I was recently searching for some information on wildebeests and found myself seriously sidetracked by a lurid illustration of a European Polecat – a relative of our Skunk. This depiction of Mustela Putorius was looking out from behind its black mask with an expression that clearly said, “Oh, you would, would you?” I received the impression that it would just as soon bite something as look at it and, according to the information on the page, I was right.
Polecats, who are kind of like weasels on steroids, kill their prey with a single bite, according to “The Encyclopedia of Animals” from Amber Books. That statement led me to ponder whether – if by some mischance the first bite doesn’t kill the prey – the polecat just gives up and goes looking for another rabbit or mouse or rat to bite? Or does it look around, embarrassed, and take another chomp at it if no one is looking?
We’ll get to wildebeests later, but before we do, I need to say something to my UK readers who may be complacently reading this and thinking that this has nothing to do with them, because in England and Scotland, at least, gamekeepers eradicated polecats long ago.
Well, don’t look now, Brits and Scots, but while your backs were turned, Mustela Putorius was sneaking across the border from Wales, where it regrouped and no doubt hatched evil schemes against the gamekeepers and their descendants. I’d do some genealogy research and find out if Great-Grand-Uncle Yorick chivvied polecats off the local lord’s estate, if I lived in the United Kingdom.
As if things weren’t already as black as the feet of the rare Mustela Nigris or Black-Footed Ferret of the US, I suppose I should mention that escaped domestic ferrets (tell me that phrase isn’t an oxymoron) are apt to become rather close friends with polecats and their offspring are very often fertile. Worse yet, my polecat experts tell me that the “kittens” born from these unions, like all polecat babies, don’t have to be taught to kill. It’s instinctive to the breed even at the toddler stage.
It may be of some consolation to the UK citizen who finds polecat adults or kittens surging ’round on every side, to consider that things could be a lot worse. Instead of polecats, they could be confronted with a surprised double-wattled cassowary – considered by many to be the world’s most dangerous bird. One blow from its sharp inner toes can kill a good-sized dog! Who knew?
These bizarre (at least to humans) birds can jump into the air to the height of their head and have many strange features. They have a horn-like casque on the top of the head, possibly to impress other cassowaries or, maybe to help them force their way through dense vegetation. Then there are the wattles which hang from their necks – brightly colored tassles of bare skin that also impress other cassowaries – we think.
About the cassowaries’ family life, the least said the better. Males and females hang out every couple of months, then she lays eggs and takes off, leaving the male to bring up the kiddies. (Lends new meaning to the term “brooding”, don’t you think?) The Dwarf Cassowary has a darker, smaller casque and lives in the mountains of Papua, New Guinea where it is known as the Moruk, of all things.
The only good thing I can say about European Polecats and Cassowaries is that they don’t live in the same places. So, it’s very unlikely, barring a circus train derailment, that you’ll be bothered by both of them at once. If you do run into one in its natural habitat, there is absolutely no chance that there’s a wildebeest within a hundred miles, because – as fans of PBS’s Nature know – wildebeests are found only in Africa where they exist solely as fodder for lions, tigers and every other large carnivore to feed on.
This fact leads to why I was looking up wildebeests in the first place. The kids and I wanted to know why, when they have a set of pretty good horns, these large members of the Hippotraginae subfamily of the Family Bovidae don’t turn around, put their heads down and toss their attackers with those horns. Instead, they panic and try to run away instead. Invariably, at least on Nature, one of them doesn’t make it.
Why they take this approach is still a mystery to me, because The Animal Encyclopedia simply reports it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, although they do make mention of the Black Wildebeest’s horns being used occasionally to defend against predators. I hesitate to question why Mother Nature has given the wildebeest horns to fight with, but neglected to provide the gene for fighting back as well. It seems rather short-sighted to me, but maybe the focus was more on getting carnivores fed than saving large bovine animals on that day in pre-history.
I had hoped to get away without dissing the wildebeest any more than I already have, but in the interest of responsible journalism I must say that the breed’s instincts do make me wonder if evolution isn’t breaking down in the Bovidae family just a bit. It seems that the migratory instinct is so strong in wildebeests that they’ll even cross very wide rivers, thereby drowning themselves in large numbers. What this accomplishes is anybody’s guess, unless this is a way of insuring the survival of the world’s crocodile population, and I am absolutely NOT going to look up crocodiles, so you’ll have to do that yourself.