Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Which was, as always, well worth a visit. Obviously I recommend you visit it in person, because little jpegs don’t do the pictures justice, but if you can’t do that, you can see all the pictures online here.

Picking your own favourites is part of the fun of going to any exhibition, I think, but that’s even more true at WPotY, because you can compare your own choices to those of the judges. And my perennial complaint is that they tend to give the overall prize to a portrait shot of a large charismatic mammal: lots of elephants and lions and leopards. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous beasties, but there’s a whole world of beautiful and curious lifeforms out there.

Well, this year, the winning shot is, once again, a portrait of a large charismatic mammal; but for once I have no complaints at all. Because the winning photograph, of a wolf jumping over a gate, is absolutely jaw-dropping. I have my quibbles with some of the other choices; I would have picked the booby or the whale as the winner of the underwater section ahead of the pike picture, for example. But for the overall winner, I think they were spot on.

» Fantail, a picture of a bearded tit landing on the ice, is the winner in the Creative Visions of Nature category. © Esa Malkonen.


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Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition

I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum yesterday, which is always worth a look.

Apart from the fact that there are loads of great photos, there’s the fun of deciding whether the judges have made the right decisions. I’m always a bit disappointed when they choose a portrait of a large charismatic mammal as the overall winner—a yawning hippo or a leopard or something—because much as I like those animals, I think it would be cool to see it won by a photograph of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year it’s an elephant (boo!) but it’s an abstracty kind of picture which I guess makes it a less obvious choice. And it is a good photo.

singing Corn Bunting

I paid slightly closer attention to what kit everyone was using this year; I was interested to see that the victory of digital is almost total. The only bastion of film was the ‘In Praise of Plants’ category; I guess if your subjects are stationary, it’s less important to be able to take thousands of shots and discard most of them without having to get them developed.

You can see all the pictures on the NHM website, so if you’re not going to pass through London before April, you might as well check them out. If you are considering going to the show, I’d suggest you don’t look at the website first, because the pictures look so much better seen large on lightboxes than as piddly little jpegs.

» the picture is of a Corn Bunting singing, with its breath forming rings in the dawn air. Which is cool. As you can see, it’s © Gastone Pivatelli.

First Annual Blogger Bioblitz

blogger bioblitz buttonJust a heads-up for anyone who’s interested: the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz, ‘where bloggers from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species – plant, animal, fungi and anything in between – live in a certain area within a certain time’ will be run from April 21-29.

You can read the annnouncement here, and they’ve set up a discussion group on Google Groups here.

I’m thinking of participating but some kind of weird bug in Google Groups means I haven’t registered yet. I’m going to be in Crete at the time, and I’ll be taking a bird guide (obviously!) as well as a guide to the wild flowers of Crete, but I won’t be able to do any insects or fungi or anything. I’m a little intimidated by the expertise of most of the people taking part, but on the basis that it’s an exercise in mass-participation rather than a rigorous scientific study, I thought I’d do what I could.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin

Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals.

The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself. That means the book is operating at the intersection of a whole range of different subjects — evolution, selective breeding, autism, animal behaviour, slaughterhouse design, stock handling, animal training — which all shed interesting light on each other. I didn’t come out of it thinking “Ah, now my perception of animals has been transformed!” but I did find it was full of interesting insights. For example, she says that it’s difficult to tell how much pain or distress is being suffered by prey animals (cows, sheep, goats); they try to disguise it, since a sickly animal is likely to be a target for a passing wolf. Predator animals, on the other hand, have no such tendency and will, if anything, exaggerate their pain. As you’ll know if you’ve ever stepped on a cat’s paw.

It’s good. One of those books where you keep reading bits out to people. And if you haven’t read any Oliver Sacks you should read those too.

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

I was looking for an internet copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (which is a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste) and found the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Not only does it have complete scans of the Chippendale, it also has Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, and lots of similar stuff like Temple of Flora, or, Garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, or, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, and A New Treatise on Flower Painting, or, Every lady her own drawing master: containing familiar and easy instructions for acquiring a perfect knowledge of drawing flowers with accuracy and taste: Also complete directions for producing the various tints.

