Watchdogs

I heard sharp calls piercing the air, even before I noticed the compound of earthen dwellings, and knew that sentinels had spotted me and my canine companion.

Last autumn, I spent some time in New Mexico. I lived there, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for nearly a decade about 10 years ago, and I’d been feeling nostalgic for the high desert, with it’s technicolor sunsets and scents of piñon smoke and roasting chiles. So I packed up the car, settled Dash into his travel crate, buckled my seatbelt, and drove west. I wanted to spend some time catching up with friends over pozole and stacked enchiladas, making a pilgrimage to my favorite spa, and watching for urban wildlife species that are notably absent from my current home-base in Virginia’s New River Valley.

The terrier-boy and I were walking along a suburban easement one afternoon, behind a neighborhood of faux adobe Pueblo Revival style homes, when the cautionary cries began to fly. The barked alarms were not coming from man’s best friends—the backyard pooch patrol was decidedly silent. Maybe they were on a coffee-and-donuts break, or just taking a siesta. All I can say is, residential security companies and neighborhood watch associations could learn a thing or three about vigilance and civilian defense from the citizens of a prairie dog community!Based on old cowboy movies, you might think a drive far beyond the city limit sign would be required to find a prairie dog town, but these southwestern  hobbits have adapted admirably to humans and our sprawling developments. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise—after all, we have a good deal in common. Like H. sapiens, prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) are social mammals. Like people, they can and do organize for the common defense. And, similar to their bipedal neighbors, they’ve developed a sophisticated vocal communication system.

Despite their common name and distinctive bark, these watchful creatures are not canines, but a type of ground squirrel native to North American grasslands. There are five different prairie dog species found in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico: black-tailed (C. ludovicianus), white-tailed (C. leucurus), Gunnison’s (C. gunnisoni ), Utah (C. parvidens), and Mexican (C. mexicanus). While best-known for their namesake call, this burrowing band is no one-hit wonder.

According to research by Constantine Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus at Northern Arizona University, prairie dog calls vary based on the type of predator (e.g., coyote or domestic dog, hawk, snake, or human). They even construct sentences, complete with a form of grammar, to convey specific information about the approaching menace, including color, shape, size, speed, and direction. Not a generic “Danger, Will Robinson!” SOS, but a detailed threat assessment along the lines of “Heads-up everyone! There’s a short, square-shaped, white-furred dog and a medium-tall human wearing a blue Marmot fleece jacket approaching on foot from the southeastern quadrant!”

How did researchers learn to decode Cynamysian? (Hey, if you have a better name for the language of prairie dogs, I’m all ears.) By presenting an imitation predator and observing the call and response. For example, the alarm call for “diving hawk” causes all the prairie dogs beneath the flight path to dive for shelter, while those outside the path calmly stand and watch. When a sentry sounds the “coyote or domestic dog” call, everyone above-ground moves toward a burrow, everyone below-ground comes to the surface, and then they all stand near the entrances, rubbernecking. “Human,” on the other hand, must be the equivalent of “CODE RED!” because the whole damn town runs for cover.

Dr. Slobodchikoff found that prairie dogs create new calls to communicate with one another about novel objects. They even engage in social chatter that has nothing whatsoever to do with existential threats to individuals or society. This small talk has been harder to decipher, but I suspect it includes all the gossip greatest hits—friends and family, crushes and break-ups, insults and resentments.

The social nature of a prairie dog town may explain a cultural phenomenon I think of as the Cynomys Wave. This conspicuous (and apparently contagious) behavior, also known as the jump-yip, begins when a single resident spontaneously stands on its hind legs, stretching up and back as if beginning a sun salutation asana. Instead of chanting OOOMMM, however, the creature let’s rip with a high-pitched WEE-OO, similar to the infamous yell that ended Howard Dean’s presidential aspirations . Then, in a scene reminiscent of a circa 1977 football stadium, the whole town jumps up to do The Wave, squealing like demonic dolphins.

Some scientists have hypothesized the jump-yip has a territorial function, as in “Mine, mine, this magnificent mound of excavated soil is MINE, and don’t you forget it!” Others suggest it’s related to alarm calls, serving as an “All clear!” once a crisis has pasted. A definitive diagnosis remains elusive but, regardless of its true purpose, it is certainly attention-grabbing.

