Monday, 31 May 2010

Travel, Art, Science and "Rock in the Landscape"

One of the great perks of life as a scientist is the travel opportunities (it is hardly a coincidence that so much is known about Hawaiian fruit flies and so little about Siberian ones...if, indeed, Siberia has fruit flies)....

Facetiousness aside, I have been very lucky in that my scientific career has allowed me to either visit or work in nineteen countries over the past decade, spread across four continents. Some of that was because I began by studying jellyfish, which are not only pelagic, but extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity (only about a dozen species have ever been kept in captivity for a prolonged period- perhaps more now, but not many more). There is something really useful about seeing living organisms in their natural habitats, and seeing as many habitats as possible that, even yet, no amount of reading or watching videos can replace. It is not coincidental that many of the biggest biological or, at least, zoological and botanical, theories have been devised after extensive travel- Darwin’s trips on The Beagle are the obvious examples, but I am also thinking of the work of Walter Henry Bates in the Amazon. Then, of course, there were the voyages of Alfred Russell Wallace leading to his independent discovery of evolution and to his finding “The Wallace Line*”. Probably every biogeographer or wandering zoologist since Wallace has dreamed of finding their own “line”.

As a scientist, travel was absolutely essential to my work for many years- allowing me to collect samples, conduct measurements and take research photographs in the wild. I also benefitted enormously from having seen specific behaviours occurring in the natural world.

On a human level, I was- and still am- always amazed that different places have such strong and unique atmospheres, especially cities. For ages, I have wanted to capture on film the mood of several markedly different places and to share something of these experiences. However, as this is an artistic, rather than a scientific project, so it has long been on the back- burner. Finally, over the past year, I have been able to work on it in earnest. The result is my first fine art (photography) book: “Rock in the Landscape”, which was released today.

The book is a series of landscape (and a few macro) photographs, showcasing rock in various environments- from volcanoes in Korea and Sicily, to the Italian Alps near Turin, Hungarian Hills, English Meadows, the Ramparts of Jerusalem and the crumbling walls of Armageddon. You can see the book in more detailand/or buy online [HERE].

Image (c) Victoria Neblik, 2010. Extracted from "Rock in the Landscape" [LINK HERE]

If you click on the picture below, you can flick through 43 (of the 88) pages in the book-

(*The Wallace Line divides Borneo from “Celebes” (aka Sulawesi) and Bali from its eastern neighbour, Lombok; the wildlife one side of the line is dramatically different from that on the other- Wikipedia has a longer explanation of The Wallace Line)

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Quote of the week- Albert Einstein- Nature's most beautiful gift

"Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift."
- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Image= "Before the storm", by V. Neblik - this image is from my book "Rock in the Landscape" which comes out tomorrow- For more details of the book [CLICK HERE]-you'll need to scroll down for pictures.

***UPDATE- 31st May - "Rock in the Landscape" is ONSALE ONLINE NOW - Click [HERE ]for more details.***

Links of the week- the umbilical cord, its stem cells and why 4 kidneys are better than 2

Hi. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful, both todays links are medical, rather than wildlife stories. The first is about a girl whose body apparently spontaneously grew an extra pair of kidneys to replace her original, malfunctioning ones-

The second link is to a story about research on the benefit of stem cells from the umbilical cord to newborn babies-

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Cockchafers and Hydrangeas- links of the day

Hydrangea - image by Darrell Barrell
(this image is in the public domain)

Hello. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful,
First link of the day today is to the American Hydrangea society, whose website I came across last week in the process of writing the "florals" chapter of the "Weirdbeautiful" book. They have some lovely pictures-

So far, so beautiful; today's second link is to what The Sun newspaper calls "The Weirdo World of Insects"- a gallery of images of bizarre insects, including one of my personal favourites, the unfortunately named "Cockchafer" , Melolontha sp.-

Cockchafer- Image by Mario Sarto
(- reproduced under the image's creative commons 1.2 licence from:

Actually, the cockchafer has a number of other entertaining coloquial names- "billy witch" and "spang beetle" being two of the better ones. In Switzerland, certainly in the Montreux region (near Geneva, Canton of Vaud), where they call the creature a "haneton", they actually have something of a "haneton-season", in May, with cockchafer-themed items and shaped chocolates for sale in the shops. Somehow I can't see that catching-on in the UK... In truth, it is slightly odd even in Switzerland, for the simple reason that the beetle (a relative of dung beetles), has a voracious appetite as a grub and an adult and has historically caused a great deal of damage and disruption to crops and forestry.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Quote of the week- Henry David Thoreau- the importance of interest

"A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town." - Henry David Thoreau, American Author, 1816-1872.

