Thursday, January 31, 2013

Top Ten Most Interesting Arboreal Mammals (Part 1)

Today, in honor of the birthday of Charlie Bowers, we are going to be taking a "Top Ten" approach to some pretty cool arboreal mammals.  FYI, for those of you who don't know, arboreal means an animal that lives in the trees!  So let's dive right in!  For Part 2 of this duology, click HERE.

10.  Squirrel - Although a fairly common animal and really not that exciting at first glance, the squirrel is actually quite the exciting animal!  Incredibly acrobatic, the squirrel is superbly adapted for an arboreal lifestyle.  Need more proof?  Click the link right HERE to be amazed!
One of the koalas at the San Diego Zoo in California.  Photo Credit: Julie Neher
9.  Koala -  Other than the kangaroo, the koala is probably the most iconic Australian marsupial.  Many myths abound in regards to the koala.  For example, many people believe that the koala is constantly "adjusting its altitude," so to speak, due to something in the leaves of the eucalyptus trees that they consume.  While it seems quite likely that the koala is constantly baked due to its lackadaisical attitude, it's not actually true: the koala just spends a great deal of its day asleep in order to digest the tough vegetation that composes its diet.  As a matter of fact, the 20-22 hours a day the koala sleeps makes it the sleepiest  mammal!  (For more information about the koala and its digestion, click HERE). 

8.  Primates - Perhaps the order of mammals that is most superbly adapted to a life in the trees, the primates include everything from the aye-aye to the orangutan, from the tarsier to us humans!  Thought to have started evolving in North America or Asia around 65 MYA or so, before even the dinosaurs died out, today there are over 200 extant species, with new ones still being discovered, like the lesula monkey that was discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012 (pictured above).

7.  Binturong - Often called the "Bear-cat," the binturong is the largest of the strange group of animals known as the civets.  (For more about civets and their relatives, click HERE).  Native to southeastern Asia, the binturong is omnivorous, but seems to consume fruit the most in its diet, and is particularly partial to figs.  Although the binturong is labeled as "Critically Endangered" in China, the IUCN labels the species as a whole as merely "Vulnerable."

6.  Sloth - When you hear the word "sloth," you might think of someone or something being lazy.  There is a very good reason for that association: the sloth is quite sloth!  As David Attenborough says in the excellent BBC production "Life of Mammals," "The sloth moves as if it's powered by the wrong sort of batteries."  Sleeping around 20 hours a day, the sloth is the second sleepiest mammal, right after the koala.  While it sleeps, the sloth hangs upside down from tree branches.  Sounds like a lot of work, right?  Actually, it really isn't: the sloth simply hooks its claws over the tree branch, and relaxes all of its muscles.  If a human hunter shoots a sloth hanging from a tree, it will usually simply remain hanging from the tree branch, anchored by its claws!  Then the hunter actually has to physically climb up into the tree to retrieve its prize!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top Ten Mammals That Look Like Something They Aren't (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of this duo of posts.  For Part 1, click HERE.  What are these two posts about?  Well, we are going to be taking a "Top Ten" look at some mammals that look a lot like something they aren't.  Sometimes, these two animals are fairly closely related: other times, they are quite far apart!  All of these examples will be results of a fascinating phenomenon known as "Convergent Evolution," which is where similar ecological and environmental factors cause two very different animals to evolve in a similar fashion.  So let's dive right in!  But first, this is the birthday post of Joseph Kleinkopf, happy birthday Joseph!

5.  Civets and genets - These two groups of animals are quite possibly some of the most unknown animals that are around today.  Members of the family Viverridae in the order Carnivora, if someone does in fact see one, they usually just assume that they are cats, dogs, or something else along those lines.  The family that the viverrids are most closely related to are, in fact, the cats, but they are also related to they hyenas and the mongooses.