Humorous antics aside, not all humans are happy when prairie dogs move into the neighborhood. For example, the sort of person whose self-worth is tied to an manicured, emerald green lawn of putting green smoothness is unlikely to put out the welcome mat for any subterranean species.

Nevertheless, prairie dogs do provide an accidental altruistic service to the larger environmental community, including people: they act as khaki-furred “canaries in the coal mine” for a very specific zoonotic disease. When there’s a sudden die-off in the local prairie dog population, it’s a strong indication that plague (of bubonic fame) has come to town. In some states, Health Department personnel regularly visit prairie dog communities, sampling the burrows for fleas, which carry the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The blood-sucking insects are then tested for plague as a proactive management strategy.

The development of modern antibiotics have lessen the impact of plague on human populations but the disease remains devastating to prairie dogs, inflicting far more damage to the community than mammalian, avian, or reptilian predators. Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Slobodchikoff’s team ever discovered a unique alarm call for fleas.


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© 2018 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to Alan Howell of Star Path Images for granting permission to use his photo, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Josh MoreLarry LamsaToshihiro Gamo, Thomas, and William Currier.

Treehuggers

I’ve been called a treehugger more than once in my life, and while I know the comments weren’t intended as such, I always take them as compliments. As a sobriquet it’s both true and false: true, because I do spontaneously hug exceptionally handsome or venerable trees; and false, because compared to the practiced professionals who scamper up and down tree boles every waking hour of their lives, my embraces are too amateurish to qualify as authentic hugging.

Sure, as a kid I would climb trees and hang from the larger limbs by my knees. We had several sturdy silver maples in our yard and I loved spending time in these leafy hideouts. But there’s more to being a treehugger than practice. I simply don’t have the body to become world-class, or even marginally proficient. To compete with the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my neighborhood, whose arboreal acrobatics would make a Cirque du Soleil gymnast green with envy, I would need a significantly different anatomy.

For example, I would need to lose enough weight (and height) to allow the friction created by the pressure of my paws gripping a small branch to overpower gravity’s bullying attempts to push me rudely onto the ground.

A better sense of balance would also be necessary if I were to have any success as a legitimate treehugger. I’m not saying I trip over myself on a daily basis but, as friends and family can attest, when I do fall it’s Charlie-Brown spectacular… and usually on my face.

Tree squirrels, in comparison, are masters at controlling their center of gravity. This can be attributed, at least in part, because they can hold on equally well with both hands and feet.  Here again I’m disadvantaged, and I place full blame on evolution, my DNA, and whichever hominid ancestors of mine, after climbing down from a tree on an African savannah, decided that standing upright and using feet almost exclusively for the precarious task of bipedal perambulation was a much better way to go than remaining quadrupedal.

My filed and brightly polished toenails would have to go, replaced by strong, sharp claws that could easily pierce porous bark or hook onto an uneven edge (completely impractical for someone who wears socks and sleeps under a blanket, though). Whereas humans, including me, need at least three points of attachment when climbing, this adaptation allows squirrels to secure their position with only two attachment points, and to grasp new surfaces at angles most animals would find impossible.

Most important of all, I would need feet that can pivot on a swivel joint, allowing my ankles to rotate backwards so I could hang from nearly vertical surfaces.

If I’d been born a flamboyantly fluffy-tailed rodent then maybe, just maybe, I could latch on to a wrinkle in the tree rind and hang by my toenails while enjoying a leisurely acorn snack. Alas, ’tis the fault in my stars to peer ever and enviously skyward, my feet with their simple-hinge ankles planted on the firmament at the base of the trunk, and looked down upon with curiosity and pity (I assume) from the higher-ups.

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[Thanks to the photographers made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Mr.TinDC, Artful Magpie, JoeInQueens, and Jed Sheehan.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Wingsuit

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), © 2014 Peter Harrill, used with permission

Is there any non-human skill people covet more passionately than the ability to fly?

Understandably, early aviation experiments centered around mimicry of birds, complete with flapping arms that were usually covered in feathers. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is a familiar example, but plumage continued to be part of the trial-and-error approach through the first years of the 19th century, when a tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and then took an ill-fated plunge into the Danube. Those daring young men with their dreams of flying machines… they just didn’t understand the concepts of thrust, lift, and drag, and they couldn’t let go of the idea that soaring requires feathers.