The image above is a Mountain bluebird, Sialia curucoides(public domain image created by employee of US Fish & Wildlife service-source=

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Link of the day- Koala picture

Koala baby - image by Eric Veland reproduced in accordance with the image's creative commons 3.0 license from

Hi. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.

Image of the day today is this stunning image of a baby koala by Eric Veland.
Australia's "equivalent" of the sloth, there is very little about the koala that isn't weird and beautiful from the two opposable thumbs they have on their forepaws (they have one on each hindpaw) to their habit of sleeping for around 18 or 19 hours of each day. You can find more of Mr Veland's wildlife photos here-

Link of the day today is another koala picture- this time of a mother koala and her baby taken in Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio by Amy Sancetta-

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Serval and Jaguar conservation, tracking turtles and the usefulness of cigarette butts- links of the day

Serval, Leptailurus serval, London Zoo. Image (copyright) Victoria Neblik 2010. All rights reserved.

Hi. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.

The first of today's links of the day is to the African Serval Conservation Organisation's homepage - There is no reason for this link, other than that I think they are magnificent creatures and that, although they are much less threatened than many other big cats, it would be a crying shame if "we" were to lose them. You might think, from its markings, that the serval is a relative of the jaguar, but it is actually more closer kin to the caracal and cheetah. There's more information on servals here- including information on their range, behaviour, unusually high kill-rate and the fact that the ancient Egyptians kept them domestically and worshipped them as gods.

The second link is to this piece by Elisabeth Rosenthal from the New York Times about the conservation of another big cat- The Jaguar in Costa Rica-

The final link is this rather odd science article about using discarded cigarette butts to protect steel pipes from rusting...(there's a reason this blog is called "weirdbeautiful")

My own news is that my latest interview- a conversation with leading turtle expert Prof. John Davenport- is now on sale in Practical Reptile Keeping Magazine. Prof Davenport talks about his recent research, the difficulties of tracking turtles and the wildlife of Bermuda. Copies of the magazine are available for worldwide delivery from here-

Sunday, 16 May 2010

STOP PRESS- link of the day- Eduardo Izquierdo

One of my personal favourite photographers, Eduardo Izquierdo, has produced a really awe-inspiring natural image again-

Eduardo was also the artist/photographer behind this stunning image of ice posted on this blog back in September last year-

Thursday, 13 May 2010

"Sometimes, when a Mummy polar bear and a Daddy grizzly bear love each other VERY much..."

The first of today's Links-of-the-week follows on from the previous theme about hybrid animals.

The link is to an article about "Pizzly bears" (also known as "Grolar bears") : in short, what happens "when a Mummy polar bear and a Daddy grizzly bear (or the other way around) love each other very much" -

Really, the article talks about the factors that determine whether or not hybridisation is possible between two species. In short, on a genetic level, this seems to be the specific nature of the differences between them- for example, one reason that humans and chimpanzees could not produce fertile offspring is because chromosome 1- a very large chromosome in humans- is split into two smaller pieces in the chimp, which would cause all manner of problems in individual cells of an embryo if a human egg were ever fertilized by chimp sperm- or vice versa.

The genetic differences that exist between some other animal species are sufficiently few in number and inconsequential in molecular nature that they do not have these problems when or if they hybridise/mate - thus we get all manner of splendidly weird creatures from "Dzo"s, "Dzomo"s, "Wolphin"s and "Yakalo"s to "Ligers" and "Pizzly" bears.

