I. Akimushkin. The three anteaters. The porcupine that lives in the mountains. Hundred thousand dollars for a fur coat! Catch a chipmunk! More about the porcupines. In steppes and deserts. Underground. Welcome to your new home! The biggest!
The three anteaters. Giant, middle-sized, and small, or, correspondingly, in local languages - urumi, tamandua and miko dorado.
For the giant anteater, the prairies, fields and the edges of the rainforest are more likeable than the jungle depths. The tamandua has similar ecological habits, but it lives on the trees, while the giant anteater - on the ground.
The silky anteater (miko dorado, "golden dwarf", "night shine", "balsa flower", "praise God" - the folklore romance of names and nicknames!), this tiny animal is loyal to the jungles and rarely abandons the tree tops. It is barely bigger than a squirrel, with a naked "sole" at the end of its prehensile tail, to better grasp the tree branches. Without any hurry, but with unshakable confidence, it climbs trees during the nights, and with sharp claws the silky anteater breaks into nests of ants, termites, wild bees and wasps.
It doesn"t flee from its enemies. Stoically (both literally and metaphorically) it fights-off its attacker: grasping a branch with its tail and claws of its hind feet, it stretches upwards, reaching for the sky in a praying poise, ready to strike with the claws of its forelimbs.
The weight and dimensions of the anteaters: the giant - around two meters, 18-36 kilograms, the tamandua - slightly over a meter, 3-5 kilograms, the silky - 33-40 centimetres, 500 grams.
Teeth... The teeth are absent in both the mouth and the stomach.
The stomach - muscular, with hard lining, just as in chickens. It got "teeth", pebbles and sand picked up during the travels, which help to grind, squash and press the swallowed insects and berries.
The tongue. Long and thin like a cord, sticky and is able to move with amazing quickness, seek-ing insects in various tunnels in stumps and anthills. The giant anteater pulls in and out its tongue through the narrow crack of its mouth 160 times per minute! The length of this tongue is 61 cen-timetres (a record for land dwellers!).
The road back - from the mouth - for the ants is prevented by sharp, horny spikes on the roof of the mouth and the folds on the cheeks, a "scrapper". It"s unsurpassable: out of 30 thousand ants swallowed during the night, not one is able to escape back.
The defence. The giant anteater strikes with its forelimbs and its" three-inch claws can gut a dog with one blow. Even the jaguar and the puma are in no hurry to conflict with the giant anteater without a particular need: the strength of its two-stone body is disproportionally large.
The tamandua, when defending itself, sits and spreads its forelimbs to its sides. Whoever won"t appreciate the threat, will be struck by these sharp claws. To double their strength, the tamandua falls on its back and defends itself with all four limbs. At the same time, some sort of glands spreads around it a nasty stench. "Kaguare" - "the forest stinker" - is the tamandua"s native name.
Tamandua and the silky anteater sleep during the days in tree holes and on branches. The giant anteater - in shallow burrows that it digs under tree roots, every time in a new place. It is a nomad: in places uninhabited by people it wanders during the day as well, wherever its ever-smelling nose and clawed feet will carry it. It walks on the soles of its hind limbs and on the external surface of its front fingers, so that its claws wouldn"t get caught on the rough ground. Sometimes its nose and feet would lead the giant anteater to a river, and then, without a second thought, this animal goes swimming after the anthills that it imagines to inhabit the other shore. If it gets tired of walking and eating, the giant anteater sleeps in its burrow lying on its side, hiding its head between the forelimbs and using the magnificent tail for a blanket (the hairs on the tail reach 40 centimetres in question and have scales behind the hairs). The coloration disguises the sleeping anteater so well, that it is hard to notice in two steps away from it, although the sleeping burrow isn't deep: the animal fills it up to the edges.
The female of the giant anteater gives birth standing up. Then it lies down on the side, licks the infant and feeds it milk. The latter climbs onto the female's back by its own power. It carries the pup for a long time, even though in a month the young anteater can gallop by itself. In two years it forgets about its' infantile habits and leaves its mother forever. Its fur is coloured so cleverly, that when the young giant anteater is astride on its moth, it melds with it, interacting and continuing the design. It isn't easy to notice the small mammal on the big one.
The males of the giant and silky anteaters don't live with their offspring and females, but it's a different story with the tamandua. Both parents take turns feeding their offspring in a lupine style: via vomit of the stomach-ground insects. They take turns giving the young anteater rides, and while it is too young, they make leafy nests in tree holes.
The ranges of the anteaters: Central and South America, from Southern Mexico (tamandua and the silky) and Costa Rica (the giant) to Southern Brazil (the silky) and Northern Argentina (the giant and tamandua). On the west of the continent, in the Cordillera Mountains, there are no anteaters.
THE PORCUPINE THAT LIVES IN THE MOUNTAINS
No, we will not be leaving mountains just yet. We have a date with a porcupine. With a terres-trial; do not confuse it with the arboreal species. They are from a different family and will be discussed later.
A beast that is both homely as a pig and spiny as a hedgehog at the same time. Hence the name, porcupine (porcus - pig + spinus - spine).
It can ruin a tiger's entire life!
First, a necessary disclaimer: there are other non-arboreal porcupines, not from the genus of the common porcupine that has a dozen species. But they will be discussed later, when we will come down. Right now we are in the mountains. Upon 'Africa's green hills', or somewhere above the Mediterranean Sea - in Italy, Sicily, in Algiers, still lives the 'crested', or Indian, or European porcupine. To tell the truth, it is hard to meet it in Europe. In this part of the world, the zoos probably outnumber free-living porcupines. These animals still live in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. That is why we are in Turkmenia, or better yet - in Iraq.
Mountains. The stones are so hot that they best not be touched with bare hands. But the porcupine loves warmth. It prefers solitude, and to see it, one must climb higher, to the very cliffs, to dangerous accumulations of rock, where it lives in cracks and caves. However it happens that the porcupine lives in the lowlands, even in sand, in soft soil, rather in it directly, since there the animal remembers that it is still a rodent and digs burrows.
But here is the porcupine. Something must have bothered it, otherwise it would not emerge from its retreat. Usually the porcupines wander only at night, waddling and rattling spines. They adore getting into fruit and vegetable gardens, where their most beloved foods are melons and corn. The spines of the porcupine are long, very thick (some are the size of a pencil!), sharp. Basically, the only weapon of the porcupine, though its teeth can easily chew through wire netting.
The spines are held by a special muscle and easily separate from it, therefore for a long time it was believed that the porcupine can throw them. Having previously rattled its spines as a warning, the porcupine - in a fast, short lunge (backwards!) sticks the spines into an enemy's body with such a force, as if they were arrows launched from a good bow. A young farmer in Tajikistan received such a spine as a 'gift' from the porcupine, right in the palm. The spine took its time being extracted.
No arguments, this is a powerful weapon, but apparently the beast's opinion of it is exaggerated. It does not stand aside even for a car. It will stand on the road, stamping its short hind legs and oink: don't approach or I will strike! And it will rattle the bristling quills.
One must suppose that that does not indicate a big brain.
Then again, such habits did pay off for millions of years... The meat of the porcupine is excellent, the Italians simply adore it. Nevertheless, modern tigers or leopards are strongly advised to go around the porcupine standing in their way. A quill will stick in the face or a paw - who will pull it out? Doctor Doolittle? How many times the aftermath of such wounds was more than sad: the helpless, suffering predator became a man-eater, i.e. signing its own death warrant.
