CONTENT WARNING: Will contain an image of a diseased squirrel some may find disturbing.
The UK is an island very familiar with invaders competing with, or integrating with, what already exists here and finding a way of making a new way of life.
Much to the chagrin of the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ types who want to believe in an ‘English’ or ‘British’ identity, we are a nation of mongrels of various migrations and invasions for probably close to a million years. We have found fossils of pre-human Homo species, Homo antecessor, H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis dating back hundreds of thousands of years. We’re pre-historic mongrels.
Never mind the arrival of the first humans to these shores, whether those people became the historic Celtic group or if they, too, arrived from elsewhere, interchange with Gauls, invasions by Romans, Anglo-Saxons and the Germanic tribes, Vikings, Normans, Danes, all the way through to the opposite – our invasion of much of the rest of the world. Colonisation, and the import of different people and cultures, either specifically brought to Britain to be exploited, or else moving voluntarily to exploit opportunities presented here. Those who don’t believe in a multi-cultural Britain are wilfully ignorant of history. It is.
There is nothing new under the sun, they say, and there is nothing in Britain that hasn’t been somewhere else before.
Enter the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis, being British I shall call it the ‘grey squirrel’) a clever, competitive and adaptable rodent, as many rodents are wont to be. The IUCN lists it as ‘least concern’ but many other wildlife and forestry groups in the UK disagree! Not because the grey squirrel is endangered, but because it, itself, is a danger.
The Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) was, until around 1870s-1890s, our predominant, native species here in Britain. At that point, whether as exotic pets, nesting in imported trees or just because human beings are idiots, the grey squirrel was imported from North America. Most likely they were imported as pets because they were cute. I only give alternative options to make people feel less stupid. Released into the wild they seemed to spread quickly and showed themselves adept at outcompeting out native reds, for reasons we will discuss later.
Squirrels, as a family, are rodents (order Rodentia) in the family Sciuridae, the sciurids. They are a fairly disperse group, indigenous to much of the world excluding Australia (where they were introduced, but marsupials evolved by convergent evolution to fill much the name niche) and Antarctica (the ever-exception). The first squirrels date to roughly 50-30 million years ago (the Eocene).
We might associate squirrels with bushy-tailed tree dwellers, like the red and grey we will talk about today, or chipmunks (also a squirrel species). But there are also ground squirrels like marmots, groundhogs and prairie dogs, all scuiridae species.
Of those that do have a tail we find it is not merely an aid to leaping (as a sort of parachute) and balance (as with most tails on tree-dwelling or climbing animals) but can also be used for communication, as a heat regulation aid and also, quite adorably, as a little blanket to keep warm and protected.
I’m going to step in and do my mandatory people-bashing here, before I move on to the potential harms the grey squirrel causes.
They were initially transplanted from their native environment by people. A study of DNA analysis by Dr. Lisa Signorile reveals that, far from spreading across the UK in a wave of successful invasion, their distribution around Britain itself owes much to human intervention. People who had them as pets or populations in their gardens spread them to others. The population in Regent’s Park, as well as many other places, for example, can trace their lineage back to the 11th Duke of Bedford who gifted many of them from his Woburn Park home.
That estate now houses Woburn Safari Park. The 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell, was a keen animal enthusiast but not so good at understanding the potential impacts of non-native species becoming invasive. I would say ‘he can fuck off’ but our knowledge of wildlife and invasive species was nowhere near sufficient at the time for me to think the Duke anything more than a sentimental idiot with a penchant for cute animals and a passion for sharing them. He doesn’t get a free pass – but a stern telling off, education in how non-native species can impact their ecosystems and how he should be responsible when keeping them in the future and we’ll let him on his way!
One of the species keeping their populations naturally managed in Scotland and much of Ireland is the pine marten (Martes martes), a mustelid, in the same family as weasels and stoats etc. however the marten is much more arboreal than many of its related species, it hunts in the trees. Squirrels, both red and grey, are prey items for the pine marten. However, the red squirrel evolved with the marten, so they have an understanding of how to avoid predation. The grey squirrels seem to have none of this knowledge and the presence of a marten can lead to grey squirrels leaving a particular habitat.
Of course numbers of pine marten are lacking in England and Wales because, like so many amazing, successful native predators – we killed them! Funnily enough in the 19th century! Just when the grey squirrels were kicking off!
Most marten were hunted in retaliation for perceived livestock attacks, for their fur or, surprisingly often, for sport. Combined with the reduction of their preferred woodland habitat at the time, with increased industrialisation and the necessity of having more intensive farms to feed an increasing, and increasingly urban, population, it was curtains for the marten in England and Wales.
There is evidence the marten is moving further south from their Scottish outpost, with likely populations in Northumberland and Yorkshire, some in Wales. However the once abundant woodlands, their habitat, are now absent. With no wildlife corridors to allow the marten to migrate south easily their spread will be slow, or completely halted, without human-assisted reintroductions. A wider spread of pine martens could improve the situation with regards to the grey squirrel in our woodlands but the grey squirrel is adaptable to our urban and suburban environments and trials seem to suggest the marten has little success hunting them there. Ousting them from our urban centres is going to be difficult, and the question may need to be asked “Should we?”
So the Eastern gray squirrel, or grey squirrel as we call it over here is an invasive species originally from North America, specifically the Eastern side, which can probably be determined by its name. They are also mostly grey, although some can have browner, tawny, or even reddish patches of fur, and melanistic (black) individuals are known to exist. They aren’t huge, around 20-30cm in body length with a slightly shorter tail – so up to 60cm from nose-to-tail. Their bushy tail is a pretty obvious sign of a squirrel.
An interesting piece of physiological information is that they have much freer-jointed feet, allowing them to turn them completely 180°! If you wondered why grey squirrels seem just as comfortable running up and down trees, this is why – by reversing the angle of their ankles they can effectively change the direction of their claws’ grip and not have to worry about slipping. It’s an exceptional adaptation that allows them that signature speed and agility going up and down tree trunks.
Ethologically (animal behaviour) speaking you might consider the squirrel quite a dumb creature. If you’ve ever had one trapped in your house and you’ve tried to usher it out you will likely be sure they’re stupid. If you’ve ever seen one try to solve a puzzle or maze to get some food you would almost definitely disagree. If, like some people, you have observed them exhibiting deceptive, trick behaviour, you might be inclined to suggest they have some consideration of others and their motivations, otherwise known as ‘theory of mind’.
Let me explain.
Grey squirrels, and many squirrels, in fact, are what’s known as scatter-hoarders. They don’t just eat the food they find, they bury caches of it so that they have something for leaner months. Squirrels do not truly hibernate, so they may require food during a particularly harsh winter or if they fatten up sufficiently beforehand they are looking for a nice meal when spring arrives. So they will find a food source, eat a little, gather a lot, store it – sometimes even temporarily, in caches they will move to a main, more secure one, later – and then when the time comes they use memory and smell to uncover their caches. It is estimated a squirrel can bury several thousand nuts and seeds in a season, creating thousands of caches. They are nothing if not industriously hungry.
However, cache thievery is also a thing. Not only from other squirrels but other species too. So the grey squirrel has been seen exhibiting false caching behaviour. If they feel they are being watched they will mimic burying food, digging, placing the food, covering the cache etc. all whilst concealing the food in their mouth.
They will also adapt these behaviours. Sometimes they will conceal themselves behind leaves, if they feel they are being watched by a terrestrial (ground based) thief they will hide their food in trees.
It is this adaptation, this complex repertoire of behaviours that could potentially suggest a theory-of-mind level intelligence in squirrels. They are aware of the other animal’s intention (i.e. to steal their food) and they adapt their own behaviour based upon their prediction of what the other animal is thinking.
So squirrels are not stupid. I would argue few, if any, rodents are ‘stupid’. They are widespread, numerous in species, diverse and populous for a reason!
One thing people ask me about squirrels is their babies. Have you ever seen a baby squirrel? Unless you’ve been unfortunate enough to see a fallen nest, or ‘drey’ as they are known, or work with squirrels, no you probably haven’t. They build their dreys up in trees, and they look like a nearly spherical bundle of sticks, often lined with softer straw, grasses or feathers.
Grey squirrels are believed to be polygynous so multiple males will mate with a single female. They tend to have one or two breeding seasons a year, one of which often coincides with over-wintering so, one of the main reasons you don’t see many baby squirrels is a lot of them will be born during the winter months and won’t emerge until spring. There can also be another breeding season in mid-summer.
This should give you another good idea of why you don’t see a lot of baby squirrels. Like many rodents they go for quantity over quality. It started as a concept in ecology known as the ‘r/K selection theory’ and it’s the idea that a reproductive and parental strategy depends on how cheap or expensive it is to make more offspring. Nowadays we use ‘Life History Theory’ but it still incorporates a lot of the aspects of the r/K theory – effectively a cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to give a shit about your babies.
Rodents tend to be breeders. It is cheap for them to breed so they pump ‘em out, give them as much care as they need to not die too much and send them on their way. Other organisms like whales, for example, diffeer. The development of a gamete, a sex cell, a sperm or an egg, is already a huge energy investment. Never mind the mating, the fertilisation, the ovulation, the birth, the feeding – it takes a huge amount of investment to turn one, say, blue whale gamete into an adult blue whale. So they invest a lot more in a smaller number of offspring.
Well, as I said, squirrels shag a lot and pile ‘em high. A baby squirrel goes from being a blind and toothless severed thumb looking thing to a small squirrel in about 10 weeks. Two and a half months! This is why you don’t see them. Or rather, you do! It’s just by the time they leave the drey they just look like slightly smaller squirrels. Squirrels do not display a huge amount of sexual dimorphism (bodily difference between sexes) either. So if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t see boy squirrels and girl squirrels, you do! You just can’t tell them apart!
It should go without saying they are mostly vegetarian and eat a lot of nuts and seeds. With gnashers like theirs you pretty much have to, as far as I know all rodents have to gnaw their incisors, their ever-growing front teeth, down. If they don’t they grow and protrude through the lips and the jaw causing great pain and distress. Besides nuts and seeds greys will eat flowers, berries, some mushrooms (I now want to see a squirrel tripping) , they chew bark on trees (in fact this is one of the leading environmental damages they cause as an invasive species in the UK besides outcompeting the red squirrel) and they will raid gardens for a bit of fruit and veg. Grey squirrels have also been observed eating insects, other small rodents, and particularly bird eggs, another area of potential ecological damage.
Let’s move on to the red squirrel then, before discussing ‘the issue’ because I personally think this is much more complex than ‘grey squirrel bad, red squirrel good’.
We perceive the red squirrel as being an ‘endangered species’ here in the UK because to us it is. Globally, though, it’s doing just fine and the IUCN has it of least concern. It is widespread pretty much from one end of the Eurasian continent to the other, from Britain and Portugal in the West over to the Pacific coast of Russia in the East. It spreads down into south-east Asia a bit, isn’t quite in south-west Iberia and there’s some concern about a population of greys ousting them in Italy, but otherwise it’s pretty comfy.
Even in the UK the Scottish population is fairly set, understanding of the relationship with pine martens, as well as management of grey squirrel populations (any time I use the words ‘management’ or ‘control’ with regards to an invasive or overly abundant species just read it as ‘killing’, that’s usually what it means) has meant it is fairly stable there. There are also populations in Ireland, the Isle of Wight and in a few isolated spots in the North of England, I believe Formby has (or had) a decent population and they were not unknown in the North East.
They’re a little smaller than their grey cousins, only 18-25cm in body, 15-20cm tail and a couple hundred grams lighter around 250-300g. Again there is little to no sexual dimorphism, so it will be difficult to tell females and males apart by sight. They can obviously be told apart from the grey squirrel by their red coat but in winter they tend to get a touch of grey mottled fur (agouti, I think the coat pattern is known as – not to be confused with the rodent of the same name!) so one sure-fire way to spot-the-difference is to check the ears. Greys have little, round ears with no discernable floof, reds have long tufts of hair on their ears. Just like greys they are also subject to colour morphs and brown or black specimens appear common, especially around the alpine regions. I myself have seen a black red squirrel in Switzerland.
A study on melanistic grey squirrels found that there was a thermal benefit to that colouration so perhaps it is an adaptation particularly common in the cold, mountainous regions due to this thermal regulation and the benefits it give in terms of metabolism and cold resistance.
From there, if you can believe it, most of the information is the same as with the greys. They forage the same, eat the same, behave in a very similar way and as far as we can tell do not directly compete with one another so, you might be wondering, how did we see such a crazy decline in our red squirrel numbers in the UK?
I will move on to what I think the major contributing factor was last but let’s talk about some other stuff first.
Squirrel parapoxvirus – Effectively squirrelpox! (before you ask whilst many pox viruses are zoonotic – able to be transmitted from animals to humans – there have been no recorded cases of human squirrelpox, so don’t worry!) It is a disease common in squirrels. The grey squirrels can have it pretty much symptomless, they seem quite immune, but they act as carriers and spread it to red squirrels, where it can be deadly.
It causes ulcers and lesions on the skin, particularly around delicate areas (eyes, feet, genitals etc.), and causes lethargy which naturally impacts foraging or predator escape behaviours. What is more, studies on red squirrels for antibodies have found that individuals with historic antibodies for the virus can still die of later cases of it. This suggests that either the antibodies do not bestow full, permanent immunity to the virus or the virus is capable of adapting and evolving to re-infect the host. Either way it makes it a pretty effective tool for killing off red squirrels.
You know how oak trees are pretty common in the UK? Being an entire ecosystem unto themselves, especially if they are a large oak? Well red squirrels digest acorns less efficiently than the greys. Given the number of UK oaks, as well as the number of acorns a single oak can produce this is a huge boon to the grey squirrel and another reason they have outcompeted the red squirrel.
It has also been suggested that when subject to stress the red squirrel has trouble in the bedroom! That’s gonna affect the population!
But! What I want to talk about is two-fold and I think possibly the most important thing to consider. One – Loss of forest and the composition of new-growth forest in the UK. Two – The relative abilities of the red and grey squirrel to adapt to an urban or suburban environment.
I’ve already partially mentioned one issue when discussing the pine marten and that’s loss of woodland and habitat fragmentation.
According to the British Ecological Society in 2008, in the prior decade, a 100 square mile area of woodland had been lost to, mostly, human development.
Since then there has been a big effort to restore woodland but ‘with what?’ is a very pertinent question to ask. Ancient British woodland is a very diverse mixture of conifers and broadleaf trees, many of which face their own problems. If we are attempting to plant mono-culture (single species) forests these may not necessarily support the biodiversity required of ‘healthy’ British woodland which red squirrels might be better adapted to.
Then there is the fragmentation issue. It doesn’t matter how much extra cover we have if it is all in a few square miles here and there with nothing to connect it, with no continuity or corridors through which wildlife can migrate and disperse.
Projects like the entirely unnecessary HS2 train line, these white-elephant transport projects that are doing little to solve the main problems of the transport networks, are having a huge impact on two things – The state of our natural environments and the fatness of the pockets of the lawyers, the consultants, the accountants, the advisors and the developers on those projects. There is a clear focus on profit and greed above maintaining a healthy, stable set of UK native ecosystems and habitats.
