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Hidden World – Royal Society of Biology Photo Competition 2017 – My Entries

Media is so important for communicating science. Let’s be honest, if an article doesn’t come along with some juicy video clips or snazzy photos then you’re probably not going to bother. This is particularly important when it comes to science. So much of science is visual, and so much of science is pretty to look at. So here are my three entries to the RSB 2017 Photo Competition – “Hidden World” where my photos range from underwater, misty rainforest and your garden pond!


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Photograph title
The Algal Universe
Describe what is pictured?
This is a collection of Tetrabaena socialis algae – essentially what you’ll find in the garden pond! We can see each algal capsule containing four cells, with some at varying degrees of asexual reproduction. The cells are about 10um wide and each one will divide into four daughter cells.
How does this image fit with the theme of the competition?
When looking through a microscope, I feel a similar sensation to that of a telescope into space. We are somewhere in-between these two “hidden worlds”, one is huge, one is tiny. Algae remind me of the stars, with the occasional creature whizzing through like a giant spaceship. There is so much yet to be discovered in these worlds, yet one lies right at our feet – in this case the garden pond! This photo reminds us that we are just a finite visible fraction of what exists in this universe.
Location taken (be specific)
Imperial College, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot
Date taken
2017-07-24
Equipment and settings used
Panasonic Lumix FZ-1000
Software manipulation
Slight crop. Slight contrast enhancement using basic Mac editor.


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Photograph title
Nemo’s Retreat
Describe what is pictured?
A clownfish (Amphiprioninae) peeks out from his world in this classic scene. Clownfish share a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with anemones; they are protected by the anemone’s sting, and they lure fish for the anemone to eat.
How does this image fit with the theme of the competition?
For two reasons. Firstly the clownfish is the only one allowed into the hidden world of the anemone tentacles, and is such a specific relationship that it will remain hidden from others. Secondly, this classic image is one that now sums up the ocean as a hidden world. Through the massive success of ‘Finding Nemo’, more and more interest has been gathered about the underwater world and I feel this little animal is responsible for a new wave of passionate marine biologists.
Location taken (be specific)
Sulug Island, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Date taken
2016-05-18
Equipment and settings used
Canon Powershot G1X MII and housing
Software manipulation
Some gentle editing and colour grading for underwater correction in Lightzone.

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Photograph title
Maliau – A Land Lost in Time
Describe what is pictured?
This is Maliau Basin in Borneo, one of the last remaining true wildernesses to the human race. Here are the tops of this pristine tropical rainforest canopy poking out above the eerie thick fog. This shot is providing a glance into this undiscovered world, perhaps how it was seen by its first discoverer in 1947. Many describe Maliau Basin as ‘The Lost World’, referring to its unique isolation. I made a documentary about it on YouTube which goes by the same name as this photograph.
How does this image fit with the theme of the competition?
Maliau Basin could be the ultimate Hidden World. This huge bowl of thick jungle is surrounded by cliffs, and was first discovered in 1947 when a pilot nearly crashed into the escarpment. It was not until 1986 that humans managed to enter the basin. Only a few thousand people have ever stepped foot here today. This hidden world is separated form the outside world, resulting in it’s own endemic flora and fauna, and unique weather patterns. This photo sums up precisely why it remained undiscovered, and scrapes the surface of the incredible world which lies within.
Location taken (be specific)
Maliau Basin Conservation Area, Borneo, Malaysia
Date taken
2016-01-14
Equipment and settings used
Panasonic Lumix FZ-62
Software manipulation
Black and white with slight contrast adjustment. The old photo style B&W is intended to reflect the view of the pilot in 1947 who nearly crashed into the basin edge, leading to it’s discovery.
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Croatia Part 4: Sleepy little Senj

Apologies for the serious delay between Part 3 and Part 4, but I was kinda in South America and also moving house so I think that’s a fair excuse… anyway! Senj is a cute little town half the way up the Croatian coast, which you probably won’t have heard of. I only dropped by for a couple of days so here’s a brief overview of what you’ll find.

