By Rachel Fritts
Picture a land cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. It is lush and green, with food aplenty. There are no natural predators – in fact, the animals that do live there have grown so accustomed to living in peace that they have lost any natural defensive capabilities. You might think of this place as a sort of real-world Hobbiton. Which, in 2016, is exactly what it is.
New Zealand broke off from the super continent Gondwana 65 million years ago. Some species were carried out to sea, others flew to the island over its long period of isolation, but no matter how they got there, all who stayed evolved far away from mammals (give or take a bat or two). Consequently, the islands became dominated by birds and bugs. For 65 million years New Zealand was completely devoid of mainland threats like large reptiles and mammalian predators. This created a unique situation. Over time, the very thing that had allowed birds to colonize the islands in the first place became redundant. Flight – their one distinct advantage over other large vertebrates – had become unnecessary. It was in this environment shaped by isolation, limited space, and an absence of things that might want to eat them, that one particularly exceptional parrot evolved – the kakapo.
Also known as the night parrot, the kakapo has a lot to recommend it to the imagination. It was a favorite animal of the late Douglas Adams, and is basically the bird version of a hobbit (which is fitting considering their shared homeland). The kakapo is plump, awkward, and largely solitary. It has long since traded its ability to leave New Zealand for the capacity to eat large amounts of delicious food and live in relative comfort. Outsiders are not something the kakapo has much experience dealing with – when it has to deal with them, it does so exceptionally poorly. There are female kakapos, but you’ll have to take my word for it because you’ll probably never see one (this analogy can be extended to Entwives, dwarf women, and really Middle Earth females in general). Nevertheless, this stout flightless parrot does have one very un-hobbit-like characteristic. The kakapo has never learned to fear.
Unfortunately, this is a trait many native island creatures share – like the kakapo, they have not been able to cope with the influx of outside predators brought by the modern world. The creatures of New Zealand lived far away from predatory mammals for millions of years, but about 1000 years ago, the most destructive predator of all found its way to the islands: the human. Some flightless birds, like the moa, have long since gone extinct. Kakapos are currently the subject of desperate conservation efforts.
While still not as widely recognized as the bizarre little kiwi bird, kakapo awareness was given a valuable boost in 1990, when Douglas Adams published his conservation travel book, Last Chance to See. The narrative follows Adams as he travels around the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine, attempting to find and raise awareness of the plight of highly endangered animals. Adams would later cite this as his favorite of all his works, and the kakapo as his favorite of the nine animals he and Carwardine were able to track down. The book even managed to gain enough popularity that in 2009, eight years after Adams’ death, Stephen Fry retraced his steps in a BBC TV series, again enlisting the help of Carwardine.
The knock-on effect of this was that Carwardine found himself being accosted on camera by the very parrot Douglas Adams had himself become so fond of twenty years earlier. That Carwardine was able to become so well acquainted with a kakapo (which was itself perhaps a bit too fond of him) is indicative both of strides in kakapo conservation since 1990 and the species’ prevailing inability to understand how reproduction works.
Kakapo conservation still has a long way to go, but considering what the kakapo has had to deal with for the past thousand years, it is a small miracle there are any around to conserve at all. Ever since the Maori arrived on the scene, bringing with them dogs and rats, the slow flightless birds of New Zealand have had the odds stacked against them. By the time Europeans got to the island in the 1800s, kakapos were already confined to densely forested mountainous regions. Others, like the Haast’s eagle and the moa, were long since extinct. Europeans released cats and stoats onto the island, raising the number of introduced predators still higher, and hunted more aggressively than the Maori before them. Kakapo numbers plummeted.
In the mid twentieth century, search and rescue missions scoured the New Zealand mainland looking for individuals to re-locate, but no females were found. Then, a small breeding population was located on tiny, stoat-free Stewart Island. The kakapos weren’t in danger of extinction yet, but their slow and ineffective mating rituals meant that the population continued to decline. When Adams went looking for the elusive parrot in 1989, it really did seem as though it would be the last chance to see these lovable trundling creatures. Then, Kakapo Recovery was founded. With new funding and redoubled efforts, the kakapo recovery program has managed to establish kakapo populations on three small islands (the mainland population is effectively extinct). The total number of kakapos is currently around 150 and growing. While the kakapos have been pushed out of their historic grounds, they have a chance at a new sort of survival, aided by the very species that nearly drove them to extinction in the first place.
So, if kakapos are the hobbits of the bird world, let’s speculate for a moment about how hobbits would fare if the humans of Middle Earth were to suddenly colonize the Shire. I would hazard a guess that they would not survive long. Their small size, insular ways, and close-knit community structure would break up entirely, and they would either have to get out or die out, unable to function in a world suddenly built for and by a larger, more destructive, and more aggressive people. On the other hand, if hobbits were to become more like humans, they themselves would no longer be well adapted to live in the Shire. Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the the biggest, the strongest, the bravest. Rather, it means that those who are best fit to their particular surroundings are the ones who thrive. The long, slow life of a kakapo was perfectly well adapted to the environment in which it evolved. Now, humans have brought about changes so drastic and so sudden that kakapos have had no time to adapt and nowhere to run. This same story is playing out on islands around the world, affecting hundreds of species whose homes have been suddenly and drastically altered beyond recognition.
That humans have, in New Zealand, constructed an artificial fantasy world on a deforested landscape formerly populated by fantastical birds is a bitter irony. Instead of harkening back to an idyllic but non-existent past, we could embrace the wonderfully diverse strategies of surviving, thriving, and coexisting displayed all around us. Humans are a remarkably adaptable species. Perhaps it is time to begin adapting ourselves to new environments instead of forcing our environment to adapt, or die, around us. Otherwise we could end up a very lonely species indeed.
