Category Archives: biodiversity

Into the realms of Giants- Whale watching in South Africa

It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.

These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!

Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.

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Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from  samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…

To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.

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The boat names Fat Boy, after the local name for the Southern Right Whales

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The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.

We were ready to set sail!

Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.

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Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.

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Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!

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I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.

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Yes that is a helicopter drone you can see above the spray, they are being used now to take samples of the animals and take aerial photos- top class!

The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!

“Over there!” I gasped in awe.

The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.

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We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…

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And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!

So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!

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Shark Week- Malevolent misconceptions

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“The white nictitating membrane rolls, the 6 inch teeth glean and the grey sleek tail cuts through the water with astonishing speed- the Great White Shark approaches in all its power and terrifying instinct towards the cage…”

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It’s always been a lifelong ambition to go cage diving with these remarkable evolutionary powerhouses of the stunning coasts of Southern Africa. Ever since watching Blue Planet as a child, the images of these great fish, perfectly adapted to their environments with their colossal 6m size, 1.1 tonnes in weight and 300 blade like teeth, it naturally appealed to me as a passionate zoologist as I am certain it does you if you’re reading this. This week is the International Shark Week by a happy coincidence, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to have the incredible opportunity to see these superlative predators of the ocean in Mossel Bay, one of the Great White hotspots of South Africa. I joined 3 other volunteer students at Monekyland, Tsisikama National Park, on a 3 hour drive from Plettenberg Bay to the “White Shark Africa” ocean extreme experience diving and viewing these magnificent species. We rented a car from Euro car at a reasonable price of 500 rand (£33) a day split between us travelling along the scenic route of the N2 motorway through the resplendent lagoon town of Kysna (30 minute drive from Plettenberg Bay), George and finally Mossel Bay. It was one heck of a last minute arrival faff trying to find the place but eventually we found it in time!

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We had arranged to get there for the 12pm slot where the 1st group of people would be returning from their trip and where we would be getting ready to go to Seal Island at 1pm. The last cohort had mixed facial expressions, some with a hint of fear, others with a perpetual smile on their face. The cost of the trip isn’t cheap at £70, although relatively less expensive than some other tour operators in Cape Town (£120). We got a discount to 1250 rand (£60) for being volunteers at Monkeyland, usually being 1350 rand.

And so as soon as we signed away a form agreeing to the conditions of the possibility of being cleaved in half by a Carcharodon carcharias, we were offered a mini buffet of assorted food which I managed to get down after a sea sickness tablets. I would highly recommend the Kwells as you only need to take them 30 minutes earlier rather than the usual day before ones. Dan our instructor gave us a snappy (pardon the pun) talk with regards to the species and what was happening, and a rather overzealous depiction of his favourite individual, Black Gill. Apparently he was the more aggressive one and we were to look out for him. So we were primed and ready to head down to the bay to set sail on the “Shark Warrior,” their 11 m long vessel complete with shark cage. And so off we went towards the rather adeptly named Seal Island, and off into the misty murky waters we went…The boat itself felt rather stable and robust as we hummed along the Indian Ocean and pivoted around Seal Island, with the 2500 Cape Fur Seals nonchalantly sunning themselves in the winter sun, blissfully unaware of the predatory fish beneath them in the dark, deep waters.

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Everyone was feeling nervous and excited at the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Great White, and the possibility of some incredible photos. We eventually anchored and it was time. We were asked whether we wanted the first dive, we replied with a confident why not. We zipped up the dry suit having changed on deck to the crew’s amusement, whilst I struggled to contain my hair within the head section as it budged out rather prominently!

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Other research students from the University of Melbourne and several other South African Universities were also on board and helpful and friendly. They had the hard job of monitoring the Great White’s populations and laser pointing them to determine the measurements. What a research dissertation!

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So we were all ready to get in. We listened intently to our instructor as he gestured for us to pull over our leg onto what then all of a sudden seemed a very fragile cage. The water was being chummed with a delectable concoction of fish oils and guts…it smelt repulsive. It then seemed like the most unnatural thing to then lift our leg and lower down into the cage having just seen a 4m shadow lurking in the depths- we were in.

