All posts by Stephen Bolwell

Stephen Bolwell is a photographer, painter and writer. His blog - 'Take a Picture - Save the Planet' deals with both serious and light hearted environmental issues; he has a background in wildlife documentary filmmaking for television and posts short wildlife clips on YouTube.

A Tale of Two Pretties – Gannets and Sandwich Terns.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

2018-01-21-0017.FIX2.©.SMALL*What the Dickens does that mean?… Well, it was ‘the best of times’ when  I found myself on an Scottish island amongst thousands of nesting gannets totally indifferent to being photographed, allowing a wide angle lens to be placed almost under their beaks and in focus from here to ‘almost’ infinity – taking infinity to be that strange little 8 lying on its side at the far end of the focusing ring, otherwise known as a lemniscate.

‘The worst of times’ had already happened a month and a half earlier, at the opposite end of Britain. I managed to get myself dumped off on a very different sort of island to photograph a colony of sandwich terns; and the process hadn’t been easy, although the birds were at least co-operating by not moving, and this probably wasn’t a big plus for a movie, but worked well for stills – you can’ have everything. Their lack of mobility however could be forgiven – the birds were sitting on eggs. The two main problems at  this location were:  a limited working time – to avoid disturbing the birds; and from a photographic perspective:  a limited depth of field, because I had to work from a distance using a telephoto lens, which made focusing critical.

he focus falls just beyond th bird centre front which is problematic.
In this picture of sandwich terns the focus fell just behind the bird centre front, which was problematic.

The gannets it turned out would get photographed on a sunnier day, against the intensity of a cerulean blue sky that spread expansively over an indigo sea. The gannets were nesting on Bass Rock, spilling in numbers both down and across a huge outcrop that had thrust up to form a volcanic plug sometime during the Carboniferous Period. This plug is all that remains now of the volcano itself, exposed dramatically above the water’s surface it provided a variety of photo opportunities. At the time I might have thought the day arranged specifically for me – but that would be pushing it: by great good fortune and a look at the weather forecast, the light and setting proved spectacular on this particular day – I’d just got lucky. On another day, on the North sea off the East Coast of Scotland the outcome might have been very different.

Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.
Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.

The sandwich terns on the other hand were photographed nesting on a flat stoney beach which had to be viewed with a very different perspective providing little more than a letter box of a picture – a photo opportunity that would prove very much different from the gannet experience.

At the time, the terns appeared to be sited at the more benign location, set as it was, on a small island in a sheltered environment on the South coast of England. But oddly, it was this colony that faced the greater danger.

2018-01-20-0011.FIX.©.SMALL*The gannet’s nest site was a challenging outcrop exposed to the worst vagaries of The North Sea, but these are tough birds and they cope. The tern colony on the other hand was set on a low lying beach in Langstone Harbour, which seems a far easier proposition, but the reality is that the terns birds can be flooded out by a single high tide. It has happened before: such an event is disastrous for both eggs and chicks, and might even turn out to be problematic for the longterm survival of the whole colony.

My luck seemed to be going the same way as the the terns might in the very near future – they seemed to be only just above the high tide line, and for the first ten minutes I didn’t manage an usable shot. Where do you set focus on birds that are nesting thirty metres away on a slightly raised but essentially flat beach. I was also uncomfortable crouched as I was in the tidal zone with my rear end almost in the water, looking out from a slit in my rapidly erected and  flooding hide. Should I focus the telephoto lens on the tern front row, the second row, or the third?  A logistical nightmare that wouldn’t be a problem when I later worked the gannets close in with a wide angle lens. Here I had no alternative but to use a long lens which afforded minimal depth of field (that’s what can be held in focus from front to back), when attempting close ups of the sitting terns.

A better shot perhaps. The birds a re still and the wind only slight, so I increase my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and use a slower speed to get the foreground bird into focus, along with the second row.
This shot is better than the earlier picture. The birds were quite still, the wind slight, so I increased my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and compensated by using a slower shutter speed; this essentially brought the foreground bird into focus along with the second row.

And I wouldn’t be thinking about any of this, if I hadn’t opened a couple of boxes of 35mm slides out of curiosity, when tidying my office. These were tiny reminders of adventures from the past – images that had been made almost as an afterthought back in 1993.

The sandwich terns were taken on the afternoon of 27th May when a conservation organisation allowed me 40 minutes on tern island. I had been set down from a small boat , leaving just enough time to put my hide up, film the colony, and get off without bothering the birds. They were sitting on eggs, which is a sensitive phase that usually I avoid, because nesting birds on an open beach are vulnerable, and I was anxious not to put them because there were black-headed gulls just waiting for an opportunity to move in on a tasty warm egg.

The gulls were also a problem because they kept messing up my shot by landing in the foreground, placing themselves between me and the terns.  It was tricky, but I managed enough shots for a film sequence, before grabbing a few stills. The sky was overcast, but fortuitously bright; with very little in the way of wind to vibrate the camera or spook the birds, and they remained largely indifferent to my presence. After a very short time I was clambering back into the boat that had returned to collect me. As the vessel moved steadily away, the birds receded into the distance, and very soon became indistinguishable from the pebbles on the beach.

 Getting a good image gets a little easier perhaps when featuring a single bird. Terns really are supreme in the air and when you notice their legs it looks as if landing was and afterthought - at a distance you migth not easily notice whether they are standing up or sitting down.
Getting an image was easier when featuring a single bird. Terns are supreme in the air, but once on the ground you at once notice that their legs are too short for their bodies – as if landing was afterthought, and at a distance you might not easily recognise whether they were sitting down or standing up.

On the gannet outing there was more time to take pictures, and despite there being a film crew present, our party made very little disturbance. We moved with great care, hugging the slim pathways between colony members, the birds largely ignoring us. None were snappy, which was fortunate because much of the time I was working well within pecking distance and given their density it was impossible to stay beyond the beak range of a great many birds wherever you were on the island.

2018-01-21-0016.FIX.©.SMALLI filmed both the gannets and the programme presenter Chris Packham over a morning and an afternoon on 5th July. Working with friends I was given plenty of time to take stills pictures, and during the course of the day shot several hours of video. I suggested that we might hold a cassette back because there was so much material, but our director wouldn’t hear of it. All the tapes will now most likely be in landfill as production and T.V. companies can’t log and shelve everything – the alternatives back then were to either reuse the tapes, or simply dump them.

The only problem with Bass Rock was getting the gear and ourselves on and off the island. The skill of the boatmen who calmly made this possible, can’t be underestimated as there were both currents and a swells to deal with. The real problems start when you want to get off of a rocky island, because you wouldn’t be on it in the first place unless the weather was fair. Once in place there is a tendency to grab the opportunity to stay for as long as possible, but as the day progresses, the weather can turn nasty and decrease your chances of getting off safely. To a lesser extent this happened that day, with the boat rising and dropping several feet as we synchronised handing over the gear and then followed as if we were joining a carnival ride whist it was fully operating  – timing was everything – anything that went into the water now would almost certainly be lost forever. 

2018-01-21-0006.FIX.©.SMALL*During 1993 I was busy working on a variety of projects and usually didn’t have time to look at my stills when they arrived back from processing. The images were in any case usually grabbed at the last moment, as I never worked primarily as a stills photographer. My technique was rather ad hoc, usually I took shots by balancing my stills camera on top of the cine, which was at least set on a tripod and everything was done very quickly. Usually, there was little time to take stills after filming was completed and I didn’t expect to achieve much in the way of usable material, consequently, many of my transparencies were never looked at.

Back in the 1990s, when I wasn’t working, I was playing with my children. Stills photography was essentially a by-product of the job, and to my mind didn’t feature prominently in my life, although I carried a camera as frequently as some people would wear a watch, and would record rather than notice the passage of time. Now, nearly 25 years on, my old transparencies are bringing back happy memories – the idea that you should never look back must always be tempered by whether you can remember doing anything interesting.

Gannet parent with chick.

In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of money in taking stills pictures, unless you really worked hard at it  to the exclusion of everything else. When you did send your originals off to a magazine for publication, they would often dutifully scratch or lose them, usually with great distain, as if it was a publishers duty to be incompetent. Sometimes they would pay a fee for the use of a picture, but usually this barely covered the price of the film stock – it was insulting, and a total waste of time; so I never sent out pictures even when requested to do so, and when ‘the book of the film’ went into production my pictures were, in most cases… never there.

So it was that only a few of my slides made it out of their boxes. I’d hold one up to the light for a squint and check for correct exposure… then put them away again. Were they in focus? How would I ever know without projecting them? It now seems a pity to have waited so long to bring them to light, because even by old film standards the results turned out better than expected.

The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for the Channel 4 series 'Wildshots'.
The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for Chris Packham’s  Channel 4 series ‘Wild Shots’.

I must admit to have really enjoyed working on this series. It was the first time I’d used video on a project for television – at the time a great deal was being shot on magnetic tape. Previously I’d always worked with 16mm film, and must acknowledge the delight that comes from filming and editing programmes in this medium, but back then video provided some advantages that are still with us today when utilising digital photography.

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One advantage of video tape and modern digital systems is that they capture more information than film is capable of in low light conditions. The first video shots I took on the series were on a dank miserable day in the New Forest  – there was very little light and it rained almost continuously, so it was a surprise to me that these autumnal scenes and close ups displayed such good exposure and colour saturation. If I had been working on film, I doubt that I would have taken the camera out of its bag because the results would have been so poor. 

On tape and with modern digital cameras, colour saturaltion is often very good even in poor light.
With tape and modern digital cameras, colour saturation is often very good even when the light was poor.

I grew up with film, but am now a great advocate of electronic systems. For years I dragged myself through the dark ages of emulsions carried on celluloid until, with the 21t Century, came improvements in digital photography that continue to the present day. With such advances, only a person with their feet set firmly in concrete, would go back and preferentially use film. Nostalgia is exactly what the word says – it has nothing to do with progress.

Having said that, a film negative might in the end last longer in storage than a digital image – only time will tell. Part of the problem lies in the rapidity with which storage methods are changing rather than the image itself. You might record a really great picture, but with technology now moving so fast, there will in future be limited options to view it. 

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2018-01-23-0006.FIX.©.SMALLThere is then a positive side to old methods, not only can film capture historically significant events and retain them, it can also provide old data to compare how things were in the past with how they are now and by extrapolation, how they will be in the future.

When videoing the gannets on Bass Rock back in 1993, I was told there were 18,000 gannets nesting on the island, but suspect that I ,or somebody else misinterpreted that figure by a factor of ten. The correct number is more likely to have been 180,000, because the number today runs at about 150,000 birds and I can’t imagine squeezing 162,000 more into the available space that I experienced on my first and only visit. Whatever the case this location now has the largest colony of nesting gannets in the Northern Hemisphere and that’s impressive.

This kind of colonial behaviour provides a good opportunity to note any changes in bird numbers over time by comparing old pictures with new; and technology is always improving the possibilities. Drones for example, might now fly directly overhead to provide more carefully standardised comparisons, and should be achievable without causing disturbance to the birds and at very little cost. 

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Animals that we wrongly term ‘from the lower orders’, insects for example, have populations that may fluctuate considerably from one year to another; and the same is true for many amphibians – their populations often rebounding very quickly because individuals can produce large numbers of offspring.

However, for animals that reproduce more slowly, the story is different: birds and mammals do not usually show such rapid fluctuations, although it is important to note that there are times when populations might rapidly change in line with predator prey relationships and strategies. It is nevertheless ironic that we have now hit upon photographic techniques that in future might record some animal populations more accurately at a time when so many of them are in rapid decline; this is almost exclusively down to our insatiable desire to utilise more of the Planet’s surface, whilst increasing human populations beyond reason.

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The good news is that despite declining fish stocks the gannets on Bass Rock appear to be holding their own; which runs contrary to much that is happening in the natural world. Perhaps the best way to deal with present events is, at ‘the worst of times’, to react quickly to remedy a bad situation, whilst viewing more positively ‘the best of times’ fully celebrating the ups when they occur.

The success of a single colony of seabirds is certainly cause for celebration, and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed this impressive natural wonder, moving as it is in the right direction against a general tide of bad environmental news to become the world’s largest gannet colony.

 

My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.

The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after filling with water.
The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after fit was filled with water.

During the summer dragonflies arrive to fly over our garden in numbers – they simply come to feed on insects – taking a break from the hassles that life throws at them when they are hanging around their breeding pond.  I have counted as many as a dozen at any one time doing circuits and bumps, and none could truly be described as resident… But, as soon as our new pond was filled with water, a male instantly took to patrolling and hovering in front of me as I worked; the insistence that this was now his territory was encouraging.

Later that day a couple of females of the same species arrived; and with a metallic rattle of wings seemed held by the glimmering surface as if drawn by a magnet. Soon they began laying eggs, which was impressive for a pond that was only a day and a half old. Clearly, when you get things right nature quickly lets you know.

Every afternoon this male dragonfly shows up to eyeball me. Suddenly there is water and now this is his territory and doesn't want me around, which I find rather encouraging.
On late afternoons this male dragonfly would show up to eyeball me as I worked around the pond. I am not an expert on North American species, but both behaviour and markings suggest this to be a variable darner Aeshna interupta – one of several Mosaic Darners species to be found along the west coast of Canada. On a 400mm lens it is easy to throw the background out and concentrate on the subject, but maintaining focus on an insect in flight isn’t quite so easy, even when it is hovering.
A female lays on recently introduced pond weed.
A female lays on recently introduced pond vegetation (lower centre) before I’ve even finished covering the surrounding liner.

Darners are large dragonflies so named because their abdomens are long and thin; which must have suggested to somebody in the past that they looked like darning needles.

At first the females laid their eggs in the water, with their abdomens partially submerged, but when the pond was about three weeks old and summer was turning to fall they began laying in the grooves of log bark above the waterline. I wondered if they had perhaps lost their senses, but then considered they might be enhancing the chances of their eggs hatching as water temepratures began to drop and warmer conditions prevailed above the waterline during daylight hours.

Within  a few days it came onto rain heavily which is to be expected on Canada’s west coast at this time of year and soon the logs at the ponds edge were partially submerged. Millions of years of evolution has selected for the most exacting behaviours, but maybe I am making a naturalist’s observation here that won’t hold up under more careful scrutiny – there’s a science project here for somebody – I’ve seen successful Phd’s start out on flimsier grounds.

Two females laying clomse by one another in a pond that has barely been in place a month. Not so much of a theme park for them - this is the real thing!
Two well camouflaged females laying close by one another in a pond that has existed for less than a month. I have rarely seen two females laying this closely together in the wild, so this is encouraging. For them, my pond edge arrangement is not a contrived theme park but part of nature.

The arrival of my first ‘true’  bugs.

WIMG_7789***.FIX.©.SMALLithin a couple of weeks I saw two water boatmen fly in: one landed on the water and dived down before quickly returning to the surface; it took off at once but dropped straight back through the silver mirror as if this extraordinary insect couldn’t quite believe its luck. Over the same period half a dozen pond skaters also showed up and were soon busy feeding on insects unlucky enough to have fallen onto the water’s surface. 

Pond skaters show up.
The first pond skaters soon showed up. 
Pond plants seen enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed - Polygonum amphibious quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the pond.
Pond plants seem to be enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed – Polygonum amphibium quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the new pond.

Much of the photography that I do is exacting, but if the situation allows I prefer to work quickly, which is often necessary when photographing wildlife. Sitting around waiting for stuff to happen is a waste of time; so, usually I set my camera up on a tripod and get busy doing other things until something does.

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This water boatman was removed from the pond using a net and then photographed in a small plastic salad box (left outdoors to collect rainwater to benefit indoor plants). The container has developed a film of algae across its base and various bits of vegetable material have fallen in, providing a background that looks very natural.

Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifolita produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.
Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.

I used a more than five year old Canon 60D digital camera, with a favoured 55mm Micro-NIKKOR lens – this purchased secondhand in the mid-1970s when I first started filming wildlife for the B.B.C.. For many years it travelled around the world  with me surviving everything from the fine dust of deserts, to the humidity of tropical forests. It has never been taken to bits to be cleaned and is as good today as when I bought it.

Some of these early lenses are said to be better optically than many made today – I won’t make that claim, but without doubt they are tougher. I used a conversion ring bought for less than $10 to attach the NIKKOR micro lens to my Canon: but don’t attach any non-standard lenses to your camera until you have checked that doing so will not cause damage – in particular to the metering system.

My old 35mm macro Nikor lens with a converter to CANON EOS Camera body - It is best toonly use such inexpensive fixes if you know what you are doing.
My old 55mm macro NIKKOR lens with a converter to Canon EOS Camera body – it is best to use such inexpensive fixes only if you know what you are doing.

If there are no obstructions and the lens fits easily there should be no problems, but it is important not to suddenly flood the camera’s sensor with light as this may cause irrepairable damage.

Old Nikon lenses prior to1959 won’t fit on new Nikon cameras let alone Canon cameras, but  F mount lenses made after 1959 will attach to new 35 mm SLR Nikon bodies. I can therefore fit my old Nikon lenses to my Nikon D5200 or to my SLR Canon cameras although I don’t expect to achieve either automatic metering or focus. I often set apertures and speeds manually, so this isn’t a problem as I’ve been looking through cameras for many years now, and can guess settings fairly accurately without using a metre and still get things in focus by twiddling a focus ring.

I utilized a small four and a quarter inch (11cm) square bathroom tile mirror to reflect sunlight back onto the bug. Lying on the ground, supported on my elbows, I took a deep breath and snapped several pictures, holding the camera in my right hand, because the mirror was in my left. Two elbows and a torso can make a fairly stable tripod for speeds faster than 1/60th second, but you really shouldn’t expect pin sharp images when doing macro or telephoto work without a tripod. Focus was made by simply moving my head and camera backwards and forwards, having already preselected a  point of focus my turning the lens ring. When using a tripod I have a mount (pictured below) that allows the camera to be moved back and forth along two straight bars; this looks very professional, but I rarely attach it for stills photography, preferring instead to push the back leg of my tripod with my foot which achieves a similar result and often more quickly. Sometimes working fast is of the essence and it really doesn’t matter how you get the job done.

