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”.


23.1d – The Lemurids

Life in lemur-land. (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Alex Dunkel)

We have met the tiny dwarf lemurs and the mysterious aye-aye, but they are not the only lemurs in the forests of Madagascar — not by a long shot. Even on such a small island, the lemurs have split into so many different species and types that it is a wonder they all get along and have not reduced their diversity through competition, with a smaller number of stronger lemur species coming out on top. Instead, lemurs have each found their own niche and area on the island, and none has dominated the others. However, when it comes to the popular conception of a lemur, the lemurid group is what most people think of.

Lemurids are generally one to two feet long, with the tail an extra length beyond that. They are more capable and willing to move about on the ground than the other lemurs we’ve discussed, even though their back legs are longer than their front legs, giving them a wobbly, hoppy sort of gait when they walk on all fours on land.

They are, as you might expect, much more at home and agile in the trees. With long tails for balance, grasping fingers, and strong vision, they can fly about through the branches and will regularly leap more than ten feet from one tree to the next.

The lemurids are more social than the other lemurs we’ve mentioned as well. They live in groups of up to thirty individual lemurs, and in some species they form long-lasting groups with stable hierarchies, like large families.

The most prominent member of the lemurid group is also the animal that most people think of when they imagine a lemur — it is the ring-tailed lemur. It is perhaps the best-known and most recognized lemur in the world, even though it only lives in one corner of Madagascar. The reason everyone loves the ring-tailed lemur is, of course, for its long, black-and-white striped tail, which is two feet long and is actually longer than the entire rest of its body.

Unlike the dwarf lemurs and the aye-aye, the ring-tailed lemur does its business during the day, not at night. It lives in large groups where the females have social dominance (which is true for most lemurs), and these lemurs love to do things together. They can be found huddling together for warmth or just for fun, and they like to group up to sunbathe, turning their white underbellies to the sky to soak up some rays.

Like a boss. (Photo by Keven Law)

Despite their relatively small brain, ring-tailed lemurs display some measures of intelligence. They are highly vocal and social, and can understand basic arithmetic and tool use. They don’t use tools in the wild, but they quickly pick up the knack when trained and are able to select tools based on how well they will do the job.

Though they are highly vocal and enjoy chattering at one another, ring-tailed lemurs use scents for a lot of their communication. The males in particular are covered with scent glands of various types, and they will not hesitate to stink you up with some sort of scent from almost any part of their body. They use these scents to mark territory, to maintain their group hierarchies, and for mating purposes.

The most wonderful use of scent among ring-tailed lemurs is stink fighting. For this, males will coat their tails with smelly liquid from their glands and will then wave their stinky tails at other males, often ones who are their rivals for mates. Boys will be boys, whatever the species. Males will also wave their smelly tails at females as a means of attraction, but the females usually respond by punching or biting the male, because who on earth really wants a stinky tail in their face?

And as a random closing fact about ring-tailed lemurs, the females have four nipples, but only two of them work. Why? Impossible to say.

Contrasted with the ring-tailed lemur is the common brown lemur, also a lemurid. This particular lemur lives in groups, but does not have hierarchies at all. The females are still dominant, but members can come and go from the groups as they please, and no one is really the boss. When there are disagreements and fights, both parties reconcile their differences afterward and are nice to one another again with no hard feelings.

“Right, mate. I’m sure you didn’t mean it.” (Common brown lemur photo by David Dennis)

Combined with the fact that so many different types of lemurs co-exist without trouble on a small island, sometimes it seems as if lemurs got the whole social thing right, and it’s humans who have somehow messed it up and gone off course.

And there are many other lemurs in the lemurid group as well, all being social, getting along with others, and having a happy time on their island except for the fact that many of them are endangered due to human activity. They range from the endangered but vain red ruffed lemur (you would spend a lot of time grooming yourself as well if you had such a luxurious coat of red hair), to the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur who roar and shriek in groups that form a sort of synchronized chorus, to the small and funny-looking bamboo lemurs.

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the world’s most endangered primates. Once believed extinct, a new population was discovered in 1986, but there are believed to be only between 60 and 160 remaining. There is every chance that they will not survive, because they are not protected in their habitat, more of which is destroyed all the time. This is unrelated to the fact that they are one of the few male-dominant lemur species, but you have to admit, it looks suspicious.

13.1b – The European Rabbit

Be vewy vewy quiet. This threatened species is taking over the world. (Photo by Norrie Adamson)

When most people in the world think about a rabbit, the European rabbit is the one they’re thinking about, whether they know it or not. It has the interesting and almost paradoxical distinction of being an animal that is considered near-threatened even though there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of millions of them in the world.

