The Egyptian Vulture

 Africa, Asia, Birds, Deserts, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mountains  Comments Off on The Egyptian Vulture
May 062010
HomeAfrica, Asia, Southern Europe
HabitatHot, dry regions
Favorite FoodCarrion, eggs, cow manure, rotted plants
LengthUp to 28 inches
WeightUp to 4 pounds
Threatspoaching, poisoning

With its wrinkled yellow face and feathery locks like white hair, the Egyptian vulture has a strangely human look of cunning. Once a common sight across the dry expanses of Africa and Asia, these small scavengers are now endangered, driven to the fringes of their former range by forces out of their control.

Egyptian vultures are small for carrion birds, not much bigger than crows. And like crows, they have a broader capacity for problem solving than most birds. There’s no better example of their ingenuity than their behavior around ostrich eggs on the African savannah. An unguarded ostrich nest is a boon for any animal, especially a scavenger in regions with fierce competition for food. However, such a small bird can’t get into such an imposing egg without help. So over thousands of years, these crafty vultures have developed proficiency in a very powerful adaptation. Tools.

That’s right. Tools aren’t just for humans and those in the animal world most like us. Egyptian vultures are one of the few birds that can truly make use of tools in the wild. Once a bird has located an egg, it will search the surrounding ground for a suitable stone, pick it up in its beak, and hurl it down on the egg repeatedly. All it needs is a crack in order to pry the egg open with its beak before 300 pounds of angry ostrich mother discovers what it’s up to.

Egyptian vultures need to be wily because they so often get muscled out of the pecking order at carcasses by other vultures. Even if they do reach a dead animal first, they’re not powerful enough to tear meat from a fresh kill. They must wait for stronger scavengers like hyenas and white-backed vultures to shred the flesh for them.

Nowadays, the Egyptian vulture is a rare sight in much of Africa and Asia where up until very recently it boasted impressive numbers. Ironically, these birds that help stall the spread of disease to humans have been pushed to the brink under the mistaken belief that they spread it. Also, improved veterinary medicine has done wonders for livestock, but has wreaked havoc on these birds once certain chemicals enter the food chain and poison them. Strange how the first bird ever protected by law (in Ancient Egypt) is now facing such grim prospects in a more enlightened age.

*filmstrip photo provided courtesy of belgianchocolate on Flickr Creative Commons

The Waterbuck

 Africa, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on The Waterbuck
Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of gsz on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern, Central, and Eastern Africa
Habitatgrasslands and tropical forest
Niche large herbivore
Favorite Food grass
Lengthup to 8 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to nearly 700 pounds
Status Lower Risk for Extinction
Threatshunting, habitat loss

Waterbucks get their name from their main defense against predators on the African Savanna. When threatened, they will bolt to the nearest body of water and quickly submerge themselves. Although it’s not the most daring way to save skin, lions don’t swim. The French also gave a name to these giant antelopes that didn’t quite stick through the ages – greasy kob. The name refers to an oily secretion produced on the fur that acts as a smell signature for other waterbucks as far away as 500 miles.

Despite its ability to evade land predators, life is still difficult for a large, tasty herbivore on the vast grasslands of Africa. Fewer than 20% of males will live long enough to defend their own territory against other males during the mating season. The male waterbucks that do pass this rite of dominance are left with something besides a plentiful supply of females. Waterbuck territories are carved out bordering rivers and ponds, where the grass is greener and the avenue of escape is wider.

Waterbucks are among the more common antelope in Africa, owing to their wide distribution and better adaptability to marshy environments than their relatives. Apart from crocodiles and lions, the biggest threat to waterbucks is man. They thrive on both grassland and plentiful fresh water, so if either shrinks, then so will waterbuck populations.

African Wild Dogs

 Africa, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on African Wild Dogs
Jan 062010
photo provided courtesy of Rennett Stowe on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeAfrica
Habitatvaried, from open grassland to scrub forest, desert, and mountainous regions
Nichesocial pack hunter
Favorite Foodgazelle
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 80 pounds
Threatshabitat destruction, hunting, disease

African wild dogs are pack hunters, using cunning and strength in numbers to take down large prey like wildebeest on the open grasslands of East Africa. Although they are smaller than gray wolves, another well-known pack hunter, they are perhaps the most social dogs on earth, and use their developed behaviors to take down prey faster and larger than themselves. The packs average about 7 or 8 individuals, but some can grow as large as 20. Because of the size of the packs and their wide movement, African wild dogs hunt at least once a day to snare enough food.

