The Ford versus Naish Smackdown

 My copy of Darren's book

My copy of Darren's book

How often have you read a news article that takes a piece of scientific research, misinterprets the evidence presented and blows the results way out of proportion?  The title of these articles tends to be the sensationalist type, using explosive statements that are guaranteed to get the general public's attention - 'click bait'.  That is pretty much what Ford's presentation sounded like.  A bunch of decisive, explosive and sensationalist statements that in reality, mean absolutely nothing. 

On the 15th March, Conway Hall hosted what was supposed to be a debate between Brian J Ford and Dr Darren Naish.  Ford is about to publish a book in which he argues that all dinosaurs were, in fact, aquatic.  Yes, you read it right - ALL dinosaurs.  Now, to say that it was debate would be generous.  That implies that both sides had good, well researched and founded arguments, which wasn't the case.  In fact, it felt very much like an argument between a sensible adult and a petulant child throwing a tantrum - which is ironic considering how many times Ford accused palaeontologists (in general) of being childish and simple-minded. 

You may think that I am being unfair and that my post isn't objective enough, and you're right, it isn't.  In fact, it cannot be.  Ford encouraged the palaeontology community to 'embrace a new concept' with absolutely no evidence to back it up - except for a few cartoons - but seemed to be unable to accept counter arguments supported by evidence.  He also claimed that the idea that dinosaurs were aquatic was both new and his.  Naish addressed this head-on in his first presentation slide, showing that the same idea had originated years ago and been subsequently dismissed.

 Brian J Ford | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Brian J Ford | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Dr Darren Naish (feat. Chameleons s2) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Dr Darren Naish (feat. Chameleons s2) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Ford essentially cherry-picked any data that supported his argument and ignored any evidence that went against it.  If I were to summarise some of my favourite Ford v Naish moments, where Ford tells us how current concepts are wrong and so "his" idea must be correct - apparently by default - they would be as follows:

Ford: Dinosaurs are too big and couldn't possibly cope with their weight - enter big mammals analogy. Also, they had long tails that are not needed if they were terrestrial. Therefore, they must have been aquatic.
Naish: Should we just ignore current anatomical and morphological evidence including the Caudofemoralis longus muscle then?

Ford: No reptile has ever evolved a system for warming themselves up - enter link to how our notions of the climate back then are incorrect. Therefore, they must have been aquatic.
Naish: Huh? So, we're ignoring any mammals or bird descendants of reptiles then? Awesome.

Ford: Some dinosaurs have 'fin-like' structures - enter Spinosaurus data. Therefore, they must ALL have been aquatic.
Naish: Ok, so maybe we finally have a semblem of an argument here (maybe). I'm assuming we're ignoring the significant anatomical differences between a fish's dorsal fins and a Spinosaurus sail? Also, chameleons...no?

Ford: Some dinosaurs were duck-like and so must have lived like ducks in water.
Naish: Hadrosaurids were not actually "duck-billed" and let's not forget that evidence confirms a tree-based diet.

Overall, the debate wasn't much of a debate at all. It was worth it just to hear more about dinosaurs from Darren but all I got from Ford was a big sales pitch.  On a positive note, however, Ford's old school PowerPoint animations were pretty spectacular!  I haven't seen someone use bouncing green ticks on a slide since I was in Year 7.  Forget about dinosaurs and science, Brian. Start a #BringPowerPointAnimationsBack trend!

 Casper and the stegosaurus | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Casper and the stegosaurus | Photograph by Talita Bateman

City Dog

 Casper at Fink's Salt & Sweet, London | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Casper at Fink's Salt & Sweet, London | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Being a dog and/or dog owner in the UK should be easy, right?  At least that’s what you might be led to believe.  As a Londoner and relatively new owner of a young pupper of around 11 months, I’ve come to understand a few things.  Things that don’t align with my romanticised fantasies of strolling through London with hound by my side, sharing plates of pasta whilst playing cat and mouse with the pound.  Many a time have I caught myself regurgitating phrases like ‘it’s a dog’s life’ and ‘man’s best friend’ - and whereas this may be true in most parts of the UK, I’ve come to the slow realisation that things may not be quite what they seem in doggy haven HQ.  Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a country canine then you’re probably riding the easy train to comfort town but when it comes to London living, life may not be quite so simple.

 Casper on the train | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Casper on the train | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Casper on the train | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Casper on the train | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Let me set the scene for you… it’s a wintery Sunday morning and my wife and I have woken up later than planned due to ‘an alarm clock malfunction’.  With fingers pointed firmly at the floor, we hastily begin preparations for the long and arduous journey ahead of us, with the added complication of having to think about our four-legged compadre’s requirements.  Given the possibility of missing our train, I hail an Uber thinking it would be a neat solution to the self-imposed urgency of the situation. 

Lo and behold, a five by five pixel chariot jumps onto the screen of my iPhone and starts heading toward our humble abode post-haste.  Belongings carted to the landing bay, we await our charioteer with eager anticipation.  Yet to our dismay, upon the arrival of one of our rapidly reducing number of transport options - we are swiftly told that there is a strict no dog policy due to shedding concerns.  In a panic, I begin to scramble…

‘But sir, our dog does not shed a single hair.  I guarantee that not one strand from this fluffy mane you will find on your immaculately kept Toyota Prius’ upholstery.’

‘I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to dogs.’ 

I got the sense that nothing I said would sway the views of our would-be conductor but I refused to relent.  ‘Ah well, today is your lucky day then!  Meet Maltese, a hypoallergenic breed that will cause you no suffering as you deliver us to our required destination.  Not a single tear shall fall from your eye nor runlet from your nose holes.’      

‘I’m allergic to animals’, was the gruff reply. 

‘Umm…’.  I’d lost all sense of where this conversation was going.  What was clear; however, was that we were not wanted. The not-so-Uber made a speedy escape and we were forced to scramble for two buses and a tube before making a train with barely seconds to spare.

 Talita & Casper | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Talita & Casper | Photograph by Alex Bateman

 Casper & James | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Casper & James | Photograph by Talita Bateman

It may seem like a small thing but this was a culmination of lots of small ‘sorry, no dogs allowed’ type moments that make me wonder if we truly are the forward-thinking, all-embracing capital of the doggy world.  London is a difficult place to live with or without an autonomous fur-ball thrown into the mix.  There are idiosyncratic rules that govern our everyday life, from standing on a particular side of an escalator to ensuring you never, ever make eye-contact with anyone.  Have you ever seen ‘How to train your Dragon’?  How about, ‘How to teach your dog not to make eye-contact’?  Impossible! 

Take all this and throw in a few irresponsible dog owners and it’s only natural that London’s already defensive inhabitants build additional walls to further prevent co-habitation (please, anything but more walls). 

It is way too hard, for example, to find rental accommodation that allows dogs… yet, man has lived with dog for many millennia.  They are more a part of our world than perhaps any other animal on earth - a feature of our co-evolution over the past 32,000 years - which make them the perfect flatmate. 