4.  Maned Wolf - The maned wolf is neither a wolf, as its name implies, or a fox, as its outward appearance would indicate.  It is related to both, and is in the family Canidae (the dog family) just like wolves and foxes, but it is thought to be most closely related to the South American bush dog.  Interestingly, although small vertebrate prey is quite important to the maned wolf, it eats a great deal of fruits and vegetables, with the most frequently consumed fruit called the wolf apple.

A slightly fuzzy picture of a brown-morph black bear right outside of our tent-cabin in Yosemite!  Photo Credit: Julie Neher
3.  Black Bear - When it comes to the names of the three bears that inhabit North America, they can be very misleading indeed.  ESPECIALLY the black bear, for the black bear, like many other animals throughout the world (including, of course, humans), has different color morphs.  The black bear is, of course, most frequently black.  However, some of the time, the black bear is actually brown, or cinnamon colored, which is not to be confused with the ACTUAL brown bear (or grizzly bear).  In Alaska and northwest Canada, there is the "glacier" color morph, a grey-blue phase.  But I think my favorite is the "Kermode" color phase, which is exclusive to the coast of British Columbia.  This bear is a creamy-white color, and looks a heck of a lot like the polar bear!  How very, very confusing!

2.  Thylacosmilus - Over the course of mammalian evolution, the marsupials have spat out a large number of look-alikes, or animals that evolved via convergent evolution to appear a great deal like other animals throughout the world.  One of the most amazing of all of these (by far, in my opinion) is Thylacosmilus, a marsupial carnivore from the Miocene and Pliocene Epochs of South America.  Thylacosmilus convergently evolved to resemble the saber-toothed cats of North America.  Unfortunately, following the creation of the Isthmus of Panama that connected North and South America around 2 MYA, the saber-toothed cats like Smilodon moved down the newly-formed land bridge to colonize South America during the Great American Interchange, outcompeting Thylacosmilus in the process.

1.  Raccoon Dog - The raccoon dog is a fantastic case of an animal that is now that it appears to be.  You take one look at it, and you decide conclusively that you are looking at a raccoon, no doubt about it.  Your second and third takes yield the same result.  However, the raccoon dog is not a raccoon, as both its name and appearance might indicate: its a canid, through and through!  Listed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN, the raccoon dog is native to eastern Asia, and is not very closely related to any extant species of dog.  Just a tip, if you are trying to make someone look foolish, showing them a picture of a raccoon dog and having them guess what animal it is is an excellent way to show off your animal-prowess.  Unless they know what it is, in which case you will be the more foolish.

Thanks for joining us tonight for our top ten list!  And remember, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in! 

Top Ten Mammals That Look Like Something They Aren't (Part 1)

Today, we are going to be taking a "Top Ten" look at some mammals that look a lot like something they aren't.  Sometimes, these two animals are fairly closely related: other times, they are quite far apart!  All of these examples will be results of a fascinating phenomenon known as "Convergent Evolution," which is where similar ecological and environmental factors cause two very different animals to evolve in a similar fashion.  So let's dive right in!  But first, this is the birthday post of Joseph Kleinkopf, happy birthday Joseph! (For Part 2, animals 5-1 of the countdown, click HERE.)

10.  Bear Dogs - As their name implies, the bear-dogs are a group of mammalian carnivores that greatly resemble both bears and dogs.  However, they are neither!  According to The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, they are thought to be fairly closely related to dogs, and more distantly related to bears.  Their remains are most commonly found in North America, although they are also found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Temporally, these animals lived during the Miocene Epoch, and are though to have arisen about 15 MYA, and fallen into extinction around 12 million years ago (MYA).

9.  Entelodonts - The Entelodonts, frequently referred to as "Hell" or "Terminator Pigs" greatly resemble the extant (still around, opposite of extinct) pigs and peccaries.  However, they are in a separate family from both the pigs and the peccaries, the family Entelodontidae, but all three do reside in the order Artiodactyla.  Some paleontologists believe that these guys are more closely related to whales and their relatives than pigs, but their exact phylogenetic relationship is unclear.  They inhabited North America and Europe during the Oligocene Epoch, around 34-32 MYA. 