I guess Saturday mornings with Rocky and Bullwinkle were not a part of their childhood.

Skip ahead in the history books about two hundred years, during which heavier-than-air flight went from foolish fantasy to fleetingly airborne, to semi-reliably aloft, to acrobatic enough to decide the outcome of a World War, to commonplace as ~30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. in 2017.

And yet…

Aviation advancements and inventions during the greater part of the industrial age were about balloons and dirigibles and planes, i.e., aircraft; human beings remained firmly planted on terra firma unless they could climb inside or hang from some kind of apparatus.

It’s hard to point to a specific aeronautic adventurer as the first to see a flying squirrel, recognized the similarities with their fellow mammal, connected the dots, and think, “Eureka! A wingsuit!” But no one lucky enough to have seen one of these big-eyed nocturnal windsurfers could fail to notice the resemblance to the modern flying suits that have finally allowed human beings to fly free as a bird squirrel, unencumbered by gondola, scaffolding, or fuselage.

Of course, strictly speaking flying squirrels don’t really fly, and neither do the people wearing a wingsuit.

They glide.

The wingsuit mimics a flying squirrel’s patagium—loose folds of skin that span the space between forelimb wrist and hindlimb ankle on either side of the body. Spreading those limbs into a jumping jack X, the furry membranes stretch into a rectangular shape that allows the tiny BASE* jumpers to propel themselves into the air and then slide down the sky at a 30-40 degree angle controlled fall.

© 2008 Steve Collins, used with permission

A long, flat tail is critical for controlling that fall. Serving as a rudder, it allowing 90 degree turns around mid-flight obstacles. The tail is used for landing, too; on the approach, the tail is raised to an upright position while, at the same time, all four limbs move forward to form a kind of patagium parachute. Together, these actions create enough drag to tip the animal’s head and body up as it prepares for impact with a tree trunk or branches, a bird feeder, or a building.

Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) © 2015 Jukka Jantunen, used with permission

The New World is home to three species of rodent flyboys and flygirls: Northern (Glaucomys sabrinus); the recently differentiated and designated Humboldt’s (G oregonensis); and Southern (G volans). There’s some range overlap between Northerns and Southerns, but the two species are relatively easy to distinguish. Northerns are larger, but the belly of the beasts provides a much more notable difference; the underside of a Southern flying squirrel is creamy white, while Northern flying squirrels are beige below with darker roots.

Humboldt’s flying squirrel

There’s range overlap between Northerns (found from Alaska to Nova Scotia down to Utah and North Carolina) and Humboldts’ (whose limit their travels from British Columbia down into southern California) as well. However, the two are close enough in physical appearance and behavior that it took an examination of their DNA before scientists realized earlier this year (May 2017) that they were looking at not one species, but two. Humboldts’ have been described as smaller and darker than Northerns, but the fact that it took so long for the former to be recognized as distinctive (Southerns were first described in 1758, Northerns in 1801) suggests to me that one would have to do a mighty up-close-and-personal examination to make a positive ID.

All three varieties of Glaucomys have one important feature in common: they’re more risk-averse than you might have assumed. Riding the wind wearing a wingsuit is a dangerous activity for humans — one severe injury for every 500 jumps, according to one study, despite advances in materials, design, and training — but it’s just another day in the life of a flying squirrel. That’s not to imply they never miscalculate a distance, or botch a landing, or are immune from injury (or worse), but they do have concerns beyond thrust, lift, and drag, or changes in wind speed and direction.

Which is why, immediately after sticking the landing, a flying squirrel will scurry quickly to their nest hole, or the other side of the tree, or at least toward a deeper shadow. BASE jumpers and skydivers rarely have worry about avoiding predators waiting in the wings.

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Richard Schneider, and Barbogast. The painting of Icarus and Daedalus is by Charles Paul Landon, and the drawing of a New World flying squirrel is by Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny, currently in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank; both images are in the public domain. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

*BASE is the acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span (bridge), and Earth (cliffs).

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Hungry

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Terrier-boy transformed into a velociraptor before my very eyes!