It is my opinion that every development needs to be a ‘nature first’ development. This, to me, means we should find a way to keep the old, or build a new, biodiverse ecosystem around the developed area and design any development accordingly. However the stumbling block is this is expensive and that’s what this comes down to. In the short term it is always cheaper to level the natural world and build up an airport expansion, a new bypass or some houses. Unfortunately the knock-on effects of having ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’ are always significantly more expensive in the long-term and if we do not start thinking long term now…Well there just won’t be a long term to think about!
Without due care and attention to the environment the long term is every man, woman and child being thrust into a crisis of our own design and killing each other for basic resources like water! Yes, it might prove costly now, but our future will see a lot less conflict and a lot more prosperity if we start investing in our environment and our native species, their habitats and ecosystems now, before it is too late.
Never mind the red squirrel. Having the consideration to create a network of diverse, interconnected woodlands is having a consideration of the environmental stability of our future. We don’t have that at the moment.
So red squirrels will never thrive without those woodlands but what about getting rid of the greys?
In my opinion, without doing serious damage to the wider urban and suburban ecosystems, it’s nearly impossible. Unlike the red, the grey squirrel seems much more adapted to sparse tree cover and access to parks and gardens like we have in our urban and suburban environments. I didn’t even see a red squirrel walking through several woodlands in Scotland. I can see a grey squirrel walking up my local park in an area that has about 6 trees!
We could revitalise our woodlands, reintroduce pine marten to them, use the marten and some control measures to reduce or eradicate grey squirrels from the woodland, reintroduce red squirrels and they’d do great in the woodlands.
But pine marten don’t work so well in urban environments, and nor do red squirrels. A study in Finland did find red squirrels capable of urban exploration, but in Finland there is no problem of grey squirrels! The discussion seemed to be that so long as there were sufficient trees around red squirrels would live in an urban environment but grey squirrels positively thrive in them, even with minimal tree cover.
Potentially the only way of encouraging urban red squirrels is through complete eradication of the grey squirrel population from urban and suburban environments and, again, how would one propose to do that without a major disruption of the urban and suburban ecosystems? Some kind of poisoning is likely going to be the only effective way and that would surely have a knock-on effect with predators of squirrels. Manual hunting will be like cutting off the heads of the hydra. In a species that can have up to 8 young in a litter, although 4 is more normal, of which, on average, 2 survive, but they do so twice a year. It will be an uphill struggle and one we have to ask whether it is worth it!
I think a heavy focus on forest cover, increase of pine marten in those forests and reintroduction of red squirrel populations into those forests is a good place to start. With the martens and forest wardens keeping an eye out for greys. We make our woodlands a protected fortress for red squirrels.
As for the grey squirrel, they can remain in our towns, our cities, our urbs and suburbs. They may be an unwelcome guest at the party, and they may get a little rowdy and cause some trouble, but everyone seems to love them. Let them remain, with the buddleia (incidentally also introduced in around the 1890s), the muntjac deer (Incidentally also spread from Woburn Park!) and the ring-necked parakeet as examples of how seemingly innocuous and charming imports can thrive on our island.
Let them be a beacon of warning, that never again should we import species without due care or understanding of how they might thrive and spread here. Let them be the symbol never to make the same mistake again.
I love the Eurasian lynx, for one reason, we have them on my continent! That’s amazing. For another thing I think my sister’s cat, Bob, looks a bit like a small one. Also, that Latin binomial is something to behold. Lynx lynx. So good they named it twice!
The Eurasian lynx is a medium sized cat that lives, funnily enough, across the Eurasian continent, distributed across Norway, Sweden, into Russia, down into the mountainous areas of Italy, Switzerland and France, across central Europe, in Turkey, down into Asia, the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas etc. It is pretty widespread, to be honest, leading it to be a species of least concern to the IUCN.
Of course it is absent from much of the warmer, Southwest part of Europe that is inhabited by its close relative the Iberian lynx.
It’s quite a comparatively tall cat (around 60-75cm at the shoulder), with long legs relative to its body size, a stout, muscular body, especially the hind legs, and facially it was quite broad, square features, with tufty ears and what looks like a cute little cat-beard. Males can weigh over 20kg, with females tending to be a couple of kilos lighter.
The Siberian population grows much larger.
They live mainly in mountainous or boreal forests, so naturally rabbit, hare, deer etc. are all on the menu. Across parts of their ranges they may also eat moose, boar, reindeer etc. They are very generalist feeders, seeming to exhibit little preference for one prey or another.
Their population in Asia has also been known to eat pika! A species we have talked about before, who are often persecuted and poisoned with potential knock-on effects to the health of the lynx!
Naturally their opportunism and generalist feeding preference puts them in conflict with livestock farmers because they have been known to nick the odd sheep.
They are a crepuscular (twilight) or nocturnal (night) hunter, although they have been observed hunting during the day, especially during lean times.
They are also mostly solitary, with a potentially huge home range – hundreds of square-kilometres in size have been observed.
Given their medium size and their territory they are not an apex predator. They coexist with wolves and bears and it is likely that they can be, and are eaten – particularly by wolves in their Russian habitat. Interestingly, though, evidence has been found of juvenile or weak wolves being eaten by lynx! How’s that for fearless generalism!? There have also been incidents of cannibalism spotted in Anatolia (Turkey).
They breed between winter and spring and give birth to beautiful little kittens that you just want to squish. They are genuinely amazing, pretty cats that have a wealth of worth in our world. They are also quite long-lived, taking a couple of years to reach sexual maturity and living over 20 years in the wild (making an estimated wild span of probably 14-18 years.)
The Eurasian lynx is another species proposed for reintroduction to the United Kingdom. In fact there is a pretty significant effort to get this gorgeous, shy and solitary hunter back onto the island.
RewildingBritain.org.uk believes the Eurasian lynx could thrive, particularly in areas of Scotland which are abundant in over-populous grazers like roe deer who have no natural predators and are so overabundant they have to be regularly culled by game wardens.
They only went extinct around a millennium ago, with habitat loss and hunting for their pelts or as persecution being the likely culprits. Europe, too, has had its population problems but an ecological effort on the continent helped to restore their numbers.
The fact is they are shy, rarely interact with humans, are scarcely known to attack humans, whilst they are known to take livestock this could be compensated for and, as I talked about when I discussed reintroducing wolves, the cascade of effects the introduction of a proper, large predator back into the UK ecosystems would cause would be hugely beneficial and could mean less time and financial investment in manually managing the land.
It’s the great thing about ecosystems, when they are in balance they have a habit of taking care of themselves.
So, I give my thumbs up and suggest we support a managed trial reintroduction of lynx to see how it goes. If it goes well, let’s get them back! I’m always happy to have more cat!
EVERYBODY WANTS TO READ A CAT! Catch up with our feline friends here!
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined. Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics. Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats. Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage! Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster. Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here. Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
NOTE: None of this is evidence based and is not the consensus opinion of biologists or entomologists it’s just my own rambling considerations.
If you read my recent article (…essay…Mini-book…It’s long!) about wasps you will know that not only have I started a very intense love-affair with them but there is a crisis.
Everyone knows about the bees, ‘ooh save the bees’. Bees have big, furry representatives that kids love. Bees are the teddy-bears of the insect world, they’re marketable.
Wasps? Not so much.
I did propose on Twitter that since wasps are, like bees, social, however they are also a lot sleeker, sexier and have a propensity for getting drunk and ruining social events like picnics and barbeques we market them as “Wasps: Like bees but for grown-ups!” but I suspect that’s a little too cynical to work with the general public.
The biggest contribution you can make is in attitude.
I spoke of how my niece hates wasps because she has seen friends run from wasps. My father would kill wasps on sight, but would usher bees out of a window. What lesson did that teach me, and my siblings, about wasps? I was speaking to another person who said it’s likely for many years they’ve been misidentifying honey bees as wasps because they look so similar and because the bumble bee has become such a symbol of beehood in the UK. People run, screaming, from a wasp buzzing around their face. People flap their arms wildly. People set ‘wasp traps’ of sugar-water to kill them.
If you have children, I don’t care how scared of wasps you might be, I want you to demonstrate a stoic understanding. What does the wasp want? It wants sugary food. It doesn’t want a fight, it doesn’t want to sting you. So be patient, let them buzz around, let them land a couple of times to scout and investigate. If you have sugar, maybe take a piece and leave it nearby away from you. Do you have a shallow receptacle you could pour a small amount of sugary drink into (not too deep or the wasp could drown). If it’s a jam sandwich they’re after pull a small piece off and leave it on the grass not far from you, or the bench not far from you – I bet you the wasp finds it and leaves you alone! They want to maximise food and minimise conflict.
If you’re planning an event to which wasps could be attracted, lay out these snacks in advance. A small dish of sugar-water with some pebbles, as one would do for bees, will also attract wasps. Or a mutual acquaintance on Facebook mentioned that they leave a small dish of jam out because wasps love jam. Put it at a reasonable distance from your social gathering and wasps will rapidly find it and leave your food, the food they may have to fight for, alone.
We need to start teaching people wasps are not bad. They’re not “Arseholes!” as I’ve so often heard. I ask why people don’t like wasps, “Oh, wasps are arseholes!” No, they’re not! We are! Wasps do not have a multi-billion pound industry focussed on destroying picnics, BBQs, gazebo parties or lunch on the veranda. Humans do have a multi-billion pound industry focussed on killing valuable wildlife like wasps!
This is something else we need to change.
Based on the 2009 death statistics I used in my article 4 people in the UK died of wasp, hornet or bee stings. All of these people were allergic to the venom of these creatures. Their deaths we caused by anaphylaxis due to the sting – if you are not allergic the sting is painful but, unless you get stung thousands of times, relatively harmless.
By those same statistics more people died by dog attack! Yet dogs are promoted! They’re ‘man’s best friend’! Dogs have TV shows! When someone dies by a dog attack we blame the owners – they didn’t train it right, it must have been mistreated, etc. But in any given year they may kill more people than wasps!
We don’t blame the allergic person for dying of a wasp sting. Realistically their own immune system is to blame for their death, but we blame the wasp itself. In fact, neither should be blame and it’s just an unfortunate thing that happened.
Why are we willing to make excuses for dogs and not wasps? Marketing! Whether socially, by having fear, suspicion and disdain of wasps encouraged as the social norm, or the annual stories of ‘wasp plagues’ generally written as advertorials for the services of a multi-billion pound ‘pest’-control industry.
Wasps need better marketing and…I don’t have a TV show, I don’t have a huge audience, I don’t have much impact at all. So the best I can do is write and encourage you to start a grass-roots, word-of-mouth, viral campaign – Wasps are good! WASPS ARE GOOD! Repeat it again, WASPS ARE GOOD! We love wasps! WASPS ARE GOOD!
We have to recognise that wasps are safer than playing cricket! Wasps are safer than having a bath! Wasps are significantly safer than sex and the only people telling us to never do that are religious lunatics!
Wasps are relatively safe and, for the good they do they’re worth the tiny amount of danger.
Let’s talk about that. The pest-control industry wants you to believe that wasps are a menace that want to eat your house, kill your kids and ruin your fun!
Wasps are not only pollinators, like bees, seeing exactly the same drastic decline with exactly the same cataclysmic consequences for flowering plants, human crops and our lives (yes, the pollinator crisis could initiate famines causing the deaths of millions) but wasps are also predatory. They hunt and kill other invertebrates to feed to their larvae.
A lot of those invertebrates are also pests of crops or common garden plants.
I don’t mean to get conspiratorial but I will. Exterminators killing wasps means you pay them to kill their competition.
No wasps means another call out to deal with flies, caterpillars, aphids etc. etc. When you pay for extermination services, especially for wasps, you’re paying for them to have more work for you to pay for later.
Wasps might be less fashionable than bees but a proper comparative study combining their ecosystem services of pollination, pest-control and other things (e.g. as food or potential medical value) might show wasps to be even more valuable than bees! That’s purely speculation, though!
We don’t have the research, we don’t have the numbers! Trying to pin down a specific value of an organism is hard enough as it is. I can only speculate. If I am making any sort of point it is that we cannot consider these species in a vacuum. We cannot look at bees as the only pollinators, nor should we only look at insects as valuable for pollination. The rich diversity of invertebrates that all have a significant effect on our habitats, ecosystems and lives means we must consider them all for all their diverse roles.
With species like wasps this is even more important because they have a negative reputation! It’s an uphill struggle to get people to recognise their value that is, actually, so overwhelmingly positive.
Look, all of these points vary. Situations are different, lifestyles are different, houses are different. If you’ve got a wasp nest in the supporting struts of your log cabin and wasps are shredding your house supports to make their nest you’ve got a decent argument for taking care of the problem and, unlike bees, I don’t know if there’s a humane way of transplanting a wasp nest.
If there isn’t, I think it’s high time we started working towards making one! Given how valuable wasps are, an ability transplant a natural nest to a man-made equivalent in a safer location much like we do with honey bees would be an exceptional step in the right direction.
Situations will vary, but don’t call the exterminators to take out the wasp nest in the tree at the bottom of your garden 100m away from your house, you idiot! “Oh but my kids play football out there…” Well tell them to be bloody careful!
I’m getting angry again but these are the kinds of silly things people would destroy a wasp nest over rather than educate their children in respecting local flora and fauna. Those wasps will provide a valuable service of pollination and invertebrate control. I’ve never been stung by a wasp, I have been, habitually, repeatedly bitten by mosquitoes. Wasps’ll eat ‘em. That’s reason enough for me to defend them!
But this goes wider than that, too.
The mastery and control of the natural environment seems to be a subconscious driving force of human kind. I put it down to a fear of chaos, the abyss and ultimately death. However you want to think of it we cut our hair, we prune our bushes and we mow our lawns.
One amazing way you could help is to just leave a strip of your lawn to grow. Encourage a small area of meadow that takes care of itself. Especially if you have a big garden, if you can leave a 1m deep strip across the length of it, you don’t tend it, you don’t weed it, you don’t bother it at all, you will be amazed how quickly the slugs stay away from your petunias, the hedgehogs come to eat the slugs, the bees, the butterflies, the moths and the wasps attend to the wildflowers (that in any other part of the garden you may call ‘weeds’) and it will all form this tiny little native zoo at the end of your garden.
Even if you have a small garden, get some pots of perennials or even just some long pots, fill them with compost and wait and see what grows! Again, you will be stunned the amount of invertebrate life you will encourage and what that will encourage in terms of birds, butterflies, bees, wasps, if you get slugs then hedgehogs will find their way to you. If you’re anywhere near a remote area badgers are a possibility.
If I could promote any change, this is it and it isn’t even about just about wasps.
There is an increasing disconnect between the human and their natural world. It has been a process steadily on-going, likely since the dawn of industrialisation.
Where the natural world once kept us in balance we have developed technologies that have moved the goalposts. Humans now exponentially flourish, propped up by our own manipulation of biological, physical and chemical processes.
I am not against progress. I am not against people having healthy lives. Some of the greatest of humanity has been born of understanding and manipulating these things. The modern hospital is a work of industry, engineering and scientific genius that is taken for granted.
But they should have gardens. They should have trees. They should have wildflowers.
These crises, species declines, habitat loss, extinctions, are all being facilitated by a human manipulation of the natural world.
