Along the western equatorial region of Africa is one of the most diverse and important wilderness areas left in the world. Larger than the state of Alaska, the 500 million acres of the Congo River Basin is home to more than 10,000 species of tropical plants, 1000 species of birds, 700 species of fish and 400 species of mammals.
Primates make up many of the native animals, the largest of these are the great apes, including the gorillas and chimpanzees which can also be found among several other regions of the continent. But one species can be found in one specific region of one country in the Congo.
They have the smallest habitat distribution of all the great apes, they are called – the bonobos. Bonobos live south of the Congo River and are found only within the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1929, bonobos became the last of the great ape species to be discovered. Originally they were considered a subspecies of chimpanzee but later were reclassified as a separate species. Modern research has even proposed that bonobos and chimpanzees should each be classified in a separate genus.
They are often called “pygmy chimpanzees,” but this name is not truly accurate since bonobos are roughly the same size as chimpanzee but only differ slightly in some proportions. The name bonobo may be a mispronunciation of Bolobo, a local town near the region where they were first discovered.
Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos have shorter upper limbs and longer lower limbs which allows them to walk with a more upright posture. When moving on the ground bonobos may move on all fours in a position called knuckle-walking.
Other physical characteristics bonobos possess that are different from chimpanzees include a more rounded head with less jaw protusion, a more slender build and narrower chest and slightly smaller ears that are often covered in cheek whiskers. A chimpanzee’s ears are usually more pronounced and stick out from the side of the head.
A bonobo’s face is darker black with lips that are lighter in color, often seen as red or pink compared to the brown lips of the chimpanzee whose face also lightens with age. The nostrils of the bonobo are said to be “thick-walled” and more gorilla-like in shape.
The black body hair of the bonobo is long and fine, the hair on top of the head is parted down the middle and their side-whiskers are long and thick.
Many adult bonobos retain the white rump tuft of hair that is common to infants.
Bonobos eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, leaves, and seeds. They have also been observed hunting and eating meat, including infant duikers – a small antelope – and flying squirrels. They will also spend much of their time in the tree canopy of the forest. Unlike many other primates, bonobos will often wade into shallow streams while traveling and gather algae and aquatic vegetation for food.
The social behavior of the bonobos is quite distinct from chimpanzees. Although they will kill and eat small animals, they do not wage war on neighboring groups or kill the young of rival troops like chimpanzees.
Hand and foot gestures appear to play major role in bonobo communication. Some gestures are tactile in nature – involving gentle touching and patting – and is more commonly seen among bonobos than chimpanzees.
Uncommon among many primates, the bonobo social structure is female dominated. Most females can dominate males even though they are physically smaller. Adolescent females will leave their maternal group to find or form a new group, while males stay with their mothers – a rare behavior in the animal kingdom. Male social status is tied to their mother’s rank and they will typically remain with them through their life.
Bonobos are extremely playful. Adult females often engage in social play, which is unusual for primates. Adult bonobos also seem to have no age preference in this playful activity while with other primates adults generally only engage playfully with juveniles. Some researchers believe adult play may have a role in reducing tensions between individuals or in social assessment.
Bonobos are the most vocal of the great apes, making up to 14 types of vocalizations. They are also known to make laughing sounds during play activity.
Wild bonobo populations are listed as endangered and are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, and the pet trade. Years of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only country that bonobos are native to, have made it impossible to thoroughly study the bonobos in their native habitat. There may be less than 5,000 bonobos remaining in the wild.
Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the only bonobo sanctuary in the world – the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, founded by Claudine Andre in 2002.
The Milwaukee County Zoo is currently home to the largest group of bonobos in North America.. They may also be seen at accredited facilities in Cincinnati, Columbus, Ft. Worth, Jacksonville, Memphis, and San Diego.
The bonobo population in zoological facilities is managed internationally and every few years bonobo experts from around the world meet to discuss bonobo transfers, breeding, husbandry, and conservation. International cooperation on the managed care of bonobos is important for maintaining genetic diversity and the continued survival of these gentle, peaceful apes of the Congo.
