Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Back to nature – sextants and stars

January 12, 2014
Using a sextant to navigate

Using a sextant to navigate

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted, but in my defence it’s been a busy 6 months. I’ve got married and changed jobs, but I am missing my writing… so here I am!

So far in 2014 I’ve been feeling depressed about not getting outside – January is a rather dank and grey time of year in the UK! A couple of things have cheered me up – one was hearing the ever-charming survival expert (or ‘woodsman’) Ray Mears on Desert Island Discs (I know, I’m getting old), talking about his love of the outdoors, and the other is my dad’s new blog about his upcoming book Sextant.

Both sing the praises of not letting too much get in the way of the natural world. Ray and my dad agree that while technology like GPS can be incredibly useful, it can also blunt our experience of the world around us. My dad’s book is a love letter to the sextant, a tool used by sailors for centuries to navigate across the sea by the stars – something I’m sure Ray would approve of!

Even though I was listening to Ray’s thoughts on my digital radio, sealed in a train carriage shuttling through the middle of London on a grey January morning, I could hear in his voice the feeling of being out in a forest, and his love of getting away from civilisation without all the equipment that the modern world has given us. When you get the chance to be outside you don’t want to be seeing nature always through the filter of a camera lens or a GPS screen. (more…)


From the dungheap to the stars

January 25, 2013
Dung beetle

A scarab beetle – photo by Udo Schmidt

What a great way to end the week – with the discovery that scarabs (dung beetles) navigate by the stars to make sure their precious spheres of poo don’t get stolen. Finding this paper (by Marie Dacke of the University of Lund and her colleagues) on Twitter today made me unreasonably happy – because it perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about science.

Who couldn’t be impressed by the contrast between a beetle rolling a ball of dung, guided by the enormous arm of a spiral galaxy? It’s lovely that these two vastly different things are connected – a link revealed by a brilliant experiment that involved beetles wearing hats and wandering around in a planetarium. (more…)

Do fish and crustaceans feel pain?

January 17, 2013

Don’t eat me! (photo by Rafael Ortega Diaz)

It would be amazing if we could put ourselves inside the minds of other animals – do they think, feel and reason like we do? Or are they little more than glorified robots? Or something in between? At the moment, we don’t know much. It’s impossible to experience the consciousness of another human, let along another species – and extremely hard to figure out what other species ‘feel’.

This problem was not conveyed very well by last week’s ‘news’ that ‘fish don’t feel pain’. This was actually based on a review article – not on new evidence – which only concluded that ‘fishes are unlikely to feel pain’. Not quite the same as saying they definitively don’t (something that would be impossible to prove, anyway). There’s an interesting analysis of the review on the Practical Fishkeeping website that disputes the review’s conclusion, with help from an expert in the field.

What really didn’t come across from the media coverage is how difficult it is to draw any conclusions at all about what fish actually feel. The arguments can go either way – if fish recoil from painful stimuli, does this mean they consciously feel pain, or that they are unconsciously and ‘instinctively’ removing themselves from danger?

Luckily, another news story this week – about pain in crustaceans – shows how a cleverly designed experiment can shed a bit more light on a tricky subject like this. The study showed that crabs can learn to avoid electric shocks, going to the extreme of leaving shelter and venturing out into the open – something they’re not normally keen to do. (more…)

Real sea monsters

January 9, 2013

Reconstruction of the jaws of giant fossil shark Megalodon

Mermaids, kraken, sea serpents… they’re the kind of animals you WISH existed. That’s why I was so excited this week to read about new film footage of the ‘real kraken’ – the giant squid. It’s hardly ever seen alive because it lives at such great depths, and animals found near the surface are usually dead or dying. So we don’t know much about how they live. But now we know they really do look frighteningly like a kraken on film!

Japanese scientists filmed the squid deep in the Pacific, around 1000km south of Tokyo. As well as the video footage, there are also some amazing stills – it appears to have a silvery sheen, and was charmingly described by scientists Tsunemi Kubodera (clearly a squid super-fan) as ‘shining and so beautiful’ – aww!

