Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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More science, Gromit?: Publishing research as a conservation biologist

I submitted a journal article about the contents of poo today. I want to get a big fat marker out and cross that journal article off my to do list. It’s been on my list for far too long. In fact, it was on my finish before the end of 2017 list. Uhh that didn’t happen. Instead it’s been quietly haunting me while I waited for feedback from co-authors and for a long enough stretch of time so I could proofread it properly without a two year old driving a toy car on my head. The last time my son did this, he turned it on and the electric wheels got caught in my hair and I needed rescuing. I did not want that to happen again while I was checking my p-values.

Despite the elation of hitting the submit button (which is bigger than yours by the way), I can’t cross this paper off my list because it might get rejected or get major corrections (my nemesis) or minor corrections. Whatever, happens it’s not over yet.

Publishing scientific research is hard and tedious. In fact, I imagine that getting your research published is kind of like making Wallace and Gromit. Although it is apparent that a fair chunk of work goes into every scientific publication, on first glance a scientific paper looks relatively short and straightforward. You can do a good skim read through a journal article in about five minutes. But the amount of time, sweat, money, and tears that goes into every paper is phenomenal and is rarely ever fully grasped until you go through it yourself. This is why it’s like Wallace and Gromit. Using stop motion animation is really slow and it can take the animators days to create a four second shot. Most of the 30 minute Wallace and Gromit productions took about 18 months to create. And the same holds true of a roughly 16 page scientific paper, it take years of data collection and then a long period of analysis, shouting at R, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, submitting, waiting, rewriting, resubmitting, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

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And some journals, well a lot of journals, even make the scientists who conducted the research and wrote the paper pay lots of money to publish with them. Maybe you’ve heard of starving artists, starving conservation biologists are real too. I’ve seen them wearing rags and sleeping rough in remote field sites. It’s a crazy old world. And here’s the thing, I’m sure that it costs a lot to make Wallace and Gromit (just like doing scientific research) but after the Wrong Trousers is made, the production team can make money on it. They can sell it to TV stations and they can produce merchandise. I had a Wallace and Gromit stationary box when I was younger. With science, you put in lots of effort and money so you can share your findings with the world and in conservation, so you can make a difference to protecting threatened species. There’s not a whole lot of financial return, which is okay because that’s not the point but it’s a shame that it costs young scientists so much to publish in the first place. Post-publication merchandise is not really a viable option. Somehow I don’t think too many people will buy a t-shirt with a picture of brown hyaena and leopard poo on it.

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In 2003 starting out in wildlife research. A very sweaty Sam and I sleeping in a shelter we constructed in the Indonesian rainforest .

Sam is my science guru. He’s great at producing precise figures, running the statistics that make me want to stab things a million times, and he’s also really great at waiting for peer review feedback and calmly adapting his manuscript without taking it personally. I am more impatient and less forgiving. I think if Sam made a Wallace and Gromit show, he would firstly eat a lot of cheese for inspiration and secondly he would intricately and carefully orchestrate every tiny movement of our clay-molded protagonists. He would get on with it like a champ. I, on the other hand, would try for a bit, get annoyed, and then roll Wallace, Gromit, Shawn the sheep, and that penguin who dresses up like a chicken into one big rainbow coloured ball. But today I submitted a journal article. So until the reviewers get back to me and possibly crush my hopes and dreams, I’m going to give myself and my coauthors a big pat on the back and forget about it.

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Running stats in the scat lab.

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Happy 2018

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May this new year be filled with science, animals, adventure, conservation, chocolate, and more animals. Thanks for following our blog. 


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Conserving a childhood outside

We have recently finished watching Stranger Things 2 and it was pretty awesome. The show is homage to classic films from the 1980s like the Goonies. Watching it reminds me of my childhood. No mobile phones, lots of time outside exploring, a group of close friends, bikes, freedom. I lived on short road with a circle at the end. Across the road from our house lived two boys close in age to me. We knocked on each other doors and went out to play. We had bikes and we rode them around and around. We explored the woods, climbed trees, and made forts. I remember the summers when we would play outside until it got too dark to see, the sound of cicadas buzzing in the air. We never fought actual demogorgons but we had lots of our own big and small adventures. Time past, new kids moved to the street and things we’re never quite the same, eventually my family moved away, we grew up. But it made a lasting impression. I’m sure it shaped my career path and my parenting style.

