Sperm whales

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) tail fluke
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) tail fluke

There are thought to be about 200,000 sperm whales in the world, but there is considerable uncertainty about the figure, which may be anywhere between  200,000-1,500,000 according to one site (1). The IUCN Red List states that the pre-whaling global population of sperm whales was about 1,100,000, so the number is probably much lower than that, in the hundred’s of thousands (2). It is surprising to me that there are no reliable estimates for this iconic animal. Perhaps it shows how little we still know about our oceans.

I had the good fortune to come across a few of these creatures on a voyage between Bali and Komodo (Indonesia) in October, 2016, on board a little ship called Mermaid I (3).

Mermaid I at anchor
Mermaid I at anchor

There are some phenomenal images of sperm whales on the Internet; just google it and you will see fantastic underwater photographs of these huge whales floating majestically below the surface. They are relatively shy creatures, so how divers get so close I don’t know, perhaps they are less wary of humans in the water, than of ships. Sperm whales live for up to 70 years, perhaps more, and sperm whaling was being carried out by Japan until 1988, so many of them may remember being perused and seeing their companions slaughtered. The Japanese are still killing Antarctic minke whales (4).

The first thing you see, as ever child knows, is the blow or outbreath. The Sperm Whale’s blow-hole is set at an angle on the left-hand side of its head; which causes the blow to shoot to the left (below).

Sperm whale blowing to the left
Sperm whale blowing to the left

It is very exciting when you come across a whale! The first one we saw was on the way to Satonda Island, north of the large island of Surabaya. Our small ship approached slowly so as not the frighten the whale, and we managed to get relatively close, although I was using a long lens (150-600mm).

Sperm whale I (Physeter macrocephalus) on the surface
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) on the surface

Before we could get much closer however, the whale ‘turned tail’ and started to dive. The average dive apparently lasts for about 35 minutes and is usually ‘only’ down to about 400 m, although they can stay down for an hour or so and reach depths over 1,000 m (1). I guess it depends on what they find down there and whether they start chasing some prey item. Or perhaps they get into protracted fights with giant squids who do not relish being consumed by this giant predator of the depths!

Sperm whale I (Physeter macrocephalus) diving
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) diving

After this whale had disappeared beneath the waves, we realised that there was a small one still at the surface: probably a calf. Females have a calf about once every five years and they stay together for several years. Perhaps this one was too young to start deep diving? Although it has to learn at some stage, and presumably gets lessons from the mother?

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) calf at the surface
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) calf at the surface

The next sperm whale we came across was in the open ocean south of the Komodo national park waters. Once again there was the tell-tail blow in the distance. Once again the ship slowed and approached the whale gradually, hoping it would not get spooked and dive down before we could see it.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) blowing at surface
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) blowing at surface
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) at surface
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) at surface

This whale was a little bit more co-operative and we managed to get slightly nearer than the first one, but it too soon decided that enough was enough, and it dived down. Being behind it this time, we got a better view of the great tail fluke as it turned and dove in its majestic swoop.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) diving
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) diving
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) tail fluke
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) tail fluke

I would like to have got better photos, but one gets what one is given, and I am grateful to have seen it. The last image is of the big flukes disappearing beneath the waves.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

You don’t have to go all the way to Indonesia to see Sperm whales, they have a global distribution and are found around the shores of the United Kingdom. Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile stranding in recent years. Six sperm whales beached in Norfolk and Lincolnshire in 2016 (5). And a total of 29 stranding on the shores of the North sea as a whole in 2016.

Whilst there are records of these whales stranding as far back as 1577 (6), the fact that some of them have been found to have empty stomachs is very worrying. Especially, as the ones that beached in Germany, in Schleswig-Holstein, had stomachs which were filled with plastic debris (including discarded fishing nets) (7). Alas, we humans are fouling up this planet and the seas are filling up with plastic. It’s truly shocking. Unfortunately, it takes something like a dead sperm whale with a stomach full of plastic (or a dead albatross) to ram home the message that we are polluting the planet with our debris.

Plastic pollution
Plastic pollution
  1. http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/sperm-whale.html
  2. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41755/0
  3. https://rcannon993.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/travelling-with-a-mermaid/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Japan
  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-35491621
  6. http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/the-sad-spate-of-sperm-whale-
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/30/plastic-debris-killing-sperm-whales

Just like us!

