Japan is a beautiful country, so famous for its ancient cultures, cherry blossoms and of course being known as the land of the rising sun! But did you know that amongst these beautiful cities lies deep forests and mountains which are home to many beautiful animals and insects. Wildlife in Japan is simply stunning, and this blog is going to give you a little insight into this amazing country and what it has to offer!
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Japanese macaque (Snow Monkey)
Japanese macaques, also called snow monkeys, are found on three of the four main Japanese islands—Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—and live further north than any other macaque species. They live in a variety of habitats throughout these islands including subalpine, subtropical, deciduous, and evergreen forest mountains, they really are so versatile! Those that occupy the northernmost regions, which range through the forested mountains and highlands of Japan, thrive in winter temperatures that fall as low as -5 degrees F (-15 degrees C) and with snow cover that is more than 3 ft (1 m) deep. Famously, they warm themselves by bathing in hot thermal springs that are heated by nearby volcanoes. These macaques are therefore very famously and appropriately nick-named the snow monkeys of Japan.
Japanese macaques are medium-sized, stocky monkeys with relatively short tails. Sexually dimorphic in size, males are twice as large as females. Males average about 22 in (57 cm) in length and 25 lb (11.3 kg) in weight. Females average 20.5 in (52.3 cm) in length and 18.5 lb (8.4 kg) in weight. Their tails are a (relatively) diminutive 2.5-4 in (7-12 cm) long.
On average, Japanese macaques live 22 to 27 years old. The two oldest known individuals were a wild female who lived to the age of 32 and a wild male who lived to be 28 years of age. Japanese macaques’ coats range in color from from gray to brown and can be mottled. In the winter, they grow a heavy insulating coat to maintain their body heat. During the summer their coat is lighter.
They have human-like naked faces and expressive eyes. They have cheek pouches for food storage. In adulthood, their faces and bottoms become red. All macaques have opposable thumbs that they use to manipulate objects. They use all four limbs to get around (quadrupedal movement), but also walk just on their hind legs (bipedal) when holding something in both hands.
Opportunistic omnivores, Japanese macaques eat fruit, seeds, young leaves, flowers, tree bark, fungi, bird eggs, insects, and invertebrates such as snail, crabs and crayfish. Over 213 species of plants are included in their diet. The variety is mostly due to seasonal changes and the resulting abundance or lack of food, as well as their diverse habitat range. They prefer to forage on the ground.
More commonly called snow monkeys, you may be familiar with images of Japanese macaques bathing in hot thermal pools to keep warm during icy winters in the mountains of Japan. Interestingly, bathing in hot springs is a learned behavior. In the 1950s, anthropologists believed that humans were the only animals that pass on learned behaviors from individual to individual and across generations, a process called “cultural transmission.” Because it is fairly easy to observe Japanese macaques living in troops in their natural environment, researchers determined that studying their behavior would provide accurate insight into whether they, too, engage in cultural transmission. Similar studies had been done with captive primates, but captive animals do not engage in natural behaviors.
Japanese macaques form matrilineal troops that usually range from 20 to 30 individuals, but can sometimes be as large as over 100. A major constraint on troop size is food availability. The troop is ruled by an alpha female and an alpha male. Females typically outnumber males in the troop 3 to 1 and are ranked by a hierarchy that is inherited and passed from mother to infant. The alpha male is responsible for fathering the offspring of the group as well as providing protection and leading the movement of the group.
Communication in all macaques is varied and complex. They usually use some combination of visual signals, vocalizations, and physical contact. Their bare faces, mobile lips, dramatic eyes, and body posture are used to successfully convey information about their moods and environment.
Since Japanese macaques are very social animals, they use many different vocalizations to communicate. There have been six documented categories of vocalizations, including peaceful, defensive, aggressive, and warning calls. The other two vocalizations are specific to females in estrus and infants. More than fifty percent of Japanese macaque vocalizations are of the peaceful variety. These various vocalizations are used to signal the group to an individual’s mood.
The primary ecological role of Japanese macaques is to disperse seeds. Through their rich plant-based diet, many plant seeds pass through the Japanese macaque’s gastrointestinal tract and are deposited in the environment, where they are able to spread and grow. Japanese macaques also have a commensalism relationship with the sika deer, as the deer eats leaves the Japanese macaque knocks to the ground when foraging in the treetops.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Japanese macaques as Least Concern (IUCN, 2015). However, like all other primates, they are threatened by habitat destruction and human overpopulation. They live mainly in reserves, and in many cases, depend upon supplemental feeding by humans to survive the winter conditions.
