A Sparrowhawk’s Lament author David Cobham interviewed by NHBS

A Sparrowhawk's Lament jacket imageOur readers may be familiar with you as the director of the 1979 film, Tarka the Otter, so your conservation credentials go back a long way. What first stirred you to get involved with the plight of our wildlife?

In the late sixties I made several films for the Midland Bank showing the advice they gave to farmers enabling them to reorganize their farms, specialize and make them more profitable. This always involved pulling out hedgerows, filling in ponds and knocking down old barns. Not very good for wildlife. I tried to get them to make a conservation film but they were not interested. In 1970 I met Henry Williamson, who wrote Tarka the Otter, and asked him if he’d be interested in writing a film for the BBC Natural History Unit called “The Vanishing Hedgerows”. The film would be based on his experience of farming in Norfolk between 1936 and 1946. Farming with horsepower initially, then the first tractor and finally pesticides. Running through the film was the story of the plight of the Grey Partridge. The film was a great success and won a conservation prize at the Montreux film festival.

Your new book, A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, explores the state of Britain’s birds of prey. How are they getting on, and what are the main threats to their survival?

The Hen Harrier’s existence as a British breeding bird of prey hangs in the balance. The main threat is persecution by gamekeepers on grouse moors. It is coordinated throughout the Pennine chain. All predators, not only Hen Harriers, are exterminated. As a result there was no successful breeding in 2013. There is a chance that prospects may improve in 2014. Nevertheless this spectacular bird must not be allowed to become extinct as a British breeding bird. It is estimated that there is territory for up to 300 pairs of Hen Harriers on the Pennine chain. Poisoning of birds of prey is still prevalent throughout the British Isles. Red Kites, Golden Eagles and Common Buzzards are the main targets.

Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Did you spend much time roaming the countryside encountering these magnificent birds during the research process of the book? You must have met some interesting human characters too on your travels?

I spent three years researching and writing A Sparrowhawk’s Lament. Some of it came out of films I had made for the BBC and Channel 4. For instance I made 3 films on the Peregrine Falcon: one in Scotland, two in Cornwall. On them I worked with two experts, Roy Dennis in Scotland, and the late Dick Treleaven in Cornwall. I did travel to Scotland to meet up with Roy Dennis and glean some of his vast experience with Ospreys and Golden Eagles and I went to Mull to talk to Dave Sexton about the successful re-introduction of the White-tailed Eagles in Scotland. In the North of England I saw Merlin and Honey Buzzards and I talked to my cousin George Winn Darley who owns a grouse moor. Stephen Murphy of Natural England showed me round the Forest of Bowland which was once the stronghold of breeding Hen Harriers. There I was priviledged to hear his first hand account of the death of Bowland Betty. In the Midlands I met Tim Mackrill who took over the Osprey re-introduction at Rutland Water. Nearby at Rockingham I spent time with Steve Thornton and Derek Holman who’d been involved with the Red Kite release on the Forestry Comission land there. They also showed me nesting Hobbys at Lilford Hall. In Norfolk there was plenty of opportunity on our Hawk and Owl Trust reserve to see Marsh Harriers, Goshawks and Sparrowhawks. David Lyles showed me where to watch nesting Montagu’s Harriers on his land. On Salisbury Plain I met up with Nigel Lewis and watched him ringing young Kestrels and in the West Country Robin Prytherch took me round his Common Buzzard study area in the Gordano Valley near Bristol. Finally, Steve Roberts blew away some of the mysteries surrounding that extraordinary bird, the Honey Buzzard.

I also talked to a great number of wildlife cameramen. Mike Richards, Hugh Miles, John Aitchison, Simon King, Chris Knights, Martin Hayward Smith and Manny Hinge shared their often gruelling experiences with me.

Finally, there were many enthusiasts, amateur and professional who took time to talk to me and impart their knowledge. In particular, I must mention the late Derek Ratcliffe, Robert Kenward and Ian Newton.

What is the significance of the title A Sparrowhawk’s Lament?

As a film maker I was always keen to find a hook to catch the audience’s attention. If you didn’t they had the easy option of switching off. So before I wrote a word I knew I had to have a hook. Quite by chance I found my hook while I was in hospital for an operation. I was literally waiting to go down to the theatre when my wife came in with an armful of books for me to read. One of them was the Penguin Book of Bird Poetry. My wife left and I flicked through the pages. To my amazement I found an anonymous fifteenth century poem in which a male Sparrowhawk was complaining that the fear of death worried him. In the fifteenth century Sparrowhawks were protected – they were the hawks that a holywater clerk was allowed to fly. Did the Sparrowhawk have a crystal ball to forsee the future – persecution and pesticides? So that was the hook and the first chapter is a detective story seeking out from what it was that the male Sparrowhawk was fearful of dying.

How has our relationship with birds of prey changed in this country over the centuries?
Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Illustration by Bruce Pearson

For over three thousand years Man trained birds of prey to put food on the table. With the introduction of the double barrelled shotgun that relationship was severed. The 1831 Game Act let loose a period of persecution beyond belief. By 1916 five birds of prey were extinct in the British Isles – the Goshawk, Marsh Harrier, Osprey, Honey Buzzard and White-tailed Sea Eagle. Gradually, the swell of public opinion, nauseated by this senseless, selfish slaughter, held sway. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was formed and the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 afforded  full protection for all British birds of prey. In recent years the BBC TV programmes, Springwatch and Autumnwatch, have gone to great lengths to champion the role of birds of prey in our environment and to show in a sympathetic way the difficulties they experience  in finding a mate, nesting, providing enough food for their offspring and finally in migrating to their winter quarters.

What are the current priorities now for conservation of our birds of prey, and how might this book inspire people to get involved?

The top priority at the moment is to ensure that the Hen Harrier does not become extinct as a breeding bird in England. It is on a knife-edge at the moment. Publicise the horrific cruelty of pole traps and poisoning. We need more Wildlife Crime Police Officers. We need to strengthen the law so that landowners are made to accept the responsibility for any crime against birds of prey that occurs on their land.

The Sparrowhawk’s fear of death in that fifteenth century poem, which I have called A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, inspired me to find out the true state of British breeding birds of prey, exactly how they were faring. I hope that some of the experiences that I have had will influence young and old to revere our birds of prey and join an organisation such as the Hawk and Owl Trust which are dedicated to the conservation of all birds of prey. They are thrilling birds. Whether you  revel in the sky splitting stoop of the Peregrine or the ground hugging dash of the Sparrowhawk the world would be a poorer place without them.

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey are Faring

 

 

Cold Blood author Richard Kerridge on reptiles and amphibians, and the ‘new nature writing’

Cold Blood jacket imageTell us about where you grew up and what inspired your early adventures with reptiles and amphibians.

I grew up in the south London suburbs, and some of my earliest memories involve images of animals – on television, in books and on the little picture cards I collected from tea packets. The wild animals of Africa and India fascinated me. I loved natural history books and stories about expeditions to find tigers and elephants. One of my fantasies was that I had a pet tiger, a huge male who would leap out and scare away boys who were trying to bully me. In my daydreams, as I walked home from school, the tiger would pad along beside me, out of sight behind the hedges.