What To Do

Well to be blunt we did very little, mainly rested. But since there was some time to kill the first stop was tourist info. Sadly the attendant was very unhelpful, perhaps a bit baffled that people had actually stopped by. Feeling quite put-off we made a hasty retreat. So the day here consisted of swimming in the picturesque harbour, enjoying the sunset and walking along the promenade – quite relaxing all in all.

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Senjsasional sunset

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Larking about at the harbour

Ask around for boats to the islands, I don’t think there’s anything official, but you may be able to pay a local to take you out to Krk, good luck getting back though!

There is a castle up on the hill. Since we’d just finished our ‘epic’ hike, we decided to rest the legs and enjoy it from a distance, which sometimes gives the best view. There is also a Griffin Vulture sanctuary which we only found out about after leaving. As a conservationist this was quite upsetting to miss, and I’ve read good things about the place. Definitely worth a stop off during the next Croatia road trip!

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It’s not a great photo, but it’s the fort that counts…

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Romantic and picturesque

Eat and Drink

Since Senj is a pretty sleepy and absent from any real tourism, you’re better off wandering to find some local cuisine. The likelihood is that this will be seafood, so for anyone wanting to avoid meat you’ll have your work cut out. That being said a few places have veggie options, Kod Veska for example.

Where To Stay

For the budget option, Hotel Art Senj is remarkably comfortable. Maybe this feeling was exaggerated after the discomfort of our long trek, but we all rested and showered very well in this cheap little complex – oh and there’s nothing arty about it at all…. It’s right at the end of the promenade on the south side. Beware, there was an added on charge at the end (still cheap though).  On the north  side there is ‘camping’, but it appears to be on concrete, not the most comfortable in my eyes. For higher end hotels the town has plenty, but they are generally a bit further out on the north side, all in walking distance, and all clearly visible.

Travel

We grabbed a relatively cheap coach (€7 each) up to Rijeka, which is a very picturesque drive. Similarly you can head down to Zadar or inland to the Plitvice Lakes. Parking in Senj would be a little tricky (unless you have a boat!), and the outskirts are quite run-down, so I wouldn’t recommend roadside parking.

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Hmmm run -down, but kinda pretty too!

Senj is worth a stop off for a night or two. It’s very quiet and you can be sure to be some of the only tourists around. Hopefully you have more energy than we did so can make the most of this pretty little destination.

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African Lion Conservation – The Mane Issues

As most of my friends know, I have a very special place in my heart for lions. I aspire to work with and for them, researching and monitoring their remaining vulnerable populations. For those that are not aware of the threats they face, this is the post for you! I am focusing on African lions here, Asiatic lions are for a whole other post 😉

The ‘Roar’ Information


Lions are Africa’s largest big cat, powerful and majestic, the King of the Beasts is the forefront of most people’s minds when they think of Africa.

Lion: the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four footed beasts
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Described as “Gregarious, territorial, matriarchal society, communal care, male coalitions.” (Richard Estes) Lions are the only truly social cat living in resident prides, usually consisting of related females and their cubs. Dominant males fight to maintain breeding rights and territories. Prides are known to occupy territorial ranges from as low as 20km²  in the most suitable habitats, to more than 500km².

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Photo Credit: Torie Hilley

Although lions have no natural predators, their numbers have unthinkably plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations (WWF). They once roamed across most of Africa, parts of Asia and even Europe. Now they are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, and one very small population (c.450-500) in India’s Gir Forest. African Lions are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN with around 20,000 left in the wild and a decline of their geographic range of 92%. There are now only ten areas across this vast continent that are considered as lion strongholds: 4 in East Africa and 6 in Southern Africa.

Lion Population 2012

Source: Riggio J et al (2012) The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view.  Biodiversity Conservation Dec 12

Surprising Reasons to Save Them


Apart from the most logical and basic argument that we, as a fellow animal species, do not have the right to exterminate them, there are many reasons to save lions – ecological, financial, and spiritual. The African lion is one of the world’s most iconic species, and has played a role across the world in symbolism and culture. Just walk around some of the world’s cities and you’ll see a dozen lion statues, big or small, the more famous of which reside in front of the New York Public Library and in Trafalgar Square in London. Because of this, and the charismatic nature of the species, there is a vast international interest in lion conservation making them powerful ambassadors.

