Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut

Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.

For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.

Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.

It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.

It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.

The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

Interview with Simon Poulton about the new BioEcoSS TubeTrap

Simon Poulton struggling to enter data in the field
Simon Poulton struggling to enter data in the field

The BioEcoSS TubeTrap is a new product for ecologists and researchers conducting mammal surveys. The innovative design is the work of data consultant Simon Poulton, who told us more about his company and his revolutionary new small mammal trap.

Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.
BioEcoSS Ltd is a consultancy specialising in all aspects of ecological data handling and analysis. I became a consultant after taking voluntary severance from ADAS, which was the scientific and advisory arm of the old MAFF – precursor to DEFRA, for the youngsters among you. I had worked for them for 14 years, developing from basic wildlife advice through to coordinating the national monitoring of Environmentally Sensitive Areas and other agri-environment schemes. Change was in the air, with ADAS becoming a “Next-Steps Agency”. So, I decided to go it alone, allowing me to concentrate more on the practical side of database design and statistical analysis – rather than managing teams and editing their reports. It also allowed me to select my clients to focus more on the taxa that I was interested in – primarily mammals and birds.

Why the name? Well, when I set up as a consultant I had a very loyal spaniel call Bess. Struggling to come up with a descriptive name that had “ecology” and “statistics” in it, a mischievous friend took one look at the adoring dog at my feet, and suggested BESS. So, I became Biological & Ecological Statistical Services! Bit of a stretch – but it caught on. Then when I converted to a limited company five years later, I thought I’d better have something a bit more respectable – so BioEcoSS Ltd was born.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had a good number of clients, including universities, NGOs such as the Mammal Society, Vincent Wildlife Trust & BTO and government departments such as Natural England, CCW and JNCC. My work has generally fallen into two types:

a) ecological database design, and
b) statistical analysis of existing datasets.

However, in all my projects, I’ve tried to emphasise the importance of incorporating these aspects at the project planning stage – very often they’re not! So, it’s not unusual for clients to turn up with a dataset that’s been stored in a spreadsheet, riven with errors, and with a survey design that just doesn’t give them the power they need to detect change or spatial variation. I do what I can, but it would be so much better if these aspects were considered more carefully at the outset as part of an integrated design – sorry, that’s a bit of a lecture!

What was the original inspiration behind the TubeTrap?

BioEcoSS TubeTrap
BioEcoSS TubeTrap

About six or seven years ago, when I was on the council of the Mammal Society, we were discussing the setting up of a national small mammal monitoring scheme. The then chair, Dr Johnny Birks (very well-known to all mammalogists), lent back in his chair and sighed “It’s such a shame we don’t have a good trap at a reasonable price!”. We all agreed that we would have to focus on non-invasive methods for a large-scale, mass-participation survey – which is not a bad thing anyway – but there was still a need for trapping to provide high quality data.

On the train home I started thinking about this idea. Database design is a very creative and practical process –understanding the requirements of the user and combining these with practical and intuitive solutions. And I felt I was fairly practical – good with wood and I seem to be forever re-plumbing my house! As the son of an engineer, I thought I might be able to come up with a good design for a mouse trap. After all, I had been using the trusty Longworth and even some old Shermans for over 25 years, so I knew their faults and limitations.

So over the next 18 months I set out to build a prototype. I was certain that injection moulding was the answer to producing large numbers of cheap traps and I was very lucky to get some financial help from the, now sadly defunct, Manufacturing Advisory Service. I also fell on my feet by finding two incredibly helpful and innovative small companies in the West Midlands; an injection tool-making company (BFT Engineering) and an injection moulding company (BTF Polymers). (The names are purely coincidental – they’re not related in any way – but they continue to cause me total confusion!) These guys were enormously helpful in designing the tools and producing prototypes for testing. So – TubeTraps are entirely British made!

How does the TubeTrap compare to other small mammal traps on the market?
Well! What do you expect me to say – pretty good I reckon! Seriously –I think there are three primary aspects to the efficacy of a small mammal trap:

1) How well do they catch?
2) How humane are they?
3) How practical are they to use?

