New species

New species

It is a hugely exciting day today for against all odds and logic, completely out of the blue, and to my total surprise, given that I am not even a taxonomist, I have discovered a new species of ape… me.

I have a slightly bigger head than average, a wider girth, less hair, and some vaguely different genetics to my closest relatives. This, apparently, is more than enough to establish a new species.

So I am now declaring myself Homo spuriensis.

Of course, I am instantly critically endangered, as there is only one of me known to science. A specimen that is well past breeding age. This rarity status is both a challenge and a badge of honour. Being critically endangered means that some specimens of another species, Homo sapiens, will do their utmost to protect me. They will set up reserves and recovery plans and lament the loss of my previous habitat that they appropriated. This will make me famous but do very little to prolong my own existence or that of my unique genome.

All the other species sharing the planet, including the vast majority of the aforementioned H sapiens, will not give a rats. They will carry on minding their own business of gathering resources to promote their own genes. Nature will not even notice this new addition to the biodiversity lexicon.

It is possible that a few species of bacteria, virus, parasite or symbiont will take a liking to me but, again, this is not personal. They would have done this before my nomenclatural change.

The tragic prognosis is that Homo spuriensis will be extinct within a generation. Another sad, lamentable piece of evidence that spaceship earth is doomed.

I am sorry to bring you this initially exciting but ultimately depressing news but luckily there is another new species of ape just discovered in Sumatra.

Keep it real everyone.

Ideas that persist

Ideas that persist

Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favor of the gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years (the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales, influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This quote is from a fictional account published in 1851. I get that.

Except that I can’t help feeling that this passage reflects how Melville thought about this issue. He had been to sea of course, as a merchantman and on a whaling voyage, so he had first-hand experience with months of time to talk and explore what other mariners knew about the sea and its fish. Somewhat cutely, whales were fish back then.

Melville chose to ignore the evidence as many a purveyor of fiction is want to do, and refashion it. He used spin in a novel.

Or did he?

The ideas that actions of hunting could deplete such animals on unfathomably large oceans defied logic to the Victorian generation. It just could not be possible. The evidence of obvious depletion, reduced distribution, lower contact rates and changed behaviours, just did not fit the worldview.

In ‘Awkward News’ there is a passage reflecting a similar thought in the minds of early settlers to Australia. Here so vast an expanse of country lay before the first, second, third and even subsequent generations of rural folk that no amount of vegetation clearing could ever deplete it.

It is a though there is something in our DNA that programs us to ignore the possibility that resources could ever be in short supply. We seem to have to believe that resources are infinite.

This helps us in two ways.

A belief in every renewable resource buffers us from the fear of lack. This is a powerful base fear, for starvation is a slow and emotionally painful death.

It also allows us moral latitude for actions that deplete resources, especially pertinent in the case of whaling that was a brutal culling of wild sentient creatures for commercial gain. If the belief is that taking a few whales does little or nothing to their long-term survival as a species it mollifies the obvious brutality of killing individual animals slowly with harpoons and lances.

Same idea with bulldozers and chains. Removal of native vegetation is justified because there is plenty more of it across the horizon.

Jump forward 160 years and the demand for natural resources has increased beyond what could have been imagined in the 1800’s. We don’t need whale oil anymore and, for the most part, whales are back in the stomping grounds of their ancestors if not quite in the same numbers as before.

We do need land though. Water too. And space to live and recreate in. The world has shrunk perceptibly with technology able to whisk us over the ocean at speeds and distances that the old whalers would have defiled as some evil magic.

Yet that DNA is still expressed.

Many of us continue to believe that resources are either infinite or if, for some bizarre reason, a resource is used up, our technological ingenuity will conjure up a replacement that is better and more profitable.

Whatever we do those base fears of lack are still there. They persist and our emotional response remains to ignore them or refuse to believe that their realities will ever be realised.

It should be a sobering thought. Only our response is to thrust our heads in the metaphorical sand and hope that that nagging feeling will go away.

When we look up again all is well because, for sure, “some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle”.

Eating your pet

Eating your pet

A while ago I was on the road in rural NSW looking at the conservation value of native vegetation patches. A fascinating tale of dual consent, blinkered minds and koalas. These stories will come later for I have another I must tell first.

