Recently I was accepted onto the Travel and Nature Writing MA at Bath Spa University, which I’ll be starting later this month. In preparation for this exciting new challenge, I signed up for a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, who regularly writes for publications such as The Guardian. Although my focus will definitely be more on the nature half of my MA, there is a lot of overlap with travel and I would love to develop my portfolio in this area.
Peter’s workshop was extremely useful, especially the postcard exercise. Over lunch, we were let loose into London with a blank postcard. The challenge was to find a new and intriguing place and write a short travel piece about it on the postcard, including quotes from people we met along the way. As a wildlife writer I’ve had very little experience with interviews, so approaching strangers and getting quotes was daunting but rewarding. I decided to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology in Fitzrovia, which turned out to be a treasure trove of taxidermy and scientific specimens.
A jar of moles, a penis worm and a dissected rat. These are just some of the specimens on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology. But past the imposing elephant skulls and ominous, pickled jars is an intriguing display of alien-like creatures nobody would notice in the wild.
It’s said that 95% of known species of animals are smaller than a human thumb. The Grant Museum, named after British anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant, sheds light on the mysterious and microscopic in its Micrarium: a seemingly infinite display of backlit microscope slides that are creatively reflected in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. There are 20,000 slides in the whole museum, but the selection of 2000 in the Micrarium exhibit alone is impressive enough.
“It’s probably one of our more popular exhibits,” explained volunteer Margaret, “We get lots of people taking photos for Instagram.”
I can see why. Step inside this bizarre taxidermic phone box and you can observe minute insects and cross sections of tissues in astonishing and multicolour detail, painstakingly plastered across three walls. Among the specimens are the muscly leg of a flea and a whole squid measuring less than a centimetre long.
“While public displays very much focus on larger animals,” said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum, “Most natural history collections have thousands of very small specimens kept in their storerooms which are rarely shown to the public.”
Once used for research at UCL, the neighbouring university, the Micrarium now enthuses the general public instead, uncovering secrets of the miniature monsters that crawl well out of human sight. It’s not quite the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, but it’s an insight into 95% of animals on our planet, which definitely deserves a second look.
On the last day of Birdfair, I was keen to escape the bustle and crowds of the marquees and explore the surrounding reserve. On my way out to one of Rutland Water’s many hides, I was drawn to a small crowd gathered around the BTO bird ringing tent, where a demonstration was in full swing. As I got closer, I saw two chiffchaffs poking their tiny heads out of the ringers’ gentle hands. One was a mature adult with smart plumage; the other was a scruffy juvenile, two thirds of the size of its companion. The ringers held out the birds’ wings, displaying a delicate and powerful fan of primary feathers. Both chiffchaffs sat still and quiet in the hand – if it hadn’t been for their blinking beady eyes they could have easily been mistaken for taxidermy specimens.
After all the measurements had been taken, the ringers asked for two volunteers to release the birds. To my surprise only two hands went up, one of which was mine, so I followed the ringer to an open spot away from the marquee. He told me to hold my hand in a loose claw then he gently placed the juvenile chiffchaff into my palm, its tiny head nestled between my index and middle finger. I closed my hand slowly and the bird wriggled. I couldn’t believe I was holding something alive and yet so small. Its body was warm and unbelievably soft. Carefully, I put the hand holding the chiffchaff down onto my other open palm and slowly released. For a moment the bird rested there and then launched itself into the air, disappearing almost immediately over the trees.
I felt what could only be described as a surge of pure joy as I released the chiffchaff back into the wild. It was a real Snow White moment and in that fraction of time I felt exceptionally close to nature. Getting to hold such a tiny and wild thing in my hand was such a privilege. As I made my way to the hide I noticed there was a minuscule downy feather stuck to the tip of my finger and I quickly stashed it in my phone case. Wherever that chiffchaff wandered now, I had a small piece of it with me.