In the UK the main competitor is, obviously, the Longworth. This has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years so, in an evolutionary sense, it must be pretty well adapted to what it does. I’ve carried out some comparative trials (as have six or seven users) which shows that TubeTraps catch just as well as Longworths. As the number of trials increases, there’s even some evidence that they are better at catching very small animals such as pygmy shrews and harvest mice. I’m hoping that two students from UEA will be trialling the traps this autumn to provide enough data to show this is statistically significant. I’ve not compared them directly with Shermans or Trip Traps, but people have told me, anecdotally, that TubeTraps have a higher capture-rate.

Episoriculus leucops
Episoriculus leucops

Part of the design was to make a trap that was as humane as possible. Obviously, the correct setting and use of traps goes a long way to ensure the survival of captured animals – in particular, live invertebrate food for shrews is essential, as is regular checking. But I wanted the TubeTrap to help prevent exposure of animals, so the use of plastic and the double-walled nest-box provide much better insulation. I’ve also had a bit of a theory about shrew deaths. A very light animal (say a pygmy or juvenile common shrew) enters a trap without tripping it, scoffs all the food and then leaves. Along comes an adult shrew, trips the door and finds a trap with no food. Result – starvation. So I think the very sensitive and stable mechanism of TubeTraps will help prevent this situation.

The practicality aspects of the design were very important, especially setting the trap and cleaning. The nestbox and tunnel parts of the trap snap together very intuitively and are virtually impossible to pop open accidentally – unlike a poorly set Longworth. The smooth, cylindrical profile of the trap makes it very easy to push into dense vegetation and remove for emptying. Again – in the past, I’ve popped open Longworths when pulling them out of hedgerows as the corners of the nest box or the hook of the pin hinge catches on a bramble. The TubeTrap’s white doors are very easy to see, even in poor light, so it’s much easier to check when they are closed. So too with the pre-bait lock – it has a very visual appearance, so it’s much more difficult to leave a trap locked open by mistake. The round profile of the nestbox and the flat base of the tunnel with no side-walls make them very easy to clean. Finally – and possibly most importantly, all parts of the trap snap together, so it’s very easy to replace any damaged parts. I always carry a few spare triggers (which can get chewed) and the elastic springs for replacement in the field.

Development of the TubeTrap is continuous and I’m pleased to say that NHBS is stocking the new Mark II version. This has a more stable trip mechanism, which is counter-balanced, making it much more difficult to accidentally trip when knocked or jolted. This also makes it easier to set TubeTraps in awkward places or above-ground attached to branches or poles. There was an issue in the original design with surface-tension from rainwater holding the doors open, but a number of modifications in the new Mark II trap have addressed this.

How and where have TubeTraps been used and what is the most interesting species you have caught?

TubeTraps have been used by a number of universities, county mammal groups and wildlife trusts. As far as I know, they are being used for mammal research, survey and monitoring. Also, I know that the trusts have used them for training and open-days, so they’re proving versatile.
As you may have gathered from some of the time periods I mentioned earlier, I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth! But, a few years ago I finally started the PhD (at UEA) that I’d never got around to doing. I’m looking at altitudinal variation in small mammal communities in the central Himalayas of Nepal – using 120 of my traps of course! I’ve done three seasons’ fieldwork and caught 795 animals at altitudes from 1300m to 4200m. The traps have performed very well and have been catching hundreds of tiny shrews, as well as some pretty hefty rats weighing over 100g. The CarryCases have also been fantastic, not just for carrying the traps, but as dissection and dinner tables! There’s no doubt in my mind that the best animal I have caught is a tiny shrew called Episoriculus leucops – only 5g in weight, but with the longest tail you’ve ever seen (pic above).

BioEcoSS TubeTrap Carry Case
BioEcoSS TubeTrap Carry Case

What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
That’s a tricky question! I think just because of the size of the project and its subject – the Environmental Monitoring Database for Natural England. I’ve worked on this for over ten years, bringing together into a single database all the agri-environment monitoring data carried out since 1987. There are over 4.25 million data items in this database, which makes it a unique resource. But how can I not mention the work I’ve done with excellent conservation organisations such as the Mammal Society (scoping and setting up the national small mammal monitoring scheme with Phoebe Carter and Johnny Birks) or the Vincent Wildlife Trust (analysing their fantastic dataset on batbox usage collected by the tireless Colin Morris and his colleagues).

