Say my name, say my name

To be honest with you all (I am pretending that many people read this blog), I never really liked dolphins until a couple of years back. Growing up I always saw them as a species that was hogging all the love and grant money that should have been dispersed amongst a wealth of other marine species. As I became more involved in ethical tourism however, I learnt more and more about dolphins because of their involvement in marine parks and I came to realise the reason for their adoration. Firstly it is important to mention that dolphins are so intelligent that in India, they are regarded as non-human persons. They have self awareness, meaning they can recognise themselves in mirrors as well as having a complex language that contains specific name calls for each individual in the pod. That’s right folks, dolphins have named each other just as we have.

Dolphins are not built for a life in captivity for many reasons, the first being that to get into a captive lifestyle they first have to be herded into a small cove and become captured whilst the rest of their pod is mass slaughtered in front of them, hence the name for the alert “The red cove.” If you want to know more about this trade or the dolphin meat trade, I urge you to watch the documentary “The cove” or to know more about other cetaceans in captivity, I’d also recommend watching “Blackfish.” A small disclaimer though, you will feel very depressed after watching both of these movies. Orcas, or Killer Whales as they are otherwise known, are actually more closely related to dolphins than to whales and have half of their brain solely designated to emotions which is significantly larger than the designated emotion-producing space for humans. This makes it all the more depressing when a mother and her calf are separated for capture and the mothers are left to send long ranging calls through a small pool to try and locate their lost baby. One thing I didn’t know until watching these documentaries is that every breath a dolphin takes is on purpose and very controlled as they are air breathing mammals who live in the water. If a dolphin is unhappy in a captive environment and has had enough, they can end their life with one final breath then and there.

Dolphins have fission-fusion social groups which means that they are always popping in and out of pods which is great for mixing genes amongst populations but is impossible to uphold when you live with two other dolphins in a swimming pool. Dolphins have been also known to gang-rape, play with their food and have sex for fun which I guess comes from their increased intelligence as these behaviours are not too far fetched from our own. For this reason, I never understood why they are considered to be a spiritual icon, as with any species, there are good dolphins and evil ones, the sunset diving ones and the gang rapists, and I think it is unfair to use both examples as a calming and spiritual omen. Their intelligence also brings about amazing hunting techniques such as herding fish and using sonar to locate prey in murky waters. Most dolphins have their neck fused to their spine so they cannot swim in tight circles and be at risk to breaking their necks, however an Amazonian river species of dolphin has the disconnect needed to curve around mangrove roots and hunt for fish in more complex environments.

I remember vividly a time when I was in year 7 and my mum was doing some surveys for her university project on a local dolphin charter boat. She offered to take me swimming with the dolphins instead of going to school one day, and to accompany her on the charter boat as she conducted her research. As it was also my birthday, I relished the opportunity to take the day off of school even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of dolphins at the time. The set up was very friendly to the local pods as the boat drove along the same stretch of ocean each day and it was the dolphin’s choice if they wanted to swim around us or not. There were four or so ropes tied to the back of the boat which we held on to as the boat pulled us along, with no contact allowed between ourselves and the dolphins unless they decided to touch the swimmers. As I looked down to the green/blue ocean dispersed with long, smooth grey mammals swimming below me I felt humbled in their presence. One swam so close to me it grazed up against my wetsuit and I felt like I was accepted in their company, with their presence being not at all threatening as I so previously thought they would be.

Seeing dolphins has been relatively easy for me since then, as I often spot them whilst walking along the beach, cruising on boats or walking along jetties and each time, I love watching them play and show new and fascinating behaviours. I think that there is a reason why there are so many marine biologists who focus on dolphins and that there is so much more to learn about them, however I do still believe that other species should be allocated some of the dolphin funds as well. I think that dolphins for me have been the spiders or snakes for other people, the un-liked creature that turns out to be fascinating the more you discover about them, and I am glad that I opened myself up to learning and discovering how dolphins are unique and important within their ecosystems. I hope to one day be able to see the pink dolphins of the amazon and other cetaceans such as the Narwhal or Orcas in the Arctic oceans, but until now I am happy to be surrounded by the simple old Bottlenoses on my walks through coastal South Australia.

