Category Archives: Mammals

Protection For an Ant Eater

The pangolin is not an anteater but he resembles one because he, too, eats ants.

Native to Africa and Asia, pangolins feed on ants and termites by digging up their colonies.  It's a painful business without protection so the pangolin's body has built-in defenses against biting, swarming ants (shown in the video).

Pangolins are protected against ants but they're at the mercy of humans.  Their meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam and their scales are used in Asian medicine.  They're hunted illegally until extirpated, even in parts of Africa.  As a species they're in severe decline.

Four years ago the Western world began to take notice: the pangolin needs protection.  This 2014 article lists 7 Ways to Help Save the Pangolin.  Read an update at the World Wildlife Fund.

 

(YouTube video from National Geographic Wild; click on the YouTube icon to see it full screen)

The Reindeer Quiz

Santa, sleigh, and reindeer (image from Clipart Library)
Santa, sleigh, and reindeer (image from Clipart Library)

Legend says that reindeer will pull Santa's sleigh tonight.

What do we know about real reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)?

Here's a quiz based on Reindeer: 12 Fascinating Facts About These Amazing Creatures on the National Wildlife Federation website.  Click on the 12 Facts link to see the answers and even more information.

THE QUIZ:

a. Reindeer live in Europe, Asia and North America, but on our continent they have a different name.  What are they called?

Map of reindeer range (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Map of reindeer range (image from Wikimedia Commons)

b. Among moose, elk and white-tailed deer, only the males grow antlers.  What about reindeer?

c. Reindeer coats change from winter to summer and so do their hooves.  What's different about their hooves and why do they change?

Reindeer in Svalbard (photo by Per Harald Olsen via Wikimedia Commons)
Reindeer in Svalbard (photo by Per Harald Olsen via Wikimedia Commons)

d. "Some subspecies have knees that make a clicking noise when they walk."   What's the advantage to making this noise?   (Do your knees click?  Here's an excuse for it.)

e. Reindeer do migrate and those in North America travel quite far.  How far do they go?

f. Reindeer used to live in the Lower 48.  Which state?  And how long ago was that?

g. Where did we get the idea that reindeer can pull sleighs?   Here's a visual answer.

Reindeer pulling a sleigh circa 1900 in Archangel, Russia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Reindeer pulling a sleigh circa 1900 in Archangel, Russia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

h. Who is the leading predator of reindeer calves?  (Hint: It's a bird!)

 

Visit Reindeer: 12 Fascinating Facts About These Amazing Creatures for the answers.

 

(clipart from Clipart Library; photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Inspired By A Mountain Lion

Five years ago a wildlife camera at Griffith Park, Los Angeles photographed an unexpected animal -- a mountain lion!   Also called a puma or cougar, the big male cat had crossed two 10-lane freeways to make his home in the park that houses the HOLLYWOOD sign.

Since then he's been radio-tagged as Puma #22 (P-22) and seen repeatedly on the park's trail-cams.  He was even recorded vocalizing though no one knows what he was saying.  (Click to hear The Sound of Our Griffith Park Mountain Lion:  P-22 and the Mysteries of Puma Communication.)

P-22 is very shy of humans and stays away from busy areas yet he's garnered a fan club anyway.  His presence has taught Angelenos about the dangers wildlife face and prompted his fans to help him.

Because of the freeways P-22 is stuck inside 8 squares miles instead of the 200 square miles that mountain lions prefer, so his supporters are raising $50 million to build the largest ever wildlife bridge.   When it's completed P-22 will be able to roam and find a mate.

It's an ambitious project inspired by a mountain lion.

Watch the movie trailer for The Cat that Changed America and click to read about A Day In The Life of P-22 in the L.A. Times.

 

(trailer for The Cat that Changed America on YouTube)

Watch Out! Deer Damage Ahead

Deer in Schenley Park, 22 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Deer in Schenley Park, 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nowadays I don't have to go far to see white-tailed deer in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The deer population in Schenley Park has grown by leaps and bounds since I first noticed them a decade ago.

When I don't see the animals, I see their evidence. In July, they eat so much jewelweed that it looks like the trail edges were weed-whacked.

Jewelweed eaten by deer in July, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)
Jewelweed eaten by deer in July, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)

In winter they eat shrubs like this arborvitae on Schenley Golf Course until there's no green near the ground.

Arborvitae eaten to the browse line, Schenley Park Golf Course (photo by Kate St. John)
Arborvitae eaten to the browse line, Schenley Park Golf Course (photo by Kate St. John)

And they eat small trees. More than a year ago they ate the leader shoot of this hackberry seedling.  The next year two branches sprouted to compensate and the deer ate those.  And on and on and on.  The tree grows old but never tall.

Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

These signs of deer damage indicate their over-population in Schenley Park but the scariest sign is the growing number of deer crossing the road.

Last week I saw an 8-point buck ambling across Greenfield Road while pedestrians stopped and stared.  He was majestic and he was lucky.  No cars were coming.

