A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Traces of Tsukuba`s Mammals- Past and Present

Localy found Nauman-Zo fossil on display at the Sakura History Museum

Locally found Nauman-Zo fossils on display at the Sakura History Museum

Though now we imagine them as being confined to Japan`s mountainous areas, it should come as no surprise to learn that LARGE MAMMALS once roamed the Kanto plain, the vast (by Japanese standards), and now heavily developed, and mostly flat area  surrounding Tokyo. The bones of DEER  have been found among the discarded shells and pottery shards unearthed at many of  Ibaraki Prefectures numerous KAIZUKA (貝塚), the shell mounds which were the garbage dumps of this areas prehistoric inhabitants ( a large deer skull was actually found just behind my house at the Asahi-Dai Kaizuka-  旭台貝塚), and there is at least one clay figurine (HANIWA) which has been found in Tsukuba ( at the Taki no Dai Kofun Burial Mound in Kamizakai), depicting the same animal, which has not been spotted in REAL LIFE in this area for a VERY LONG TIME.

The mighty Hanamuro River

The mighty Hanamuro

What DOES come as something completely unexpected to both foreigner and Japanese alike, is finding out that an ancient relative of the elephant, Elephas namadicus ( Nauman-zo- in Japanese), once frolicked on the land which eventually came to part of Tsukuba City. In 1975, construction workers found parts of this animals fossilized skeleton (carbon dated to be about 31,000 years old), along Tsukuba`s Hanamuro River, near the hamlet of Kurakake ( they had been cementing  the banks, of course !) These actual remains ( not replicas) can be seen at the Sakura History Museum ( REKISHI SHIRYOKAN), which is located behind the Sakura City Office.
This Japanese elephant was first discovered by visiting German Naturalist Heinrich Edmund Naumann (1854-1927), in Yokosuka (thus the Japanese name Nauman-zo (zo means elephant), and the scientific name Elephas namadicus naumannni , given in 1924). This exciting finding gave credence ( or should I say gave rise to) the idea that the Japanese Islands had once been connected to the continent by a land-bridge.
Similar   Japanese elephant fossils were subsequently discovered in places such as Chiba (our neighboring prefecture), Nagano, and Hokkaido. At some of these other sites, a big deal has been made of the fact that elephants once had lived there, but here in Tsukuba, for some reason, our nauman-zo has remained almost completely in the shadows, unpublicized and unknown (whenever, I take Japanese friends to see the fossil they are genuinely surprised!).
Elephas namadicus became extinct about 20,000 years ago, as a result, it seems, of OVER-HUNTING.
Here are some towns which promote the fact that Nauman-zo fossils were found in or around them:
Tracks in the soil- in Tsukuba, Saiki. Do you know whose they are?

Tracks in the soil- in Tsukuba, Saiki. Do you know whose they are?

No longer do large mammals inhabit Tsukuba`s lowland woods and fields ( but there are wild boars in the mountains). However, there are still PLENTY of smaller, warm-blooded critters (besides cats and dogs and domestic animals). The only problem is that they can be more than a bit difficult to catch sight of in action. You ARE very likely , though, to see TRACES of these small creatures. By that, I mean mostly, footprints, scat, and unfortunately, road-kill.

I have written before how Tsukuba is one of the place in Japan where residents are most aware of the presence of moles (mogura)- http://blog.alientimes.org/2009/01/making-a-mountain-of-tsukubas-mole-hills-mogura-zuka/ .

As I walk the paths between fields in my Tsukuba neighborhood each day, I try to identify the different footprints left from the night before. There are Tanuki, Weasel (itachi), hakubishin (paguma larvata), rabbit, mice, and I believe………..FOX. There are also lots of BATS of different species.

In all my years of Tsukuba nature watching I have been able to catch at a least a quick glance at each of these mammals going about their business ( even the fox!), though these sighting have been EXTREMELY infrequent (except for the bats!).

In order to best appreciate and identify the creatures living around me, I bought two highly useful field-guides ( by now very well worn)- one for foot prints and one for scat (poop).

Little piles of scat

Little piles of scat

Over the next few weeks I will occassionally share some more aboout my encounters with Tsukuba`s little mammals, many of whom will be violently driven out of their homes when the bulldozers come to Konda for the big proposed development project. There should be a major increase in ROADKILL (this trend has already begun).

The words of a great Joni Mitchell song come to mind-

Don’t it always seem to go

that you don’t know what you got till its gone

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

a common mammal in Tsukuba- the hakubishin

A common mammal in Tsukuba- the hakubishin (palm-civet)

You guessed it. The footprints and scat in the pictures I have posted above are those of the Japanese hare ( no-usagi), also common in Tsukuba (though rarely seen!).

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