Tag Archives: wildlife

Object of the Month – June 2021

A humpback whale leaping out of the sea. One flipper visible pointing left.

Humpback whale photographs taken by Barry Kaufmann-Wright in New Zealand, in 2013.

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Image 1 of 5

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

All Images BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Barry took and kept over 72,000 photographs in his lifetime, almost all of wildlife and the countryside. Barry grew up in Buckinghamshire but his first job was at Jersey Zoo, working for the famous naturalist Gerald Durrell.
When he returned to the UK, Barry joined Essex police and was posted to Thaxted, where he began duties as Wildlife Crime Officer and, later, Wildlife Liaison Coordinator for Essex. His photographs from all over the world are a modern treasure in the Museum’s collection, which also includes two slide projectors which he used when giving talks – up to 250 times a year (that’s 5 per week)!
Barry’s wife Pat very kindly donated his photographs and equipment following his death in 2016.

Humpback whales live in oceans all over the world, except the far north of the Arctic Ocean and around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean, where the sea is covered in ice. Whales are mammals, so sea ice stops them coming to the surface to breathe air.
They are grouped into four major populations in the north Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean. They usually migrate between summer and winter ranges, but there are year-round groups around Britain and Norway, and in the Arabian Sea between India and east Africa.

– They can grow up to 16 metres long
Humpbacks are one of the largest whale species. Females are slightly larger than males, usually up to 16m (50ft) long. They can weigh 30 tonnes – the same as 2½ double-decker buses.

This picture shows the size of a humpback whale compared to a human swimming next to it, and its long pectoral fins. Image: Jjw, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They have ‘big wings’
The scientific name of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, means ‘big wing of New England’. Their ‘big wings’ are their giant pectoral fins – one female had fins that were 6m (20ft) long, as tall as a giraffe!
The ‘New England’ part comes from where humpback whales were first discovered by European whalers, off the coast of New England in the far north-east of the USA.

– Each animal’s tail is unique
A whale’s tail is called a fluke, and has a wavy pattern along the rear edge. Like our fingerprints, this wavy pattern is unique to each whale and is an easy way to identify animals in a group.
Compare this image to Barry Kaufmann-Wright’s photograph of a humpback’s fluke, above.

Image: Terry Howard CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They use nets to catch fish
Humpbacks migrate between summer and winter ranges and only eat for 6 months of the year, in the cooler waters of their summer range. Hunting and eating for 22 hours a day means they can build up enough fat reserves to survive their winter breeding season without eating.
Some populations of humpbacks have learned to feed in groups using the ‘bubble net’ technique and use vocal calls to work together. The whales swim in circles below a school of fish, blowing bubbles from their blowholes to create a ‘net’ that the fish won’t swim through. When one whale gives a feeding call, all the whales swim upwards inside the net with their mouths open to catch the fish.

A humpback whale using the bubble net technique on its own. Image: Christin Khan, NOAA/NEFSC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

– They sieve their food
Humpbacks are one of a group of whale species called baleen whales, which have bony, comb-like plates inside their mouths. With a mouth full of water and food animals, baleen whales partly close their mouths, and push water out through the baleen plates using their tongue. The baleen lets the water through but keeps in food such as fish and krill, which the whale then swallows.

Baleen plates and bristles in the mouth of a young gray whale. Image: Marc Webber/USFWS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whale ear bone, probably from  North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica)

The North Pacific right whale is a baleen whale like the humpback.
This bone is the tympanic bulla and may have come from a North Pacific right whale. It’s a hollow shape but made of heavy, dense bone which helps sound resonate in the whale’s middle ear, inside the head. In life, it would have been attached to the petrosal bone, which has snapped off.

Smaller bones called the hammer, anvil and stirrup would sit inside the hollow space, and actually transmit the sound from the outer inner to the inner ear, just like in humans.

The North pacific right whale got its name because it is a large whale (up to 18m long but weighing 80 tons) with plenty of valuable blubber, it moved slowly, and would float after it was killed. It was the ‘right’ whale to go for because it was easy to catch and made lots of money for the whalers.

Image: John Durban (NOAA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More than 15,000 were killed by whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, estimates say there are fewer than 400 North Pacific right whales left, split between an eastern and a western population, making them the smallest known population of all whale species, As a whole, they are listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list, while the eastern population is Critically Endangered, with less than 40 animals.

