plants and animals

South America’s “fox on stilts”

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Rachel
Fritts

Guest Writer
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Lucas
Lima

Staff Artist
South America’s maned wolves are some of the most evolutionarily distinct and morphologically quirky canids around. Unfortunately, their favorite habitat is being destroyed at twice the rate of the Amazon Rainforest.

The tallest canid in the world weighs only half as much as a timber wolf, bears an uncanny resemblance to a fox, and has a healthy appetite for fruit. Its stilt-like legs and satellite-dish ears help it find its meatier prey in the tall grasses of the South American savanna, where it lives a solitary existence for much of the year. Its pee smells like marijuana, and its only vocalization is an unmistakable “bark-roar.”


Given this goofy set of traits, you would think that everyone would know about the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus). However, it chosen habitat – scrubby South American savanna that doesn’t get much screen time up here in the northern hemisphere – keeps the “fox on stilts” relatively obscure. Sharing a name with a much more common canid (the wolf) doesn’t help either. The maned wolf, however, is neither maned nor a wolf. It is actually one of the most evolutionarily distinct canids still alive today.


The maned wolf is a testament to the morphological extremes to which animals will go to adapt to their environment. It is light and leggy, with a russet coat and large, attentive ears. The maned wolf’s solitary existence in the savanna has led to those long legs, used to see over the tall grasses of its habitat. Its delicate frame is owed to its diet, which consists mostly of small rodents and fruit (like the aptly named “wolf’s fruit”). The maned wolf and all other South American canids split from the lineage containing wolves and coyotes about 9-10 MYA. Then, soon after, the maned wolf and a couple other canids split off again.


Today, the maned wolf’s closest relative is the bush dog (Speothos venaticus), but its closest relative to have been encountered by people is the Falkland Island wolf (Dusicyon australis). Driven extinct by Europeans in the 1800s, it split from the maned wolf just 7 million years ago and was endemic to the Falkland Islands.


Unfortunately, today the maned wolf is also under threat. It has already gone extinct in Uruguay, and its favorite habitat, the cerrado, is shrinking by the year. While the cerrado was the inspiration for one of the first books on ecology ever written and is currently considered a biodiversity hotspot, locals tend to think of it as ugly and barren. This perception means that there has been very little pushback to the cerrado’s conversion into farmland. Today, the cerrado is being clear-cut for agriculture at twice the rate of the Amazon Rainforest. Some estimates say that if it continues to be destroyed at the current rate, it will be gone by 2030, taking 90% of the maned wolf’s territory with it. Unfortunately, like the maned wolf itself, you probably haven’t heard of it.


Hopefully the charisma of the maned wolf will make up for the lack of charisma of its homeland, and convince people to take action to save the cerrado before it is too late. The maned wolf and its habitat are important additions to the biodiversity of this planet, and it would be a shame to let them disappear before most people knew they existed at all.

7f43bb932c09bdd64759bb3e83cf60f9

Rachel
Fritts

Guest Writer


http://sulc.us/zsb6s
http://www.eartharchives.org/articles/south-america-s-fox-on-stilts/