Specimens in the Museum of Zoology representing World Habitats Day

World Habitats Day 2021

Monday 4th October 2021 is World Habitat Day. To celebrate habitats from around the world, here we look at some of the animals that live in different ecosystems from the African plains to the deep ocean floor, written by staff, students and volunteers at the Museum of Zoology. World Habitat Day was set up by the UN to reflect on urban habitats, with this year’s theme exploring urban action for a carbon free world. Find out more on their website.

Tropical Marshland (Africa): Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex

Shoebill specimen on display in the Museum of Zoology

Museum Volunteer Hebe Halstead writes:

The shoebill is a handsome bird, closely related to pelicans and herons, that lives in the tropical freshwater marshes in East Africa. It also fills a similar role in the environment to its heron cousins, waiting near bodies of water until a tasty fish arrives. The shoebill uses its large, sharp beak to eat snakes, baby crocodiles and Nile monitors. Freshwater marshes are the perfect environment for the shoebill, as the low oxygen content in the stagnant waters mean that fish have to surface for air more frequently. Although the shoebill are a key predator in this environment, it is known to be very docile to humans. The marshes the shoebill helps maintain are unique in their diversity of endangered flora and fauna; wetlands are also excellent at carbon sequestration – so these environments have a role to play in combating climate change. However many of these marshlands, and so also the shoebill, are under constant risk from habitat destruction through fires and water draining to create more grazing land and canals. The shoebill is currently classed as vulnerable.

Deep Sea: Yeti Crab, Kiwa tyleri

Yeti crab specimens in spirit

Learning Officer Roz Wade writes:

The depths of the ocean are a pretty mysterious place. Dark and under huge amounts of pressure from kilometres of water above, it is a difficult environment to study. It is also a difficult place to live, the lack of light making photosynthesis impossible and so the essential starting point for food chains more challenging to find. But the deep ocean is far from uniform, and within the miles and miles of quite bare ocean floor there are pockets where life is abundant. These pockets do not rely on light to support life, but on the chemical-rich waters of hydrothermal vents.

Deep sea hydrothermal vents are found where the ocean floor is speading. Here sea water enters the crust through cracks, is heated by the hot rocks beneath and emitted back into the ocean above. These hot fluids can reach 400oc, and are usually acidic and rich in metals, hydrogen sulphide and other chemicals. When they meet the cool waters of the deep ocean a steep gradient in temperature and water chemistry results in a wide range of habitats around vent systems. Special ‘chemosynthetic’ bacteria use use energy from the chemical reactions occurring in these waters to produce sugars. This provides a rich source of food, and animals that can survive the heat and toxicity of the water can thrive here. 

In the Museum we are lucky to have specimens collected from the East Scotia Ridge beneath the Southern Ocean as part of the ChEsSo (Chemosynthetic ecosystems in the Souther Ocean) research programme, a collaboration between scientists from the Universities of Oxford, Southampton, Bristol and Newcastle, and the British Antarctic Survey. In the picture are some of my favourite animals from this site: the yeti crabs, so called for its bristles that make it look furry. These bristles are coated in chemosynthetic bacteria, providing a food sources for the yeti crab. Just one of the incredible species to make what to most creatures would be an exceptionally hostile environment home.

Tropical Wetlands (South America): Capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris

Capybara skeleton

Collections Manager Matt Lowe writes:

It was late in the evening, almost pitch black, and I was in a boggy field in northern Argentina. My paltry little head torch was competing with the infinitely more impressive yet silent northern sky, which was glowing with distant lighting storms over the Amazon rainforest. I approached a turn in the pathway and saw a series of what I thought were dimly illuminated anthills a few metres in front of me. Suddenly one of them grew legs and shot past– no, not an anthill but a juvenile capybara! I realised I was in the middle of an unconcerned herd of these giant guinea pig relatives.

Capybara with bird perched on its back
Capybara (c) Mathew Lowe

The Argentine Iberá wetlands (Esteros del Iberá) borders Paraguay, and is a landscape of lakes, bogs and lagoons similar to the more famous Pantanal further north in Brazil. Daylight reveals it to be a rich paradise with nothing less than tooth bearing caimans, exotic birds or buzzing dragonflies everywhere you turn.  My camera was practically blowing steam with overuse!

But it was the capybaras who stole the show, exuding a calm nonchalance around us as they sauntered from land to water with ease, often with a cattle tyrant for a passenger on their mud caked backs. They are the largest living rodent and their webbed feet betray their semiaquatic lifestyle. Of course you cannot see this feature our own skeleton in the museum, which we acquired in 1867. But every time I walk past this robust rodent I’m transported to a wetland paradise, and one of the most magical wildlife havens I’ve ever seen.