A small focusing system on rails that I only use for very small subjects - focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the camera and lens backwards and forwards, consequently there is no need to readjust the focus ring on the lens. Made in Britain is etched on the side - so it must be old!
A small focusing system on rails used only for very small subjects – focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the mounted camera and lens along the bars, consequently there is no need to re-adjust the focus ring on the lens which might cause vibration – especially when working with cine or video. Made in Britain is etched on the side – so it must be quite old!

I spent twenty minutes on the project, taking perhaps a dozen pictures, two of which have been reproduced in this article. The water boatman was soon returned to the pond, presumably  now believing in God, and busy converting other water boatmen to his beliefs as they arrive on a daily basis. But, so far, he is the only one to have seen that special light that shone from above; as for the others – well, they just think they have.

Under the circumstances, the pictures I took were reasonable, demonstrating that it is possible to get good close ups without great expenditure. The main reason I started my career with macro photography was, that in the early days, I couldn’t afford the quality telephoto lenses necessary to take good pictures of animals inclined to keep their distance. Everybody has to start somewhere, but once you get the hang of it, most photography is a piece of cake – just as long as you put the time in to practice – in my case that would be around 40 years. And the other thing… if set to automatic modern cameras do almost everything for you – so, what’s not to like?

The large darner dragonflies

that arrived almost as soon as the pond was filled, were I thought, best photographed using a long lens around 400mm., at the shortest point I could make the thing focus; I set my working distance a little beyond to give some focusing leeway, and was just far enough away to avoid disturbing my subject, providing I moved slowly.

Many manufacturers produce  close up (macro or micro) lenses that are set around 100mm or less, but at these focal lengths it is necessary to get very close to a subject (as was the case with the water boatman). But most flying predatory insects have well developed eyes sensitive to visual disturbance; and dragonflies are near the top of the list.

The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.
The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.

I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom for all the dragonfly pictures but one; and common to many upmarket telephoto zooms, this is a bulky, heavy and expensive item. Using cheaper lenses usually involves compromise, and may involve a loss of definition at the long end of the zoom, which is frequently down to the lenses inability to stabalize a moving object at a distance.

On a fixed 400mm lens, a sight made from an old wire coat hanger can be looped around the lens hood to quickly target a subject, but when using a zoom, I find it just as easy to locate subjects using the 100mm wide end and crash zoom in to the full 400mm. Even the excellent Canon zoom has issues when fully zoomed in – although the updated 100-400mm US II has superior stabilizing capabilities and regarded as a better lens. However, the problem is less noticeable on the older lens when framing small animals that are close, and better still when they are hardly moving, a situation that is improved by always using a tripod.

This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera with an inbuilt lens. Not an expensive camera, but a bit more than just a point and shoot - it has a good macro fascility, and the advantage of Panasonic digital develpment combined with a Leica lens.  For this shot I needed to be very lose - the dragonfly had closed down to rest for the night and by moving slowly I was able to get this shot without causing a disturbance.
This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera which has a built in lens, and although not a new or expensive camera, is a bit more than just a point and shoot. It has the advantage of Panasonic digital development combined with a Leica lens with a macro facility. For this shot I needed to be very close – the dragonfly was resting and ready to overnight and with the use of a monopod, and by moving slowly, I was able to get very close without causing a disturbance.

Under extreme circumstances, expensive gear usually produces better results – for example, the provision of an extra stop to open the lens up when working in low light conditions and still maintain image quality; this a plus for many photographers, but  such additions don’t come cheap. The good news is that there are many less expensive cameras without all the bells and whistles that can still produce good results under optimal conditions. 

Photography essentially boils down to three things: the focal length of a lens, the framing of an image… and finally, making a correct exposure. Assume for arguments sake that the focal length of the lens is fixed and that most of us can frame an image (although this isn’t a given), the only thing left to consider is, how best to achieve the exposure. And that’s a tricky because different shutter speeds and apertures will produce different results: a slow shutter speed will provide motion blur on a moving object for example, and the lenses aperture will affect the crispness of an image as well as how much of the subject is in focus from front to back.
There is a simple relationship between shutter speed and lens aperture for making an exposure – it’s a wedding of compromise: because the amount of light needed for an exposure is an constant, an increase in shutter speed inevitably requires a reduction of lens apeture and visa versa. These blocks of time and aperture are conveniently equal on your camera set up and so changing a setting is simple, although many people prefer to rely entirely on fully automatic settings, but because the various combinations are capable of such different results, it is helpful to understand which works best for the picture you want to achieve.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to get interesting pespectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites - none are new or expensive and I often set them on the macro setting to get wilidlfe close ups.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to shoot a variety of  perspectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites – none are new or expensive and I often set them on the  macro setting when trying to achieve interesting wildlife close ups.
It is also important to recognize that different lenses have different focal lengths and each of these changes the look and perspective of a picture, with none of them exactly duplicating the way we see things with our eyes.  Photography relies to a large extent upon illusion, utilizing the brain’s habit of rejigging what we see to make sense of the outside world, essentially tapping into our innate ability to recognize the familiar.
It was fun for a moment to claim a compromise of  the wedded couple, shutter speed and lens aperture, but there is a third consideration that makes this match into a love triangle – the new variable is a change of emulsion speed (when film is used), or an increase in sensor sensitivity with a digital camera, with the result that pictures may be taken in lower levels of light. There is however, no such thing as a free lunch – faster emulsions produce grainier images; and now that film emulsions have been superceded by camera sensors, the grain has been replaced by another form of degradation termed ‘noise’. Having said that, the technological advances of digital cameras has progressed so rapidly in recent years, that some can now produce very good pictures in extremely low light.
With macro photography, keeping side on to the subject keeps much of the subject on the ame focal plane and optimises the chances of an in focus picture.
With macro photography, staying side on to a long slim subject will maintains most of an animals body at a set distance from the camera and optimize the chances of an in focus picture.

I’ve left the best bit till last –

there’s one thing in particular that is crucial to the way a macro picture will look and that is ‘depth of field’, which is especially important to the wildlife pictures I’ve taken here. When a lens is stopped down to make the aperture smaller, ‘depth of field’ increases. Put simply, ‘depth of field’ is everything that is in focus from front to back either side of the exact point you choose to most critically focus.  A lot of other stuff matters as well, for example – the focal length of the lens, and how close you are to the subject… but these things often cloud the issue and no matter what you hear, the key thing to remember is that you can’t defy physics.

If you take a picture from the same position and from the same distance, the ‘depth of field’, both with a wide angle and then a telephoto lens, remains the same. What happens is, a wide angle lens magnifies the subject less than a telephoto lens, and consequently more of the image appears to be in focus. Because I’ve never read a book on photography or taken a lesson on the subject, it took me seven years to figure this out; and believe me, what you work out for yourself, rather than accept from others without question, leaves less room for doubt. Most of the differences we notice relate to the lenses that we use and the distance we use them at.

This is not a bad picture - the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this gives a better chance of maintaining focus across the whole of the insects body as much of it remains close to the same plane.
This is not a bad picture – the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this provides a better chance of maintaining focus across the insects body as so much of of it remains close to the same plane.

A lot of people like to use low f stop numbers to create a very narrow  ‘depth of field'; because doing so concentrates interest on just one region of the picture. For example a portrait photographer might use an 80mm lens, (often regarded as the best focal length to most naturally render a human head and shoulders), and focus on the eyes whilst opening the lens aperture up to maximum – this creates a very shallow depth of field, drawing attention to the eyes, by throwing quite a lot else out of focus – in particular the background, making for a very stylized kind of picture. Focus is therefore critical when using wide open apertures on all but the widest angle lenses, and getting eyes perfectly in focus might  mean the even the tip of a nose won’t be sharp, especially if your subject is a regular Pinocchio. 

I mention this to highlight that there are many different ways to take photographs and perhaps because a lot of my film career has featured small animals, I have moved in the opposite direction to this portrait photography style, using macro lenses and stopping them down to f16, f22 and f32 to achieve the greater depth of field I can. Sometimes this requires more light than nature can provide and I have in the past used artificial cold light in a studio situation (because many insects aren’t so much troubled by light as by heat), although I prefer when I can to use only natural light and mirrors. Optimally the lens is giving its best results around f8 to f11, but when taking macro pictures I usually consider a greater depth of field to be my priority.
In the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm Nirror macro lenses and I still use them.
During the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm NIKOR macro lenses and still use them today.
So, how are things changed by using a longer lens, a 400mm, which is relevant here because all of the dragonfly pictures taken  in this article – bar one – were taken at this focal length. Put simply, the depth of field seems narrower than it does on a wider lens, but we’ve been through this and it’s just an illusion, but on the 400 mm lens the depth of field does becomes more critical when taking a close up of an egg laying dragonfly at a slight distance. This in contrast to the picture of the resting dragonfly I took on my Lumix camera (on the vine) which has better focus throughout because I was using a wide angle lens setting and and very close to the subject. i.e.  a matter of inches rather than of feet as is the case with the telephoto pictures, this changes the perspective and makes a very different kind of picture.
Likewise the picture of the small water boatman taken on a 55mm macro lens works quite well because the lens is close and I’ve also managed the ‘depth of field’ by keeping the bugs body surface running along the same plane and thus narrowed ‘depth of field’ required to hold focus, but once this has been done focus once again becomes critical and there is no room for error.

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This picture was taken on f16 at 1/125 Sec. I selected midway long the body as my point of critical focus which allows most of the probing abdomen of the egg laying dragonfly to remain in focus, but the front end of the head is just beginning to lose it.

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This picture was also taken at f16 at 1/125 Sec, but this time I have brought my critical focusing point forward – the head is in focus now, but the abdomen is going slightly out. The first picture is the nicer frame, but the second might be regarded as technically better… but of course, it also depends on how the picture is viewed. Blow the top picture up full frame as a page illustration and you might notice the head going soft, but used as a smaller picture it might well be considered the better image.

I am not against ‘happy accidents’, but it makes more sense to try to understand how best to deal with depth of field for your specific needs. Some photographers are less bothered about achieving this wide ranging depth of field and what I might chuck out they will feature – it’s a matter of taste. And if you just want to achieve a really crisp well lit image, then there’s always flash photography. Used correctly you won’t know the difference they tell you… Well, yes you will. I’ve never travelled down the ‘Chocolate Box School of Photography’ route, but many have, and their success rate is higher than mine. Everything in the end is a matter of opinion – it just depends on how you want to present your view of the world, using the artfulness of photography. There are really no right or wrong ways to take a picture – and if you are trying something different and it works… this has to be a plus.

 

 

 

 

The Natural Garden – Building a Pond for Wildlife Photography.

I presently tend a mid-sized suburban garden just south of Vancouver; close to the coast and the U.S border, with the climate about as temperate as Canada has to offer. Rarely is the weather extreme and it rains fairly regularly. All things considered, not a bad place to tend a garden, but ours has one glaring oversight… it doesn’t have a water feature..

It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer in the  pond that I built in my parents garden.
It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer, in the first pond that I built in my parents garden, when I was a teenager.

I’m fond of garden ponds and over the years have built several – mostly using  concrete, which usually provides a sense of permanence; but the pond I am presently working on has been dug in soft sandy soil, where it is more practical to use a pond liner.

This will be the biggest pond I’ve installed so far, with a surface area of  a little under 600 square feet, an area that is expansive in relation to the whole garden – a situation that provides one major advantage… it takes up space, reducing the amount of land that would otherwise need tending in a more traditional labour intensive way; and in addition, a larger pond that has both shallow and deeper water, where pond plants are plentiful, will stabilise as a viable eco-system more quickly than a smaller volume of water.

Using nature as a reference:

P1290151.©.SMALLIt’s good to have a natural pond in mind during construction, but there are no plans to build a miniature version of the wild. The intention is to steal ideas from nature, which, with the benefit of time, has worked things out pretty well.

There are many good reasons for creating garden ponds; they will certainly increase the bio-diversity of urban spaces and improve things by as much as a third. 

The presence of water can be calming and my wife sees the value in that, but my interests are related more directly to wildlife photography, and a naturalistic pond will allow me to take pictures of plants and animals living in and around fresh water without having to travel more than a few metres from the house.

Build it and they will come -

They’ being wild animals… mostly small creatures such as amphibians and insects – in particular the ones that rely upon water as an integral part of their lifestyle needs. When flora an fauna are biologically committed to what you have on offer, it is difficult for a project to fail.

During the 1970s and 80 regularl photgraphed toads visiting my parents pond, but for many years common toad numbers in Britain have been in steep decline;and  I find it rather depressing
During the 1970s and 80s I regularly photographed and filmed European common toads spawning in my parent’s garden pond during early spring, but sadly, their numbers have gone into steep decline in recent years.

The difference between the pond that I am creating and many others is that I am committed to a natural look, and will use the skills I’ve learnt over the years to dress the area appropriately, so that it might double as a film set. 

 In summer it will be necessary to cut back weed growth, and during fall scoop leaves from the surface, but there won’t be the continual round of weeding, planting and mowing common to most land based garden areas.

Previously we lived in New Zealand and I never built a pond, just a bucket on the deck - even with minimal water it is sometimes surprising what shows up.
During our time in New Zealand I didn’t have time to built a pond. We just had a bucket on the deck – even with such a minimal amount of water it is surprising what shows up.

I haven’t been slow to move the pond along during the autumn months, but will admit to digging the pond over a longer period of time, due to a troublesome back, and also because I have quite a lot else to do. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the process has involved a lot of hard work, because the soil here is light and sandy, although there has been quite a lot of it to move.

Had I started the project in our front garden, with its heavy underlying base of slipper clay and shallow top soil, I doubt I would have made much progress without a mechanical digger. The area I did chose could not have been more different, at the back end of the garden the soil is fortuitously sandy and runs to a considerable depth. On the down side, heavy machinery would have been difficult to operate here without crumbling or compressing the soil, especially with my lack of experience with a digger. But as most of us can work efficiently with a spade if we have the time, I didn’t see a problem and did my best to view this arduous process as very good exercise.

The selected site in the back garden dropped about a foot over its length and I used soil from the back end of the excavation to build banks up the front. This was essential because a pond on a slope is technically a river and the water will always end up somewhere else. A spirit level was therefore an essential tool, but I did little more than run a taught string from front to back and  make regular checks to gauge where the future water level would be.

P1280709.FIX.©.SMALLBefore starting I had to get a permit to fell two trees – the remains of a long gone badly managed hedge, they were now a danger to my neighbours property, and situated on the southern border of our property, they cut out the light. To make a success of the project, both would have to go.

Overall, a garden pond doesn’t need to be very deep, but a better balance can be maintained if in some places it gets down to around a couple of feet in depth. This is best achieved near the centre and not at the edge. A gentle gradation from around the sides is far more natural, and important for a variety of reasons.

Water plants require different depths depending on their preferences – some will do best with just their roots in water – water buttercup for example; others such as water lilies and bogbean need to be totally submerged, and will push their leaves and flower stems up to the surface during the warmer months of the year.

IMG_6884.FRAME.©.SMALL2The Yellow waterlily Nuphar polysepalum is a native water plant (although it may originate from the eastern side of North America). In contrast, many colourful water-lilies are introductions.

It is very important to exercise common sense in any garden where pets and children are spending time: if smaller children in particular are playing close by, a pond should always be covered with some form of supporting mesh.

When the dig is complete I am keen to move the process along as quickly as possible and sort out the surrounding garden. This will involve everything from new fencing covered with climbing plants (which will improve and soften reflections in the water), to organising the border areas as sympathetically as possible, with the back half of the garden given over to native flowering plants that will help draw in local wildlife.

P1280894.FIX.©.SMALLHere the digging out is almost completed. The stump of one of the felled trees has been left to rot out naturally, and a bird nesting hole with an interior nest site has been created at the top. There are also slits for bats and a vine has been planted at the base to eventually cover the old trunk to make it more aesthetically pleasing. With the trees gone there is now enough light to maintain a healthy pond. 

Another good reason for proving shallow slopes into the water is to create a place where insect and amphibian larvae can develop without high levels of predation; hungry fish in particular are a problem and won’t be introduced into our pond. This will also prevent the nitrification of water from fish poo, and reduce algal blooms. I appreciate that the temptation to introduce fish will be too great for some, but if the intention is to boost pond bio-diversity, goldfish, koi and any other large predators should be avoided.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost other creature smaller than themselves.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost any other creature smaller than themselves.

In direct sunlight shallow areas will  warm  more quickly than deeper areas. It is a broad generalisation tin natureo claim that chemical reaction times will double for every 10 degree rise in temperature; as with biological systems there are limitations as to how warm an organism can get before it become physiologically stressed, but there is no doubt, that over a small range, amphibian and insect larvae will develop more quickly when conditions are warmer, providing there is adequate food and oxygen. The quicker that a larva develops, the better are its chances of survival, and the very first to hatch and begin growing may end up feeding on late starters, and certainly this is the case for the young of many amphibians. The strategy has been developed by many species living in small ponds that will dry out during the summer months. Garden ponds are not usually allowed to do this, and that’s another good reason for not introducing large predators into a garden pond – they flourish until they have eaten everything else!

P1280898.FRAME.©.SMALLEven though the pond base is sandy, and I’m using a quality 1 mm thick pond liner, every inch of the base and sides has to be sifted of stones. I start from the centre and work out and admittedly, this is a time consuming drag, but essential if the rubber base is to be protected. Done properly, it will improve the chances of the liner surviving for 25 years or more.

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There was clearly a burn and bury here – probably when the house was built  – to clear rubbish, and all had to be carefully removed  as rusty nails and twisted shards of glass will puncture any pond liner.

MVI_6761 STILL.FRAME.©When I started working on the inside of the house, I saved the old carpets to line the pond. I don’t like anything synthetic going onto soil, but a degraded carpet layer can be cleared if the pond is ever decommissioned and certainly it is more useful here than in landfill.

IMG_6775.FIX.©.SMALLThe liner in place, the pond was filled  with water, allowing it’s weight to contour the rubber liner – aided by some judicious tugging to flatten out creases. Many people will empty a new pond after a few days and refill it, but that’s a terrible waste of water and quite unnecessary if you can live without fish. There is nothing much else to do once the liner is organised and I start getting plants in well before the pond was filled.

