Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Getting hip to the Hippocampus

I feel like talking about seahorses today. I suppose we all have days like that.

We know what seahorses are, right? A genus of odd little bumpy fish that swim about in an upright rather than horizontal posture, have cute snouty faces and hold onto things with their prehensile tails. Their genus name is Hippocampus, which means 'sea monster horse'. Hippocampus is, incidentally, also the name of a seahorse-shaped structure in the vertebrate brain, which deals with memory.

Through work I've learned a lot of stuff about seahorses lately. It's fairly common knowledge that in seahorses the males 'give birth' to the young, but I always thought that meant that their pouch is just a safe storage area for the fertilised eggs to sit in until they hatch, rather like a waterproof bumbag for stashing your valuables while you scuba-dive.

But there's way more to it than that. The pouch is a complex structure, much more comparable to a mammalian uterus than to a bumbag. The eggs implant in it, and the wall of the pouch becomes thick, spongy and highly vascularised. Salinity within the pouch is regulated and adjusted through the pregnancy to suit the developing eggs. And when they hatch, after two to four weeks of gestation, the male goes through contractions that are stimulated by oxytocin, the same hormone that does the job in mammals, to expel the tiny little seahorses into the big bad underwater world (where most of them immediately get eaten by something, perhaps even by other seahorses, but that's fish for you.) Functionally, it's a proper pregnancy and it ends with a proper birth.

The male can't put his fins up for a nice long rest after squeezing out up to 1,500 perfect mini-hims, though. The whole process has to start again pretty much immediately. So closely and intimately linked are the breeding cycles of paired seahorses that the female has her next batch of eggs ready to go within hours of the male giving birth.

Because of this close synchrony, seahorses are usually monogamous, hardly the norm for fish. The pair bond may not last a lifetime but persists at least through the breeding season, and is reinforced every day by a short but sweet greeting display. Each morning the female goes to her mate and he lets go of his holdfast to swim with her. They become brighter in colour and twirl around together, sometimes taking hold of each other's tails. On the day after the male has given birth, the greeting ceremony is longer and ends with mating. When she turns up to see him, they do their usual thing and he shows her his empty pouch. The two then let go of whatever they were holding onto and drift upwards together, and the female puts her ovipositor into his pouch and gives him her next batch of eggs.

After the daily greeting, the female goes off to feed, leaving her partner behind (as he is pretty much permanently pregnant he doesn't wander as far as she does), but she'll be back the next day and they'll repeat the whole touching process.

There are about 45 species of seahorses in the world. And (here comes the inevitable bad news) virtually all of them are either threatened to some degree or are 'data deficient' by the IUCN's reckoning. Lots of them are caught deliberately to be dried out and sold as curios, but lots, lots more die as bycatch, especially from shrimp trawling (more than two-thirds of what's brought up by shrimp trawlers is non-target bycatch, and shrimps and seahorses live in the same sorts of habitats). In all, we take out some 40 million seahorses every year. And all that close pair-bonding described above means that when a seahorse loses its mate, it also loses months of potential breeding time because finding and bonding with a new mate takes time.

Have a look at iSeahorse and Project Seahorse for all manner of stuffs about seahorses and what people are doing and can do to help safeguard their future. And here's a sweet video of a seahorse pair doing their dance.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Red or dead

For work reasons, I've been spending a lot of time on the IUCN Red List website this year. In fact Firefox tells me it's my seventh favourite website. I urge you to check it out, it's an amazing resource. You can look up any species, and it will tell you things about the conservation status of that species. This info is lengthy and detailed for well-known, high profile animals, much briefer for obscure ones (as you'd expect). But the main thing that it does is tell you a) what conservation status the species has and b) whether its numbers are increasing, decreasing, or stable.

The conservation statuses (stati?) that you'll find start at Least Concern (not in danger of extinction, so don't worry), and finish at Extinct (hmmm, too late to worry now). In between are increasing degrees of worrisome - Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; Extinct in the wild. (There is also Data Deficient, for those where we Just Don't Know, at least not yet - most of these are likely to turn out to be endangered to some extent though, because if they were Least Concern they would probably be reasonably easy to find and study.)

These are global statuses (stati just doesn't sound right). So species that we know to be threatened in the UK are in general rated Least Concern because, world-wide, they are not in serious trouble (though they may be heading that way). So if I put in... let's see... Turtle Dove, I get Least Concern. But also 'decreasing'. Under 'Justification', there's an explanation that, although the species is declining, it still has a very large population, a very extensive global range, and it isn't declining fast enough for us to panic. Maybe give it a few more years...

