Friday, 24 January 2014

How can taxonomy save your life?

Taxonomy is the science of defining groups of biological organisms. Suffice to say it is not the most glamourous of biological research areas. Marine biologists and penguinologists (that’s a real job) look down with disdain on the humble taxonomist. And yet they could just be the one biologist that actually saves the lives of humans, rather than just saving those fluffy penguins.

Science has shown us that penguins are useless bastards
Credit: Hannes Grobe/AWI
The basis of my claim stems from one of the most pernicious myths in all of biology – that a daddy long legs has the most deadly venom of all spiders, although its fangs are too short to be deadly.

This is bunkum. Total nonsense. Bad science at its worst. And yet it persists in part because of poor taxonomy.

You see for many of you, a ‘daddy long legs’ is in fact nothing more sinister than a crane fly. Identified more accurately by taxonomists as one of the 15,000 or so species of large, two winged flies that make up the order Tipulidae. These large, ungainly and awkward insects are harmless to the point that not only do they not bite humans, some do not bite anything - as adults some do not eat. At all.

Crane flies - bad at flying, bad at biting
Credit: Thomas Shahan
But you may be sitting there thinking, “that’s not a daddy long legs!” Many people will call arachnids in the order Opiliones ‘daddy long legs’. These arachnids are not spiders, and nor are they scorpions, mites or solifuges (camel spiders to you and me). They are an arachnid commonly referred to in English as harvestmen – with 8 long legs and a simple oval shaped body. All harvestmen lack venom, and so just like crane flies, are entirely harmless to humans.

C'mon, this one's pretty cute, no?
Credit: Harold Hoyer
There is yet another subsection of you that still disagree with my two current descriptions of a daddy long legs. There is a Family of spiders (not like a mummy spider and a daddy spider, a whole range of similar species of spiders) called Pholcidae. The most common of these in the UK is a critter called Pholcus phalangiodes, and this is also called a daddy long legs. They're the ones you find a lot in houses that freak out if you disturb them. This is a predator evasion technique called 'whirling'.

Being a spider, it does have venom, but this doesn't mean that they’re going to kill you. In fact in the incredibly rare occasion that they do bite a person, it causes nothing more than some short-lived localised burning. If you don’t like spiders then these are the one type of spider that you should encourage because part of their diet is in fact other spiders – their long spindly legs help prevent them from getting bitten by their prey. And before you say that a spider that eats other spiders is weird, it’s no different to you eating a monkey. Or perhaps a slow loris.

The slow loris - an excellent source of protein
Credit: Jellrancher
But how does any of this save your life? Well by knowing what these creatures are, you now know how harmless they are, and you are unlikely to freak out next time you see a ‘daddy long legs’. Should you be doing something like driving a car, this will undoubtedly be beneficial to you, unlike Lucille Ellis, the Cornwall resident who crashed her car and injured another motorist after being spooked by a spider. So knowing what harmless invertebrates are may just save your life one day and it will certainly do you more good than knowing about penguins. 

Even better, all of this excellent information can be summarised in the form of a Venn diagram: 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Aussie critter list

So our Australia trip has come to an end, with hundreds of memories and (literally) thousands of photos. We have met some amazing animals and been to some incredible places so I thought I would put together a list of all of the creatures we met across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. 

Australia is a truly unique country, a really lucky land. It is amazing that with very little knowledge we were able to find so much there in just a few months. It also makes you worry that without careful planning, the amazing diversity and quantity of animal life there will not survive continued pressure from humans. The saddest thing would be if Australia become like much of the developed world - deviod of wilderness and lacking large species of animal. Thankfully there are many Aussies that love their wild places and want them protected.

All of the photos here (except 2) are of wild animals that we met on bushwalks, on beaches, in parks and even by the side of the road. They are split up into some very broad taxonomic groups, and I have done my best to identify species where possible.


Brushtailed possum
Ringtailed possum
Bart the wombat (not a wild wombat!) a southern hairynose wombat
A wild common wombat in Tassie
Wombats have square poo!
An echidna in the Dandenong hills, Victoria
Eventually found a wild platypus in Tassie
He swam around for about half an hour around dusk
Eastern grey kangaroo just out of Melbourne
A whole gang of roos!
Grey headed flying foxes in Victoria
They fly to find food at sunset, just as the outdoor cinema starts

There are loads of wallaby species, this is probably a Tasmanian Bennett's wallaby
Also in Tasmania, so probably a Bennett's
Victorian wallaby, so likely a swamp wallaby

"Are there likely to be koalas round here? Oh. There's one!"
This is also not a wild tassie devil. He's called Oscar. The Devils@Cradle sanctuary are part of the tasmanian devil conservation project, looking to protect devils against devil face tumor disease.


Crested pigeon
There are sulphur crested cockatoos all over Australia. I think they're ace.
Believe it or not, actually a wild pair of king parrots at Lake Eildon, Victoria
Australian magpie, aka the Ooglie Booglie Bird (it has a really distinctive call)
Australian pied cormorant
Black swan, not the Darren Aronofsky type
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree...
Some sort of egret
Little penguin. Awwww... So cute!
Masked lapwing
Nankeen kestrel
"Oh my god it's an ibis! Oh. They're as common as pigeons..."
Galah. The best bird in Australia and possibly the world.
You can see them in Bristol Zoo, or in just about any park in Australia
Night heron
A superb lyrebird, mid-display
Wild budgie!!
No idea what this is...

Silver gulls, smaller than a herring gull but just as lairy


Blue Mountain water skink - an endangered species
Tasmanian skink, not sure of the species

A house gecko in Queensland
Australian Water dragon
They're a common sight in Sydney
There are lots of species of freshwater turtles, these ones were in Queensland


An 11 armed sea star - count the arms!
Bull ants are not to be messed with!
Jack jumper ants, a type of bull ant. These are fiesty critters and will wave their jaws at you in a menacing way.
A false garden mantis, Pseudomantis albofimbrata
An emporer gum moth caterpillar
They're big!!
No idea what this thing is! Answers on a postcard...
Orge-faced spider
The famous huntsman spider
This redback lived right outside our front door


And finally...

You do have to be careful in some parts of Australia
If the crocs and sharks don't get you, then the jellyfish might!

And there are reminders of the real danger of the bush most places you go - not the animals, but the plants. Most species of eucalyptus are resistant to fire and some even need it to spread their seeds. Some gum trees shed bark which covers the forest in kindling and there is very little summer rain in many states. Bush fires are a real danger in the summer months, and not always restricted to rural locations. Bush fires can move faster than a car and destroy everthing in their path, but they are very much a natural part of Australia and a reminder that Westerners are only a very recent introduction to Australia. 

Of course humans have been living in Australia in a sustainable way for thousands of years. By imposing our lifestlye on Australia, Europeans have mostly brought disease, turmoil and change for indigenous Australians. That is not to say that we should all live as people have lived in Australia for ten thousand years, but properly understanding the connection and respect that the indigenous peoples have with their land is something that would benefit the wildlife and the country as a whole.