But what could I actually encounter? Did England have any exciting animals to match the elephants and tigers? I read about otters, badgers and hawks, but they were far from my suburban experience, with its garden ponds and overgrown corners and strips. Foxes were elusive twilight animals. Reptiles and amphibians, however, were dramatic wild animals that could be found near my home. If I scaled down, the tangles of pondweed and banks of gorse and heather became forest and savannah, and the newts and lizards formidable megafauna. The theatricality of suddenly seeing one of these animals was important – the thrill, the intensity, of trying to edge closer without scaring away what at that moment always seemed to be the most vivid lizard yet, or the deepest-black newt. For me the animals represented the wildness that I felt was all around me, all around London, and all around Britain. They were emissaries from all the lakes, heaths, streams, scrubland, grassland and forest of the world.

Do you still have a bath tub full of lizards, frogs and snakes in your back garden?

For decades I didn’t keep any, after coming to feel in late adolescence that our hobby had been cruel and clumsy. By this time I was preoccupied with literature and politics, and teenage social and sexual life. And then I went to university to study literature, and was moving house every year. Throughout all this, the reptiles and amphibians still lived in brackeny parts of my mind, and I was always glad to see a real one.

After the contract had been secured for the book, I made an exception, and acquired some captive-bred hatchling European Green Lizards, which I keep in the garden, not in a bath but a large vivarium made of special Perspex that does not block UV light. The impulse to get them was part of the spirit of starting the book. And I do love having them. I always liked this species, which used to be sold commonly in British pet shops and lives wild on mainland Britain in one feral colony. They are an extraordinary powdery green. The young ones I have are beginning to come into adult colours.

How did your investigations develop? Since 1996 you have been Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – were you ever tempted to go into biology as a career?

I couldn’t have. At fourteen, when I had to choose my O-Level subjects, it was either Biology or History. You couldn’t do both, and History and English were my best subjects. I wasn’t good at sciences, and in those days people were mostly identified at about that age as either artists or scientists. If you were good at one, you didn’t have to worry about the other – that was the message.

My strongest interest, anyway, is in the emotional significance that wild nature has in people’s lives. Our conventional ways of talking and writing about natural history have in recent decades been rather shy of sophisticated emotional language. A split between scientific and artistic ways of thinking has occurred in popular natural history too, since the middle of the twentieth century. The ‘new nature writing’ is attempting, among other things, to bridge that gap, and to explore the ways in which the love of wild nature relates to other life experiences and to shared culture.

For those less keen on the reptile and amphibian fauna, could you share some fascinating facts that might break the ice?

The horror and fear that these animals arouse, snakes especially, is part of their glamour. They provoke strong reactions and feature regularly in thrillers when some sort of eerie spine-tingling villain is required. The fear is fascination. But, to break the ice, I would ask people to see the beauty of each animal’s relationship to its environment – the exquisite way in which a snake or lizard acquires and concentrates the subtle colours of heather, sand and bracken, and receives on its tongue the changing chemical information in the air. They are spirits of their places.

What prompted you to write the book, and do you think nature writing has a place in reorientating people’s attitudes towards wildlife, and the environmental and ecological concerns of our time?

The book has been inside me since childhood. At last – with support from my agent and editor, and inspired by seeing many students do it – I found the confidence to let the writing come. Nature writing has a part to play, I hope. There is a surge of this kind of writing in Britain at present. We are in what has been called ‘the nature writing moment’, and I don’t think the timing is accidental. It seems likely to me that people’s renewed interest in this genre comes from unease about environmental problems and the failure of our political system to respond to them – climate change most obviously, but other disturbing trends also, such as collapsing bird and fish populations and the prospect of a new industrialization of farming. People who read these books may be looking to find out what is happening to wild nature now, and what sort of meaning it can have in our lives. What happened over the proposed sell-off of public forests a couple of years ago was another sign. Politicians had forgotten that people cared about such things. Nature writing is no longer escapist, if that was ever a fair accusation. It is a genre that confronts some of our most important and contemporary challenges.

What advice would you share with amateur naturalists keen to explore the cold blooded inhabitants of their local patch?

Have a look at the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK website and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website. Make an online search pairing the name of your region with the name of the species you want to see. Or go out to any wetland or heathery heath near your home. For reptiles, choose a sunny day before 10.00 am or after 4.00 pm. Approach banks and verges quietly, watching for movements. When you get your eye in, you see animals you would not previously have noticed. Look under logs and pieces of wood, and especially flat pieces of metal. Slow worms often hide there, and sometimes snakes and toads. Shine a torch into ponds after dark. Expect surprises.

Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians

 

 

Tim Birkhead on Ten Thousand Birds, and his top 5 ornithology classics

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield. A researcher and educator he regularly gives public talks, is a distinguished columnist, and has written many books including The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sense. His new book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is out now.

Ten Thousand Birds jacket imageHow did you first become interested in ornithology?

My father was a bird watcher, so I became interested from an early age. I can remember looking at a song thrush nest at the age of about three, bird watching from about the age five, and finally getting a pair of binoculars when I was about twelve. That was a breakthrough! I often marvel at my persistence at bird watching without binoculars, but I know that several of my ornithological colleagues did the same.

Could you introduce your new book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, and describe what the publication of the book means to you?

The study of the history of twentieth-century ornithology has clearly seemed like a daunting task to the handful of ornithologists who have written about the history of ornithology as a whole. There’s just so much information. I decided it must be possible, although having made that decision, it took me a further year to decide how to tackle it, both in terms of reviewing what has been done, and writing about it in a way that was engaging.

It could have been done through the most eminent ornithologists, but the book would then have been little more than a succession of biographies. It could also have been done decade by decade – describing major discoveries in chronological order, but so many great ornithologists spanned several decades that that would have been messy and dull. As a biologist I liked the idea of biological themes: migration, song, population ecology and so on. Themes was what we went with. It meant writing a historical review of each topic – which my co-authors and I found both entertaining and educational. We learned a lot writing this book.

Our emphasis throughout is try to bring history to life by telling stories about the wonderful, extraordinary, sometimes crazily driven individuals that have contributed to our ever expanding knowledge about birds. Have a look at our website myriadbirds.com.

Ten Thousand Birds internal image
Otto Lilienthal’s analysis of the aerodynamically important dimensions of storks.

 

Any favourite stories from the book?

This is hard – ornithologists were (are) so idiosyncratic there are many great stories. I suppose one iconic story that I grew up with was the intellectual battle between David Lack (Oxford) and Vero Wynne-Edwards (Aberdeen) about the way bird populations are regulated. Wynne-Edwards thought that populations were controlled by their own behaviour and showed restraint – by laying fewer eggs or not breeding at all – when food was short, for the good of the population or species. Lack on the other hand promoted an individual selection point of view and suggested that when food was short those that bred successfully left more copies of their genes in future generations. Lack of course won. What was remarkable about Wynne-Edwards was how convinced he was by his own idea… and so wrong! By being wrong however, he stimulated other biologists to focus very sharply on the way natural selection worked, and that lead to a new and very productive way of thinking, described in the chapter on behavioural ecology.