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Human Bait HOO HA HA!

Most people have probably heard the saying “you are more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than you are to be killed by a shark” and I believe this to be 100% true. I believe this so whole heartedly as I have in fact seen a coconut fall on someone’s head however I have never in my entire life seen someone have a negative shark encounter. More so, I have even seen people pay good money to occupy the same waters as great white sharks and witness them enjoying every second of it. Of course I understand that “enjoying sharks” is not something that a majority of the world’s population do, however I hope that one day more people could begin to see the value of this important family of fish.

I wonder if it was JAWS that turned the world off of sharks, or if they were feared long before then. Floating cartilage takes many different forms in regards to these creatures, from a tiny Cookie Cutter Shark to a magnificent Whale Shark, with each species serving a very unique role in the oceanic ecosystem. I know you are not supposed to pick favourites, however my most favourite shark is definitely the Port Jackson Shark, or Dog Shark as it is otherwise known. It’s small but robust body is home to two defensive spines, a camo looking “skin” and the greatest skull formation in the entire world. If you have never seen a Port Jackson’s skull, I urge you to google it right now. The Port Jackson’s skull is so unique with its tooth formation whereby the teeth aren’t really teeth, but more mashing plates that appear to be scrunched up in order to fit inside of the mouth. These strange teeth substitutes are perfectly adapted for crushing crustaceans for a good hearty meal.

Port Jackson’s also give birth to leathery spiral eggs which I have often found washed up on the beach, I urge you to google these as well if you have never seen them, for they are not what you expect shark eggs to look like. These dog like sharks have their litter of eggs which they hatch in nurseries before raising the pups in a communal setting. Another fun topic to google is baby sharks as some species such as the Hammerhead, have live births and so baby Hammerheads are just really tiny and adorable miniature Hammerheads. Okay, I think that is enough googling for now.

Gansbaai (pronounced hans-bye) is arguably the cage diving capital of the world, and also the location I was privileged enough to work in for two weeks back in 2012. Gansbaai is one of the only locations where Great White Sharks have been seen to show breaching behaviour and let me tell you, to be on a boat and have a huge five meter shark jump out of the water and rise up to your level is truly something else. Something I have found to be very interesting about conservation biology is that recording morphological data for sharks uses the exact same methods as when similar data is recorded for African elephants. This method of “Mark Recapture” uses basic outlines of a shark and or elephant and allows you to pencil in the unique markings of your focal individual over the top of the outline in order to identify individuals. Sharks and elephants, who would have thought they were so similar!

If you want to become a millionaire, listen closely. Nobody knows exactly how great white sharks mate or court each other and if anybody filmed and or recorded this information they would be very popular in and amongst the shark scientist community. I have seen footage of smaller sharks mating, and let me tell you, seeing the way the male bites the female in order to hold on to her and the way she couldn’t muster the energy to swim away afterwards, it makes me feel very relieved to be a human in terms of reproductive strategies. This is the thing about biology, the more you learn about animal sex, the more you thank your lucky stars you were not born any other species.

Back in my undergraduate, we were watching footage from a shark shield experiment during a lecture one day, lead by a shark biologist whom always had shirtless pictures of himself wrangling sharks in his lecture slides. Needless to say, attendance was higher when he was presenting. The craziest thing happened as the shark swam toward the camera and almost engulfed it with it’s mouth.

“Nawwwwwwwwwwwww”

My lecture theatre all said in unison.

“This is the weirdest reaction I have ever received from this footage”

Said my lecturer.

It is one of the great injustices of the world that sharks are made out to be the monsters of the ocean. It is in fact not wise to cull them from beaches as they play a very important role in controlling the numbers of second grade predators so that all the phyla beneath them do not go out of control in numbers. It is also not wise to hack off their fins and chuck them back into the ocean no matter how good they taste in soups. Sharks, in my opinion are highly charismatic, fascinating and essential beings to a fully functioning and regulated environment. If you don’t want to be around sharks and just respect them from afar, that’s okay too, just blow bubbles under water to scare them off. In the end it is best to remember, most things in the animal kingdom have more reasons to fear you than you have to fear them. If sharks have taught me anything, it is that humans are quick to judge books by their covers but seldom wish to read the mysteries and fascinating stories within them.

