The Third Pole …

The ice ages were a  series of major glaciations with intervening interglacials. This process has been playing out over about two and a half million years. The epoch over which this all occurred is the Pleistocene.

The last glaciation finished about 11,500 years ago. Our present epoch has been given a new name, the Holocene, which implies that this is something different not just another interglacial. We shall see.

Prior to the Pleistocene the world was a warmer place. This was the Pliocene an epoch that spanned about 9 million years. In mid-Pliocene temperatures were 2 or 3°C warmer than present , sea levels were about 25 metres higher. Continents were wandering very slowly. In the late Pliocene South America collided with North America, bringing about an interchange of flora and fauna and also bringing about a change in ocean currents and climate.

A collection of cold adapted mammals emerged from a variety of families. Where did they come from? Ice is the unifier of the Arctic, in its absence sea levels are higher and land mammals don’t enjoy the ability to wander from one side to the other. That makes it a poor candidate . The Antarctic continent is cut off by the Southern Ocean making it an even worse candidate.

By contrast the Tibetan Plateau even though close to the equator is at sufficient altitude to rival the true poles for cold weather. It was called the third pole by Marcel Kurz, the great Swiss geographer, mountaineer and explorer. It is well-connected to surrounding land masses meaning that a good variety of mammalian families were represented there during the good times of the Pliocene. As the cold times came on the Tibetan fauna adapted. During the height of the glaciations they could radiate out far to the north.

The Out of Tibet Hypothesis suggests that the Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros, the Three-toed Horse, Sabre-toothed Cat and other cold adapted megafauna originated in the Himalayan mountains. For example the Arctic Musk Ox and the Himalayan Takin are fairly closely related being the only extant members of the tribe Ovibovini.

Since most of the cold adapted megafauna shuffled off this mortal coil in the last 10,000 years you might be wondering where this is going. There are Musk Ox on Svalbard but I wasn’t lucky enough to see or photograph them but I did catch up with another creature that provides a strong link with Tibet …

Arctic Fox

At under 5kg they don’t qualify as megafauna but according to Xiaoming Wang et al. the Arctic Fox is descended from the Early Pliocene (3.60–5.08 Myr ago) high altitude fox, Vulpes qiuzhudingi which they have recently discovered, and which they consider support for the Out of Tibet Hypothesis. The following figure is shamelessly stolen from their article.

The Arctic Fox has a fairly short life, typically 3 or 4 years, 10 or so if they are lucky. When food is abundant they can have large litters (as many as 25 – the largest litter size among the Carnivora) although 5 or 6  is more usual. This is a very different life strategy than the Polar Bear.

As can be seen in the photo above there are two colour morphs. This is genetically determined. On Svalbard 85 – 98% of the population is the white form. This despite the fact that the gene for the blue form is dominant. There is clearly some selection pressure against the blue form. This was certainly true in the fur hunting days when pelts of the blue form were worth considerably more.

If you do a Google search for Arctic Fox you will be overwhelmed with links for a semi-permanent, vegan haircolouring. An odd choice of name for a vegan product – the Arctic Fox is a ferocious little predator. Lemmings are high on the menu where they occur (no Lemmings on Svalbard) and birds elsewhere. They take carrion, seal pups and some plant food . When you see a Polar Bear there is often a fox not far away hoping to steal a few mouthfuls. Some food is cached for winter consumption.

Arctic Foxes are susceptible to rabies and toxoplasmosis. They are the final host of the tape worm Echinococcus multilocularis, a parasite that can be fatal in humans.The Norwegian Polar Institute recommends wearing gloves if you intend to handle fox faeces.

Arctic Fox

Whiskers perhaps …

Our intrepid leader, Pete Oxford, had with him an underwater camera, lighting and the most heavy-duty waders I have ever seen. No wonder his luggage was slow to arrive. His hope was that he would be able to get close to a Walrus either under water or half above and half below. Given the puncture wounds we had already seen this was to be a hazardous venture.

But you don’t make the cover of National Geographic without taking a risk.

Pete Oxford … before.

But it was the turbidity that got him not the tusks.

The visibility under water was poor and this in the period when the sun doesn’t set. There can’t be much to see when it doesn’t rise. This is likely the reason that the Walrus has such impressive vibrissae …


Likewise the Bearded Seal

Bearded Seal

As well as assisting in finding food it has been suggested that the whiskers help to find breathing holes.

Apart from the Walrus, sole representative of the Odobenidae, the remaining seals in the Arctic are all members of the Phocidae, True Seals. There are no eared seals above the Arctic circle. The Phocids are the master divers but the waters we were in are fairly shallow. The records all go to the Elephant Seals in the southern hemisphere.