Giant Spider Crab
Spider crabs are the largest crustaceans in the world – males grow to approximately 1m in length with a 4m leg stretch. These crabs live at depths of approximately 400m and in temperatures between 11ºC and 14ºC. Very little is known about the biology of giant spider crabs. It is virtually impossible to determine their age and we do not know when they reach sexual maturity. Their breeding habits are also a mystery to marine biologists.
As with all crustaceans, continual growth is impossible for giant spider crabs because of their hard exo-skeletons. To grow, the crabs have to shed this exo-skeleton by moulting. This is a complicated process which can take up to two days. Each moult is potentially life-threatening as the crab can become entrapped in its old shell. Even if the moult is successful, the sheer effort is sometimes so exhausting, that the crab dies soon afterwards.
With its “new” soft, elastic exo-skeleton exposed, the crab is vulnerable to predation. The new exo-skeleton expands rapidly as the crab “pumps” water into it. Over time, together with a combination of enzymes and calcium carbonate, the new skeleton hardens. The water is then “pumped” out again and the crab grows into its new “coat”.
Raccoon Dogs, not surprisingly, look like a cross between a raccoon and a small dog. Although they are relatively small animals, their fur is so long and puffy that it can make them look very plump. A mask of black fur wraps around their eyes, giving them the appearance of a trickster or bandit. They have dog-like paws and a short, puffy tail.
Tanukis, who are gifted with magical power, have eight special traits that differentiate them from their common brethren. They wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect themselves from bad luck and bad weather. They hold a bottle of sake, a popular alcohol made of rice, in one hand, which symbolizes virtue, and in the other hand, they hold a promissory note which symbolizes trust. They have large eyes to survey their world and make decisions, big fluffy tails to give them strength and agility, large scrotums which represent wealth, and a large stomach which symbolizes tranquility and decisiveness. Finally, they wear a playful, friendly smile, inviting humans to join them in their games.
Raccoon Dogs are masters of illusion. They can shapeshift into any form they choose: from a crooked old woman to a bottle of white wine. These devious magicians are also good at transporting people and casting small curses.
When they are in disguise, they like to use little rhymes to lure people into their games, which inevitably end in inconvenience or embarrassment.They like to trick people into touching enchanted objects, like umbrellas or rice cakes, which will cause the person to be transported into the distant wilderness. Their favorite curses cause inconvenience by forcing people to run around hills or chase after enchanted objects.
The inspiration for the magical Tanuki is believed to come from China, where people believed in god-like, shape-shifting wildcats, usually leopards. Because Japan didn’t have any animals quite like the fearsome leopard, Japanese scholars transferred the power to other creatures like stray cats, badgers, weasels, and even wild boars. Eventually, the Fox and the Raccoon Dog became the most popular vessels for these magical powers, and they were revered as gods who ruled over nature.
This wildcat is considered the Lock Ness Monster of Japan! While you’re exploring Iriomote Island, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the yamaneko, an elusive wildcat which was discovered in 1965 and can only be found on Iriomote. Related to the leopard, it’s only the size of a domesticated house cat and a nocturnal animal, most active around twilight. The cats are terrestrial, but can climb trees and also swim. During the day they sleep in caves or tree hollows. Sadly the yamaneko is an endangered species and there are thought to be just a hundred cats left on the island. So it’s very unlikely that you’ll spot one, but please let us know if you do!
The Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the largest and most fierce diurnal birds on Earth. These Eagles are huge, on average the heaviest raptor on our planet, weighing up to 10 kg (22 pounds). They are also tall measuring up to 94cm (3 ft), with a huge wingspan of up to 250 cm (8.2ft). Their plumage is blackish brown black all over except on the shoulders, rump, tail thighs and forehead which are white. Their big bill is Yellow and wickedly hooked, with raw force they quickly slice through the flesh of their prey and devour it. The Eagles are masters at fishing it’s incredible to watch as they swoop down and catch fish in their talons.
They prefer a diet of trout, salmon or other fish but will eat sea lion or land species when fishing is slow. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is protected by law and is designated as a National Treasure in Japan, and is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Endangered species. Around 5000 remain in the wild, and over 2000 visit Japan every winter.
On a bird watching trip to Hokkaido, priority should be given to tracking Steller’s sea eagles which can be seen from the Nemuro Peninsula. On average this is the largest eagle in the world weighing 5 to 9kg and the birds are known for their distinctive yellow beaks.
Clearly there are many reasons to go an explore the beautiful wildlife of Japan! These are merely a few of the beautiful animals which are there to be observed in the wild!
If you find yourself in Japan and are wanting to see some of these beautiful animals have a look at the operators below which might be able to help you on your quest!