But, I also hope I’ve made a real contribution in Nepal, mostly by giving young ecologists hands-on experience of fieldwork, statistical advice and training that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I should say that this has been a two-way process and I’ve had fantastic support from them (Hari Basnet, Sagar Dahal, Hem Kathuwal and others). I would also like to mention my friends and colleagues, Laxman Poudyal, Sujan Maharjan, Hem Sagar Baral, Sharad Singh and Dibesh Karmacharya – who have all helped in this reciprocal process. And – most importantly – the porters, whose superhuman efforts at carrying traps, collecting water and wood, cooking amazing food and generally remaining completely cheerful made this work possible.

Simon, Suman, Padam, Hari and Sujan with Machhupuchhare behind.
Simon, Suman, Padam, Hari and Sujan with Machhupuchhare behind

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Another tricky one! I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with India and Nepal, so I should say the tigers I saw in Kanha and Ranthambore National Parks, or Indian one-horned rhinos in Kazirangha or the fantastic nilgai in Sariska. But, actually, the most thrilling was probably five years ago at 3500m in Nepal when my colleagues and I came across a very (I mean VERY) fresh set of prints of himalayan black bear only a few meters from our camp-site. That certainly caused a stir amongst the porters! Then again – the most sublime moment was probably during that expedition, being out just before dawn, when the koklass pheasants started calling. Their harsh cries carry for hundreds of metres through the gloom – the Nepalis’ literal interpretation is “How are you, Uncle?”. It’s a spine-tingling memory just thinking about it.

Any new inventions in the pipeline?
I might have! Actually, a client from Ireland recently asked if I could produce traps with shrew holes. It had been on my mind for a while, so I made 30 doors with shrew holes for her. She’s trialling them now and if they work well, I’ll make them generally available. The benefit of putting the holes in the doors is that you can easily snap these out and replace them with standard doors if you don’t want the shrew holes.

I do have another idea, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest at the moment. Suffice it to say – if it works it could revolutionise small mammal trapping – I’m saying no more!

Find out more about the BioEcoSS TubeTrap at NHBS

What’s new for 2016 – Bat detector news

Five new bat detectors will become available in 2016 – two new models in the Song Meter family of bat detectors from Wildlife Acoustics, two new passive detectors from the Swiss manufacturer Elekon and the long anticipated Anabat Walkabout. Here we will give you a quick round-up of the key features of each new detector along with news of several detectors which will no longer be available. We will also introduce an exciting new BatCounter and camera trigger.

SM4BAT
The SM4BAT is available in a full spectrum or zero crossing version.

Wildlife Acoustics have brought out a new detector aimed squarely at the consultancy market – the SM4BAT. The SM4BAT is available in two versions – full spectrum (SM4BAT FS) and zero crossing (SM4BAT ZC). Both come in the same dark green plastic case (a bit like a Bushnell Natureview Trail Camera) which is weatherproof, slightly smaller and lighter than the SM2BAT+ and can be padlocked shut to prevent anyone tampering with the detector. Both use the SMM-U1 microphone which was designed originally for sale with the SM3BAT detector. They are also programmable and will record on a single channel for around 30 nights using four D-cell batteries.

Wildlife Acoustics have also announced that they are phasing out the EM3+ and the SMZC, which are being replaced by the Echo Meter Touch and the SM4BAT ZC respectively.

Batlogger C and Batlogger A
The Batlogger C (left) and Batlogger A (right) offer solutions for a variety of bat survey situations.

Elekon have released two new passive detectors within the last few months which are based around the very highly regarded Batlogger M handheld detector. The Batlogger C is probably the highest specification bat detector on the market – it has everything you would expect from a high end passive detector including programmable recording schedules, fully weatherproof enclosure, and high quality full spectrum recordings as well as many extras. These include optional sms and/or email messages reporting the status of the unit and the number of recordings made as well as the amount of power remaining. Furthermore, because the Batlogger C also has in-built GPS it can send you an alert if the unit is moved. A wide range of power options are available: a 50 hour rechargeable battery is included and there is space for a second. Mains power is also an option as is solar power which requires the addition of the Batlogger C solar panel. When used with two 50 hour batteries, just half a day of sun in every 10 days should be enough to keep the Batlogger C powered indefinitely.

