Wildlife trivia

Articles in ‘Wildlife trivia’

Thousands of tortoises stolen from the Galapagos Islands

August 6th, 2011

That’s what the headline might’ve read if the 19th century world had been more concerned with conservation.  The Galapagos Islands were treated as a supply station by ships, particularly whaling vessels, which had most reason to pass through the eastern Pacific. The sailors would go onshore and help themselves to vast numbers of the giant tortoises – the same species that fascinated Darwin, helping him shape his theory of evolution, and gave the islands their name ( Spanish galápago – tortoise).  The ability of the tortoises  to survive for a long time without food or water meant they were a convenient source of fresh meat on the interminable sea voyages of the era.

The tortoises were easy to catch but heavy to carry so the smaller sized females were disproportionately taken – another factor contributing to their decline. In 1813, the Essex of the US navy reportedly carried off as many as 4 tons of tortoises.

The Galapagos Tortoises in their relation to the whaling industry by Charles Townsend includes an account of a seaman who landed on the islands in 1865:

Many huge turtles had carved on their backs the name of some whaling ship and a date of years before. I have often heard tell that a vessel went over from Panama with two donkeys and procured terrapin so large that two of them weighed 2,200 lbs. We had brought long iron poles with us and we lashed the terrapins’ legs together, slung them on the poles and so carried them back to the ship – one man on each end of the pole. We valued them very much for fresh meat. I don’t think anything ever tasted much better than fried terrapin liver. One thing we used to feed the turtles on board ship was bananas.

However, the greatest impact on the tortoise population was made when humans began to settle in the “the lonely archipelago”, with their accompanying domestic animals. Numbers dropped from over 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s.  Conservation efforts involving breeding programs and culling of introduced species have brought about a small recovery to around 20,000.

Can you survive being swallowed by a whale?

July 17th, 2011

In traditional whaling, the period after harpooning the prey was highly dangerous for the hunters. The boat would be pulled at great speed through the ocean, sometimes far from the whaling ship, before the injured animal tired (Nantucket whalers called it a “sleigh ride”). The whale would thrash violently and the small whaling boats were often smashed to smithereens.

According to a well-told story, this is what happened to a boat from a British whaling ship, The Star of the East, near the Falkland Islands.  Their vessel destroyed, the crew were picked up from the water, but young apprentice seaman James Bartley was missing.

When the dead whale eventually floated up to the surface, just before sunset, the crew set to work immediately on the butchering, to avoid spoilage in the heat.  They got started on stripping the blubber, and then began to winch the stomach on deck, when suddenly movement was observed inside. When the stomach was cut open, out slid the missing sailor, alive but unconscious.

It took him over a month to recover enough to relate what had happened.  Terrifyingly, he had been engulfed by the whale’s cavernous mouth. He remembered sharp stabling pain as he slid over the teeth, only to plunge feet-first down a chute to land in the stomach, where he lost consciousness in the hot and foetid air.

Bartley did not escape unscathed: he was left blind, hairless, and with a strange pallid pigment of the skin, apparently bleached by the gastric juices. He never returned to sea, but made a living as a cobbler in Gloucester.  He died 18 years later, and his tombstone bears the epitaph: James Bartley -1870-1909 – A Modem Jonah.

Some would dismiss this as an impossible yarn.  Another story tells of a whale swallowing, this time of a seal-hunter who disappeared inside a sperm whale near Newfoundland, after falling off an ice pan. The whale was duly killed and cut open to retrieve the body.

Gagging from the overpowering stench of the stomach, the ship surgeon saw the young hunter had probably been killed outright when his chest and lungs were crushed. The body was covered in a gastric mucosa and all the unclothed parts were partly digested. The only sign of life was the lice on his head. This tale seems more plausible, but might be equally tall.