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We adjusted our masks and waited for the sharks to approach us. Note that you DO NOT need SCUBA DIVING experience, when they see the sharks above, the crew will tell you to “get below” and you can hold your breath and take a dive to see them as they pass.

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It seemed an age before the first shark was sighted with the tuna bait on the rope consistently being tossed about in front of us. Then all of a sudden, a dark shadow appeared from the murky depths, with the distinctive shape of the Great White; its immense size only then became apparent to me, an even more so as it headed straight towards the cage, teeth bare, gills flashing, eyes rolling… it was Black Gill– at an astonishing 4.3m.

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The white nictitating membrane was rolling, the 6 inch teeth gleaning and the grey sleek tail cutting through the water with astonishing speed, and simply its presence was enough to render us SENSELESS- such a potent force of nature was before us. It truly was one of the most THRILLING and exciting experiences in my life, I never thought I would have the opportunity to get so close to such an incredible animal. The sightings then began to increase as we continued to float closer to Seal Island, closer to their true prey.

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This is one of the biggest misconceptions about sharks- that they deliberately attack humans to eat them. Seals are the Sharks natural prey, and they have evolved to process such species and enable them to survive and reproduce successfully for over 50 million years. Humans are bony and contain little fat content, both of which the sharks are not fond of. It is ALWAYS a case of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Surfers are frequently attacked as they resemble the seals on the surf boards and can often cause the shark to breach and attempt an attack.

Unfortunately there were 2 attacks in the past 3 weeks at Plettenberg Bay on surfers attacked by great whites, and many argue that it’s the cage diving activities that is causing such attacks, sue to them associating humans with the chum and food bait placed out for them. It’s actually illegal to feed them, but tempting them near to the cages is obviously the main way to attract the species to the cage. I still believe however that cage diving doesn’t have such an effect, as surely the negative reinforcement of no food reward with the chum and mouthful of metal cage doesn’t exactly results in more sharks wanting humans as food.

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It’s simply a matter of probabilities and stats- the more surfers there are in the ocean = greater chance of being bitten. All of these victims have survived fortunately, but many people are now blaming such touristic activities on this behaviour. This YouTube video below shows a Great White “attacking” the very cage I dived in with the same boat at Mossel Bay, approximately 3 days earlier!

I spoke to the crew leader and shark scientist Dan, who assured me that the shark was in fact “mouthing the cage” as this is very common behaviour. Hence the shark was not attacking the cage, but in fact testing it out in terms of edibility.

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The number of sharks that are killed every year is far more numerous than human attacks, of just 16 in the US compared to the 200 million sharks being killed for the notorious shark fin soup. They will cut all the fins off and let them sink to the bottom of the ocean to die. This is why I believe shark conservation needs to pour money into further safeguarding the oceans and creating more protected areas, that will not only keep the sharks safe, but all the other species in the ecosystem.

Again this will have cascading effects along the food chain, as recent research papers discussing the “seascape of fear” whereby the presence of the shark will have impacts on the mesopredators such as dolphins which will avoid them in the area. This in turn will increase the smaller predators or numbers of fish in the area, which then can either graze more, or filter out more plankton, alterning the baseline primary producer output- effecting the whole ecosystem. If we remove sharks, this interferes with the entire community of species.

The fantastic news is that recently UNESCO’s decision to recognise both the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve and the Magaliesberg Biosphere following their nomination for biosphere reserve status by the Government of South Africa means that under law these beautiful animals are even more protected and so can ward off potential hunters In California. Hopefully such organisations can help push shark conservation, but I am still dubious that it’s a fair game that we are teasing these animals to get viewings of them. Perhaps we could adopt a more natural approach to viewing sharks and simply wait to see if we can get such viewings, reduce the price of the trip and lower our expectations of seeing them- the simple excitement and possibility of seeing these creatures out of their own accord is far more magical and awe-inspiring than tempting them in.

Happy Shark week! Updates about Monkeyland and how YOU can volunteer on a student budget soon.

