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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

35) European Wasp

Vespula germanica

Here in southern Australia it’s mid-summer, and in my little corner of Melbourne this summer has been a season of Arthropods.  Just the other day I was struck by how many Spiders (Araneae) there were in or around my house all of a sudden; or, surely not “all of a sudden” – yet it seems that way.  I can’t name all of them but they come in all shapes and sizes: large, frightening-looking black ones (one in the front door, usually hidden from view but obvious from its web; one living near the hinge of the window in my bedroom, only a thin flywire screen between it and me), numerous Daddy Longlegs (Pholcus phalangioides) scattered about the corners of the laundry and the unused fireplace; tiny Jumping Spiders (Salticidae) forever exploring the edges of the house where the French windows open onto the garden.  An Orb-weaving Spider (Araneidae) has made its elegant circular web in a corner of the hills hoist clothesline in my back garden; another, just last week, took up a habit of spinning an equally beautiful web across the garden path every night only to dismantle it again every morning.  (One night I had to go out to hang some washing on the line which necessitated walking through the web.  The spider was absent and looking ahead of me carefully I plucked the web’s supporting strands until they broke and the web fell away like a used parachute into the bushes.  Those strands of silk were remarkably tough and stretched and recoiled back to tautness with great resilience until they finally broke on my third or fourth attempt to sever them.  It’s extraordinary to think of an animal which many people wouldn’t hesitate to crush casually underfoot being capable of creating such a structure – and entirely organically.)

It hasn’t all been spiders, of course – an increase in the number of spiders doesn’t occur without a corresponding population explosion in the insect world.  Just tonight, to my great surprise, I discovered a large green Cricket (Gryllidae) clinging to the lace curtain in the front room of my house.  Yesterday morning when I went to fetch a towel from the clothesline I discovered an enormous Moth (Lepidoptera), the length of my index finger, perched on the towel.  Its exquisite dappled grey camouflage would have hidden it perfectly on the trunk of any number of trees, but on a deep blue towel it was less effective.  (I trapped the Cricket in a jar and released it outside; the Moth I left in situ, abandoning the towel to it for retrieval some other time.)  Weather conditions this summer, to the degree that it’s possible to generalise about weather in Melbourne, have been ideal for insects and spiders and any number of other arthropods: warm, sometimes hot; dry but with occasional rain to contribute to the higher-than-usual humidity.

Last week, late at night, I was coming out of a cinema and I found at the bottom of the stairs a Dragonfly (Epiprocta).  It was sitting perfectly still on the tiles outside the cinema box-office, and closer inspection revealed it to be dead: a pity, certainly, yet it was hard not to be enchanted by the tiny corpse; it’s rare to get the opportunity for a close and detailed look at a Dragonfly and this particular one was such a fine specimen – large, perfectly intact, and covered with bright splashes of iridescent sky-blue – that it was almost like a jewel rather than a once-living animal.    The film I’d been seeing was Arrietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s famous children’s book the Borrowers and the latest film from Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli, and after being treated for ninety minutes to the film’s exquisitely observed animations of Crickets and Cockroaches (Blattodea) and Woodlice (Oniscidea), coming across the Dragonfly made me feel as if the infinite wonders of the world had been opened up for me to experience afresh lest I should take them for granted for even a single day.

Just before discovering the Cricket tonight I was sitting on the small front veranda of my house.  I was writing a story, the first proper short story I’ve attempted to write in a long time.  I don’t believe that a writer should shut him or herself off from the world, in fact I believe the very opposite, and as I was writing I became distracted by the activities of a European Wasp just inside the front fence of the house.  Wasps, too, have been noticeably common this summer, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to shoo them out of my house and close the doors against their further intrusion.  The Wasp this evening, though, wasn’t interested in entering the house, and didn’t appear to notice me at all: it was far more interested in a spider’s web which had been strung between the fence and the inflorescence of a kangaroo paw which is one of the few plants growing in the dense clay that takes the place of soil in my front garden.  At first I thought the Wasp was going to fly straight into the web, and I was concerned for it while also trying hard to be pleased for the spider, soon to have a meal.  I was more than a little intrigued, too, about how a fight between the spider and the Wasp would pan out, though I was slightly ashamed by my own excitement at the prospect of such a deadly encounter.