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant

When I was in Bali (Indonesia) recently, like many tourists, I visited the Ubud Monkey Forest; also called the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. This relatively small (10 ha) site, as the name suggests, is famous for its monkeys. Officially known as Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), these monkeys are also called long-tailed macaques or locally, Balinese long-tailed monkeys.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant among sweet potatoes

The monkeys are an object of fascination, but demand respect because they can bite if you are not careful. They are well fed and there are plenty of attendants at hand to make sure that humans and monkeys are kept apart, but the monkeys are intensely interested in bags and rucksacks, which they know may contain food. The dominant males have a fearsome set of fangs (below).

Crab-eating macaques(Macaca fascicularis) adult male
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) adult male

Unfortunately, some people are careless with their food, and either drop, or deliberately give the monkeys inappropriate food, such as chocolate biscuits (see below). Like some of us, this monkey seemed to enjoy licking off the cream from the biscuits!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) licking the cream off a biscuit
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) licking the cream off a biscuit

The reason why we enjoy looking at monkeys (and apes) is of course because they are so much like ourselves. How anyone could have ever doubted that were were not just descended from the apes, but an ape ourselves – and very much like a monkey too – is beyond me. You only have to spend a few moments in the company of monkeys such as these to realise that we have so much in common. Their behaviour is essentially the same as ours. It’s all there: maternal love, play, jealousy, conflict, sloth, companionship, sex and so on.

The long tail provides an easy way to hang on to an infant!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant

Crab-eating macaques live in social groups comprising up to twenty females and their off-spring. The young males disperse when they reach puberty. I assume that the juvenile and infant in the following photo are siblings.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infants
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infants

Scientists sometimes pretend that they do not anthropomorphise when studying animals such as these, but because of our shared ancestry, it is impossible not to project our thoughts and feelings onto them and to try to interpret their expressions. What is this infant thinking?

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) infant

We can all relate to someone having a little snooze or afternoon siesta!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) sleeping or dozing
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) sleeping or dozing

Quite what was going through this chap’s mind I am not sure! I will leave you, dear reader, to do your own anthropomorphising!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) young male examining penis
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) young male examining penis

Grooming has a social function. Like monkeys, we are bereft without the company and physical presence of others, although in our society many of us rely on pets to provide the necessary contact.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) grooming
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) grooming

The big decision!

Crested-black macaque looking surprised or astonished?
Crested-black macaque looking surprised or astonished?

Just 9 days to go to the UK’s EU referendum. Voters are being asked to vote on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. It’s a big decision which will affect the lives of ourselves and our descendants for generations to come. Many people – bombarded by seemingly contradictory information and so-called facts – are undecided.

Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea) fortunatley they do not have to vote!
Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea) fortunately they do not have to vote!

Give us the facts they cry! But there are no hard and fast facts. We are being asked to choose the outcome of two possible futures. No one can predict the future. All we can do is shape possible scenarios or outcomes, and compare and contrast them.

lar or white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) looking pensive.
lar or white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) looking pensive.

Better in or out? Who knows! Why are you asking me say some people. Others are confused and fed up with having to decide something so difficult and momentous.

Agile or black-handed gibbon (Hylobates agilis) looking fed up in Chiang Mai zoo.
Agile or black-handed gibbon (Hylobates agilis) looking fed up in Chiang Mai zoo.

If you want my opinion – which you probably don’t but here it is anyway! – leaving is probably a bigger gamble than staying. At least from a short to medium term perspective. Short term gains – keeping the money we pay to the EC (8 billion) – might be outweighed by the losses (a contracting economy).

But it’s not just about jobs and the economy, it’s also about who we are and what we aspire to be. Since I take the view that we would be better off with no national borders or boundaries at all on earth – at least in theory! – I can understand the motives of people wanting to forge a unified Europe. Even though getting there will not be easy. Secondly, in such a precarious and rapidly changing world that we now live in, I think we would be better forming alliances and unions with our friends and allies, not fragmenting. This argument was well put by a fellow blogger I follow: A C Stark (1).

  1. https://adamcharlesstark.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/in-out-shake-it-all-about/

Galician ponies: an ancient breed adapted to life on the hills

Very young foal (Galician pony)

It’s hard not to be impressed by the natural, semi-wild lives these animals live in a beautiful countryside. Idyllic when the sun is shining in early June – as in the following sequence – but no doubt a different matter during the cold, wet winters. Nevertheless, they are perfectly suited to this climate, having lived here for thousands of years. They are a living legacy.

via Galician ponies: an ancient breed adapted to life on the hills.

A splendidly shiny beetle!

 Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)

Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)
I come across this shiny green dung beetle quite often whilst walking on the hills in Galicia, NW Spain. It mainly seems to like horse dung, and I look out for them when there are Galician ponies about.

Galician ponies
Galician ponies

The beetle is a very shiny, metallic green colour, with a distinct reddish hue, on the upper or dorsal surface; underneath they are shiny blue. These beetles are so shiny that you can sometimes see yourself reflected in their pronotum (back) or elytae (wing cases), as shown below. I have however, occasionally come across much duller coloured ones, which have presumably just emerged from underground, or feeding on dung. They also have lovely, shiny blue legs!

Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)
Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)
I think these dung beetles are a type of Trypocopris (=Geotrupes) pyrenaeus, either T. pyrenaeus var. coruscans or T. pyrenaeus splendens. A picture of a beetle –  T. pyrenaeus var. coruscans – which looks very similar to the ones shown here, can be seen on this Spanish site of Galician arthropods (1). What characterises this species (T. pyrenaeus) are: i) distinct striae on the wing-cases; and ii) and a distinct marginal ridge, or flange, around the entire base of the pronotum. The reddish sheen is also diagnostic. So these beetles seem to fit the description for this species, although it is difficult to go entirely on photographs alone. Some magnificent pictures of Geotrupid beetles can be seen on the site called World Wide Beetles (2).  

Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)
Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans)
These dung beetles are good parents take care of their young. Both males and females are earth-boring, and burrow down into the soil to construct brood chambers, where they rear their larvae. They provision the chambers with dung for the developing larvae to feed on during a long development period, up to 8 months to a year I believe. If you pick them up and handle them, as below, they eventually get fed up and fly off!

Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans) underside
Dung beetle (Trypocopris [=Geotrupes] pyrenaeus var. var. coruscans) underside
 1. http://www.aegaweb.com/inventario/coleoptera/geotrupidae.htm

2. http://wwb.skynetblogs.be/apps/search/?s=Trypocopris

Selamatkan Yaki! (Save the yakis!)

Black Crested Macaque (Macaca nigra)
Black Crested Macaque (Macaca nigra)

Black Crested Macaques or Sulawesi Black Macaques (Macaca nigra) are only found in northeastern Sulawesi (and on a couple of adjacent islands) in Indonesia, and are critically endangered as a result of both habitat loss and hunting for bush meat.  Unfortunatley for them, they are considered a delicay in this part of Sulawesi (Minahasa) so have to be heavily protected; there is however, a large introduced population on the island of Pulau Bacan in the Moluccas which according to the IUCN probably numbers at least 100,000 individuals (1), although they may have hybridised with other macaques I understand.

 Juvenile crested-black macaque ((Macaca nigra) showing characteristic crest or quiff of hair.
Juvenile crested-black macaque ((Macaca nigra) showing characteristic crest or quiff of hair.

I have wanted to see these lovely primates ever since I saw them featured in a couple of television programmes – including Bill Bailey’s excellent programme on Alfred Russel Wallace (2).   Tangkoko-DuaSudara Nature Reserve, in North Sulawesi is a good place to see them as they are habituated to people and highly accessible.  Whether they like it or not, they are followed around constantly by researchers – who monitor their habits and behaviour – as well as by tourists, such as myself, eager to take photographs.  Anyway, all this attention does not seem to adversely affect them – a 2009 study found that ‘ecotourism does not appear to have long-term behavioural effect on the primates of Tangkoko’ although there were concerns about the effect on their immune systems!  At least they are relatively safe in the park although dogs – one can be seen in the photo below – can be a predator of the macaques.

Crested-black macaques on the road through the park at Tangkoko NP.
Crested-black macaques on the road through the park at Tangkoko NP.

Black Crested Macaques (known locally as yakis) are quite small – or at least smaller than I thought they were from the TV!  They go about in large groups of between 50 to 100 individuals – sometimes smaller – and spend most of their time either moving about searching for food, especially fruits, or resting and socializing.  Not a bad life really!  What struck me about them was the variety and intensity of the social interactions.  Everything seems to happen in double-quick time, so to speak, perhaps because they are small and agile (compared to us).  We are however, macaques and humans, both primates, so we share similar emotions and expressions.  These are most apparent when you look at the photographs.  This particular individual seems to have an expression of outright amazement or surprise, but it was only fleeting.  Yawns can also be a sign of stress in monkeys.