I would be doing a disservice not to mention all the fantastic places London has to offer that are truly welcoming of mutts - and there are plenty, from the Rosewood Hotel to Fink’s Salt & Sweet near Clissold Park.  There are; however, undertones of intolerance which the non-dog owner version of me had never ever expected to experience.  It boils down to one simple truth - I really really love dogs.  So it always surprises me when I realise that the same sentiment, or even a basic level of tolerance, may not be shared by everyone around me!  Oh, and don’t get me started on actually trying to train a pupperino in London…

 Alex & Casper | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Alex & Casper | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Alex & Casper | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Alex & Casper | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Christmas Walks and Eating Too Much

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 

Christmas to me is all about spending time with those I love, having long walks in the countryside and eating until I feel uncomfortably bloated. I can gladly say that aside from missing a few loved ones that are in Brazil and Austria, this Christmas ticked all three boxes. I hope you've had a good break too and enjoy your New Year celebrations. Bring on 2018!

 
 Walkies | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Walkies | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 The boys and their toys | Photograph by Talita Bateman

The boys and their toys | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Dogs and Cats of Ikaria in Pictures

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

While I was happily searching for lizards, taking notes and some 'practical' photographs of the non-artistic sort, my husband, patient as he is, was happily making friends with the local cats and dogs we found on the island. As you can see, his photographs were a lot more artistic and so I thought that both him and the little guys he's photographed surely deserve a post of their own. 

 Photograph by Talita Bateman

Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Betty, Goat Pens and Greek Spice Girls

 Betty the Oertzen's Rock Lizard | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Betty the Oertzen's Rock Lizard | Photograph by Talita Bateman

We decided to hike up the mountain to one of the oldest and most historically significant villages in Ikaria, Lagada. To avoid getting lost in this undeveloped part of the island, we figured that taking a dirt road would make the climb by foot easier. We were wrong.

Despite the lack of 'scrambling', the extreme heat and unrelenting sun that day, made the walk up feel like what I would imagine hell feels like. It may come as no surprise, therefore, that we only managed to make it to the village of Vrakades, before deciding to leave the walk to Lagada for another day.

 Mountain goat keepers | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Mountain goat keepers | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Although we didn't spend a lot of time at Vrakades, the memory of the short visit really stuck with me for three main reasons: Ice-cold local lemonade; Greek Spice Girls and wet shirts. Let me elaborate.

After walking up a mountain in direct sunlight for 3 hours, drinking any water we had on us, was like drinking boiled water. We were all longing for a cold drink - any cold drink at that point would do. Luckily, we were graced with some ice-cold local lemonade that we were able to enjoy to the sound of the Greek version of Spice Girl's 'If you wanna be my lover'. Not singing along to that would have been difficult, if it wasn't for the fact that my grasp of Klingon is probably better than my Greek. 

 Photograph by Talita Bateman

Photograph by Talita Bateman

By the time we decided to start our journey back down the mountain, it felt like a thousand degrees Celsius. So, we had to improvise. We found a tap at one of the village squares and did what any sane person in our situation would do. We took off our shirts, ran it under the cold water, put it back on and hoped that water would take as long as possible to evaporate.  

Although my hiking companions would probably disagree, I found the way down the mountain much more pleasurable. I suddenly started noticing the amount of old stone goat pens along the way, some of which were still in use.  It makes your imagination wander back to a time when these were full of goats and workers. 

 Photograph by Alex Bateman

Photograph by Alex Bateman

The highlight of the whole day, however, has to be Betty. During our failed attempt at reaching Lagada, we stumbled upon what I can only describe as an Oertzen's Rock Lizard Paradise. Having found this heavenly spot, I prepared myself to sit and wait in silence for the lizards to come back out. I will cover their behaviour and much more in a separate post but wanted to mention Betty.  

Betty was an Oertzen's Rock Lizard (Lacerta oertzeni) who seemed to enjoy observing humans, just as much as I enjoy observing lizards. She came very close, watching me carefully at first until seemingly finally deciding that I was OK. At first, I couldn't quite understand what would make her take such a risk. All other lizards were keeping their distance, and that far up the mountain, I knew she couldn't possibly be used to having humans around. 

 Betty, the clever Lizard ( Lacerta oertzeni ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Betty, the clever Lizard (Lacerta oertzeni) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

A while later, she made her mind up. She climbed up the rock I was sat on and perched herself on a nice sunny spot. I then noticed that she wasn't only watching me, she was also keeping a close eye on another lizard. Moments later, she caught herself a nice juicy ant that was passing by. And that's when it all clicked! She was using me, or more, she was using the other lizard's fear of approaching me to hunt and sunbathe in its territory. Clever, clever girl!

Review: National Geographic - Inside Animal Minds

 Casper showing off his modeling skills | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Casper showing off his modeling skills | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Having exhausted all my book options over the two-week travel to Ikaria, I stopped by a WH Smith at Athens airport to find something to read (in English) to entertain myself during the flight back to the UK. I immediately spotted Brandon Keim’s National Geographic publication called Inside Animal Minds and knew that I was set for the flight.

The edition is split up into three chapters - intelligence, feelings and relationships. It starts with a brief introduction to the relationship between science and animal behaviour & thought processes throughout history. The introduction is further validated by summarising the contributions made by some memorable names within zoology and animal behaviour science.

I have to say that this was truly a pleasure to read, which probably explains how I got through the whole edition over our three and a half hour flight. It was well written and structured but most importantly, well argued. I recently read Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood's book ‘The Genius of Dogs’ and was glad to see that some of the cases they meticulously explored within the book were mentioned in this edition. However, what really grabbed my attention was Keim’s clear appeal for studies on animal’s thoughts to be open-minded and progressive. For the taboo of anthropomorphism to be broken and the feeling side of science to be explored rather than avoided.

It was this last part - the feeling part - that really got to me. I recently read an article that touches on a very interesting subject - the integration of science and emotion as well as the conflict between emotion and objectivity. I do believe that overall there is a need for the ‘cold scientist’ stereotype to be challenged. For the feeling side of science to be further explored and, in fact, proudly brandished. Empirical evidence may win over science-minded people but in order to change society, emotions need to be addressed as well.

This was a light read with minimal jargon and a very personable way of introducing an incredibly important topic. If you read this and find yourself yearning for more, a good complementary would be National Geographic's latest 'The Making of an Icon: Becoming Jane'. Jane Goodall and her work are mentioned in Keim's issue and this latest edition gives a good insight if you'd like to expand on the topic.

Radioactive Springs, Lizard Crossing & Sunburnt Skin

 Oertzen's Rock Lizard ( Lacerta Oertzeni ) | Photography by Talita Bateman

Oertzen's Rock Lizard (Lacerta Oertzeni) | Photography by Talita Bateman

Last time we were in Ikaria, we talked about visiting one of the many famous hot springs around the island but got too distracted by the beautiful walks to actually do it. This time, we made a point of finding one and having a relaxing bath. So, we set out to do some research on the geothermal springs available around the island. It was during this research that we discovered a very interesting fact about Ikaria's hot springs - they are amongst the most radioactive in the world. 

 Lefkada thermal spring by the sea | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Lefkada thermal spring by the sea | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Lefkada thermal hot spring by the sea | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Lefkada thermal hot spring by the sea | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Radioactivity in geothermal springs is nothing new. In fact, you can find them all over the world. However, the level of radioactivity recorded in Ikaria was rather high when compared to some other places in the world and it seems to be mainly due to radon (depending on the trajectory of the water to the surface). As far as I can tell, it was noticed and recorded for the first time in 1936 by M. Pertesis and many islanders claim that the springs have healing powers. Although there seems to be a lack of supporting studies to this claim, I did find an interesting piece of research carried out by G.  Trabidou and H. Florou for the Radiation Protection Dosimetry in December 2010 that aimed at assessing the risk of radiation exposure to the population coming from the spring water in Ikaria. I am by no means an expert in geology or radiology so will speak no further of any benefits or risks from bathing in these springs. I can only tell you that despite the hot weather, bathing in a natural coastal hot spring was pretty magical.