On my travels, I chatted with a government vegetation officer who is also a farmer. For many years Dave has legally hunted on his property to remove feral animals and reduce the number of kangaroos and wallabies that eat his crops. This is standard practice in the Australian bush and a necessary function.

Although all native animals are protected under NSW law the balance between kangaroo numbers and the interests of landholders means there are commercial licenses to supply meat and skin products and non-commercial licenses for the purpose of damage mitigation and public safety. The commercial harvest is regulated through a quota and every step in the kangaroo supply chain is licensed and monitored. Around 1,800 professional roo shooters ply their trade across Australia.

So when David shoots animals on his land it is all above board. What he does with the meat was what we chatted about.

He makes biltong, a better kind of jerky if you will. And by all accounts it is delicious. I am a big fan of biltong from my time in southern Africa so we had a fascinating yarn about his techniques, recipes, the best animals, and the best cuts. Loin from smaller wallabies, dried in a dehydrator with a good hit of chilli, in case you were wondering.


Excited on my return I began to tell my wife about this kangaroo biltong when she yelled ‘yuk’ and demanded that I stop.

“You can’t eat a pet,” she screamed.

Now I should explain that we have a swamp wallaby that visits our backyard during wet periods, usually with her joey in tow or pouch. Wallabies have a certain cuteness but are as wild as a ferret and definitely not pets. They are responsible for the loss of many an edible garden plant.

I should also say that my wife is by no means a nature lover. Movies, shopping and a good yarn with her friends are more her thing. She is also a keen carnivore who has been known to berate vegans for not feeding animal products to their kids. But clearly, she connected with this emblem of the nation.

Somehow she has acquired a visceral response to eating it.

I was taken aback. My biltong story remained untold and my own curiosity over why we have not made more of this protein source for sale to eager Asian markets was not aired. I had to be quiet misreading badly the depth of feeling for wild animals that I saw as a resource, David too presumably.

So you can’t eat your pet, even if it is not actually your pet.

This is a more severe dampener on a market for kangaroo meat than I had imagined. Pragmatologists beware, we have a long way to go.

Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.

“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 8.41.25 AM.png

Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.

What predators do

What predators do

I have just seen a wildlife documentary where eco-tourists out whale watching in Monterey Bay had the experience of a lifetime.

They were on the water hoping to catch a glimpse of migrating grey whales, mostly mothers and calves as they journey along the coast to feeding grounds in the Arctic. Only on this particular day, and for the mother and calf they happened to be watching, the laws of nature were graphically applied.

As the tourists stared on in boats tens of meters from the migrating family a pod of killer whales arrived and began to harass, circle and ram to try and separate the calf from the mother.

This is, of course, what predators do. They predate. Usually on the individual that is easiest to catch or subdue thus giving them a meal that keeps them alive at the lowest risk to their own safety.

On the plains of Africa, lions, wild dogs and hyenas will single out the weakest of the grazing herd – why make things any harder than they already are? Chase down predators, as opposed to those that sit and wait, will benefit from making the chase as easy as possible.

The orcas were persistent. Injuries to the calf steadily accumulated and blood became visible in the water, the reality of the event dawning on the faces of the watchers. For the television audience, the narrator embellishes the visuals with “the calf was being eaten alive”.

Marine scientists, who later analysed footage of the event, observed that it was the younger orcas that took the most active roles in the attack whilst the adult animals held back. “Teaching the youngsters how to hunt”, they concluded – or perhaps leaving the dangerous work to the more agile individuals.

The scientists also concluded that this was “not usual behaviour” or “if it is what orcas do, then we have not observed it” and “maybe it was because of the high numbers of grey whales in the bay at the time”. Or maybe, like the lions, hyenas and wild dogs of Africa, predators rarely pass up an opportunity for lean times are more common than times of plenty.

Whatever the reason, the attack was a prolonged event lasting several hours.

Time enough for the storyline with a happy human ending that is so essential to the modern wildlife movie, as “against all the odds” the grey whales swam towards the shore, reached shallower water and the orcas broke off.

No-one could follow the calf to see if it survived its injuries but the looks on the faces of the tourists interviewed for the documentary left the audience in no doubt. Of course it had survived for the sake of all things decent.

