Archive for the ‘Nature Ramble’ Category

Nature Ramble

An excursion involving all of the senses

Bergh Apton, Norfolk The collection symbolised all that our own species has pondered, learned and felt about mushrooms for centuries

This collared earthstar was one of the prize finds at Bergh Apton community wood. Photograph: Mark Cocker

he difference between a fungus foray and most other forms of nature study is the gregariousness of it all. There were more than 20 of us, aged eight to 80, joking and laughing and clustered around our guide, who is himself like a rare treasured specimen. Tony Leech is an expert who contributes as much simple human joy to a group as he does knowledge.

Each person scoured the ground for a contribution to bring back to the central hub of discussion. Our guide then marshalled these converging tributaries of inquiry into a wider delta of mycological conversation. This one was a dryad saddle. There was a wood blewit, or parrot waxcap, a collared earthstar. I often stood simply to marvel at the poetry of mushroom nomenclature. Ponder awhile the wrinkled peach, the parasol, the lilac bonnet – and the dog stinkhorn.

It was an excursion involving all the senses. We lay on the ground to be on intimate terms with the tiny earthtongue or dead moll’s fingers, whose pencil-thin fruiting bodies poked up like death-blackened digits. We inhaled a deep whiff of ocean in a mushroom called crab brittlegill. Best of all, we stood in amazement at the crazy fecundity of fungi: a fruit body of the football-sized giant puffball can produce 6bn spores.

Eventually the whole afternoon of encounter was distilled to Tony Leech’s basket of specimens. Here were gathered all the toadstools that were beyond our collective ken, and whose identities can sometimes only be settled by examination of spores that are 1/200th of a millimetre. In a sense, that collection symbolised all that our own species has pondered, learned and felt about mushrooms for centuries.

Yet that same basket also summarised the unfathomable wonder of life on this planet: for it contained the stories of 100 different fungi, which had each travelled through time probably for millions of years to meet on that afternoon in that October sunshine.

Source: TheGuardian

Nature Ramble

From Scotland

Source: RachelSquirrel

Nature Ramble

Saving the Beeliar wetlands is vital: we can’t have a highway destroy it

The western Australian wetlands are home to threatened species – but the government’s plan for a highway would damage the ecosystem irreparably. There are better alternatives

Beeliar lake.

Today we can visit Beeliar wetlands and experience a taste of the stunning Western Australian wetlands that once extended along the Swan coastal plain. A rich tapestry of flora and fauna have made these wetlands their home but now face an uncertain future: successive governments have catastrophically failed to protect the native habitat which have earned Perth’s status as a biodiversity hotspot.

Less than 20% of these wetlands remain today. If we do not act now to conserve and protect these precious places, there will be nothing left for future generations.

A long standing threat to these wetlands is dangerously close to becoming a reality. A four lane, estimated 5km highway extension – proposed on and off for decades – has received financial backing by Tony Abbott’s federal government to the tune of more than half a billion dollars. This fragment of highway remains from a city plan drafted in 1955, back when land clearing and filling in wetlands were the norm. Significant features of our city’s transport plan have evolved in the decades since.

Despite insisting we face a budget crisis, prime minister Abbott has thrown an unprecedented small fortune at the Roe 8 extension and wrapped it up as part of a never-before-heard-of “Perth freight link.” The project, from Muchea to Fremantle Port, was revealed only recently.

‘A long standing threat to these wetlands is dangerously close to becoming a reality’.

Source: TheGuardian Read more

Nature Ramble

When we find something marvelous and beautiful, why do we have to exploit it to destruction?

World’s largest cave in Vietnam threatened by cable car

Vietnamese are protesting plans to build a cable car through remote Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park that could carry 1,000 visitors an hour to Son Doong cave

A planned 10.6km cable car route would connect Son Doong Cave with other caves in the area as part of a planned “tourism, service and resort complex”. Photograph: Carsten Peter/NG/Getty Images

Plans for a cable car in Vietnam’s Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park would open up the world’s largest cave to mass tourism. But Vietnamese are protesting the project, and experts warn the environmental impact could be devastating.

Quang Binh province announced in October that resort developer Sun Group would build a $212m (£135m) cable car system through the national park, which occupies a remote, mountainous swathe of central Vietnam. The 10.6km route would connect Son Doong Cave, so large it could house an entire 40-story building, with other caves in the area as part of a planned “tourism, service and resort complex”.