If you want to help promote biodiversity, alleviate the population pressures on wasps, on butterflies, on bees, if you want a truly healthy world, then all you have to do is give up a fraction of your human control and let a little bit of nature in.
This is not recycling, this is not some idea where even if every person in the UK does it there will be barely any impact because of the titanic influence of industry.
You can, as an individual, make this change and it will make a huge difference. This is a case where if even the majority of people leave a little meadow space, don’t call the exterminators on that nest and show and teach their kids the glory and wonder of wasps and all the other amazing invertebrate wildlife out there, we really can change things! This is something where we can all actually make a difference.
Let your garden grow, don’t weed so much to encourage wild flowers, use fewer pesticides and insecticides and encourage natural insect predators, like wasps, to do the labour for you. Put out some pots, some plants, you can even grow hardy herbs like rosemary – It’s hardy, stands up to all but the most extreme weather, grows well in pots, smells good and tastes nice! But on its own it will become a little ecosystem.
It’s so easy, everyone can get involved and it is a situation, far from so many other hopeless situations in climate and ecology, where NO! WE REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE AS INDIVIDUALS!
So do it! Love your wasps, love your weeds, love your invertebrates and show that to everyone, teach that to everyone.
Stop being so damn civilised. Let the wild back in.
I do want to say a huge thank you to Prof. Sumner who has actually been engaging me informatively and non-judgementally as I embark on my journey into basically wanting to genetically modify myself into a full-on wasp.
This is a little personal blog because, honestly, after that list I have feelings and stuff.
I thought, going in, I’d get to laugh and joke about widespread fears and prejudice about particular animals and we’d have a jolly good time and all move on.
With the bats that is exactly how it started. Persecution of bats is, as far as I can tell, incidental to their reputation as something to be feared. Especially here in the UK the problem is that we are ousting them from roosting sites, increasingly poisoning their prey with insecticides and pesticides and basically being annoyingly human. Bats aren’t rounded up in their droves and slaughtered because of superstitions that they are vampires.
It was the very next instalment where it all changed. As I mentioned in my #1 article, I was going to put wasps here, at #9. I genuinely thought people thought the same as me about wasps. Whether that was me being ignorant of people’s true feelings, whether it was that autistic assumed knowledge thing, whether I just dramatically underestimated how much people could hate something that even in its most annoying form is a centimetre or two long and at most wants some jam, I don’t know what it was! Either way it did not take much research, opinion gathering and polling to find out that wasps are actually despised.
I had a full article about the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) written! It was about a tenth the length of the final one, more akin to the short, jovial nature of what I had done for the bats. Not publishing that was where the whole tone shifted.
Writing the pigeon article was where I really started to comprehend the disdain and disregard we have for some of these animals. The very designation of ‘pest’, and all the meaning that the word carries, it denotes an organism of negative value. It signifies an organism that takes without giving. For almost everything on this list that is called a ‘pest’ I couldn’t find a single one that deserved the label. The pigeon is considered a pest because it shits on statues of dead white guys, the pigeon is considered a pest because it nests in the decorative eaves of rich people’s buildings and shits on their expensive suits. Otherwise it’s a remarkable bird that only lives the way it does because we selectively bred rock doves to live in close proximity to us and when they actually made a really good go of it, it became inconvenient to us.
The pigeons are where I started to get angry. There is an arrogance and a selfishness. I have always known about it. I have discussed it often. Humans are an exceptional species but they’re not that exceptional. They’re made of the same organic matter, subject to the same processes and yet we work hard to remove ourselves from them. I touch on reasons why in the articles about bats and vultures. We are terrified of being subject to those processes. As the only animal that we know of that is aware of its part in those processes we are also the only known animal that has to process the terror of life. Unfortunately we do this not with humble acknowledgement and respect for the beauty of decay but by walling ourselves off in an artifice and declaring anything else that might live, breath, eat, shit or die in that artifice a ‘pest’.
I think, deep down, consciously but buried, subconsciously, even unconsciously, we’re aware we can never escape life – and thus death. I think this is why we imprison ourselves, obsess on longevity of life rather than quality of life. I think it’s why we weed our yards and gardens, cut our lawns, I think most aspects of human control over nature are related to this deep rooted fear of being part of a greater cycle, intrinsically, part of death.
I’ve even talked about it before in terms of history. Recent dramas relating to the tearing down of statues are less about recognition of a cultural past, of a unifying identity. After all who wants to share a unifying identity with a man for whom the best you can say is “He built a few hospitals with all of the money he got buying and selling slaves!” It’s a hell of a dilemma, a balance of good and evil, but it is a dilemma nonetheless and nobody likes a complicated situation. So why the defence?
Because when a statue stands for hundreds of years it makes us feel like there is something permanent about us. It’s an illusion of immortality. For me this is the most frustrating thing about this so-called ‘culture war’. It’s all about protecting your own aegis, making sure someone doesn’t rob the shield that you use to pretend that one day this won’t all be over for you.
I really sympathise, I do. I have been having existential crises since my age was in single digits and let me tell you nothing robs one of a childhood more than a very powerful, visceral and considered fear of death. Nothing! It is the sword of Damocles we are all born with and one we must inevitably acknowledge but…Let people get puberty and their awkward teenage years out of the way. It’s a 20-25 year old’s problem. It should never be a child’s problem.
Either way I don’t know if I fully subscribe to ‘Terror Management Theory’ and the idea of death dominating all human endeavours but, I’ve been considering it a long time and many are the times I see someone’s actions, someone’s behaviours, and someone’s attempt to build a legacy and think “Yup, they’ve thought about it. They’re afraid to die.”
The man who requires pigeons be killed because they got shit on his windowsill is a man who is afraid to die.
Then we moved on to the wolf and this was a journey for me. I’m a felid guy, not a canid guy. I love cats. I would let cats do anything to me. They could kill me for all I care, I’d smile and giggle and love every minute. I’m a cat nut! Canids, dogs and wolves, have never been my thing. I can respect a wild dog, wolves, hunting dogs, foxes – I particularly like foxes. But in looking them up I gained a massive respect for wolves. I did not realise they were so diverse yet so similar! The genetic story they have to tell is truly remarkable.
All of our wolf species, the entire Canis genus, share a surprisingly recent common ancestor and the various sub-species of the grey wolf (Canis lupus) have a history that tells of dispersals and migrations stretching back incredible lengths of time.
It really gave me a new-found respect for the adaptability and hardiness of the canid. More than that though I was absolutely shocked by the numbers of fatal attacks that have occurred! Across Europe, Russia and North America there have only been 11 deaths by wolves in the last 50 years!
There is talk of reintroducing them to the UK. Now the benefits this would bring would be remarkable. We have numerous species of deer, some native, some invasive, but without a native predator to take them down they are either left to run rampant, completely destroying ecosystems (they’re very good at stopping new forest growth by eating shoots, for instance) so either they destroy the habitat or we destroy them. There are regular culls of older or infirm individuals but why should we be doing that when evidence indicates we could reintroduce wolves as a natural predator, reduce the need for culling, potentially improve various habitats, have this remarkable predator on our doorstep, exploit it secondarily for wildlife tourism, and…what? Maybe one death in a generation of a human being is the price to pay?
I don’t want to keep doing my death-stats bit (although it is a bit I enjoy, I am quite morbid) but if we say, on average one death in every 25 years occurs due to wolves, and use the data from 2009 that said 33 people died of drowning in the bath – quick calculation – That makes bathing 825x as deadly as wolves are likely to be over a 25 year period.
So this…Ooh boy as a meat eater this is hard to say…This is where I started to hate the livestock farmers.
Farming is, without a shadow of a doubt, the single biggest destroyer of natural habitats of any other activity in the world. There is an unsustainable human population and it needs feeding and we have taken so much natural land, destroyed entire ecosystems, just to grow food for ourselves. That alone is selfish enough.
But the reintroduction of wild predators is mainly opposed by the farming lobby. Move on to our next animal, the fox, the hunting of which is mainly performed by and supported by the farming lobby. The culling of badgers is mainly supported by the farming lobby.
I mean at this point I’m fucking tempted to bin off the pig and eat the fucking farmer for all the harm they seem to do!
You would think that an individual with a close relationship with life and land would have an understanding of the balance of things. That would be to remove the factor of selfishness. It would remove the factor of a wrongful feeling of persecution. Think of all those gun-toting, wealthy white-dudes who used to go around supporting Donald Trump. Those guys are to politics what farmers are to nature. They think they are doing what’s best, but really they only care about what’s best for them.
It’s about protecting bottom lines, maximising yields, it is, again, that ownership of the environment, mastery of the natural world to give some false and fleeting sense of potency so you can, for a brief moment, feel immortal and pretend you’re not going to become the soil yourself one day.
Not to mention the social pressures, things like ‘The Hunt’ (they nearly spelled it right…) are countryside pursuits, a staple hobby of many of the landed gentry in the countryside and, again, killing that tradition reminds these people nothing lasts forever. If they can’t persecute foxes, you’re sort of reminding them they are going to die. And they enjoy it! So you’re also spoiling their fun.
Personally I think it’s despicable and I would gladly remind every single fox hunter of their impotence, their miniscule stature in the face of the universe, the fact that their planet is but a mote of dust and they simply a grotesque smudge upon it.
I do not believe any character’s beyond redemption. As far as countryside pursuits like hunting go, it needs a firm hand delivering a swift strike. The hunting ‘ban’ left too many loopholes and they need to be turned into a noose to strangle the practice. As far potential livestock losses due to reintroduction of predators, this is a matter of pounds and pence, and, again, someone needs to step up and be willing to pay for us to have a beautiful, diverse natural world.
Our current government spent billions of pounds on systems of tracking and tracing potential covid carriers and failed. They spent £2.8m on a briefing room that they are now not going to use as intended. Approximately £43m was spent on the the current Prime Minister’s swansong project as Mayor of London, a garden on a bridge that was completely unfeasible. Imagine the dramatic scope and scale of effect that could occur if these absurd sums of money were spent on building a greener, more biodiverse, wilder Britain?
But we’ll move away from Britain for a bit.
I’m not a cosmopolitan type, poor people rarely are. I haven’t been on safari, I haven’t been trekking in the mountains of Iberia, I haven’t eaten in cafes in North Africa, I haven’t walked in the Amazon and I’m still not sure Australia is real, and the Irwin family and cricket are the two tentative threads that keep me feeling like it must be.
I wanted to include more international species on the list because persecution is not the same everywhere. Different cultures and different nations have their different ideas and different attitudes.
I did ask on twitter for some help from international members of the community to tell me species that are oppressed there but I’m about as popular as a fire in a gunpowder factory so I got the customary responses. None.
This, by the way, is one of the things that makes me sad about the elitism and the attitude on some areas of academic twitter. Some PhD student with 12 followers will have a tweet like “I’m looking for a one of a kind rattlesnake skin for a project can you all help me!” and it’s got a thousand retweets and spreads around the world. I ask for some help identifying globally persecuted species (because I wanted things I couldn’t just google, like really local stuff!) and it’s like I don’t exist. It’s like my work is not important. I’m not affiliated with a university and I’m not doing this for letters after my name so therefore it’s not important. It makes me feel like a bum.
Anyway, I knew about the aye-aye and it is a fantastic combination of an ugly-cute lemur with a local superstition.
It’s a similar situation to the wasps in that I had my previous ideas and notions completely changed. Not quite as extreme, maybe. I had always thought the aye-aye was taboo across Malagasy cultures. I thought it was universally suspicious. I believed maybe people dealt with it differently. Some didn’t just shoot-on-sight, some try to avoid, some shoo them away etc. I didn’t realise there were positive attitudes towards the aye-aye out there and I was just exceptionally lucky that a paper explaining that had come out only a month or so prior to the article and it was open-access! (I can’t stress enough the importance of open access academic journals and papers on what I do!)
So, yeah, that whole narrative changed and I’m glad it did. It was the start of a tone-shift. Coming off the fox article, which…I think the British treatment of foxes, especially amongst countryside types with their hunts, represents the nadir of human persecution of animals. It is deliberately inflicting suffering on an unwilling participant for fun.
Having a tone shift where there was some hope, and that the results demonstrated it was villagers and farmers who had seen or interacted with aye-ayes who were likely to have better opinions of them. It only goes to show that it is through knowledge and understanding that our relationships with these species can improve.
There was a tight-rope walk not to be patronising, colonial and racist and I hope I did a good enough job with that. One of the whole reasons of being sure to tackle Western persecuted animals first, besides my knowledge of them, was to make sure once we got to the international ones I had that in my back pocket for anyone who wanted to be racist!
Do I think the Malagasy fady, the taboo, on the aye-aye is wrong? Yes, absolutely. But much as solving the problem of fox hunting in this country is kind of a British problem, the aye-aye should be a Malagasy problem to solve. I have always believed problems are best solved from the inside, even if they are informed from the outside. The people of Madagascar know best the people of Madagascar and if there is a role to play for Western scientists it is sharing our wealth, our institutional powers, our equipment and our researchers with them so that they can use those tools themselves and have the advantages we take for granted.
I then literally doubled down on this comparison of Eastern versus Western persecution by showing pretty much the same persecution of animals in roughly the same niche by two completely different populations who kill them in remarkably similar ways.
I googled the pika. I did not realise it was persecuted but when I google ‘most persecuted species’ it came up. When I read of how it was persecuted, why it was persecuted, so many of the details just screamed ‘mole!’ at me.
So, partially to demonstrate the universality of animal persecution and partially as a counter to anyone who might have wanted to be racist following the aye-aye article I felt a perfect opportunity for a mashup and combined the mole and pika into one instalment.
It’s particularly harrowing for me because I know pikas are a key prey species of many of Asia’s wild cats. If they’re being poisoned there is every chance this is affecting wild cat populations and if there’s a reason never to put me in charge of a nation it is because I am liable to start World War III over accidental killings of wild cats! We’ve got manuls, Asian lynx, Chinese mountain cats and possibly even snow leopards all capable of making a living on the Tibetan plateau and all of them will eat pikas. Then there are Himalayan wolves, Tibetan foxes, various birds of prey and brown bears. So many species have pikas as, if not a primary food source, then a sort of vending machine snack! When times are tough you can always find a pika. I don’t think the reports of it being a keystone species are too exaggerated.
Moles are possibly a little less important as a food source in their ecosystem but no less important in terms of the effect they have on their local environment. Moles and pika are both burrowers, burrowing aerates soil, improves draining, manages water, promotes new seed growth, potentially disperses seeds, creates tunnels and burrows for other animals and basically does all-around good stuff for your soil. We don’t like them because they make our gardens look messy.
I can’t think of a more ridiculous or petty reason why any animal on this list is disliked than that of the mole.
Everything else has a reason, whether it be superstition, fear, historical association, cultural tradition, livestock protection – The pika even has a better reason even though it’s a stupid one. Basically their ecosystem got destroyed by farmers, pikas moved in in droves because it turns out they love a shitty ecosystem, started improving it again and the authorities went “Ecosystem’s rubbish and there’s a ton of pikas…must be the pikas!”
The mole, though? How shallow and superficial do you have to be to kill an animal because it shifted your pansies!? It’s shocking and a great example of why the whole ‘eastern=bad’ narrative in conservation is such a disgusting myth. There’s a significant amount of…literal ‘white’ knight-ism in conservation and in so much of it there are pervasive stereotypes. The noble savage and the evil Asian are two very common ones at the moment.
