Monday, 30 November 2009

Cheering-up bird 13- Egyptian Vulture Chick

Today's cheering-up bird is a creature so ugly that, surely, only its own mother could consider it beautiful.... Actually, it is an Egyptian Vulture and, whilst it might not be pretty, it is certainly valued- this chick is being reared in an incubator at Antwerp Zoo, where they have a number of impressive breeding programmes.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Quote of the Week- Carl Sagan- vastness, emptiness and love

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."
- Carl Sagan, American Physicist (1934-1996)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Wild life- Diary of a Nomadic Naturalist- November

"Not all bees are black and yellow. In Europe, we tend to think of honey bees and bumble bees and, perhaps- if pushed- of the solitary red mason bees that various wildlife organisations are urging us to protect and make provisions for in our gardens. In other countries, however, the word “bee” comes with much more colourful associations.

In my previous incarnation, as a research biologist, I must have spent many weeks trawling through the dry and chilly storerooms of various famous museums, which is a story in itself. This last month, I have been revisiting my last big scientific project- a study of bee and wasp colouration- as I have sifted through the masses of images on my hard drive. Periodic hard-drive purges and desktop re-arrangement are undoubtedly as much a part of the modern scientist’s annual routine as mending butterfly nets and topping up specimen jars was for our antecedents. In my case, I have many gigabytes of images gleaned from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and two Belgian museums.

Museum trips were one of my great pleasures as a scientist and, in this case, I spent many happy days going through countless tight-fitting wooden drawers, deciphering Victorian handwritten labels and photographing anything that caught my eye. There were startling metallic Mexican orchid bees (complete with the impossibly long, drinking-straw-like probosces they need to access nectar) and sinister shiny blue thread-waisted “digger wasps”, with their fearsome-looking stings and a thousand other species in every colour of the rainbow.

People tend not to group ants with wasps and bees, but they are related- they are all members of the hymenoptera: a sophisticated insect family with numerous equally vibrant, but more obscure members.

In the case of my own work, I generally talk about colour in its literal sense, but amongst the hymenoptera- the bees, wasps, ants and their relatives- there are so many creatures with private lives that are certainly “colourful” in the word’s more figurative sense. For example, I am told that the thread-thin waists of the digger wasps allow them enough flexibility to sting forwards, as well as behind them. A similar trick is used by certain ants, who bite would-be-attackers and then angle their rear-end forwards, and spray formic acid from the end of their abdomens into the wound; a very biological version of adding-insult-to-injury. Then there is the “gay” behaviour seen in certain Australian parasitic wasps and there is the ability of worker bees to detect how many sexual partners their mother- the Queen- has had. However, all this pales in comparison with the lives of the digger wasps mentioned above, which sting other insects with a paralysing venom, drag their helpless victims’ bodies into subterranean hollows and then lay their eggs in the still living insects’ flesh, leaving them to be eaten alive from the inside out, once the eggs hatch into larvae.

When Tennyson famously wrote that nature is “red in tooth and claw”, it seems that he was making an understatement. "

-Extract from the forthcoming book, "Weirdbeautiful" (c) Victoria Neblik, 2009. Text and images all (c) V Neblik. All rights reserved.

To join the mailing list for advance notification of "Weirdbeautiful"'s publication, e mail with "Weirdbeautiful book mailing list" in the title. You will not be sent any spam or other mailings and your e mail address will not be passed on or sold to any third parties. I also have a technical book on aspects of bee, wasp, ant, ichnuemon fly and sawfly colouration due out soon: "Beautiful Bees, Wasps, Ants and Sawflies: Structural colouration in the Hymenoptera"-this was co-authored with Prof. Jean-Pol Vigneron- for details, please e mail the same address. Thanks.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Extra weblinks- photography competition winners and renewable fuel

The winning entries for National Geographic's International Photography Contest are now online- there are some really lovely images- an elephant swimming with his driver standing on his tusks, photoluminescent coral, an Indonesian volcano.....

you can find the pictures at this address, on the website of The Boston Globe-

One of the day's odder wildlife stories is this article talking about a man who was attacked by a kangaroo, whilst trying to rescue his dog from it... [STORY REMOVED BY YAHOO DEC09]

Finally, there is a story here - [STORY REMOVED BY YAHOO DEC09] about a new, renewable energy power plant in Norway that generates power from osmosis.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Cheering-up bird 12- Milky Eagle-Owl

This Monday's cheering-up bird is a Milky Eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) displaying an admirable disdain for morning daylight. This particular bird lives in Antwerp Zoo.
Image (c) V Neblik, 2007.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Best of the Web- Today’s Links

One of the more depressing wildlife stories to hit the news this week was that of the pet shop in Yokohama, which sells all sorts of rare, difficult-to-care-for and (allegedly) endangered species to the general public. That story was published in a British tabloid newspaper (The Sun)- you can find it here-

Of course, not all animals adopted by individuals have a bad life – the story of “Christian-the-lion” (a captive bred lion cub bought in Harrods’ Pet Shop and eventually released into the wild by his owners) is wonderfully uplifting ( but, on the whole, this trade clearly does not benefit anyone.