A second story: I like the idea that in the 1940s biologists and ornithologists were utterly convinced that no organism had a magnetic sense. Yet within 20 or 30 years the fact that birds used the earth’s magnetic field to find their way around became one of the hottest topics in ornithology – and still is thanks to the development of geolocators and GPS devices for tracking birds and exemplified by the BTO’s wonderful and highly publicized studies of migration by Common Cuckoos. The revolution in bird migration studies is tremendously exciting and the discoveries of some of the long-distance, non-stop migrations are breath-taking.

Ten Thousand Birds internal image
A pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying.
From within your personal interest in ornithology, is there an area that particularly appeals, species-, or geozone-wise?

I have studied Common Guillemots on Skomer Island, Wales since 1972, over 40 years now: they’d be disappointed if I didn’t name them my absolute favourite. I know them better than any other species. But I also love hummingbirds and the oilbird is among the most bizarre of birds I’ve ever encountered, like something out a Harry Potter novel and with super senses too. But top of my list is the Eurasian Bullfinch: its mental abilities (rarely apparent except in captivity) are truly extraordinary, and it has the most unbird-like sperm of any bird I’ve ever studied.

Ten Thousand Birds available now

 

 

Tim Birkhead’s Top 5 ornithology classics:

(Please note these classic texts, with the exception of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, are out of print and not available from NHBS (try antiquarian book dealers or the website abebooks.com) – but we think this list makes interesting reading!)

Lack, D. 1968. Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds. Methuen.
Arguably the most inspiring ornithology book and written by the most inspiring ornithologist of the 20th-century. I read it as an undergraduate and was mesmerized. Inspired by John Hurrell Crook’s comparative study of weaverbirds, David Lack used Crook’s novel approach to produce an inspirational synthesis of all that was known about the ecology and behaviour of birds. The result is a clear, engaging, insightful overview of bird biology up until 1968, further enhanced by Robert Gillmor’s superb drawings. When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds and we asked senior ornithologists which ornithology book they most valued, it was this one, and another written by David Lack.

Snow, D. W. 1985. The Web of Adaptation. Cornell University Press.
David and Barbara Snow worked in South America and at the Asa Wright Centre on Trinidad studying manakins, cotingas and the bellbird. The Asa Wright is a magical place and well worth a visit. David Snow writes beautifully, and this book discusses how a diet of easily acquired fruit fosters a sexually liberated, lekking lifestyle. This wonderful little book has not enjoyed the recognition it deserved.

Del Hoyo, J;  Elliott, A;  Sargatal, J. 1992-2013. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions.
One of the first encyclopedias of ornithology, and certainly the first scientific one, was written by John Ray and Francis Willughby and published in 1676 (in Latin) and in 1678 (in English). The most recent encyclopedia of ornithology, the absolutely magnificent Handbook of the Birds of the World, is remarkably similar, despite an interval of over 300 years. This tells us a lot about how smart Ray and Willughby were about communicating their knowledge, but also that despite massive changes in publishing, readers still value clear writing, superb images, and comprehensive coverage. The major difference of course is that Williughby and Ray thought there might only be about 500 species of birds in the world in 1660, and we now know that there are around 10,000. Inevitably, 10,000 birds requires more text, but in addition, we know so much more about birds today. When we wrote Ten Thousand Birds: Ornitholgy Since Darwin, we estimated the number of publications on birds there had been since Darwin’s day – the answer is a staggering 400,000.  del Hoyo et al have done a magnificent job in summarising much of that information in this landmark publication.

Thomson, A. L. 1964. New Dictionary of Birds. Nelson: London.
I discovered this book when I was as an undergraduate in Newcastle in 1971. It seemed shockingly expensive at the time, but what an investment! I used it as the (unofficial) course text book throughout my entire zoology undergraduate degree because it provided excellent concise accounts of all major topics: genetics, ecology, behaviour.

Heinrich, B. 1989. Ravens in Winter. Summit Books: New Milford.
No other book so evocatively captures the masochistic rigours of fieldwork. This is a celebration of both field ornithology and the ultimate corvid. Heinrich himself was extraordinary: a professional biologist who was still running marathons in his 70s and who writes accessibly and engaging about birds.

In search of Odonata: an interview with ‘Dragonflight’ author Marianne Taylor

National Dragonfly Week is fast approaching, so in our quest for things Odonata-related we interviewed Marianne Taylor – author of Dragonflight: In Search of Britain’s Dragonflies and Damselflies. The book documents the author’s adventures around Britain over two summers, in search of as many species as possible…

Dragonflight: In Search of Britain's Dragonflies and Damselflies jacket imageAs a keen wildlife watcher from an early age, what drew you in particular to the passion for dragonflies which led to the writing of this book?

I have always enjoyed seeing dragonflies and damselflies when I was out birdwatching, but it wasn’t until I began taking wildlife photographs seriously, in 2009-2010, that I started to really appreciate Odonata. Photography has made me want to look at all wildlife in new ways, and I found the forms of dragons and damsels very appealing. I also quickly developed an interest in taking flight photographs – initially of birds but that quickly expanded to include everything that flies. As relatively large targets, dragonflies make challenging but very satisfying subjects for flight photography. And my geeky need to catalogue all my images correctly forced me to take on the challenge of properly identifying every dragon and damsel that I photographed. Learning about identification went hand-in-hand with learning distribution, behaviour and other aspects of their ecology.

You have spent two summers immersed in dragonfly and damselfly-spotting – and have encountered the majority of established British species.  How has such a dedicated involvement over a set period added to your knowledge of the natural history of your subject? Any surprising discoveries? There must be nothing like prolonged in-the-field focus for gaining an intimate appreciation of their behaviour…

I’d certainly not say I’m any expert, but I have learned a huge amount in the last two years, both from books as I ‘revised’ my subject, and from first-hand observation. I can now answer most questions put to me about Odonata by interested laypeople. What has surprised me most is the complexity of their behaviour, in particular territorial and courtship behaviour. I was also absolutely fascinated to see damselflies apparently ‘mobbing’ large dragonflies – if that’s really what it was, that is a sophisticated response to a  dangerous predator that I would never have expected to see from an insect. I would love to learn more about Odonata intelligence. I am quite convinced that they have some awareness of, and interest in, humans! I would also love to know more about their behaviour prior to adulthood.

Do you have a favourite, or stand-out, Odonata encounter from the book?

The morning spent at Strumpshaw Fen is what comes to mind – the Norfolk Hawker (see gallery – below) that finally gave itself up after a very long search, quickly followed by the utterly charming female Scarce Chaser that was, hands down, my favourite individual dragonfly from the whole two years. Two new species in the space of half an hour, both of them allowing prolonged and close-range observation. I was also really impressed by the damselflies (I only mentioned one in the book but there were several) which I picked out of spiders’ webs – it was great to have the opportunity to study them very closely and watch how deftly they cleaned the spider silk from themselves before going on their way.