And while I’m posting links to that kind of thing, I can’t resist adding one to Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.

After 200 million years of abstinence…

An interesting story about darwinulids. As far as anyone could tell, darwinulids (a type of crustacean) had been reproducing exclusively asexually for 200,000,000 years, but now a researcher has found 3 male specimens, which implies that at least one darwinulid species has sex.

Sex is a bit mysterious in evolutionary terms because it’s so much more efficient to reproduce asexually. Quite apart from the time-consuming business of finding a mate, sexual reproduction needs twice as many adults to produce the same number of offspring, and when you do breed, only half your own genes end up in the child anyway. That’s a huge reproductive disadvantage; yet pretty much all animals have sex. So it must offer some kind of dramatic short-term advantage to compensate for that reduced breeding rate. Even animals like aphids, which mainly breed asexually (aphids are born pregnant!) occasionally produce a few males and breed sexually as well.

The most popular theory is apparently that it helps fight disease and parasites – read The Red Queen by Matt Ridley for the details – but certainly its omnipresence implies that sex serves some kind of vital role. Which makes it hard to explain the few groups of animals that seem to have been merrily getting along without for tens of millions of years. If it is confirmed that darwinulids have been secretly shagging away somewhere all along, it removes an anomaly. That still leaves the marvellously named bdelloid rotifers, who have apparently been holding out for 40,000,000 years.

Government ‘harassment’

I came across an animal liberation website which stated that “government harassment of activists has continued to increase this year”. Harassment in this case seemed to mainly consist of people being convicted of arson, criminal damage, blackmail and so on. Describing that as ‘harassment’ just seems so… whiny. Sometimes it’s right to decide that you know better than the law, and that the claims of morality are more important. But if you’re going to knowingly break the law in support of what you believe is a noble cause, you can hardly claim ‘harassment’ when the criminal justice system does its thing.

I also find the focus on animal testing peculiar since, for me, the hundreds of milions of chickens raised intensively every year are a much bigger animal welfare issue than the two or three million animals used in testing.

FWIW: I support suitably regulated animal testing and eat meat, but I do try and only buy organically-raised chicken and pork.

Top ten animals – #1, Giant Squid

I said there was an invertebrate on my list, and here it is, what I thought was the world’s largest mollusc and the owner of the largest eyeball known to science: the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux. Even the Latin name has a poetry to it. Except I discovered, while searching out details for this post, that Architeuthis is almost certainly not the largest species of squid. There’s a bulkier species called Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Teuthologists (isn’t that a great word) used to think that the Giant Squid was at least longer, but the discovery of a huge but still not fully-grown specimen of Mesonychoteuthis means even that probably isn’t true. You can read a detailed comparison here.

We’re in the realms of dodgy records and informed guess-work. Giant Squid are pretty hard to find, but at least you can get partially digested specimens out of the stomachs of sperm whales. Mesonychoteuthis – which they’re now calling the Colossal Squid – live in the Antarctic oceans, futher south than the whales normally travel, and specimens are considerably rarer than mere gold-dust.

Out of sentimental attachment, I’m going to pick the Giant Squid as my #1 animal, even if it is only 13 metres long. The only photos of a Giant Squid in the wild are from last year. This is one of them:

Pretty much any other photo you ever see will be of a blob of red stuff stretched out on a lab bench. Not ideal viewing conditions. So here’s a photo (from the Cephalopod Page) of some completely different squid, the Caribbean Reef Squid. If you’ve ever been snorkelling or diving in the caribbean, you may have seen these guys.

These are two males and a female. The male in the middle has changed one side of his body to an aggressive ‘zebra display’ aimed at the other male while signalling something different to the female. The way these things change colour is like magic. Octopuses will change both the colour and texture of their skin to improve their camouflage. Can the Giant Squid flash different colours? I don’t suppose anyone knows.

Cephalopods are fabulous. 13m cephalopods are mindboggling. And all that’s quite apart from the fact that, to see them, you’d have to go in a deep-sea submersible; which would fulfil a lifetime ambition in itself, even if I only saw a few comb-jellies and ratfish.