Bearded Seal
Bearded Seal

Among their adaptations for diving seals have nostrils that are closed at rest. It takes a muscular effort to open them to breathe. It may not seem much but it means that a little less oxygen is required when oxygen is scarce and energy is needed to pursue food. This can be seen well in the Harbour Seal photos below.

Harbour Seal – nostrils at rest
Harbour Seal

Even without a heart-shaped nose they look ineffably cute, you can understand why they have their admirers …

The Time Has Come …

The call came at about 2am. First encounter …

The time has come,the Walrus said, 
   To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
   Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot 
   And whether pigs have wings.

   Lewis Carroll

The seals and their allies are grouped as the Pinnipedia consisting of three families, the Phocidae – True or Earless Seals with about 18 species; the Otariidae – the Eared Seals, about 15 species; Odobenidae – the Walrus sole member of its family.

A newborn Walrus weighs about 55kg. Around Svalbard a fully grown male will be about 3 metres long and weigh about 900kg. Add about 10% to that for Pacific specimens.

They reach this impressive size mainly on a diet of clams which they identify with their sensitive whiskers, clear the shell of covering substrate with a jet of water from their mouth and then suck out the contents with a powerful piston-like movement of their tongue. Under no circumstances insert any part of your body into a walrus’s mouth.

They dive to a maximum depth of about 80 metres and generally do not stay submerged for more than about half an hour. As pinnipeds go this is small beer.

The Atlantic population plunged almost to extinction in the 19th century due to hunting for blubber and ivory. It is now on the way up again.

You may not find walruses particularly handsome but this one finds himself adorable. I nicknamed him Narcissus …

pining away …

It is reported that their eyesight is poor. After watching them at a haul-out for a couple of hours I am amazed that any still have eyes at all.

I have about 3 000 photographs of Walrus. You may see more.

Arctic Wildlife …

High mountains and high latitudes are harsh places. There are not a lot of creatures that can make a living.

I have arrived in Longyearbyen a few days early for a cruise that will take me further north in the archipelago and have been wandering around the outskirts of town with my camera. It isn’t wise to go too far because one of the animals around here is quite happy to eat the adventurous.

Whilst I have seen only a small number of species I have had the time to get some photos …

Black Guillemot
Barnacle Goose
Pink-footed Goose
Common Eider
King Eider
Snow Bunting
Rock Ptarmigan

Autumn …

In this neck of the woods the leaves stay green, and for the moment the grass stays brown. Not for us the fall colors that give the American and English photographers fresh inspiration.

Walking in the bushland reserve just across the creek yesterday I saw dozens, perhaps hundreds of Dusky Woodswallows, many of them juveniles with their streaky heads. The reserve supports a couple of pairs that breed there most summers. The large numbers are the result of the previously dispersed population forming flocks and making their way north.

The Reedwarblers, Bushlarks and Sacred Kingfishers seem to have quietly departed already. Time to start looking for Swift Parrots and Flame Robins.

Dusky Woodswallow (juvenile)

The Swamp Wallabies will be sticking around. At the moment they’re eating my grapes. I’m just about ready to pick what ever the birds and wallabies have left for me. Before the one above took off she gave me a moment of her time. Just long enough to grab this portrait of her and her joey against the early morning light.

Wallabia bicolor

Michigan …

We bypassed Detroit and headed north up the peninsula. Population density fell away as we went, northern Michigan has some of the least populated areas in the eastern half of the US and some absolutely gorgeous forests.

Our destination was Boyne City where we would be staying with very generous friends for a few days. En route we stopped at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. This is open to the public from June to October from an hour before sunrise until sunset. It’s a one way six and a half mile drive (10.4 km) mostly along an embankment giving good views over fields and wetlands. Views of the wildlife tend to be quite distant but it’s a good place to make the acquaintance of a few ducks, Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle. Well worth putting on your travel plans next time you’re passing through Saginaw County.

Boyne City sits at the end of the north arm of Lake Charlevois an off shoot of Lake Michigan. We would get a cruise on both in our host’s very nice 40 footer. We also got to explore some nearby state forests and the Darnton Family Nature Preserve. Some of the highlights …

Green Heron
Common Merganser
Eastern Chipmunk
Red Squirrel

Eastern Grey Squirrels were also quite common, a good proportion of them were black in colour, the melanistic form.

The American Sparrows are nearly as much fun as the Warblers. I might have to revisit them. One to keep you going …

Savannah Sparrow