When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#38]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!

*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?

Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends [#23]

Well, back from trip number two, which was a little more relaxing (though a lot more tiring… I do not understand how bodies work). As a result, I’ve actually been reading a bunch of stuff, including some fascinating finds in my Pocket archive, which I just want to get off my chest.

First up is a pretty recent post from Brynn Metheney, a fantastic artist whose work I’ve followed for years. The post details a recent contribution to an interesting project, the Endangered Species Book. That’s an impressive list of artists to be working on a single project and it seems like a very worthy cause. Definitely one I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Next, are a combination of quite old posts that have taken me far too long to catch up on. Both are written by Richard Thornton, a friend of mine who is currently living/working out in Japan (I say currently, but he’s been out there for years now). The first is a brilliant look at sake culture, which was utterly alien to me but now has leap-frogged up my bucket list for the land of the rising sun. The second is a rather more personal account of shaving-procrastination (I can seriously relate) and snowboarding (I have zero life experience to understand this utter madness). Like everything Richard writes, they are funny, inciteful and make me equal parts jealous of his life and incredibly grateful for my own. Perhaps Japan should be the aim for 2018…

Finally, the oldest of the lot, is a short story I saved to my Pocket account so long ago I have zero recollection where it is from or how I found it. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare is an utterly fantastic piece of Discworld fan fiction; in fact, it’s so good that I was almost convinced it had been written by Pratchett himself. The script, phrasing and language is very witty and the overarching concept is so incredibly correct to the voice of the series that it is definitely part of my head-canon now. I almost added it to this month’s MiM, but I don’t feel fan-fic is something I need to keep track of in that way. If you’re a fan of the main series, you should definitely read this – it provides some clever closure on several key themes and characters.

That suggestion does come with a slight word of warning, however: it may get to you a little bit. Personally, reading Mister Vimes’d Go Spare made me realise I have been avoiding reading Pratchett since he passed away. It hasn’t been an intentional, conscious choice but it is clearly one I’ve stuck to. Reading a story that even mentions, and briefly touches on, several of these characters I love and hold so dearly was, at times, surprisingly hard. Not only that, but the core idea at work was, and remains, incredibly powerful. Vimes has always been one of my favourite characters and, I think, the one that has been most influential on my own personality and life. Part of that reason is the character’s understanding of and relationship with the concept of justice. It’s a very nuanced one, yet contains absolutes which have always appealed to me. Vimes and the Watch storylines shaped my own concepts of morality a great deal.

As a result, Mister Vimes’d Go Spare cut close to the bone. The central concept is that, in the wake of Vimes’ death, his ideals and belief in justice take on a life of their own. That shouldn’t be confused with ‘good’ or ‘right’; Vimes never lived in a ‘good’ world, never had much time for something just because it was ‘right’. But there are standards. Some things have to be done, and they have to be done in a certain way. That’s justice. Not making sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but making sure that the result is fair and that everything is equal. It’s a very powerful idea. Talking about why I enjoyed the short so much to my partner, even writing this now, and truly contemplating that idea gets to me. It gets to me because I believe it; because, to me at least, it is true. It also gets to me because it is one of those wonderful Pratchett ideologies that feels important and correct; something that is both worth remembering and striving to obtain in our world. And that gets to me because we won’t be getting any more of those. So be warned: it might get to you, too.

Awesome Azhdarchids [#9]

Two giant pterosaurs striding over an ancient grassland hunting small dinosaurs.
Image from Naish & Witton 2017

Looking through my article categories it would seem that I’ve never blogged about prehistoric creatures at all on this site, which is frankly ridiculous. As such, a post such as this one is well past due. Plus the subject matter, in my opinion, is ridiculously cool (that likely says more about me than the source material, though).

I’ve followed Darren Naish’s ideas on Azhdarchid behaviour very closely over the past few years, partly because I’m generally a fan of Naish’s work and partly because the concept is just very exciting to me. The popular image of pterosaurs rarely expands beyond the concept of reptilian, bat winged flying creatures that were ultimately a poor man’s bird, replaced by the evolutionary advancements made by their avian (distant) cousins. Of course, that’s a load of nonsense: pterosaurs, of all sorts, were fascinating creatures that occupied a huge variety of niches and continued to be highly successful for millennia after birds first evolved. Not only were they incredibly varied, but they often branched out into niches that today’s birds can barely scrape, achieving evolutionary feats that have never been paralleled.

Arguably, one of the clearest examples of pterosaur splendour is the most well known Azhdarchid: Quetzalcoatlus. Famous for its gigantic wingspan, most likely topping out somewhere around 11m, Quetzalcoatlus and its kin are far more interesting than merely boasting the largest wings to have ever evolved. The Azhdarchids are also a bit of an enigma.

