Sunday, 19 November 2017

The rough with the smooth

Today was the first weekend for awhile when both the weather was fine and I was not thick with cold. I was looking forward to a spot of birding and then checking my trail cam. Sadly, however, my day was ruined. My trail cam has been stolen. This is the second camera I have lost but disappointingly for me, it was my main camera which I have been conducting research with for the last three years.
The monetary loss is frustrating, but for me, the loss of data is more depressing.

The camera was chained up but the thieves obviously went back to get the clippers to cut through it.

I have not decided what to do about this at the moment, I am loathed to put another camera out for now and will research possible anti-theft devices. It is a product of our times I am afraid and sometimes we just have to live with it.

So that was the rough so what about the smooth. That was meeting a young man and his mother. It is a rare thing to meet another birder and it was nice to meet one so young (12) and so eager. He had exceptional eyesight and an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. He has his own blog that has just started see:  and I shall look forward to seeing what he sees... maybe a little jealously.

I work with young people every day and it is great when you see someone so enthused about nature and conservation. That was me, way back when and it is good to know that a new generation is following up behind.

Whilst we were chatting and ironically given my camera theft we saw Half-Tail the Fox lolloping across the field in plain view. He put the feral pigeons and gulls to flight before going out of sight. A reassuring view until I manage to get myself up and running again.

On a final uplifting note, a Male Kingfisher decided to appear just as I was unlocking my bike. He was fishing right by the bridge and showed nicely. It was possible to see the intricate detailing of the feathers on the crown. There is a little white speckling on the front which suggests this could have been one of this years young.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

R.I.P Lillith the Lynx

This week a story in the news struck a little closer to home than they usually do and it directly related to the post I made on the 13th October about reintroducing the Lynx to the UK. I spent my formative university years at Aberystwyth, a place I have come to hold dear. As part of my 1st year Vertebrate Zoology class we were taken to what was then called Borth Animalarium. We were tasked with wandering around and inspecting the animals for physiological adaptations and comparing species evolutionary traits. I can’t say, that at the time, I thought much of the ‘zoo’. I m not against zoo’s per se, something I have discussed in the past but I do expect certain ethical standards to be upheld.
The animlarium, now called Borth Wild Animal Kingdom was in the news of late because their Eurasian Lynx, Lillith, escaped.  The 18-month-old animal escaped on the 29th October having jumped an electric fence. For those that don’t know Borth, it is a quiet out of the way holiday village on the west coast of Wales. It sits between the sea, sand dunes and Borth bog.

Lillith by a baited trap (from

Of course, a single Lynx escape is not much of a concern; a single animal is unlikely to present a major danger to the ecology of the area. They are not going to rapidly spread and cause an ecological disaster.  As I stated in the last post the Lynx was native to the UK and is well adapted to living in the wild spaces of the country.  The park owners attempted to recapture Lillith using baited cages but as anyone who has ever worked with animals will know that the best-laid plans will often go awry, and Lilith posed helpfully beside the cage but didn’t go in.

Eurasian Lynx are not a dangerous species, they live wild in Europe and as far as I could find no one has been killed by one or even injured. They are a shy and elusive species, I can recall a Natural World programme on the Iberian Lynx in which the lead researcher took years to actually see his first lynx in the flesh. Now, as a counterpoint to this Lillith was a captive animal, more used to human contact and not exactly wild, in fact, her lineage is almost certainly one from captive animals.

This story got me vexed when the news came that Lillith had strayed in to a caravan park near Aberystwyth and had been ‘humanely destroyed’.  The order to kill the animal came from Ceredigion County Council and a local marksman despatched her.  It is this ending that has caused me the most concern. The council stated that they ordered this action as they believed the lynx to have become a threat to public safety despite no records of anyone being harmed by the species. Tranquilising, which would have been more suitable was not even considered.

My concern comes from the reaction to this species as a danger. We as a people in the UK have become detached from wildlife and this unfamiliarity has allowed fear and ignorance to take hold. In this country, we have few wild animals that cause human harm and seem unable to coexist now with those that are. Take for instance Australia, this country has many creatures that can kill you but they have found a way to coexist because this is a way of life for them. We are detached and too fearful, I find this sad. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A quick catch up

It’s been a few weeks since I last made a post. My master’s course has just restarted and my attention has shifted slightly. I am now in a better pattern of work. In this time I have seen a few things and several items have piqued my attention, which I hope I will be able to post over the next few weeks.

