Talking Tapirs

Tapirs are the largest land mammals in Central and South America, with the Baird’s Tapir, Tapirus bairdii, being the largest of them all. Last year, in Costa Rica, I came across my first wild specimen, and it was an experience I will never forget. Tapirs have enthralled me since I was small boy: I knew all about them from an early age, and I still have the small plastic model of a tapir that was bought for me when I was just a 7 year old, for me being good – it must have been a rare event! 🙂

Today these wonderful creatures are highly vulnerable and in danger of extinction, mainly due to the fact some people have no respect for their lives nor the fragile rainforest habitat where they live.

Thankfully some people do care, and care a great deal. Estaban Brenes-Mora is a Costa Rican biologist and committed conservationist who is passionate about saving tapirs and other rainforest mammals in need of protection. Esteban is the founder and director of Nai Conservation: a research group focused on mammals from the Highlands of Costa Rica and particular the Cordillera de Talamanca, one of the most biologically diverse and important ‘wildlife corridors’ in Central America.

I invited Esteban to come to Manchester to discuss ways in which we might support their conservation work and for him to present a special guest lecture. Esteban kindly agreed, and will soon be joining us to share an overview of the work being conducted by Nai Conservation and present data collected during their latest study of tapir ecology.

His presentation, which is open for all to attend, including students, university staff, and members of the public, will be hosted by the University of Manchester and will take place at Manchester Museum at 6.30pm on 2nd May, 2017.  Join us for a fascinating insight into the lives of these unusual creatures – it would be great to have you there!

Save the Date or Reserve your seat now here:

Nai Conservation                  ZSL                   Baird’s Tapirs at Reaseheath College 

Rainforest Investigators

Today we officially launch our exciting new ‘Rainforest Investigators’ session here at the Manchester Museum. This a brand new environmental education session based on the differing rainforest habitats and developed for Key Stage 2 pupils, which is for upper primary/age 7-11 year olds. It links strongly to National Curriculum Year 4 Science ‘Living things and their habitats’ (classification and habitat change) and Year 6 ‘Evolution and inheritance’ (adaptation to environments). It also links well with popular primary cross-curricular topics on ‘Rainforest’ and ‘Existing, Endangered and Extinct’ topics and the ‘working scientifically’ strands of the 2014 curriculum.

The session developed, which is for classes of up to 32 children and last 90 minutes, incorporates full use of our live collection from Central America and we are delighted that the new session can help children understand the real threats facing rainforest species and showcases some of our work in Costa Rica.  We are also really pleased that the new session has the opportunity for inspiring pupils directly about wildlife conservation through getting up close to our live animals and being able to ask related questions to our experts in the vivarium team.

We would very much like to thank the teachers and pupils involved in piloting and advising on the session development, including St Clements CE (Openshaw), Holy Name RC (Moss Side) and Bolshaw Primary (Stockport), as well as all our partners in Costa Rica who continue to support our related conservation and education work.

To find out more information about Rainforest Investigators, or to book a session for your class please follow the links below.


¡Adiós Adam!

Adam left us on Friday to take on an exciting new amphibian-keeping role at Chester Zoo. It’s a wonderful opportunity and one we know he will excel in. Adam’s experience with us at Manchester Museum will stand him in good stead for his new position, but the level of contribution he has made to what has been achieved during his time here should not be underestimated: Adam has been highly instrumental in the development of what the Vivarium has become today, and without his help and true commitment during his time with us it would not be at all as it is. The high standard of animal care, the quality of the public exhibits, the dedication to detail in everything we do, deserves major credit to Adam Bland.

More personally, Adam has become a good friend, someone I could trust when no others were there to trust and listen, a kind, honest, and genuine person. I appreciate all the support he has given in so many ways over the years and thank him for all of it.

He is someone special I have had the honor of working with for many years. I remember our first conversation well and knew then that we could work well together, towards shared goals of enthusing others in the natural world. Real passion for nature in its true sense is something many try hard to develop but for those born with that deep sense of appreciation and care its a rare gift.