Last weekend I stayed with my grandmother at her lovely house in Frome, Somerset. I love my mini holidays there; my bedroom window overlooks a meandering river, and on the other side is a bustling market and a glimpse of the library through the overhanging trees. I was particularly excited on Saturday morning to discover there was a Christmas fair in full swing. There’s nothing like a fair in late November to get you in the mood for Christmas. Although I still refuse to play festive music before December, a sprinkling of Christmas spirit is more than welcome, especially in such bitterly cold weather.
Once inside, we joined the throng. Shoppers shuffled along tables laden with all sorts of gifts and bric-a-brac. The Cats’ Protection were selling cat-themed stationary, while a young man at the Somerset Wildlife Trust stand was doing his best to sell membership to a middle-aged woman whose attention was slowly waning. I am a firm supporter of the Wildlife Trusts, but membership recruiters have a way of pulling you in for a short (thirty minute) chat and not letting go. Past experience taught me to avoid his gaze, and I spotted the table I’m always searching for: the one covered in books.
As always, there was a decent selection of dog-eared Maeve Binchy and Danielle Steel paperbacks, but amongst covers showing watercolour landscapes and female silhouettes staring wistfully into the distance was the tail of a fish. I tugged at the fish and my eyes fell on beautiful line drawings of an octopus, jellyfish, seahorses and more. It was such a satisfying cover, and the book was called “Blowfish’s Oceanopedia”. It was one of those dip-in books with titbit information: “extraordinary things you didn’t know about the sea”, it said. As a person who is fascinated by the sea but doesn’t really know anything worthwhile about it, it seemed the perfect read for me.
The price was even better. A brand new book, published last year at £17.99, and I was charged a pound for it. Books were amazing, but books for a pound were magical.
After finishing my loop of the fair – and winning a raffle Christmas present in the process – I returned to my grandmother’s house and instantly curled up in my favourite chair to begin reading. Within minutes I’d learned a decent thing or two about elephant seals. I am quite terrified of elephant seals, but as with my similar unease towards snakes and sharks, I’m also fascinated by them. The Blowfish revealed just how important the southern elephant seal’s “trunk” was to its survival. During the breeding season, males weighing up to 4 tonnes battle it out to win ownership of the harem of females. Understandably, this is a full time job, and prevents males from returning to the water to feed and drink. So, to avoid dangerous dehydration, males use the complex nasal passages and specialised blood vessels in their fleshy trunks to recover around 70% of the water vapour in their exhaled air. It’s a genius example of life-saving recycling.
This is the sort of book I dream of someday replicating; an instrument to share my knowledge and passion with like-minded people. At the moment I’m not an expert in any one field, but the idea of spending decades of your life learning about something and then teaching others in the form of writing is, to me, the perfect way to preserve your work.
The Blowfish, also known as Tom Hird, is a marine biologist who has a deep love for the ocean and life within it. He’s the perfect voice for a potentially complex subject matter, using humour and everyday situations to diffuse a tricky concept. Speaking in the same language as the layman is something some scientists find extremely challenging. I’m certainly not a marine biologist, but nor am I completely naïve to the science of the natural world, so I often feel my combination of knowledge gives me an advantage. I can understand a lot (not all) of what scientists do, but I also appreciate how that needs to be adapted to inform the public without dumbing down and insulting them. I’m sure there are hundreds of published papers on the adaptations of southern elephant seals which required many hours of hard work, but to the average Joe wanting to find out something interesting about wildlife, a book like the Blowfish’s will be a much bigger success. I believe the key to nature writing, or any writing for that matter, is finding the balance between informing and entertaining. The Blowfish’s Oceanopedia has been a source of great inspiration to me – a writer hoping to one day publish books of my own. The passion and enthusiasm in the author’s prose is infectious, and makes me want to jump in the sea right now and see for myself everything he has had the opportunity to witness.
New research has shown that giant tortoises may not be large because of their island lifestyle, as previously thought. A team of researchers has gathered extensive genetic data from both living species and fossils of extinct species to discover the truth of how tortoises have evolved, in an attempt to answer the question of how they have become such giants.