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Research indicates that childhoods like this are disappearing. That we now live in a world where parents are scared to send their kids outside unsupervised. That we live in a playdate society where all play is organized, rather than spontaneous. That children today spend their time in a virtual world, rather than the outdoors. I also read this week that imaginary friends are becoming rarer because of increased screentime which leads to a lack of creativity. In 2001, about half of British kids had imaginary friends and today the number is about 17%.

I’m reading How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson (the paleontologist from Dinosaur Train) and it’s about encouraging kids to get outside again and benefit from nature. It’s pretty good so far but it makes me a bit sad. It’s worrying what this current trend in disconnecting from nature in childhood will mean for future environmental stewardship because often love and respect for nature is fostered from connections built early on. I also find it sad that books like this even need to be written. The first section lays out all the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. Scientists have done heaps of research proving that nature is extremely good for us. Of course, it is. The idea that parents don’t encourage their kids to spend time outside or don’t make the effort to be outside with them, seems very foreign to me (but I know, I am the converted!). The idea that we have to teach parents how to spend time outside with children or to send their kids outside seems strange and almost unhuman. No one taught my parents or my grandparents. As kids, we just went outside. Yes, we watched tv but it was limited in my house and that left lots of time for outdoor adventures. All I want to do now is be outside. But I know that outdoorsy people like us are becoming a rare breed so books like this are required and I’m glad that they exist.

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I also just finished rereading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. The story is almost completely set outside and when the characters are inside (like at school or in church), they just want to be outside. Outside is Tom and Huck’s setting for adventures and freedom, something every kid needs.

I hope that our son can have a version of the 1980s / early 1990s style childhood with a gang of neighbourhood kids on bikes. These can’t be extinct yet surely. And if these are heading towards extinction, as conservation biologists, Sam and I are going have to help preserve the outdoor childhood. And Africa has got to the perfect place to do this. We had such adventures outside as kids but with giraffes, zebras, and impalas, it has got to be even better. But wherever you live, if you are a parent, a grandparent, an auntie, or an uncle, I hope you will help conserve this invaluable facet of childhood by taking kids outside. My brother’s family goes birding with their son. My mother-in-law loves taking Noggs to beach. There is nature everywhere. I hope that this will help build a generation who are more environmentally minded. This planet and every living thing on it bloody well needs that.

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Gene-gle Bells

In case you are wondering what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a sciency suggestion. Last year my father-in-law (or bab-in-law as I should call him) bought Sam and I a DNA test each from ancestry.com. My initial reaction was – cool sciencey gift that involves bodily fluid and posting it to a lab, sounds fun. I was excited so we posted our vials of spit off and waited. As scientists, we have posted vials of monkey poo across the world so spit felt relatively tame and required a lot less paperwork.

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After awhile we received our results and found out where in the world our ancestors came from. There was a snazzy map and the results was interesting but not too surprising – no hidden Japanese ninja ancestry sadly. I thought that was it for my present. But it wasn’t. The DNA test also reveals how you are related to other people who have also taken a DNA test. I ended up being contacted by someone who I didn’t even know I was related to and helping them to determine who their biological parents were through sleuth work, DNA connections, and genealogical information gathered by my parents. Being part of this person’s journey to figure out where they came from was an amazing experience and was one my highlights of 2017. It also helped me to learn more about my family tree and become more interested in genealogy. So spitting in a tube is my present suggestion for 2017. Go science and Santa.

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Our spiky acacia Christmas tree in Zimbabwe


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Termighty mounds

The first time I saw termite mounds, we were on a road trip in the Northern Territory in Australia in 2006. We stopped our van so we could investigate through licking and riding them, as you do.

