Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

11 Dec 2013

Darwin on Art

“In one respect my mind had changed during the last twenty or thirty years…Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music gave me very intense delight. But now… I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a sort of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact… The loss of these tastes, this curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes, is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
Autobiography, 1887

Dispatches from Amazonia: 5. To catch a fly (and other insects)

I can quickly see my life slipping into a clichéd stereotype of the field entomologist, cutting through impenetrable forest with a machete, weighed down by nets and traps, in order to attempt to sample the wealth of insect life found in these forests. Below are a few photos illustrating the lengths we go to to catch a fly (and other insects).

Window pane trap, hung in canopy, used to capture insects mid flight
The japanese parasol trap, used for catching insects beaten off bushes
Winkler sampling, sieving leaf litter for small arthropods
The Big Shot catapult, for launching ropes for canopy traps
Transporting bucket traps, which contain lights active at night to cature moths, suspended in the canopy
Light sheet, simple but incredibly effective
And my personal speciality, pitfall traps to collect terrestreal insects

Dispatches from Amazonia: 4. Parasitic wasps and Bird-eating spiders

Nature takes no prisoners, so it seems here in the rainforest. Walking to and from field sites can lead to chance encounters with a beautiful butterfly, plant or frog, but also with the more beastly elements of ecological communities. Take these two intricately linked specimens.

Pepsis rubra, the tarantula hawk
 The first was found at the end stages of its life, buzzing and bashing noisily amongst the leaf litter. An unbelievable site given its size at and its stunning scarlet wings and jade black body, this Pepsis wasp is the largest of the world’s hymenopterans (social insects). And as if that were not impressive enough, beyond simple predation of its victims, this sizable critter attaches itself to the back of its foe long enough to inject fertile eggs into the abdomen, hatching later to leave the hungry brood with eating their way out as the only option.  And who might its prime victim be?

Theraphosa blondi, the Goliath Birdeater
This handsome chap was centimetres away from my foot before I realised what was in front of me, a spider the size of a dinner plate. My colleague informed me of its name, Theraphosa blondi , more commonly known as the Goliath birdeater. Whilst birds are almost certainly not on its menu (the name derives from an overambitious portrait by an eager naturalist painter), it hunts rodents and others at night. Needless to say that I no longer walk in flipflops for those late night calls of nature.

3 Nov 2013

Dispatches from Amazonia: 3. Beach Combing the Green Sea

Since moving to French Guiana, I have developed a new Sunday morning habit. My wooden bungalow on the Kourou agricultural campus is a 5 minute walk through huddled trees hiding slumbering sloths and sniffling agoutis to the Caribbean sea.

Despite my island origins, I have never lived by the ocean, and I still get a sense of thrill looking out onto an endless horizon. Any curious observer can get an idea of what lies beneath the waves without ever setting foot in the water, by scanning the high-tide mark to find remnants of the deep. Shores closer to home provided whirling mollusc refugia, bivalve shells and barnacle-blistered seaweeds, whilst further afield I have found shark jaw bones or the bleached shrapnel of coral gardens. But to beach comb here is to set your sites in a different direction. 

The Caribbean it may be, but these shores are also the outer lips of the rivers of Amazonia, where pulverising rains turn aquiline blue veins into brown sea serpents, curling out of the river mouths and into the Atlantic. Here, amongst the grains of sand under fronds of palm leaves, the coast is scattered with relics of inland expanses. Not shattered shells, but spunked out seeds of an infinite variety. Flattened banana boomerangs, hard scaled dragon eggs, spurred avocado stones. How can such a plethora of exuberant forms  dominate amongst the driftwood?

A flight above the forest can feel similar to a boat on tidal waters, waves of blue replaced by hillocks of green. An article published in the journal Science earlier this month by members of my lab showed that the Amazon rainforest is home to over 16,000 tree species. Given this mass of competing life forms, it is almost unsurprising to find their gametes littering the surrounding coastlines, dominating over those of the ocean beyond it.

My desk is now surrounded by these well-travelled grains,  which I have diligently collected and cleaned, and hoarded at home. A myriad of minor miracles arrived from the deep of the green sea.