Again, standing on this Island of Great Britain and looking outward through my binoculars, it is easy to see the problems the rest of the world is making. When I turn around and look at my own country? Well what do you know? I can’t see shit, everything’s too close to the binoculars. We all have a tendency to be long-sighted when it comes to issues such as this, judging issues abroad without considering similar or identical issues at home.
As much as I don’t like writing about persecuted animals this was my hope with the pika/mole one. I wanted to get people to understand and look for their own prejudices within their own communities.
I know the wasp article is a 10,000 word masterpiece! Okay! But this is, I think, the best crafted of the entire list. As a piece of writing this is the one I am most proud of.
I wanted to bring the message back to change and hope, and I think vultures represent that. The persecution or suspicion of vultures is old. It’s still there, it lingers, but I think most people nowadays regard them neither positively nor negatively. They may think they’re ugly, they may think they’re a bit gross but they accept the necessity.
Historically they were the harbingers of bad news! I would not be surprised if going back 10,000 years they were completely reviled.
But what we had with the vultures is what I am warning about now after the wasp article, one of the things I carried with me from my biological studies and an example of We Lack Discipline’s First Rule of Everything: IT’S ALWAYS MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT!
The persecution events we dealt with in the vultures were both, in the Indian (or Asian) vulture crisis and the near-extinction of the California condor, more accidental than deliberate. It was humans interfering in things, whether in compassion for other animals (in the Asian crisis) or just in the course of their own development (in the condor). Yet it saw the deaths of millions of animals! By accident!
This is the reason I am attempting to be so forceful in getting my wasp article distributed because I can see a similar cascade about to happen with that – only across multiple ecosystems worldwide – as happened in India with the vulture population crash.
It inevitably leads to knock on effects, which each have knock on effects, which have their own knock on effects and you get this domino toppling of various species, systems and processes that you never realised were interdependent.
In the case of the Indian vultures, livestock keepers gave their animals diclofenac to help with pain and inflammation, this caused renal failure in the vultures, the vultures died. The vultures would eat a lot of the carrion that would carry diseases, like rabies, that were now being scavenged by other animals, dogs, foxes, rats, cats, etc. that, unlike vultures, do not have the kind of harsh stomachs that kills rabies so they become carriers, this has an impact on their health of their populations. Meanwhile interactions between humans and these animals leads to an increase in rabies in humans. At the same time, with an abundance of carrion because of a lack of vultures these other species are able to breed and flourish, these are prey species for other predators like the Indian leopard, and suddenly the Indian leopard is coming close to human habitation to prey upon feral dogs. Those leopards cause panic or danger and may be killed to protect humans or their livestock.
It started with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory! It wasn’t supposed to end up at 30,000 human deaths per year from rabies and shooting leopards! These are the kinds of crazy consequences of a seemingly minor ecosystem disruption!
But there’s hope. That’s what I love about the vulture story. It really does have a great story with a nice turnaround. Not only was the source of the vulture crisis found so that we could start repairing the damage but we have the other feel-good tale of the California condor.
Let me make this abundantly clear. The California condor should not exist.
The California condor continues to exist because of science!
Without the hard work of everyone involved in the California Condor Recovery Program the California condor would probably be extinct by now! I only say probably because they are a long-lived species there may still have been a few individuals around but when their wild population was only 20 or so in the 80s – I’m thinking 40 years later they’re mostly dead. Maybe we’d have 5 or 6 left by now.
Instead there are hundreds.
The California condor is the perfect example of what can happen when there is a unified, concerted effort to genuinely care about a species and the ecosystem it is in.
I do not believe it is too late! I know the climate crisis, the extinction event, is deep! It’s really deep! But it’s not too late to pull out and stop fucking the world! Some things are beyond repair, some species are gone, but it is not too late to protect those we have. What’s more, speciation marches on, by protecting what we have we promote potential for diversity moving forward.
The California condor is that symbol of hope, that symbol of being able to escape the event horizon, pull ourselves back from the brink and believe in a better world. We’ve done it! We’ve shown it is possible! Now we just need to commit more resources to keeping it up and doing it more.
And after all that hope we move into the top 3.
These broke me, honestly. I mean, that fire, that hope, it rarely dies in me and on the few occasions it nearly did it sparked up again in the nick of time. But I had to guard and tend that flame as I wrote about these.
The gulls hurt. These are genuinely one of my favourite sea birds. I get the joy of watching them every day, seeing how smart, how wily, how so full of personality they are – and they truly are! You can make out individual characters, you can spot the bold from the cautious, and the curious from the fearful and it makes for wonderful viewing.
Yet some polls show 75% of Brits do not like them. That is a huge proportion. Their numbers have dwindled in recent years. Numbers of breeding pairs of herring gulls in the UK have halved. Their curiosity (and seemingly insatiable hunger) makes them prone to falling victim to human environmental hazards, getting caught in food receptacles, eating plastics, getting tangled in fishing line etc. What’s more, they are often ‘discouraged’ from nesting on rooftops and yet we keep overexploiting their natural, clifftop nesting spaces. Here on the Southeast coast we have seen cliff erosion at an alarming rate with the recent frequency, and intensity, of storm activity linked to climate change. Even where we are not directly exploiting their natural nesting sites, human activity is impacting them.
Something personal also affected me with the gull article. I tried, vainly it seems, to get some attention and support from one of my wildlife heroes – a like or retweet, something to show that my voice, my efforts to absolve the herring gull of its non-existent sins had been effective. Unfortunately my attempt at humour clearly caused offence and I was met with only a terse response. By the time I actually got around to replying with an apology somebody had hijacked the conversation to managed to get the person in question to sign a petition and they had bugger all else to do with me.
It’s difficult to explain how and why this upset me. Obviously there is a personal element to it. They say “Don’t meet your heroes!” well, let’s update it for the new gen, “Don’t tweet your heroes.” I basically felt like a piece of shit for trying. To be honest, I nearly said “Fuck it!” and dropped We Lack Discipline as a whole, right there. I mean, that’s what an autistic mind does in the face of what feels like rejection. Rarely does it encourage you to push on regardless, it tells you to hide or run.
But honestly, my biggest problem…750,000 fewer gulls in the UK in recent years and I kind of felt like this interaction was less about them and more about the human ego.
This personality gets paid for what they do. They have an incredible house with a lot of private land on which they can freely explore the environment and they have travelled the world exploring their interests.
I’m on disability benefits. I live in a council house in a very busy area, with a backyard no bigger than 3x3m and the furthest I’ve been is a long weekend in Barbados I won in a beer advertising promo competition.
There was a chance, an opportunity for someone influential to say “It doesn’t matter if your voice is big or small, if you support the right cause, I will support you.” And that didn’t happen.
And far fewer people, people who might relate better to me than other wildlife communicators, will now not get to read that piece and see if it affects them.
I think that’s sad.
But then we move on to the rats and it just gets even sadder.
I genuinely had no idea that rat-to-human transmission of disease in most modern, built-up nations was so rare.
I actually had my mind blown. I mean, yeah I liked rats anyway. As far as I was concerned the 100,000 or so people they make sick every year is worth it for the amount of our garbage they eat.
The thing is it’s not 100,000 or so people.
It’s probably not even 1,000 or so people.
I mean in the UK, proven rat-to-human zoonotic disease cases per year are probably 10 or fewer.
The rat being a dirty disease spreader is an historical myth that also happens to be a very convenient marketing line for a pest control industry that makes BILLIONS per year persecuting animals.
I did not realise this going in and it was a total eye-opener for me. Everything you think you know about rats is wrong. I mean, this gets to be one of the simplest summaries of this article because it’s that simple. Everything you think you know about rats is wrong.
But that recognition of the role of pest control companies on public perceptions was useful for the next group, the wasps.
I am so damn proud of this article. It’s a marvel. Again, I think as a ‘story’ the vulture article has a better structure, more of a narrative drive, better flow. But that was written as a story, whereas I consider my wasp piece to be a non-fiction booklet! I mean, it’s over 10,000 words long for crying out loud!
The sad thing about wasps is almost everyone hates wasps. But they don’t hate ‘wasps’ what they hate is a specific set of species of wasps that make up less than 1% of the entire multitude of wasp species. Yet even that <1% is misunderstood.
Again, the pest control industry has a lot to answer for and the disgusting part of that is at least when they’re slagging off rats there is no ulterior motive. One of the reasons the pest control business hates wasps so much is because they are huge invertebrate predators! As I say in the article, of course they want them dead, they’re not pests – they’re the competition!
I might be exaggerating but experts estimate there are around a qualikabajillion wasp species, there are wasps barely thicker than a human hair and there are wasps so big and awesome they fight and kill tarantulas. There are wasps that sting (again, less than 1%) and wasps that don’t. There are wasps that build paper nests, wasps that build clay nests, wasps that burrow, wasps that lay their eggs in figs, wasps that lay their eggs in wasps that lay their eggs in figs.
It’s all in the article, go and read it.
What I didn’t talk about in there was how much studying wasps led to a deep and very true love for them.
I try to release an article a day so I have a rushed schedule. It helps me when I get to write about something I already have some knowledge of but I knew nothing of wasps. For the 9-10 days or so since I wrote my original article about them I have been ducking in and out of wasp research. I have been learning so much about these amazing insects and they never fail to fascinate.
I think at some point every biologist-at-heart develops a love for insects. Well it got me. The thing that got me most, though, is well…
…I’m lucky where I live. I might be council-house trash but it’s one hell of a council house! I can look out of my window and see vegetation, plants, trees, flowers and fruits. I now look at all of them and wonder what a wasp does with it.
Wasps seem to have found a niche everywhere. Excluding Antarctica wasps have found a role on every continent. They are truly cosmopolitan, not only in distribution but in size, colour, lifestyle, habits, food, prey, reproduction. They do it all and they do it every way conceivable. I admire that.
And yet the average layperson will have all of this positivity drowned out by stories of ‘murder hornets’, ‘angry wasps’, ‘wasp plagues’ and all other such absolute twatty bollocks.
To make matters worse wasps are valuable pollinators and controllers of other crop pests. Without wasps we have less food, we have worse forests, we have worse meadows and grasslands, and we have a worse world.
People really will completely tear up beauty simply because it is not their idea of beauty and I find that sad.
So this list has been a hell of a ride and, I will admit I am changed because of it.
I think it’s important to talk about that.
Knowledge should change you.
Oh sure not all knowledge can, or will. Me knowing that Julius Caesar’s first foray across the channel to England occurred in 55BCE does not change me particularly.
But, looking into what he did, why he did it, relationships he forged in Britain, allies that would later go on to be client kings when Claudius made the full invasion around a century later – that can change you.
I learned so much about so many different animals in studying and researching for this list. Outside of wasps, though, the one I learned the most about was humans. I had never considered our relationship with the natural world in this context before. How we develop ideas, stories, beliefs and myths about animals. I had to look at a lot of that, some of it quite ugly and I had to learn to accept it for what it is. I had to try and process and understand it.
I hope it gives me greater patience moving forward as a wildlife advocate.
CONTENT WARNING: Contains lots of wasps, but if you’re frightened please read on. Also there is a video of a wasp fighting a spider later on.
I am incredibly sorry. I did not know.
I assumed knowledge, and thus tolerance, that did not exist. As a result I was silent and complicit in an atmosphere of persecution. I should have spoken up. I did not. For that I apologise.
I have been attempting to fight prejudice and injustice, not only intraspecifically (within the human community) but interspecifically (across species boundaries) since I was around 18 years old. I have ever been a champion of patience, knowledge and understanding, even where gaining that knowledge required permitting temporary discomfort, so that we can arrive at better solutions to the problems we face in the world.
However there is one group for whom I have not spoken up as loudly as I could, if I have spoken up at all. That group is our wasps.
You might be thinking this is an inappropriately sombre tone, some kind of satire. You might think I am mocking genuine human rights campaigns around the world but, I’m not. This is not a joke and I am deadly serious. If you read on you will find out why, and I highly urge you to read on.
You should read on especially if you dislike wasps.
I promise I will do my best to refrain from judgement, I will try my hardest to think of people who hate wasps in an understanding and compassionate light. It would be foolish of me to do otherwise because you are many, and those of us who defend wasps, are few. Something has clearly gone wrong, and an aggressive campaign to change hearts and minds is only going to see all wasp allies drowned out in a cacophony, a chorus, of negative replies.
So please, I am trying to be understanding and open-minded to you. Please, do me the same honour.
(That said, disclaimer, almost no other content on this website is this serious, this tone does not reflect the tone of ‘We Lack Discipline’ as a whole which is usually quite sweary, irreverent and definitely judgemental of people who don’t like wildlife. If you like this piece and seek a similar style or tone in any of the others you will be sorely disappointed – I feel I should provide this warning because I want this particular piece to be seen by, and distributed by, actually respectable people and I don’t then want them finding my article about Foxes and realising what a fighty, foul-mouthed little scuzzbag I truly am.)
Why do we hate wasps?
When I first began compiling a list of the top ten hated, but misunderstood, animals in the world I knew I had to put the wasp on the list. I initially wanted to place it at number 9. This was my first big error. I had dramatically underestimated the way people considered wasps. Rats were going to my original number 1 and, I will admit, they come close. The thing with rats is people are disgusted by them. The people who don’t like rats have a genuine feeling about them. I think it’s misguided, I think it’s ill-informed and, personally, I think they’re wrong, but at least they feel something.
With wasps, they are – whatever the animal equivalent of dehumanised is? – It’s like they don’t exist. It’s not contempt or disdain, again that’s a feeling that requires acknowledgement, acceptance of its existence. With wasps, the people who dislike them, it’s like they’d rather they didn’t exist at all.
Where they do interact with those people the feelings associated with them are those of annoyance, of nuisance, of inconvenience. Again, a rat in your kitchen is an event! You will feel a bump of adrenaline, you’ll probably run at it to try and scare it, you will acknowledge it.
With wasps I see two reactions, dismissive hand-swatting, or defeated walking/running away. With a rat, its presence offends you. It is an intruder. With a wasp, its existence offends you.
I knew none of this prior to the writing of this series of articles.
I was also planning on mainly focussing on the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) this is the species most commonly known here in the UK and in much of Europe, although the UK is home to an estimated 9,000 wasp species. But you see the problem goes deeper than that. When I say “Wasp” I know exactly what you think and yet 99% of wasp species are not that.
By focussing on only one species in the Vespidae, I would be further contributing to a problem which is the lumping in of an estimate 75,000-100,000 different wasp species (or more!) with approximately 67 that are the ones we are prone to disliking.
Again, do not mistake this for some kind of satire. This is waspism – a systemic oppression of a large and diverse group of species based upon prejudices built by a very small minority and, even that reputation is founded largely on myth, fear and prejudice rather than any actual evidence.
I have been a campaigner for equality for many years so believe me when I say I am not taking this lightly. This is not a joke. One of the tactics utilised in dehumanisation when systemically oppressing people is to refer to them as particularly disliked species, as cockroaches, as rats. These systems – misunderstood disregard for wildlife and dehumanisation of people – actually tie in together. A disregard for an organism can become an identity you can give to another organism you don’t like, even if that organism is your kin. What if we remove that tool of dehumanisation?
