Sunday, December 30, 2012

Creature Feature: Monito del Monte.

In the rudimentary biology classes that most American schools offer, we are taught very few things about marsupials. They basically cover kangaroos, koalas, and maybe wombats. Marsupials give birth to babies that develop in pouches. All of them are native to Australia. That is the extent of our weird mammal knowledge.

Well, the weird can always get weirder, right?

Sourcing is cool.

This is a monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides). It is a mouse-sized mammal native to South America, but is not a "little mountain monkey" as the name would suggest. Specifically, it is only native to the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina, which are not usually talked about when it comes to unique species. Its diet consists of insects and fruit- more on the fruit later. It has nothing to do with the brand of canned fruit on American grocery shelves.

So, why am I mentioning a South American mammal after that shtick about our limited knowledge about marsupials? Monito del monte is a marsupial. A South American marsupial. Consider your mind blown if you thought all marsupials were only in Australia's immediate vicinity. The opossum is commonly taught as an exception to the rule; monito del monte is not.

But it should be!

How did this happen? Long story short, Australia and the southwestern edge of South America were once very close together on a supercontinent called Gondwanaland.  For a long time, biogeologists were expecting to find ancestral marsupials in South America. They found the bones of a small marsupial, dubbed Djarthia,  in Queensland, but never found a living specimen until they found the monito del monte. Genetic evidence proved that the 11 million-year-old bones and the monito were almost the same organism. Fascinating, no?

The unique features of the monito del monte keep piling on. It is the only mammal that stores fat in its prehensile tail. It hibernates in little nests of waterproof leaves and moss when the weather gets too nippy in the mountains.  This is sounding more and more like a gecko; remember how cresties were once thought extinct? Are we sure the Geico gecko isn't wearing a fursuit? (Actually, finding a gecko in that area would be even more surprising!) Talk about weird, primitive animals!

This little fuzzball is also important for a plant called Tristerix corymbosus, a type of mistletoe native to the same area. The monito del monte eats the fruit of the plant. When the fruit is digested, out comes a seed of that particular mistletoe. The monito del monte is the only thing that disperses the seeds of this plant; it would likely go extinct along with the marsupial. Although the monito del monte is not in critical danger, it is near-threatened...but look at that face. Someone has to be captive breeding these...right? Right?

(P.S. - Apologies - these last few days have been spent with relatives in Minnesota.)

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