Use this link to listen to a song about the dangers of whaling, based on the songwriter’s own experiences in Australia in the 1950s – www.swmuseumlearning.com/general-5

Object of the Month – February 2021

Water voles are probably best known from the character ‘Ratty’ from The Wind in the Willows. Recently described as “Britain’s fastest, declining mammal”, they are making a comeback thanks to careful wildlife management and the return of a locally extinct predator – the polecat.

Water vole © Saffron Walden Museum.

Water voles are about the same size as a brown rat, but with a furry, much shorter tail, and small ears. Today, they are a semi-aquatic mammal, relying heavily on streams and rivers for food and shelter – they use their teeth to dig burrows into steep banks to shelter and raise their young.

Do water voles need water?

But it wasn’t always this way. They don’t show any of the usual adaptations for a water-based mammal, such as webbed feet and a ‘keeled’ tail (flattened sideways but taller top-to-bottom), both of which make otters very strong swimmers.
In the 1500s, rewards for hunting ‘rats’ may actually have referred to ‘water voles’ that lived entirely on land. Their burrowing habits and herbivorous diet would have made them an agricultural pest, which would explain the rewards paid for hunting them. Modern water voles are always found on waterways, so any hunting must have succeeded in wiping out fully-terrestrial water voles.

A population vole-ercoaster

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of water voles in the UK plummeted, making them Britain’s fastest-declining mammal. Surveys of water vole territories in Essex showed that  81% of recent territories were still occupied in 1990, but by 2005, only 7.5% of territories were still occupied in certain areas.
Such a drastic decline couldn’t just be down to habitat loss, and they are resistant to pollution – water vole colonies live in the banks of streams which run from landfill sites along the Thames estuary, and on rubbish-choked streams near Rainham.

Studies by Essex Wildlife Trust showed that crashes in water vole numbers closely followed local increases in the number the invasive American mink. These animals are not native to the UK, and became established after escaping or being released from fur farms from the 1950s onwards. Mink will hunt water voles in their burrows and in water, and a female can destroy a water vole colony in one breeding season. The water vole’s usual predators only hunt on land, and are too big to fit in their burrows.

American mink. © Saffron Walden Museum.

Essex Wildlife Trust began work in 2007 to control mink numbers in key water vole strongholds, allowing water voles to recover, and spread. In 2012, more areas were put under mink control, and water vole colonies were relocated from sites destroyed by development along the Thames and M25. Surveys in 2013 showed that these colonies had survived and spread, with several new colonies established along the river Colne and its tributaries.

Ratty’s new best friends

Since 2000, wildlife surveys have found an ever-increasing number of polecats, a native predator which had been extinct in Essex for over 100 years. Polecats were hunted to near extinction across the UK by gamekeepers, who treated them as dangerous vermin, and they were also easily caught and killed in rabbit traps, which fell out of use in the 1950s. Polecats have probably spread into Essex from a targeted release in Hertfordshire in 1982-3.

Natural Sciences Officer, James Lumbard, with the skin of a recenltly-mounted polecat. The polecat was brought to the Museum after being found dead at the roadside. Image © Saffron Walden Museum.

Otter © Saffron Waledn Museum. This otter is on view in the Victorian Museum Workroom display when the Musuem is open.

Informal tracking and recording also suggests that the return of polecats may be helping water voles spread and recover more quickly, by reducing mink numbers. The same is true for otters, which are now returning to Essex, after being declared locally extinct in 1986. Both of these animals are native predators that rarely hunt water voles, but will compete with the American mink for food and territory, and are also big enough to hunt or kill mink. There are no studies to confirm it yet, but it could be very good news for water voles, and wildlife-lovers across Essex.

References

Are the otter and ​polecat combining to reduce mink numbers? East Anglian Daily Times, first published 31 March, 2019. Accessed 29.1.2021: https://www.eadt.co.uk/news/business/rise-in-polecats-and-otters-hit-mink-2562736

Mammals of Essex by John Dobson and Darren Tansley, 2014.

Object of the Month – October 2020

New Zealand Kiwi

We’ve been busy over the last few weeks moving the bird taxidermy from a temporary home back to their usual store. October’s object of the month is a mounted kiwi skin, probably of a little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), the smallest of the five kiwi species.

A stuffed Little spotted kiwi sking, facing left, mounted on a 'naturalistic' base.

The little spotted kiwi in Saffron Walden Museum. © SWM

With strong, heavy legs and no wings, kiwis have evolved for life on the ground. They are nocturnal, dig burrows to nest in, and have stiff, hair-like outer feathers to withstand pushing through leaves and twigs. Unlike most birds they have keen hearing and a good sense of smell to help them find food, mostly earthworms and insects.

A page from a book with drawings showing the head, wing and strong feet of a kiwi.