I’ve mentioned in the various entries in this list my increasingly delving into the depths of the psychological, sociological and anthropological nature of our hatreds for certain animals and the mechanisms work very much the same as those we use to ‘other’ groups of people. They are born of the same cognitive mechanics, the same means of forming prejudices and biases, from the same feelings of distance, ignorance of value and, sadly, the same motivation for our own success and profit.
Take, for example, the rat from the last article. As far as public health initiatives go I could find little evidence that any significant effort has been made by governments in European nations or in the United States (either federally or state-specific) to promote awareness of rat-borne disease. Yet ‘disease’ and ‘dirty’ are probably two of the words people would most associate with rats. Many photos, articles, even academic papers I looked up talked of how “rats are a major carrier of disease.” Yet I could find almost zero evidence of significant, consistent, direct rat-to-human transmission of disease. Incidents do occur, mainly related to contamination of liquids (water and in one case an outbreak of a disease in a school caused by contaminated milk) but in most cases it is very apparently a failure of human hygiene more than it is of rats being ‘unclean’.
There is very little evidence, certainly in the UK, of zoonotic disease transmission from rats to humans yet it is still part of their mythos, part of the stories we all tell each other about rats. It’s also very profitable. Extermination companies make a lot of money off of the idea that rats spread diseases and, I mentioned the ludicrous marketing on the website of extermination company Rentokil, incidentally a publically traded company on the FTSE 100 and their revenue for 2020 was over £2.8bn.
Yeah, that bank balance makes it clear why they want to perpetuate negative ideas about certain ‘pest’ species. Wasps are one such ‘pest’.
Take, for example, this story from 2019 in The Guardian, discussing a spell of hot weather in the UK that led to a 10% rise in sales for Rentokil. Who on their website, by the way, say wasps “can be life-threateneing [sic].” I’m not usually one to nitpick typos but, come on, £2.8bn a year and you can’t afford an editor?
Anyway they are ‘grateful’ to rats and wasps for this boost in revenue. Rats and wasps that likely would have been killed by their products or services to create that boost in revenue.
Journalist Rob Davies describes this increase as a ‘plague of wasps’. There is talk of flying ants that ‘wrought havoc at Wimbledon’ because, God forbid tennis should be interrupted by anything as trivial as life. It is described as a ‘pest plague’. Journalist Rob Davies is a business correspondent and, therefore, not exactly qualified to describe the complex and chaotic mechanics of the effects of extended periods of warm weather on the ecosystems of Great Britain with objectivity.
This heatwave brought in £1.6bn worth of income to Rentokil. Death pays.
But here’s the thing. Those wasps nests, that high numbers of wasps. It was for a reason. The conditions were perfect for a high number of wasps to exist. To explain why I am going to give you some details on the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris).
The Common Wasp Life Cycle
Around about April time wasp queens that have been dormant throughout the winter, hiding in wood, crevices, holes in the ground, sometimes gaps in the eaves of your house or even in the footprint of the old nest where they were born, if it’s appropriate, they become active.
During this phase they are solitary, queens will be flying around seeking a suitable nest site, and the provisions required to establish that nest. They will need to make sure they have access to food, for themselves the time of year is high in flowers and their nectar is the primary source of food for wasp queens. They also need to source food for their young which would mainly consist of invertebrates. They are also going to be busy looking for wood. The wood is what they will use to create their nest. They chew wood fibres in their jaws, mix it with a little bit of wasp spit, it creates a pulp and then the queen will build this into a few cells to lay eggs into to create the first workers. Wasp nests are made of this wasp-paper.
The queen will go off to find food for the larvae, the baby wasps, and will continue to maintain this small nest herself until the workers hatch. All of these wasps will be female.
The hatching of the workers is the signal to kick up production. Those workers will now go out and find resources, more wood to pulp to increase the nest size and food to feed the new babies. At some point around this time the queen will cease her own foraging activities and will get into full time egg production. The workers will be in charge of building new cells and ensuring any laid eggs are grown into well-fed larvae, to become new workers, to keep building cells to keep growing. This process lasts a couple of months of producing workers and growing the nest.
At this point let me explain why Rentokil’s bumper profits in the summer of 2019 might not be such a great thing. Have you ever noticed how early summer wasps are more interested in your ham sandwich rather than your jam sandwich?
That’s because their larvae are actually fed a very high protein diet. Foraging wasps at that time of year are generally seeking that protein. Leave a chicken carcass out near a wasp nest in late May or June time and marvel – get a real close view of these wasps chowing down on that chicken.
They’re not eating it, though.
Instead they store it ready to regurgitate it to the larvae. Their larvae then process certain parts of the protein (particularly chitin from insect prey exoskeletons) and convert it into a sugary liquid that the adult wasps can eat. Other sources of sugary food at this time tend to be flower nectars and honeydew from aphids.
Now I mentioned leaving out a chicken carcass but animal proteins are not a wasp’s preferred choice. They’re hunters, predators, and excellent ones at that. They take down flies, aphids, caterpillars, maggots, grubs, mosquitoes, midges – I mean if it’s small enough or available enough they’ll chew it up and feed it to their young.
So these ‘pest’ wasps, during an average year, will probably, per nest, take out several tons of other invertebrates.
So of course Rentokil want to encourage you to ‘manage’ and ‘control’ (both words mean kill…just be upfront, guys) wasps. They’re not ‘pests’ they’re the damn competition!
These services of wasps as predators alone probably save billions of pounds per year on pesticides for commercial crops and wasps are pollinators too. The continued success of our flowering plants partially depends on wasps and all the other pollinators.
We’ve discussed ecosystem services in a lot of these articles. It’s the horribly brass-tacks way of defining the value of a living organism by demonstrating how much monetary value its existence provides to humans. I think it is a grotesque measure but in a capitalist society it is one hell of an effective communication tool.
For example a 2020 study gives a low estimate value of the ecosystem services of pollinators of $195bn worldwide, per year, or approximately 1.1 Elon Musks per year. I know which one I would prefer out of flowers, fruits, nuts and seeds and just over one Elons. One Elon is one Elon too many! But again, that’s the low estimate. Due to how complex and difficult to value these systems are the real value could be in the region of $200-600bn per year of pollinator value to humanity. Ten times the annual revenue of a Rentokil, who kill the pollinators!
The thing is, bees are very famous pollinators but they’re not the only ones. Butterflies, moths, hoverflies, other flies and our good friends the wasps, all provide pollination services among other creatures. What’s more they don’t all pollinate the same flowers. So adding more honey bees to the environment won’t necessarily save us from the on-going pollination crisis! Persecuting wasps and flies is likely causing significantly more harm than you could possibly imagine.
But hey! It’s keeping Rentokil’s bottom lines steady, so it doesn’t matter if in a couple of decades time the estimate 3-8% of agricultural crops wholly dependent on animal pollinators all just…POOF!…Vanish, does it?
Let’s get back to the life cycle of the common wasp. The part where I explain why wasps are actually useful in your environment is over. Now is where I make you feel guilty for hating late-summer wasps.
So their nests build up and build up until they reach their peak. At this point the queen will stop producing workers and will lay a small number of future queens and males. The workers will be at their foraging peak.
But then the decline starts. Without the need for so many workers, fewer eggs are laid and there are fewer larvae to feed. So the workers, who once mainly depended on their baby sisters for their sweet, sugary goodness, now have to look elsewhere. But it’s also the height of summer, dry grass, flowers turned to fruiting bodies. Those that can’t find sugary stuff from honeydew or whatever nectar is about will seek out your can of coke, or your slice of cake at the picnic.
Then the future queens and males are born. They mate, the existing queen gets sick or dies, the future queens disappear to get ready for their over-winter stay in whatever safe burrow they can find and what happens to all those workers?
Total social breakdown is what happens. All of the primary signals, all of the direction, usually provided by the queen, is now gone. Wasp society breaks down. Cannibalism occurs, the wasps who choose not to engage in this mutually assured destruction of sibling-munching free-for-all disappear, travelling alone hunting whatever sugary solace they can find.
It’s late summer now. Many of them find fruit, they like decaying fruit, fermenting fruit, it is more liquid, easier to eat but, also basically gets them drunk and belligerent. Then they find your jam sandwich and notice it’s much better of a sugar yield so they go for that instead.
What do you do?
You flap your hands at this wasp whose entire social structure has broken down before its very eyes, whose entire world and being has collapsed into a void of uncertainty, everything that once drove and motivated it is now reduced to nothing but a drive to find sugar and live, live just one more day, but it can’t live without sugar and the sugars it could find came with lovely, delicious ethanol compounds, so this wasp, already lost and confused, now drunk, doesn’t care if there isn’t a hive there any more, it doesn’t care if there’s nothing to defend, you’re swinging your hand, you’re a threat, it will sting you.
There’s a general ethic of ethology, the study of animal behaviour, not to anthropomorphise. That means we shouldn’t give human emotions or motivations to animal behaviour.
Two things – I’m not officially a biologist! I think anthropomorphising can be a very effective tool in driving empathy and understanding for a species. I think it is one of the things Sir David Attenborough did so well in his documentaries, managing to frame animal behaviours in a human-sympathetic and explicable way without making them too familiar, too human.
The other thing, though, is the common wasp is a eusocial wasp. Whether it has thoughts and feelings is irrelevant. Whether it can consider the future is irrelevant. In the present it is wholly dependent upon a society to provide it with instruction, direction and place – When that society breaks down, when that society is removed, so is all sense of instruction, direction or place. These wasps are literally lost and confused. There is no other way to consider it. To think that is anthropomorphising is to dramatically fail to see the importance of social structure on social animals. If we see a female meerkat get kicked out of her clan we don’t assume she’s all happy and light and meerkatting it up. We know she is now stressed, in mammals we can measure this, we have all sorts of hormonal proxies and surrogates we can use to test for stress, like levels of the hormone cortisol in the blood. Stress hormones have been found in other invertebrate species and I am fairly certain if one is not known already for wasps (I’ve only had a few days to put this piece together and crammed as much research as I could but I ran out of time) it will be found and it will be discovered late-summer wasps are full of it.
They’re stressed, tired, confused and literally dying. I don’t know if you know much of death in animals but rarely do they go gentle into that good night, and rarely is there any dignity in it. So what’s the difference between withering of starvation, getting splatted by a newspaper or getting drunk on partially fermented strawberry and drowning in a can of Fanta?
How Deadly Are Wasps?
At any other time than late-summer I can find no evidence that wasps are any more, or less, aggressive than bees. There is some evidence that wasp stings are considered more painful than bee stings.They also, as a matter of fact, kill more people than bees do.
However, these deaths are not caused directly by the wasp’s sting but by an allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, to the wasp venom. What is more, do you want to know the vast numbers we’re talking here? Between 2 and 9 deaths per year in the UK. Obviously harrowing for the people involved, and my deepest sympathies, but the average number of deaths for sports related accidents in the UK between the years 2006 and 2016 was 16 per year according to ONS statistics.
Sports is more dangerous than wasps.
In fact, in 2019 six people died of an infection by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, known as listeria or listeriosis, from contaminated sandwiches or salads in UK hospitals.
Sandwiches and salads are, in any given year, potentially more lethal than wasps.
At what point Rentokil is going to make aggressively removing salads and sandwiches from shops by poisoning them a part of their business model remains to be seen, but clearly they are a pest and a public health menace.
Let me give you a few more things, based on Office of National Statistics data for 2009 that were more deadly than bee, wasp and hornet stings combined.
Bee, wasp or hornet stings: Total deaths 4
Eye diseases: Total deaths 5 Being hit by a train as a pedestrian: Total deaths 35 Falling on, or down stairs: Total deaths 644 Falling from a cliff: Total deaths 18 Being hit by an inanimate object(either falling or having been cast): Total deaths 39 Dog attack: Total deaths 5 Drowning in the bath: Total deaths 33 Accidentally suffocating in bed: Total deaths 11 Starvation: Total deaths 6 Herpes: Total deaths 23 Alcohol abuse: Total deaths 645.
But let’s abstract a little more. The deaths related to insect stings are almost exclusively caused by allergic reactions, therefore it is an underlying medical issue (allergy to wasp venom) and not necessarily the wasp that is to blame for the death.
Acute myocardial infarction (a heart attack) is caused when a decrease, or total stop, of blood flow to areas of the heart muscle causes those areas to be damaged or even undergo full tissue death (that’s what infarction means). Studies have shown that certain stressful events or situations can trigger an infarction in people already prone to the condition. For example a Dutch study in 1996 estimated an approximate 14 extra deaths of cardiovascular disease (infarction or stroke) correlated with an important football match, Netherlands versus France at Euro ’96.
There were 27,163 deaths from acute myocardial infarction in the United Kingdom in 2009. I bet you more than 4 of those were caused by outrage due to wildlife persecution. I’d bet good money on triple-figures being caused by sex or sexual arousal! Chances are more than 10 of those were related to shouting at politicians on the telly and do you see people calling for politicians to be culled?
…Actually…forget that last bit, yes you do.
Obviously I’m being a bit flippant. Wasp stings are venomous, can cause a nasty reaction and may require treatment but in most healthy people they are not a potentially lethal danger, in fact they are barely more than an inconvenience. In my life I have never knowingly suffered a bee, wasp or hornet sting!
Deaths from bee and wasp stings seem to only occur in people who have an allergic response to the venom. Globally they may also occur in people who have been stung sufficiently to be overwhelmed by the venom but this requires a remarkable amount of stinging and data suggests these common, eusocial wasps, your standard yellowjackets, have the most potent venom of all the wasps. Even then I believe it is approximately 20 stings per kg required to reach the lethal level of venom, meaning an average man (and deaths from wasp, bee and hornet stings disproportionately affect men, like 80% of global aculeate related deaths are men – So I’m not being sexist when I use a male model) weighing, say, 70kg would require 1,400 stings to die from the venom alone. It’s a lot, not impossible when you consider a swarm of hundreds of wasps and that they can use their sting repeatedly, but it’s still incredibly uncommon for someone to die of wasp stings exclusively with no allergic reaction involved.
So if they’re not killing people in droves I genuinely don’t understand why they are perceived as so dangerous.
Wasp Hate as Social Conformity
I highly suspect there is an aspect of aversive psychology going on in our dislike of wasps, but I also think it an unreasonable one, caused by us giving the wasp morality it cannot possess and agency it doesn’t have. When a wasp stings us, it hurts and we blame it. However I have caused myself significantly more pain and injury catching my toe on the castor on the base of my bed. I have not removed them, I have not hired a company to come around and dispose of them and I do not blame the castors or the bed. As noted above, there were 644 deaths from stair or step-related falls in 2009. I do not see building companies decrying elevating platforms and multistory buildings a ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous’ ‘pest’! I don’t see bungalows springing up across the country.
I am also coming to realise how much of our understanding of nature is coded as social behaviour, is culturally learned. I was speaking to my niece (7 years old) the other day about how I was researching and writing about wasps and she said “Oh I know wasps. The red ones are the deadliest.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “I don’t know.” I asked her how she knew the ‘red wasps’ are the deadliest and she said “I saw someone running away.”
Now to start with there is a red wasp, Vespula rufa, distinguishable by a slight reddy-brown tinge on their abdomen. They have smaller nests and they usually nest in earth, underground. They appear slightly later than their other common Vespulae buddies, with a shorter colony cycle usually ending around August in the UK.
