Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Animals from Mars, on Earth

What? Never seen an antelope pretending to be
a giraffe (or a basketball player) before?
photo Michael Despines
Say you are an antelope, wandering about on the plains of eastern Africa, and it's dry season. You get to a good patch of green shrubs, only to find a whole herd of impala already there munching away.

You can move on, join them, or, if you are a gerenuk, eat above them.

The gerenuk's amazing long neck clearly helps, and its unusual hips swivel somewhat and allow these guys to stand on two legs while eating and reach higher branches that those darned impala can't.

Gerenuks are relatives of gazelles, but they are browsers, meaning they eat leaves and buds of small trees and shrubs (rather than grass). In reaching those taller branches, they get to munch leaves with more moisture, enabling them to feed in areas with little surface water.

It's a smart adaptation that helps them thrive in the drier parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Gerenuks are just one on a very fun list of 22 amazing animals that you probably didn't know exist.

Another on the list is the Vertebrate of the Year for 2013, the anti-aging, anti-cancer naked mole rat.

Hi! It's the naked mole rat: sabre-toothed sausage or
2013 Vertebrate of the Year?
Despite the name, naked mole rats (can we just call them NMRs?) are not rats (or moles!).

They are more more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs than they are to moles or rats, and they are the only species of mole-rat that has practically no hair. Naked, even.

The BBC calls them sabre-toothed sausages, which makes sense when you see their long slim bodies and huge front teeth, two characteristics that make them very fit for life underground.

NMRs live in underground colonies with 75-80 of their closest friends and relatives in the driest portions of East Africa, where the outside temps range from cold at night to burning during the day.

By staying down below (probably right underneath the gerenuks!), they don't need hair to protect themselves from the sun. They keep the colony relatively warm through their movements around the many tunnels they build, and they huddle together at night if it gets cold.

It's hard to see, but the few fine hairs on their body act like whiskers to help them feel what's around them in the darkness of their tunnels.

Like other underground rodents, these little guys dig head-first (with those crazy front teeth), so their skulls are – sensibly – strong, wide, and flat. And as in other rodents that burrow in the ground, their lips actually close quite tightly behind those huge front teeth, to keep out the soil they loosen as they dig.

Those sabre-teeth help the NMRs not only to dig, but also to gnaw into the roots and tubers that make up most of their diet. Crunch, crunch.

They are weird and wonderful, and they are just a few of many crazy animals that share the planet with us and that you probably didn't know about, starting with the pink fairy armadillo and ending with the Japanese spider crab. Here is the list -- do take a look, it will make your day!

BTW, gerenuks look just as weird on all fours
photo: Aaron Logan, Wikimedia

and here are those beautiful impala that are common in wetter areas and
challenge the gerenuk to reach up and find food and moisture from the leaves 

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