Tortoises are an extremely diverse group of animals, ranging in size from 8cm long to one metre long. The largest species is the Galápagos tortoise, which can weigh nearly 500kg. So why has gigantism evolved in tortoises? Despite studies on these fascinating animals since Darwinian times, the answer is still unclear. It was thought that, like many species, tortoises followed the “island rule”: a tendency of dwarfism among large animals and gigantism of small animals living on islands. For example, in mainland Florida the white-tailed deer is abundant, but in the Florida Keys – a tropical archipelago of islands off the south coast of the state – a dwarf version of the mainland deer is found, known as the Florida key deer.
It is thought that island dwarfism is caused by limited resources, while a reduced pressure from predators triggers island gigantism. However, in the case of tortoises, it was suggested that these animals were already large in size before colonising remote island habitats. With so many giant tortoise species now extinct, it is impossible to uncover the reason behind gigantism in these animals without using the fossil record.
Now, Dr Evangelos Vlachos from the Paleontological Museum of Trelew in Argentina and Dr Márton Rabi from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg put together the most complete family tree of both extinct and surviving tortoise species so far, in an attempt to piece together the reasons for their variation in size. Interestingly, it was discovered that gigantism occurred on the mainland too, in Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America. Interestingly, all of these mainland species became extinct.
“The fossils highlight a great number of extinct mainland giant species and suggest that the evolution of giant size was not linked to islands,” says Dr Evangelos Vlachos, “We expect that warmer climate and predator pressure plays a role in the evolution of giant size but the picture is complex and our sampling of the fossil record is still limited.”
So what led to the extinction of these giant mainland tortoises, and why have their island variants survived? It is thought that predation and climate change contributed to these extinctions, but it is intriguing to think that the island rule may not be the overriding factor for giant evolution, calling for more research into what causes such variation in size among these animals.
Tortoises have roamed the planet for over 55 million years – they survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, but now face an even graver threat: people. Human-induced habitat loss is the most significant threat for tortoises today, and they face an uncertain future. Thanks to research such as Vlachos’ and Rabi’s, we are able to better understand how these successful animals have evolved, and will hopefully continue to evolve for many more years to come.
The trains to Glasgow and Largs and the ferry to the Isle of Cumbrae were all fine. It was when I boarded the bus to the Millport Field Centre that it dawned on me: what on earth had I let myself in for?! I’d booked onto a weekend course run by the Field Studies Council called ‘Marine Species and Habitats: The Biotope Approach’. After volunteering at an aquarium had sparked a new fascination for marine wildlife, I wanted to learn more about what could be found on British shores. I’d done a bit of research using the course’s suggested reading list, and had half an idea what a biotope was, but as I dragged my bags off the bus I wondered if I’d booked myself onto something that would sail completely over my head. I imagined working alongside a team of marine biologists with decades of experience in the field, and here I was with a newborn interest in fish. I was suddenly terrified, and literally marooned on an island for the weekend.
As I was mulling this over in my head, a girl my age carrying a black hold-all asked me if I was attending the Biotopes course. I was thrilled; fate had brought us together on the same ferry and meant I didn’t have to amble around alone wondering where I needed to be. Our rooms weren’t ready yet so we went for a wander towards the town of Millport. Her name was Abbie, and she was currently part-way through a PhD in non-native seaweeds. This was something I knew literally nothing about, but we chatted about uni and wildlife and all things in between. Meanwhile, it was a chance to see where we’d be spending the weekend, and it was beautiful. Of course, almost everywhere is beautiful in bright sunlight, but even so the Isle of Cumbrae promised a fascinating chance to survey marine wildlife.
After a loop around the bay we headed back to the Field Centre and took our bags to our rooms. I had feared with some trepidation what the washing facilities would be like, but was very pleasantly surprised to discover a large ensuite shower, not to mention a bed like a cloud. I hastily unpacked then met the rest of the group for our first briefing. Here I met Emily who worked at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, and before dinner Abbie and I went for a walk with her to the shore to soak up the last sun of the day.