However I can find no evidence that they are any more or less deadly than either Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp, or Vespula germanica, the German wasp, the other common yellowjacket wasp species in the UK.
So why does my niece think they are deadlier? Well she gives us the answer herself. She saw someone running away from a red wasp. This school friend presumably believed them to be deadlier than other wasps, possibly merely due to their difference in colour, or the fact that they are slightly less common to spot.
How pervasive is this across all people? How much of our behaviour towards wasps is not actually related to their relative levels of pain in their stings, not actually related to fear of an allergic reaction and not actually based in any significant knowledge of wasps, but based merely around a system of codified behaviours in human society that tell us to be cautious of wasps.
“They sting you!”
That’s a common refrain I hear when people say they don’t like wasps, but again – I’ve never been stung.
Ehrlich – a pest control company, owned by Rentokil, surprise surprise – Opens their ‘Real Truth about Wasp Stings’ page with “Nearly everyone has been stung by a wasp in their lifetime.” With zero damn data to back it up! In fact I can’t find any data recording actual figures of wasp stings or data of how many people have never been stung. There’s a project for some wasp scientists!
So we have no idea how many people are stung, no idea how many times in their lives people are likely to be stung and definitely no idea of other injuries to compare it to. Does the average, non-allergic, person have just as much chance of dying of an infected splinter as they do the number of average stings they receive in a lifetime? I don’t know, there’s no data I can find.
The point is I only know wasps are ‘bad’ because other people tell me they are. Now I have enough biological training (and I tell everyone the same thing, six months of undergrad biology is enough to give you a) a healthy respect for every living thing, b) a healthy suspicion of every living thing and c) panic attacks for the rest of your life) to not take this at face value. I like data, statistics and figuring out relative risks. Are most people basing their opinions more on social cues than actual evidence or interaction?
Here we drop back to the aye-aye article. The study by Randimbiharinirina et. al. in 2021 showed that people who had seen, or interacted with the aye-aye were less likely to believe in the local fady, the Malagasy taboo, that leads to the species’ persecution. People who owned or worked at plantations of sugar cane or cloves, where they are known to kill crop pests, were the most likely to hold a positive opinion. Knowledge of, closeness to, and interaction with species has a demonstrable effect on our consideration of them as positive or negative.
Meanwhile, adherence to social norms, with little desire to actually learn, study or understand an organism maintains a status quo of negativity.
This is why I opened this article as I did. I know it might seem crass at a time of huge social and human rights upheaval to put our opinion of wasps in the same categories as racism, colonialism or white supremacy but – it’s kind of the same mechanism and the resulting outcome is, undeniably, going to be the deaths of BIPOC, lower socio-economic status and Global South populations.
The Impact of Wasp Hate
You see wasps are a pollinator, pollinating species are seeing a shocking global decline, somewhere in the region of up to 75% reduction in populations in places. There is desperate, on-going ecology work to find the reasons for this, and counter it, because, as I have mentioned before, up to 8% of our global food crops require animal pollinators. As far as wild species go that number is probably significantly higher. So whilst humans are busy destroying habitats (particularly meadowlands, grasslands, areas usually abundant in wildflowers but that we prefer a nice, neat lawn on or are destroying for farming) we are also impacting the habitat of pollinators. When we reduce our numbers of pollinators it affects our food supply.
In the UK we already have record numbers of food-bank users. In 2009 (before the major impact of the financial crisis and the government campaign of cuts took its toll) there were already more deaths from starvation than bee, wasp or hornet stings! In 2017 the numbers of deaths where starvation or malnutrition was a mentioned factor in reported cause of death (according to ONS data) was 445 – the overall trend since 2003 has been rising. In the UK! A wealthy western nation, we are seeing increased death due to starvation! What is going to happen when our food supply is restricted due to lack of pollinators impacting the relative yields of food crops? More people starve. Globally! We’re probably talking millions of lives, a scale of death that makes Covid look like a damn birthday party in comparison!
All of this will, if current geopolitical and socio-economic trends continue, negatively impact black, brown, Asian, indigenous, low socio-economic status, disabled and Global South communities significantly more than it will rich white people. I’m a damn disabled working-class dude! My whiteness isn’t saving me in this crisis, I’m a dead man! And do you know what? You middle-class people need to watch your backs too, because this is going to bump you down that ladder. Persecution of pollinating insects, their rapid decline in numbers, and the impact it will have on our entire planet is going to be such a tsunami of suffering those waves will lap at your feet too! You’ll die too. You’ll go broke, lose your houses, lean on an uncaring government and learn the lessons people in my position have been trying to convince you of for years – this system is rigged and you’re disposable capital to them.
The persecution of wildlife and the persecution of people go hand-in-hand.
The only way out of this mess is through knowledge, respect, understanding and compassion. That means being amazed rather than horrified when you get stung by a lone wasp. I mean, if there’s a swarm get the hell out of there, but respect the swarm! If there is a nest severely impacting your quality of life, by all means take care of it. I don’t expect anyone to live with hundreds of wasps buzzing around their kitchen! But if it is in your yard, your garden, under your eaves and the greatest problem you have is the odd wasp bumbling in find a way to deal with it.
I once had a wasp nest near my house. I could see if in a tree not far from my house and it was a big nest. I had suspected there was one nearby because I’m a mucky bastard who eats at his workstation and leaves things like food and food residues around (I’m not proud, don’t judge me) but wasps kept popping in, several a day, several times a day. Most of the time they found nothing of interest but for a period I had a chicken bone in a waste receptacle near my window and I kept seeing them come in, nibble on it and fly away. Remember, they feed protein to their young? Anyway I didn’t want wasps coming in hovering about my face where I work so I didn’t call exterminators, I didn’t call the local council, I didn’t throw rocks at the nest.
Instead I started leaving my chicken bones, and other protein-waste, further away from the main window-entrance on my external windowsill. I also softened a boiled sweet and left that out there. They rarely bothered me again. They stopped coming into my room, but I also got to watch wasps through the window, consuming either the sugary residue off the boiled sweet or grabbing the little remnants of chicken off the bone. Bees would visit the sweet, too! It took the experience from being a buzzing nuisance to being an excellent opportunity to observe these incredible creatures up close.
Now if you don’t want that experience, clean the hell up! Wasps scout, they go around looking for sources of food and when they find them they go back to the nest and tell their buddies and they will start coming regularly and in numbers! So clean the hell up! Keep sources of sugar and protein well secured, keep lids on your bins, don’t leave waste out in the open, don’t leave food out in the open and they will stop coming.
It’s not hard to manage wasps once you know their motivations, once you understand their lives.
Not All Wasps are Yellowjackets! Other Types of Wasp.
But I’m approaching 6,000 words deep and I have talked only of the Vespidae. Specifically only the Vespinae, the subfamily of eusocial aculeate (stinging) wasps (although I have placed many different examples in photos). This group accounts for less than 1% of all known wasp species, of which there are an estimated, worldwide, 100s of thousands or so. Numbers are hard, some of these wasps are tiny!
Sadly for ‘wasps’ they all get thrown into the yellowjacket bracket! It’s like with my shark list. One of the reasons I wanted to do that is because not only do I love sharks but people when they hear “Shark” immediately think of the white shark (or the Great White), they think of voracious predators, dumb, dead-eyed munchers of everything and I wanted to change that perception because sharks are varied in their lifestyles, intelligence, prey items and feeding behaviours.
This is like that but on a whole bigger scale. It’s like if I said “Plant” to you and all you could think of is a dandelion! Wasps are so diverse that for the word “wasp” to only be associated with less than 1% of their total representative species is…well it should be a crime of ignorance. Governments should go to prison for not shoving understanding of this diversity into the school curricula.
So let’s get off the topic of your vespines, yellowjackets, hornets and jaspers (some of the common names for the yellow-and-black wasps) and talk about some other wasps!
We will start with the largest genus in the Vespidae, Polistes. Also known as paper wasps (although other genera also build their nests out of paper) another common name for them is ‘umbrella wasps’ because they tend to build their paper nests in a fashion whereby they look a little like umbrellas. If you’ve ever seen a wasps nest that, from below, shows the open, cellular structure of the nest, this is probably made by a polistine wasp. Some of them, e.g. Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp, has the textbook black-and-yellow colouration. But there are over 300 recognised species in the genus Polistes and they represent the remarkable diversity of wasp species on their own.
For example Polistes sulcifer is a polistine wasp who main reproductive strategy involves parasitising the nests of Polistes dominula! This is known as ‘brood parasitism’. Probably the most famous example of a brood parasite is the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, letting them do the raising of it.
The thing about it is the cuckoo is quite sneaky, shoving its eggs in the nest whilst the founders are away. Polistes sulcifer fights for its right to parasitise. It is strategic and systematic. It waits for the founding queen of the host nest to have laid worker eggs but prior to their emergence. This prevents it being outnumbered. Then it will fight the host queen, either evicting her or killing her. Then the parasite wasps disguises herself (unless you really want details about ‘cuticular hydrocarbon camouflage’ don’t worry about how and if you do, just google it!) so that she is considered just the regular old queen when the workers emerge. She is then free to lay her eggs and the unsuspecting Polistes dominula not only raise their own young but that of their parasite queen too!
If you don’t think that’s amazing I think you’re boring. Oh and you know how you all hate maggots? Well one of the common prey species of Polistes dominula (and therefore, for parasite reasons, of Polistes sulcifer) is fly maggots.
As for the disguise, well these hydrocarbon signatures are very important in some wasp species and are used to recognise related individuals. I have spoken in many articles about Hamilton’s rule. This is a biological theory of how species are more likely to perform altruistic or sacrificial behaviours for those more genetically related to them. It is defined simply by the formula rB>C where ‘r’ is the genetic relatedness, ‘B’ is the reproductive benefit gained by the altruism or sacrifice and ‘C’ is the reproductive cost to the individual performing the altruism or sacrifice. Well, W. D. Hamilton (an exceptional evolutionary biologist) used observations of Polistes wasps as one of his first inspirations for his kin selection theories.
Speaking of wasps and parasites, there is an entire family of parasitoid wasps. The difference between a parasite and a parasitoid is that a parasite generally lives on, or in, its host organism and often tries its best not to kill it unless that death is part of its life cycle in order for it to move on to parasitising another organism. A parasitoid has a close relationship with another species, often only utilising its hosts for a particular stage of life (usually the larval stage) and inevitably kills its host. That’s as simple as I can break it down, anyway!
There is a whole family of parasitoid wasps, the Ichneumon wasps or Ichneumonidae. These are some freaky bastards! Again they are numerous, Polistes is a genus, this is a family – so it is a taxonomic stage above the genus – and the Ichneumon wasps have many subfamilies, never mind genera! Excluding Antarctica they are found everywhere and they mostly use other invertebrates as their host.
THERE IS NO KNOWN HUMAN ICHNEUMON WASP! So don’t worry about you being parasitised by one of these amazing creatures. They are also mostly non-aggressive to humans and do not readily sting them unless specifically interfered with. Many of them are also solitary species so they do not build large nests or cause any damage to human habitations. Basically these guys, for however horrific you might find their lifestyle, are your friends. They probably take care of numerous of your garden pest invertebrates so, chill, don’t worry about them, they’re awesome.
There are two strategies for their reproductive behaviour. The first, known as ‘idiobiontism’ is where the host is paralysed, usually by a venomous sting, often taken to a burrow, hole or nest, where the egg is laid, hatches, the larva eats the host and grows into a beautiful wasp. The other strategy, slightly more horrific, is known as ‘koinobiontism’ and involves either temporarily stunning the host, or just chucking an egg right on or in it and letting it continue about its life as this parasite larva slowly starts to consume it from the inside out. As someone who is, what I would describe as a ‘Natural Decadent’ – that is to say I recognise the beauty in the suffering, decay and misery of nature – I think this is cool as hell!
It’s a savage way to make a living, sure. When it was documented in the 19th century it inspired much thought about the notion of a kind, benevolent God. But why is it any crueler than just outright predatory behaviour? I think moralising any behaviour outside of our own is a pointless endeavour and trying to make sense of our own lives by observing and considering the behaviours of other species is a sure-fire way to either persecute another species or permit gross cruelties of our own. It’s stupid, don’t do it.
There are 25,000 described species of Ichneumons today and estimates of their total species numbers range from 60,000 to over 100,000. It means there is probably a wasp that parasitises every one of the pest species in your garden. Let’s all say the words together ‘ECOSYSTEM SERVICES!’ Ichneumon wasps probably save hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of crops every year, and reduce the need for pesticide use. They’re good for the environment so you want to keep them around. These are good wasps. Okay, they have some shady methods, but don’t question it when they help put food on your table.
Are you an arachnophobe? Do you hate spiders? Well not only is there a sub-family of Ichneumon wasps that parasitise spiders (the Pimplinae) but there is an entire family of spider-wasps! The Pompilidae. I can guarantee no matter who you are or what you’re into I can find you a wasp that’s your friend.
The Pompilidae behave similarly to Ichneumon wasps, they are parasitoid wasps.
I want to talk about possibly one of the coolest little groups of wasps on planet earth, the tarantula hawk wasps. They belong to two genera, Pepsis and Hemipepsis and as their name suggests they tend to parasitise large spiders, including tarantulas. The adult form, though, is a nectar feeder and is thus as innocuous to us as a hummingbird, unless you mess with it.
You see Pepsis grossa is one of the largest, if not the largest wasp in the world and it has an exceptionally large sting. Using the Schmidt pain index of insect stings (and we will talk about Schmidt later!) it is apparently the most painful sting of any wasp species, scoring a 4.0 on the scale. Only the bullet ant beats it for pain. The bullet ant is named after the pain of their sting, so think about that…
Regardless the sting of Pepsis grossa is, for being one of the longest, and most painful, incredibly non-toxic. This leads to the belief among wasp scientists that it is mainly used as a deterrent, a defence mechanism and they rarely sting unless they are being interfered with.
Pepsis grossa exclusively parasitise tarantula (the family Theraphosidae) in the Southern States of North America, through Central America and into South America. Their body size is somewhere between 3-5cm, with the females being larger than the males. Different colour morphs exist but they are mostly black and orange.
These things fight tarantula! I know! It’s crazy, they enter a tarantula’s burrow and incite the spider into a battle, drawing it out into the open where the wasp has the advantage of manoeuvrability, what it wants to do is draw the spider into its defensive posture, where it raises its two front legs. Once this is achieved the wasp gets right in there, its target is the second set of legs, because it wants to get its sting right at the nerve centre between the legs and the sternum. Boom! Paralysis! From here the wasp can drag the spider back into its burrow, or create another burrow of her own and lay her egg, just the one. She seals the burrow up, the egg hatches, feasts on the spider, grows into a beautiful and very large wasp and then gets out of the burrow and starts the process again.
An interesting thing is they tend to lay female eggs (unfertilised) on larger female spiders and male eggs (fertilised) on smaller, male spiders. I don’t know if they’re sexist, they might be! I highly suspect the size-difference is the big determining factor there, both the female wasp and female spider tend to be larger. It can be assumed a female wasp larva would need more food, then, so putting them on the larger specimens makes sense.