Baby Wolphin- Image by Mark Interrante- reproduced in accordance with the image's creative commons licence 2.0 from

I guess, I keep coming back to this question of hybrid animals, not because I am a twisted individual, but because it begs the question "if two species can mate, then why don't they do so and form a single species?", which, in turn raises questions about the standard definition of a species and the way in which new species are formed (evolve). The truth is, that the concept of a species is not entirely clear cut and the boundaries between "race", "sub-species" and so on can be similarly muddled. Teasing away at the boundaries of our defintions seems pedantic, but with luck will allow us (mankind, scientists) to make them clearer and understand the underlying principles that shape the world that we see.
There is a lot more inforamtion on this subject on wikipedia here -

The other link-of-the-week is something a bit different... a little while back, I got to see a re-run of the t.v. documentary "Alien worlds" (also screened as "extraterrestrial"). It is one of the better programmes that has been made exploring the scientific evidence/possibilities for extraterrestrial life. Admittedly, this genre has spawned some very poor television, but "alien worlds" is still a gem.

The part of the "Alien worlds" programme which most caught my attention was some ideas first proposed in the 1970s in a bizarre paper by Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter. The paper- “Particles, Environments, and Possible Ecologies in the Jovian Atmosphere.” was an odd essay, part science and part science fiction; essentially an intelligent guess about what life would be like on the planet Jupiter, if it had/has evolved there.

This link- - leads to a great essay/blog on the subject. Wikipedia has more information in its "Aurelia and Blue Moon" entry here-

Carl Sagan, Public Domain image by NASA.

One of the most exciting predictions of this paper was about hot-air-balloon-like floating organisms living permanently in the Jovian atmosphere. Having spent some time studying marine organisms (notably jellyfish) when I was at Oxford, I can see a number of paralels between the balloon-plants ("aerialists") that Sagan and Salpeter envisioned floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter and known living organisms found floating in our seas.

Earlier this week, the first episode of the new series "Stephen Hawking's Universe" was screened. The episode, which was concerned with extra-terrestrial life touched on the idea of "balloon plants" (although not by name) as well as a host of other weird and oddly endearing possibilities for alien life, before concluding that if aliens exist, contacting them is probably not in mankind's best interests. I tend not to watch many television documentaries, but in the case of "stephen Hawking's Universe", I am really looking forward to the next episode.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Quote of the week- Annie Leibovitz- nature's magnificence.

Image: "bee collecting pollen" by Jon Sullivan- this is a public domain image from

"I wish that all of nature's magnificence, the emotion of the land, the living energy of place could be photographed." - Annie Leibovitz, American Photographer (b. 1949)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Horseshoe crabs and the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Hi. Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.
Image of the week this week is this picture of Horseshoe crabs that I took during my recent trip to London Aquarium.

Limulus polyphemus Image by V. Neblik, 2010. (Copyright V. Neblik, 2010, all rights reserved)with thanks to London Aquarium.

These creatures- more closely related to spiders than crabs have a number of weird attributes- not least their blood, which is literally blue and spider-like "book-lungs". The reason for their blue blood is that, like the blood of molluscs and some arthropods- it contains a copper-based compound- haemocyanin- which transports oxygen and carbon dioxide, rather than haemoglobin, which fulfils the same function in human blood (and which gives our blood its characteristic red colouration). More information on this particular species-Limulus polyphemus- can be found here- )

I am probably one of only a small number of individuals to own one of these creatures, having been given the body of one some years ago by a Canadian icthyologist friend. It is a fascinating, if slightly grisly, gift. My friend had found it dead on the seashore many years prior to that, yet, the creature is in pristine condition despite never having been preserved. I find this surprising - insects keep very well without preservation, but the body of the horseshoe crab is fairly fleshy, underneath its exoskeleton, so it is interesting (to me, at least) that it remains so well intact.

Science Update.
The big science news this week also has a marine theme- it is the story of the enormous oil-spill in the gulf-of Mexico. The best article I have seen on this in the last few days is this one-

One possible solution to the problem, which, oddly, has received no coverage so far, would seem to be that of seeding the spill with large quantities of the oil-slick-eating bacterium A. borkumensis. You can find out more information on this wonderful marine germ here- - this is an older article (the relevant section is towards the end of the article).

Monday, 3 May 2010

Quote of the week- Peace Pilgrim-Potential of Humanity

Image:"Zen Garden", (c) V. Neblik, 2010, All rights reserved.

"Humanity has only scratched the surface of its real potential." - Peace Pilgrim (aka. Mildred Lisette Norman)(American Activist 1908-1981)

Link of the day is this entertaining article about hybrid animals- what happens when donkeys and zebras breed-