Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Poitou - The Donkey with Dreadlocks

A look at the Poitou donkey from South West France. 

Only thirty years ago, less than thirty of these beautiful and friendly animals were left. 

Now, thanks to a conservation programme, it looks as if the dreadlocked donkey is set to stay awhile on Planet Earth.

The beautiful Poitou region of France, three hundred miles south-west of the French capital Paris, has been harboring a secret. Some secrets are dark and deadly: this one, however, is cute and cuddly. The Poitou species of Donkey, as adorable as a donkey can be without being something else entirely, has a remarkable story to tell. As a species it has teetered at the edge of extinction but thanks to some extremely hard work on the part of conservationists, it looks as if its future may be finally assured.

The Poitou comes from the Equus asinus species and is – basically – a donkey with dreadlocks. It looks as if it could have been genetically engineered to satisfy the faddish longings of a billionaire’s daughter but has in fact been living and working in this region of France for hundreds of years. The Poitou was bred exclusively to be used in the breeding of mules (one of the traditional activities of the region) and as such was exported throughout the world in numbers.

It is believed locally that the tradition of mule breeding was introduced in to the region by the Romans, meaning that the Poitou possibly has a lineage of over two thousand years. As the means to producing a mule, it was mated with the Mulassier species of horse to produce about the largest species of mule in Europe. The only other mule near to it in size is the breed from Andalucía.

However, the success story of the Poitou was destined no to last. With the advent of industry and mechanized farming, the call for the Poitou declined and as demand fell, so did the numbers of this amazing looking beast. The species went in to what looked like a terminal decline with many local farmers either selling their herds – fate unknown but use your imagination – or exterminating the animals themselves. The Poitou was, it seemed, history.

Then, in 1977 a survey revealed that there were only twelve stallions (the locals call them baudets) and thirteen mares (likewise, known as anesses) left. If something was not done quickly the Poitou would be no more. Local authorities, keen to retain this unique but vestigial remnant of local history, together with the French National Parks, breeders and scientists, joined together to create a studbook. This would list all known full and part bred examples of the species so that liaisons between stallions and mares could be arranged and – after the donkeys had played their part – the species could be raised almost from the dead.

Thanks to this programme there are now over one hundred Poitous of each gender in their native region alive and well and ready to breed some more. Worldwide there are around a thousand. With resolve and organization the Poitou has shown the rest of the world that highly endangered species can be brought back from the brink. Most prized are the animals with the most distinct dreadlocks – the trademark of the Poitou. The species is gaining popularity because of its highly docile nature. Unlike many species of donkeys, this one is fun loving and is able to form loving relationships with its owners.

True, it is only for the wealthy – each Poitou can cost up to five thousand dollars. And don’t expect to be able to keep one in your back yard, either! The beast can grown up to sixteen hands in height, which is around one and a half meters, making it quite a statuesque example of donkeyness in the donkeyworld!

They need at least an acre each and because they are highly social animals they need the intimate and constant company of their own species so need to be kept in numbers. Do the mathematics and the Poitou will remain a hobby horse for the wealthy and landed. However, their popularity among the rich rock stars turned farmers will hopefully mean they will never again be threatened with disappearance!

Manukura - The Little White Kiwi

The most successful kiwi breeding season in the history of New Zealand’s National Wildlife Center has ended on an extraordinary note with the surprise hatching of a rare white kiwi chick. The North Island Kiwi shown here is not albino, just naturally white. It is considered a sign of good things to happen by the local Maori community.

The flightless birds are as a rule only seen in the wild every couple of years and the last one born in captivity was released almost a hundred years ago - in 1915. The kiwi is a brown bird (as shown in the video) and this is an incredibly rare occurrence.

She has been called Manukura or Chiefly One by the local Maoris and is being hand-reared in a specially maintained nursery where the keepers will care for her for a minimum of twelve months before hopefully she is released in to the wild.

Robins: 4 Eggs, 4 Weeks

Fred Margulies is a lucky man.  A pair of robins decided to nest in a flower basket on his porch.  Being a film producer he captured this wonderful footage over the next four weeks.  Add the most appropriate soundtrack – When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin’ and you have something magical.