Dinner was macaroni cheese and apple crumble, perhaps one of the most perfect combinations of courses there can be. Then it was time for our first lecture: an introduction to biotopes. My research had prepared me well – a biotope is the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community found living there. Although some of the lecture’s content was lost on me, I left feeling inspired and ready to face new challenges over the weekend. I’d already met lovely people, and all my earlier worries began to feel very insignificant.
Today began early, and by 9am we were down on the beach beginning our first biotope survey. It was a beautiful day for it, and we wasted no time getting stuck in, in my case literally getting my wellies wedged in rock crevices and clinging desperately to my balance. Common species included beadlet anemones, dog whelks and acorn barnacles, but we also found common starfish, hermit crabs, a star ascidian (type of sea squirt) and plenty of seaweed. My knowledge of seaweed species was even smaller than my knowledge of seashore vertebrates, but as Abbie was doing her PhD on them I had a source of very valuable information.
Once we’d covered as much of the bay as we could we ate lunch out in the sun (an excuse for some of the group to catch up with the goings on at the royal wedding) and then headed back to analyse our results and try to determine which biotopes we’d found. This was also an opportunity to play with lab equipment, which I haven’t been able to do since A Level Biology. I had good look at the bryozoa I’d found on a strand of seaweed (below). Bryozoa means “moss animal” and viewed up close reveals an intricate lattice of animals situated closely together. I studied these individuals for a while but couldn’t decide between Sea Mat or Hairy Sea Mat.
After beating the queue and getting served dinner almost first, I went back to my room for much-needed downtime before bed.
Today was another early start, and this time we drove the short distance to the northern end of Great Cumbrae to a much larger site. The weather was a little dreary but armed with quadrats, transects and clipboards we began to survey the biotopes. Findings started off slowly but once we reached the rock pools things really got exciting. Our course leader Paula found a slug species called a sea lemon – a very pretty blob – and a butterfish. Abbie, Alex and I found a sand goby, sand mason worm, lots of brittlestars, more hermits and beadlets, and my favourite from today: a dahlia anemone. It was the largest anemone I’d seen before, and had beautiful striated and brightly coloured tentacles that slowly emerged again once we’d calmed down to watch it properly. Just as I was squatting to try and get a decent picture, two common prawns appeared underneath a nearby rock. I didn’t know if maybe these were boring sightings but I recognised them from my volunteering at the aquarium so was thrilled to be able to confidently identify something in the field.
Back at the lab, Abbie got to work identifying her seaweeds and Alex had an ID test to do for his assignment, so I had a bash at identifying today’s biotopes by myself. Once I’d done that, I realised I’d accidentally brought a tiny brittlestar home with my sea urchin shells. With Paula’s help, I identified it as Amphipholis squamata. Later, Paula asked us what we’d found, and Alex and I had got the exact same biotopes! I was so pleased with myself.
Dinner was Sunday roast and sticky toffee pudding. I must have put on about eight stone this weekend – I’ve been fed like a queen and although my brain has been working overtime, my body hasn’t done so much. After dinner we had our last round-up lecture and went to the bar for drinks. I ended up talking to the two guys from Belfast about Father Ted – it was pretty funny talking to Irishmen about it. I would have stayed longer but I was absolutely shattered. So I headed to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
On Friday we went on a field trip to The Lake District Wildlife Park. In Alex’s lectures we’ve been studying the behaviour of animals in captivity, so visited the park to see if we could see any of the same signs in the animals they kept there.
It hadn’t been too long since my last visit to a zoo, but maybe it was the presence of four other wildlife students that instilled different feelings in me this time. The small size of the enclosures seemed more obvious and I couldn’t help feeling uneasy as I watched the lynx pace up and down and the raptors attempt to fly off the metal perches they were tied down to. I could photograph the bald, golden and tawny eagles in vivid detail, but I knew deep down it was cheating and the photos I was taking were no different to those of hundreds of other visitors.
