A Starling Murmuration at Brockholes!

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Brockholes Nature Reserve, located just outside Preston and right next to the River Ribble, was built on the site of a quarry and opened in 2011. It is a good spot for birdwatchers, featuring both woodland and lake habitat; you might even spot a roe deer if you’re lucky. When I went down there yesterday afternoon, the usual birds were about: swans and a grey heron on the Meadow Lake, great tits on the bird tables, a robin keeping its head down in the reeds. There were also some wooden sculptures of characters from The Wind in the Willows, which had been added since my last visit. My main aim for going that day, however, was the hope of seeing a starling murmuration.

 

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Well publicised on TV, starling murmurations have become one of the UK’s best known wildlife spectacles. During the winter months, the UK population of starlings increases as birds migrate here from colder parts of Europe. At dusk, thousands of starlings come together at their communal roost sites, forming huge flocks that offer safety in numbers against predators. Such spectacles create the impression that starlings are not a conservation priority, but in fact the UK population is estimated to have fallen by four-fifths since the late 1970s, possibly due to farming practices reducing the availability of the invertebrates they eat.

As the daylight began to fade, I chose a spot looking over a large lake called the Number One Pit. Behind me, across the road, I also had a view of Brockholes’s floating Visitor Village on the Meadow Lake, just in case the starlings decided to turn up there. Of course, seeing a large flock displaying in the sky was not guaranteed. But at 3:20pm, a small group of starlings suddenly appeared over the Pit, closely followed by another. As they began converging, I experienced the thrill that wildlife-watchers get when they realise today is going to be a lucky day.

The murmuration grew very quickly, hovering over the woodland on the far side of the lake. Its visibility fluctuated, the starlings becoming less obvious against the overcast sky whenever they dispersed a little. At first, they formed a long, serpentine pattern that stretched across to the M6 motorway; but as more starlings arrived, the murmuration converged into a more visible ball. The most interesting patterns formed when another bird, possibly a crow, made an approach: the murmuration fluctuated, bulged on either side and split in two, with one sub-flock quickly moving to catch up with the other. The display went on for a good long while: at one point, I thought it was over when the starlings suddenly ducked below the trees, but it must have been a response to another disturbance because they soon rose again. Finally, with the sky getting murkier, the flock began shrinking, skimming the trees with fewer starlings coming back up each time. Then, at around 3:55, the last of them ducked down, and nothing more was to be seen. It had been a cracker, all right.

If you would like to see something like this, check out Starlings in the UK for known roost sites and useful information.

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Venom Day 2018

This December, Bangor University hosted its ninth Venom Day conference, in which researchers get together to talk about the most recent studies of venomous and poisonous animals.

As I studied for my own degree in Bangor, Venom Day provides a great annual opportunity to go back to a city I love, meet old friends, make new ones, and listen to some fascinating lectures! There are plenty of opportunities to socialise and network, both before and during the event; many of the attendees got together for a light-hearted quiz the night before. I was also able to get a copy of Mark O’Shea’s new book, The Book of Snakes, which features descriptions and photos of six hundred species of snake, almost one in six of all the currently recognised species in the world!

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There were multiple lectures on the skin secretions of frogs, which are being utilised in both the development of new antibiotics and the treatment of diabetes. Kim Roelants gave an interesting talk on how anti-microbial peptides (AMPs) help to defend a frog from predators, by faciliating the absorption of the frog’s defensive toxins when the predator makes contact.

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Other talks I particularly liked included:

  • Wolfgang Wuster’s talk on venom variation in the Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) and efforts to determine whether this variation is primarily determined by diet, climate, or random genetic divergence between populations.
  • Ronald Jenner’s talk on differing venom composition in the five different lineages of centipede; he opened his lecture with some examples of centipede bites on humans and other animals, including a video of a man suffering a very painful bite from a Scolopendra heros.
  • Matt Gardiner’s talk on the slow loris (Nycticebus spp.), the world’s only venomous primate, which has also been talked about on previous Venom Days; this particular study regarded a survey of research and rescue centre staff who had been bitten by slow lorises, and the symptoms they experienced.
  • Nicholas Casewell’s talk on studying another venomous mammal, the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) – little is known about the venom of this animal, so this study aimed to determine its composition and likely function.
  • Jasmine Headlam’s talk on the testing of different jellyfish sting treatments, specifically lion’s mane and Portuguese man of war, which can both be found in British waters. The conclusion was that vinegar and a hot pack are most effective.

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Towards the end of the day, there were lectures on addressing the problem of snakebite in India. Anatoli Togridou, who works with Ben Owens and Vishal Santra (whom I volunteered with in Himachal Pradesh earlier this year), gave her lecture on taking a preventative approach to snakebite. She described ongoing efforts to educate the local communities of Himachal Pradesh on how to avoid snakebites and what to do if the worst happens. This has involved determining their existing knowledge of different aspects of the issue (e.g. how to access appropriate treatment, how to recognise venomous snakes); one of the recommendations is increased engagement with traditional healers, who are often the first people that a snakebite patient will turn to.

Meanwhile, Shaleen Attre talked about the efforts of the Indian Snakebite Initiative, which has not only made progress in educating Indian communities on snakes, but has established a national-level network, mapped records of both dangerous snakes and hospitals with antivenom, and helped to minimise snakebites among those who were affected by the floods in Kerala this summer.

It was another excellent Venom Day overall – thank you to everybody who organised it, as well as of all of the speakers!

