An international team of researchers from the University of Leeds have discovered that Amazon forests with the greatest evolutionary diversity grow faster. The team studied the long term records of 90 plots from the Amazon Forest Inventory Network (RAINFOR) and ForestPlots.net to track the productivity of individual trees across the Amazon. By comparing these records with DNA sequence data – revealing evolutionary relationships between all the species – the team examined the links between growth rate and diversity. The results showed that the plots with the greatest evolutionary diversity grew a third faster than areas with less evolutionary diversity.
When studying bat pollination in the Caatinga region of Brazil, researcher Arthur Domingo de Melo discovered flowers that produce ‘sweet rain’. Hymenaea cangaceira is a flowering plant that produces so much pungent nectar from its ivory flowers that it overflows and drips down onto the forest floor below. This shower of nectar only happens after sunset during the reproductive season and is thought to entice bats close enough to be dusted with the plant pollen. Scientists believe that the ‘sweet rain’ is so nutritious, it enriches the soil below and keeps the trees healthy.
Using a form of fragmentation bomb, scientists from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich have come a step closer to discovering how volcanic lightning is formed. It was thought that the collision of ash particles was involved but the details eluded researchers. In a study published in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters, the research revealed that generally drier ash produces more lightning, however, outside of laboratory experiments, more factors could be at play.
Mark Carwardine has taken the time to sign a limited number of first edition copies of the Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and answer our questions about the book, his life studying whales and humanity’s role in their survival.
In your recent books, you’ve given us an insight into the world of whale watching. What motivated you to study cetaceans?
I’d just finished studying zoology at university (I couldn’t have done anything else – all I’d ever wanted to do since I can remember was to work with animals) and I had my first whale encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day trip from Long Beach, California, when a grey whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye, I can see it leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible. Now I am a self-confessed whale addict and need to see a whale at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.
Also, I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be a cetologist. These enigmatic marine mammals are incredibly difficult to study – they often live in remote areas far out to sea and spend most of their lives out of sight underwater – yet we now have access to space-age technology that, at last, is revealing some of their best-kept secrets
You must have many stories about whales, dolphins and porpoises. What is your most memorable encounter with cetaceans?
I think it would have to be with the friendly grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, on the west coast of Mexico. These 14-15-metre whales literally nudge the sides of our small whale-watching boats and lie there waiting to be tickled, scratched and splashed. Incidentally, if you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild whales, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boat-load of people who will. Even the local scientists approve.
Yet it’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous; when they were being hunted they fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water like big rubber ducks, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. Nowadays, they positively welcome tourists into their breeding lagoon. Somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, they are very gentle and welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty – and trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least. I’m very lucky – I have been to San Ignacio more than 70 times over the years – but it still blows me away. It’s got to be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on Earth.
Whales and other cetaceans are beloved worldwide, what is it about these charismatic creatures that humans connect with so strongly?
No one ever says, ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. At the risk of sounding irrational and unscientific, a close encounter with a whale simply makes you feel good. Actually, it’s more than that. Just a brief flirtation with a whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. On the best whale watching trips, almost everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. Grown men and women dance around the deck, break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back and do all the things that normal, quiet, unflappable people are not supposed to do. I have seen it so many times.
It’s not really surprising: whales and dolphins are shrouded in mystery, yet the little we do know about them is both astonishing and awe-inspiring. They include the largest animal on Earth (the blue whale – the length of a Boeing 737) and some of the oldest animals on Earth (one bowhead whale was 211 years old when it was killed by aboriginal whalers – who knows how much longer it might have lived?) as well as the deepest diving mammal, the mammal with the longest known migration, the loudest singer, the largest carnivorous animal, and many other astonishing record-breakers.
What advice would you give to the naturalist interested in cetaceans and wanting to learn more?
Read my new Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (I couldn’t say anything else, could I?)! It includes everything you could possibly want to know about all 90 species.
What was the most challenging thing for you when creating this guide?
Well, it dominated my life for six years. I used to lie awake at night, worrying about whether to describe something as ‘blue-grey’ or ‘grey-blue’. I decided to go back to original sources for everything, which meant reading 11,000-12,000 scientific papers, poring over decades of my own field notes, and studying untold numbers of photographs and video clips. I also corresponded with species experts all over the world; they were all incredibly generous with their information and advice, often giving me new data before it has been published in the scientific press. I worked with three outstanding artists, too – Martin Camm (who did most of the illustrations), Toni Llobet and Rebecca Robinson – who, between them, produced more than 1,000 original and meticulous artworks. And as for the distribution maps… some of those took several days each. But, I have to say, it’s incredibly satisfying to see it all come together in this one book.