That is the porcupine.
In places the female gives birth to two litters during the summer, each having two, three, or even five offspring. The pregnancy, apparently, is six, eight weeks long; the kits are born quite intelligent, with open eyes, with incisors ready to chew, and with quills. The quills, admittedly, are soft at first, but they grow longer and stronger faster than the kits themselves. By the tenth day they are so hard and sharp that one can hurt their hand on them. The mother is not very sensitive. When it will notice that the young are ready to fend for themselves, it leaves. Where to? Probably to search for a husband: in some zoos, after 90-100 days after the first little, the porcupine females gave birth a second time.
HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR A COAT!
'A gold bathtub or a fur coat?' - Few, but very rich women, possibly asked this hard question. Both a chinchilla fur coat and a pure gold bathtub are equally expansive to buy. Many million-aires bathe in gold, but a chinchilla fur coat can satisfy the vanity of just three of them. In any case, this was written in newspapers, (for example, in KP from March 16, 1965). The coats made from wild chinchillas was probably meant, which indeed cost 100,000 dollars.
The chinchilla, a little greyish rodent, is globally famous with its fur, which was given to it by nature. This astonishing fur is very resilient, dense, durable, soft and light, slightly heavier than thick silk. In color, it is silvery-grey with bluish and pearly tinge. However, there are brownish-grey chinchillas too. Fur coats made from chinchillas turn out to be truly elegant and each demands approximately 300 skins, (according to other data, 150 will do).
Before people recognized the excellent qualities of their fur, the chinchillas flourished in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Chile, from the sea level to heights of 5000 m. Only snow and ice stopped them in the highlands. The chinchillas were so trusty that like sparrows on Moscow's streets they ran under horses' hooves. In a day, you could count thousands of them! Now they are rare highland animals. Each day the chinchillas bathe in volcanic ash to keep their coats clean. They cannot wet such an expensive creation of nature in water! Then again, where the chinchillas live, there is almost no water, those mammals never drink, says Dr. Heinemann.
1000 years ago, mountain natives of the Chinchas tribe were the first to try out the rare qualities of the chinchilla fur. In addition, when several centuries later the Incas conquered the Chinchas, the animals discovered by them inherited the name of the enslaved people. As centuries passed, migrating from one language to another, 'Chinchas' became 'chinchilla'.
Incas too appreciated the chinchillas' fur; it warmed them in cold winters and decorated the clothing of high priests and courtiers.
Then come other conquerors, Spaniards, and have defeated the Incas' kingdom with inhuman cruelty they began to rob it without second thoughts. They sent to Europe swarms of ships, loaded with gold, gems, and... chinchilla skins. In addition, in Europe the chinchillas became quickly appreciated, the request for the silvery fur was great. The kings had to make edicts that forbade the peasants to wear chinchilla. Rodent skins, in which the Chinchas dressed from neck to toe, from now on became the monarchs' prerogative. (According to other data, the first chinchilla skins came to Europe only in the 18th century, but this highly unlikely).
In the Andes, the chinchillas were hunted without any mercy, but they were so numerous, so that only in the beginning of the 20th century the little silvery animals became rare. Even in 1894, from Chile 400,000 chinchilla skins were exported, and just as much from Bolivia and Peru. At that time, a first rate chinchilla skin cost only... 13 dollars. Even in the beginning of the 20th century, in 1905, 216,000 chinchilla skins were exported from the Chile harbor of Coquimbo, and just 4 years later only 27,000. Their price immediately rose to 40 dollars. In 1930, a skin cost five times as much. In 1920, Chile and Peru released a low that forbade hunting chinchillas and exporting them.
An American, a mountain engineer Mathews Chapman, when he was working in the Andes, spent free time studying the habits of the wild chinchillas. In addition, he had the idea of breeding them on farms, as minks and foxes are.
Chapman persuaded Chile's government and was allowed in 1923 to take to the U.S. 11 live chinchillas. They well endured the journey and were in general very hardy and enduring animals. Chapman understood this watching them when he lived in the Andes. The chinchillas adjusted to the farms just fine and began to reproduce quickly. Norwegians, Canadians, and then the British as well began to breed chinchillas at their places.
Other countries too became interested in this moneymaking business. After WWII on America's and Europe's farms, according to Philip Street, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of chinchillas lived - basically the descendants of the few caught by Chapman in Chile.
The chinchillas - and no one expected that - economically and practically proved better for caged breeding than many other valuable fur-bearing mammals. They are very undemanding in food, (very fresh greens can kill them), and are not very glutinous. Keeping of one chinchilla costs just one pound of sterling a year, about two and a half roubles. They are enduring and fer-tile: they reproduce two-three times a year, in each litter is from 1 to 7 kits.
The pregnancy, however, is very long for such a small animal - 110 days. However, the females, haven given birth, in 12 hours can become mothers again. The kits too are born already quite adjusted. They almost do not need parental guidance: they run after few hours, eat plants after few days, are sexually mature from 5 to 8 months, and can live in captivity up to 20 years.
So that the chinchillas grow well, they need fresh sand for bathing. Every day, before eating, the chinchillas take sand baths. To acquire all of this is easy, of course.
Only there is a problem: in captivity, the chinchillas' quality of fur has changed (and not for the better), and its' color became too varied. It is hard to get pelts of a same color even for one coat.
Animal farms that deliver chinchillas' pelts onto the global market have lowered their prices, yet they are still quite high.
Meanwhile, the chinchilla is quite small; the length of the chinchillas brought from Chile by Chapman and bred on the farms is 25 cm. Those are the long-tailed or lesser chinchillas.
There is a second species of chinchillas - the short-tailed or greater chinchillas. Those are larger - from 30 to 38 cm long. Holst the Norwegian brought them in 1934 to his homeland. They too are bred on farms, (not as much as the long-tailed chinchillas and mostly in South America). The females of the long-tailed chinchillas are bigger than the males of their species and in the hierarchies of their natural habitats (chinchillas live in colonies, as the marmots do) are higher in status than the members of the opposite gender are. Some scientists believe that those two chinchilla species are just subspecies: their hybrids are quite common. The hybrid males are infertile, while the hybrid females, on the other hand, reproduce from the males of both species.
Finishing the story of the chinchillas, the author just wants to point your attention that the first time that the chinchillas came to the former USSR was in Uzbekistan in 1963. Later they were released into the mountains of Tajikistan, but so far, there is no information about them.
CATCH A CHIPMUNK!
It will quickly adapt to your apartment and you can be certain of acquiring a happy housemate.
It will never insult your sense of aesthetics: its appearance, its movement are flawless. The greyish-red coat is broken by five vertical black stripes and vertical stripes, at it is known, are slimming.
As for the movements, then they are worthy of students from the best ballet schools. The chipmunk may fly straight like a fluffy missile, or in a jump quickly change direction to left or right, up or down. And then suddenly it will stop, sit on its hind legs and look as haughty as a diplomat does. It will gladly sit on someone's hands, climb onto the shoulders, head.
It is very easy to feed a chipmunk. While it does favor cedar nuts, it also gladly eats acorns, berries, seeds of conifer cones, various plants, and also insects and molluscs. It is interested even in flowers.