Their huge wing spans and, in general, huge sizes have never fit well with the more archaic notion of pterosaurs as bird analogues. When we look at living (or even extinct) birds, the closest niche that seems to fit is that currently embodied by the albatrosses: huge winged ocean wanderers, gliding for days over the waves and feeding on the wing. Azhdarchids are certainly well designed for long-haul gliding, likely (again) being the best long distance gliders to have ever evolved, but they don’t fit as albatross analogues because they largely didn’t live near the sea.

The vast majority of Azhdarchid remains are found in continental interiors, far from evidence of large bodies of water, so the traditional interpretation of them as oceanic just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Naish and Mark Witton are two of the more prominent figures putting forward an alternative theory: Azhdarchids as giant, terrestrial land striders. Storks or secretary birds would become their closest living analogues, but these pterosaurs simply outflank all modern birds in terms of size. To quote Naish directly from his latest blog post on the matter:

Small dinosaurs – up to the size of humans – were very plausibly on the menu for this animal.

Here Naish is referring to a more recent discovery, the robust Romanian Azhdarchid Hatzegopteryx, but increasingly it seems similar to other ideas being put forward at the edges of the scientific community. Indeed, in their latest paper on the matter, Naish and Witton advance an even more radical concept: Hatzegopteryx as the top predator in its ecosystem. It’s an idea I absolutely love and one I will continue to follow closely, both in the technical literature (where possible) and in popular science reporting (which has a tendency to lag somewhat). I may even, in the future, use the Azhdarchids as part of another project I’m working on. At any rate, the concept of these gigantic pterosaurs being not only terrestrial predators but potentially sitting at-or-near the top of their respective food chains is just another example of how, often, pterosaurs just outclass modern birds.


Seashore Safari

Seashore Safari

Private boat anchored in the River Dart. Also, a portal to my first Flickr album!

Over a year ago I received a voucher. Over a month ago I finally managed to cash it in. The result? A fantastic day out in Dartmouth with the Great Escapes team! We spent the morning down on the beach (what little there was… after a year you’d think we’d have learned to check for spring tides!) with some of the fantastic staff, learning all about the ecosystems of the seashore, rock pools and general intertidal zone. I honestly cannot recommend the Seashore Safari enough to anyone interested in biology, conservation or animals; you may not be looking at the “usual” marine draws (no cetaceans in sight, I’m afraid) but I’ve never had a more informative and enthusiastic guide in the UK and now have a much deeper understanding of (and interest in) this fascinating and completely accessible world. Safari is not a misnomer in this instance, it actually felt like that kind of experience.

The afternoon was largely absorbed by a longer trip out on the company’s rib, down the coastline from Dartmouth to a breeding colony of Fulmars, which I hadn’t realised even came this far south. After a brief (and unsuccessful) trip up the River Dart in search of seals enjoying the calmer river waters, we were treated to a fantastic lunch hamper and then bid farewell to the great crew at Great Escapes. We had a little time to kill but the weather set in, so ended up idling around the Dartmouth Museum, which was interesting enough but not boundary pushing (unless you’re a fan of model ships, in which case you’ve probably already been… twice), before heading home.

Overall a really fun day with total information overload! On that note, although I’ve tried to gather my thoughts together in Lightroom (which therefore appear as captions in Flickr – and can I just take a moment to point out how momentous it is that I both have a Flickr and have actually published an album on it!) but almost certainly got a few things muddled in the interim month, so apologies if I’ve inadvertently spread misinformation! I’d also like to take a second to record/recommend both the RSPB’s Bird By Name subsite and the frankly incredible The Seashore website, both of which were crucial in fact checking and are amazing resources if you fancy a self guided seashore safari yourself.

Marc van Roosmalen: Adventurer Extraordinaire!

Have you ever heard of Marc van Roosmalen? No, I hadn’t either – although that is slightly less surprising for you, unless you also have a degree with a heavy focus on primatology. So who is this mysterious person? Well, he may well be one of the last, great naturalist explorers left in the world. I’ve just been introduced to his work, thanks to the ever informative Tetrapod Zoology blog, but he’s been around for quite some time. Indeed, you’d have to have been to have named 11 new species of mammal, plus have started active investigation/research into over a dozen more (not to count any plants discovered…)!

Honestly, the reality may not be all that it seems, especially if his Wikipedia entry is at all accurate, but regardless I feel Roosmalen may be a person I should keep an eye on. With a tapir, a titi monkey and a tree porcupine under his belt, Marc is definitely contributing to the discovery and knowledge of several of my favourite animal groups, so I’m excited to see what more he uncovers in the future!

Plus, this has reminded me that I really do need to write about Darren Naish’s recent ebook, Hunting Monsters. I feel that Roosmalen is a prime example of a real world cryptozoologist, of the sort that should be held aloft and waved around whilst proponents of the science (such as myself) scream “stop watching In Search of Bigfoot and start looking over here before you lump us all together with the nutjobs!”
But that’s a story for a different time…