I had already installed a very small pond in our garden when we moved in, using a small piece of liner bought in the mid 1980s. It was a remnant from a larger pond installation, and has travelled around the  word with me for a good many years to become part of many temporary sets during the filming of small animals. In its latest incarnation I’ve managed to grow on various small aquatic plants that can now be moved across into the newly completed pond.

It is a good idea to visit a local pond after a storm and remove small pieces of vegetation that have broken from the various water plants that live there, but it is necessary to get to them before the ducks do. It is unwise to bring plants in from a distance as what suits your area best will be growing locally, and it is very important not to introduce pest species. Almost anything you need can be bought from an aquarium shop, but who knows where it has come from? If a friendly neighbour is having a pond clear out, it is wise to make use of it. Where I live in Canada, garden ponds are less common than they perhaps should be; and where they do exist are often too ornamental and busy with goldfish to be very helpful to native wildlife.

P1290196.FIX.©.SMALLThere is a small hump at the edge of the pond that prevents garden run off; once over this the depression behind is filled with a layer of sandy base soil, this is then covered with layers of smooth stones. Finally, small plants are added to grow amongst them. This wet area at the front of the pond is essentially a pebble beach. But along the back and sides I have used mosses and ferns that are commonly found in the damp rainy conditions of our area, many of these have been grown on by placing fallen branches in shady areas of the garden. Each of us might use what is natural to our own area.

I try to make my mini-landscapes appear as realistic as possible. Over the years I have build a lot of sets that have been used to photograph small animals and I approach the pond decor with the same attention to detail, but with the understanding that in this case things need to be more permanent.

P1290200.FIX.©.SMALLI begin to make use of the cut trunks from the felled trees by cutting cookies to walk on – none are placed on the liner itself, and all have a protective pad of thick rubber beneath them.

P1290194.FIX.©.SMALLThe job is certainly painstaking, because every stone that goes into the pond or comes into contact with the liner has to be hand selected.

Using sand and stones in this dipped peripheral area will reduce nitrogen run off into the water and help prevent algal blooms.

To make things look natural, larger stones need to be clumped together as if a stream or river had perhaps arranged them hundreds or even thousands of years ago – rather than somebody like me having done so yesterday.

P1290296.FIX.©.SMALLAt this point I am about half way to creating the illusion of a pond just a few days after the digging process has been completed. I will move the fallen branch temporarily and hack away at the ends to provide a more natural look. Obviously, sharp tools must never be used anywhere near the rubber liner. 

Some might consider my efforts to be on the verge of theatre with a distinctly theme park feel ,which is true only up to a point, after the liner is installed everything above it is quite natural and many plants will creep across hard surfaces, especially where there is water, and as roots grow and interweave they will eventually hold the basic structure together.

Up and just over the hump that separates the land from the water I have used moist play pit sand to form a base, because it doesn’t contain much in the way of nutrients (especially if it has been washed thoroughly), which might otherwise flush into the pond. The liner forms the base of a gully that lips up along the backside to retain water and conditions moist, acting as a suitable substrate for more primitive plants – such as mosses and ferns, that might be grown there.

I haven't seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I've seen then from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants with their familiar post-apocalyptic style.
I haven’t seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I’ve seen them from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants in their familiar post-apocalyptic style.

The stones are layered deep enough for the liner to be well covered, but they won’t stay in place if a raccoon or some other creature visits and decides to shift them around, but that’s true of any part of a garden that has been visited by any beast that arrives with the malicious intent of a masked marauder, as raccoons so often do. They are not always welcome, but I tolerate them.

Other than the wild animals drawn to the pond, I will be the only one walking along the cookies to micro manage the environment, so I won’t have to worry about guests falling in. This is presently be an illusion of the natural world, but the longer things are left to themselves, the more natural they will become; and increasingly provide a habitat for a great many animals, that although small, will play their part in this developing ecosystem.

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It was no trouble to stash moss covered logs for a couple of years when the garden was shaded by the now felled trees. Repositioned close by the pond these mossy supports remain healthy because the pond overflows directly into the gully keeping things moist along the edge of the pond in the places where I didn’t cut back the liner. Most pond building advice suggests that you should trim the overlap, but I prefer to make use of it wherever possible. This peripheral area will remain mostly wet, but will require a little watering during the dryer months of the year – although this will be more of a spray than a thorough dousing.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.

Once the fences are covered in climbers, the background reflections in the pond will create a very natural feel and the sky reflected in the surface adds another dimension to this new environment.

The pond was finished before fall began to make its presence felt, and this is a good growing time. I begin moving plants from my small nursery pond as soon as I can, and achieve quite a lot in only a few days. The partially established water-plants quickly increase their root and leaf systems under the new conditions. If plants grow well without too much help, it is a sign that you’re getting things right. 

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Winter came early on November 3rd with an overnight snow flurry, bringing an abrupt end to the many insects that had survived though what has, up until now, been a mild fall.

The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.
The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.

I notice most people who give advice on pond construction are particular about giving lists of plant and animal species, but these details will depend very much on where you live. My pond is arranged around the local flora and fauna, and you might do the same.

If that is the case, you should be aiming to attract what is common close to where you live – if for example, a plant is local there will be other organisms that thrive in association with it. All you are essentially doing is creating a web of natural interactions and it isn’t necessary to know every detail to make this work. If you chose to be observant, expertise and those tricky Latin names will come with time – but this isn’t essential, especially if you don’t find it easy to remember cumbersome nomenclature – a system mostly used to convey precise details to others.  It is however worth checking out your local invasive weed species in order to avoid introducing them.

Any animals that can fly will arrive of their own accord, but don’t introduce amphibian spawn or larvae unless you are sure of which species it belongs to. In my area the last thing I want to do is introduce alien bullfrogs which will eat most of the smaller native species; there is also a very real problem with amphibians of spreading disease, so it is essential to understand exactly what you are doing before you attempt a relocation. 

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The was the pond only a week or so after the liner was installed. A Wooden divider prevents the more fertile soil from the garden washing into the pond, but it cannot be seen from the opposite viewing side… I know –  it sounds like a theme park without the carriages, but really it’s just gardening! 

The best bit of the whole process for me, was when dragonflies of both sexes showed up and the females began laying eggs on water plants within the first two days of the pond being filled. When such things happen it is impressive and reminds us that nature can be extraordinarily persistent.

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If you want to keep things like this, remember you still have to do a bit of micro weeding, but that should be fairly minimal – and if it goes a bit wilder – nature won’t mind.

Get it right and any of us might make a difference to the natural world. If you  decide to build a pond of your own, don’t forget to record what you have achieve by taking pictures – you might influence others to follow your example. And remember, when something new and interesting shows up, it will be you that made it possible.

Please do not dig up or remove any plants from protected areas. Flora and fauna will usually establish naturally in your garden once you have provided a suitable habitat.

Next Time: My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.

 

Belize: Bye-bye Mangroves – Viva Vacation!

On a recent trip to Belize, the mermaids – that would be my wife and daughter, sought out any excuse to immerse themselves in the Caribbean Sea; and my daughter’s desire to swim with a whale shark featured prominently on her list of reasons for our visit. It’s a rather hopeful wish on her part, but if you don’t think big there’s not much chance of experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

Alice had booked her place on an organised whale shark trip months in advance, and when the day arrives we all make the road trip to get her to the boat on time. Because our destination is some distance from our coastal base in Hopkins we are obliged to set off early in the morning, in darkness, before breakfast is served; this is a disappointment to me because I also have a list, but mine is of the things I no longer need to do – and missing breakfast isn’t on it.

When in the water with my wife and daughter I have trouble keeping up.
In Belize we spend a fair bit of time in the water – as usual I have trouble keeping up with my wife and daughter.

I have never felt the need to swim alongside any kind of shark even when it is considered safe, and I won’t in any case be going into the water today because it would involve scuba diving – another thing on the list of things I don’t need to do. My wife Jen, can dive but she has been unwell and so it would be unwise for her to scuba; consequently, she will remain land based and keep me company.

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Up at 5.30 a.m. we are soon driving southwards towards our destination – a dock in the village of Placencia, set at the end of a short peninsula that hugs the coastline for about 18 miles; but when we get there this turns out to be a very slow 18 miles – the entire road is plagued by speed humps set at regular intervals. There are various tourist hotel developments along the way, some have impressive gates, but these are mostly the sort of places we avoid because they are so out of keeping with their surroundings.

RIMG7241.©.SMALLAt the bottom end of the Peninsula the village of Placencia is altogether different –  it is far more intimate than the impersonal hotels that we passed on the way; it is busy with local people and has several agreeable places to eat. A huge surprise though to pass an airport just before  we arrive, which initially seems out of place. Until recently this destination must have been close to the back end of nowhere; but the holiday business is rapidly changing that.

The surprise Airport.
The surprise Airport.

I can’t think of a better way for the wealthy to avoid the speed bumps than to fly in; certainly it is the quickest way in. As a wealthy person once said to me, ‘I can always earn more money, but I can’t buy more time’… And I guess that’s fair enough, but above all else, what they are really interested in buying here is real estate… and lots of it.

There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula but Placencia at the bottom end feels, authentic, relaxed and agreeable.
There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula on the way down to Placencia, but the village remains relaxed and agreeable despite much of it being bought up by outsiders.

It is a bright sunny morning and we arrive early enough to go for breakfast in a local cafe, although the waitress is quite unhelpful; there’s a lot we can’t have from the menu because it’s too early and she hasn’t had a chance to shop for fruit and vegetables; unfortunately she doesn’t explain this and we waste a lot of time asking for things that are unavailable. It’s as if we are taking part in an unfunny version of ‘The Monty Python’ cheese sketch. ‘Mango this’… No. ‘Banana that’… No. ‘A veggie omelette’…. No. ‘Orange juice”….Ummm… No… We eventually hit on a few things that the kitchen does have, mainly choices that  revolve around cakes and pancakes, unhealthy stuff, but great when your earlier breakfast never happened.

Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.
Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.

Unfortunately, the food takes so long, we are made late by the waiting and should have left by the time it arrives. We gulp it down, and have trouble getting the bill because our waitress seems to be moving through ‘treacle time’. We finally pay up, dash to the nearby dock, and despite the delay make it in time.

Alice will be out at sea for several hours, leaving Jen and I plenty of time to drive back up the peninsula and take a look at the coastal environment. The eastern seaward side is mostly sandy beach of the type popular with holidaymakers – but there are also stretches of mangrove less favoured by tourists; nevertheless, mangrove is an essential habitat that acts as a nursery for creatures that will eventually live out their lives on nearby offshore reefs.

Can't see the view?... What a nuisance!
Mangroves… Can’t see the view!… A natural wonder or an inconvenient nuisance?

We then travel along the western inner arm to search out the mangrove that borders the narrow bay adjacent to the Caribbean. Clearly, the mangroves were once extensive here, but are now intermittent and are being overtaken by development.

Mangrove is and important natural habitat that many people see as a wasteland - sadly, this are is staked out for development.
Mangrove is an important natural habitat, although many see it as little more than wasteland. The reality is somewhat different; these are essential buffers that protect fragile coastlines from storms and soil erosion; they also reduce agricultural by-products entering the sea. Sadly, this picture shows just one of many mangrove areas now staked out for development.

Indifference to mangrove destruction doesn’t make sense, but it is a widespread problem. On October 8th 2001 Hurricane Iris hit this area and levelled around 95% of Placencia – a hurricane can do this almost anywhere, but when the weather is just bad rather than extreme, mangroves offer at least some protection to things that you hope might stay attached to the land when things get rough. 

Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss
Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss.

Mangrove destruction is now a common problem in warm coastal areas where holiday developments are becoming widespread and the suggestion that building resorts is good for local economies doesn’t always work out as well as it might. Often the process involves rapid changes to the coastlines, and essentially too much happens too quickly. When multinational companies are involved they often prefer to bring in their own workforce, leaving the locals with only the most poorly paid and menial tasks; and there is often a disinclination to train local people to provide them with better opportunities.

RIMG7256.FIX.SMALLWhen developments are rapid and extensive, habitats that local people have relied upon for generations are often quickly degraded, and it isn’t greatly appreciated when wealthy outsiders (who don’t need the food) arrive to ‘sports’ fish valuable natural resources. When financial gains don’t filter through to people living in the area, resentment grows, and when much of the profit goes offshore there may be no longterm benefits to local communities. Few visitors choose to notice this problem because to do so would mean leaving the hotel to speak to locals who will furnish a broader picture – something almost unthinkable. Certainly there are dangerous places around the world, but it is irrational to be frightened of moving amongst locals in the places we visit – it’s madness to behave like prisoners locked in holiday complexes that provide everything we need but reality.

This one looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt it will be beautiful when it is finished.
This development looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt will be beautiful when it’s finished.

It would of course be wrong to imply there are no benefits to previously isolated communities when they are suddenly transformed by tourism, but it is noticeable – if you care to look – that many people remain in poverty while the profits go elsewhere. This results in a very one sided spin on the benefits that tourism can bring to poor communities. Clearly there are advantages when outside money is brought in, but the amount that filters through to local people is often meagre and many will see no benefits at all.

Much of the remaining  coastline appears to be up for sale.
Much of the remaining coastline close to Placencia appears to be up for sale.

What nature provides in far away places is often taken as freely available and without consequences, but as holiday based economies continue to expand, it is increasingly evident that there can be no free lunch; someone local will be losing out to pay for the good fortune of the many visitors arriving from elsewhere, and investors will continue to make big bucks by exploiting environmentally sensitive areas.

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If big hotels and cruise liners continue to feature in fragile environments and during the process they reduce air and water quality, it might be worth asking whether such problems outweight the often one-sided financial gains…

I know! who wants to think about this kind of thing when you’re on holiday, or fortunate enough to be on the right side of what is rapidly becoming a gaping economic divide; nonetheless this is a reality that can’t be ignored forever.

The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub behind the mangrove is worth preserving.
The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub and pools behind the mangrove is worth preserving.

We saw the last 5 acre ‘investment opportunity’ (as it was described by one realtor) up for sale on a board in Placencia village. We could find no evidence to suggest that many here thought it necessary to retain the mangroves, and it appears that it won’t be long before most of this peninsula will be developed in one form or another, with this important habitat degraded or perhaps entirely lost… And who will remember once it has gone?

An interesting addition to paradise.
One of many interesting additions to paradise on the road to Placencia.

Much of the development along the coastal area where we are staying and where we started out this morning – in Hopkins – is paid for with American dollars and many who come to visit these newly developed areas are Americans.

Belize money is visually agreeable, but I never saw any that wasn't worn out.
Belize money is visually impressive, but I’ve never seen a bank note that wasn’t worn out.

From an environmental perspective mass development of coastal regions isn’t really a great idea. I love the Americas in particular, but feel as if I need a shower whenever I touch an American dollar. In common with nearly all the paper money you handle in warm countries it is often badly worn and it usually stinks. Perhaps the money itself is trying to tell us something.

Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.
Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.

Coastal Belize is much favoured by tourists from Texas and the village of Hopkins is about to be turned into a major tourist spot.

Presently the Belize road system is quite variable, with some sections very rough; the drive to Hopkins from Belize City Airport really isn’t much fun because you are always on the look out for potholes and speed humps. The last part of the journey up through the village is especially rough; at the time of writing it is no more than a dusty track peppered with potholes, but this is about to change as a new blacktop road is planned and by the time you are reading this, it might already be in place.

Many of the locals don’t feel comfortable with the new developments as they won’t themselves be seeing much in the way of profit from the upgrades. Despite the sudden influx of money, conditions for many have not, so far, greatly improved and many people’s lives may not change very much despite the fact that a holiday in Belize isn’t a cheap option. This kind of ‘progress’ where money flows in but nothing much changes on the street isn’t in any sense fair… But it is what it is.  

Hopkins may still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must be good for the future of Belize.

Hopkins might still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must bode well for the future of Belize…  if the whole country doesn’t eventually get bought up by outsiders.

Mangroves architecture is delightfully natural.
Mangroves in contrast to many holiday developments are a natural architectural wonder.

All things considered, it isn’t difficult to understand why the money that is flowing into places like Hopkins and Placencia isn’t filtering through to the average person. Everything changes when markets go global and the consequences of such rapid development is the cause of much bad feeling.

An airport is soon to be built close by Hopkins and this along with the road upgrade, explains why land speculation has gone through the roof. It is a huge problem, because as outsiders speculate, local people are priced out of the market and suddenly out of the equation.

As you travel through and out of the village to the south many new developments are underway.
In and around Hopkins village many new developments are underway.

Back around Placencia we wander 

along what remains of the mangrove, much of which is likely to disappear as holiday developments begin to pick up apace; but for the moment what remains of this habitat adds an air of mystery to the coastline, particularly from the seaward side, where you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond them.

The seaward side of dense mangrove.
On the seaward side small sections of dense mangrove still remain, but much of it is now sectioned for development.

It is a hot afternoon as Jen and I walk back to the dock to wait for Alice’s boat to re-appear on the horizon. There was a slight breeze this morning which caused a surface ripple across the water, but all is now still, allowing me to take pictures of seahorses amongst the seagrass just off the dock. In the past I’ve worked with captive seahorses in my studio for the B.B.C. which was much easier. Not so much for Jen though because she was the one looking after them. Keeping seahorses healthy in captivity can be labour intensive and requires considerable skill – so don’t even think about it!

Getting a clear shot in this natural setting is far less easy but it is at least ethical. With so much pressure on seahorse habitat now, and the annual trade (particularly in south-east Asia) in millions of these wonderful animals for their erroneous medicinal value, has pushed many of the 50 plus species that we presently know of into general decline.

One of three or four seahorses anchored amongst the weed by their tails as they feed.
One of three or four seahorses anchored by their tails amongst the seagrass and waterweed. These plants provide relatively stable attachments while they feed by sucking in tiny plant and animal prey as it passes.                                                                                                               

It isn’t long before Alice’s dive group arrives back, but there is an air of gloom hanging over the boat. No whale sharks were seen and further research on our part suggests that there have been no reliable sightings by dive groups in local waters for at least two years. One whale shark diving concern recently changed the description of its outings because of this, while others are still trading as whale shark tours; it maybe that the only sharks around here are tour operators. When you dive in the sea, nothing is guaranteed, but to advertise a tour specifically using an animal’s name when there are no representatives in the area is nothing short of deceitful.