Have you continued your search this year?

I have continued to watch and enjoy Odonata on my local patch and elsewhere when weather has permitted. I was also lucky enough to visit Sri Lanka in April, where I photographed and identified as many of the amazingly diverse local Odonata as I could. I have not sought out any new species in Britain so far this year, but that may be about to change as a new colony of Red-veined Darters has been found not far from home, and I’m hoping to pay them a visit next week. I am also very much hoping that RSPB Rainham Marshes will draw in another Southern Migrant Hawker this summer/autumn and that I’ll get to see it this time!

And finally what would be your top tips for aspiring dragon/damsel enthusiasts who want to encounter more of these magnificent beasts for themselves?

Establish a garden pond – even a small one may well be used by the commoner damsels. Always walk slowly and check low-level waterside vegetation – this is where resting and newly emerged dragons and damsels may be found, and they will let you look at them much more closely than the more mature and lively ones will. Try to spend a couple of hours at least at a site, as most species behave differently at different times of day – for example, many only engage in courtship behaviour during the warmest hours of the day. Remember that the chaser, skimmer and darter dragons in particular are creatures of habit and like to visit the same perching spots again and again, so if you disturb one from its perch, just loiter nearby and it will probably come back. To improve your chances of seeing scarcer species, regularly check the sightings pages at the British Dragonfly Society’s website to check where and when they are being seen. Take photographs! It helps greatly with identification to have a static image you can study at length, and you can get excellent macro images from most point-and-shoot digital cameras these days.

Dragonflight available now from NHBS

Check out our recommended kit and field guides for successful dragonfly-spotting

Visit Marianne Taylor’s photography and wildlife blog, The Wild Side

Gallery of images from Dragonflight, taken by Marianne Taylor:

The Beauty in the Beast: Hugh Warwick, ecologist and writer, on hedgehogs, boring piddocks and the badger question

The Beauty in the Beast jacket imageHugh Warwick’s The Beauty in the Beast: Britain’s Favourite Creatures and the People Who Love Them started as Hugh’s participation in an art project – to get 100 people to each have a tattoo of one of the 100 species from the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. This led to a year-long journey to find and meet with kindred spirits: people who, like Hugh, have more than just a soft spot for a particular animal. What follows is an amusing romp through the sometimes eccentric underbelly of Britain’s wildlife enthusiasts.

To start, I would like to ask you the same question you asked the animal ambassadors you interviewed for The Beauty in the Beast. Why hedgehogs? What has driven you to spend 25 years of your life studying hedgehogs, and to speak in public about your fascination with this creature?

I am an ecologist by training and my interest in hedgehogs started from a research project I was doing nearly 30 years ago up in Orkney. It became clear that there were very few people looking at what hedgehogs actually do – so to use an ecological term, there was a fairly empty niche for me to enter. Over the years the time I spent with hedgehogs also began to help me change my perspective on our relationships with the natural world – getting nose-to-nose with a real wild animal is important and something I advocate.

My enthusiasm has yet to wane, and that is transmitted when I talk. And because everyone (or at least nearly everyone) has a soft spot for hedgehogs, it enables me to start talking about complex ecological concepts in a very non-threatening way. So whether it is to do with wildlife management (hedgehogs as predators of birds’ eggs in the Outer Hebrides, potentially the cause of bird population decline etc), or how hedgehog numbers are being affected by badgers due to their ‘asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship’ (I love getting a class of primary school children chanting that… just imagine the faces of their parents when they repeat it at home!), the hedgehog provides an accessible way to start the conversation.

What does your writing process look like?

When I sit down to work I know what the big picture is going to be (or at least I have an idea of what I want) but have very little idea of the details. My research process – frequently involving a lot of long, recorded interviews that are then painstakingly transcribed – begins to clarify the form. And then I can start to write, using the initial plan as a skeleton and the research to flesh it out. The physical exertions of writing have surprised me – at the end of a good day I feel as exhausted as if I had been playing sport or dancing for hours! And sometimes the good day can be wonderfully brief – a splurge of 1,000 good words in a couple of hours. Though there are other days when the slightest sentence can feel like pulling teeth!

Was there any animal that you would have liked to feature in The Beauty in the Beast, but for which you could not find an ambassador?

The boring piddock. I really wanted to meet an expert in this amazing mollusc! There were so many other animals I wanted to write about – I have another book-full of ideas ready to roll if anyone wants to commission the sequel!

One of the things that struck me while reading this book is that most of the interviewees seem to shy away from publicity, with the exception, perhaps, of yourself and Miriam Darlington (author of Otter Country). Many seem content to intensively study their local patch. To what extent do their locally-focused efforts towards conservation, protection, or reintroduction filter into national or even international conservation work?

Most people are working with other organisations in some form, and even the most misanthropic are contributing data to various monitoring programmes. And that is crucial – love is all well and good, but I believe it is assisted by knowledge. Those who fear knowledge are missing out. In my interview with Professor David Macdonald from the University of Oxford, we ended up concluding that ‘It is a mistake to think that things retain their magic better if they aren’t understood.’

Also – to be honest – both Miriam and myself have books to sell, so we make a point of being ‘out there’. Most of the other people I met are either employed doing their work, or supported by other means. I have an advantage in that I really enjoy talking about nature – and it seems I am quite good at it (judging by the response of audiences so far … but I am not complacent!)

Organisations like the WWF and Greenpeace have done a tremendous amount of work to highlight the value and importance of biodiversity and species protection. Still, some people are frustrated with what might be considered the bogged-down bureaucracies of larger organisations. This in turn has led to the rise of splinter groups, such as Sea Shepherd and the Animal Liberation Front, who will resort to sometimes extreme measures to further the cause of the animals they seek to protect. These people could be construed as being animal ambassadors as well, yet they don’t feature in your book. What are your thoughts on their work, and was there a conscious decision to not approach such groups, or do you simply not move in these circles?

I have great respect for people who engage in non-violent direct action, in fact I made a film about it for the Quakers called Nonviolence for a Change. It looked at a wide range of people’s involvement – looking at why people get involved and how best to achieve your aims.

The purpose of The Beauty in the Beast was to look for enthusiasts who were also deeply embedded with research and observation. I have plenty of contacts in the world of more assertive campaigning, but that was not where I was interested in going. I think there is something very interesting to be written about the motivations behind the animal rights movement – what is it that helps form those points of view?

Also – I was very keen that my book was a gentle introduction to wider and more challenging political considerations. Better that 100,000 people read a gentle introduction to a pathway that might lead to a more rounded consideration of animal rights than to write a polemic that is read by 1,000 supporters of animal rights.

Your book deals with some very topical issues. Not least the chapter about badgers, which discusses at length the now-imminent large-scale culling of badgers. An earlier large randomised culling trial had unexpected side effects; by disturbing social groups, surviving members would move out and establish new groups, spreading bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to new areas. Are these new proposals any better, or will history repeat itself?

