Malayan porcupine

Mammals are warm blooded animals that generate their own heat and generally have hair or fur covering all their bodies but their eyes. All but a few Australian mammals give birth to live young. The word mammal is derived from “mamma”, Latin for "breast,” a reference to the fact that mammal young feed from the breasts of their mothers.

What makes mammals unique is their hair. One of the key proteins in mammal hair is alpha-keratin. In recent years scientists have discovered the genes responsible for alpha-keratin and also found alpha-keratin in chickens and lizards — the closest living lineages to mammals. Lizards have alpha keratin in their claws as do mammals, which presumably during the evolution harnessed alpha-keratin in their claws to make hair.

There are about 4,600 species of mammals. About a quarter of all mammals are bats. About a half are rodents. The first mammals were shrewlike creatures that appeared around 200 million years, and scuttled among leaf litter mean on insects and millipedes. According to the official Red List by the World Conservation Union one in four mammals species is threatened. Threats include loss of habitat and competition from alien species.

The moon rat is a kind of hedgehog closely related t the first mammals to walk the earth. Regarded as a member of the shrew family and found in Malaysia, it is black or white and produces a foul odor like rotten garlic to let predators know that their meat tastes equally offensive. They are nocturnal creature that hunt earthworms, snails and insects hidden among leaf litter.

“Heavy Drinking” Malaysian Rain Forest Tree Shrew

pen-tailed shrew

Henry Fountain wrote in the New York Times, “German scientists have discovered that seven species of small mammals in the rain forests of western Malaysia drink fermented palm nectar on a regular basis. For several of the species, including the pen-tailed tree shrew, the nectar, which can have an alcohol content approaching that of beer, is the major food source — meaning they are chronic drinkers. Frank Wiens and Annette Zitzmann of the University of Bayreuth were separately studying two of the species, including their eating habits. They discovered that the nectar of the bertam palm becomes fermented by yeast carried on the flower buds. [Source: Henry Fountain, New York Times, July 29, 2008]

“The pen-tailed tree shrew, in particular, takes advantage of it. By watching the animal and analyzing fur samples, the researchers estimated that the tree shrews consumed enough alcohol that they had about a 36 percent chance of being intoxicated (by human standards). But the researchers never saw any signs of inebriation, and from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes no sense to be drunk anyway. With predators all around, Dr. Wiens said, “it’s just too risky for an animal.”

“The findings, reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the tree shrews and other animals have some efficient means of metabolizing the alcohol. The findings also suggest there must be benefits to having chronic low levels of alcohol in the bloodstream — otherwise the behavior would not have evolved. Those benefits may be psychological, Dr. Wiens said, perhaps enabling the animals to cope with stress of some sort. Further studies to determine the benefits may help in understanding humans’ relationship to alcohol, he said. And since tree shrews are similar to species that were precursors of primates more than 50 million years ago, studying their alcohol use might also provide some evolutionary background for human drinking, he added.

The BBC reported: “A tiny tree-shrew that lives on alcoholic nectar could - pound for pound - drink the average human under the table, scientists have discovered. Malaysia's pen-tailed tree-shrew waits until nightfall to binge on fermented nectar from the bertam palm. The animal could give insights into how humans' alcohol tolerance first evolved, the scientists say. Despite the shrews' small size, they are no lightweights when it comes to their alcohol intake. Nectar from the flower buds of the bertam palm is fermented to a maximum alcohol content of up to 3.8 percent. Each bud is a miniature brewery, containing a yeast community that turns the nectar into a frothy beer-like beverage. Yet the animals, which are about the size of a small rat, do not seem to get drunk at all, researchers say. [Source: BBC, July 29, 2008 \~]

“Frank Wiens, from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, and colleagues confirmed the animals' high alcohol consumption by analysing their hair. Chemicals in the hair samples showed that on any given night, a tree-shrew had a 36 percent chance of being drunk by human standards. The shrew's resistance to intoxication suggests its body must have an effective mechanism for breaking down alcohol. This should not come as too much of a surprise: scientists believe the animals - which are distant relatives of humans - have had 55 million years of evolution to adapt to their boozy lifestyle. The researchers used radio tags to track the creatures on their crawls and recorded video of their feeding sessions. \~\