It’s an incredible species and there are Pompilidae who even only temporarily paralyse their host spider. Their young eat the spider alive from the inside out and specifically don’t target major organs to keep the spider alive as long as possible! Now that’s metal! Life is cruelty, but it’s such beautiful cruelty.
I’m only going to talk about one more group of wasps because, again, there are likely hundreds of thousands of species of wasp we could discuss, people could write books on them, and they have so if I have in any way piqued your interest do learn more about these beautiful, misunderstood and much maligned creatures. I’d be here forever if I tried.
So the last group of wasps I want to talk about is the fig wasps, put into the superfamily Chalcidoidae. As their name suggests these are wasps with a unique relationship with figs. In fact, these wasps lay their eggs in figs and their larval stage is spent inside figs. Many of them also act as pollinators for figs.
What is remarkable about fig wasps is they are what is known as a ‘polyphyletic’ group. That means it is a group made up of several unrelated lineages. Again we’ve discussed ‘convergent evolution’ before, when different organisms adapt a similar shape or lifestyle to fulfil a similar ecological niche. Well this would almost definitely qualify as that but it could also be what is known as ‘parallel evolution’, where organisms that already share similar characteristic independently evolve similar behaviours. Either way this relationship between the fig and the wasp is actually beautiful.
So for the typical life cycle of a fig-wasp (again, huge variation) let’s start with a fertilised female. She will travel down a small opening in the immature fruit of the fig tree (often pulling off her wings and antennae in the process). She will then lay her eggs and die. In pollinating wasps this is also when the pollen will be deposited. The figs grow and the wasps hatch and from there they grow together. The males will often hatch first, and their first act is to mate with the females before they, themselves, hatch. The males then dig their way out of the fig and usually die shortly after. This provides the females with a tunnel through which they can escape, already fertilised. Again in pollinating wasps the escaping females will pick up pollen on their way out that they can use to pollinate another fig tree but, once they emerge they start the process again.
It’s a remarkable relationship, an example of ‘coevolution’ – species developing together, and definitely more of a biological mystery than the chicken-and-egg dilemma. Which came first, the pollinator or the pollinated? The fig or the fig wasp?
The relationship of fig and wasp is estimated to be 70-90 million years old, originating during the Cretaceous period. This is a relationship that out-survived the dinosaurs and has probably led to huge changes in fig and wasp species over that time period, as the species mutually evolve. It is another example of the complex weave, this clockwork tapestry of evolution that can surprise us at every turn. Nothing exists, or can exist, in a vacuum. Life needs life.
How Can We Help?
As we massacre species in this anthropocene extinction, reducing the biodiversity of our planet and maligning beautiful, complex, predatory pollinators as little more than ‘pests’ because they disrupt our picnics and barbeques we would do well to remember those three words. Life needs life.
The more harm we do to our natural world the more harm we do to ourselves. Life is cruel, let the Ichneumon wasps be a testament to that, beautiful in her cruelty, nature truly is the most marvellous dom in the great BDSM experiment that is life, but life is cruel. It will march on without us. It would take a cataclysm of the highest magnitude to completely exterminate all life on this planet. Not to burst our egotistical bubble but I don’t think humans are strong enough, big enough or clever enough to do it. The cold, inhospitable and amoral universe has tried its hardest and even it has failed, over nearly 4 billion years, to stop life on planet earth.
We hate, we persecute, we outcompete, we blame the outcompeted, we’re selfish, we’re overconsumptive, but all we are doing is slowly, but surely, decreasing our own chances of survival. Extinction is inevitable. There have only ever been two demonstrable fates of any living organism. Either your line is annihilated, or you become an ancestor of a new species. I think there is great value in the faculties Homo sapiens possesses and I wish to see them represented in species in the future, in our descendants. I fear, though, that our greatest strength is also our greatest danger. We are, as far as we know, the only species clever enough to see the harm we are doing, whilst simultaneously being too stupid to actually bother to stop it – and we could stop it if we tried.
The mechanism of selfishness, of disregard, of greed, of not wanting to share our world, or hoarding wealth, privilege and advantage, the mechanisms by which we, so crudely and foolishly measure our success on an individual level are our failings socially and environmentally. The same neuro-cognitive bullshit that causes human-on-human conflict, persecution, death and destruction is the same as that which we use to destroy our natural world and the amazing species within it.
In the words of the late, great Tupac Shakur;
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. Let’s change the way we eat. Let’s change the way we live; and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see, the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.
We need to rethink our entire systems of being, and include non-human species in those considerations too.
And just so anyone who reads this who wants to think I’m some sandal-wearing, dreadlock-bearded, dope-smoking hippy, so they can disregard my opinion, can be stopped in their tracks; I’m a hard-living, tough, working-class, sobre, meat-eating, chunky, strong son-of-a-bitch. I’ve spoken of my admiration for life’s cruelty, and I genuinely admire it. I choose peace because it’s the sensible option, but I’m not afraid to fight. I just think human beings have achieved the most when they have worked side-by-side, putting aside whatever differences they have, to work towards a common goal. All of humanity’s greatest victories and successes have come by this method and it is foolish to think otherwise. Even competition works this way, and therefore all competition can be, and indeed should be, friendly competition. Only selfishness, foolishness and arrogance makes it otherwise.
Wasps are one of our most valuable pollinators, an effective predator, particularly of crop pests, a vast and diverse group of animals, with an almost incalculable value to our ecosystems, they range from the fugly to the fabulously beautiful, they have lifestyles that range from the most passive and chill to the most violent and voracious, the majority of their species have little-to-no interation with humans whatsoever, they do not interfere with us in any way and 99% of wasp species have no sting with which to harm humans at all. Yet according to a 2018 study by Seirian Sumner, Georgia Law and Alessandro Cini the two words most associated with wasps are ‘sting’ and ‘annoying’.
Oh this is not just aimed at laypersons. The life-sciences and the entire industry related to research and publishing research can hang its head in shame too. Academic research into wasps is grossly underfunded and papers regarding the eusocial wasps as pollinators and biological pest-control species were outnumbered by those about bees by a ratio of around 40:1.
The very communities that should be championing investigations into the importance of a diverse range of invertebrate species and the value that they hold not only to us as humans but to the wider ecosystem are failing species like wasps and it is for the same psycho-social reasons as everyone else. Wasps are culturally, and wrongly, unpopular. It is not ‘fashionable’ to research wasps, in attempting to obtain funding one will have to overcome the prejudice of the funding body to convince them wasps are worth studying, when it comes to getting papers published you’re going to have to convince a journal editor that your study is worthwhile and they will have prejudice against wasps. We need to change that. I do not use that word flippantly, the word ‘need’. Loss of biodiversity of invertebrates can and will kill a lot of people. We need to change how we think about these things.
#WASPLOVE – Thanks To the Community!
On the topic of that change the final thing I want to address in this incredibly lengthy article (it’s more of a non-fiction booklet!) is the wasp science community.
I studied biology, I did not graduate, I have no letters before or after my name, I’m no expert but my interest did not diminish when I dropped out of university (for health reasons), I kept reading, I kept studying, I know my shit and of the shit I don’t know I know decent methods for researching it and a few things about how to tell good research from bad.
Yet whenever I try to interact with the biological communities online I always feel like the Prize Dick! I know science is harsh, snobby and full of self-important arseholes – it was one of the contributing factors in my dropping out. But there are a lot of people out there with an attitude liable to stifle curiosity, promote elitism and cause people to think all biologists are dickheads. I am a student of biology, I am one of you, and even I feel like an outsider. So if you recognise any of yourself in what I’m saying here, bloody stop it. Scientific literacy is vital to the future safety of our planet, our environment, our species diversity and us. Every single human being has a stake in this and you acting like the High Lord and Saviour of Knowledge is doing nobody any favours. The same goes for all the science community! If you don’t like interacting with idiots, stay the hell away from public forums.
But in researching for this article I contacted a couple of incredibly well known and highly regarded wasp scientists, specifically Seirian Sumner and Eric R. Eaton. Both of them were incredibly receptive to my enquiries, helpful, charming, Seirian introduced me to a whole host of wasp-enthusiast scientists and entomologists and Eric even followed me on Twitter for crying out loud!
In researching this article I have found a huge amount of wasp related research papers are public access. In case you don’t know a lot of time academic papers are behind paywalls, access is restricted to institutions that pay an organisational fee or you can pay individually to access them. This, to me, is stupid! What’s more, as far as I’m aware, little-to-none of this money goes to the researchers, instead it is entirely subsumed by an obnoxiously greedy publishing industry that literally locks knowledge behind a door requiring a diamond-encrusted gold key to open it. Often, unless the journal itself is specifically open access, scientists and institutions have to pay to make their research open access! It is a ludicrous system. But, I’ve read so many wasp-related academic papers freely and openly.
It has been a long journey studying persecuted species and I think the wasp science community represents something unique about these groups of people. To care about something hated you already have to go against the grain, there’s a touch of rebel in so many of the scientists and organisations I have spoken about across this series. But, personally, it seems you also have to have a unique capacity for tolerance. You almost need a fearlessness in your tolerance.
Let’s talk about Schmidt for a second. Justin O. Schmidt is a nutter! I say that with the utmost respect. He is the entomologist (insect scientist) who came up with the Schmidt sting pain index for measuring the relative levels of painfulness of insect stings. The index is divided into 4 levels (1-4) with 1 being the least painful and 4 being the most. We looked at the Pepsis grossa earlier which has a Schmidt pain index score of 4, and discussed the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) which I believe is one of very few species with a 4+ rating.
But you might be wondering how Schmidt got this data.
How do you think?
The potential for allergic reaction, plus the deliberate inflicting of potentially excruciating pain on experimental subjects means you could never get ethical approval to use human subjects. Using animal models would be inexact, different species experience pain differently and they can’t say “Ouch!” so you’d have to use surrogate measures to predict pain rather than just get a good idea. You have to use people. Pain is also incredibly subjective, so you can’t really use multiple people because they may all have a different idea of quite what’s more painful than what. Are you seeing where I am going?
Schmidt got the bulk of his data by being stung himself. He likely holds the record as the person who has been stung by the most different insects in human history. It is a record that is unlikely to be broken, because nobody else will ever be as stupidly clever as Dr. Schmidt.
I think there is something very special about scientists of persecuted, hated and misunderstood species and the wasp scientists, to me, represent the pinnacle. I am the wasp at their picnic. I flew in, buzzed around, started asking questions that to them would seem trivial or stupid and, instead of swatting me away they observed me, indulged me and welcomed me. I do not believe this is just chance or happenstance. I think it takes a special individual, an especially compassionate individual, to want to learn to love what is hated.
They represent everything We Lack Discipline stands for. A tolerance and acceptance of difference, a desire to find a way to cross barriers of socio-economic status, wealth, race, religion, class and nation to attempt to promote a knowledge and understanding over a prejudice and superstition. They represent patience in the face of ignorance, so long as that ignorance is not wilful. Let us be honest, they handle insects that cause untold pain, and Dr. Schmidt let himself get stung probably a thousand times or more “FOR SCIENCE!” and he’s not alone. This amazing paper by entemologist Dr. Emily A. Sadler et al. measuring the lengths (and ratio to body length) of wasp stings attempted to find a relationship between the size of sting and the pain of the sting. Mention is made of ‘personal observation’ of stinging events which I took as wasp scientists getting stung! so…They’re pretty much the definition of a Curious Idiot™! I have to respect that.
So to all of you in the wasp science community, to all of the scientific community I have interacted with across this entire series of articles on the top ten most hated, but misunderstood, species, I thank you.
Originally wasps were going to be my number 9. But in studying them deeper I realised they were so unjustly reviled. They became my number 1 but, more than that, they have become emblematic of human ignorance leading to persecution as a whole.
My voice is small, and I don’t expect it will lead to much at all – but, much as the bee has become a universal symbol of industriousness, I propose that the wasp become the universal symbol of the fight against ignorance, persecution and oppression in all its forms.
The cougar, or puma, or mountain lion, or catamount, or painter, or panther, or mountain screamer, or ghost cat, or shadow cat is probably the cat (if not the animal) with the most colloquial names. I will use the term cougar, until a particular population later on that I will refer to as the Florida Panther.
There’s a reason for this overabundance of names and that is that this beautiful cat is so widespread. It was once basically all over sub-Arctic North America, the Eastern side of the US is now no longer home to known populations of cougar. However they still stretch pretty much from the Yukon in Canada all the way down the West of the United States, through Central America, across the isthmus and all the way down to just shy of the tip of Argentina. It’s a remarkable distribution, it really is.
There is some evidence of members of the Puma genus existing in the Old World (fossils of the extinct Puma pardoides) but otherwise they’re a New World cat.
As one of their nicknames suggests they seem to enjoy mountainous terrain, and enjoy chilling around crags and cliffs and the associated pastures. They are quite opportunist for a big cat species (many big cats seem to have selective prey preference) and they are known to eat everything from rabbits and rodents to deer and wild goats and sheep. They do so mostly during twilight (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal).
Sometimes they come into conflict with farmers by attacking livestock species.
They’re no slouch in the size department, second largest American cat behind the Jaguar, but they’re also bulky. They have a muscular build, strong legs and a handsome, chiselled, square face. That said its territory overlaps with that of wolves, grizzly bears and, in one specific spot, alligators – so for as big, chonky and powerful as these cats are they are not always at the top of the food chain. This is probably a good explanation for their secretive nature and the ‘ghost’ and ‘shadow’ cat nicknames.
What is incredible to note is that the cougar is a member of the Felinae subfamily, not the Pantherinae. That means, genetically, the cougar is more closely related to your housecat than it is to an actual lion.
Given my recent focus on persecuted species, and covering topics like reintroductions, and people’s unfounded fears of large predators in their back-yards, it should be noted that this large predator, known for its opportunistic eating habits, that regularly has territories that overlap with human habitation has been responsible only 125 attacks on humans, of which 27 were fatal, in North America in the last century. Bees accounted for more deaths. If I’m not reading this paper incorrectly (Link to PDF), there were 10 more deaths from basketball (total 37) between 1973 and 1980, than there were deaths from cougar between 1868 and 2018.
People against the reintroduction of large predators need to actually shut up.
But we’re not done with cougars! I could never release an article under 500 words, but there’s also an interesting conservation tale and you know I love those.
You see I said the cougar had all but been eliminated from the East side of North America but that ‘all but…’ is important. There is still a population in Florida. Known locally as the Florida Panther, it was once designated a unique subspecies (Puma concolor coryi) but the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group and their Cat Classification Taskforce (I WANT THIS JOB!) revised the Puma genus in 2017. It was decided that all North-American cougar were the subspecies Puma concolor couguar, whilst the South American population would be Puma concolor concolor. Either way, the Florida Panther is the last remaining population of cougar further east than Minnesota (There are some fragmented populations up in the Mid-North US states like Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota etc.)
The problem with the Florida Panther is it is endangered. Historic hunting and increased human exploitation of its habitat dramatically affected their numbers. Today the most common harms to the Florida Panther are collisions with vehicles and intraspecific competition – fighting each other, likely caused by restricted habitat causing closer contact with one another. Either way back in the 70s it was estimated there were only around 20 individuals remaining in the wild.
Enter the ecologists! The more I write about projects like this the more I think they are real life superheroes.