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South Africa has a lot of termite mounds. I see so many termite mounds that I don’t really see them anymore. But, I stopped to look again the other day and they are pretty damn impressive structures.

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As tall as a tree – a termite mound where we live.

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Trees and bushes grow out of termite mounds surprisingly successfully.

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A termite mound with a fence passing through the centre of it.

Advanced termite species build complex underground nests with large ventilation mounds that can be as high as 4 m tall. These are the termite mounds that litter our landscape. The outer walls are as hard as concrete but the inner walls are much softer and are honeycombed with a network of chambers and tunnels.

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Termites are extremely social animal and they live in large colonies like ants. A queen and a king rule the colony. There is a caste system and most termites are workers or soldiers. Workers and soldiers are wingless. However, some termites are swarmers who possess wings. They fly up from the nests in large swarms, often after the rains. Most die but some are successful in finding a new place to start another colony. Animals like baboons and samango monkeys flock to the mounds when the swarmers emerge, catching them mid-air and stuffing them into their mouths as fast as they can.

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When we lived at Lajuma, we had a fairly worrying termite infestation in our tent. These were a more primitive species of termites that make simple nests in the wood in which they feed from. They were busy munching away at the structural poles, books, a wooden picture of a lion, and anything else they could find. One day that tent will just crumble to the ground as the poles give out. Back to the bush. Small but mighty.

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Posing by a termite mound and feeling happy that termites are no longer threatening to munch our home down. By the way, I had to use my nose to take this photo. The things you do when blogging.


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You, me, the sea, and all our plastic waste

My family leads a very un-aquatic life. In the South African bush, water is scarce. There are no jellyfish and puddles dry up almost instantly in the hot sun. Our two year old son loves the beach but it is a rare occasion that we get to go. We have a pile of building sand next to our driveway that was left by workers after a water pipe leaked. We also have small shell shaped paddling pool with a crack down the side. This is our ‘beach’.

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Sam’s tattoo is the only sea creature nearby.

So why is a landlubber like me writing about the sea?

I naïvely used to think that the sea was mostly safe from substantial human impact. Humans live on land and the oceans are so deep and ridiculously ginormous. Even if we spill some oil here and there and drop a bit of rubbish, I used to think that the there was so much water that it would dilute the overall impact like very weak orange squash. A drop in the ocean. The sea is too big for us to muck up too much and besides, the tide renews daily leaving pristine sand. I used to think that at least there is somewhere left on this planet where the animals can live without too much anthropogenic interference. Maybe this is one reason why I didn’t pursue marine biology. I wanted to help save the planet and I thought that the sea was doing a bit better overall. Also, the sea is a bit scary. To me, the sea is kind of like space – massive and dark and unpredictable. I feel safer on land, safer making a difference in an environment I can relate to.

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The beach in Bali.

Over the years, I realised that sadly I was completely wrong about the sea and our impact. We have mucked up the oceans too, big time. We are overfishing at a ridiculous rate – 89% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are overfished.The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a continent sized vortex of concentrated plastic waste floating in the Pacific. Although it is hard to gauge the size of the vortex, it is estimated to be about twice the size of Texas. The heart of the garbage patch is thought to be around 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles), with the periphery spanning a further 3.5m sq km (1,351,000 sq miles). That’s f***ing crazy. That f***ing disgusting. When the currents push some of the garbage patch’s waste towards a coastline, it coats the shore with thick debris. Remote uninhabited islands covered in trash. Henderson Island is about the most remote place you can visit without leaving the planet – no one lives there, it should be pristine, but it is covered in 17,000 kilograms of trash. Sea birds and fish eat our trash and die by the millions. Images of stomach contents of dead animals filled with our waste makes me feel revolted. A recent study found that nearly 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts because they mistake it for fish or eggs.