According to local official Nguyen Huu Hoai, the cable car would carry 1,000 visitors per hour.

After the announcement drew an unprecedented flood of opposition, the national tourism ministry made clear that it had not yet approved the project. Experts from overseas slammed the plan in local newspaper and TV reports, while Vietnamese activist Bao Nguyen launched an online petition that drew thousands of signatures. However, the tourism ministry then gave the go-ahead for a preliminary survey – a tentative nod of consent.

Sun Group claims the cable car would be the most environmentally friendly means of opening the area to tourism. Company spokesperson Quach Bao Tran also said the project would “develop Quang Binh as a tourism center” and bring “thousands of jobs for the poor local people”. But experts refute these claims.

“The environmental impact would be devastating,” said Andy McKenzie, one of the first explorers to visit the cave.

Source: TheGuardian Read more

Nature Ramble

Year of the llama: Bolivia calls for 2016 to be dedicated to camelids

South American nation wants UN to raise awareness of the animal family, which includes alpacas and dromedary camels

A woman is seen with a llama as Bolivia is lobbying for 2016 to become the international year of camelids. Photograph: Alamy

For centuries they have hauled loads up the Andes and through trackless deserts with no more acknowledgment than a slap on the rump. Now, however, the llama’s moment may finally have come: the Bolivian government is lobbying the UN to make 2016 the international year of camelids.

The proposal – which would include not only llamas but alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos, found in Andean South America, and the Bactrian and dromedary camel, found in Asia, Africa and Australia – is contained in a draft resolution which proclaims “the economic and cultural importance of camelids in the lives of the people living in the areas where they are domesticated and used as a source of food and wool and as pack animals”.

The resolution, which will be considered by the UN general assembly, encourages the international community to “raise awareness at all levels to promote the protection of camelids and the consumption of the goods produced from these mammals in a sustainable manner”. The move has been welcomed by those who have studied the animals’ contribution to society down the centuries. “Historically, the development of Andean cultures is based on camelids,”…

Source: TheGuardian Read more

Nature Ramble

Fish and chips harming eider ducks

Eider ducks in Northumberland’s coastal areas are being harmed by people feeding them fish and chips, a wildlife expert has warned.

Chris Watson says people living or visiting the area often wrongly believe eiders are tame as they are “friendly”.

He told BBC Radio Four’s Broadcasting House the sea birds may seem to enjoy the food but it damages their eggs.

The Northumberland coast is recognised as a haven for wild birds, including colonies of eiders.

Mr Watson, whose work as a nature sound recordist includes documentaries with Sir David Attenborough, said: “Normally eider ducks eat shellfish not fish and chips – [which is] lacking calcium so the eggs are failing.

“There’s a problem because they are such attractive, friendly birds to feed, and yet the food that we are giving them – bread and things like that – is actually causing a dietary problem.”

The RSPB says eiders are the UK’s heaviest ducks and the fastest flying. As well as the Northumberland coast, they are resident off Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Source: BBCNews

Nature Ramble

What were the legendary man-eating snakes of Borneo?

Hundreds of years ago, eight children were taken from a village in Borneo – by “dragons”. What were these terrifying beasts?

Several centuries ago, a group of Borneo natives left their villages and headed deep into the jungle, searching for a home away from the Dutch colonialists who had begun spreading across their island. Eventually, they found a nice spot in the lowland rainforests near the mountains in Borneo’s centre. They built houses and cultivated crops, and caught fish from the Burak river. All was well. Then children began vanishing.

One at a time, the kids disappeared, leaving behind baffled and frantic adults. This happened eight days in a row. Was it the work of a forest ghost, or jungle nomads, or a big carnivore like a clouded leopard? To find out, the villagers set a trap and baited it with another child, sacrificing one more life to stop the slaughter.

The creature that finally emerged from the river was huge, limbless and covered in scales. It was a snake, but one so overgrown they called it a dragon.

From their hiding place, the people watched as the dragon took the child to a den on an island in the river. Then they made axes, spears and shovels from the forest’s strong ironwood trees, and dug a tunnel right into the dragon’s home.

When the villagers charged in, they found two huge, chocolate-brown adult dragons, each as big around as an oil barrel. With them was a smaller dragon, the width of a coconut palm, which was colourful and had a yellow belly.

In retaliation for the killings, the people cut the two adults in half. But they spared the young dragon, believing it to be innocent. They also made an agreement with it that is still binding today: neither humans nor dragons shall harm the other, on pain of death.