The responses of the eyewitnesses were most intriguing. They went to see nature in the wild where wild things happen by definition, yet they were all shocked, not quite able to accept that wildness includes violence and death. Perhaps if the calf had died quickly and became the meal the orca pod was after the onlookers would have been more accepting of the cycle of life.

Instead, the escape and inevitable pain was, for many, too much. The people were visibly affected.

No doubt a few of them went home to enjoy a t-bone steak.


Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic


Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.


Environmental values | A national park should be a national park

EucalyptusForestMany years ago I was driving along a dirt road in rural Zimbabwe.

We had been following a game fence for several miles, a formidable veldspan barrier between a tired looking patchwork of withered maize fields, goats, and clusters of rondavels out the passenger window, and the intact open woodland of a game reserve on the driver’s side.

Dirt roads allow plenty of time to take in the scenery and I couldn’t help but notice how one of my fellow passengers, a former student recently appointed to the wildlife department as a trainee scout, was so captivated by it. Not the savanna with its prospects of a kudu bull framed by an acacia thicket, an elephant ambling along ready to tug at the sweetest smelling grass tussock, or maybe even a leopard draped across the bow of a marula tree; no he watched with great intent the farmland.

“Which do you like best,” I asked him, “the savanna or the lands?” He looked back across at me with eyes wide, forehead furrowed and cheeks raised and said nothing. He turned back to his left to look out of the window and said softly “the lands”.

It was not the only time during a decade in Africa, that included the great fortune of visits to half a dozen countries, where the locals made it very clear how important agricultural land was to their very soul. Fields and pastures are, after all, the source of sustenance to us all and a place of protection and community. Human modification of the wild and dangerous savanna into safer and more comfortable countryside is the achievement that founded our ongoing numerical and lifestyle success.

In the west we sometimes pretend that the wild mountains, forests and windswept moors are our places of true beauty, but actually we too have quite the soft spot for farmland. Countryside would end up as a more popular choice for most than wilderness. Even the words themselves evoke opposites: cozy comfort aside inglenook fireplaces with a slice of apple pie, or gray skies, damp smells and wind that howls.

Given these deep and innate responses it’s no surprise that there is a conflict over what to do with wild areas. Should we set some aside and then keep out of them to be what they are as unfettered cauldrons for nature? Or should we designate them and, with a calming hand, mollify all that that wildness? After all we are under more pressure that ever to make every hectare of the land productive and available to yield fuel and raw materials for our voracious economic engines.

Australia is slipping into the midst of this conundrum.

After many decades of increasing environmental protection with laws set to slow or stop landscape modification, restrict pollution, and set aside close to 7% of the land [529,380 km2] as conservation areas, change is afoot. State governments in Victoria, Queensland, and NSW are variously allowing areas designated as national parks to be used by recreational hunters, mineral prospectors, graziers and even foresters.

Whatever your politics, hunting, livestock grazing, digging big holes and cutting down trees do seem rather odd activities to allow within a national park. Remember that the majority of these areas are either rugged and remote [part of their initial charm] or unproductive for all the usual commercial things we like to do. Allowing them environmental value seems to make perfect sense.

There is also the important ecological reality that once an area of land is grazed by livestock, or cleared, or a road cut through it, or big holes dug into it, then it will never again be as it was. Our modifications are irreversible.

We can [and should] restore landscape after the effects of our worst excesses but, by definition, we cannot return a landscape to pristine wilderness. All we can do is set areas aside for nature to be and preferably areas that we have not messed up too much already.

Recognition of environmental value, so that each set aside area has meaning, is a really smart thing to do.

Yet in doing so we are at odds with our instinct for the safe place that is productive. We all want to look to the left of the dusty road at the brown stalks of the harvested mealies just as the young wildlife scout did, because at core we are all control freaks. We are desperate to keep the nastiness of nature at bay and make the land safe and productive for our families — something inside says that that wild wood must be tamed. Let’s send in the guns, the herders and the chainsaws.

Only we are better than this. Surely there is enough in us to recognize that we do not have to be afraid of lions or wolves anymore and we can let some small proportion of the planet be close to what it was before we swarmed across it.

And surely we don’t have to go back to the trenches of environmental warfare where passion to protect and equal passion to exploit creates sides that throw dirty grenades at each other and the only winner is the peddler of vitriol.

For goodness sake let a national park be a national park.