Scotland, where the Elephants Really are Pink

Deilephila elpenor

Full Screen Image – Elephant Hawk Moth, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The Elephant Hawk Moth is a very large moth but the name actually comes from the caterpillar which looks very like an elephant’s trunk. The adults are also very pink so this resident elephant named species here really is that colour. Enormous mammals with trunks have not been in Scotland since the Mammoths became extinct after the Ice Age, but visiting ones with a travelling circus are credited with one of the reports about the Loch Ness Monster, when they were allowed into the Loch to cool off and enjoy a bath after a long journey down the North side to near Fort Augustus.

National Geographic News – Loch Ness Monster Was an Elephant?

As to Nessie? I’ve never seen him/her/them so I’m keeping an open mind but if I ever do, I promise to post the news here.


Scotland’s Insects and Arachnids gallery

Glen Convinth

Elephant Hawk Moth – Deilephila elpenor

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


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.



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


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.


Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians Gallery

Glen Convinth

Slow Worm – Anguis fragilis

Stop Thief!


Full Screen Image – Bohemian Cuckoo Bumblebee, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

There is a crime wave sweeping the countryside and a new report from the University of Stirling aims to bring it to our attention. The team at Stirling led by Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin, an evolutionary biologist, indict some bees for taking pollen from flowers without acting as effective pollinators in return, which as far as the plant is concerned, is rather the point of the arrangement. It’s a bit like having a meal at a restaurant and leaving without paying – theft. Just like restaurants, plants try and put security measures in place to make sure this doesn’t happen, for example by having structures designed to only allow a bee to reach the pollen after they have provided a cross pollination service in the flower. Bees however have tried to get back to getting a free lunch by finding ways to open up the protective structures, such as by producing the right frequency of buzzing sound, and the study shows that this can mean in some flowers that 80% of visiting bees collected pollen but failed to brush up against the female parts of the flower and so were of very little use to the plant in return.

University of Stirling – Threat posed by pollen thief bees

The system does still work overall, and without bees plants and people would be in a lot of trouble, but this study throws a new light on how it is a much more complex interaction and not always fair in the outcome.


Scotland’s Insects and Arachnids Gallery

Glen Convinth

Bohemian Cuckoo Bumblebee – Bombus bohemicus

Game of Thrones


Full Screen Image – Northern Raven Nest, Crask of Aigas, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Ravens stand out in many ways. They are the world’s largest perching bird, they are known for their intelligence and, it is said, if they leave the Tower of London the kingdom will fall, a belief which appears to date from the reign of Charles II, who would of course have a personal interest in the security of the throne and a rather heightened concern for how things could work out given what happened to his father. Presumably this only applies if they all leave at once, since various members of the Raven contingent have absented themselves, including the case of the rather appropriately named Raven Grog who was last seen outside a London East End pub, or have even been asked to leave like Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials.

This might of course be a rather strange dietary preference, a strong commentary on the artistic quality of modern television or could it even have been an attempt to gain power and influence in society by controlling the media, something which every aspiring totalitarian ruler dreams of? Unlikely of course, there is no evidence that Ravens have the slightest interest in influencing human affairs of state, apart from anything else it now seems they are quite busy enough making power plays in their own political world. A study at the University of Vienna has shown that Raven society is strongly founded on making alliances and bonds between individuals and that the most effective social climbers in that world not only put a lot of effort into forming new positive relationships for themselves, but they also work quite hard to undermine, damage or prevent the formation of the partnerships of their rivals and work hardest to do this the more successful and powerful a potential rival becomes.

Current Biology – Ravens Intervene in Others’ Bonding Attempts

The team in Vienna speculate that having definitely shown this behaviour in Ravens, it should also be considered as linked to observed or possible similar strategies in other highly social species including other corvids, dolphins, hyaenas and primates. Primates? That is worrying, if true it might even mean people do it as well……


Scotland’s Birds gallery

Northern Raven – Corvus corax

Slippery Customer?


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).


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


Scotland’s Reptiles and Amphibians gallery

European Adder – Vipera berus

In the autumn, a Badger’s thoughts turn to…………


Full screen image – Eurasian Badgers, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The autumn is a busy time for badgers. Trying to build themselves up for the winter they are particularly active foraging for food. It is also one of the times in the year when they mate (the others being the spring and the early summer) but because they are one of the few mammals that use delayed implantation, they can still regulate when cubs will be born, which for almost all will be between December and April and in the safety of the underground world of the sett.


Scottish Mammals gallery

Glen Convinth

Eurasian Badger – Meles meles

Territory and Robins


Full screen image – European Robin, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

In the autumn all Robins, male and female, lay claim to territories and announce their occupancy and deter intruders by singing from perches like this one on an Elder bush. However attractive the song to another Robin, the message is meant to be clear – stay away, don’t even think about it.


Scotland’s Birds gallery


European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

Is there a reason why swans have long necks?


Full screen image – Whooper Swans, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Swans are incredible birds, very graceful in flight and you can’t help noticing the long neck as it is extended when they are in the air. It may really help them, on the water the extra height from which they see must be an advantage to keep a look out but in the air you might think it is an encumbrance and they hold it out straight just to cope, not so.

The Royal Society – The role of passive avian head stabilization

Research has shown that the whole neck structure, and it is very complicated – swans have 200 muscles on each side of the neck – acts as a stabiliser so they can still see well despite beating their wings at five times a second.


Scotland’s Birds gallery

Whooper Swan – Cygnus cygnus




Do Scottish Bees have to work harder?


Full screen image  Honey Bee, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

New research has shown that whilst in high concentrations caffeine is toxic to insects, smaller amounts in the nectar of certain plants keep bees more alert and likely to return to feed at the flowers which is of course good for the plant as well as the bee.

BBC News – Caffeinated plants give bees a buzz

So it’s not just people who wake up and get on with the job better after their morning caffeine boost. Unfortunately, leaving a double extra size latte from the coffee shop next to the flower bed isn’t going to help, it has to be in the nectar. I’m not an expert botanist and if anyone knows any better please add a comment, but from the lists of plants mentioned in the research, it does not look like any of them grow wild in Scotland. This means that apart from a few privileged bees with access to specialist collections in greenhouses, almost all Scottish bees just have to get on with it without the help of a caffeine lift.


Insects in Scotland gallery

Honey Bee – Apis mellifera