Kiwis have ‘whiskers’ around their beak, stiff feathers and tiny wings, and strong feet for digging.
[Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions]

Kiwi numbers have plummeted since Europeans arrived in New Zealand, bringing rats, stoats, pigs, cats, dogs, trophy hunting and habitat destruction. Kiwis grow and reproduce slowly and only thrive today on protected reserves, with intensive work to remove these threats. The indigenous Maori regard the kiwi as a taonga (treasure), and actively protect the birds across 230,000 hectares of land, about the same area as the national government’s Department of Conservation. Altogether, an area of land bigger than Essex is managed for kiwi conservation.

Coloured map of New Zealand showing distribution of kiwis at present day and before European colonisation.

Light green, current location of kiwis; Dark green, location of kiwis before European colonisation; Dark grey, kiwis never known here. [© New Zealand Department of Conservation]

Map with numbers and letters showing locations of Little spotted kiwi populations across New Zealand.

Little spotted kiwi reserves – Predator-free islands: 1, Hen Island; 2, Tiritiri Matangi; 3. Red Mercury Island; 4, Motuihe Island; 5, Kapiti Island; 6, Long Island; 7, Anchor Island; 8, Chalky Island
Mainland: A, Shakespear Open Sanctuary; B, Cape Sanctuary; C, Zealandia.
Michal Klajban / CC BY-SA 4.0

See the little spotted kiwi and find out more about kiwi species in our Object of the Month display when the museum re-opens soon.

More information
New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) –  Facts about kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/facts/
New Zealand DoC – Little Spotted Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/little-spotted-kiwi/
New Zealand DoC – Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/
Science Learning Hub – Conserving our native kiwi: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2784-conserving-our-native-kiwi
WWF New Zealand – Kiwi: https://www.wwf.org.nz/what_we_do/species/kiwi/

References

Internet Archive Book Images. ‘Features of kiwis’ Transactions and proceedings of the New Zealand Institute (1870). Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions. Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Michal Klajban. ‘Apteryx owenii – distribution map. CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0). Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.2.2020]

New Zealand Department of Conservation. Kiwi Recovery Plan Summary Document 2018-2028. New Zealand Government, 2018. Available from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/docs-work/ [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Object of the Month – February 2020

Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.
Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.

A female snowy owl in the Museum’s collections. Image: © Saffron Walden Museum.

Snowy Owl

A female snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus. Female snowy owls have spotted and striped plumage (above), while the male bird is almost pure white (below, left). Snowy owls live in the Arctic Circle where they hunt for food over tundra and upland moors. These impressive predators eat lemmings and other rodents, birds and rabbits, and only very rarely visit the far north of Britain. This mounted skin was donated to Saffron Walden Museum in 2003 for the Education collection. It has come out of the store for Museums at Night, exhibitions and teaching sessions.

A snowy owl from front angle. Pure white plumage of male, with a few dark spots visble on left wing. Against a pale background.

A male snowy owl. Image: Barry Kaufmann-Wright © Saffron Walden Museum.

An eagle owl from front left angle. Tawny under-plumage with patterns of dark brown and pale grey in bars and stripes. Vivid orange iris to eyes, and large horn-like feathers. Perched on a wooden post. Against a snowy backdrop.

An eagle owl. Image: Kamil. Corrections Piotr_J [CC BY-SA 3.0] (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know?

All living things have a common name, like ‘snowy owl’, and a scientific name. The scientific name is a combination of two words which are only used for that species. Humans are Homo sapiens, and our extinct close relatives the Neanderthals are Homo neanderthalensis. We are different species in the same genus, Homo.
But scientific names can change. In 2004, the scientific name of the snowy owl was changed from Nyctea scandiaca to Bubo scandiacus, after years of research on their genetics and the shape of their bones. This showed that they were more closely related to horned owls and eagle owls (above, right), and should use the same genus name, Bubo.

You can see the snowy owl as Object of the Month until 29th February.

Object of the Month – October 2019

This case is arranged to show which butterflies live in the Saffron Walden area today (left), and which are extinct (right).

These butterflies died off mainly because of changing land use in the 19th & 20th centuries. Butterflies such as the Adonis blue (1) and chalk-hill blue (2) prefer large areas of chalk wildflower meadow, grazed by sheep and cattle. However, much of this land was converted to crop farming in the 1800s and these specialist insects died off. Other changes, such as the end of coppicing in woodlands, removed the open wooded habitat that butterflies such as the grizzled skipper (3) thrive in.