By Jamie Perry
Nature has been inspiring technology since the renaissance period, but a scientific discovery has never had such humble beginnings as the blue-rayed limpet. Here’s how a simple sea creature inspired the minds behind some of the latest tech.
No bigger than a 5p coin, this tiny mollusc inhabits kelp forests along the coasts of northern Europe. The vibrant blue stripes on the limpet’s shell that attracted researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When viewed at the right angle these blue striations appear to flash intermittently; a display that is thought to ward off potential predators. What is unique about this is that it is one of few displays in the animal kingdom that is created via inorganic substances, as opposed to organic structures. But what’s the difference? Organic structures such as keratin and chitin (found in feathers, fur, and scales) are used to create bright colours for impressive visual displays, such as those seen in peacock feathers, chameleon scales and butterfly wings. Inorganic structures manipulate minerals and elements from an animal’s diet or surroundings to do the same job.
Using 3D analysis software to look closely at the limpet’s shell, researchers found that their blue stripes were being created by two distinct structures embedded deep within the inner layers. The first is a horizontal zigzag pattern formed by the calcium carbonate layers of shell. The second is a space below the zigzag structure that contains randomly placed spheres made of complexly arranged minerals. Working in unison, the zigzag structure is used to reflect blue wavelengths of light, and the spherical structures are used to absorb all other light that passes through. This makes the reflected blue light appear more vivid. It is these carefully arranged mineral compounds that have inspired the blueprints for transparent interactive displays that require no light source. Innovative new technologies such as Google Glass, Sat Nav’s that are projected onto car window screens, and transparent mobile phones are all capable of applying the same optical mechanism seen in limpet’s shell.
However, this isn’t the first time we have seen a species inspire new technology. US navy researchers have invested millions into the creation of a material that reduces drag in the water. Modelled from the sleek scales of sharkskin, this tech is being put to use on boats, planes and even tyres. A more commonly known example is spider silk. This remarkably durable material is nature’s strongest organic structure. It has recently been put to use for its sticky properties, acting as a thin adhesive tape suitable for delicate surgery.
But it’s not just animals that have had a hand in innovating some new tech; plants have had a shot too. Burdock, a bulbous hairy plant that we often see growing in fields, was the inspiration behind the creation of Velcro for Swedish inventor George de Mestral. When out for a walk, George saw how the burdock buds stuck to the fur of his dog. This influenced him to create a material that can reversibly bind to another through the hooked fibres (Goodrich, 2013)
Inspiration for exciting new technology is scattered throughout the natural world. From rock pools to mountaintops, from minute molluscs to one-tonne sharks, we are creating a better future for ourselves by learning more about how these organisms work. And if this is not reason enough to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of species, then what is?
By Gisela Sepulveda
Ever heard of diatom? No? You're not alone. These beautifully patterned, unicellular phytoplankton (a group of algae) are often overlooked, literally. Diatoms are small (and when I say small I mean microscopic) with the cells ranging from 2 to 500 microns (or 0.002-0.5 mm). However, although
they are small they have a massive impact on our lives.
The Art of Diatoms
Diatoms live in aqueous environments; from rivers and oceans to bogs and damp rock surfaces. They
are nature's own artwork coming in a range of weird and wonderful geometric shapes. They have even been used in art, an example of this is Klaus Kemp's work which uses a beautiful arrangement of diatoms to create a large variety of patterns. Kemp has revived this Victorian era art form using updated techniques and microscopes to arrange diatoms on slides, creating a stunning kaleidoscope of these phytoplankton. Diatom art has also seen a revival in the recent documentary by Matthew Killip, who has been able to capture these inspiring patterns of natures work.
Thomas Comber continued the examination of diatoms developing a large collection of slides, bottles and notes that can be viewed online and at the Natural History Museum. As a young man he took up microscopy, travelling far and wide from collecting diatom samples from a variety of aqueous environments. In a recent volunteer programme - Making the Invisible Visible - Thomas Comber's diatom specimens were set up in the specimen preparation area of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum to convert each of these slides and notes into an online database for worldwide use.
Diatoms are more than just nature's mobile art gallery, playing an important role in helping to predict
climate change. They are used in palaeoclimatology, the study of past climates, as they are great environmental indicators, being very sensitive to environmental changes and ecological conditions. As they have silica cell walls, which are deposited and preserved in sediments, they can record past changes in climatic environments which can actually be measured and studied, a useful trope in predicting future climatic changes. They can indicate sea temperatures, acidification levels, river quality, the amount of oxygen or carbon in the atmosphere and much more.
They don't merely act as beautiful indicators of change, they impact on it also. As diatoms are phytoplankton they use photosynthesis to live. This means they produce oxygen, in fact, they contribute to the production around ¼ of the oxygen we breathe. As they take in carbon dioxide from the ocean, infiltrated from the atmosphere, they are also key players in carbon fixation. They can even fix the same amount of carbon (per day) as a forest of plants. So you can breathe easy
now thanks to our small friends!
You may be surprised to know that the diversity of uses of diatoms or diatomite (a white silica rich mineral). It can be found in everyday items from nail polish and paint, to insecticides and fertilisers. Alfred Nobel would not have been able to create dynamite without them, the cats eye road markings are lit up by the reflecting diatom shell and that nice glass of wine at the end of the day
was purified by diatoms. What pearly whites you have, thank diatoms! The silica from diatom cell walls has mild abrasive properties due to which they are sometimes used in whitening tooth pastes. They can even be used in nanotechnology, swimming pool filters and are useful in forensics as well.
So don't overlook our friends; The Diatoms