There are a handful of birds on the British List that are threatened on a global scale though, and their names may surprise you. How about Velvet Scoter? Not as common as Common Scoter, but still easy enough to find among winter scoter flocks off our coast, right? But the IUCN rates it as Endangered, because 'it is estimated to be undergoing a very rapid population decline.' It's a similar story for Long-tailed Duck. Even though this is a very widespread species with a large world population (it breeds right across the far north of North America as well as Eurasia), it's Vulnerable, because 'an apparently drastic decline detected in the wintering population in the Baltic Sea since at least the early 1990s implies that the global population will undergo at least a rapid decline over three generations (1993-2020), even when factoring in uncertainty regarding the sizes and trends of other populations'.

As far as I know, there's only one Critically Endangered bird that regularly visits Britain - the Balearic Shearwater. Critically Endangered means 'at very high risk of extinction in the wild', and many species in this category probably ARE extinct already. It's as bad as things can get before you resort to rounding up what's left of the wild population and starting a captive breeding regime... and I really can't see that working for a shearwater. I noticed on Facebook that several of them were seen offshore in Kent today - can they really be in that much trouble? Well, it turns out that yes, they can. In not many years' time we won't be seeing Balearic Shearwaters off Kent or off anywhere else, unless we take drastic and immediate action to tackle the many threats they face.

We all know tigers are in a desperate predicament, mainly thanks to illegal deliberate killing. If I look up the genus Panthera, sure enough, there it is, Panthera tigris, Tiger, Endangered, decreasing. But my search brings up the other members of the genus too, and not only are they ALL decreasing, they are ALL also classed as at risk of extinction. Panthera leo, Lion, Vulnerable. Panthera onca, Jaguar, Near Threatened. Panthera pardus, Leopard, Near Threatened. And Panthera uncia, Snow Leopard, Endangered. That's ALL the species of true big cats in the world, at real risk of extinction in the wild. Scary.

These are animals we all know about. What about the ones we don't? Key in a more obscure genus name and there's a very high chance that you'll discover an endangered species that you've never heard of. I just tried it with Sympetrum, darter dragonflies, and found the Critically Endangered Sympetrum evanescens, known only from two unprotected square kilometres in Venezuela and not observed with certainty since 1993. Its species name means 'fading and gradually vanishing from sight' - how sadly appropriate. And then I tried some hawkmoth genera and stumbled upon an Endangered species native to Hawaii, called Tinostoma smaragditis. This, I discovered, has the best English name of any animal ever - it's called <drumroll> the Fabulous Green Sphinx Of Kauai. How is it possible I've never heard of it? (It is just as stunning as it sounds.) And yet it's in what sounds like an even more dire situation than Sympetrum evanescens - it's been recorded a total of 15 times over a period of 110 years, it has no legal protection whatsoever, and collectors are desperate to get their hands on pinned specimens.

Exploring the Red List does bring a fair few depressing moments like this. On the other hand, it is quite cheering to see that the vast majority of species are classed as Least Concern, but the number that are Least Concern and stable, or Least Concern and increasing, is very much lower. One species that does fit the latter description will show up if you key in the genus name Homo. Yes, our own species has a page on the IUCN Red List website, and reading it elicits a rather unsettling metaphysical twinge. Homo sapiens, Human, is given the following justification for its rating of Least Concern: 'The species is very widely distributed, adaptable, currently increasing, and there are no major threats resulting in an overall population decline.' My favourite bit on the page is this line from the Range Description section: 'A small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station.'

Actually, there's something quite soothing about reading the page, with its objectively phrased, passive-voiced run-down of the status of humans on earth. It's very easy to feel terrible about the destructive impact of our species on almost all the world's other species, and we really should feel terrible about it as that ought to motivate us to do something about it, and we must do something about it. But it also doesn't hurt to remember that we got into this pickle because our species is just another animal, doing what animals do and making the most of all opportunities available, in order to thrive and proliferate and spread. We just happen to be terribly, disastrously good at it.

An ETA. I was reading this interesting blog about shooting and conservation just now, and learned the utterly gobsmacking fact that the European Rabbit, a species I'd have thought to be as Least Concern as it's possible to be, is in fact Near Threatened, following lengthy severe declines. So maybe we humans shouldn't be quite as smug about our own LC status...