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Of Sirens and Ichthyosaurs

There have been some very interesting studies published this week regarding aquatic creatures: a living amphibian, and an extinct reptile, both very peculiar in their own way.

First, a new species of salamander has been described from a very bizarre and little-known family called the Sirenidae. The sirens are aquatic salamanders, known for possessing serpentine bodies, reduced forelimbs, no hindlimbs at all, and external gills even in their adult stage, like axolotls. Before this study, only four living species of siren were recognised, limited to the southern United States and northern Mexico. However, a type of siren found in wetland habitat in Alabama and Florida has been determined to be distinct from any currently recognised species. Nicknamed the “leopard eel” due to its distinctive spotted pattern, it has been given the scientific name Siren reticulata. Not only is it one of the largest amphibians alive today – with the biggest of the known specimens being over two feet long from nose to tail – but it is one of the largest new species of animal to be described in the United States in the past century!

Second, a fossil of an ichthyosaur – fish-like marine reptiles which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs – has been described which is so well preserved that it actually features the remains of soft tissues. The animal, which is named Stenopterygius and swam over what is now Germany about 180 million years ago, exhibits traces of pigment cells which indicate it was countershaded – darker on top and lighter on the belly. This colour pattern, found in many living marine vertebrates such as sharks, helps in camouflaging a sea-going animal, whether viewing it from above against darker water, or from below against the surface light.

Not only that, but Stenopterygius also possessed a layer of fatty blubber, like modern whales and seals, but unlike any living reptile with the exception of the leatherback turtleStenopterygius‘s blubber would have served as an insulator, allowing it to maintain a body temperature higher than its surroundings, as the leatherback turtle can – again, this sets them apart from most other reptiles, whose body temperature is dependent upon the environment. I love it when we discover new details like this that expand our image of extinct animals.

References:

Graham SP, Kline R, Steen DA, Kelehear C (2018), Description of an extant salamander from the Gulf Coastal Plain of North America: The Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. PLoS ONE 13 (12): https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207460

Lindgren J, Sjövall P, Thiel V, Zheng W, Ito S, Wakamatsu K, Hauff R, Kear BP, Engdahl A, Alwmark C, Eriksson ME, Jarenmark M, Sachs S, Ahlberg PE, Marone F, Kuriyama T, Gustafsson O, Malmberg P, Thomen A, Rodríguez-Meizoso I, Uvdal P, Ojika M, Schweitzer MH (2018), Soft-tissue evidence for homeothermy and crypsis in a Jurassic ichthyosaur. Nature (2018); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0775-x

Adventures in Himachal Pradesh – Part 4

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14th August

As with the Great Himalayan National Park, arriving in the dark had given me little sense of where we were, and it was only in the morning that I was able to fully appreciate our surroundings: tall mountain peaks on either side, swathed in early morning cloud, with a town just visible in the distance. In front of the guest house, a mongoose with two babies hurried past. Sitting in the middle of these majestic mountains, unable for the moment to place my position on a mental map, I was hit particularly strongly by the feeling of how far I was from home. Continue reading

Adventures in Himachal Pradesh – Part 3

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Our breakfast stop.

10th August

After three nights in the Great Himalayan National Park, it was time to get on the road again, this time heading west to the lower altitudes of Palampur. Stopping along the way for a breakfast of simosas, and later a lunch of egg noodles, we were diverted in the afternoon due to a landslide, and spent an hour or two going along an even bumpier road than we were used to at this point. Eventually, as we approached Palampur, we came out of the hills to find a wide, flat plain stretching before us. By dusk, we had arrived at the guest house where we would be staying. Continue reading

Adventures in Himachal Pradesh – Part 2

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7th August

Today was a driving day, and we had a long journey ahead of us, all the way up north to the Forest Rest House Ropa in the Great Himalayan National Park. The previous night, Dr Omesh Bharti – a government doctor from Shimla, who specialises in rabies immunisation but has also been supporting Captive & Field Herpetology’s work into snakebite – had come down with his wife to get an update on how the work was progressing. We would drop off Dr Bharti and his wife in Shimla on our way north; but that meant driving for two-and-a-half hours with four people in the back of our single car, plus luggage! It was a tight squeeze, to say the least. Continue reading

Adventures in Himachal Pradesh – Part 1

Snakebite is considered a “neglected tropical disease” by the World Health Organisation, and it kills more people in India than anywhere else in the world; 45,000 fatalities per year is the official figure, though it is almost certainly an underestimate, due to many snakebites either being recorded too vaguely by hospitals (i.e. as ‘animal bites’) or not recorded at all. Meanwhile, people who survive envenomation can suffer debilitating after-effects which impact their ability to work and lead to crippling medical costs.

In terms of what species of snake are most responsible, the focus is usually on the ‘Big Four’: the Indian or spectacled cobra (Naja naja), the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). But the knowledge of which snakes bite people in different areas of India is far from complete – and that is a serious problem, since anti-venom, the only effective treatment for snakebite, is only likely to work for the species whose venom was used to produce it.

The organisation Captive and Field Herpetology, headed by Ben Owens of Bangor University and Vishal Santra of the Simultala Conservationists Foundation, is working to help with the situation. This year, they made an expedition to Himachal Pradesh in the northwest of India, where the number and distribution of snake species is particularly poorly known: the goals were to survey different areas and learn which snakes were present; collect morphological and genetic data for population studies; and educate the local people in avoiding snakebite, without needing to kill the snakes. In August 2018, I volunteered to assist on the last two weeks of the six-week expedition, making my first trip to India, and not sure what I was in for. Continue reading