Monthly Archives: May 2008

Alpacas

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a close relative of the fellow South American llama (same family, Camelidae, literally ‘the camel family in Latin’). The alpaca is much smaller than the llama, coming in at a bit over 100 pounds and under four feet tall at adulthood, whereas a llama may weigh as much as 400 pounds and be well over 700 feet tall.

Depending on your place of residence, perhaps you’ve seen ads late at night that extoll the glories of alpaca farming. According to these ads, the ‘alpaca lifestyle’ is an easy and extremely profitable one that beats the alpaca-fiber-pants off the suckers who actually work for a living. However, like most investment opportunities involving hoofed South American animals, raising alpacas may not be the cash machine that creepy on-camera testimonials claim it is. A quick internet search of the term ‘alpaca scam’ reveals all manner of aspersion cast upon the American alpaca industrial complex, from the obvious (there’s really not much of a market for alpaca wool in the US) to the conspiratorial (that it’s all a massive pyramid scheme that eventually has to collapse).

Might not be for you…if you like working for a living. Loser.

Animal Review does not take an official position on the ‘alpaca lifestyle’ and holds no positions in any alpaca stocks.

If you’re not a watcher of early-morning TV and like most people have no idea what all this is about, alpacas and human beings have coexisted for centuries. In South America (where they’re well-suited to a frigid, high-altitude lifestyle in the Andes Mountains), alpacas have been used as beasts of burden, for meat, and, most notably, for their fine fiber, which is considered much finer than llama fiber by people who pay attention to this kind of thing.

Phenotypically, an alpaca looks like a weird sheep/horse/goat mix, and indeed many leading researchers believe that this is precisely whence they originated well over 20,000 years ago, somewhere on the Eurasian steppes. Following a horrifying series of mating errors between sheep, a horse, and some goats, the newly-minted alpaca hopped a land bridge to South America, where it was immediately beloved for its agreeably stupid disposition, which, again, squares well with the notion that they are the products of interspecies breeding that should never have occurred.

Weirded out yet?

Long story short, alpacas became big in the Incan Empire, where wealth was in part demonstrated by the number of alpacas one owned. And here’s where the dumb alpaca has a lot to answer for: only fourteen large animals have been ever been successfully domesticated: sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, Arabian camels, Bactrian camels, llamas and alpacas, donkeys, reindeers, water buffalos, yaks, Bali cattle, and Mithans (a type of ox).*

Of these, llamas and alpacas are the only New World domesticates.**

So flash-forward to 1532, when Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and 168 of his men show up with horses in what is now Peru. And in about one day, the Spanish and their horses defeated thousands of Incan fighters in open battle, captured the Incan god-king Athualpa, and generally made Spain look awesome.

Their stunning victory was in large part due to the Spanish caballeros, who rode into battle astride their massive steeds, terrifying the Incans, who of course had never before seen horses. So frightening were the warhorses that even the Conquistadors themselves were scared of what they had gotten themselves into. Recalled one of Pizarro’s men: ‘We really whipped our horses into a frenzy, and quite honestly, I was worried Old Kicky would freak out and throw me off him. But he was pretty cool about it.’

Anyway, while the Spanish horses were conquering an empire, the Incans’ alpacas were standing around looking for some more grass to eat.

Thanks.

Between the generally creepy appearance, suspect breeding, alleged pyramid schemes, and allowing an ancient empire to be defeated in an afternoon, alpacas have a lot to answer for.

GRADE: F

*c.f. Jared Diamon’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which you can also rent in DVD form from Netflix and pretty much get the jist of.

**This does not include dogs, which is probably good, since let’s not lump in dogs with alpacas.

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Wildebeests

Part ox, part horse, and entirely traumatized, the wildebeest (genus Connochaetes, lit. ‘Hamburger of the Serengeti’) is welcomed to Animal Review. Please say hello (and probably goodbye while you’re at it). Like all things in the life of the wildebeest, this review will probably not end well.

Rare photo of a wildebeest not being disemboweled.