“Humans may even preserve a relic of the shrews' love of alcohol that has lasted through millions of years of evolution. In their PNAS paper, the scientists wrote that the pen-tailed tree-shrew is "a living model for extinct mammals, representing the stock from all extinct and living tree-shrews and primates radiated". They added: "Therefore, we hypothesise that moderate to high alcohol intake was present early on in the evolution of these closely related lineages." The researchers also filmed a primate known as a slow loris feeding from the bertam palm. The palm produces nectar year-round on a complex schedule that appears to maximize pollination by small mammals.\~\


Mongooses are cat-size mammals that are found throughout southern Asia and Africa and are perhaps most famous for fighting cobras. They belong to the 66 member Viverridae family of animals, which also includes civets, meekrats, genets and linsangs. The word mongoose is derived from the Marathi name mangus. The English name (used since 1698) was altered to its -goose ending by folk-etymology. The plural form is mongooses, or, rarely, mongeese. Mongooses live in southern Europe, as well in Puerto Rico and some Caribbean and Hawaiian islands, where they are an introduced species.

Of the 33 species of mongoose, only six are considered highly social. The solitary species tend be nocturnal and carnivorous, while the social species are primarily diurnal and insectivorous. Mongooses range in size from 300 centimeters to 1.2 meters (1 to 4 feet) in length, including their tail. They range in weight from the common dwarf mongoose, at 280 grams (10 oz) to the cat-sized white-tailed mongoose, at 4.1 kilograms.

One of the largest species, the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon), was considered a sacred animal in ancient Egypt. It checked the increase of crocodiles in the Nile River by eating their eggs and gained the popular name "Pharaoh's mouse". The best-known species of mongoose is the Indian grey mongoose. It is a rather small, agile, weasel-like carnivore native to Africa, southern Europe and Asia. Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was a mongoose.

Mongoose Characteristics and Behavior

feliformia, the mongoose suborder

Mongooses intelligent and alert animals. The often rise up suddenly on the rear legs to have a look around and use their hind legs to hurl eggs and curled up millipedes against hard surfaces to break them open. When threatened their fur stands up and the backs arches like frightened cat to create the illusion that the animal is larger than it is. They also flatten their ears and "climatically explosive spit." Mongooses produce a high-pitched noise, commonly known as giggling, when they mates. Giggling is also heard during courtship.

In contrast to the arboreal, nocturnal viverrids, mongooses are more commonly terrestrial and many are active during the day. Most mongooses live near streams, in thickets, hedges and fields. They are opportunistic carnivores that feed on rats, mice, snakes, lizards, eggs, earthworms, insects, crabs, rodents, chickens, carrion and occasionally, fruit. The Indian grey mongoose is renowned for killing cobras, of which it is capable because of its very quick movements and the protection of its thick hide and long, thick hair.

According to Wikipedia: Mongooses bear a striking resemblance to mustelids [weasels, martens, minks], having long faces and bodies, small rounded ears, short legs, and long tapering tails. Most are brindled or grizzly; few have strongly marked coats. They have non-retractile claws that are used primarily for digging. Mongooses, much like goats, have narrow, ovular pupils. Most species have a large anal scent gland, used for territorial marking and signaling reproductive status. The dental formula of mongooses is similar to that of viverrids. Mongooses also have receptors for acetylcholine that, like the receptors in snakes, are shaped so that it is impossible for snake neurotoxin venom to attach to them. Researchers are investigating whether similar mechanisms protect the mongoose from hemotoxic snake venoms.

Mongoose Pups Pick Parents

Harvey Leifert wrote in Natural History magazine, “Banded mongooses live in extended-family groups, with as many as ten females breeding at the same time. When they're about a month old, pups leave the communal den to forage with the adults. That's when a pup usually begins to associate exclusively with one particular adult — not necessarily a parent — that provides nourishment and protection. One might assume that the adult chooses the pup it wishes to assist. [Source: Harvey Leifert, Natural History magazine , October 2008]

Not so, says Jason S. Gilchrist of Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, who has long studied banded mongooses in Uganda. His latest research demonstrates that the pups do the picking, then establish and jealously defend a territorial zone of about a yard radius around their adult "escort." Other pups that venture too close are chased away.

In field experiments, Gilchrist separated pups from their escorts and held them captive for two days. During that time, the adults interacted freely with other pups. When Gilchrist returned the detained pups to the group, however, they quickly reasserted exclusive rights to their escorts. The adults, it seems, are the passive partners in the relationship. Generally, when pups reach three months of age, they no longer require their escorts' services and begin to fend for themselves. Gilchrist concludes that even in cooperatively breeding societies, "conflict can be as rife as cooperation."