 Lefkada hot spring salts | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Lefkada hot spring salts | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Apparently, we chose one of the hottest springs in the island where the water can reach temperatures of 58 degrees Celsius and is situated in Lefkada. I've seen people on the internet complain about the lack of warnings. You see, there's no spa around it or grand entrances. The path down to the rocky area by the sea where the spring is located is barely marked at all - which only makes it that much more special to me. Yes, you have to be careful not to go in via the hottest parts. Yes, you're essentially in the sea, so if the sea is rough that day, you will have a hard time getting in and enjoying yourself. However, whilst there I was imagining how people, years and years ago, would have enjoyed the pleasures of a natural hot spring by the sea without a care in the world for health and safety or levels of radiation.

 Juvenile Oertzen's Rock Lizard ( Lacerta oertzeni ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Juvenile Oertzen's Rock Lizard (Lacerta oertzeni) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

The drive back was rather uneventful. We were all quite relaxed and proudly sporting a few cuts from trying to get in and out of the spring. We had to slow the car down to an almost stop in order to allow a very unimpressed and lazy lizard (Lacerta oertzeni) to cross the road and eventually returned home with a smile on our faces. If there's one piece of advice I would give you, however, is that if you are as pasty white as me, to perhaps make sure that you visit the spring before you get so terribly sunburned that you feel as though your unattractively red skin is in direct contact with the sun. 

Obelisk Posture, Mediterranean Moray & Missing Casper

 Male Violet Dropwing ( Trithemis annulata ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Male Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this trip has given me a new appreciation for entomology. Insects are absolutely fascinating. Whilst checking a thriving Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriadae) population in the north-west area of Ikaria, I suddenly noticed the incredible behaviour of some of the dragonflies around the natural pools. They were doing what looked like an impressive handstand and it got me thinking, why? What's the purpose of the handstand? Why were so many of them taking the same position at that exact time? Was it part of a courtship ritual? Were they preparing for something? I just didn't know and I couldn't quite rest until I figured out. So I did what I do best - I researched.

I am a regular reader of Gil Wizen's blog but it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't actually read any posts about dragonflies. In fact, I suddenly realised that despite encountering thousands of dragonflies on my herpetological outings, I had never read much about them other than the limited exposure that you get when studying Biology. Well, it was time to change that. I got back home, transferred the photos and data collected that day to my trusted external hard drive, made myself a cup of tea and spent a good few hours reading about them. It was also the perfect opportunity to try identifying the dragonflies I had managed to photograph. 

 Female Violet Dropwing ( Trithemis annulata ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Female Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

It was during this reading session that I came across a blog post by The Dragonfly Woman which mentioned the term 'obelisk posture' - a term that sounded a bit familiar to me. And that's when the behaviour of the dragonflies at the time began to make sense. Ah, the beauty of finally understanding something - even if only partially. It's my favourite thing about science - that nagging feeling of needing to know, the drive to understand followed by a sudden rush of pleasure at understanding something only to then realise that you now have even more questions. It's magical really.

 Mediterranean Moray ( Muraena helena ) | Photograph by  Jason Flower

Mediterranean Moray (Muraena helena) | Photograph by Jason Flower

When I captured these shots of the dragonflies in the somewhat modified obelisk posture, it was very hot. Despite it nearing sundown, the air around us still made it feel like we were in an oven and the sunrays were still pretty strong. Although the obelisk posture seems to be used by different species for a multitude of purposes, given the slight inclination of the Roseate Skimmer shown above and the position of the sun at the time, I am inclined to believe that they were indeed trying to regulate their body temperature by reducing the area directly exposed to solar radiation.

Looking for the same sort of relief from the sun as the dragonflies, I headed down to the beach for a swim armed with my goggles and flippers. While the sun was slowly going down above the water, I went looking for whatever I could still see at the bottom of the sea. Usually, that entails a school of small fish or a crab or two. This time, however, I was rewarded with what looked very much like a juvenile Mediterranean Moray (Muraena helena) Eel. Although it looked less than impressed with my attentions, I was thrilled to see it. I mean, what's more exciting than unexpectedly seeing what looks like a sea snake for a herpetology fanatic? 

Heading back to our temporary home, I started thinking about how lucky I was to be able to see such amazing wildlife in the flesh. I also started thinking about my own little guys back home and just how much I was missing them. So I dropped Tyler a message to check how things were going. Tyler is looking after Casper for us while we are here and kindly sent me a couple of photos and videos of our little guy having fun and enjoying his little break from us. It filled me with pride, joy and longing. Not long to go now and I'll be (weirdly gladly) having to deal with a poop stained harness myself. 

 Casper after a walk in the park and rolling in poop | Photograph by Tyler Clark

Casper after a walk in the park and rolling in poop | Photograph by Tyler Clark

Sandals, Birds & Terrapins

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My mother-in-law is one of those superwomen. You know, the ones that make your feminist-self fill with pride and aspire to be like. The independent type that travels all over the world on their own and comes back with amazing stories that are told with an incredible amount of humility. She also seems to have an amazing gift for giving tips on travel gear. That's where the sandals come in. 

Three years ago when we were planning our first trip to Ikaria, she told us to get some walking Ecco sandals. I must admit that I am not a fan of sandals in general. I was even less impressed by the idea of hiking for hours and hours wearing them. However, having previously had other great pieces of advice from her, I thought why not? Let's have a look at the Ecco sandals.

At first, they looked incredibly unappealing to me - something that my grandpa would wear with white socks to go fishing. Then, I tried them on...and everything changed. Dramatic much? Yes, well...to me they were pretty revolutionary. Being able to cross pools and streams without having to faff about with wet socks? Check. Easy to put on and take off? Check. Comfortable for 8+ hour hikes in challenging rocky terrain? Check again. I became so fond of them that I even began to like the look of them. The only downside that I could so far find, is the incredibly unattractive tan marks that you get on your feet. But then again, were I wearing normal shoes, I would end up with some oddly pale feet anyway so, meh.

 Balkan terrapin ( Mauremys rivulata ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Ikaria has a healthy wild Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) population. They can often be found at this time of the year in some of the bigger natural pools. Some of these pools are located by the beach and you can clearly see that the water flows from the mountains during colder months would join the sea. The Balkan terrapins found on these pools, although wild, are somewhat used to human interaction. It's obvious that they are used to being fed and so associate humans standing by the edge of the water as a potentially good thing. Unsurprisingly, these are much easier to photograph. 

 Balkan terrapins ( Mauremys rivulata ) sunbathing | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Balkan terrapins (Mauremys rivulata) sunbathing | Photograph by Talita Bateman

If you head inland via the canyons, you can normally find much clearer, colder and hidden natural pools between rocks. Unlike their beach babe counterparts, the Terrapins found in those pools are very shy. Therefore, to get a good look at them, you need to sit tight and wait. It was while sitting on the above-mentioned sandals and waiting under the scorching sun for the shy wild Balkan terrapins to come out of the water to bask, that I completely by chance spotted a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).