By autumn the chipmunk will begin to worry about a nest and will built it from the material that it will come across, more often from paper. But this is an imitation, so to speak. In the wild the chipmunks are more practical. If there is a good burrow beneath tree roots - they will use it. If there is not - they will have to dig. The burrow does not have particular comforts: a corridor, side rooms for storage, a toilet, a living room. Everything that a solitary bachelor needs. Still, a male and a female were encountered in one winter burrow in the north European forests of former USSR.
A chipmunk is one of the owners of cheek pouches, a very convenient adaptation for moving small loads. The mammal fills them with nuts and hides the nuts elsewhere. Even if the chipmunk was caught as a youngster and apparently did not have anyone to teach him how to store food for winter, it will store them all the same. It is instinct.
The richer a harvest is, the more actively does a chipmunk store nuts and seeds. It carries them into its storage, often a kilometer away. It stores 3-4 or even 8 kg.
Now about its' hibernation. A chipmunk does not hibernate as solidly as a marmot does, say. It sleeps like a careful owner that remembers about its stored goods. It will wake up, eat several seeds, and as if assured that all is in order, there are no thieves present, it will fall back asleep. Incidentally, some advice for those, who want to acquire a chipmunk: the best place for its winter sleep is between double window frames, where it is not too cold or hot.
In short, catch a chipmunk. In Russian forests, especially Siberian, it is not rare. People say that there are such places where these striped mammals are found in hundreds over a square km. Still, they do live far away - from Holomogors and North Dvina, Vetluga, Kama and further on through the whole Siberia to Sakhalin and South Kuril Islands, but not on Kamchatka. In the last decades the scientists have established that the chipmunk is spreading westwards, albeit slowly. In North America there are 16-18 species of chipmunks from another genus. But, according to the opinion of other specialists, our and the American chipmunks share the genus instead.
MORE ABOUT THE PORCUPINES
Aside from the mountain-dwelling porcupine that we have already met, there are also other species, living mostly in the woodlands: the long-tailed and the brush-tailed porcupines of the Old World belong to the same family as the common porcupine does. But the American, or the arboreal species, belong to a different, special family.
The long-tailed porcupines are represented by two species: one lives on Borneo, the other - on Malaya and Sumatra. Their needles are short, thickened, and dexterous; the body is low-slung, long, and rat-like. And the tail is rat-like as well. It is naked almost all over, covered only with scales, but there's a small bristly brush on its tip. Many of those porcupines ended up in the zoologists' hands with broken-off tails. From this came a too-quick opinion that it's possible that these tails have a property known among the lizards - the autotomia.
The brush-tailed porcupines number four species: three in the tropical belt of Africa, one in South China, Indochina, and, possibly, on Sumatra. Externally they're very similar to the long-tailed porcupines. Only the naked central zone of the tail, covered with scales, is shorter, and the brush on its tip is longer and thicker. During the day they hide in caves, clefts, hollows. During the cold periods in the mountains some of them hibernate. They swim well, as, though, many other porcupines do, and are decent tree climbers, though they cannot be really called arboreal.
The arboreal species are all Americans: one species, the spiny-tailed, lives in the North (from Alaska and Canada to Northern Mexico), the ten others - in Central and South Americas. Eight of them belong to the Coendu tribe. Only those porcupines have grasping tails with naked skin on the inner side, approximately of the same type as of some South American monkeys. The North American porcupine, in self-defence, stabs with its spiny tail; all other arboreal porcupines do not have this means of self-defence. They live mainly on the trees, feed on vegetation. Usually there's only one kit per year, more rarely - up to four.
IN STEPPES AND DESERTS
The tundra has two sisters - the steppe and the desert. Many people find that they are very similar: all have endless horizons, all three have either an icy or a fiery haggardness, or generosity, bordering on liberality.
The steppe and the desert, separated from their grim sister by forests, mountains, valleys and seas, lie next to each other, so that sometimes you cannot distinguish where one ends, and the other begins. Hence, they have many things in common.
Firstly, the dryness. Nothing can be said about desert's lack of water, everyone curses the desert for this already. However, the steppe is not far behind: 20 cm of annual rainfall on the spaces of the pampas, the prairie, the Asian steppe. This is so small, cannot slake a sparrow's thirst.
Secondly, the heat. In the Karakum and in the Sahara deserts the soils heats to 70-80 degrees, something that the practical travelers used since long ago to quickly prepare boiled eggs. In the steppes, true, the ground is not as hot, but plus 40 in shade is common.
Thirdly, the cold. In the same red-hot Karakum in winter, the temperature dips to minus 30, and in the steppes beyond the Urals, it sometimes reaches minus 50.
And you can also add the treacherous daily shifts in temperature - in the Sahara they are up to 30 degrees - then you can unwillingly feel compassion for the poor Bedouins, who, it happens, after sweating all day long in their clothing, freeze at night, while hugging the warm sides of their camels.
However, this is not everything. Here is plenty of room for the winds. Some feeble breeze, having barely made it from a scraggly chaparral, once reaching the steppe, gathers strength, and in one to two hundred km tends to become a sukhovey, a simoom, a hurricane.
As you can see, the sisters are unpredictable, impulsive. This shows at their choice of clothing, too. If the desert, due to the scraggly soil, lack of water, and sharp changes in the temperature can be considered a strongly undressed character, then the steppe goes from one extreme to the other, from 'maxi' to 'mini'.
However, both of them are beautiful once per year. In spring - in Eurasia and Africa. In the African semideserts and steppes - during the rainy season. Quick-growing ephemeris and ephemerid plants give their clothes a wide range of colors, the grasses grow not by day but by hour, the shrubs bloom. It is like a beauty's smile.
However, how quickly the approaching dryness transforms this smile into a terrifying grimace. For some more time the salsola and the mugworts struggle, the desert acacia holds onto to the green color in its resilient leaves, but the fiery breath of the wind is already felt. Only the steppe - it depends on its' geographic location - keeps the clothing until winter, but most often it is the dress of a pauper - the needle grasses.
Steppes and deserts, who can live in them?! Insects. Spiders. Scorpions. Reptiles. Birds. Mammals.
Ground squirrels, marmots, springhares, jerboas, kangaroo rats, birch mice, hamsters, gerbils, steppe lemmings - they are rodents, which have overpowered the desert and the steppe, here it is the best to put down the famous 'etc., etc.,' for the further listing threatens to make the phrase too long.
Most of them cannot be called typical inhabitants of the steppes and deserts. They, or rather, closely related species, live in the transitional zone, in the mountains, in the forest. Like the marmots that we met on another occasion.
As patient guards of valleys uninhabited by humans, they build their watch spots at the hills, and are ready to stand for several hours in a row! They do not demand much from nature. You can-not lure them into the desert, but they are friendly with the steppe. Their habits are like the habits of their montane relatives: the same colonies, the same whistles, (a wireless telegraph!) that are passed from one to another at the sight of danger, the same sinful slothness and unbreakable hibernation all winter long. Truly, they are marmots. This is their name, derived from the noble Latin.
The ground squirrels are a different story. These are ready for anything - running, building, storing supplies. They occupied all sorts of terrain. They are encountered beyond the Arctic Circle. Moreover, they live in the hot desert. You cannot call them lazy!
Meanwhile, on the outside, they are like marmots in miniature, especially if you are looking at a specimen of advanced age, which has already ran its' fill and occupies itself primarily by eating. The same 'standing' sitting posture. However, if a marmot looks rather baggy, then the ground squirrel stands straighter and slimmer. It looks like a proud, alert, sharp young commander.
