Hug me, squeeze me! Amplexus.

Mating frogs in swimmingpool in Argentina
Mating frogs in swimming pool in Argentina

Amplexus is a Latin word meaning embrace. The male frog clasps the female in a tight embrace; some literally glue themselves onto their partner. I’m sticking with you babe!

 

The embrace itself varies: some males grab their partner round the waist; others hold their lady frogs under their armpits; and some – like the passionate poison dart frogs – place the backs of their hands against their lovers throats!

Mating frogs in swimming pool in Argentina
Mating frogs in swimming pool in Argentina

It’s all about hanging on to her until she lays her eggs, which he can then fertilise as soon as they are released. It’s the best place to be if you want to be the daddy!

 

There’s a wonderful series of illustrations showing all of the weird positions of amplexus in different species of frogs on this website created by the University of Michigan (1).

  1. http://animaldiversity.org/collections/contributors/Grzimek_herps/Anura_diagrams/v06_id64_con_amplecti/

 

The amazing Purple Sandpiper!

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima), Scarborough on 20 Dec 2015
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima), Scarborough on 20 Dec 2015

A small flock of Purple Sandpipers overwinter in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, every year. It is very easy to see these beautiful birds roosting just above the water on the artificial concrete sea defences on the East Pier of Scarborough Harbour. They fly off to feed on nearby locations were they feed on a variety of marine invertebrates. The nice thing about Purple Sandpipers is that there are very confiding; meaning that they don’t much mind people looking at them! Numbers seen in Scarborough harbour vary, but as many as 77 birds were seen on 24th Dec 2015 (1).

Purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) 20 Dec 2015
Purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) 20 Dec 2015

Apparently, there are long and short-billed populations of Purple Sandpipers. There are long-billed birds which come over from Canada or east Greenland, and are found predominately in the north and west of the British Isles (3). The short-billed population found along the east coast of Britain (Scotland and England) – so presumably the birds we see in Scarborough – is said to originate from Norway. These birds have both shorter bills and shorter wings than their Canadian cousins, and comprise about a quarter of the British population (4); said to number about 21,000 birds (3). It seems that some of the birds seen on the eastern coasts of Britain return to breed in the beautiful mountain plateau, known as Hardangervidda, in central southern Norway (3). It would be nice to go there to see these birds in their attractive breeding plumage. A tiny number of birds have bred in Scotland (4) but this does not occur every year according to the BTO (6) and the location is a closely guarded secret to protect them.

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 23 Dec 2015
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 23 Dec 2015

Purple Sandpipers overwintering in northern Scotland and southwest Ireland were fitted with tiny (1.4g) geolocators, which established that they were breeding in northern Canada (Baffin Island and Devon Island) (4). Incredible as it may seem, this study showed that the birds flew from Baffin Island to Scotland and Ireland in about 2.5 days, travelling about 1,400 km per day. To achieve that they would have had to average over 36 mph, day and night! It is also not clear why some long-billed Purple Sandpipers from Canada fly all the way to Scotland and Ireland, when others from the same breeding location only fly as far as south-west Greenland and Iceland (4). Some, like those breeding in Iceland, are said to be completely resident (3).

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 20 Dec 2015
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 20 Dec 2015

So amazingly, the Purple Sandpipers we see around the British Isles are a mixed bunch, though you would have to be a pretty skilled birder to differentiate them, and I have not seen a handbook which attempts to describe the short- and long-billed forms, so the difference must be very subtle. The bills vary in length by about 4 mm between the short- and long-billed populations (3), although the average lengths differ according to region (Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia and so on). Still, it’s nice that these different populations have chosen to come to the British Isles to spend their winters!

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 23 Dec 2015
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) 23 Dec 2015

 

Female Purple Sandpipers are larger than the males, although I have not found it easy to separate them in a flock!

