The Grey Wolf, ancestor to our modern dog, can be found scattered throughout North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Once numbering in the millions, its population numbers less than 250,000 worldwide. An intelligent pack hunter, the wolf has a complex social structure and strong family bonds, similar to humans. Ancient people learned to hunt by watching wolves. This carnivore keeps herbivore populations healthy by preying on the weak and injured, preventing overpopulation and overgrazing. Habitat loss, conflicts with humans over livestock, and our fears are the greatest threats to this misunderstood creature.
The gray wolf has very dense and fluffy winter fur with short underfur and long, coarse guard hairs. Most of the underfur and some of the guard hairs are shed in the spring and grow back in the fall. The longest hairs occur on the back, particularly on the front quarters and neck. The long hairs are found on the shoulders and almost form a crest on the upper part of the neck. The hairs on the cheeks are elongated and form tufts. The ears are covered in short hairs which strongly project from the fur. The winter fur is highly resistant to cold.
The gray wolf will survive in the wild for less than 10 years, but under human care, up to 20 years. In many areas it has been hunted and killed because it is believed to pose a threat to humans and domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep and reindeer. Because pups are highly sensitive to hunger and disease, there is a high mortality rate for them living in the wild.
The most common cause of death for wolves is conflict with people over livestock losses. While wolf predation on livestock is fairly uncommon (government figures on cattle predation by wolves is stated to be less than 2/10ths of one percent), and far more livestock deaths are caused by domestic dogs and illness, wolves living in cattle ranch areas are often killed as an attempt to protect livestock. Another serious threat is human encroachment into wolf territory, which leads to habitat loss for wolves and their prey species. Overall the greatest threat to wolves is human fear and misunderstanding about the species.
The wolf is the largest member of the canid family, with males averaging 95-99 lbs and females 79-85 lbs. It is similar in general appearance and proportions to a German shepherd or sled dog but has a larger head, narrower chest, longer and stronger legs, a straighter tail and bigger paws. Its winter fur is long and bushy and predominantly a mottled gray in color, although nearly pure white, red or brown to black may also occur.
Current population is estimated at 7000 to 11,500 wolves in Alaska, and approximately 5000 total in all lower 48 states. Around the world there are an estimated 200,000 in 57 countries, compared to up to 2 million in earlier times. Once common throughout North America, they were killed in most areas of the U.S. by the mid 1930’s. Thanks to reintroduction of wolves in 1995, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most favored places to see and hear wolves in their native habitat.
Wolves travel and hunt in packs of 4 to 7 animals on average. Packs include the mother and father (called the alphas), their pups and several other subordinate or young animals. The alphas are the pack leaders that track and hunt prey, choose den sites and establish territory. They develop close relationships and strong social bonds, and often demonstrate deep affection for their family. They have been known to sacrifice themselves to protect the family unit.
Many European fairy tales and myths tend to misrepresent wolves as villainous and dangerous creatures. However, Native Americans often held wolves in the highest esteem in their culture and revered them as sacred animals. Native Americans recognized the important role the wolf played in the delicate balance of the land, and credited the wolf for teaching them about the importance of family and how to hunt and forage for food. Many other cultures around the world also revered the wolf as a creature of power and loyalty.
Wolves eat ungulates (meaning “hoofed animals”) like elk, deer, moose and caribou. Wolves are known to eat beaver, rabbits and other small prey. They are also scavengers, and often eat animals that have died due to natural causes like starvation and disease.
Pups are born blind and defenseless. The pack cares for the pups until they mature at about one year. They will only have roughly one litter per year consisting of 1-14 pups, with an average being about 4-6. After two months, pups will follow other wolves to the hunt, all the while watching and learning. After 8 months the young wolves are large enough to join the hunt, and will continue until they die.
Gray Wolf and Red Wolf (canis rufus) are the two main wolf species, with over 30 sub-species below them, including the Timber, Arctic, Mexican, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Eastern, Eurasian, Maned and Himalayan Wolf. Our domestic dogs (canis familiaris) are descended from wolves and are considered a subspecies.
Wolves play a vital role in maintaining the health and sustainability of the landscape in the greater Yellowstone region and the western lands. They are a “keystone” species that has a huge impact on the environment. Since their return to Yellowstone in 1995, wolves have benefited that ecosystem by regulating prey, reducing densities of coyotes and providing food for scavengers. Researchers in Yellowstone Park found that the presence of wolves forced herd of elk to move around more frequently thereby allowing aspen and willow trees to flourish in areas where they had previously been overgrazed. This, in turn, resulted in the return of beavers and riparian (relating to or living or located on the bank of a natural watercourse (as a river) or sometimes of a lake or a tidewater) birds.