As it happened, there was no such encounter.  It’d misunderstood and underestimated the Wasp.  Far from blundering heedlessly into the web, it was inspecting it: hovering carefully in front of one side of it, before flying swiftly and purposefully up and over the web and down the other side.  I thought at that point that it had seen the web and saved itself, and would continue on its journey – but in fact it now flew towards the web, landing right in the middle of it.  Had it been caught?  I watched and listened for its frantic buzzing as it tried to free itself; for the eager scrambling of the spider from its hiding place; but there was no buzzing, and no spider.  I got up off my chair and moved closer to the web, to see what the Wasp was doing.

It hadn’t landed on the web at all.  It had landed on a large piece of debris in the centre of the web, the remains of some insect that had lacked the Wasp’s eyesight and keen awareness of its surroundings.  The corpse was unrecognisable – though less so to the Wasp: I saw that it was biting the dead insect frenetically, with great determination, working its jaws first one way then another.  I could hear the cracking of the dead insect’s exoskeleton; I could see the Wasp placing one of its legs carefully on the web to get greater leverage.  When it did so I thought surely it must become stuck, surely the spider must appear – but no, still there was no sign of the spider that I’d seen in the web just the night before, a fat Orb-weaving Spider at least three times the Wasp’s size, and soon enough the Wasp severed a large part of the dead insect’s body and flew away with it.  It rested on the neighbouring bush just long enough for me to see it with its prize, and then it flew away, down the street and into the clear evening sky.  Ants (Formicidae) were crawling over my bare feet, and beginning to bite me, and I shook them off and went inside to prepare for myself some dinner.

Image sourced and adapted from

Monday, January 23, 2012

34) Seal


In the northern summer of 2003 I spent two weeks travelling through Scotland with my father.  After having graduated from the Australian National University I was in the middle of a year abroad – a practice which is so common in Australia these days as to be almost culturally mandated – and my parents were visiting the UK very briefly because my mother had recently completed a Masters of Communication by distance from Leicester University and had her own graduation ceremony to attend.  After the graduation my father and I decided to go to Scotland.  I can’t remember whose suggestion it was, but I was twenty-three then and my father, when he was the same age, had travelled through Scotland, hiking in the mountains, so I think there was a nostalgic attraction for him to reliving the experience.  For my part, I’d been watching Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland with rapt attention for years and had been dreaming of the Scottish highlands all that time.  We hired a car in London and we were on our way.

In Australia, with a very few exceptions, the terrain is divided clearly between “coast” and “mountains”.  Mountains – such as they are here in the world’s flattest continent – are a phenomenon that happens away from the sea: departing the coast, you travel inland and gradually ascend until you find yourself upon, for instance, the Great Dividing Range.  That seems natural, in the same way that Christmas in summer seems natural: because it’s what we’re used to.

So I was expecting the Scottish highlands to be the same.  The name itself seemed to indicate as much: mountains are high, far above the sea, which by definition is low.  The two couldn’t possibly combine.  I didn’t realise how wrong I could be.

The realisation struck when my father and I were driving around a small bay, or perhaps a sea-loch: I recall a long curve of road skirting the water’s edge; beyond the shore the bleak North Sea; and behind the road, rising precipitously, a row of dark and craggy mountains.  I’m not sure where exactly we were, but we were en route to the Isle of Skye so we must have been somewhere on the west coast of the country.

My father was driving, which gave me the luxury of gazing out of the window at the passing scenery.  There’s something deeply alluring about a large body of water and my eyes naturally found their way to the waves.  Even from a moving vehicle, some instinct within me was able to identify an alien object: a black shape, bobbing and splashing on the water.

Perhaps my father stopped the car, because I recall more than just a glimpse: I recall us both looking, and deciding, and confirming the sighting.  Even at such a distance that the animal was little more than a black smudge, we were certain.  Cars rushed past us and perhaps we were the only people to notice the seal; or perhaps, like the ranger at the Beinn Eighe nature reserve who a few days later greeted our enthusiasm at the sighting of a Newt (Pleurodelinae) with stern indifference, the seal was simply too commonplace in that setting to be worth a second look.

Seven years later, in 2010, I spent a weekend hiking with friends on Wilson’s Promontory, south of Melbourne.  “The Prom” juts like a commanding finger out into Bass Strait, and at the finger’s tip is a lighthouse which has been there for over one-hundred and fifty years, and which is surrounded by buildings which once housed the lighthouse keepers and their families and which now is used as bookable accommodation for visitors to the national park.