Also from Elekon, the Batlogger A is a miniaturised passive detector. It is programmable and will record for up to 30 hours on eight AA batteries (e.g. three 10 hour nights). The Batlogger A is housed within a small weatherproof enclosure and includes a Knowles FG microphone on a 2m extension cable.

Anabat Walkabout
The Android based Anabat Walkabout allows you to view live sonograms in the field.

The Anabat Walkabout, a handheld detector for transects and roost emergence surveys is also expected for the 2016 season. This touch screen Android tablet based detector not only records any passing bats but also lets you view the sonogram in real time in both full spectrum and zero crossing formats. A GPS, lux-meter, thermometer and humidity sensor are all in-built so not only will each call be geo-tagged but you will also be able to collect the full range of environmental data for each transect without needing any additional tools. A fully charged unit will last for around 8 hours.

BatCounter
The BatCounter will log the number of bats passing through as well as the direction of their movement.

The BatCounter has the potential to be a very useful tool for both researchers and consultants. It uses a network of infrared beams to count, and log the direction of movement of bats moving through a detection area of 76 x 35cm (standard model) or 36 x 35cm (tree model). It has a GSM function that can send daily reports via text or email and will run for three days on eight AA batteries or for much longer periods using a 12V battery. You can also connect a Nikon or Canon DSLR camera and take pictures of the bats as they pass through the Batcounter.

 

Ecologist Derek Gow on beaver reintroductions in the UK

Ecologist Derek Gow (The Derek Gow Consultancy) is the co-author of The Eurasian Beaver, published in January 2015. His involvement with Devon Wildlife Trust’s trial reintroduction and the Tayside beaver reintroduction makes him uniquely placed to discuss the topic of beaver reintroductions in the UK.

The Eurasian BeaverHow would the presence of healthy beaver populations enhance the UK’s landscape and biodiversity?

In Eurasia and North America beavers are the keystone species around which all other wetland life revolves. Their simple dam building and tree felling activities trigger a whole range of complex changes in their surrounding environments which clearly result in greatly enhanced levels of biodiversity and biomass. In landscapes which are semi-natural the cascade of dynamic changes they produce harbours the potential for breathtakingly spectacular results, such as the return of the black stork. While in highly manipulated, human engineered environments they can literally breathe life back into the land.

You are involved with the Devon Beaver Project, which has created a test environment to see how reintroduced beavers would affect their local ecosystem. Can you tell us more about this project, and what results it has produced so far?

The initial stage of the Devon Beaver Trial was designed to evaluate from ground zero the impact of a beaver family in an enclosed area of wet-woodland of approximately 3ha. Between 2011 and 2015 the beavers created a series of approximately 14 major dam systems on a 200 metre length of a seasonally flowing water course at the northern end of the site. They maintain long dams in the winter when water is abundant and short dams in the summer when water is scarce. At the time of writing their impoundments are capable of retaining approximately 1000 tonnes of water, none of which would have seasonally remained on site without them. The return of the beaver has been accompanied by a proliferation of wildlife. Flowering and other vascular plant communities now abound on site. On warm sunny days meadow browns, marbled whites and a host of other butterflies flit through its open woodlands. Dragonflies and damselflies occur in ever greater numbers while amphibians such as common frogs have increased in numbers fiftyfold. Juvenile common lizards hunt through the deadwood understory while marsh tits, spotted flycatchers, greater spotted woodpeckers, tree creepers and redpolls hunt insects in the trees. Water fowl have moved into occupy environments which formerly did not exist. Red and roe deer jump the perimeter fence to drink in its pools.

It is an absolutely amazing project and a brilliant site.

What does a reintroduction look like in practical terms? Can you break down the logistics of species reintroduction?

Well if you ask the Germans its simple: you get lots of beavers – 40 plus per release, drive along the road, spot a likely location, and let them go. A crude system which works! Reintroductions in Britain are often subject to a large degree of politics, which can be frustrating as this is a species well understood throughout its natural range which simply offers so much. We could do much better. To date, beaver reintroduction has been a haphazard affair with major public spats between those that wish them to remain and those that are opposed – the history of the Tayside and Devon beavers demonstrate this well. Given that this species was last present in Britain outside of our living memory, it is assumed that licensed releases require a scientific demonstration of how this animal will impact a British landscape – as though it will be any different from what our European and American counterparts have already demonstrated. In realistic terms, in Britain an official reintroduction would involve a small number of animals, released into a specific site, with thorough scientific monitoring of impact and public opinion. Though we may take heart that beavers are now back in our landscape, the process to full restoration is likely to be slow and cautious.