29 Oct 2013

Dispatches from Amazonia: 2. Golden Guyane, France’s Wild West

Three time zones and four inflight movies later, but still in France. With euros and cheese, hammocks and palm trees, Guiana, France’s 97th department, is also its final frontier. The overseas province began life as a penal colony, before whispers of precious metals reached the coast. Soon began a gold rush of the down and out, heading inland and upriver, southwards towards the rolling hills and inselbergs. The small village of Saul lies at the heart of the territory, established at the beginning of the 19th centuryto accommodate the wave of potential prospectors who began skimming nearby rivers and creeks for nuggets of prosperity. Some left unhappy, some lined their pockets, and others emptied those pockets at gunpoint. And over one hundred years later, the dream of finding a hunk of treasure at the bottom of a jungle stream is as strong as ever.

I too came looking for treasure, but of a very different nature, and if you are a regular reader, you will by now be aware of my particular penchant for all things formicine (ants).  Along with twenty other researchers, I headed to the forest to the south of Saul, within the Parc Amazonien de Guyane to document its biodiversity. Fish, mushrooms, trees and plants, butterflies, moths, beetles and ants! We set up camp next to the crique limonade, absent, we were informed, of parasites and pollution caused by illegal gold miners and their mercury used to agglomerate gold dust. Over two weeks, we collected samples and measurements which we hope will reveal the mysteries locked in unstudied rainforest.

A few days after our arrival, the ranger of the reserve we were working in came to camp on his quadbike, to inform us that an artisanal gold mine had been seized and shut down to the north. The miners, illegal Brazilian clandestines, were told to head back across the border, which turned out to be roughly in the direction of our camp. Discussion around dinner that night was naturally centred on the miners. We were told anecdotes of gunfire, theft and fortune, only enforcing our panic of their arrival. A couple of days later, whilst out at a survey site, I bumped into 3 of them, burdened with the largest rucksacks I had ever seen. They were wiry thin, with hardened and dirty faces, but were polite and respectful. I immediately felt guilty of having judged them. A colleague who spoke Portuguese learnt more of their desperation, from a female member of the group who could not hold back her tears.

It is not only the poor who are interested in the metals beneath the rivers of Saul. The international mining conglomerate Rexma have also applied for and gained permission to begin extraction. This goes against the wishes of the local population, and the ethos of the national park. Rexma, however, have been taken to court by a local campaign group, having been accused of modifying the environmental report produced for them by an independent eco-consultancy group.

The extraction of gold dirties not only the waters of the rivers which flow above it, but the lives of those around, from the ants of the forest (used by certain researchers as bio-indicators of the impacts of mines), to the local populations who drink the contaminated waters and undergo the contamination of their local economies.

Dispatches from Amazonia: 1. Mud, sweat and tears

I’m dragging bruised feet through thigh deep mud. The swamp began 6km from base camp, itself a good hour and a half walk from the jungle choked landing strip. And it is here, with one week left to the expedition that I strike my wellington boot on a jagged tree stump with just enough force to pierce the rubber. Thus begins the drenching of my socks, and the eventual fungal rot and infection of the central toe of my right hand foot.

A jungle can over-weigh on arrival, a visceral screaming spectacular for the sensory organs. On certain days this cornucopia of flora and fauna can cease to exist, instead replaced by a dripping wall of verdant monotony. For a field biologist such as myself, a jungle can fracture the spirit, instilling in its visitors a schizophrenia of awe and bore. The leap of the heart upon discovering a new species, quick dulled by the throbbing itch of your one hundred and seventy third mosquito bite (the window to your next bout of malaria/dengue/yellow fever). The wanderlust inspired by its unending entrails quick dulled by only ever seeing 20m ahead.

Once the mud has soaked through and my sweat has dried, I reload the weighty bags of sampling equipment onto my back, and continue to trudge. But not without smiling, and upon reflection with my colleagues, I realised that I would struggle to be happier elsewhere. I pictured friends in London, hunched over office computers, lab desks or hospital beds, or others in Paris struggling to find work at all. I may be paying the price in mud, sweat and tears, but in the heart of the jungle I have found a life of my own.

