Sunday, 12 July 2009

British Wildlife: A

Welcome to the first instalment of a themed set of posts called ‘A to Z of British Wildlife’. I’ve been off work for a few weeks with a dodgy knee, and in my spare time I decided to pick one British animal from each letter of the alphabet. I soon found that I could include even more wildlife if I doubled the amount and did one portfolio of extant native wildlife and another of prehistoric ones. I got even more carried away, and did a third alphabet using the animals’ common names.

There were a few problems, however. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find an animal with a scientific name beginning with ‘K’ or ‘Y’ that currently lives in the UK. I managed to get around ‘K’ by drawing something different, but had to leave out ‘Y’ completely. For the third alphabet, I soon realised there are no native British animals, or plants, beginning with ‘X’ or ‘Z’, so I cheated and used scientific names.

Once a week, or maybe more often if it’s popular, I will present the three illustrations (or two for ‘Y’) – with some background and some relevant photos – for each letter, starting today with ‘A’, of course. I’d like to invite readers to guess the identity of the following week’s critters, for which I’ll give clues for at the end of the post. This week, prepare for an amazing plesiosaur, an adorable passerine and an attractive wader.

Attenborosaurus conybeari (Sollas, 1881)
Plesiosauridae; Plesiosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

In 2008 I got to meet the world’s best known living natural historian, not once, but twice. Sir David Attenborough was signing copies of his latest book, Life in Cold Blood, at my place of study, the Natural History Museum. I almost didn’t make it as the queue was so long, it snaked around Diplodocus several times and I almost had to leave the queue as I was having a hypoglycaemic episode. In the end I got to meet one of my most admired celebrities, who was understandably tired and bored of scribbling on hundreds of books.

It was not long after that, however, that I met Attenborough again in more comfortable surroundings, again at the Museum. He gave a lecture to postgraduate students and Museum staff about his time making natural history films and some funny anecdotes. After the lecture, me and some friends were hanging out outside the lecture theatre, trying to mingle at the after-show party. Some of the most important people of the institution were there, including popular ambassador for the Museum, Richard Fortey, and several directors. What a shock then, that in his short time hanging out after the talk, that Sir David Attenborough would approach us, a humble group of students. He engaged in conversation with us, and the subject was brought up about some of the organisms named after him. A friend asked him how he felt about the echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, being named after him. He said he felt honoured, but was even more proud of the plesiosaur, Attenborosaurus conybeari.

The plesiosaur was first described as Plesiosaurus conybeari in 1881, by the geologist and lecturer William Johnson Sollas. It was none other than Bob Bakker, the American dinosaurologist, who erected the new generic name for the species whose affinities, such as a large head combined with a long neck, place it apart from the classic Plesiosaurus species.

Attenborosaurus conybeari
Natural History Museum, London
February 2008

The specimen photographed above is a cast of the holotype (the specimen against which the description was originally written). The original, of which photographs still exist (see this wonderful website), was destroyed during the Bristol Blitz whilst in that city. Other specimens exist, but none as complete as the holotype. Thanks to whoever created the cast that the holotype can still be viewed, in a reversed position however!

Attenborosaurus has been found in lower Jurassic sediments at Charmouth, Dorset.

Long-tailed tit
Aegithalos caudatus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Aegithalidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The long-tailed tit is an endearing bird found in most of Eurasia. It is similar to other tits (titmice or chickadees in North America), but differs, amongst other ways, in the length of its tail. Long-tailed tits often associate with other tits in the winter, in mixed-species flocks. The subspecies illustrated is the western European race, A. c. europaeus. The nominate race, A. c. caudatus, from northern Europe, has an entirely white head.

Long-tailed tit nest and eggs
Manchester Museum
July 2008

One wonderful thing about the long-tailed tit is the nest it builds for its eggs and chicks. The nest is made of fine plant material, lichen, moss and spider webs woven together quite intricately, and is lined with feathers. I know long-tailed tits have been breeding in my garden, but have never managed to find the nest.

Recurvirostra avosetta (Linnaeus, 1758)
Recurvirostridae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

Known to most Britons as the logo of the RSPB, the pied avocet is one of four species of elegant, long-legged waders from the same family as stilts. Other than its black and white plumage, the avocet’s most distinctive feature is its slender upturned beak, which it uses to search for aquatic invertebrates in shallow water. Avocets can swim well, and have webbed feet.

Cambridge Museum of Zoology
June 2008

Pied avocets were extinct in Britain for several decades but began breeding again in the mid-20th Century, with populations centred in the south of England, but breeding as far north as Newcastle in northeast England. They have thus become a symbol for avian conservation in Britain, hence its use as a logo for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I have seen wild avocets in Norfolk, Devon and London. In the latter city, in the Wetland Centre, avocets have bred a few times in the last few years.

That’s it for ‘A’, I hope you enjoyed that. Clues for B: an amphibious mammal, a long-clawed theropod and a rare chiropteran.


Glendon Mellow said...

Wow! This promises to be a fantastic set of posts!

I don't understand about "K" though. You have wild kangaroos in the U.K., right?

Seriously, I like the mix of your colour drawings with the photos - the mix of personal with factual is great too. Can't wait for "B".

I know what they are - botters, bvelociraptors, and BritBatman.

Mo Hassan said...


Haha, botters!