Getting To Know The Endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe

April 23rd, 2014
By David Brown

 

A group of Masai giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) look out over the NgoroNgoro Crater. Photo by Gary.

 

Did you know that that there are different kinds of giraffes?  Scientists have identified nine different kinds of giraffes.  All of the types of giraffes live in Africa.  All of them have long necks and spots, but different types of giraffes have different kinds of spot patterns.

 

The Giraffe With White Stockings

 

The Rothschild’s giraffe is a type of giraffe that lives in the Great Rift Valley region of East Africa.

Lord Walter Rothschild was the first scientist to describe this giraffe after he saw them in East Africa in the late 1800s.  The Rothschild’s giraffe is also known as the Baringo giraffe because they were once found around Lake Baringo in Kenya.

The Rothschild’s giraffe has a specific type of coat pattern.  It has light brown patches with creamy lines in between.  Their most distinguishing feature is their white “stockings.”  Their legs are completely white with no markings from the hoof up to their knees.  No other types of giraffe wear white stockings like the Rothschild’s giraffes do.

 

This Rothschild’s giraffe shows off its white stockings. Photo by Saipal.

 

The Rothschild’s Giraffes Are Having Problems

 

Rothschild’s giraffe were once found in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.

They are now extinct in Sudan, and live only in the Rift Valley area of Kenya and Uganda.  This area has very fertile soils and so a lot of people choose to live there and farm the land.  With good rainfall and a warm climate, the area is excellent for growing crops and raising livestock.

This farming activity means that any forests or trees in the area get cut down to make space for crops and domestic animals.  The giraffes in this area lose the places where they live.  The Rothschild’s giraffes have nowhere to go and their numbers have fallen as a result.

There are now fewer than 800 Rothschild’s giraffes left in Kenya and Uganda,

Giraffes evolved long necks to reach tree leaves, their favorite food. Photo by Daryona.

 

Learning About Rothschild’s Giraffes

 

Zoe Muller is a scientist who studies the Rothschild’s giraffes and works to find ways to protect them.  She explains what her work is about: “My project is carrying out research on practically everything there is to know about the Rothschild’s giraffe.  I am finding out what they eat, what kind of places they choose to live in, how they form groups and how they make friendships.  I am also looking at their distribution, past and present, and what steps need to be taken to ensure their conservation.”

Many of the children who live where the Rothschild’s giraffes do never get to see the giraffes and other wildlife that live in their country.  Zoe visits local schools and community groups to tell people about the Rothschild’s giraffe and why it is special.

 

Helping The Rothschild’s Giraffes Solve Their Problems

 

The main things that the Rothschild’s giraffes need to survive are protection of their habitat and increasing peoples’ awareness of how special these giraffes are.

Protection of the Rothschild’s giraffe’s habitat can only be done where they live in Kenya and Uganda, but anybody can help these giraffes by caring about them and spreading awareness of giraffe conservation.

Zoe has some advice for anyone wanting to help giraffe conservation:

“The biggest thing that people can do to help is to help spread the word about how endangered giraffes are in the wild, and let people know.  Ways of doing that include making posters about the Rothschild’s giraffe, perhaps doing a talk to your class or school, or writing a blog about them on the Internet.  Raising money for conservation projects also is a great help, for example raising funds by having a bake sale, or by taking part in a sponsored walk or organizing a sponsored movie night.  Every little helps!”

If enough people know and care about the Rothschild’s giraffes, hopefully they continue to wear their white stockings for a very long time into the future.

 

A Rothschild’s giraffe at Giraffe Manor in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Tenrec series: not a hedgehog!

December 4th, 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

“Does anybody know what this animal is?” asks Stuart Short as he carefully holds a small mammal up for his audience to see.

Stuart is a biologist and wildlife educator.  He is giving a presentation on the animal to an audience at a natural history museum.  The animal is small and has spikes all over its roundish body.  It has a long snout and small black eyes on a furry face.

“It’s a hedgehog!” a girl in the audience replies.  That is a good guess, but not the right answer.  The girl shouldn’t feel bad though.  Of all the thousands of people that Stuart has talked to about this animal, only four have correctly guessed what it is.

What is this mystery mammal that has tricked so many people about its identity?

It is a lesser hedgehog tenrec.

A lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Wilfried Berns www.Tierdoku.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The lesser hedgehog tenrec does indeed look like a hedgehog, so much so that people used to think that the tenrec was a close cousin of the hedgehog.  Scientists now think that the lesser hedgehog tenrec is really the cousin of elephants, aardvarks, and manatees and is not closely related to hedgehogs at all.