The mild autumn has prolonged many species life cycles, this weekend has been the last weekend when I haven’t heard Roesells Bush-Crickets. On Wednesday whilst I was clearing a path I saw three Red Admirals. There were also several Common Darters in flight and last week there was still a Brown Hawker ovipositing.

On the camera front data continues to roll in. I have now definitely confirmed that there are two foxes using the site. There is Half Tail – who obviously has only half a tail and Full Tail who I think is self-explanatory. This week Full Tail had a limp of the right paw. Another reappearance, have been Wood Mice. I had begun to wonder if the new camera was less sensitive and wasn’t detecting them but recently their incidence has increased. Wood Mice have short life spans; in fact, multiple individuals will have lived and died in the period of my study. The population obviously fluctuates and this little patch within site of the camera goes into and out of usage.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Will or Should the Lynx return?

Eurasian Lynx (By miep CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE)

Those that have followed my blog will know that I am interested in the principles of Rewilding. One of the pillars of rewilding is the reintroduction of species to complete an ecosystems assemblage. I am still gathering my thoughts on where rewilding should fit into the conservation landscape and so I am trying to read articles and books as they come up. Last week a short blog post brought my attention to the reintroduction of the Eurasian Lynx to the UK.

Reintroductions in the UK have a fairly good record, Red Kites and Sea eagles are good examples of success stories and current projects include beavers, bustards and cranes. Further possible reintroductions include wolves, which has been under discussion for years and the Lynx.
The Eurasian Lynx is native across Scandinavia, Turkey and Russia into Asia and is already the topic of reintroduction programmes in France, Germany Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland (Harris and Yalden, 2008). The Eurasian Lynx first appeared in the fossil record in the Devensian (Pleistocene Ice Age). It was common across Europe and Asia up until the fall of the Roman Empire when human interactions caused their extinction in several places including the UK. The last recorded date was in c.450AD in North Yorkshire Harris and Yalden, 2008).

Distribution Map of the Eurasian Lynx

The Eurasian Lynx lives in primarily deciduous, mixed or coniferous woodland but can be successful in open sparsely wooded, semi-deserts and thick scrub. Interestingly compared to other lynx species they do not prey mainly on lagomorphs (Rabbits and Hares) instead they are specialist hunters of deer and other ungulates which is where they bring them into competition with man, as a potential risk to livestock (Wilson and Mittermeier, 2009).

Lynx are one of the most charismatic species of cat, whilst they may lack the majesty and raw power of Lions, Leopards and Tigers they have a certain subtle charm which is leant to them by their elusive nature. On a practical basis, the Lynx is a good fit for UK ecology. We have all our large predators and deer numbers in the UK are too large, for many species culls are necessary to control populations. The Lynx could be a solution to this problem. Feeding mostly on deer will reduce their numbers and in doing so reduce the damage deer do to woods and young trees. In fact, the presence of lynx is correlated to the limitation of damage to forestry industries (Harris and Yalden, 2008). Male lynx typically have a territory size of 100-450 km2 which overlaps with the up to three female territories which are smaller at 45-250 km2 (Wilson and Mittermeier, 2009). 

These large territories and the possible conflict with sheep farmers would restrict their reintroduction to remote areas. Currently, the Lnyx UK Trust is investigating the viability of reintroduction through, research, education and eventually release. They already have an impressive list of stakeholders and have run detailed consultations and applications for trials in Scotland. This is a once native species which could undoubtedly have both environmental and socio-economic benefits, benefits which include the original articles premise that lynx could help boost tourism in release areas.

A Eurasian Lynx in Bavaria (By Aconagua CC-BY-SA-3.0)

There are of course problems; British people are unaccustomed to large predators in the wild, one of the key problems with attempts to reintroduce wolves. Lynx offer a less dangerous option than their canine but there is still an ingrained cultural perception that needs to be addressed. Whilst other reintroductions have been very successful, in France lynx took large numbers of sheep something they did not do over the border in Switzerland. Sheep farming is a key industry in this country and any reintroduction would need to assuage the fears of farmers.