What precedent does the approval of the River Otter beaver population set for reintroductions as a wider concept? Are we likely to see lynx roaming wild any time soon?

We need to learn to live with and tolerate beavers before I think we can accomplish anything more adventurous in Britain. If we can’t move forward with reintroducing this charismatic rodent that has such significant impacts on its environment, and can single-handedly do so much to restore our wetlands, then we need to be seriously realistic about our collective ability to accept top predators on this island – no matter how nostalgic or headline grabbing the notion of lynx may be.

What would you say to people who consider reintroduction to be somehow against the natural order of things?

When you consider our contemporary British landscapes and their land-use practices, which are entirely dictated by human activity, they represent little in the way of natural order. In truth they are not ecosystems and we are probably grasping at straws to even describe what’s left as tattered fragments blowing in the wind. Instead we have a wealth of isolated areas of biological richness, generally produced as a result of relict human activities which are difficult to maintain and increasingly vulnerable and fragile. Do we accept that these nature zoos are it, or do we try to foster and encourage a process whereby we change the pattern of the landscape we have made to make it better for people and wildlife alike? Reintroductions, where human activities have caused the past extinction or diminution of a species in Britain, are simply a tool we should employ with competent ease where the circumstances justify its use.

We recently heard the news about the successful litter of kits produced by the River Otter beavers. What did this news mean to you personally? 

Brilliant!! It’s been a long time coming. Let’s move on now from these vital but small and isolated pockets of beavers and see the full restoration of this incredible species.


 

Also available now

Nature's Architect: The Beaver's Return to Our Wild LandscapesNature’s Architect: The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes is the latest book from leading nature writer Jim Crumley. The book explores the natural history of the beaver, and Crumley makes his case in favour of beaver reintroduction.

 

 

Enhancing habitat connectivity for hedgehog populations

Hedgehog

Hedgehogs are in the news with a serious decline in numbers – according to this recent report by David Wembridge, “at a conservative estimate a quarter of the population has been lost in the last ten years”. But things are moving in a positive direction with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust leading the way in hedgehog conservation in Britain, thanks to funding from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. Find out more about their pioneering Solihull Hedgehog Improvement Area – part of the Help for Hedgehogs campaign.

Simon Thompson, Hedgehog Officer at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, gave us some tips on how to help your local hedgehog population:

“There are measures which we can all undertake to provide space for our hedgehogs, the simplest and most important of these is to provide access into and between our gardens. Walls and fences create an impenetrable barrier to hedgehogs and a small hole, about the size of a CD case will easily allow hedgehogs to pass between gardens. Ask your neighbours to do the same and all of a sudden there is dramatically larger landscape through which hedgehogs can find food, nesting sites and potential mates. Once your garden is linked to the wider landscape then having a hedgehog box instantly provides a structure within which hedgehogs can construct themselves a safe and secure nest to sleep during the day or perhaps even hibernate through the winter.”

Hedgehog Homes

Hedgehog homes are a safe retreat for the hedgehogs in your garden and provide a warm and dry shelter along with valuable protection from predators. Site your home in a quiet position, out of the prevailing wind, ideally in an area with some cover.

Hedgehog Nest BoxHedgehog Nest Box

The Hedgehog Nest Box has been designed and extensively tested by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and provides a safe and snug environment for these wonderful creatures. The box has a predator-proof tunnel and removable roof and is approved by Dr. Pat Morris of London University.

Igloo Hedgehog HomeIgloo Hedgehog Home

This attractive wicker Igloo Hedgehog Home is designed to blend into your garden. The built-in entrance tunnel provides protection from predators and the Igloo is spacious enough for a family group.

Hogitat Hedgehog House

Hogitat Hedgehog House

The Hogitat Hedgehog House has an attractive appearance and will fit perfectly into any garden environment. Made of principally natural materials, it has a waterproofed roof and predator defence tunnel. Provides a safe retreat for hedgehogs and other small mammals.