What are your concerns or hopes for the future of cetaceans?
Sad to say, human impact has now reached every square kilometre of the Earth’s oceans. In particular, commercial whaling and other forms of hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and myriad other conflicts with fisheries, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance, underwater noise, ingestion of marine debris, ship strikes and climate change are some of the main threats being faced by whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world. We’ve already lost the Yangtze river dolphin, from China. The next to go is likely to be the vaquita, a tiny porpoise from the extreme northern end of the Gulf of California in western Mexico; there are probably just 10 survivors clinging on against all the odds. But the good news is that, with proper protection, we can make a difference. Whaling pushed the humpback whale to a population low of fewer than 10,000, but now there are at least 140,000 and counting.
You say this will be your last book: now this guide is complete, are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Ah, yes, I did promise my family and friends that this would be my last book (by way of an excuse for never having any free time)! It feels like the culmination of a life’s work with whales and dolphins – and it will be my sixtieth book, which seems like a nice round number to finish on. But the trouble is that I love writing and have lots more ideas! In fact, I am working on a photographic book about the polar regions with the landscape photographer Joe Cornish (he is providing the landscape pictures, me the wildlife ones) – so I’ve already broken the promise. Apart from that, I’ve been setting up some new whale watching trips and am planning to do more radio programmes (I’ve missed doing radio), among many other things; and, of course, there is an awful lot to do on the conservation front that will keep me busy for a long time yet.
This outstanding new handbook to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is a comprehensive and authoritative guide to these fascinating mammals.
With almost 1,000 detailed, annotated illustrations, this new handbook describes all 90 species and subspecies.
NHBS recently attended Butterfly Conservation’s 2019 AGM in Shrewsbury. The event was highly enjoyable, with many excellent speakers, and we were excited to unveil the brand new NHBS Moth Trap at our stall; lookout for a blog post on this new product shortly.
During the day we also caught up with Peter Eeles, creator of the UK Butterflies website and author of the ground-breaking Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies to talk about his fascination with Lepidoptera and the process of writing this incredible book. Peter was also kind enough to sign a number of copies of his book which are now available to purchase here.
1) Could you tell us something about your background and how you first became interested in butterflies?
I grew up on the southern side of Cheltenham, on the edge of the Cotswolds, an area rich in butterflies and other wildlife. It was all rather idyllic and I remember with some fondness the time spent out in the countryside with my fellow explorers! My father and my ‘uncle Fred’ encouraged this interest, but it was watching a Garden Tiger moth emerge from its chrysalis, and seeing scores of Red Admiral feeding on rotting plums, that tipped me over the edge and into a butterfly-filled life.
2) How long did it take you to put Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies together?
Two years to write, 20 years to obtain the photos needed, and a lifetime of study! I should say that the book would not have seen the light of day were it not for the contributions of many others, especially members of UK Butterflies (a website that I set up in 2002), the team at Butterfly Conservation, and various experts in their chosen field, such as David Simcox, project manager of the Large Blue reintroduction programme.
3) In your introduction to the book, you detail its aims in relation to Frohawk’s landmark text, Natural History of British Butterflies. You say that Frohawk is one of your heroes: was his work the driving force for you wanting to take on your own project?
I wouldn’t say it was the driving force, but it was certainly a huge inspiration in terms of understanding the ‘art of the possible’, and the amount of field observation and research that would be needed. The driving force was a desire to produce something different yet useful, especially a work that would contribute, in some small way, to the conservation of our butterfly fauna. Something ‘clicked’ when I read several research papers that relied on the identification of a particular larval instar (the period between moults), and I realised that anything that could help the army of butterfly recorders identify each instar and the immature stages more generally would be a great help, with the potential to open up a whole new dimension of butterfly recording.
4) What was the most challenging butterfly lifecycle to document?
That’s a harder question to answer than you might think! Chequered Skipper was challenging due to the amount of travel involved, although a work placement in Glasgow for two years, on and off, really helped! Mountain Ringlet was a challenge due to the remoteness of its sites, its short flight period and its tendency to disappear deep into grass tussocks in anything other than very bright conditions. The Large Blue, which spends most of its life in an ant nest, was always going to be a challenge, and my thanks go to David Simcox, Jeremy Thomas and Sarah Meredith for their help with this tricky subject.
5) There is evidence that butterflies are already being influenced by climate change – what worries you the most about this? Are there any species that you will be excited about seeing more frequently in the UK in the future?
