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  • Animal record breaking

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 June 2012

    So far I’ve been very good at not linking activities at the Grant Museum to the Olympics. While I’m out here on ecological fieldwork in the remote northwest savannahs of northwest Australia, The Games have been very far from my mind. However, the phrase “new record” has been bandied about quite a lot here this month, and now I find myself writing a post that has nothing to do with the Olympics, but I’ve now already mentioned them three times. I appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of making a spurious link – something that everyone seems to be doing these days. Apologies.

    I’m currently working with a small team of ecologists catching animals on wildlife sanctuaries and cattle stations to monitor the effects of cattle and fire management on the ecosystem. This year we’ve caught a fair few animals in areas in which they’ve never been seen before. The excitement of being part of these new records is definitely personally valuable, but I’ve also been thinking about how these single pieces of data are potentially more valuable than all of the other single animals we catch.

    (more…)

    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 January 2012

    This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

    I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here. (more…)

    The price of the pouch

    By Jack Ashby, on 20 December 2011

    I went to an absolutely excellent UCL Lunch Hour Lecture by a good friend of the Museum, Dr Anjali Goswami about how the way marsupials reproduce has impacted on their evolution. In any case, it’s my professional opinion that they are the best group of animals to have ever lived (take that dinosaurs).

    The write-up of what she said, and the video of the whole lecture is on the UCL Events blog. It begins…

    Every zoologist has their own favourite group of animals, and mine is marsupials. However, this group sometimes suffer a lot of stick from the more common type of zoologist who studies placental mammals. They say marsupials are boring, stupid, primitive, too few in number and are altogether inferior to “normal” mammals. I was hoping that the lunch hour lecture by Anjali Goswami (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment and UCL Earth Sciences) would set some of these accusations straight.

    Whenever I go to Australia to undertake ecological fieldwork I am struck with the diversity of the mammals there. You can travel 200km and find a different species of marsupial mouse doing a similar thing to the one you saw the day before, only in a slightly different environment. Go another 200km and you could find a third. However, the three species do look pretty similar. One of the major downsides of marsupials, from a biodiversity point of view, is that they haven’t evolved the range of forms that placental mammals have. While there is a semi-aquatic species of marsupial – the yapok – it could hardly be compared with a whale or a seal; there are gliding marsupials too, but they can’t do what bats can do. Marsupials and placentals have both been evolving for the same length of time – 125 million years – why did flying, swimming or event galloping never arise in marsupials? Anjali put it down to methods of reproduction.

    Read all of it here

    Happy Thylacine Day: we haven’t learned – just look at the badgers

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2011

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Picture this: an animal in a zoo dies of exposure one night because the door allowing it to return to the inside area of its enclosure was accidentally locked shut. It’s early Spring and southern Tasmania gets pretty cold – a wire and concrete cage is no place for a warm-blooded creature to be kept outside. Pretty awful, eh?

    Well that’s what happened to the last known thylacine 75 years ago today. The neglect itself would be shocking for any individual, let alone the sole known member of a species – the only remaining taxon in an entire family of animals. That day, a whole branch of the tree of life fell off. Well, in truth it was cut off. (more…)

    Firing cannons at birds

    By Jack Ashby, on 30 June 2011

    Natural history has always been a field largely populated by amateurs. This is one of its biggest strengths. Without the passion and interest of millions of people worldwide it would be very hard to get anything done – both politically and financially. And by referring to people as amateurs I’m certainly not suggesting that they can’t also be experts.

    Ringing a bar-tailed godwit

    Ringing a bar-tailed godwit

    Hard-core natural historians regularly fall into one of three groups – birders, mammal-tickers and herpos (those obsessed with reptiles and amphibians). A common trend among them (though not true of all members of each group) is the desire to “tick off” as many species as they can, and create a nice long list of everything they have seen. (more…)

    Cows and cremation – fighting fire with fire

    By Jack Ashby, on 20 June 2011

    In my last post I begun to talk about the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s ecologists that I have joined for a month in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. It’s the dry season here and while most of the land isn’t underwater the annual ecological trapping survey is underway.

    This involves trapping small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs and doing bird and vegetation surveys to assess what lives in various different habitats here. A couple of major investigations are underway – the purpose isn’t just to create a list of residents. About half of the reserve has had cattle removed from it (because of seemingly bizarre land-leasing laws this conservation NGO is technically required to run their wildlife sanctuary as a cattle station), and one question is to ask what impact that has on the ecology. It’s easy to predict that the many small mammals that rely on grass seed would be affected by these massive grazers, and this is what the data are suggesting. (more…)

    Australian fieldwork: a pocket guide

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 May 2011

    I’m writing from the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, where I’m spending a month or so trapping animals with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). This is how I spend my holidays, or at least as many of them as I can. This is my third trip to Oz over the past year, and I’ve spent about seven of the last 13 months doing fieldwork here.

    This has caused several people to ask me why I keep coming back to Australia; it’s a big world out there and there are plenty of mammals to chase around the rest of the globe. Why I don’t I go somewhere else? (more…)

    Where is the wild?

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 May 2011

    The wilderness can feel pretty wild, but this has been farmed for decades. Is it still natural?

    The wilderness can feel pretty wild, but this has been farmed for decades. Is it still natural?

    A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 15

    For the past 14 weeks I’ve been writing the account of the five months I spent on ecological fieldwork in Outback Australia. This is the final post for that trip. I visited many of the world’s major ecosystem types – rainforest and desert, alpine and coral reef, moorland and woodland, heath and kelp forest, monsoonal woodland and swamp. I trapped, tracked, handled, spot-lit, sampled and photographed some of my most favourite animals. Not wanting to boast, but I had a frankly awesome time.

    A few weeks back I wrote about what makes an animal wild. To finish this series I’d like to ask a similar question of the landscape. Over the course of those five months I barely went inside, or even saw a building for that matter. Sleeping in a tent, cooking on a fire, drinking from a stream and washing in a bucket certainly should make you feel like you’re living relatively wild. At least with respect to my London life. (more…)

    What price science?

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2011

    A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 14

    From April 2010 I spent about five months undertaking several zoological field projects across Australia. I worked with government agencies, universities and NGOs on conservation and ecology studies ranging from Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, the effect of fire, rain and introduced predators on desert ecology and how to poison cats. This series of blog posts is a delayed account of my time in the field.

    Weeks Sixteen to Nineteen – part 3

    In the last couple of weeks I’ve been describing the final field project on this trip, joining ecologists from the Australian Wildilfe Conservancy (AWC) on a full faunal survey of their sanctuary on the Arhnem Land Plateau in the Northern Territory. During this one month expedition I encountered more snakes than I had throughout my whole life previously. Snakes on field work is the topic of this week’s post.

    Carefully handling a funnel trap containing a brown snake

    Carefully handling a funnel trap containing a brown snake - trying to identifying without touching the snake.

    (more…)