We were walking along, minding our own business, when a momentary ruffling of leaves on the side of the pavement captured Dash’s attention and instinct took over…

head periscopes right…

ears swivel forward, nostrils flare…

field of vision narrows, eyes become lasers…

muscles tense into compressed springs…

in the pause between two heartbeats the chase is on!

 

AND…ended just as quickly by that damned ever-present leash. Grrrr.

 

Initially, I assumed Dash’s prey response had been triggered by a mouse or vole, maybe a chipmunk. Holding him back by the harness, I leaned in for a closer look without really expecting to see anything but fern and wood violet leaves; small rodents usually dive for cover when a predator is on patrol. They don’t risk a backward glance.

So I was surprised and delighted to see small, dark-bright eyes staring back at me from beneath an impromptu stone roof.  Not a rodent after all, but an insectivore. A northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) standing his ground against monsters (Dash and me) larger, in relative size, than a T-rex. Fearless!

Or maybe just hungry.

Thanks to an extremely high metabolic rate, the northern short-tailed shrew (let’s go with NSTS for the sake of brevity) has to eat every 2-3 hours to avoid starvation. That makes for a mighty motivated and efficient predator. I’ll bet you if an NSTS was invited to a screening of Jurassic Park, and saw how much time the velociraptors waste stalking kids in the kitchen, he’d be thinking, “Sheesh… amateurs!” Or maybe he doesn’t need to see the movie. According to the fossil record, shrew-like mammals arrived in time to observe real dinosaurs stomping around on planet Earth. Not this particular shrew of course, but it could be buried deep in his genetic memory.

Finding, catching, and eating earthworms, snails and slugs, spiders, insects, frogs and salamanders, mice and voles, along with some seeds and fungi, is a shrew’s full-time 24/7/365 job. Sometimes they even eat each other. All those meals add up to a daily grocery tab of three times the NSTS’s weight. Think of it this way: if Dash were a shrew, he’d need to eat nearly 65 lbs of food every 24 hours, and if I were a shrew I’d need to eat… well, it’s none of your business how much I’d need to eat.

This voracious consumer tips the scales, barely, at 15-30g (0.53-1.06 oz) but he and his kind are literally red in tooth (and only figuratively of claw). Unlike rodents, a shrew’s teeth do not grow continuously. One set of choppers has to last for their entire life, but red-toothed shrews (Soricinae) have helpful iron deposits that provide additional strength to the surfaces most subjected to wear and tear.

Insectivores are one of only three known living mammal Orders with member species that produce venom. The saliva of a NSTS can paralyze or kill prey, even some animals larger than itself. Nothing as large as a human or a dog, mind you, although the pain of a bite can last several days.

Toxic spit certainly comes in handy when it’s time to appease that insatiable hunger. But before you can bite your dinner, to immobilize or eat it, you have to find it. Often in low- or no-light conditions. Lucky for the NSTS, there’s this thing called echolocation. You would think, given how many terrestrial mammals live at least a partially subterranean life, echolocating would be a pretty common talent. You would be wrong. Only rats, the tenrecs of Madagascar, the solenodons, and three species of shrews, including the NSTS, are known to have this ability. Unlike bats (which, because they can fly, are not technically classified as terrestrial mammals), shrews use low-amplitude, multi-harmonic sounds rather than clicks. It appears these calls are used primarily to collect information about their habitat rather than to zero-in on a food source. Still, you can’t find your way to prey if you can’t find your way.

Even with venom and ultrasonic squeaks, life isn’t a picnic. NSTSs (and shrews in general) have a high mortality rate. Winter is particularly brutal, especially if the shrew in question doesn’t have enough cached food to carry it through the lean times, when mercury itself remains huddled in a bulb-burrow. Summer brings its own set of challenges; temperatures above 95°F (35°C) are deadly for shrews, causing the animals to shift their periods of above-ground activity, interfering with their ability to find their 8-12 square meals per day.

It goes without saying (but here I am saying it anyway) that even fierce predators are often prey as well. Shrews are no exception. Despite spending much of their lives hidden in subsurface tunnels, under leaves, leaf litter, and snow, NSTS become a meal, or part of a meal, for many species of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

It’s a predator-eat-predator world out there and size isn’t everything. You’ve got to stay hungry. As the saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Or the shrew. They’re still around, still hungry, and the only dinosaurs to be found are computer generated and animatronic.