Top ten animals – #2, Snow Leopard

What actually got me started thinking about this top ten animals list was a documentary about the Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia. Two film-makers had spent three years in Kashmir and managed to get about two minutes of what of the kind of action footage you’d normally expect from a wildlife programme – the cats hunting, courting, and at their prey. Apart from a few shots of snow leopards walking through rocks, and film of the film makers not finding leopards, most of the rest of the hour-long documentary was filled out with footage taken by automatic cameras set up to be triggered by motion sensors. But the only places they could rely on the cats being were the sites where they marked their territories, so it was basically a whole hour of snow leopards pissing. Which they do surprisingly elegantly.

People just don’t see these animals. They live in incredibly inaccessible areas, they can have territories stretching hundreds of square miles, and even if you do happen to pass within a few hundred feet of one, they’re so well camouflaged for rocky terrain that you’ll probably not notice it.

Here’s a snow leopard in Mongolia:

Photo by Fritz Polking. Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust, where you can also see some video of snow leopards.

I think that they’re also the most beautiful of the big cats. Look at the colouring! Look at the tail!

Top ten animals – #3, Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is a bird which any birder would be keen to see just because it’s big and spectacular-looking.

(Audubon painting of some ivorybills, from Wikipedia)

But, of course, that wouldn’t be enough to get it onto my list above other even more spectacular species like the Satyr Tragopan or the Victoria Crowned Pigeon.

No, it’s because it came back from the dead last year. For me, that was the happiest news story of 2005. Every time a species is rediscovered that was thought to be extinct, it raises a flicker of hope that all those others will turn up somewhere – a colony of Great Auks on an obscure island off Finland, perhaps. For a big, dramatic species to go unseen for decades in one of the most-birded countries on earth makes anything seem possible.

The ivorybill is known as the ‘Lord God bird’ – because of people’s reaction on seeing them, rather than in reference to Christ’s habit of banging his head against trees.

Top ten animals – #4, Wandering Albatross

Having already had the world’s largest turtle and the world’s longest fish, I’m in danger of coming across as a complete size queen, because now we have the Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, which has the longest wingspan of any bird – one was measured at 11′ 10″. This photo is from 70 South:

Actually, though, it’s not just about the size – though that’s certainly a part of the appeal. There are just certain birds that catch your imagination. When I went birding in South America, the one thing I most wanted to see, and was most excited when I did see, was a toucan. Somehow they seemed like the absolute embodiment of the exotic, and to see them wild instead of in a cage was magical. Presumably someone else might have the same feeling about macaws, or quetzals, or scarlet ibis, but for me it was toucans.

Albatrosses have a similar appeal for me; breeding on little rocky islands in the southern oceans and spending most of their lives at sea, they are the epitome of wildness. I’d be happy to see any of them, but if I’m going to pick one, it has to be Wandering Albatross, the most albatrossy of all.

And they have that whole Coleridge thing going for them as well, of course.

Top ten animals – #5, Oarfish

So, what’s the world’s biggest fish? That’s easy – it’s the Whale Shark. But what about the world’s longest fish? Well, that’s probably the Whale Shark too, to be honest – the trouble is, it’s a category that tends to attract a lot of over-excited and completely unconfirmable reports. But the other fish that has a claim to be the longest is a species of Oarfish, Regalecus glesne, sometimes called ‘King of Herrings’:

It’s certainly the longest bony fish in the world; i.e. it’s not a shark. As an evolutionary footnote, you are more closely related to the Oarfish than the Oarfish is related to the sharks. If you think about it, that has to be true, because all mammals and bony fish are descended from some first ancestral bony fish, whereas sharks (which have cartilaginous skeletons) are not. The heaviest bony fish is the Sunfish, Mola mola. All giant fish species – the big sharks, the sunfish, and others like the Manta Ray – would be great to see. But the Oarfish really caught my imagination when I learnt about them as a kid, and I’d still love to see one – preferably a big one. How big? Well, they’ve been reliably measured to about 12m (40′), apparently, but reported up to lengths of 17m – 56′. That’s the height of a 5 storey building. Height is the right word here because, as you can see above, they have a very peculiar posture when feeding. Here’s some Navy Seals with a 24′ specimen:

Top ten animals – #6, Kiwi

Depending on whether you ask a lumper or a splitter, there are somewhere between three and six species of kiwi. I’m not going to specify one. This is a picture of a Little Spotted Kiwi, Apteryx owenii, the smallest of the kiwis, taken from the website of the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. In Maori it has the fabulous name kiwi-pukupuku.