 Common Kingfisher ( Alcedo atthis ) |  Photograph by Talita Bateman

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) |  Photograph by Talita Bateman

The Kingfisher's blue and orange colours were so bright that they were a welcome change from intensely looking at the deep green pools while trying to spot some dull coloured frogs and terrapins. It also reminded me of my own bright red skin and the high probability of contracting skin cancer lest I find some shade. So I got up, picked up my trusted sandals, and headed down the canyon towards the sea for a swim.

Bat(full) Nights

 Sunset in Ikaria | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Sunset in Ikaria | Photograph by Talita Bateman

The thing about searching for reptiles and amphibians is that you always come across other wildlife. Some of the species you find, such as dragonflies, are fairly easy to photograph. Others, such as birds of prey, tend to be a little harder if you don't have the correct equipment.

This usually doesn't bother me too much. Most of the time, I'm happy with just being able to see them in the flesh, albeit from a distance. Other times, I wish I had all the equipment necessary to be able to capture certain moments - or better yet, some species.

Most people will have certain favourite 'animals' that they admire. For some, such as a friend of mine, it's sharks. For others, such as myself, it's pretty much anything ectothermic. However, when it comes to mammals, I too have a favourite - bats. I get this giddy feeling whenever I even get a hint of one and I can't even describe the level of excitement when I actually see one live. I also always think to myself how I wish I could photograph them to capture that memory. And this is exactly how I feel every sunset in Ikaria. As it is, I'm left with the only other thing I could possibly do given my situation - I start researching them.

 Photograph by  Castle Hill Ecology

Photograph by Castle Hill Ecology

Most sources, especially those from ecotourism websites that talk about the flora and fauna of Ikaria, mention that three species of bats can be found on the island and that they are all protected. Although I suppose that the low number of species could be entirely plausible, the sources these articles cite are fairly old. While trying to locate more recent surveys, I came across the Castle Hill Ecology website that mentioned a bat research survey led by Greena Ecological Consultancy across different Greek Islands. The one in Ikaria was carried out in September 2014 and they reported that during the survey, they could identify at least 12 different species of bats. These are:

COMMON NAME

Common Pipistrelle
Kuhl’s Pipistrelle
Savi’s Pipistrelle
European Free-tailed
Schreiber’s
Greater Horseshoe
Lesser Horseshoe
Blasius’ Horseshoe
Mehely’s Horseshoe
Geoffroy’s bat
Serotine
Lesser Mouse-eared

LATIN NAME

Pipistrellus pipistrellus
Pipistrellus kuhlii
Hypsugo savii
Tadarida teniotis
Miniopterus schreibersii
Rhinolophus ferrumequinum
Rhinolophus hipposideros
Rhinolophus blasii
Rhinolophus mehelyi
Myotis emarginatus
Eptesicus serotinus
Myotis blythii

 Photograph by  Castle Hill Ecology

Photograph by Castle Hill Ecology

To identify the different species, a combination of different surveying methods were used but they were essentially made up of trappings and sound recordings. It is no surprise that Ikaria would host such a variety of species. The island offers an ideal habitat with plenty of prey, sea caves, old mines, flowing streams and natural pools. As is expected, however, it also has some of the usual urban threats as well as a particular threat of the feline variety - cats. Like many other places in Greece, Ikaria has its fair share of cats. These tend to congregate near human settlements and so bats that reside near these areas can suffer and unfortunately become cat toys.

Nevertheless, the results of the survey were very encouraging and if I had the correct equipment to set up a time-lapse video during sundown, I would be able to share just how amazing these little guys are when hunting. Oh well, perhaps another trip to Ikaria is in order ;)

Egyptian Feet, Frog Paradise & Aubergine Salads

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This probably applies to most people that live in the UK, but I suddenly noticed that I usually don't see much of my very pale feet unless I'm on holiday. In fact, I don't really think about them much either on a day to day basis. Therefore, I never thought about what the shape of my feet may tell me about my heritage. I can honestly say that I have done no research on this topic whatsoever. However, if the results of my husband's 5 minute googling of the topic are accurate, we both have Egyptian feet. I'm not sure what that means but I choose to believe that it means I was actually meant to have glorious easily tanned skin. As it is, I have so far been left with some less than attractive 'tan' (red) lines. Hiking doesn't exactly leave you with nice tan lines. 

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Despite the blazing sun, we are powering through and have been rewarded with some stunning views and some even more stunning wildlife. During this time of the year, everything in Ikaria is a bit dry but you can still find these magical natural pools deep within the mountain. Not only do these flowing natural pools provide a place to swim and cool down, they are also what I like to call 'Levant Water Frog Paradise' (Pelophylax bedriagae). If you're lucky, and the pool is big enough, you may also find some elusive Balkan Terrapins (Mauremys rivulata). Don't worry, I will write detailed blog posts on these species. 

 Levant water frog ( Pelophylax bedriagae ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Levant water frog (Pelophylax bedriagae) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 Balkan terrapin ( Mauremys rivulata ) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) | Photograph by Talita Bateman

 The short hike we had planned may have taken a whopping 8 hours but we did eventually get back to the house, albeit rather sunburned and exhausted. We showered, lathered ourselves up with as much after-sun and aloe vera gel as we could and headed down the hill to the local taverna. There, we spoiled ourselves to a generous amount of wine and what can only be described as our weights worth of the most amazing aubergine salad we have ever had. 

The Port, Nudists & Flippers

 7am at Piraeus Port | Photograph by Alexander Bateman

7am at Piraeus Port | Photograph by Alexander Bateman

The week leading up to our trip to Ikaria was quite possibly one of the most stressful weeks of my life. Perhaps it's not surprising, therefore, that I am so very relieved and glad to be here now. 

Last time we came to Ikaria, we flew from Athens. Despite being a smallish and rather unpopular island when it comes to tourism, Ikaria does have a very small airport. This time, however, we decided to take the ferry with Helenic Seaways. The ferry departed at 7:30 am and took about 7 hours to get here. It stopped at a couple of other islands before reaching Ikaria and heading towards its final destination – Patmos. The views, in general, were pretty spectacular and to see the different islands ‘grow’ as the ferry approached their ports was a nice bonus.

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

 Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Photograph by Alexander Bateman

Arriving at Ikaria by ferry, however, added its own amount of charm to the trip. Seeing how things work at the port, its workers and the incredible simplicity and lack of bureaucracy was truly refreshing. The weather was unsurprisingly a dream and I cannot tell you just how very simple and uncomplicated it is to rent a car – you pay cash on pick up, no card details are exchanged and you drop the car off unlocked at the airport when you leave. This is a blessing in itself considering how much of a nightmare hiring a car in Europe can be!

The tiny village where we are staying has a tiny beach that is rather popular with nudists. Although I’m not quite that brave myself, I find the lack of ‘judgement’ and relaxed atmosphere a welcome change.

 Photograph by Talita Bateman

Photograph by Talita Bateman

After arriving at the house, unpacking and preparing to go for an amazing meal at our favourite local taverna, we did the one thing we’d been dreaming about for months – we picked up our flippers, goggles and a towel to share and went swimming in the Aegean.