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Photo Credit: Torie Hilley

As apex predators, lions also have a pivotal role to play in the ecosystem. The removal of top carnivores from ecosystems can have long-lasting negative ecological impacts to other species as well as the habitat itself. For example, without lions to prey on them, populations of buffalo, hyena and other smaller predators would soar.

You also cannot question the high economic value lions have to the countries where they remain. They are one of the top attractions for tourists of all kinds, as well as for trophy hunters, as controversial as it is, bringing in revenue. Ecotourism alone generates around $80 billion a year, which helps local communities and economies (Dereck Joubert). Very few people would come on safari if they knew they wouldn’t have a chance at seeing the king of the beasts.

The urgency and importance of their conservation comes from the fact that lions have experience a dramatic decline in both their numbers and  their geographic range over recent decades.

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Photo Credit: Lorna Harvey

“A large animal needs a large area. If you protect that area, you’re also protecting thousands of other plants and animals. You’re saving all these species that future generations will want – you’re saving the world for your children and your children’s children. . . . The destruction of species is final. If you lose a species, you lose the genes, you lose all the potential drugs and potential foods that could be useful to the next generations. The ecosystems will not function as they have” Dr George Schal

The ‘Mane’ Issues


Such a heavy decline in African Lion populations is down to a variety of causes including: habitat and prey loss, conflicts with local communities and their livestock, trophy hunting, poaching and illegal wildlife trade and disease and climate change.

I won’t be talking in depth about all of these as that may take forever, but instead I’ll give summaries of these issues and some examples of incredible work and progress made to save this magnificent species.

Habitat & Prey Loss

Africa’s human population now exceeds 1.2 billion …. 1.2 billion people vs 20,000 lions …. that maths is not hard to do!

With so many people now requiring land and resources to live off of, this only results in one thing, taking that land and those resources away from wildlife. ‘Wild’ land in Africa is normally converted to others land-uses that are more economically viable to support the local communities. Prey species preferred by lions such as zebra and wildebeest are also attractive to humans for food consumption and other products made from their skins etc. Game meat is sought-after in local communities and is often obtained illegally through poaching.

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As habitat is lost, lion populations become fragmented within small pockets of protected areas with relatively little or no natural movement of animals between them. Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania are most of the few countries where lion populations are still maintained outside of protected areas. If migration does happen, this often means lions move into surrounding areas with less than desirable habitats and more than likely these are inhabited by humans, causing direct conflict.

IMG_7776Management of these protected areas is vital in supporting wild lion populations. A recent report by Panthera showed that Africa’s protected parks and reserves are capable of supporting three to four times as many wild lions, if they are properly funded and managed. That is approx. 83,000 lions!!! To add to this there is still more than 1 million sq. km of viable lions habitat left in Africa, it is now a matter of sufficient funding and regulation.

Human-Carnivore Conflict

Lion & cow

Photo Credit: Ewaso Lions

Livestock production is one of the main sources of income for local communities, ranging from cattle to goats and chickens. Livestock has become relatively easy prey for lions especially during harsher times, mainly due to their increased presence in and around protected areas. Conflict occurs when lions attack livestock and herders retaliate by fatally shooting, spearing, or poisoning lions.

Although it is understandable as to why the farmers & herders want to kill as retribution for their dead animals, there are some major issues. The ‘guilty’ animal is often not the one that gets killed, or if poisoned bait is used this can also have a detrimental impact on other animals such as vultures, hyena and jackals.

In Northern Kenya lions are especially vulnerable to conflict because they live in or adjacent to areas inhabited by nomadic pastoralists and come into regular conflict with local people over this very issues. Ewaso Lions was founded in 2007, and works to study and incorporate local communities in helping to protect the lions in the Samburu National Reserve, Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Shaba National Reserve.

Dead lion

The Ewaso Lions team conducts research on human-carnivore conflict in these areas to develop strategies for preventing carnivore attacks on livestock, which will then reduce the retaliatory killings. These include ways to improve livestock husbandry by avoiding densely vegetated areas, using dogs to accompany grazing herds and not leaving livestock to graze unattended. The key point here is that the team works directly with livestock herders to promote these good husbandry practices to reduce this conflict, benefiting both them and the lions.

