-30 pounds, one foot high and 3 feet long from nose to tip of tail) with short fur in a beautiful spotted pattern.  Because the pattern is unique to each cat they can be identified as individuals in photographs.

Though ocelots are widespread in Central and South America they’re endangered in the U.S., seen only in Arizona and south Texas.  They used to range across South Texas into Arkansas and Louisiana but the land looks nothing like it did 50-100 years ago.  Ocelots need thick native vegetation to hunt and raise their young but 95% of that has been cleared and drained for farms and towns.  There’s nowhere for the ocelots to go.

In 1995 there were 80-120 ocelots in south Texas but the number is now just under 50, all of them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  A ranch and Laguna Atascosa are the only places in the U.S. where ocelots breed.

With only 12 ocelots at Laguna Atascosa each sighting is a gift.  In March and May trail cams recorded a cute female kitten and a year-old male. USFW also captures and radio tags the ocelots so they can target the cats’ preferred areas for protection.

Unfortunately road-kill history and the radio tags have shown that ocelots frequently walk Bayside Drive during the day.  Since 1995 about half of all ocelot deaths in Texas have been road kills.

As bad as it is to run over an abundant animal, imagine the horror of killing one of only 12 endangered animals.  To stop their decline U.S. Fish and Wildlife closed the loop road to private vehicles on October 15, 2013.

Though I couldn’t drive my rental car on Bayside Drive, I’m glad the road is closed to protect these beautiful cats.

Click here to read more and see ocelot photos at Friends of Laguna Atascosa.


(photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Oct 30 2014

How To Open A Black Walnut

Published by under Mammals

Fox squirrel with partially open black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

There’s a bumper crop of black walnuts in my neighborhood this month, so many that they’ve stained the sidewalk black.  They’re good to eat but how do you open them?

If you’re a human, you put on rubber gloves and safety glasses and hit the nuts with a hammer.  The first whack cracks the greenish-yellow husk that stains everything black, hence the gloves.

The husk is the easy part.  The shells are very, very hard to crack.  Some people suggest using a vise instead of a hammer to open the nuts but no matter what you do pieces of shell go flying, hence the safety glasses.

If you’re a squirrel you don’t have tools but you do have teeth.

Donna Foyle watched a fox squirrel open a black walnut outside her window.  The squirrels open peanuts in a flash but this black walnut took a long time.

The squirrel began by gnawing a hole on the side of the nut.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

“He quickly gnawed the shell, turning it, gnawing many times, turning it, gnawing almost in continuous quick motion, turning it again.  He never deliberately stopped gnawing to spit out the shredded shell,”  wrote Donna.

You can see he made the “sawdust” fly.  No goggles for him!
Fox squirrel making the sawdust fly as he opens a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

After 40 minutes he’d made real headway.  The hole was a bowl from which he ate the nutmeat.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

Did he save the rest for later?

The squirrels in my neighborhood are eating fewer and saving more, burying them in everyone’s mulch.



(photos by Donna Foyle)

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Oct 14 2014

Quiz: Which Ones Are Ungulates?

Published by under Mammals,Quiz

Deer eats snow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While writing about elk, I wanted to use the word ungulate so I looked up how to spell it.  I learned more than I bargained for … and ultimately didn’t use the word.

Ungulates are mammals with hooves, right?  Well, some are obvious, some are not.  Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge.

Which of these animals are ungulates?

A.  Deer (photo above):

B.  Horse:
Nokota horses (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

C.  Llama
Llama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

D. Leopard:
Leopard on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

E. Hippopotamus:
Hippopotamus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

F. Porpoise:
Harbor porpoise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Leave a comment with your answer.

If you’re stumped, I’ll post the answer in the comments later.

Can’t wait for the answer?  Click here. No cheating!


p.s. See the comments for an explanation about the oddest ungulates.

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click the image to see the original.)

7 responses so far

Oct 03 2014

He’s In A Rut

Published by under Mammals

Elk among the flowers (photo by aul Staniszewski)

This animal is in a rut.  Which one?

Rut (1):
1.  a long deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles.
2. a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.

Rut (2):  An annual period of sexual activity in deer and some other mammals, during which the males fight each other for access to the females.

In September and October Pennsylvania’s elk herd has an annual period of sexual activity.  The males pursue the ladies, spar with other males, and “sing” their bugling love song.

Visit the Elk Country Visitor’s Center in Benezette to see and hear what this is like.  For a preview, watch this handheld video of the herd in October 2010.  The elk are so preoccupied that they ignore the people.

So yes, in October this elk is in a rut.

If things don’t go well, he may feel he’s in a habit or pattern of behavior that’s become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.”


(Thanks to Paul Stanszewski for the photo.)

(*) Definitions of rut from GoogleRut(1) comes from the same word as “route.”  Rut(2) comes from the same word as “roar.”

6 responses so far

Sep 03 2014

River Otters Chirp Like Birds

Published by under Mammals

Curious river otter (photo by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s something I learned by being fooled:  River otters can sound like birds.

I found this out in Belfast, Maine one summer when my husband and I walked across the footbridge in the evening.  The Passagassawakeag River was beautiful at sunset as the birds gathered to roost and a family of river otters swam at the Belfast shore.

We were on the other side of the bridge when I heard a loud bird chirping.  What bird was that?  Intrigued, I approached the sound to find out.

For the life of me I could not find that bird.  Its voice echoed under the bridge but no songbird was down there.  Finally I realized the sound came from the otters. They were whistling to each other.

This recording from the University of Utah’s streaming library is close to what they sounded like:

Who knew that river otters could sound like birds?!


(photo by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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