20-30 species live in Europe, Asia, and North America, (10 species in the former USSR), plus the long-clawed ground squirrel, which is usually derived into its own genus due to some original traits in the anatomy of its' teeth and skull. Size-wise: from 25 cm - the little ground squirrel - and to 38 - the yellow ground squirrel. Many, including the long-clawed separate specie, have made it in the steppes and deserts.
They are successful, and by everyone's admittance, flourishing rodents.
The steppe in spring... The grass is busy growing; the lark is celebrating in the sky. In addition, a small bird, the wheatear, is busy diving underground. Here is nothing strange: fearing the high summer temperatures, this bird makes its home in abandoned ground squirrel burrows. However, returning into the air the wheatear sees: a graceful little beast is moving through the steppe. In addition, directly into the same burrow. The owner. Moreover, here the bird attacks the rightful homeowner! With firm claws, it grips a mottled back and the ground squirrel flees. In addition, the wheatear pecks it into the ears: hurry!
The ground squirrel does not despair for long. It finds an appropriate place, digs, and in several minutes, you cannot even see it, just pieces of earth fly out of the hole. Moreover, if anyone tries to get it out of the burrow, they should not even bother. If grabbed by the hind legs, the ground squirrel attaches its front legs so strongly, that if you rip it in half - it will not let go! However, few can grab a ground squirrel: it is fast, maneuverable, and its' burrow is deep, something that can be judged by the mound of the dugout soil. Its' height is 50 cm. (Sergey Ivanovich Ognev has data of an estimate of volume of all of these dugout hills on the area of 1 km square somewhere in the Kalmyk steppe, a land, rich in ground squirrels: 30 000 cubic meters!)
The construction of the burrow, even a winter one, is simple and practical: an edged entrance, (next is a hill of discarded soil, and the entrance itself is plugged with the ground for the winter), and then, abruptly, from the nesting chamber, goes a side tunnel, vertically up, but not quite reaching the surface. If you think, this is an amazing invention: here the mammal hides, remaining simultaneously at the surface, and listens as to what is going on aboveground. If a flood happens and overwhelms everything below, the side tunnel remains dry, plus it is easy to escape form - you just have to dig slightly upwards, which is actually done in spring.
'Still stone gathers no moss' - says the folk wisdom. Mobility, both literal and so to say, ecologi-cal, provided the ground squirrel with success in life. Its' North American cousin - the prairie dog, named so because it 'barks' (though not as loud as the guard dogs do. Sitting underground they can bark at an uninvited intruder; they communicate with each other by barking), - so, this prairie dog resembles both the ground squirrel and the marmot. The undergrounds of the prairie dogs, connected by hundreds of tunnels with hundreds of entrances and exits, last for miles. The prairie dog consider being an intermediate link between the marmots and the ground squirrels...but it is not fleet of foot. This last quality separates it from the ground squirrel and puts it next to the marmot, which is externally more similar to the prairie dog too.
In the XIX century an equestrian, standing in the 'village' street of these rodents somewhere at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, would not leave it for several days: bumps, bumps, yellow figures, brief barks... Now this is all gone. The powerful machines have plowed the fruitful domains: the rodents, mixing the upper and lower levels of soil, enriched them with mineral salts.
In addition, in the deserts and semideserts, both sandy and rocky? It is hard to live there. However, possible.
The springhare or the South African springhare - is a rodent the size of a snowshoe hare, with hide of a decent quality. The natives of South Africa know and value its meat. However, it neither a hare nor a jerboa, but a representative of a special family, of undetermined systematic position, somewhere between the spiketailed squirrels and the rats. It easily lives in the hardest environment.
The sun in those lands is the hottest and mercilessly pursues all the living. Hence, during the day the springhare sleeps in the society of its kin, each couple in its own burrow, but in close proximity with 10 to 15 other couples.
By evening, having emerged from its retreat, the springhare moves slowly: in one places it browses on a leaf, in another it grazes on a root or a tuber, pulled from the dry soil.
However, it is not a slow-mover as the porcupine is. In places with sparse vegetation, to sake one's hunger, you need to cover not 1 km, but more. The springhare can do this. Like a steel spring, it uncoiled the long hind legs - and jumped! Moreover, 3 m of distance are gone. In addition, forwards, one jump after another. An observer can wonder, if they are in Australia: the springhare's jumps, and the rodent itself, are very similar to the kangaroo. One jump after another... Moreover, when it is in a hurry, for example, if pursued by someone, the jumps become 5 m long. This is not running - it is flying!
Earlier it was thought that the springhare does not drink. Then it was discovered that it does drink, sometimes covering a distance of 32 km!
Among the rodents that live in deserts there are some that truly do not drink. For example, the American kangaroo rats that resemble jerboas.
In India, in the International institute for studying and settling deserts, during the experiments with gerbils, established, that those rat-like rodents, (albeit from the hamster family, and with tails that are hairy, and not naked, unlike the rats'), also don't drink and survive on dry rations alone on the average for 16 months. In addition, that is considering that some of them die from natural causes at 2 years of age.
Actually, the gerbils were not mentioned here just because. This is a big subfamily with 10 to 30 species, (eight live in the former USSR), and multiple subspecies that live in Africa, India and Asia, true victors of deserts and semideserts. The author warns the reader that despite all the interesting information that we owe to the gerbils, when we are talking about them, it is hard to keep a benevolent tone. For those victors of the deserts are barbarians. To put it simpler, they are pests. The gerbils rob the agriculture, dig beneath the railroads and collapse the shores of the channels, causing righteous and dangerous human wrath, they dig beneath the roots of acacia, Salsola and other plants, and lead the desert to the bitter poverty and impotence.
However, these rodents cannot not dig: under the burning sun, at the plus 40 temperature, they die in several hours. Therefore, a gerbil, and not only it, also a ground squirrel, if it is released from a cage into the wild desert, won't flee heels over head as any other freed mammal, but immediately, choosing somewhere an appropriate spot, will begin to dig. Salvation is below. At 50 cm in depth, the sand is already moist. Here is an even, without daily fluctuations, suitable for live, temperature.
If we are being just, we cannot call all gerbils' pests. Some of them are too few in numbers; others either dig little or live in rocky places, sometimes - in old ruins.
A real pest is the Mongolian gerbil, which may not dig deeply, but regularly, and in all the wrong places - in ditches, under walls, under various earth-based houses. The midday jird, which has evolved to live in barely stable sands, to say frankly - for the detriment of these sands, also digs a lot.
However, the priority in this rightfully belongs to the great gerbil, or, as it is called with kindness, but not without sarcasm, the luring gerbil. This rodent is bigger the other gerbils are.
The great gerbils are dye-in-the-wool 'urbanists'. They build genuine underground multilevel cities on rough sand dunes, in the ravines. 2-3 hectares have hundreds of entrances, and below lie multiple corridors, great chambers, several meters long and 25 cm tall, like meeting rooms. Some-times the settlements of the great gerbil, like the endless train stations of the south, go for many kilometers.
From there raids are made. In the middle of the day. At any time of the year. Almost in any weather. The great gerbils uproot the haloxylon, priceless for the desert, and the rest of the plants have it just as bad. An especial treat for the little robbers are the new branches. They cut them down, dexterously climbing shrubs and trees up to a 3 m height. They store their edible branches, hiding them underground or putting them like hay, into stacks. In addition, they commonly store hay underground as well.