Other organisations are also promoting such strategies amongst others such as Lion-Proof Bomas, which are natural thorny enclosures where farmers keep their livestock at night – Walking For Lions, Wildlife ACT, Lion Guardians and Ruaha Carnivore Project. Please go and check them out they do amazing work!

Trophy Hunting

It has been 2 years since the media finally caught up and aired the news that lions do get killed for trophy hunts in Africa. The allegedly illegal hunt of Cecil the lion caused worldwide outrage …. Now just last week his son – Xanda – has met the same fate, killed at just half the age of his father.

c8fb1398b3f380440fb0bc2808d85755--trophy-hunting-male-lionCommercial use of wild lion populations is a highly political and emotive topic but is largely allowed by governments as a venture to deliver capital. It has drawn great debate, especially in recent years, with very different arguments for & against it.

Trophy hunting of lions is currently practiced at a significant level in at least 12 African countries. Canned hunting is very different as this is where captive lions are bred to feed the demand for lion trophies, and is believed not to impact on the wild population status.

Many supporters say regulated hunts raise much-needed money for conservation and herald it as an important and necessary conservation tool. Researchers at Oxford University state that where it is well-regulated, transparent and devolves sufficient authority to the land managers, trophy hunting has the potential to contribute to lion conservation, but opposing this, many countries have weak governance and regulations which can lead to unsustainable practices.

The most fundamental benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to agricultural land for example. It has been estimated that trophy hunting areas in Africa cover 1.4 million km2 – 22% more land than National Parks. How much of that area could viably be converted to phototourism is unknown, but it cannot be accomplished everywhere with some areas covered in very dense vegetation.

In most countries, male lions are only hunted, but females are still at threat in some. Both being targeted can be a significant threat to lion populations at a local level:

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Photo Credit: Lorna Harvey

  • Females make up the majority of a lion pride, the removal of adult lionesses reduces the pride size and therefore the survival of all cub age-classes.
  • Loss of dominant males from a pride facilitates pride takeover by rival males and the killing (infanticide) of the previous male’s dependent cubs. There are other wider effects across protected areas – too scientific to go into now 😉

Lion trophy hunting is currently banned in six African lion range countries – Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Nigeria. This controversial topic and its consequences are vast but the knowledge gaps are huge. More research is being done and regulations being revised – In 2015 the African Lion was added to the U.S Endangered Species Act. However the priority now is to secure the last remaining 10 strongholds and safeguard all 60 remaining lion populations.

Poaching & The Wildlife Trade

There is a relatively new threat that has emerged for lions: the legal and illegal (acquired by poaching) trade in lion bones & body parts.

Lion parts such as whiskers, fat and tails have always had a traditional value and use in many African nations as medicines and components of ritual practices. That’s started to shift. Evidence suggests that there is a new demand for lion bones that comes from Asian countries. The parts are more often than not destined for use in traditional Asian medicines as a replacement for tiger parts, which have become harder to get now that tiger populations have plummeted to just a few thousand.

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Lion skull

A report last year from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, found that 1,160 lion skeletons were legally exported from South Africa between 2008 and 2011. These are legal as they come from captive-lion breeding industry known as canned hunting. Breeders argue that they are taking the pressure off of wild animals, but as long as there is a demand, it is very easy to get wild bones smuggled into that trade. Also consumers are allegedly prepared to pay more for bones from wild lions because of the belief that the effects are more potent than those of captive animals.

Though after the 2016 CITES summit in Johannesburg, there is now a ban across 182 countries in the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions, there is still a purely illegal trade that exists with lion parts found hidden inside the export containers.

Disease & Climate Change

Lions are facing an indirect threat from climate change called co-infection. Lions periodically face outbreaks of the disease distemper. Outbreaks of this disease in 1994 and 2001 caused massive die-offs. Researchers found that the key environmental factor these epidemics was the occurrence of a severe drought.