Polar Bears are the largest land carnivore on Earth, and live almost exclusively on sea ice that forms along the arctic coasts in places such as Alaska, Canada and Russia. With a heavy pelt, thick layer of blubber and fur on the bottom of their feet, these aggressive predators are designed for the cold. Polar bears prey on a variety of animals, including beluga whales and walrus, however seal is their primary food source. Remains left from a Polar Bear meal sustain a host of arctic scavengers. There are only about 25,000 Polar Bears left in the wild. Global warming has stunted the development of sea ice, making it nearly impossible for this animal to hunt and thrive. Sadly, at their current rate of decline, these fantastic creatures could be extinct within 3 decades.
Biologists estimate there are from 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears remaining. About 60% of those live in Canada. Scientists predict that as the Arctic continues to warm from climate change, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by mid-century, although hope remains if action is taken now to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Polar bears live in the circumpolar north, in areas where they can hunt seals at openings in the sea ice called ‘leads.’ When they hunt, they are amazingly stealthy, and will wait near an ice hole or where ice meets the water for a seal to come up for air. The polar bear can smell the seal and will reach its large paw into the water to scoop the unassuming victim out. Polar bears depend on ice for access to their main prey. Polar bears are found in Canada (home to roughly 60% of the world’s polar bears), the U.S. (Alaska), Greenland, Russia and Norway (the Svalbard archipelago.) Scientists have identified 19 populations of polar bears living in four different ice regions in the Arctic. Polar bears live solitary lives, though they have sometimes been seen playing together for hours at a time.
The polar bear’s main prey is the ringed seal. Polar bears have evolved to feed on seals, specifically seal fat, as the highest calorie food source possible. Ringed seals, which are smaller, are the most accessible, especially to younger bears and females. Male polar bears also hunt bearded seals, which are larger. When hunting is good, the bears will eat only the blubber in order to build up the fat reserves they need to sustain themselves between meals. They leave the carcass for scavengers, such as arctic foxes, ravens and younger bears.
Polar bears have the one of the slowest reproductive rates of any mammal, typically producing only five litters in their lifetime. Twins are most common, but female bears can bear singlets or triplets depending on their condition. They give birth to their first litter when they are between four and eight years old – most frequently at five or six. After feeding heavily in the spring, females dig a den in the fall, in snow caves or ‘maternity dens.’ Newborns look like large white rats, are 12 to 14 inches long and weigh about a pound. They are blind, toothless and covered with short, soft fur. They are completely dependent on their mother for warmth and food.
Adult males normally weigh 775 to 1,200 pounds. Adult females are smaller, normally weighing 330 to 650 pounds. The largest polar bear ever recorded was a male weighing 2,209 pounds – Wow! Scientists usually refer to how tall bears are by measuring them at the shoulder when on all fours. Those heights are typically 3.5 to 5 feet for adult polar bears, both male and female. An adult male may reach over 10 feet when standing on its hind legs.
Polar bears are insulated by two layers of fur that help to keep them warm. They also have a thick layer of fat. Their compact ears and small tail also prevent heat loss. In fact, polar bears have more problems with overheating than they do from the cold, especially when they run. Polar bear feet are also furred and covered with small bumps called “papillae” to keep them from slipping on the ice.
In human terms, not very long. In the wild, polar bears live an average 15 to 18 years, although biologists have tagged a few bears in their early 30s. In captivity, they may live until their mid-to late 30s. Debby, a zoo bear in Canada, lived to be 42.
Scientists have concluded that the main threat to polar bears is loss of their Arctic sea ice habitat from global warming. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding and in some cases, denning. Summer ice loss in the Arctic now equals an area the size of Alaska, Texas and the state of Washington combined. Other threats include pollution, poaching and industrial impact. Hunting will become a threat if not well regulated. In May 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act. Canada and Russia list the polar bear as a “species of concern.”
In Inuit mythology, Nanook was the master of bears, greatly respected for its strength, courage and spiritual power. Also known as Tornarssuk, the polar bear god is sometimes depicted in human form and sometimes in polar bear form. Like other spiritually powerful animals in Inuit mythology, polar bears frequently shape-shift into human form and back again, putting on a white bear coat to take on their ursine form. According to Inuit traditions, it was Polar Bear who first taught humans the art of seal hunting. Inuit shamans frequently call upon the spirit of the polar bear to help with their initiation traditions.
Polar bears sit right at the top of the Arctic food chain, and they balance nature by preventing an overpopulation of seals. Foxes and gulls rely on large, healthy populations of polar bears for their own survival. These animals routinely feed on the leftovers a polar bear leaves behind from his or her hunt.
