Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bongo bonanza

My standing Google Alert on bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus) notified me of the following video on YouTube - which of course led me to many others about bongos - and not drums, either. So, here's a couple of my favs. (One day I will figure out how to embed videos. Till then, you get links.)

36 sec video of a bongo looking marginally clever.

1:20 min video of a bongo looking not-so-clever.

2:00 min video of a brand new baby bongo looking very, very cute. Each one of his ears is longer than his head!

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Head on a plate

I received fabulous news today: there's a fresh eland head in the museum's freezer, and I get to dissect it. Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah! Elands are my specie(s)-ality. I understand this one is from the Oakland Zoo. The gods smile favorably upon my research interests.

Expect a report in six weeks.

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Elephant text-messaging program

This program is a great idea - a two-birds-with-one-stone approach to saving elephants AND protecting people, their property, income and livelihoods. Elephants are very dangerous and destructive, by nature. They are very adept at simply demolishing their environment, and in fact other elements in their ecosystem depend on them doing that. Well, except the human parts of their ecosystems. Elephants who destroy people's crops are, quite rightly, not welcome, and frequently the community solution is to kill the offending elephant(s).

They're also very dangerous animals, when pissed off. One of the animal handlers I spoke with at the Mt. Kenya Animal Orphanage was literally skewered on the tusk of a pissed off bull and tossed through the air, landing behind a log. When he landed, he could see his stomach - on the outside of his body. He said it was a miracle that the elephant didn't come to finish him off. He spent six months in the hospital, and now, understandably, he prefers to work with pygmy hippos instead.

It's one more example of how technology pioneered elsewhere, for other reasons, has great spill-over effects elsewhere in the world. Kenya has better coverage and access for mobile phone than for landline phones (and electricity and plumbing). I have yet to figure out how they charge their phones though.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A rough year for Laikipia rhinos

I visited Ol Pejeta Conservancy twice during my last visit to Kenya, but only briefly each time. One time, my friend wanted to check out their chimpanze sanctuary. Poo-flinging primates don't really intrigue me, so I hung out at the gate and chatted with the guards for about 45 minutes, after checking out the waterbuck, zebras and impala nearby.

The other time was far, far cooler. We went and visited Morani the (tame) black rhino. It was one of the highlights of my 10-day trip around Laikipia. I just learned that Morani recently died, evidently of old age. Here's me with Morani taking a nap. He was supremely unconcerned with people, unless you made loud, high-pitched noises (like my friend accidentally did). He had armed body-guards 24-hours a day, and had learned his name. From the sounds of it, you'd have to be a rock not to learn your name, after hearing it pretty much every half hour for 20 years. The rangers said it that often, even when no one was around, just to let Morani know they were there. Rhinos evidently have very poor memories, as well as poor eye-sight, and you don't want a rhino forgetting you're there, and then thinking you've snuck up on him.

Sounds like it's been a tough year for owned rhinos in the Laikipia area. Big Mama, a white rhino at the Mt. Kenya Animal Orphanage that I also got to see briefly, got shot in a poaching attempt, but is expected to make a full recovery. Good thing skilled and committed staff were on hand, after midnight, to chase off and track down the would-be poachers. Poachers are usually very dangerous people.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Meet the waterbuck

I figured I ought to have a post on antelopes as one of my first three postings. And, since I will be talking predominantly about tragelaphine (spiral-horned) antelopes, I figured I'd start off with some other kind of antelope.

Meet the waterbuck, Kobus ellipsiprymnus. I came across this male while in the Aberdare Mountains right near the equator in Kenya, probably at an elevation of 7000-9000 feet. Waterbuck have, in my limited experience, an air of unassuming stateliness and mild curiosity about them. This guy stood there looking at me in my vehicle as I approached (slowly). I took entirely too many pictures, assuming that each time I moved the car forward he'd dart away (which is the near-universal response of tragelaphine antelope). But I was able to get surprisingly close to him, and my mid-range camera did pretty well in the patchy light. Waterbuck have such lovely eyes, and their longish, coarse coat makes for wonderful close-up detail. Eventually I did get too close, at about 30 yards, and he ambled off the side of the road, immediately lost in the dense foliage.

Kobus and Redunca are the only genera in the tribe Reduncini. While I'm not a reduncine antelope specialist (I'd love to know of anyone who is), the size and shape of this animal's horns indicate he's very nearly reached his full size. Probably the base of his horns will become slightly more convex at the base, making for a very weak s-shape there (it's much more exaggerated in lechwe and Nile lechwe). It's not known how exactly horn growth correlates with skeletal growth, tooth eruption or wear, much less with actual age beyond very rough approximations. But from my readings and observations I'd bet he has his adult dentition and his epiphyses (growth plates in his bones) are fused, though perhaps still visible.

One of my long-term goals is to determine how skeletal growth (in terms of both absolute size and state of suture fusion in bones, in the skull and the rest of the body) correlates with horn growth, tooth stage, and coat color. It would be great to be able to then match all of this with actual age, so you can see just how these features change with time, but I sincerely doubt that will happen any time soon.

I don't think that kind of work is currently feasible because most species of antelopes are not in grave danger of extinction, and most are not as "sexy" as elephants, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, etc., so there's little motivation (and therefore funding) to track a population of animals over 5-10 years (or more) in some fashion. You need to do that in order to establish the age of individual animals and to track their morphology over months and years, to see exactly how they change (on the outside, that is) and then try to match it up with data taken from skulls and bones in museums, which 99.9% of the time have no numerical age data.

It's important to get this information in wild animals, because we don't know how exactly being in an enclosed, semi-domesticated state will affect a given animal's growth (although, as I like to say, a bongo comes out more like a bongo than any other kind of animal, whether it's raised in California or Kenya). But, given what we know about the effects of domestication on other animals, it's reasonable to assume the effect is measurable.

That said, having data from known-age animals in an enclosed environment would be better than nothing at all, and I hope to collect that kind of data this coming year in Kenya, by working with various animal orphanages and wildlife rehabilitation centers. As the old (and cynical) maxim goes: "There are two kinds of data: bad data, and no data."

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Welcome to my blog

I've decided to launch a work-related blog. Try #2. Welcome.

I'll be talking primarily about bovids (antelope, sheep, goats, cattle, and bison) in all their glory - their anatomy, growth, evolution, behavior, ecology, importance to humans, etc. I'll also touch on the closer relatives of bovids, including deer, giraffes, pronghorn and lesser-known taxa, related out-groups (suids, camelids, hippos, cetaceans, and extinct groups), as well as flora and fauna pertinent to these animals. In keeping with the 'horns' part of the title, I also reserve the right to discuss non-artiodactyl taxa with horns or similar structures, like ceratopsian dinosaurs and beetles. (At some point I plan to show you, dear readers, just why beetle horn development is fascinating). And finally, in keeping with the 'heads' portion of the title, I may well launch into topics, issues or discussions on science in general, and my experiences as a developing scientist in particular.

Stay tuned.