Stuart tells the audience that the lesser hedgehog tenrec comes from Madagascar, an island off the coast of East Africa.  There were never any hedgehogs on Madagascar so there was space there for an animal that ate the same diet of insects and other invertebrates that the hedgehog does.  The lesser hedgehog tenrec is that animal.  It protects itself from predators the same way that a real hedgehog does by rolling up into a ball with its spikes sticking outward.  With a similar appearance and lifestyle to hedgehogs, it is no wonder that people are confused about what a tenrec really is.

A boy in the audience asks how the lesser hedgehog tenrec is different from real hedgehogs.   Stuart tells him that one important difference is that you might find the tenrec in a tree: “Unlike hedgehogs, lesser hedgehog tenrecs are semi-arboreal, meaning that they like to climb, and in captivity they need branches to keep properly active. Their claws are hooked to help grip and hold on, rather than straight like the hedgehogs.”

Stuart walks into the middle of the audience so that people can get a closer look at the claws of the tenrec.  The tenrec yawns as Stuart carefully holds it in the palms of his hands.  “It looks like Dracula!” a woman remarks as she glimpses the sharp teeth of the lesser hedgehog tenrec.  Stuart explains that those teeth are used to pierce the shells of the insects that the tenrec eats.

“How does a tenrec clean itself?” a girl asks.  “Does it lick itself clean like a cat?”  Stuart smiles and walks back to the front of the room, picking up an enlarged photo to show the audience.  The photo shows a tenrec happily rolling around in what looks like sand.  “Tenrecs seem to enjoy a sand bath. They will rub it in between their spines and roll their bodies and face into the soft sand especially for this purpose,” Stuart tells the girl.

“Can I get a tenrec as a pet?” a boy asks Stuart.

“Tenrecs require a lot of care and attention and should only be kept by people willing to research their care as much as possible, and who have the time, knowledge and experience with other exotic pets,” Stuart replies.

The best place to see a lesser hedgehog tenrec and appreciate what weird and wonderful animals they are is in a wildlife presentation by an experience tenrec keeper like Stuart or at a zoo where the tenrecs are given the specialized care that they need.

Now if you ever go see a wildlife presentation by Stuart Short or another biologist and they show you a small animal with spikes all over its roundish body, a long snout, and small black eyes on a furry face, you’ll know that it might not be a hedgehog!

 

 

Tenrec series: the otter that is notter

December 4th, 2013

 

By David Brown & Stuart Short

KERSPLASH!  Deep in the rainforests of Central Africa, a biologist sees an animal that looks like an otter dart into a stream.  It has a brown body and a white belly like an otter.  It swims like an otter by moving its long, flat tail through the water.

It is not an otter though.

What is this otter imposter? It is a giant otter-shrew.

 

A drawn image of a giant otter shrew.

It is not an otter, and it isn’t a shrew either!  The otter-shrew is a tenrec.  Most tenrecs live on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa.  A few species of tenrecs, the otter-shrews, live in Africa.  Tenrecs have an amazing diversity of shapes and lifestyles.  There are tenrecs that look and live like hedgehogs, moles, shrews, and otters.

Julie DeWilde is a wildlife biologist.  She looked for otter-shrews along rivers in the rainforests of the Congo Republic in Central Africa.  She and a team of other biologists were doing a study called a survey to see what kind of animals live along the river.

Giant otter-shrews are very secretive animals.  Very few scientists have seen them.

How do you look for an animal like the giant otter-shrew that doesn’t want to be found?  “We first check out different places to look for signs like footprints, burrows, or feces [poop]. The help of local hunters was essential to guide us with that” says Ms. DeWilde. “I then set up camera traps along shallow rivers in the deep forest where we noticed signs of giant otter-shrews.”  Camera traps are cameras that automatically take a picture when an animal moves past them.

Ms. DeWilde and her team found signs of otter-shrews at five different places along the river.  They then walked along the river to try and see the actual animal.  “During the whole survey, the giant otter-shrew was seen three times by the team. I had the chance to observe it once, by night, swimming very fast and then quickly hiding under a tree trunk”, says Ms. DeWilde. “We set up camera traps around the area, but couldn’t get a photograph.

Why would Ms. DeWilde and her team go to all of this trouble to find giant otter-shrews?  Otter-shrews spend much of their time in the water and they eat fish, frogs, and insects that may absorb pollution in the water.  “Otter-shrews are good indicators for water pollution and thus very important,” says Ms. DeWilde.  An indicator is a species that tells scientists whether a river in an area is polluted.  If otter-shrews are not found in a river then it may mean that the animals that it eats have been wiped out by pollution.