Sand Hill Crane
With a unique, loud trumpeting call that can be heard from miles away, the slender and tall Sandhill crane is sometimes found in huge numbers filling the skies overhead.
Found in several scattered areas of North America, Sandhill Cranes gather among the Sandhills on the Platte River in Nebraska in early spring. The migration along the Great Plains is said to be among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the North American continent, with over a quarter of a million birds present within a 75 mile stretch of land at one time.
Sandhill cranes are large birds that live in open habitats such as small bogs, marshes, and prairies across northern North America and the southeastern United States.
About the size of a heron, the cranes are nearly 4 feet in length. They are slate gray in color with rust-colored patches along their backs. The possess a long slender neck and a distinguishing red patch of skin on the crown of their head.
Sitting upon long black legs, their bulky body ends with drooping feathers that cover their short tail in a form known as a “bustle.”
When in flight, Sandhill cranes extend their long necks straight out – different from the tucked in style of herons. Their broad wingspan of six feet creates a stunning profile as they soar, often high in the sky.
Sandhill Cranes breed and forage in open prairies, grasslands, and wetlands. Outside of the breeding season, they are often found in deeper water where they are typically safe from predators, though foraging birds in the southeast United States are sometimes preyed upon by large alligators.
They will defend themselves against predators such as wolves and coyotes by spreading their wings, hissing and if necessary kick at the attacker.
The cranes are omnivorous, though their diet varies widely with location and season. They primarily feed on insects and the roots of aquatic plants. They may also eat small reptiles and cultivated grains where available.
Although some start breeding at two years of age, Sandhill Cranes may reach the age of seven before breeding.
Sandhill Cranes mate for life. Part of their mating rituals include elaborate dancing displays during which they choose their partners. Displaying birds stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.”
The breeding pair both work to build a nest made of plant material often in shallow water or on dry ground close to the water’s edge. The incubation of the eggs lasts about 30 days and young are hatched fully developed with open eyes.
Although each female usually lays two eggs, only one of the nestlings typically survives to fledging. The chicks can leave the nest within 8 hours of hatching. Young Sandhill cranes have the ability to swim from birth and will follow parents into the wetlands. Both parents feed the young at first, but young gradually learn to feed themselves.
The juveniles are able to fly between 60 and 70 days of age but will remain with parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.
Known for the large flocks and sometimes long distances they travel during migration across North America, some populations do not migrate at all including those in Cuba, Mississippi and Florida.
The “Florida” cranes can often be seen along highways or foraging the front lawns of many neighborhoods in the early morning hours.
Sandhill cranes are numerous and their populations have been seen to increase over recent years according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They are the most abundant crane worldwide, however, some populations across the U.S., including the Mississippi Sandhill Crane is endangered, largely from conversion of their wet pine savanna habitat into pine plantations.
The oldest Sandhill Crane on record was at least 36 years old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found in New Mexico in 2010.
One of the world’s most endangered large whale species is the Northern Right Whale. About 400 North Atlantic right whales remain and fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales are known to exist. A third species – the Southern Right Whale – is found throughout parts of the Southern Ocean.
Due to the popular and lucrative whaling industries of the 1700 and 1800s, by the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted right whales in the Atlantic to the brink of extinction.
The giant animals received their common name from whalers, which considered them the “right” whale to hunt because they would often swim rather close to shore, produce a large amount of oil when harvested and due to their thick blubber, the whale’s carcass would float when killed, making it much easier process out at sea.
Adult right whales typically grow up to 50 feet in length and can weigh up to 70 tons. They have an extremely large head that is about 1/4 of their body length. A right whale’s lower jaw is strongly curved in order to house their long baleen which may grow up to 8 ft in length.
North Atlantic right whales have a stocky black body, with no dorsal fin. Their tail is black, broad, and deeply notched. The underside may be all black or have irregular-shaped white patches on the skin. Their pectoral flippers are relatively short and paddle-shaped.