Alice saw and photographed a loggerhead turtle - so the dive wasn't a complete waste of time.
Alice saw and photographed this loggerhead turtle – so the dive wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Alice’s loggerhead turtle pictures turned out rather well, but one in particular stands out because it could prove useful as a future means of identification. I have spent much of my photographic career trying to take pleasing pictures of wildlife and for most of my working life have made a living from it; but in truth, apart from making me feel I’ve achieved something personally… what is the use of it? There are plenty of good pictures of turtles, but one that provides reliable identification rather than just a pretty picture could prove far more consequential.

A simple picture from above shows the pattern of the plates or ‘scutes’ on the turtle’s shell, as well as the scales on top of the head; the number and shape of these can provide a reliable means of species identification and when combined with wear and tear body markings may also indicate particular individuals. Certainly when accompanied by a date and location, a record of these patterns can have considerable scientific value.

This is a pleasant enough picture, bit it also useful for identification.
A pleasant enough picture, but also a useful means of identifying an individual.

In the end, the natural wonders of Belize may prove to be a bit like its plumbing in that there are many things here that are resilient to being flushed away, but as the outside world brings with it greater expectations – and a flush of money besides, it may be that almost anything can be sent swirling down the pan. One must hope for better things for this beautiful place, but only time will tell.

Belize: Mayan Temples and Howler Monkey Business.

P1270069.FRAME.©.SMALLThe 17th May 2017 is another beautiful day in Belize and one that turns out to be rather special. Up for an early breakfast with my wife and daughter I eat scrambled eggs and tropical fruits, heaping both onto the same plate to save time. The view however is altogether more subtle than my inelegant attitude towards the functionality of food, and we gaze out across the smooth metallic expanse of the the Caribbean Sea warming from silver to gold as the sun rises.

Within half an hour, we are moving along an empty road, the sun now throwing the surrounding countryside into an intensity of  colour that is seldom seen outside of the tropics. Driving westward, we move away from the coast into the interior, travelling across the entire country in just a couple of hours from our base in Hopkins to arrive at our destination   – the Mayan ruins of Xuanantunich on the Mopan River, close by the Guatemala border.

My childhood was busy with stories of such places. At ten years of age I regularly imagined myself to be an Indiana Jones, although it could only have been an approximation because the intrepid archaeologist had not then been invented; whoever I thought I was cannot compare with the present reality of finally arriving at an authentic Mayan ruin where the levels of exhilaration are pushed beyond any fiction.

We cross the river by means of a ferry that is hand cranked - you tip pay the ferryman whatever you feelis appropriate and he literally drags you across.
We cross the Mopan River by means of a ferry that is hand cranked – you tip the ferryman whatever you feel is appropriate and he literally drags you across the water.

The archaeological site is only a few hundred metres from the ferry and there are a few people, mostly young backpackers, walking in along the road from the nearby town of San Ignacio. A few commercial outlets run along one side of the car park including a little gift shop selling Indian made items. It’s all pretty low key, but on our arrival there is a hell of a racket going on; my wife Jen, and daughter Alice are ignoring it as they lube up with insect repellant and sunscreen; I’m just keen to get moving because it is pushing towards mid-morning and getting hotter by the minute. The din is coming from close by the little shop, and I at once assume this to be a taped loop of howler monkey calls – it is quite deafening – certainly the loudest noise I’ve ever heard coming out of a monkey, but I don’t record it –  this is so obviously a ploy to drag people in to buy trinkets, small things that will end up hidden away in the backs of a drawers that will be discovered by another generation during future tragic clear outs of the homes of the deceased.

Once on site and standing on the huge an impressive pyramid of stones know as El Castillo, I notice a guide who is taking a young couple around and I ask him about the monkey recordings. He is puzzled, and tells me that he doesn’t know of any recordings, but there are three troops of howlers roaming the area that sometimes kick up a fuss as they did this morning.  At once I regret not recording all that wonderful howling. My wife on the other hand is delighted with my mistake because I really should have known better. She’s likes me to be wrong a couple of times a day and usually I can oblige.

Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo - the most prominent structure here - looking down onto the square below.
Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo – the most prominent structure here – looking down onto the square below where a ball game was played.

 There are a group of teenagers and a couple egged on by friends are running along the facade and jumping the regular gaps in the stonework. Suddenly one falls heavily, it is a girl – she pretends that it didn’t hurt, but really it must have. My daughter is puzzled by the behaviour – “It seems very disrespectful”, she says, “but they don’t seem to be aware of it”. If this were Stonehenge, they’d have been arrested by now and carried away in a van, but here, where direct access is allowed to the monument, some lose all sense of what is reasonable as they go about expanding their version of personal liberty, this to the irritation of almost everybody around them and it also puts the fabric of the ruin in danger. A great pity, because presently there is enormous freedom on site to wander wherever you want without restriction, but as more people begin behaving as if their brains have dropped out, things will inevitably change to protect both the idiots concerned and the monument. Rules will be imposed – areas will be cordoned off, and the whole place will begin to feel more like a museum than the magical experience that it presently is.

The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest... or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams - photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest… or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams – photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.

The pyramid El Castillo was probably in use as early as 800 A.D. it was constructed in two phases, and remains to this day very impressive, especially when you get close to the top. “You won’t get up there with all that gear”, my daughter says, which of course is like showing red rag to a bull (even if in the real world bulls don’t see red). Jen has already been defeated by the heat, she is feeling unwell, and has moved off without complaint to sit in the shade. Alice is already at the top; I am making my way there more slowly, taking pictures as I go and during the ascent begin to wonder how many have fallen from this huge pile of stones. In places the climb is steep and there is very little to grab on to, but once you get to the top the view is spectacular and well worth the risk – you can even see Guatemala  – a broad white track indicates the border; and my daughter and I take in the scene as if we are looking down on a huge map.

Alice coming down off the top of El Castillo - it's worth being careful because there's a long way to drop if you miss your footing.
Alice coming down from the top of El Castillo – it’s worth being careful because there’s quite a drop if you miss your footing.

As Alice climbs down. I stay up for a while and continue to take pictures. It isn’t long before I pass a couple of young men who have noticed a large iguana over the edge of the front facade. You really have to lean out to see it – it’s a monster and I imagine that its ancestors were living on these walls when Mayan rulers were making blood sacrifices of their slaves… and perhaps when things weren’t going so well… their local people. Making human sacrifices was considered a real problem solver when negotiating with the gods. According to a guide that I spoke to, a game was played here annually in the square below and the winning team were granted a short celebration before they were executed. This hardly seems fair and I have no idea if it really happened… but it makes a good story. At modern sporting events this custom might still prove popular with the  fans. Any team losing to Manchester United for example, might feel inclined to look on the bright side, but in today’s world this old custom would prove impractical because as entertaining as it might seem, executing a whole team would be far too expensive.

The spiny-tailed iguana is often seen on rocky outcrops - this then a perfect place to see it. The common green iguana will more likely to be seen up a tree or in vegetation.
The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis) is often seen on rocky outcrops – and the ruin is a perfect place to discover them. Only parts of this lizard are black. It’s cousin, the more common green iguana prefers to take refuge in trees or amongst vegetation – this  a species more inclined to avoid open areas.

A woman is passing and I tell her about the impressive lizard. I’ve already tempted fate by setting my tripod up on the edge of the ledge and leant out for a series of pictures, my balance is not as good as it once was and now I’m generally more careful incase things go wrong. Anyway, this pleasant middle aged lady also seems interested in getting a shot, and so after a brief discussion on the safest way to achieve this, I take her full weight by holding onto her left arm as she leans out to take her picture. And all I can think as I do this is, ‘If I let go she’s a goner’ – but I don’t do that… Why would anybody trust a complete stranger like this? “Trust me I’m a wildlife photographer…. That’s just like being a doctor isn’t it? – You know, a really reliable sort?… Maybe not.”

A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.
A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.

It’s very hot, but the day just goes on warming up, and by afternoon we pretty much have the place to ourselves – there are no mad dogs here just three English people out long past the mid-day. Noel Coward makes no mention of the extreme heat of afternoon in his song, probably because it doesn’t scan and would make no sense unless you experienced it, as we are doing today.

Late in the afternoon our wander around this wonderful square mile is complete and we begin to make our way back to the car. As we walk I check for the car keys that are no longer in my pocket. This is unusual. Sure, I lose my keys around the house, but never in a place like this, miles from anywhere. Usually I’m more careful.  The site is now closed and Jen waits in the visitor’s centre while my daughter and I retrace my steps. Alice suggests that I visualise my journey like a child, which really isn’t my sort of thing, but it’s not bad advice; because as I get to the final location I remember upending myself to IMG_4968.SMALL.©get a shot for an old American couple, with the ruins in the background – I’m certain my keys are there. I speed up a little in anticipation as the sun begins to dip over the stone facade. And sure enough there they aren’t… but moving 10 metres on along the terrace, there they are, lying on a step in an almost identical location, sparkling in what remains of the sunlight like Mayan treasure – although presently, they are of greater value to us than Mayan gold.

The lost keys! … my second mistake of the day. after the earlier monkey business I should once again have known better, but Jen doesn’t make a fuss as I might have have done had it been her or Alice who had lost them. Getting ‘it wrong’ twice in a day is enough, better still there is the relief of finding the very thing that starts the vehicle which is absolutely essential if we are to avoid being be stuck out here overnight.

P1270412.FIX.©.SMALLQuite by co-incidence the day after returning home I met somebody who has also visited the Mayan ruin of Xuanantunich, but he also visited another site across the border in Guatemala where things had gone badly wrong and put our recent experience into perspective.

Quite by chance a National Geographic photographer was covering the ruin for a feature in the magazine and asked my acquaintance if he would tag along because he spoke the local language. There was nothing unusual about the visit; rather prosaically it had been organised by a local hotel, but late in the day as the sun was setting, the photographer became increasingly absorbed with his picture taking and neither of them noticed the party moving away to return to the vehicle that would take them away from of the site. The pair were left stranded in the forest with    with only a small torch and a mobile phone to light their way as the light began rapidly fading. They stumbled about in the darkness for some time and my acquaintance eventually found a trail that led to the road. On arriving back at the hotel they were both covered in insect bites and scratched and bruised by their encounters in the forest.

The concern at night in tropical forest is always that you might step on a P1270428.FRAME.FIX.©.SMALLpoisonous snake and this is not a wildly improbable scenario, but what most people worry about is the far less likely possibility of being attacked by a jaguar which can exert perhaps the strongest bite of all of the big cats – with their wide gape they will grab prey by the skull, and quickly pierce it with their impressive incisor teeth, but if this should happen, it would be all over before there was a chance to think much about it, and there’s consequently very little point in dwelling on such an unlikely scenario. Unfortunately, a tropical forest at night is so full of strange sounds, imagination quickly gets the better of you.

The Nat. Geo. photographer was apparently quite shaken up by his experience, which pleased me a little because I would sometimes come across one when filming for the B.B.C. in remote areas of the world. Stills photographers were usually carrying lighter gear than I was obliged to; and Nat Geo. photographers had more time and money to get the job done. The upside was that in some insect infested locations, the buget would limit my available work days and I would leave the Nat  Geo photographer on site for perhaps another month. Sometimes it is just nice to be getting out of an extreme environment. There are many who imagine a job travelling as a wildlife photographer to be their ultimate dream, but when you are actually doing it and being eaten alive by insects, especially as night approaches, it’s a very different story; and if you are unlucky enough to get stuck out over night without being entirely prepared – it’s the ultimate nightmare.

P1270352.FRAME.©.SMALL

I didn’t know at the time the keys went missing that the last ferry was supposed to be going at 4.00 p.m. otherwise I’d have been more concerned. We were now well past that time and would be departing later still because Alice had discovered a troop of howler monkeys (Alouatta) coming through the forest canopy on one side of the site just as we were about to leave.

I set up at the forest edge and although they are not calling, we can certainly hear them coming – gently rustling as they move through the trees stopping here and there to climb out along a branch to munch at the tips on fresh new leaves. It took about 20 minutes before they arrive at the edge of the clearing to reveal themselves from the dense foliage long enough for me to get a few shots. On the limits of exposure with the light now rapidly fading, I grab anything that I can, and what is most noticeable is that each monkey never allows itself to have fewer than three and often four points of contact with the tree; and when they stop to feed their tails invariably remain tightly wrapped around the main branch from which they are hanging.

There are half a dizen monkeys in the troop, including two youngsters - the adults are busy feeding on fresh leaves at the ends of shoots.
There are half a dozen monkeys in this small troop of Yukatan black howlers (Alouatta pigra), including two youngsters – the adults are busy feeding on leaves that are freshly developing at the ends of shoots.

It is a surprise to be getting the best pictures I’ve ever managed of Howler monkeys and Jen, who prefers to look on the positive side when my mood so often swings the other way, points out that if I hadn’t lost the keys we’d probably have left the site before the howlers swung through. Their presence suggests the surrounding forest isn’t as degraded as it initially appeared to be, and a few howler pictures will make it difficult to deny that they were once here should they disappear sometime in the future. It is good once in a while to end on a positive note – and nothing is more positive or interesting than a bit of monkey business.

When we arrive back at the ferry it is on the other side of the river and I’m thinking that it might have stopped running for the day. I wave from the bank in the hope that it is still operating. The ferryman is certainly there and he sets the thing in motion. It’s always a good day when your experiences run against the natural course of entropy, because now and again, things are just bound to go your way.

With thanks to Mario Lemoine for his interesting story.

Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation.

During a recent visit to Belize with my wife and daughter, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the flora and fauna of what many regard as a a sub-tropical paradise. “But, there is something missing”, said my wife, “and I’m not sure what it is”. I thought about this for while and if I had to put it down to one particular thing, then it would have to be a lack of primary forest.

A black-headed trogon in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
A black-headed trogon Trogon melanocephalus in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Figures for deforestation are sketchy for Belize and what we believe sometimes depends on where the figures come from – certainly it would be disappointing if the generally accepted figure for loss really is running at 2% per annum.

There are also stories that give cause for more general concern. It is said, for example, that during the 1990s the Belize government granted unusually low logging concessions to a Malaysian company – rights were purchased for as little as 60 cents an acre… It defies belief that such a story could be true, although such indifference to a valuable national resource seems almost too ridiculous to make up.

When forest depletion figures are presented for tropical regions, the details are sometimes misleading. Many logging concerns are intent on getting into virgin forest where the real value lies in big old hardwood trees, which can now fetch astronomical prices. Companies that are cutting into these diminishing ecosystems are less inclined to bother with the lower value smaller trees growing back in secondary forests,  i.e. places where trees have been logged in the past. The point is that it is essential to know exactly what kind of forest is being logged to truly understand the consequences. Foresters will sometimes say that for every tree they cut two more will be planted (I was told exactly this in relation to mahogany trees during our visit to Belize), but it doesn’t mean anything unless there are exact details on the age and size of the trees being felled. Replacing a 30 year old tree in a secondary forest with two replacement saplings is one thing, but hardly a replacement for a 300 hundred year old tree cut in primary forest? From an ecological perspective and in most other senses there is an enormous difference and we should all be concerned because the loss of forests containing mature old trees will have far reaching consequences. 

When I see logs moving along a road in the tropics I check their size, imagine them still standing quietly in the forest and then wonder if they have been legally logged - if they are it doesn't make me feel any better - I just find it depressing.
When I see cut trees moving along a road in the tropics I check their size; and if they are big,  try to imagine them still standing quietly in the forest; then I start to wonder if they have been legally logged. Even if they have it doesn’t make me feel any better; the removal of a tree in a matter of minutes that has existed as part of a long-standing ecosystem for hundreds of years is depressing. The rate of loss of the world’s remaining primary forests is one of the most serious problems of our time and may eventually come back to bite us.

A positive case is often made for selective logging rather than clearcut felling an area, with only certain trees taken out; but it is difficult to imagine how anybody could make this version of habitat destruction sound like a really good idea.

However, there are people in the conservation ‘game’ who claim that cutting out all of the large mahogany trees in an ecosystem makes no difference to the health of a forest, but how can they possibly suggest that? Maybe they simply take a walk in the forest, have a bit of a look around and decide that if you didn’t know the trees had been felled, then maybe you wouldn’t notice a difference despite the fact that mahogany trees, where they do remain in place, play a consequential part in their ecosystems. It should be obvious that the removal of a single prominent species, which other plants and animals inevitably rely upon, cannot be undertaken without consequences.

To log an area successfully requires the cutting through of logging roads and once they are in place they quickly become a magnet for illegal loggers. In particular, I  have noticed (from the air), how quickly Malaysian rainforest disappears once it has been made accessible.

Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this. A couple of years later some areas on the same route were criss crossed with logging roads and the trees were beginning to disappear.
Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this, but a couple of years later some areas along the same route were criss-crossed with logging roads and trees were rapidly beginning to disappear.

Felled trees can only leave a forest efficiently when tracks are extensively cut in. The felling process, no matter how selective, is always destructive; and the idea that taking out only the commercially valuable older trees can be achieved without changing the optimum natural functions of a forest is difficult to argue.

This is an older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, it crtainly isn't an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstartes what happens to a tree in the rainforest as it ages - there's a whole new world developing in the upper part of the tree and in extensive areas on primary forest there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on the mid and upper storey and never come to the forest floor - this region is almost impossible to find in youg secondary forest.
This older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, isn’t an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstrates what happens to a tree in a rainforest as it ages – there’s a whole new world developing in the canopy. In areas where primary forest remains there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on these mid to upper-storey levels and some of which will never come down to the forest floor – these habitat zones are non-existent in young secondary forest in areas that have previously been clear felled.

Visiting Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary in the Stann Creek District of south-central Belize was nothing short of delightful, even though logging would have been a feature here from the late 1930s through to 1988, when buildings previously owned by the logging company were taken over to form the park’s visitor centre. This should be a clue as to why so much of the surrounding forest is secondary and only recently regenerated. In fairness to any logging concern The Stan Creek District was seriously hit by Hurricane Hattie on October 31st 1961. Hattie is said to have taken out as much as 70% of the mahogany trees in the area and this is probably the main reason that logging came to an end – it is likely that there just weren’t enough big trees left standing to keep a commercial concern in business.