Giant squid are the real deal – you can’t get much closer to a true sea ‘monster’ than an enormous, mysterious giant squid that has hardly ever been seen alive. But there are others that aren’t so well-known – including some that are hilariously unlike their mythical counterparts. (more…)

Animal research on BBC Radio 5 Live

December 4, 2012
Mice at a research facility

Mice at a research facility (credit: UAR)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found out BBC Radio 5 Live were doing a 2-hour programme from an animal research facility in Oxford – they love a bit of controversy. I certainly didn’t think they’d feature a mouse being humanely killed live on air. Presenter Victoria Derbyshire got some great interviews with researchers and lab technicians, but some tired old cliches lived on, courtesy of Animal Aid. (more…)

Time to shout about animal research?

October 2, 2012
Lab rat

Lab rat (credit: Understanding Animal Research)

Last week, the University of Leicester announced the opening of its new Central Research Facility. If you think this sounds like one of those rather boring press occasions with a ribbon to cut, then you’d be half right. But look closer – a surprise is lurking in the second paragraph of the press release. The Central Research Facility is actually a new building for animal research.

And amazingly, the University press office are shouting about it – good on them! Paragraph three gets straight to the point: ‘Medical research done at the University of Leicester involving animals has a direct relationship with the treatment of patients in hospitals locally and beyond.’ Yes, that’s right. Animal research saves lives. It shouldn’t be a newsflash, but for too many people this still isn’t common knowledge. And without more bold steps like this publicity, this fact will carry on being ignored. (more…)

What’s in a name?

September 8, 2012
Pale tussock moth caterpillar

Hello there!

I met a new friend in the park today. He’s a fellow vegetarian, even shorter than me, with spiky hair and stumpy legs. Unfortunately I think I scared him – he took one look at me and froze. I had to leave him under the tree where I found him.

As you might have guessed from the picture, my small hairy friend is a caterpillar. I was delighted to see him (not only because I was looking for something to distract me from some work I was meant to be doing). I LOVE caterpillars – they’re small, colourful, comical and really cute. But after a squeal of ‘awww!’ my second response was, ‘what’s your name?’ (more…)

Animal consciousness – no evidence of absence?

August 24, 2012

What is it like to be a bat?

Animal behaviour is a strange area of science. Although research into genetics and evolution has shown that we are just another species of mammal, there’s still reluctance to give other animals the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like consciousness. Of course, consciousness is incredibly hard to study (especially because it’s pretty much impossible to define) – but it’s always seemed logical to me to assume that animals similar to humans are likely to have similar types of consciousness.

Scientists aren’t in the business of relying on assumptions. But in the past many have seemed willing to assume that animals are guilty of unconsciousness until proven otherwise. Why that way round, and not vice versa? Why struggle for tortuous explanations of how some animals can make tools to solve complex problems, without being conscious of what they’re doing?

So I was excited to see that a group of neuroscientists have declared their belief that consciousness is unlikely to be unique to humans, at the first Francis Crick Memorial Conference. As the website explains (rather poetically) ‘Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood.’ (more…)

Ethical meat on the horizon?

March 4, 2012
Quorn fillets

Today's fake meat - delicious Quorn fillets (image by Jan Ainali)

I’ve been on holiday, but while searching for vegetarian food in Tenerife I found myself thinking about the ‘test tube burgers’ I’d been reading about just before I left. In the Canary islands, nearly all the red meat is imported from the mainland because there’s very little grazing space for animals – wouldn’t it be so much easier if they could just grow their own burgers in factories?

The next question is, would I eat ‘artificial’ meat? I’ve been asked this before, and to me it’s a no-brainer – why wouldn’t I? If I could eat a steak that had never been near a real cow, and had never had to be hacked out of a once-living animal, then sure I would (although I wouldn’t pay the estimated £200,000 for the first lab-grown burger). And I hope other people would too – where’s the harm in a more ethical, more environmentally friendly piece of protein? (more…)

Tiny chameleons are big news

February 15, 2012
Brookesia chameleon

A slightly larger relative of the new species (picture by Frank Wouters)

It’s no secret that I adore chameleons. They look like toys designed to appeal to children who love animals – colourful, cute, with crazy eyes and super-powered tongues. And they change colour! What more could you want?

Well, how about a miniature chameleon so small it can sit on the head of a match? Thanks to the amazing island of Madagascar and a new paper by a group of German scientists, we now know there is such a creature. Although I’m amazed they ever discovered such a tiny, well-camouflaged little chap. And because science is the gift that keeps on giving, not only are these chameleons very cute, but they can also tell us some interesting stuff about tiny animals and how they evolve.