23.2b – The Galago

One in the hand is worth two in the bush. (Brown greater galago photo by buecherfresser)

Something in the dark jungle is crying, and it sounds an awful lot like a human baby.

If you’ve never heard of a galago (pronounced guh-LAY-go), don’t despair. Most people don’t know these animals by their official name, but some people have heard the more common term — bushbabies.

Along with lemurs and lorisids, galagos are one of the few remaining primitive primates in the world today. Primitive in this sense means that they are an older type of primate that developed before more modern forms, such as monkeys and apes. But while the lemurs have constrained themselves to Madagascar, and while the lorisids are slow and dropping in number, the galagos are living strong in Africa.

Also known as nagapies, which means “little night monkeys”, galagos are found all over central and southern Africa. There are about twenty different species, all of them nocturnal. It’s believed that the galagos evolved to be nocturnal so that they did not have to compete directly with the faster, more modern monkeys, who do their business in daylight.

But the galagos are no slouches, no slow-moving lorisids. They are quick on their feet and have long tails to give them balance as they jump through the trees. They have strong night vision, good hearing, and are so nimble they can catch flying insects out of the air. Their cries are said to resemble those of a human baby, an unnerving prospect in the jungle at night.

In addition to their night vision, galagos use urine, of all things, to help them scramble through the trees in the darkness. A galago that moves through the trees will mark its path with urine on the branches, and other galagos can smell this so acutely that they can jump right onto the branch even if they can’t see it. Imagine a world where humans marked important things, such as doorways, their vehicles, and favorite restaurants, with urine so they could find them again. On second thought, please don’t imagine that.

“That’s a nice couch. But I’ll tell you what. I’ve been drinking water all day, and I know how to make that couch even nicer.” (Senegal bushbaby photo by OpenCage)

A galago is also a fantastic jumper. It has very strong, elastic legs, and scientists figure that a galago is, proportionally, at least six times better at jumping than a frog. These animals are tiny, but they can jump six feet straight in the air. Don’t give one guff; it could jump straight for your nose.

The social life of a galago revolves around the females. Females control family groups consisting of themselves, their offspring, and sometimes other female relatives, maintaining a specific territory. Males are forced to leave these groups when they grow up. The strongest males form their own territories that overlap female territories, but they are not allowed to live with the females. Weaker males form bachelor groups and hang out, possibly playing Call of Duty and calling each other “bro”.


23.1a – The Lemur

Wet-nosed in a world of their own. (Mongoose lemur photo by IParjan)

For much of its history the island of Madagascar has been shrouded in mystery. Separated from Africa 160 million years ago and from the northward-bound India 90 million years ago, it has been one of the largest isolated areas for evolution outside of Australia, and like that continent-sized country Madagascar is home to many types of creatures found nowhere else on Earth. We looked earlier at the fossa, the Malagasy carnivore that evolved to look like a cat, but the most distinctive animal found on the island is the lemur.

Lemurs branched off from the rest of the primates sometime shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct. In the period from about 65 millions years ago to 50 million years ago — we aren’t exactly sure when in that time frame — the ancestors of all modern lemurs crossed the 350 mile channel between Africa and Madagascar and started an entire new branch of the primate family tree.

How did they cross the channel, you ask? For a long time this was one of the many mysteries of science, because that’s a lot of ocean to cross and the currents go the wrong direction. But it’s recently been proven that because both Africa and Madagascar were further south when the migration happened, the currents back then were in fact going the other way. Thus it is very likely that the ancestral lemurs lived along the African coast and crossed on rafts of vegetation by accident in multiple incidents over millions of years, swept across the channel by the current. It would have been a 30 day crossing for the creatures, difficult but survivable.

When they arrived, singly and in bunches over millions of years, they found what would prove for a long time to be a primate paradise — an uninhabited, unspoiled, enormous rainforest island, a place of wet seasons and dry seasons, a place with few competitors and few predators. And the lemurs took full advantage.

In their tens of millions of years on the island, lemurs evolved into many different forms to take advantage of all the resources and habitats on the island. Some became very small, as small as 30 grams, while others became very large. The largest lemur ever known was Archaeoindris, a lemur that evolved into a shape and size similar to a gorilla, weighing up to 400 lbs. They evolved into all sorts of behaviors, eating habits, movement types, social groupings — the lemurs formed their own diverse range of species on the isolated island, because they had no competition and were not forced to focus on only a few types of living.