Wildebeest Cross the Mara – Amazing Time-lapse Footage

Do you want to see something completely jaw-dropping? You may well have seen the annual wildebeest migration on the TV or, if you are very luck for real. Each year these large beasts take part in what is known as the Great Migration – it is one of the most iconic events in Africa. As the wildebeest migrate they must cross over the mighty Mara River.

Yet have you ever seen it done as a time-lapse? This just made my jaw drop – the wonderful footage captures the sheer scale of the migration in a way that I have not seen before. This amazing film was created by Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas a team of brothers from the UK who specialize in wildlife photography.

Here, through a combination of telephoto video clips and wide-angle time-lapse sequences, they aimed to illustrate the scale and drama of this incredible spectacle. They had never before seen a wildebeest river crossing recorded in this way and as far as they know, this could be the first time that time-lapse has been used to reveal the dynamics of a wildebeest river crossing.

It is, I hope you will agree a simply stunning piece of work.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Ocelot – Really Back From the Brink?

Do you hear a lot about the Ocelot? Hunted for its pelt for hundreds of years, the Ocelot was classified as a vulnerable endangered species until 1996. One look at this still rare animal and the attraction is undeniable but why is it no longer considered endangered?

At one point it was thought that this magnificent animal would become extinct in the wild before the twenty first century. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) placed it on its vulnerable list (known as VU) but since 1996 it has been considered no longer at risk in the wild Ranging from South and Central America up to Mexico – it has even been spotted in Texas. However, this being said, many are still extremely concerned for the future of this gorgeous animal in the wild.

Lithe and slender, the Ocelot can grow up a meter in length, with almost half of that again in tail length so it is larger than your average moggy. In fact, it is the largest wild cat in its genus – that of Leopardus. If you look carefully you will see that behind each ear an Ocelot always has a white spot – and there are two black lines, like war paint that extend down either side of its face. This is mostly how it is told apart from the similar looking Margay and Oncilla wild cats that inhabit the same areas.

Cute is not the word. There is hardly a person who, when encountering an Ocelot in a zoo can hold back an involuntary ‘aw’. However, don’t be fooled by the looks – this is a killer cat and its looks belie its true nature. Like in the song, it only comes out at night and to say that the Ocelot is nocturnal would be a slight understatement. It will fight tooth and nail for its territory – even to the death.

Although the Ocelot has and is kept as a pet it is not advisable, especially if you have children. They will want to pet this beautiful creature but if you have every seen a cranky domestic cat retaliate to a pulled tail; put a factor on that and then some. Just look at the teeth - and consider if you would like to have this particular cat around, despite its beauty.

As it is nocturnal, the Ocelot when seen in the wild is usually at rest and so this might give the casual onlooker an idea that this cat is a somewhat complacent animal. In the evenings it comes to life and stalks it prey with the same ferocity and tenacity as other felines. It is a solitary creature, too – it is unlikely you will ever see a group of adult Ocelots together.

However, it will suffer company occasionally – but only an Ocelot of the same gender. After mating the kittens are usually born about seventy to eighty days later and the litter normally numbers two or three. Taking photos of kitten Ocelots is incredibly difficult to do in the wild as the female is adept at hiding herself away in a safe place during that period.

The Ocelot is not a stupid hunter – it usually goes for prey smaller than itself: reptiles, lizards, frogs, crabs, birds and fish (they are good swimmers) are all on the menu though it will sometimes go for mammals such as small deer. It is thought but by no means established as fact that it finds its prey through its very sharp sense of smell and tracks them down via their odor trails.

However, it does have very good vision which must be a help. As it hunts mostly at night it has evolved white rings around its eyes. This is so that extra light is reflected towards the eyes in the dark of the night. It has a small hunting range of around eighteen square kilometers and will sometimes hunt in the trees.

Although it has been mentioned that the Ocelot is found occasionally in Texas, whether or not it will continue to find the State convivial as a home is another question. Over the last fifty years it has lost a lot of habitat there and with the introduction of highways many young males are killed when they are searching out their own territory. It is thought that there are less than two hundred Ocelots in the vastness of Texas.

