A passing breeze


In the past two years, I’ve sailed a surveying ship to Brazil, explored the rainforest and discovered new animals and plants. I’ve climbed previously unconquered peaks and I’ve spent a summer living and working in a lighthouse. I’ve descended the ocean deep in search of evidence for sea-floor spreading and I’ve uncovered a conspiracy.

I’ve lived in post-revolutionary Paris, surrounded by poets, philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, and I’ve raced through anthrax-infested Russia to study contrasting ecosystems either side of a river.

I’ve ridden horseback across the Mexican border to try my hand at being a rancher and I’ve slain a dragon. I’ve ascended a space elevator and encountered a seemingly derelict spacecraft as it drifted past Earth.

I’ve done all of these things, and all without having to leave my seat. Books have been my medium for embarking on all these adventures. They take you on journeys to encounter people and places you’d never believe. The best of people and the worst of people. The tallest mountains and the darkest caves are accessible through writing.

Books spark ideas in the mind, forming and re-forming connections between the neurons in our brain, enhancing and supplementing our appreciation of the world around us, sometimes confirming our beliefs and knowledge, and at other times challenging them.

Amy Liptrot enters the world of Moby-Dick in her book The Outrun, which is shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize, when she spends a summer searching for corncrakes in Orkney. She’s a 21st century Captain Ahab, obsessively searching and questing for this elusive bird, its summer calls teasing and teasing, until one day, she sees one and says: “Usually dawn comes slowly but tonight I drive out of a cloud and suddenly it’s a new day.”


A typical, rare view of a corncrake. By Sergey Yeliseev

This small bird which is more often heard than seen is on the decline due to changes in farming methods in Scotland and hunters in North Africa. Only 30% of adult birds make it back from their wintering grounds in the Democratic Republic of Congo to their breeding sites in Orkney and the Western Isles.

This bird is the sound of Liptrot’s summer. And like many birders, there are birds that represent summer to me – the scream of a scything swift or the rich melody of a blackbird perched atop a TV aerial lulling warm summer evenings to a close. I always feel a tinge of sadness when the swifts depart and the skies fall silent; their absence for me signifies the end of summer.

Amy Liptrot is from Orkney. It’s certainly where she’s from, and it was only after she spent a tumultuous time away that she realised it was where she belonged.

Growing up on a croft, her father experiencing the highs and lows of bipolar disorder and her mother deeply religious, she sought release from Orkney as soon as she was old enough. She abandoned the islands for a hedonistic life in London, her visceral descriptions of parties and picnics in London Fields capturing the excitement and danger of her new life there. She traded the open cool spaces of the north for the enclosed skyline of towers and noise and sultry heat of the south, craving human contact and experiences on the edge.

However, her lifestyle began to catch up with her. She became to depend on alcohol as a relationship-forming lubricant, reducing her inhibitions and freeing her to become openly expressive. Her taste for alcohol became destructive for her and for her friends. She’d abandon the friends she was with in pubs to go “home to drink faster alone at a faster pace than the drinks were coming there.”

She was losing control, losing friends, lost her boyfriend. She became vulnerable and was attacked by a stranger. Her friends found her hard to deal with, unsure of what she’d do next, fed up picking her up from the floor when she’d had yet again too many drinks. Life stopped being fun.

She moved from flat to flat, finding herself in a tiny bedsit alongside people who avoided contact with each other. People in a transient state like herself – she had left a sparsely populated archipelago and found herself more alone than ever with no sense of belonging or control over what her future held.

She found it hard to hold onto jobs or friends, until eventually she became self-aware of her addiction and sought help, signing onto a strict day programme that guided her away from alcohol.

With nothing much holding her to London, she returned home to Orkney where she helped her father on his croft. He was living alone in a caravan on his land after having split from his wife. Liptrot began to help with odd jobs like fixing a drystone dyke or helping with lambing, keeping her mind and body occupied so that she would never relapse.

The crofting lifestyle she describes reminds me of when I visited Stornoway to set-up an art exhibition in a local school. Arriving on the Sunday afternoon to find the school closed, concerned phone calls were made and before long the janitor came rushing to the door with his keys in hand, out of breath, saying he had been helping with a difficult lamb birth, his eyes betraying the deep concern he was still feeling for the lamb. This was the first time I truly felt some insight into rural life and I came to appreciate the lives that people on small islands often live, where postmen may also be fishermen or shopkeepers are also farmers.

She describes the perpetual breeze on Orkney, something I experienced myself on a trip to Shetland. On the first night, I was driven to a small berthing spot and waited with a group of Italian tourists in the freezing wind with my teeth chattering and my jacket zipped right up over my chin, for a boat to take us over to Mousa. Once on the water, I began to warm up and arrived on Mousa an hour before midnight. Slowly making my way round the shore towards the broch, an impressive fortified Iron Age tower. I climbed up through the dark internal staircase to the roof from where, under a barely dark midnight sky with the Moon hiding shyly behind light wispy clouds, shone two lighthouses, one far to the south and one to the east on the islet Perie Bard, both now remotely operated, but still performing their life-saving roles.