'Sometimes in the Karakum desert and at Lake Balkhash the gerbils build stacks next to their bur-rows and even weight them down at the edges, sticking sticks into the ground so that the wind doesn't carry them away... Having dug-up only a part of the gerbils' settlement, Kambulin took out of five hay-carrying chambers 2 7.5 kg of supplies. He put them into two and a half flour sacks' (Professor Alexander Nikolayevich Formozov).
The architectural beauties of the great gerbil are irresistible to snakes, lizards, spiders, mites and various flying pests, especially known as 'biting midges'. All of this rustling, hissing, buzzing, scurrying are guests of the great gerbils. In spring even with closed eyes you will guess that you are in the suburbs of such an exceptional city, the biting midges will tell you. Moreover, if you have not readied yourself to that, so that you would surrender your health for promotion of science, then leave quickly, for this is the spreading ground of fevers, returning typhoid, mange, and so on...
It must be said that this housing system, let's call it 'communal', is also typical for the South American rodents the viscachas, natives of the Argentinian pampas and the closest relatives of the famous chinchilla.
Viscachas are big, the size of a big hare, but they are also massive, robust, weighing up to 7 kg, more long-tailed, shorter-legged and shorter-eared, dark-grey, with muzzles covered in black and white stripes.
These rodents are harmless, nocturnal, and their thrift is expressed so peculiarly that it involuntar-ily once more reminds of the Pavlov thought on the similarity of collecting in humans and storing in animals. The viscacha, aside from the thistle stems that it genuinely needs, gathers in the pampas' space everything that was dropped, abandoned, lost by the others (or everything that was stolen by the viscacha itself!): tin cans, plastic packets of anything, cigarette packs, bones, even watches, whips, shoes! The finds are collected next to the burrow's entrance. 'It's a showroom', people say. If it is a showroom, then decisively of pop art. In addition, a very big one, up to two sacks of various 'goods'.
However, this is not what we are talking about. Its dwellings the American rodent builds along the same guidelines as the Asian giant gerbil does. This too is a dwelling of various animals. People say that they number up to 70 different species! The same labyrinths, floors, galleries, with many quite wide entrances. 20-30 viscachas, usually under the guidance of one old male, build not for a day, not for a year, but one generation after another. Naturally, there is extra space, other animals move in. Local foxes, lizards, snakes, burrow owls... The 'little housebuilder' bird has to work by itself as well: it builds niches for its nests in the mounds of discarded ground and in the burrow walls. The swallows are more practical, they nest in hollows, made by the 'little housebuilder'. Moreover, the remainder of the extra space? It is inhabited by the same 'biting midge', albeit with a more exotic name - the mosquito. In addition, the various fleas...
This is a breeding ground for diseases... In addition, the humans, arriving with an automatic cistern vehicle with water, with the use of a hose, makes short work of viscachas' home. Therefore, the viscachas became rare in the pampas.
If we are talking about viscachas, we should say something about the other American rodents from the same habitat that are neighbors of the viscachas. For example, the agouti. They number 13 species in Central and South Americas. Some are colored very brightly, with gold fur! Others are humbler: whitish, brown, almost black. The ears are short, so are the tails, they are as big as the viscachas are, but are slimmer, more elegant. They also live in the lowlands of rainforests, in dry hilly ground, in flooding meadows, and in wide-open steppes. They dig simple burrows, one for each agouti. They run fast...
However, among the South American rodents the most hare-like is not the agouti, but the mara. It has a hare-like profile, equally long legs, (with 3 toes, armed with hoof-like claws, just as the agouti does), and a hare-like tail - short, as well as grey fur and similar speed. Only the ears are shorter and the muzzle is more massive and blunter. They are bigger and heavier than the hares are: the Patagonian maras weigh up to 9-16 kg. Another, Argentinian, species is smaller. The maras live in dry steppes. They spend nights in burrows, in their own, but more often they occupy someone else's. During the day, they graze in herds from 3 to 40 rodents of different ages, or spend hours, warming themselves in the sun.
In the deserts and semideserts of Asia, and also of northern Africa, live the jerboas. Genetically they are the closest among our rodents, aside from the porcupines, to the American rodents described previously, but belong to the Dipodidae family. The dry areas of North America are home to the jerboa-like kangaroo rats (22 species). However, they belong not just to a different subfamily, but to a different family of rodents as well.
The jerboas are a sizeable family, up to 16 genera with no less than 50 species, but they them-selves are small rodents. Even the true athlete of the family, the great jerboa, is no bigger than 180 mm. In addition, the smallest of them all was not even noticed for a long time: only in 1924, Petr Kuzmich Kozlov caught it somewhere in Mongolia, (the only specimen), and science was enriched by such depictions: thick-tailed, pygmy... Body length is 45-60 mm, tail - 90-100 mm, hind legs - 20 mm.
Only in 1930s Boris Stepanovich Vinogradov, examining the collections of the London museum, found a familiar jerboa, stuffed, with a venerable date of birth - 1820! Apparently, for over a century the specimen lay unnoticed next to the most famous scientist.
To smooth even a little this hurtful inattention of science, this part of the narrative, dedicated to the jerboas, we will start with the pygmy, known scientifically as Salpingotus. Even more so that the aura of mystery, of uniqueness, was eventually removed from it. The Soviet zoologist Nikolai Nikolayevich Vorontsov, noticing the similarity of the Asian Salpingotus with the small American kangaroo rats guessed that it must live in the same environment as these small Americans do. Looking at the map, the same environment was found next to Zaysan. An expedition was sent. Moreover, indeed, the thick-tailed pygmy jerboa is plentiful there.
The pygmy is fluffy, tiny and fast moving. The hind three-toed legs are much longer than the five-fingered forepaws, with 'brushes' of long hairs, the muzzle is blunt, and the whiskers are so long that some, if pressed backwards, reach the base of the tail! However, most important and most surprising is the tail itself. If you look at it separately from the rodent itself, then you will not guess immediately, just what it is. Sometimes it looks like a carrot.
This is not a meaningless fantasy of nature. Just like a camel that stores fat in humps in case of thirst, (fat excellently transfers into water), the pygmy jerboa stores fat in its tail.
The tails of the jerboa are the beginning of answer to the question about their high adaptability to the environment. The fat-storing tails, aside from the pygmy jerboa, are found in three other species of the thick-tailed jerboas - the northern three-toed jerboa, the Aral three-toed jerboa and the pale pygmy jerboa. However, the value of such a fancy gift of nature is not limited to execution, shall we say, of preserving functions. It is good for something else too...
Everyone knows: the jerboas are very speedy rodents. Not every dog can catch them. In addition, not every equestrian will either. Because they accelerate to speed of 50 k/h! Moreover, during the run they sharply change direction, going in zigzags.
In addition, they move of the two hind legs alone. In jumps. Each jump is 1.5-3 m. You, probably, have already remembered the springhare. In taxonomy, they are distant from each other, while in the appearance, and in many behaviours, they are copies of each other. Only the jerboa is a springhare in miniature. Small size is an important advantage: the big springhare is being hunted, and possibly, they will be soon gone from Africa, doomed. In addition, the jerboas... Are they any good? Only the hides of the great jerboa sometimes find their way into the storage of furs. However, they go there for a dime...