Female Science Bloggers & Writers

 Photograph by Alex Bateman

Photograph by Alex Bateman

Talking about female science bloggers with a friend of mine, I suddenly noticed that not many of the science blogs that I read on a regular basis are written by female science bloggers. As I support equality and am therefore a feminist, I was rather shocked to find this bias in my own views, albeit subconscious.

Now, let me start by saying that I am in no way saying that there is no merit to male science bloggers or that their blogs should be boycotted. It just seemed odd to me that male science bloggers were so much more out there. Could it be that the number of male science bloggers is so much greater than that of females that it trickles down proportionally to the attention of the public? Or is the sexism very much present in the science industry making itself shown?

I went about trying to find female science writers and noted that within many of the mainstream media news websites, the number of male science writers is indeed much higher than that of their female counterparts. The even more scary thing about it, is that I didn’t have to dig too deep to find the discrepancy.

It seems that when it comes to science blogs, these discrepancies are no different. They can be found on not only the number of blog websites or articles themselves but in the disproportional attention that male written blog posts receive. In 2010, Martin Robbins wrote an article for the guardian making reference to a blog post written by Jenny Rohn that argued that celebrated science bloggers were predominantly male. Although the blog post itself is no longer available, Robbins set out to find female science bloggers and provided us with a list of 50 female written science blogs - and yes, I had a look at all of them.

Robbins’ article was written in 2010 so naturally, some of the blogs are no longer available. However, the vast majority of them were not only still available but had also been recently updated. Although this would seem like good news on the face of it, I was not exactly surprised. Like many other science bloggers, I write because I like the idea of sharing knowledge and promoting science, especially wildlife science, in a positive light. However, most of the blogs that I looked at had one distinctive thing in common. Something, that I too am guilty of - lack of exposure and ‘marketing’.

It is no secret that in general, science blogs tend to be lacking in the design department (unless they are being hosted by a particular blogging collective platform). I would say that this applies to blogs written by both female and male writers. However, when it comes to designing a science blog when you are a woman, I have personally gone through a few things that I doubt my male counterparts have. 

When I decided to start my blog, I wanted to ensure that the focus was on the content itself. That my message was clear and that most of all, it could be particularly informative and inspiring to people who aren’t in science. However, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t also try to ensure that the blog wasn’t overly ‘girly’ - and the reason for this was rather obvious - I wanted to be taken seriously. In fact, when I first started, I avoided using my own name because I didn’t want people to have any sort of preconceptions before they even read what I had to say. I don’t know every female blogger out there but I would bet that at least a few of them have, consciously or subconsciously, gone through something similar.

How sad for our society that women still feel the need to either be girly or curb any ‘girlyness’ in order to avoid judgement. Even sadder is the lack of credibility that one might have due to one’s gender, sexuality or ethnicity rather than their aptitudes, knowledge, experience and many times, extensive studies.

To end this post, I would like to share with you a female blogger that I wish received a lot more attention. Granted her blog is not necessarily science focused but Kay herself has a strong science background and the Issues she raises always make me think and question society and my own actions and thoughts. After all, in my opinion, the willingness to question and be questioned is an important part of science.

 Kay Brown and her blog Silly Ol’ Me 

Kay beautifully opens up about her experiences in life to help us all be less prejudiced. I actually came about her blog fairly recently and it was because of the latest blog post she wrote titled 'It was just a joke'. I would definitely recommend a read and believe that society would benefit hugely from her message.

The Common Egg-Eater (Dasypeltis scabra)

  Dasypeltis scabra  by  Animal Reader

Dasypeltis scabra by Animal Reader

Taking a trip down memory lane is always a gamble. We've all had good and bad experiences but I think it's fair to say that both help shape us into who we are today. 

Amazing Snakes.PNG

A while ago whilst visiting my mother-in-law, I started to truly appreciate the impressive bookshelf that my husband cultivated as a child. Reading has always been one of his favourite things to do. His bedroom's bookshelf (the one he had as a child) is filled with fantasy books. Next to these books is a picture of his child-self smiling whilst pointing at the spider climbing his naked torso. To this date, he still loves spiders and other critters, which brings me to my biggest find on the bookshelf - a book called 'Amazing Snakes' written by Alexandra Parsons which is part of the 'Amazing Worlds' series published in 1990. As I understand it, this was a birthday present he got alongside the 'Amazing Spiders' book of the same series that was nowhere to be found. 

The 'Amazing Snakes' book looked rather worn (which is a good sign if you ask me!). Judging by the wear and tear marks on the book, the most popular section was the two-page feature on the Egg-Eater. It seems that as a child, he was fascinated by their uniqueness and what he described as seemingly 'non-threatening' nature due to their lack of teeth (well, lack of teeth as we see it). 

Although the book did not specify which of the two genera of egg eating snakes it was referring to, I believe they 'lumped' Dasypeltis and Elachistodon together. For the purposes of this post, I will be focusing on the most commonly known species of the Dasypeltis genus - the Common Egg-Eater (Dasypeltis scabra).

 

About the Common Egg-Eater

This snake can be found in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. It is no surprise, therefore, that most of its habitat is made up of deserts, scrubs and open woodlands. Adults can reach up to 1.1 metres in length but remain fairly thin with a diameter comparable to a human finger. They are nocturnal and usually lay anything between 6-25 eggs. 

Some snakes are known for eating Squamata eggs and have developed incredible adaptations to be able to eat these shell-less eggs. However, none have evolved quite like snakes in the Dasypeltis and  Elachistodon genera to be able to eat amniotic eggs (or 'hard-shelled eggs). The entire process is fascinating and one of my favourite topics on reptile evolution. So much so, that in his book, Life in Cold Blood, our beloved Sir David Attenborough gifts us with two pages on the egg-eater and their feeding method.

So, how do they feed? You see, despite their small girth, D. scabra can swallow eggs up to four times the diameter of their heads. The small vestiges of their teeth and jaw are covered by a soft mucosal tissue which makes both the 'teeth' and the jaw slide over the egg without breaking it (see images a and b). Once the egg is located behind the snake's throat (see image c), the snake uses its muscles to push the egg through the oesophagus.

Between its 21st and 29th vertebra, the snake's vertebrae are adorned by small down-ward spines (see image d). These spines crack the egg's shell into small pieces as the snake contracts that part of its body. The contraction is such that the snake manages to crack the egg but maintain the egg's membrane mostly intact. This allows the egg's contents to then be passed down to the snake's stomach whilst the cracked egg remains in place. The snake then regurgitates the fragmented eggshell pieces (mostly still connected by the membrane) and continue on its way.

Photo 06-05-2017, 18 56 47.jpg

 

The Pet Trade

Unfortunately, the egg-eater's seemingly non-threatening nature makes it an attractive species for the pet trade. It is often suggested as an alternative to those who may want a 'pet snake' but may not be willing to deal with live or frozen prey.

The reality, however, is that although its bite might not 'hurt', procuring its food source may not be as easy as one might think. For instance, although they can eat prey up to 4 times the diameter of their heads, the vast majority of them, even adults, will feed on eggs that are smaller than a chicken's egg. Juveniles, for instance, will often need to eat eggs that vary in size between a chicken and a quail's egg. As you can imagine, these are not always easy to find. They also tend to eat more frequently then other snake species and it is reported that their excrement can have a rather strong smell - similar to the smell reported by owners that feed their snake on chicks rather than rodents.

