Category Archive: Animals

How Darwin predicted the genetic link

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Just over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, explaining how all life had been shaped by natural selection. Before he explained this blind mechanism though, he softened up his readers by showing how we humans had shaped some species through artificial selection. His audience of educated Victorian gentlemen would have been more or less familiar with breeding cabbages, cows and dogs for various characteristics, but Darwin also explained the breeding of fancy pigeons. It seems fanciful to us, but scholars used to believe that different breeds of sheep or cattle had each been domesticated from a separate wild variety, instead of from just one. Darwin decided to study one species in detail to explore this notion, and hit upon fancy pigeons. According to John Ross [pictured] –  an historian of Darwin’s pigeons (www.darwinspigeons.com) and a pigeon fancier himself – it was all down to a chance sighting on a trip to London: …

Dinosaurs in bed – the cigarette after

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In my last post, I wrote about the biomechanical issue surrounding sexual activity amongst the saurpod dinosaurs (the really big, long necked ones) and those with spiny backs. In today’s post, I’s like to consider some of the solutions which have been offered. Of those who have considered the problem, as we have seen, many initially suggested that they did it doggie-style, but copulating in this position, as we saw last time presents all manner of biomechanical and hydraulic problems. Some animals, particularly birds, do not engage in penetrative sex, but rather perform what is anthropomorphically known as a cloacal kiss: that is to say, no penis is, strictly speaking, necessary, and the sperm is exchanged during a brief period at the climax – as it were – of the mating ritual. The big problem here is trying to work out how Mr. Dino manage to get his cloaca anywhere near that of Mrs. Dino, since they both had great big fat and rather stiff tails? It has even been suggested …

Dinosaurs in bed – foreplay

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What do dinosaurs getting it on have to do with engineering one might well ask? The answer is: surprisingly, rather a lot actually. In fact, all structures, including living things, are subject to engineering principles. Like all structures, animals too are to a large extent optimized for the stresses and strains of their daily lives, and surprisingly, to a certain extent, because they are living things, their structures can adapt to changing conditions. This is why astronauts, once they get into the microgravity of space for example, start losing bone and muscle mass as their bodies adjust to the changed demands placed upon their bodies by their new gravitational regime. Of course, there are tolerances built in, and overall the bodies and skeletal structures of animals are extremely well adapted to deal with the physical stresses of the environment they evolved to live in. In a way, this is why when engaged in normal physical activity like running and jumping, …

Book Review: In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw

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In Defence of Dogs Author: John Bradshaw Published: 5 July 2012 Publisher: Penguin Summary: Illuminating but, at times, a little too academic. One of the most widely held views of dog training is based on two scientific observations. Firstly, that dogs share 99.96% of their DNA with the grey wolves from which they’re descended, and secondly, that captive wolves housed in enclosures quarrel and fight until a particular individual is crowned dominant. These two notions have led to the popularisation of the ‘dominance model’ of domestic dog training, an ideology that encourages owners to continuously assert their authority on their furry companion in order to establish themselves as the superior, or alpha. However, anthrozoologist Dr John Bradshaw has a bone to pick with the dominance model of dog training, and In Defence of Dogs is where he presents his arguments. Bradshaw’s objections are compelling: he notes that, unlike the zoos in which a random assemblage of unrelated wolves are forced into an …

Skate fish skin similar to human teeth

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This striking image is not the latest Hollywood alien, but actually a microscope image taken of an embryonic Little skate – a fish closely related to the shark family. Like sharks, the Little skate has a skeleton made not out of bone, but cartilage. They may seem very different to us, but these cartilaginous fish have a number of features which betray their close relationship to humans. For example, human embryos develop a skeleton made of cartilage first. Only later on is this added to with bone cells and calcium minerals in a process known as ossification. And, like the video points out we have very similar genes to the ones that control the denticles of the skate. Weirdly though, the genes that create the skate’s scales are not similar to the the ones responsible for our skin, but for our teeth. The structure of the denticle, or placoid scale, is strikingly similar. It has a central cavity filled with blood vessels, which is …

Lions are losing out on the savannahs of Africa

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There may be as little as 32,000 lions left in the wild in Africa, and their savannah home is shrinking rapidly in the face of human population expansion. This is the grim message of the wild cat charity Panthera and a team of scientists from across the globe. The habitable area for lions in the African savannah is now only 3.4 million square kilometers, 25% of the amount potentially available to them. The lion’s plight is even worse than this number suggests, as much of the territory available to them is not in one accesible area, but fragmented into around 67 small ‘islands’ of habitability. The ‘oceans’ in between each island prevent populations from interacting, raises the likelihood of deleterious inbreeding and puts each subpopulation in greater danger of dying out.  This situation is also occuring in Asia, where a subspecies of lion – Panthera leo persica – has diminished to a population of just 400 individuals, all descended from a dozen …

Book Review: Tiger Wars by Steve Backshall

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Tiger Wars Author: Steve Backshall Published: 24 May 2012 Publisher: Orion Children’s Summary: A superb, action-packed read for young adults and green oldies alike.   Steve Backshall is undoubtedly one of television’s best known wildlife presenters. Currently working for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, he’s fronted numerous television programmes including Deadly 60; a hugely successful children’s series that sees the adventurer tracking down and coming face to face with some of the world’s most dangerous creatures. Whilst Tiger Wars isn’t Backshall’s first book (he’s released a string of factual titles and television tie-ins) it does represent his first foray into young adult fiction. The novel follows Sinter, as she flees from an arranged marriage to a much older man, and Saker, as he is hunted by The Clan – a shadowy sect that provides young renegades for hire, most recently, to a Chinese overlord who specialises in tiger poaching. Backshall’s writing is fast-paced and crisp; there are no overly verbose descriptions …

New Dinosaur identified in Canada

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A team of Palaeontologists have named a new four-horned dinosaur, Xenoceratops, from an assortment of fossilised bone fragments first collected in Canada in the 1950’s. Upon re-examination of the previously undescribed fossils, the palaeontologists realised the bones belonged to at least three individuals of a new type of plant-eating dinosaur. Once the fossils had been analysed more closely, it became apparent the dinosaurs (relatives of the famous Triceratops) would each have weighed an impressive two tonnes and grown to a colossal 20ft in length. The palaeontologists named the new dinosaur Xenoceratops which means ‘alien horned-face’ – a reference to the odd pattern of horns on the dinosaurs head, as well as the relative scarcity of horned dinosaur specimens from this period of the fossil record. Xenoceratops is believed it to have lived in the Late Cretaceous period (100-65 million years ago) at the same time as other dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus-Rex and Stegosaurus. The four horned giant is the latest in a series of new discoveries being made as part …

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