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Long Live the King

Kookaburras must be the greatest joke tellers of any avian species, with their incessant laughter, they can be heard cackling through the sclerophyll forest around my house in South Australia, almost every day. Claiming title to being the largest and arguably most majestic of all the kingfisher species, they feed off water skinks and snakes that frequent the undergrowth surrounding the creek which meanders through my neighbourhood.

Over time I have come to think of Kookaburras as good omens for me as their placebo affect of “greatness to come” always fills me with an immense amount of joy, and thus fills the rest of my day with immense positivity. If I catch a glimpse of their stout fluffy bodies and long tough beak while walking along fire tracks, it seriously makes my entire day. I don’t know why I perceive them to have such a godly status, but maybe they are just my totem animal.

Walking along another path somewhere across the world, a path made from water, a flooded mangrove track, houses a bunch of the most photogenic kingfishers around. Malachite Kingfishers are much smaller than Kookaburras with their bright orange and blue plumage, and in my experience, they love to pose and show off their feathers. Stu the Malachite Kingfisher was named after a volunteer on camp who never took a bad photo. He would fly meters from us while we were wading along the river, stop on a mangrove branch and sit still enough for us to take any photos we pleased. As we moved along, Stu would fly in front of us again, stop and pose. But there were cuter kingfishers to come.

Madagascan Pygmy Kingfishers with their bright pink-orange feathers and teeny tiny body are possibly one of the cutest species of bird in existence. Much harder to find, the few I did see were curled up and asleep at night tucked within a tree fork, which understandably made them look even cuter. There is a certain aesthetic to kingfishers however, whereby even though they maybe small, they still have a robust feel to them which may come from their strong reptile catching beaks.

Years later in Sri Lanka, standing on a beach with a Spanish friend whom I had only seen in person two or three times, she quickly points out to me:

“JESSIE! A KINGFISHER LOOK!”

My heart melted.

“I know how much you like kingfishers so I just had to point him out to you!”

I didn’t even remember ever telling her I liked kingfishers but the smile on my face must have said it all.

Reptiles may not be palatable to some people, however killing them or leading them to extinction via habitat loss leads to a chain reaction whereby their predators, kingfishers in this instance will also face extinction. It is important to remember that all species on this planet are linked in a fragile web of connections and breaking just one strand can lead to the demise of many more. Though Kookaburras are common in my local area, I have never once took them for granted and I can only hope that they have inspired many other Australians to love kingfishers as much as I do.

They truly are the kings.

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Mr Labah Labah

I struggle to think of an animal group out there which faces higher levels of  prejudice than the humble spider. Is it the eight legs which may be two pairs too many? Is it the mass conglomerate of eyes? Or is it the small furry body which puts your average Joe on high alert? Living in Australia, the flies and mosquitoes are to me, way more fiercely agitating and live in much higher concentrations than spiders do. In fact, spiders actively control the ever growing populations of such insects so there are a few Australians who don’t mind a casual Hunsman sitting in the corner ceiling of their house, just to keep the flies and mozzies at bay.

One of my closest friends Tim, was the only man I have ever met who could make normal, every day people actually interested in arachnids. Bringing his passion for spiders to our small Malagasy camp, he begun leading spider walks most evenings to determine the biodiversity of spiders that lived in the forests of Nosy Be Island. It was slightly unusual to see a bunch of young people in their teens and 20’s actively searching for spiders in a dark moon lit forest. For me and Tim of course, it was one of the most amazing things we had ever seen. Although you may hear a soft yelp or scream every once in a while from sudden movements or a rush of adrenaline, everyone was totally okay with finding a spider, grabbing a bag and putting the spider in the bag for Tim to identify. These people were spider fearing humans once too, but now inspired by an arachnid loving man, they too had seen interest in the furry legged creatures.

