Andean Condor

Many countries around the world have a national bird, from the bright and beautiful toucan in Belize, to the tremendous falcon of Hungary (not to mention the mighty Wood Pidgeon in Britain), but no other bird around the world has the symbolism and cultural importance of the Andean Condor. One of the largest birds in the world, the pair living in Berlin is an impressive addition to the Zoologischer Garten.

Trumped only by some varieties of pelican and albatross, the Condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world with an average wingspan of 3m or greater, and often weighing in at over 10kg, depending on gender. Unusually for birds of prey, the male Condor is almost invariably larger than the female, and can reach an incredible 16kg at largest, making them the heaviest bird in the world. The plumage is an imposing black, with a white ruff and tail feathers, although the males tend to have far more pronounced plumage. The males have a distinctive red comb on their head, and like the turkey, tend to form a wattle about the throat as they age.

A female condor sitting in Berlin Zoo.

“Impressive wingspan.”

It is one of 7 species of New World Vultures, only two of which are designated as Condors (the other being the highly endangered Californian Condor), and like the classic Old World Vultures of Africa and Western Asia, the Andean Condor rarely hunts, instead scavenging for carrion. The vulture’s distinctive hooked bill for rending putrid flesh, and the bald head which prevents potentially infectious pieces of rotting meat from being caught in the plumage and harming the bird, are both found in the Condor, however, unlike their Old World cousins, the Andean Condor has an extremely sensitive sense of smell, which it uses to find new meals, while the Old World Vultures use almost exclusively sight. The talons on the Condor are also underdeveloped and blunt, a result of years of feeding on prey that is already dead, and making their capacity for finishing off weaker prey fairly poor.

Found throughout eastern South America, from Bolivia and Venezuela in the north and winding all the way down (you’ve guessed it) the Andes, the Condor has inhabited the same rolling highlands and open hunting plains that were the cradle of human civilization on the continent some 5000 yeas ago. In the Incan culture, the Condor was considered a servant of the sun, and the only bird strong and powerful enough to carry spirits to ‘Hanan Pacha’ or the upper world, where the sun and moon resided. When Pachakuti united the Incan tribes from his throne in Cusco, he stressed the importance of the sun god Inti, even over the previous father god Wiraqucha; indeed the next emperors of the Incan Empire would claim lineage from the sun god, and thus the Condor was launched into a position of great importance in the culture, and many artefacts depicting the Andean Condor survive today.

Even now, the Condor is the symbol of vast swathes of South America, seen as the national bird of Argentina ,Bolivia, Chile, Columbia and Ecuador. They represent health and power, and are the subject of many local festivals and ceremonies. In Peru, sometimes a Condor is strapped to the back of a bull during a bullfight, allowing the bird to slowly claw the bull to death during the battle; a symbol of South America’s supremacy over the Spanish colonizers. Luckily, in this ceremony, the Condor is normally unharmed and is later released, but some rituals explicitly involve clubbing the animal to death, which is a terrible shame for such a long-lived bird (current holder of the oldest bird record and possessing a lifespan often over 50 years long), particularly when they must also contend with increasing destruction of habitat and secondary poisoning from the carcasses they eat. I hope that in the future, the Condor will continue to be treated with the respect and reverence it has earned in the last few thousand years, and continues to dominate the skies of the Andes.

Przewalski’s Horse

When you think of wild horses, your mind is either cast to the wide open prairies of the American mid west, or to a popular song by the Rolling Stones. However, the last truly wild horse species in the world cannot be found in Nevada or Utah, but instead on the rolling steppes of Mongolia (or in this case in the Berlin Zoologischer Garten). Horse varieties commonly thought to be wild, such as the Mustang, are in fact descended from domesticated horses brought to America during colonisation, which were later released and adapted to their environment, making them a breed of domesticated horse, E. ferus caballus. The Przewalski’s Horse, on the other hand, has never been domesticated, and is a separate subspecies of horse, E. ferus przewalskii.

Named after the Russian explorer who first reported them, the Przewalski are normally dun coloured horses, with pale bellies and dark manes, and are stocky in build with shorter legs than most domesticated horse breeds. Their behaviour is not so different from that of their close cousins, staying in small family packs led by a dominant male, although they exhibit a few properties that many species in the Central Asian share, such as a far more nomadic and migratory lifestyle than most horses, and possibly the ability to slow their metabolic reactions in winter, entering a form of semi-hibernation which allows them to survive when there is little grazing to be found.