As you’ve no doubt noticed on the Discovery Channel, the wildebeest is nature’s punching bag. As a species, it pretty much exists as a proving grounds for the weapons of evolution. Indeed, the wildebeest spends the majority of its time testing the efficacy of teeth, claws, beaks, maws and neurotoxic venoms for an impressive roster of high-profile clientele on the African continent. But it’s a living, and the wildebeest makes the most of it. As far as being willing to take collective hits repeatedly and still get up and go to work the next day, the species is second-to-none. Boston-based defense contractor Raytheon would do well to consider the wildebeest for upcoming trials of the next-generation Tomahawk cruise missiles. They probably wouldn’t mind.

Actual passport picture of a wildebeest.

If wildebeests have any philosophy, it’s definitely safety in numbers. They’re always running around in herds, literally stepping over each other to avoid a macabre tragedy at some murky river’s edge. Their social arrangements are akin to freshman nerds in high school, hanging together in the back of the lunchroom, gripped with relentless terror that a jock (lion) will pick on them (eat them).

The month of May kicks off their enormous seasonal migration in which more than one million wildebeest leave the Serengeti in search of more dry grass to eat somewhere else. The migration is their Memorial Day weekend, except in this case, they play the role of both the cars on the freeway and the meat on the barbeques.

Honk if you’re hungry.

Whilst the migration may not always bring good fortune to the wildebeest, it does serve a relatively useful purpose for Mother Earth. One million wildebeest charging out of the Serengeti and making moving pit stops along the way is essentially a giant conveyer belt of fertilizer. They tramp down the grass, add some nitrogen-rich nutrients to the soil and presto: A nice new lawn for Africa. Plus, their ever-present rotting carcasses add that certain je ne sais quoi to the ecology of the grassland. Say what you will about the wildebeest, they take this recycling stuff seriously.

Moreover, just because the life expectancy of a wildebeest is a few hours doesn’t mean that we should dismiss it lightly. They have an important, tragic job (feeding pretty much everyone), and they do it with grace and aplomb. And like the nerds in high school, there’s at least a moderate chance that we’ll all end up working for them someday.

Grade: B-

Amoebas

Been waiting on a review of a seemingly pathetic animal like amoebas?

Waiting to see amoebas get torn apart on Animal Review?

If so, you’re not alone. Literally millions of readers have written in to request a review of amoebas.

Here’s the thing: this is an animal review, and amoebas aren’t animals.

They’re protists (Kingdom Protista). Totally different kingdom from Animalia.

So everyone calm down.

Not an animal. Sorry dude.

Also – rumors around the blogosphere of a soon-to-be-launched Protist Review are completely untrue. There is no Protist Review, nor plans of any kind for one.

GRADE: N/A

PROTIST REVIEW GRADE: A+++++!!!

Sloths

The extant sloths include six arboreal mammal species of Central and South America and are best-known, quite literally, for their profound sloth.

Sloths are either two-toed (genus Choloepus, or ‘I’m good here, thanks’) or three-toed (genus Bradypus, or ‘I’m good too, but you guys go on up ahead and I’ll be here when you get back’).

Regardless of their number, all sloth toes are dedicated to not moving.

Until relatively recent geological times (give or take an epoch), large ground sloths inhabited South and North America. These were probably hunted to extinction by our ancenstors, who realized too late that it’s kind of lame to hunt animals that move five feet per minute.*

Indeed, recent fossil evidence suggests that prehistoric man often found himself having this conversation with prehistoric woman:

‘Did you have a good day hunting, honey?’

‘Yeah. I killed like eighty ground sloths.’

‘Oh good for you. That’s really neat.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘What’s what supposed to mean?’

‘Saying that killing ground sloths is “neat.”‘

‘I mean I’m happy for you. Good for you.’

‘You think it’s easy to kill these ground sloths?’

‘Not at all! I’m saying good for you for sticking with something that barely moves. It shows you’ve got good sense.’

‘Oh, would you be happier if I went after saber-toothed tigers?’

‘I’m not saying that!’

‘Fine! I’ll go try to kill a saber-toothed tiger tomorrow!’

‘Honey, that’s not what I mean-”

‘I know what you mean!’

‘Fine, go get yourself eaten by a saber-toothed tiger!’