Look of surprise on  Surprised crested black macaque
Look of surprise on
Surprised crested black macaque

Previously this same individual was feeding quietly on a piece of fruit but watching the antics and goings-on of other members of the troop; they are intensely social creatures.

Crested black macaque eating a piece of fruit.
Crested black macaque eating a piece of fruit.

In reproducing groups of black macaques, females out-number males by up to four to one apparently.  There are a small number of males in the troop with one dominant male; there are also gangs of bachelor males in other troops.

Dominant male Sulawesi crested black macaque, (Macaca nigra)
Dominant male Sulawesi crested black macaque, (Macaca nigra)

They are promiscuous primates, with both males and females mating multiple times with multiple partners.  The receptiveness of the females (whether she is in ‘heat’) can be seen from the very swollen and red buttocks (‘perineal tumescence’).

 Female crested-black macaque with swollen backside

Female crested-black macaque with swollen backside

The males have smaller buttocks.

Male Juvenile crested-black macaque.
Male Juvenile crested-black macaque.

The menstrual cycle in this species is about 37 days and the gestation period is about 5 and half months (4).  The infants look to me a bit like chimpanzees! They are highly active, always on the move, no doubt a right handful for their mothers! In the low light of the forest, the infants were always slightly blurred in my photographs, due to their non-stop movement!  I could have used a faster shutter speed, but I quite like the effect.  It’s hard not to anthropomorphize when you see the tender loving gaze of the mother macaque towards her baby.

 Mother with infant crested-black macaque
Mother with infant crested-black macaque
 Crested black macaque mother and infant

Crested black macaque mother and infant

Fortunately for the dedicated researchers who follow the macaques throughout the day – from the time they get up, to the time they go to bed – the monkeys seem to like to get an early night.  This troop was preparing to retire to the trees for the night, well before sundown.  This mother and infant started to climb a tree in the forest, together with another females coming up from below.

Crested-black macaque mother and infant

There is a lot of movement and interaction going on in these macaques troops, including calls and vocalisations, but there is also time for repose. This dominant, or alpha male crested black macaque was well aware of my presence – I had been following him and the troop – and he had even bared his huge canines at one point (a clear signal to back off!), but he was also very calm and reflective almost (am I imagining this?  Probably!) as shown in the following photographs.

Dominant male Crested black macaque examining some leaves
Dominant male Crested black macaque examining some leaves
Dominant male crestedblack macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque

One of the nice things, at least to my mind, about this species, is that they are what is called ‘highly socially tolerant’.  That is to say that they put as much, or more importance on friendship, or other such  social bonds, than on dominance or kinship in their social life (5).  It rather goes against the stereotypical idea of nature red in tooth and claw, where all that matters is size or dominance.  Friendships matter!  They certainly seemed to me to be very tolerant, which is such a shame given that they are killed and eaten by humans.  It we cannot share the planet with these beautiful and tolerant creatures, then I do not think that we (us humans) deserve to be here.

Crested-black macaque peering through the leaves in Tangkoko NP, Sulawesi
Crested-black macaque peering through the leaves in Tangkoko NP, Sulawesi

There is a lot of interesting information about the ongoing conservation efforts for this species on the Whitely Wildlife Conservation Trust Website (6); and they have a blog on WordPress (7).  Amazingly, the Sulawesi crested black macaque is one of seven macaque species found only on Sulawesi; can’t wait to meet the other species!

 Juvenile crested black macaque

Juvenile crested black macaque

1) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Maca nigra.  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/12556/0

2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3vFHXM-KvA

3) Audrey Paulus  (2009). Impacts of Ecotourism on the Behaviour of Sulawesi Crested Black Macaques (Macaca nigra) and Spectral Tarsiers (Tarsius spectrum) in the Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. http://www.wwct.org.uk/userfiles/pagefiles/conservation-research/sulawesi/macaques/Research%20report%202009%20-%20impacts%20of%20tourism.pdf

4)  Thomson, J. A., et al. “The Sulawesi Crested Black Macaque (Macaca nigra) menstrual cycle: changes in perineal tumescence and serum estradiol, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and luteinizing hormone levels.”Biology of reproduction 46.5 (1992): 879-884.

5)  Micheletta, Jérôme, et al. “Social bonds affect anti-predator behaviour in a tolerant species of macaque, Macaca nigra.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279.1744 (2012): 4042-4050.

6) Selamatkan Yaki – Save the Sulawesi crested black macaque.  http://www.wwct.org.uk/conservation-research/sulawesi/macaques

7) http://selamatkanyaki.com/