Monday, November 15, 2010

Animal of the week rehoused

Dear Followers, of which I have few, AOTW is to rise phoenix like -- or Worcester's buttonquail-like -- from obscurity. But I have rehoused the blog.

All archived and new animals are available here:

Also, I will tweet! @animaloftheweek

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Animal of the Week -- May 29, 2009

Well, it's been a while, but I can't resist reintroducing Animal of the Week on this auspicious day. For yes, today, May 29, 2009, European beavers (Castor fiber) are once again, after an absence of 400 years, living wild in the UK. A momentous occasion indeed.

Or is it? Contained beaver releases have been done on several sites in the UK, and rumours abound of illegal releases in Scotland over the past few years. This official trial of beaver reintroduction in the remote and wild Knapdale forest will determine whether Scottish authorities will spread beavers more widely over the country. English and Welsh authorities are both investigating the potential for bringing back beavers.

It's been quite a while since I have been near a beaver, and much as I am excited by the prospect of encountering the world's second largest rodent wild in the UK, I can't help but think their reintroduction is a bit of a folly. With no natural predators in the UK, and the likelihood of wolves, bears, or lynxes being brought back slim at best, if the reintroduction is a success the country could soon be overrun with beavers. Perhaps people could turn to them as a source of food to combat their spread, as some have with grey squirrels, the great rodent invader of the UK. But really, squirrel I could probably manage, but I'm not sure how I feel about eating beaver.


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Monday, April 06, 2009

Animal of the Week -- April 6, 2009

Good-day to you all,

Imagine an earthworm, colour it brown-grey with a little iridescence. Add to each of its segments, on either side (as much as a cylinder has sides), a fleshy appendage, part tentacle, part leg. Surround each appendage with bristles. To the simple opening that is the mouth of your earthworm add sensory tentacles and wide snapping pincer-like jaws. Sounds pretty gross right? .... Now, scale it up to over a metre in length. Hold that thought. Now imagine you work in a provincial aquarium where mysteriously coral has been being devoured in your reef tank, and fish in that display have been found with large chunks missing from them. You can't for the life of you work out what is causing the damage, so gradually, piece by piece, you dismantle the display. One evening, on lifting up a lump of coral, the giant worm leaps out at you -- mouth tentacles flailing, mucus dripping from its snapping jaws, fleshy appendages undulating.


Thank your lucky stars you've got a sofa to hide behind, because the hapless workers at Newquay's Blue Reef Aquarium had no such comfort when they found the 4 ft long polychaete worm, which they have since nicknamed Barry.

Polychaetes are a huge class of animals of more than 10 000 species, including free-living predators, tiny zooplankton, sedentary tube worms, and fan worms. So, I don't hold out too much hope that I should accurately identify the species in question here. However, a little online research shows that the size and habits of Barry match worms of the genus Eunice. Searching further -- the new google autocomplete function trying to direct me to Gladiators star of the 1990s, Eunice Huthart -- it seems that a very likely species is Eunice aphroditois (Bobbit worm).

Bobbit worms are large omnivorous polychaetes that inhabit pacific coral reefs. For the most part they graze on algae, but they are not averse to munching on a little coral from time to time, and their lightning quick speed enables them to also make fast food out of swimming crustaceans and fish ( Barry is typical size of a large Bobbit worm, although they reportedly reach 3 m in length.

The species common name is after Lorena Bobbit, famed for dismembering her husband John Wayne Bobbit. After mating, the female worms often use their lightning attack to bite off and devour their mates' private parts. You might think the allusion to Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, in the species name something of an odd choice for a creature that looks and behaves the way of a Dr Who monster. However, one of the stories of Aphrodite's origin is that Gaia, sick of Uranus imprisoning the children she had with him, gave her son Cronos a sickle and ordered him to seek revenge by castrating his father. Dutifully Cronos carried out his mother's wishes and threw his father's parts into the sea, from the discarded tackle grew beautiful Aphrodite who was born to shore on briny foam, or perhaps a clam shell.