My last point concerns the general principle, animal and plant assemblages are what make ecosystems work. Many of our habitats are in danger or unhealthy because they no longer support the balance of species that they once did, they lack that holy grail – biodiversity, however at what point do we decide species are needed. The reintroduction of the Beaver has a good case, it is an ecosystem engineer as well as a keystone species and can help control flooding, also it only recently became extinct. For a reintroduction relevance is important and I think the lynx’s ability to control deer numbers solves a problem in the UK, I would dearly love them to be part of our fauna again and would support any efforts to do so but in the back of my mind lurks the fear that perhaps the money and effort would be better spent on saving the species we currently have rather than bringing in old ones. Surely it is cheaper financially and ecologically to stop them going extinct in the first place rather than having to reintroduce them at great cost further down the line.

Harris.S and Yalden D (2008) Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook, 4th Edition. Mammal Society. Southampton

Wilson. D and Mittermeier. R (2009) Handbook of the Mammals of the World 1. Carnivores. Lynx Edicions. Barcelona.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Same old, same old

On Facebook this week the Zoological Society of London had a brief post with a fact that both astonished and saddened me. One Elephant is poached every 20 minutes in Africa.

This figure jumped out at me. The trade in ivory seems just as strong today as it was in my youth. It feels as if nothing has changed in the past 30 years. In the 1930’s there were an estimated Five million elephants in Africa today this is now just 600,000.

A quick google search has unveiled a range of infographics that help put the plight of the elephant into focus.

This infographic illustrates the decline of elephant populations in Tanzania. Where once poaching, habitat loss and human conflict resulted in losses up until 1989. Today however poaching is once more on the rise.

This infographic illustrates the steep rise in illegal killings most of which were to provide ivory for markets in the east.

This last infographic shows the route of the ivory trade. As you can see, even today and even with CITIES protection ivory is still traded to Great Britain.

Earlier this year China banned its domestic trade in ivory. This on the face of it would be excellent news but the fact is that this so far has not translated into a reduction in poaching. It is possible that the illegal markets are still viable economically or that people are stockpiling the ivory in the hope that they can control the trade for greater profit.

It all well and good castigating Africa and China for the ivory poaching. It's hard to deny an African man with a family to support the value a single tusk. An integrated approach is needed, not only must trade be curtailed by stopping the poachers but we need to address the socio-economic factors that make it more profitable for poachers to kill elephants to make money. We need to continue to reduce the market like China has by banning the use of ivory. But what about the UK, are we leading the way... far from it. We still allow certain trade in elephant ivory and plans to ban ivory sales were quietly dropped by Theresa May in the last Conservative Manifesto. This is still an important issue and it is possible that the African Elephant could still go extinct in my life-time, one of the last of this planets mega-fauna.

For anyone interested, they really should look up Hugh's Ivory War shown last year on BBC -Trailer
Unfortunately it is no longer available on I-player but there are links and clips.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Things that go bump in the night

Last week my trail cams batteries ran down. When I installed a new set the settings of the camera were reset meaning that the shots taken were single JPEG pictures this is not necessarily a problem, in fact, the photos actually give excellent quality shots of the animals captured by the camera.

However, I choose to take video clips as they help in identifying the species. You can pick up a lot about a species by how it moves and there is more chance of seeing other parts of the body as it moves through the field of view. This would have been immensely useful for two of this week's

Unknown Number 1: The Black Sausage

This shot shows a long thin mammal in the top right. I can say clearly what is not - it is not a badger, a fox, a deer. It is too big for any of the rodents, weasel or stoats. It could be a Mink or it could be a second visit for the elusive Polecat, either way, this shot is not good enough to say either way.

Unknown Number 2 - The Giant Rat

In this second shot, a mammal can be seen in the bottom right. The eye shine shows a pair of eyes forward facing and close-set. There is subtle evidence of a thin hairless tail. It seems to have larger hindquarters, my working assumption is that this could be a large rat, similar individuals have been seen occasionally over the years.