8.  Hyrax - This little guy looks like he would be a rodent, but his true relatives are actually much more surprising!  Weighing between about 5 and 10 pounds, the hyraxes are actually fairly closely related to the members of the family Proboscidea, or the elephants and their relatives!  The extant hyraxes have their own family, Hyracoidea, but their ancient ancestors are thought to have branched into the extant hyraxes, the elephants and kin, and most likely the manatee and its relatives!  Hyraxes are found exclusively in Africa and the Middle East.

7.  Red Panda - The red panda has a long history of uncertainty in regards to its phylogenetic relationship to other animals, as has its namesake, the giant panda.  However, now we know that the giant panda is in the family Ursidae, or the bear family, and the red panda is now classified in its own family, Ailuridae, closely related to the mustelids, raccoons, and more, distantly bears.  For more information about the red panda, click HERE.  For more information about the giant panda, click HERE.

6.  Rabbits and Pikas - Even up until just a few years ago, I had assumed that the rabbits and the pikas were both rodents.  They look a lot like them, and they share the trait of continually growing teeth.  However, the members of the order Lagomorpha, which is the order that includes the rabbits and the pikas, differs from the order Rodentia in that they possess four incisors, as opposed to two for the rodents.  Furthermore, most rodents are omnivorous, while the lagomorphs are almost entirely strictly herbivorous.

For Part 2, animals 5-1 of the countdown, click HERE.

And remember, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Story of the Kremmling Ammonite Site and a Painting by Wayne Itano, Guest Blogger

Today, we have a very exciting post for you: a guest post from paleo-enthusiast Wayne Itano!  Here is a bit of background on Mr. Itano:  

Wayne Itano is a physicist at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) in Boulder, CO.  He has a hobby interest in paleontology and is also a curator adjoint at the Natural History Museum of the University of Colorado.

Today, Mr. Itano is going to tell us about the Kremmling Ammonite Site.  Join me in giving him a warm welcome!  Let's get started!

The Kremmling Cretaceous Ammonite Locality lies on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land to the north of the little town of Kremmling, in Grand County, Colorado.  It was first noticed for the very high concentration of very large ammonites(ammonites are extinct relatives of the modern chambered nautilus and were probably more closely related to octopi and squids).  It has been protected since the 1980s.  It was written up in the book “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” by the paleontologist Kirk Johnson and the artist Ray Troll.

Dr. Kirk Johnson, formerly of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, is now head of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Ray Troll is an artist with a special interest in natural history and ancient life.  Here is his painting “Night of the Ammonites” inspired by a visit to the Kremmling Ammonite Locality.
Artist Ray Troll’s picture of the Kremmling area, about 73 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, when most of Colorado was beneath the sea.  Picture Credit: Ray Troll
The large disk-shelled creatures are ammonites called Placenticeras.  The ones with narrow, straight, tapered shells are another kind of ammonite, called Baculites. The sharp-toothed swimming reptiles are called mosasaurs.  We have evidence from bite marks on ammonite shells that mosasaurs preyed on Placenticeras.  Over on the left are some strangely shaped small ammonites called Anaklinoceras.

The Kremmling site was featured by Earth Magazine, in a kind of online quiz called “Where on Earth.”  The page with the question and answer is HERE.