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From Shoals to Social media: Global Intelligence, a Science to predict and create the future

Swarms of bees, shoals of fish, flocks of birds and a rowdy crowd of students. Ever wondered what fish and medical decisions have in common?

 

The ability to congregate and act collectively as a group- collective intelligence (CI). The study of CI in humans is a relatively new field in biology, which describes the universal distributed intelligence which arises from the collaboration and competition of many animals and the ability of an animal group to perform a wide variety of task. Scientists for centuries have been fascinated by the theory and mechanisms behind which such behaviour arises. Originally during the 1970’s psychologists and sociologists were primarily interested in looking at an individual’s viewpoint, how they are influenced and change their decisions based on others, peer-pressure and bias.

However the more modern consensus proposed by biologists focuses on the information that each individual has which, above a certain threshold, will take into account other individuals decisions as well as their own to result in one collective movement. Several mathematical models have been used to describe the complexities seen across nature, from the movement of birds to large herds, and is radically transforming the way we share information, communicate and work.

 

The possible use and value of tapping into the CI of species is endless. Biomimetics in particular has been implemented in many different areas of science to make our lives easier and to solve complex tasks. For instance, medical decisions with true and false positives, has recently concluded that the opinions of 3 skin cancer doctors can match that of the best qualified doctor. In terms of the use if this information, society will have to decide whether or not it’s worth paying the extra money to invest in more accurate decision making in medicine.

This basic principal can be seen in shoals of fish when deciding whether or not to flee or stay when an approaching shadow looms. An individual would be stuck in this false or true positive feedback loop on deciding whether or not it should stay or leave, where it could either gain or lose a feeding opportunity. Living in groups beaks this feedback loop as each follows its next nearest neighbour, above a certain threshold number.

The nutritional state of the fish will determine their position within the shoal. Those that are hungry with remain near the front or periphery, at the risk of being predated. Those that are well fed will remain at the centre but at the cost of gaining less food. This, with the simple “nearest neighbour” rule, means shoals take on information around them as well as their own personal preference and move in that direction to form one collective movement with the shoal.

Equally, humans have always possessed a deep desire to predict the future and indeed the collective intelligence of humans through the power of the media is showing promising signs of being able to just do that. Through analogous mechanisms seen in the natural world and the application of mathematical metric models to translate similar mechanisms into our modern world, CI has begun to radically transform the way we live our lives for the better. Can we tell the future with science? It seems that we can.

Prediction markets are used in politics for example, whereby large sums of money will be placed on different markets according to their own personal research and information, the decisions of others (in terms of how much they are willing to bet) which results in the resolution of a decision or problem. The hypothesis here is that the collective wisdom of many people is far greater than the conclusions of the few. Political betting has only recently made it to the UK compared to our American counterparts who have taken advantage of this powerful predictive tool, with correct predictions for almost every election between 1868-1940. Indeed our most recent elections in the UK was correctly predicted by the Betfair market, whilst the polls where postulating Ed Milliband would be at No.10, the markets it seems had the best information regarding the trends, and Mr Cameroon did remain Prime Minister as predicted.

Companies such as “Recorded Future” actually use the information already made available on the internet by people, through powerful data mining and search engines- to predict future trends with remarkable accuracy, as seen on social sites such as Twitter. Rather than the traditional prediction markets as mentioned above where peoples opinions are asked with responses to questions, the use of “web intelligence” to look at what people have already said on the internet is search via automated speech processing.

Others companies and institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology work have produced Climate CoLab, were it sets challenges and asks its members to think of collective solutions to tackle global issues related to climate change and energy use. It is a crowd-sourcing platform where citizens work with experts to create, analyse and propose ideas. The members of the community are invited to submit their proposals as well as make comments on others, which then are evaluated by experts to select the most promising ones. The MIT centre for collective intelligence stands at the forefront of this revolutionary use of global intelligence and information and uses new technology to harness the power and change the way people work together.

In terms of design, solutions to smart cities and how we can monitor traffic more efficiently through social media as well as pay for parking through mobile devices has already sparked interest in many countries with increasing congestion due to urbanisation.

