Highland highglights

The University of Manchester’s Field course is fully underway at the moment and we have a really good group of students, who are working very hard and enjoying each day and night here in Costa Rica. Currently we are based in Turrialba, high in the highlands, and staying at lodge that overlooks the Turrialba volcano. Its a wonderful place to work and the past few days we have mainly been investigating the insect, bird, and amphibian fauna of the area.

We have been up early birdwatching, insect collecting, and had nightwalks at the nearby Costa Rican Amphibian Research Centre (CRARC), all of which have bought some wonderful experiences and opportunities for studying highland and mid-elevation species in this highly biodiverse region of the world. Tomorrow we visit the Tropical Agricultural Research Center before heading to the Caribbean lowlands and on to further adventures..


Costa Rica 2016 – A Tropical Expedition


Budding Bioliterates

Currently I am in Central America supporting the University of Manchester’s undergraduate field course in Costa Rica, which offers many of our zoology and biology students their first taste of being in a tropical rainforest. Although many of our students will have had an interest in nature from a very early age, I am sure that over the next few weeks they will all experience some highly individual special moments within this wonderfully biodiverse environment we find ourselves in.

(c) Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity

As with all our environmental education related programmes, and particularly those developed with Manchester Museum, it is fully recognised that the only way to really make a difference in supporting the future conservation of the natural world is to stimulate young people’s interest in it as early and as often as possible. One of our new programmes being developed in Panama is a fine example, and thanks to the support of Professor Amanda Bamford and the Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity’s collaboration with us the conservation-related work in Central America now expands.

PWCC    Print Booklet (English)   Print Booklet (Espanol)   La Selva (OTS)

Elegant Italians

Italian Wall Lizard, P.s. campestris (c) Andrew Gray, 2017

Wall lizards have a very wide distribution across Europe, from northern Spain across France and from Italy to the southern Balkans. They can also be found on many Mediterranean islands and their colouration varies considerably between populations. The Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis sicula campestris, here in Montalcino, Tuscany, where I’m on holiday, are vivid green and really stunning creatures. This specimen is the most beautiful one I came across today!

These medium-sized lizards are really quite elegant in the way they sit and agile in the way they move. The males’ bright colouration stands out clearly from any stony background, although the females’ brown colouration helps them stay extremely well camouflaged and difficult to spot. These lizards love the sun and dry habitats, so the vineyards and walls of the hilltop town here are perfect for them. This is also the middle of their breeding season, when males go their brightest green to attract females.

Italian Wall Lizard, P.s. campestris (c) Andrew Gray

I do remember seeing these on my last visit, but somehow I had forgotten just how stunning they can be. As in many areas, it seems that cats are the main predators for these lizards and I notice the size of this population has seriously declined since I was last here 12 years ago.  As such, I’ll certainly be keeping my fingers crossed that these beautiful lizards don’t disappear completely from this area in the future, and that hopefully they can even make a real comeback.

With you

At the moment I am on holiday in Italy, and horrified by the news of what has happened back in Manchester. To know of this inhuman cowardly act on innocent young people is absolutely gut wrenching and my heart goes out to all involved.

Today I hiked in the Italian Alps and although the scenery was breathtaking my thoughts were only with all those in Manchester. I think it will take quite some time for all to recover from this terrible act, but the people of Manchester are great people and will stand together to do what is necessary to support each other and not let terrorism win.

Tonight I cannot attend the vigil at Manchester Town Hall, stand with my fine colleagues, friends, and fellow Mancunians, or lay flowers on the steps, but I am there in spirit, and I dedicate these pictures of the alpine flowers I photographed today by way of me echoing my sincere condolences and heartfelt sympathy for all affected back home.


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JustGiving – We stand together Manchester                    Instagram

Answer’s in the eyes

Some amphibians, such as Harlequin toads, pictured right, have highly individual patterning. However, one major problem with surveying amphibians from a non-invasive point of view can be that some specimens lack clear individual markings, so its very difficult to tell them apart. However, quantifying population sizes based on the number of individual is key to understanding and conserving most wild populations. Amphibians are particularly sensitive to being tagged in any way, including the use of some methods that involve even the smallest microchips and elastomer dyes. Elastomer was initially developed to use with fish and is now also used with some amphibians.

We first trialed it over 12 years ago with the wild population of Lemur Frogs in Costa Rica and the method proved to be not at all conducive to the frogs or even a basic survey due the very nature of the frogs sensitivity and elastomer composition.12 years on we still have not been in a position to try and quantify this critically endangered frog’s population status…    That is until now.

During the past couple of months one of our zoology students, Charlotte McMurray, has been working in the vivarium to help develop a new method that could help solve the problem. She has been thoroughly testing some of the latest software that was originally developed for a high-tech security eye recognition program.

Charlie had previously worked on a project with Natterjack toads with an early version but it didn’t work out at all due to the warts and patterning highlights not being in tune with the software requirements. However, the finely spotted patterning found in Lemur frogs in particular was just like the speckling in an eye so the method has worked far beyond our expectations – just perfectly!

Project notes    Charlie McMurray

Proposals are now to be discussed regarding how we best monitor the population using this, but the work represents a huge step forward for our conservation related focus on the species. I would sincerely like to thank Charlie for all her work with us and her commitment to the project over the past months, she’s a star!

Purple Serendipity

The first signs of the Orchid season began to make an appearance, and so there was no waiting, I just had to get out there to try and see Britain’s earliest flowering orchid – which has an unsurprising name of the Early Purple Orchid! I decided to head over to North Wales to try and find this beautiful plant.

Bluebells, anemones, wild garlic (c) T Hughes

I ventured into many woodlands in hope of finding the target species. The ancient forests were alive with spring flowers – carpets of bluebells, wild garlic, and cowslips in the clearings. I had traversed many long forgotten stiles into overgrown pathways, areas that had clearly not seen the likes of a tourist since the 1970’s. I persisted, and persisted, and meticulously persisted! But alas, to no Purple tinted avail.

This came as a real surprise to me because this Orchid can be locally abundant and has a widespread British distribution, but apparently where I had walked didn’t tick all of its boxes. The light was dropping below the tree line and the landscape was getting darker, so I had to call it a day.

The Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula (c) T Hughes

Driving despondently back down the country lanes, onto the A roads and then up to the motorway, I was about to turn on to the slip road of the motorway, when suddenly.. PURPLE! Was this a mirage?.. Was it an old Cadbury chocolate bar wrapper trapped in the grass?.. Whatever it was it was bright purple, and solitarily standing in the centre of the junction roundabout… Surely not.
Heading around the roundabout again and pulling up quickly to a halt, I dived out of the car, waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran up to investigate… Low and behold, before me was a huge Early Purple Orchid with 3 large flower spikes, the biggest specimen I had ever seen!
Sometimes you just have to laugh how things turn out – but at least I’ve seen my first Orchid of the year!

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:  tapir.eventbrite.com

Nai Conservation                  ZSL                   Baird’s Tapirs at Reaseheath College