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Photo Credit: Megan Evershed

One result of this drought was that both the lions’ prey, weakened with malnutrition, became heavily infested with ticks, which in turn infested the lions as they fed. The ticks, it turned out, carried a blood parasite that rendered them less able to cope with canine distemper virus, and the combination of the two diseases killed many more lions than either disease commonly would by itself. Droughts such as the ones that led to deadly co-infection in lions are predicted to become more common as the climate warms.

Finishing Note


There is now more awareness than ever on the threats to wild lion populations. We have seen some progress for lions over recent years, in no small part inspired by the death of Cecil – and probably now his son, Xanda too – a mere silver lining.

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Photo Credit: Megan Evershed

The only thing to leave you with now after all that information is the following quote from one of my idols – Dereck Joubert (Filmmaker and Conservationist)

‘Unless something changes dramatically, we have 10-15 years to secure Africa’s Lions……A world without the distant roar of lions at dawn as the mists start to lift is too terrible to contemplate’ 

 

Cover photo from Torie Hilley.

Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri (Video)

The final video of my three days in El Chaltén, Patagonia. Yet another amazing hike to finish off a jam-packed few days. For me, it was all about the landscapes with stretching pains turning into dramatic mountain ranges, combined with the distinctive Patagonian flora. Sadly I didn’t see *that* many animals during my stay here, and I’d want to return with the intention of … Read More Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri (Video)

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El Chaltén 3 days 3 hikes: Day 3, Laguna Torre

Hello again and welcome back to my quick rundown of walks from El Chaltén, in the heart of Argentinian Patagonia. I had three days so packed in three hikes, just enough to give me a breathtaking snapshot of this part of the world. Here you’ll find a little about the route, wildlife, and features of each walk. Today we’re off to Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri, a quieter alternative to Fitz Roy, but with some really interesting landscapes that you don’t want to miss! If you’d prefer to watch a short video summarising the scenery around the walk, click here.

Breakdown
  • Difficulty: 6/10 (8/10 if you head up to Mirador Maestri)
  • Length: 11km each way, +3km to Mirador Maestri
  • Highlights: Rocky canyons with a chance to see Huemuls, expanses of dead forest, Laguna Torre and the Torre glacier at Mirador Maestri.
Route

This hike is not difficult up to the laguna, with a gentle gradual ascent and plenty of beautiful flat plains. The hike winds through a variety of stunning environments with the chance to see a range of plant and animal life. Once you reach the laguna, there is a choice to venture further along the blustery path to Mirador Maestri, which I would highly recommend.

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  1. Kick off by heading up the steep steps on the western side of El Chaltén where you’ll be greeted with a cracking view back across the town. About 150m onwards there is a checkpoint where you may be briefed by a park ranger, and advised on what to do if you’re caught short en route… Beyond you’re faced with a pleasant undulating wander alongside the river canyon for a couple of km. 16602410_10212189182785918_7315842031763583576_o16707528_10212189064742967_1606669433320215981_o16707382_10212189157945297_5365870535451348985_o
  2. Soon you will reach Mirador Torre, where you can see the distant peaks of the Adela range. After this you continue down and pass an eerie forest of twisted dead trees on your left, and beautiful Patagonian bush on your right.16700234_10212189050902621_6557936757463018878_o16665835_10212189171265630_6638695863671255846_o
  3. Follow the path to the left at the fork and continue along the riverside. There is a nearby camp named Agostini, which is recommended if you have the time. Wind up a rockier hill to Laguna Torre, with the Torre Glacier in the background.16707317_10212189155705241_8046591420083671907_o
  4. If you’re feeling adventurous you might want to pursue Mirador Maestri, only 1.5 km away up the hill on the right of the laguna. WARNING: this path is a loose scree and rubble ridge, and is very exposed to harsh wind – it is easy to slip and fall. The drop on your left is extremely steep and plummets down into the icy laguna, be very careful and prepared for this next path. It bends round and is slow progress, but eventually you reach an old stone with an eroded plaque “Mirador Maestri”, you will know when you’ve reached it. From here there are wonderful views down onto the glacier, and you are MUCH closer than those left at the laguna’s edge. 16722453_10212189157105276_3749238551564994518_o (1)16665916_10212189156505261_2534051239555377698_o (1)16602350_10212189338789818_4881094527601449162_o
  5. Return nearly all the way to the laguna, and drop off to the north (your right) just before. This winds down through a lovely bit of woodland and past a rather unused campsite (may be a good option for a wilder camp). Keep walking and you reach the fork from Step 3. 16602081_10212189178705816_2062829810691252905_o16707254_10212189328349557_8852690718553128901_o

Wildlife

The flora and fauna around Patagonia is beautiful. Although not the widest diversity of life, you’ll become familiar with the animals, flowers and general feel that Patagonia is so famous for.

