Posts Tagged 'reptiles'

Crocodiles of the World

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Morelet’s Crocodile

Recently I took a trip up to this unusual establishment in Oxfordshire on something of a whim. I’d been planning to go for quite a while but the opportunity came up and I wanted to make the most of it so headed over (so apologies to various people who I’d been muttering to about arranging a trip up there). I did not actually know what to expect really, but did know that it was a small operation and that they had lots of the smaller, and very much lesser seen, croc species. I’ll enjoy any good zoo, but there are generally only so many Celebes macaques or Asian short-clawed otters you can see, and filling in on a raft of the crocs not yet present in the crocodilian panoply made it a likely hit.

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Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman

It is indeed a pretty small outfit, but what there is available, is very well presented (the signs are numerous and excellent) the enclosures are great and spacious, and the animals in great condition and clearly breeding well and behaving naturally. It is not going to be a full day for anyone and even a reptile obsessive is unlikely to be able to spend more than a few hours there, but it is reasonably priced and thanks to numerous and well placed viewing areas, it’s almost impossible not to see every animal pretty well. Best of all, there are numerous small talks and feeding sessions scheduled for every day, so no matter when you go, there’s going to be some extra information and a chance to grill the knowledgeable and engaging staff.

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Yacare Caiman

There are a pair of macaws and several large tortoises and a few terrapins knocking around, in addition to some nice lizards (including the biggest varanids that are not Komodo’s I’ve ever seen) and a monstrous python, but obviously we are really here for the crocs. A total of 14 species are on show and most of them are not commonly kept in zoos and are hard to see at the best of times. Sure there’s a couple of American alligators, and Nile crocs and some not uncommon ones in the spectacled and black caiman, and West African dwarf croc and the endangered-but-often-in-zoos Chinese alligator. There were also more unusual ones like both Siam and Cuban crocs and a group of three salties. Then we get into the real rarities – Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, Morelets’ crocodile, blunt-snouted caiman, Scheneider’s dwarf caiman and finally the stunning Yacare caiman.

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Schneider’s Dwarf Caiman (or smooth fronted caiman)

Almost all of these were in at least pairs, and generally there were more than that. In the case of the Niles, they were in a huge pool since there were more than 30 of them (though all were only a meter or so long). Obviously most of these are small species even when they max out, but the biggest Siam and big alligator were at the 3 m mark and every big the major carnivore you expect at that scale and were very impressive. Despite the usual level of activity in crocs (especially with winter coming, even in a heated environment) plenty were moving around at least a little, and the feeding times stimulated plenty of activity, and I was able to see crocs high-walking, belly crawling, juveniles calling to their parents, some low-level aggression between individuals, and best of all, some of the Niles rocketing up out of the water to take food.

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Broad Snouted Camian

I do think people going expecting a full on zoo, or anything like a normal reptile house might be, if not disappointed, then at least surprised. This really is 90% croc, but that’s in no way a criticism, and the excellent set ups and the animals were a real joy. As someone who does like to target species I’ve not seen before, it was a real revelation, a good half dozen that were new to me, and plenty more I’d seen only occasionally (I’d not seen a Cuban croc before this year, only seen a Siam once before). Moreover with the good signs and all the animals in one place, it was really easy to compare them to one another and get a real feel for some of the differences and how they line up to one another. If reptiles are in any way your thing, this really is something that should be on a to-do list and it’s a great addition to the UK collections.

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Black Caiman

Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson

Professor John R. Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Specialist in the evolutionary biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion, with a particular focus on body size influences on posture and movement.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I was passionate about reptiles from an early age; “dockadile” was one of my first words; so of course dinosaurs became a natural fixation, and I went through the usual palaeontologist cycle of forgetting about dinosaurs during puberty then falling back in love with them in college. What kickstarted my more intellectual love affair with dinosaurs in college was reading and later watching Jurassic Park, taking a bunch of classes in evolution and later palaeontology, and reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” book in my final undergrad year, while working as a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Geological Museum (helping w/nice mosasaur fossils). The vivid animations in Jurassic Park (the movie) and Paul’s book, along with a class I’d taken on functional morphology/biomechanics, got me really interested in dinosaur locomotion, and that led soon enough into my PhD at Berkeley. The rest is history (infamy?).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

From my own work, I think my favourite paper is the paper that I recently published in Science on the evolution of false sixth toes (predigits) in elephants. We integrated data from dissections, imaging, histology, fossils, biomechanics and phylogeny in a way none of my prior studies had really achieved and went in a direction that was a novel step for my research, enabled by a great collaborative team. That was an incredibly fun project and came out of left field from just dabbling around with research, as I like to do, until I stumbled across a neat story. Yet I still have a fondness for my “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner” 2003 Nature paper, which more or less established my career and happened during a very challenging year in my life. That paper was basically what I set off to do when I started by PhD in 1995, so it was very satisfying to see the final payoff (and actually end up doing the same PhD project I originally aimed to do, which is uncommon in the USA).