A small herd of horses on the Zoo's cobbles.

Most interesting of all is the low genetic diversity of the Przewalski’s Horse. During the 1900, these animals saw a decline in their numbers due to hunting, competition with herds of grazing livestock, some particularly harsh winters and even the conflicts of WWII, and by the late 60s, only two populations survived in the world, at the Zoos in Munich and Prague. All examples of Przewalski’s Horse today are the descendants of the 15 or so individuals in those exhibits, which has created a genetic bottleneck that increases the likelihood of detrimental mutations expressing in the subspecies on a large scale. Luckily, like the Arabian Oryx, which was reduced to 7 individuals in the past, the horses are doing well in reintroduction programs to areas of Siberia, Yakut and Mongolia, and enjoy a large population in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, created after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor experienced a meltdown.

The fact that Przewalski’s Horse has been able to come back from so few individuals with the help of conservationists is a real inspiration. I hope we will continue to replicate this success with other endangered species across the globe.

Javan Slow Loris

The Berlin Zoologischer Garten has one of the largest and most extensive night houses that I’ve ever seen. Not content to simply fill a room with thousands of flitting bats, they display an exciting array of interesting nocturnal animals from all over the world, terrariums filled with aardvarks, spring hares, blind moles, gerbils and, most impressively, a Javan Slow Loris. The Javan Slow Loris is a small arboreal mammal, around 600 grams in weight, with long brown and cream coloured fur, which form up in a distinctive forked band running down its back. It gets its name from its slow, deliberate movements, lifting itself from branch to branch at an almost leisurely pace, which displays the Loris’s strong grip and unique muscle structure that allows it to hang from branches with little effort (similar to the locking grip of sloths, a better known soporific mammal). This slow movement however, doesn’t mean that the Loris has nothing to fear in it’s native jungles, rather using its slow and steady pace to move through the night in almost perfect silence, becoming totally still when approached by a predator, and capable of surprising bursts of speed when in danger. Perhaps most interesting of all, the Javan Slow Loris, and indeed all Slow Loris, are capable of giving a toxic bite, a rare feature among mammals which is mainly seen in various kinds of shrew and vampire bat. A small gland on the arm of the Loris creates this toxin when mixed with the Loris’s saliva, not only allowing it a nasty bite, but also allowing the toxin to be groomed into the fur of juvenile Loris’ by their mothers, providing extra protection against opportunistic predators.

Due to the nature of the Night House, I was unable to take a picture of Berlin’s native Slow Loris, but I can provide a stock image.

The Javan Slow Loris, as its name might suggest, is endemic to the South East Asian island of Java in Indonesia, where the thick tropical jungles suit their arboreal lifestyle. The Javan Loris was originally classified as a Sunda Slow Loris, but small differences in size, fur length and geographical location lead to its reclassification. The are omnivorous, moving almost 20m up through the Javan canopy, eating fruits, bird eggs, small insects and reptiles, and even native cocoa beans (making them mutual lovers of chocolate with humans). They are totally nocturnal, relying on their large eyes and excellent sense of hearing for navigation, and stay curled up on branches during the day, often in pairs or larger groups, forming adorable collection of sleeping fluff balls hanging from the canopy.

Unfortunately, the Javan Slow Loris is considered critically endangered, in no small part do to their illegal trade as ‘exotic’ and interesting pets. They are easy to capture during the day as they hang from trees and their slow movement is desirable to pet owners. They are not, however, easy to keep, and pet Loris often become stressed and diseased without the correct care, and additionally, many Loris have their teeth pulled in order to prevent their toxic bites from affecting their ‘loving’ owners, which only adds to their suffering. Deforestation of the Java also contributes to the Loris’s decline, as (like the Giant Panda) the Loris is too slow moving to make it through the increasingly fragmented jungles, effectively isolating populations from each other. In light of their critical position and vulnerability as an endemic species, it was a real treat to see such a healthy Loris so close, and I hope that breeding and conservation programs between institutions like the Berlin Zoologischer Garten helps to alleviate the stress the species is under.

Scuba Diving in Malta

My school diving club goes on a trip to Malta every year,  to dive in the crystal clear waters and coral-encrusted wrecks of the coast of the small island. As well as enjoying the varied and colourful sea life, I also needed to complete several dives and learn new techniques in order to progress to my BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) Sports Diver qualification, the next step up from the Ocean Diver. The dives were far different to the ones I had in Plymouth Harbour, as this time I was actually able to see through the water, and the variety of different locations we visited was absolutely fantastic.

Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean ocean, just below Sicily, and due to the mixture of underwater shelves, caves, reefs and sandy beds, it provides an excellent home to a wide variety of Mediterranean species, both sheltered and in the open water. Fish like groupers and bream are extremely common, and tiny carnival-coloured parrot fish scrape away at the rocky cliff faces while hunting for food. In addition to fish, I saw three octopuses while diving in an area called Cirkewwa, two of which were hiding in rocky crevasses, but one, as we ascended to the surface was out in the open, trying to blend in with the rocks on the vertical shelf. Most of the life under the ocean was completely harmless, even scorpion fish and fireworms only injuring people foolhardy enough to touch them. The moray eels, however, were more aggressive, and were known to actively lash out at people on occasion, and although this was fairly rare, we were warned to keep our hands away from them unless we wanted to lose a finger.

The wrecks and swimthroughs were astounding, watching the pale blue light filter the holes in the decks of tugboats, tunnels and even an East German torpedo boat. It felt like we were exploring a piece of history, sunk down to the bottom of the ocean and forgotten about. One of the most exciting dives was into an underwater cave, navigating to the entrance, and entering a huge black hole in the side of the cliff, hermit crabs and other creatures scuttling around in the blackness, with only two beams of light from our torches to show us to way. We surfaced inside the cave, which was surprisingly warm, and found ourselves in a high ceilinged cavern somewhere underneath Malta. It was a truly bizarre experience.

After a day at the shallow reefs near Qawra Point we rounded off the trip with a day around Malta’s beautiful capital city of Valletta, built by the Knights Hospitaller in the 1500s, and a tour around the Maltese National Aquarium just nearby our hotel, which was full of the moray eels, common rays and huge groupers that we had not yet seen while diving around the island. Malta was an absolutely fantastic trip, and I hope I can go back some day to enjoy the warm Mediterranean waters again.

Hatching Baby Cuttlefish

While with the MBA in Plymouth for work experience, I was given a chance to help in the facilities wet labs, an area of the building that is kept specifically to maintain experiments and studies that require live species. This may include breeding programs, testing new equipment, behavioural studies, and numerous other useful facets. Alix, the lab technician, needed our help moving cuttlefish eggs, bulbous sacs that grow of strips of organic matter like grapes on a vine, to a shallower tank where the baby cuttlefish could be more easily seen and cared for when they hatched. They need these cuttlefish as they are excellent subjects for tests, fairly adaptable and intelligent. 30 or so will be raised into adults each breeding cycle, and the rest will be released back into the ocean.

We place grape-like eggs into the tray.

The eggs contain tiny cuttlefish, identical to the adult animal in every way except for size, something which is fairly unusual in marine animals, most of which will go through an extensive larval stage. With a 5:1 male to female cuttlefish ratio, competition between males is high, often ending in confrontations and fights in which they will grapple each other, in an attempt to immobilise the competitor. Larger males will guard the females they have mated with in their dens, waiting for them to lay their eggs so they can find a new mate. Without this protection it is likely that other males would intercept the female and fertilise her, reducing the number of eggs in her brood belonging to the original male. Even with him standing guard, sneakier males can still slip by his defences, hiding their extra arms and changing their body colour in an attempt to disguise themselves as a female. The unsuspecting male lets them into his den, only for what it thought was another mate to fertilise the female and run. Interestingly, it seems that cuttlefish can learn about and adapt to their environment while still in the egg, showing a preference for food sources kept near the unhatched egg.

As we began picking the eggs of the rope they had grown on, and into a shallow tray of water, the cuttlefish (which were near ready to hatch) became stimulated by the movement and began to leave their eggs. The tiny animals would bite through the thin protective layer and push backwards out of the egg, using the water jets on the front of their face to propel themselves out into the water, searching for cover. We scooped up the newborns with a small net, placing them in a bucket for safekeeping. Sadly, one of the babies was born deformed, unable to properly float and would be likely to die very quickly in the wild. With a lot of suffering ahead of it, the technicians chose to put it down instead, placing it in a diluted tranquiliser before overdosing it, much like a vet would do to a suffering pet. By the time we had all the eggs, nearly 100 cuttlefish had hatched, and soon we had a tank of them whizzing about the water, hunting mysida shrimp we had caught for them earlier that day.