The opportunity for Adam to contribute to important amphibian conservation at Chester Zoo is something I know he will relish, and we all at Manchester Museum are extremely pleased for him. We all wish him well in his new job. I will greatly miss working with Adam on a day to day basis, but I know he will go from strength to strength in whatever he undertakes in the future. And he knows he will always have a friend in me.

Chester Zoo – Amphibians

Cuban Caves

On my recent trip to Cuba I was lucky enough to be able to visit Viñales, which is located in the northwest Pinar del Río Province. The Sierra de los Órganos mountain range extends throughout the National Park here, with dramatic formations known as ‘mogotes’ towering over the landscape. The mogotes – large, rounded mountains – are all that’s left of a limestone plateau that existed here 160 million years ago.

Rainwater produces a carbonic acid when it interacts with limestone, a process that helped dissolve parts of the plateau and carve out the caves that exist here today. It was this special cave system that I was particularly interested in exploring, for only in this specific area live two unusual frog species that are found nowhere else on the planet..

Eleutherodactylus zeus (c) Andrew Gray, 2017

Both Endangered species belong to the genus ‘Eleutherodactylus’ and reproduce through something known as ‘Direct Development’, where the young hatch from the eggs as fully formed little froglets rather than as tadpoles. Eleutherodactylus zeus is a large species associated only with the limestone caves, where it lives in almost complete darkness and has adapted enlarged eardrums and exceptional vision to help it survive.

Eleutherodactylus adelus (c) Andrew Gray, 2017

Eleutherodactylus adelus uses the caves during the dry season to gain moisture rather than remain in its usual mid-elevation forest habitat. It takes cover in small holes where the cave walls meet the ground, where moisture that has run down the walls dampens the soil. Here the E. adelus hide until the rains come and they can once again return to the leaf litter cover in the surrounding broadleaf forest.


Crocker Range Carnivores


Wild Nepenthes sp. © Matthew O’Donnell

My final few days in Sabah were spent around the capital, Kota Kinabalu, from where I took a few day trips to explore the surrounding region.

The highlight of which was a trip to Taman Banjaran in the Crocker Range national park, high in the mountains to the south of KK, a place famed for its carnivorous plants.

Known as Pitcher plants, Nepenthes have adapted to survive in this high altitude and low nutrient environment by catching insects and other animals in their specially adapted leaves which form the pitcher, these victims are then slowly dissolved and the resulting nutrients are absorbed.

Knowing that many species of these plants are found growing in the wild here in Borneo I couldn’t go home without attempting to see them, unfortunately my earlier efforts at Mount Kinabalu were thwarted due to earthquake damage closing off the routes to where they are found.

Fortunately, this time we were successful! Please watch the video below to see what was found. A big thank you to Ebon for his invaluable help in finding these amazing plants.

Amphibian reproduction – Tree frogs use Bromeliads too! Bromeliad Biota

Plant Sciences – The University of Manchester

Annual Amphibian Symposium


BCA – 2012              BCA – Animal Management

Viper or not?


Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) © Matthew O’Donnell

Whilst in Borneo I was incredibly lucky to see a wide range of snake species, ranging from the impressive and photogenic pit vipers, to the less charismatic but equally intriguing slug eating snakes.

Many of Borneo’s native snakes are venomous, however in the field it is not always immediately clear what species you have come across, which is why caution is always the best policy when encountering snakes in the wild!

This is especially true when you come across species such as the painted mock viper (Psammodynastes pictus), these snakes are visually similar to the true vipers (Family: Viperidae) however they are actually a type of rear-fanged coloubrid, with venom that is thought to be harmless to humans.


Black-headed Cat Snake (Boiga nigriceps) © Matthew O’Donnell

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by local snake expert and Maliau Basin Ranger – Mas, who’s wealth of experience really helped in finding and identifying snakes as well as many other nocturnal animals! Notable snake finds included two species of cat snake, black-headed cat snake (Boiga nigriceps), mangrove cat snake (Boiga dendrophila), a reticulated python (Python reticulatus) and the blunt-headed slug eating snake (Aplopeltura boa) as well as many more.

Mount Kinabalu      SNAKES       Superb snake sightings