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

My field encompasses both neontological and palaeontological research; I think the boundaries between these disciplines are very limiting for both; so the discoveries I value the most are those that transcend these traditional boundaries. It is hard to put a finger on just one favourite but off the cuff, I think the work that Larry Witmer’s team has done on reconstructing cranial anatomy in dinosaurs is the most important multidisciplinary work of our time – it shows how far you can get with good anatomy, and how rigorous the science can still be when reconstructing soft tissues. In a way, I’d put that ahead of the feather discoveries. In my related field of biomechanics, the way that dynamic models of the musculoskeletal system have matured into very rigorous computational tools is incredibly exciting and beginning to have massive payoffs that are bound to continue well beyond our lifetimes.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details. For now, anyway. I say “for now” because now we’re up against a fundamental lack of understanding of how living animals work, which impedes how far we can get with reconstructing extinct animals, leaving a serious danger of constructing a lot of houses-of-cards in this area. That is why I urge palaeontology-type researchers I work with to contribute both to our understanding of living animals, for their own sake, as well as to our inferences about extinct animals. For palaeontology to proceed much further, we need to push neontology forward, and unite these disciplines more strongly. I’m profoundly tired of “us vs. them” arguments in both fields, such as molecules “vs” morphology; the latter is an analogous example of how people waste time defending their disciplinary territory. There’s just one life science; one history of life on Earth; get over it and work together where necessary to find the one answer. Similarly, in biomechanics there’s a lot of guff about theoretical “vs” experimental methods and which is better science. The focus on questions often gets forgotten. So, unity is what I’m preaching, because it will lead to questions getting answered.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

A quick shopping list:

-Don’t trust your supervisor; after a year or so of your research you probably know more than them. Challenge their authority, objectively.

-Read the crappy science as well as the good science. It makes you a better critical thinker.

-Push yourself to be a questions-researcher, not just a methods-producer (or worse yet, just a user). Methods are ephemeral; answers can be eternal (if you’re lucky).

-Defy disciplinary boundaries. Never let someone tell you “don’t do that, you’re a palaeontologist.” Define your own identity as a researcher; scoff at labels. BUT…

-Know your limits; that’s what a young researcher is probing. Reach out to work with others that complement your skills, rather than try to do everything yourself.

-Push yourself to value scientific and professional integrity. I’m no saint either, but people do get known for being honest and fair in their scientific and professional lives.

-“Work-life balance” is nonsense. Practice work-life integration; boundaries can be fluid. Science is about an all-consuming passion for the natural world; it shouldn’t be contained within 9-5 working hours or it gets stale. Nor should it prevent you from having fun, including taking breaks to “refuel” when your Science-Fu levels are low. In these days of a terrible job market, the competition is insanely tough so you need to work efficiently and prioritize what is best for your career (which may be best for your life in a broader sense).

-Be incredibly ambitious, but with full recognition that your “5-year plan” will last your whole career, and everything in science takes immensely more time than almost anyone thinks it will.

A panoply of extant crocodilians

I have always liked crocodilians, but as a child only ever saw the odd large American alligator in a zoo or Nile crocs on TV. For a very long time I had no idea just how diverse the living crocodilians were and despite my interest in all things vertebrate would probably struggle to name more than a handful of species.

A combination of getting to a lot more zoos, and zoos generally becoming more eclectic in their collections means that I have now seen more than a dozen species at one time or another (though only two or perhaps three in the wild). For a while I’ve been building up a collection of photos of various taxa with a mind to doing some form of identity quiz. Darren Niash planned to host it at one time, but the last time we mentioned it was two years ago now I think, so I doubt I’m causing him any great problems by doing it here.

So, below the fold are a ton of croc photos from various zoos (sadly not all of them are great images for various reasons but should be good enough). Not all are different taxa (and nor are the photos of a given species consecutive), but there are around 10 different species represented here. Feel free to try and guess what they all are in the comments and more importantly, lots of crocs: cool!

Continue reading ‘A panoply of extant crocodilians’

Western Interior Seaway

Well we’ve been through a whole load of pterosaurs and dinosaurs over the last few weeks, but now it’s an opportunity to cover some of the other bits of the Carnegie. Starting with this superb corner dedicated to the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. There’s a mixture of mounts and murals and cases, and what a selection. I’m not normally too moved by the marine side of the Mesozoic but this was superb. Things I’d not seen before (my first icthyorniform bird) or only ever seen as casts (my first Archelon) or just impressive (the massive and incredibly mounted 3D fish skeletons). Great stuff.


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