Archive for the ‘Rodents’ Category

yellow-bellied marmot

A yellow-bellied marmot can’t predict the weather. Its cousin, the groundhog, can’t either.

I have not written anything about this in a while, but those of you who live outside of North America need to know something:

Every Candlemas, local news stations across the Anglo-American world will be covering a bizarre ritual. At the local zoo or wildlife center, some people with super-thick gloves will be annoying the resident marmot this morning. In my part of the world, it will be French Creek Freddie, a groundhog, who will be roused from his deep hibernation. He will be taken out into the broad daylight.

And somehow, it will be determined if he saw his shadow or not, and if he sees his shadow, then we’re in for six more weeks of winter.

The big ritual happens at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and it is supposedly based upon an German custom of annoying a badger or hedgehog on Candlemas for the same purpose. Neither species is found in Pennsylvania, although wandering American badgers have occasionally turned up in Western New York and even West Virginia.

So they went with the local marmot species as a stand-in. The one in Punxsutawney is called Punxsutawney Phil. There is already a livestream set up for his prediction this morning.

In Montana, a yellow-bellied marmot named Bitterroot Bill. He’s not exactly the ground of Pennsylvania, but if the groundhog of Pennsylvania is a stand-in for a badger or hedgehog, shouldn’t a yellow-bellied marmot do just as well?

At least Van Island Violet, an endangered Vancouver marmot, will be left alone to sleep through her hibernation. Canadians, at least on the West Coast, are nicer to their local marmot than most of us are.

Indeed, this is about the only day that groundhogs get any truck with people in my area. Groundhogs are agricultural pests, and during the hot days of summer, they are frequently used as target practice by those hunters with itchy trigger fingers or those who are starting to doubt their marksmanship skills.

But if you ever see the Candlemas rodents when they are roused from their winter naps, they are quite grouchy. That’s why the handlers have to wear such thick gloves. I’ve never hibernated, but I can imagine that being roused from such a state is pretty traumatic.

I’ve always thought this is a bizarre custom for several reasons:

One is that I can’t imagine the groundhog is looking for its shadow when it’s hauled out into the light. I don’t even know that groundhogs even know what shadows are. The main thing these animals seem to be caring about is why they can’t be put back to bed.

The second is that, um, if an animal sees its shadow, that means the sun is out. If the sun is out, then that will melt the snow, and I would think that the sun shining would be a sign that winter is on its way out.

I suppose I’m thinking this stuff out too much.  It is, after all, just a regional folk custom that went viral long ago.

Most people don’t even know that today is Candlemas, because it’s not an Anglo-Protestant holiday at all.

In North America, it is Marmot Day.

The national news will let us know what ol’ Phil saw. Of course, he won’t be interviewed. There will just a proclamation read, and the news will report on his prediction. The local news affiliates across the country will report on the local marmots, and we will go on our merry way.

And then the real meteorologists will produce their forecasts. People will follow those a lot more closely than the rodent predictions.

And we’ll go back to our lives. The marmots will go back to sleep. When the grounhogs arise in spring, the guns will go off as soon as the find the vegetable patch.

But for one day, they are feted, even if they are too grouchy and dazed to realize it.

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Homage to the Syrian hamster

golden hamster

Photo by Robert Maier.

It should be little surprise to readers of this blog that I have always been a bit into animals. My childhood dogs have featured heavily on this space, but the truth is I’ve had a wide variety of animals when I was a kid.

From grades 4-6, I was a hamster fanatic. At the time, it was very difficult for North American children to buy dwarf hamsters. The mainstay of the hamster world was the golden or Syrian hamster, and there were very few people breeding for docility in pet hamster strains. The goal was to produce as many different morphs as possible with very little regard to the temperament of the hamster.

As a result, many children from my generation have horror stories about biting hamsters.  Over my years of hamster keeping, I came to accept their bites as part of keeping them.

I got into hamsters rather on a lark. I was always reading the Barron’s pet guides, many of which were translations of German pet manuals, and the one on hamsters was written by Otto von Frisch.

hamster otto von frisch

This book created my hamster obsession.

The book was not just a pet care manual. It was full of anecdotes about pet hamsters, as well as discussions of scientific studies on their behavior.  It also talked a lot about the Central European ideas about hamster, for as I learned from that book, that there are hamsters native to Germany and Austria (the very large common hamster).  The species was well-known to farmers in the region as an agricultural pest and as a rather vicious creature that shouldn’t be messed with.  As someone who predominant ancestry is from that region, I was quite fascinated by these accounts.

And I knew I had to have a pet hamster.

After much pleading, I was given permission to get a hamster, provided I kept it at my grandparents’ house. My mother was an extreme murophobe, and I had to accept her conditions.

The first hamster I got was what was called a black-eyed cream. I named her Linda, because I was a child and thought that was a nice name.  And her variety may have been black-eyed cream, but her tendency to bite led to her receiving the moniker “the black-eyed bitch.”

I soon found that it was very easy to get hamsters. People were quite literally giving me new ones, including an old long-haired female that live for about two weeks then fell over dead from old age.