This hike could throw up anything. At the start keep an eye out for huemuls (deer) and of course pumas. There will be plenty of birds dotted about the forest, and they are not shy. Also, whilst you are walking through the canyon section, there is a chance to see condors. Condors are much rarer in the south of Argentina, which makes seeing them that bit more special.

Thanks for staying tuned for these three hikes! If you haven’t read the previous too then you can find them in the ‘Argentina’ category. My main tip for hiking in El Chaltén is to camp if you can – I missed out on this due to limit time, but the campsites are beautiful and allow for early morning photography of the area’s highlights. If you want to see wildlife, take your time, wander discreetly 50m off-piste and be very very quiet! 

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The Natural History Museum gives us Hope… but who is she?

Two years ago, the world-famous Natural History Museum in London made the decision to replace their longstanding exhibit, Dippy the Diplocodus with another marvel, a 126 year-old blue whale named Hope. But who is she? And what is the significance of this somewhat controversial replacement?

Hope, who measures a whopping 25 metres in length and weighs over 4000 kilos, was found stranded in Wexford Harbour, Ireland over 100 years ago. She was subsequently purchased by the museum in 1891 for £250 and displayed in the institution’s Mammal Hall above a life-sized replica of a blue whale, essentially out of sight and out of mind.

The act of bringing Hope centre stage forms part of the museum’s plan to employ a ‘decade of transformation’ – a decision made by the Natural History Museum’s Director Sir Michael Dixon. Hope represents the museum’s commitment to conservation and illustrates ‘humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future’. At the time of her purchase, she represented only one of 250,000 blue whales in the wild. The population has since dwindled and it is estimated that there are only 20,000 in our waters.

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Hope takes centre stage [Natural History Museum]

The new resident of the Natural History Museum’s Hintze Hall serves as ‘a poignant reminder that while abundance is no guarantee of survival, through our choices, we can make a real difference. There is hope.’

The preparation leading up to Hope’s reveal last Thursday (13th July) took a team of experts two years to instigate the move. It is clear that Hope is here to stay and it is unlikely Dippy will make a come back any time soon.

 

 

But fear not Dippy fans, he is currently being restored in Canada in preparation for a 2-year tour around the United Kingdom which begins next Spring:

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The museum’s beloved Dippy, made from cast resin will be touring the UK from 2018 to 2020 [Natural History Museum]

 

Until then, visitors are encouraged to view the Natural History Museum’s newest spectacle, completely free of charge.

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Why do 30 Days Wild?

In the month of June, the Wildlife Nature Trust launched a month-long campaign to get people outdoors and immersed in nature. As the name suggests, the goal is simple; to spend every day in June outdoors for a period of time. Here’s my experience with 30 Days Wild.

Last month, I attempted to spend a portion of each day outside attempting ‘random acts of wildness’ in order to fulfil my 30 Days Wild. As a nature-loving amateur photographer and videographer, this was the perfect opportunity to hone my skills while discovering the best that British wildlife had to offer.

Admittedly, it was tricky. My semi-nomadic lifestyle meant that my 30 days took me all over the country from Sheffield to Ascot, Herefordshire and Oxford. I must also admit that I didn’t spend all of my wild days in the UK – the latter half of June took to Hong Kong and Vietnam, so what meant to be 30 Days of British Wildlife only ended up being 15 Days Wild. Nevertheless the experience was eye-opening and had a plethora of benefits that meant those 15 days were extremely worth the while.

I saw a lot of wildlife…and captured it too!

