Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

If you look hard enough, the news is full of stories about climate change, loss of species and biodiversity, rising sea levels, the shrinkage of arctic sea ice and glaciers, increasing pollution, the destruction of forests and jungles, the depletion of earth’s natural resources, and so on. The coverage is relentless. And if you read for long enough, you might feel depressed and wonder if the human race is running out of time. Or perhaps you feel that scientists have got it wrong, and/or that humans with their limitless ingenuity can master these changes. Even if the population is projected to rise from 7,177,594,112 at the time of writing (link) to 10 billion by 2050. That’s 10,000,000,000 people.

krill, euphausiid, crustacean, antarctic, ocean

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are one of the most abundant and successful animal species on Earth. There are about 85 species of these open-ocean living crustaceans which are known as euphausiids (Photo: Stephen Brookes)

Well if that’s not enough, scientists are now warning that substantial reductions in the numbers of antarctic krill could have catastrophic consequences for marine mammals and birds in the cold oceans of the southern hemisphere. Krill? What are krill?

Krill are small crustaceans found in all the world’s oceans. In the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are the backbone of the food chain and are the primary food for penguins, seals, fish and whales. They make up an estimated biomass of over 500,000,000 tonnes, roughly twice that of humans on the planet, and may be the largest of any multi-cellular animal species on the planet. A study by the Australia’s Antarctic Division published in Nature Climate Change has found that once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean reach about 1,250 micro-atmospheres due to the oceans becoming more acidic as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, the numbers of krill eggs hatching successfully begins to decline dramatically. Some of the areas for krill already reach 550 micro-atmospheres.

krill, antarctic, happy two feet, film, brad pitt, matt damon

In the 2011 Australian-American 3D animated film, Happy Feet Two, Brad Pitt provides the voice of Will the Krill, and Matt Damon that of Bill the Krill. Will seeks a life outside of the swarm, with Bill following reluctantly, but they realise they are at the bottom of the food chain. Although Will tries to be a predator, they eventually return to the relative safety of the swarm. Hopefully these two cute crustaceans will raise the profile of this potentially threatened species.

As well as mammals, birds and fish being threatened, commercial fishing is currently taking around 200,000 tonnes of the crustacean from the same areas affected by the projected decline. The krill are used in food products, health supplements, and as feed for farmed fish.

These findings come as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources  – comprising 25 countries including the European Union – is considering proposals to protect thousands of species in the Southern Ocean from exploitation. The increasing acidification of earth’s oceans due to the burning of fossil fuels however will respect no such boundaries.


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GIamt Rat of Sumatra, Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

One of many books speculating on Sherlock Holmes’s confrontation with the Giant Rat of Sumatra

There was one story that Dr John Watson, biographer of Sherlock Holmes, did not reveal, in deference to his friend’s wishes. In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London, Arthur Conan Doyle writes that Holmes has received a letter from Morrison, Morrison and Dodd, a firm of solicitors. The letter says that they have recommended a Mr Ferguson, who has asked for their assistance in a matter concerning vampires, to contact Mr Holmes, adding at the end ‘We have not forgotten your successful action in the case of Matilda Briggs’. Holmes says to Watson, as an aside:

Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

How the ship, the rat, and the Indonesian island are related is left tantalisingly in the air. There are indeed giant rats in Sumatra, and the New York Times told us a lot more about the matter in 1983. Perhaps the creature was an unusually large specimen of the common ship rat (Rattus rattus), that was used in a plot, foiled by Holmes, to spread the bubonic plague through London. Alas we will never know since Watson arranged that his notes on the bizarre story of the giant rat should be held in the vaults of a London bank in perpetuity.

This has not however prevented innumerable books, plays and films being produced taking the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra one step further, including:

  • In Pursuit to Algiers, a 1945 Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Watson tells the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra to an audience on board a ship.
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 Doctor Who TV serial set in Victorian London, in which the hero (dressed in deerstalker, accompanied by a medical doctor with a housekeeper Mrs Hudson) confronts a giant rat in the sewers of London
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2010 novel by Paul D Gilbert, has Holmes investigating the mysterious reappearance of the long-overdue clipper Matilda Briggs.

The largest rat in Sumatra is the Mountain Giant Sunda Rat (Sundamys  infraluteus) which is 9 to 11.5 inches long, excluding the tail, and it weighs 230 to 600 grams, which makes it about twice the size of the common rat. Whether this is the rat to which Holmes was referring (or Doyle was thinking of) we don’t know. But if the public were to hear that rats of this size, carrying a deadly plague, were scuttling around under the streets of London, it would of course induce the greatest panic. And so, it must remain a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

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Dust jacket of the first book in the New Naturalist series, E B Ford's Butterflies

The dust jacket of the first book in the New Naturalist series, E B Ford’s Butterflies

The New Naturalist books are a series published by Collins on a variety of natural history topics relevant to the British Isles. It is the longest-running and arguably the most influential natural history series in the world with more than 100 volumes published over almost 70 years.

The first to appear was E B Ford’s Butterflies in 1945. The authors of the series are usually eminent experts, often professional scientists, giving the series authority. The books are written in scientific style, but are intended to be readable by the non-specialist, and are an early example of popular science in the media. Being a numbered series, with a very low print run for some volumes, they are highly collectable. Second-hand copies of the rarer volumes, in very good condition, can command high prices. There is a New Naturalist Collectors Club, which publishes three or four newsletters each year.

Some of the dust jackets for the books in the New Naturalist series

Some of the dust jackets for the books in the New Naturalist series

The dust jacket illustrations are stunning and have a distinctive style. Until 1985, the illustrations were done by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis. Since then Robert Gillmor has designed the dust jackets..

Volume 82, The New  Naturalists, describes the series to date, with authors’ biographies and a guide to collecting the books. A detailed history of the dust-jackets can be found in Art of the New Naturalists by Peter Marren, which was published by Collins in 2009. A full list of the 136 volumes that have been published to date can be found here.

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