I guess that settles any argument over who ruled on Isla Nublar, and who got voted off the island.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Gilles Gonthier, Goran tek-en, and snapp3r.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Near and Distant

[Photo: Steven Crane, CCL]

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) aren’t usually considered an urban wildlife species but I’d come a long way and wanted to see them while I was in South Africa. The built environment just doesn’t have the amenities Earth’s largest living terrestrial mammal needs to feel at home.  Africa’s elephants prefer dense forests, woodlands, deserts, and even the transition zones between these biomes to urban canyons and suburban savannah. Lucky for me, this study abroad excursion included several days at the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

I also had the good luck to meet some relatives of the elephant while in Cape Town.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) has found it much easier to adapt to city living than its country cousin.  I suppose concrete looks pretty familiar when boulders are your preferred abode. It also helps when you look much less threatening to the human neighbors throughout the hyrax’s Middle Eastern, sub-Saharan, and southern African range than their towering relatives.

Up on Table Mountain, which overlooks the city, hyraxes were everywhere: scampering along the pathways, basking on benches, happily whistling to one another, and enjoying the sunset from rocky precipices. Ignoring humans while living alongside them can be a good survival strategy for urban wildlife, and the hyraxes showed little interest in the two-footed visitors… unless some tourist with a camera decided to force the issue. Attempts to get the affable-looking creatures to pose were met with low “bug off!” grunts.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

The family resemblance certainly isn’t obvious at first sight but keep in mind that the genealogical tree branched out millions of years ago.  Let’s start with stature:   adult elephants stand 10-13 ft (3-4 m) tall at the shoulder and may weigh over 8 tons, while an adult hyrax measures up at about 8-12 in (20-30 cm) and tips the scales at a whopping 8-9 lbs (4 kg).

Elephants have very little hair while hyraxes are covered in short taupe fur and long guard hairs that function like a cat’s whiskers.  With their small round ears it’s easy to see how they could be mistaken for a large guinea pig (rodent) or pika (cousin to rabbits and hares). Maybe that’s why they have so many aliases; in South Africa they are called dassie (Dutch for badger) or klipdas (Afrikaans for rock badger), Swahili speakers know them as pimbi, and in the King James Bible they’re referred to as coney (Middle English and Anglo-French). Even “hyrax” is misleading, originating from the Greek word “hyrak” or shrewmouse.

Taxonomists know you shouldn’t judge a book, or a beast, by it’s cover. Look beneath the binding and you’ll find a different tail. Make that tale.  For example:

  • [Photo: Andy Withers, CCL]

    Hyraxes don’t have trunks but they do have small pointed tusks and can deliver a ferocious bite when cornered.
  • Like elephants, hyraxes have flat, hoof-like toenails rather than curved claws.
  • Both are social mammals; elephants live in herds of up to 100 individuals, hyrax colonies can have up to 50 members.
  • Both have long gestation periods (22 months for elephants, 7-8 months for hyraxes) and offspring are slow to reach maturity.
  • Elephant and hyrax newborns are precocial, relatively mature and mobile shortly after birth.
  • Both species employ cooperative care for raising young. Elephant calves are tended from birth by both their mothers and other females in the herd; and hyrax pups are greeted and sniffed by the entire colony the day after they’re born.
  • Females stay with the group their entire life; males disperse.
  • Male elephants and hyraxes don’t have a scrotum; their testes remain in the abdomen even after sexual maturity.

The differences between elephants and hyraxes are more than skin deep, too.

  • Elephants must drink up to 50 gallons of water per day; rock hyraxes can survive for long periods on just the water they obtain through their food (although they dehydrate quickly in direct sunlight).
  • Neither animal is a ruminant, but hyraxes have a complex three-chambered stomach; elephants have a simpler but less efficient digestive system.
  • Hyrax stomaches are filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down plant material; elephants have to consume up to 300 lbs of food per day, in part because they aren’t able to extract much nutritional value from what they eat.
  • [Photo: Abri du Plessis, CCL]