Later, the people returned to less remote villages. But they say the dragons are still around.

I first heard this story in late July 2014, when I sat by a fragrant campfire listening to Pak Rusni, an elder from the Dayak village of Tumbang Tujang, recount his ancestral tale. Rusni is 54 years old, with gentle, dark eyes. He mostly spoke softly, and the cicadas threatened to drown out his words. But when he got to the crux of the tale, Rusni became loud and animated. He drew me a diagram depicting the dragon den, the tunnel, and the riverbank settlement. And then he gestured upriver.

Our campsite was near the northern border of Indonesian Borneo, along the Burak river. If we journeyed upriver for another day and a half, Rusni said, we would find the remnants of the village besieged by dragons.

Fascinated by Rusni’s story, I wanted to find out which of the local snakes might be closest to the dragons of the story. So many centuries later, I didn’t expect to find a definitive answer. But there were two questions that I could nail down, which might offer pointers. Were there any snakes in Borneo that grew so monstrously large? And could any kill children that quickly?

I soon realised there were many possible culprits. The Borneo rainforest is 140 million years old, one of Earth’s oldest, so its inhabitants have had plenty of time to diversify. What’s more, during the last ice age land bridges linked Borneo to mainland Asia and other Indonesian islands. Species emigrated from the mainland to the islands, seeding Borneo with an astonishing array of organisms. When the ice age ended, flooding the land bridges, Borneo’s creatures were free to evolve in relative isolation.

The snakes are particularly diverse. There may be about 150 species on the island, possibly more. “It’s like every family of snake somehow managed to get to Borneo,” says Sara Ruane of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “And no doubt there’s undiscovered species.”

Some live underground, others in the leaves littering the forest floors. Some surf through the treetops, flying from tree to tree. Others prefer to live underwater, or in caves. Many use the structures built by humans: they sneak into the nooks beneath roofs or hide under decks.

Several are dangerous to humans. I was told the locals sometimes refer to our field site as the “Land of the Man-Eating Snakes”: that’s presumably a reference to Rusni’s story, but might also reflect a present-day truth. So before we set out, I asked our expedition leader Peter Houlihan, of the Barito River Initiative for Nature Conservation and Communities, which local snakes were most deadly. He was not reassuring. “It gets to a certain point where it doesn’t really make a difference.”

Since they first appeared between 100 and 150 million years ago, snakes have evolved rapidly. A lot of that has gone into creating new ways to kill other animals, in particular snakes’ infamous venoms.

“Most snakes do have venom, even the so-called harmless ones,” says Robert Stuebing, a Borneo-based herpetologist. “There’s a lot more out there than we ever realized.”

That variety might be a response to the challenges involved with living life as a tube. “You think of being a tube as a simplification, but that actually makes life harder,” says David Pollock of the University of Colorado in Denver. So to ease the strain of hunting without limbs, snakes have developed highly specialized ways of killing things – ways that could, conceivably, account for vanishing village children.

Snake venoms contain a bewildering array of proteins that work together to bring down prey. Some, like king cobra venom, have more than 100 different kinds.

These toxic cocktails are hugely variable. Not only do different species produce different mixtures, but snakes of the same species can mix different drinks as well. What’s more, a snake’s venom may change as it ages.

This might be the result of an evolutionary arms race, with venom mixtures evolving to work best on each snake’s most common prey. Alternatively, it could be that some snakes have evolved a range of toxins that lets them bring down different types of prey. “If it doesn’t really cost the snake anything, you might as well have this huge array of weapons,” says Ryan McCleary of the National University of Singapore.

Scientists are just beginning to trace the evolutionary history of the serpents’ deadly potions. But it is clear that the genes coding for snake venom proteins have evolved rapidly. Last year McCleary, Pollock and their colleagues published the sequence of the king cobra genome, and found that base pairs were being swapped and shifted unusually often. “The rest of the snake is still going along like normal,” says McCleary. “But the venom seems to be evolving extremely rapidly.”

So which of Borneo’s snakes might be capable of killing a small child? Here are the prime suspects.

Red-headed Krait

Red-headed krait

The red-headed krait (Bungarus flaviceps) is elegant but deadly. Its shiny black body is bookended by a bright red head and tail. “It’s one of the most beautiful snakes I’ve ever seen,” says Houlihan. “But you don’t want to be in the water with a krait.”

Source: BBCNews Read more

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