Friday, May 24, 2013

Animal of the Day: Viscacha

Today's Animal of the Day is the viscacha and, in my opinion, the viscacha is one of the cutest animals in the world!  There are five species of extant (still living, opposite of extinct) viscacha, composing two genera.  The viscachas live in the South American Andes, with one species, the plains viscacha, inhabiting the Pampas of Argentina.  The plains viscacha can apparently live in warrens (groups of interconnected burrows) of up to around one hundred individuals!  

Now what exactly is the viscacha, anyways?  Except for the long tail, it sure looks like a rabbit, now, doesn't it?  Well, the rabbit-like features of the viscacha actually evolved through a fascinating biological process called convergent evolution, in which organisms evolve a similar adaptation to other organisms, but did not receive the adaptation from a common ancestor.  For example, the antlers of the elk and the moose are not an example of convergent evolution, as the common ancestor of the two animals both had antlers.  

However, the saber-teeth in the Chinese water deer and the musk deer DID evolve via convergent evolution, as their common ancestor did not have these features.  And yes, that picture of the Chinese water deer to the right is a real picture.  We'll talk about these fascinating animals at some point in the future.  

Tangents aside, I never actually answered the question: what are the viscachas related to, if not rabbits?  Rabbits, along with hares and pikas, are members of the order Lagomorpha, or the lagomorphs, contrary to the belief of many people, who (understandably) think that the rabbits are actually rodents.  If you were to say that the viscacha was a rodent, however, then you would be correct!  The viscacha is indeed a member of the order Rodentia, and are fairly closely related to the chinchillas, one of which is pictured off to the left.  The chinchillas, just like the viscachas, are also native to the South American Andes.  The chinchillas, despite being a very popular pet (I remember my preschool had one when I went there), are not doing too hot in the wild: both extant species, the short- and long-tailed chinchilla, are labeled as "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN.  

This was the birthday post of Isabel Lippincott! Happy birthday, Isabel! If you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animals, and I will do my best to get a post in! And if you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!

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