Nobody knows much about how otter-shrews raise their young or how long they live.  “We still have a lot to discover about this species,” Julie DeWilde explains.  Hopefully someday scientists will learn much more about the otter imposter living deep in the African rainforests.

 

Tenrec series: the amazing multi-purpose tenrecs

December 4th, 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

If you owned a tropical island with forests and rivers and deserts and you wanted to populate it with animals that would use all of those ecosystems what would you do?

You could bring in several different kinds of animals to live in the trees, and the water, and burrow in the ground.  Or you could bring in the ancestor of the tenrec and wait for it to develop into different kinds of animals that can live in all of those different places.

Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus). Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay

Tenrecs are a group of mammals that lives on the island of Madagascar off the coast of East Africa.  There are also a few tenrec species in the forests of Central and West Africa.  People have been very confused about what kind of animals tenrecs are, and even about what groups of animals are tenrecs.  This confusion is because there are species of tenrecs that look like many different kinds of animals.  Some tenrecs have small round bodies with spikes all over them.  They look almost exactly like hedgehogs.  The fossorial tenrec with the scientific name Oryzorictes hova digs in the ground and looks like a mole.  There are several tenrec species that look like shrews.  Along rivers in the rain forests of Africa there are three species of tenrecs with body shapes and lifestyles similar to otters.  They are called otter-shrews, although they are neither otters nor shrews!  For a long time people weren’t even sure that otter-shrews were tenrecs.

Who are tenrecs related to?  Because the body shapes of several of the tenrec species resemble hedgehogs and shrews, people thought that tenrecs were related to these groups.  Scientists now think that this is wrong.  By building family trees of mammal groups using genetic material, scientists now think that some of the closest relatives of tenrecs are elephants, aardvarks, and manatees!

How did this weird group of animals evolve into so many different body shapes and lifestyles?  Part of what explains the many different kinds of tenrecs is where they live.  Most tenrec species live on the island of Madagascar where they have been for millions of years.  Dr. P.J. Stephenson is a tenrec expert.  He explains what happened once the tenrecs arrived in Madagascar: “When tenrecs arrived (probably by rafting on logs or floating vegetation) there were no mammals so they evolved to fill many of the available niches. Rodents don’t compete directly as they don’t feed on the same things.”  A niche is the way of life of an animal, what it eats and where it lives.  In most habitats there are many different kinds of animals that compete for the same kind of niche.  When the ancestor of the tenrec arrived on Madagascar millions of years ago though there were few mammals to compete with the tenrecs.  The tenrecs evolved to take over many different niches that they probably could not have if they had to compete with rodents, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, and other species.

Most of the tenrec species are not well known. Scientists have not studied many of the tenrecs in the wild and not many of them are in zoos. The lesser hedgehog tenrec is an exception. The lesser hedgehog tenrec has been kept in captivity since the well-known author and conservationist Gerald Durrell brought them to the UK in the hope they would breed. In August 1967 they did just that! This was the first recorded breeding in the UK and there were more baby tenrecs to come.

Lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Stewart Short.

Keeping lesser hedgehog tenrecs in captivity has helped biologists learn much about this tenrec species and tenrec biology in general. There are 4 other species of tenrec that do well in captivity: the common tenrec (the largest tenrec species), the greater hedgehog tenrec (the larger cousin of the lesser hedgehog tenrec) and the 2 species of streaked tenrec (tenrecs with little yellow and black stripes). There is still a vast amount to learn about these species and their wild cousins.

The basic natural history and behavior of most tenrec species is still unknown to science.  One thing that we do know is that many tenrec species are endangered by habitat destruction in their ecosystems in Madagascar and Africa.  People may wonder why understanding tenrecs and trying to protect them is important when most people have never even heard of these weird animals.  Dr. Stephenson the tenrec expert observes: “If we lose tenrecs it means we will have lost their forest home. This in turn means people in Madagascar will lose all the products and services they take from forests (food, fuel, medicine, building materials, water, soil, etc.). The outside world will also suffer due to the carbon released and the resultant climate change. Therefore, having tenrecs is a good sign the environment in Madagascar can sustain people and nature.  For many people too, the loss of a tenrec would mean the loss of millions of years of evolution and all the scientific knowledge we have yet to discover about these unique mammals.”

Common tenrec bearing its teeth. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com