But lemurs did not evolve quite the same as the more modern simians such as the monkeys did. Lemurs share the common primate features discussed in the previous article, but they have smaller brains relative to their body sizes, making them generally less intelligent. Lemurs can be taught to use tools in captivity, but they do not do so in the wild.

Either that, or they’re trolling us. Hey, lemur on the right, I see you laughing back there! (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Chris Gin)

Lemurs also have hands that are poorer at grasping than the hands of more modern primates, and lemur tails are not prehensile. This means that lemurs are not so acrobatic in the trees, but they can still get around just fine, and some are almost as good at it as monkeys. In addition, lemurs have generally poor eyesight.

To make up for these downsides, lemurs evolved powerful noses for more than just sniffing. Their noses are constantly wet and can be used as a touch-based sensory organ that lets them smell scent markings left by other lemurs by touching their nose to the marking. Through this method lemurs communicate information about themselves — their territory, their individuality, their gender, etc — without having to see one another, which comes in handy in the dark. Most lemurs are nocturnal, but some come out in the morning and evening as well.

One other thing that all lemurs have in common is the toilet claw. Besides being an object with a great name, the toilet claw is a longer nail on the second finger that is used for scratching and grooming.

But back to Madagascar, where all the lemurs were forming their lemur kingdom in isolation, with no worries and no competition, free to evolve however they wanted to take advantage of the island’s many resources. They were the ghosts of the forest, emerging in the evening and throughout the night to run wild through the rainforests, and indeed that is how they got their name — the word “lemur” comes from a Roman mythological term for ghosts.

“… Boo.” (Red-bellied lemur photo by Rachel Kramer)

But about 1800 years ago, everything changed. That’s when humans not from Africa but from Borneo in Indonesia discovered the island and native tribes colonized it. They were later followed by people from Africa. Together they are today known as the Malagasy people, and with their coming everything changed for the lemurs.

The Malagasy burned and cleared large sections of the rainforest to make room for pastures and rice paddies. So thoroughly did the Malagasy colonize the island that the lemurs, once found everywhere, were soon relegated to only about ten percent of the island’s area. The larger lemurs, including the enormous Archaeoindris, were killed off — as far as we know 17 different species of lemur went extinct in the 1800 years after human arrival.

And that was without hunting. Though the early human activity greatly damaged the lemurs, the people did not hunt or eat them. Lemurs are the subject of a great number of taboos from the native people, and it is believed to be extremely bad luck to harm a lemur.

European scientists have known about lemurs since the 1700s, but almost everything we know about them comes from research that took place only in the past 30 years. We used to believe there were only 30 or so lemur species, but today we know there are nearly 100 different species. Some of the species look so similar that we can only tell them apart with genetic testing.

These hundred or so species of lemur are split up into five major categories, or families, though as always science has not settled on the exact truth of this classification arrangement. Most species today are endangered or threatened due to human activity, especially logging of the Madagascar rainforest.

In the following series of articles we will look at each of the five major lemur families and learn more about these diminutive, diminished former rulers of the isle of Madagascar.

Lemur distribution

23 – The Book of Primates

Time to monkey around. (Chimpanzee photo by Delphine Bruyere)

The order Primates (pronounced, oddly enough, pry-MAY-teez when you are talking about the order, and PRY-mayts when talking about individual members) is one of the largest, most diversified, and most successful orders in the mammal group. They have been around since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and are the kings and queens of mammalian life in the trees.

But before we begin, there is one thing we should get out of the way — yes, humans are primates. However any person wishes to justify it is, personally, fine by me, whether we evolved from more older primate forms or whether God influenced our evolution or whether God sprang us from the ether fully formed with traits that just happen to fit us perfectly into the primate category. That’s up to you, and as business goes it’s none of mine. But the fact of it is essentially unavoidable. We are primates.