There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforst trees typically have butress roots because the soil is shallow; roots do not go deep and thes butresses are the means of support to secure them in shallow soil.
There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforest trees typically have buttress roots because the soil is shallow; the roots do not go deep and the butresses that are formed support the trees in shallow soil.

Whatever the reason for the loss, there were no extensive stands of original lowland forest apparent in any part of the park that we visited. But, this doesn’t mean the reserve isn’t an extremely important conservation area, in particular for the preservation of jaguar, essentially the reason that the park was set up in 1984. The regenerating forest still has enormous ecological value even if the surrounding habitat is a shadow of its former self, brought about by extensive logging and then almost complete destruction by Hurricane Hattie.

This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988 when he was President of The World Wildlife Fund. At the time it was a good deal smaller than the duke and it is atonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but in an old forest a mahogany might live for 350 years which puts things into perspective.
This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988, at the time he was President of The World Wildlife Fund; the tree was then a good deal shorter than the Duke – it is astonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but to put things into perspective a mahogany tree in undisturbed forest might live for 350 years or more.

I must admit to being concerned when I see quotes about a secondary forest that has been around for perhaps only 30 years, when claims are made that the area has now completely regrown. This demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of tropical forest regeneration. Virgin forest that has been felled in recent time will not be just dandy again after the passing of a few decades and might never carry the same biodiversity again.

Not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky bird.
A male white-collared manakin: not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky little bird that mostly refused to sit anywhere long enough to be photographed.

This white-collared manakin photographed in the bird heaven that is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary likes to hang out in dense forest. It pings around like a pinball and will suddenly judder to a halt in display. This bird is completely nuts – it makes a loud noise exactly like marbles being bashed heavily together and remarkably it does this using its wings.

 IMG_5401.FRAME.©.SMALLDuring our trip my daughter Alice was looking for adventure and could not resist the opportunity to zip line through tropical forest and rappel down a tumbling waterfall. She’d done her research and discovered in Mayflower Bocawina Park an adventure centre that could provide such opportunities only a short distance from our coastal base in Hopkins. While she was doing that, Jen and I took the opportunity to wander through the park’s secondary forest.

When we first entered Mayflower Bocawina National Park I noticed a wide track that had been cut along the border of the reserve. On arrival at the ticket office I asked why the trees had been felled in this manner and was told this had been done to mark the park boundary, but I wasn’t convinced, boundaries of national parks rarely involve habitat destruction, in particularly because some tropical forest species prefer not to cross open ground.

Trees cut along the boundary line of the park might have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easy access for illegal loggers.
Trees cut along the boundary line of the park looked as if they have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easier access for illegal loggers.
Bird humming orchid inMayflower Bocaina National Park.
Myrmecophila orchid flowers photographed in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, so named because this orchid genus usually has an association with ants.

I began looking for somebody who might provide a more likely explanation as to why a swathe of trees had been felled through the forest and eventually came across a man who was clearly knowledgable about the reserve and its wildlife; he worked in the park, but not for the park and told me that this was a government sanctioned forestry project. He said that a logging road was being cut through to the back of the reserve in order to remove valuable teak trees. I do not have a secondary source to confirm this, but it doesn’t sound impossible as I’ve witnessed trees being removed from protected forest habitats before, both in Malaysia and Central America – in some cases with official stamps that falsely claim that the trees have come from a sustainable source. I can’t say for certain that teak trees will be coming out of the forest here and even if they do it probably won’t be illegal. It is just that such a thing is not unusual, which is disturbing, because while many of us obsess over the potential loss of an animal species that we are fond of, we are less inclined to be quite so pro-active about the disappearance of the habitat our favoured animal lives in. The felling of any quality primary tropical or sub-tropical forest, legal or not, is disturbing and already hugely consequential in terms of world weather patterns, soil erosion and the damage it causes local economies, let alone the more obvious problems of habitat and species loss.

Primary forest is essential to the survival of complex ecosystems – it can for example provide a habitat that is a couple of degrees lower than nearby regenerating secondary forest. If all that is left to us by continually opening up the interior is a pale washed out version of the original then we should balance short term economic gain against long-term environmental consequences. Sadly, we may let this pass without fully knowing what has been lost because we are recording so little of the virgin forest’s biodiversity before it is gone. Doing the right thing usually runs second to making a fast buck, which is both shameful and morally unjustifiable.

IMG_3787.SMALL.FIX.©If a species disappears from the forest and we aren’t there to witness it… didn’t even know that it existed… does it really matter? This is not a philosophical question. It of course matters and it also matters that in future people will remain poorly informed as to what has disappeared; more especially because we remain indifferent to many less glamourous species despite their ecological importance. We will be ignorant of what  natural environments were once like – of what has been lost in the same way that few of us have any idea what it was like before the time of manufactured pesticides… ignorance is bliss, but this ‘not knowing’ comes at a price, and for life on Earth that price might be a heavy one. With this ever increasing loss of habitat and by association, loss of species, our own continued success is thrown into question because we are not independent of the system – we are part of it. 

Whilst Alice ‘does her thing’, dipping through waterfalls and zipping through the forest canopy, Jen and I wander through the park. I grab shots of birds and butterflies as we walk towards yet another waterfall – a focal point that motivates us to keep going through the intense heat and high humidity of a muggy afternoon.

Waterfalls appear to be favourite destinations. I guess making it in and out provides a sense of achievement.
Waterfalls are favourite destinations – to make it in and out always provides a sense of achievement.
Fruit trees can be see along the path in regular patterns indicating the land was once agricultural.
Fruit trees can be seen along the path at regular intervals suggesting that this was once agricultural land.

As we move along we see very few old trees, but there are many plants regenerating through scrubland that must once have been farmland; native species are now fighting their way back through cultivated forms such as banana and palm oil which are just about managing to hang on. It is also remarkable how resilient some animals are to living in environments that aren’t quite right for them, but that won’t be the case for every species and a price will have to be paid for the decrease in natural diversity that we have imposed.

A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a saltlick on the path.
A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a salt lick on the path.

If you ever get to travel through a tropical forest that has never been felled, then take the opportunity to make a photographic record of whatever you see because this might one day prove a useful record of potential losses. Unfortunately, I have returned to some rainforests areas only to discover that they have disappeared altogether. It’s always worth taking pictures of anything that seems interesting, especially if the time and place are carefully recorded. Now and again a good picture might turn out to be more important than it seems at the time… and who knows, one day it might help to save the Planet, or at the very least aid in species reintroduction – when we finally wake up to the dangers caused by the wanton destruction of valuable ecosystems.

Next: MayanTemples and Howler Monkey Business.

 

 

Belize: From the Forest to the Sea.

I was recently on holiday in Belize with my wife Jen and daughter Alice, and as usual had nothing to do with selecting either our destination or how we would get there. Jen decided to travel United Airways because they had recently dragged a customer off of a flight to worldwide condemnation. She thought we might get a better deal in the wake of the bad publicity… and we did, along with great treatment from cabin staff, evidently trying to make amends. Our cabin attendant, said that the day before he had told passengers over the intercom, to raise their arms in the air, explaining that this would make it easier to drag them off. And to his surprise… still has a job!

Flying nto Belize powder puff clouds line up where the land hits the sea. coastline
Flying into Belize, powder puff clouds line up to the point where the land meets the sea.

It was Alice who chose our destination, one she thought might suit us all: she wanted a variety of adrenalin pumping adventures; her mother needed a relaxing beach holiday; and I hoped to quietly observe and photograph wildlife. With all of this in mind, she chose Hopkins – a village destination that runs along the coast, and this turned out to be a good choice.

Belize International Airport is about a third of the way down the country and Hopkins is another third of the way further south. The initial drive from the airport took about two and a half hours, this after three flights across North America, the first of which started late the previous evening in Vancouver. But at least we had moved from the low 50s to the low 90s ºF which was a bonus as far as I was concerned.

Occasionally there are pleasant views from the road - in particular along the Hummingbird Highway.
Occasionally there are pleasant views from the road – in particular along the Hummingbird Highway.

We didn’t want to be hanging around Belize City for too long because parts of it were clearly unsafe. But reading the advice sheet from the car hire company seemed likely to notch everything one step closer to hysteria. Belize sounded like a war zone… the car doors must be kept locked; no hitchhikers; no stopping anywhere other than public areas and no travelling at night unless you could guarantee stops were made in well lit areas… and of course, there could be absolutely no breaking down. Not so easy when your four-wheel drive smells of petrol and the pot holes in some of the roads just can’t wait to rip your tyres off… For us, ‘No breaking down’ seemed to be hopeful in the extreme.

The Belizian speed hump can provide a surprise equal to any theme park ride.
The Belize speed hump can provide a surprise equal to any theme park ride.

The truth is rather more prosaic – the most dangerous thing about driving across Belize is the speed humps you encounter when entering any place of habitation. The first will give you a pounding because you won’t have met one quite like it before, and if the suspension and rear axle hold out, you certainly won’t make that mistake again – they need to be taken unbelievably slowly. There really isn’t a lot else to worry about because people are mostly friendly, especially those living in the small towns and communities that we pass through.

Drivers are often said to be unpredictable, but this isn’t the case either. What is more certain, is that when the road runs out and you find yourself on a dirt track, the ride is going to get rather bumpy.

On the road, I wasn't sure if Tapir were really crossing here. Hopefully unlike the sign their hides weren't full of buckshot.
I wasn’t sure if Tapir were really crossing the road here, and hoping that unlike the sign, their hides weren’t full of buckshot.
Mayan Indian ladies will find you and try to sell you what they have made no matter where you are; in this case at the back of a mangrove - but sadly there are only so many woven bowls you can buy, but Jen did buy something.
No matter where you are (in this case at the back of a mangrove), Mayan Indian ladies will find you and try to sell you somthing they have made. Sadly each of us only needs so many woven bowls, but Jen did buy something.

For most people a holiday abroad involves staying in a resort that minimises contact with local people – everything you need is on site and tours are usually organised with the efficiency of a special needs outing.

We prefer to drive ourselves wherever we go and avoid the noisy idiots that are drawn to the sun as certainly as a red giant eats its planets; by doing this, we also throw off the constraints of other people’s time; and get to spread our spending money amongst the locals rather than ploughing our budget into multinational tourist concerns.

Into the Green:

Our second day was a rest day for Jen, she hung out close by the beach while Alice and I took a short drive to The Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary - established in 1886 it now runs to 120,000 acres of moist tropical forest and is most  famous for preserving jaguars – there are said to be up to 80 breeding pairs living in the park, maybe some are moving through because that sounds like a lot of big cats for the area and as jaguars are mostly solitary, to describe them as pairs might also be confusing. After a bumpy six mile ride from the ticket office, along a rough old track we pass a sign that says jaguar crossing, which confirms we are at least going in the right direction, and soon after arrive at park headquarters.

On the way into what is said to be the first Jaguar preserve in existence, we see this sign. I slow down, because jaguars can no doubt read and will crossing here.
On the way into what is said to be the first Jaguar preserve in existence, we see this sign. I slow down because jaguars can no doubt read and will crossing here.
O.K. This was another time another place!
Another time another place!

O.K., so we didn’t  see any jaguars – the last sighting occurred in mid-April 2017. Rather surprisingly, most are glimpsed during mid-afternoon, usually along river courses, probably because this is the time when tourists are likely to be around.  The park opens at 7.30 a.m. and closes at 4.30 p.m. – not really the best period to see jaguars on the wander. There are organised night tours, but otherwise the park closes long before it gets dark, which is the time when jaguars are most active.

The best chance of getting a shot of a jaguar is to throw your entrance tickets onto the ground and go for the shot. Pick them up though, because these are the best park entry tickets you will ever come across.
The best chance of getting a pic of a jaguar is to throw your entrance tickets onto the ground and go for the shot. Pick them up afterwards though – these are the best wildlife park entry tickets you are likely to come across.
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Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis).

What we did see, were a great many smaller animals, particularly birds – there are some 300 species in the park and when you stop comparing them with large impressive cats, they are both interesting and often colourful. We saw a wide variety of them soon after our 8.00 a.m. arrival as we walked down the River Path to South Stann Creek, and at one point three different species of woodpecker were playing hide and seek around an old dead tree that towered above the secondary forest.

Close by the river we discovered a horse balls tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii), its boughs noticeably drooping with large fruits that were beginning to split, and several toucans flew out before I had a chance to photograph them.

Trees in flower or carrying ripe fruit are exactly what I look for when working tropical forest because this is a habitat that doesn’t reveal its precious jewels easily. Like the toucans, most animals are quickly away into the greenery – there are few occasions when wildlife will hang around to be photographed, especially anything that can fly and you have to take your chances when they occur.

A male chestnut-coloured woodpecker feeds for some time on the split fruit of a horse balls tree. The fruits are paired and this gives the tree its vulgar but appropriate name.
A male chestnut-coloured woodpecker (Celeus castaneus) feeds for some time on the split fruit of the horse balls tree. The fruits are paired which this gives the tree its vulgar but appropriate name.

With a horse balls tree in fruit and another tree in flower the situation proves attractive to a great many birds; and we are standing close by the river which opens up a whole new set of opportunities for wildlife.

The nearby river provides a second habitat to keep an eye on whilst staking out the fruit on a nearby tree.
The nearby river was a habitat well worth keeping an eye on whilst staking out the fruiting tree.

IMG_4168.FRAME.©My attention is drawn by a flash of yellow – an oriole has arrived to feed on flowers on trees along the opposite bank of the river; initially I think the bird is feeding on the attractive drooping frond like seeds, but closer observation tells a different story, it is feeding on flowers hidden beneath – just like the bird, I grab what I can. This food gathering goes on for longer than I could have hoped for and then a second individual joins the first. Unfortunately, the birds are only just in range of my lens. I don’t see the birds on any of my other visits, but I do get the opportunity to see at least five other species feeding on the fruits that I am mostly covering. And on an adjoining tree hummingbirds are sipping at flowers. 70% of my time in the park is spent working this location because the presence of attractive flowers and fruits suggest this to be my best option.

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After a couple of hours, grabbing whatever I can  Alice and I walk on to a nearby waterfall – it’s a bit of a hike when you are low on water and the temperature is pushing 100℉ along with high humidity. Physically it becomes a struggle, even Alice, who is very fit, appears exhausted and I look as if I’ve taken a shower in my clothes.

Getting up there is more difficult than it looks - climbing around waterfall can often be slippery.
Getting up there is more difficult than it looks – climbing around waterfalls can often be slippery.

Early afternoon, we walk back to park headquarters to buy large bottles of water straight out of the fridge – these are extraordinarily revitalising in a way that warm water from your carry bottle just isn’t, especially when you have reached the point when you think you are about to fall down and die. A few minutes after the cold drink has hit our insides, we feel suddenly better and pretty soon we’re considering where to go next.

IMG_5169.FIX.©.SMALLI cover up in the forest and suffer only a few insect bites. Alice wears repellant but picks up more bites than I do – a single trip into this forest is enough for her, but I make two more visits, one with Jen and another by myself. On this our first day in forest, Alice and I set off back to the car around mid-afternoon; it has become very hot and there is little activity. As we are coming along a trail we pass between two troops of howler monkeys at the time they start howling at one another – there is nothing remotely dangerous about the situation, but, if you haven’t heard them before, these wailing banshees will frighten the life out of you.

Into the Blue:

Our local dock at sunrise, where Alice goes in search of grazing manatee early each morning and where Jen and Alice are rewarded with a siting.
Our local dock at sunrise, from where Alice would search for grazing manatee before breakfast. Jen and Alice were rewarded with a sighting.

With only a 30 metre walk from our rooms to the dock pick up point, there were no travel time pressures at the start of our snorkelling day out.

Getting there.

Alice gets an interesting perspective on our journey out to sea.
Alice uses her GoPro to get an interesting perspective on our journey out to sea.

We sped across the water for nearly an hour to our first site – an out to sea location where the water was deeper than ideal for me to take pictures, but at least provided the opportunity to see a variety of good sized fish swimming beneath us. The reef is more colourful than expected with little sign of bleaching, but sadly there are fewer fish than we had hoped for. The coral was varied with some impressively delicate forms that you just don’t see on reefs that have been trashed by fishing, or degraded by climate change.  

A delicate purple Sea fan coral (Gorgonia ventalina).
A delicate purple Sea fan coral (Gorgonia ventalina).

Both Alice and Jen had the better of me because once in the water they both turn into mermaids, I on the other hand become a fishing weight and have to devote quite a bit of my time to just not drowning. This is especially the case today as the boat drops us on a reef well out to sea and then goes off to busy itself dumping divers into deeper water; you just have to get your head around the idea that you are a long way out with no land or boat in sight, this can be unnerving and if you can’t get past that, you probably shouldn’t go into the water.

Alice has a photographic technique under water that I can't compete with, but don't accidentally run my camera battery down during lunch.
Alice has a photographic technique under water that I can’t compete with, and had her GoPro battery not run down during lunch, she would  probably have taken better pictures than I did.

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of a reef system that extends for more than 550 miles and it is well worth making the effort to see it – this is the most impressive off shore reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of western Australia.

A brown-spotted eagle ray Aetobatus narinari is far enough below to be of little concern, but the young rays that hide in the sand around our dock put me off walking barefoot in the water.
A brown-spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is far enough below to be of concern, unlike the young rays that hide in the sand around our dock and put me off walking barefoot in the water.

Our companions on the morning snorkel didn’t want to do more than half and hour in the water, citing age as the primary consideration, which rather put me out. If I am faced with a potential drowning event later in the swim, I like to at least get a good snorkel in before it starts to happen. 

RIMG6855.FIX.©.SMALLThere was a strong current and I have difficulty keeping up with the others – they appear to move against the flow more easily than I do; this holds Alice back because she feels obliged to stay close. She tells me I lay too flat in the water – this, to a degree,  because I’m concerned about flippering the coral. While I struggle to simply change direction my wife is out of sight, she might as well be swimming in another ocean for all we see of her. I have no real fear in the water which is probably down to poor judgement. I must by now have spent a great many hours snorkelling and have tried it both with and without floatation support and have no idea why I remain so rubbish at it.