    An elephant spends a good portion of each day filling its stomach with food and water; rock hyraxes are world-class loafers who are inactive 95% of the time.
  • Hyraxes have poorly developed thermoregulation compared to other mammals so they need to sunbathe for several hours each morning to warm up and won’t venture out of their shelters on cold or rainy days. Elephants have to work at staying cool; they don’t sweat or pant but their large ears help to dissipate heat and they’ve developed a temperature regulation strategy that involves storing heat during the day and releasing it at night, similar to camels and desert rodents.
  • Elephants have a sixth “toe” and their feet have large subcutaneous cushions that distribute weight and absorb mechanical forces; hyraxes have a more flexible foot with a rubbery pad in the center that can be raised to create a suction-cup for clinging to rocks and moving across slick surfaces without slipping.
  • African elephants have no natural predators as adults (they have a decided size advantage) but their calves are vulnerable to attack by lions, crocodiles, leopards, and hyenas. Hyraxes have many predators and, as such, they feed in a circle formation, heads facing outward, eyes scanning for danger.

I’m told that most tourists who have a safari on their bucket list focus on the iconic African Big Five — elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard.  I’d be the first to agree they’re all worth seeing in their natural environment, with no bars or moats to limit your view. Or theirs. 

But I find celebrity tours less interesting than exploring on my own.  I like to switch to hyrax-time, wander through neighborhood, sit at a sidewalk cafe or bask on a park bench and watch the residents, human and non-human alike, go about their day. Taking note of what makes us different and all the ways we’re related, despite the distance. 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Bright-eyed and brushy-tailed

common brushtail possum (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

Common brushtail possums know how to work the cute (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

..

Consider, if you will, the sartorial importance of tail attire.  To bare, or not to bare… that is the question.  The answer might seem to be of little consequence, but for marsupials living in cities and suburbs some strategically placed fur can make all the difference.

That’s because naked tails make people nervous. I blame this bias on the Black Death. Of course, now we know the true culprit in that famous pandemic of 1347 was not the rat, but the infected fleas that hitched a ride on those hapless rodents. Since standards of human hygiene at the time were rather… haphazard, shall we say, there were plenty of opportunities for the insects to hop onto a handy human. We may not remember why rodents make us uneasy but the bias remains to this day.

How else do you square our acceptance and even advocacy of squirrels and chipmunks, for example, with our abhorrence of rats and mice? As Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame so wisely observed, “A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit.” Clothes make the man and the mammal.

The same could be said of the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and its cousin the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Both are omnivorous marsupials of similar size and weight. However, the former has a hirsute terminus while the latter’s prehensile appendage is as furless as a snake. Brushtails are the source of much frustration among Aussie homeowners who, nonetheless, demonstrate great fondness for this plush-toy wannabe. The North American model does not enjoy a similar degree of affection from its human neighbors (to put it mildly).

Is this inequity mere coincidence? I think not—if you ask me it’s blatant bare-tail bigotry!

Personally, I find the adult Virginia opossum to be a handsome creature and their young ones winsome and endearing.  But—let’s face it—we only have one marsupial here in the U.S., so there’s no competition for best in show.

It’s a different story in Australia, where possums* and the closely related gliders account for approximately 30 of the continent’s 140 marsupial species. Brushtails are attractive animals by any aesthetic standard, with thick, luxurious fur that ranges in color from silver-gray to cream, brown, black, and even red, depending on the subspecies.

As the name implies, the common brushtail is a familiar resident along much of coastal Australia including the major metropolitan areas such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. Suited to a wide variety of habitats, from rainforests to semiarid regions, this semi-arboreal (tree-dwelling) possum has adapted readily to urban life, trading traditional tree cavities for a home under the eaves.

brushtail mother and child (Photo: mugley, Creative Commons license)Brushtails can breed at any time during the year, but there are two peak seasons—from September to November (southern hemisphere spring) and from March to May (Australian autumn). Following a 16-18 day gestation, the female gives birth to a single blind and extremely underdeveloped child who scrambles unaided up to her pouch. Once inside, it will attach to a teat and remain there for another four or five months, after which it will either stay home at the den while Mom goes out to forage or ride along on her back, sharing any groceries she finds while learning what and where to eat. Male possums are not involved in child-rearing.