‘I will!’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

[SILENCE]

‘Can you help me get these sloths inside the cave? They’re pretty heavy.’

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much why sloths live in trees.

This ground sloth realized far too late that climbing this tree was a good idea.

The sloths that survive today, they are, to put it plainly, awesome. They are slow-living, slow-breathing reminders that it’s better to work smarter than harder. Or to not work at all. Or to barely move anywhere, ever. Whatever you do, don’t even bother getting wound up about stuff. Take your time. Think. Breathe. Barely move. Everything’s cool.

If the moral of the story of the tortoise and the hare is that ‘slow and steady wins the race,’ the moral of the story of the sloth is that the only race is the one against having to be in races.

Just how slow are sloths? Slow enough to be the only animal named after a Deadly Sin.** Perhaps this was done originally to shame the sloth into getting a move on, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure (the wireless router is down). What is certain is that the word sloth dates from the Middle English slouthe, meaning ‘slow’ or ‘not fast.’

From the ground up, literally everything about sloths is slow. It’s as though they really want to rub it in our faces about how chilled out they are. For instance, most of what they eat are leaves, and sloths have very slow stomachs with multiple compartments that slowly break down cellulose. Indeed, towards that end sloths get symbiotic bacteria to do much of the work for them, like your manager who gets you to pull all-nighters to finish the Greevy presentation and then takes all the credit in the meeting. On a given day (and let’s just assume that for a sloth, most days are about the same) as much as two-thirds of a sloth’s weight is its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete.

Why rush?

Sloths have a novelty-slow metabolism and keep their body temperatures lower than would otherwise be advisable. They also have very little muscle compared to similarly-sized animals, but you don’t need muscles when you don’t move. Checkmate.

Indeed, sloths are so unapologetically slow that their hair is often covered with a coat of blue-green algae during the rainy season. And while this might seem to most people to be a embarrassing protozoan reminder of a sloth’s sloth, it actually works out in their favor: the algae provides camouflage. Yet again, the sloth makes a powerful case for not trying.

Can you see me? I couldn’t care less.

And their case is bolstered by success. Sloths can account for as much as two-thirds of the mammalian biomass in their range. Just like your brother accounts for two-thirds of the mammalian biomass in your parents’ basement. Maybe he’s been on to something all along.

You gotta hand it to sloths: they get it done. And in the case of sloths, ‘it’ is nothing. Which is how sloths like it.

In short, sloths earn respect in their stubborn refusal to get caught up in the rat race of life. They have no interest in moving, and when they have to, they protest by moving as slowly as possible.

My life with leaves.

Most importantly, the success of the sloth gives us permission to feel better about our own gluttony and envy. In other words, if fully embracing their worst instincts works so well for sloths, then why not for us?

GRADE: A (for everything but effort)

* Ground sloths were actually massive, about the size of a modern bull elephant, and had massive claws. Hats off to anyone who wanted to go after them.

**A pride of lions doesn’t count. Nor does a greed of tigers.

Ostrich

There are about 40 species of flightless birds on this planet and the ostrich (Struthio camelus) has to be the biggest joke of them all. Everything about this awkward avian is a study in deep irony.

For example: The ostrich made a valiant effort to rise above its flying disability by becoming the world’s fastest-running bird. On level ground, it can hit a top speed of 40 miles per hour. One can only imagine the look on the ostrich’s face the moment it realized the cheetah is one of its natural predators. When the world’s fastest land animal is chasing you at 70 miles an hour, the ability to outrun other birds must offer very little in the way of consolation. Especially when other birds are flying away from said cheetah.


Oh Struthio camelus, will you ever learn?

Here’s another one: Due in large part to its inability to fly (or run fast enough), the ostrich was nearly hunted into extinction by the middle of the 20th century. Today, ostriches are no longer on the endangered species list. But only because they’re being farmed on a worldwide, industrial scale for ostrich burgers, ostrich leather goods and ostrich feather dusters.

Another irony: though their big adaptation is speed, ostriches look really ridiculous when they run, like old women being chased from a Bridge game. Whatever speed they achieve is far outweighed by the fact that they look so stupid. Gym class is a hellish memory for many an adult ostrich.