 

References & Sources:

Whilst carrying out research for this post, I came across quite a few published papers on the morphological adaptation found in the egg-eater. One of those papers, for instance, gives a good insight into the potential selective regime that may be conducive to the evolution of the species based on their morphological traits. Therefore, I have detailed below some of the most helpful sources I found and hope that you too enjoy researching this amazing creature!

  • Attenborough, D. (2008). Life in Cold Blood: A Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles. BBC Books.
  • Mattison, C. (2014). Nature Guide: Snakes and Other Reptiles and Amphibians. London, Dorling Kindersley.
  • Harvey Pough, F. (2016). Herpetology. Fourth Edition. Massachusets, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
  • Gartner, G.E.A. & Greene, H.W. (2008). Adaptation in the African Egg-Eating Snake: A Comparative Approach to a Classic Study in the Evolutionary Functional Morphology. Journal of Zoology Vol 275, Issue 4:368–374.
  • Parsons, A. (1990). Amazing Snakes. London, Dorling Kindersley.

The Red-Footed Tortoise Turning into a Pyramid (Chelonoidis carbonaria)

 Thirteen (est.) year old  C. carbonaria  named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Thirteen (est.) year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Out of all reptiles in existence, tortoises are one of the most widely kept as pets. This is not surprising considering that unlike other reptiles, they are perceived as mostly docile and non-threatening to humans. There's also, of course, the cuteness factor. Unfortunately, humans seem to be just as uninformed regarding their needs and husbandry as they are of any other reptilian order.

Before I start ranting about 'bad humans', let me give you a brief overview of the Chelonoidis carbonaria, commonly known as Red-footed Tortoise. If like me you too grew up in Brazil, the 'Jabuti-Piranga' as most Brazilians call them, are not exactly rare. Unfortunately, as expected of such a successfully captive kept species, wild populations are decreasing due to loss of habitat and the capture of wild individuals to meet the demands of the exotic pet trade.

 Thirteen year old  C. carbonaria  named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Thirteen year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Their habitat varies from rain forests to savanna areas and they can be found through most of northern South America (though going as far south as Rio de Janeiro in eastern Brazil), Central America and the Caribbean - where they have been introduced to many of the islands.  Although there's a lack of data to confirm an average lifespan, both males and females reach sexual maturity at around 5 years old. They are diurnal and rather sedentary compared to other species. Although their diet consists mainly of fruits and flowers, they are also known to consume dead and living foliage as well as carrion. As there's a lack of data on their lifespan, it is difficult to specify the size this species can reach. However, sexual dimorphism has been observed, with males being larger than females. If you'd like to know more about morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in C. carbonaria, I have included a great paper published in the Brazilian Journal of Biology in my references below - the paper was published in English and Brazilian Portuguese. It is worth noting that the C. carbonaria is more widely spread in the wild than its counterpart C. denticulada. The paper I mentioned above covers both species. 

 Casquinha, a  C. carbonaria  raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Casquinha, a C. carbonaria raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

In Brazil, for instance, the C. carboaria is protected by IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). The sale and breeding of the species is restricted and you could receive a hefty fine for keeping it without the correct documentation. Despite the protection, they are still widely kept as pets illegally. As expected, they end up receiving a pretty pore excuse for 'care' in the hands of most humans. 

As is unfortunately the case with most pet reptiles, many captive kept C. carbonaria suffer from calcium deficiencies and metabolic bone disease (MBD) as well as parasites (internal and external) and respiratory infections. The C. carbonaria can also suffer from shell rot and something called 'carapace pyramiding'. If you look at the three images above - especially the one used as the header for this post - you will notice that the carapace of the C. carbonaria I am holding is forming little pyramids.

 Healthy wild  C. carbonaria  with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by  Dr Steve Barten

Healthy wild C. carbonaria with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by Dr Steve Barten

 This is something that occurs in many captive-kept tortoises and is not reversible. Although most cases, unless extreme, don't pose much of problem for the tortoise, it does give an indication of the conditions in which the tortoise is being kept as well as its diet. In fact, the effects of overfeeding and a high protein intake have been extensively discussed when it comes to the occurrence of pyramiding in tortoises. I would also like to highlight that, in addition to the wrong diet, dry conditions are also a contributing factor to pyramiding . If you look at the image of the wild C. carbonaria to the right, you will notice that this adult shows no signs of pyramiding. 

The reason I am focusing so much on the 'Pyramiding' issue is that it can be clearly observed in the C. carbonaria individual shown in the first three photographs. The photographs, in fact, clearly illustrate the problems with the husbandry 'techniques' being applied to this little red-footed tortoise. You see, compared to other captive tortoises in Brazil, this individual has a pretty good life. It has space, seems to be pretty comfortable with its 'territory' and is bathed often to address the lack of humidity issue. However, it also has lots of company. From other tortoises, you might ask? Well, no. It has lots of company from cats and its entire diet is essentially made up of cat food.

This is a problem for two main reasons. Firstly, housing tortoises domestically with cats, or any other animals really, may lead to intestinal blockage due to fur ingestion overtime (thank you Karen for the tip). Secondly, as I mentioned before, these tortoises' diet in the wild is mostly made up of fruits and flowers. If you just have a look at the back of the package of any standard cat food, the level of protein they contain is pretty high. Now, imagine this 13-year-old individual, being fed cat food and housed with cats for almost its entire life. Sad, I know.

Nonetheless, unaware of just how bad her current situatio is, and its impact on her health in the future, this individual seems pretty happy. 

References & Sources:

  • Barros, MS., Resende, LC., Silva, AG. & Ferreira Junior, PD. (2012). Morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in Chelonoidis carbonaria and Chelonoidis denticulada. Brazilian Journal of Biology 72:153-161.

The Goliath Frog (Conraua goliath)

 Biologist Claude Miaud swabbing skin to determine presence of Chytrid fungus on a Goliath Frog | Photograph by  Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures/Solent News & Photo Agency

Biologist Claude Miaud swabbing skin to determine presence of Chytrid fungus on a Goliath Frog | Photograph by Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures/Solent News & Photo Agency

The Conraua goliath is one of those species that most people with no interest in amphibians will have heard of because of its size. The 'biggest frog' factoid being an almost must for any pub quiz...or perhaps more realistically, for any pub quiz I would certainly enjoy.

I decided to write about it due to a dream. Yes, that's right, a dream. Not long ago I dreamt that I found a large C. goliath specimen in my garden and I was over the moon about it. I mean, a living and breathing Goliath Frog in my garden! In England! The downside of this dream was that in it, I was the only person able to see the frog. The dream version of my husband couldn't see it at all...oh, the frustration! The next day, I was telling my friend Steven Allain about my strange dream. Realistically, he's one of the only people in my day-to-day life who would truly appreciate the frustration that my dream-self was experiencing. We got talking about C. goliath and I then decided that I would write a post about it. Why not? If I believed in such things, I would say the dream was a sign and all that. So, here it it.