To get to the lighthouse is an eighteen kilometre walk each way across the Promontory, and not having done any serious walking for at least a year I was deeply weary by the time my friends and I reached the final leg of the journey; but if there’s one thing which can make a walk easier it’s the distraction of beautiful scenery, and the approach to the lighthouse at Wilson’s Promontory is beautiful indeed: the narrow path takes walkers through deep, dark forest dampened by the wind blowing off the sea; there are precipitous gullies to the right and steep slopes to the left; and then, abruptly, there’s a view of the lighthouse: a white stone beacon piercing the air at the tip a long finger of land which is an abrupt rocky coastal seascape after the forest, boulders and tightly matted grass huddling under the sea-spray on the exposed headland.  The final few hundred metres of that eighteen kilometre walk are the most arduous:  a steep climb up a concreted path to the lighthouse and its attendant buildings.  After a long day’s walking the winds at the top of the headland were both an affront and a relief.  The remoteness of the low whitewashed buildings was palpable.  The lighthouse is still active, and a pair of rangers is resident there, though with frequent visits from overnighting walkers they’re not quite as isolated as their forebears were.

My friends and I arrived in time to cook dinner and put our feet up.  When, in the morning, one of my friends remarked to one of the rangers that working in such a beautiful location must be a dream job, the ranger’s reply was blunt and perhaps just a little gruff: “It’s just a job to me.”  Undoubtedly: he’d been working there, he told us, for some twenty years.  Yet with only one morning on which to savour it, to us the place was magical: we woke before dawn to huddle on the guest-house’s veranda in order to watch the sun rise over the sea, a rare treat in eastern Australia which was afforded there by the lighthouse’s position on its long headland.  After sunrise, too long awake to go back to bed yet feeling the hour to be too early to have breakfast, we walked through the lighthouse’s garden: we disturbed at least one Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), and the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) whose nocturnal excavations so vexed the rangers; we scanned the seas for birdlife, fancying that we spied in the distance Albatrosses (Diomedeidae), which the rangers assured us were resident on the promontory; and, feeling bold in the bright early morning, we inched to the edge of the cliff upon which the lighthouse stands and peered into the water beneath the headland and spied a pair of seals.

Of all the animals we saw that morning, the seals were the greatest prize: so unexpected, so near.  We were uncertain at first, and those of us who discovered them were cautious about announcing the sighting for fear of exciting the rest of our party for the sake of nothing more than rocks, or piled seaweed, or floating debris.  Yet gradually we came around to the idea that we were seeing what we were seeing, and as each new observer joined us our confidence only grew greater: we were looking at seals, two basking animals whose demeanour appeared that morning so placid that we couldn’t even be certain, at first, that they were animals at all.

A seal off the west coast of Scotland and a pair of seals off the south coast of mainland Australia; and between these sightings – what?  Another, perhaps; but more likely not, though even now I can’t be sure.  It’s a tantalising memory, from 2008.  My cousin and I are in Tasmania.  He’s paid for the trip: it’s his birthday, and I’m taking the place of somebody else who can’t make it.  We spend a little time in Hobart and then drive up the island’s east coast, past Maria Island, to the Freycinet Peninsula – another peninsula!  Perhaps they’re irresistible; perhaps they afford us the closest thing we can get to going out to sea without actually leaving the land.

On the second day staying in hut in a small town at the base of the peninsula, my cousin and I walk to the national park.  We see the famous sights: up the hill to look out over Wineglass Bay, down again and across the isthmus.  We spend all day there and walking back, at dusk, along the beach, we notice in the shifting tide a dark shape flopping and slapping just beneath the swell.  We can’t tell what it is, whether it’s moving or whether it’s merely given the impression of movement by the waves crashing over it.  Is it a seal, or is it a rock?  We can’t reach any firm conclusion, and nor can any of the handful of other people who join us to look and debate and wonder at the shape.  It’s getting dark, and my cousin and I are tired, so we abandon the object in the water, and leave the beach; we never know for sure whether it’s a seal or not.

When we – any of us – see a seal in the water, there’s a small cry of triumph within us.  The sea, we’re often told, is the richest of all environments on earth – yet how many of us really know it?  The immense diversity of life within it is entirely hidden from us, and when we unexpectedly catch a glimpse of it – stingrays in the breakers; whales spouting on the horizon; seals floating beatifically in the water – it’s as if a curtain has been pulled back, and we’ve been invited to catch just a fleeting glance at the glories beyond.