Due to the Ocelot’s lengthy gestation period and small litters the animal will take a long time to recover to the same numbers as before European settlers came to the Americas and it is unlikely it ever will. One problem for the cat is that it tolerates humans quite well so if a village springs up near where it lives it will not, unlike other animals move on. This makes it even more prone to hunting than it would ordinarily be.

Ocelots have been kept as pets but it is not altogether a good idea for this wild animal to be introduced in to a domestic environment. Possibly the most famous person to own an Ocelot as a pet was the artist Salvador Dali. As well as being at risk from hunters for its fur (yes, some people will still wear it) the illegal pet trade is also a factor in the decline of the numbers of the animal. Humans being perhaps the most selfish animal on the planet, little thought is given to taking an animal from its natural habitat and placing it in a cage for the rest of its life for the amusement of individuals with more money than compassion. Yet many zoos are contributing to the preservation and study of the ocelot, something that private individuals rarely can do.

The Ocelots adapted over the millennia to a meaty diet. Their fangs are sharp and pointed and they can deliver a fatal bite swiftly and cleanly. At the back of their mouth they have razor sharp teeth that can rip flesh easily. Imagine cutting a chicken breast with a pair of scissors and you will get the idea. They are not chewers, however. They literally tear their food up and swallow it down in whole chunks. To polish off an animal properly they will then use their tongue, which is harsh and raspy, to lick the rest of the flesh from the carcass. Fortunately for humans who need to lose weight; we have more advanced diets and can get a Nutrisystem discount to save money while making our body; healthier.

Whether or not the IUCN agrees, most conservation societies list the Ocelot as highly endangered and vulnerable species. All signs indicate that it is in decline in all of its territories. Perhaps the IUCN should reconsider its classification: after all, it would look rather foolish if this graceful and gorgeous creature were to disappear in the wild under its nose. What a shame it would be if this beautiful cat was, in the future, only to be found behind wire.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon and Species Extinction in America

This is a rough cut of a proposed documentary by David Mrazek but you can see from this fifteen minutes or so that the finished product is going to be something really special. It tells the story of the demise of the great American species the Passenger Pigeon, the numbers of which went from the billion to none by the early twentieth century.

It details not only how the destruction of the species was speeded up by what amounted to industrialised harvest but warns that we are still doing the same thing to the planet – and depriving future generations of possibly countless species.

The documentary points out that at least our ancestors had the benefit of ignorance (with which I disagree a little it has to be said – that is letting them off the hook too easily!) yet that is something we most certainly do not have.

This documentary is already extremely well put together and I really look forward to seeing the complete version. The story of the Passenger Pigeon is tragic – if you have never heard of it you really should watch this eye opening film.

Saturday, 28 May 2011


This is simply stunning. Loom tells the story of a successful catch. A moth inadvertently flies in to a spider’s web and its fate is sealed. As it disturbs the web with its struggles so its nemesis advances upon it from behind. This will – hopefully – blow your mind, as it did mine!

It is the creation of Polynoid, the design and storytelling loving collaboration of Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck, Csaba Letay, Fabian Pross and Tom Weber.

Founded in 2007 as a creative platform and playground for their own films and experiments, Polynoid today uses that same spirit but combines it with the resources of a production studio. It looks, from this superb animation, to have a very bright future ahead of it.

Stinging Caterpillars of the United States

Caterpillars – the shapes and sizes that they come in and for many the urge to touch, pick up and hold is almost irresistible. Yet although most butterfly and moth larvae are quite harmless, preferring to curl up in a ball when threatened, some will make it quite plain that they do not like to be touched. They will sting: here is a selection of the stinging caterpillars of the United States.

The saddleback moth caterpillar, Sibine stimuli, pictured above has a 'face' that scares off many a potential predator. Yet it will also send you a definite message that it is unhappy with your sticky fingers on it. In a purely defensive tactic it will give you a sting that will dissuade you from picking up another. You can see the ‘horns’ that the caterpillar has on each end of its body – these are barbed spines which are also known as urticating setae.

The setae funnel poison from glandular cells.  When you pick up a saddleback some of the spines will stick in to your skin and break off from the caterpillar’s body.  The poison will then spill on to your skin.  Although it is a small almost invisible amount the results can be very painful.  You will get a rash and swelling – and if you have sensitive skin you may even need hospital treatment.

