Natural History


These beautiful digital collages of wildlife are made out of old maps by artist Jason LaFerrera. Archival prints are for sale on his Etsy shop. These are really striking, and would make a great, unique gift for lovers of wildlife and/or maps!
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Late last month, the Telegraph reported that 2009’s Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year was under investigation, after allegations that he violated the rules of the contest. Specifically, contest co-organizer The Natural History Museum (NHM) received a complaint that winning photographer Jose Luis Rodriguez had used an animal model in his remarkable photo of a wolf in mid-air.

Rodriguez vehemently denies the claim, but in a press release issued by the NHM today, Louise Emerson stated:

It saddens us to confirm that after a careful and thorough investigation into the image, the storybook wolf, the co-owners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide Magazine have disqualified the winning entry of the photographer José Luis Rodríguez. The judging panel was reconvened and concluded that it was likely that the wolf featured in the image was an animal model that can be hired for photographic purposes and, as a result, that the image had been entered in breach of Rule 10 of the Competition. The judging panel looked at a range of evidence and took specialist advice from panel judges who have extensive experience of photographing wildlife including wolves. They also considered the responses to specific questions put to the photographer José Luis Rodriguez.

The competition rules clearly state that photographs of animal models may not be entered into the competition and that images will be disqualified if they are entered in breach of Rule 10. Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition rules are available to all entrants including versions translated into several languages.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the world’s most prestigious photography competition of its kind. Any transgression of the competition rules is taken very seriously and if entries are suspected of breaching the rules they are disqualified. José Luis Rodríguez’s image will be removed from the exhibition and tour.

Mr Rodriguez strongly denies that the wolf in the image is a model wolf.

The £10,000, first place prize will not be re-awarded, and Rodriguez will his £500 category winner’s check in lieu of royalty payments.

I’m leaving for a few weeks on vacation tomorrow night. I couldn’t be happier about this, and I’ll post all about my trip when I get back (at least, the science-y and library-related parts of it), but for now, I need to prepare. I anticipate being very busy playing catch-up when I return, and I’ve been posting here less than I’d like to. Therefore, I present to you a huge list of things I’ve been meaning to post about but never got around to. I might post in more detail on some of these topics later as I get a chance, but I encourage you to check out these links in my absence. In no particular order:

  • HOME is a stunningly beautiful 90-minute film from director Yann Arthus-Bertrand. It was released on June 5th simultaneously in over 50 different countries, and is freely available to watch on YouTube in HD. It covers the history of life on Earth, focusing heavily on human changes to the environment that have resulted in ecological collapses across the planet and global warming. The last 20 minutes or so provide a summary, but I highly recommend setting aside some time to watch the whole thing.
  • Another possibly global-warming related news item: The New York Times reports on the PNAS study about disappearing ice caps atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.
  • Toxic waste from a shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar is wreaking ecological havoc, according to the WWF.
  • Two female spectacled bears at the Leipzig Zoo are suffering from hair-loss. The Telegraph article isn’t very informative, but spectacled bears have a history of this problem in captivity. It’s limited to female bears and is thought to be stress-related. Incidentally, cross your fingers that I see a fully-furred spectacled bear while on vacation… they’re native to the Andean forests!
  • This collection of photographs of pollution in China has been heavily making the internet rounds. You’ve probably already seen it, but if not, you’ll be shocked. The photographs are so well-done they’re almost beautiful, but the content will make you cry.
  • Here’s some happy news, albeit a bit old: decades-long efforts by the French to clean up pollution in the Seine is finally paying off! After high levels of pollution in the middle of last century killed off all but four fish species in the river, France instituted large-scale efforts to clean up the waters, including a purification plant. Now, Atlantic salmon have returned to their historic breeding grounds up-river without any human interference. One of these was caught by an angler outside of Paris. There are now 32 species present in the river!
  • Have you heard about the Genome 10K project? “The Genome 10K project aims to assemble a genomic zoo—a collection of DNA sequences representing the genomes of 10,000 vertebrate species, approximately one for every vertebrate genus.” Thanks to the drastic reduction over the years of the cost to sequence a genome, this project is finally feasible, and collaborators are coming from all corners of the globe.
  • DNA is also going to ensure that we have delicious heritage apples for years to come, I hope.
  • The Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society recently opened a new LEED gold-certified Center for Global Conservation that looks to be very impressive.
  • Attention parents: Black bears in Yosemite prefer minivans.
  • The winners of the British Wildlife Photography Awards were announced last month. Here’s the Coast & Marine winner:

  • New York is seeing “coywolves”, coyote-wolf hybrids that are smaller than wolves and larger than coyotes. These are fertile hybrids, stronger than coyotes, but appearing in areas where wolves can’t cope with the human development.

  • There are more article I have bookmarked, but I’ll save those for another vacation. See you next month!