If you want to visit the Kremmling site, first pay a visit to the BLM office at 2103 E. Park Avenue, Kremmling.  They can advise you on road conditions.  At times it can be inaccessible, even for 4-wheel drive vehicles. Here is a sign at the site:
Warning sign at the Kremmling Ammonite protected area.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
Here is an informational sign.  Collecting is prohibited within the site, but there are nearby areas where collecting is allowed.  Inquire at the BLM office.
Explanatory sign at the Kremmling site.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
The area is littered with boulders containing the impressions of giant Placenticeras ammonites.  The fossils themselves have been collected, many to museums.  Intact boulders containing ammonites lie under the surface and could be studied in the future.
Boulders with impressions of Placentideras ammonites.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
Baculites (straight ammonites) are also rather common. 
A Placenticeras ammonite impression with a Baculites fossil (cylindrical object) on the same boulder.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
Large clams called Inoceramus are rather common.  Here are some examples.
A large Inoceramus clam fossil.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
A boulder with impressions of Inoceramus clams.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
Emmett Evanoff, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, has been studying the paleontology of this area.  One odd thing is that the great majority of the Placenticeras fossils are of females.  (The males are distinguished by being much smaller and having coarse ribs on their shells.) He thinks this might have been a nesting site.  The males would have fertilized the eggs and then left, leaving the females to guard the eggs.  Katie DeBell was a student of Emmett’s who mapped out the ammonites on the surface and seems to know them all by number.  She lives in Kremmling and often gives tours, especially to school groups.  Here she is, pointing out some features of one of the ammonites.
Katie DeBell explaining some features of an ammonite in 2011.  Photo Credit: Wayne Itano
I have a vacation house in the mountains not far from Kremmling.  I happen to know a painter who is also a fossil enthusiast, named Terry McKee.  I commissioned him to do a painting of the Kremmling site when it was an ammonite nesting ground.  I also asked Dr. Evanoff for advice, and the three of us met to plan the painting.  Here it is, and the original is now hanging in my mountain house.
Painting of the Kremmling Ammonite nesting site.  The large ammonites are guarding their eggs.  Baculites and various smaller ammonites, swim above.  The small round ammonite on the left, facing left, between two of the straight baculites, is a male Placenticeras.  A mosasaur lurks in the background.  Picture Credit: Terry McKee
- Wayne Itano

Thank you very much, Mr. Itano, for the post!  The post was really interesting, and I know I learned a lot!  I found the part about the nesting site particularly interesting!  I have no doubt that my readers, as well as myself, would love to hear from you in the future!  Thanks again! - Zack Neher

Friday, January 25, 2013

23-Fact Tuesday: The Polar Bear!

Everyone loves polar bears, so today, for the birthday post of Brooke Harrower, we are going to be taking a 23-Fact Tuesday look at them!  Allons-y!

1.  Despite the fact that the polar bear can be quite a fierce animal, it can also be very playful and gentle.  For proof, click HERE to see a very cute video of polar bears playing with sled dogs!

2.  A group of polar bears is called a celebration.

3.  In an attempt to safely film polar bears up close and personal without disturbing them, one production company resorted to an interesting array of spy cameras.  To see an awesome video of the polar bears playing with the spy cameras, click HERE.

4.  As we saw in the previous video clip, the polar bear is quite the curious animal.  It has to be, to survive in such harsh conditions!  The polar bear is also a lot smarter than many other bears, as can be seen in a comparison of a few different bear brains, below!  Look at how much larger (comparatively) the brain of the polar bear is than that of the American black bear!  Also keep in mind that more wrinkles=a greater surface area=a smarter animal!

5.  Unlike the color of its fur, the skin of the polar bear is actually jet black!

6.  Despite the fact that they are often erroneously pictured together, it is almost entirely impossible for penguins and polar bears to meet naturally in the wild, as no penguins ever really make it past the Equator, with the Gal├ípagos penguin living the furthest north, right on the Equator!  For more information on the subject (as well as some really funny stories) click on the link HERE, to check out a page on the awesome blog March of the Fossil Penguins.

7.  As you can see in the video clip HERE, filming the polar bears for the excellent BBC series Planet Earth could be quite a challenge (see the full post HERE), especially when they come knocking at your door!

8.  The polar bear is the largest extant (still living, opposite of extinct) mammalian carnivore.  The males can grow up to a whopping 1,500 pounds! 

9.  It occurs to me as I eat this delicious cherry popsicle that the polar bear must have some sort of special evolutionary adaptation to prevent brain freeze as it consumes a cold and frozen meal.  Research should be done into this.