With seals, additionally – other animals too, but seals seem to my mind to be exemplars of this – there’s the added satisfaction of successful identification.  What is this object, floating darkly upon the swell?  What are these shapes reclining on the beach, like rocks expelled from the sea?  Even if the uncertainty only lasts for an instant, it creates such a dichotomy of possibilities within our minds – living animal or inanimate object; the exciting or the mundane – that it’s impossible not to be tantalised.  Even years later, the uncertainty can linger, unresolved, unresolvable, as mysterious and as open to our imaginative interpretation as the sea itself.

Image sourced from

Sunday, January 15, 2012

33) Common Swift & White-throated Needletail

Apus apus & Hirundapus caudacutus

Turn on your TV.  Find, if you can, a programme filmed in Europe in summer.  Wait until there’s a scene shot outside, then listen to the background noise.  Before long you’ll hear a distinctive long, high-pitched shriek, or more likely a series of them: that’s the sound of a group of Common Swifts flying overhead.

The calling of Common Swifts is an inescapable part of summer in Europe.  It’s a kind of delirious swoop of noise which is an almost impossibly perfect description in sound of the experience of watching a group of Swifts cutting and swerving through the air.  In a world without humans Common Swifts would nest in forests or in caves, but as it is they’ve taken naturally to nesting in towns and cities, and so they must be one of the most observed birds in Europe – and yet there remains about them an innate and uncontainable wildness which marks them out from other city-dwelling birds: there’s a sense of exhilaration in their very being which makes the idea of their ever becoming fully urbanised seem preposterous.  Of course the fact that they’re seasonal arrivals in Europe, swooping across the continent to escape from the African summer, only marks them all the more with a sense of freedom, regardless of how much they may be slaves to their migratory instincts.  They appear suddenly in Europe in the middle of each year, gradually making their way north all the way to Scandinavia and the UK; by winter they’ve flown back south again, chasing the sun like so many Costa del Sol tourists.

Such migration is scarcely an unusual phenomenon in the bird world, but if ever there was a group of birds which seem naturally given to such journeys, it’s the Swifts.  The Common Swift is but one of around eighty species in the family Apodidae, and “swift” is an apt yet scarcely adequate name for the group.  If the name “fly” wasn’t already taken it would be a perfect name for the Apodidae: for Swifts are flight incarnate.

Consider their form: not large, but large of wing and more wing than body.  Those wings are long and anchor-shaped as a pair, and affixed to a body which is shaped like a torpedo; Swifts move through the air as fluidly as a fish moves through water, and at enormous velocity: speeds of up to 111 kilometres an hour have been recorded for the Common Swift.  No wonder they shriek!  The call of a Swift pushing the limits of its aerial capability could be equally joy or terror.

Swifts are no mere straight-line flyers, either.  They’re stunt pilots: banking and climbing, diving and swooping with astonishing dexterity as they manoeuvre through townscapes and pursue swarming insects.  Sometimes they can be seen flying high in the sky, tiny dots passing beneath the clouds; at other times they’ll appear out of nowhere and fly just above head-height.  To watch a flock of Swifts from the vantage of a hillside, in particular, is an exhilarating experience: they’ll come sweeping down from above, hugging the outline of the ground yet marvellously untethered to it, darting all around the watcher with delirious indifference.

What you’re unlikely to see a Swift doing is perching.  Common Swifts only come to earth in order to nest and, sometimes, to sleep, and if a Swift ever finds itself on the ground its feet and legs are so diminished that it is almost helpless, unable to walk or hop.  A life devoted so absolutely to one mode of locomotion clearly has its drawbacks, then: even Albatrosses (Diomedeidae), the family which perhaps come more readily to mind when we think of the great flyers of the bird kingdom, can make their way with relative ease on the land.  Not Swifts, though: Swifts are perhaps the most specialised of all birds.

Which makes it all the more peculiar that the White-throated Needletail should be so named.  The Needletail is the eastern equivalent of the Common Swift: every southern summer it migrates down through Asia and into Australia, its arrival in the south-east of the continent coinciding almost perfectly with the new year.  It’s larger than the Common Swift, with a wingspan of around fifty centimetres, but its size is deceptive: its short body and stubby tail can make it appear as small as the Swallows (Hirundinidae) with which Swifts are so easily confused, and it’s not until you hear the soft rattle of wings as a Needletail flies right over your head that you realise just how large it is.