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In the afternoon our aged, but possibly not as old as me, ‘too many pancakes for breakfast’ Texan friends decide not to take another turn in  the sea and are unceremoniously dumped on a nearby island, leaving Jen, Alice and I to make up the full party. The problem now is our guide; I thought he was there to intervene if I had problems in the water, but his role apparently, is to dive down and poke at things with a long pointy stick  for no good reason I can think of.  As soon are we are back at the surface, I tell him not to do this and I keep it brief because I don’t have a lot of spare air for an unnecessary chat. All I have seen in my viewfinder so far is the end of  the guide’s pole and fish moving rapidly away. For all the effort I have to put in to line up a picture the whole thing becomes immensely frustrating. After he quite reasonably interprets my comment as a complaint he leaves me alone, which is great, because drown or no drown – I see far more without him.

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The Desert… but not deserted Island.

IMG_4699.FRAME.©.SMALLLunch is taken on a desert island, which sounds more exciting than it actually is – essentially this is a compacted sand tourist hang out. Our meal is chicken and rice and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but there is only so much of this I can comfortably eat, nevertheless great-tailed grackles come and join us because they aren’t so fussy.

I know I'm in the minority, but I hate phony-baloney islands.
I know I’m in the minority here, but I really don’t like phony-baloney islands. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful place to dump tourists in order to extract their money.
An incredible ball of brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis).
An incredible ball of brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis).

In the afternoon we snorkel closer to shore; in shallower water we are only a foot or two above the corals and I have to work hard to avoid touching them. This is however an ideal depth for taking pictures and after an hour or so I  am feeling very comfortable, and no longer thinking about how ill equipped I am to be in the water. If you can get past your land-based limitations, watching fish becomes hypnotic; with a greater density than air, water appears to slow down time for everything that slides through it.

Blue tangs swimming over over a large brain coral.
Blue tangs (Acanthurus coeruleus) swimming over over a large coral.

Eventually we make our way into a sandy shallows flowing with seagrass – we are approaching the island beach that had been the dumping ground for our Texan party. When we first started out on our afternoon snorkel the island had seemed so very far away, and without a current working against me, I was surprised by how much I had seen and how far I had snorkelled without feeling exhausted.

Causes for Concern: land and sea.

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Our first few days had provided me with a great many photo opportunities. My subjects weren’t in any way ground breaking, but you’d need to be very jaded to be unimpressed by the natural wonders that Belize has to offer.

There are however two areas of concern. The first is that all of the lowland forests I entered were generally degraded. The Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary site had, until 1988, been a logging concern – and this is not an unusual story: once trees have been felled, logging companies will sometimes return the land back to nature, and as wonderful as this is, it is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, or is it shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Or maybe shooting the horse and then shutting the stable door… Certainy one of those.

We should all be pleased to get things back to something like natural, but rarely is the original diversity achieved if there is no surrounding source to keep the eco-system intact. The occasions when natural environments are wrecked by humans, and then given over to conservation are numerous… until of course somebody finds a mineral present that we really can’t do without, or maybe the trees need selectively cutting again. Commercial expedience nearly always wins out, trumping the need for absolute conservation.

IMG_4049.FIX.©.SMALLI wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find large tracts of primary lowland forest – and have to accept that most people have no idea what that is, they are just pleased to be in a bit of forest where wildlife survives at all.

Secondary forest usually contains far fewer species than undisturbed forest, but hardly anybody notices and it is ironic, that for an opportunistic wildlife photographer, secondary forest offers certain advantages: it brings the birdlife that does manage to survive down from the upper reaches to a lower level of forest, essentially because there is nowhere else to go; creatures that no matter how colourful, we’d probably seldom see if they were living in the upper reaches of virgin forest. The draw back of secondary forest is that the grow back is often tightly packed and difficult to see through as young trees compete for available space and resources. Nevertheless, along trails where there is light, most of us will have a fair chance of seeing and photographing wildlife and with the right lenses achieve results.

The second concern is the obvious development of tourism along much of the coastline. This must throw into question how sea life in general, and the offshore reef in particular, will fair if development goes ahead at the rate that is currently planned. Our seas an oceans have so far absorbed a lot of our waste, but there are limits, and eventually we may destroy the very environments that the tourists have come to see. 

IMG_5263.FRAME.©.SMALLIn the second part of this story I take a more careful look at what is happening to natural forests and the outlook is not entirely positive. We should all be concerned, because any loss of biodiversity simply to provide short term commercial gain inevitably has far reaching consequences for all of us; and killing the goose that lays the golden egg is far from beneficial to local people who have managed, with low population levels, to live in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years; something we have so far failed to do with our ‘advanced’ high density industrial lifestyles. It is as well to remember that there are presently no self-sufficient major cities, which throws into question what the term ‘civilised society’ really means. 

With thanks to Jen and Alice for their pictures.

 Next time ‘Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation’.

 

In Search of the Unexpected Trogon.

Far away and long ago I was filming wildlife close by the small community of Portal in southern Arizona, travelling daily across the border to New Mexico; what I remember most vividly is having to get up an hour earlier each day to be in good time crossing into a later time zone… Getting up early has always been painful to me, especially if I’m missing breakfast!

I remember this minor inconvenience better than almost anything about Portal; certainly it wasn’t over developed – but maybe now, things have changed… I hope not, because out of the way places are at their best when they stay gently un-noticed.

My first visit was thirty years ago – I still have a T-shirt that sums it up – across the front in big black letters is written ‘Where the Hell is Portal?’ designed no doubt, by a resident with a self deprecating sense of humour, something that is sadly missing in many small communities. If Portal were in Australia it would be the sort of place where people worry about visitors laughing at them and then they’d build something hideous to make this a certainty – perhaps the world’s biggest sheep in corrugated iron – but not Portal… this is a place altogether more self assured.

To be honest, I liked Portal so much, I was soon buying a second T-shirt, and on this one there was a picture of an odd looking bird with the words TROGON COUNTRY – a surprise to me because I thought trogons were essentially tropical birds. Portal is now a popular bird watching area, but as it wasn’t busy when I was there I didn’t find anybody to advise me where to look, and set off in a fruitless search… Not only did I not see a trogon… I didn’t see another living soul.

I still have the Trogon T-shirt.
I still have the trogon T-shirt. I bought half a dozen Arizona shirts around that time and note the combined age of three and a half them is exactly the same age as Arizona and it takes only five combined to reach the age of Canada, which suggests either I’m getting old, or much of North America is still very young!

I soon discovered that the elegant trogon can be seen in this essentially arid region during spring and summer; back then I hadn’t managed many visits further south where trogons are more easily discovered.

The order Trogoniformes has only one family that contains both trogons and quetzals. To me they seem odd looking birds, with elongated bodies and poorly developed legs and feet, their toes arranged two front and two back like a parrot. They show up across the tropics in Africa, Asia and the New World, nesting in holes dug in trees and sometimes termite mounds, living in wooded areas which are often quite degraded; they feed mostly on insects, a variety of small animals and fruit.

It was perhaps my failure to see trogons in Arizona that made me determined to seek them out and my chances improved dramatically when some fifteen years later I went with my family on holiday to Tobago.

We took up residence at the top of a beach; spending most of our time in the water, but when my children were young, holidays always involved a family day out, although my children generally viewed such outings as a road trips to hell, but complaining was futile, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of photographing local plants and animals, or deprive the children of seeing something interesting. We always left a place knowing more than when we arrived, even if in the process some of us left it feeling, well… a little more grumpy.

Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, although not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.
Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, but not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.

In 1963, Flora was one of the worst hurricanes ever to pass through the Caribbean – or anywhere else for that matter, it took out around three quarters of Tobago’s natural forest, and substantially damaged the remainder. The forest should have grown back naturally, but much of the available space was rapidly colonised by an introduced bamboo. Tobago has its own native bamboo species but none big enough to take over a forest. One day this forest will grow back and crowd out the invader; but at the time this rapidly growing alien, gave native birds a better chance of surviving the ecological disaster – at least in the short term. I don’t know how things will work out, but in 1999 there were tracts of alien bamboos growing across the Island that didn’t naturally belong there. 

A native blue-crowned motmot sitting on non-native bamboo.
This native blue-crowned motmot was sitting amongst non-native bamboo.

Occasionally when working for the B.B.C. a local guide would be employed to help, but when on holiday such expenses were personal to me, and that took a bit of getting used to. There can be no doubt however, that when time is limited, shelling out for somebody who knows the local area optimises your chances of seeing something interesting. In Tobago we were lucky enough to find Peter Cox who took us to a particular tract of forest when we asked him to find trogons and blue morpho butterflies.

Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a bit younger.
Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a little younger.

Good guides like Peter not only know where to take people, they can also avoid making repeated visits to habitats that are under pressure. Their influence is more consequential than anything I might achieve by contributing to  T.V. programmes that often preach to the converted in places far from the country where filming took place. Advice given to locals by somebody like Peter who understands the environment can have far reaching  consequences, fostering positive changes, particularly when any conservation efforts are tailored to local needs. 

We walked with Peter through the forest on a track that ran some distance along a river bank; and over the course of a few hours saw both trogons, blue morph butterflies, and many other species besides. Peter provided useful information about the local habitat and was especially good with the children which made the day a great success. Nobody fell over, got  bitten, stung or drowned, all of which are plus points when you take small children into a rainforest.

The Tobago Tourist Board will be happy to hear me say that Tobago provides a great starter tropical forest for travellers because it has very few noxious species – no venomous coral snakes, South American bushmasters or fer-de-lance vipers, all of which occur on the neighbouring island of Trinidad. The only downside to this single short visit was that I didn’t get any good shots of trogons.

The downside was, I didn't get any really good pictures - to do that in a single outing with two young children in tow was rather hopeful.
Photographing, trogons in the dense cover of the forest proved difficult, and  the bird’s habit of sitting in shadow, or contrasty dappled light was challenging. 

It would have been easy to blame the poor results on having two small children in tow, but their behaviour was never in question – they would stand still, or move carefully and quietly on request more reliably than many adults – it goes without saying that small children incapable of following instruction should never be taken into a tropical rainforest.

This was about as good as it got - altogether pretty hopeless.
This was about as good as it got – a very unimpressive photo, but at least we all managed to see a collared Trogon.

I didn’t go specifically searching for trogons again for around another fifteen years when during November 2015 my wife, daughter and I travelled from Vancouver to the Sea of Cortez, a place that I’d always wanted to visit. Seeing a trogon was in the back of my mind when on 12th November 2015 we arrived in Puerto Vallarta; the water was a pleasant 85F degrees  in stark contrast to the cold North Pacific so recently left behind.

Years earlier I had spend hours talking to B.B.C Natural History producer Barry Paine who was planning to film in The Sea of Cortez. The conversation had been very one sided as Barry had been researching his project for years, looking into naturalist William Beebe’s trip along the northwest coast of Mexico. He was also familiar with the voyage of discovery made over a six week period in 1940 by John Steinbeck and Marine biologist Ed Ricketts as they collected and recorded specimens from the tidal zone. This story particularly interested me because the resultant book became a work of non-fiction, with Ricketts name removed from later editions after his accidental death in 1948; what followed was a reworking by Steinbeck, although it was Ricketts who provided most of the research material.

The book was important because it reflected the changes that were starting to happen in the area, hinting at the ecological problems that we face today. It was one of the earliest written works to touch upon environmental concerns by actually going to a place and looking, rather than simply making armchair suppositions about how bad things potentially are. Some 15 years after our discussions Barry finally did get to make his film and I was by then working somewhere else and never managed my all expenses paid trip to the area.

The Sea of Cortez as I had imagined it.
A recent picture of a coastal region of The Sea of Cortez. It was just as I had imagined it to be.

Steinbeck knew even as he was writing, that things were taking a turn for the worse; air travel was about to change everything bringing in waves of tourism. He didn’t however foresee the arrival of cruise ships, depositing millions of people into what had until recently been a comparatively remote area. The influx improved local economies just at the time when fish supplies had become depleted; and as one major industry took over from another, pressure began to build on a whole set of other resources centring around land use and fresh water availability. The changes were rapid in the extreme, with the charm and natural beauty of many areas almost entirely lost in just a few years, although it might be reasonably claimed that bringing tourism to an area is better than leaving local people to live in poverty.

Tourists enjoy themselves and bring money to the local economy and vcertainly they are not causing direct physical damage to the local environment because few move far beyond their holiday triangle, the hotel, the beach and the bar.
Tourists come to Mexico to enjoy themselves, and in doing so, bring money to local economies. Most will not cause direct physical damage to their surroundings because few will move beyond the holiday triangle of their hotel, the beach and the bar.

There is of course no going back now. Most high rise condos are within easy reach of a well watered golf course, which in arid regions isn’t sustainable as visitors increasingly consume water and generate waste. Local needs have already made a huge difference to natural habitats; farmers have always struggled to grow food in this arid region. Many places idealized in our dreams as clean and beautiful are now anything but, as agriculture followed by the development of tourism has taken a toll. Trash – in particular plastics – are steadily making their way into what until recently, were pristine ecosystems.

The reality of the Sea of Cortez. Not every fishing village has turned into a holiday resort, but many have and others are going the same way - this Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California
The reality of the Sea of Cortez is that not every fishing village has been turned into a holiday resort, but the many that have are now changed beyond all recognition – this is Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California.

On our visit, to be certain of finding viable natural habitats we enlisted the help of Geraldo. It wasn’t long before he was driving us through the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, heading inland towards the hills, passing through numerous villages and the agricultural land that surrounds them until eventually we arrived in an area of woodland, mixed vegetation and pasture to begin our search for butterflies and birds.

As Geraldo drove he outlined his background. As a child he’d looked after his mother’s aviary, providing food and water for the birds he’d steadily developed an interest in them. Then somebody took him to see birds in the wild and he was at once impressed by their beauty, especially when he first saw an elegant trogon; these experiences encouraged him to try and conserve them.

On a track he stopped to speak with a local riding out to tend his stock; when we drive on he explains how important it is to develop the trust of the people who live gere. He has often spoked to farmers about vultures, telling them the birds kill snakes, although he admits to exaggerating on occasions saying, ‘especially the poisonous ones’. Once they understand this link farmers are less inclined to kill the birds to protect livestock. Vultures are scavengers that play an important role in cleaning up the environment, but because they have predatory hooked bills, suffer serious persecution worldwide. 

You have to go some way out of town now to see old Mexico, but many don't get much further than a local bar.
Visitors need to travel a little to experience old Mexico, but most do not move far beyond their resort, irrationally fearful of dangers that are rare outside of major cities.

A local says he saw jaguar paw prints recently, there are also pumas here, but strangely most people show very little ill will towards them, perhaps because they are not as commonly seen as they are deep in the interior. This live and let live attitude hasn’t always been a usual response to big cats – the son of a restaurant owner recently told us that when he was a boy his father was out every night hunting jaguar and puma. The current state of affairs is that there are occasional signs of big cats moving through, but in general they are scarce and rarely seen.

Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.
Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.

Without question Geraldo speaks passionately about Mexican wildlife, he clearly sees environmental problems increasing and the need for conservation, and contributes positively by giving talks to encourage the locals to take an interest in their wildlife. He undoubtedly has influence and is one of a steadily increasing number of unsung heroes of local conservation.

We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.
We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.

Many years ago Geraldo decided that he would like to conserve mountain habitat, and as he wondered how he might achieve this, the Government stepped in to conserve several areas of concern, but the lowlands through which we are travelling have no such protection, other than the conservation of some larger established trees.

The loss of lowland habitats to agriculture and development is a worldwide problem – the attitude that wildlife should live on the land that we can’t fully utilizie isn’t helpful because many species are specific to lower altitudes and not all can get simply move on to live in the mountains, while we, quite literally, take the lions share and strip out the lowlands. As our populations have increased, the conservation of lowland areas has become a nightmare, with frequent conflicts between landowners, large herbivores and their predators. With national parks too small for the long term viability of many species, the future does not look encouraging. We are not living in harmony with the natural world and the influence of people like Geraldo has far reaching consequences.

We manage to see a variety of butterflies and birds during our day out, many of them restricted to the dry forests of western Mexico, but, so far, we haven’t  come across one bird in particular, the Citreoline trogon which can only be seen down this side of Mexico. Then it happens, we are driving out of the forest and my wife Jen spots one in a tree… I can’t quite believe our luck and get out of the vehicle to walk a little closer, and am soon taking pictures.

The Ciroeline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasty light made photographing the bird difficult.
The Citreoline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasting light made photographing the bird difficult and I was a little too far away for a good picture.

The citreoline trogon has black and white bars on the outer tail feathers, a yellow belly an yellow eyes – a distinguishing feature if, as is the case here, you get to see the bird only from behind. 

A little later the bird is singing and the head, although in shadow, is more clearly defined. The bird has its back to us and it is said the bird prefers to present its back to an observer because of its belly is bright yellow... but I'm not sure that it isn't just a matter of chance.
A little later the bird was singing and the head, although in shadow, more clearly defined. It is said this bird prefers to present its back to an observer because its belly is bright yellow… but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a matter of chance.

There is a need for us to move on because we have limited time before making a connection, that if missed, will leave us stranded in this part of Mexico for sometime. As we drive on, I see a bird in a tree and Geraldo slows, before inching forward to get a better view and soon we are bogged down in sand just off the main track. We try to dig the vehicle out, my daughter and I bounce up and down on the rear bumper to get traction while Geraldo drives, but all we manage to do is to get the vehicle more deeply bogged in.

A bus which was quite a surprie to see squeezes by as I continue to work clearing sand from around the rear wheel whilst the rest of Mexico discusses what to do after I have failed to improve the situation.
To suddenly see a bus is a surprise –  it squeezes by as I continue to clear sand from around the rear wheel while the rest of Mexico gathers to discuss what to do after I fail to improve the situation.

The local that Geraldo spoke with earlier suddenly comes riding out of the forest and stops to help. He has, as one might expect, a rope, and fairly soon attaches this to a passing 4 wheel drive – the owner of which has stopped to offer assistance and soon we are dragged out. At no time during the proceedings did my wife mention time – over the years, similar incidents in far away places have resulted in her developing an increasingly philosophical approach to life… and this can only be good.