At the weekend I readjusted the camera to a hybrid setting which takes video and photos and hopefully both mammals will decide to show themselves again and be identified.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Why are there barely any bears in Africa?

Recently my attention became drawn to an unusual natural curiosity; I wondered why there were no species of bear in Africa. Bears are remarkably adaptable and generalist species, they are capable of living in forests, grasslands and mountains. Their diet is omnivorous and on the whole wide-ranging across species. On the face of it, there seems to be no logical reason for the absence of this species from this continent. There are obviously no bear species in Australia and this is easily explainable. In fact, mammal fauna in Australia is unique. It is home to a unique marsupial assemblage which resulted from the split of the continent from the supercontinent Gondwana, its final separation occurred in the Mesozoic (251-140 million years ago) trapping primitive mammals on its shores. Africa, however, has a range of modern mammal taxa and niches indicative of the other continents.

Thus began a search of the literature to uncover the answer. The earliest mammals were small rodent-sized organisms and the lineage of the bear can be traced back to the Palaeocene species Cimoloestes before the origin of true carnivores and the development of carnassial teeth.

The distribution of the extant species of bears today. Note the lack of any bear species in Africa or Australia (Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free)

Early bears resembled modern day Raccoon Dogs.
(Copyright: CC-BY-2.0 Mizunoryu)
The first true bears begin with Parictis a raccoon-sized mammal in North America which led to Amphicynodon and Cephalogale, a wolf-hound sized animal, found in 37 million-year-old Chinese deposits. Radiation of the species led to Phobercyon, Pithocyon and the aquatic bear Kolonomos.

Modern bears (Ursidae) exist in three sub-families Ailuropodinae, the Giant Panda, Tremarctinae, the Andean Bear and the Ursinae, all other bears. These three lineages common ancestor was Ursavus elmensis. This species lived 20 million years ago; they originated in Asia and spread to North America. They were about 30 inches tall, adept climbers with distinctive omnivorous teeth and probably similar to modern-day Racoon Dogs.

The Giant Panda was for many years a subject of debate concerning its ancestry and growing up I can remember it not being listed as a bear, today, however, it has been shown that the Giant Panda descended from Ailurarctos which lived in Yunnan Province in China 7-8 million years ago, it too had links to Ursavus.

The Giant Panda was considered separate from the bears for
many years. (Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free) 
The Tremarctine Bears (also known as running bears) evolved during the middle Miocene as the world became drier. The humid forests were replaced by temperate forests and scrubland. These species became more specialised carnivores and became larger in body size. They first dispersed into North America and then when the Panamanian land bridge surfaced 2 million years ago into South America. Key running bears were the 600 kg Short-faced Bear (Arctodus simus) and the 400 kg vegetarian Florida Cave Bear (Tremarctos floridanus). These two species were remarkably successful surviving up until only 10,000 years ago. The Tremarctine bears faced increasing completion from big cats and the late Pleistocene extinction of the large herbivores. Their extinction also matches the appearance of mankind and arrival of Ursine bears such as the Brown Bear. Today only one Tremarctine species remains the Spectacled Bear of South America.

The Short-faced Bear (Arctodus simus). (Copyright: CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus)
 (Copyright: CC-BY-SA- 4.0 Rhealopez168)

Ursine bears evolved from the Little Bear, Ursus minimus, they evolved 5 million years ago but underwent great change and radiation during the Ice Age 2.5 million years ago. Rather being large and fast the bears in Eurasia became slower and predominantly omnivorous. The little bear spawned the modern bears (Sun Bears, Sloth Bears, American Bears, Asian Black Bears, Brown Bears and Polar Bears). The Little Bear most closely resembled the Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus). It spread right across Europe and Asia becoming isolated in Asia during the Pleistocene.