Human or non-human—if you want to succeed in the urban jungle, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a pretty face. Brushtails have large ears perched on a rounded head, a pink nose and dark liquid eyes… and they don’t seem at all shy about working their assets to full advantage. They may have learned a thing or two from eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), introduced to Australia sometime between 1900 and the 1930s—there’s just something about watching a furry creature nosh while holding the treat with two hands that people find irresistible, apparently, because hand-feeding fruit treats is a popular past-time.

attic brushtail (Photo: play4smee, Creative Commons license)There’s a down side to this Down Under hospitality, though. With warm, dry sleeping berths and plenty to eat, brushtails haven’t found it necessary to step lightly on the Earth… or in the attic either.  Their heavy-footed nocturnal comings and goings and loud vocalizations are responsible for plenty of sleepless nights and lost tempers. Brushtails often wake the neighborhood dogs as they wander through the neighborhood via utility poles and fencing, creating the same kind of hard feelings directed at Virginia opossums on the other side of the globe, for the exact same reason.

When not snacking on handouts from the produce section they will munch on magnolias, roses, and other selections from the flower garden as well as on eucalyptus and other trees—Aussies do not consider this one of the brushtail’s more appealing qualities. And, like their northern hemisphere kin, brushtails will dumpster dive and help themselves to the back porch pet food smorgasbord, resulting in much hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing by Homo sapiens.

Yet, somehow, brushtails seem largely immune to the vilification of their less charismatic cousins. To the cute (and furry-tailed) go the spoils, I guess—it’s an all too familiar tail and decidedly unjust. But as my mother (and probably yours too) always said, “Who told you life is fair?”

One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t a ‘possum.

[This one is for Barb at Passionate About Pets and People. Thanks for your support and encouragement!]

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* Although both are marsupials, it is commonly accepted that the Americas have opossums (colloquially referred to as ‘possums) while Australia has possums. Yes, it is confusing. No, I don’t know why or how this came to be. Even in the 21st Century there remain great unsolved mysteries.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: David Midgley (brushtail eating an orange); mugley (mother and baby); and play4smee (attic brushtail).

Urban development

Raccoons by John Biehler, Creative Commons license

Just hangin' on the corner with the homies... smart, bored, and looking for trouble (Photo: John Biehler, Creative Commons license)

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World War II had barely ended when researchers began to notice a major migration under way in North America, from undeveloped and agricultural areas to cities and suburbs.  Now, in the early 21st Century, the urban population is over 20 times that of the early-1940s—in some places, more than 50% higher than the surrounding rural landscape. With growth has come all the problems that naturally occur as a community becomes overcrowded: housing shortages and squatting; dumpster diving; increases in theft and property damage; sanitation-related public health concerns. sometimes, we all need a little help getting through the day... by jmtimages, creative commons licenseAll of this has a tendency to make established residents less tolerant of immigrants, even when the new neighbors are clever, ambitious, hard-working, good parents, and undeniably cute as all get-out.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) may be new to the urban scene, but… wait a minute. You thought I was talking about people?

That’s understandable, I suppose. Just about everything I’ve said to this point could apply to humans as well. There’s no denying that Homo sapiens is now an urban species. The tipping point (>50% of humans living in areas of high population density) came around 2007. Each year, more of us are lured by the promise of better-paying jobs, more housing options, access to social services and chain restaurants, bigger shopping malls, a larger dating pool, and high-speed Internet connections. In other cases, concrete tentacles sprawl past the city limit signs to grab up and devour surrounding countryside, forcing rural residents to choose between relocating to land that hasn’t yet caught developers’ eyes and becoming accidental townies.

urban raccoons by liz west ccThe “built environment” is intended to meet the wants and needs of our own kind, but raccoons may be better suited for what we’ve constructed than the target real estate market.

Raccoon Nation, a documentary shown recently in the U.S. on the PBS “Nature” series, and in Canada on the CBC News Network series “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” makes a strong case in support of that thesis.* As filmmakers follow the furry urbanites in their native North America (including Chicago and Toronto—known as the “raccoon capital of the world”), as well as in Germany and Japan (where they were intentionally introduced), it’s hard not to notice the similarities between those who construct cities and those who exploit them and their work.

How alike are we? Let’s build this case from the ground up.

raccoon paw and human handFeet—humans and raccoons are both plantigrade. In other words, we walk with the entire foot planted firmly on the dirt… make that asphalt. There are other examples (elephants, kangaroos, and pandas come to mind), but the majority of mammals walk on their tippy toes (more on this in a future blog post).