Species like the purple emperor (4) and white admiral (5) feed on the sugary waste products from aphids (honeydew). Pollution from coal burning may have contributed to these butterflies’ extinction as the toxins could dissolve into the honeydew on the leaf surface.

However, 2019 has been a very good year for some impressive larger butterflies too, with lots of painted ladies (6) arriving in Britain from the Mediterranean as they migrate north. Protected roadside verges in Uttlesford also provide good chalk grassland habitat for species such as the small copper (7).

There is also some very good news for three ‘extinct’ species (green boxes in main image). The purple emperor (4) returned to Uttlesford about two years ago and has been seen in Shadwell Wood and Rowney Wood, two local Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserves. The silver-washed fritillary (8) was first seen again about five years ago and is now known from Shadwell Wood, Rowney Wood and Hatfield Forest. The marbled white (9) has also been spotted at Harrison Sayer and Noakes Grove nature reserves and along some protected roadside verges over the last two years. The return of these three species in protected areas of countryside and special habitats show just how important effective conservation efforts are in supporting our native wildlife.

You can learn more about how humans have affected local environments and wildlife, for bad and for good, in the Take Away the Walls exhibition until 3 November.
Find out how you can help local wildlife groups on the Discovery Centre noticeboard next to the stick insects, and in the Take Away the Walls exhibition.

 

 

Object of the Month – June 2019

Did You Know?

The ‘cabbage white’ butterfly is actually two closely related species – the large white (Pieris brassicae) and the small white (Pieris rapae). Apart from the size difference, the large white has darker black wing spots, and a dark black band at the front of its wings. Both lay their eggs on cabbages in gardens, allotments and farms, as it is the preferred food of their caterpillars. The large white takes the outer leaves, while the small white prefers the soft inner leaves. The adult (imago) of both species often feeds on nectar from buddleia flowers.

Cabbage white butterflies “Insects Injurious to Vegetables”. SAFWM : 118007. © Saffron Walden Museum

The display has a male and female of each species, with the male at the top and female below. There is also a caterpillar of the large white butterfly, which is yellow and hairy, with black bumps on its skin. The small white’s caterpillar is pale green and hairless with a narrow yellow stripe on either side. The cabbage leaf in the box has some caterpillar feeding damage.

Caterpillar of the small white. CC BY-SA 3.0, Harald Süpfle.

Chrysalis of the small white. CC BY-SA 2.5, James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster.

Life cycle

These butterflies have two ‘broods’ per year, and three in a good year. In the spring, butterflies which survived the winter as a chrysalis emerge as adults in April and May. They lay eggs in May and June (spring brood), which hatch into caterpillars in June and July. The caterpillars feed and grow quickly, and shed their skin 4 times as they grow. After about a month, the caterpillar finds a sheltered spot to transform into a butterfly in a process called metamorphosis. The caterpillar spins a pad of silk against the surface of its shelter, and sheds it skin again to reveal a hard skin (chrysalis), which has a small hook to keep it attached to the silk.

Adults emerge from the chrysalis about two weeks later, in July and August. They then lay eggs which develop into caterpillars through September and form chrysalises into October. The caterpillars go through a very slow metamorphosis to survive the winter, and emerge as adults the following April and May to start the process again.

Butterfly survival

On the right of the leaf are some cocoons and adults of a parasitic wasp which lays its eggs inside the caterpillars. After hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar and eventually kill it, helping to control cabbage white numbers in a natural way. The adult wasp feeds on nectar.

Like many insects, these butterflies have declined in number recently. Currently, the large white and small white are not the focus of conservation efforts, but many other more specialist butterflies have declined severely or have gone extinct in Essex since 1900.
You can find out more about local butterflies in the Take Away the Walls exhibition at the Museum.

June’s Object of the Month was chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

Image credits

Pieris rapae caterpillar: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Pieris rapae chrysalis: Harald Süpfle [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Accessed 11/06/2019

Parasitic wasp Cotesia glomerata: Copyright © Albert de Wilde – All rights reserved http://www.ahw.me/img/sluipwesp4mm_grootkoolwitje01b.html. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Featured Image – Cabbage whites “Insects Injurious to Vegetables” on display in the Museum © Saffron Walden Museum

 

The polecat comeback

Object of the Month – February 2019

The European polecat, Mustela putorius, was thought to be extinct in Essex since 1880 thanks to persecution from gamekeepers. The first modern sighting was in 1999 near Wendens Ambo and there are now numerous records from north-west Essex, though only from roadkill specimens.

A mounted polecat skin from 1842 and a polecat skull, also from the 1800s.

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