Seeing the baby cuttlefish come in to the world was amazing, as cuttlefish are some of the most intelligent and interesting animals in the ocean, with great social and behavioural capabilities. I really loved working with them, and hope that soon I’ll get a chance to see more cuttlefish up close.

Mysid Collecting

The MBA building is home to a large number of live animals which all require different and complicated things to survive. The biologists working with the live animals have been working to find the best ways to ensure that their specimens active and happy, not only for the creatures sake, but also to help improve the quality of the results their experiments yield. Cuttlefish are kept in the saltwater tanks, and the babies they breed require live prey to feed on. Mysida are an order of crustaceans, unique in their use of a kangaroo-like pouch to keep their live young in. Filter feeders, they prey on small planktonic species and pieces of organic debris, which they drag into their mouth using the front legs, and because of this are often a good sign of nutrient rich water, feeding heartily during algal blooms. In appearance, they are small shrimps, red or transparent in colour, and live around in world in both freshwater and saltwater.

This bag is utterly teeming with tiny Mysida.

Their size, abundance and high nutritional value makes them the perfect food for baby cuttlefish, and we were sent out to a nearby estuary to catch some. At low tide, the tiny Mysids are so common that you can barely wave your net through the water without catching some, and sweeping through a cloud will quickly gather up hundreds of tiny, wriggling bodies. Setting out with bags of fresh water, we quickly swept up as many as we could, conscious that spending to long or overfilling the bags would mean the Mysids would run out of oxygen and soon asphyxiate. Luckily it was a good day for gathering them, and after only 20 minutes we had enough to feed the new-born cephalopods. Although we sprung several leaks on the climb back up to the bank, perseverance meant we lost very little of our precious cargo. Triumphant, we rushed back to the MBA building, wanting to get the new feedstock in a tank as soon as possible.

Fish Larvae Dissection

While working on plankton with Dave, at the MBA labs, we were shown a collection of tiny larval fish, a mixture of pilchards and sprat, that had been previously captured and preserved in alcohol. To find out more about the lives of the fish in the sea, we need to understand the behaviour they show early in their lives. This includes what they eat. With a larger fish, this is as simple as catching it and recording the debris that falls out of their stomachs. On a larval fish, however, a dissection is not so easy, requiring a microscope, needles, steady hands and a lot of patience.

The guts are hanging out of this microscopic fish.

When the fish first go into the alcohol, they will often vomit up the contents of their bellies, leaving nothing behind for us to find except for lines of tubed intestine. Luckily, we couldn’t really spill the fish’s guts as we had never done it before, and it was harder than you might think. Dave himself has done thousands of such dissections and can now be considered a master. Looking under the microscope, I savagely ripped apart three tiny fish in search of the plankton that they were supposed to eat, finding it easier to take apart the smaller, squatter fish as their innards were visible from outside the fish, instead of stretched across the longer larvae. Eventually I managed to produce a small skeleton from one of the fish, the calcified remains of phytoplankton called cocoliths, the same type that form the chalk downs near my house, and the white Dover cliffs.

It was an interesting and challenging task, taking me several tries to yield even one measly plankton corpse, but with time and experience, people can find out what species these little fish consume, and tell us more about the miniature ecosystem that we can’t see.

Plymouth Plankton Study

The wonderful thing about studying plankton is that they are not a single species, but rather the collection of hundreds of creatures too small to move any great distance without the assistance of ocean currents. It’s like looking at a tiny ecosystem that exists in every cubic meter of the sea, comprising of plant-like phytoplankton, tiny hunting zooplankton and larvae of animals such as crabs, fish and bivalves. Every species is wildly different, with each tiny body under the microscope having a unique lifestyle.

Resident plankton expert of the MBA, Dave, took us out to observe the plankton life living in the Plymouth Harbour, just a stones throw away from the labs. Taking a fine, cone-shaped net attached to a high tech jam jar, he filtered a selection of plankton straight from the water. He only walked about 20m with the net in the water, and it wasn’t at all deep, but the wide variety of life we found under the microscope was astonishing. Even knowing that plankton were a diverse form of life, with around 5000 species in Plymouth alone, it was shocking to see the variety of each tiny lifeform.

High quality net, and an even higher quality jam jar.