My love for spiders developed many years earlier thanks to the cute and cuddly jumping spiders. Lying on my stomach in the back yard of my house, I’d watch their little furry bodies jump around, wave their feelers up and down and scurry away. When I discovered that peacock spiders existed I thought they were the coolest creatures to ever be found on the entire planet with their multi coloured butt-flap that they wave around to attract a mate, along with their highly rehearsed side to side dances. It astounds me how much effort these spiders put in to attracting a female, dancing and flapping away for hours, only to be eaten without copulation if she doesn’t find him sexy at all. The more I learn about animal reproduction, the more thankful I am to be human.

Maybe my love for spiders is too extreme. I remember once typing away on my laptop while sitting in bed and looking to my left to see a small brown spider sitting on my neighbouring pillow as if I was in a seriously committed marriage with him. My mind drifted to newspaper headlines:

“LONELY WOMAN MARRIES SPIDER”

But then again, maybe I just see that spiders are just as harmless and beautiful like every other organism that we let be. The natural habitat of a house spider is in fact, a house, so putting them outside can sometimes mean the end of the road for them. In one instance I genuinely believed that people were going to be kind to a spider who dangled down on a thread of web in the middle of a bus station. People walked around it, informed others of its presence and kept a good distance away from it. I considered moving him out of the way but the way people were acting, I let him be. All of a sudden, this crippled woman hobbled over to the spider ever so slowly, wincing as she moved.

“SMACK!”

She took off her shoe and smashed that spider into the ground. I looked around, everyone smiled at her as if she had done a great service to everyone there. I looked mortified. All my hope was lost.

We could all engage in a great symbiosis with spiders if we looked past their reputation. If we all provided just a corner of our ceilings for them to live, they could control all the other pests within our houses such as flies and mosquitoes which carry a wealth of diseases with them. It is actually a health precaution to have spiders around if you think about it, the more spiders, less risk of mosquito born diseases. Sounds like a win to me! If you see a spider soon, instead of screaming and running away or killing it, maybe take a step back and thank it for being a valued member of our society. Thank you spiders.

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Flying Butter

Butterflies are something we all learn about in primary school, especially their unique life cycle and transition from caterpillars into beautiful flying flaps of colour. They are environmental indicators due to their sensitivity which means that the health of an ecosystem can often be determined by the presence or absence of butterfly populations. Unfortunately, destroying the quality of grasslands, forests and other ecosystems frequented by butterflies means reducing butterfly species on a global scale. This of course impacts plant species pollinated by butterflies as well as the beautiful aesthetics of spring. Being born on the last day of spring, annually as I transition into another year of my life I am usually greeted by beautiful white butterflies flying around my garden. It is a symbol of growth and renewal for me that as I turn a year older, caterpillars all around me are transitioning themselves into their next stage of life also.

Having to undergo butterfly surveys in Madagascar was honestly the worst survey experience, for the volunteers. Running around a hot open grassland for an hour, stumbling with nets and hoping that even if you caught a butterfly it wouldn’t escape before you placed it in the jar for identification. For me however, butterfly surveys were a relaxing time sitting in the shade, identifying jar after jar of butterflies that my volunteers handed to me. After a couple of months, I learnt how to lure butterflies onto my hand to trade the salty nutrients from my sweaty palms for a good macro photo opportunity.

The thing about butterflies is, the dirtier you are, the more they will love you. They love mud baths and seeping up all the salty goodness from the ground, so a sweaty and dirty human is close enough to satisfying nutrient meal for their small hairy bodies. Luckily, after living on an island outside in a tropical climate for 6 months I was as dirty and sweaty of a body as any butterfly could ever dream of. Don’t think that butterflies have lowered their dating standards however, for their short lifespans are jam packed with finding a mate, seducing them, mating with them and laying eggs. After all this is done, they have no reason to stick around and they quickly fade back into the earth that they once bathed on.

Its very easy to make friends with a butterfly and I urge everyone reading this to do so. The more we connect with nature, the more we will understand its importance in our world. Something as small as a butterfly can often be a huge indicator that we have to change our actions and start taking better care of our planet. I truly hope that butterflies will send me off into every new year of my life as long as I live, and I also hope I can pack as much activity as I can into my life, as they do into theirs.