Not quite done with this trogon, in June 2016 Jen and I return to the Bay of Banderas region to stay for a time in Mismaloya, a little out from the main tourist area, so that I might more easily walk into the local forest to photograph wildlife.

We return to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season
We have returned to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season.

It is an eventful week and on our last full day in the region we spend the afternoon photographing flowers and birds in Vallarta Botanic Gardens which is rather wonderful. On arriving back at the Hotel, I leave my wife by the pool to go in search of a pair of basilisk lizards I’d seen a few days earlier close by the local river. It was early evening, the light was going, and I managed only a glimpse of a single lizard, otherwise, there was little to photograph in the fading light and I packed my camera away – which is always a cue for something interesting to happen, and this evening would be no exception.

As I wandered up from the river to rejoin the road I noticed a bird with a bright yellow belly, it was sat in a tree on the other side and this encouraged me to get the camera out to use as a scope. I usually carry it with a long 400 mm. lens attached and take a look through the viewfinder to get the best view I’ve ever had of a trogon in the wild; better still, this was a citreolene trogon, the species we’d seen with Geraldo last year only from the back, but this one was facing me. This isn’t a rare bird in the region, but I’d been looking all week and this was my first sighting – it was great to see it.

This was our final day and my last chance to get a shot of a trogon; although the Iight was hopeless I decided to grab a picture before attempting to set up the tripod which was presently sleeping with its legs tucked up inside itself at my feet. I didn’t even have time to put my bag down, quickly grabbing a hand held shot using the camera on its last settings. I could tell from the click, that the exposure time was long and would most likely provide a blurred image. So, I made a quick adjustment and went for a second shot which I hoped might work, then just before I took a third the bird turned its head away with indifference. This was my cue to put everything down on the dusty track, and wake up the tripod for a steady shot, but in the process I glanced up to  discover the bird had gone; I didn’t hear it fly and had no idea where it might now be. It had appeared and disappeared like the Cheshire cat in  ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but unfortunately unlike the story, bits of it would not be slowly reappearing in front of me. If the tripod had been ready I’d have got the shot without any trouble – I’d wasted my best wild trogon photo opportunity since I’d started looking in the mid 1980s. It would all be down to a single picture taken hand held in poor light on a long lens – a combination that usually results in an underexposed blurred disaster. 

Here then is the unexpected trogon. It is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful - the field of focus is shallow because the light is steadily going.
Here then is the unexpected trogon. This is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful – the field of focus is shallow because the light has almost gone.

On all of the occasions I have tried to photograph trogons in the past, they have been is strong dappled light creating extremes of contrast that are difficult  to deal with; and sitting amongst foliage none have provided as clear a view as this one. More important than the quality of my picture is the rate of development in this area of agriculture and tourism. The real question is, if I come back in ten years time, will there be enough dry forest habitat left to find and photograph this bird at all?

I was beginning to think that if I wanted a good trogon picture maybe I should just go to the zoo.  

A white-tailed or is it a black-headed trogon taken at Seattle Zoo. I don't have the experience to know without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took 30 seconds to get, and that's a lot quicker than my trying npw and again over 30.
A white-tailed (or is it a black-headed trogon?) taken at Seattle Zoo. I don’t have the experience to identify the bird without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took only 30 seconds to achieve – that’s a lot quicker than my wild attempts over the last 30 years.

I wrote up this story a year ago, but held it back because I’ve never really managed a good shot of a trogon in the wild and that bothers me, but just a few days ago I was visiting the Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Preserve in Belize, which is perhaps most famous for its jaguars, and things suddenly changed. This was my last day in the park and it hadn’t been a very good one for pictures. I had returned to park headquarters and was about to leave, when a passing member of staff said that he’d just seen a trogon in a nearby tree. I was about 25 feet from where it was sitting, and was able to move quite close to a bird totally indifferent to my presence. I took a few shots, and then the staff member said, “And its partner is over there”, pointing at a bird in another tree. “but I don’t know which is the male and which is the female”. His concern was appreciated, but given how long I’d waited for this moment!….  All I had to do was move a few feet and in no time at all I had fairly reasonable shots of both birds. Trogons it seems are a bit like buses – you wait ages – in my case 30 years (give or take a few days from when I first started looking)  and then two come along together.

A male black-headed trogon from the front.
A male black-headed trogon from the front.
And from the back.
And from the back.
This I think is a female - a slightly less colourful bird, but nevertheless still wonderful to see.
This is the female – a slightly less colourful, but nonetheless wonderful bird.

Job done. Thank goodness for that… now I can make a start on toucans! 

With  thanks to Peter Cox Nature Tours Tobago and Geraldo Hernandez Vazquez. www.naturevallarta.com also thanks to John Gordon.

 

Before We Had Brains 2 – Of Arthropods and Other Things.

Long before humans developed the brains they have today, a great many other animals had already evolved co-ordinated nerve centres completely effective in directing their everyday lives.

In ‘Before We Had Brains 1′, I considered what might have been our earliest vertebrate ancestor – probably a worm-like creature that lived in the sea; and before that we must have passed through a variety of preceding invertebrate stages – it’s been a long road. Almost as extraordinary is that while we were on the evolutionary march from comparative simplicity to our present complexity, many other animals hardly changed at all.

Butterfiles showed up on plante earth about 150 million years ago, about the same time as flowering plants began to enter the fossil record... well, that makes good sense.
Butterflies showed up on Earth around 150 million years ago – about the same time flowering plants began to enter the fossil record, and this is unlikely to be a co-incidence.

Once a species has adapted through the evolutionary process to an environment that remains fairly constant, there is no advantage to making further dramatic changes. What is certain is that while animals on our branch of the tree were evolving more complex nervous systems, many invertebrates were sticking with something quite different.

The model for a brain-like structure at the front end – common to all vertebrates – was laid down in invertebrates millions of years ago, but many also evolved multiple masses of ganglia to control body functions in a manner very much different from our own.

The well developed nerve ganglia at the head end is close to organs such as ears, eyes and antennae that have developed to receive incoming information. But other masses of nerve ganglia have also developed along the main nerve that runs the length of the body – additional mini-brains if you like – that co-ordinate different parts of the body. Sensory information is also picked up in ways that we would consider unusual – grasshoppers for example can hear through their knees and pollinating insects see patterns on flowers in the ultraviolet range. These are inputs that we have no direct experience of and in consequence sometimes find difficult to comprehend.

The sexton beetles makes a living burying small animals and lays eggs on th corpses it finds, but first it has to smell out the dead using chemorecpetors on the beetles specialist antennae which are well devloped.
The sexton beetles makes a successful living burying small dead animals; the females lay eggs on the corpses, but first these have to be smelt out by chemoreceptors on the beetles specialised antennae which are raised above their head ends to receive the necessary olfactory information – this is processed by a nerve ganglia at the head end, but other functions,such as mobility, may be controlled by nerve centres elsewhere along the body. 

The large and varied Phylum Arthropoda contains animals with external skeletons and segmented bodies with jointed limbs paired in keeping with their bilateral symmetry; they include the Arachnids (spiders and scorpions), Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes), Crustaceans (crabs, lobsters and woodlice) and last but not least – Insects; and all have a very different arrangement of their nervous systems than we do.

Arthropods have become extremely successful, forming a major part of life on Earth, and it is a surprise that we so often view them as aliens – the templates for creatures formed in our wildest imaginings; the sort of things that regularly crop up in our sci-fi stories, and usually portrayed as agressive invaders from another world.

Another trilobite. Extinct maybe, but this one just keeps cropping up in horror movies. The inspiration for 'orginality' of thought so often goes unmentioned.
Trilobites were once well represented in the world’s oceans, but all perished during a great mass extinction at the end of the Permian around 250 million years ago. These Arthropods are now only known because they are well represented in the fossil record. Extinct maybe, but this Dicranurus species just keeps cropping up in horror movies, an inspirational creature that rarely receives credit for its influence on popular culture; nevertheless it’s form is frequently faked and sold to fossil collectors.

With the millions of nervous systems available, it seems a poor effort to display only one, but I have chosen an example that in general form covers many other insects – it belongs to a grasshopper, and I also have a story to tell.

As a zoology student I frequently glimpsed the internal structure of the grasshopper’s big brother – the locust, and this provided at least a rudimentary understanding of the insects behaviour in relation to its nervous system – or at least as good an understanding as is possible for one who has only one brain.

As grasshopper like many other Arthropods has nerve bundles arranged internally along the ventral side. Clearly the head isn't making all of life's decisions.
Grasshoppers, like many other Arthropods, have fused nerve ganglia arranged internally along the ventral side, and it is fair to say that the head end ‘brain’ does not make all of this animal’s life decisions.

Way back when I was a zoology student, our college expected everybody to work hard for a degree, but on occasions I didn’t feel inclined to fill every waking hour with study, and having finished a series of experiments on how insects see, didn’t feel inclined to attend through a Friday afternoon. As an impetuous ‘know it all’, I felt every aspect of the subject had been adequately covered; as did my co-worker, another student, who just  like me, wanted to broaden his educations beyond grasshopper behaviour.

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Our university was in London and not too far from The British Museum where a Tutankhamun exhibition was about to end. It would probably never leave the Cairo Museum again and as the world shouldn’t revolve around insect brains (although  judging by their numbers, it probably does), we decided to take the afternoon off and visit the exhibition.

Decisions, decisions. Should we do yet another experiment on what this fellow is thinking (and I use that term loosely) or hould we go and see Tut?
Decisions, decisions: do yet another experiment on what this fellow is thinking – and I use that term loosely – or go and see the contents of a dead king’s tomb? It was of course a no brainer; we would take time out to visit King Tut’s extensive hoard of guilt edged burial tat.
It was another 'no brainer'. We would go and see KIng Tut's extensive and exceptional burial tat.
It was another ‘no brainer’. We would go and see KIng Tut’s extensive and exceptional burial tat.

Once out of the lab we’d simply make up a thought experiment like a couple of Victorian armchair naturalists. Our experiments had already shown us that if the image of a sharp edged object – such as a blade of grass – passed rapidly across the compound eye of a grasshopper, the insect would react by jumping. We knew that the hopper would react to a sharp curved edge because that’s the way grass leaves are, but we took it a stage further by theorising that evolution would first and foremost select for a sharp straight edge over a curved one because the former would provide a stronger stimulus when it moved across an insects compound eye, firing off neurons more effectively.

The experimental set up we’d been using all week was a simple one – a bit like a super sized hampster wheel on its side with regular grass shaped incisions cut into its rotating surface. The wheel could be spun around at various speeds with the hopper sat at the centre. But of course we had no plans to actually test our theory using it. We would instead set off for the museum and write the thing down on a scrap of paper as we travelled on the underground. Rather unsurprisingly… our theory turned out to be spot on, with a 15% increase in the grasshopper’s reaction to a straight edge over a curved edge. It was then a simple process to work our figures backwards and even devise a statistical test to make sure our results were significant, rather than a matter of chance. Clearly something new and quite fictitious had been added to the pantheon of scientific discovery; satisfied with our work, we went on to join the queue outside of the Museum, and once inside, had a great afternoon in what seemed a fantasy world almost as impressive as the one we had just invented.

Our museum visit was not without some relationship to entomology - the Ancient Egyptians were fond of dung beetles.
Our museum visit was not entirely without reference to entomology – the Ancient Egyptians were fond of dung beetles.

The experiment was written up a few days later and submitted. We thought no more about our harmless deception, until a couple of weeks later our supervisor stopped us in a corridor to congratulate us on our work and insisted that we must submit the findings to a major scientific journal….. Now, if our brains had been working as efficiently as our make believe grasshopper then we might have seen this coming. Terrific we said, but of course we’d have to repeat the experiment to be absolutely certain. I’ve always been hopeless with repeats, all my experiments seemed to invalidate earlier results, usually because I didn’t stop when I was ahead – even though one might expect a pretty clear result with an insect brain, my own brain was less well organised. We never repeated anything of course. Utilising the same thought experiment, we quickly discovered that we couldn’t repeat the results, much to the disappointment of our supervisor. For us, it was a great relief to get off the hook, because nobody wants to start their scientific careers as fraudsters – any scientist so inclined probably needs to work up to it.

Not quite a plague, but enough hoppers to make short work of the undergrowth.
A group of hoppers in their natural habitat are well organised feeders. Not quite a plague, but there are enough youngsters here to make short work of this undergrowth.

The important thing about our non-existent laboratory experiment was that the details were convincing because we had a fair idea of how a grasshopper’s brain might interpret what it’s eyes saw, because the hopper wasn’t thinking about very much, it was simply reacting to a visual stimulus.

It is usually possible to gauge how good an animals eyesight is by simply looking at the eyes – size is always important even with a compound eye, which sees things very much differently from a vertebrate eyes, even though there are similarities in the neural process. For any who have looked inside a grasshoppers head, it is clear from the amount of nerve material dedicated to the eyes and brain in this region, that this must be true.

But what about those other nerve ganglia along the body. For any who have undertaken experiments more thoroughly than I have, it is clear these centres co-ordinate a variety of bodily functions without reference to an anterior brain. I don’t advocate nasty experiments, but a cockroach without a head, and with the rest of the body sealed off with a blob of wax, will run around for several days… and it is noteworthy that you didn’t get that so much with Anne Boleyn.

Success then, is not always about the complexity of a system, it is about appropriateness to a situation; despite millions of years of appearing to show very little change, most insect nervous systems have had plenty of time to fine tune to specific environmental circumstances. 

Spiders manage an enormous variety of behaviour from one species to another. Having six and often eight eyes gives them an advantage as preators, but how they process and co-ordinate incoming visual information is to a degree beyond our comprehension.
Spiders manage an enormous variety of behaviour from one species to another. With as many as six to eight eyes they are ferocious preators, but how they process and co-ordinate incoming visual information is to some degree beyond our comprehension.

Arthropods may appear rather odd looking, but there is no doubt their bodies are fit for purpose, even though we might consider an insect’s level of complexity no match for our own. Sadly, the truth is they might well survive some environmental disasters that we cannot.

It is presently too soon to judge ‘us’ a major success because our tenure has been short in comparison with many simpler forms that have existed for many millions of years; and stood the test of time.

Trilobites were a very successful group of arthropods. They disappeared from Earth during one of the great mass extinctions of species 250 million years ago at the end of the Permain.
A Trilobite which is perhaps more recognisable than the previous alien form. Trilobites are a stark reminder that an animal group can reign successfully in a wide variety of forms and then quite suddenly disappear when conditions change. All species are inevitably destined to change or finally  become extinct – there are no exceptions..

So, which of the vast number of present invertebrate survivors display the most sophisticated nervous systems. Certainly Crustacea such as crabs and Arachnids such as spiders show interesting refinements in behaviour, and this often includes impressive courtship displays, none of which can occur without a finely tuned nervous system.

Crabs.

Crabs utilse their forelimbs to great effect with feeding as their primary function - this Hawaaian rock crab is feeding on seaweed. crabs with more developed pincers will also used them for defence and males will often wave them about in complex displays to impress females.
Crabs utilse six pairs of appendages to catch and deal with food – this includes their forelimbs which they use to great effect – and feeding is often their primary function as demonstrated by this Hawaiian rock crab as it delicately plucks seaweed off of a rock. 

The forelimbs of many also become more developed and used as pincers for defence and males sometimes wave them about during complex courtship displays to impress females; all of which requires a refined nervous system even within certain limitations. A lot of what a crab does is automatic and not a lot of neural activity is devoted to thinking. Crabs exist without philosophical thought. Rene Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am’, but crabs are not well equipped to think about uses very much; their modi operandi makes them look like creatures with attitude, but b.s.ing is beyond them – sometimes neurological limitations are not such a bad thing.

Spiders.

Spiders are not short on sensory ability, as ruthless predators their eye sight is usually good but this is dependend upon species - most spiders have eight eyes. They also sense vibration well, this Dolomedes which is not a spider that uses a web senses movement on the surface of the ponds where it sits and waits for prey.
Spiders such as Dolomedes are not short on sensory ability. Visual signals are important, but they can also sense vibrations. Dolomedes is not a spider that uses a web, it utilises surface tension to stand on a pond’s surface and can detect ripples; the back legs rest upon something solid, the front legs upon the water’s surface, sensing for prey.

Octopuses.

Perhaps the most impressive invertebrate nervous system belongs to the octopuses. They are Cephalopods and part of the Mollusc family. It is difficult to watch a slow moving snail and consider this as a relative of such a fast moving intelligent creature. By any standards an octupus is a clever animal able to solve complicated problems. Some species have phenomenal eyesight, equipped as they are with eyes similar in structure to our own, these are often as big, or even bigger than their ‘brains’. Octopuses are exceptional at co-ordination and can change colour rapidly to match their surroundings. None of which could be done without a complex nervous system.

These are live octupus tentacles and their co-ordination is complex and often extraordinary.
These tentacles belong to a live octopus, they are wonderfully co-ordinated and can often achieve extraordinary feats when executing complex tasks.

The octopus nervous system contains as many as 500 million neurons with three fifths of this neural mass distributed in the tentacles. The brain is a lobed and compex in structure with substantial computing ability – and this is a creature that also has a good memory.

The question is; with this well organised neural arrangement, does an octopus watch its own arms and wonder what they are up to as they go about doing their own thing, or is the main brain informed of every movement? Because our nervous system is ordered with a single brain doing all of the thinking, it is difficult for us to understand an animal with it’s thinking power distributed so widely throughout the body.

p1230695-fix-smallWhen it comes down to it, there is no need to invent strange alien like creatures, because we have plenty of extraordinary looking animals on Earth already, and many of which analyse their surroundings very much differently from the way that we do, using ultraviolet, sonar, magnetic and other sensory processes and many catch aspects of the world that we cannot. The strangest of creatures are already here – it is just a question of paying attention to them because in the grand scheme of things, we probably can’t do without them.

An octopus has a brain that rivals some vertebrates, but not this one it is a plastic toy held up to the sky - favoured animals always end up duplicated as toys and this one sits at the end of the bath.
The multi-brained octopus has a computing power that rivals the ability of many vertebrates, but not this one it is just a plastic toy held up to the sky… Let’s pretend. Favoured animals always end up duplicated as toys – this one usually hangs out at the end of the bath.