  C. goliath  tadpole | Photograph by  Steve Atkin

C. goliath tadpole | Photograph by Steve Atkin

Most people will know that the C. goliath - commonly known as the Goliath Frog or Giant Slippery Frog - is the largest species of living frog on the planet. Records show that adults average at around 12 inches in length and 3 kg in weight. Curiously, although the adults of the species are carnivores, the tadpoles are herbivores. In fact, the C. goliath tadpole's early diet is rather restricted and made up mainly of the Diacraeia warmingii plant. Unfortunately, as the range of this plant is limited, the spread of the C. goliath in the wild is also restricted to parts of Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. As adults, however, the C. goliath's size means that almost anything is a potential meal. A  few sources indicate that a researcher has found evidence of bats in the contents of a captured C. goliath individual's stomach. However limited the evidence may be, it does suggest that these frogs are able to catch bats to begin with...considering that this species can leap up to 10 feet, catching bats becomes a somewhat more believable feat.

 Vendor showing his available  C. goliath  collection for sale in Cameroon | Photograph taken from  The African Gourmet 's website

Vendor showing his available C. goliath collection for sale in Cameroon | Photograph taken from The African Gourmet's website

Unlike most frog species, the males are usually bigger than the females. This may help explain another unusual characteristic of the species - males do not possess nuptial pads. Nuptial pads in male frogs are used to facilitate the grasping of the female during mating. Another curiosity in their biology is that although they have an acute sense of hearing, they do not possess vocal cords. Therefore, they do not produce sounds during the mating season as many other species of frogs do. C. goliath males will instead create round pools of shallow water by riverbanks and wrestle each other for the right to mate.

Their short mating season ranges from July to August and females will lay hundreds of eggs. Unlike other frog species, these eggs will receive no protection from the parents and the surviving tadpoles will take between 85-95 days to metamorphose into frogs. They rarely breed in the wild and captive-breeding is unfortunately also rarely successful. Furthermore, the Goliath Frog's meat is part of the diet of many African tribes and considered a delicacy by local people. Combined with the hunt for wild individuals in order to meet the demand of the pet trade, you will not be surprised to hear that this species is listed as endangered. 

To address this issue, Dr. Gonwouo Nono LeGrand and his team at the Cameroon Herpetology-Conservation Biology Foundation (CAMHERP-CBF) are working to tackle the threat of over-harvesting as well as habitat loss. The Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) also supports the work being carried out by the CAMHERP-CBF and helps spread the word about their efforts. It is lovely to see businesses getting involved. A great example is a Vancouver based company,  Goliath Coffee, that sources all of its coffee from Cameroon showing its support for the cause. They even have an entire section of their website dedicated to it - check it out.  

If like me, you too like reading about this amazing frog, I have listed my main sources below. If you know of any other major projects aimed at the conservation of the Conraua goliath, do let me know! I'd love to hear from you. 

References & Sources:

  • Mikula, P. (2015). Fish and Amphibians as Bat Predators. European Journal of Ecology 1:66-75.
  • Soulsby, D. (2013). Animal Cannibalism: The Dark Side of Evolution. Sheffield, 5m Publishing.
  • Mattison, C. (2014). Nature Guide: Snakes and Other Reptiles and Amphibians. London, Dorling Kindersley.
  • Halliday, T. (2016). The Book of Frogs: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species From Around the World. Lewes, Ivy Press. 
  • Attenborough, D. (2008). Life in Cold Blood: A Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles. BBC Books.
  • Dorcas, M. & Gobbons, W. (2011). Frogs: The Animal Answer Guide. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Beltz, E. (2005). Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World. New York, Firefly Books.

The Very Endearing Common Toad (Bufu bufo)

 Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

If you are lucky enough to have ever witnessed a wild common toad hunting, you will understand what I mean when I say that they are pretty endearing creatures. They have an incredibly entertaining 'walking' style that never fails to make me laugh.

Towards the end of my trip to Slovenia, I encountered the most gorgeous common toad specimen. As I was not actively searching for this species, it was a really nice surprise - mostly because the encounter reminded me just how much I enjoy observing them. 

 Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci Slovenia

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci Slovenia

The toad showed up in the garden of the place where we were staying. It had rained quite a lot during the day and by 8:30 that evening, the garden looked like a slug & snail fest. The toad was too busy hunting snails and slugs to realise that I had already spotted it and was close enough to pick it up without much effort... not that common toads are difficult to capture under normal circumstances but it makes for a nice tale.

Not long after I picked it up, the toad (understandably frightened) released water from its water bladder. This prompted my surprised (and slightly disgusted) husband to jump three feet away from me and say 'Oh no, it's peed on you'. This defense mechanism is fairly common and although it isn't exactly the same as actual urine, the 'peeing on you' seems like the easiest way to explain it.  

You will notice in these two photographs (sorry for the bad quality!) that I am wearing gloves to handle the toad. Let me firstly clear things up - you CANNOT get warts from handling toads (yes, some people really do ask that question). The real reason I am wearing gloves is to protect the toad from any harmful chemicals I most likely had on my hands and NOT to protect myself. As I mentioned before, the encounter was a surprise and although you cannot see it in the photographs, I was pretty sunburnt. I knew that my hands were covered in body lotion and, as amphibians have permeable skin, in order to protect the little toad, I put on the first pair of gloves that I could find. Obviously, they weren't the best fit but they did the trick.

 Underside colouration and markings of the same Common Toad (Bufo bufo) individual

Underside colouration and markings of the same Common Toad (Bufo bufo) individual

A curious fact about the common toad is that they can actually secret large amounts of a distasteful white substance from their skin when threatened - although this doesn't seem to affect some predators such as Grass Snakes. Their eggs and tadpoles are also thought to be distasteful - a fact that is believed to contribute to its successful survival rate when compared to other amphibian species. It is also likely to somewhat explain the wide range of locations in which the species can be found. 

Unfortunately, this species tends to be attacked by Flesh Flies (Lucilia bufonivora) - its latin name is certainly a clue! The fly lays its eggs on the toad's skin and once the eggs hatch, the little maggots will often enter the toad's body via its nose and eat the toad from within. Quite the image huh?!

On a lighter note, the good news is that this species is not very difficult to find. If you are in the UK, depending on where you live, you can even encounter it in your own garden! If you go looking for them, try and remember a couple of important things: 1) Common Toads are nocturnal! 2) Record your sightings!

 Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Review: BBC Series Planet Earth II with Sir David Attenborough

 Hatchling Marine Iguana from the 'Islands' episode of the  BBC series Planet Earth II  with Sir David Attenborough.

Hatchling Marine Iguana from the 'Islands' episode of the BBC series Planet Earth II with Sir David Attenborough.

As most people will already know, the BBC has released a sequel to the 2006 Planet Earth series. The sequel, appropriately named Planet Earth II and featuring Sir David Attenborough as the narrator, was as stunning as you would expect.

Even if you haven't watched any of the Planet Earth II episodes, you are likely to have come across one of the many clips shared on the internet of the hatchling Marine Iguanas (photo above) escaping a gauntlet of racer snakes. It was probably one of the most memorable wildlife documentary moments of 2016. 

One of the reasons I like wildlife documentaries so much is that they tend to appeal to so many different types of people. Unlike other types of content, they are the kind of thing that will appeal to a varied demographic and individuals from all walks of life. As such, it is to be expected that many people will also have strong views and opinions about it.