Mongooses and Humans

Mongooses are among the biggest pests to farmers, eating snakes that feed on vermin that eat grain, but also can be beneficial by eating vermin. According to Wikipedia: “They can be domesticated and are kept as pets to control vermin. However, they can be more destructive than desired: when imported into the West Indies to kill rats and snakes, they destroyed most of the small, ground-based fauna. For this reason, it is illegal to import most species of mongoose into the United States, Australia, and other countries. Mongooses were introduced to Hawaii in 1883, and have had a significant negative effect on native species. All mongoose species, except for Suricata suricatta, are classed as a "prohibited new organism" under New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 preventing them from being imported into the country.

Some species can learn simple tricks. They are a common spectacle at roadside shows in Pakistan. Snake charmers keep mongooses for mock fights with snakes. In Okinawa, mongooses fight the highly venomous habu snakes before spectators. However, due to pressure from animal rights activists, the spectacle is less common today.

According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Egyptians venerated native mongooses for their ability to handle venomous snakes and for their occasional diet of crocodile eggs. The Buddhist god of wealth Vais'ravan.a, or Dzambala for Tibetans, is frequently depicted holding a mongoose that is spitting jewels from its mouth.

Rudyard Kipling's story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" features a pet mongoose that saves its human family from two deadly cobras. The story was later made into several films. A mongoose also features in Bram Stoker's novel, The Lair of the White Worm. The main character, Adam Salton, purchases one to independently hunt snakes.

Mongooses and Cobras

mongoose versus cobra

Cobra and mongoose fights are often staged as a tourist attraction. The practice has been going for some time. Describing a battle between the mongoose Rikki-tikki-tavi and the cobra Naga, Rudyard Kipling wrote: "Eve to eye and head to head...This shall end when one is dead." Rikki-tikki-tavi was an Indian, or gray mongoose, a species known for killing cobras, even king cobras.

Mongooses usually win. They fight in a dart and weave fashion — provoking the snake to strike — until the snake wears itself out. When the snake tires the mongoose goes in for the kill by crushing the snake’s skull with its jaws. It was often thought that mongooses were able to defeat cobras due to their lighting quick reflexes. They also have an added advantage: an immunity to snake venom. Israeli researchers have found that mongooses can withstand 20 times the venom a mouse can, relative to their body size.

The cobra-mongoose fight staged for tourist are often sad affairs. Describing one fight, Miller wrote, "The charmer provokes an emaciated mongoose into attacking a feeble cobra, then usually knocks the mongoose away before it can do any damage to the snake.” In the wild mongoose generally only go after small, young cobras. “Mongooses are highly intelligent animals,” Miller wrote, “and it seems unlikely to me they would try to get their dinner in such a difficult and dangerous way when frogs, toads and lizards can be had with no risk at all.”

Flying Squirrels in Borneo

Among the gliding species found in Borneo are a flying lemur and 14 species of flying squirrel. The largest is the red giant flying squirrel. It can reach length of three feet, including the tail. It is russet red in color and has needle sharp claws that it uses to cling to tree bark. They live in pairs and spends their days in a hole in a tree and usually emerge in the late afternoon.

Flying squirrels found in Borneo look like they are wearing a loose cloak when they are not in flight. When they glide their skin inflates like a parachute enabling the animal to travel more than 100 meters in a single glide. It can steer by moving its long furry tail from side to side like a rudder and land exactly at the spot it wants to.

Describing a pair of giant flying Borneo squirrel, David Attenborough wrote, “For a minute the or two they will circle the trunk and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, one will leap off unfurling as it does a great cloak of skin that stretches on either side from wrist to ankle. Its long bushy tall streams out behind acting, it seems, like a rudder. As one goes, its partner is likely to follow...for maybe 30 or 40 meters towards another trunk. As they near it, they swoop upwards, slowing their glide and enabling them to land, head uppermost, on the trunk, up which they then gallop up...When the owner of it tries to run, the membrane is so big it is something if ab encumbrance. The Asiatic giant, lolloping a long a branch, looks as though it is wearing a voluminous cloak. It is not surprising, therefor, the flying squirrels seldom come out of their hotels during the day when there are eagles and other predators around that could pounce on them. In the evenings, however, they will emerge and in the gathering dusk and put on an unforgettable display of aerobatics as they tease one another from branch to branch and tree to tree.

Colugo, Borneo’s Flying Lemur


The flying lemur, or colugo, looks like a cross between a bat and flying squirrel. It s not closely related to the true lemurs of Madagascar but makes up its unique order: Dermoptera, or “skin wings.” They have the most extensive flight membranes of any mammalian glider, stretching from its head its tail and embracing all four limbs. In flight they look like kites. Mothers almost always flying with their babies with them. By contrast squirrel mother usually leave their young behind in a tree cavity.