There are some who believe that humans should not be placed on the tree of animal life, that we exist beyond it, but we are not some higher form of life. We emerged from the natural processes of the world like everything else. We are intelligent, we are industrious, and we have conquered the Earth’s many habitats like no animal before us has ever done. We have developed language, science, philosophy, and art. We are an amazing, wonderful species when we are at our best. Being a primate diminishes us not at all. Whether we are God’s chosen children or whether we have simply evolved and developed in such a manner as to rise for the most part above our animal instincts, we are still primates. This is where we fit. These creatures are our distant cousins.

That said, I will not be including an entry specifically about humans. The tale of our evolution, mostly known to us but still containing mysteries, is not meant for this record, nor is the long story of our history from our humble African roots to our establishment of civilization to our modern day intelligent adaptation to all the continents of Earth. I may one day tell that story, but the Book of Beasts is for our wild counterparts, and humans are a rather domesticated lot. Besides, we already get our share of mentions when it comes to our actions toward the animals of the world.

The wild primates used to be divided by their dominant features. They were the prosimians, which had features closer to older, more primitive primates, and the simians, which developed later. But today scientists, who do love to muck about with the order of things, instead classify primates by two different features. They are the curly-nosed primates and the dry-nosed primates. Many scientists still prefer the older grouping, which complicates things. Put it out of your mind, gentle reader, and think of monkeys.

Thinking of lemurs is also acceptable. (Red ruffed lemur photo by Hans Hillwaert)

Primates range from very small (the one-ounce Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur) to very large (the 450-pound eastern lowland gorilla), with all sorts of shapes, details, and behaviors in between, but there are a few things they all have in common.

With the exception of humans, as noted above, primates tend to live in tropical or sub-tropical regions where thick forests flourish. They are for the most part tree specialists, you see, and the more trees are around the happier a primate is.

While many animals and even some mammals have evolved to take advantage of trees, primates have truly taken trees to heart. Grasping hands, color vision, developed brains, the ability to walk on two legs, creative thinking — all of these things that helped humans become what we are today initially developed because they are great for living in trees.

Primates all have flexible shoulder joints that let them move their upper arms in many directions. Think of a dog or a cat — they can’t move their shoulders like we can because they did not evolve to move in trees, where such shoulder joints are highly advantageous.

All primates have five fingers and five toes, and have opposable thumbs used for grasping and manipulating objects. These features allow primates to easily climb and swing from branches, and they helped humans become the crafty, technological wizards we are. All primates also have sensitive toes and fingers to help with climbing and balance in the trees, whereas most other mammals have their toes and fingers protected somehow.

Primates have forward-facing eyes that allow accurate depth perception, critical for jumping through trees and also, coincidentally, for driving cars. This is why we don’t let horses drive the school bus. As a bonus, primates can (almost) all see in color.

All primates also tend to give birth to only one young at a time in most cases. As complex mammals, primates require a lot of attention from their mothers, and take longer to fully develop than most mammals, so it is better to have one offspring at a time. Primates are mostly social creatures as well, and typically have dominance hierarchies where one member of each group, typically the strongest, gets to make and enforce the rules over others. Sound familiar?

Last but certainly not least, all primates have large brains relative to their body sizes. A big brain allows for quick, easy processing of all the sensory information involved with swinging through branches high above the ground. This is why the feature developed, but as a side effect all primates are pretty smart cookies as far as animals go, and humans, of course, became the smartest cookies of all — though we did not develop as a distinct species until long after our ancient ancestors came down out of the trees and decided to give the ground a try. Fortunately for them it turned out that having that big brain, those grasping hands that could make tools, and that social cooperation, all of which developed in the trees, let them succeed on the ground as well.

There are a lot of different primates to cover, hundreds of them, so we will lump them together and be brief where we can. But there is a lot to know about these diverse and clever creatures, so let’s begin.

“About time, good fellow.” (Agile gibbon photo by Julie Langford)

21 – The Book of Pholidota

Off-the-scales awesome. (Photo by Dushy Ranetunge)

Throughout many of the forested and open tropical regions of the world, in Africa, India, China, and southeast Asia, you might catch a rustle of undergrowth or the scrape of claws in the night. This could be any number of things, but if you’re very lucky you might have found one of the eight living species in the order Pholidota, which means “scaly ones”.