Right whales are baleen whales, so they filter their food by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, trapping zooplankton, shrimp-like krill and small fish. Unlike some other baleen whales, right whales are skimmer-feeders. They feed while moving with their mouth open through patches of zooplankton.
Their most recognizable feature is the raised patches of rough skin, called callosities (kuh-LAH-suh-tees), located on their heads. These large callosities often appear white due to huge numbers of whale lice that are attracted to the algae that grows on the whales skin. Despite the name, whale lice are not actually lice, but are small skeleton shrimp crustaceans that cause very little damage to the whales skin.
Each right whale has a unique pattern of callosities. Scientists are able to use these patterns to identify individual whales, a photo-identification database is maintained by the New England Aquarium. This record of photos acquired over many years serves as a valuable tool in tracking and recording the yearly populations of the North Atlantic Right Whales.
Another feature of the right whale species is the blow hole. The exterior of the blow hole has a well-pronounced division, resulting in a distinguishing V-shaped exhaust of condensation and water vapor.
North Atlantic right whales primarily live in coastal waters or close to the continental shelf, although they may swim out to deep waters on occasion.
The North Atlantic right whales spend most of the summer off the coast of New England and Canada while each Fall, they may travel more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds to the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These shallow, southern coastal waters are the only known calving grounds of the Northern Atlantic Right Whales.
Females do not become sexually mature until they are around 10 years old. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. Females give birth around every three to five years though some have now been recorded taking as long as nine years between calves. Calves are usually weaned toward the end of their first year.
Migration patterns of the North Pacific right whale are unknown, although it is thought the whales spend the summer in far northern feeding grounds of the Bering Sea and migrate south to warmer waters, such as southern California, during the winter. Calving grounds have not been found in the eastern North Pacific waters.
Southern right whales found in the Southern Ocean are classified as “endangered” under U.S. law, but are considered a species of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species while North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are both listed as “endangered”.
Right whales produce a variety of low frequency sounds, and the sounds between the three species are considered to be similar. One typical right whale vocalization used to communicate with other right whales is known as the “up call”. They appear to function as signals that bring whales together.
Right whales also use a variety of calls when socializing in a group at the surface. The most common call recorded is the “scream call.” This call is believed to be produced by the dominant female in the group. Male North Atlantic right whales produce brief, intense, gunshot-like sounds.
It has generally been believed that Right Whales do not “sing” like the humpback and other whale species – but a recent study published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has noted that the extremely rare North Pacific right whale appears to use its gunshot calls in a repeating pattern.
A research team with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed 17-years’-worth of data and documented four distinct right whale song types at five different locations.
Right whales are believed live at least 70 years, but there is little data available on their average lifespan. Ear wax can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. There are indications that some species closely related to right whales may live more than 100 years.
All species of right whales have enjoyed complete international protection since 1949 though Russia and some other Asian countries were still illegally hunting them even into the 1990s.
Whaling is no longer a threat, but human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. The biggest known causes of death for North Atlantic right whales are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
Entanglement in fishing lines attached to gill nets and traps on the ocean floor as well as floating lines between traps are particularly dangerous, since they can form loops that a whale can be caught in. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a whale, and lead to a painful death. Reports suggest that over 85 percent of right whales have entanglement scars.
Vessel strikes are a major threat to North Atlantic right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic seaboard and often overlap with shipping lanes, making the whales vulnerable to collisions with ships.
Underwater noise pollution is another threat to their well-being. It is believed to interrupt the normal behavior of right whales by interfering with their communication.
Once considered the “right” whale to hunt – a name based on their value as a dead animal than a living species, with fewer than 500 believed to be in Atlantic waters and perhaps fewer than 100 in the Pacific, today may be the “right” time to prevent the Right Whale’s extinction.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
National Audubon Society
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
Milwaukee County Zoo
New England Aquarium
San Diego Zoo Global
Smithsonian Ocean Portal
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