Happy easter,

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Animal of the Week -- March 30, 2009

So yeah, I realise that over the past two years I have been about as regular as a Russian gymnast. I guess since I last sent one out you'll all have new jobs and new emails and won't get this. I know I have, and won't.

Anyway, I am going to plough on, but as I try to revive this whole animal of the week thing -- bringing it back from the brink of extinction by transplanting the DNA from hair follicle found stuck to a bottle of gin in my freezer into the nucleus of a closely related blog and hoping that the resulting embryos survive to term -- I'll try to keep this brief.

For one reason or another this Sunday, I missed Yellowstone, the BBC series about the world's first national park, but when I got home that evening I went straight to the iPlayer thinking I would find it there. But on the front page of said tool was an invitation I couldn't resist. Fish! A Japanese Love Story. Part of BBC4's Japan season, this hour and a half documentary followed a British angler exploring the Japanese passion for fish. From a flayed snapper flapping on a plate of its own sushi, to koi carp worth millions and a whale barbecue, the show was a real delight -- if somewhat gruesome.

One of the most highly prized food fish in Japan is this weeks animal of the week, Takifugu rubripes (fugu, Japanese pufferfish). So highly poisonous that, like his forefathers into the mists of time, Emperor Akihito is not allowed to eat it lest he succumb, the flesh of fugu can only be prepared by licensed sushi chefs, and several people every year die from having eaten poorly prepared fugu. Assimilating neurotoxins from bacteria in the animals it eats, the livers and ovaries of these fish, if eaten, leave the victim completely conscious but totally paralysed until he or she dies of asphyxiation -- the toxin is several times more potent than cyanide. But the small amounts of the toxin found in the skin and flesh of the fish produce a pleasant numbness when eaten.

Farmed fugu that are completely non-toxic, are now available, although the Japanese Fugu Association apparently still bans the consumption of their livers, and the emperor has yet to taste. Fugu are a model organism in genetics with their genomes having been entirely sequenced. For some reason, fugu lack much extraneous genetic material and have about the bare minimum DNA for a vertebrate to function.

Be warned that various bits of the excellent BBC documentary (!_A_Japanese_Obsession/) are quite gruesome, especially the sections on preparing snapper and fugu -- while the Japanese clearly love fish, cultural views of the importance of animal welfare vary throughout the world. Sounds a bit too much for you to stomach? Whenever I think of fugu, I think of the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer eats some and is convinced he will die; the restaurant in which he eats the fugu naturally has a karaoke bar, in which Bart and Lisa do an excellent rendition of the Theme From Shaft (

I thought I was keeping it brief? Oh!

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Animal of the Week -- February 2, 2009

Time for the familiar refrain of "Sorry about the gap"

But January was full of taxes. I have never done my self-assessment tax-return before, so it was all a bit new. But you know what? Moira Stewart and the rest of them may well be right -- taxes don't have to be taxing. They do, however, have to be blindingly tedious. It was like doing revision for GCSEs again, sit down to do it and then drift off into a private reverie, try to learn Yankee-Doodle on an out of tune ukelele, wash-up, eat, wash-up, eat, go out for dinner -- anthing to avoid the tax and largely avoid looking at a computer screen. All I seem to have thought about for the past month is tax: the fact that I had to do my tax return, the fact that I had not yet done my tax return, the fact that when actually sat at the computer "doing my tax return" I was spending more time reading the individual wikipedia pages on ancient Hollyoaks characters than I was doing my tax. Tax tax tax tax TAX. So here I am, a stone heavier and a hefty wedge of my bank account lighter.

Anyway, the walk (or more appropriately skate) to work this morning, dodging the falling penguins and musk ox on the way to Kennington station, inspired me to finally put the nightmare of tax behind me and get back on track with AOTW. So, without a further thought for tax and the tediousness of January, and the tax bill I just paid so that all public infrastructure can grind to a halt with a dusting of snow; no, with no thought of tax, this week's animal is the leech.

