Naming the animals: the key to happiness and saving the planet

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mini cuttlefish love

I’ve just spent a very happy evening with a couple of field guides to the seashore and the internet. I’d forgotten how fun a spot of low water fishing is. It’s something we were always taken to do on our childhood summer holidays on the costa del English Channel but it’s an activity I have sorely neglected over the past quarter century (unless you include a freezing cold undergrad field trip from which I retain my only remaining knowledge of littoral ecology: Ascophillim nodosum, and Fucus serratus – seaweed to the likes of you and me)

But now I’m back walking miles out on the exposed shore, next stop France, making childhood memories with my own children. Despite considering myself a zoologist (of sorts) I was all at sea with this task of identification. Here were creatures (some probably aren’t strictly even creatures ) with a bewildering variety of body plans and phylogenetic weirdness, in contrast to the rather conventional stuff that I’m used to (ie vertebrates, namely birds).

We caught all the usual stuff: prawns, crabs, and fish of all kinds: baby pollack, gobies and little tiny flatfish, invisible against the sand, but which flapped tickling around our feet as we walked through the shallows.20130728-134649.jpg

But my favorite was a darling cuttlefish in miniature (Sepiola  atlantica) caught by my daughter in a limpet shell. There it sat with enormous eyes and sporting a lovely leopard print design which rapidly changed to a deep purple when rudely prodded by its captor. When we put it back in the sandy pool it shoogled itself down into the sand and left nothing but a pair of eyes showing.

We also caught a straight-nosed pipefish (Nerophis ophidion) – that cross between a sea-horse and a bootlace, hanging out among the long brown strands of Chorda filum seaweed.

A brown blob covered with exquisitely beautiful yellow stars caused some consternation during my battle with the field guides and I have, at last, identified it as an Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri), a colony of tiny sea-squirts. Improbably the larvae of this colonial blob, which resemble little tadpoles, are thought to be what gave rise to the very first vertebrates. I unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of this distant relative for the family album as it was lost in the excitement of clearing a bucket for the cuttlefish.

We also found a pale hairy lozenge, around 10cm long which must have been a long dead and bleached sea mouse – Aphrodite aculeata – a seriously weird kind of worm

And an orange spongy thing with a structure a bit like a brain, or a tightly wrapped intestine, remains completely unidentified as it, too, was lost in the scramble to contain the cuttlefish.

The weirdest was a blob of transparent jelly, roughly cylindrical and attached to the sand with a kind of stalk. It appeared to have absolutely no internal structure at all so I ruled out the usual IDs the Internet offers for blobs of jelly on a beach – comb jellies, jellyfish or sea squirts. However I did read a passing reference in a website about bait digging, that there is a ragworm which catches its prey using a transparent jelly-like net….. I wonder.

All this is grist to the mill of my recent ponderings about people’s connection with the natural world around them. I have been asking myself whether the ability to name a species (or in this case find out their names with a great deal of effort), adds to the pleasure of experiencing nature. Do people who can name the trees they pass on the way to work, or the weeds growing from a wall, or the birds they hear in the morning gain more pleasure than those who pass them in blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the name of something are you less likely to even notice it is there?

I am wondering whether knowledge of the unconventional domestic arrangements of the dunnock, or that swift chicks go into torpor as their parents search for food for up to three days at a time adds to the experience of seeing another brown bird in the big city. I certainly believe that it adds a huge richness to my own experience of my immediate environment, whether in the city or at the seaside.

While I was scurrying about at low water looking under fronds of seaweed, my colleagues have been doing a bioblitz at a brand new reserve purchased as an extension to RSPB Inch marshes. Scores of them, with partners from BugLife and other NGOs were finding as many species as they could on the site from mushrooms to mites and from mammals to moths. This is both serious conservation, and training for staff, but it is also pleasure.

As Bob Dylan sang, quoting from its origin in Genesis, ‘man gave names to all the animals‘. It seems to me that humans really do have a drive to name the living things we share our planet with. And that, by knowing their names, and something about them, we increase our pleasure in our everyday encounters with nature and find a connection with it.

And if we start to notice more of nature around us, and take pleasure in it, won’t it be that little bit harder for it to be lost?

Postscript: if anyone out there knows what the orange spongy thing was, or the cylindrical jelly blob, please do put me out of my misery.

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I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know what this is. Could it be a rock goby?

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Scotland’s ‘Big Five’

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Scotland’s ‘Big Five’ wildlife stars are, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, Red Squirrel, Seal, Golden Eagle, Otter and Red Deer. Today they launched a competition to ask ‘What’s your ‘Big Five?

Never being the type who shrinks from having an opinion I am entering a Cuil Bay big five.

Number 1: White tailed Eagle. These magnificent creatures, once extinct in Scotland, are making a remarkable comeback. Still rare, the best place to see them is on the Isle of Mull, just down Loch Linnhe. But sea eagles are regularly seen in the area and my best view was a juvenile flying low with a backdrop of the slopes of Garbh Bheinn as I walked around the peninsular.

Number 2. Golden Eagle. Am I allowed to have eagles for my top two? Of course! They are amazing and Cuil is sandwiched between two areas recently designated as special protection areas for Golden Eagles

Number 3. Otter. These beautiful, lithe, graceful and captivating animals can be seen right around the coast. Once when out in a Canadian canoe I saw one playing in the water not far from the boat. We stopped paddling and it dived, only to resurface on rocks a few metres from us. It then proceeded to eat a crab it had caught and we could hear every crunch and crack of the carapace.

Number 4. Gannet. I really wanted to just put ‘seabirds’ for this one but I don’t think it is within the spirit of the exercise. Scotland has the most wonderful diversity of seabirds nesting around its rugged coasts and you can’t sit for long at the shore at Cuil without seeing some. In summer and autumn huge rafts of auks: guillimots, puffins, razorbills, can be seen bobbing about in Loch Linnhe following the balls of sandeels. Mackerel are also in pursuit, and the graceful, ghostly gannets.

The gannets have come from Ailsa Craig, a hundred miles to the south, their isolated nesting rock off the Ayrshire Coast. They are perfect fishing machines, white with wingtips as if dipped in ink. They spot the fish from a height of 30m and then dive like an arrow, closing their wings to enter the water at speeds of 100km/hr

Number 5. Red Deer. It is a great experience to see a herd of red deer, especially when it is hard-won after a long mountain walk. I know that, due to the large number of deer in the highlands, they are causing great damage to trees and preventing regeneration of woodland. But I still love them. The best place to go and see red deer is to go up into the mountains anywhere nearby. Ensure you have the right equipment including a map and compass as the hills can be treacherous. Listen out for the roaring during the Autumn rut.

If you feel inspired to enter your own big five you can do it here.

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