The inevitability of spending days outdoors is that you will see an array of fantastic creatures. What’s more, if you’re like me and you’re eager to capture these critters, you’ll learn about their behaviour, locate their territories and spend hours on end trying to capture them on film.

This was the case in Silwood Park (Imperial College’s Life Sciences campus) where I spent four days tracking red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) through sitting in low lying trees making distressed rabbit noises – and it paid off!

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A screen grab of my encounter with this beautiful creature.

Noise was less conducive to drawing in roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) who were rather unnerved by my presence. Thankfully they always waited before running off which allowed me to capture some nice footage. I can’t say the same for the timid Reeves’ muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) who were introduced to Britain in the 19th century.

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A male roe deer captured at a cemetery in Ascot at sun down.

Bird life was also plentiful, from European robins (Erithacus rubecula) to nesting Eurasian blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), grey herons (Ardea cinerea) on lakes and over-populous red kites (Milvus milvus) in the Chilterns. My personal favourite was watching a Eurasian bullfinch hop around on an electric wire for a good half hour.

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The males are distinct from the females by their orange breasts and blue-grey backs.

British gardens also proved a treat boasting an array of beautiful blooms and busy bumblebees, and spending time sitting in grasslands meant that I spent a lot of time fishing out invertebrates from my pants.

I was also fortunate enough to catch the last spring lambs, though sadly we all know how their future ends (hint: it’ll make you want to go vegan).

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My mental and physical health improved drastically

30 Days Wild got me moving and traipsing through a diversity of terrains. My physical fitness clearly improved but what was more astounding was how quickly my outdoor endeavours benefitted my mental well-being. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, spending time outdoors, even if for minutes at a time drastically improved my feelings of calmness and happiness. Spending time outdoors is a great way to relieve stress and also allows you to spend time with loved ones in beautiful scenery. The experience has definitely encouraged me to spend more time outdoors.

I became more technically-able and learned to appreciate the lengths professionals go to!

As someone who is very new to the world of wildlife filmmaking and photography, my time outdoors forced me to get to grips with my camera. It also taught me about the immense importance of being patient and intuitive with wildlife. While Britain is brimming with animals, they are instinctively timid which means that finding and filming them can prove tricky. And believe me as I’ve alluded long hours were spent watching empty grasslands.

All in all, my modest 15 Days Wild was the perfect excuse to get outdoors, improve my health and my technical abilities. From the experience I even managed to throw together a little montage!

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Fantastic Flamingos: Three Common Questions

Whilst bumbling round South America during our little Andes adventure this year, we were really excited to see flamingos in the wild for the first time. Flamingos are bizarre in appearance with unusual characteristics which set them out from every other bird and you’d be blind to miss them in this part of the world. In actual fact we ended up bumping into flamingos at every turn (not quite), but they were present in every country we visited (Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia). If you’re as curious as we were about them, you’d probably ask the obvious few questions, which I’ve set out to answer below. So read on to discover three (not so) secrets of the flamingos.

Why are flamingos pink?


Seriously, how many other birds are pink? I’m struggling to think of one off the top of my head. Somehow, flamingos must have found a peculiar physical niche where it is beneficial to be pink, as it’s not a favoured trait amongst birds. Firstly let’s answer ‘how’, and then we will tackle ‘why’.

It’s all in the diet. Flamingos generally dine on small crustaceans on muddy shores and shallow lakes. If not they pick at algae, which contains pigments called carotenoids – these carotenoids are further broken down by the liver to produce orange and red pigments. The pigments are absorbed by the fat and oil which is secreted all over a flamingo’s body, yes, they’re kind of sweating pink.

Crustaceans also eat the algae, so the same process occurs when they are consumed. However, since the pigments have already been someone absorbed by the crustacean, a flamingo eating solely crustaceans will be lighter than one on a diet of algae. This is why in zoos, they feed flamingos pigment additives and bright pink shrimps, to make them look as vivid as possible.

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A bright flamingo at London Zoo

So why does a bright colour help, or is it a side-effect of having a healthy coating of fats? Well in fact it’s a combo of the two. A study from Spain showed that both sexes of flamingo secreted excess oils coming up to the mating season. It is therefore believed that pinker bird is appears more appealing to the opposite sex, suggesting an ability to collect more foot and a consequential increase in overall fitness.