Related to earthworms, leeches are a huge group of squidgy worms, renowned for sucking the very lifeblood of humans. Some of them provide useful medical services, but mostly they are just a waste of time and space.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Animal of the Week -- December 22, 2008

If you have ever wondered why Santa, living somewhere around the North Pole, didn't turn to huskies to pull his sleigh, or maybe polar bears, or musk ox, all you need to know that all those animals have morbid fear of heights; they'd be no good -- seriously, if you've ever tried to talk a musk ox down a steep flight of stairs, you'll know what I'm talking about. But Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem, aided by a little Christmas magic, merrily take to the sky to distribute presents to all the kiddywinks who have been good throughout the year.

Reindeer, or caribou as they are known in North America, are the archetypal herbivore of the Arctic distributed from Norway to Norway all the way around wherever there is land and a smattering of lichen. With their large noses for warming ingoing air and collecting precious water from exhaled air, their thick double coats that are so well insulated the animals can lie on snow without causing it to melt, and their feet that change with the season to provide traction on ice in the winter and mud in the summer, no animals could be better suited to the snow spangled taiga forest of Siberia or the open frozen tundra of Canada.

Throughout Eurasia, native peoples of the high arctic have commonly domesticated, or partly domesticated reindeer, and the appearance of the animals in cave paintings suggests that for millenia reindeer have been important to humans as a source of food and materials for clothing and food. Now, only a few truly wild populations remain in Europe, but huge wild herds remain in Canada and the US. Across their range there are various subspecies: the small Svalbard reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus), European wild reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), and the porcupine caribou (R. tarandus granti). Perhaps the best known subspecies is R. tarandus rufinostris.

Reindeer mostly eat lichen,but they also browse on shrubs and, in the autumn, they have a particular fondness for mushrooms. Some reindeer herders exploit the deer's love of mushrooms -- after feeding their herds with fly agarics (fat red mushrooms with white spots), the herders drink the reindeers urine which contains hallucinogenic chemicals from the mushroom. Strangely, drinking reindeer wizz makes the herders less sick than would eating the mushrooms themselves. Suddenly, the origins of the idea of a jolly fat man clad in red and white traversing the heavens on a sleigh pulled by flying deer start to become clear.

Merry Chrimble One and All

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Animal of the Week -- November 10, 2008

"The sea has its large rivers like the continents. They are special currents known by their temperature and their colour. The most remarkable of these is known by the name of the Gulf Stream. Science has decided on the globe the direction of five principal currents: one in the North Atlantic, a second in the South, a third in the North Pacific, a fourth in the South, and a fifth in the southern Indian Ocean. It is even probable that a sixth current existed at one time or another in the northern Indian Ocean, when the Caspian and Aral seas formed but one vast sheet of water."

So mused Professor Aronnax aboard Captain Nemo's Nautilus in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

It is such rivers that helped this week's animal, Megaleledone setebos become the forebear of many species of deep sea octopus. A study from the Census of Marine Life show that this unassuming octopus of shallow Antarctic waters is the likely forebear for many diverse species of deep-sea octopuses. Researchers believe that ocean currents, such as Professor Aronnax's rivers, carried larvae from the shallow Antarctic waters to the deep sea where, in isolation, and under the new selective pressure (quite literally in the deep oceans) they diverged into separate species. The idea that a living species is the ancestor of others is mighty exciting. It's like stumbling across the last common ancestor of chimps and humans alive [Have you been to Norfolk lately? -- Ed].

The development of these rivers, or thermohaline expressways, is associated with expansion of the ice caps, as fresh water is sequestered in ice caps, concentrated cold salt water sinks helping to create the currents that then flow into the deep oceans -- carrying species from shallower waters with them. Successive periods of activity of these currents related to global warming and cooling create successive waves of immigration to deep sea areas leading to a greater diversity.

As cold waters sink away from the poles, warm waters are pushed and drawn towards them, hence the Gulf Stream keeps the UK and other parts of northwestern Europe, which should be as cold as Canada, ice free. As human-generated global warming melts the ice caps, the Gulf Stream may be disrupted, actually causing temporary cooling of the British Isles and Norway... before we all fry, starve, and die in wars over access to water and Ambre Solaire.

Happy days

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