Tuesday, 26 May 2015

5 Mammals that Look "Prehistoric"

After enjoying the recent World Pangolin Day and World Tapir Day (is someone paid to come up with these?), then the wonderful #OkapiFacts hashtag, I've been thinking about about strange looking-animals. Specifically, those that look - to me at least - like they just stepped out of prehistory.

When you spend a lot of time reading about and studying extinct mammals, you begin to reconstruct a strange version of the earth in your mind. This alternate earth is populated by beasts that are not quite like anything we know today. However, there are some extant animals who'd look quite at home next to the sabre-tooths and Arsinoitherium.

So here's a light-hearted run down of my top mammals that look prehistoric. It is entirely subjective and by no means exhaustive - nor are they the weirdest of all mammals (I nominate the star-nosed mole as king of that category), but I hope you enjoy.

1. Musk Deer (Genus: Moschus)

A Siberian musk deer M. moschiferus. Image: Wikimedia Commons (http://paradoxusik.livejournal.com/)

It's got sabre-teeth! Yes, the upper canines in the males are the initial reason this little creature makes onto the list, but there's much more to them than pointy buck-teeth. There are several species of musk deer, all belonging to the genus Moschus. These animals aren't actually true deer (Cervids), but the only surviving genus from a separate family of ruminants that split from the earliest deer and retain many 'primitive' characteristics.

Male musk deer skull showing the enlarged canines. Image: Didier Descouens.

Musk deer have longer hind legs than front, and are under 1m in height. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Ra'ike)
True deer have antlers and facial glands, which Moschus lacks, but this animal possesses the gland which gives it its name: the musk gland, located between its genitals and belly-button. A question for the ages is how humans first realised they could use deer-adjacent butt-juice to make perfume. The mind boggles. Slaughtering a mere 30-40 of the little creatures will give you around 1 kg of musk grains - more than enough to smother to death anyone stupid/ enough to still use the stuff.

Musk deer are now rightly protected as an endangered species under CITES.

2. Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus)

Lowland Streaked Tenrec, sporting some mouth-stabbing quillery. Note the tiny eyes and long sensitive snout for snuffling
through leaf-litter in search of food. Image: Frank Vassen.

What the actual crap. If you ever doubted Madagascar produced some nutty endemic species, the Lowland Streaked Tenrec will set you straight. I have to be quite specific here, because although all tenrecs are pretty unusual looking, only the streaked tenrec has achieved full visual insanity, possessing bright yellow, barbed, detachable quills to scare off hungry fossa that might fancy a midnight snack.

Only found in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar, the lowland streaked tenrec lives in communal burrows and comes out at night to eat earthworms. By far its most astonishing claim to fame is that it is the only mammal known to use stridulation: rubbing body parts together to make sound. In this case specialised stubby quills on their backs generate what sounds like a grasshoppers chirrup, probably helping them locate one another across the darkened forest floor.

3. Pangolin (Family: Manidae)

A Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla, dangling by its tail. Image: verdammelt
Thanks to the recent pangolin fever spread by World Pangolin Day, this incredible scaly dude is becoming well-known internationally. It deserves to be. It is the only mammal known to have developed the wonderful covering of keratin "scales" that make it such a distinctive creature. As a result of their media coverage, pangolin facts abound.

Astonishingly, genetic analysis suggests the pangolins are most closely related to Carnivora, and all three genuses in their family are critically endangered and threatened across their home ranges of Asia and Africa, thanks to erroneous beliefs in the healing power of their scales, and a taste for pangolin stew. Trade is banned, but this doesn't stop poaching and illegal trading.

Some are arboreal and others terrestrial, and most are nocturnal. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, "something that rolls up". They could as easily have been named for their extraordinarily long tongues, which extend all the way back into their thorax. They use them to eat insects. It gives them extra special raspberry blowing abilities*.

Oh yeah, and they can secrete acid from their bums, like a skunk. 
A nice bit of pangolin tongue for insect eating, like an anteater - an excellent example of convergent evolution. Image: Ruslan Rugoals

4. Saiga (Saiga tatarica)

Female saiga and their superb noses. The males also have horns, which are illegally traded for "medicine". Image: Igor Shpilenok
It's a sad day for any animal when you type in their name and most of the pictures that come up are of dead ones or zoo specimens. This once widespread animal has steadily dwindled thanks to hunting and trade. They are extinct in China (they are wrongly believed to have medicinal horns - perhaps to be washed down with some pangolin-scale ambrosia?**). Their collapse has been especially stratospheric in some regions, with 95% disappearing in just 15 years.

It is no surprise that they are on schedule for introduction to Pleistocene Park in Siberia, as these members of the true antelopes, Antilopinae -which includes more well-known gazelles and springboks - were widespread across central Asia during the ice-ages. They are also truly prehistoric in their features: unlike the rest of their relatives, the saiga have a quite wonderful floppy proboscis, probably to filter dust and/or to process cold air going to the lungs. Saiga living in colder climates also have thick winter fur.  
The nose of the Saiga, reconstructed using CT scans.
Image: Copyright of Digimorph.org

5. Okapi (Okapia johnstoni)

Okapis live in forests in the DRofCongo, where deforestation and hunting for meat and skins has left them endangered. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It's not just the funky thigh stripes that put the okapi on the list, although they are quite fabulous. Did you notice the horns? They may just look like a chocolate antelope, but they are actually Giraffids, a family that has yielded all manner of strange horny beasts during the Cenozoic, but today only the okapi and better-known giraffe, Giraffa, remain.

The incredible giraffids, past and present. Image: Mauricio Anton (if you don't already know about him, check out his amazing palaeo-reconstructions)

We've gotten so used to the giraffe's insanely long neck that it no longer surprises us, did you know they also have long blue tongues for plucking foliage? Well okapi tongues are even longer, and black. They also use it not only for feeding, but grooming itself and others, especially during courtship between the wandering males and more sedentary females (apparently they like to lick one another's ears, oh-la-la).

And so concludes my list. There are plenty more where that came from - if you have your own favourite prehistoric creatures to share, tweet me @gsciencelady


*Okay, I might have made that one up.
**Honestly, you'd get more medical benefit from biting your own fingernails.