The Orangutan

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Orangutan
May 042010
Home – Borneo and Sumatra (South Pacific)
Habitat – Tropical forests
Niche – Arboreal herbivore
Favorite Food – Fruit (especially figs)
Height – Up to 4.5 feet
Weight – up to 300 pounds
Status – Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, Bornean orangutans endangered
Threats – Loss of Habitat, illegal pet trade, poaching

Of all the faces of the forest, few look so much like our own. The “Man of the Woods,” a great ape covered head to foot in thick red hair, lives in the forests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in the South Pacific. He is the orangutan.

Orangutans are the largest apes on earth after the gorillas of Africa, but shaped much differently. Gorillas are heavy and stocky, suited for life on the floor of the dense jungle canopy. Orangutans are built for life in the trees above. Long limbs power these swinging great apes from tree to tree bent under their weight to shorten distances. Young orangutans are lighter and able to swing further than the oldest and heaviest who live life at a slower pace. In a way, the youngsters move like their slimmer cousins to the north, the gibbons.

The man of the woods doesn’t kill animals to eat unless you count insects. Most of what an orangutan puts in his mouth is fruit and he’s content with what the trees provide. Food, shelter, and recreation are all found in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra for these mostly solitary folk on a life journey that can last many decades.

The man of the woods can’t live without it, and there’s not much left. Many years ago, people set aside national parks to protect patches of forest from the fate they’d likely suffer if unprotected. For a while, the heat of fires and roar of power saws were kept at bay. But wads of cash under the table go far in the developing world. Those who can afford it have a taste for wooden furniture and palm oil, and when there’s demand, supply follows. On islands with small economies and high levels of poverty, timber and agriculture are crucial to those who call them home. Economies, laws, and livelihoods collide in this unique corner of the South Pacific. For the orangutan, things are complicated indeed.

There aren’t many men of the woods still living in the great Indonesian forests. On Sumatra, several thousand remain, enough to fill a small town in your own corner of America. In Borneo, tens of thousands of orangutans still roam the forests not yet felled. Things could be worse. 60,000 orangutans is better than 10. But the numbers aren’t going up.

*filmstrip photo provided by Chi King

Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth Asia
Habitattemperate mountain forests
Nichearboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodbamboo
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 13 pounds
Threatsloss of habitat

The red panda couldn’t look more different than the better-known giant panda. Aside from a similar color pattern on its face, this member of the raccoon family is a far cry from the gigantic black and white panda in terms of looks. It’s much more raccoon-like, with a slender body and a long, bushy tail that helps it balance in the trees of Southern Asia where it lives.

Red pandas prefer dense temperate forests below the tree line on mountain slopes in Asia. The trees allow them access to the tender leaves and shoots of bamboo and as shelter from predators. Red pandas feed primarily on bamboo, but supplement their diet with fruit, grubs, eggs, and small animals. They communicate with others of their kind primarily by smell, marking territories with any number of secretions and excretions. In the world of the dense forest, animals like the red panda must rely on senses other than sight.

Females bear litters of between one and five offspring in nests built into hollow tree trunks and attend to all of the parental care. Not unlike some human relationships, the male involvement in fostering the new generation ends with mating.

Like many other animals dependent on trees, the red panda has fallen victim to loss of its natural habitat. As the forests have fallen in Southern Asia in the past half century, so have the numbers of red pandas in the wild. They are now exceedingly rare and there may be as few as 2500 left.

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 Giant Anteater

 Grasslands, Mammals, South America, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Giant Anteater
Jan 012010
photo provided courtesy of Just Chaos on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral and South America
Habitatforests and grasslands
Nichelarge insectivore
Favorite Foodants and termites
Lengthbetween 5 and 10 feet nose to tail tip
Weightup to 85 pounds
StatusVulnerable to Extinction
Threatshabitat loss and hunting

The giant anteater is one of Earth’s weirdest looking mammals. Sporting a long, tubular snout and a tail that looks whisked from an ostrich, this resident of South America shuffles throughout the rainforests and plains searching for what concerns him. And what concerns the giant anteater is ants.

The giant anteater’s amazing 2-foot-long tongue is covered with tiny, backward-facing spines that are slathered in sticky saliva when the animal feeds. After it’s broken into the nest with its muscular forearms and wicked claws, the anteater will then start snaking its tongue in and out, lapping up any ant it touches.

Miraculously, the giant anteater obtains most of its water from the ants it consumes. Since it depends on ants for not just its food but also its water, it has has devised a way to ensure it always something to eat in its territory. It only feeds for about a minute at each of the nests it visits. Although it can flick its tongue in and out 150 times in that minute, the anteater only consumes about 1% of the ants it needs daily from a single nest. However, because it exercises restraint, the surviving ants have a chance to rebuild the nest and rear more ants. Thus, because the giant anteater is careful not to over-exploit precious resources, its ensured food for life.

Not only does it have a pretty sweet life on the eating end, but the giant anteater has few enemies to fear other than man. Although big cats like puma and jaguar will attack this german-shepard-sized tank of an animal, they will meet with stiff resistance. It looks like Snuffy from Sesame Street, but the giant anteater can easily overpower even the stoutest foe. Punching out with its long front claws, it can deliver devastating wounds to attackers. And if its able to hug the predator with a firm grip, then you can imagine what happens to flesh and bones under claws and muscle designed to rip open trees. But these normally gentle giants prefer to avoid confrontation. Their extremely keen senses of smell and hearing help them to detect both food and danger as they walk awkwardly on their knuckles to prevent damage to their essential front claws.

photo provided courtesy of Just Chaos on Flickr Creative CommonsGiant anteaters are one of the most successful mammals on the South American continent, but they will only continue to thrive if man allows it. They are hunted for their furs and have been driven from much of their former range due to habitat destruction in the process of industrial development. They are now vulnerable to extinction.