Last June a deer leapt over a guard rail in Indiana County and landed on the hood of Marcy Cunkelman's car.  She couldn't see it coming and she couldn't see to drive after it crumpled the hood. The deer didn't survive the accident but Marcy and her family were fortunate.  They were fine and the airbags didn't deploy.

Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)
Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)

That happened in June when deer are less distracted than they are in autumn.  This month there's a much higher chance of hitting a deer because they're on the move and they aren't paying attention.  It's mating season.

Pennsylvania is the #3 state for vehicle-deer insurance claims.  According to State Farm's annual report, there were more than 142,000 vehicle-deer collisions in Pennsylvania from June 2016 to June 2017.  On an annual basis we have a 1 in 63 chance of a hitting a deer but during mating season that likelihood more than doubles ... to maybe 1 in 30.  Yikes!

So stay alert!  Watch out for deer, especially at dusk.  Click here for State Farm's tips on what to do.   ... And good luck.

 

p.s.  Wear blaze orange if you're going into Pennsylvania's woods, especially during PA's deer (rifle) season, Monday Nov 27 through Dec 9, 2017. Click here for PGC details on antlered/antlerless dates and locations.

(deer and plant photos by Kate St. John. Car damage photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Walked On Land, Then Became A Fish

Humpback whale breaching (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Humpback whale breaching (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here's a surprising thing:  The ancestors of whales were land-based walking animals that fell in love with water.  In the ensuing 50 million years successive species spent more and more time at sea, eventually lost their legs, and now resemble fish.  (No, they aren't fish. They just resemble them.)

How did they change from land to sea?  To solve the mystery, paleontologists closely examined the fossil record looking for the one trait that only whales have:  the unique bony structure of the whale's inner ear.  A fossil found in 1981 provided the missing link.

Shown below are two of the whale's ancestral relatives. Not direct ancestors, the diagram shows where those two fit on the family tree.  Whales are labelled #1.  Animal #2 looks like a dog. #3 looks like a whale.

Whales' family tree (diagram from Wikimedia Commons enhanced by Kate St. John)
Whales' family tree (diagram from Wikimedia Commons enhanced by Kate St. John)

The change from species to species was incredibly slow.

If we could go back in time 50 million years to the Early Eocene we'd meet Pakicetus inachus (#2), below.  First discovered in Pakistan in 1981, he looks like a long-headed dog but he has the whale's special inner ear.  Scientists hypothesize that he lived on land but spent time up to his eyes in water hiding from predators.

Pakicetus inachus, a whale ancestor from the Early Eocene of Pakistan, after Nummelai et al., (2006), pencil drawing, digital coloring
Pakicetus inachus, ancestral whale from the Early Eocene

 

Fast forward 10 million years to the Late Eocene to see Dorudon atrax (#3), an ancestral whale that spent his entire life in water.  His body was fish-shaped, his tail had flukes, and since he never walked his hind legs were small, almost an afterthought.

Dorudon atrox, an ancestral whale from the Late Eocene of Egypt
Dorudon atrox, an ancestral whale from the Late Eocene

 

From "the fish walked" to the walker that became fish-like, whales turn our misconceptions about evolution on their head.  Evolution doesn't "make progress" from simple water-based organisms to us land-based humans at the pinnacle of development.   It's just any change over time.

For more information about whales, see their family tree at U.C. Berkeley's The evolution of whales and an article in Smithsonian Magazine: How Did Whales Evolve?

 

(all images from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Coyotes In Town

Coyote in the City of Pittsburgh, October 2017 (photo by Luanne Lavelle)
Coyote in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood, 10 October 2017 (photo by Luanne Lavelle)

Last week coyotes made a splash in my Pittsburgh neighborhood when one appeared in early October.  Frank Gottlieb mentioned his sighting on Nextdoor, Luanne Lavelle photographed one behind her house (above) and Crystal Barry zoomed in on this one at the edge of the road (below).  It may be the same animal moving around.

Coyote in Greenfield, October 2017 (photo by Crystal Barry)
Coyote in Greenfield, October 2017 (photo by Crystal Barry)

Have coyotes suddenly arrived in the city?  Are they something we should worry about?  No and no.  Here's their fascinating story.

Eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) look like gray to reddish-brown husky dogs though they are smaller, have a different head shape, and never curl up their tails.  About a third larger than western coyotes, the eastern species weighs 35 to 55 pounds from the smallest female to the largest male.

The eastern coyotes' appearance, size, and presence in Pennsylvania are all human-induced traits caused by our actions toward wild canines and the landscape.

Humans eradicated wolves, mountain lions and deer from Pennsylvania by the late 1800's.  Coyotes don't do well where wolves are in charge but during the low ebb of both populations coyotes and wolves hybridized in Ontario resulting in a larger animal with a wider range of prey.

Meanwhile Pennsylvania reintroduced deer whose population soared by the 1930s, expanding to suburbs and cities 60 years later.  Wolves and mountain lions did not come back to Pennsylvania but eastern coyotes moved into the deer-eating niche. Coyotes came to Pennsylvania in the 1930s and covered the state by the 1990s.

When did coyotes enter Pittsburgh city limits?  I heard of one in 2003; probably not the first.

