The first floor of the Museum is home to the lemurs, apes and monkeys that make up the group known as primates, to which we also belong.
Among these, monkeys such as the brown capuchin Cebus apella typify the characteristics that this group shares with us. The eyes face forwards, providing good vision in front, which developed for a life in the trees where the ability to judge distances is crucial. A second feature common to the animals in this group is the opposable thumb on each hand, which allows them to hold on to branches. Many of the primates can do this with their feet as well as their hands, and some have tails that can grasp branches to help their balance in the forest canopy.
Another group with forward-facing eyes is the carnivores. Their vision has adapted for hunting prey. Some of the most skilful carnivores are cats. One example is the leopard Felis bengalensis, which is found throughout Asia, all the way from India in the west to the eastern islands, including the Philippines and Japan.
The largest of the cats is the tiger Panthera tigris, which can weigh more than 400kg. Of eight subspecies of tiger at the beginning of the 20th Century, only three survive. The specimen on display is a Bengal tiger from Nepal that was given to the Museum by King George V in 1913. Since then, tiger numbers have dropped dramatically. Although prized for their fur, they are also hunted for their bones, which are used in medicines popular in the Far East.
Rodents, including hamsters and squirrels, are characterised by sharp gnawing teeth at the front of their mouths. While there may be more than 250 species of squirrel, members of this group are instantly recognised by their characteristic bushy tails. An Indian giant squirrel can weigh up to 3kg and is much larger than its familiar red and grey relatives seen in Ireland. Also known as the Malabar squirrel, the species Ratufa indica uses its tail to balance as it perches in trees, keeping its hands free for holding food as it eats soft fruits, nuts and shoots in its Indian forest home. Their tails enable squirrels to maintain stability when bounding through the forest canopy. This is a feature that squirrels share with some monkeys.
The common hamster Cricetus cricetus has no shortage of supplies and can literally fill its face with food. Its delicate skeleton shows the size of the cheek pouches where seeds or vegetation are packed. The pouches allow the animal to collect its harvest as quickly as possible and run back to the safety of its burrow to eat in peace, using its front paws to push out the food. In addition to eating plants, hamsters have been known to eat small animals, including frogs, mice and even snakes. A wild example on display in the Museum is from Germany, where these animals get their common name meaning ‘corn-weevil’, but the species is found throughout central Europe and Russia. It is solitary and aggressive, but fortunately its close relative, the golden hamster Mesocricetus aureus of eastern Europe and the Middle East, is more friendly and is commonly kept as a pet.
One animal that has survived largely through its ability to live in a harsh environment far away from hunters is the musk ox Ovibos moschatus. This is an Ice Age survivor found today in various regions around the North Pole. The mother and calf on display in the Museum were shot on Melville Island in northern Canada in the early 19th Century by Arctic explorer Leopold McClintock. Adapted to extreme cold and poor-quality grazing, the musk ox is one of the few large animals to be found in this region. These animals were among several eaten by McClintock’s party on its long trek across the frozen islands of the North-West Passage.
Animals of the open plains have very different body shapes from tree dwellers. The oribi Ourebia ourebi is a small antelope with the characteristic long, straight legs of a fast runner, and similar to all of its relatives. Another feature of grazing animals exposed to predators on the open plains is the position of the eyes at the side of the head. This gives good all-round visibility, which, together with living in a herd with many watchful eyes, helps to keep antelopes on the alert for danger. Oribi freeze in long grass when a predator is spotted, they make whistling calls to alert others to danger, and they run stiff-legged in a ‘stotting’ gait, bouncing around and confusing any attacker who may rush the group. The oribi on display in the Museum is from the Longwe Salt Pans of Angola, in South West Africa.
Slower-moving animals often have to defend themselves against predators. The small-scaled tree pangolin Manis tricuspis is covered in scales formed of a material identical to your fingernails. When threatened, they roll into an armoured ball that is hard to attack. The specimen on display is from the Huri forest in the Congo and is one of several species of pangolin in Africa. They have long tongues covered in sticky saliva, just the thing for catching ants and termites. Their powerful claws can tear open the nests where these insects live.
The giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla from South America shares some features with African pangolins, even though it evolved on a different continent and is not related to them. The similarity has come about because these animals have similar lifestyles. Anteaters too have strong claws and a long sticky tongue over 60cm in length, which can lap up ants at the rate of 150 licks a minute. At 32.7° C, their body temperature is the lowest of any land mammal; ours is 37° C.