Hedgehog reading list

Hedgehogs by Pat Morris (Whittet Books, 2014)
The Hedgehog by Pat Morris (Mammal Society, 2011)
Hedgehog by Hugh Warwick (Reaktion Books, 2014)
The Disappearing Hedgehog by Toni Bunnell (Independent Publishing Network, 2014)
A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs by Hugh Warwick (Allen Lane, 2008)
Britain’s Mammals: A Concise Guide by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (Whittet Books, 2010)
Urban Mammals: A Concise Guide by David Wembridge (Whittet Books, 2012)

Main photo attribute: Hedgehog by Milo Bostock on Flickr – licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Week in Review – 5th December

Trawler
The Global Fishing Watch Project has made satellite data from fishing vessels freely available online to raise citizen awareness of overfishing. Image by Winky.

 

News from outside the nest

This week…we read a great article about the “Send us your Skeletons” project and learned about the power of citizen science in gathering valuable data.

We also learned about the importance of citizen awareness in the Global Fishing Watch project. This amazing new scheme uses satellite data to make global issues of overfishing much more transparent, as well as making huge quantities of fisheries science data available to researchers.

These beautiful images hosted by Rough Guide showed us some incredible views of forests around the world.

With temperatures in 2014 now reported to be the hottest on record, we took a look at how different places around the world have experienced these heatwaves.

We learned about the feeding behaviour of the aptly named killer whale – and discovered why they are suddenly preying on humpbacks.

And finally…Martin Litton, one of the great pioneers of the environmental movement, sadly died on Sunday. In this article from the National Geographic we read about his life and legacy.

New arrivals at the warehouse

The 5th edition of the Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland contains stunning illustrations and photographs. It also features descriptions, distribution maps and site guides alongside a whole host of other great information.

The Barnacle Goose, the new Poyser Monograph, contains more than 25 years worth of research on these fascinating and sociable birds.

These Haglof Increment Borers are made from high quality Swedish steel – just the job for all your tree core sampling needs.

 

The Week in Review – 28th November

SNOWstorm - a research project monitoring the breeding grounds of snowy owls
Project SNOWstorm has been monitoring breeding snowy owls in the Canadian Arctic since the 1980s. Image by Erin Kohlenberg.

 

News from outside the nest

This week…we were fascinated by the intelligence and dexterity displayed by this octopus gathering and storing a coconut shell to use for protection.

We caught up on project SNOWstorm – a research endeavour which monitors the summer breeding areas of snowy owls in the Canadian Arctic.

We discovered how the flight of hummingbirds is more similar to that of insects than that of other birds.

November was Manatee Awareness Month: This vulnerable species, long time provider of fuel for mermaid myths, now number less than 10,000 in the wild.

The mystery of large numbers of dead porpoises washing up on the Netherlands coast was finally solved, with grey seals proving to be the surprising culprit.

A PhD student at Brunel University, London, created an ingenious DIY microscope to measure cell motility, saving himself hundreds of thousands of pounds.

And finally…a unique way of dealing with invasive species: The first beer made from invasive pond weed and zebra mussels went on sale in Minnosota.

New arrivals at the warehouse

Irish Bats in the 21st Century summarises the considerable body of bat research and surveillance that has been undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century, much of it by citizen scientists.

Mammals of Mexico is the first English language reference on the 500+ species of mammals found in diverse Mexican habitats – from the Sonoran desert to the Chiapas cloud forests.

The Ridgid SeeSnake CA-25 is an affordable endoscope with a 17mm waterproof camera head.

This Ultra High Resolution Nest Box Camera from Gardenature comes with a nestbox designed to BTO and RSPB guidelines and contains everything you need to start watching straight away.

 

How to choose the trail camera that’s right for you

Bushnell Dipper
This video of a dipper was taken with a Bushnell Trophy Cam and is a great example of what can be captured with an entry level camera.

Trail camera technology is developing all the time and the range of products on the market constantly expanding. While this is exciting, it can also be incredibly confusing, especially when you’re trying to choose which model is best suited to your needs.

Here are six things you should consider when trying to choose the trail camera that’s right for you:

1. Type of LEDs

The infrared LEDs on a trail camera provide the illumination needed to take pictures at night. Generally speaking, these come in two types: standard or low glow. Standard LEDs have a shorter wavelength which means that they will emit a small amount of visible light when activated. This will be seen as a small red flash. Low glow LEDs, having a longer wavelength, do not produce this tell-tale red glow so have obvious benefits for wildlife photography. Low glow types, however, will have a shorter range than standard LEDs. All models in the Ltl Acorn range come with a choice of standard or low-glow illumination.