David Attenborough wrote: “The most accomplished glider of all is another Southeast Asian animal, the colugo. It is about the size of a cat. Its gliding membrane stretches not from wrists to ankles, but to the tips of both fingers and toes, half way up the neck and to the very end of its tail. With the help of this, it can cover 70 yards in a single graceful and silent glide. It is. From all accounts, exclusively vegetarian. The fur on the upper side of its membrane is particularly handsome, dappled with cream or brown blotches each ringed with black that conceal it very effectively as it nestles in the center of palm trees or hangs below a branch with all its feet placed close together. Its floppy gliding membranes is so big, and its slender legs so extremely adapted to serve as lightweight struts for that membrane, that on the ground it is virtually helpless.

“But what kind of animal is it? Its teeth, that in most mammals normally provide valuable clues in establishing affiliations, are of no help for they are quite unlike those of any other living creature. The incisors of the top jaw are placed at the sides leaving a gap at the front ad the second of them has, uniquely among mammals, two roots. The incisors on the lower jaw are even stranger. They project not up but forward and are toothed like combs, Whether the colugo uses these to groom itself or to help it feed in some way is still not known. But although no living animal has teeth that are comparable, fossil skulls with very similar detrition are not uncommon in shales and sandstones laid down some 60-77 million years ago in North America. It seems that the colugo is the last living representative of a very ancient and successful; group that appeared just as mammals were beginning their expansion.


small clawed otter

Otters are expert swimmers and one of the few animals that can catch fish underwater. They are also famous for their playfulness. There are two kinds of otters — land otters and sea otters. Land otters of various kinds are found in small numbers, scattered around the globe, in lakes, streams and swamps. Sea otters are found in north Pacific along the coast of California, British Columbia, Alaska and eastern Russia.

The Asian small-clawed otter is found in rivers and marshland in India, southern China and Southeast Asia. The smallest otter, they live in family units and east small aquatic creatures such as crabs and fish. Adults are 40 to 60 centimeters in length and weigh between three and five kilograms. Babies weigh 500 grams at birth. In China and Bangladesh domesticated otters are used to catch fish. They come when called and are playful creatures. The Eurasian otter is found in and around rivers, lakes, marshes and seacoast in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Otters have disappeared from many places they were once plentiful. They have been hurt by hunting, deforestation and erosion, draining of swamps. water pollution and competition from other animals. The surviving number of Eurasian otters is unknown. They are largely gone from many countries but are making a comeback in some places. Their decline is attributed to habitat loss, pollution, depletion of fish and other food sources. DDT is blamed on the disappearance of otters from some parts of Europe.

Otter Characteristics

Weighing around 20 to 25 pounds, land otters have stream-lined body that reached lengths of 4½ feet, including their powerful, tapered twp-foot-long tail. The have short legs with webbed feet and a small head with a cute whiskered face. Their fur is dark-brown, glossy and thick and features ling, silky guard hairs.

David Attenborough wrote: “Otters, anatomically, are very like large weasels. Their sharp spiky canine teeth and shearing carnassials that served them so well on land are equally well suited to dealing with slippery fish. They have dealt with he problems of developing a very fine fur. Its outer layer is relatively coarse, being made of long guard hairs. Beneath that, however, the fur is thick and so woolly that it traps air and forms very effective insulation indeed.

“Swimmer, needless to say, use their limbs in a very different way from runners. The otters have converted their feet into paddles simply by growing webs f skin between their toes. They have also developed strong muscles at the base of the tail so that they are able too use it like a rudder. The need to breath air, however, is still a major problem for them and they usually have to snatch a breath every half minute or so when they are in the water. Nevertheless, the are much skilled swimmers, so athletic and so bursting with energy, that even with this handicap, they can pursue and out-swim fish.”

Although they have these very effective adaptions, most species of otter spend most of their lives out of water. During the day they are usually asleep in their dens beside a river bank. Even at night, when they do much of their fishing, they tend to rest on he bank for a few hours around midnight, Nor have they lost their skills or taste for hunting.” In Scotland they hunt rabbits and mark land territories with droppings on particularly rocks. They also sometimes hunt in the sea.

Otters are wide ranging animals. They sometimes venture up to 50 miles from their den in search of food or a mate. They do no hibernate. Otters are one of the few animals that seems to get a lot of joy out of playing as an adult. Its favorite activity seems to be sliding down muddy river banks.