Mousa is famous for the storm petrels that come in at night to avoid the predatory birds. These seabirds the size of sparrows make constant chirring calls, and in the simmer dim a couple of weeks before the summer solstice they appeared like bats as they flew to and fro the broch and the drystone walls that stretched from the shore to the top of the island. There was a gentle hush among the people there, everyone savouring this rare and special event, the vigilant lighthouses shining silent spotlights on the broch. My video below barely captures the intensity of the experience.

I visited just about every compass point of Shetland during my week there, from crouching on hands and knees looking for endemic flowers on a hillside to searching for long-tailed skuas in a small glen, and walking the volcanic landscapes of Eshaness admiring the red-throated divers to gasping in awe at the scale of the seabird cliffs of Hermaness with their huge gannet colonies and the UK’s most northerly lighthouse just offshore showing the way to the Arctic. The wind was ever present.

Not drinking was a constant challenge for Liptrot; the cravings where there all the time, but her rehabilitation programme had equipped her with the skills to deal with these, to let the cravings pass. She vowed never to let her young nephew see her drunk, saying “I feel powerful”, a perfect encapsulation of how her life had turned around.

Orkney was part of her healing process. Exploring the island of Papa Westray, she was wowed by the natural world around her – the seabirds, seals and storms. The people were also a healing factor; she encountered gentle kindnesses and felt safe, and while drinking is always a temptation, the islands provided alternative stimuli and she remained strong within herself to maintain her resistance.

The land and sea dominates everything on Orkney, and people have been living there for thousands of years, cultivating and forming the histories of the islands. Like Shetland, it can feel like the edge of the world, with wide and wild seas shaping the landscape.

Nature has the power to relax, but also to enthral and excite. Most of my own encounters with nature are solitary, feeling like an escape from the pressures of city life with its noise and pollution. Yet I’ve been known to get impatient or even annoyed when out in wild places, when something is pressing on my mind, although more often this happens when my contemplation is disturbed by another person or coming across litter or some other sign of people far from towns and cities.

There are times when I love to share my experiences with others – pointing excitedly at a breaching minke whale beside the ferry while crossing between islands in Shetland, or watching along with dozens of others, including a guy who came all the way from France, the lost sperm whale off Oban. Thankfully it eventually found its way out into the open sea.

For Liptrot nature was an escape mechanism from her troubles, the world offering much more than what she experienced in London. She sought human contact in London, and yet, despite the often solitary activities she undertook in Orkney, human contact is just what she found there too.

Most of us can live life within safe limits. However, when things get out of control then we can become dangerously addicted to substances or activities. Addiction can take many forms. Liptrot talks about other activities that took over her life while in Orkney, her thoughts constantly reminding her of her recent past. She would be online often checking social media, hoping for retweets or updates about her friends. Many people share this and for some really does become an addiction. It often becomes a substitute for real life interaction. Some activities may not be harmful to health, but could become financially difficult to manage, leading to debt and then to other problems. Ultimately it is self-control that is lost, the inability to shape our own lives.

Liptrot joined a wild swimming club and she recounts the many reasons given why people were members, including one woman who said she “enjoys that other people think she’s mad”. The initial cold shock upon entering the water leads to a surge of euphoria – much like people may get with some drugs. We live for sensory and perceptual stimuli; while reading books helps with the attainment of knowledge, experiencing the real world is much more interesting and exciting.

I enjoy craft beers; I enjoy trying new flavours and new varieties, and comparing my opinions of them with others. And while I only generally drink one or two beers at the weekend, I have a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind saying be careful with what I’m doing. Having seen the effects of alcohol abuse in relatives, I’m very careful to limit my own alcohol intake. It seems all too easy to tip over the edge, and I don’t want to push myself along this edge.

Most people in Scotland don’t think getting drunk is an acceptable thing to do at the weekend. Attitudes seem to be changing for the better, and while the numbers of alcohol related illnesses and deaths are still high and our health services and friends and families have to deal with the fallout, they do seem to be in decline. People are more aware of the dangers of drinking too much, and it’s not as socially acceptable to get yourself in such a poor state on a night out that you’re unable to get yourself home.

For Liptrot, her awakening to her problems began four to five years before she sought help as she had begun to look online for information about alcohol. When the dancing was no longer merry, she was looking for a passing breeze to set her on a new course to recovery and she found this in the wild places and the people of Orkney and within herself.


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Nature connected by love and wonder


Alexander von Humboldt – by Joseph Karl Stieler

Who was Alexander von Humboldt? Ask most people today and you’re likely to be answered with shakes of the heads and shrugs of the shoulders. However, so many features of the world are named after him that it’s likely that many people will have heard of at least one of them. There are Humboldt mountains and ocean currents, rivers and penguins. There are statues and monuments dedicated to him and his life was celebrated in cities around the world with street parties and parades, such was his influence in the time of his life and afterwards throughout most of the 19th century. Andrea Wulf sets out to bring Humboldt back into public awareness in her excellent book The Invention of Nature.

One of his best friends was the poet Goethe, and Humboldt dedicated one of his books, Essay on the Geography of Plants, to him with an inspired frontispiece which, as Wulf describes, “showed Apollo, god of poetry, lifting a veil off the goddess of nature.” I really like this imagery because with this gesture Humboldt, who was a staunch slavery abolitionist, revealed his own views of the world, weaving a scientific and humanistic and artistic thread that ran through all his work.

Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm were still children when their father died, leaving them to be raised by a mother who showed little love or affection for them. Both boys felt themselves stifled and any personal ambitions couldn’t be achieved while their mother dominated and controlled their lives. Wilhelm dutifully entered a life of politics, but Alexander always yearned to travel. When their mother died, neither son attended her funeral, and Humboldt finally felt the shackles come loose and his inheritance allowed him at last to think about travelling overseas.

Disliked by a jealous Napoleon, feted by Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt was very influential in his time, and he had close acquaintances with revolutionaries and tsars, poets and scientists.

Thomas Jefferson was a contradiction to Humboldt; he saw tension in someone who was leading a new progressive republic which Humboldt greatly admired but who still supported slavery. Humboldt publically opposed slavery in any form.

Always fascinated by the natural world, Humboldt’s views on nature had their foundations during an extended journey through South America where he came into contact with new and wonderful animals and plants. Despite a reticence to allow foreigners into their colonial lands, Humboldt convinced the Spanish crown to allow him this journey. He was appalled at the treatment of slaves and indigenous people by the Spanish. Miners were so poorly paid that they came to depend on their Spanish masters, finding themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of poverty. It was not much of a life.


Alexander von Humboldt’s American expedition – map by Alexander Karnstedt

Humboldt also saw the devastation that was being wreaked on the environment, with forests being cleared and rivers being polluted, and he came to recognise the importance of keystone species around which whole ecosystems thrived and the threat being posed to them and the species that depended on them.

Later when Humboldt visited the young American republic, he met with President Jefferson and supplied him with key information on the geography and demography of the Spanish controlled central and south Americas. The United States had only just taken control of Louisiana from France and found itself bordering the Spanish colonies, but had, until Humboldt, little information on this potentially hostile state to the south which could become a threat to the fledgling American economy. Having been privileged to be given access to these lands by the Spanish, it must have seemed like an act of espionage to pass on such powerful information to an increasingly assertive nation to the north.

Humboldt was courageous and adventurous, forever climbing mountains and navigating remote forest rivers that teemed with new life. In his The Geography of Plants he produced an illustration called Naturgemälde or the Chimborazo Map, showing different climatic zones where a variety of plants adapted to different temperatures, humidities and other conditions thrived. This was one of the very first depictions of biogeographical or ecological zones, and throughout his life he worked to show the relationships between organisms and their environments, with his later whirlwind visit to the Altai Mountains of Asia, having rushed through anthrax-infested villages and disobeying an order not to depart from the itinerary set by his Russian hosts, allowed him to bring to a conclusion his ideas about the natural world that he began forming during his South American expeditions.



After his return from South America, he found himself living in post-revolution Paris, surrounded by scientists and poets and the politically and socially progressive, and living off a pension supplied by the king of Prussia, seemingly with no strings attached; he was loathe to return to Berlin. Berlin was an intellectual backwater and was not like Paris where new ideas could be discussed and challenged freely. However, after many years in Paris, he was eventually compelled, ordered, to return to Berlin and do his duty in support of the royal court.

Despite the highly conservative environment that Berlin was, in 1826 he began a series of lectures which were highly successful. Half of attendees were women at a time when they were not allowed to attend university.

He also set-up meetings in Berlin to try and foster something akin to the salons of Paris, stating “without a diversity of opinion, the discovery of truth is impossible”. This visionary, holistic thinking was at a time when natural philosophy was beginning to diverge into scientific specialisms. A natural public communicator, much like the late Richard Feynman or David Attenborough today, he was immensely popular with not only his peers but with the wider public too.

Towards the end of his life, and being fed information by a network of scientists and naturalists around the world, and building on his own lifetime of observations and thoughts, he produced his book Cosmos, named from the Greek for order and beauty. This was essentially a popular science book and building on his earlier Berlin lectures, brought all his knowledge about the Earth and the Universe into a few small volumes, the first two volumes especially being widely read around the world in many different languages.

He still managed to escape Berlin every now and then, and once visited Italy where, with much luck he found Vesuvius erupting just as he got there. Humboldt’s reaction was like many modern geologists, sheer glee at seeing the surface expression of Earth’s internal activities. However, South America was never far form his mind, and Wulf describes him as thinking about Vesuvius as being “‘like an asteroid next to Saturn’ compared to Cotopaxi”.

Driven by his early friendship with Goethe who devoured everything that Humboldt produced, Humboldt also inspired the work of many others, including Charles Darwin whose early work was encouraged by Humboldt. Darwin met Humboldt but was overawed by him and found him to be overbearing, with Darwin barely able to get a word in. However, his mind quickly latched onto Humboldt’s assertion that he encountered two separate ecosystems across a river in Asia; Darwin asked his friend Hooker to find out more about this when he visited Humboldt as Darwin felt it had major significance for his dangerous idea about evolution by natural selection.

Others inspired by Humboldt included George Perkins Marsh who wrote about deforestation and the damage humans were causing to natural ecosystems and the danger this could have on the economies of nations. Frederic Edwin Church was an artist inspired by Humboldt’s Andean adventures, and he followed in Humboldt’s footsteps, producing the painting that brought him fame, “The Heart of the Andes”.


The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

Another was John Muir. Born in Dunbar, Scotland, his family moved to the United States and Muir showed a similar passion for nature as Humboldt. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, exploring glades and forests, mountains and rivers, and later he visited the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, where he was overwhelmed by the extraordinary vistas that opened up to him, from the lowliest beetle on a mosaic of moss to the impressive ice-sculpted valleys that drew the eyes up towards the sky above.

He built a cabin through which a stream flowed, his floor often home to frogs and other animals that the water brought to him. This landscape, this idyll, spoke to Muir. Feeling in touch with nature and always communicating with waterfalls and trees, rocks and flowers. Like Humboldt, he was elated at experiencing “a noble Earthquake!!!”; he asked two violets what they thought about it and they answered “It’s all Love”.

Wulf explains that Muir was never hard to find in a crowd, he was the “most suntanned and round shouldered and bashful man”. In a way this reminds me of a geologist I know who is often found at meetings wearing shorts and a t-shirt like he’s just come in from a lengthy trek along sun-blasted mountain ridges, his face weather-beaten as he stoops to examine granite and greywacke, and always exuding enthusiasm when talking about his subject. I can imagine the young Humboldt would have been much like him.

Muir wrote about the changes he saw occurring in Yosemite as time went on – extensive sheep grazing, the disappearance of wildflowers, the felling of stately sequoias that had seen two millennia come and go. This has echoes in later writing such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and in George Monbiot’s recent Feral in which he puts forward the case for rewilding, a new idea that has been tested in places such as Yellowstone National Park where the re-introduction of the wolf, a keystone species (just as Humboldt described in South America with a palm tree), has seen forests return with their chorus of entangled species.

Wulf beautifully incorporates Muir’s campaigning words of support for the protection of Yosemite Valley into the following passage, his articles:

“carried the readers into the wilderness of the Sierra. Valleys became ‘mountain streets full of life and light’, granite domes had their feet in emerald meadows and ‘their brows’ in the blue sky. The wings of birds, butterflies and bees stirred the ‘air into music’ and cascades were ‘whirling and dancing’. The majestic falls foamed, folded, twisted and plunged while clouds were ‘blooming’.”

Nature is poetry for Muir as it was for Humboldt and for Darwin, and for Henry David Thoreau in Walden.


Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature

Muir accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in Yosemite in May 1903, encouraging him to include Yosemite Valley in a National Park with full federal protection – Roosevelt delivered in 1906. National Parks are for me one of the greatest expressions of the best that the United States offers to the world, and even in popular culture they are enjoyed by presidents. In the TV show The West Wing, President Bartlet is a self-confessed “National Park buff”.

Humboldt’s legacy lives on. As he threaded together the external, observational world with the imagination he brought a new way of appreciating the natural world, a view that informs much of modern environmental thought. His use of poetry and rhythmic narrative allowed him to capture the imaginations of millions when he lived and before the devastations of the First World War turned much of the world against everything German. Wulf’s book is a fitting reminder of the influence he still has on the world today, even if most people don’t know it.

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Ghosts of Darwin in a Sand County shell

Darwin’s Ghosts

I’ve recently read Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists. Shortly after the Origin of Species was published, Darwin received a letter criticising him for not referencing the work of people who came before him. It fairly took the wind out of his sails as he acknowledged this unforgivable lapse, and he began collating, with help from friends and colleagues, lists of names of people who may have had some insight into the process of evolution, or transmutation as it was earlier known as. This led him to publish a list of names for the third edition, which grew in number in later editions.


Darwin’s Ghosts

Stott’s book looks back at some of these figures, which include Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci and his own grandfather Erasmus, as well as others that Darwin didn’t reference; as Darwin admitted himself, he was no historian and there was no way of knowing about some of the people, especially those like Jahiz who lived in Basra in the 9th century, and whose work has still not been fully translated into English. We have in the West, due to the weight of our shared histories and cultures, a tendency to focus on the works of fellow Europeans (or today mainly the English-speaking world) and we’re often ignorant of the work of those outside of our “culture”.

For the very early historical figures, Stott shows that Darwin wasn’t actually right to reference them. While Aristotle had a keen interest in the natural world, and he relied on empirical evidence to formulate his ideas, he saw all organisms as already fixed in place and ever would be, and so he shouldn’t be regarded as a proto-evolutionist at all.

A common theme running through the book, one that is well known in history of science, is the idea of evolution as a heretical idea; of people being ridiculed, persecuted, imprisoned or tortured because their ideas did not agree with the prevailing doctrines of the time. A clue to the dangerous intellectual climate of the time was the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 while Darwin was still working on his ideas. Darwin himself was keenly aware of the ripples that his publication would have; but despite the jolt he received from Alfred Russel Wallace’s letter announcing that he too had unravelled the processes of natural selection, he was also very keen, as a true natural scientist, to ensure that he should present lots of evidence in support of his ideas.

Darwin received many letters of praise after the publication of Origin. Other letters he received were from people claiming to have had the same idea as Darwin, and after investigation it was found that some may have had a very small justifiable claim in developing similar ideas, whereas for others there was no evidence at all that they had come up with anything like natural selection.

But he also received criticism and negative reviews when his book was published including from Richard Owen of the Natural History Museum, and Robert FitzRoy, the strongly devout captain of the Beagle; FitzRoy felt personally betrayed by Darwin and deep regret for ever allowing Darwin to sail with him around the world. It was no wonder that Darwin felt fear about presenting his work to the public, and how he relied on his friends, people like Joseph Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley to do so on his behalf.

Sand County

Another book I read recently was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It’s generally regarded as a classic in natural history, widely cited in modern books, and I thought it was about time I read it. It’s broken into three parts. The first is a diary of wildlife he’s seen while out and about over a year. The second part takes a very wide view on nature and the third looks at conservation. Intriguingly, since the start of the year I’ve also been reading Mike Toms’ From Field and Fen, a collection of articles published in a local newspaper on his own encounters with nature. I’ve been reading an entry a day since the beginning of the year, and it’s become very clear that Leopold’s view of wilderness becoming more and more fragmented and impoverished is reflected in Toms’ book. While he makes the most of what’s around him, like we all do, I can’t help but reflect on how shallow the experience is nowadays compared with landscape-scale ecosystems that were once found across much of continental North America, which Leopold could see being gradually eroded. We’d need to go much further back in time in the British Isles to see a landscape barely touched by development and human hands.


A Sand County Almanac

In one article, Toms talks about being in a forest, with a road not more than a dozen trees away, and this mirrors what Leopold talks about as roads began to encroach into wilderness areas allowing tourists with their money and cars to get closer to nature, while ironically damaging ecosystems they were hoping to savour, pushing real wilderness into smaller and smaller pockets. It meant that for modern travellers the experience isn’t quite the same as it was for those of the past who would visit wild places by foot or horseback or by canoe, and could go weeks without seeing another person, or even the trace of another person.


From Field and Fen

Leopold’s writing can be a bit plodding at times, but sometimes it explodes with real insight, sometimes even venom, in the space of a sentence or two, about how most people have lost contact with the value of nature – often in complete ignorance of the world around them beyond their own material possessions and wealth and the pursuit of progress. Talking about the demise of the passenger pigeon, he said:

“The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”

There was one moment of shocking revelation from himself. Like many American naturalists, he was also a hunter, a vocation that often sits uneasily in the minds of modern naturalists, and he spoke about the time he saw a wolf die. Sitting with some others on a hillside, he saw what he thought was a deer crossing a river downhill, when before long a group of young wolf cubs emerged from cover to greet a mother wolf returning from a hunt. Leopold and his companions on impulse and with very little thought, got their guns out and began firing, killing the wolf. He regretted his actions as he looked into the wolf’s eyes as it was dying, but that one action was symbolic of the degradation of nature on a grander scale. He didn’t just kill that one wolf, and with it likely the cubs starved of their mother’s care, but also who he was before that moment, coming to reflect on what humans are doing to the world around us.

Like the best nature writing, or any writing, Leopold’s book really made me think about my own perceptions and challenged my ideas and motivations, hopefully to bring a little wisdom to your thoughts about the world. It was written in the first half of the 20th century and while we’re more aware of threats to nature, his writing is still valid and perceptive today and likely will long into the future as long as societal progress is measured in terms of economic gain.


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Adventures in the Jurassic


Vision of Earth Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

I attended an excellent talk by Prof Stephen Hesselbo of the Camborne School of Mines (University of Exeter) in which he looked at the cyclic influences on Jurassic Earth history, in particular the carbon cycle and black shales, and how these can be used to explain environmental change during greenhouse times. This was the annual joint lecture of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Geological Societies – this year held in Glasgow.

Incidentally, the Gregory Building where the lecture was held, and which holds the University of Glasgow’s geology department, is named after John Walter Gregory, after whom the Gregory Rift in East Africa is also named after.

His research uses biostratigraphy, chemostratigraphy, palaeogeography, palaeomagnetism and astronomical observations – Milankovich cycles – in much the same way as the research presented in The Cretaceous World does. This is book two of an excellent course I’m doing with the Open University called The Geological Record of Environmental Change as part of my degree in Natural Sciences. This course looks at the different ways in which past environments can be reconstructed using geological methods. It also includes sequence stratigraphy and a book on ice age which began 2.6 million years ago.

He began his talk with palaeogeography, showing how the early Jurassic was a time when Pangaea was breaking up and following a mass extinction at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary during which much of the Palaeozoic fauna disappeared to be replaced by the beginnings of modern fauna.

Carbon isotope analysis of organic rich rocks in the Toarcian showed that there was an Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE) which lasted about 10 million years. This event took place 180 Ma ago and was related to flood basalts at the Karoo-Ferrar Large Igneous Province where South America, southern Africa and Antarctica were joined during this period, ejecting CO2 into the atmosphere leading to a greenhouse effect, amplified by CH4 being recycled into the oceans. Later, as CO2 was drawn into the oceans to be buried within laminated black shales, its concentration decreased in the atmosphere, so cooling began again, and this cooling followed by warming followed by cooling again cycle is reflected in a 13C isotope curve.

Fossil evidence was also incorporated into the research, with ammonite biozones used to build a relative timescale and belemnites providing evidence of extinction having occurred in benthic zones due to lack of oxygen. These animals moved higher into the water column during this event, and returned to benthic zones again once the waters became oxygenated. Bivalves with low-Mg calcite shells have also been a great source of chemical evidence.

Upwelling of a dome in the North Sea prior to the T-OAE was predicted to have prevented warm water from travelling from the Equator towards poles during the cooler periods, but as this opened up during the T-OAE there was a rise in ocean surface temperature from 4-5 °C to 35 °C, the evidence for this coming from oxygen isotope ratios.

An international drilling programme, the Integrated Understanding of the Early Jurassic Earth System and Timescale (JET) has re-drilled a 1.5 km borehole in Mochras, Wales, and from this a much longer Milankovich cycle has been identified of 4100 ka representing Earth/Mars orbital dynamics. This is much longer than the longest cycle I was previously aware of, the 410 ka cycle related to eccentricity of Earth’s orbit.

The core also showed a spike in mercury levels during the T-OAE and similar observations elsewhere are thought to correlate with minor mass extinctions and the presence of large igneous provinces.

They’re looking at drilling more boreholes in future but this is very expensive as they need a rig designed to be used in the hydrocarbon industry and they would need to include blowout prevention technology.

No samples have been taken from south of Portugal, so much more evidence is needed to build a more complete global picture of the Early Jurassic climatic and geological environments.

This was a really interesting talk and I felt I understood most of it very well having studied The Cretaceous World. What fascinated me wasn’t necessarily the results but the methods used and the multiple strands of evidence that were brought together to try and explain this period of Earth history. It showed how methods used to explain the information in The Cretaceous World have also been applied successfully to come up with explanations for Jurassic times.

I hope I’ve done the talk justice – any misunderstandings or misinterpretations are mine entirely!

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Gulls – the scourge of society?

Gulls, if you were to believe recent news reports, are a growing menace to society. They’ve had a bit of a bad press for years, but recently the media seems to be going all out to paint them as villains terrorising communities.

It began with a Telegraph article about a gull that killed a pet dog in Cornwall. This is undoubtedly a tragic experience for the family who owned the dog, but the language used in the article is highly emotive and designed to paint the gulls in a negative light, describing them as “unruly” and “ferocious”.

There was this article on the BBC about a pet tortoise being killed by a gull.

One of the worst articles was in the Evening Times which had the headline: Psychotic seagull caught on camera turning CANNIBAL and swallowing smaller bird whole. This highly emotive and hyperbolic headline is simply designed to scare people into hating these birds. There are two basic mistakes in the headline. First of all, it is wrong to anthropomorphise and call birds “psychotic”. The bird is simply acting naturally, much like any other predator. Secondly, it is wrong to describe the bird as being a cannibal. A cannibal is now extended from humans into the field of zoology to mean an animal eating another member of the same species. In this article, the gull was being predatory and opportunistic by killing a starling. Many other birds will kill and eat starlings, including peregrines and sparrowhawks. Now, gulls can and do show cannibalistic behaviour – they will kill and eat the young of their own species, but in the context of this article it is a misuse of the word.

The gull was described as being “as large as an eagle.” There’s nothing quite like hyperbole – a golden eagle is about one and a half times the size of a herring gull with a length of 80-93 cm with a wingspan of 190-225 cm (Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström, 2009, p. 94). The white-tailed eagle has a wingspan of 190-240 cm (Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström, 2009, p. 92). And again emotive language is used, the gulls being “vicious beyond belief”.

ITV News also featured gulls on one of their news bulletins, and like the other media sources have mainly portrayed the gulls in a negative light. Is it any wonder then that 80% of people in an ITV News poll support a cull of these birds? There seems to be a tendency for the gulls to be described as “increasingly aggressive” – but I ask, what is the evidence for this? Surely the gulls are simply being gulls, as they’ve always been? They may be coming into close contact with people more often, but there are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • depletion of natural food sources, especially at sea mainly caused by people
  • destruction or disturbance of natural nest sites
  • availability of easy pickings in towns and cities from discarded food and rubbish tips
  • availability of suitable nest sites on roofs
  • the urban heat island effect is also likely to provide a more comfortable environment to incubate their eggs and bring up their young

Despite the warnings that gulls are protected species, it appears that some people are taking the law into their own hands, with one apparently poisoned in Dorset in what is described as a “vigilante attack”.

Commonly known as seagulls, there are many species of gulls that live in the British Isles. When you place them in their “proper” context of other seabirds, they are majestic birds, emblems of the wild. I’ve seen gulls eat young guillemots and razorbills at the coast – these would be amongst their natural prey there, as indeed would be starlings which also live at the coast. It might not be pleasant to see an animal being killed by another, but it’s something we just need to accept, it is nature as it is but unfortunately too many people are so far removed from nature that they do not appreciate or understand how challenging it can be for many animals to survive.

Sea Birds from Graham Gaunt on Vimeo.

Gannets, Balearic Shearwater, Great Skua and 100s of gulls & auks attracted to a shoal of bait fish off the Island. 02/01 St Ives, Cornwall.

The most common species are:

  • black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
  • common gull Larus canus
  • great black-backed gull Larus marinus
  • herring gull Larus argentatus
  • kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
  • lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus

The kittiwake and the great black-backed gull are almost exclusively found at sea, the former being a very gentle looking gull; the latter being the largest gull on Earth, very much a predator, but unlikely to be encountered by most people away from the coast.



The medium-sized common gull, despite its name isn’t all that common. One theory for its name is that it was found on village commons. The black-headed gull is a common smallish bird, often found at lakes and reservoirs.

The species that these articles are most likely to be talking about are the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull. They’re the archetypal “seagulls” and are often lumped in together – demonstrated in the Telegraph article which talks about the culprits being herring gulls yet shows a photo of a lesser black-backed gull.

Lesser black-backed gull

Lesser black-backed gull

The herring gull is about 54-60 cm in length, with a wingspan of 123-148 cm (Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström, 2009, p. 184). With pale coloured wings, pinkish legs and a recognisable call, it’s the traditional gull of the seaside where it is known for taking a fancy to holidaymakers’ chips. It often nests in colonies along coasts but also increasingly inland. It will often travel from roosting spots to feeding grounds where it will feed on fish, crustaceans, earthworms, eggs, young of other birds as well as scavenge our food waste. Rooftop nesting first observed in Devon and Cornwall in 1920s (Cocker and Mabey, 2005,  p. 231)

In the UK, numbers declined by 48% between 1969-70 and 1985-88, 13% between 1985-88 and 1998-2002, and 33% between 2000-2011 (Balmer et al, 2013, p. 408). Much of this decline is on the coasts as a result of botulism, mammalian predation, changes in food supplies. Some declines offset by increases in urban areas. (Balmer et al, 2013, p.408)

The lesser black-backed gull is slightly smaller than the herring gull, its length ranging from 48-56 cm, and a wingspan of 117-134 cm (Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström, 2009, p. 190). It has darker grey wings and yellow legs. Nesting mainly in colonies along coasts and lakes, with some migrants wintering in the British Isles. It has a similar diet to the herring gull.

While demonised by the media as being a threat to people, gulls are more at risk from people. The herring gull often found itself tangled up in the plastic from six packs of beer cans, and up to 10,000 lesser black-backed gulls a year were killed on a shooting estate.

The gull was demonised alongside the crow in Hitchcock’s The Birds, with Daphne du Maurier gaining inspiration for her original short story from watching gulls following a tractor near her Cornish home. (Cocker and Mabey, 2005, p. 231)

Despite their fearsome reputation among those who haven’t taken the time to appreciate them, gulls have a certain beauty about them. On a warm summer’s day, their plumage gleams in the sunlight against the cobalt sky, their calls transporting memories to holidays past at the seaside. On dull days they can “shine in such weather as if lit with an inner light”. (Hume, 2005 cited in Cocker and Mabey, 2005, p. 232)

Personal stories tell of gulls being the “spirits of old fisherman … seeing his grandson safely into the harbour.” (McCallum, 2005 cited in Cocker and Mabey, 2005, p. 233)

The philosopher Cantona, once said: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Well they’ve certainly been following people around, hoping for a bit more than a sardine! But why disparage gulls for taking the easy option? Isn’t this what we have developed with our societies and civilisations? How many people would swap getting their dinner from the local convenience shop for going out hunting and killing it themselves – not many I bet!

How to discourage (mainly urban) gulls

Some of the authors of the articles above have had the decency to try and show some balance (scant as it is) in their articles, including some suggestions for discouraging gulls.

These include:

  • be careful how food is discarded, including making sure bins are properly closed
  • do not feed the birds directly

Food waste is a bigger problem in and of itself, with so much perfectly good food binned each year – is it any wonder that wildlife will take advantage? As with many conflicts with wildlife, the actions and behaviours of people are the main trigger.

It is also useful to become familiar with the sounds that birds make as this can provide warning of a possible attack. In most cases the birds will call from a distance, either from near the nest or from a rooftop nearby and will perhaps make an initial swoop if the call doesn’t deter what it sees as a threat to its chick.

This is the alarm call of the herring gull:


This is the alarm call of a lesser black-backed gull:


So are gulls a menace? Obviously if a person is attacked by a gull then it can be frightening. However, the vast majority of people go about their daily lives without having close encounters with gulls – the media has very definitely blown this up as they like to make a culprit to blame for society’s ills. Maybe if more people took an interest in the birds around them, including gulls, and learned a little about their behaviour and lives, then they can come to appreciate them.


Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I., Fuller, R., (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11 The breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford

Cocker, M., Mabey, R. (2005) Birds Britannica, Chatto & Windus, London

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K. and Zetterström, D., (2009) Collins Bird Guide. 2nd edn. HarperCollins, London


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Your degree is in natural sciences eh?

I’m studying for a BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences with the Open University. My exam next week will take me to the half-way point of my degree. As the subject matter wasn’t in any way related to my job, I have always taken a holiday when my exam was on rather than ask for a study leave day which my work can give to you.

However, a colleague suggested that I could ask anyway and see what the response would be. So I sent off an email to a colleague in HR. Her initial response was that it was up to my manager, but she asked what my exam was for. “Environmental Science, part of a degree in Natural Sciences.” “Oh, well I don’t think you’d get it” was the response.

As I said at the outset of this post, my inclination has always been to request a holiday because the subject matter of my degree wasn’t entirely compatible with my job. However, what if I had said I was doing accounting? A good honourable subject but again in terms of subject matter not compatible with my work. Would she have decided that as this is a subject that people in offices (it’s kind of business-y) have studied that it would be deemed to be suitable for a study leave day?

Is she suffering from a lack of imagination and vision just because of the name of my degree? Or is she just being pragmatic and thinking of the here and now, rather than thinking what benefits such a degree could bring to me as a colleague and employee and to the employer?

While I have no doubt at all that the subject matter (I will be focused on Earth sciences, or as some call it these days, Geosciences) is not appropriate to enable me to be awarded with a study leave day, the degree as a whole is chock full of transferable skills that are appropriate not just for my current job, but for many other positions.

Here are some of the typical transferable skills that a graduate in Earth science would achieve, including myself:

  • observational skills and the ability to analyse and synthesise complex information and to problem solve
  • higher level of reading and writing skills, presentation skills (oral and written)
  • ability to manage my time, to work independently, to be self critical and professional, to have career awareness
  • work well in teams, develop leadership skills and in general become a more confident individual, manage resources
  • as an academic field a science graduate will also have very strong skills in collecting, processing and presenting data
  • strong mathematical, statistical and quantitative skills, critical thinking and strong error analysis
  • strong computer literacy: I already have very strong IT skills, but the degree further develops these, including using word processing, spreadsheets, graphics packages, the web, performing complex searches of libraries and research data, and the use of specialist software including geographical information systems

When my colleague said to me that she didn’t think I’d be entitled to a study leave day, in her mind she was thinking of someone going out and being a scientist, or even working in conservation (the words Natural and Environmental could have triggered this). She was thinking that these were not the kind of things you do in an office, but it was her failings not to appreciate that studying for a degree, even if it’s not in a subject she personally approves of or appreciates, comes with it a whole host of other skills that a person can bring to the workplace.

No doubt if I had a degree in accountancy, I’d develop many of these skills too, but to the person in HR, she looks at the name of the degree and the subject matter of the degree without thinking about the skills that underpin the degree. That for me is a failure of imagination and I think people working in HR should have much stronger awareness of the transferable skills that graduates will gain alongside their increased subject knowledge.

Maybe I’m being a bit hard on my colleague, but I do sometimes get the impression that people in offices or service sectors, and even some relatives, find it hard to imagine what a science degree is all about. It’s not just about heating up liquids over Bunsen burners or counting petals on flowers, as good as those things are. It’s about so much more, and science alongside technology, maths and engineering is often at the cutting edge of our knowledge about how the world works, how the world was and how it could be. To also gain all of those transferable skills that would be welcomed in any workplace is simply a bonus.

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The Arctic tern: the sea swallow

Arctic Tern

In my previous post, I mentioned my very close encounter with the Arctic tern on the Isle of May. This is a bird I’ve long been fascinated with, especially as it’s only seen in this country for part of the year, but which had mythical status for being the species with the longest migration of any.

I’ve done a bit of reading around and have found some amazing facts and figures, and excellent video of them.

The birds’ scientific name is Stern paradisea, which reflects on their graceful nature – their long tails and elegant flight lending them the name of sea swallow. There are times when they appear to float in the sky like puppets on the end of string, but other times they can fly swiftly and with purpose, especially when defending themselves and their nests from attack. The name also has something to say about the nature of their lives. They migrate each year between the high latitudes, spending the summer of each hemisphere near the polar regions, from Greenland and Svalbard in the north, all the way down to the Weddell Sea just off Antarctica. In doing so, they see more daylight than any other animal, with the Sun barely setting north and south of the Arctic/Antarctic Circle when the terns are there.

The Arctic tern was the subject of a photographic celebration, Birds of the Sun, the images of the midnight Sun and the glaciers and icebergs in the background really summarise all that is special about these fantastic birds. I’ve come to the conclusion that I would like to spend a season at one of their breeding sites to watch the young birds from hatching right up until they are ready to head off on their own after around twenty days.

At only 100 grams, the bird makes a mean southward migration of 34,600 km which takes around 93 days on average. In the opposite direction it takes less than half this time, a mean of 40 days, covering 25,700 km on average.

While in the Weddell Sea, it will travel an amazing 10,900 km while preying on Antarctic krill.

And yet, you’d be mistaken if you think all the birds travel the same path. Egevang and his colleagues fitted tiny geolocators to adult terns in one of their breeding areas in Greenland, and their data shows that some of the birds take different routes south, with some, after having crossed the Equator, following the east coast of South America while others travel down the west coast of Africa.

However, on the return journey, they more or less all follow an S-shaped path north, correlating with the wind patterns in each hemisphere, staying over deep water in the middle of the Atlantic. As a geologist in training, I like to think of this S as almost following the track of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge!

Egevang features in this fantastic video which shows where the breeding site was, how he captured the birds to fit the geolocators on them, and how he used Google Earth to map their migration:

Additional websites that I found really interesting include:

  • BBC Nature – this contains four videos from BBC series, including RSPB researchers who monitor them off the coast of Anglesey, David Attenborough describes in his series The Trials of Life their migration (produced long before the research above was published) and Frozen Planet producer explains the dangers of brushing your teeth in the midst of a colony!
  • Encyclopedia of Life – this contains a summary of Egevang’s work, as well as a host of other information.
  • The Arctic Tern – a good overview of the bird’s biology and migration, and was the source of Egevang’s video and the photographic summary above.
  • Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration – Egevang and colleague’s paper.
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