Interestingly, my fox man – Professor David Macdonald, head of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife and Conservation Research Unit – was the first person to describe the perturbation effect you mention in relation to foxes. It has now been seen to apply to badgers as well. I have yet to meet a wildlife ecologist who thinks that the cull is a good idea. The way to prevent perturbation overwhelming any benefits that might possibly accrue from fewer badgers is to ensure that 70% of the badgers in a restricted area are killed, repeatedly, and over a number of years. This will lead to a best-case reduction in the transmission of bTB of 16%.

Of the many thousands of badgers due to be killed, the vast majority will not have bTB because most badgers do not carry it (and also, remember, the badgers originally caught the disease from cattle). There are also concerns about the welfare of the culling process.

Oh, it makes me angry – I am an ecologist and I can see that there is no sense in this cull. The reason it is going ahead – well here is something I have just read: ‘A statement reported in the Veterinary record, made by Professor John Bourne in 2008 to the annual conference of the Association for Veterinary Teaching and Research Work aptly summarises the situation. He said “I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician, who said, ‘Fine, John, we accept your science, but we have to offer farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers’”’

There is, furthermore, a lot of resistance in society to this cull. Eradication of rodent pests such as rats seems more accepted, especially where public health profits. Are we being squeamish now that an iconic species is targeted, and should we accept this is a necessary evil to protect our cattle, or is labelling badgers as a pest unjustified and not scientifically sound?

I am not opposed to lethal control. I am opposed to ecologically illiterate politicians trying to win votes through killing badgers. And this is coming from someone who would love to see fewer badgers in the countryside at the moment as they are one of the reasons for the decline in hedgehog numbers (I should point out that badgers and hedgehogs would be able to live together fine in a less industrialised agricultural desert).

Badgers can be a pest – they get into crops and cause damage. They can spread bTB to cattle. But there is a landed class of people running the country who have a mindset so warped by privilege and entitlement that they believe their power should allow them to exterminate any of the lesser beings in their way. I am sure it is no fluke that the same government that is dismantling the welfare state is also happy to have buzzards killed to protect a few of the 35 million pheasants released each year in our very own glorified ‘canned hunt’.

What has happened since publishing The Beauty in the Beast? Have you met up with some of the people you have interviewed since?

I am in touch with many of my ambassadors. Sadly I attended the funeral of my wonderful badger man, Gareth Morgan. In fact I was in touch with all of them recently as the paperback is just out and I wanted to let them know – especially as the book now has a foreword from Brian May! That was a bit of a wonderful connection – I met him when I was compèring a large wildlife event in Surrey and after a chat he asked if I would like him to write something for the book. And he has been so generous with his praise – you can read his bit on my blog. He describes it as, “a gentle weapon of war against those who threaten the well-being and the very existence of our precious and entirely innocent wild animals.” And goes on to say that it is, “Gently wise, the facts are delightfully delivered with a good dose of humour. Warwick gives us every possible reason to fall in love all over again with the natural world; it is a love which, in the coming crucial months and years, will inspire us to fight for a compassionate world.”

If I had been sat down and told to write a puff piece for my own work I could not have been more fulsome!

As for what else I have been up to – I am being booked up already for next year for talks and I have been getting rather involved with opposition to the badger cull as well.

When we recently met, you mentioned writing a new book. Is there any news on this?

I have an idea that is a natural continuation from my first two books – but this time focussed more on the landscape. Hedgehogs – and most of the other animals I have written about – are suffering enormously from habitat fragmentation. It is not just the loss of habitat, but the loss of large, uninterrupted patches of habitat that is the issue. The simplest of examples is your own garden – if there is a wall or fence with concrete footings all around your garden then hedgehogs cannot get in … we have launched a great campaign to tackle this by the way, called Hedgehog Street.

But my next book will look at fragmentation and reconnection on a much wider scale than just our gardens. It will force us to view the landscape differently and encourage a more empathic relationship with the natural world (there, no small ambition!)

The Beauty in the Beast available now

 

 

Buy a copy of The Beauty in the Beast

 

Ladybirds: an interview with Helen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the BRC

Ladybirds jacket imageHelen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the Biological Records Centre, is one of a team of authors who have been involved in the revision of this classic Naturalists’ Handbook.

I see from your professional history that throughout most of your career you have been involved in research with ladybirds. What originally drew you to these fascinating insects? Does it stem from a childhood interest?

Ladybirds are fascinating beetles. I can remember, as a small child, observing ladybirds as they emerged from their pupal cases on the vegetables in our garden on the Isle of Wight. Simply magical and I was entranced. Throughout my childhood I pursued my passion for natural history and have been so fortunate to continue to do so through my working life.

What do you feel are the biggest pressures on UK populations of ladybirds at present?

There are many factors that contribute to dynamics of insect populations. In recent decades the effects of environmental change on insect populations has been the focus of my research. It is widely recognised that invasive alien species, climate change and habitat destruction are all major players in the declines of many insects. Ladybirds are no exception. However, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. It is important that we address these questions with robust and rigorous research. We have so much to learn about the many subtle and complex interactions between insects, other organisms and the environment.

Ladybirds internal imageIn your book you state that winter is a very critical period for ladybirds and, during this time, they survive entirely on their own fat reserves. How severely do you think ladybird populations in the U.K. will have been affected by the very long and cold winter we have recently experienced?

Every year winter conditions result in the death of ladybirds – winter is a tough time for ladybirds in Britain. However, they have many amazing adaptations for surviving the adverse winter conditions. Ladybirds recently began to wake up from winter and I am reassured by the observations I am receiving from people across the country, through the UK Ladybird Survey.

The arrival of the Harlequin ladybird in the U.K. has obviously been a very big concern and has been covered extensively in the media. How serious a threat do you feel this is to our native species and are there any viable steps that could be taken to halt the spread?

The harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyrdis, is an invasive alien species which is predicted to cause problems for a number of insects. It is a voracious predator and not only has the potential to outcompete other insects but also eats the other insects. The 2-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata, was a widespread and common species during my childhood. Not so now. I worked with a team of scientists, using the observations received through the UK Ladybird Survey from many, many people (an inspiring number of volunteers), to look at how the distribution of native ladybirds is changing in response to the arrival of the harlequin ladybird. A number of species appear to be declining and the 2-spot more than most. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the harlequin ladybird but it will be interesting to continue to monitor this species and its interactions with other species in the coming years. Additionally the harlequin ladybird has demonstrated the effectiveness of people at recording alien species, and with the rate of new arrivals increasing rapidly people can play an extremely important role in surveillance and monitoring. I invite people to submit sightings through a recording form developed for species surveillance (including alien species) at the BRC.

Ladybirds plateFor any amateur naturalists who are interested in ladybirds and wish to get involved or help in some way, what would you suggest is the best way to do this?