50 km/h! Try to imagine... Ordinary legs can hardly do this. The jerboas' hind legs are long, thin, reminiscent of the folding lever-legs of the famous jumper - the grasshopper. They bent - and they straightened out like springs. A jerboa can, without a running start, make a 50 cm jump, grabbing with its teeth, and then with its paws, an acacia branch, and behold, it is in a tree! If only, there were tasty young shoots on the top branches...
Now is the right time to once more remember the tails. They are of two types: thick storages of fat, which were already talked about, and long, thin, with a cheerful fluffy brush at the end, called a 'banner'.
Without a tail, a jerboa is not the same. If the rodent gets it cut off, it cannot run so confidently, it stumbles, falls, loses balance. It is easy to understand that a long tail with a brush is a balancer and a steering wheel that helps to quickly change direction on the run. In addition, a thick tail? It too executes the same functions! It is a steering wheel, a balancer, and thickness does not impede this any, because while the thick tails are shorter, they are also heavier.
The bird of a beast flies almost without touching the ground. Although, it does not run far, it will sit, hide and look at the approaching pursuer. To feed at night it sometimes goes for 6 km. Six here, six there, and the rodent itself is squirrel-sized in best case.
It digs wonderfully quickly. With the winter, hardship is deals via hibernation, does not make unhealthy attachments, is a clean freak. (Each hair is clean, with the usage of sand too!) It lives long without water, and when it reaches the water, drinks in an original manner: the jerboa wets the forelegs and sucks them as a lollypop on a stick...
The rodents are the recognized burrowers of the animal world. We already were surprised by the amazing digging talent that many of them possess. Now it is the time of the zokors, the blind mole rats, the gophers... They and their kin are the first among the diggers.
The zokors (5 species in Asia) and the blind mole rats (3 species in North Africa and Eurasia) belong to the Muroid superfamily just as jerboas do. The gophers (around 30 species in North and Central Americas) are Scuirids, just as the marmots and the ground squirrels are.
A zokor, a mammal no bigger than a squirrel, won in a fair contest against a hard-working youth armed with a fine military-issue shovel. Digging the soil after the industrious opponent, the lad couldn't continue the tempo, gave up. 'Forget it,' he said.
And the blind mole rat, a bigger rodent, when it would encounter a stream in its path, didn't start to search for any means to cross, but reached the other shore quite dry: it dug a tunnel under the bottom. The subway construction workers know: it's a hard job.
The spaces of dry valleys, scrublands, from the hillsides of North Africa and eastern Mediterranean, Ukraine, Transcaucasia to Transurals, flourishes a special (only one genus) family of blind mole rats.
The blind mole rat digs relentlessly, in solitude, at any time of year and day, close to the surface, horizontal tunnels without entrances and exits. Only the thrown-out piles of earth, up to 50 cm in the diameter, mark its movement under our feet (there can up to 100 piles on 100 square meters!). To bear its kits, from one to three, once a year, and to prepare the larders for the winter supplies, it digs deeper into the soil, up to 3.5 m. It burrows and feeds simultaneously, searching for roots, tubers, bulbs. Sometimes it will pull the entire plant underground to eat its leaves as well. The mountain or white-toothed blind mole rat, travelling under the vegetable gardens of the Transcaucasian peasants, stores in its larder up to 18 kg of potatoes alone! One can only imagine the possibilities that unfold before its bigger, pre-Caucasian relative, the common blind mole rat, which, unseen, owns all of the plants throughout the entire 250 m of the feeding tunnels that it had dug out.
The blind mole rat digs with its incisors. But you're wrong if you've imagined how it constantly spits the soil out. Soil does not enter a blind mole rat's mouth. Its incisors protrude outside and are isolated from the mouth by the internal outgrowths of the lips. Having softened the soil by its incisors, the blind mole rat pushes its forwards to the surface. That's why it has some many puddles on its working front.
Our Siberian, Transbaikal zokors, North American gophers, South American tuco-tuco, Eurasian Ellobius and Nesokia, which may be called the Indian folded-tooth rat, but has settled perfectly fine in China, Central Asia, Egypt, Syria, Iran are just as perfect burrowers as the blind mole rat is... The rats can do anything, in particular.
Incidentally, the above-mentioned rat almost never abandons its subterranean burrows and settles even in the walls and floors of mud-brick buildings and irrigational dams. It chews through them in any direction. And it happens to destroy them on occasion. As if the evolutionary laws aren't written for it, this creature still has kept its long tail. Why a burrower does need it, one may ask?
On the contrary, the Ellobius genus (three of its species live in Eurasia), 15 cm long creatures, is made, seemingly, directly in the image and attitudes of the blind mole rats. Its incisors are identical and behave in the same manner. At a fleeing glance one may think this is a blind mole rat kit, not an adult Ellobius.
In the way of life the gophers are similar to the Ellobius, from which they differ, among other things, by external cheek pouches. The mammals turn them inside out, as if they were pockets, when they're grooming. They live from Canada to Panama. They prefer damp, soft soil. They differ in size and coloration. From as small as a mouse to as big as a squirrel. From black to white. And all of this variety fits into one family with 9 genuses and 30-40 species.
The great philosophical argument about what is better: 'to work so to live' or 'to live so to work' the gophers solve in the favor of the second formula. They dig so hard to provide spacious and, of course, free dwellings for fifteen out of twenty species of animals that compose their entourage (counted in the state of Colorado).
The working gopher uses its own methods. It softens the soil, admittedly, just as the blind mole rat does, then passes it from the front paws to the hind ones, lies down onto its backside and pushes the soil to the surface with its hind paws. But the most surprising: it walks forwards and backwards through the tunnel with the same speed. Yet its eyes have not moved to its anal opening as it happened in case of one polychaete worm that gotten used to moving backwards. But the tail, so that it wouldn't get in the way during the execution of the 'rear movement' maneuver, the gopher flips to its back.
Of course, it should be noted that the gopher moves very slowly in both directions. And if the threat to be captured is very clear, it doesn't have anything else but to go to battle instead. Even if it's faced with a human.
The animal's brave and loves to fight. The gophers fight often, punching each other in the face with their paws. Their cheek pouches are big and hang freely. This prevents them from getting hurt.
The rather homely heterocephalus, which never comes to the surface of the ground, has beautiful aboriginal names - pharum, pharanphan.
But cast aside the accidental associations with the names of the oriental beauties. The pharum is the naked mole rat from the suborder of the Old World Porcupines. It lives in Ethiopia. It also finds shelter in the lands of Somali and Northern Kenya. It doesn't particularly need fur in the hot climate, plus the hair falls off anyways due to the endless rubbing on the burrows' walls. Other mammals, the mole, for example, needs to molt thrice per year to keep its' coat in a pristine condition. The naked mole rat has a small, folding body (40-80 g of weight) clad in reddish-yellowish skin. Still, if one looks attentively, one may see thin, light colored hairs growing in some places. The naked mole rats live in colonies, sometimes counting 100 members which squeak as one from underground, when somebody passes above them.
WELCOME TO YOUR NEW HOME!
The first meeting of the muskrat with Russia took place in a place of some importance, in Solovky.
