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Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Animal magic: the wildlife discoveries of 2009
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

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Giant rat found in 'lost volcano'

From a new species of giant rat to ants that took over the world, 2009 was a good year for new animal discoveries.

It was a year for all creatures great, with the mating ritual of the humpback whale filmed for the first time and the unearthing of a colossal sea monster.

And for the small, with one of the world's tiniest parrots caught on camera, as was a polar bear cub hitching a ride on its mother's back.

It was also a year where many species headed ever closer to extinction.

Nature of course is red in tooth and claw, and there were some illuminating insights into how death becomes every animal.

For start, it emerged that there is a generic 'smell of death' to which all animals may respond.

Stags locked in 'mortal combat'

We watched eagles hunting reindeer calves, and two stags locked in mortal combat, while we learnt how intelligent primates can struggle with grief.

Orang utans were recorded cannibalising their own already deceased young, perhaps in response to the emotional turmoil that apes go through when they lose an infant.

Grieving monkeys struggling with the loss of their newborn offspring were also recorded drinking their own milk.

On a more heartening note, we gained a number of insights into primate family life including: film of a family of spectral tarsiers, a battle between two vast baboon troops, grandmother monkeys seen stepping in to care for their grandchildren, a behaviour not recorded before, and gorilla mums clapping to attention badly behaved younger gorillas and male silverbacks.

Other family moments recorded this year were three cheetah brothers filmed cooperating to bring down a giant bird, and superpods of killer whales gathering into 'social clubs'. and the discovery that lions form prides to ensure they win turf wars with their neighbours.

Cheetah hunting ostrich

Epic cheetah hunt caught on film

The ultimate family story of 2009, and perhaps of all time, was the news that a megacolony of ants has taken over the world.

Without sex, there cannot be family.

Filmmakers from the BBC natural history series Life filmed the 'humpback heat run' in its entirety for the first time.

They also filmed a marvellous hummingbird display, where a male spatuletail hummingbird put on an extraordinary show in a bid to convince a female to mate with him, and the ghostly yet entrancing dance of two mating seadragons.

Downright bizarre discoveries included the undersea crab that eats trees, a coral that eats jellyfish, a squirrel seen savaging a fruit bat and a host of weird creatures found in the lost world of an extinct volcano crater, including a giant rat, one of the world's largest rat species discovered for the first time by scientists.

Professional and amateur palaentologists were pleasantly shocked by the unearthing of a colossal sea monster from rocky cliffs on the south coast of the UK, a place known as the 'Jurassic Coast.'

The ferocious sea monster, which terrorised oceans 150 million years ago, may yet turn out to be the largest marine pliosaur yet discovered.

Palaeontologist Richard Forrest explains why the T. rex was a kitten compared with this monster

Other discoveries about extinct creatures included the world's oldest dinosaur burrow, and the revelation that starvation may have wiped out the giant deer, the largest deer species to have lived.

However, despite the wondrous and celebratory tone of many of the new things we learnt about the natural world in 2009, the year also saw its share of less optimistic stories, those that act as a reminder of the perilous state of many species and the efforts of conservationists to preserve them.

Conservation groups uncovered evidence of a significant trade in big cat skins in China, and the scale of gorilla poaching in Africa was exposed.

Both Europe's largest mammal, the bison, and the world's largest cat, the amur tiger, were found to be on the 'genetic brink' with the genetic health of their remaining populations falling.

Reindeer herds were found to be in global decline and it was realised that a giant fish verges on extinction, with a three-year quest to find the giant Chinese paddlefish in the Yangtze river failing to sight or catch a single individual.

First film of a 'giant' stingray

In a bid to help some species, safe havens were created for rare primates while a new population of one of the world's rarest crocodiles was returned to the wild.

But despite the extinction crisis threatening biodiversity across the planet, 2009 showed that animals everywhere still have a capacity to surprise and awe us.

Researchers revealed how they had witnessed the largest ever herd of Mongolian gazelles, where a quarter of a million Mongolian gazelles gathered on the country's steppes, one of the world's last great wildernesses.

Cameramen captured the first film of a giant stingray, while the rare Cross River gorilla was caught on camera, as was an elusive golden cat. A 'lost seabird' returned to the ocean while the world became excited by a new species of giant meat-eating plant discovered in the highlands of the central Philippines.

And last, but not least, after hundreds of years of studying them, scientists only just worked out that the cephalopods can hear you.



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