This will inevitably determine how we are able to keep up to pace with our ever increasingly changing world, having implications for society, economy and our environment. So next time you tweet…you may be helping to support future decisions. And that it’s not who you are but what you know which feeds into this most fascinating and little covered area of scientific research.

Urban Bat Ecology

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The rapid global urban population growth seen in the last 65 years, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014, has had significant impacts on bat species richness and abundance (WUP 2014, Kunz et al 2007), due to habitat loss, fragmentation, degradation (Altringham, 2011), chemical pollution, barrier effects, introduction and facilitation of invasive species and a decline in prey species (Wickramasinghe et al, 2004, Lentini et al, 2012, Berthinussen & Altringham, 2012). Many studies are currently looking into the possibility of using bats as bioindicators of environmental change (Wordley et al, 2014, Russo et al, 2014), due to Chiroptera being the world’s second most speciose mammalian order (second to Rodentia), numbering 1232 species (Kunz et al, 2011).

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Equally, their widespread distribution and sensitivity to even minute perturbations means they could reflect the status or possible risk of such change in other species (Jones et al, 2009). Some of the responses to change can be seen with declines in abundances, population size, range distributions and behaviour (Altringham, 2011). Thus, it is important to determine the relative abundance of bats in urban areas compared to rural and suburban, and see whether an association with particular urban features are limiting or enhancing their ability to forage and roost there. This information has vital applications for conservation, as 82% of the UK is urbanised and is steadily increasing (United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, 2015). Thus, policy makers with knowledge regarding the ability of certain bat species to adapt (synurbic), or not (more vulnerable and sensitive species) to one of the greatest land use changes seen in the last century, can act to reduce the impact by lobbying with businesses, developers and politicians (Altringham, 2011, Russo, et al, 2014).

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Importance and impacts of an urban landscape on bats- Urban foraging and roosting

Bats form some of the largest seen mammalian assemblages, (Jones et al, 2009), with up to 40 million in a single cave-roosting colony (Seimers et al, 2001). The potential of urban areas being suitable areas to provide bats with useable roosting and foraging habitats is becoming an ever more prevalent area of research. Thus, it is of vital importance to study how bats are using such anthropogenic landscapes (Bellamy et al, 2013). It is essential that research from a wide variety of urban landscapes is conducted in order to assess the relative importance of particular variables and landscape features, as some are more important to different species, which each exploits the landscape differently (Altringham, 2011, Coleman & Barcley, 2011). It is this specificity of each species responding to urbanization differently which is vital to conservation and management policy. Each bat has evolved is perfectly adapted to each habitat, in terms of wing morphology, diet (ecological niche), echolocation call, hibernacula and behaviour (Altringham 2011, Threfall et al 2008). Thus some exhibit behavioural plasticity and can adapt to urban environments, enabling them to effectively exploit their habitat without the disruption of roads, light pollution or buildings (Russo and Ancillotto, 2014, Stone et al, 2011). This has been seen in bats with long narrow wing morphology with a high wing loading, as open air foragers are largely unaffected by urbanization (Norbeg & Rayner, 1987).

Hunting phases of bats. Search phase involves a high frequency component (45-55kHZ) as well as CF constant frequency with longer pulses as it detects prey. Then the calls increase in frequency with additional harmonic components as the bat approaches its prey. Then terminal phase the bat can emit calls at 2ms as it hones in on it.

The ability of synanthropic bats to dominate urban foraging areas can be problematic for the less well adapted species (Silvis et al, 2014, Russo and Ancillotto, 2014). Some studies even suggest urbanization may result in greater competition between the synurbic and less well adapted species, as implicated by Arlettaz et al (2000). The study suggested that the decline of the Rhinolophus hipposideros in Wales may be due to the expansion of Pipistrellus pipistrellus, whose populations have increased as a result of greater feeding efficiency with artificial lights (Warren et al, 2002, Lacoeuilhe et al, 2014), normally avoided by the lesser horseshoe bat. Equally, in one study investigating the activity of insectivorous bats in Panama Canal, it was shown that only a few dominant Molossus were able to adapt to urbanized areas due to their high wing loading and aspect ratio (Jung et al, 2011). This was in contrast to a majority of clutter-specialist species recorded which foraged within the forest and the forest edge.