We should take photographs of all of the life that Planet Earth has to offer – even the small and seemingly insignificant forms because all have gone through a great many trials to survive millions of years of evolution. We owe it to them and to ourselves to pay more attention to the life that is around us; to notice and photograph as many species as we can, especially the ones that don’t immediately grab our sympathy or attention. All are fundamental to the success of natural environments and world ecosystems will ultimately suffer if they are lost. We need to record as many as we can, because species are now disappearing from the world at an alarming rate, many of them unknown to science. This is a sad state of affairs. So, ‘Take a picture and Save the Planet’, or at the very least, help to make a record of what might soon be lost to us.

Next time: The Human Brain – Are We Too Stupid to Save the Planet?

 

Before We Had Brains 1 – The Worm That Turned.

As a child I spent many happy hours watching animals, especially the odd ones that other people mostly avoided… and it wasn’t long before it all made perfect sense to me. When I was old enough, I would train as a zoologist.

“What will you do with that?” people would ask.  “Work in a zoo?”  Well, not exactly. Rather stupidly, it had never occurred to me to ask how  zoologists make a living – I’d never met one, but I was certain it wouldn’t be a total waste of time; and when I finally managed to get qualified I was determined not to end up doing anything obvious – like teaching, or hanging on at university to research how best to kill small animals in the name of pest control.

Instead I became a wildlife filmmaker specialising in the kind of animals that just aren’t cuddly – the ones without backbones that even ‘The Natural History Museum’ in London happily describes as ‘creepy crawlies’, More properly they are invertebrates and all get by with nervous systems very much different from our own.

I've always liked the odd looking animals that most people don't like - this ones a mole cricket which is rather beautiful in its own way.
I’ve always liked animals that other people find less appealing – this one is a mole cricket which to me is rather beautiful in its own peculiar way.

Many invertebrates have nerve bundles that act as co-ordinating centres; but it would be a stretch to describe these as brains, although technically they are clearly centres for computation. 

It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you've got past their beautiful wings!
It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you’ve got past their beautiful wings!

When I was at school I wanted to learn more about how such animals worked; and if I came across a dead one, I would pick it up, take it home and delve inside to try and understand how internal structure matched up to external function. My parents were very understanding: they realised that my oddness was based upon science and not just that I was completely weird. Later when I became a zoology student this odd behaviour was suddenly recognised as a skill, and one that it turned out I was good at.

Although dissecting animals didn’t seem that consequential, it did at least provide an opportunity to view the insides all sorts of animals that I would later spend hours observing from the outside. This may not seem important, but the way an animal’s  nervous system is organised is fundamental to the way it behaves.

 Animal behaviour is about how creatures respond to external stimuli, and the way they do this is very much tied to the way their nervous systems have evolved – what works well for one won’t necessarily work for another. It’s all about lifestyle.

A butterfly suddenly gifted with the sensory ability and nervous system of a gorilla wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, even if such a neurological upgrade was possible. In the end, it is the precision and appropriateness of neurological responses to the environment that really counts. As humans, we are steadily losing contact with nature; if we all behaved as appropriately as an ant does in direct response to its surroundings, the World would be in better shape, but our lives of course would be far less interesting.

This kaleidascope of butterflies are all orientating in the same direction and they aren't thinking about it, the behaviour is hard wired into their system. Over millions of years, the butterflies that orientate correctly, either to best camouglage or in this case maintain body temeprature have survived and passed the bahaviour on have survived to produce the next generation of butterflies.
This kaleidoscope of butterflies orientates in the same direction but they don’t need to think about it, the behaviour is hard wired. Over millions of years, previous butterflies that orientated appropriately – either to camouflage themselves, or, as is this case, to maintain body temperature, have survived to pass their genes on to the next generation.
And here are a couple orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky, exhibiting as little surface area as they can to its rays about an hour after mid-day. On a still day, if the temperature was standard one day to another you could tell the time by the angle they adopt. Early in the day the would have their wings open to gain body heat and they don't need complex brains to think it through - they just do it.
Here, a couple of butterflies are orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky; just after mid-day they are presenting as little surface area to its rays as they can. In Settled conditions it might be possible to tell the time by the angle of the butterflies wings throughout  the warmest part of the day. In early morning their orientation is completely different – they have their wings open like solar panels to gain body heat and they don’t need a complex brain to think things through – it occurs automatically.

You might think my regard for invertebrate nervous systems is little more than my brain justify my wasted youth, but a careful analysis of their neural structure can provide a better understanding of our own, even allowing for the obvious differences of compexity.

Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, some invertebrates appear better equipped for longterm survival than do we. Many have displayed very little change for millions of years, which suggests that keeping things simple works really well; evolution clearly follows the general rule, that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins have existed for about 450 million years, although this spiny version is a little more recent and some species can live for a couple of hundred years
Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins for about 450 million, with some individuals, if they manage to escape predation, living for more than a couple of hundred years.

Sea anemones are predators, something that we consider a sign of superiority in more complicated animals, because vertebrate predators in particular have a lot more going on in their brains than do their herbivorous prey – wolves for example are more cunning than sheep – which appear… well, rather more sheepish.

Yep. There's more going on behind these eyes than any sheep.
Yep. There’s certainly more going on behind these eyes than in any sheep.

In comparison lowly creatures such as sea anemones rely entirely upon their prey floating by and are far less selective than the predators we usually notice – generally those with greater complexity. There are many uncomplicated invertebrates managing their lives with simple nerve nets, most of which do not have co-ordinating nerve bundles, and certainly nothing that comes close to anything that resembles a brain.

Nerve nets operate fairly simply – usually the greater the stimulus a jellyfish receives, the greater is its response.

In a nerve net, sensory neurones pick up signals from the environment and transmit information to other neurones that are able to discern certain patterns of activity. In jellyfish these then transmit to motor neurones that will activate muscles dedicated to short distance propulsion.

Animals with neural nets usually have radial symetry - this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.
Animals with nerve nets are usually represented in form by radial symmetry – this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.

It is surprising how much can be achieved with such a simple nervous system and it is one that is fairly easy to analyse due to its obvious lack of complexity. The great thing about sea anemones, sea urchins and jellyfish, is that they are incapable of over thinking a situation, to do so would quite literally take far more nerve than they have… We all know that jellyfish are spineless creatures, which in simple terms, makes them complete no brainers.

Starfish also demonstrate radial symetry when you look down upon them.
Starfish also demonstrate radial symmetry when viewed from above (or below).

Animals that rely upon nerve nets do not, as the term implies, always have their neurones distributed  evenly; sometimes these are denser in areas of greater neural activity and they may even be organised into very simple nerve masses or ganglia.

The simplest animals – such as amoeba, don’t have brains, nerve nets or anything clearly recognisable as a nervous system – essentially these blob like creatures get activated directly by external stimuli such as touch, light and chemicals.

This caterpillar clearly has bilater symmetry.
This caterpillar clearly has bilateral symmetry and even has its own central line.

At the other end of the scale, invertebrates with greater complexity have evolved bilateral symmetry – where the right hand side of the body mirrors the left. This is a successful pattern common to a great many animals and all vertebrates; and species that display this form of symmetry require a system with far greater complexity than a nerve net to operate efficiently.

Worms have it… and unsurprisingly they have evolved with much of their sensory equipment organised at the front end, because this is the first part of the body to experience new information. 

When I was a zoology student my supervisor Dr. Neil Croll introduced me to a nematode worm called Caenorhabitis elegans – this was a pivotal moment in my understanding of animal behaviour, which might sound odd, because C. elegans is only just visible to the naked eye at less than a millimetre in length. Despite its small size this worm has many plus points for study; most importantly it is not an infectious parasite and many millions can be found free living in just a handful of soil.

Caenorhabditis elegans
Caenorhabditis elegans.

One of the reasons C. elegans is useful for scientific study is the presence of a developed nervous system – there is a nerve ring near the front end, with a number of ganglia running through the body, but in many other respects this is an uncomplicated creature.

For animal behaviourists C. elegans is a great place to start because when it receives an appropriate stimulus, it will respond without the inconsistent behaviour so often displayed by animals carrying the expensive burden of a brain. 

C. elegans was the first animal to have all of it’s cells mapped – it is known where each cell starts out and where each one ends up, and all neural connections are understood. How great is that!

It was also the first animal to have its genome mapped. And my favourite fact – it was the only survivor of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle disaster when the spacecraft broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Cenorhabditis elegans has quite a lot going on inside and has some of the organs that we do, there is a gut (which can be seen here - the front end at least the rounded bulb is an oesophagus) and there are other internal organs which isn't bad for an animal that (in the male) only has 1036 cells a number that does not vary - the cells just grow as the worm gets bigger - which is great because that's one variable out the window straight away.
For such a small creature this one has a lot going on inside, with some organs recognisably similar to our own. A digestive system running through the body from front to back is present and other internal organs can be clearly seen.

The internal structure of this worm is impressive for an animal that, in the male, has only 1036 cells, a number that does not vary – the cells simply grow as the worm gets bigger. 

This little creature, has for many years been telling us interesting things about itself and also quite a lot about us, including details on the ageing process. By the time I started making observations in the mid 1970s C. elegans was already considered a key species for scientific investigation, but everything about it was new to me and a complete revelation.

I placed my worm at random on an agar plate in a petri dish, put a measured dollop of food some way off and then recorded the route   left in the medium as it travelled towards its dinner. Essentially the worm made its way up a diffusing food gradient by a very simple mechanism. It travelled straight,  but on sensing food began to turn; and the closer it got to food the more it turned. A food finding behaviour that is delightfully simple.

So I dropped my worm off at A, went away from couple of hours and come back to find it has arrived at the food source B. leaving a lovely trail across the agar plate. My own personal C. elegans making its way up a food gradient by an extraordinary simple process; and If this worm had hands then i he or she might be described as a lefty. I haven't looked at this negative since 1973 and it I still think it's a wonderful thing to see.
I dropped my worm off at A, and waited a while until it arrived at the food source B.  A trail across the agar plate clearly recorded the nematodes progress and it is seen to turn more as it gets closer to the food source (this worm always turned right). I haven’t looked at this negative since 1974 and I still think it a wonderful thing to see.

It is no surprise that the worm model has been such an evolutionary success.

As the front end of any worm progresses, it picks up available information from the environment ahead, and then its nervous system can assess various uncomplicated options: if all is well the worm might progress, but when required it can draw back a little and move off in another direction. What a worm does is simply governed by what it senses as it moves forward, and for the worm and many other uncomplicated creatures, this is a very practical way of approaching the world.

Some years ago I went to North America to film some of the oldest and most important fossils so far discovered; they are in the Burgess Shale located in the Canadian Rockies. I set up to film collections in both The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and was lucky enough to see some of the finest specimens available from this very early period.

Here is something a bit more complicated Canadia spinosa - a swimming worm with long bristles. Almost everything from the Burgess Shale is a pain to photograph because the fossil remains tend to be very shallow and difficult to light.
A fossil of Canadia spinosa – a swimming worm with long bristles preserved in the Burgess Shale which demonstrates that the worm format has been around for a very long time. The remains although shallow and difficult to photograph are remarkably clear.

The shale  includes creatures that look like sea anemones preserved in deposits laid down some 500 million years ago, along with worm like creatures similar to forms we see today; and there are many other extraordinary fossils of animals that are now lost to us, or difficult to identify. Nevertheless, the Burgess Shale is presently one of the best opportunities to look back to the Pre-Cambrian explosion, a period of time when the fundamental ecology of modern marine ecosystems was first laid down. 

The Ragworm

David Barlow's dark field picture clearly shows the ragworm Neries moving forward. Once forward motion has activated in accordance with the sensory input from the front end, firing the nervous system in each segment of the body in orderly progression is a fairly basic neuroligical process.
This dark field picture clearly shows a Nereis or ragworm moving forward and although I have no idea if this creature is closely related to Canadia spinosa from 500 million years ago, the resemblance in body form is clear – demonstrating that for some animals not a lot has changed for a very long time. 

The Earthworm.

I remember seeing the anatomical arrangement (below) way back when I was a zoology student, although I haven’t found it necessary to look inside an earthworm since, because nothing has changed. Clearly a group of nerves run up to the front end where most of the sensory information is received as the worm moves forward.

Diagram of the anterior or front end of an earthworm Lumbricus, showing (in white) the nervous system which runs mostly along the lower or ventral side of the animal.
Diagram of a dissection of the anterior (front end) of an earthworm (Lumbricus) which shows the nervous system (shown in white) running mostly along the lower (ventral side). This is quite the reverse of what we would expect to see when looking inside an early vertebrate where the spinal nerve clearly runs dorsally.

In the above schematic view most of the internal organs have been removed for clarity,  but the front end of the food canal is left in place to show how the nervous system wraps around to form a couple of nerve bundles on the upper side – the closest thing a worm has to a brain. Internally, a main nerve runs down the ventral wall of the body with three nerves coming off on either side in each segment, and these mostly activate muscles for locomotion. Apart from an area dedicated to reproduction, this model repeats itself along the the length of the body and so it is only necessary to display a couple of segments.

It is believed that our ancestors were once worm like creatures and we would need to go back around 600 million years to find a common ancestor. It would seem a mistake though to conclude that we have evolved directly from worm ancestors on the same branch as the worms as we see today where the main nerve runs ventrally. To re-arrange this to the dorsal side in line with how all vertebrates are organised would require a leap of imagination, because evolution can’t retrace its steps and rearrange anatomical features without leaving a trace. Animals are stuck with what they’ve already got and must adapt from there. 

Maybe at some point a worm stood on its tail, and went with Alice through into the Looking Glass World and as it did so, inverted. My student textbook on Invertebrates by A.S. Romer makes a joke about this switch with a diagram that shows a worm/vertebrate flip where the text details for the vertebrate are turned upside down. Romer then goes on to explain that this inversion creates as many problems as it answers as there are several other anatomical changes that must also occur that are difficult to explain. Maybe the Vertebrate plan was laid down far earlier. When I was a student there were various theories, but nobody seemed to know for certain.

In the Burgess Shale a ‘wormlike’ creature has been discovered that appears to have a nerve chord running down the dorsal side.

I photographed a specimen from the Burgess Shale but it didn't show as much as my artists impression of the animal. Nevertheless a nerve chord clearly ran down the dorsal side.
While photographing the Burgess Shale, I was lucky enough to photograph Pikaia gracilens (which is about 5 cms. in length), a specimen that so far, has been found nowhere else. Unfortunately, the fossils I saw didn’t show much clarity, hence my artists impression of this creature which appears to be an early chordate form. It was probably a capable swimmer, but anatomically it doesn’t manage to tick all the boxes as the forerunner of modern chordates. i.e. animals with spines that support and protect a major nerve chord. Pikaia might not be the forerunner of all mammals, but is probably a close relative.

There are now better claimants to the chordate line from the Chengjiang fossil deposits in China where jawless fish have been found that predate specimens from the Burgess Shale by around 17 million years, but as I write from personal experience and haven’t had the good fortune to see these fossils, it would be cheap to make a drawing from somebody else’s photographs.

Ignoring for a minute the fossil records, another approach taken by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published in early 2010, made a comparison of the small molecules that regulate gene expression; these from similar organs in widely different animals. A marine annelid worm Platynereis dumerilii which hasn’t changed much over 600 million years appears to have micro molecules highly specific to certain tissues including the nervous system, and these are shared similarly in the tissue of many vertebrates including ourselves, which suggests a common ancestry.

We can’t be sure if we evolved from exactly the same ancestor as the worms we see today, but go back far enough and at some stage there must have been a common ancestor and whatever it was, it won’t have been pretty.

Amphioxus.

The dubious honour of the most basic animal around today equipped with a spinal chord falls to about 30 species know as a lancelets or amphioxus – a small translucent marine creature that I was also expected to ‘look into’ as a student. Cephalochordates, are a closely related primitive form of Chordate; they display many of the attributes common to Vertebrates and this includes a brain… More truthfully this is just a bump at the head end of the nerve chord – which explains why they are not renowned as great thinkers. 

Amphioxus - is clasified as a Cephalochordata. This section through a specimen that I made when I was a student clearly shows the nerve chord running along the dorsal side.
Amphioxus – is classified in the sub-Phylum Cephalochordata. This drawing of a vertical section through a specimen  made when I was a student clearly shows a nerve chord running along the dorsal side.

Invertebrates remain unloved by most of us, even so they are an important part of ecological systems. Animals that we should perhaps notice more and photograph when we see them to remind us of the many uncared for and unnamed species lost worldwide on a daily basis. Creatures that have been around for more than 500 million years are disappearing with increasing frequency and many are more consequential to our existence than we realise. It is as well to remember that we cannot exist entirely in a world of our own making in which only ‘the pretty things’ survive because we have chosen to protect them. We are part of an ecosystem… not  a zoo.

I know there are many people who would prefer not to think we are closely related to apes let alone worms… and that’s a pity because if we could see ourselves as part of a natural progression that goes back to our invertebrate ancestors, we might have more respect for the many odd looking creatures still with us today.

The Ascent of Man – a good walk spoilt?

I sometimes wonder if 'The Ascent of Man ' has been an entirely successful journey. So often we do not look after our most prcious asset, our brains and sometimes we don't use  them to our best advantage.
You might wonder if our evolutionary course has been an entirely successful journey. Our brain may have evolved from uncomplicated beginnings, but after all that evolutionary effort we don’t always look after this our most precious asset… neither do we always use our brains to best advantage.

In reality the fossil record is sparse, but today we don’t have to rely upon looking for chance deposits from the distant past to gain an understanding of the natural world around us, all we have to do is look. If back in the mists of time, each strange creature could have been recorded as thoroughly as is possible today, we might have a better understanding of which of those odd looking invertebrates were truly our ancestors.

N.B. A recent paper in ‘Nature’ suggests that a micro-fossil found in China may be our oldest known ancestor. Saccorhytus coronarius was a tiny bag-like creature that probably lived between grains of sand on the sea-bed around 540 million years ago, thought to be a primitive “Deuterostome“. Deuterostomes are a broad category that includes the Vertebrates. (Source: St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Jan 2017). 

With thanks to David Barlow for his Nereis picture. See David Barlow Archive.

Next time: Before We Had Brains Part 2. A look at Arthropods and other creatures with nervous systems so different from our own, they might just as well be aliens.