10.  Polar bears, after their emergence from their dens following the harsh Arctic winters, have been observed sledding down the hills on which the dens are associated.  Some scientists believe that this action is solely intended to clean the fur, but many others (myself included) believe that it is probably more for fun!  Check out the video HERE.

11.  The polar bear is native to only five countries.  These are Russia, Denmark owned Greenland, Norway owned Svalbard, Alaska, and Canada.

12.  The polar bear is a descendant of the grizzly bear, and was once thought to have diverged from the grizzly possibly only even around 70-100,000 years ago.  Others are more conservative in their estimations, as DNA analysis on one particular fossil specimen indicates that the polar bear diverged from the grizzly bear around 160,000 years ago.  It now seems more likely that the age of divergence of was much earlier in time than even 100,000 years ago, and polar bear fossils dating from earlier than that (round 115,000 years ago) have actually been discovered.
A picture of one of the grizzly bears at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo doing what the zookeepers call the "Yoga Bear."  This was from the behind the scenes experience that my dad, grandma and grandpa, my friend Masaki and I got to do with Kelley Parker a few months back!  Photo Credit: Masaki Kleinkopf.
Another picture of one of the grizzly bears at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo doing what the zookeepers call the "Yoga Bear."  This was from the behind the scenes experience that my dad, grandma and grandpa, my friend Masaki and I got to do with Kelley Parker a few months back!  Photo Credit: Masaki Kleinkopf.
13.  The oldest polar bear fossil known to science, the lower jaw of a male, was discovered in 2004.  It's age is thought to be between around 110,000 and 130,000 years old. 

14.  The scientific name for the polar bear, Ursus maritimus is "sumitiram susru" spelled backwards.  This means absolutely nothing and is really not that exciting, unless you are me and think it's funny and clever to spell things backwards and make stupid jokes about it.

15.  Algae, while not threatening to a polar bear in any significant way, can be extremely hard to wash out of the bears fur.  So therefore, in the summer of 2008 when three bears at Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Japan got a bunch of algae stuck in their fur, they were green for the entire summer!  True story!

16.  The polar bear is a fantastic swimmer, aided by its streamlined body and skull as well as its partially webbed feet, and have been spotted swimming strongly in open waters as much as 200 miles from the shore!

17.  The polar bear will consume a wide variety of foods, including everything from seals to walrus, beluga whales to bowhead whale carcasses, birds, and even kelp!

18.  The polar bear is labeled as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN, a position which may deteriorate in years to come with the further melting of the ice caps.

19.  Hybrids of the polar bear and the grizzly bear, sometimes called grolars, have been known to occur both in the wild and in captivity, a further testament to the close genetic relationship between the two bears.

20.  Baby polar bears are possibly some of the cutest animals on the planet, as can be evidenced by the picture below of baby Anori from Germany's Wuppertal Zoo.

21.  Humans are the only animal that hunt polar bears.

22.  So well protected against the cold is the polar bear that they can quickly overheat, even when the temperature is below zero!  In order to combat this, the polar bear will try to avoid running and will rest for many many hours at a time.  Maybe my cat's a polar bear.

23.  Polar bears, like myself when Windows Movie Maker refuses to work, have actually been observed by scientists to throw tantrums when they fail to catch their prey!  The bears have been observed growling disappointedly, kicking piles of snow, and even throwing ice chunks!

Happy birthday Brooke, hope you enjoy!  And remember, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Feeding Some Tigers!

So here are two more videos that I have uploaded from the behind-the-scenes visit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo that I took a few months back with my father, sister, and grandma and grandpa, under the guidance of Kelley Parker!  It was a lot of fun, and we got to feed the Siberian or Amur tigers while we were there!  The Siberian tiger, Panthera tigris altaica,  is a sub-species of the tiger, Panthera tigris, and is labeled as "Endangered" by the IUCN.  The Siberian tiger is found in the Primorye region of eastern Russia.  Anyways, enough chit-chat, here are the videos!

Feeding the Siberian Tiger!

