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Cool Facts About Zebras

Saturday, 26 June 2010

So, are zebras white with black stripes or are they black with white stripes?  An interesting question and often the first one asked by those of a curious nature when face to face with these beautifully coated creatures.  If you have pondered that question or want to know more about zebras in general then this article has some really cool facts about these strange equine animals.  It has all the answers - for example, how many species of zebra are there?  Where do zebras live?  Oh - and that other question that people ask - what on earth is a quagga?

Written by Brenda Nelson, you can also ask her about animals at her Factoidz page.

Image Credit Flickr User catlover

The Scimitar Oryx - Charismatic Antelope of the Desert

Once one of the most numerous horned animals in North Africa, the Scimitar Oryx has now been classified as extinct in the wild. A pale antelope with a ruddy chest this almost horse-like mammal would perhaps be unremarkable save for one thing – it’s majestic and incredibly long curved horns. For this reason it was hunted almost to extinction.

Its name too comes from its horns – they are shaped very much like a scimitar, a relatively light weight sword which originated in the Middle East. When they numbered in their millions the animals would have formed mixed gender herds of up to seventy or so. When it was time for them to follow their yearly migration they would come together in groups that numbered in their thousands. Can you imagine what a magnificent sight that would have been?

The male and the female of the species both possess the remarkable scimitar horns. The male can reach 125 cm in height and weigh in at an impressive 200kg. The color of its coat is so light so it can reflect the heat of the sun in dessert conditions. Their territories used to cover an incredible 3000 square kilometers and the Oryx would know every part of their journey, avoiding unfavorable locations.

The horns can grow up to 175cm, which is an incredible length considering the height of the species. When mating season begins the males will partake in spectacular fights – and they really mean it too. Horns are often broken and sometimes one of the combatants might die. It is thought that perhaps a one horned oryx who had lost the other in a fight may have contributed to the myth of the unicorn.

The Scimitar Oryx looks a little delicate, but it is a hardy species that in the wild inhabited desert and step where their diet consisted of grasses, leaves and – when they could get it – fruit. They have specially adapted kidneys which mean that they can live without drinking any water for weeks at a time. This is also due to the fact that they can change their body temperature at will and so avoid losing water through perspiration.
They can certainly cope with extreme conditions. At 42-45 degrees centigrade most other animals would expire but the Scimitar Oryx can still survive. One thing which helps is a habit they have formed of licking dew off each other’s coats at night. When water is around they are voracious – after giving birth the female can easily consume twenty percent of her body weight in water.

There were serious droughts in the early twentieth century and the numbers declined drastically as the animals continued to be hunted by desert nomad tribes who were also struggling to survive. However, two things contributed to the downfall of this swift and gregarious animal – the development of the gun and motor vehicles.

Where they once occupied the whole of the Sahara region and numbered in the very least in their hundreds of thousands, today they are restricted to zoos and sanctuaries. There has not been a single substantiated Scimitar Oryx sighting in the wild for almost twenty years.

So, how many of these remarkable animals are left today? After a captive breeding programme began in the 1960s their numbers have risen. It is thought that around five thousand exist altogether. There are hopes that someday the Scimitar Oryx can be reintroduced in to the wild in Tunisia where there is a herd that is protected within a fenced preserve.

The Sahara Conservation Fund is researching the full reintroduction of the species in to all of its previous range. Although there are many issues to be overcome, such a geographical bottlenecks, genetics and husbandry there may well be hope for this most enigmatic antelope of the desert.

Prehistoric Landscape Returns to Europe

Saturday, 5 June 2010

If you take a short train journey north from Amsterdam you really should choose to sit on your left.  When you have passed the small town of Almere you will come across something that has not been seen in Europe for thousands of years.  Beasties, big beasties.  Herds and herds of them.  Welcome to the Oostvaardersplassen.

It looks to the observer as if they have suddenly been transported back in time.  Herds of deer, wild cattle and horses roam around – it is like a vast prehistoric landscape.  Strangely enough this place did not exist before 1968. It is a polder, a low lying tract of land that is enclosed by barriers called dikes.   The Oostvaardersplassen has become in forty years one of the most important nature reserves in Europe.

It is quite astonishing to think that these idyllic looking scenes are just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.

You might ask why this attempt to resurrect a long since vanished ecosystem has been made.  The simple answer is that when human settlements were established throughout Europe, many keystone species such as mammoths and rhinos were wiped out.  When these species disappeared (thanks to us!) so did their dynamic ecosystems which had been in place for tens of thousands of years.

The Oostvaardersplassen is the first real attempt to do more than just talk about creating a place where biodiversity can flourish. There are over 3,000 large mammals at the Oostvaardersplassen – and of course they are only approximations of the extinct species which once roamed Europe.  However, the rewilding of this place has created a unique ecosystem.   Their presence is dramatically reshaping the area. Plus, it is just a stone’s throw from the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam.

The whole place challenges an assumption long held about wildness.  Generally people think of dense forestation when they think of wildness.  In other words when you leave a place to its own devices it will naturally turn to forest.  In terms of ecology this is known as succession and the theory goes that ecosystems unfold due to succession in much the same way as natural selection rules evolution.

The Oostvaardersplassen not only challenges this assumption, it proves it wrong.  When our ancestors tamed and corralled mammals such as cattle and horses and killed off larger ones, such as the mammoth that meant that, sure enough, where man did not intervene then forest took over.  So succession is more or less a result of human intervention.  The Oostvaardersplassen proves that if left alone to roam large mammals will produce a very different ecosystem to the one we might expect.

The large herbivores that used to exist in this part of Europe included the tarpan a wild horse that has been replace here by the konik horses that you see here.  The European bison and elk are also extinct but are represented here by Heck cattle. It is hoped that the wisent or European bison can be reintroduced here too.

The Oostvaardersplassen is an isolated area in many ways.  There are, at the moment, no corridors to other nature reserves.  Plans exist, however to form a corridor between it and the Horsterwold, a young forest near Zeewolde.  Ultimately this should allow deer and other animals to move all the way to France and Germany.  It is a bold plan but one which should, if it works, increase the biodiversity of Europe significantly.

Amung Feedjit