Why do flamingos stand on one leg?


The classic image of a flamingo is nearly always on one leg, almost statuesque in a shallow pool. Indeed they do have two legs, and they do move – so why this bizarre resting posture? Well, this is where a bit of physics comes into play, as well as some flamingo biology you might never have guessed…

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The others left while it was asleep…

Firstly you’ll be surprised to hear that what we thought was the flamingo’s knee, was actually it’s ankle. They just have an extremely long vertical ‘foot’ and webbed toes, you could imagine it a bit like them standing on tip-toes all day long. The real knee is hidden inside their feathers just out of sight, so a flamingo is basically doing life-long tip-toe squats – intense.

FLAMINGO

The benefit of standing like this is (rather counter-intuitively) stability. When the other leg is raised, the foot comes up just in front of the hidden knee, this shifts the centre of gravity towards the head. The bird tilts slightly forwards, pulling the hip and knee joint forwards too, locking them directly above the standing ankle. It’s a process of small shifts, all coming together in a remarkably stable outcome – so much so that flamingos can remain standing perfectly after they’ve died. This position can only happen thanks to the shifting weight provided by the folded leg, so a two legged flamingo is a wobbly flamingo.

The reason behind this adaptation is still a mystery however. Some believe it is to save energy (which certainly happens) as they remain completely still. Also theories to do with retaining body heat are very possible; only one leg becomes cold in the lake whilst the other is warmed up inside the feathers, a study could be done to examine whether flamingos have a preferred leg.

Why do you find flamingos in such extreme environments?


Flamingos are tough beasts. We found them all the way up the Andes range, from southern Patagonia to the coast of Peru, with altitude varying from 0 – 5000m. So what makes flamingos so tough, and where do they prefer to live?

Flamingos love a good shallow lake or coastal (littoral) zone. Their beaks are perfectly designed to scoop up crustaceans and molluscs on silty substrates. They waved their head from side to side and filter the food on a sieve like structure in their mouths.

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Flamingo doing a scoop

Ideally a lake would be salty and slightly alkaline in order to support their preferred diet. Luckily there are a lot of these environments round the world, and although enjoying large flat areas, they thrive on the Andean Altiplano which stretches for thousands of miles up the west of South America. Furthermore, these environments are often relatively uninhabited, so flamingos have little competition or predation.

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One the salt flats of the Atacama desert, with nothing else to bother them!

It is believed that flamingos prefer a tropical environment, one which they’re commonly associated with. However, in colder regions, flamingos also thrive, often being frozen on one leg overnight in icy lakes! This shows that the chemical and biological balance of the habitat is more important for the flamingo. Acid rain from nearby urbanisation is something can severely affect this habitat, by disrupting the pH balance of the water. After a particularly heavy bout of rainfall during prior months, we observed a distressing graveyard of body parts washed up on the shores of Laguna Colorada in Bolivia.

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One of hundreds of bits of washed up flamingo, a distressing sight.

It is important to remember that something seemingly so isolated can still be negatively affected by cities hundreds of miles away. The chemicals released into the air travel huge distances within clouds, and the repercussions are seen here. Sadly the link will appear too tenuous for industries to do anything about it, yet another argument for renewable energy sources. Hopefully flamingos are tough enough to wait it out until we can make the world a cleaner place, and amazingly unique animals such as this one will continue to thrive without threat.

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Happy flamingos doing their thing

Mt. Fitz Roy and Laguna de los Tres (Video)

The second of three videos to show three Patagonian treks in the same number of days! This amazing walk is a tough ask in one day, but get up early and it’s so worth it. Amazing changes of landscape are seen from the lowlands through to the high laguna at Fitz Roy. By staying an extra day in El Chaltén give yourself the chance … Read More Mt. Fitz Roy and Laguna de los Tres (Video)

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One minute Wildlife: The Ballestas

A new series on journecology – One minute Wildlife! Today we’ll be taking a look at the incredible biodiversity of the Ballestas islands in Peru.