Put yourself in the position of the caterpillar.  If something many thousand times your size picked you up, you would want some sort of defensive capability, surely?  After all you do not want to enjoy your lunch, not be something else’s. Yet you might think that some of these caterpillars would never look like a tasty morsel in a million years. Take the one below, for example.

While the saddleback could possibly pass as a roll of sushi , the Hag Moth caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium) hardly passes for what you might expect a caterillar to look like – more like a leaf bound starfish than a caterpillar.  Yet pick it up and you will get a nasty surprise from this creature which is also known as the monkey slug. Perhaps if a monkey and a slug could possibly reproduce with each other this is what we might get.

This little guy is covered in setae and you will receive a nasty sting if you pick one up. If you live near the fields and forests of Florida to Arkansas, and north to Quebec and Maine then you might come across one of these on an apple or a walnut tree.  Leave him be is the best advice that can be given.

This caterpillar looks something like a tribble from Star Trek but do not let appearances be deceptive.  While it looks cute and fluffy this is the most dangerous stinging caterpillar in the US.   The larvae of the southern flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis) it is also known as the puss caterpillar.

However, if you come across something like this, which grows to about an inch long, do not touch it however much the temptation.  Even when the spikes molt they remain dangerous and a sting from this will leave you with a lifelong memory of agonizing pain.

The stinging rose caterpillar (Parasa indetermina) is very appropriately named.  It comes in a variety of colors but all of them have the pinstripe effect – four dark stripes down the back with a cream color in between.  It may look harmless, but touch at your peril!

Red spells danger and the Spiny Elm Caterpillar (Nymphalis antiopa) has a series of red dots on its back to tell predators to back off.  This, unlike most others in this collection, will turn in to a butterfly rather than a moth.

For added safety this caterpillar remains and feeds in groups, which makes it potentially more dangerous than many of the others featured here.  Can you imagine the consequences for Homer if the Simpson family came across a group of these on a camping trip?  Cue an appearance by Doctor Hibbert within minutes.

Although the adult is white, the caterpillar of the White Flannel Moth (Norape ovina) is black, yellow and orange and it feels nothing like flannel. This caterpillar has a particularly nasty sting despite its harmless appearance. Look out for it in Virginia to Missouri, and south to Florida and Texas.

Another caterpillar which does not look quite like our common idea of how one should appear is the Crowned Slug (Isa textula).  Its spines are arranged around its perimeter and act as a painful decoration around its flat body.  Found from Florida to Mississippi and up to Massachusetts it can also develop red or yellow spots along its back. Best to avoid this squat caterpillar if you come across one.

Everything about the Io Moth caterpillar (Automeris io) says don’t touch! Found from Canada all the way down to Texas this caterpillar should be approached with extreme caution. It has a multitude of branches coming off its body, all ready to sting in defense.

The eggs of this moth are laid in clusters, so the caterpillars are often seen together, looking more like the fronds of some peculiar alien plant than creatures.  Yet if you touch one you will soon realise that it is for real.

The White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma) is quite easy to spot because of its red head, with a black back and the yellow stripes down its side.  As well as having a nasty sting this caterpillar is considered a tree pest.  They will eat anything woody and decimate the area in which they breed and grow.

Found from Canada all the way down to Florida this ravenous little beasty can be found on pretty much any tree, both deciduous and evergreen.  It simply doesn’t care – it is one hungry and indiscriminate little caterpillar.  Remove it from its food source, however, and it will sting you.

The Buck Moth caterpillar (Hemileuca maia) is found in Maine all the way down to Florida.  A startling black and white color this caterpillar has a sting which is still visible up to two weeks later.

Let’s return finally to the White Flannel Moth (Megalopyge crispata).  Although it looks harmless enough this caterpillar will hurt – badly – as the photographer involved discovered when he picked one up. A good rule of thumb is if a caterpillar looks spiny, spiky or furry, do not pick it up as it most likely able to sting you.

Yet the aim of this post has not been to frighten the life out of you about caterpillars in general.  Most species of moth and butterfly caterpillars do not sting.  However, some have adapted to fight back when touched.  The best rule of thumb with any caterpillar is not to pick one up, just as much because they don’t like it very much than for our own sakes.

Amung Feedjit