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) flock
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) flock
  1. http://www.scarboroughbirding.co.uk/
  2. http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/pdf/UKSPA/UKSPA-A6-66.pdf
  3. Wernham, Chris. “{The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland}.” (2002).
  4. http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=LFPY0CTxO1E%3D&tabid=1486
  5. https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V76/V76_N12/V76_N12_P563_565_A146.pdf
  6. http://www.bto.org/about-birds/bird-of-month/purple-sandpiper

The slings and arrows of cyber space! (a poem)

Source: The slings and arrows of cyber space! (a poem)

The fog of ignorance lies heavy on the land.
Swirling mists of prejudice, dense in places,
Dissipated here and there by pin pricks of wisdom.

Our virtual world alive with chatter,
Twittertwatter, Googledegock and Tumbletalk
Opinions burst like bubbles in the ether.
Connected now across the world,
We see and hear this cyber chatter
Wonder at the noise of millions,
Liking some and hating others,
We stand aghast at the cacophony of comments.

Assaulting our cosy consciousness?
This digital gestalt threatens our stability
Dare we add to this world of cyber banter?
Reaping barbs from scribbling Trolls!

Yet somehow storms of digital opinions,
Swirling winds of views and judgements,
Interspersed by moments of consternation;
Consideration of another view;
Might just blow away some clouds of ignorance,
And lift the fog of prejudice that sits so low.

 

 

Sixth symphony versus the sixth extinction? An essay on biodiversity loss.

Source: Sixth symphony versus the sixth extinction? An essay on biodiversity.

So what has this got to do with Beethoven? Well nothing really, but I want to do is to use the concept of a remarkable piece of human creativity – Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (there are many other examples that would have sufficed) – against which to try to measure other creations. Nature’s or God’s creations – take your pick – which is to say the other extant species found on this planet.

Sixth symphony versus the sixth extinction? An essay on biodiversity loss.

What would you rather have: elephants or Beethoven’s Sixth symphony? Well, yes, it’s a ridiculous question I know, and of course we can have both, but it does throw up a number of issues facing us on the planet today as I hope to show.

There are 400,000 elephants in the world, but their numbers have decreased by a whopping 62% in the last 10 years and some people say that they could be extinct before we know it (1). In some places numbers have dropped even faster than that: 60% in five years in Tanzania, or a total of 85,181 dead elephants (2). That’s incredibly shocking. More so since we all know why it is happening, yet seem paralysed into stopping it.

There are more people alive today than ever before; 7, 400, 692, 687 when I last looked. Whilst more than 100 billion humans have lived and died in the past before we came along – never have there been so many of us at one time on the planet; and the more of us there are, the less room there is for other species.

Whether humans are a plague on the earth, as David Attenborough famously quipped (2), I’m not sure. It depends on how we behave ourselves. If we all lived sustainably and made a conscious effort to minimise our impact, then I think absolute numbers would be less important.

Unfortunately, we are not leaving a light footprint. We have stamped our feet down so heavily that the planet is complaining. We are in the middle of a Great Acceleration (3). All the dials on the dashboard (reading ‘planetary indicators’) of planet earth are flashing red because everything is going exponential. We are burning through the Earth’s resources much faster than the planet can replace them (4).

We are using more, much more, of the planet’s resources than we did just a few decades ago (5). Those of us who live in advanced Western countries are chomping through these resources much faster than anyone else. But the developing world are catching up fast, and – not surprisingly – they want all of the goodies we have been enjoying too. But the Earth cannot sustain 10 billion people living a Western, high consumption life style. There simply aren’t enough resources to go round; and even if there were, the way we are living is fouling the planet faster than we can imagine. Literally so. It is only becoming clear to us, as we look at pictures of dead albatrosses on a beach in the Pacific, with their stomachs burst open because they have ingested plastic, do we start to realise the costs involved of our disposable society. We produce 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, use about half of it only once, and a lot of it ends up in the oceans (6, 7). Going on dream holidays on far away tropical islands, now involves putting up with the sight of plastic bottles bobbing in the waves as we go snorkelling.

So what has this got to do with Beethoven? Well nothing really, but what I want to do is to use the concept of a remarkable piece of human creativity – Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (there are many other examples that would have sufficed) – against which to try to measure other creations. Nature’s or God’s creations – take your pick – which is to say the other extant species found on this planet.