Magpie mourning

October 21st, 2009 Dr Bekoff of the University of Colorado, an animal behaviour researcher, claims that magpies feel grief and even hold funeral-type gatherings for their dead and lay grass “wreaths” beside their bodies. “One magpie approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off”. It seems that similar behaviour has been observed among other magpies and crows. More here

World Press nature photos

October 1st, 2009

World Press Photo have just released on the Net its remarkable archive gallery some 10,000 images. The above photo of a snow leopard was taken by Steve Winter,  whose report here on snow leopards in Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas won the nature category in 2008. “A snow leopard walks a high mountain trail, photographed using a remotely operated camera trap. The camera recorded just a single image in five months.”

More nature reports from World Press Photo

Alien sloth?

September 20th, 2009 Mongabay makes an interesting comment vis-a-vis the story of a deformed sloth found in Panama on the coincidence between the lack of important news at the the end of summer, and the peak months for sightings of “strange” and “unidentified” creatures including unusual marine life, malformed animals and the mythological beasts like the Chupacabra, the Mongolian Death Worm, Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster. Read

What is the smell of death?

September 10th, 2009 Scientists have discovered that when animals die, their corpses exude a particular “stench of death” which repels their living relatives. This ‘death recognition system’ probably evolved more than 400 million years ago as a way of avoiding predators and viruses. BBC (lots of fascinating examples)

Venomous snakes of Europe

September 4th, 2009


Europe does not have the range or potency of the venomous snakes of other continents, but there are still a number of species which can cause human deaths. I’ve not included all the numerous species occurring in Russia and Turkey. This article here claims 30,000 people are bitten by snakes every year in Europe but these are responsible for only 30 fatalities. The only truly venomous snakes in Europe all belong to the Viper family

  • Vipera ammodytes – Nose-horned viper. Occurs in south-eastern Europe, from Hungary and Austria to Italy, Romania, former Yugoslavia, and northern Albania.
  • Vipera aspis – Asp viper. south-western Europe: northeastern Spain, Andorra, most of France- inckuding in the Ile de Re and Oleron islands -, Monaco, Italy, the islands of Elba, Montecristo and Sicily, San Marino, Switzerland; northwestern,  Slovenia and extreme southwestern Germany
  • Vipera barani – Turkish viper
  • Vipera berus – European viper or the adder – extends from Western Britain all the way to the Pacific coast of Russia.
  • Vipera latastei – Lataste’s viper, snub-nosed viper – Iberian Peninsula  and northwestern Africa-
  • Vipera seoanei – Seoane’s viper. Extreme southwestern France and Cantabrian mountains in Spain
  • Vipera ursinii – Ursini’s Viper. South-eastern France, Central Italy, western Balkans, northern Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Germany.
  • Akistrodon halys- Pallas’ Viper. Southeastern Europe
  • Vipera nikolskii – Nikolsky’s Adder or Forest-steppe Adder. Endemic to central Ukraine.
  • Macrovipera schweizeri – Milos viper Macrovipera schweizeri- limited to the Greek islands of Milos, Kimolos, Polyaigos, and Sifnos.
  • Malpolon monspessulanus – Montpellier snake – Not a viper and unlikely to inject venom as fangs are at the back


Gerald Durrell video

August 30th, 2009 Here’s a short video about the exploits of Gerald Durrell.

Richard Dawkins on a post-human rodent world

August 26th, 2009

“A world without rodents would be a very different world. It is less likely to come to pass than a world dominated by rodents and free of people. If nuclear war destroys humanity and most of the rest of life, a good bet for survival in the short term, and for evolutionary ancestry in the long term, is rats. I have a post-Armageddon vision. We and all other large animals are gone. Rodents emerge as the ultimate post-human scavengers. They gnaw their way through New York, London and Tokyo, digesting spilled larders, ghost supermarkets and human corpses and turning them into new generations of rats and mice, whose racing populations explode out of the cities and into the countryside. When all the relics of human profligacy are eaten, populations crash again, and the rodents turn on each other, and on the cockroaches scavenging with them. In a period of intense competition, short generations perhaps with radioactivity enhanced mutation-rates boost rapid evolution. With human ships and planes gone, islands become islands again, with local populations isolated save for occasional lucky raftings: ideal conditions for evolutionary divergence. Within 5 million years, a whole range of new species replace the ones we know. Herds of giant grazing rats are stalked by sabre-toothed predatory rats.* Given enough time, will a species of intelligent, cultivated rats emerge? Will rodent historians and scientists eventually organise careful archaeological digs (gnaws?) through the strata of our long-compacted cities, and reconstruct the peculiar and temporarily tragic circumstances that gave ratkind its big break?”

