Red pandas aren’t pandas. Despite their name, red pandas aren’t actually closely related to giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), but it wasn’t until the last ten or fifteen years that scientists settled upon just where red pandas fit on the evolutionary tree of life.
It was clear that red pandas were members of the taxonomic “infraorder” Arctoidea, placing them in a group with bears, pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus), raccoons, and mustelids (weasels, skunks, otters, and badgers).
Research published in 2000 in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution determined that they were not most closely related to bears or to raccoons as had been previously suggested.
Instead, red pandas form their own phylogenetic family, alongside skunks, raccoons, and mustelids.
From a genetic perspective, they’re more like the skunks and raccoons you might find in your own backyard than the giant pandas with whom they share habitats.
Herbivorous carnivoran. As a member of the Order Carnivora, the red panda is a carnivoran.
But unlike most carnivorans, it’s not actually a carnivore.
That is, the red panda is a mostly an herbivore.
It’s actually one way in which the red panda is more like the giant panda than its genetic relatives: its diet consists almost entirely of bamboo leaves, plus bamboo shoots when in season, and the occasional fruit, flower, and (rarely) an odd egg or bird.
In the shallowest waters surveyed, scientists found areas dominated by red algae, such as coralligenous and maërl beds, which supported dense gardens of sea fans and large schools of fishes such as horse mackerel.
Pictured is a golden anemone. Photograph by Juan Cuetos/Courtesy of Oceana Europe.
At intermediate depths, black corals full of shark eggs were filmed, as well as red coral and yellow tree corals, both of which are threatened in the Mediterranean.
Pictured here is red gorgonian ( Paramuricea clavata) Photograph: Juan Cuetos/Courtesy of Oceana Europe
When you spend six years watching kangaroos, you start to see some strange things. From 2008 to 2013, Wendy King, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, and her colleagues studied wild grey kangaroos in a national park in Victoria, Australia.
All told, King and her colleagues studied 615 animals–194 adult females, and 326 juveniles, known as joeys. The first time King and her colleagues captured each kangaroo, they took a number of measurements and then marked it so they could recognize it later.
From time to time, they’d find a juvenile kangaroo in the pouch of a different mother. Sometimes it would climb out, but then it would climb back into the new pouch, getting milk and protection from the adult female for months, until it was ready to live on its own.
Scientists have observed adoption in occurring 120 species of mammals. Other species that are harder to study may be adopting, too.
As for kangaroos, scientists have long known that if they put a joey in an unrelated female’s pouch, she will sometimes keep it.
But King and her colleagues have now discovered that kangaroos will voluntarily adopt joeys in the wild. All told, they found that 11 of the 326 juveniles were adopted over their five-year study–a rate of about three percent.
Given the commitment adoption demands from a mammal mother–a kangaroo mother needs a full year to raise a single joey to weaning–this discovery cries out for an explanation.Over the years, researchers have proposed a number of different explanations for adoption.
Some have suggested that mammals adopt young offspring of their relatives because they are genetically similar. By rearing the offspring of their kin, this argument goes, adoptive parents can ensure that some of their own genes get passed down to future generations.
Toxodon. Illustration by Peter Schouten from the forthcoming book “Biggest, Fiercest, Strangest” W. Norton Publishers (in production)
“Toxodon is perhaps one of the strangest animals ever discovered,” wrote Charles Darwin, a man who was no stranger to strangeness.
He first encountered the creature in Uruguay on November 26th, 1834.
“Having heard of some giant’s bones at a neighbouring farm-house…, I rode there accompanied by my host, and purchased for the value of eighteen pence the head of the Toxodon,” he later wrote.
The beast’s skeleton, once fully assembled, was a baffling mish-mash of traits.
It was huge like a rhino, but it had the chiselling incisors of a rodent—its name means “arched tooth”—and the high-placed eyes and nostrils of a manatee or some other aquatic mammal.
“How wonderfully are the different orders, at present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the toxodon!” Darwin wrote.
Those conflicting traits have continued to confuse scientists. Hundreds of large hoofed mammals have since been found in South America, and they fall into some 280 genera.
Scientists still argue about when these mysterious beasts first evolved, whether they belong to one single group or several that evolved separately, and, mainly, which other mammals they were related too.
