For the Conservation Curious

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Mighty Mammals February 28, 2014

Over the past week or so I have watched a fascinating BBC documentary series called “The Life of Mammals,” thanks to my Netflix subscription. I was a zoology major in college so I like to think that I know a lot about the world’s animals… and maybe I do, compared to the average person on the street. But this series has shown me that there are so many weird and wonderful mammals out there that I couldn’t possibly know them all. From the cute numbat in Australia that looks like a striped squirrel with one of the longest tongues I’ve ever seen, to the wide variety of antelope on the African savannahs, the world’s mammals are amazing.

So I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting Pennsylvania mammal species here. While they may not be as unique as the egg laying echidna or duck-billed platypus, they have their own special features that make them just as important.

Water shrew – The BBC show actually featured this tiny creature in the episode on insect eaters. What makes the water shrew so interesting are its fur and feet. The fur is so densely packed that it is water-proof. That’s good because the water shrew hunts for insect prey underwater. When the water shrew dives air bubbles are trapped in its fur, helping it stay buoyant. As soon as it leaves the water all it takes are a few shakes to get the water out of its fur. The feet are partially webbed and have special hairs on the ankles, aiding the water shrew in swimming. Talk about an animal perfectly adapted for its lifestyle!

Porcupine – Everyone knows that porcupines have “needles” that can hurt you if you get to close to them, but did you know that those quills are modified hairs? And porcupines cannot shoot those quills at you… you must touch them in order for them to come loose. A porcupine can have over 30,000 of them! The name “porcupine” is Latin for “quill pig” – quite an apt name. Porcupines have an appetite for wood, usually, but have been known to eat plastic and metal too. Our state park and forest staff have had to replace many signs and structures across the state thanks to porcupine damage!

Flying squirrels – Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to not one but two flying squirrel species? We have both Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Where their territories overlap, the more aggressive southern one may bully the northern one and steal their home. How rude! Flying squirrels can’t actually fly, but they use the large flap of skin between their front and hind legs as a sort of hang-glider, launching them from trees for as far as 150 feet. Few people see flying squirrels as they are small and nocturnal, but I was lucky enough to see one on a dying sugar maple in my parents’ front yard many years ago. Perhaps it was nesting inside the rotting tree? It was a sight of a lifetime, that’s for sure!

my flying squirrel
Drawing by Jessica Sprajcar

Pennsylvania is home to just over 60 species of mammals, although many of those are very rare or uncommon. And did you know that Pennsylvania was once home to wolverines, badgers, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, moose and bison? Unfortunately all those mammals are now extirpated from the state, but perhaps one day we will see them again? Deer, beaver and river otters are all mammal reintroduction success stories to gain hope from.

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