- A polar bear’s fur is not white! It is hollow. The fur reflects light, which makes it seem white. The hollow fur also traps the suns heat to help keep the bear warm.
- When curled up, a polar bear may cover its muzzle (nose) with a paw to help conserve heat.
- Polar bear cubs learn to freeze and remain still while their mother hunts. If they move, the mother disciplines them with a whack to the head.
- Humans are the polar bear’s only predator.
- A polar bear is so strong that it can kill an animal with one blow from its paw.
- Polar bears do not hibernate. Female polar bears will den with their young. All polar bears may den for a short time to avoid bad weather.
- Polar bears can swim up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) at a time, and they can swim an average of 6 miles per hour.
- The polar bear is the largest living land carnivore.
- Non-retractable claws act like ice picks and the soles of the feet like suction cups so the polar bear can easily walk on ice.
- Pregnant female polar bears can survive without feeding for eight months.
- Polarbears can eat an elephant in just 5 minutes, and can run as fast as a cheetah.
- The polar bear was the mascot for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.
In the early 1990s, Freshwater Siamese Crocodiles were assumed to be virtually extinct in the wild. However in 2000, small populations of them were discovered on the Mekong River basin and in some Cambodian wetlands. Through considerable conservation efforts, including breed-and-release programs and growing awareness, this reptile’s numbers have increased to estimates of 1000 in the wild. Feeding primarily on fish and frogs, these smaller crocs only grow up to roughly 10 feet long. Overhunting and habitat degradation through damming are the reasons why these amazing animals are still endangered.
The Siamese Crocodile is considered “genetically distinct” from any other crocodilian species. Crocodilians are a group that also includes alligators, caimans and the gharial.
The Siamese Crocodile is a small-to-medium freshwater crocodile, with males reaching only about 3 to 3.5 meters in length, although some can reach up to 4 meters long or more, especially if they have cross-bred with other crocodile species. Females are somewhat smaller than males, reaching approximately 2.5 meters long.
Juveniles are a golden tan color with black stripes on the body and tail. Their bodies become darker in color as they mature. The snout is smooth and broad, and there is a distinctive raised bony crest behind each eye.
Previously found throughout most of Southeast Asia but now extinct or nearly extinct from most countries except Cambodia and Laos, and possibly a very small population in Thailand. Population estimates vary widely according to source, but these rare crocodiles are mainly found in Cambodia where updated estimates suggest a population of no greater than 1,000 in the wild. Larger numbers exist in captivity on breeding farms.
The Siamese crocodile prefers to live in the slow moving waters of swamps, lagoons and rainforest rivers.
Siamese Crocodiles will eat a wide variety of prey such as invertebrates, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals, including carrion, but feed mainly on fish.
- Compared to the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the Siamese crocodile is non-aggressive and considered a low threat to humans.
- The Siamese crocodile is known under many different names, such as Buaja, Buaya kodok, Jara Kaenumchued, Singapore small-grain, and Soft-belly crocodile.
- The scientific name Crocodylus siamensis means “Crocodile of Siam”. Siam used to be the official name of Thailand until 1939 when the name was change to Thailand.
- The Siamese crocodile can hybridize with the Saltwater crocodile. Hybrids are popular in farms since the hybrids grow bigger than pure Siamese crocs.
- The freshwater crocodile population living on the island of Borneo is considered by some to be distinct enough to be a separate species for which the name Crocodylus raninus has been suggested. Crocodylus raninus is however not an officially recognized species and the Borneo population remains a part of Crocodylus siamensis; at least until more data have been collected.
Not much is known about the natural behaviors of this species in the wild, but females do appear to build mounded nests made from plant debris scraped together and mixed with mud. In captivity, these crocodiles breed in April and May during the rainy season, and lay between 20 and 50 eggs which they guard until hatched. The female will help her young to break out of their eggs, and then carry her hatchlings to the water in her jaws. Both male and female Siamese Crocodiles take care of their newly hatched babies, and uniquely, this species is known to live together in family units. In captivity, these crocodiles reach sexual maturity at about 10 years.
Unknown in the wild; reported to live to over 60 years in captivity.
In the mid to late 20th century, the main threats were commercial hunting for the crocodile skin trade and the collection of live animals to stock farms. Currently, major threats include habitat loss, the illegal collection of eggs and live animals, accidental capture with fishing gear, and the vulnerability of extant populations because of their reduced size. Human disturbance and habitat occupation is forcing the last remaining wild populations to the very edges of their previous range. The hunting of adult females for crocodile farm stock is still widespread. In addition to being hunted for their skin, Siamese crocs are also killed for their meat, and the food trade for this endangered species is expanding. In a 10-year period from 1998 to 2008, some 466,000 live juveniles were exported from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to China, where this exotic meat is considered a delicacy. Traditional Chinese medicine also values the teeth, blood and fat of these reptiles, and many Siamese Crocodiles are lost to this trade for their body parts.
