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  • Specimen of the Week: Week 153

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 September 2014

    Scary MonkeyAs a scientist, with Vulcan-like levelheadedness, my outlook on the natural world is totally free of emotion. My interactions with it are purely perfunctory, in order to amass and analyse cold data, motivated solely by the advancement of scientific understanding of solid facts. The world is only there to be databased. It is irrelevant whether facts are “interesting” or not, all that matters is if they are useful for detecting some larger pattern. Anyone who says otherwise is a panda-hugging sentimental fluff-monger…

    Wouldn’t it be weird if ecologists thought like that? On the one hand science is supposed to be independent of emotion, but on the other most of us are only in it because of our emotional attachment to the subject matter (animals and ecosystems).

    Normally on this blog I take the chance to rave about the animals that amaze and excite me. This week I’m going to highlight one that I utterly despise*.

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Happy 78th Thylacine Day: Remember the little guys

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2014

    Today, in Australia, is National Threatened Species Day, but far more importantly. to Grant Museumers, it’s Thylacine Day. Both of these events commemorate the ludicrously avoidable death of the last known thylacine - modern times’ largest marsupial carnivore – on 7th September 1936. Today, for the first time, I am actually in Australia for 7th September, so in this year’s annual Thylacine Day post I’d like to explore what it is about Australian mammals that makes me go all nerdy – the shear diversity of tiny things, that on the whole people have no idea about. (For more on the thylacine, including why we celebate it so hard at the Grant, look through previous Thylacine Day posts on this blog).

    The area of zoology I am most passionate about is Australian mammals, and as a result I spend 8-10 weeks each year over here trapping animals for conservation NGOs and university research programmes. As far as I’m concerned, although there are just 378 mammal species in Australia, it’s the best fauna there is. You only have to go 50km and you might find a whole new set of mammals. Australia has a lot of things going for it, but I will shout you down if you argue that any of them outshine the wildlife and ecosystems. The thing is so few people here, or elsewhere, have ever heard of most of them. Sure, people know that kangaroos and wallabies exist – they are the national icon, but go into any business and ask what kind of wallaby is chewing on its lawn and you’ll probably get a blank response. There are 45 species of Australian kangaroo and wallaby (excluding bettongs and pottoroos). People’s lofts and gardens are pested by possums (nearly always one species – the brushtail), but there are 25 different kinds. Once you get beyond these, koalas, wombats, dingoes, platypuses, echidnas and “bandicoots” (11 species), the rest of the Australian mammalian fauna, I fear, goes largely unloved.

    I’m not whinging about the fact that people don’t see tiny mammals and instantly know what it is. I just want to take the time to give them a shout-out.
    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 142

    By Jack Ashby, on 30 June 2014

    Scary Monkey For someone who spends as much time as possible with wildlife I could be accused of being a bit wimpy about it on occasion. Things that are poisonous, slimy, smelly, flappy or pointy don’t worry me much, but when I might encounter things that are really big or really bitey I have been known to back off a bit. Many would argue that this is mostly sensible, but I have been with friends who lean out of the jeep to the tiger or follow the grizzly bear footprints, when I would lean into the jeep or walk away from where the bear tracks lead. Things don’t have to be big AND bitey to incite the conflictual desire to be around wildlife and the fear of it killing me; just being big will do.
    This week’s specimen is big AND bitey. It’s the animal I have to think about the most regularly as I spend a couple of months a year on fieldwork in tropical Australia; it makes collecting water or crossing rivers a bit of an adventure.
    This week’s specimen of the week is…

    (more…)

    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…)