The reason I love photography is it captures a moment in time that cannot be exactly replicated ever again. It freezes a memory and provides a very intimate insight into the photographer’s mind. So as I stood in front of a tethered bird that couldn’t escape my camera or my gaze, I soon realised this was not how children should experience wildlife.
Ticking off birds from my wish list was part of the charm that got me interested in wildlife. It was going out, tracking a bird and watching it live its life that gave me a sense of pride. Not only had I had an adventure in the great outdoors, but I’d discovered a species I’d never seen and sometimes got photos to show for it. During my time on the Isle of Carna we attempted to track down golden eagles on a boat trip on Loch Sunart. We were extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the magnificent bird as it perched high up in the tree canopy.
Anyone with £8.95 in their pocket can go to the Lakes Wildlife Park and see a golden eagle, but where’s the fun in that? If the same children who see a captive golden eagle were to see one in the wild, I’m certain that experience would last a lot longer in their memory.
Of course, I’m just talking about British wildlife. None of us in the UK are going to see a wild red panda or lar gibbon no matter how impressive our tracking skills, so in that respect zoos offer children the chance to see what wonderful animals roam our planet. While this is all well and good – and with the rate of extinction as rapid as it is, this may soon be the only way that the next generation can see certain species in the flesh – it’s just not “wild” life. And isn’t that the point? What next, we round up indigenous tribes and keep them in pens for people to stare at? Although some zoos have done wonderful work for conservation and provide a safe place for endangered animals to live unharmed, should it be up to us to decide whether a long, captive life is better than a short, free one?
It’s always a delight when I stumble across a dinosaur story in the news. These genuine legends will be part of modern society forever, I’m convinced of it.
Yesterday I read a story of Psittacosaurus (“parrot-lizard”), a herbivorous creature that roamed forests in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia and potentially Thailand during the Early Cretaceous period, about 130 to 100 million years ago. Despite its distinct lack of horns, it belonged to the same group as Triceratops:Ornithischia, meaning “bird-hipped”. Its name comes from its thick beak, as a result of the prominent rostral bone at the tip of its upper beak. It is a peculiar creature in that it chewed its vegetative food like a mammal, but then ground up the tougher matter with stones in its gizzard, a common feature found in birds and reptiles such as crocodiles, that forms part of their digestive system.
Being herbivorous and lacking the teeth and claws to defend itself, Psittacosaurus needed a way of defence. As seen in penguins and some species of dolphins, Psittacosaurus was darker on top and lighter underneath. This form of camouflage is known as countershading, and effectively disguises the animal by offsetting its shadowing. Dark parts of the animal’s body are exposed to bright sunlight, while paler parts are exposed to shade. This shading provides a contrast to usual light-to-dark gradient of natural illumination. The effect makes the animal flatter and without depth, obscuring its outline to potential predators.
It is understandable to think it impossible for scientists to know if Psittacosaurus demonstrated counter shading without being able to see its skin. However, recent evidence into the preserved pigments in the dinosaur’s fossils has indicated that there was a pattern in the distribution of melanin; more on the animal’s back than its belly, thus proving its countershading camouflage.
In response to this new evidence, scientists have created a life-size model of Psittacosaurus, with the help of palaeo-artist Bob Nicholls, to see how its camouflage helped it survive in its forest habitat. The findings have been published in Current Biology journal. One of the authors, Dr Jakob Vinther, said that this kind of investigation “can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but they can also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats”.
Read more about Psittacosaurus and this innovating science at:
As of today, I’ve been living in my new house a week! It’s not the biggest or the most glamorous, but it’s certainly enough to feel like home. There is also a generously sized garden that oozes potential. Currently, the grass is several feet high and tickles the midriffs of the two apple trees, but I’m determined to make it a spot both we and our neighbouring wildlife can enjoy.
Zahrah and I have already had debates over whether the grass should be cut at all. While she favours the truly wild, I prefer neat and tidy with areas that the wildlife can still feel at home in. My plan is to cut the majority of the lawn but leave a wild patch at the bottom, so all kinds of creatures can still seek sanctuary in its grassy depths.