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What doesn’t kill you

Primates have always been the roots to which my passion for other wildlife and the environment have stemmed from. I remember being 14 and 16 and researching the plight of the orangutan in among the horrific oil palm trade and being so frustrated that there was nothing I could do to save the orangutans on my own there and then. A story that my mum’s best friend always likes to tell me is that she saw me approach my mother at four years of age asking her how I could save the orangutans, and describing my astounded mum standing there in shock not really knowing what to say.

Fast forward to being 22 years of age and I had finally made it to the forests of North Sumatra where Sumatran orangutans are faced every day with the encroaching oil palm plantations which threaten to remove the remaining fragments of their habitat. What I didn’t realize until I was working with the scientists who were associated with  orangutan conservation in Sumatra, was the divide between the groups of people who worked on Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.

“Oh our orangutans are smart, unlike those Bornean ones…”

The remarks regarding the two sub species made them seem as if they were football teams where the fans bickered among themselves about which team was better. Personally, I realized after seeing for myself that neither team had the traits that they were published to have had in the articles. I always read that Sumatran orangutans would never travel terrestrially as there are too many ground predators such as the Sumatran Tiger which doesn’t exist in Borneo.  However, in my time working there, I saw many camera trap images and orangutans right in front of me walking on the ground. It has also been video recorded that Sumatran mothers eat their dead babies, however this was not able to be publicised as to not ruin the pristine reputation of these ginger beasts.

Waking up at 5am to be in the forest and at the orangutan’s morning nest before they woke up became easier and easier every day.  Each day we set out resulted in 12 hours or more of following a mother and her baby through the forest, eating when she ate, napping when she napped and travelling along side her until she made her night nest which signaled that it was time for us to go home and set up camp for ourselves. The data sheets were long and complex and left no room for error so I marveled at the field staff craning their necks to look up at the furry orange men.

One day, the field staff became too close to the mother for comfort. Showing off, they returned the kiss squeaks back to her as she sounded more and more in an attempt to warn the small Indonesian followers off. Then she snapped, she had decided enough was enough for that day. She slung her baby over her back and grabbed on to the slender tree parallel to the one she was in. She shook the tree back and forth, back and forth, ripping the tree out of its roots. Suddenly I heard a snap and my field staff yelling “RUN!” as I sprinted for dear life through the forest as she threw the tree in our direction.

While running, my foot became jammed between two trees and I thought to myself:

“The thing that I have always desperately wanted to save is the thing that is going to kill me!”

Luckily, I freed my leg just in time to move out of the way, hearing a thud and realizing the tree had already hit the ground. I was alive and I had never been more thankful.

From that day on, following the orangutans for the rest of the month seemed like stalking them, watching the orange hairy mum teach her tiny baby with us watching through the trees from a distance this time. One morning we returned to the night nest where we had seen mum and her baby fall asleep the following night, and we saw nothing. The mum had out-smarted us for the final time, pretending to go to sleep so we would leave her alone and then travelling away from her nest and setting up a new secluded camp for herself and her baby. This is when I decided to research elephants instead, they seemed less deadly and manipulative at the time.

If you have ever seen orangutans in the wild, you may remark that they are one of the most boring animals you could ever watch, and I have indeed thought that on many occasions. Often the neighboring macaques with their mischievous demeanor are much more entertaining to watch, or even the lizards as they scurry up trees. The one time I felt truly amazed when I watched the mother orangutan was when I myself was watching her from a tree and I saw myself in her. The way she ate, the way she moved, the way she interacted with her baby sitter (a young male that tagged along sometimes) and the way that she taught her baby how to eat, move and build nests. It was while noticing these things, that I was struck by our physical and behavioural similarities.  We were both just primates in trees.

Following orangutans for a month taught me many things including how wrong the media can be about a species, with Sumatran orangutans being hardly anything like their papers suggested. I also learned about my roots and my evolutionary history, my stamina and my physical endurance. I also discovered what it was like for something so calm to turn so deadly in a matter of seconds. Nature is unpredictable, but moody mothers remain constant throughout all species. Orangutans are not just the aesthetic primates that everyone thinks they are, oh no, they are so much more than that.