5 Sep 2013

Tomato: A fruit of labour

I am sat in my good friend Marco’s kitchen, munching my way through countless tomatoes. These home grown scarlet gems are bursting with flavour, sealed under their skin the minerals of the volcanic soils of Padova, supplemented by a compost of finest Italian espresso coffee grains. Marco’s mother has worked her parcel patiently so that by the time the first blushes of red appear on their swelling cheeks, she is safe in the knowledge that her hard work has paid off.

The rewarding fruit of labour, but for those with less time and skill to grow their own, what are our options? A tomato from the isles of the British supermarket is often resistant to the teeth, only to be followed by flavourless, almost grainy flesh. In the countries of the Med, the flavour is naturally finer owing to the more reliable ripening of the sun, over the heated greenhouses of Holland. Paying more for exported Italian tomatoes then?

Reading an article by Rosella Anitori in La Repubblica however, reveals that blood, sweat and tears are also important ingredients for a tasty tomato. “Each summer in Puglia (the heel of Italy), 800 seasonal workers of African origin lead a gold rush to villages. Here they earn 20euros per day to pick tomatoes working 10 hours non stop”. Conditions mirror those of vulnerable migrant labourers described by Steinbeck in 1930s US, where exploitation results in maximum profits but at the expense of human dignity.

And what of home grown in the city? Could a tomato from the centre of a city beat those of an industrial greenhouse? On the roofs of AgroParisTech, France’s leading Agronomics School, my friend Baptiste Grard is undertaking a project to assess productivity and pollution levels of tomatoes grown on a rooftop garden. I was allowed to taste one of these urban edibles, and sure enough, the work of selecting the best mix of compost (all made from the city of Paris’ organic waste), of tending to the plants, and choosing the best mix of veg has paid off.

The taste of a tomato is defined not only by its providence then, but by the work put into it’s maturity, and the same can be said for much of the food we eat. The proof of a cared-for crop is revealed in its taste.

7 Aug 2013

Whale Watching: Philip Hoare

Beginning his Odyssey with 2008's "Leviathan or, The Whale", Philip Hoare has come to be known as the UK's leading cetacean cultural attaché. In his text, radio and television pieces, he weaves historical titbits of merchant naval hunters, with esoteric ethical theory of niche marine biologists, to paint a vivid picture which harps back to the foundings of Victorian natural history. Herman Melville's rich prose and tales of white whales are heavily felt, in addition to the themes of the industialisation of nature and other darker shades of unknown underwater worlds. But it his emotional investment in the subject which makes reading his books a delight, no more so than when diving into the deep seas of the Azores to swim with sperm whales:

"Suddenly, their number is dramatically swollen: a huge female, with an additional two calves, twirling around to appear out of the turquoise gloom. I sing to myself as I'm caught up in the crowd; I've never shared the water with so many whales. There are whales across the entirety of my vision; wall-to-wall whales wending this way and that; perpendicular, horizontal, vertical columns in the sea. More than ever, their subtle colours shine through the water; the filtered light playing on their backs, dancing on their sides. Only something so huge could be so elegant; they move more delicately because of, rather than inspite of their mass.

The mother looks at me serenely, perhaps aware of her power, while her brood, encouraged by the protection of her flanks; peer as curiously at me as I peer at them. Then she decides it's timeto move on. Gathering her charges together, she takes off into the blue, with barely perceptible acceleration. I'm left treading empty water, surrounded only by ocean." The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare, 2013.

1 Aug 2013

My Great-Grandma's Garden

And that night we ate like kings. This could be added to a series of snaps from my family summer holidays: my great-grandfather's honey (he's gone but his hives live on), my maternal cousin's munster (a particularly pungent but delicious French cheese, matured in a cousin's hay barn), and my neighbour's river trout (poached like Huckleberry Finn, but by a 76 year old).

24 Jul 2013

South Africa's Force of Nature: From Ant to Elephant

The previous two posts in this series address my own magnetic draw to the African bush, and the tireless work of the National Park Ranger service against poaching. This final post will discuss the work which I undertook in South Africa as a scientist, and the results revealed.