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My friend who is working in the remote Galapagos Islands shared this picture and the following message:

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A somber sight amongst the natural beauty of the Galapagos. Tiny pieces of colourful plastic collect along the shoreline amid the natural mangrove detritus. If plastic pollution is present in a place like the Galapagos, imagine the extent of it closer to more densely populated areas. All the more reason to REFUSE to use plastic wherever you can. And then Reduce Reuse and Recycle it when you can’t. Every bit of plastic you refuse to use helps. It may feel like your effort is a drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? – Photo and text by Sophie Tuppen in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador, October 2017.

Imagine what Charles Darwin would have thought rocking up in the Galapagos and seeing all this rubbish.

The ocean is not only vital for the entire planet’s health and survival but it is also symbolic for me. If the ocean’s vastness and relative remoteness from people can’t be kept clean, what does that say about our species and the future of our planet?

But here’s the good news and we really need good news. Things are changing. I like that there are ideas about launching a vast rubber boom called Boomy McBoomface to collate some of the at least 244,000 tonnes of plastic floating in the oceans and to recycle it. At least people are thinking about the problems and reacting, rather than ignoring. I love that countries, cities, businesses, and individuals are banning plastic bags, plastic straws, and single use cutlery. Kenya recently imposed the world’s toughest plastic bag ban with punishments of up to four years in jail or $40,000. Seattle is banning all plastic straws and utensils in restaurants next year.

We could learn something about reusing from Zimbabwe. When we lived in Zimbabwe, it was somewhat like living in a bygone time period. In 2007 if you could find any food to buy in the shops, the chocolate looked like this. Old school.

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You couldn’t buy single use plastic bottles or cans ten years ago (this has changed now by the way). Instead, we bought all our cool drinks or beers in retro looking slightly dented glass bottles. When we finished our drinks, we returned our empties to the shop to exchange for more. The empties were sterilised and refilled. The same bottles were used again and again by different people at different parties. The stories they could tell. It makes sense. The world should have stayed in a Zimbo style time warp with this trend. We should bring this back everywhere.

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Emptying our reusable beer bottles with friends in Zim.

The point of this post is that, even if you are like me and are not particularly connected to the sea, our rubbish and our actions are. I would like to live in a world where you could do all your shopping plastic free. In London, there is a plastic free supermarket. Toy libraries are coming back into fashion. This is a place where families can borrow good quality toys, rather than filling their homes with piles of stuff that kids grow quickly out of. I’ve also heard about clothes libraries for kids and adult clothes too. I want this to be the future. It is time to be like Zimbabwe (that’s a phrase you don’t hear very often) circa 2007 and reuse your bottles. Refuse straws. Carry refillable water bottles. It is time to buy less crap, make less waste, and be less naïve. It’s the only way for our planet to stay afloat.

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There is even rubbish in the illustrations of Noggs’ Tiddler story book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.


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Tough as a honey bastard

Sam and I are definitely predator people. The more badass the predator, the better. And there is nothing tougher than a honey badger or honey bastard as Sam accidentally said in his presentation at the recent SAWMA conference. Here’s an article about why they are so tough.

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A honey badger we watched in the Kgalagadi National Park.

We don’t have a lot of predators living at our house. We photograph mongoose and genet on our camera trap and there are leopard occasionally on the wildlife estate, although we haven’t seen one. The other day when I checked the camera trap in our driveway, we had photographed a honey badger carrying a snake egg in his mouth, which was pretty exciting and well-hard, especially since most of the snakes around here are not to be messed with.

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Finding these pictures solved the mystery of who had been digging holes in the nearby mound of dirt with snake egg shells by the entrance. We hope the honey badger will be a regular on our camera traps and we don’t mind if he munches some snake eggs or even snakes nearby. What a badass.

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We try to share all aspects of life in the bush with Noggs and explain everything we see. We let him look up close and get hands on with anything safe to touch. He has pretty good understanding of nature. He knows that spiders spin webs to catch insects and that giraffes eat leaves and that the bird that makes a loud honking noise at dusk is a hadada ibis.

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Checking out the hole. There were still yolks in the shells!

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Watching a zebra in the bush.