I think the most interesting science story this week, however, is this scientific study by Craig Bennett and colleagues at The University of California and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire measuring brain activity in a dead fish. The point of the publication (a scientific poster), of course, is to show that fMRI (a tool used in a lot of studies of brain activity) can give false readings and should be used with caution. There’s a synopsis of the study and paper on “Wired” –here-
The article’s dry tone and some of the comments are pretty good: nerd-humour at its finest.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Quote of the Week- Max Gluckman

"A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation."- Max Gluckman, South African Scientist (1911-1975)

Thanks to , which is the source of many of these weekly quotes.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Welcome to Weirdbeautiful

Hi. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.As it says in the title banner, this blog is about the Weird and wonderful natural world (but particularly wildlife). Weirdbeautiful is a mixture of nature photos and short and longer articles on nature, interviews and links to content elsewhere on the web. There are quite a few things scattered about Weirdbeautiful now, so please have a look around. If you scroll down, you can find a blog archive with a list of everything near the bottom of the page on the right hand side; alternatively, there’s a summary below-

. I update this blog with the regular content every Monday and Thursday, so if you bookmark Weirdbeautiful in your browser, those are the best days to visit. I post other content- articles, interviews, images and links- at random times.
If you have an RSS reader on your mobile/blackberry or computer, this blog has RSS feed enabled, so you can get updates directly.

Regular Features
. The regular features here are a weekly “cheering-up bird” –a new one is posted first thing every Monday morning- and a quote of the week- posted on Thursday. The people quoted range from Aristotle and Martin Luther to Isaac Asimov and Albert Einstein, but are usually famous scientists. It always surprises me how seldom you see scientists quoted in the main media (compared with- say- actors or writers).

Articles and Longer Content
. If you are interested in longer articles/ longer content, there are several- for example “Diary of a nomadic naturalist”- the October entry is here-
This is actually one of a series of diary-articles, but I haven’t had time to upload the others yet. I have some articles summarising scientific research on this blog, too (this one is on butterfly colouration)-
and an interview with particle physicist Dr Jeanne Wilson here-

. Some of my written articles are available elsewhere, but, for various contractual reasons, I can’t reproduce them on this blog. One of these is a diary piece I wrote called “A week in the life of a wildlife writer” (the wildlife writer in this case being me): it is available here-

There are also some articles I did available free online at e-zine articles- if these interest you, a list of them can be found on this blog here-
-they include an interview with butterfly expert Zsolt Balint and articles on chimpanzee research, pandas, bees, bacteria and the Edelweiss-

. You can find a list of articles I have written that are available free online on the articles page of my main website-
-you may have to scroll down to find them.

. From time to time I post links on this blog to what I think is “the best of the web”- striking wildlife or nature photos, pet care articles and science news stories- for example these articles-
and links to images by Daniel Seidman, Eduardo Izquerido and Victor Eredel , amongst others- if you have a look around this blog, you can find these and other links. (The link to Daniel Seidman's image is just below this post, I posted the link for Victor Eredel's Autumn photographs back in August).

The Book and The Magazine
I am currently working on a book of this blog “Weirdbeautiful”, which will be a coffee-table-type book with a mixture of glossy wildlife photos, short articles and interviews. I have spent a lot of time over the past few months interviewing people who work with wildlife in various ways- all sorts of people from scientists to insect collectors, falconers and snake breeders –and the best of these interviews will be in the book, too. You can read some of these interviews in “Practical Reptile Keeping”, each month*, some will be posted on this blog and the others will only be available in the book.

. The images in the book will be a selection of the best plant and animal photographs I have taken over the past decade, whilst working as a research scientist and more recently. I am currently choosing what to include from my images of flora and fauna from Korea, Japan, Australia, the USA, Cuba, Israel, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Hungary, Spain, Britain and many other places. There will also be some unique and previously unseen photographs taken with an electron microscope. As for the interviews, some of this pictures have been posted on this blog but others will only be available in the book. I am sorry if this sounds hard-sell, but, as you can see, I am very excited about this book. I will be putting some more information about it online closer to publication, but you can sign up for advance notice by e mailing with “Weirdbeautiful book mailing list” in the title.

(*If you live in the UK, you can get Practical Reptile Keeping from WH Smiths/ JS Sainsbury and various high-street newsagents.)
Thanks for reading.

Quote of the Week- Humphry Davy- failure and discoveries

"The most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures."
- Humphry Davy, British Scientist (1778-1829).

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Link of the day

Today, I just want to post a link to this awe-inspiring landscape photo by Daniel Seidman-

Monday, 9 November 2009

Cheering-up bird 11- Regents Bower Bird

Today's cheering up bird is a male Regent's Bower bird: an animal with a life history as colourful as the male's plumage. This image comes from the photographer is credited there as "Myobatrachidae" / "Kelson" and the copyright information (creative commons license details) can be found here.

(Female bower birds have a much drabber appearance- brown and white speckles all over except for a black patch on the tops of their heads.)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Quote of the Week- Aristotle- Marvelous Nature

" In all things of Nature there is something of the marvelous"
-Aristotle (384-322BC)

Monday, 2 November 2009

Cheering-up tree

As this week is "tree week" on Weirdbeautiful, in place of today's Cheering-up-bird we have a cheering up tree. This picture is taken from the forthcoming book "Weirdbeautiful" by Victoria Neblik. Further details, price and stockists will be posted [here], but if you want to join the mailing list for advance notification, you can e mail: with the title line "Weirdbeautiful book mailing list".