I longed, though, for a true “wild type” hamster.  I wanted one that was marked just as the wild ones are in Syria, with white cheek flashes and sabled golden coats.

I never was able to purchase such an animal. The closed I got was what was called a cinnamon hamster. She was marked just like a wild type, but she had no black hair at all on her pelt.

She had come from Walmart, where she had been kept in a cage with several banded hamsters. The banded ones were wild type in color, but they had a white band going through their mid-section. I had managed to get two females from that cage:  this cinnamon one and a banded one.

Two weeks later, the cinnamon hamster dropped pink babies all over her cage. Apparently, a male hamster had been kept with her, and she was just in the early days of her pregnancy when I got her.

In five days, their fur started to grow in. 9 were wild-type but banded, but one was wild type in full!

I didn’t understand my Mendel in those days.  The banded trait is dominant over the non-banded, and the wild-type markings are dominant over the cinnamon. Cinnamon bred to a banded wild-type would produce young that were banded wild-type, but if the wild-type were a carrier for a non-banded hamster, it is possible to get at least one in the litter that lacked a white band.

That’s what this hamster was, and I was instantly transfixed. I spent my summer that year handling hamster babies, knowing fully-well the stories of mother hamsters eating their young if they were stressed.

The young wild-type hamster was a male, and he became the tamest hamster I ever knew. I named him Houdini, after a children’s book I had read, but he really didn’t live up to his namesake. He escaped a few times– always because I left a latch on the cage a little loose– but he was easily recovered.

One time, he did escape and was gone for several days. I was certain that he had wandered out of the house and had eventually fallen prey to some nocturnal predator.

I had all but given up on him, so I sat with a heavy heart in my grandparents’ guest room watching Nature on PBS.  I heard some rumbling sounds in the wall.  I thought I was hearing things, but the rumbling sound grew louder and louder.

I then caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Houdini crawling along the side of the wall. He stopped and sniffed the air, and he scurried right up to me and let me pick him up.

My childhood mind said that Houdini came to me because he loved me. My adult mind now recognizes that Houdini recognized me as a source for food. He had spent several days wandering around the walls of my grandparents’ house and had become famished in his freedom. He caught my scent on his evening travels, and he came to me to figure out if I might have some food.

But a child’s mind saw Houdini as the Lassie of the hamsters. He’d come home out of the walls just because he loved me.

Despite that childhood flight of fancy, the hamsters taught me much. I learned what it was like to be around an animal that utterly has no use for humanity.  Dogs and horses are personable animals, but a hamster is solitary, remote, and mostly nocturnal (at least in captivity).

The world they reveal is a world in which territory matters the most. The males have greasy scent glands on their hips that they rub along their tunnels to mark their realms.  The females have a musty odor, and when they are receptive to males– every four days if not bred–they get quite stinky indeed.

I got to where I could tell if a female hamster was receptive just by the intensity of the odor. This odor is an adaptation to a species with such hyper territorial behavior that they are forced to live pretty far from each other. The strong estrus odor of a female hamster is necessary to announce to the male that it is okay for him to enter her territory and mate with her. When she is not receptive, she will attack any hamster, male or female, that comes near. In this species the females are bigger and fatter than the males, and males that don’t heed the odors wind up with a dangerous situation indeed.

These captive hamsters– all derived from a single litter captured near Aleppo in the 1930s– opened my eyes to another world.

The solitary Syrian hamster lives and breeds well in captivity, but it is still mostly a wild animal. In the past few years, breeders have produced truly more docile strains of hamster, but I knew them in the raw.

In fact, I think that if I were ever to be a hamster keeper again, I would try to get a little more of the more rugged strain. I would not be buying a cute pet for the kids. I would be be buying an animal that I wish to appreciate as a wild being with its own instincts and drives and desires.  I would want to be the naturalist hamster lover again. I would keep them with the cool detachment of an adult who understands animal behavior and not the childhood anthropomorphism or “cynomorphism” that turned them into furry people or severely debased dogs.

The Syrian hamster will always mean a lot to me. They were terrible pets for the typical child, but they were the ideal subjects for a budding young naturalist who needed to know animals that weren’t dogs or horses.

They opened my mind to something else, and I will always appreciate them for their indifference and their solitary grumpiness and their general remoteness.


This is my contribution to Rodent Week.






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Nearly a year after her TTA, Miley is back in action. She’s 8 years old, but she runs and looks like she’s five.

In past week, she’s dispatched a full grown rabbit and this chipmunk.

miley chipmunk

Golden retrievers never like to get dirty…


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Miley treed a squirrel today, but after it took to the trees, it let loose quite few alarm calls:


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I came across this little melanistic gray squirrel today, and naive as he is, he just sat there on that white oak branch and let me take a few photos and a few seconds of video of him.


In this particular stretch of woods there are black variants and normal gray variants, but they come in more color variants than I can describe here.

Eastern gray squirrels have two litters per year. This one was born in the late winter winter litter.  Its mother is likely already pregnant with her midsummer litter which will be born some time next month.

As I mentioned, I did get a little bit of video of this squirrel before he darted off:


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I’ve had several people ask me about this article that appeared on a Finnish news website about introduced North American beavers losing their damming instinct. The story goes as follows:

Canadian beavers were introduced to Finland in the 1930s after the indigenous European beaver population had been hunted to extinction in the 19th century.