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Noseman and the sexy tribe

I was really nervous about taking volunteers into the forest on my own for the first time as I felt vastly unequipped to be responsible for the lives of five people I barely even knew. I tried to seem confident despite always having had a reputation for getting lost in the most easy to navigate areas, an example of this is getting lost on the way from the woman’s department in Target, to the change rooms a couple of meters away. I chose site 10 for my walk, a site that I had been through enough times before that I should have been able to make my way out alive. Site 10 was a loop walk through secondary forest, green and beautiful, however there was degraded forest bordering the site. Throughout the 6 months of subsequent walking through this area I saw site 10 becoming less of a forest and more of an agricultural hub.

With my enthusiasm masking my nerves, I lead the five volunteers into site 10, past the rice paddies and into the forest. On that particular day, we walked with the purpose of collecting behavioural data on Black lemurs which were the only diurnal lemurs on Nosy Be, the island that housed our camp. As nature is unpredictable, you weren’t guaranteed to see lemurs on every walk through the forest and so I held my breath as I scanned the trees for black fluffy balls that represented the males sitting in the canopy and the brown and white tinged fur of the females. As I walked the trail beneath the canopy, volunteers in toe, I saw a movement in the trees just above the middle story, luckily it wasn’t a bird, it was a lemur. A male with a distinct facial distortion looked at me and from where I could see on the ground, it seemed as if he had a nose tumour or lesion. He was sitting on the tree branch with his legs dangling, leaning back against the trunk as if he was reading an imaginary newspaper. His character instantly felt charismatic to me so I dubbed him “Noseman” and had a look at the rest of his tribe.

Noseman was accompanied by a younger male who was in fact, the sexiest lemur I have ever seen in my life. His deep black fur was accented with two silver rings around his eyes which softened his facial features. “Sexy man” was now added to the list of charismatic troop members and I looked around once more. A very young female with a brown and white bushy tail sat near Sexy man. She was the most attractive female I had ever seen which made me think that the resources at this site were quite good if there were so many attractive lemurs hanging around. She had doey eyes and a slender physique and she was soon declared to be “Hot girl”. Understandably, these were poor name choices for these animals, but named on first site, their titles stuck. In amongst Noseman, Sexy man and hot girl, there were around 6 other males and females of varying levels of attractiveness going about different activities in the canopy, however for this particular study Noseman was my focal specimen.

I watched Noseman for 30 minutes, recording his every move on the minute, every minute and I noted how despite his unusual face, he was probably the dominant male in this society. I use that term “dominant male” very loosely here for lemur societies are very female driven, however Noseman seemed to have a fatherly air within the troop. I couldn’t believe how close I was to these lemurs as all the previous times I saw them they were black dots high above in the canopy, but here these lemurs were, all so charismatic and distinct and right there in front of me. I was more than elated on the walk back to camp as my volunteers and I discussed Noseman, Sexy man and Hot girl, and how lucky we were to see them.

On return to camp, we took a closer look at photos taken of Noseman’s face and it seemed as if his nose was fine, but his jaw was crooked and his tongue hung out which gave him a stupid expression. Despite this new knowledge, Noseman remained Noseman and his legacy lived on. Every time a group of scientists from camp did a lemur walk in site 10, they would come back to excitedly share their stories of Noseman and the clan and he and his tribe quickly became the camp favourites. No other group of lemurs in any other forest site was ever that charismatic or notable, which made Noseman and his clan extra special.

Noseman taught me that even if you aren’t the prettiest person, you can still be the most influential, the most important and the most respected. Despite Noseman’s stupid facial expression and distorted face, he provided a whole camp of scientists with happiness and he was a valued member to his own lemur society. Noseman taught me that its not looks that will get you through life, it is your character, personality and natural charisma. Sometimes, instead of looking in the mirror and pointing out the parts of my body that don’t comply with society’s standards, I try and look for elements of myself that might make me the Noseman, the interesting elements that make me special, different and unique. To this day, I have Noseman and his group of attractive lemurs to thank for making my first guided walk, the best walk I could have ever asked for. I still remember to this day how happy and successful I felt walking out of that forest with five happy volunteers who were excited to share the stories of the best lemur walk they had so far.

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