Few predators are as formidable as a pack of African wild dogs. Individuals can run at sustained speeds of over 30 miles per hour for up to 3 miles without tiring. Their endurance is matched with an uncanny ability to execute intricate plans of attack, especially to catch animals that evade lead dogs. Usually the packs will attack smaller mammals like gazelles, but occasionally will take on large animals like zebra and wildebeest. When attacking the latter, the dogs will charge a herd in an attempt to separate the weak or sick individuals. Moving in, they will clamp down on the prey’s tail and lip, while other members of the pack bite at its underside to bring it down.

Like gray wolves, African wild dogs exhibit a strict hierarchy within the pack, with a dominant male and female seated at the top. However, these dogs are different in that there are twice as many males as females and all the males are related to each other in a pack. The dominant male gets mating rights and mating usually only occurs between him and the dominant female. Simultaneous births of litters do occur and when they do, they threaten the bonds of the pack. During these situations, fights break out and females battle each other for the right to raise the next generation, which often results in the youngsters being torn to pieces in the fight. Unlike other social dogs in the wild, the aggression with African wild dogs is usually confined to the females of the pack rather than the males.

photo provided courtesy of I Love Trees on Flickr Creative CommonsAfter decades of persecution, habitat loss, and disease, the remaining populations of African wild dogs are scattered and thin. There are now fewer than 10,000 African wild dogs left in their natural habitat. Aside from their considerable natural adaptability, the one hope remaining for these amazing mammals is a strong conservation effort.

The Boomslang

 Africa, Grasslands, Reptiles, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Boomslang
Dec 302009
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSub-Saharan Africa
Nichearboreal predator
Favorite Foodchameleons
Body Lengthbetween 4 and 6 feet

One of Africa’s deadliest snakes doesn’t lurk in rock crevices or along the ground. Instead, the venomous boomslang spends most of its time in trees, slinking along the leaves in search of dinner. In fact, the word “boom” is Dutch for tree. Although it has no limbs, it propels its muscular body with ease over branches and can anchor itself with its tail when ambushing small animals, especially chameleons. Living nearly everywhere in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, these are among the most successful snakes on earth.

Boomslangs belong to the largest group in the snake family, the colubrids. Members of this group have very flexible skulls, allowing them to tackle prey much larger than their head. Although they have fangs, boomslangs don’t chew their food. Instead, they use specialized teeth in their throat to pull their paralyzed prey into their gullet, whole. Like other snakes, the boomslang has a specialized sensory organ called the Jacobson’s organ, allowing it to detect smells gathered from the air on its tongue. This remarkable organ lets them to “smell through” the main defense of chameleons, their ability to blend in visually with their surroundings. If the boomslang gets close enough, it can detect exactly where the chameleon is sitting by smelling the air around it.

Boomslangs are deadly because of the venom they deliver through their fangs. It belongs to a family of poisons called hemotoxins, attacking the blood and causing internal bleeding in the victim. The venom is so powerful that it is potentially deadly to humans, and deaths from boomslang strikes are reported yearly in many regions of Africa. But like most snakes, boomslangs do not generally attack people unprovoked. Usually they strike out of self-defense when threatened or cornered.

The Fossa

 Africa, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Fossa
Dec 302009
photo provided courtesy of laverrue on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeMadagascar
HabitatTropical Rainforest
NicheApex Predator
Favorite FoodLemurs
Body Length23 to 30 inches
Weight20 to 30 pounds
ThreatsHabitat Loss, Illegal Hunting

The fossa is among the most unique of endangered Madagascar animals. It’s the largest carnivore roaming the fourth largest island on earth, stalking a territory of nearly two square miles in its hunt for other mammals. A solitary hunter with the ability to leap great distances and climb trees, it is one of the most specialized carnivores on earth, though scarcely bigger than a housecat.

Fossas belong to the mongoose family – small, agile hunters of the Old World – but in appearance, they resemble lean cats. They have the same short jaws, large frontal eyes, and rounded ears, but fossas are in no way related to felines, instead occupying their own special subgroup in the mongoose family. They are the apex predators of Madagascar, hunting all over its remaining rainforests. To soften its approach on a hunt, the fossa can retract its claws like a housecat and has excellent eyesight, allowing it to hunt at night.

Despite its formidable array of offensive weapons, it’s unlikely the fossa will be able to hold out much longer in the wild if deforestation in Madagascar continues at its present rate. These animals depend on thick foliage to launch ambush attacks on prey. They also maintain low population densities and without expanses of forest to stake out a large territory, individuals cannot survive. Driven from its traditional rainforest home and deprived of its traditional sources of prey, the fossa has been forced to move into human territory, often killing livestock for food. To protect their livelihood, farmers and ranchers have resorted to trapping and killing fossa, which has further impacted their numbers.