“That’s been difficult to address because they have features that they share with a lot of different groups from across the mammalian tree,” says Ian Barnes from the Natural History Museum in London. “To some degree, people have circled around the same set of evidence for 180 years.”
Now, Barnes’ team, including student Frido Welker from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Ross MacPhee form the American Museum of Natural History, have found a way to break out of the circle.
They recovered a hardy protein called collagen from the fossil bones of Toxodon and Macrauchenia, another South American oddity that resembled a humpless camel. By comparing these molecules to those of modern mammals, the team concluded
“Toxodon looks a bit like a hippo and we now know that the features they share with hippos are probably due to convergence,” says Barnes. “Macrauchenia looks a bit like a camel, but we can now see that it’s not particularly well related to camels.. This has been a longstanding mystery and we have an answer, and that’s satisfying.”
The discovery has bigger implications, though. Many scientists, Barnes included, have recovered DNA from very old fossils. They have sequenced the full genomes of mammoths and Neanderthals, worked out the evolutionary relationships of giant birds, and even discovered entirely new groups of early humans.
But ancient DNA has its limits.
To fish it out of fossils, you need molecular bait, and to design that bait, it really helps to know what kind of animal you’re looking for and what they’re related to. If you don’t, and your only clue is “er, some kind of mammal”, then recovering ancient DNA is hard.
It becomes harder if the fossils are also very old, since DNA has a half-life of around 521 years.
And it becomes absurdly hard if the bones come from warm climates, like most of South America, where DNA degrades even faster than usual.
It was a battle fought in the mountains of southwestern China, where patchy forests sustain the last shreds of the wild giant panda population.
All at once, intruders began marching in and helping themselves to the pandas’ food. The incursion happened far from most human eyes, and the pandas that witnessed it likely didn’t know what to think. It’s not often that one sees a horse in a bamboo forest.
In these woods, the Wolong National Nature Reserve is an important refuge for pandas.
About a tenth of the entire wild panda population lives there—although that amounts to only 150 or so animals. They share the space with around 5,000 humans, most of whom are farmers who graze their livestock in designated areas.
A new trend emerged among these farmers in the 2000s as they began to do more business with an adjacent township where horses are reared. Though the Wolong farmers had previously raised cattle, pigs, goats, and yaks, they now began buying horses too.
“We first realized the problem while we were hiking in panda habitat and conducting habitat sampling for our research in 2009,” says Vanessa Hull, a graduate student at Michigan State University.
Large areas of forest were “mowed down by horses,” she says. “It was honestly a shock to me.”
When existing grazing areas couldn’t provide enough grass for both their cattle and their new horses, the farmers had sent the horses to wander in the forest.
There the grazers were happily munching on bamboo—essentially the only thing a wild panda eats. Pandas don’t normally have any competition for their food, and Hull worried that the intrusion from horses was driving the vulnerable pandas away.
Hull and her colleagues began monitoring four horse herds in Wolong.
They put a GPS collar on one member of each of three herds, to track where the herds traveled.
They also put collars on three pandas. It was a tiny number of animals, but they felt lucky to even study that many, Hull says, because government protection of the species is so strict. “It is very difficult to get permission to do telemetry research on giant pandas.”
Article and Photo by Alex Brown, Doctoral candidate at Murdoch University in Western Australia.
The snubfin dolphin appears to smile from its smooth, round head, like an old friend who’s lost his hair but still has an abundance of happiness to share.
Of course, that’s reading a lot from the unusual – for a dolphin – looks of the snubfin. It’s a marine mammal and smiling isn’t one of its tricks. That’s just the way it is, but those looks do make them endearing to humans.
The snubfin is found only in Australia’s tropical north and probably in the southern areas of the island of New Guinea and was only recognised as a separate species in 2005. Before that everyone thought it was a type of river dolphin found in south-east Asia.
Little is known about them.
Alex Brown, a a doctoral candidate at Murdoch University in Western Australia, says the snubfin’s shy behaviour, coupled with the inaccessibility of much of their habitat, makes them difficult to study.
He’s working on estimating the population size now after several trips to look at different groups of the dolphins along the coast in the north west.
The general scientific thinking is that there are well below 10,000 mature snubfin dolphins.
By numbers alone, this would place them in a vulnerable classification.