Category Archives: Mammals

Giraffes and Gentoos Have Something in Common

Giraffes (southern) at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, Gauteng, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What do giraffes and gentoo penguins have in common?

Though both were (or are) listed as a single species researchers say they should be four.

In 2016 DNA testing on giraffes revealed that the single species (Giraffa camelopardalis) is really four species. The proposed 2016 species split looked like this on the map …

Map of genetic subdivision in the giraffe based on mitochondrial DNA sequences (map from Wikimedia Commons)

… and is described as:

[Replace] Giraffa camelopardalis with four new ones: the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in scattered groups in the central and eastern parts of the continent. The one remaining subspecies is the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis) of Ethiopia and South Sudan. It is a distinct subspecies of the northern giraffe.

Scientific American, DNA Reveals Giraffes Are 4 Species–Not 1, 9 September 2016

This year a DNA study on gentoo penguins revealed that they should be split in four species, too.

Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) breed on Antarctica and islands in the southern hemisphere reaching as far as the Falklands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Island. Two populations are considered subspecies; they don’t intermingle. In 2012 the subspecies map looked like this:

Range of gentoo penguin showing subspecies as of 2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The proposed split elevates both subspecies and adds two more!

The researchers suggest the two subspecies [P. p. ellsworthi and P. p. papua.] should be raised to species level and two new species created.

The four species we propose live in quite different latitudes – for example P. ellsworthi lives on the Antarctic continent whereas P. poncetii, P. taeniata, and P. papua live further north, where conditions are milder, and so it’s not that surprising that they have evolved to adapt to their different habitats.

Birdwatchers Daily, Split Gentoo Penguin into four species, researchers say, 4 Nov 2020

The split could be good news for the most vulnerable gentoo penguin populations since it would allow a focus on saving them.

Will the gentoo penguin officially split like the giraffe? We’ll have to wait and see.

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Locations of the four species as described as follows at The Conversation blog: We suggest the designation of four species of gentoo penguin: Pygoscelis papua in the Falkland Islands, P. ellsworthi in the South Shetland Islands/Western Antarctic Peninsula, P. taeniata in Iles Kerguelen, and P. poncetii, in South Georgia.

It’s Deer Season

Dumpster deer at the Bigelow Boulevard construction site, 22 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 November 2020

Today is the first day of Deer Season in Pennsylvania. Specifically it’s the start of antlered deer regular firearms (rifle) hunting season which runs from 28 November to 12 December and includes Pennsylvania’s first ever Sunday rifle deer hunt on 29 November. Click here for season details; they depend on location.

Be sure to wear blaze orange in the woods and fields every day of the week.

Wear Orange sign (PA Game Commission), Blaze Orange Vest available on Amazon

In the City of Pittsburgh our huge and growing deer population has no predators. Hunting is prohibited and the deer know it.

Buck in velvet at Allegheny Cemetery, July 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The only thing city deer are afraid of are dogs off-leash.

Deer cross the road in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Last weekend I found a target-practice deer taking refuge in the city. Poking his head out of a pink dumpster on Bigelow Boulevard, he knew he was safe near the Cathedral of Learning (at top).

Stay safe out there.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons, PA Game Commission and Amazon. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Dolphins Are Polite In Conversation

Bottlenose dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2020

We know that dolphins are intelligent and that their whistles and clicks are a form of communication. It was only a matter of time before we figured out part of what they’re saying. For instance …

Dolphins say their own names using a “signature” whistle.

In 2016 we learned that mother dolphins name their babies by speaking a new signature whistle — the baby’s name — a few days before the calf is born and for two weeks after birth. The calf learns the name its mother gave it and later names itself with its own signature whistle.

Bottlenose dolphins, mother and baby (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Four years ago the Dolphins Plus research institute in Florida proved that dolphins talk to each other when cooperating on a task. Though they didn’t call this “speech,” the Karadag Nature Reserve in Ukraine later showed that dolphins speak in complete sentences of at least five words.

What amazed me most about that discovery is that each dolphin waited for the other one to complete its speech before responding. I’m impressed that dolphins are polite in conversation.