Though coyotes are too small to bring down an adult deer, they eat fawns and dead deer (roadkill).  A study of the stomach contents of 300 Pennsylvania coyotes showed their preferences in this order:

  • Deer (present in 57% of stomachs), fawns and roadkill.  Deer are everywhere in Pittsburgh now.
  • Mouse-sized mammals:  mice, voles, moles, chipmunks
  • Plants (present in 50% of stomachs)
  • Rabbits and groundhogs
  • Insects (present in 18% of stomachs)
  • Birds are only 10% of the coyote's diet

Why do we see coyotes in October?  Fall is the time of year when coyote families disperse. The young, full size at 9 months old, move away and hunt alone in fall and winter then pair up at two years old to raise a family.  Smart coyotes hide from humans but some young ones haven't learned that lesson yet.

Are coyotes dangerous?  Not to us humans but myths abound, apparently borrowed from our myths about wolves.  No, coyotes won't eat your kids. No, coyotes won't lure your big dog away to eat him. (Coyotes play with big dogs (video). Their DNA is 10% domestic dog.)  No, coyotes will not stay away from your neighborhood if you remove the one you've seen. (New coyotes will arrive to take its place.)

However, coyotes will take a small pet if it looks easy to do.  If you're really worried about coyotes, here's how to discourage them from visiting your yard:

  • Don't leave any food outdoors.  Enclose your garbage. Don't leave pet food out.  Don't feed any wildlife. If you attract mice or rats (bird seed), rodents will attract coyotes.
  • Watch your small dog when you let it out in the backyard.  Keep your cat indoors.
  • If you see a coyote, shout and wave your arms. Shoo it away.  Don't try to befriend a coyote. Keep them wild.

Coyotes are smart and our pressure against them makes them smarter.  Appreciate them from afar.

Learn more at these websites:

Thank you to my Nextdoor neighbors Frank Gottlieb, Luanne Lavelle, Crystal Barry, Daniel Brown and Steffi Bruninghaus for their helpful comments about coyotes.

 

(photos by Luanne Lavelle and Crystal Barry)

Scurrying Squirrels

Eastern gray squirrel (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Eastern gray squirrel (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

As cold weather approaches squirrels in the genus Sciurus -- the tree squirrels -- are scurrying to store food for the winter.  Here are two Sciurus you'll see in Pittsburgh.

The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is fond of nuts, especially those in bird feeders.  In autumn he turns from brown to gray so he'll continue to blend in with the landscape.  He also comes in black.

Yes, black squirrels are really eastern gray squirrels. The black ones stay black all winter.

Black gray squirrel in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
A black "eastern gray squirrel" in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

 

The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is larger than the gray squirrel.  Though his scientific name means "black" he sports a foxy colored coat all year long, especially on his belly.

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

 

Barely larger than chipmunks, the red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are busy too. Cute but not true Sciurus, they're Tamiasciurus.

Red Squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)
Red Squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

NOT found in Pittsburgh I had to include this fancy squirrel, a Sciurus with big ear tufts that lives in the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.  Sciurus aberti, Abert's squirrel.

Abert's squirrel (photo by Tom Benson, Creative Commons license on Flickr)
Abert's squirrel (photo by Tom Benson, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

 

(photo credits: eastern gray squirrel in gray by Marcy Cunkelman, eastern gray squirrel in black by Kate St. John, red squirrel by Chuck Tague, Abert's squirrel by Tom Benson, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

The Mating Song

Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)
Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

At this time of year an eerie sound echoes through the north woods of Pennsylvania, the mating song of the elk.

In September and October Pennsylvania's elk herd (Cervus canadensis) has an annual period of sexual activity called the rut. The bulls gather harems, pursue the females, spar with other males, and "sing" a bugling love song.

Based on the size and posture of a bugling elk you'd think his voice is low -- but not at all.  The bugle call is bell-like and echoing even when the animal is close by.  His song carries far in the woods and fields.

Listen and watch the video below to hear the elks' eerie mating song.

 

Visit the Elk Country Visitor Center to hear and see elk for yourself.

If you can't be there in person, watch the Pennsylvania Game Commission's live stream.  Even when elk aren't on camera the audio is worth it.  Yesterday morning I heard purple finches in the background.

 

Thank you to Paul Staniszewski for reminding me that the elk are calling now. See more of Paul's elk photos here.

(photo by Paul Staniszewski; video by Lively Legz/Living4theoutdoors on YouTube)

Wild Things Outside!

For the past two mornings I've heard wild things screaming in my backyard at 5am.  It's two hours before sunrise. What are those weird sounds?

Raccoons!  And they're fighting!

I didn't go outdoors to record them but I found two videos that include the sounds -- above in Toronto, below on someone's roof.

 

Why are raccoons fighting in my backyard?  I believe it's the watering hole effect.  It's been very dry in Pittsburgh so my birdbath is one of the few sources of water.  All the animals come for a drink before their bedtime and BAM!

A word to the wise: Don't go outdoors to visit the raccoons.  They may have rabies.

 

(videos from YouTube; click on the YouTube logo on each one to see its original)