February 22, 2012

The Black-footed Penguin

Spheniscus demersus

Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
What is it?
This is Africa's one and only native penguin.  Other common names include the "African penguin" and, more comically, the "Jackass penguin". Less than two feet tall, It's one of the smaller penguin species. They have sort of a hobble-like walk while on land but can be very swift underwater. Flight is out of the question, as it is for all penguins (birds in the order Sphenisciformes)(6).

Where is it?
Black-footed penguins are found along the coastlines of southern Africa. Most of the population occurs off shore of Namibia and South Africa. Though black-footed penguins are only known to breed on Islands and coastlines of Namibia and South Africa, they have been found as far up the western coast as Gabon and as far up the eastern coast as Inhaca Island, Mozambique(7).  
Black-footed penguin breeding range (in red)Adapted by 
Tyler Mahard under permission of license for original image by By Nrg800 (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL 
(www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],via Wikimedia Commons
     Breeding colonies most frequently occur on small offshore islands. BirdLife International reported  breeding populations on 25 islands and four mainland locations across South Africa and Namibia, citing the University of Cape Town's Avian Demography Unit as a source(2). Penguins established mainland colonies in South Africa for the very first time in the 1980s. Changes in the locations of colonies are most likely a result of penguins following their food supply. A possible example of this, Robben Island (map, below), the location of the prison in which Nelson Mandela was held, was re-colonized by penguins in 1983(4). Just 9 breeding pairs of birds founded the colony. By 1995, there were 3100 breeding pairs on the island. The birds were still here when I visited the Island in 2010.  I spotted one individual while riding a tour bus to the prison (now closed as a prison but open to tourists).

View Larger Map

How is it?
The black-footed penguin is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is included on their Red List of Threatened Species.  Decreasing population sizes are primarily attributed to the harvest of penguin prey species (namely anchovies and sardines) by commercial fisheries(1)

What is it related to?
Close relatives include the Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), and two species of South American penguin (S. humboldti and S. magellanicus).  The black-footed penguin, together with it's three closest relatives, account for all extant (non-extinct) members of the genus Spheniscus.  
The Humboldt penguin (S. humboldti), swimming underwater. Notice the similarities to the African penguin in size, coloration, and beak shape.  The most obvious difference is the white area surrounding the base of the beak. By Wilfried Wittkowsky (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
What does it eat?
Black-footed penguins eat mostly anchovies and sardines(3), but  may also feed on herring, mackerel, and pilchards.  Non-fish menu items include squid (a mollusk) and crustaceans(7)

What eats it?
Cape fur seals and sharks are known to prey on adult penguins from time to time(2). Gulls and mongooses may prey on penguin eggs and chicks. Feral cats also pose a threat(1).

Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Interesting facts
  • Black-footed penguins have been clocked at underwater speeds up to 12.4 kilometers per hour (11.3 feet in one second)(8).
  • The patches of bare skin above their eyes are used for thermoregulation. Slowing blood flow to the capillaries beneath the exposed skin helps to retain heat, while increasing blood flow helps to lose heat.  In intense heat, the skin will be a bright pinkish red(2).
  • Another common name for this species is the Jackass Penguin.  This bird's mating call sounds very similar to the sound a donkey makes.
  • Penguin colonies can be visited and enjoyed by Tourists.  Most of the photos on this web page were taken at Boulder's Beach, South Africa. 
  • Black-footed penguin guano was once harvested for use as fertilizer(2).

Photos from the field

Sheniscus demersus, Boulders Beach, South Africa. 
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Spheniscus demersus preening at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Note the pink regions above eyes for thermoregulation. Spheniscus demersus at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Parent with offspring in nest burrow. Spheniscus demersus, at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Spheniscus demersus, chick, at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Works Cited:
(1) BirdLife International. 2010. Spheniscus demersus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of
          Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 01
          February 2012.
(2) BirdLife International. 2012. Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus. Downloaded from 
          http://www.birdlife.org on 16/02/2012. 
(3) Crawford, RJM, L.G. Underhill, J.C. Coetzee, T. Fairweather, L.J. Shannon, A.C. 
          Wolfaardt. 2008.  Influences of the abundance and distribution of prey on African
          penguins Spheniscus demersus off western South AfricaAfrican Journal of Marine 
          ScienceVol. 30, Iss. 1.
(4) Crawford, R.J.M., L.J. Shannon, P.A. Whittington. 1999. Population dynamics of the 
          African Penguin Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island, South Africa. Marine 
          Ornithology 27: 139-147.
(5) Pearce, W. 2011. "Spheniscus demersus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed 
          January 18, 2012 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/
(6) Pough, F. Harvey, Christine M. Janis, John B. Heiser. Vertebrate Life. 8th ed. San   
          Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2009.
(7) Shelton, P.A., R. J. M. Crawford, J. Cooper, R. K. Brooke. 1984. Distribution, population 
          size and conservation of the jackass penguin Spheniscus demersus. South African 
          Journal of Marine Science.Vol. 2, Iss. 1.
(8) Wilson, RP. 1985. The jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) as a pelagic predator. 
          Marine ecology progress series. Oldendorf. Vol. 25, no. 3.