We all enjoy the benefits of a modern society. Most people like shopping and hanging out in the artificial spaces we have created; the modern, safe and comfortable world of shopping malls for example. We also enjoy the fruits of our own creativity: music, arts, science and technology. But whilst we are happily living in our artificial world, the living world – or at least the places which support most of the biodiversity – are disappearing before our eyes. The studies have all been done; for example, showing that 12% of bird species, 23% of mammals, 32% of amphibians, 25% of conifers and so on are currently threatened with extinction (8).

The trouble is that most of us aren’t looking. I wouldn’t say that most people were not bothered, they are, and they are most concerned when such things are brought to their attention, but for the most part we are too busy doing all the things we love to do as human apes. Having fun, shopping, making babies, watching sports, flying on zip lines and interacting with our adopted species (dogs, cats and so on: lucky them, the chosen ones). But as the human population spreads out across the world, and as people get richer and want all the things that most everyone wants – more meat, motor bikes, cars, better clothes, TVs, computers, mobile phones and so on – and as land is co-opted into producing all of these goods, or for building, transport, energy and recreation, then the natural places which support such a rich and varied number of species, get eroded and pushed back. Fragmented and unconnected, these natural places start to degenerate; often unnoticed, the forests go quiet as species are killed, eaten or simple fade away – and eventually disappear.

I chose the Sixth symphony because we are said to be on the verge of the Sixth Extinction. Unlike previous extinction events in the history of the planet, this one is going to be caused by us. Directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, most people are starting to wake up to the scale of the impact we are having on our fellow travellers. But what is the value of all this wildlife (?), a cynic might ask. They might be cuddly, heart-warming and beautiful, but how concerned should we be if they disappear? I think most people would be horrified by such sentiments, we love and treasure nature and the living world, don’t we? If so, why are we, as a species, pushing so many other species into oblivion?!

Most people would probably agree, that if it ever came down to such a ridiculous choice, we probably would forgo the wonderful Pastoral symphony for the sake of having elephants on this planet in perpetuity. We might lose one masterpiece of human creativity, but for the sake of keeping, or saving such an iconic species for future generations to enjoy, it might be worth the sacrifice. After all, there is so much beautiful music left. Just simply for the sake of the elephants themselves to enjoy their own existence, it would be worth the sacrifice wouldn’t it?

But what about other, smaller, less iconic, unnoticed or even unloved species? Would it be worth losing a musical master piece for one of them? Maybe not you might say? Faced with the choice of losing just one of the hundreds of thousands of weevils say – they are the largest animal family with more than 50,000 species known to science (and many more unknown) – most people would I think sacrifice one of them for Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Just one of the 50,000. No contest! They mostly go unnoticed and unloved anyway! Some people might argue on the other hand, that all species are so precious, that it is not worth sacrificing even one, even for something as magnificent as the Sixth Symphony, because the latter is a product, an artefact, and more can be produced. Maybe not as good or as unique, but music is being produced all of the time by us humans. Species are not. It takes millions of years to produce new species. Yes, evolution can work over surprisingly short time scales, but on the basis of the rate of creation of new species after previous extinction events, it took a long time, a very long time indeed by human dimensions, to begin to replace the lost diversity.

The other argument in favour of saving every single species, is that however much we might have studied them, we won’t really know what contribution they make until they are gone. They may be doing something very subtle, and very vital, without us even knowing it. And since many species are disappearing without us even knowing that they existed (!) then such a scenario is not impossible. In the jargon of biology, one runs the risk of getting rid of some key element – a keystone species – of the ecosystem, and then whole thing crumbles like a Jenga tower of wooden blocks.