There, on the Grand Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, in 1928, the muskrat arrived as the immigrant from North America. The island was its' quarantine, which an immigrant must go through before freely entering the land of a bigger country. However, the muskrat, on Solovky, and later on - on the Karaginsky Island near Kamchatka behaved in all the right ways. Hunters established specialized breeding farms, introduced the muskrats to various ends of Russia, and in just seven years there was a new hunting profile too - the muskrat catcher. In the past, more than four million muskrat hides were brought in a year. In other years, in the rest of the world, it was more than seven million, and in the past centuries, the London market alone sold 160 million muskrat skins.
Spring in Solovky... The night differs from the day only by silence, the peace of lakes and shadowy streams. You spread the rushes, and... One slap, another, a third one... The muskrats, diving into the water, slap with their tails, warning each other. And who knows, who was warned by the last, delayed animal. It slapped. Yet if you manage to approach them unnoticeably and quietly, then you'll hear the crunching of the chewed stems of rushes or cattails, sedges, canes, you'll hear the rustle, smacking, and even 'gnashing of teeth'. Muskrats are noisy feeders. Usually on the shore or on a cassock, but the muskrats also eat lying in the water, raising - for balance - the nip of the naked, compressed from the sides, tail.
The muskrat, it has musk glades in the grounds, is from the vole subfamily and externally is slightly similar to them. In size it leaves all the voles far behind. It is 35 cm long, and if it is dry and has fluffed up in a frosty weather, then it looks behind enough for an entire fur hat. This impression is deceiving. The biggest difference from the voles - an original-looking tail and the hind feet with webbings. In North America, the muskrat lives from Alaska to the southern US states. In Newfoundland lives another subspecies of the muskrat, and in the state of Florida - a round-tailed muskrat from a different genus, Neofiber. In the former USSR, the muskrat has spread all over the country, from the western border to Far East and Kolyma. In Western Europe, where it was introduced in 1905, it lives in many countries.
The beaver and the muskrat are very similar in some habits. Native Americans, observant people, called the muskrat the beaver's baby brother. However, they are not relatives, and if the branches of their family trees do interconnect, then somewhere in the paleontological past. The beaver's from the Castoridae family, and the muskrat - from the Cricetidae.
The muskrat, just like the beaver, is a builder. True, it does not raise magnificent dams, but its' huts are decisively made in the beaver style, already known to us. Only in smaller scale. However, if the hut is old, it looks quite impressive: more than a meter tall and just as wide in the diameter. The material, of course, is less heavy. Mostly dry grasses, rushes, cattails, sedges, fastened with silt. If the bottom is not very reliable, they are happy to any hard object. Under a muskrat hut old boots, tin cans, bottles were found.
In places where shores are tall, muskrats dig burrows. Again, in the beaver style: the entrance is submerged, and then the tunnel goes upwards to the nesting chamber.
Decades ago, the muskrat was given a complex challenge. Beforehand, it was given food, water, land. It had to beat competition, carnivores, changing seasons...
And the animal showed what it was capable of. Everywhere, from the Arctic to Mongolia and China, their huts and burrows appeared. No matter how often scientists measured the temperature in their homes, even in the harshest freezes the thermometers did not go below zero, and more often showed plus 8, 9 degrees above. This is quite warm!
...Sometimes waters froze to the bottom. However, the muskrats, sensing a harsh winter, left the shallow waterbodies back in autumn...
Ice, when it is not very thick - is a good friend. Under ice, the muskrats travel easily and without hustle. Their hide keeps, like an oxygen tank, 200 cubic cm of air. Naturally, in the water the air bubbles upwards from the hairs and gathers under the ice. The muskrats later find it and breathe it. The most important are the special openings in ice, holes, air breathing stations in the under-ice routes.
However, the scariest in a Russian winter is not ice, snow, cold, but hunger! However, it is not very dangerous to the muskrat either. It did not hesitate to build a special hut that has everything. In one end lie the sorted tasty roots of rushes, in another - ceratophyllum, also mollusks, and sometimes even small fishes. The muskrats eat them too, and also frogs, crayfish. The animal makes caches in its burrows, and sometimes as an extra part of its living space, depending on the circumstances. In any case, in winter the muskrat neither freezes nor starves. By some calculations, this might even be its' best time of the year: the number of muskrats in winter is the most stable.
In spring, it is harder. In spring, rivers flood their shores. Beware you, if your home is built unreliably! The water rises. However, the muskrats are busy. The hut may be flooded at any moment, they need to flee, and instead they are repairing... They get from the bottom roots with mud and put them onto the roof. After several hours, the hut grows a new floor that will not be flooded with water.
They will manage the spring elements. But now they harken to the instinct of continuing the bloodline.
The big hut wintered a big family, maybe numbering twenty. They shared food, warmth, comfort. However, what has happened? In the family, there are fights, squabbles. The breeding season has arrived, and with it the necessity to leave the old home, which soon may become too crowded.
Teenage animals, last year's pups, can openly be said are exiled to the four winds. It is good if places nearby are not occupied and you can build your own hut somewhere nearby. However, often the prodigal son is met not with free feeding territories, but with the sharp incisors of the neighbours. And the young rodent leaves to wherever the road will take it. It leaves for everywhere. In addition, it does a useful thing for the breeding farms - it spreads.
Sometimes surprising meetings occur: a lake in a semidesert, the water is almost useless for drinking, salty, but in the cattail copses is the familiar dome of a hut. Unwillingly, the human will feel respect for its' inhabitants: how many miles did they cover through hostile lands, blooding their legs and tail. And they made it! True, such journeys more often end with death. Much better if they end at an appropriate body of water: a river, a stream, a channel.
In spring, the situation in the muskrat settlements is intense. It is not enough that the males begin to fight for any reason - the females suddenly begin to show intolerable tempers. Sergey Vladimirovich Marakov writes in the excellent book 'In Pribalhashye jungles' that in the fighting pairs the female was always the pursuer! The result of their wrath - the spreading and the prevention of the extreme density of the population, and this is equally useful to muskrats and people.
When in 25 days, such is the period of pregnancy, in the quieted-down hut, you can hear six or seven squeaks, the mother is an incarnation of goodness and self-sacrifice. If the threat is real, it dives with the pups that hang onto its nipples. And the father, forgetting of its' own needs, keeps bringing and bringing food into the home so that the family will not starve. Indeed, starting from this time, the male will be very busy: the female, if the climate is appropriate, will give birth up to three broods in the summer. The hut will become a children's home. It also happens that the family grows in numbers up to a small kindergarten. This happens when two friendly family couples live in a hut.
The young muskrats quickly reach the age of unreasonable childhood, when dexterity is not yet controlled by life's experiences. The inborn instincts force them to the first clumsy attempts of repairing and construction, but a childhood is what it is: the youngster will get too wet and it will not resurface, or it will dawdle on the shore and the shadow of carnivorous wings has already descended upon it...
Unavoidably, the family thins, but among those who survive, the closer it is to autumn, the more they show bonds to their house, their domain, i.e. a very restricted territory which only rarely is more than 50 m across. And here one can see more and more clearly paths formerly hidden by rampant spring vegetation, feeding tables, spots where the coats are cleaned, toilets, peculiar harbors - rubbed clean, rounded shore edges, where the muskrats usually emerge from the water, tussocks that turned either into observation points or into soft comfortable furniture that just invite for a rest.
The approaching cold calls out to work. They build. They store. They repair. The pups became big and strong. They are excellent diggers, do not procrastinate.