Humans and crocodiles have an interesting relationship in Southeast Asia. The mythology of the region taught that crocodiles were shape-shifters who could change into human form and back again, and that humans and crocodiles sometimes intermarried. It was believed that crocodiles had their own underwater society similar to that of humans, with its own relationships, hierarchies and jealousies. Crocodiles were also linked with wealth and magical powers, and legends told of human crocodile charmers who could counteract the crocodile magic. Fables told of young women being dragged away from the shore into deep waters by magical, love-struck crocodiles, and of course, people did sometimes fall prey to these strong predators. To this day, some local people have been reported to protect the crocodiles, which they view to be sacred.
Crocodiles are an important group of animals because they are a keystone species, and one that has a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem in relation to its population. As the top predator, it helps to keep other competitors in balance, which allows for an increase in biodiversity. Preserving the presence of crocodiles in an ecosystem enables many other species to survive as well.
South China Tiger
One of the most critically endangered creatures on Earth is the South China Tiger. It is considered by many scientists to be the archetype that preceded all modern tigers. Although there are a few currently in captivity, the South China Tiger is functionally extinct. There have been no confirmed sightings of this animal in the wild for over 30 years. If some do persist, they would be found in the subtropical evergreen forests of South East China. The smallest of all tiger subspecies, this predator only grows up to 8 feet long and maxes out at about 330 pounds. The stripes on this tiger are spaced further than that of other tiger species, giving it a distinct and impressive appearance. This beautiful creature was heavily hunted and killed as a common pest in the 20th century. Human encroachment and lack of prey has contributed to its demise. There are programs currently active with the goal to release captive communities back into suitable areas around the world.
There are 10 recognized tiger subspecies. One, the Trinil, became extinct in prehistoric times. The remaining subspecies all survived at least into the mid-20th century; three of these are also considered extinct. Their historical range in Bangladesh, Siberia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, China, and southeast Asia, including three Indonesian islands, is severely diminished today.
The South China tiger is the smallest tiger subspecies from mainland Asia. Males measure from 91 to 104 inches between the pegs, and weigh 287 to 386 lbs. Females are smaller and measure 87 to 94 inches between the pegs, and weigh 243 to 254 lbs. The length of the tail does not usually exceed one half of the head-and-body length. Hair length varies geographically.
The historical range of South China tigers stretched over a vast landscape of 1,200 miles, from east to west and 930 miles from north to south in China. By 1982, only an estimated 150–200 South China tigers remained in the wild.
Tigers are obligate carnivores. They prefer hunting large ungulates such as deer and bovids, frequently kill wild pig, and occasionally hog deer, muntjac and gray langur.
In 1905, the German zoologist Max Hilzheimer first described the South China tiger as similar in height to the Bengal tiger, but differing in skull and coat characteristics. Their coat is lighter and more yellowish and the paws, face, and stomach appear more white; the stripes are narrower, more numerous and more sharp-edged. The name Amoy tiger was used in the fur trade.
In most cases, tigers approach their victim from the side or behind, from as close a distance as possible and grasp the prey’s throat to kill it. Then they drag the carcass into cover, occasionally over several hundred meters, to consume it.
The South China Tiger is able to mate at any time of the year but breeding is most common from the end of November to the first half of April. Males are ready to begin mating at the age of 5 years and females at the age of 4 years. The offspring are born 103 days after mating. They are born in a den and there can be anywhere from 3 to 6 young born at once. They are born blind and only weigh between 1.7 to 3.5 lbs. each. They survive off their mother’s milk for the first 8 weeks of their lives. The mother teaches them to hunt when they are 6 months old. The cubs go off on their own when they are about 1 1/2 to 2 years old.
The oldest recorded captive tiger lived for 26 years. A wild specimen, having no natural predators, could in theory live to a comparable age.
In the early 1950s, the South China tiger was reported to number more than 4,000 individuals in the wild, when it became the target of large-scale government ‘anti-pest’ campaigns promulgated by Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. The effects of uncontrolled hunting were compounded by extensive deforestation and probable reduction in available prey, large-scale relocations of urban populations to rural locations leading to fragmentation of tiger populations and increased vulnerability to local extinction from stochastic events.
The tiger is regarded in China as the king of mountains and forests, and as embodying valor, virility and majesty. People born in the year of the tiger – third in China’s twelve year cycle – are hence brave, optimistic, generous, and open minded, but better suited to leadership than service.
