An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Herbivores

Rodents Recycling

3-13-15  gray squirrel 001Bones, antlers, skulls, turtle shells – all are recycled relatively quickly by rodents seeking a source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus. All rodents possess four incisors, two in the front of the upper jaw and two opposite these, on the bottom jaw. These incisors, unlike other teeth, never stop growing. By gnawing on hard objects such as bones, rodents keep their incisors paired down. If an incisor is broken or lost, the opposing incisor will continue growing in a circle, having nothing to grind against, causing the rodent to die of starvation or from having its brain pierced (through the roof of the rodent’s mouth) by the ever-growing incisor. In this photograph, a gray squirrel is obtaining minerals and sharpening its incisors on a moose skull that a human wedged into the crotch of a tree.

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White-tailed Deer Scraping Bark

3-3-15  deer scraping2IMG_0490During the winter, white-tailed deer browse on the twigs, buds and bark of trees. Deer have incisors in the front of their bottom jaw, but none in the front of their top jaw, just a hard palate. They grip the bark with their bottom front incisors and scrape their jaw upwards, leaving behind grooves the width of their bottom incisors. Often there are frayed ends of bark at the top end of the groove, due to the deer having to use its hard palate and incisors, rather than two sets of incisors, to separate the bark from the tree. Favorite trees include red and striped maples, oaks, poplar, pines, hemlock, arborvitae and balsam fir.

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Porcupine Cecum

3-6-15 porcupine2 IMG_5163Your guesses were outstanding – especially “Pinocchio scat” and “petrified baby hippopotamus”– and a couple of readers even nailed it: part of the intestines of a porcupine. (Many of you suggested it might be a black bear’s fecal plug – not a bad guess – though any bear that had to pass something this large when it woke up might decide to hibernate year round.)

Mystery Photo Explanation: A fisher killed and ate a porcupine, choosing not to eat (and leaving behind) a portion of the porcupine’s digestive tract called a cecum – a sac located between the large and small intestine where the cellulose in leaves and bark that a porcupine eats are broken down.

During the warmer seasons of the year, porcupines feed on sugar maple buds, leaves of basswood, aspen and beech saplings, grasses and other herbaceous plants, apples, acorns and beech nuts. In winter, their diet consists mostly of leaves (mainly eastern hemlock in the Northeast), which contain low levels of nutrients and high levels of dietary fiber. Certain mammals and birds possess specific bacteria that secrete enzymes capable of digesting the cellulose in fiber (beavers, hares, rabbits and ruffed grouse come to mind) through the process of fermentation. Because these enzymes work slowly, the digestive tract of a porcupine is very long (26% of a porcupine’s total weight) and the fiber passes through it slowly.

A majority of the bacterial activity in a porcupine’s digestive system takes place in the cecum, which is about the same size as a porcupine’s stomach. Here fermentation turns finely ground woody material into molecules small enough to be absorbed by the porcupine’s body. (A process referred to as “hind gut fermentation.”) Research shows that 16% of a porcupine’s energy requirements are supplied by the porcupine’s cecal fermentation.

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Porcupine Feet Designed for Climbing

porcupine foot IMG_2659Porcupines spend a lot of their life climbing on and clinging to trees due to their woody diet. In addition to strong, curved nails that fit into bark crevices, the soles of their feet have a pebbly surface with very little fur. The bumpy texture increases the surface area and the friction when a porcupine’s feet are in contact with a branch, helping the porcupine hold onto the tree trunk and branches. Even so, examination of porcupine skeletons confirms that many have fractures that have healed, indicating that a significant number of porcupines, while their bodies are adapted for climbing, still experience falls during their lifetime. (Photos: porcupine footpad; insert – porcupine footpad in fisher scat)

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How Beavers Digest Cellulose

12-26-14 beaver sign 125Some beavers are still managing to find openings in their ponds which give them access to fresh cambium, the soft layer of wood just under the bark of a tree. Cambium contains a lot of cellulose, in addition to starches and sugars. Like all herbivores, beavers do not possess enzymes that are capable of breaking down the large cellulose molecules (cellulases). In their place, beavers employ micro-organisms, such as bacteria, that can break down cellulose.

These bacteria are located in a pouch called a cecum, located at the beginning of the large intestine. (Ruminants such as moose and deer have rumens in place of ceca.) Colonies of these microorganisms in a beaver’s intestines digest up to 30% of the cellulose from the woody material that it eats. Further nutrients are recovered in the form of fecal pellets that the beaver re-ingests.

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Beavers Grooming

11-19-14  beavers grooming 241 Beavers are constantly grooming and oiling their fur in order to keep it waterproof. To groom itself, a beaver usually sits upright with its tail between its back legs protruding in front of it, exposing the cloaca – a single opening for all the functions of the scent, reproductive and excretory organs. After the beaver climbs out of the water onto land, it often shakes its head and scrubs its ears and face. Then it thoroughly scrubs its shoulders and belly. The beaver gets oil from its inverted oil glands with its front feet, and then rubs it all over its body, using both front and hind feet. The second toe of each hind foot has a split nail (see insert) which the beaver uses to distribute the waterproofing oil and to comb debris out of its fur. Without this coating of oil on their fur, beavers would soon become water soaked and would not be able to tolerate the cold water.

In this photograph, perhaps for the last time outside of their lodge before their pond freezes, beavers engage in a practice known as “mutual grooming” during which they attend to each other’s coat using their teeth instead of their feet as combing utensils. (Photo: adult on left, offspring on right)

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Woodchucks Heading for Winter Burrows

11-10-14 woodchuck 122Woodchucks are one of the few species of mammals that enter into true hibernation. When the temperatures dip into the 40’s, usually in October or November in the Northeast, most woodchucks leave their summer burrows and head for the woods, where they dig a tunnel that ends in a chamber that is well below the frost line (and therefore above freezing). Here they curl up in a ball and live off of the 30% additional body weight they put on in the fall. In order to survive until March or April, a woodchuck’s metabolism slows way down. Its heartbeat goes from 100 beats a minute to five, and its body temperature goes from 96 degrees F. down to to 47 degrees F.

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