African savannahs are shaped by the forces of nature which surround them, the burning sun, the periodic rains, the raging bushfires and the relentless chomping of the largest grazing herds on the planet. Ecologists, who study these systems, are interested in understanding how these mechanisms work to create and maintain these ecosystems, in a context of scientific discovery, but also in an attempt to manage our own impact on these environments.

Whilst we know how grazing and fire influence vegetative regrowth, it is less clear how these pressures influence other organisms who form a vital part of these environments. When faced with the bulldozing impact of an elephant, it is often easy to forget the role of infinitely smaller insects. Seemingly inconspicuous ants have a huge role in these systems, by modifying soils through nest construction, exerting a huge pressure as predators on other insect populations, and on plant populations as seed harvesters and herbivores. Unlocking the secrets of a savannah’s functioning cannot be done without an understanding of the key role of these insects.

Given their inescapable link with the landscape, it is of interest to see how these habitats change under different management regimes. A sad truth is that certain areas of Africa have lost large swathes of herbivores as a result of our over poaching, leaving the grasslands to regress and the encroachment of the surrounding trees. How does this shift in herbivore populations impact on equally important ants?
To examine this change, my research team have been collecting ants in the Kruger National Park for over ten years, in 3 areas reflecting different grazing pressures: a zone of open access, a zone fenced with a high electric wire preventing elephant and giraffe, and a zone of complete exclusion. As the vegetation changed following the exclusion, so too did the ant species collected. Generalist heat tolerant species such as Monomorium junodi, were replaced by species more closely associated with the closing canopy, such as Cataulacus sp.

Such a change is to be expected given the close link of ants with their surrounding vegetation. But other scientists have shown that a removal of certain elements of a natural system such as herbivore grazing can have further reaching consequences. Palmer and his team revealed that ants which protected trees from other insect predators modified their behaviour when elephant damage to these trees was removed, which in turn made these trees more vulnerable to disease.  Removing herbivores will thus lead to changes in the ant community, which can in turn have an irreversible impact on the future of the savannah systems.

Future research must not aim to expose the deeper functioning of other ant species.  Almost one hundred different species of ant were captured during our sampling campaign, and the inner workings of their ecology are largely unknown. It is impossible to predict our impact on an environment without a broader understanding of the role of the numerous elements of ecosystems on their functioning.

Escaping Cynicism

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” Mark Twain

Today’s wit is a cynicism against the possibilities of tomorrow. Irony and sarcasm permeate British humour, but more and more so stretch to infect our outlook on individual and collective possibility. I too am guilty of succumbing to an indifference to the movements of society, given our constant failure to address our environmental shortcomings or social responsibilities.

But recently, fleeting conversation with a passing stranger reignited my lost optimism. An American teenager full of wonder at new encounters, openness to the future and a belief in endless possibility reminded me of myself at her age. I too at seventeen had an open belief for a brave new world, driving me to explore new cultures, aiming for the betterment of human kind. Books fed this craving, and a battered copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach remains testament to this desire.
This morning, curiosity at the flaking pages and the broken spine got the better of me. I reached to take the book down from its shelf, opening it to release grains of sands from another time trapped in its creases. Before even reading the first words, the sand had taken me back to the time and place of its last reading. To my very own beach, where at seventeen I too felt that I had reached Utopia, where the surf of South China Sea lapped at my heart.

Like in the novel, paradise is quick lost, and a return to that same beach a few years later revealed a growth in number, an entrenchment of globalised culture. Plastic parasols and concrete construction confirmed my maturing pessimism. A return to the familiar then, to be surrounded by ambitionless apathy.

It is hard to find solace in the movements of a society, especially now that our globalised gathering of 7 billion seems so connected, whilst alienated at same time. Rather than reaching out across social media networks, my flame of optimism is fanned by face to face contact, even if through the lens of a webcam. It is the warmth of human contact which reignites my optimism, whether from a tube worker walking me to a destination, or a homeless man sharing his cigarettes with our wine. If a selfless stranger is open to others, then what is to stop an original idea taking root? Cynicism suppresses creativity, optimism generates opportunities.