Actually, autumn is a time of peace. The first snows, sometimes, bring a muskrat that somewhere experienced a failure in life and it will not be chased away. The bigger is the company, the warmer it is in the nest...
The scientists, who started the transposition of the muskrat, of course, in the most serious manner discussed the question about whose victim it is destined to be and how serious it is for preserving the population. It was easy to suppose that in our country, just as in North America, the enemies of the muskrat will be owls, foxes, lynxes, martens, eagles. However, everything proved to be not as simple.
Naturally, the swamp harrier took the big rats that come from across the ocean. However, after experiencing a time or two the sharp teeth of a strong male and spreading the damaged feathers, it became more and more convinced that attacking muskrats is not worth the time. The fox, at first, was confused by a new construct - the hut: inside has plenty of meat, but how to reach it! It went for the iced-over hut from below, when it should have been from above, where the roof has softened from the muskrats' breath!
However, the muskrat instead discovered completely unexpected enemies. For example the wild boar, black and hooded crows.
The wild boar, like a bulldozer, digs in search for the muskrats' supplies, (and it does not spare the owners either!) in one feeding up to 20-25 huts! At such industriousness, a small herd of wild pigs quickly deals with the local muskrat settlements.
However, for the flourishing of the wild boars much could be endured. The crow is another matter. This bird, branded in the famous fable as very stupid, (gave the fox the cheese), in reality proved to be smarter than the fox was. It studied the muskrats' habits, knows when it came get them, and often attacks in an entire group.
The staff who manage the muskrats also complain about the mongrel dogs that are not contained. They pursue muskrats even in the water.
As for the relations of the muskrat with its other neighbours, then here the circumstances form clearly in the new arrival's favor. For the fish, it is useful: enriches the water with oxygen, making holes in eyes, makes a free and voluntary clearance of the overgrowing bottom, and destroys diving beetles - enemies of small fish. The new arrivals were clearly liked by voles and mice, which often settle in the hut's walls. Sometimes even a grey goose makes a nest on the roof of a muskrat house. Very convenient: you can see afar and the water's nearby.
The muskrat displaced some critters. Firstly, it is the water vole. However, the latter deserves it, let us be frank. Secondly, it is the desman. Some observations indicate that the muskrats attack desmans, chase them away from the water. If it is so, then it is bad.
It is time to talk about our other new arrival, the coypu.
This rodent has experienced much more misery than the muskrat did. It even lost its' own name. The Spanish conquistadors, when they began to look closely at their easily won prize - South America, saw in swamps, in the quiet nooks of rivers, an animal that swam. This was enough for the conquerors to say 'nutria' i.e. 'otter'. Later, when it was time to name it in other European languages, they did not find anything better than the 'beaver rat' or even the 'swamp bear'. And in fur trade, the coypu was also called... a monkey!
However, the coypu is not a beaver, an otter, and especially not a monkey. It is its' own mammal. A native of Argentina and Chile, from the Echimyidae family. It weights half a stone, about 60 cm in length; it has a round tail, with scaly skin and some hairs, with webbed hind legs.
In 1930, the coypu, just as the muskrat, was offered to settle in the wide spaces of the former USSR. But though by 1970s the coypu numbered around 200 thousand, most of them live in the so-called 'semi-wild breeding'. They spend the summer in the water, and by winter, many of them are killed, and the best breeders are caged until spring.
Why the muskrat now can be met anywhere, and the coypu, thought it was continuously released in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, didn't make it everywhere? Frosty winters and iced-over waters kill it.
Some of its behaviours apparently explain the failure of coypu's acclimatization also.
It will dig burrows if the shores are steep, but uncomfortable ones: it does not line them with either grass or fur - it will lie so on the dank ground. And the entrance into the burrow is not underwater, as in case of the beaver and muskrat, but above: the big hole is visible to every curious fellow and anyone can stick their nose or stick into it.
However, even such a burrow is not dug buy a coypu very often. It prefers a nest. It will bend thin shrubs, cattails or rushes thusly, to form a more or less firm 'pillow', it will add leaves to it, and the home where the coypu sleeps, is ready. Here, in the rain and the wind, up to three times a year it gives birth from one to ten kits. By five months of age they are all grown up.
'The quadruped resembled a wild boar. The claws of the paws, with which the animal was desperately grabbing the ground, were apparently joined by webbing. Herbert recognized that this animal is a capybara - one of the biggest members of the rodents' family' (Jules Verne).
This is an excerpt from a fantasy novel. Therefore beware vague information, take your time, and do not take the portrait, done by the author, for the true depiction of the capybara, truly the largest rodent, which weighs up to 50 and more kg. The capybara in the language of Tupi means 'lord of grass'.
For truth's sake let it be noted that that the capybara of the Mysterious Island, by the author's will located in the Pacific Ocean, is simply impossible. The true homeland of those animals - South America - is located too far away. But that is fantasy for you: the island, as you remember, was rich in many animals that could end up there only after the acclimatizing intent of some anonymous Noah, who had swam by on his ark.
Capybaras number two species. One inhabits the central South American regions east of Andes. The other species is half the size and lives only in Panama. They are similar both in appearance and in behavior. Therefore we have a reason to concentrate our attention only on the first species, the Goliath of the rodent tribe.
A square muzzle with big haughty eyes, slightly humped, the nasal ridge boasts a slightly raised scent gland. The tail is almost nonexistent, but there is a big butt, very heavy. The paws, as correctly noted by Jules Verne's characters, are webbed.
Like the other rodents, the capybara lacks a decent voice. While impressive in appearance, it cannot roar, nor bark, nor howl, and it expresses its feelings by some vague grumbling, squeals, 'creaks', in which some audience members can hear something like 'hi-hi' or 'he-he', which gives them reason to call these strange sounds 'giggling'.
The capybara is a phlegmatic beast, and if put in a straightforward manner - a lazy one. For a long time zoologists could not find and describe its' lair, while expecting something extraordinary. In reality the capybara does not have any lair, and never builds itself any: it sleeps straight on the ground, on occasion digging in the dirt a bit, to form there a shallow pit.
Remote rivers, lakes, swamps save the capybaras from pumas, jaguars and hunters. However, there the capybara is often met with a caiman's jaws - do come in, please! But the capybara is not helpless in the water; it swims quickly, dives deeply and for long periods of time. Emerging above water its nostrils and eyes, and hiding behind a mass of algae or a log, it swims almost unseen. Or, having submerged its massive butt into liquid mud, it sits there sleeping, bathing in solitude. It stands in the water up to its' belly, like common livestock, and eats everything juicy that grows in the water. It happens that a small herd of capybaras grazes alongside livestock somewhere near a river.
Where the capybaras are prosecuted, and they are prosecuted locally for agricultural damage, for meat, albeit not very tasty, and for the incisors, that are used for jewelry by the local jewellers - there the capybaras are cautious and prefer to graze during the nights.
Alongside the capybara, in the same forests and usually also alongside bodies of water, live rodents called the pacas. They swim well. They are similar to the capybaras but are smaller, up to 10 kg in weight. Their muzzles are sharper, the brown fur of their backs and sides have white spots in drawn-out horizontal rows.
The pacarana is the third heavyweight among the rodents after the capybara and the beaver, up to 16 kg in weight. It is very similar, even in its' coloration, to the paca, but it has a very fluffy tail of average length. (The paca has no tail, just as the capybara does not.) It lives in Andes, it is rare all over, and it is almost exterminated.