In my family we all talk at the same time. Though we don’t always hear what the other person is saying, we don’t get offended if someone speaks while we speak. It was many years before I realized the behavior is impolite and I still struggle to wait and listen.

I should take a lesson from dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Cats Can Copy Human Behavior

Illustration demonstrating action and cat’s performance after “Do it!” Action A: (a) the owner raises her right hand and touches the box with it; (b) cat’s action scored as matching the demonstration of action A

4 October 2020

And now for something completely different — not a wild animal but a wild result.

Last week Science Magazine reported the first ever scientific proof that a cat can imitate human behavior. A Japanese cat named Ebisu demonstrated it in a “Do As I Do” experiment.

“Do As I Do” is a training technique in which the owner gets the pet’s attention, performs an action, and then says “Do It.” The animal learns that Do It means copy me and repeats the action.

Ebisu’s owner, Higaki, said the cat learned easily because of her high food motivation.

Higaki showed that Ebisu could copy familiar actions, like opening a plastic drawer and biting a rubber string. Then she asked the cat to imitate two new behaviors [for which she had not been trained]. While standing before Ebisu, who sat on a countertop next to a cardboard box, Higaki raised her right hand and touched the box. At other times, she bent down and rubbed her face against the box.

— Science Magazine Kitty see, kitty do: cat imitates human in first scientific demonstration of behavior

As you can see in the video, Ebisu watches her owner place her hand on the box and tap it. Her owner stands straight, then says “Do It.” Ebisu places her paw on the box and taps it, then immediately asks for a treat. Of course she gets one. Good Kitty!

In the photos below, her owner rubs her face on the box. So does Ebisu. Lead author Fugazza says this is remarkable because only dolphins, parrots, apes, and killer whales have so far been shown to imitate people

Illustration of demonstrating action and cat’s performance after “Do it!” command. Action B: (c) the owner bends down to rub her face on the box; (d) Cat’s action scored as matching the demonstration of action B

Skeptics say that Ebisu would have rubbed the box anyway. Really? Having lived with cats for most of my life I can tell you that getting a cat to do something on command is the tricky part.

Sadly Ebisu can no longer show off her talents. She got kidney disease this year and died in June. I know how hard that is. I’m sure Higaki misses her.

Read more about Ebisu at Kitty see, kitty do: cat imitates human in first scientific demonstration of behavior in Science Magazine.

(photos from Did we find a copycat? Do as I Do in a domestic cat (Felis catus) at Springer Link)

p.s. For a video of a dog trained to copy human behavior see the video in this article: Your Dog is a Copycat. The dog is even multi-lingual, trained in Italian but “Do it” in English. 😉

Dolphins Tell Fishermen When To Throw Nets

Bottlenose dolphins on the ocean (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 173 years humans and dolphins have worked together to catch fish on the coast of Laguna, Brazil. Dolphins initiated the cooperation some time before 1847 and taught humans what to do.

The dolphins hunt by herding shoals of mullet in the estuary. The fish would escape into shallow water except that the humans are helping.

Fishermen stand in the water with cast-nets and wait for a dolphin to signal them. When the signal comes, the fishermen throw their nets and catch many fish. The rest of the fish flee to deeper water where the dolphins are waiting to eat them.

Humans and dolphins both catch more fish than they would working alone.

Watch how it’s done in this Animal Planet video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Fox Versus Weasel: Who Will Win?

Fox at Algonquin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red foxes and short-tailed weasels (called “stoats” in the UK) are both carnivorous predators.

Short-tailed weasel, also called a Stoat or Ermine (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.K. red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are twice as tall as stoats (Mustela erminea) and outweigh them by 13 pounds (23 times heavier!) but stoats are fierce and almost fearless, killing prey four times larger than themselves. In the UK, male stoats easily kill European rabbits (photo here).

What happens when a fox hunts a stoat? This video tweeted by @kremington11 provides one answer.

I’m sure a fox-vs-stoat battle doesn’t always end this way but you can bet that this particular fox has reconsidered his desire to eat stoats.

@DeanLittleHigh‘s reply is exactly on target.