So how can we weigh up the existence of a sea slug, or a dung beetle, or even a microbe against such a work of human genius? Of course we can’t. How do we value some of the more obscure, unnoticed or even undesired inhabitants of the planet? Maybe we don’t need to value them. People don’t put a value on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, but economists could have a go! It gets played x times a year in y concert halls filled by z people. Or it sells x number of CDs, which get played y number of times and reduces stress in z number of people! The same with species. We can take a utilitarian argument and make the case for keeping them because of their contribution – known and unknown – to the environment. We can put a value on the work they do for us: ecosystem services. But why should that be the only reason in favour of their continued existence? Who are we to remove the ecosystem – coral reef, rain forest or savannah – which sustains them? Why should their value only be in terms of their value to us? What about their value to other species? We are just upstart apes – they have nearly all been here on the planet for much longer than us humans. Who are we to threaten their existence? Why are their rights less than ours? On the grounds of prior occupancy, their rights are greater than ours!

There is also a higher level value – to us – of ecosystems which support other species. Not just in terms of the ‘services’ they provide, e.g. in keeping the air clean, the water unpolluted and the ground pure. But in terms of the aesthetic, or spiritual dimension they provide us, and as an interconnected framework which sustains all of the species in that particular (eco)system. In a world increasing composed of shopping malls and parking lots, it is surely nourishing to our souls to have such places in which to wander, wonder and reconnect with nature. Although, sometimes when I wander round shopping malls, I sometimes wonder whether people do actually want real nature, in all it’s muddy, smelly, hot, cold, sticky, wet and uncomfortable reality. Would they not just prefer to sit back and watch it on telly? We may argue that we are poorer as a result, but that’s the choice that many people are making. Or am I being too pessimistic? Obviously, we need to educate people so that they can relate to nature and benefit from all that it has to offer us (as well as what it has to offer the planet’s other inhabitants).

As Cesar Millan – the Dog Whisperer – said about his late dog, Daddy: “he was better than me”. I think elephants are like that too; profoundly decent creatures with a love of family and a sense of fairness. Perhaps I would feel differently if they trampled the crop my family was relying on for food, but they were there first, and we are not being fair to them. Killing and traumatising them for generations.  And for what? Just so one human ape can pretend to other human apes that he is of higher status (ivory symbols). It’s all so pathetic. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. Are we really ‘better’ than all of these other species? I don’t think so.

At the end of the day – no right now(!) – we have some difficult choices to make. Thankfully not between a Beethoven Symphony and a certain species, but between the way we live and the existence of the other species on this Earth. Every person has in effect to decide, how much of nature (how many species) which were here (existing) when he or she was born, will remain on the planet when they die. They may not be aware that there is a choice, but the way we all live, will determine which species will travel into the future (with or without us).

The choice we face is: do we want all of the wonderful things that Man produces? Well yes we do. Then we need to think about what the effects of all of this has on the environment (starting locally, but thinking globally), and more particularly on our fellow creatures. Otherwise, they will fade away, we will be diminished and perhaps there will be fewer, or no Beethoven’s.

  1. http://worldelephantday.org/about/elephants
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/9815862/Humans-are-plague-on-Earth-Attenborough.html
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/02/tanzania-epicentre-of-elephant-poaching-census-reveals
  4. http://news.discovery.com/earth/weather-extreme-events/biodiversity-down-30-percent-120515.htm
  5. https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/overconsumption.pdf
  6. http://www.plasticoceans.net/
  7. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150212-ocean-debris-plastic-garbage-patches-science/
  8. http://www.unep.org/maweb/documents/document.
Indian elephant
Indian elephant

Airport frogs

Source: Airport frogs

La Coruña airport is really good place to see Perez’s frog (Pelophylax perezi), also known as Iberian water frog, Iberian green frog, or Coruna frog. I’m not joking! There is a series of ponds at the at the northern end of the airport, just by the road leading out of the airport, and close to the car park. It is easy to find it as there is an example of the traditional Galician stone gain store (or horreo) besides the ponds.