Saved from extinction. Dig in.

It’s also amusing that the one thing ostriches are most ridiculed for is something they don’t even do. When faced with a threat, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. Nope, doesn’t happen. Totally apocryphal. Check Google. The best scientific evidence suggests that what ostriches do when faced with a threat is get devoured or turned into a $2,000 Hermes purse, or both.

Fight or flight? Let’s be purses.

Tempting as it is to fail the ostrich, we must consider a mitigating circumstance. The fossil record demonstrates that ostrich-like birds date back to the mid-Eocene epoch around 44 million years ago (mya). Obviously, their survival relied heavily on dumb luck and fortuitous twists of fate.

Their luck and strange-but-quick running ability make the ostrich the Forrest Gump of birds, and its grade reflects its semi-endearing characteristics.

GRADE: B

Flies

Flies are a good example of everything wrong with Nature: it allows all manner of horrible, awful creature to run around and thrive in muck.

Shame on you, Nature.

Why even get into it? There’s no way to argue that flies have any kind of redeeming qualities whatsoever. They buzz, land on garbage, and bite. They are filthy, horrible, awful bugs. Synonymous with disease, given to mischief, and without any sense of propriety, flies deserve our deepest scorn.

Nature’s secret shame.

Buzz, buzz, buzz, rub, rub, rub, fly, fly, fly, ANNOY, ANNOY, ANNOY. Thus is the life of a fly.

Sure, you say, but what about biodiversity? Feh to biodiversity.

A great first step towards fixing what ails the world would be to get rid of flies.

GRADE: N/A (F-)

P.S. Allegedly maggots (fly babies) are useful in medicine because they eat dead (gangrenous) tissue while leaving the living tissue alone. This doesn’t even come close to making up for how horrible flies are.

Aardvark

The aardvark (Orycteropus afer) makes its home in southern Africa and is a solitary, nearly-hairless mammalian omnivore with an average lifespan of 11 years and a rather transparent interest in being first on alphabetized lists.

First!

The aardvark goes by a few different nicknames (‘anteater,’ ‘antbear,’ ‘antscarfer,’ ‘antchugger,’ ‘antmuncher,’ and ‘antaardvark,’ as well as ‘Gary’ (we’re assuming) to its friends). Its real name derives from Afrikaans/Dutch words that translate to ‘earth pig.’ The pig part is obvious, although aardvarks share no close phylogenetic relation with swine. The earth adjective doesn’t seem to add much in the way of description. You are an earth person. This is an earth animal review. No help there. Whatever.

Maybe the earth in earth pig refers to the aardvark’s extreme tendency to burrow. Don’t judge. If you lived in Sub-Saharan Africa with all those lions, leopards and snakes wandering around, and you weren’t exactly Florence Griffith-Joyner in the savanna grass, and plus you looked like you might taste like bacon, you’d dig like a bastard too.

It is precisely because of its burrowing that the aardvark holds a special place in the hearts of biologists and tiny rodents alike. In fact, like the affable sea otter (sea otter, B+, Animal Review, 5/6/08), the aardvark is considered a keystone species. Why? It offers an important service. Frequent burrowing means lots of holes in the ground. And lots of holes in the ground means lots of great places for small animals to hide when the wind smells of Panthera leo.

It’s kind of like when your roommate’s girlfriend or boyfriend comes over all the time and never leaves, so you call your buddy and hang out with them. You have buddies, African animals have aardvarks. QED.

Is she gone?

Another respectable thing about aardvarks is they love to sleep in. On a typical day, the aardvark will emerge from its earthly burrow around the crack of sundown to get busy hunting for termites and ants, which it sniffs out with its enormous porcine snout. On a typical evening, a single aardvark might eat 50,000 insects, scooping them up with a thick, sticky tongue or sucking them in like a giant dust buster. Ants and termites blow, so everyone’s cool with that.

Hakuna matata.

One last thing: despite the nickname “anteater,” and the fact it eats ants, the aardvark is not related to the South American anteater. Aardvarks are order Tubulidentata. South American anteaters are order Pilosa, suborder Vermilingua.

Please stop confusing that. It makes you look bad.

GRADE: B