2. Trigger speed

Trigger speed is the time taken for an image or video to be recorded after the infrared motion sensor has been triggered. If your subject is fast moving then a quicker trigger speed will help to ensure you capture great images. Fastest trigger speeds are currently around 0.2 seconds (e.g. the Reconyx HyperFire).

3. Picture and video resolution

As with any type of camera, image and video resolution are important, and the image quality you require will depend on what you will be using your footage for, along with your budget. Most trail cameras will give you the option to alter the resolution using compression or interpolation methods. This can be useful if you are deploying your camera for long periods, when memory card capacity may become an issue. It also means, however, that you should check the resolution of the camera image sensor as the advertised megapixel value often relates to the interpolated resolution (* see note below for a definition of interpolation).

4. Does it have a viewing screen?

Having an image preview screen in your trail camera is beneficial in two ways: Firstly, it allows you to quickly check the images that you have recorded without having to remove the SD card or plug it into a laptop. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it lets you take a few test images. By walking (or running) in front of the camera and checking the image captured, you can be assured that your camera angle and position is exactly right. The Bushnell NatureView HD Max and Minox DTC 1000 both have a good sized viewing screen.

5. Camera settings

All trail cameras will give you some control over the capture settings. Most will allow you to change the number of images taken per trigger as well as the length of video recorded. It is usually possible, as well, to specify the delay between photos and/or trigger events. Time lapse options allow you to take photographs at regular intervals between hours of your choice, and some cameras, such as those in the Bushnell range, can be set with two separate time lapse windows. This is useful if you are interested in both dusk and dawn activities.

6. Wireless functionality

Cameras with wireless functionality will send images directly to your mobile phone or email account. This offers huge time saving benefits, as well as reducing the amount of disturbance at your survey site. Several cameras now have wireless capabilities, and some will even allow you to alter your camera settings remotely. An activated SIM card is required to use these features. The Spypoint Mini-Live camera is just one example of a camera that will let you access your photos remotely.

 * Interpolation is where the software inside the camera produces a larger image by adding pixels. These extra pixels are created by application of an algorithm which uses adjacent pixels to create the most likely colour. 
 

Our ten favourite (and free) apps for wildlife lovers

Title Image

These days there’s an app for everything and everyone. For those of us with a passion for nature and the outdoors, they provide a fantastic way to improve our knowledge and identification skills, record and share our findings and even contribute to scientific research. We’ve compiled a list of our ten favourite (and free) apps for wildlife lovers. Most of these are designed for UK users, but if you’re based in other countries, have a dig around at the App Store or on Google Play; there’s bound to be something there to inspire you.

All of the apps listed are available for iPhone and Android and they’re all free. So if you’re needing some inspiration to get outside and start exploring, look no further.

Project Noah

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Project Noah

Explore and document wildlife wherever you are in the world with this educational app. Discover new organisms, record and share the specimens you find and help scientists collect important ecological data.

Birdtrack

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Birdtrack

Produced by the British Trust for Ornithology, BirdTrack lets you create logs of your bird sightings and create year and life lists. View your local hotspots and see what species have been seen in your area.

BatLib

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Batlib

The BatLib app contains ultrasonic calls of the most common European bat species, transformed to a sound that you can hear. Extremely useful to compare with the sounds heard using your heterodyne detector and a great tool for those new to bat detecting.

Nature Finder

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Nature Finder

The Nature Finder app from The Wildlife Trusts is a brilliant way to plan your wildlife excursions and learn about the animals you see while you’re there. It includes a map of more than 2000 nature reserves, lists of events, information on UK wildlife species and a directory for all 47 Wildlife Trusts.

Mammal Tracker

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Mammal Tracker

Identify and submit your records of mammals when you’re out and about with this mammal tracker app and contribute to the Mammal Society’s mammal population map of the British Isles. Submit a photograph if possible so that mammal experts can verify your sighting.

iGeology

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - iGeology

Discover exactly what’s beneath your feet and how the hidden geology affects the landscape you see with this app from the British Geological Society. Includes over 500 geological maps of Britain, available to view in 3D or from a birds-eye view.