Friday, 21 August 2015

Twitching. Just say no, kids

I have just returned from a few days in the north-west of England. I'll be blogging about it in the usual place sooner or later. The main thing I did up there was fail to see Mountain Hares at Dove Stone. However, I also mixed it up a bit by failing to see a Sabine's Gull at Pennington Flash, and this hurt a lot more than the hares. The hares were there, hopefully they will always be there, and I just didn't work hard enough to find them. (In my defence, it was raining. I know that's a pretty lame excuse but it's all I have.) But the gull, that was different.

This is how it went. Up-North friend Hazel said, a week or so before my trip, 'Ooooh, there's a Sabine's Gull at Pennington Flash, we could go and see that if it's still there when you come.' I replied along the lines of that would be lovely, but chances are it won't be <waffle about Sabine's Gull migratory behaviour>. But it carried on being there as the days ticked by. The day before I was to travel (Sunday), posts on the Manchester Birding forum enthused mightily about how it was showing better than ever, how great it looked in its adult breeding plumage, what an incredibly obliging bird it was, and I started to feel IT.

You know what I mean by IT. That slow-brewing emotional cocktail of excitement, hope, fear and above all finger-gnawing impatience - the twitch. I wanted that gull. I emailed Hazel and we arranged to go straight to Pennington after she picked me up at Macclesfield station at lunchtime on Monday. About 10 minutes before my train got to Macc, I risked blowing my data allowance by checking the Manchester Birding forum, and there was one new post on the Pennington Flash thread. It said, 'No sign of the Sabine's Gull so far today.'

I felt the other IT then. Not the twitch, the crush (and not the good kind of crush, of which more later). The bloody bastarding bird had gone. I was one day late. All the nervous excitement of the twitch turned to stone in my heart (or possibly adrenal glands). I should have been feeling pleased that this lovely Arctic gull had got over whatever ailment or psychological issue had sent it inland to sit by a Greater Manchester reservoir for a fortnight, when it should have been cruising southwards miles out at sea. But I didn't. I felt fed up, and personally aggrieved. Why didn't it just wait one more day, so that I could see it? Never mind all the many other birders who had seen it and whose days were much brightened by its beauty. What about me? ME ME ME ME ME ME!

And THAT'S why twitching is a bad thing. Great if you see the bird, but if you don't, it brings out the not-so-great side of human nature. Of course we went to the flash anyway, and it wasn't there, and I put a brave face on things (despite also dipping Willow Tit there, dammit!).

A short history of my twitching career. Back in the early 1990s, I joined the Sheffield University Birders' Club, what with me being a student of Sheffield University, and a birder. It was quite a shock to my system, after an adolescence almost completely devoid of fellow-birder contact, to suddenly find myself doing pub quizzes with a dozen young male birders who were, mostly, even keener than I was. I immediately developed overwhelming crushes (the good kind) on most of them, though none progressed beyond yearning glances over pint glasses of snakebite and black or whatever horrible abomination I was drinking at the time. Actually, make those furtive yearning glances, as I had a boyfriend, and he was also a member of the birding club. Boyfriend was not a mad-keen birder like the rest of us, BUT crucially he had a car. This meant that we often got phone calls from other club members, asking about doing a trip to Merseyside or Cumbria or Norfolk or wherever to twitch something.

This is why my life-list has on it a few early 1990s megas, like Semipalmated Sandpiper and Song Sparrow. But the twitch I remember most from that era was when we went for the Red-throated Thrush at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. We drove down at the crack of dawn on the morning after the day it was last seen, and spent several depressing hours with a few dozen other grumpy birders, all crushed under the crush (bad kind) that turns lovely nature-loving people into self-obsessed, self-pitying gloom monsters. The best moment of the trip was when Phil (one of our group, and one of my crush-subjects) thought he saw something promising on the other side of a fence and attempted to hurdle said fence with scope on fully spread tripod. The resultant cartwheel would have earned us a grand on 'You've been framed' if any of us had had the wit (and equipment) to film it. My crush on him only deepened after that (I do love a geek, especially a clumsy geek).

So after uni I hardly twitched anything, ever again. Twitching ALWAYS means the chance of dipping and when I dip I (briefly) become someone I don't like.Consequently my British List is very short and has some embarrassing holes - it's not exactly something that I can wear with pride and dignity. Other birders often express incredulity that I didn't go for some of the local-ish megas of recent years - the Short-toed Eagle being a notable example, but I just can't put myself through it any more. However, the twitch is powerful and when circumstances conspire to make twitching - or at least getting to the site of the twitch - very easy, and especially if there is a chance of a) good photos of the target bird or b) photos of other interesting wildlife in the area or c) both a and b, I can still get drawn in. At least these days the dip is only costly in terms of emotional distress. And I can feel good about saving money and the planet by avoiding impromptu 300-mile trips to here, there and everywhere.