My biggest concern is with less mobile species that are unable to move to suitable patches in our increasingly fragmented landscape, as their habitat becomes unsuitable, or is lost due to development or agriculture. Conversely, it would be nice to see semi-regular visitors, such as the Long-tailed Blue and continental Swallowtail, gain a foothold, just as the Red Admiral and Clouded Yellow can now be considered resident, with records of successful overwintering each year in southern England.
6) Have you any new book projects in mind for the future?
With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book reveals in detail the fascinating life cycles of the 59 butterfly species that are considered resident in – or regular migrants – to Britain and Ireland.
Recently we spoke to Helen Parr from the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project about the wonderful work that is done in our local area for this rare species. Helen Parr also details the importance of conserving the Greater Horseshoe Bat, how we all can help ensure its survival and shares her hopes for the future.
For those who haven’t heard of the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project before, can you summarise what it is?
Our project works with local communities to secure a future for Greater Horseshoe Bats in Devon, their northern European stronghold. It is a partnership project of 18 organisations led by Devon Wildlife Trust and is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as other funders. The priority areas for the bat team are 11 maternity roosts around the county.
The countryside near the breeding roosts must provide everything that the bats need to survive and raise healthy young for the next generation. Their favoured foods are moths and beetles so they need good foraging and hunting grounds such as hedges, orchards, meadows, woodland edges and streams. Sadly we have lost 50% of our hedgerows and 98% of wildflower meadows in recent decades, so there is lots to be done! Working with landowners and farmers is a vital part of what we do.
2. What role do you play in the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project?
I’m the Community Engagement Officer on the project. Raising awareness and getting people involved is crucial so that when our project ends in autumn 2020, all the great work currently being done to help the bats will continue into the future.
My work with schools is one way to do this – children can work towards a series of Bat Buddy awards. They are always fascinated to learn about the Greater Horseshoe Bat; as a rare animal living on their doorstep, it has local relevance to them and they can make a practical difference at home or in their school grounds. Some of the children may be inspired to become our future conservationists!
I also support people in towns and villages in their efforts to become accredited as a ‘Bat Friendly Community’. For example, after some training and buying of bat detectors, local volunteers have arranged bat walks to introduce people to the world of bats.
Managing our website www.devonbatproject.org along with social media allows us to spread the message to a wider audience, and during the summer months, there are plenty of events such as bat walks to introduce people to the magical world of bats.
3. What’s your favourite thing about the Greater Horseshoe Bat?
I do love their funny horseshoe-shaped noses, it’s where they get their name from. They use these amazing looking noses for their echolocation – emitting sounds to find their way around in the dark and catch their prey. It’s an amazing technique honed over millions of years of evolution! People are always surprised and intrigued when they see images of this bat and hear their echolocating sounds.
4. Can you tell us why the project focuses on the Greater Horseshoe Bat in particular?
Greater Horseshoe Bats are an important indicator of great habitats; if they are present in an area you know that the surrounding habitats will be good, not just for bats but other wildlife too. However, their numbers have gone down by 90% in the last 100 years, and they remain under threat from habitat loss and declining insect numbers. Therefore if we can improve things for Greater Horseshoes, over time the whole biodiversity of an area will increase.
5. There are many ways to survey bats, what techniques and technology do you use for the project?
Devon Bat Survey is our Citizen Science project involving hundreds of volunteers each year – we use 20 SM4 Bat detectors for this to get as wide a coverage as we can across the county. People borrow the equipment for 3 nights; as well as collecting valuable data on Greater Horseshoe, all other bats are recorded too. Once the data has been returned and run through specialist software, reports are produced. Anabat Express detectors are also used to survey the land of some of the farmers we work with.
We have placed an infrared camera in one of the roosts – this is fascinating to watch during the breeding season. On bat walks, we use the Magenta 5 handheld detectors so people can hear the bats, along with the Echo Meter Touch detector so we can record and identify what we find.
6. How is the data that is collected used?
The data is sent to Devon Biodiversity Records Centre. From there it can be used by local authorities, conservation bodies, developers and communities to enable them to make informed decisions that might impact on bats. In addition, we have had a University student use the data to undertake habitat modelling to better understand landscape use by Greater Horseshoe Bats.
7. At this year’s National Bat Conference, there was talk of potentially using trail cameras to survey the emergence of bats from their roosts. If the right technology exists, do you think the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project could make use of it?
As we are in the final year of our project, we won’t have the time or funding to take advantage of this, but I think trail cameras sound like a great idea for any future projects like ours. Advances in technology will always be useful in bat conservation. As the Echo Meter Touch or similar technology becomes more affordable in future, I often imagine how amazing it would be to see everyone using their smartphones to gather and upload bat data – the ultimate citizen science project!