These are the pangolins, a wonderful type of creature otherwise known as the scaly anteater. They are unique in the animal world as being the only mammal with hard keratin scales. These scales are rigid, tough to get through, and sharp around the edges, which when combined with the fact that the pangolin can roll itself into a ball makes it a tough nut to crack for any predator.

Pangolins have long scaled tails and claws for ripping apart termite nests or tree bark in the quest for tasty insects. Like other anteater-type animals (though the pangolin is not a true anteater), it has a long, flexible tongue for getting into tight spaces and pulling insects out. A pangolin’s tongue is typically more than a foot long, but is only 0.2 inches wide. To make matters even more interesting, pangolins don’t actually keep their tongues in their mouths when not using them — they actually keep their tongues sheathed all the way down their own throats and attached down near their stomachs. They don’t have any teeth, so they simply use their tongue to pull insects directly down into the digestive system.

Their claws are so long and so important for their livelihood that pangolins are hesitant to risk damaging them. When they walk about they actually curl their claws up against the pads of their feet and walk in an awkward manner on their knuckles. As you can imagine, this makes them far from the fastest animal around. But in addition to those marvelous defensive scales, a pangolin can also spray a foul-smelling acid like a skunk. The long and the short of it is that you can’t easily mess with a pangolin.

That hasn’t of course stopped humans from doing so. Pangolin numbers have decreased across most of their habitats due to deforestation and human hunting. Pangolins in Africa are often used for meat, but in Asia their scales are also in demand for use in that old species-killing standby, traditional Chinese medicine. Some pangolins are endangered, but there is still a black market trade for them. Studies of pangolins and their exact behaviour and populations in the wild are few due to their nocturnal nature.

The giant pangolin of western and central Africa is the largest of the eight species, weight up to 70 pounds with a body more than four feet long before you count the tail. But the best tail on any pangolin belongs to the tree pangolin, which lives in roughly the same areas as the giant pangolin.

The tree pangolin has a prehensile tail and does not rely exclusively on termite mounds for its meals. The tree pangolin, as the name implies, can climb a tree and hang from its tail to rip bark apart and get at the treats beneath. Using its tail for balance it can walk on two legs when it needs to, and there are even reports that it can stand on two legs, with its hind claws and tail holding on, while standing completely sideways on the side of a tree.

And this one almost got the job as stunt double for Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie. (Photo by verdammelt)

Pangolins are solitary creatures by nature and most of them are quite good at swimming. They are very distant relatives of the cats and dogs in Carnivora, but took an entirely different evolutionary path down their own branch of the evolutionary tree. This surprised researchers when it was first learned, for it was long assumed that pangolins were more closely related to armadillos or sloths, but this is simply not the case. It is only a matter of insect-eating species often evolving, entirely on their own, into similar forms that are best suited to the task.

Pangolin distribution.

20.2a – The Rhinoceros

One good horn deserves another. (Indian rhinoceros photo by Krish Dulal)

There are five living types of rhinoceros, called rhino for short, left in the world today, and these strange, hulking, armored behemoths represent a living look into the distant past.

Once upon a time, millions of years ago in the period between the fall of the dinosaurs and the rise of humans, enormous mammals inherited the earth. With all of the planet’s resources at their disposal and all of the dinosaurs extinct, mammals took the opportunity to evolve into ever-larger, stronger forms, becoming in a way the mammal equivalent of the great dinosaurs themselves. These enormous animals are called megafauna, and you could once find them everywhere in all different types.

Humanity for a large part put an end to that, killing off most of the megafauna while we were still a young species living in the last ice age, for after all when you want meat and fur to survive, the most efficient way to get them is to kill the biggest animals around.

But some types of those enormous animals still live today, though all of the very biggest ones are gone from the land. The rhinoceros is one of those surviving animals.

Today you will find two types of rhino that live in Africa, and these are easy to distinguish because they have two horns on the front of their face. There are also three Asian rhinos, and these have only one horn (except for one of them, which is an oddball).

Rhinos are big, and they are tough. All of the living species can weigh more than a tonne, and they are covered with a thick, highly-structured skin that protects them from harm. A rhino’s skin can be as many as two inches thick.

The two most noticeable things about a rhino other than its size are its horns and the fact that it has no knees—none of the rhinos do. They simply walk with their legs completely straight, and can only bend them at the shoulder and hip joints.

