Canada: Waterside

September 2018 – Canada is riddled with water. Rivers, waterfalls, mountain lakes – frequent material for tourist advertisements, yet quiet corners remain where wild creatures swim.

beaver1 23 sept 2018

Beaver: ecosystem engineer. They’re a hot topic in the UK at the moment because the reintroduction of the closely-related European species has shown a lot of promise, not only for biodiversity but also in reducing flooding of towns. Beavers change the environment, more than any wild animal except perhaps elephants. They slow rivers, create pools, fell trees – creating microhabitats, in other words, which other species eagerly use.

And the beaver’s fans don’t get much bigger than moose! These fabulous ungulates often browse in the marshy habitat created by beavers.

moose3 24 sept 2018

This one is clearly ready for the rut. A moose’s antlers can weigh close to 80lb, one of the heaviest crowns in the animal kingdom.

moose4 24 sept 2018

The weather’s still turning.

lakeside rmnp sept 18

But a woodchuck is still awake. Hibernation hasn’t called him to a winter burrow yet.

woodchuck rmnp sept 18

Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.

Sarawak: Out of the Sea

March 2017

We’ve found the end of the road, or rather the beginning of the real world. Bako National Park can only be reached by boat and is consequently spared one environmental headache familiar to most North American and European reserves.

So you see it first from the water, mountains hazy under the remorseless brilliance of the sun. Monitor lizards and kingfishers guard shorelines where a tangle of trees totter uneasily between cliff and sand. Then, land soars out of the sea itself – fantastic sandstone stacks, crumbling bones of a mountainous peninsula jutting northwards from the world’s third largest island into the South China Sea.

Sea stack2 Bako Mar 2017

Some people see faces in them; others, perhaps, are more astonished by the raw power of sea chewing stone.

Sea stack Bako Mar 2017

Thirty metres from the beach, the boat grinds to a halt. We wade through the warm water and tread on Bako sand. The tropical sun burns our clothes dry in minutes.

Bako coastline

It is so hot, and bright, all wrapped up in the equatorial humidity blanket.

Wildlife strolls into view almost immediately. Bornean bearded pigs are distant relations of the wild boar.

Bornean bearded pig1 Bako Mar 2017

They are not aggressive, but encouraging wildlife to approach tourists with food seldom ends well, and it appears what happens in Yellowstone also happens in Bako – despite the best efforts of local staff.

Feeding the pigs

Away from the day-trippers at the park headquarters, the forest resumes a natural air: quieter, yet more intense.

Bako coastline2

Within that forest dwell one of the world’s rarest and strangest creatures. Proboscis monkeys have a more relaxed nature than much of the primate family, which may just as well considering their hefty bulk. They are called ‘Dutch monkeys’ in Indonesia because they allegedly resembled early Dutch colonists.

Proboscis monkey1 Bako Mar 2017

They are endangered, and only found in Borneo. They thrive in Bako’s tangled forests, eating leaves and unripe fruit. They generally live in family groups although some males rove together in bands.

Proboscis monkey4 Bako Mar 2017

Theirs is this forest, which is best explored on foot. Park Headquarters includes a small restaurant where we restock our water supplies and park unnecessary equipment. Time to hit the trail…