Mike Libby crafts amazing art pieces from an unlikely partnership: dead insects and antique watches. His work explores the intersections between science and science fiction (although they look more steampunk to me), and the whimsical pieces are far less creepy than you’d think, with more than a hint of childlike fantasy.

longhorn beetle

I’d much rather have this grasshopper displayed on my wall than find him in my garden.

Here’s one I’ve been sitting on for a while: Insects In Flagrante. This great post from Webphemera showcases some gorgeous insect porn (my favorite!) Check it out for the amazing photography and wacky bugs.

These are migrant hawkers mating. They’re extremely photogenic, as you can see, and can be found all over North Africa and Europe, engaging in this gymnastic activity in stagnant ponds and standing water. Lovely, aren’t they?

At the zoo’s Insect House, I saw a number of assassin bugs like these in this position, trying to make a lot more assassin bugs for their evil army. If I recall correctly, they were the only bugs in the bug house that could have killed me, therefore earning my wary respect. They inject lethal saliva into their prey, but also transmit potentially-fatal Chagas disease.

I’ll stop giving you nightmares now, and end on a happy note: Adorable little Desert forktails, native to Southern California and Arizona. The photo really says it all, so I’ll shut up and get back to reading my book.

Now, I know I was remiss in not posting about International Day for Biological Diversity, which was on May 22nd. However, the one advantage to being behind in posting things is that I’ve had a chance to collect a ton of links about this over the past week! A lot of my favorite sites, like Ecoworldly, National Geographic, Mongabay News, and Science Daily have all put together thoughtful posts on Arizona State University’s major biodiversity announcement from last month.

So, without further ado, the Top 10 Species of 2008:

  1. A Palm that Flowers Itself to Death: Tahina Palm (Tahina spectabilis)
  2. Phantastic Phasmatid: The world’s longest insect with a body length of 14 inches and an overall length of 22.3 inches (Phobaeticus chani)
  3. Pea-sized Pony: Satomi’s Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae), only 0.54 inches long
  4. A Mere Thread of a Snake: Barbados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae)
  5. Welsh Rare Bit: Ghost Slug (Selenochlamys ysbryda)
  6. A Snail that’s Whorls Apart: A gastropod with four different coiling axes (Opisthostoma vermiculum)
  7. Finding Nemo’s True Blue Cousin: Deep Blue Chromis (Chromis abyssus)
  8. Devonian Delivery: Mother Fish (Materpiscis attenboroughi)
  9. No Jump in this Bean: caffeine-free Charrier Coffee (Coffea charrieriana)
  10. Spray-on New Species: new species of extremophile bacteria (Microbacterium hatanonis)

The Top Ten were selected by an international committee of taxon experts, including scientists from various universities, museums, and biodiversity organizations. The university also released its State of Observed Species report card (SOS) on human knowledge of Earth’s species. In 2007, 18,516 species new to science were discovered and described.

Now, 18,000 is an astonishing number. It seems unbelievable that there are that many species out there unaccounted for by modern science, since we have arsenals of scientists working on describing species constantly. Let’s take a look at the breakdown, shall we? This graph from the report shows that of those 18,516 species, 50.8% are insects, 11.1% are vascular plants, 6.7% are vertebrates, 6.4% are arachnida, 5.2% are mollusca, 4.5% are crustacea, 3.4% are prokaryotes, 3.2% are protozoa, and 8.6% are other animals.

Across all living and fossil vertebrates, the fishes (including conodonts) comprise the largest group of newly described species (44%). It should again be noted that this year’s vertebrates include a significant number of newly described fossil species: 39% of the reptiles; 79% of the mammals; 81% of the birds and 100% of the newly described conodonts were fossils. (Emphasis is mine)

Ah, fossils! That explains it. The report defines “new species” as “species newly known to science.” Some of the species are newly discovered in the field, but, “In other cases specimens have existed in museums or herbaria for many years and have only now been recognized as new.” Since I’m partial to mammals, let’s run the numbers…
6.7% of 18,516 are vertebrates = ~1, 240
Of these, 17.8% are mammals = ~221
Of these, 79% are fossils, so 21% are presumably living species = ~46

Okay, I’m still impressed! 46 new species of living mammals seems like a lot, actually. I wonder how many of those will soon be listed as threatened?

I’ve had this link bookmarked for so long I can’t remember where I found it, but it’s time to share with you some lovely prints for sale from Transmission Atelier Editions. The shop sells digital pigment print reproductions of vintage anatomy, natural history, and mythology drawings. Most of the prints are available in small (11×14″) and large (16×20″) sizes, but they note that custom size orders are also available. I’m not shilling for them; I just think the drawings are really neat. Here are a few of my favorites:

1849 Antique French Vampire Bat Print by Charles DOrbigny

1849 Antique French Vampire Bat Print by Charles D'Orbigny

Originally published in 1820 by Abraham Rees, Longman, Hurst, Paternoster, London

Originally published in 1820 by Abraham Rees, Longman, Hurst, Paternoster, London

California condor, 1876, by Theodore Jasper

California condor, 1876, by Theodore Jasper