If stoats were the size of labradors we’d have run out of cows by now.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; video embedded from Twitter)

p.s. Short-tailed weasels / stoats turn white in winter. Their winter fur is called ermine.

Ravagers of Jewelweed

Jewelweed browsed by deer, Schenley Park, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seven years ago yellow (Impatiens pallida) and orange (Impatiens capensis) jewelweed were so plentiful in Schenley Park that their flowers attracted bumblebees, hummingbirds and my own curiosity. I often blogged about them as in this August 2013 article: Experiments with Jewelweed.

But all that has changed. In the last seven years the deer population in Schenley Park has exploded. Without predators deer can double their population in just two to three years. Two deer became 16 … and Schenley started with more than 2.

Meanwhile, edible plants have not increased exponentially and they can’t keep up with the heavy browsing. Jewelweed is a deer favorite so it’s routinely “mowed” to ankle height.

A large patch of jewelweed ‘mowed’ by deer, Schenley Park, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

A few individuals are able to sprout new leaves while the deer consume other areas but these recovering plants are few and far between.

This summer it’s hard to find a complete plant.

Jewelweed sprouts after deer browsing, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The situation bothers me but has posed real problems for Andrea Fetters of the University of Pittsburgh who is studying pollen-associated viruses in Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida. She has so few study objects in Schenley Park that she’s had to add study sites north of Pittsburgh where jewelweed thrives because deer aren’t so plentiful.

Unfortunately the number of deer in Schenley Park is not going down any time soon. Predators, other than cars, would solve the problem. My friend Andrea Boykowycz suggests cougars, the “Pitt panther” mascot. It would be fitting to have two in Panther Hollow. Well, we already do but they’re frozen in place.

One of two panther statues at the Panther Hollow Bridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, the ravagers of jewelweed keep eating.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Bumblebee and Deer

Last week in Schenley Park I stopped by the Westinghouse Fountain to see swamp milkweed and a photogenic bumblebee.

My cellphone camera was able to capture it in flight!

As I left the fountain a doe crossed W Circuit Road and walked between parked cars to the woods beyond. A fawn soon followed but jumped back in fear before the cars and stopped in the road. Fortunately there was no traffic. It was joined by a second fawn.

The two approached me (I missed that shot) then turned away …

… and were joined by a second doe.

Eventually they all walked between parked cars and caught up with the first doe.

Schenley Park’s numerous deer aren’t afraid of people but they learn to fear cars at a very young age.

p.s. My cellphone can take nice closeups of bumblebees but fails on deer at a distance.

(photos by Kate St. John)


Western grebes with piggyback chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some animals such as western grebes (above) and giant anteaters (below) carry their young piggyback.

Pigs don’t do this so why is it called piggyback?

The term began as two words that morphed into “piggy + back.” Here’s the origin from World Wide Words.

It started out in the sixteenth century as “pick pack,” carrying something on the back or shoulders. Pick is a medieval version of pitch, so it meant a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. … Piggy-back came along later in the century, with piggyback a modern loss of the hyphen

Origin of piggyback from World Wide Words

At first it was “pick pack.”

Women carrying wood “piggyback” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now it’s piggyback.

Happy family — piggyback (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy family.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

New Mammal in The Heart of Frick Park

Aspen felled by a beaver, Nine Mile Run, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2020

Last week I found an aspen lying in the creek that used to be its home. The cone shape of the stump means a beaver felled this tree.

Aspen felled by a beaver, Nine Mile Run, Frick Park, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beaver evidence is common at Moraine State Park, Raccoon Creek and even at Pittsburgh’s North Shore and on Washington’s Landing island. What makes this scene unusual is that it’s in the heart of Frick Park.

The felled aspen is next to the new upper boardwalk on Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run Trail. (See the edge of boardwalk in the photo below.)

Beaver evidence is next to the upper boardwalk on the Nine Mile Run Trail, Frick Park, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

I’ve seen beaver evidence along the Monongahela River near Duck Hollow so I’m not surprised that a beaver swam or walked up Nine Mile Run. When he got to the boardwalk he found the perfect habitat: a shallow waterfall (man-made) and lots of trees to eat.

I haven’t seen the Frick Park beaver but I’ve seen a photo.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)