January 3, 2012

The Raccoon Dog

Nyctereutes procyonoides

This photograph is under Creative Commons's Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license.

What is it?
Upon glancing at this animal, your first thought is probably "is this a dog-like raccoon, a raccoon-like dog, or something not related either one?".  Well, the answer is raccoon-like dog, or raccoon-like canine to be more correct.  It has a thick coat and is about the size of a fox, but with shorter legs.

Where is it?
Raccoon dogs live in eastern Asia.  Their range (in blue, below) spans eastern Russia, Japan, both Koreas, eastern China, down through the northern-half of Vietnam, and eastern Laos.  They are found in a variety of habitats but preference seems to be for thick vegetation near wetlands.  They can also be found near ocean coastlines(1).
     Russians introduced wild raccoon dogs to the former soviet union in order to make use of its fur(1).  The introduced range (in red, below) now spans from eastern Germany to western Russia, as far south as Romania and as far north as the Netherlands.  Needless to say, the introduced raccoon dogs had no problem adapting to the environment of eastern Europe.
Raccoon Dog natural range (in blue) and introduced range (in red). Image by Chermundy (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How is it?
Raccoon dogs are not currently at any risk of becoming threatened with extinction(3). They have a widespread range and can thrive in diverse habitats.

What is it related to?
Foxes.  It represents a basal canid group.  This means that the raccoon dog is in a group of species which are similar to the first animals to walk the earth that were considered canines.

This raccoon dog appears to be foraging for food.  The photo was taken on 
a small island off of Matsushima, Japan. Though wild, this individual was 
reported to be comfortable in close proximity to people.  Photo taken by and is
the property of Sean P Barry, who courteously provided it for use in this blog.  The photo can also
be found on Sean's flickr page.
What does it eat?
The raccoon dog is omnivorous. The diet may consist of a very wide variety of animals and plants. On the menu for raccoon dogs are rodents, insects and insect larva, other invertebrates, frogs, birds, eggs, lizards, crabs, crayfish, and fish.
     The vegetarian side of its diet includes berries, other fruits, seeds, and rhizomes (these are horizontal portions of plants from which roots and upward shoots branch off of)(1)(4).

What eats it?
Asian leopards (including the critically endangered Amur leopard), tigers, bears, lynx, and wolves.  Raccoon dog kits may fall prey to foxes and large birds of prey.

Interesting facts
Raccoon dog fur for sale in Italy. Photo by
Kuerschner (Own work) [Public domain], via 
Wikimedia Commons.
  • Raccoon dogs will often use dens initially made by a fox or badger(4).
  • Raccoon dogs climb trees to access fruit(1).
  • Raccoon dogs are the only canids in the world known to go through a hibernation-like period known as torpor.  Those living in colder climates are inactive during periods of low temperature and scarce food abundance.  It is not a true hibernation because the raccoon dogs may awaken and come out on warmer winter days to forage(1).  
  • Raccoon dogs are farmed for fur in Finland(1) and China.  Some fur farms have become notorious for extremely cruel and gruesome treatment (see article). 
  • Another common name for this animal is the Tanuki.

The Scientific Name
The name Nyctereutes procyonoides is the scientific or latin name for the raccoon dog.  Nyctereutes refers to the genus that the species falls within.  A genus is a group of related species.  For example, the genus Panthera contains the tiger (Panthera tigris), the leopard (Panthera pardus), the jaguar (Panthera onca), and the lion (Panthera leo). However, the raccoon dog is the only extant member within the genus Nyctereutes.  This means that in the past, there were other species similar to the raccoon dog within this genus but they have since gone extinct.  As you may have guessed, procyonoides designates the animal species commonly reffered to as the raccoon dog.
This is a juvenile raccoon dog. Photo taken in Miyajima, Japan. Photo by Martin E. Walder (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Works Cited:
(Check the web sources for more detailed info on this animal)

(1) Kauhala, K., M. Saeki. 2008. Nyctereutes procyonoides. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red
            List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 02
            January 2012.
(2) Pough, F. Harvey, Christine M. Janis, John B. Heiser. Vertebrate Life. 8th ed. San Francisco, CA:
            Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2009.
(3) "Raccoon Dog." Canids.org. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, 2008. Web. 2 Jan 2012.
(4) "Raccoon Dog." WAZA.org. World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2012.