The name, Needletail, refers to the shafts of the tail feathers, which protrude beyond the ends of the feather’s filaments.  These spines serve to anchor the bird on the tree branches on which it roosts.  The degree to which the White-throated Needletail employs this tool, though, is uncertain: a relatively small bird which flies at such great speed that it can cover enormous distances in a single day is understandably hard to monitor, and much of the Needletail’s behaviour is unknown.  It’s believed that the bird may, at least sometimes, sleep in flight; likewise, White-throated Needletails are believed to mate in mid-air.  I often think that the naming of birds somewhat misses the point: the White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) could more properly be called the Grey Heron; the abiding impression of a Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus) is not the colour of the feathers at the base of the male’s tail which gives the species its name, but the vivid emerald green colour of almost all of the remainder of the bird’s feathers.  So it is that the White-throated Needletail is named for an anatomical feature which enables terrestrial roosting, an activity which, if witnessed in isolation, would give an entirely misleading impression of the animal.

It’s unlikely that anybody not in the habit of regularly handling and inspecting birds at close quarters will ever notice the particularities of a White-throated Needletail’s tail feathers, though.  The bird is too fast, and its tail too small; and besides, who, upon seeing a White-throated Needletail – or any other species of Swift, for that matter – would stop to look at the tail?  Or at the head, or even the wings?  Swifts are not birds which invite the casual observer to engage close inspection of bodily details; rather, they’re birds which demand a stunned appreciation of the animal in its elemental entirety.  They’re animals whose appearance – so suddenly present, so suddenly gone – is vivid in its completeness.  There are millions of species of animal on the planet, and Swifts, to those inclined to watch them, are probably the closest thing that any group in that entire multitude comes to pure sensation.

Common Swift image sourced from / White-throated Needletail image sourced from

Sunday, January 8, 2012

32) Superb Lyrebird

Menura novaehollandiae

I’ve written many times before on this blog about my parents’ holiday house on the Brogo River, near Bega in southern New South Wales.  It was a place I visited frequently when I was a child; less often as I grew older; now, almost never.  It was the place where I truly started noticing animals – and, as an inevitable extension of that but by accident rather than design, it was the place where I started noticing the world in general.  It started with birds: with an Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris), specifically, about which I will surely write before too long.  I compiled a list of all the bird species I saw on the property, a project which continued for as long as I was a regular visitor there and which if it suspended now, is suspended only because I so rarely visit the property these days.

Until last week, the last time I’d been there was at Easter in 2010.  It took a few moments for my family and me to recall that that had been the last time, so unusual is it for me to make the trip these days.  However, last week, when I was visiting my family in Canberra for Christmas, I unexpectedly found myself on the property again: my parents decided to go there, to tend to the garden more than anything else, for two nights between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  Initially I was resistant to go with them, because I’ve always been resistant to uprooting myself from a settled position and because even though there are so many examples of me enjoying myself once I’ve done so there are some childish habits and mindsets which seemingly can’t be outgrown; but my father, in particular, was adamant that we go, and so arrangements were made, schedules were negotiated, and we went.

I love Melbourne, and the vibrancy of living in a large city, but going to the bush is always a salve.  The minty, dusty tang of a eucalypt forest at night is an aroma that seems to stretch out the spine and seep into one’s joints: a sensory massage made of scent and memory.  For a visitor to the bush the days slow down: with no electricity on my parents’ property save what’s drawn from the sky through solar panels, the house is quiet and the air is clear with the sounds and smells of bush life: a meal being prepared; the pages of a book being turned; the snarl of a chainsaw as my father, feeling a sense of duty to the property which I, not owning it, cannot share, walks up the road to the gate and clears sapling acacias from the verge before they grow large enough to make the road impassable.  The stretch of forest at the top of the road, near the gate, is particularly marked by acacias.  Their roots play host to rhizomatous bacteria which introduce nitrogen into the soil; in time the acacias die, but not before having changed the composition of the soil in which they grow, making it more nutrient-rich and thus allowing the denser eucalypt forest to expand its borders.  In such ways does a forest shift and change over decades.

There are three types of forest on my parents’ property: there’s the acacia forest, sparse and full of light; there’s the wet sclerophyll eucalypt forest, which covers the great majority of the property and which is thick with grass and undergrowth and treacherous with loosely buried granite rocks; and lastly there’s the rainforest, which grows in one gully on the property and which is composed largely of Pittosporums and of a particular species of fig which always and without exception makes its foundations upon those same granite rocks.  The rainforest is the densest of the forests and, accordingly, it plays host to the shyest animals.