Brown Bears split off from the Little Bear 1.2-2.8 million years ago although there is some evidence they could have split from the Etruscan Bear or the Cave Bear (Ursus spelaecus). The Etruscan Bear led to the Eurasian Cave Bears 500,000-100,000 years ago. They were large (400 kg) and similar to their American Florida Cave Bear cousins. The Cave Bear had a distinctive domed forehead and weighed 500 kg; it vanished in the late Pleistocene. Regardless of the exact ancestor Black Bears and Brown Bears separated at this time as part of a massive radiation of species which somewhere included the Sloth Bears and the Sun Bears. The Brown and Black bears spread across Europe and Asia, crossing the Bering land bridge to colonise North America.
The most recent species to evolve is the Polar Bear that evolved from the Brown Bear lineage some 200,000 years ago. This specialised polar hunt is exclusively carnivorous whilst the Brown Bear retained a generalist omnivorous diet.

The huge Cave Bear (Ursus speleacus).
(Copyright: CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this discussion, it is possible to see waves of bear evolution occurring in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Climatic changes and the creation of land bridges led to a dispersal and radiation of the species across the major continents. In this story, the Tremarctine dominance in the Americas gave way to a Pleistocene invasion of Eurasian Bears it is clear that Africa is not mentioned at all. This indicates that whilst the species proved adaptable to most continents something restricted their spread onto this particular one.

Whilst I claim that there are no bears in Africa there is, in fact, evidence that they had been. Atlas Bears (Ursus arctos crowtherii) lived in North Africa and were a sub-species of Brown Bear. They covered much of Moroccan, Libyan and Tunisian mountains and forests. They had slightly more orange fur and a shorter face more reminiscent of their Miocene relatives. It is believed the Atlas bear was hunted to extinction, first by the Romans who used them for sport in their coliseums and later by other hunters. The last Atlas Bear was killed in the 1870’s.

Fossils bear remains have been discovered in two locations in Sub-Saharan Africa; South Africa and Ethiopia. These bones relate to one of the ‘running bears’ from the late Miocene and Pliocene. The species, Agrotherium africanum, had primitive teeth and was probably primarily herbivorous and a scavenger it is thought the genus became extinct from competition. This paragraph, I think, holds the key to why there are no bears in Africa, Competition and the Sahara.

Much of the evolution of the bear occurs in either Asia or North America with the resultant species spreading out in either direction east and west. In the Americas, the species were able to radiate south once the Panama land bridge was established and today we still have bears along the Andes. In Asia the Panda thrived in the bamboo forests, the Asiatic Black Bear across south-east Asia and heading southwards the Sloth Bear appeared in India. We know bears existed along the Atlas Mountains north of the Sahara desert but none south of it. It is likely that like for many species the desert acted as a considerable barrier to the southerly expansion of the bears. This barrier stopped the colonisation of Africa by any of the modern species of bear in the past 1 million years.
The only surviving Tremarctine Bear
- The Spectacled Bear/Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
(Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free)

As we now know there were Cave Bears found in Ethiopia and South Africa but they evidently died out without spawning new taxa, this suggests competition coming into play. To explore this we must look at the evolution of the Order Carnivora as a whole. This line includes all mammal carnivores which appeared in North America 42 million years ago from Miacids. This order very quickly splits into two orders, the Caniformia and the Feliformia. The Feliformia included all the Cat families and were predominantly successful in Africa and Asia whilst the Caniformia that included the dogs, arctoids, racoons, weasels, seals and bears were most successful in North America, radiating into Europe.

Therefore the bear lineage became a mostly northern hemisphere line that was unable to successfully spread south through Africa and those that did found themselves out-competed by the dominant feliformia predators like the big cats. Today where there are bears or dog species there are fewer cat species and vice versa.

This is not a watertight explanation but I think draws together the ancestry of the bear along with biogeographical information. With modern taxonomy and the development of improved genetic testing evolutionary theory is coming on leaps and bounds and every year a better picture is gained. There is still much to be discovered and for that, we need both the paleontological evidence and DNA sequencing.


Bears of the World [Accessed: 16th September 2018]

Benton, M.J. (2015) Vertebrate Palaeontology. 4th ed. Wiley Blackwell. Oxford.

Macdonald, D. (1992) The Velvet Claw. BBC books. London.

Prothero, D.R. (2017) The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals. Princeton University Press. Oxford.

Wilson, D.E & Mittermeier, R.A ed. (2009) Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Vol. 1 Carnivores. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.