Pacific Island: Hawaiian Goose or Nē Nē, Branta sandvicensis

Hawaiian Goose specimen on display in the Museum of Zoology

Museum Volunteer Roger Hailey writes:

At the beginning of the Holocene, 0.5 mya, some migrating Canada geese (Branta canadensis sp) were blown westward from North America to the tropical Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands. From this population, nine species evolved, including a giant form (Branta hylobadistes) which probably became extinct during the process of becoming flightless. Seven more became extinct, leaving the Hawaiian Goose or nē nē (Branta sandvicensis) which has managed to adapt to the rocky, volcanic island habitat.  Their feet are partially webbed with long toes to grip the rocky terrain and extra padding, they also derive most of their dietary water from grass and berries. They have ceased migrating and rarely even fly between islands. All wildlife in Hawaii had initially arrived by ‘wind and wave’ and many are endemic.

Polynesians arrived in about 1000 – 1200 CE and we can only speculate on their impact on wildlife but it may have been significant. European discovery in 1778 led to colonisation and the nē nē’s decline; they dwindled from an estimated 25,000 in the 1770s to about 50 in 1947.  The main reasons for their decline were hunting for meat and feathers and latterly habitat loss, agriculture and introduced cats, dogs and feral pigs etc. One bizarre example was the introduction of the Indian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) to control rats in the sugar cane fields. The diurnal mongooses never met the nocturnal rats so they predated the ground-nesting geese instead.

In the 1950s, Peter Scott and the newly formed Wildfowl Trust mounted a joint captive breeding programme, in Hawaii and the UK, to save the nē nē. Initially, 2,300 birds were released to the wild but predation continued. Now it is better controlled and the population stands at about 3,000, but only on three islands. There are birds in the UK in private collections and at some WWT sites.

In 2018, after 51 years, the nē nē was reclassified from Endangered to Threatened and is no longer in danger of extinction. It was the rarest goose in the world and still is. Habitat loss and disturbance means that the nē nē may always need human management.

On a personal note, when I left school in 1960 I went to work for the Wildfowl Trust (now WWT) for 3 years. One day I was busy in the grounds and the Curator handed me a goose egg he’d found. “Take this to the incubators, Roger, it’s a nē nē egg”. I took it from him and set off. “Oh, and by the way, it’s worth £350”. I’ve never been so careful in my life, because then, this was a year’s wages for many people.

African Savannah: Spotted Hyena, Crocuta crocuta

Spotted hyena skull

Education Assistant Sara Steele writes:

The savannah woodland of Etosha National Park in Namibia is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and arthropods (insects, scorpions, spiders etc.), including one of my favourite mammals, the spotted hyena. This charismatic, admittedly slightly mischievous-looking creature is one of the most plentiful of Africa’s large carnivores.

There is so much to talk about with this species, from their matriarchal hierarchy and social intelligence to their biologically curious pseudo-penis (described best by the Vagina Museum). Today I would like to focus on where they live.

Savannah woodlands are habitats of extremes, of dry desert that quickly changes to lush wetland with the rains and then back again. At least part of the spotted hyena’s success and resilience is thanks to their adaptations for both hunting and feeding. They live and hunt in clans or ‘cackles’ (an apt collective noun), often chasing their prey over long distances thanks to a relatively large heart.

Once they have found food, they are able to consume almost all parts of a carcass. Take a look at the Museum’s specimen and it is easy to see the large jaw and sagittal crest (the ‘sail’ of bone along the top of the skull) which hold large muscles, and their specialised pre-molars, all for crushing bone. They are able to digest all organic components found in bone, marrow and all, making the most of a possibly rare meal.

Spotted hyena in Etosha National Park
Spotted hyena, Etosha National Park (c) Sara Steele

I saw this spotted hyena visiting a watering hole in the middle of the dry season – a lifeline for all animals in this habitat. Unfortunately, habitats like the savannah are already feeling the impact of climate change; with longer dry seasons and less rainfall. This will have an impact on even the most resilient of predators as their prey find less greenery to feed on.

Antarctica Land and Sea: Emperor Penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri

Emperor penguin speciment

Museum Volunteer Leonie Biggenden writes:

I have decided to feature an animal which lives in a polar habitat, specifically a South polar one – the Emperor Penguin.  It is an environment of extremes. Extreme cold, extreme dryness (Antarctica is a desert) extreme winds, with the largest ice store on earth.  But unfortunately, the Antarctic peninsula is warming at one of the quickest rates on the planet. 

Why did I P-P-Pick a penguin?  I was lucky enough to go to Antarctica and I admire these birds’ resilience.  They tough out the extremes and are adapted well to survive and thrive in a habitat where us humans would perish.  Ask yourself a series of questions to see how resilient you are and compare yourself to an emperor.

As a volunteer at the museum, I am known to set visitors challenges.  For some of our youngest visitors I task them to go round looking for the penguin and to come back and tell me how big it is.  Emperor Penguins are the biggest penguins, at 100 – 130cm long.  Perhaps you beat the penguin in terms of size, but that’s about all.

They are the biggest penguins with the longest journey in the toughest conditions.  They march up to 125 miles / 200 km to form breeding colonies.  The males remain there, looking after the eggs, without food for over 2 months and at temperatures which can go as low as minus 60 oC.  No warm-blooded animal experiences such temperatures and survives.  Could you hack it? 

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