Siberian Tiger Jumps Up To Get A Pumpkin

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Denver Gem and Mineral Show Part 6: Dinosaurs and Their Ancient Relatives

At last: here we go on the sixth post of our Denver Gem and Mineral Show series!  Even though I went with my friend Masaki Kleinkopf a few months ago, I still have a large number of picture that I am eager to share with you.  If you are interested in reading about the other posts in this series, feel free to check out the Homebase for the series HERE, with links to all of the other posts in the series that have been created thus far!  Today we will be looking at the dinosaurs, as well as an ancient relative!  Fasten your seat belts, everyone!
Here we have the skull of Allosaurus!  We have discussed Allosaurus extensively, especially in our 23-Fact Tuesday post, so click HERE to learn more about this fascinating creature!
A dinosaur who needs no introduction, but, as you can see, I am introducing him anyways: Tyrannosaurus rex!  I believe the second picture is of the foot of Tyrannosaurus, but I am not one hundred percent positive.
Psittacosaurus, one of the most primitive ceratopsian dinosaurs known to science.  It doesn't even have a frill or horns!  So how do we know that it is a ceratopsian dinosaur?  It has an extra bone on its upper jaw called the rostral.  It is this bone that distinguishes the ceratopsians from the other groups of dinosaurs.
Another dinosaur foot, this one belonging to Diplodocus, a large sauropod from the Late Jurassic Period, whose remains are found in the Morrison Formation
 Some fossil footprints that I am guessing belong to a theropod dinosaur, but I don't actually know.
Some fossil bones of a hadrosaur known as Edmontosaurus.  Here is what the card says: "Edmontosaurus sp.  Cervical vertebrae and bone.  Lance Formation.  Maastrichtian.  Late Cretaceous.  Niobrara County, Wyoming."
Some teeth belonging to the massive carnivorous dinosaur Carcharodontosaurus.  Up at the top of the picture, you can see a few from Spinosaurus, as well. 
Various teeth and claws from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC) booth.
This last guy, Desmatosuchus, is not actually a dinosaur, but a type of archosaur.  Although it looks quite fierce, Desmatosuchus belongs to an order of Late Triassic herbivores called the aetosaurs.  Desmatosuchus in particular has been found in Texas, and was around 15 or 16 feet in length. 

Animal of the Day: Coelophysis

Today's Animal of the Day is Coelophysis!  The picture of the cast you see off to the left (taken by me at the Denver Gem and Mineral Show a few months back) is from the AMNH (American Museum of Natural History) in New York.  I actually know a little bit more about this particular specimen of Coelophysis than I believe was labeled there, as I remembered seeing this specimen in my Dinosaur Atlas book from DK Publishers.  One of around 500 or so individual Coelophysis specimens discovered at a place called Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, this particular specimen was once thought to reveal something interesting about the species: Coelophysis was once thought to probably be a cannibal, as the remains of a baby Coelophysis were found in the area of the stomach!

Dinosaur cannibalism is not unheard of, and almost certainly occurred in the Late Cretaceous Abelisaur Majungasaurus from Madagascar.  However, this was disproven in 2002 by Rob Gay, when he showed that the baby Coelophysis were either crushed by the smaller ones, or that they weren't even baby Coelophysis!  Instead, many of them were found to be other, small reptiles, such as the archosaur Hesperosuchus, a member of the same group as the crocodilians, dinosaurs, and pterosaurs, amongst others.  So for now, it looks like Coelophysis was probably not a cannibal, but future discoveries may force us to change our minds once again!
Another picture of Coelophysis that I took, at the DMNS

Coelophysis is one of the oldest known dinosaurs, inhabiting North America around 220 million years ago (MYA), during the Late Triassic Period.  The site at Ghost Ranch is interesting, because there are just so many different specimens all clumped together.  Some paleontologists have suggested that a flash flood drowned a huge herd of these animals, or perhaps that they died while trying to cross a river.  We might never know what, exactly, killed these dinosaurs, or why so many of them died in such close proximity.  
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