Advantages provided by artificial roosts in urban areas include homoeothermic benefits, in particular for pregnant females by reducing the energetic costs of maintaining their body temperature within the thermal neutral zone (Lausen & Barcley, 2006). Therefore the potential to provide bats with artificial roosts is of interest to many conservation bodies, which aim educate and encourage public concern (Altringham, 2011). Artificial bat boxes have been shown to be particularly exploited by opportunistic and synurbic P.Kuhii (Angelli et al, 2011). However, the lack of rigorous scientific testing of their effectiveness is yet to be determined in lesser adapted species (Altringham, 2011), and with thorough monitoring and further studies into ‘bat box’ preferences, a more valid account of their potential use may be of value to policy makers (Russo & Ancillotto, 2014).

Importance of Water in urban areas

Bats are vulnerable to evaporative water loss as a consequence of their morphology and large surface area to volume ratio, as well as high energetic costs with the ability to fly (Razgour et al, 2010). Within urban areas, open artificial sources such as ponds, ditches and swimming pools provide bats with fundamental opportunities to drink and forage. Certain species show preferences over these larger, less cluttered and open bodies of water (Seimers et al, 2001). The reduction in pulse-echo overlap, ability to detect spectral shift and high insect abundance over still water sources (Altringham, 2011) can attract large numbers of bats to urban and modified sites (Vindigni et al, 2009). Such examples can be seen in North Carolina, where studies looking at the importance of managed water bodies over natural wetlands revealed significantly higher bat activity by heliponds, despite equal densities of insects at both sites (Vindigni et al, 2009). Equally, studies on Greek islands showed that bats will also use artificial water sources such as swimming pools due to the lack of natural sources in such arid habitats, with minimal annual rainfall (Davy et al 2007).

If you want to find out more about how YOU can help bats, head over to the Big Bat Map and the Bat Conservation Trust!

http://www.bigbatmap.org/pages/help-count-bats.html

The value of bats

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Apart from being amazingly cute!

Exactly a year ago today I conducted my research on British bats around North and West Yorkshire regarding their habitat selectivity across multiple scales in rural and urban environments. I still can’t believe how fast it’s all gone in the past 10 months! I will be posting up some articles on exactly what I did and how you can also get involved with conserving these fascinating little mammals of ours too, but first I want to tell you WHY bats are so important to us all.

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Just hangin’ around… Pipistrellus pipistrellus (Common Pipistrelle)

Apart from justifying the value of bats in terms of their diverse nature and unique evolutionary history which has lead to the only powered flight seen in mammals (Fenton et al, 1997), bats provide a range of ecosystem services and benefits to both the environment and humans (Altringham, 2011). The Brazilian-free tailed bat provides one of the largest-scale suppressions of insect pests in the world (Kunz, 1989). During their migration northwards each spring, Tadarida brasiliensis forage on cotton bollworms, saving the US economy over $23 billion dollars in terms of preventative damage to cotton and the reduced cost of less pesticide use (Cleveland et al 2006).

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In Asian markets, over 70% of the fruit sold is pollinated or seed dispersed by bats, in particular the Durian fruit which is worth $2 billion (Kasso & Balakrishnan, 2013, Altringham, 2011). The alcoholic beverage, Tequila is derived from the Agave tequilana and is pollinated by the lesser-long-nosed bat, providing a source of income of for many Mexicans (Kunz et al, 2012). Guano is a source of high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, which is one of the primary limiting nutrients of plant life. Deuchamp et al (2009) studied the potential benefits of the ‘pepper shaker-effect,’ a hypothesis where bats flying from nutrient-rich regions to nutrient-poor habitats, redistribute the guano and act as a mobile fertiliser. Several countries sell guano as fertilisers and can be a main source of income in poorer regions (Altringham, 2011).

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The lesser-long-nosed-bat hovering over a cactus flower.