European rabbits are naturally found in Spain, Portugal, and the northwestern corner of Africa. When Phoenicians first visited the area, they saw the rabbits, which looked similar to the native hyraxes they knew in Africa. For this reason they named the land i-shapan-im, “the land of the hyraxes”. From this name eventually came the Latin Hispania, from which comes the English word, Spain.

The European rabbit is the only species of rabbit that humans have ever domesticated on a large scale. Almost every single pet rabbit in the world is derived originally from European rabbits, even though, as with dogs and cats, many different breeds have been created. We have taken them with us almost everywhere we’ve gone, and so you can find European rabbits almost everywhere, especially in places where they aren’t wanted.

Australia, as we’ve noted, has several hundred thousand European rabbits destroying their country, but that’s not all of it. There are European rabbits devastating New Zealand as well. There are 40 million European rabbits in England, where they are an invasive species. And they are many other places besides. They are one of the few animals that we call pets (because they are cute and fuzzy), pests (because they eat everything we try to grow), and food (because they are delicious) all at the same time. The world is filled with European rabbits.

Adorably tasty, or tastefully adorable? (Photo by T. Voekler)

Which is why it seems so odd that they are considered a near-threatened species, but there is a crucial distinction that must be made. All of our pets are domesticated rabbits, and all of the invasive rabbits in Australia and England and elsewhere are feral rabbits, which means that they were once domesticated but escaped and live on their own. A feral rabbit is not the same as a wild rabbit. They may have similar behaviours, but feral animals are affected by their domestication, and this is passed on to generations born later as well. In most cases, a feral animal is not a natural part of the environment it lives in.

For this reason, when we speak of the European rabbit as near-threatened, we refer only to the wild European rabbit, those rabbits whose ancestors have never lived with humans. A wild animal is a wholly different creature than a feral one.

That said, you may be surprised to learn that we don’t know an awful lot about wild rabbits. We know quite a bit about the tame ones, of course, and we know a lot about the pesky feral rabbits, but wild rabbits are shy, frightful, and spend most of their time either underground or in dense brush, so it’s hard to get a sense of them.

Almost everything we know about wild rabbits comes from the work of naturalist Ronald Lockley, who studied wild rabbits closely in the 1960s and published a book, The Private Life of Rabbits, which would be an inspiration for the novel Watership Down.

What we know from this work and other smaller studies since is that European rabbits in the wild are very social animals. They live in underground colonies called warrens. Within each warren, rabbits break up into groups of two to ten animals that live closely together.

Breeding is one of the most important parts of a wild rabbit’s life — because they are so small and tasty, rabbits ensure the survival of their species by making incredible numbers of babies. Each wild rabbit group has a dominant male and a dominant female. The dominant male gets to mate with just about whoever he wants to, while the other rabbits form mostly monogamous mating pairs.

The social ladder is very important for wild rabbits, and your standing on it depends on a variety of factors. These include but are not limited to: the size of territory you patrol; the number of females who visit you; the amount of time females let you sit near them; the number of friends you have; and the distance you travel every day. Your social credit can also improve based on the number of non-friend rabbits you fight with.

For this reason wild male rabbits will duke it out almost at the drop of a hat. The common method of challenge is for one rabbit to urinate on another, which says, “You are my territory.” Regardless of which two rabbits are involved in this, it immediately leads to a fight. Rabbits may be timid when it comes to dealing with other animals, but when they are alone they are anything but. Two fighting rabbits will beat each other with their large feet and will bite and claw without mercy. Many rabbits die from fights like this.

Once the social order is sorted out, rabbits breed, and they do it as often as possible. A female can produce a litter of two to twelve bunnies in about a month, and in good conditions two rabbits can make 30 or 40 offspring per year. Wild European rabbit males appear to get along well with their children, but this may only be because they want more friends, which means more social standing.

When ready to breed, European rabbits will emit a particular odour from a gland in their chins, of all places. This is known as chinning. If you are ever reincarnated as a wild rabbit and another rabbit starts rubbing its chin on you, well, now you’ll know what’s up.

European rabbits take shelter during the day, and only typically emerge to feed on fields or in gardens at dusk and again at dawn. They can run much faster than a person, and will immediately bound away on their big legs at the first sign of danger, which they will sense coming easily because of their enormous ears.

Though you can find a European rabbit just about anywhere these days, the wild European rabbits of the Iberian peninsula are on the decline. With so much urbanization and agricultural development there is not a lot of room left for the rabbits, and when they come into our fields to eat our crops we tend to take it badly. In addition to hunting the wild rabbits as pests, we also hunt them for food. Rabbits in the wild are also preyed on by anything that likes meat, from birds of prey to wild cats to tiny but ferocious weasels. In the ultimate insult, even squirrels will kill and eat a rabbit if it is injured or otherwise unable to run away.