One such animal is the Superb Lyrebird.  In appearance something like a leggy, dowdy, wallflower of a peacock, the Superb Lyrebird is famed the world over for its extraordinary talent for mimicry: in order to impress females, the male of the species will scratch a mound of bare earth into a kind of stage, fan his long, fronded tail over his head, and let forth an astonishing torrent of imitated sounds: mostly the songs and calls of other birds, but also mechanical sounds and pitch-perfect imitations of any other sound he may have heard during the course of his life.  So accurate is a male Lyrebird’s mimicry that I once heard one imitating a Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii), only to be answered by a real Lewin’s Honeyeater.  (Lyrebird songs can always be distinguished from the “originals” that they copy because the Lyrebird’s voice is so much louder and more resonant than any other bird’s.)

There are actually two species of Lyrebird: the smaller of the two, the Albert’s Lyrebird (Menura alberti), is restricted in range to a small area of forest on the border between Queensland and New South Wales, about half way up Australia’s east coast.  The Superb Lyrebird is found over a much larger area, inhabiting forest from eastern Victoria up the entire coast of New South Wales to the south of Queensland.  Lyrebirds belong to the passerines, Order Passeriformes, which contains more than half of the world’s bird species – and at a maximum of 90 centimetres long, not including its elaborate tail, the Superb Lyrebird is one of the very largest of the passerines.  Though more accurately called “perching birds”, the passerines are often referred to as “songbirds” – and it’s for its song that the Lyrebird is treasured.  The song is best heard in winter, which is when Lyrebirds breed – but it can be heard to a lesser degree in summer, too, when males practice their songs and mimicry.

That the frequently incoherent squawks and yelps that can be heard emanating from Lyrebirds in summer are practice for a masterpiece to come can be confirmed by anybody who’s ever had the pleasure of hearing an adult male Lyrebird performing his song in its full majesty during the breeding season.  If the adults are astonishing in the perfection of their mimicry, the younger males who can be heard practicing through summer are charming in how off the mark they so frequently are.  This was certainly the case last week, at my parents’ property, when my family and I were treated to one Lyrebird’s frequent attempts to imitate Eastern Whipbirds (Psophodes olivaceus), Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), and any number of other sounds whose origins, such was the young male’s ineptitude, we could only guess at.

The evident fact is that although the urge and ability of the Lyrebird to mimic other birds is surely innate, the Lyrebird’s song in its final majesty can only be arrived at by hard work.  It’s disconcerting to think of an animal, any animal other than a human, practicing a task: repeating actions over and over again until they take a final, agreeable shape.  It impinges upon our own identity, in a way: it comes dangerously close to destabilising our very consciousness, this realisation that a bird could have an objective, and determination to reach that objective, and awareness of the position of its own achievements, relative to what it wants or needs to achieve.  For surely a Lyrebird which practises and practises and practises a Kookaburra’s call until it has it precisely correct is profoundly aware of its own skill level relative to where it ought to be.  Why else would it keep practicing its song?

It seems that every time a particular form of behaviour is nominated as being definitive of humanity, demonstrative of what “separates us from the animals”, it’s only a matter of time until that supposition is proved to be false.  Tool making?  That went early: Chimpanzees (Pan spp.) strip sticks of leaves and then use them to fish out termites from termite mounds for a meal; examples of tool use among birds are too numerous to list, but include the astonishing example of Striated Herons (Butorides striatus) in Japan selecting and trimming twigs which they then cast into the water, in order to feed on the fish which come to investigate the new object that has fallen into their habitat.  Perhaps the most striking differentiation between human behaviour and the majority of animal behaviour is that we cook and prepare our food before eating it – but, famously, a group of Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata) on the island of Koshima created what could be considered a culture of washing – and, later, simply seasoning – sweet potatoes in sea water.  There are countless other examples of behaviour which we regard as innately human, but which can also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  If there’s anything that differentiates human behaviour from the behaviour of animals, it’s simply the degree of complexity to which we’ve taken these actions and habits.

I wonder, though, why we should even be bothered about differentiating ourselves from other animals.  Are we so insecure about our identity as a species that we should need to proclaim it loudly and repeatedly to ourselves?  Are we so eager to claim first place over all the other animals?  Of course there are many people to whom even the suggestion that humans are just another species of animal is appalling – but when I look at the extraordinary, the beautiful, the breathtaking magnificence and variety of the animal kingdom, I can’t help but wonder why anybody would want to turn their back on such a kinship.

Image sourced from