The horn is made of keratin, the same as a deer’s antlers or a human’s fingernails or a horse’s hoof. It is not a true horn because it has no bony core, but neither is it an antler, because it doesn’t fall off. We call it a horn to make things simple. Rhinos have long been killed by humans, both legally and illegally, to obtain these horns. Entire rhinoceros groups have been left dead to rot while the horns alone are carted away by poachers. This is because the horns are used in illegal and dubious medicines in parts of the world, or also sometimes as expensive and unsavory decorations. We are not a fun species to live with on this world.

The two African rhinos are the white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros. The funny thing about them is that they are neither white nor black, but are both in fact grey. There is very little colour difference between the two. We named the black rhino because we wanted to distinguish it from the white rhino, but no one knows why we named the white rhino. It’s just one of those things.

The white rhinoceros, versus … (Photo by Ikiwaner)

… the black rhinoceros. Notice the stark difference in colours? No, me neither. (Photo by Staycoolandbegood)

The black rhino was once the most numerous rhino in the world, with several hundred thousand of them living in Africa only a hundred years ago. By the 1960s that number had dropped to 70,000, and by 1995 it had dropped as low as 2400, simply because humans wouldn’t stop killing them. Some of its subspecies are extinct or nearly so, but overall their numbers have since recovered a little, to around 4200.

In Asia you will find the Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhinoceros, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the species, and also the hairiest, but only about 250 of them are still alive. It is the most ancient type of rhino still alive today, and in its hairier body we might see echoes of the wooly rhino that once roamed Asia and Europe before the coming of man. The Sumatran rhino is the oddball I mentioned earlier, for unlike the other Asian rhinos it has two horns. It also has a prehensile lip, which is wonderful. This means it can extend and fully control its lip to grasp objects

The Sumatran rhinoceros is just plain weird. (Photo by Charles W. Hardin)

But the Sumatran rhino is not the rarest, unfortunately. There are only about 60 Javan rhinos left in the world, making it one of the rarest mammals anywhere. They live in dense jungle where it is difficult to enforce laws to protect them against poachers. Soon, perhaps, the poachers will kill the last one and that will be the end of their work.

Rhinos have very little in the way of protection against human weapons, but they are excellent at fending off natural predators, which is part of why they have survived so long. With their thick skin protecting them, a rhino can charge a predator and attack with its great horn, and some rhinos can run as fast as 30 miles per hour. Why can’t they do that with poachers, you might ask? In most cases, a poacher will simply kill a rhino when it stops to get a drink from a water source.

Rhinos eat grass and vegetation, and most of the species are solitary except for mothers and their children. The white rhino is the exception, as this great beast lives in small herds of a dozen or so animals. A rhinoceros herd is called a crash, and I think that’s delightful.

Rhinoceros distribution.

20.1d – The Zebra

What’s black and white and wild all over? (Photo by Paul Maritz)

The zebra (pronounced either ZEB-ra or ZEE-bra, either is fine) is the only type of modern horse that has never been widely domesticated, and is also the most visually striking of the horses because of its distinctive black-and-white striped hair. But the word zebra itself is not actually an indication of a closely related group of animals.

There are three species of zebra — the plains zebra, which is most common, the mountain zebra, and Grevy’s zebra. The plains and mountain zebras are closely related to each other and also are distant cousins of the horse; but Grevy’s zebra is actually more closely related to the asses than to the other zebras.

The only thing that makes them zebras is that they all have the black and white stripes, which would lead one to believe that they were the same type of animal, but they’re not. How then did they all end up with the stripes?

We don’t actually know. It’s possible that stripes evolved twice in the horse family, but that’s unlikely. The most probable answer is that the common ancestor of the entire horse family had stripes, but the horse and the asses went on to lose their stripes because they weren’t useful in the new environments they moved to. The three zebras, even though they aren’t all closely related, are the ones who kept the stripes. But we don’t know for sure if that’s true.

What about those stripes, anyway? They’re so striking and fascinating to us; why do zebras have them? First, you should understand that the common and understandable idea that zebras are white with black stripes is incorrect. They actually have black bodies, and it’s the white parts that are the stripes.