There are now an estimated 10-thousand beavers in the country, up to half of them in the South Savo region.

Population pressures, competition for living space and food, have brought more into large waterways such as Lake Saimaa. With a surface area of 4,400 square kilometres, Lake Saimaa provides plenty of room to spread out.

Beavers usually build damns in rivers and streams, to create ponds where they build their lodges. Those who have moved into Lake Saimaa, have had to adapt to a lifestyle of fluctuating water levels, rather than damming and regulating the waters themselves. In the process, they seem to have lost the desire to do so.

These beavers now create burrows or dens for themselves along the shores of the lake.

“They have had to adapt so that if the water level of Lake Saimaa falls, they change dens and diets. They change locations, and then if the waters rise too high for their dens, then they abandon them and build new dens higher up the shore,” explains Risto Hirvonen, a member of a local hunting club.

None of this should be of any surprise to anyone who knows about North American beavers.

We tend to think that beavers always build dams and then build lodges with underwater entrances.

The problem with this popular conception is that is not an absolute.

Most beavers in West Virginia don’t build dams at all. Instead, they dig dens into the sides of the banks of rivers. These dens always have an underwater entrance, which can sometimes be exposed if the water level in the river drops.

We call these beavers “bank beavers.”

beaver bank den

A beaver bank den in Kansas. Source for the image.

Does this mean that these beavers have lost their damming instinct?

I am very skeptical.

My guess is that these animals in Finland are now accustomed to the constant water levels in Lake Saimaa, just as they become accustomed to constantly shifting water levels in relatively slow moving rivers in the United States.

There is a way to test this hypothesis scientifically.

Catch some beavers from known populations that engage in bank denning, Put them in an enclosure with shallow rapidly running water and give them some material to make a dam.  Measure how long it takes for them to build a dam, if they built it at all.

Then do the same with beavers from known dam-building populations and run exactly the same test.

Then you’ll actually know if they’re actually losing the instinct.

My guess is that North American beavers, which are among the most successful of all large rodents, which have been introduced not just to Europe but Tierra del Fuego as well, are pretty good at adjusting their behaviors to fit their surroundings.

That hypothesis seems to fit with what we already know about them.

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squirrel monkeys ride capybaras

At a zoo in Japan.

(From Frans de Waal’s Public Page on Facebook).

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I saw this while out on the Coyote Highway:

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You’ll not see another rodent with a skull like this.

All other rodents known to science have chisel-shaped incisors that meet in the front. These teeth grow continuously, and their continuous grinding keeps them sharp and pointed.

All other rodents know to science have molars for grinding down food.

This rodent has neither of these features.

This all sounds bizarre, but this skull belongs to a new species of rat that was discovered on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

This animal was just described to science yesterday in the journal Biology Letters.

If one looks closely at the skull, one can see that it has no molars– at all.

This is very weird for a rodent.

It has incisors. The bottom incisors look very much like those of normal rodents, chisel-shaped, but the top incisors are little fangs.

This new species captured by a team of researchers who set up “pitfall traps”– buried buckets that are level with ground that allow small animals to fall in.

The researchers caught two of them, but they didn’t know until they examined the skull of a dead specimen that they had such weird dentition.

These rats live in high-elevation forests that are covered in moss.

The rats have evolved to live entirely on earthworms.

Earthworms aren’t very hard, so the rats have lost their rodent dentition.

Their teeth are now “worm grabbers.”

Their only purpose is to catch the worm, when the rat sucks it out of the ground with its long muzzle.

The species has been give the name Paucidentomys vermidax. Paucidentomys means “few-toothed mouse,” and verimdax means “worm-eater.”

This new species, which has not yet been given a common name, is closely related to the shrew rats that are found only on Sulawesi and the Philippines. Indeed, this animal is itself a new species of shrew rat. Shrew rats are largely insectivorous in their diet. They still have the typical rodent dentition. They have simply evolved into the shrew’s ecological niche.

This one, however, has become quite specialized to eating only worms.

It’s really unique among all rodents.

No other species of rodent has evolved such bizarre dentition to accommodate such a specialized diet.

Evolution produces lots of bizarre things.

But this is one of the most bizarre.

From a lineage that has produced the most diverse and successful order of mammals on the planet largely through its peculiar dentition, a species has evolved that has totally lost that defining characteristic of its order.

No longer can we say that all rodents have grinding incisors and molars.

We can only say all rodents but one.

And that’s this little shrew-like creature from Sulawesi.

The few-toothed, worm-eating mouse!





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Northern and southern flying squirrels are interfertile species. I did not know this.

And just as the coyote is a major threat to the red wolf through hybridization, the southern flying squirrel is a threat to the northern species.

West Virginia has a unique subspecies of the northern flying squirrel called the Virginia northern flying squirrel. It is native to the forests of the High Alleghenies.

Now, when I was growing up, I once shared my bedroom with a small colony of southern flying squirrels.  To save them, I made the claim that these were the endangered Virginia northern flying squirrels.

Of course, they weren’t.


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