The Save China’s Tigers project worked with the Wildlife Research Center of the State Forestry Administration of China and the Chinese Tigers South Africa Trust, to secure an agreement on the reintroduction of Chinese tigers into the wild. Save China’s Tigers aims to rewild the critically endangered South China tiger by bringing a few captive-bred individuals to a private reserve in the Free State province of South Africa for rehabilitation training for them to regain their hunting instincts. Mainstream conservationists have expressed reservations about the project. The WWF says that the money is being spent in the wrong place and that the Siberian tiger has a better chance of survival.
The Iberian Lynx is the last remaining offshoot of the now extinct European Lynx. It can be found on the Iberian Peninsula of Southwestern Europe. This amazing feline may be the most endangered cat in the world. A fully-grown Lynx may be over 4 feet long and weigh nearly 30 pounds. Its diet is reliant on the ability to catch at least one rabbit per day. A nursing female may need up to 3. An unusually specialized predator, the Lynx can stand still, camouflaged for hours, before its unsuspecting prey wanders into pouncing distance. Decreases in the Iberian rabbit population, an inability to adapt its diet, and loss of habitat have crippled this truly remarkable creature.
The Iberian lynx portrays many of the typical characteristics of lynxes, such as tufted ears, long legs, short tail, and a ruff of fur that resembles a “beard.” Unlike its Eurasian relatives, the Iberian lynx is tawny colored and spotted. The coat is also noticeably shorter than in other lynxes, which are typically adapted to colder environments.
The kittens become independent at 7 to 10 months old, but remain with the mother until around 20 months old. In the wild, both males and females reach sexual maturity at the age of one year, though in practice they rarely breed until a territory becomes vacant; one female was known not to breed until five years old when its mother died. The maximum longevity in the wild is 13 years.
A sharp drop in the population of its main food source, a result of two diseases, contributed to the feline’s decline. The lynx was also affected by the loss of scrubland, its main habitat, to human development, including changes in land use and the construction of roads and dams.
As of 2013, Andalusia in Spain has a population of 309 Iberian Lynx living in the wild. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs have boosted their numbers. Once established, ranges tend to be stable in size over many years, the boundaries often being along man-made roads and trails.
The Iberian lynx is a rabbit specialist with a low ability to adapt its diet. A male requires one rabbit per day while a female raising kittens will eat three per day. The Iberian species continued to rely heavily on rabbits (75% of its food intake) despite the latter’s repeated population crashes due to two diseases.
The Iberian lynx has recently gone from the critically endangered species to the endangered species. It’s habitat is fully protected and they are no longer legally hunted. A very specialized hunter, the Iberian Lynx has certain adaptations that improve their ability to catch and kill small prey. They have a foreshortened skull, which maximizes the bite force of the canines. Their muzzles are narrower and they have longer jaws and smaller canines than animals which feed on larger prey. The species is solitary and hunts alone; it will stalk its prey or lie in wait for hours behind a bush or rock until the prey is sufficiently close to pounce in a few strides.
During the mating season the female leaves her territory in search of a male. The typical gestation period is about two months; the kittens are born between March and September, with a peak of births in March and April. A litter consists of two or three (rarely one, four, or five) kittens weighing between 7 and 9 oz. Difficulty in finding mates has led to more inbreeding, resulting in fewer kittens and a greater rate of non-traumatic death.
The head and body length is 33 to 43 inches, with the short tail an additional 4 to 12 inches. The shoulder height is 24 to 28 inches. The male is larger than the female, averaging 28 lbs. to her 21 lbs. Males may reach 59 lbs.
The lynx has a prominent role in Greek, Norse, and North American mythology. It is considered an elusive and mysterious creature, known in some American Indian traditions as a ‘keeper of secrets’. It is also believed to have supernatural eyesight, capable of seeing even through solid objects. As a result, it often symbolizes the unravelling of hidden truths, and the psychic power of clairvoyance. Lynx is the name of a constellation in the northern sky, defined by Johannes Hevelius in 1687. The name is said to have been chosen because the stars which make up the constellation are so faint that only those with the eyesight of the lynx can perceive them.
Formerly considered a subspecies of the Eurasian lynx, the Iberian lynx is now classified as a separate species. Both species occurred together in central Europe in the Pleistocene epoch, being separated by habitat choice.
According to the conservation group SOS Lynx, if the Iberian lynx died out, it would be the first feline species to become extinct since prehistoric times.
Siblings become violent towards one another between 30 and 60 days, peaking at 45 days. A kitten will frequently kill its littermate in a brutal fight.