I have been utterly inspired by the contributions that people from across the country make to the UK Ladybird Survey, and indeed many other wildlife surveys, by reporting the ladybirds they see wherever they may see them. Biological recording is a wonderful way to get involved with natural history. I often receive detailed observations from people who have been recording ladybirds in a particular location on a regular basis. This information is incredibly useful. Some people have even been recording the parasites they see attacking ladybirds. Natural history studies are fun, rewarding and an invaluable source of information. Professor Mike Majerus wrote the first edition of this book and we open the revised version with his inspiration: “Biological Science must stand on its foundations in basic observations of organisms in the field: what they do, when they do it, why they do it, and how they have come to do it.” Majerus, 1994

Do you have any plans for further books?

I have a passion for writing. As a teenager I contributed to the newsletter of my local natural history society – I enjoyed writing and I hoped that people would enjoy reading what I wrote. Writing, coupled with my love of natural history, remains very important to me. I will definitely be writing another book… perhaps the parasites of ladybirds, which are almost as charismatic as their hosts, would be worthy of attention?

Ladybirds available now

Buy a copy of Ladybirds

Record your ladybird sightings at the UK Ladybird Survey

Pick up your free copy of the new NHBS Ecology & Biodiversity Equipment Catalogue 2013 which includes survey kit for entomologists

The birding ID guide revolutionary Richard Crossley, interviewed by NHBS

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors jacket imageThe Crossley ID Guide series hit the market in 2011 with the guide to Eastern Birds, marking a revolution in identification guides. The plates of birds, scenically arranged in their natural context, are photographic composites and show a variety of angles. They cover plumage, sex, and age variations, and situate the birds among other species for comparison, and in perspectives unusual for an ID guide.  

With publication of the Raptor guide imminent, we asked ID guide mastermind Richard Crossley about the concept, and how well it’s working so far…

It has been two years since the first Crossley Guide hit the market. It’s a great design – context is often critical when trying to identify birds. How has the Crossley concept been received?

I think it has been received really well. It has been interesting to watch all the different reactions to something that was totally different from anything people had seen before. It has been the biggest hit with beginners and kids because it helps them to understand the ‘big picture’ of how a bird’s appearance and behaviour is linked to where it lives. It makes sense to them and they are generally not biased by any preconceived ideas of what a bird book should look like.

Adapting to this new approach may be harder for long-time birders who have used side-on, white backgrounds with arrows pointing to specific features. It has been interesting to see that many people are slowly but surely coming around, and may be now finding it tougher to look at traditional guides. Particularly inspiring for me are the number of kids who love the ‘discovery’ aspect of the plates. Today, they are taught at school to work things out for themselves by seeing patterns and repetition. This ‘discovery’ within each plate is just like being outdoors, but a lot easier. My dream is that this style of imagery will encourage more people, young and old, to go outdoors and have a better grasp of what they are looking at. That is the biggest compliment for me!

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds - plateHow would you sell the concept to the average birder who hasn’t been initiated?

I believe that birding is about the voyage of discovery and that learning how to look is the key. At school there are some teachers who make you learn by memorizing the answers parrot-fashion. The second type of teacher helps you to understand how to work the answer out for yourself. They also make it as fun and realistic as possible with lots of examples to practice on and build confidence. Practice still makes perfect! My books are intended to be the second one.

The intention is for the viewer to enjoy looking at the birds in their habitat, behaving as they do in their world so that birds’ personalities can be understood. Everything is connected so it is logical to show all the dots – the viewer can put them together. Today, we now know how the brain works much better than before and this is the better way to inspire all ages. I suppose the Crossley concept can be described as somewhere between traditional guides and reality.

How did you come to have such a passion for birding, and how did the road lead to the Crossley ID Guide concept?

My teacher, Mr. Sutton, introduced me to birding when I was 10 years old. Remarkably, I lived in Whykeham Forest just down the road from the now famous Honey Buzzard raptor watch site. I had collected eggs since I was 7 years old. I just loved it right away. I think there are lots of reasons why. I feel I have had an incredible life because I have seen and experienced so much in my quest to see birds. Birding has quite simply shaped my life.

Funnily enough, I am not a book person and rarely look at them. My favourite is the Collins Bird Guide, in large part because of Killian Mullarney’s and Dan Zetterstrom’s beautiful vignettes. It seemed logical to make books even more lifelike and create one scene. Digital photography and Photoshop came along just as we started the original edition of The Shorebird Guide. I soon became fascinated with book design. The backbone of The Shorebird Guide was the comparative wader shots and making every image as different as possible from the last one – to keep people interested. Ironically, we couldn’t get the comparative images needed and this was the catalyst for me buying a big ‘fancy’ lens and taking up photography. I soon became hooked. Amazing how things come about! Towards the end of making the The Shorebird Guide there was a simple question. How do you take 5 pages, about 15 photos and put all this information in to one image and make it lifelike?

So what goes into the making of a Crossley ID Guide? Do you do all the photography leg-work?

It is scary just thinking about what goes in to these books. The learning curve in the early days was brutal with so many things to work out. In hindsight, many seem quite obvious now. The close-up section of the backgrounds is the most difficult thing to create. There are so many decisions to make and then you have to try to piece it all together. If you don’t have a large selection of images to choose from, it can seem overpowering at times. It’s like a big jigsaw that can be frustrating but ultimately very rewarding.

I set myself the goal of taking all the images for The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (I consider over 99 per cent to be good enough). I live with multiple, constantly updated, ‘want lists’ of crazy things. They include certain behaviours, different plumages, habitat shots and flight shots – back then nobody took flight shots of warblers, sparrows etc. I hand-held my big lenses for speed, didn’t use flash and moved quickly – this was not in vogue back then. I didn’t tell people what I was doing for some time because it seemed far-fetched and I didn’t think any one would believe it was possible. Technology has changed a lot in just a few years and now it is possible to get just about any image. How things have changed!

The Eastern guide had over 10,000 photos in it, took 5 years and more money than I care to remember. Most plates have dozens of layers of extracted images and require an intimate knowledge of both Photoshop and understanding what a camera can do. Like everything, practice makes perfect, and I feel like the learning curve is still fairly steep. Perhaps that is why it is still fun.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors - plateThe new book covers raptors in North America – does the chronicling of different kinds of birds in their natural environments present different kinds of challenges to the photographer?

Not really. It is all a challenge but that is the fun. It comes down to creating a mental image of what you want to create like any artist. Going to the right places makes life a lot easier. My paint brush is a camera and Photoshop. It is amazing what you can ‘paint’ these days with a few pixels and some time!
The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors only covers 34 species so it certainly gives you room to express yourself differently from a book covering hundreds of species. That was fun. It is always a challenge to think of new ways to capture people’s interest with new kinds of imagery that bring about a better understanding.

The Crossley Guide: Britain & Ireland - jacketWe are eagerly anticipating the Britain and Ireland guide later this year. Dominic Couzens is providing the text. Where next for the Crossley crusade?

The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland is just about finished. Dominic has been great to work with and I love his engaging writing style. I believe we are very much in sync.