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Ecotourism also boost the economy, for example as seen in Congress Avenue, Texas which generates $12 million annually (Pennisi et al, 2004). Medicine is also derived from the Vampire bat’s salivary enzyme, desmoteplase which acts as an anticoagulant for post-ischemic stroke patients (Furlan et al, 2006). This was initially trialled on mice in 2003, and was found to extend the time required to administer tissue plasminogen activator during the post-stroke period from 3 to 9 hours (Schleuning et al, 2008).

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Molecular structure of desmoteplase.

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Other aspects of bat biology providing benefits to humans include the development of the ©UltraCane, a device that enables the blind to detect oncoming objects. Developed by researchers at the University of Leeds, it was based on the echolocation calls of bats and has helped thousands of visually impaired people (Scheggi et al, 2014).

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The Ultracane

Also mentioned is their value as bioindicators of the overall health of the ecosystem, which can be seen with their importance in ecological networks and high trophic level, if removed, cumulative and rippling effects can be seen lower down trophic cascades (Jones et al, 2009).

I hope you can see how incredible these little mammals are, and stay tuned to find out about the amazing world of bats in future posts!

Check out our Ecosapien video on bats:

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South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

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A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

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SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

https://youtu.be/KnmdUn3qQeI

Interview with BBC’s Dr Chadden Hunter- From academia to wildlife production

2015-03-17 18.35.48 chadThe media and Zoology students at the University of Leeds were treated to very fascinating and inspirational talk by Dr Chadden Hunter, wildlife biologist and a BBC producer and director of ground-breaking series such as Frozen Planet and several upcoming exciting new series by the BBC- to be revealed soon! I had the incredible opportunity to have a television interview with him afterwards as part of our new “Eco Talks” for Eco Sapien, and really enjoyed delving into the world of wildlife filmmaking with a true professional. Chadden-Hunter David, producer of Eco Sapien, and I quickly set up 3 cameras to intermittently film it and added a Magnito microphone to capture Chadden’s dulcet Australian tones. eco I was rather nervous before hand as a huge fan of his work and having not presented on camera for some time- been living behind the camera and radio mic! chadden 2 Firstly the talk discussed making the transition from the world of academia into the wildlife film industry– a notoriously difficult and incredibly rewarding career and way of life that I am sure those of you who are reading this want to get into …keep reading on!

What I really enjoyed about the interview was how passionate and encouraging he was about getting into the world of science communication, because what many people wanting to get into this industry forget, is that although we are all competing to get that dream job and place on the next major blue chip BBC series- were are ALL working together as a TEAM to achieve the same goal: inspiring others to care and preserve the natural world around us and conserve it for future generations to enjoy. Wouldn’t it be a sad legacy if we were not able to save the very subjects that we film? That’s what we encompass at Eco Sapien, the collaboration of conservation biologists and creativity to communicate our passion for the natural world TOGETHER. chadden The interview and full write up will be out soon once the editing process has begun, so should take a while- WATCH THIS SPACE!  But here’s a little teaser into Chadden’s amazing aussie adventures…. Born in Mount Isa, a mining community in the remote north-east of Australia, he travelled with his family to pre-revolutionary Iran where his father was working as a field geologist. Following a few years in Arizona and Colorado it was back to Melbourne where Hunter happily settled back into Australian life. That strength of character was reinforced during the halcyon years of his adolescence when his enduring love of nature and the natural world really took hold. Moving to Cairns, he was suddenly surrounded by nature in all its stunning beauty and profusion. At 15 Hunter fell in love with scuba diving and saved every penny he could earn to pay for his new obsession, not least since he had the dream location to pursue it. camera_and_boy After Cairns he moved on to the University of Queensland zoology department, completing his Bachelor of Science in marine biology and working as a research scuba diver. He then studied bowerbirds in St Lucia to gain a First Class Honours degree in behavioural ecology. It was during this time he was taught by one of the people who was to have a profound effect on his life and the way it progressed…..

**Full write up soon, interview below!**

Short 10-minute version

Full 20-minute version