Wishing you a very merry and fade free Christmas

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Full Screen Image – European Robin, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The question where do birds’ feathers get their colours is not an entirely simple one but we are now one step closer to understanding some of the mechanisms involved. A study based in Sheffield and published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’ shows that for some birds, including the Robin, their colours are not the results of pigments that could fade but are the product of the actual structure of the feathers. We are though looking at very small structures, they needed the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble to do the research and that just happens to be one of the most powerful microscopes ever built, a very large step up from your basic table top model.

Spatially modulated structural colour in bird feathers

A significant part of the work was based on looking at the Eurasian Jay, known for its varied plumage including a brilliant blue, and found that variations in the feathers at a nano structural level determined the reflection of light and so the colours that we see.

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Jay ©Nick Sidle

Science is using technologies like the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to look at a number of questions that have evaded a complete answer till now, including the issue of how Geckos can manage to run up vertical surfaces and across ceilings and then how these biological marvels can be adapted to use in human engineering. The whole field is has been called biomimetics and could, in the future, lead to some incredible breakthroughs and not just fade free colours. Till more is known though, please don’t try this at home or anywhere else for that matter. Geckos can do it, people can’t, now and at least for the foreseeable future.

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Full Screen Image – Yellow-bellied House Gecko, Thanjavur, South India ©Nick Sidle (Later to become the inspiration for the ‘Hotel Room Lizard’ in the second book of ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’ trilogy)

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Tamil Nadu, South India

 

European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

Eurasian Jay – Garrulus glandarius

Yellow-bellied House Gecko – Hemidactylus flaviviridis

Fear or Respect? What should we teach our children….

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Full Screen Image – European Adders, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The Adder is Scotland’s only resident snake, its bite is poisonous but although very painful and capable of causing local damage, it should not be a risk to life in a healthy adult or child old enough to be out and come into contact with them. There are rare fatalities from adder bites in the UK, and each is of course a tragedy to all concerned, but there are very, very few. More people die from extreme reactions to bee stings and there are only a tiny number of those as well. There does not seem to be a case of a death from an Adder bite in more than twenty years. Adders are not aggressive, when people do get bitten it is almost always the result of the snake feeling threatened and trying to get away. One thing that should always be left to an expert is to pick them up and handle them. The normal response to people for an Adder is to leave quietly and slip away. Even when they do bite, an estimated 70% are what is called ‘dry’ which means that no or little venom is injected.

Despite their cautious nature and the genuinely low risks from Adders, they are often not well regarded in Scotland and unfortunately there are still frequent instances when they are found killed. This is illegal, they are a protected species by law, and wrong, we have very little to fear from them. Nevertheless, fear of serpents goes back to early history in Scotland with depictions in carvings made by the Picts which then seem to have been incorporated into later Christian iconography. Not surprisingly, there are numerous beliefs and stories on record in Scotland about adders, most of them very negative, in circulation right up to 1900 and even after that.

So what we should teach the next generation is to respect the Adder as a native species and part of the environment here and to treat them with respect, which is the best way to stay safe. The question which is often raised though is whether our attitudes are and even need to be taught, or whether we are born with an instinct to fear the serpent, a gift from our ancestors, right back to the beginnings of human history and from a different time and place where snakes were a very real life threatening risk. It is often said that our fear of snakes is just that, instinct. New research suggest otherwise. A paper in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology concludes that fear of snakes is more learned than ingrained in our consciousness;

Do infants find snakes aversive? Infants’ physiological responses to “fear-relevant” stimuli

The scientists found that although snakes certainly got the attention of babies and infants, more than most other animals, fear has to be learned. The hard-wired bit is to be very aware of the snake meaning we are predisposed to learning how we should react to it. What we learn comes from our families and our society. Perhaps in modern day Scotland that really should be respect far more than fear.

Just in case anyone is thinking “that’s all very well for him, he’s used to going out and seeing animals like that, it’s not the same for most of us” that’s not actually the case. When I became a professional photographer in the 1980’s and decided to include wildlife in what I did, I knew I had a problem. I hated and was very fearful of snakes but I knew, with where I hoped to go, I was going to be meeting some. I actually made myself go and come into contact with them starting in the Reptile House in London Zoo, I didn’t even like to be close to them and worked up from there. They are still not my favourite animals but I have learned to be in the same place as they are, to know respect really is much better than to be afraid even if it is hard to do.

Nick

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Full Screen Image – European Adder, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians gallery

European Adder – Vipera berus

I’m not a snake and I’ve not had too much to drink

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Full Screen Image – Slow Worm, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

After my post on the discovery that the underside of at least one species of snake has a lubricating film on the scales in which I said Scotland has only one species of snake regarded as resident, the European Adder, I was asked ‘what about the Slow Worm?’ True, it does look more like a snake than anything else and it most certainly is resident in Scotland, including in the Highlands in the North, but it is not actually a snake at all, or a worm for that matter. The Slow Worm is actually a lizard without any legs, legless as it is usually described, but in no way connected to alcohol.

Boloria euphrosyne

Full Screen Image – Slow Worm, Polmaily, Glen Urquhart, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

They are smaller than snakes and have what is called as a semifossorial lifestyle, which is a complicated way of saying they spend a lot of time not strictly burrowing into the earth like a mole which is fossorial, but going a bit in that direction by hiding under things, hence semifossorial. The key features that confirm they are not snakes (and are lizards) include:

Having eyelids and blinking

Boloria euphrosyne

Full Screen Image – Slow Worm, Polmaily, Glen Urquhart, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Having visible ears

Shedding their skin one area at a time, not all in one go

Being able to break off their tail to escape a predator

They are also no threat to anyone, like almost all lizards they do not have a venomous bite (a few do such as the Gila Monster but the only ones I know are from South America, not even Europe, and most certainly do not include the Common Lizard found in Scotland). It should also be remembered that the majority of snakes are not poisonous, but to be fair the Adder is and should be treated with respect and caution.

Slow worms can be very long lived with estimates of up to thirty years in the wild and records of 54 years in captivity. One very important threat to them is the domestic cat which kills them almost indiscriminately, whether this is because the cat also makes the mistake of thinking they are a small snake and a threat that should be dealt with or whether they are too tempting prey to resist is an open question.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK, Slow Worms are decreasing in number and are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act meaning it is illegal to take, harm or disturb them.

Nick

Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians Gallery

Glen Convinth

Slow Worm – Anguis fragilis

Slippery Customer?

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Full Screen Image – European Adder, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

New findings by Oregon State University have shown that snakes have a layer of fatty molecules on the scales on their underside and it has been proposed that this serves two functions, lubrication to make movement easier and lubrication to reduce wear and tear from sliding over the ground.

BBC News – Snake’s belly slides on fatty film

The research was done on the California Kingsnake but there is every chance that the adaptation will be seen, even if it is to varying degrees, in other species including the European Adder, Scotland’s only snake. (There have been occasional reports of Grass Snakes in southern Scotland but they are not considered resident and have never been seen in the North).

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Full Screen Image – European Adder, Skye, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Nick

Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians gallery

European Adder – Vipera berus