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 

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.