Of course, it was a great excuse to spend a lot of time travelling to get all the photos I needed. Britain and Ireland are so photogenic and I really hope I have captured the essence in the book.

In many ways, this book is for my Dad. He is a very casual birder who loves his backyard and going for a stroll down by the river. Many of the bird books are written for Europe, which he finds a bit overpowering. He is an artist and likes things done right. The true test will be to see if my Dad puts his other books away!

We have lots of other projects going on. Hopefully we can get The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl finished in the next six months. We are also just finishing up The Crossley ID Guide: Western Birds. We have a couple more books on the go but I need to get out of the forest before thinking about those.

I am also the co-founder of a new global birding initiative called Pledge to Fledge. The goal is to encourage birders to introduce a non-birder to the outdoors and so fledging a birder. We have 2 weekends a year set aside for this; the next one is April 26-29. Eric Dempsey heads up Ireland and Alan Davies & Ruth Miller Britain (keep an eye on the Biggest Twitch website for more information about events in the UK). This campaign takes up a lot of time but hopefully we can have an impact, particularly in countries where birding is not currently so popular.

And finally, I couldn’t resist: what’s your favourite bird?

Oh come on, hard core birders don’t have favourite birds! Okay, here is your answer. There is one bird I like a lot, and more importantly, we have a lot in common. It is the Sanderling. We are both sort of chunky, always on the run, love the beach and tend to be in photogenic places. Although we both superficially have many colours, if you see past this, we are remarkably consistent in our shape and behaviour. We both travel the world a lot and are approachable – if you can catch up with us. I think Sanderlings are great!

Buy a copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

Available Now from NHBS

The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland – out November 2013

Pre-order The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland

 

The World’s Rarest Birds: an interview with author and birder Erik Hirschfeld

The World's Rarest Birds jacket imageThe World’s Rarest Birds is a sumptuous visual treat for birders, featuring a gallery of competition-winning bird photos from around the world. But it is more than that: Erik Hirschfeld – and collaborators Andy Swash and Rob Still – want everyone to be engaged with the plight of the rarest bird species. Here’s what he has to say about the book:

The World’s Rarest Birds compiles information from many different sources and represents a great conservation collaboration. What were your aims in writing the book?

I wanted to give the term “bird conservation” a more recognizable face. In order to evoke feelings, funds, and engagement for a cause, it is essential to make the cause recognizable. By presenting each one of the world’s rarest species in text and image, and sorting them in a geographical context, there is a bird for everyone: regardless of where you live, it should be easy to find the birds in your vicinity. I work much with beginners to birding, as a guide and lecturer, and the taxonomic order does not make sense to them. I think it is important to convince these newcomers about the conservation needs. It does not matter if you are a beginner or expert, Swede or Polynesian – there is a bird in the book that everyone can feel for in conservation terms. And that was my aim, as I think it is extremely important to spread knowledge about endangered birds.

Could you tell us a little about how you became a fully fledged conservation author?

My professional career is in an unrelated sector but I am basically a birder, and was heavily involved on the Swedish twitching scene in my early birding years. Over time my interest in birds has widened – I hardly keep lists any more, and I appreciate the birds’ context in nature more, as well as my own personal experiences of them. I am right now enjoying watching Rooks doing clever things on my street more than twitching a Yellow-nosed Albatross at my local patch (although I did twitch it…). I have always written: identification papers in the eighties, in British journals, and much about migration and faunistics. With the maturing of my interest it was quite obvious I should do something on conservation. I have been a staunch supporter of BirdLife International for 20 years, and am very happy that I could make them benefit from this book. It is important to remember though that the book is a team effort by Andy Swash, Rob Still and myself.

New Caledonia - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThere are some beautiful and striking images in the book, which we loved. Do you feel that the images are an essential way of engaging people with the species?

Yes, as I touched on in the first question. It is a matter of applying simple marketing principles from commercial contexts also in conservation and the NGO world, to make people aware of the birds. You know the old saying: a picture means more than a thousand words.

Some of the image contributions were from winners of an international photographic competition – did you get a good response?

Absolutely, I had tried it out with the Rare Birds Yearbooks so we knew it was going to be a success. The timing has also been good. With the digital photography boom, many people can take decent pictures, and you see much more camera equipment in the field now than 30 years ago when you had to wait a couple of weeks to get your films back. And we are very grateful to the photographers who submitted their images.

The World’s Rarest Birds is quite different in format and content from your previous series The Rare Birds Yearbook, did you also have a different audience in mind?

No, actually not, I thought that basically the same people would buy them. Andy Swash and Rob Still have been instrumental in the evolution to The World’s Rarest Birds and I was convinced by them from the beginning this was the way to go. I remember Ade Long at BirdLife suggesting already after the first edition of the Rare Birds Yearbooks that I should go more for photos and less for texts.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThe purchase of this book contributes towards supporting the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme which is a fantastic cause. Could you tell us about any notable conservation success stories that you have seen since your involvement with the project started?

Several. The Madagascar Pochard project in which the species population recently has quadrupled. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper project with artificial hatching and building up a captive population. The project that established a breeding centre for Spix’s Macaw, and now will release birds into the wild this summer. The banning of diclofenac in the Indian subcontinent which, slowly, helps vultures. Even if they are not saved yet, it is not all gloomy! And the many dedicated people and organizations behind these and other positive trends are success stories in themselves.

Buy a copy of The World’s Rarest Birds

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The Cambrian Explosion: an interview with paleobiologist and author Douglas H. Erwin

The Cambrian Explosion jacket imageThe Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity synthesises latest research about this massively siginificant moment in evolutionary history. Author Douglas H. Erwin introduces himself, the subject and some of the life forms that emerged.

Could you please provide a brief evolutionary history of Douglas Erwin as a paleobiologist.

I expected to be a biologist when I was in high school (or a doctor). But when I arrived at Colgate University as an undergraduate I discovered that geology was much more fun than biology (no pre-med students, for one thing). My teacher and mentor, Bob Linsley, was a fantastic teacher – Steve Gould used to claim that he was the best undergraduate paleo teacher in the US. Bob got me hooked on paleo, on evolution, and on Paleozoic snails (my systematic speciality, and Bob’s). Then I was off to UC Santa Barbara to study with Jim Valentine for my Ph.D. Although my Ph.D was on Permian snails from the SW US and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, I was quite interested then in the Cambrian explosion, and Jim and I wrote several papers on it. I have been at the National Museum of Natural History since 1990, working on aspects of Paleozoic gastropods, the causes and consequences of end-Permian mass extinction and on aspects of macroevolution, particularly the Cambrian. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit many of the critical Ediacaran and Cambrian localities, and to have had wonderful colleagues on associated projects, including a bunch of colleagues associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute at Harvard and MIT, and developmental biologist Eric Davidson on the evolution of gene regulatory networks, which features prominently in the later stages of The Cambrian Explosion.

What is the importance of the Cambrian explosion in evolutionary history?