Hands—okay, technically raccoons don’t have hands, they have two more feet. That’s semantics. Look closely and you’ll see one reason it’s so hard to invent a raccoon-proof container—a paw that looks a lot like a palm and a digit that’s as close to the functionality of an opposable thumb as it gets for non-primates.

dumpster raccoons by zeetz jones ccStomachs—the best way to avoid starvation long enough to pass your genes along to the next generation is to cultivate the ability to eat anything and everything you can cram in your mouth that contains a calorie. The human diet is astonishingly diverse, and urban raccoons gobble up everything we leave on our plates and toss in the trash… plus a lot of stuff we would rather not eat. Some researchers suggest that omnivory played a crucial role in human development—by providing a more consistent and more nutritious diet, and because finding potential new foods, determining whether they are edible, and figuring out how to eat them pushed our brains to create new neural pathways. Which brings us to…

Brains—raccoons and people also share a high level of behavioral plasticity, a term that implies the ability to change. Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning (well… we both have that capacity; whether we use it or not is another issue). With no email to check, no AYSO games to attend, no need to commute, and only one significant predator (those commuting automobiles), raccoons have plenty of time for learning. Each day is devoted to DIY personal growth, lifestyle enhancement, and honing useful skills, such as…

  • how to turn a garbage can or dumpster into a convenience store;
  • how to tight-rope walk a fence (great for avoiding the neighbor’s dog);
  • how to shimmy down a tree branch onto a rooftop;
  • how to turn a loose shingle on that roof into an attic entrance;
  • how to turn that attic into a cozy, rent-free nursery.

Whether you find these critters endearing or exasperating, it’s never fun to clean up refuse that’s strewn across your yard, and there’s no denying they can and do cause damage to property. Ironically, our attempts to outwit them are molding these savvy metropolitan mammals to better fit the world we built for ourselves. And here’s the other reason I will never invest my hard-earned money in some inventor’s guaranteed raccoon-proof fill-in-the-blank: because no human being will ever have as much time to devote to keeping a raccoon out of something as raccoons, often working in teams, are willing and able to devote to cracking the code. By trying to thwart them, we’re simply selecting for the traits that make a more worthy opponent and a better urban animal. An über-coon, if you like.

bipedal raccoons by David~O ccBefore you know it, they’ll be standing upright in line right beside us at Starbucks, waiting for a Venti Caramel Macchiato to help them wake up for the night shift.

Urban raccoons share another, disturbing commonality with their human neighbors—the toll exacted by easy access to a plentiful, high fat, high sugar, high calorie diet. Diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease may do more to limit their numbers, in the long run, than all the Hav-A-Heart trap-toting home and business owners, urban wildlife biologists, and nuisance wildlife control operators combined. Cleverness and dexterity are no match for the fearful symmetry of a predatory heart attack or kidney failure.

No wonder they call it the urban jungle.

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* The full hour-long episode of Raccoon Nation, along with interesting behind-the-scenes extras, can now be viewed online.

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NOTE:  As many of you know (or have figured out), I started this blog a little over a year ago because I’m committed to reconnecting people with the natural world, starting with the wildlife in their own backyard, neighborhood, county, and city or town.  My goal for 2012 is to increase the number of subscribed readers from ~150 (through both WordPress and Facebook) to 1,000.  To that end, Next-Door Nature is a new member of the Nature Blog Network (NBN), a wonderful resource for finding writers on just about every green topic you can imagine.

Want to help me reach my goal (and share your passion for wildlife at the same time)?

  • First, tell everyone you know about Next-Door Nature—by email, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Google+, and any other social media platform that comes to mind.
  • Second, go to the NBN site and submit a review (hopefully glowing) of Next-Door Nature.
  • Third… you tell me! If you have an idea for how to get the word out about this blog, please share. Leave a comment, or send an email. Thanks!
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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: John Biehler (3 sepia raccoons); jmtimages (mother & child); Liz West (supper club); Stuti Sakhalkar (human handprint); Jon Stogner (raccoon pawprint); Zeetz Jones (dumpster ); David~O (bipedal).