Tetrapod Zoology

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More stuff from the archives… or, from Tet Zoo ver 1 anyway. The following article is about the bizarre jerboa Euchoreutes naso. Back when I wrote the article (2006), there were no photos of this species available, and I had to resort to using a single painting. However, a glut of good photos are now available, as explained below. Incidentally, do not ever google the term ‘Asian wild life’.

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It’s funny how things work out. Today I am obsessed with rodents. Why? Most of my day was spent clearing out an old loft, and while rummaging through decades of accumulated rubbish I came across multiple copies of old Brooke Bond picture card albums, and among them one of my favourites: Tunnicliffe’s Asian Wild Life. Brooke Bond pictures cards were given away free inside boxes of tea (the tea-producing branch of the company later became known as PG Tips) and, for a small fee, collectors could send off for an album. Hugely influential to young people that grew up in tea-drinking households during the 1960s and 70s, many of the series were devoted to natural history, and they are fondly remembered by many people who work today in the biological sciences. They explain my fascination with the artwork of Peter Scott, Charles Tunnicliffe and Maurice Wilson.

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While, mostly, I looked after the albums that I inherited from my mother – who collected the cards herself as a girl – there were a few that I unfortunately defaced and mutilated, Asian Wild Life among them. So today I’m happy to have back in my hands not one, but two, pristine, completed albums. Like several of the Brooke Bond picture cards series, Asian Wild Life was both written and illustrated by the fantastic Charles F. Tunnicliffe (1901-1979). And there is always one picture in particular that fascinated me, and today still does: it’s Tunnicliffe’s painting (reproduced below) of two Yarkand jerboas Euchoreutes naso, bounding together across the steppes of north-west China.

Euchoreutes has to be one of the oddest-looking rodents and, years later, when I learnt about the rhinogradentians, I wondered if Euchoreutes wasn’t really a jerboa at all, but in fact a wayward rhinogradentian, perhaps related to the Earwing Otopteryx volitans. Even the binomial – Euchoreutes naso – is suggestive of some link with rhinogradentians given that the latter group includes the nasobemes (genus Nasobema). Like earwings, Euchoreutes has ridiculously enormous ears, and its alternative name is the Long-eared jerboa. If anything, Tunnicliffe’s painting actually doesn’t make the ears appear large enough: in photos, the ears look to be about as long as the entire body.

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And in body length, Euchoreutes is just 70-90 mm long. That’s small, but not as small as the Baluchistan pygmy jerboa Salpingotus michaelis: with a body length of 36-47 mm it’s the smallest living rodent (it’s also relatively new to science, having only been discovered in 1966 and named in 1973). At the other end of the scale, some species of Allactaga (the four- and five-toed jerboas) exceed 260 mm in body length, and can then have a tail over 300 mm long. Getting back to Euchoreutes, it’s odd not just for its large ears, but also for its unusually long snout. It does however resemble most other jerboas in having proportionally small forelimbs and tremendously elongate hindlimbs.

Like all jerboas (well.. nearly all: read on), Euchoreutes has fused metatarsals. Is metatarsal fusion a synapomorphy for the group? There’s a problem with that: the Five-toed dwarf jerboa Cardiocranius paradoxus lacks metatarsal fusion. Is this because it’s the most basal jerboa, because it exhibits a character reversal, or because it’s not a jerboa at all? While few phylogenetic studies incorporate it (it is a very obscure and little-studied species), it is usually implied in classifications that it’s down at the base of the jerboa clade (properly called Dipodidae).