Roger’s Mushrooms

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Rogers Mushrooms

With detailed descriptions of over 1500 species of mushrooms and fungi across Europe and North America, Rogers Mushrooms app is a must for both beginner and expert mycologists. It includes multiple images of each species in different stages of maturity, along with a detailed description. Choose between the free Lite version or the Pro version for a price of £2.50.

ForestXplorer app

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Forest Xplorer

Find out more about the trees around you with this app from the Forestry Commission. As well as a picture gallery and tree identifier you can download trail maps, see events happening in your local woodland and share your findings with your friends via Facebook or Twitter.

PlantTracker app

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Plant Tracker

Join forces with the Environment Agency, the University of Bristol and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to help map some of the UK’s most problematic invasive plants. Learn how to identify these species and submit geo-tagged photographs whenever you come across them.

OPAL Bugs Count

Apps for Wildlife Lovers - Opal Bugs Count

Be a part of the nationwide bug hunt with this Bugs Count app. Learn about common groups of bugs, contribute to scientific research by taking part in a Species Quest and view the beautiful gallery of bug images from the Natural History Museum.

 

Brock Fenton on the mystery and science of bats

Bats: A World of Science and MysteryBrock Fenton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, Western University, Ontario, Canada. His research programme involves using bats to explore the interfaces between animal behaviour, ecology and evolution. As co-author of the exciting new book, Bats: A World of Science and Mystery, we thought it would be interesting to pose him a few bat-related questions:

How did you become involved with bat research as a career?

As an undergraduate student I was attracted to bats by the abundance of things to learn about them. Part of this I experienced by looking in caves for hibernating bats that had been banded elsewhere. The other part was the library, books about bats (Bats by G.M. Allen; Nerve Cells and Insect Behaviour by Kenneth D. Roeder) and articles in journals. My main research focus now is on bat evolution, behaviour and echolocation.

In evolutionary terms, what is a bat, and how have they come to represent around 20% of all mammal species?

Bats are mammals capable of powered flight. Flight gives them mobility and their small size makes them inconspicuous. Bats fill a variety of trophic roles as consumers of insects, plant products, as well as other animals (from fish to other bats and birds), and even blood. I suspect that a combination of mobility, small size and flexibility is responsible for their evolutionary success. The blood-feeding vampire bats are among the best examples of this success.

Is it possible to define the character of a bat, and a typical day in the life?

I had not thought of “character”. Bats are mainly nocturnal, so operation at night is a key characteristic. They are long-lived (some species over 30 years in the wild), and high energy, requiring large quantities of food to fuel their activities. Although bats typically emerge (from their daytime roosts or hiding places) at dusk, they probably come and go from their roosts during the night. In the northern hemisphere and some other temperate parts of the world, bats use delayed fertilization to ensure that young are born when food is abundant.

The title of the book includes the word ‘mystery’ – what do we remain in the dark about regarding these nocturnal creatures?

There are about 1260 species of living bats. The largest weigh about 1500 grams, but most species are under 50 grams.  Bats survive because they are hard to find by day. The combination of secretive and small size makes most species of bats hard to study. This means that people who study bats regularly make astonishing discoveries about them. In spite of some concerns about the possible role of bats in public health, most species have no direct impact on humans. Lack of direct connection to humans means that bats are sidelined when it comes to some main stream areas of interest, particularly those relating to human health.

What are the world conservation priorities for bats at the moment, and can you highlight any projects that are doing interesting work?

Bats are “typical” wildlife, mainly negatively effected by the habitat consequences of expanding human populations and demand for resources. In Northeastern North America, White-nosed Syndrome has killed literally millions of bats. Around the world turbines at “wind farms” also kill bats, but not on the scale of WNS. Research into White-nosed Syndrome and bats’ responses to turbines are important for the future of bats. Other research into the role that bats may play as reservoirs for diseases also is important for the image of bats. The last part of the book speaks about some of the unanswered questions about bats that appeal to the authors.

Who is this book aimed at?

We hope that this book will appeal to anyone interested in biodiversity and natural history. This could be the person interested in evolution or echolocation, conservation or social behaviour. We also hope that it appeals to those intrigued by flight, by where bats live and what they eat. It is not intended to be a text book about bats.

Bats: A World of Science and Mystery is published in November 2014

Order now