From The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. It’s a great read.

*Dougal Dixon long ago foresaw this, and he had the talent to paint it, in his imaginative book After Man: A Zoology of the Future.”

After Man: A Zoology of the Future

After Man: A Zoology of the Future

Dixon he presents his hypothesis on how the fauna and geography could change 50 million years from now.

While there are a wide variety of creatures in After Man, many of these can fall into easily recognizable groups, e.g. rabbucks, gigantelopes, predator rats, etc. Some of the larger groups in the future include…

Rabbucks – Rabbucks are the future equivalent of deer and antelope but descended, as the name suggests, from rabbits. They live in almost any environment, and they mostly feed on grass. Their anatomy resembles that of a hooved mammals, though there are a few primitive hopping forms lurking around.

Gigantelope – The gigantelope take the niche in the future that was formerly held by elephants, giraffes, moose, and other large herbivores. Resembling the ancient sauropods, they are descended from antelopes, and range in a wide variety of forms. One subbranch have evolved into the large, moose-like herbivores of the north, the hornheads.

Predator Rats – The major group of predators in the future. Like our modern carnivorans, they exist on almost every continent and fill almost every carnivorous niche. They evovled, as the name suggests,from rats, and range in forms resembling polar bears, wolves, wolverines, cats, and even aquatic walrus-like forms.

Carnivorans – For the most part, Dixon assumes that carnivorans have either gone extinct, or have been forced into peripheral niches like the creodonts were in the Oligocene. A few still exist, such as the shurrack, and all but one, the striger, is descended from cats.

Giraffes in Imperial China

August 24th, 2009

In the early 15th century China, briefly, set out to explore the world. Emperor Yongle sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions  to impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. These expeditions were commanded by admiral in the Imperial Chinese navy, Zheng He. On one expedition, Zheng acquired a giraffe in the kingdom of Bengal, which had been a gift from an East African ruler. The giraffe was sent to the Chinese court, where it was welcomed as a unicorn, an extremely aupiscious gift. He also arranged with the Indian court for another giraffe to be sent from Aficia (Somalia).

A pair of giraffes in Beijing in 1415 was well worth the cost of the expedition. In China they thought the giraffe (despite its having one horn too many) was a unicorn (ch’i-lin), whose arrival, according to Confucian tradition, meant that a sage of the utmost wisdom and benevolence was in their presence. Zheng meanwhile sailed to the East African nation of Somalia, where he obtained lions, leopards, ostriches, zebras, and other animals, which were viewed with amazement in China. Execellent article here

The African unicorn inspired a number of court poems and paintings. The above work was painted by Shen Du (1357-1434), who was a poet, painter, calligrapher, and a favorite of the Yongle emperor. The Chinese called the giraffe a qilin (ch’i-lin), an auspicious mythical animal. Shen Du also composed the following poem about the giraffe:

In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass,
Truly was produced a qilin (ch’i-lin), whose shape was as high as fifteen feet.
With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a fleshy, boneless horn,
With luminous spots like a red cloud or purple mist.
Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wanderings it carefully selects its ground.
It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm,
Its harmonious voice sounds like a bell or a musical tube.
Gentle is this animal, that has in antiquity been seen but once,
The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to heaven’s abode. Here

I love the way the poem describes the giraffe’s gait

Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wanderings it carefully selects its ground.
It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm,

Recommended books

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 Taking the maritime story as its main theme, this book presents a fascinating picture of political and court life during the first several reigns of the Ming

Note: A rather nice children’s story tells the tale of imperial giraffes: Chee-Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey