Monday, 26 September 2016

Two modern classics about evolution

The Diversity of Life by E O Wilson

The Diversity of Life is a classic of evolutionary literature from the renowned biologist Edward O Wilson. The first section of the book concentrates on ways in which life on earth has diversified to fit into all the niches that the planet offers. Wilson (no relation by the way!) looks at how small creatures are able to take advantage of tiny differences in soil or vegetation and thus diversify into a greater number of species than larger creatures. He cites lots of examples, but the one that will always stick in my mind is the species of rainforest ant (Wilson is a specialist in ant biology and ecology) which has a specialised species of mite that lives on the ants' feet. The ants don't let this bother them and in fact use the mites as 'shoes' and walk on them!

The second part of the book focuses on the human impact on life on earth and is both depressing in its cataloguing of the damage we're doing and already out of date (the book dates from 1992). This section isn't without hope, Wilson outlines numerous ways in which we can help to halt or at least lessen the biodiversity crisis, but it's still a slower read than the first section, which is so full of fascinating insights into the beauty of the natural world.

The Diversity of Life by Edward O Wilson published by Penguin (1992)

After Man by Dougal Dixon

Dougal Dixon is a widely respected expert on dinosaurs but he also casts his eyes into the future! This book from 1981 is a classic in speculative evolution.

After Man is a beautiful large format book that looks at possible ways that life on earth may evolve after humankind becomes extinct. It starts by discussing elements of how evolution works alongside how the landmasses of the earth may rearrange themselves in the future. The main body of the book looks at the earth 50 million years into the future, continent by continent and habitat by habitat exploring the animals that may one day be here to replace us.

It's a timely read, as many scientists now consider the earth to be in the midst of the sixth extinction, an extinction event largely (though not entirely) driven by humankind's encroachment on and destruction of wildlands. It's also a fascinating theoretical look at how evolution could work in the future, there are some wonderfully weird animals in here, all of them beautifully illustrated and described in detail, both in terms of appearance and also how they might behave and what current animals they might replace.

A fascinating book for anyone interested in evolutionary zoology or in invented animals!

After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon published by Granada (1981).

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Roseburn to Stockbridge along the Water of Leith

It's World Rivers Day today, so what better than to share photos from yesterday's walk along the Water of Leith from Roseburn to Stockbridge. This is a pretty, wooded stretch of the walkway. Here are some photos

harts tongue fern, showing clearly the spores lined up on the underside of the fronds

this part of the walkway is closed off as there's been a major landslide and the hillside and path are very unstable (most people ignore the fact that it's closed off however and clamber over the fencing).

I love seeing ferns hidden away in the cracks of stone walls - this is a young harts tongue and maidenhair spleenwort (the one with divided fronds).

here's a woodlouse emerging from its old exoskeleton, not something you see very often!

We'd forgotten it was Doors Open Day, but were very glad it was when we got to St Bernard's Well! We got the chance to get very close to Hygeia (the Greek Goddess of health - who gave her name to hygiene). For photos of the inside of the well, please visit my Shapeshifting Green blog!

Here's a view from the foot of Hygeia, looking out over the river

After we had left the well, we continued out walk along the path in the photo above. Just before we got to Stockbridge (our destination for lunch) we can across this wonderful patch of ivy

It was alive with hoverflies and a few wasps and bees! There were hundreds of Syrphus sp hoverflies

hundreds of Eristalis hoverflies

and a few Myathropa florea hoverflies

I've never seen so many hoverflies in one place before!

We saw two wasp attacks on hoverflies (thanks to Crafty Green Boyfriend for this photo!)

which gave quite a dramatic ending to our walk!

Friday, 23 September 2016

The scent of roses in Autumn

We came across this rose in Corstorphine today, it smelt as beautiful as it looks

On Corstorphine Hill itself, the acorns are forming

And outside the hotel on the main road, the bunnies are, as ever, eating the grass

We also saw a roe deer on the hill, this is very unusual, both of us thought that deer never came onto Corstorphine Hill, as the hill, though offering good habitat for the deer, seems too isolated for them to move easily to and from other green areas. I didn't try to capture the deer on film, I didn't want to disturb it!

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Parks and Trees and the Future of Green Spaces in the UK

Parks are wonderful greenspaces, particularly in built up areas, spaces where plants grow, animals can find homes and people can have fun, play and relax!

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee is holding an inquiry into the future of open spaces in the UK and wants people to take part in their survey. By taking part, you can influence the recommendations they make to the Government.

‘Public parks’ in the UK are country parks, smaller ‘pocket’ parks, woodland areas and open green spaces which are cared for by the local authority. At the moment they are not considered to be statutory services, despite all the evidence that shows how vital green spaces are for physical and mental health and wellbeing. This means that in these days of austerity, parks are likely to be at the receiving end of funding cuts in the local authority's budgets. 

Many parks in the UK have Friends Groups who help to manage the park and provide volunteers to carry out conservation tasks and citizen science projects, these groups however should act as an additional resource that complements the work that the council does rather than been seen as candidates to take over the work of the council. 

Community ownership can work in some cases, if the council sees fit to sell off green-spaces. However, this won't always work and councils shouldn't use the expectation of community buy out as an excuse for selling off the parks. 

The Rethinking Parks report contains some interesting ideas for creating sustainable futures for our parks, you can download it here

The Woodland Trust's report Trees or Turf? demonstrates that planting trees in public green-spaces can be a more economic approach then maintaining lawns.You can read the trust's thoughts on the consultation itself here.

If you live in the UK, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee wants to know your views on parks, you can let them know here. The closing date for responses is 30 September. 

Meanwhile if you live in Edinburgh, the local authority is carrying out its own survey on the future of the city's greenspaces, you can take part in this survey here. The closing date for this one is 21 October. 

As ever, red text contains hyperlinks that take you to other webpages where you can find out more.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016


young grey heron
struggles to swallow
the flat fish -
how long it takes to perfect
the skills of adulthood

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

How to be Wild by Simon Barnes

This is a brilliant book! Journalling his experiences of nature over the course of a year, Simon Barnes shares his enthusiasm for and knowledge of nature in a totally engaging style. There is no pomposity and no overly self conscious poetic phrasing that tends to creep into so much of nature writing these days. Just unabashed enthusiasm!

He talks about birdsong, his favourite wildlife places, his favourite moments sharing nature with other people, his views on the future for conservation, how, even if you are already a keen naturalist, there is always something new to find in nature, why it is good to learn the names of species (even though at the same time it's okay not to be able to name everything you see) and many other topics. His enthusiasm (yes that word again) is contagious and will inspire readers to get out into nature and enjoy it.

I could quote almost any paragraph from this book, but I chose this excerpt about my favourite bird:

'Now they were back and the sky was full of them, scything and sickling and showing us triumphantly and precariously that the globe was still working. The swifts, the longed for birds, were now back in numbers, and their cheery screaming had become a part of daily life once again: as if nothing could possibly go wrong ever again: as if the darkness of winter could never come again: as if nothing could trouble a wild-loving human's heart could ever again be a part of the world and the way we live in it.' 

Read this book!

How to be Wild by Simon Barnes published by Short Books (2007)

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Bank Holiday walk by the river

Today is a public holiday in Edinburgh (though not in most other places) so Crafty Green Boyfriend joined me for my weekly patrol of Colinton Dell along the Water of Leith.

The light was beautiful and the Dells looked lovely

The first autumn tints are showing in the first falling leaves

The bees are getting tired now

but the hoverflies will still be happy for another couple of month, this is a footballer hoverfly (Helophilus sp)

Hoverflies are flies that mimic other species, usually bees or wasps. There are about 250 species of hoverfly in the UK. The footballer hoverflies are some of the most common and some of the most distinctive.