It is one of the critical major evolutionary transitions in the history of life, an episode where virtually every aspect of life on the Earth changed, with impacts on everything from the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere to the nature of sediments in the ocean. So understanding not just the new fossils but the larger context of the interactions between changes in the physical environment, ecology and evolution is key to understanding what happened. For evolutionary theory, the Cambrian explosion raises some really interesting challenges to how we understand these events. Jim and I argue that it is only by looking at changes in the physical environment, ecological opportunities, and developmental novelties, that we can begin to understand the mechanisms involved, and moreover, that some of the processes force us to extend some traditional approaches to evolution.

The Cambrian Explosion internal imageCould you briefly introduce one or two of the specific species that came into being so we have some context – I imagine we are not talking about life as we know it?

No, the world of the Ediacaran and Cambrian was a much different place from our world today, and indeed the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods were themselves much different from each other. Rangea is a representative of one of the oldest Ediacaran lineages, the Rangeamorphs. These are found in a variety of frond-like morphologies, and have a fractal structure, so that as you zoom in the frondlets have the same form as the overall frond, as do the petals that make up each frondlet. Opabinia, the beast that graces the cover, is one of my favourite of the Cambrian animals, and one that also illustrates the transformation of our understanding of these animals since Stephen Jay Gould wrote Wonderful Life. In 1989 Opabinia, with five stalked eyes and the long proboscis, was one of the ‘weird wonders’. Thanks to more study and phylogenetic methods of reconstructing evolutionary history we now understand that Opabinia is part of the panarthropod diversification, and is positioned on an evolutionary tree between the Cambrian lobopods and the true arthropods. But these two illustrate something else – whereas Rangea probably fed by adsorbing [not absorbing!] dissolved organic nutrients and lacks any discernible gut, eyes, etc., Opabinia was a mobile, predatory animal, with those great five eyes, appendages, and a gut. The contrast between these two illustrates something of the complexity of the ecological and developmental changes between the Ediacaran organisms and those of the Cambrian.

The book contains reconstructions by illustrator Quade Paul. Paleo art must be quite an intriguing process. What was the nature of your collaboration, and how do you come to settle on a ‘final’ representation of each creature?

Doing illustrations with an artist is always an interesting experience, particularly since I probably have not just zero artistic ability but actually negative artistic ability (sucking it out of those who do). But Quade was great to work with. He is the first artist I have worked closely with who used a lot of the new digital tools, and that was quite a learning experience for me. Jim and I selected the animals we wanted to illustrate, and sent Quade copies of illustrations from the scientific literature, or previous reconstructions, and in many cases copies of the original scientific papers. For a couple of the commonly reconstructed animals of the Burgess Shale we had to steer Quade away from some of the reconstructions found on the web. Then there was considerable back and forth between us getting the details of the critter right, refining the pose and the background details. Artists always want to know about colours, but of course fossils aren’t any help, so we had to infer these from studying modern marine animals. The quality of Quade’s work speaks for itself I think.

The Cambrian Explosion page detailIn what ways might the latest research about Earth’s evolutionary past affect current conceptions about biodiversity?

Many people often think of biodiversity in terms of the number of species, in part I think because species are easy to count. But there are many other components of biodiversity – ecological function, morphologic disparity, phylogenetic history, etc. One of the themes of this book is that to understand evolutionary history we often have to look as much at these other aspects of biodiversity. Similarly, as we confront the challenges of the current biodiversity crisis, I am among those biologists who feel that we have to consider conservation priorities in a broader context in order to maximize the amount of evolutionary history that we preserve for future generations.

Do you have any more books in the pipeline?

The Cambrian Explosion was the beginning of a new project on evolutionary innovation that I expect will extend over the next decade. Part of the project involves a book that will involve a much more comprehensive look at evolutionary innovations and major evolutionary transitions through the history of life, from the origin of life to aspects of innovation in humans. This will be a pretty big book, but much different from (and much less illustrated than) The Cambrian Explosion. And one always has other ideas…

Buy a copy of The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part three: Paul Souders on “The grace of giants”

We are marking the forthcoming publication of the new 2012 portfolio from the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition with a mini-series of interviews with some of the category winners from last year. 

Our third and final interviewee is Paul Souders, who won the Underwater World category in 2011.

Paul Souders - "The grace of giants"
You won the Underwater World category in last year’s competition with “The grace of giants” (left). Can you describe the special challenges, and special appeal, that underwater photography must have?

I come from a long line of Pennsylvania dirt farmers here in the US. We are, by our very nature, sinkers not swimmers. I’ve been a professional photographer all of my working life, but it was only in 2005 that I learned to dive and then to photograph underwater. It was an entirely new world, with a vast array of new subjects to shoot and new techniques to learn.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunities it’s presented to expand my view of the natural world and the discipline it has required. Photographing large, unpredictable subjects like a giant walrus in ice-cold sea water at the edge of the world is not for the faint of heart. I can’t imagine that more than a handful of people have deliberately gone swimming with a walrus in the Arctic oceans, but it’s an amazing privilege to witness the sight of them gently gliding in their natural environment.

Could you reveal a bit about the photo and how you got the shot?

I’d imagined this photograph for years, but it took a lot of planning and effort to make it happen. I had to charter a steel-hulled yacht in Svalbard, 600 miles north of Europe’s edge, and drag hundreds of pounds of scuba and other underwater gear from my home in Seattle through four different airports. Walrus are by reputation, large, aggressive and unpredictable. It took an enormous leap of faith to get into the water with them. But sometimes you just have to hope for the best. We’d sailed to one of their haul-outs in the Svalbard archipelago, and found a few of them swimming in the water. I quickly put on all of my gear and then, as last-minute nod to safety, tied an old piece of rope around my waist for the boat skipper to hold onto. And then I slid off the iceberg and into the water. 

I could see the walrus circling below me in the depths, and they slowly came up, equal parts wariness and curiosity. They seemed impossibly big, but quite graceful and gentle as they swam towards me. One grew bold, and was soon pressing his whiskers and tusks against my camera’s glass dome. He even gave it a little tap, just to see if I was paying attention.

Apparently blue-lipped, hyperventilating photographers aren’t all that distracting after all, since they soon swam off, taking one last look at me before diving again into the depths.

And your tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?

Probably the best advice I can offer is “don’t quit your day job.”

There has never been a better time to be a nature photographer. In the last decade, we have witnessed a revolution in digital photo technology. Guided tours travel to wilderness areas that were once the sole province of National Geographic and BBC film crews.

Of course, there has never been a worse time to make a living as a nature photographer, since everyone and their dog can now go out on holiday, make amazing pictures and give them away on the internet for nothing.

The hard part for professionals is thinking of images that will show the world in a new way, to create pictures that people haven’t seen before. It requires a level of dedication and perseverance that should give any sane person pause.

Paul Souders’s website:

www.worldfoto.com/

Read part one: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part one: Steve Mills on “The assassin”.

Read part two: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part two: Peter Chadwick on “Taking off”.

Pre-order now and save 20% when you buy the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 22 book and wall calendar together:

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio 22 jacket imageWildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 Wall Calendar jacket image