Though pedal digits I and V are reduced in Euchoreutes, they are still present. This contrasts with the dipodine jerboas Paradipus, Dipus, Stylodipus, Eremodipus and Jaculus, all of which lack lateral digits and are tridactyl. Their elongate, fused metatarsi bear three distinct distal condyles and look, at least superficially, remarkably like the tarsometatarsi of birds. This similarity has not been lost on ornithologists (Rich 1973) and is a remarkable case of convergent evolution. If the proximal end of the metatarsus were broken off (and this bit is the giveaway, as it of course shows the presence of tarsals charactestically mammalian in form and number), I suspect that even some experienced zoologists would be fooled into misidentifying a jerboa metatarsus as an avian one. Sadly I don’t have many jerboa leg skeletons lying around so cannot test this idea (UPDATE: I wrote this before obtaining that Desert eagle owl pellet, so maybe I do own a jerboa metatarsus after all). Incidentally, most of the cervical vertebrae in jerboas are fused together as well, and in some dwarf jerboas the first three dorsal vertebrae are also fused together, and to the fused cervicals. I don’t know why this is, but it might be to prevent dislocation or jarring during the violent acceleration and deceleration incurred during leaping and bounding.

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And on the subject of leaping and bounding, jerboa feet are clearly specialised for saltation (jumping). With body lengths of mostly around 100 mm, jerboas can cover about 3 m in a single leap. This is a neat and useful trick if you want to cross large distances on hot sand, but of course jerboas are mostly nocturnal, and the predominant function of saltation in jerboas is to move quickly away from predators. One species – the Rough-legged jerboa Dipus sagitta – exhibits particularly interesting predator-avoidance behaviour: it not only leaps from predators, but, as it leaps, grabs at over-hanging foliage with its teeth and forelimbs, and then clambers into the vegetation to hide (Hanney 1975).

Specialised as they are for impoverished steppes, sub-deserts and deserts, jerboas have apparently benefited from desertification in some regions (Duplaix & Simon 1977). This probably only applies to tolerant generalists among the group, however, and certainly doesn’t work for Euchoreutes. It reportedly declined by about 50% during the 1990s (Nowak 1999) and is regarded as endangered.

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Studies demonstrate that Euchoreutes really is a jerboa, and not a rhinogradentian, and it’s traditionally been allocated its own ‘subfamily’ called Euchoreutinae Lyon, 1901 within the jerboa family Dipodidae Fischer de Waldheim, 1817. Whether Euchoreutes is actually a member of either of the two dipodid clades that have been recognised in phylogenetic studies of this group – Dipodinae and Allactaginae (Shenbrot 1992) – remains uncertain. One study of dipodid phylogeny based on cranial characters (Dempsey 1991) didn’t include Euchoreutes as no skulls were available for examination, which isn’t surprising given that only a handful of specimens are present in museums worldwide (Nowak 1999). Classifications have generally listed Euchoreutinae as separate from Dipodinae and Allactaginae, but only because the ‘subfamily’ rankings demand that each be treated as equivalent in rank. So exactly how does Euchoreutes fit into dipodid phylogeny? That’s a good question, and I’d be interested to know if it’s yet been answered [adjacent jerboa skeleton from wikipedia. I don't know what species it depicts, but it's possibly Jaculus jaculus].

Dipodidae appears to have evolved in the Miocene from ‘a taxon at the sicistine/zapodine [viz, birch mouse/jumping mouse] level of evolutionary dental development’ (Martin 1994, p. 99). Incidentally, Dipodidae is sometimes used for the clade that includes birch mice and jumping mice, as well as jerboas. However, most rodent workers seem to favour the use of the family-level name Zapodidae for birch mice and jumping mice, with Dipodidae restricted to jerboas proper. Dipodids + Zapodids = Dipodoidea. The name Dipodidae obviously comes from ‘dipodes’ meaning ‘two-footed’, the term apparently used for jerboas by Herodotus (writing some time around 430 B.C.). Given that many animals share the characteristic of having two feet, I presume this was a reference to bipedality. In comparison, this is not so common among mammals.