Dragons in the park

Water monitor (Varanus salvator macromaculatus), Lumpiini Pary, Bangkok
Water monitor (Varanus salvator macromaculatus), Lumpiini Pary, Bangkok

The Southeast Asian water monitor, a large lizard called Varanus salvator subspecies macromaculatus, occurs throughout southern Asia and Southeast Asia. It can grow very large, apparently up to 3 m in length, although most adults are about 1.5 to 2 m long (1). Big enough! The males are larger than the females and can weigh up to 50 kg. Their big cousins, the Indonesian Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis), are of course much larger and weigh up to 150 kg. Anyway, these Bangkok dragons are impressive enough.

Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok
Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok

The water monitors have adapted well to life in Bangkok – I expect they have been there throughout the history of the city – and can be seen in many places, including klongs and canals; most prominently in Lumpini Park.

The Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok
The Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok

Lumpini (or Lumphini  or Lumpinee) – สวนลุมพินี in Thai – is a 142 acre haven of peace in the centre of Bangkok. It is a place were it is possible to see a surprising number of birds and other animals, including these amazing reptiles which have become used to people (albeit with a degree of wariness on both sides).

Lumpini Park, Bangkok
Lumpini Park, Bangkok

The water monitors are said to do a useful job of helping to keep the city clean, by feeding on edible rubbish and so on and controlling insects, snails and rodents (2). They are predators as well as scavengers.

The Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus) Lumpini Park, Bangkok
The Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus) Lumpini Park, Bangkok

Their natural habitat is a burrow in a river bank, so the water culverts which open out onto the artificial lakes in the park provide them with ready-made homes. They can be seen swimming in and out of these concrete tubular openings.

Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), emerging from a water culvert in Lumpini Park, Bangkok
Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), emerging from a water culvert in Lumpini Park, Bangkok

Asian water monitors are excellent swimmers and have been seen swimming between islands in southern Thailand (3). So the lakes in the park provide no challenge and they can be seen swimming alongside some of the pleasure boats, much to the amusement of tourists.

Boaters in Lumpini Park photographing a swimming monitor lizard
Boaters in Lumpini Park photographing a swimming monitor lizard

I expect they also take a number of other species which are found in the park, especially frogs, birds (eggs) and even turtles. Although, perhaps it’s even-stevens, as herons and egrets will eat baby monitor lizards if they get a chance. It all seems to work out.

Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok
Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok

There is a picture of a water monitor trying to swallow a fairly large turtle on the Internet!  Fortunately, this Yellow headed temple turtle which was resting on the shore of the lake in Lumpini Park was much to large to get eaten!

Yellow headed temple turtle (Heosemys annandalii)
Yellow headed temple turtle (Heosemys annandalii)

There are also lots of cats of all shapes and sizes living in Lumpini Park, but I expect they are far too smart to get caught and eaten by a lizard, however big it might be!

Lumpini Park, BK

But monitor lizards are no slouches. According to one expert, they ‘can count, have memories, have shown map knowledge, and plan ahead’ (4). That’s more than some people I know!

Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok
Southeast Asian water monitor (V. salvator macromaculatus), Lumpini Park, Bangkok

They can look quite scary, especially when they flick out their forked tongue, tasting the air!

In Indonesia they are turned into shoes and handbags! There is reportedly a reptile leather industry which exports ~40,000 skins from that country (1). According to one report, over 20 million monitor lizards were killed for their skins between 1995 and 2005 (4). They are also eaten for food, although they are a protected species in Thailand (2). I don’t think I would like to eat one from the sewers, but it would probably depend how hungry I was!

Anyway, I always enjoy seeing animals that have adapted well to Man’s environment, and these creatures appear to be thriving in the parks and canals of BK. It is perhaps no coincidence they do so well as Thailand is a Buddhist country and respects wildlife, even though these lizards are supposedly a symbol of bad luck. Maybe that is why they are left alone. They have been on this planet for an awful lot longer than us, so let’s throw them a bit of respect.

  1. http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Varanus&species=salvator
  2. https://bangkokherps.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/water-monitor/
  3. BORDEN, R. 2007. Varanus salvator (Asian Water Monitor) Migration. Biawak 1 (2): 84
  4. Pianka, Eric R. 2012. Can humans share spaceship earth? Amphibian & Reptile Conservation 6 (1): 1-24