6 Jul 2013

Le Grand Atelier du Midi

Antibes - Claude Monet 
Le Mont Sainte Victoire - Paul Cezanne
Les Rochers de l'Estaque - Pierre-Auguste Renoir

16 Jun 2013

Regarde le ciel

I have sat huddled over calculations and formulae, focused on equilibrium, parameters and above all results. Advanced biological statistics require a certain detachment from reality, positionment in a box to shield the mundane minor miracles of daily life. Narrow winding streets, replaced by high stacked book-shelves, the open mouth of the metro to the opened page of Lebarrier & Robin: Exemples d’application du modèle linéaire. Channelling the complexities of life into straight lines, streets, corridors and lines of calculus. And so it takes a funeral to shape new found perspectives. Four more lines perhaps, the rigid edges of a casket, but held within a myriad of unending spirals. Following the pathway home was hard, the shadows of the apartment blocks rising to frame my sides. Here then, a mundane graffiti tag takes on new meaning. Unlike the spiked capitals of my note books, the curving consonants shaped by l'école française:    
And so I did: Summer in Paris. Up until now, the sun barely reaching the cold corners of my lab or library. And so I climbed, to the greenery of a Parisian cemetery, or the open air of the banks of its waterways. To now, still surrounded by lines on paper, but with my view on the horizon unhindered, on the roof of my apartment, the roof of the city. The lines of brick and steel peter out to the terracotta tips of chimneys and the final reaches of iron ariels. To an open swirl of white and blue.


7 Jun 2013

Nikolai Astrup - Soleienatt

Urnes: Church of the Viking King

From a high point across the valley, gazing down into the black mirrored waters of the Lustrafjord is like looking up at the sky, with the treetops reaching down to the depths. When the water settles, and the ripples still, a tarred black steeple is discernible amongst the spruce spires. Looking out of the waters and up into the air, the Urnes church is positioned on the hump of a hillslope, so that from its turret, one gains a sweeping vista of the surrounding fjords and valleys. Its position in the furthers arm of the longest of Norway’s western fjords is no coincidence, given the strategic value of this highway into the countries interior, and the importance of catching marauding Vikings before they catch you.

The first incarnation of this monument dates back to 1040, when Norse mythology merged with Christian ideology to create something of an enigma, an edifice between past and present, between sky and sea. The swirling carvings on the exterior walls date back to this time, a writhing mass of dragons and snakes, their tales slender vegetal forms, fought by the fanged Urnes animal. These elegant forms blend the dragons of Viking folklore with those of Palestinian poetry, but also encourage the congregation inwards, to escape the endless battle between the forces of nature, and to seek solace with God. 

And it is inside where the magic of this place is revealed, six columns of dark red pine rising to the roof, topped with further carvings of animal and vegetal matter. The grace of god has kept this place standing above the waters, in that he blessed the timber with the strength of iron and the carpenters with the brains of Thor. For these columns bear the hallmarks of Viking craftsmanship, the very masts of their ships. A tree is stripped of its leaves and branches, but left to die in a vertical position, roots still attached. And for ten years it remains: the resin rises to impregnate the timber, the blistering cold of midwinter dries the wood, and the already compact slow grown rings of the trunk are forged like chainmail.This wood remains today, almost one thousand years later, when the trees that bore it are long dead and decomposed, when its carpenters are beyond dust, but whose powerful message rings true today, life as a perpetual battle between the forces of nature, of water and wind, of tooth and claw.


16 May 2013

Long Live the King of Limbs

Not since the 1970's have trees been so cool. Just ask Pitchfork lynchpins Radiohead and Bon Iver, who's legion of hipster fans are fleeing Shoreditch, London or Portland, Oregon to return to the woods. In a log cabin to compose a torch song, or a forest in Wiltshire to gaze on a thousand year old oak (the inspiration for Radiohead's latest album title) , these skinny jeaned, flannel shirted, skull capped bearded folk are hugging trunks left, right and centre, and Instagraming their way along it. And gosh darn it I would be too if I could afford the train fare or the monthly Iphone contract. So I will make do with the music and meandering through Macclesfield forest.
                                                                         Stan Donwood - In the Holloway 2012                                                                            (Radiohead's Cover-Artist, booksigning at Rough Trade Brick Lane (where else?) soon)

8 May 2013