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On the subject of dipodid phylogeny I can’t resist mentioning Krasnov & Shenbrot’s (2002) study of co-evolution between fleas and jerboas. It’s an interesting study in that they found no good correlation between flea phylogeny and jerboa phylogeny: the distribution of fleas on their jerboa hosts depends instead on ecological and geographical factors. You might argue that this is predictable, given that parasites like ticks, lice and fleas mostly switch between hosts that inhabit similar environments, rather than those that are closely related. Bed bugs Cimex, for example, are well known for parasitizing humans, but before this they were bird and bat parasites which ‘transferred their attentions to man when he began to live in caves and stayed with their new host when he moved away from the forests into other living quarters’ (Andrews 1976, p. 162). Unfortunately for my research on Euchoreutes, it wasn’t included in Krasnov & Shenbrot’s (2002) study as it generally lacks fleas entirely!

Finally, for more information on Euchoreutes, have a look at the excellent and comprehensive EDGE species entry here, and also at the EDGE blog entries Up close with a long-eared jerboa and Capturing long-eared jerboas. Lots of neat photos there! Of course, the big post-2006 event concerning Euchoreutes was the 2007 filming of individuals in the wild. If you haven’t seen the footage before, it’s well worth a look: go here.

BREAKING NEWS: recent fieldwork shows that motorbikes and metal-detecting are having a detrimental effect on Long-eared jerboa habitat, and are resulting in the deaths of many jerboa. See Uuganbadrakh Oyunkhishig’s article Human impacts on long-eared jerboa.

Refs – -

Andrews, M. L. A. 1976. The Life That Lives on Man. Faber & Faber, London.

Dempsey, M. A. 1991. Cranial Foramina and Relationships of Dipodoid Rodents. Unpubished B. A. thesis, Baruch College of The City University of New York.

Duplaix, N. & Simon, N. 1977. World Guide to Mammals. Octopus Books, London.

Hanney, P. W. 1975. Rodents: Their Lives and Habits. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Krasnov, B. R. & Shenbrot, G. I. 2002. Coevolutionary events in the history of association between jerboas (Rodentia: Dipodidae) and their flea parasites. Israel Journal of Zoology 48, 331-350.

Martin, R. A. 1994. A preliminary review of dental evolution and paleogeography in the zapodid rodents, with emphasis on Pliocene and Pleistocene taxa. In Tomida, Y., Li, C. K. & Setoguchi, T. (eds) Rodent and Lagomorph Families of Asian Origins and Diversification. National Science Museum Monographs 8, 99-113.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition, Volume II. The Johns Hopkins Univesity Press (Baltimore and London).

Rich, P. V. 1973. A mammalian convergence on the avian tarsometatarsus. The Auk 90, 676-677.

Shenbrot G. I., 1992. A cladistic approach to the analysis of phylogenetic relationships among dipodid rodents (Rodentia; Dipodoidea). Archives of the Zoological Museum, Moscow State University 29, 176‑200.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanović
    February 23, 2009

    The horizontal scapula is intriguing…

  2. #2 Miriam
    February 23, 2009

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would

    leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed

    reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Miriam

    http://www.craigslistguide.info

  3. #3 DunkTheBiscuit
    February 23, 2009

    Does a mammal skull give any hint at all as to the shape and size of the ears? I do know that ears themselves aren’t skeletal! I just wondered if there was any way of realistically working out what the ears of extinct mammals looked like. Would anybody looking at that jerboa’s skull have any idea of those ears?

    That is one weird and wonderful beastie. Extreme cuteness – I bet it bites a lot (having noticed those two things often go together…)

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    February 24, 2009

    Huh, three comments… versus nearly 100 on the pterosaur respiration article. I guess people get less excited about living rodents than long-dead Mesozoic archosaurs :)

    Ear shape and size deduced from skulls: the size, position and orientation of the external auditory meatus (the bony ‘ear hole’) gives a very rough guide to the ear’s position and orientation (and perhaps some broad indication of size), but I don’t think you can be at all specific about soft-tissue ear morphology when you don’t know it. Does anyone know otherwise?

