Friday, 19 December 2014

Nature of Corsica 9: Mammals

Free range domestic pig
Unfortunately, the only mammals we actually saw on Corsica were domesticated pigs and goats. One wild mammal however features very prominently in Corsican ecology, culture, and cuisine – the wild boar Sus scrofa. Hunting is a major pastime on Corsica, and when we were there it was a peak of the hunting season. More or less every day we would see trucks go by with hunting parties, and often heard shots from the hunters. I have to say that wild boar stews are extremely tasty. For those who have not eaten it, wild boar is a very dark, lean meat more like venison than pork.

Corsican Wild Boar
Various subspecies of wild boar are found from Western Europe across to India and as far as Japan, and the form on Corsica and Sardinia is classed as S.scrofa meridionalis. It is a comparatively small form, but like other boar it is a generalist omnivore, feeding on roots, nuts, and a variety of small reptiles and mammals. Unfortunately the age old practise of keeping pigs free range, like those in the photo at the top of this blog, has certainly resulted in interbreeding with the wild boar, and as a result genetically pure Corsican wild boar no longer exist. The same situation occurs all across Europe – restocking of areas with wild boar from other parts of their range, especially larger forms, means that the original pattern of regional forms has been almost completely obliterated. Free range pigs are all over the island, and often hang around picnic sites. A word of warning – they are extremely bold and are definitely not tame; as one unfortunate tourist who tried to pet one found out the hard way at one site we were visiting.
Giant Pika
Before humans arrived on the islands, Corsica had its own suite of endemic mammals. The largest of these would have been an island form of the famous Giant Elk, Megaloceros cazioti, which was only 1m at the shoulder, about the size of a female red deer. The only large carnivore at this time was the Corsican Dhole, Cynotherium sardous. This was a fairly small species however, and probably preyed mainly on rodents and lagomorphs, especially the Sardinian Giant Pika Prolagus sarda. This was the last known surviving species of Prolagus, which had previously been found all around the Mediterranean. It survived into at least the 18th Century possibly later, in Sardinia, unlike most of the other mammals, large and small, which became extinct after the human arrival. The deer were almost certainly hunted to extinction, but the small mammals probably succumbed to rats, foxes, and habitat alteration as a result of farming and post-glacial climate change. Known extinctions of mammals include:
  • Corsican-Sardinian vole Tyrrhenicola henseli
  • Hensel's field mouse Rhagamys orthodon
  • Sardinian pika Prolagus sardus
  • Corsican giant shrew Nesiotites corsicanus
  • Tyrrhenian mole Talpa tyrrhenica
  • Sardinian dhole Cynotherium sardous
  • Corsican Giant Elk, Megaloceros cazioti

One interesting side effect of the human arrival however is that many species introduced by humans have been effectively isolated from the source population for so long that they have become recognisably distinct, and are classed as separate subspecies. Mouflon, Ovis aries musimon, probably originated from very early breeds of domesticated sheep, but the Corsican Red Deer Cervus elaphus corsicanus, seems to have originated from introductions of North African Red Deer rather than from Europe. It nearly became extinct, but some surviving animals on Sardinia have now been reintroduced to Corsica, where there are around 250 animals in a few reserves. Foxes are also classed as an endemic subspecies, but may result from introductions from multiple regions.

(Livestock photos are mine, rest from Wikipedia)


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