Otter Behavior

Otters generally feed on fish and other water creatures such as frogs. Sometime they also eat land creatures such as snakes and mice. Otters prefer to build their dens in river banks. Many dens have their entrance in the water and 25 to 30 foot tunnel that slants upwards to a place above the water level. Sometimes there is also a land exit.

The Eurasian otter has a head and body length of 60 to 80 centimeters, with a 30 to 45 centimeter tail, and weighs 6 to 12 kilograms. It is elusive, largely nocturnal and often lives in inaccessible places. It is rarely seen. The mother Eurasian otter raised one to three cubs alone. The cubs remain with their mother for about a year. She teaches them fishing skills and provides other tips for survival. Otter generally only mate once a year, in the early spring. The young are raised inside a nest or burrow.

A study published in British Wildlife in September reported disturbing evidence of cannibalism and infanticide. Post-mortem examinations on 200 otters between 1998 and 2000 showed that 33 of them — almost 17 per cent — had bite wounds inflicted by other otters. These were the result not just of fights between rival territorial males, but also involved cannibalism and even suspected infanticide, according to the Vic Simpson, a veterinary pathologist, and Karen Coxon, a fellow scientist. They found that many of the otters had wounds on face, feet, anus and genitals. Eight of the animals had died directly as a result of the bites. The stomach of one dog otter contained the remains of a four-week old cub.

Mr Simpson said yesterday: "We do not know whether these injuries are symptomatic of new and worrying behaviour or just that our population levels have recovered enough for them to become apparent again. But there is no reported evidence of this sort of behaviour happening elsewhere, such as Germany, where the species is also doing well. "What is new is that there is now clear evidence that aggressive behaviour does not just involve males fighting for territories - females are being badly bitten and dying too. It even applies to cubs." One theory is that a Vitamin A deficiency, caused by ingesting pollutants, has caused increased aggression. Mr Simpson, however, was sceptical and suggested that the aggressive behaviour could be linked to the gradual recovery of the otter population in Britain prompting fierce competition for territory.


Himalyan porcupine

There are many species of porcupine living across Asia. The Asiatic brush tailed porcupine lives throughout China, Eastern and Southeast Asia. This porcupine has a long tail with a brush of quills at the end; like the quills on its body this tail is used for protection. The East Asian porcupine eats vegetation as do other porcupines; sometimes it also eats small bugs. East Asian porcupines live in forests and mountains; they are highly adaptable.

The porcupines found in Asia are similar to porcupines found in North America. Weighing up to 18 kilograms, it is has a crest of long wiry bristles on its head and quills that cover the body and tail. The quills can be erected when threatened and they can cause painful, festering wounds. Widely distributed but rarely seen, these nocturnal animal feeds on bulbs, fruit and roots and occasionally raid crops. They strip bark and twigs off trees. Females give birth to two young.

Describing the defenses of a large African species, David Attenborough wrote: “If anything interferes with it — whether a predator or merely inquisitive human being — it will issue a series of warnings. If it feels threatened it erects its quills into a huge halo that doubles its apparent size and makes it look very fearsome indeed. Then it shakes a group of specialized hollow quills in the end of its tail, which makes an ominous rattling noise. Finally, as an indication that it is getting very angry, it stamps its hind feet, If all this is not enough to deter a stranger, then the porcupine will suddenly spin around and rush backwards with such speed that its attackers may be seriously stabbed. Same of its quills are only loosely attached and may stay in the wounds they make. It is not uncommon to see young lions with porcupine quills in their muzzles. They are unlikely to attack the porcupine again.

Porcupines are very sexually active. They mate every day whether the female is breeding or not. When they mate the females brings here spines close to her body so the male is not impaled. Attenborough wrote: “They approach cautiously and begin to groom one another around the head where their hair, though course, is not spiny. This behavior continues as they circle one another and call. Then the male moves behind the female and parts the long backward-pointing quills on either side of her haunches. She erects the quills on her back and raises her tail. The male then stands on his hind legs and cautiously advances until the underside of her tail is supporting his belly — and intromission is successfully achieved...Interestingly enough, once having successfully negotiated the hazards of such congress, a pair seems only too happy to repeat it. Although the female only becomes fertile every 35 days or so. The male mounts evenings and actually copulates on most if not all occasions. Perhaps this consolidates their relationship with one another. If that is the case, then they are the only mammals to do so apart from some primates.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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