8. How can readers get involved with the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project?
Look out for Devon Bat Survey which starts again in April 2020
If you have a piece of land (large or small) you could use our Management Guides to improve it for bats
Keep an eye on our website for any events with us or our partners –especially September 2020 which will be our busiest month of events ever with around 30 events for our final Bat Festival.
9. What trends are being suggested by the project – how is the Greater Horseshoe Bat doing?
It’s too early to say as a lot more detailed analysis will need to be done, and the measures put in place by towns, villages and individual landowners will take time to show an effect. The Devon Bat Survey will not really show population changes but can indicate changes in distribution. Work being undertaken by the Bat Conservation Trust will allow us to see the changes over time of the work that we have done. However the general consensus is that populations are stabilising and starting to increase, but I don’t think we can be complacent as the loss of one maternity roost could have a dramatic effect on the population numbers.
10. What is being done to support the population in the future?
Throughout the project, the team has aimed to spread the word about these amazing little creatures and to encourage good habitat management for bats. We hope that once the project comes to an end that the people who share their spaces with these bats will care for them in the future, with a realisation that all species will benefit from actions to improve biodiversity across Devon, including humans!
A BioBlitz is an intense period of biological survey of all the living creatures in a specific area, bringing together volunteers, scientists and naturalists to discover as many species as possible in a precise time frame. This year is the 10th anniversary of the UKs first marine and coastal BioBlitz and it returns to the first location- Wembury Bay. This year’s event is being organised in partnership with the Devon Wildlife Trust, the Marine Biological Association of the UK and the South Devon AONB.
One of the organisers, Nicholas Helm has taken time to speak with us about this year’s event.
The BioBlitz has taken place in different locations across Devon and Cornwall, UK for the last 10 years, what makes this BioBlitz different to other years?
The first BioBlitz we ran in 2009 was at Wembury and was the first public, marine BioBlitz in the UK. Since then we have run one or more events each year for 10 years, several of which have partnered with Devon Wildlife Trust. Returning to Wembury 10 years on allows us to observe what has changed in that time as well as providing a great opportunity to celebrate the milestone. It also coincides with the 25thanniversary of Wembury Marine Centre, which provides a fantastic backdrop to the event.
Can you tell us about Wembury Bay and what makes it a great location to explore?
Wembury Bay is a unique and special place. Due to its aspect and location, the shore is home to many southern species, not found anywhere else in the UK outside of Cornwall. The Bay incudes a whole host of habitats, from sand and seagrass in the mouth of the Yealm Estuary to the diverse rocky reefs stretching from Wembury Point – where they are exposed at low water – down to deeper, subtidal ledges beyond the Mewstone. These ledges are home to corals and a huge diversity of fish. The area provides nursery areas for sharks and feeding grounds for basking sharks, sea birds and marine mammals. As well as a diverse marine environment, the bay is fringed by fascinating and biologically diverse woodlands and coastal heathlands, home to rare birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, making it perfect for an event of this kind!
What’s your favourite animal you’ve ever found at Wembury Bay?
Personally, my favourite animals in the bay are the giant gobies (Gobius cobitus) which is a large goby, protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and not found anywhere in the UK outside of Cornwall. It is common in the upper shore pools of Wembury and is always an exciting find. The other star is the ‘St Pirran’s crab’ – a colourful hermit crab thought to have disappeared from the area in the 1960s but making a return in the last few years and now fairly common. Again, Wembury is the only site in the UK outside of Cornwall where this species has been recorded. I also love finding the stalked jellyfish and colourful nudibranchs that can be found in abundance in pools and under rocks if you know where to look!
This year, the BioBlitz is returning to Wembury after 10 years. How do you think the types of creatures found this year will compare to the first Wembury BioBlitz?
I expect we will observe a lot of changes, in particular there are likely to be a number of new introduced species and several species which have extended their range into the area as a result of climate change. We will also hopefully record the St Pirran’s crab (Clibanarius erythropus) which, in 2009 was not found in the area.
What happens to the data that volunteers, scientists and naturalists will collect at Wembury BioBlitz 2019?
All the data collected will be archived in DASSH (the national data archive for marine and coastal species and habitats) and made publicly available through the National Biodiversity Network Atlas. It will also be taken and held by Devon Local Records Centre and summarised in a final event report, which will be freely available online.
How can readers get involved with the activities available at Wembury BioBlitz 2019?
There are lots of ways to get involved, as a volunteer, species recorder or as a participant in the many activities we have scheduled throughout the event. Visit www.mba.ac.uk/bioblitz for more information.