  5. #5 Dartian
    February 24, 2009

    Huh, three comments… versus nearly 100 on the pterosaur respiration article. I guess people get less excited about living rodents than long-dead Mesozoic archosaurs :)

    I don’t think we can abandon that thread until we’ve reached full and unanimous agreement regarding the question of dinosaur metabolism…

    Studies demonstrate that Euchoreutes really is a jerboa, and not a rhinogradentian

    I find that hard to believe. Reference, please.

  6. #6 Andreas Johansson
    February 24, 2009

    Huh, three comments… versus nearly 100 on the pterosaur respiration article. I guess people get less excited about living rodents than long-dead Mesozoic archosaurs :)

    Nah, it’s just harder to argue that jerboas are ectothermic. ;)

  7. #7 JuliaM
    February 24, 2009

    “..multiple copies of old Brooke Bond picture card albums, and among them one of my favourites: Tunnicliffe’s Asian Wild Life.”

    Ooh, I see these occasionally at book sales and antiques fares – very collectible.

  8. #8 Owlmirror
    February 24, 2009

    The vague and generic wording on comment #2 made me suspect that it is spam. Sure enough, Googling for the phrase “recently came across your blog and have been reading along” finds the 115,000 of the exact same comments left on other blogs (although with variant URLs).

    Since no-one else has mentioned it, I might as well say that the jerboa pictures are adorably cute.

  9. #9 Sven DiMilo
    February 24, 2009

    Something about those photos reminds me of this.

  10. #10 Jenny Islander
    February 25, 2009

    That is too cute to be real. If there isn’t a craze for it in Japan, why not?

    It looks like a critter you might find hopping about on a polar plateau on a terraformed Venus in A.D. 4500–the animal Venusians think of when they say “mouse.”

  11. #11 johannes
    February 25, 2009

    > Ear shape and size deduced from skulls: the size, position > and orientation of the external auditory meatus (the bony
    > ‘ear hole’) gives a very rough guide to the ear’s
    > position and orientation (and perhaps some broad
    > indication of size), but I don’t think you can be
    > at all specific about soft-tissue ear morphology
    > when you don’t know it. Does anyone know otherwise?

    Wang and Tedford, in their excellent book on Canids*, have argued that the huge auditory bulla in the small borophagine *Otarocyon* suggests the presence of equally huge, fennek-like ears. I think the idea of a cute, fennek-like borophagine, in total contrast to the usual orkish image of those animals, is intriguing.

    * Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History by Xiaoming Wang, Richard H. Tedford, with beautiful illustrations by Mauricio Anton. I just made the fault to ask for it in a mainstream bookstore. The answer was: Sir, the book you have asked for is not yet available. But if you are interested in dogs, may I offer you our new Golden Retriever calendar?

  12. #12 William Miller
    February 26, 2009

    What a strange little critter! Thank you for this post: I’d never heard of it before.

  13. #13 andy-a-uk
    February 11, 2010

    i used to collect the brooke bond cards and one of my cherished possessions from my 70′s childhood is the one called ‘wonders of wildlife’. just dug it out from its dusty bookshelf hibernation. what a beautifully produced little book – and only 10p at the time, according to the cover! thanks to my gran and her tea drinking ways, i managed to get all but one card, that damned angler fish ! im still pretty miffed about it.

    anyways, just thought youd like to hear about this spooky brooke bond card album related coincidence. my mum was in a charity shop yesterday and kindly bought me two of the old card books, one of which was the ‘asian wild life’ album. mums are great, they still think your a little boy even when your 41! id never seen this album, as it probably came out in the 60s and im not THAT old. its in very good condition and has all the cards so the person who did it must have been better than me. i was just having a flick through this morning and the first card that got my attention was the yarkland jerboa. i thought what an odd little creature- i wonder if its extinct, so i googled it. first link i clicked was yours and a reference to the very same album. aint the internert great/great minds think alike etc etc.

    btw i dont know what you mean by not searching for ‘asian wild life’. i did and i just found loads of great porn lol.

  14. #14 Brenna
    April 11, 2011

    what are some characteristics for an animal to have to be in the genus euchoreutes?