I’ve noticed several species of garden bird already, namely robins (Erithacus rubecula), blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tits (Parus major), but I’m sure we can attract more with a range of bird feeders – millet for dunnocks (Prunella modularis) and finches and sunflower seeds for the tits and hopefully greenfinch (Chloris chloris). As well as this, we could fit some nest boxes to the apple trees to encourage nesting birds to stay.
Now we have such a secure garden, Zahrah suggested setting up a camera trap to see what nocturnal wildlife we play host to. In an urban area, it’s possible we have hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) and maybe red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), something I’d be thrilled to see. After managing to photograph a wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) at Kingmoor Sidings nature reserve not far from here, I’m optimistic we’ll get to see a lot more once we’ve set some tasty bait.
As for the lawn itself, I’d love to create a winding path out of the stray slabs we’ve found lying around. The garden is large enough for a compost heap too, something else that would attract a range of species. I’d love to cultivate a pond, but feel like this may be beyond my skill set! However, it would be lovely to plant some flowers and inject some colour into the otherwise very green garden. Although not the prettiest, stinging nettles are well known for being excellent attractors of the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), comma (Polygonia c-album) and small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). Other good plants for butterflies include garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and marjoram (Origanum vulgare).
All in all, I see some exciting things on the horizon for our little garden! After living in halls for a year and the only green space being the faded carpet of my room, I can’t wait to unleash my inner gardener and make our patch the perfect wildlife haven.
Two weeks ago, Birdfair was held at Rutland Water Nature Reserve from Friday to Sunday. As we were on holiday in Scotland, we could only make the third and final day, but I am so glad we managed to experience this fantastic event.
Upon arrival we were greeted by an explosion of colour and noise. I bought a map and discovered I was in one of eight marquees lined on both sides with stalls and things to buy. A lot of them were selling wildlife holidays, so I couldn’t help but enter a few competitions, as well as buy some wildlife art.
One talk we attended was ‘Building a Naturalist’ by Nick Baker, a naturalist I’ve admired for many years. His topic of discussion was getting more children interested in the natural world. In a way, he was preaching to the converted by delivering his speech to an audience of wildlife enthusiasts, but it appears as if the responsibility of making nature a focus for children lies with us, the people who understand its importance.
What I love about Baker is his heart-warming enthusiasm for wildlife. He described his first white plume moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla) sighting as “like looking at fairies at the bottom of the garden”. He learnt a great deal about newts by collecting them and watching them in tanks – he made a point of saying that this was long before the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 when the handling of British newts became illegal – and read up on them to broaden his knowledge.
“Experience is everything,” he explained, and I agree entirely. The only way to understand the natural world is to be out in it. As much as it pains me to say, reading books will only get a naturalist so far; by spending hours searching the coast or wandering through the forest, they can become a part of the world they’re passionate about.
Baker shared some alarming statistics. In a study of 8-15 year-olds, 53% had never seen a flock of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in the UK. Baker described this as “extinction of experience”. Our mentors are becoming an endangered species; with less interest in nature, where are the passionate naturalists who will teach and inspire the next generation? Baker’s mentor was his dad, without whom he may not have had the experiences that brought about his interest in wildlife. For me, my mentor was my mum, and for her it was my grandad. There must be a link between each generation to keep the passion alive.
There will come a time when I get to show my children how incredible the natural world is. I will buy them all the books I can afford and take them on walks through woodland and meadows. We will sit silently in hides and lay on our fronts watching aquatic life in ponds. All this brings such joy to my life, and to the lives of many others. Unfortunately, we are the rare few. It means a great deal to me to watch and study wildlife, but I am no longer the youngest generation. Children are walking sponges and will soak up everything around them; it’s up to us nature folk to ignite their imaginations with trees and birds, as well as TVs and computers.
“It’s innate in all of us. We are born curious… all it takes is a spark of curiosity.” Nick Baker