In some ways the kiwi is an odd choice to get into the top ten – it’s just a drab brown bird the size of a chicken. I guess it’s mainly the fascination of a bird that is so un-birdy; penguins and anhingas have the same appeal. Not only are kiwis flightless and without obvious wings, they don’t even appear to have feathers. They also get bonus points for living in New Zealand – i.e. a very long way away from where I live, and somewhere I’d love to go some time.

A few facts about kiwis. They’re nocturnal – hence the picture above. They have their nostrils at the end of their beaks, uniquely among birds, presumably to help them find food – they have rubbish eyesight. In fact, I think it’s the only nocturnal bird that has moved from eyesight to another main sense (although the oilbird, which nests in caves, does have primitive sonar). They are in the same family – ratites – as other famous flightless birds like the ostrich, rhea, emu and cassowary. As they shrunk to their present size from their larger ancestor, the egg shrank more slowly then the overall body size, as can be seen in this uncomfortable-looking x-ray:

Top ten animals – #7, Leatherback Turtle

Next up is the Leatherback Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea.

I’ve wanted to seeone of these since I saw a stuffed specimen at the Natural History Museum as a kid. I couldn’t believe how big it was. They grow to eight feet long and bulky with it. As you can see in this picture of people from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sancturay tagging a leatherback, that’s quite big:

Reptiles evolved as land animals, of course; that’s the point of having waterproof skin and laying leathery eggs. But they’ve returned to the water 16 times over the course of evolutionary history. Remarkably, although the marine turtles evolved from a tortoise-like land animal, modern tortoises are evolved from aquatic ancestors; which means they came out of the sea, went back in, then came out again.

The shells of tortoises and turtles are evolved from their ribs, rather freakily, so they’re all hollow inside:

Leatherbacks mainly eat jellyfish, which is very public-spirited of them, and so they often die after choking on plastic bags. Their distinctive appearance is due to them having lost the bony shell in favour of a thick rubbery skin stiffened with cartilage and small bits of bone (that skeleton above is some other kind of turtle). Leatherback-type turtle fossils have been found as far back as the Eocene, apparently (i.e. over 35 million years ago), but D. coriacea is the only surviving species.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered from ‘why I would like to see a leatherback’ (recap: they’re really big!) to a list of turtle-facts. So before it gets any geekier, assuming that’s even possible – finis.

Top ten animals – #8, Narwhal

I was surprised by how many cetaceans made it into my longlist. Part of it, perhaps, is that the difficulty of seeing marine animals adds to their desirability. And of course a lot of whales are *big*. Anyway, I considered Blue Whale, Killer Whale, Beluga, and Sperm Whale, and though Sperm Whale came closest (Moby Dick!) in the end, I went for the Narwhal, Monodon monoceros.

By whale standards, it’s not that big – the body’s only 4-5m [only!] – although the male’s tusk can add another 3m. What an extraordinary thing, though, that long, spiralling tooth. We tend to imagine that narwhal tusks were taken as unicorn horns because of a coincidental similarity; that one long spiralling ‘horn’ was assumed to be another. But actually, that form, the long helical tooth, is pretty much unique to narwhals. All those medieval images of unicorns were derived from the narwhal horns.

Another picture:

These are really special animals.

Top ten animals – #9, Chimpanzee

To see any of the apes in the wild would be a big deal. In some ways, the others are more appealing; the huge but (relatively) gentle gorilla, the mournful-looking orange Orang*, and the currently trendy pan-sexual bonobo all have a glamour to them which the chimp has rather lost, with the PG Tips ads and the years spent hanging out with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. I was even tempted to choose one of the gibbons; they may be ‘lesser’ apes, but they have a hell of an acrobatic way of getting through the trees.

In the end, though it had to be the Common Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.

(picture of chimp in the Gombe Reserve, Tanzania, from National Geographic).

The chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, of course. We’re equally closely related to common chimps and bonobos, but I picked P. troglodytes because – well, I don’t know, really.

One thing that’s not always appreciated about chimps is that if you ever see a trained chimp, in a Tarzan movie or an advert, it’s a juvenile. That’s because while a young chimp is cute, trainable and manageable, an adult male is 120 pounds of unpredictable, aggressive muscle. The one pictured above, named Frodo by Jane Goodall in one of her stupider moments, later stole, killed, and started to eat the child of a park employee. Tolkien would be proud.

Chimps aren’t nice. But they are clever. They crack nuts open with rocks, they strip leaves from twigs and use them to fish termites out of mounds, they hunt cooperatively, they’re political; you can even teach them some rudimentary language. They are nearly what we are; we are nearly what they are. They’re the point at which the mystery of evolution comes closest to home, and yet it’s still not easy to think of something like them turning into us.

Baby chimps look more human than the adults, with flatter faces:

At some stage in our evolution, the physical development of our heads became slowed or interrupted in some way. Desmond Morris called us ‘The Naked Ape’, but we’re also the baby-faced ape.

*isn’t it a pleasing coincidence that ‘orange’ and ‘orang’ are almost the same word?

Top ten animals – #10, Wallace’s Flying Frog

Getting this list down to ten was really really hard. I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to earn extra fanboy points by going for the really obscure stuff – so no oilbird, no pangolin – but I think I’ve got a pretty pleasing mix. My final ten includes three birds, three mammals, one reptile, one fish, one invertebrate and one amphibian – the Wallace’s Flying Frog, Rhacophorus nigropalmatus.

There are various species of flying frog, apparently, but this one’s the biggest. You can see the enormously long toes and webby bits on the photo above, which is from Access Excellence. The best ‘flying’ shot I’ve found is this, from National Geographic:

They don’t really fly, of course, they just glide from tree to tree. But that’s still pretty fab. I was very tempted by all the gliders – flying squirrels, snakes, lizards and fish – but I had to pick just the one, so this is it. The fact you have to go to Borneo to see them, and you still almost certainly won’t, adds to the glamour. And they’re even named after Alfred Russel Wallace.

That’s what I call a top frog.

RSPCA ‘Freedom Food’

I was reading about meat labelling in The River Cottage Meat Book (which I’d recommend, so far, though I haven’t actually tried any of the recipes yet). He mentioned that meat labelled as ‘RSPCA Monitored Freedom Food‘ wasn’t, as you might expect, free range – just produced with slightly more regard for animal welfare than the legal minimum requirements for intensive farming. Which was a bit of a blow since I was just preparing to cook a Freedom chicken, bought in the assumption that it would be, if anything, a step up from ‘free range’.

I can see the argument for the RSPCA giving approval to some intensively farmed chickens. Intensive chickens account for 98% of the birds reared in the UK, and the RSPCA has to engage with the industry somehow; encouraging the producers to treat their birds slightly less badly is a good start.

I just think the choice of branding – ‘Freedom Food’ – is a real misjudgement, because I think most people will see it and assume it means ‘free range’, just as I did when I glanced at the chicken label. The concept of ‘free range’ chicken is devalued enough, without weakening it further. I basically feel I was misled by the packaging, and not in a way which benefits animal welfare. In future, I’m just not buying chicken or pork from the supermarket unless it’s organic. That seems to be the only labelling scheme that means anything.

Top ten animals I’d most like to see

It’s the season for lists. I’m not going to do a review of 2005 in music or films of poetry or anything. I’m going to do a list of ‘top ten animals that it would be really really cool to see’. One ground rule – they can’t be extinct, so no Dodo, no Great Auk, no moas, no phorusrhacoids, no baluchitherium, no pteranodons, no plesiosaurs, no seismosaurus or tyrannosaurus. Not even a giant prehistoric dragonfly. *sigh*

Still, even without a time machine there are some pretty great things to see.

Before I get onto the final list, here’s a list of ten that might have made it onto the list if I hadn’t already seen them. In no particular order:

Stellar’s Sea Eagle

Black and White Colobus Monkey
Giant Anteater
Amazon River Dolphin
Carmine Bee-eater
African Elephant