I believe it is fair to say that the series was overwhelmingly hailed as magnificent by the vast majority of people who watched it. However, some have pointed out the 'gruesomeness' of certain scenes and sensationalist 'newspapers' such as The Mirror have unsurprisingly written articles talking about how some of the footage has 'horrified thousands of viewers'. 

I can definitely understand how some people may have found it difficult to watch certain scenes. Let's not forget that we humans love to coo over animals and perhaps seeing them in such a realistic light tarnishes that image. However, I can't say that I share their opinion. I love the fact that the series was realistic. That it shared how beautiful, dangerous and terrifying life in the wild can be. To me, that is exactly what a wildlife documentary should show. 

Although I absolutely loved the series, I wanted to focus the review on the 'Diaries' part of it. At the end of each episode, they showcased how the crew managed to capture the footage, the difficulties they encountered and their journey to these sometimes incredibly remote areas of the world. The truth is that I honestly feel rather guilty about loving them. 

I loved the 'Diaries' sections because it somehow makes it all even more real to me. I have expressed in previous reviews that I like seeing how the crew manages to capture these amazing images. How they get there, how they solve problems along the way, etc. However, I also worry that they may somehow lead more people to these locations. People that would perhaps not be so mindful and respectful of the environment and the wildlife they encounter. Who knows? Maybe this is a bit of a stretch and I'm overthinking things. Oh well...c'est la vie. 

If you like wildlife documentaries, you will probably have already watched it. I don't think you need me to say this but I will anyway - if you haven't watched it yet, do it. I believe it's still on iPlayer, though I'm not sure how much longer it will be available there. I, for one, will definitely be buying the DVD when it's out. 

The Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 Photograph by  Adem Adakul

Photograph by Adem Adakul

Like many other small gecko species, the Hemidactylus turcicus is one of those species that we tend to take for granted. The type that most people will see on the walls of the house they rented for their holidays but never really stop to think about.

Growing up in Brazil, I would often see other species of the same genus such as the H. mabouia and the H. frenatus around the house. Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say that when I was around 6 years old, I did capture one and tried to keep it as my pet whilst "feeding" it vegetables. However, as I grew, I became more interested in their behaviour and started to study their biology more closely.

Most Brazilians will look at these small geckos and call them by the exact same common name - lagartixa. It doesn't matter what type of gecko it is. If it is on the wall and small, it's a lagartixa. This sort of 'non-reaction' is what drove me to write about the H. turcicus in the first place. When people think about reptiles they will often imagine big snakes and lizards. They will say things like 'I don't like reptiles' but wouldn't bat an eyelash at the little geckos on the wall. These tiny little creatures are reptiles too - and they are fascinating!

I encountered my first H. turcicus during a trip to Ikaria, one of the Greek islands. In my head, I immediately started comparing their colouration, size and behaviour to the tropical species with which I am familiar. The similarities, as expected, are many - they are insectivores, active during the evening or night and can be found near human dwellings on dry stone walls. They tend to hide under rocks during the day or inside cracks on the walls. Like many other geckos, they tend to sit near light sources that attract moths and other insects. You can sometimes find a small group of the H. turcicus banded together near light bulbs appraising potential prey. Hayley & Blackshaw (2015) had a research article published in The Herpetological Bulletin on how habitat structure may affect the foraging behaviour of the H. turcicus that is definitely worth a read. 

 Figure 1.  H. turcicus  toe

Figure 1. H. turcicus toe

Although they have adhesive toes that help them cling to walls and rocks whilst maintaining even an upside down position, the adhesive pads don't extend to the end of the toes. Instead, they stop short of the tip of the toe where a small claw helps the geckos grip to rougher surfaces. This is illustrated in Figure 1 (Arnold & Ovenden, 2002, plate 20) where the diagram clearly shows where the adhesive pads end and a little claw sticks out from the tip of the gecko's toe. The photograph in Figure 2 gives us a better idea of what this looks like in real life.

 Photograph by  Gary Nafis

Photograph by Gary Nafis

It is no secret that instances of cannibalism occur in many reptile and amphibian species worldwide. Geckos are no exception to the rule. For instance, David Soulsby noted evidence of cannibalism in one of H. turcicus' most similar species - the Common House Gecko (H. frenatus) in his book 'Animal Cannibalism: The Dark Side of Evolution'. Although he did not mention H. turcicus specifically in his book, it is not a stretch to imagine that such a successive invasive species would display instances of cannibalism. Other gecko species have been reported to prey on smaller gecko species as well as smaller individuals of their own species. Parves & Alam (2015) highlight this occurrence in their paper published in The Herpetological Bulletin with H. flaviviridis as an example. As they noted, however, an individual's size would greatly affect its ability to predate on other individuals.

As some types of geckos are commonly kept as pets nowadays, it may come as no surprise that some species can produce a high pitched sound similar to a squeak when they feel threatened. Males of the H. turcicus species are known to be fairly territorial and warn-off competitors through a series of clicks and squeaks. It's important to note that these squeaky sounds are also used in a range of other social situations such as calling and attracting potential mates.

Females tend to lay a couple of eggs 2-3 times a year. They usually hide their clutches under rocks or in cracks where the eggs stay for 6-12 weeks before hatching. Younglings tend to be translucent pink in colour with a banded tail.

Next time you spot a gecko on the wall, try to get a good look at it - maybe take a couple of photos if you can. This will help you identify the gecko species and will make these encounters all the more interesting!

References:

  • Arnold, N. & Ovenden, D. (2002). A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe. London, Harper Collins Publisher.
  • Soulsby, D. (2013). Animal Cannibalism: The Dark Side of Evolution. Sheffield, 5m Publishing.
  • Mattison, C. (2014). Nature Guide: Snakes and Other Reptiles and Amphibians. London, Dorling Kindersley.
  • Haley, T. & Blackshaw, R. (2015). Does Habitat Structure Affect Foraging Success in the Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus?. The Herpetological Bulletin 133: 10-12.
  • Parves, N. & Alam, S.M.I. (2015). Hemidactylus flaviviridis: Predation on Congeneric Hemidactylus frenatus in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Herpetological Bulletin 132: 28-29. 

Review: BBC Four - Born To Be Wild: Reptiles & Amphibians Episode

I cannot even start with my usual anecdotes. This short but incredibly sweet episode of the series was one of the most inspiring and positive documentaries I have ever seen on British herptiles. 

As you would expect, the animals were stunning and it did not even matter that I was not looking directly at them. I still got butterflies in my stomach every time footage of the herptiles was shown. However, to be able to listen to the stories of these incredible people who share my passion was, in all honesty, rather emotional. 

I liked the fact that the BBC did not try and make a huge sob fest out of the stories - which sometimes happen in documentaries. The stories were told in each of the individuals' own words and any added commentary made by the narrator was a mere supplementation to the story. I do wish the episode was longer and featured a bit more details on each story. However, I appreciate this is not always possible and the theme is perhaps not most people's cup of tea.

I have previously written about the Adder and the impact that its bad reputation has on potential conservation work to help increase their numbers. To be able to see that same point of discussion addressed on national television was an absolute treat!  I hope this is only the first of many more documentaries on herptiles. However, if nothing less, I hope that it inspires at least one person to start treating these creatures with the respect that they certainly deserve.  

Well done BBC and thank you to the amazing people featured who, as stated in the documentary,  do it for love and not for money. I am now going to watch all the previous episodes and am especially looking forward to the one featuring bats!