Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
March / 2016 - Michael Ryan
Observer newspaper had a feature on a photographer Joel Sartore, who
intends photographing 12,000 species of animals. He has already photographed
5,500 species and some of his photos of primates were featured in
the article. There were orang utan, macaque, lemurs and gibbon, not
in their natural habitats but photographed in what looked like a portrait
studio setting, close up shots against white or dark backdrops, well-lit
and pin sharp. Many of the primates photographed are looking directly
at the camera, with expressions that range from slightly anxious to
intense curiosity to mild boredom but all have expressions we could
recognise among ourselves.
In reality the apes and lemurs in the photos rather than gazing soulfully at the camera were often concentrating on food held by or behind the photographer although Sartore says many of the smaller species of apes would be so fascinated by their own reflection their breath would fog up the lens. Hanging backdrops would often be torn down, especially by the chimpanzees who he has yet never been able to photograph, so painted backdrops had to be used for many of the shots.
It’s well worth looking at the photos which you can find by doing a online search for Photo Ark which is linked to National Geographic’s own website. Although spectacular photographs of Snow Leopards and Rhinoceros capture the splendour of these animals which could soon disappear from the wild it’s equally sad when you learn that the Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog photographed is believed to be the only surviving individual of its species. I was fortunate to be able to attend an outing organised by the Dublin Naturalist Field Club in January. There outings are usually outdoors and cover all manner of subjects from lichens to fungi, native flora to birds and bats but this particular outing was held indoors. Not normally open to the public a large building in the former barracks complex at Beggar’s Bush houses the Natural History Collections Research Building which contains many of the undisplayed objectsfrom the Natural History Museum, as well as being as a research facility for students and academics. On this occasion the doors had been opened to members of the DNFC, one of whom kindly invited me along on the guided tour. The building itself, previously cold and dilapidated, was now bright and clean. It had been built by the British army and at the entrance to one room under a staircase, the barracks magazine, we were shown the two locks on the heavy doors with the keys to each lock being held by two officers on duty so access to the guns could only be obtained under strict orders with the two designated officers present.
We were shown refrigerators with phials containing skin sample taken from the bodies of whales and dolphins which had been washed up around the coastline over the last few years. These DNA sample records will help establish movements of populations and to see if different populations are interbreeding. Another fridge contained corpses of animals, many of them road casualties, which had been sent in by the public (or ‘Citizen Scientists’). The heads of four stuffed raptors peered out of a cardboard box having recently being lent out to a film production team. We saw fossilized remains from creatures extinct for millions of years as well as jars containing less exotic creatures such as rats, floating in evil looking liquids.
A jawbone, found in a cave in Cork, containing very impressive, powerful and surprisingly well preserved teeth was handed around and our guide, the museum curator, said it used to perplex many students when they were asked to try and identify it after being told it was a native Irish predator. I don’t think any of the students guessed correctly what it was, the jawbone of a hyena, a creature which had roamed these lands thirty thousand years ago. Equally fascinating and impressive by its great size was a bone from the leg of a woolly mammoth, also found in the same cave as the hyena remains. Our guide passed around jars containing animals that, although they ‘didn’t exist in Ireland’, had been found here in the wild around the beginning of the 20th century. They were all individual grass snakes which had almost certainly been brought into the country as pets before escaping or being released. Although fascinating it was a reminder that many of the specimens on display or in storage had been collected in times when the only method of collection would be to kill the species. We saw a stuffed display of a large unfortunate cat, shot in Donegal under the mistaken impression it was the same species as the Scottish Wild Cat, a species, distinct from native cats, which we now know never existed in Ireland.
One of the largest collections of bird specimens bequeathed to the museum came about when lighthouse keepers were asked by the great Irish naturalist R.M. Barrington to collect the corpses of birds that had been blinded by the lighthouse beacon light before fatally colliding with it. Between 1888 and 1897 lighthouse keepers from all around the coast of Ireland submitted dead specimens, their wings and legs or, if it was a rare bird, the whole body with records of when they were found and the climatic conditions and direction of the winds that blew them in. Barrington would cover all the postage and costs the lighthouse keepers had incurred and they undertook the project with great enthusiasm. As many as sixteen of the species represented in this collection had not been proved to visit Ireland at all until the light keepers sent them to Barrington at his home in Fassaroe in Wicklow. The correlation of this data provided very valuable knowledge about bird migration and the study remained as the standard work on bird migration until the 1950s when bird observatories were introduced. This collection isn’t on view at the museum itself but is stored in the Research Building we were visiting and it was fascinating to hold envelopes containing specimens of birds with labels handwritten by Barrington himself.
I mentioned the woods in Killiney last month saying we’d seen two red squirrels since reds had been absent from the woods for most of last winter. Subsequently, this year we’d seen three individuals together, then, in early February, we followed a red from the larch it’d been feeding in down through the treetops (the squirrel, not us) till it reached another group of larches where we were delighted to see another red. Within seconds they were both on the same tree then, in a brief flurry of activity, they mated before disappearing into a big clump of ivy.