Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

March 31, 2012

It’s eat or be eaten, and that’s no joke

2012 — Our April animal-sky program is “Predators of the African Plains,” opening today at 4 p.m. in Compton 224 at Frostburg State University. (No program next Sunday as it will be Easter.) This program will be shown again (same time, same place) on April 15, April 22 and April 29 (all Sundays).

Predators are animals who eat other animals while the prey are the animals the predators may catch and eat. Our May program will cover the prey and is titled “Grazers of the African Plains.” All of these presentations are live, family friendly, open to the public and without charge. (Donations to the Science Discovery Center are welcome).

The first half hour is a live presentation in Compton 224, then the audience visits the Science Discovery Center where the actual preserved animals are on display. (No one can touch the animals but cameras are welcome.)

 While some people bitterly complain about issues in this country, they would be even more outraged at the cruelty in nature.

The simplest way to start is to consider life at three levels: at the bottom level are plants, the middle level consists of herbivores (who eat plants) and the carnivores at the top level (who eat herbivores). Humans are omnivores as we eat both plants (fruits, vegetables, grain, rice, etc.) and herbivores (chickens, cattle, lamb, etc.).

But to have stable populations in the wild, there must be far more plants than plant eaters and far more plant eaters than carnivores (who eat the plant eaters). The ratio as one ascends to the next level is about 1/10 in weight. (For example, there must be 10 times as much weight in plants as the weight of the plant eaters.)

 Our presentation starts with Jackals, who belong to the Dog (Canidae) family. Black-Backed Jackals bond for life (male and female) and hunt together. Side-Stripped Jackals are more omnivorous, eating rodents, eggs, lizards, insects and plant matter. (The local counterparts to the Jackals are our Coyotes.)

 Our next predators are Hyenas, who resemble sturdy dogs but form their own family. Spotted Hyenas roam in clans that can have several dozen members. Females rule these clans, being 10 per cent bigger than the males.

The clan lives in a communal den and even has communal latrines. While their diet consists mostly of hares, ground birds and fishes (from swamps), a hyena clan can organize into a pack to hunt larger prey. The Hyenas haunting laugh is a signal of submission of a younger hyena to a senior hyena.

 An African cat on display in the Science Discovery Center is the Caracal (comparable to our local Bobcat). The Caracal can spring up 10 feet to seize birds, first batting them down with its claws. The Caracal’s most striking feature are its long ears with extended tufts of black hair. Despite its fierce appearance, the Caracal can be trained as a working cat to aid hunters in India and Iran.

 The second biggest African cat is the Leopard, which is widely spread across South Asia as well. Leopards are superb climbers and often take their kill into trees so they don’t have to share (especially with Hyenas). Leopards often spend most of their time in trees, waiting for some unwary animals to walk on by.

Then the Leopard will jump down, quickly kill the unfortunate animal and carry its body back into the tree.

 Lions are Africa’s biggest cats. (Some Tigers, somewhat bigger than Lions are only found in Asia). Related female lions and their youngsters form a “pride.” The older male lions are in loose “coalitions” that guard the area and exclude younger male lions.

If a young male decides to challenge the “coalition,” it will be a fight to the death. When the females of a “pride” go hunting, the “coalition” guards their area and the young lions. Then in thanks, the males of the coalition have the first tastes of the lionesses’ kills.

THIS WEEK’S EVENING SKY — April 3 in the western dusk, the planet Venus will appear on the edge of the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster. On this date, Venus will be only 0.5 degrees from Alcyone, the brightest star in the Pleiades.

The best views will be through binoculars; you will see Venus as a blazing point of light with a flurry of stars to the right.

Every eighth April, this encounter between Venus and the Pleiades will recur. The reason for this regularity is that in every eight Earth years, there are five Venus cycles.

In a Venus cycle, Venus passes between the Earth and sun, then swings to the morning side of the sun (to the west), passes nearly in back of the sun and then swings to the evening side of the sun (to the east) and then back to its line up between the Earth and sun.

Incidentally, Venus will pass in front of the sun late in the afternoon of June 5 and be visible safely with special equipment. (Read about this in future columns on how this can be done.) The moon will be full this Friday night. This first full moon of spring will trigger Easter, to occur next Sunday, April 8.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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