Anyway, I'm over it now. Good luck to you, Sabine's Gull, I hope you're back out at sea and heading south (and were not eaten by a Pike, as some of the Manc birders have speculated). And there's only one photo that I can use to illustrate this post. Actually there are lots of photos, because this bird did not elude me, in fact it put on the best show I've ever had from its species. I give you Cinclus cinclus, demonstrating that there is a good kind of dipping.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A bummer of a scientific name

Welcome to the first post of a new blog. Actually, it's not that new. I started the Wild Side Guide blog ages ago. I started it in the sense that I hit 'create new blog' and gave it a name, but then I didn't post anything in it. This was because I had put no thought whatsoever into what sort of stuff I wanted to write in it. I already had a blog (The Wild Side) for documenting my wildlife sightings and posting my photos, so what should go in the new blog? I didn't really know, so I just ignored it, for about a year. Or two.

Then on Thursday night I found something on Wikipedia that inspired me. It was this.

I was so delighted by my discovery that I immediately posted a link on Facebook, and Twitter, and emailed the link to other friends who don't do Facebook or Twitter, because that's the kind of mature, sensible person I am. Then I realised just posting the link everywhere I could think of wasn't enough. I wanted to say more.

Monarchidae is a large family of passerine birds, bringing together the best part of 150 species. None occur in Britain or anywhere near Britain - they live in Africa and southern Asia, across to Australasia. Many are colourful and striking birds. I've seen a couple of species in Sri Lanka, including the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, which is an absurdly beautiful and mad-looking long-tailed thing with a crest. But I know almost nothing about them, and I need to change that because I'm going to be writing (a little) about them for a project soon. Hence my Wikipedia wanderings. The family contains about 17 genera, which mostly have normalish names like Monarchia, Myiagra, Trochocercus, Mayrornis. And then there's the other one. The one called Arses.

As rude words go, 'arse' is a pretty tame one, but certainly ruder than 'bum' or 'butt'. It's also one of those very satisfying words that is much better than its American equivalent (though apparently the two have quite different origins). Why be an ass when you can be an arse? All in all, I'm a fan. As I said to a friend just the other day, calling someone a 'silly arse' is one of my favourite reprimands and is about as insulting as I ever get. BUT I was very surprised (as well as deeply amused) to find that Arses is an actual, real scientific name for a genus of birds. Knowing what everyone says about Wikipedia, I even cross-checked several other less readily editable sources. But it's really real.

We must presume that René Primevère Lesson, who named the genus sometime in the 19th century, did not know that 'arses' was or would become a rather coarse English word for 'bottoms'. 'Arse' apparently comes either from ærs (Old English) or orros (Greek), both words for 'tail' or 'rump', and our René was French. Maybe it was a typo, or the 19th-century equivalent of a typo (a write-o?) and he meant Arsis. That's a proper Latin word - a 'metrical term indicating the raising of voice on an emphatic syllable' according to the dictionary - sounds like it could describe a bird's call. Or maybe he named the genus after his pal Pierre Etienne Arses. (Don't cross-check that, I made him up.) Who knows? (Not me. And I did try to find out.) It's probably not even pronounced 'arses' but 'ar-SEES'.

But, but. You would not find a genus of monarch-flycatchers called Fuckers. You just wouldn't, even if the name had been given centuries ago, was pronounced 'foo-CHAAS', and was derived from the Latin 'fuche' meaning 'inoffensive little flycatcher'. (Also made up.) None of that would matter, the genus would have been renamed.

This reminds me of my days at Birdwatch magazine. Like other publications, Birdwatch has a house style, but things were not quite clear-cut when it came to naughty words - clearly there could be no effing but I wasn't so sure about the blinding. Then I wrote a piece for the mag in which I used the word 'arse' (as part of quoted speech), and the editor passed it as fine. A few months later, another writer submitted a piece that included the word 'bollocks' (also in quoted speech) - and this time the editor changed it to something milder. So that was where the line was drawn - somewhere between 'arse' and 'bollocks'. And perhaps that line is universal in ornithology. Arses are just about A-OK.

Anyway, the important point of all this is that I've decided what the Wild Side Guide should be for - random wildlife-related and perhaps slightly sweary wafflings when I haven't been out looking at any actual wildlife for a while. I hope you enjoy it. And here's a photo from Wiki of the very beautiful Frill-necked Monarch, Arses lorealis. Cute little fucker, isn't it.