Some species of plankton have extremely complex lifecycles, in particular the species of meroplankton, which are only planktonic for the first part of their lives, eventually turning into the larger sea species everybody commonly enjoys in their rock pools. The barnacle is an excellent example of this, living in two planktonic stages, a free-swimming nauplis which moults around 5 times before becoming a non-feeding cyprid which will use its oil energy reserves to burrow into an area of rock, ready to take root and become a sedentary adult. Looking down the microscope we saw such barnacle cyprids, comb jellyfish, which aren’t the same as true jellyfish, water fleas, algae and tiny fish.

It was extremely interesting to see what microscopic life was living in every cubic inch of water that covers the earth, a truly amazing prospect considering the size of our oceans. Countless billions of tiny organisms live around us, too small to see, and all too often out of mind.

Plymouth Fish Survey

Having spent a day surveying oysters on my MBA work experience week, my group and I went out to the Plymouth coast to look at some of the more charismatic denizens of the ocean. Where the estuary mouth meets the south coast, there is a remarkable selection of both freshwater and saltwater aquatic life living in the shallow bracken beaches. These areas are devoid of larger predators that would happily eat smaller marine life, and so make fantastic nursery grounds for young fish and crustaceans hiding in the sand. Taking our push and sweep nets in hand, we waded into the crystal waters to stir up fish life living under the surface.

We used two kinds of net to scour the estuary bed, large push nets which stirred up the sediment and captured the creatures that were revealed and smaller, finer sweep nets which could be used the capture smaller fish in clumps of seaweed or small rock formations. Spreading out and searching, we found a wide selection of flatfish in the knee deep water, as well as a wide selection of crabs, shrimp, sand eels, and, much to our delight, a large pipefish from among the short greenery. The flatfish were identified as a variety of young flounder and plaice, which look extremely similar apart from the small sharp spikes that can be felt on the sides of the flounder, setting it apart from the smooth plaice. We placed the animals into little trays while we collected, much like when I went pond thrashing with Matthew Smith, then chased the slippery customers about with our hands, trying to hold the still for measurements. The lesser pipefish, with it’s winding serpentine body and long nose was an immediate favourite – our catch of the day.

A lesser pipefish, held captive in a temporary tank, awaiting measurement.

We then moved onto the ocean itself, stretching out for mile upon mile of open blue. Ordinary nets would be of little use here, we’d be up to our necks in water before we saw anything, and so we brought out a huge weighted net. Three of the group brought the net out into the ocean, while the rest of us kept the net on the sea floor and near the shore, creating a semicircle of water, from which no fish could hope to escape from. Dragging the net in, we scrambled to seize the myriad of flatfish, such as flounder, turbot, plaice and brill, sandsmelts, baby sand eels and gobi.

It was a brilliant time out on the beach, and I learnt a huge amount about the fish species living around Plymouth. I feel sorry for all of the people on the beach building sandcastles and taking in the sun, instead of having such a good time with the marine life all around them.


Velvet Swimming Crab

While surveying the Pacific Oyster population on Batten Bay, Jack lifted several smaller rocks that littered the coastline, giving us a glimpse of the wildlife that was hiding under the seaweed forests that covered the lower shore. At first glance, most animals on the rocky landscape seemed stationary and with little diversity. Limpets and oysters dominated the rocky areas and on the sandy beaches tiny common crabs scuttled, giving the only sign of movement. The Plymouth coastline, however, is one of the most diverse habitats in Britain. Hidden beneath the sand, there is a wide range of snails, tiny nudibranchs, sea spiders and most noticeably, this creature:

A Velvet Swimming Crab, raising its claws in absolute fury.

The Velvet Swimming Crab is one of the largest crabs that can be found on the British coast, preferring areas of sheltered shore, such as the crannies of the large slate formations across Batten Bay. Commonly found across Europe in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, easily identifiable by the blue and red stripes around the eyes and carapace, and the tiny hairs across the back that give it the ‘velvet’ part of its name. It’s paddle like back legs allow it to swim in high tides, rather than being forced to scuttle on the sea floor. Extremely aggressive for a crab of its size, it is little wonder that these crabs are sometimes called Devil Crabs, and even as I held it firmly from the back, I could feel it trying to turn and assault my fingers. This is an example of some of the larger creatures that make up the Plymouth aquaculture, but there are many other species hiding under rocks, just out off sight.