When you look at a zebra you might think that such flashy stripes wouldn’t be much good for camouflage, but you’d be wrong. For one, some zebras live in brushy or forested areas, where the stripe pattern blends well with branches. For another, the zebra’s most common predators are believed to be colour-blind, so the grass looks the same colour as the stripes to them.

But some scientists don’t think the stripes are really about camouflage at all. One idea is that a bunch of zebras together sort of blend into a stripey mass, which might serve to confuse predators and keep them from being able to separate one animal out from the herd. Another idea is that zebras might be able to identify each other socially from the stripes, since no two zebras have exactly the same pattern, but there’s no real evidence that zebras can view each other as individuals outside of family groups.

Yet another theory is that the stripes help keep zebras safe from biting African flies. Experiments have shown that disruptive stripes like that can confuse the visual system of flies and make them less likely to land. This might also explain why zebras in Africa, where there are many harmful flies, have stripes, while the other members of the horse family lost theirs; however, zebras do still suffer from flies, and this notion doesn’t explain why the African wild ass has no stripes.

Otherwise the plains zebra and the mountain zebra are a lot like a horse, and Grevy’s zebra is a lot like an ass. The horse-like zebras roam typically in small herds with one male and several females and their young offspring, with non-dominant males forming small bachelor herds or wandering alone. The ass-like zebra only forms temporary herds.

Grevy’s Zebra: commitment issues? (Photo by Rainbirder)

People have been trying off and on to domesticate zebras for hundreds of years. Some zebras have been tamed and ridden by humans, but actual domestication hasn’t happened, for zebras are in general harder to teach and more easily frightened, perhaps because they come from a land of lions and cheetahs, leopards and African wild dogs, hyenas and crocodiles.

The mountain zebra and Grevy’s zebra are both threatened and found only in small pockets of Africa. Zebras have long been hunted by humans, both for meat and because while their stripes may be good against predators, they also make for attractive skins for greedy humans. They have also been forced to compete with livestock and agriculture.

20.1c – The Wild Ass

Much more trouble than a tame ass, believe you me. This is a kiang. (Photo by Bodina)

All right. Let’s get the snickering out of the way first. Go ahead, I don’t mind. All done, then? Right.

While “ass” has been used as a term to mean the backside for about 150 years now, it was a word that referred to an animal for a long, long time before that. Science was here first, and it never backs down from an official name just because other people have named a body part after it.

A domesticated ass is called a donkey, but there are three species of wild asses still alive in the world today. The African wild ass is the ancestor of the donkey, and is critically endangered. The onager is an endangered wild ass that is slightly larger than a donkey and lives in central Asia. The kiang is the largest of the asses, and lives in Tibet and western China — it is the only one that is not in danger of extinction.

The kiang and the onager are both closely related, and can cross-breed with each other and also with horses and donkeys, but the offspring are sterile like mules, which means that they can’t have any children of their own. This is an indication of animals that are very closely related but have drifted far enough apart to be different species now.

Wild asses are smaller than horses and only form temporary herds of young males or of females and their young. Older males are usually always found alone, and the others are found alone some of the time. As such they are not as social nor quite as intelligent as horses — though they do keep in contact with each other even while alone, using their loud braying voices to let other asses know where they are.

These animals are the hardiest survivors of the equid family, capable of living in very dry environments. They can break down scrubby desert vegetation and extract the maximum amount of moisture from it in their digestive systems, and a wild ass’s big ears help it keep cool by circulating more blood close to the air.

Wild asses are fast runners, though not quite as fast as a horse, but their first instinct isn’t usually to run away from danger, which might be part of why they don’t form tight-knit herds. A wild ass will instead investigate anything out of the ordinary, and won’t hesitate to attack a threat with its powerful biting jaws or with kicks from its strong hind legs. This is why you don’t want to make a donkey angry, and donkeys are a lot nicer than their wild counterparts.

“Don’t make assumptions about my temper. Because you know what they say. When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. Mostly me, I guess.” (African wild ass photo by päts)

Even though there are lots of donkeys and burros in the world, which are technically the same species as the African wild ass, the wild version is critically endangered. They have been captured for domestication and hunted as food for thousands of years, and must compete for grazing with domesticated animals in northeastern Africa. Recent protected areas have been created for these wild asses, and it may be that they will still recover.