Well they got their numbers up! But inbreeding depression took its toll. A lack of genetic diversity was harming the fitness of the Florida Panther and making it less adaptable, less fit – even giving rise to defects like kinks in the tail. Seen at a rate of about 25% in the standard cougar population the Florida Panther had a nearly 90% incidence of tail-kink!
As a result, in 1995, 8 Texan cougars were introduced to the Florida population to help boost its genetic diversity.
Whilst no significant effect has been demonstrated on males (mainly due to their shorter lifespans due to intraspecific competition (for mating) and dispersal into different, potentially dangerous habitats (for mating) so – male cougars are literally dying for a fuck!) the effect on females was pretty astounding. There was no noticeable difference on litter sizes, but the hybrid female kittens were three times more likely to reach adulthood, and survived longer than non-hybrids. The 2006 paper is available here.
It was considered very controversial at the time due to the Florida Panther being considered a separate subspecies but the revision based upon mitochondrial DNA by the Cat Taskforce (LET ME BE A MEMBER!) means effectively it was a same subspecies hybridisation scheme.
It was a daring project and one that means from numbering only twenty individuals who formed a genetically compromised community they now numbers in their hundreds and not only are they more genetically diverse but the scheme has been tested, it would be possible to transplant cougar from elsewhere to keep bolstering their genetic strength.
My article on the vulture discusses the California Condor Recovery Program and in that I discuss a sensible thing that group did when they took all the condors into captivity in order to better breed them – they separated them. What this did was created two separate populations that could breed, and then be swapped around to ensure genetic diversity and lack of inbreeding. It’s kind of a similar thing with Florida Panther and this sort of hybridisation could be used to save other genetically compromised animals that seem to suffer from the effects, like the cheetah.
It’s an incredible story and it is so wonderful to think that there is still a population of these cats out there in Florida because they introduced a few feisty Texan ladies; some strong, Southern belles that helped their population improve.
You can never have too much cat! Want to cat more cat? We’ve got lots of cat!
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined. Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics. Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats. Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage! Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster. Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Contrary to their Latin name the Norwegian rat did not originate from Norway. Sometimes it’s called the Parisian rat but it doesn’t hail from Paris either. At stages it was believed to have come from Ireland, or to have crossed the channel with William the Bastard (or conqueror, if you prefer) a myth it shares with the rabbit here in the UK.
We could look at this inability to determine the rat’s origin as a big red “Not good enough; see me!” at the top of the homework of humanity but I think it is actually a testament to the rat’s greatest strength; adaptability.
Today is a good day to write about the rat. Like the rat I have been nothing if not industrious. In around 3-4 months I have produced over 100 articles across a multitude of topics all of them, as far as I can tell, of good quality and with a unique voice. But I’m of the underground, and when I dare try to pop my curious little head above the sewer grates, around the corners of those alleys, floors soaked with piss and bin-juice, I see traps. I get disgusted looks, people point and go “Eugh! It’s a We Lack Discipline! Someone should call the council and get it sorted.” And, rest assured, ‘get it sorted’ means using some sort of lethal traps or poison – it means kill it.
There are some unloved species I do not relate to, you won’t find them on this list. Even then it’s mostly things like Tsetse flies, mosquitoes or parasitic nematode worms. I should make it clear, as I have done in many of this list. I don’t want them to not exist, no matter how harmful they can be for us. I respect their lives and their way of life. Evolution is like that. The genome has a cruel disregard for anything not important to it.
But the rest of them, especially the ones on this list, deserve more respect than they get. The rat was originally going to be my number one, but in the course of sorting this list out my priorities changed and I learned about something altogether more valuable and yet less well regarded. But even so these species are all ones I can relate to, I can understand. I know what it feels like to always have to hide in the background because whenever you show your face people seem to dislike you. I know what it feels like to work incredibly hard, for little-to-no reward, and for people to only see the worst of what you do and never consider your best. I know what it is like to have an undeserved reputation. It’s why this list came to be. To give information about species we might have one opinion of and tell you why they are actually amazing and what they actually do rather than just pander to your pop-culture opinion that is often rooted in pro-pest control propaganda or a sensationalist media agenda.
To be a little bit of a ponce and quote ‘Othello’;
She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them.
I am the Desdemona to the Othello of the rat, the gull, the vulture, the fox, the pigeon and the aye-aye. I see their suffering, I respect their fight, and I love them for it. Like poor Desdemona, too, this love smothers me. Compared to my cat list and my sharks list this has been very unpopular, and in my passionate enthusiasm for these species I am creating conflict where I wanted harmony. Creating enmity where I seek, indeed need, support. I have ever been an outcast so that hardly concerns me. What hurts is when I start to feel like crawling out of the sewer only to find my senses barraged with negativity.
The brown rat is a member of the order Rodentia and they are successful. They are undoubtedly and by a landslide the largest order of mammals – maybe something like 40% of all known mammalian species are rodents. It’s incredible. This success has been dispersed across the globe, barring a few spots (New Zealand, Antarctica, the far north of the Arctic) rodents have got everywhere. Not only are they widespread but there are rodents filling all sorts of niches. We’ve got tiny rodents lie the pygmy jerboa, weighing in at 3g, its body is only around 3-5cm, it looks like a kid’s toy! But they go all the way up to the capybara, which is the size of a large dog, looking like a hulking, long-legged guinea pig.
The largest rodent ever, Josephoartigasia monesi, it doesn’t seem to have a common name so let’s call it the Biggle Piggle, lived during the Pliocene into the early Pleistocene (around 4 million years ago to 2 million years ago), it was basically another massive guinea pig type (or caviomorph) from South America. We don’t know exactly how big it was as we only have a fossil skull, but predictions based on that give a size somewhere between 500-2,500kg! Split the difference we’re potentially talking a metric ton of rodent, around 900-1000kg. The fossil skull we have is 53cm in length and has 30cm incisors! Blades for days!
There are burrowing rodents, tree rodents, ground rodents, water rodents, spiky rodents, smooth rodents, big rodents, small rodents, cute rodents, and cuter rodents and as far as mammals go, whatever the human ego might want to tell us, they rule the earth.
The genus Rattus itself has over 60 extant (opposite of extinct, so alive) species and new ones sometimes turn up!
So where does the brown rat fit in? We’re talking the jack of all trades and the master of quite a few of them as well.
I’m not even sure I know where to start with the brown rat, it’s so amazing! Let’s go origin story.
Brown rats, despite their Latin name, are believed to have originated in Asia, the region of China seems most likely but there are competing theories as to whether it was North or South.
At some point, usually cited around the 1200-1300CE sort of time, these brown rats found their way out of Asia, likely via trade and much like with the black rat before it.
What we do know is by the 18th century the brown rat was commonplace across Europe, and was displacing its black rat cousin. From there colonisation spread it around the world. The brown rat is commensal with humans, it means it has found a way to live with us, there’s a mutualism.
There are a couple of theories about this the most commonly accepted being that the black rat is more arboreal – a tree-dwelling species – and the switch from wood-and-thatch building to bricks and mortar meant the black rat lost a lot of its human commensal living space. The brown rat is more prone to burrowing and finding a home in nooks and crannies among earth and rocks so it was much more at home in this new, brick habitat.
The black rat, too, by the way, likely migrated out of Asia through trade.
Origin out of the way, I’m going to avoid the anger and indignation for now and talk about what a brown rat is.
It’s a rodent, characterised by their ever-growing incisor teeth, the sharp nibblers they have at the front of their face. I’m sure you’ve all seen a rat! So you know what they look like. Pointy little snoot with whiskers, little round ears, big rodent eyes, after that it’s like a cone of meat with a bump at the rump. They have very long tails, usually roughly equal to their body length.
Look, I know rats have their associations and the power of those associations can affect your psychology in such a way that you can be in denial as to certain innate facts. The innate fact is…Rats are damn cute.
Maybe there are some people out there who just don’t like all rodents. You guys a get a pass, different strokes and all that. But if you think hamsters are cute but don’t like rats you’re lying to yourself. If you think gerbils are cute but don’t like rats, you’re lying to yourself. If you go “Awww!” when you see a harvest mouse but you don’t think rats are cute you’re lying to yourself. The visual signals pass through your eyes, you see a rat, your innate neurological process sends it to the cute-centres and then your damn consciousness, your memory, your learning and association kicks into gear and goes “HOLD UP!” It reminds you of everything bad you have ever heard relating to rats and you just kill the cuteness. In a way you’re literally just spoiling your own happiness. You could be enthused and happy when you see a rat and instead you’re worried and disgusted. You’re screwing yourself!
They’re not just cute to look at, either. I mean sure they sometimes have territorial disputes that end up in quite savage fights to the death but within their communities rats demonstrate a social awareness, a sophisticated hierarchy, complex communicative behaviours involving sounds and postural body-language and they play.
Yes, rats play with each other. They are a playful species and they will tumble around and ‘box’ each other. They will do little happy zoomies and jumps. They even perform allo-grooming, that is when members of the community socially groom each other. Huddling, allo-grooming and booping each other with their noses all appear to be behaviours that are important to rat social relationships.
Grooming and allo-grooming (where different individuals groom each other) are actually incredibly important for rats that have incredibly exacting hygiene standards. It might make no sense to you, because you associate rats with sewer trash. Rats, though, work hard to keep themselves clean.
They have a vocalisation associated with happiness, a high pitched chirping sound that they may perform when playing. It has been demonstrated domestically when tickling or petting rats. In the lab it has been stimulated when they know they are about to receive morphine. It’s a happy chirp.
They’re intelligent, too. They can be taught and trained. Observation of wild populations of brown rats, particularly in their food selection, seems to indicate they form different groups or cultures depending on where they are, having different food choices. This is likely learned in their social group. Pet rats can be taught tricks and respond well to learning and teaching by giving off the happy chirps I talked about earlier. It seems they enjoy being stimulated. This may be because of the potential conditioning or promise of a reward, but there is some suggestion rats may be capable of metacognition (thinking about thinking) in which case they could just be happy to satisfy their own curiosity…I vibe with that!
I know. I’m trying to avoid talking about it because once I do I’m going to get all sweary and angry. I’ll do my best not to because like the number 1 species coming up this is so pervasive an attitude and opinion that to counter it requires coldness, it requires reason, rationality and logic. I find that hard when even the biological community struggles to get things right.
Like almost every animal on this planet rats are capable of carrying zoonotic diseases (diseases that can spread from animals to humans).
Historically rats have been implicated in the spread of plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This struck Europe in three main waves, the First Pandemic began with the Justinianic Plague and continued between the 6th-8th centuries. The Second Pandemic includes the famous ‘Black Death’ of the 14th century but also includes various outbreaks that occurred between the 14th and 19th centurys and finally the Third Pandemic was a major outbreak mainly in Asia from the 19th into the 20th century.
The rat, and in this case it would be the black rat and not the brown rat anyway, but the rat was never the vector (the carrier or spreader) of the disease. That honour goes to the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis).
As a bunch of shy mammals, rats were always unlikely spreaders. They do their best to avoid human contact.
And let me even let the rat flea off the hook. A study in 2018 (Dean et. al.) studying the Second Pandemic found that models relating to rats and rat fleas simply could not account for the rapidity of the spread and levels of mortality seen across Europe. Using data from 9 different local epidemics they found that of these 7 of them best fit the model of transmission by human ectoparasites (in this case human fleas (Pulex irritans) and body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus)).
So once again we have the dear old Homo sapiens looking for any excuse to blame anyone or anything besides itself for its own misfortunes. The second largest cause of spread is probably human-to-human contact through airborne transmission of secondary pneumonic plague – where the same bacterium infects the lungs. Yeah, it’s like it starts with a rat flea, but we spread it to each other. As I always make abundantly clear any time I am discussing it, the single most common vector of human disease is humans.
“But rats are dirty, what about all the other diseases?” Who do you know who has ever had a rat-borne disease? Oh they exist, I don’t deny that. They are probably a lot more common in areas with little hygiene infrastructure. But here in the UK, over in the US, how common are the zoonotic diseases carried by rats, and how often are they specifically caused by rats?
Leptospirosis sees an estimated 50 cases per year in the UK and it’s actually most commonly caught from infected cattle, not rats, according to the UK Government Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Link to PDF.
Rat-bite Fever, caused in the UK mainly by Strepobacillus moniliformis bacteria infects around 1-2 people per year according to patient.info, actual official statistics appear hard to find, probably due to its rarity.
Cryptosporidiosis is an infection caused by a protozoan parasite, of which around 4,000 cases are recorded in England and Wales per year, mostly related to infection via cattle or sheep, with rats not even getting a mention on the HSE facts page. Link to PDF.
Hantaviruses are common in rats, with around a third of pet rat owners testing positive for hantavirus antibodies in a recent study, yet hospitalisations and treatment for hantavirus and its related complications only affect a handful of people each year in the UK. Patient.info has more here.
How many people per year are actually getting sick and requiring treatment for rat-borne diseases?
Do you know I looked for the figures and they don’t actually exist? You’d think if rats were such a major health concern there’d be some official statistics, some government data, Public Health England would have some numbers. They don’t. Because it isn’t.
Oh, Rentokil, the extermination business, the people who make a shit-ton of money out of you hating rats, has a wonderful page telling me “rodents are thought to be responsible for more deaths than all the wars over the last 1,000 years.” With absolutely zero citation to back it up. They also tell me that because of the lack of study of some of the infections rats may have “the threat to human health is greater than previously thought.” Which is presumably why since the 1980s or so most epidemiologists and virologists have been warning of the potential for lethal, global pandemics of mutant strains of influenza and coronaviruses and not, you know, rat-borne diseases.
They warn me that rats carry salmonella, that disease known for being commonly caused by people incorrectly preparing, or having insufficient hygiene whilst handling, raw meat.
But I can find no data on official UK statistics for numbers of cases of treated, known rat-borne disease.
And I know why.
They’re so rare.
In the UK you’re more likely to get E. coli from a bag of salad than from a rat, you’re more likely to get salmonella from not washing your chopping board that had raw chicken on it than a rat. Frankly of almost anything besides rat-bite fever (caused by bacteria most commonly, if not exclusively, found in rat mouths) you’re more likely to get most of the rat-borne diseases from your own piss-poor hygiene habits, or from other domestic livestock, than you are from a rat. It’s not like they’re sneaking into our rooms at night to piss in our mouths. They avoid us…ironically…like the plague! Yes, rats live in close proximity to us but they go out of their way to stay out of ours. Because we kill them.
I want to stress how much I am keeping a lid on my passionate, combustive temper here because I don’t just want to go on a sweary rant and call you all idiots. There has been a long, concerted anti-rodent campaign. Are they great for a hygienic human habitat? No, they do actually piss and shit everywhere and their piss and shit is bad for you. But actual rates of infection from rat-borne diseases are so ridiculously low because maintaining a clean, safe home pretty much deters rats.
The cost to our healthcare systems from rats is miniscule compared to things we permit, even love; smoking, alcohol, recreational drug use, sports injury, human-to-human transmission of staph infections, strep-throat, bloody kidney stones! There’s no company out there saying “Yeah, kidney stones affect 1 in 7 people, necessitating their hospitalisation and potentially causing further complications – what we do as a business is remove both of your kidneys so you don’t have to worry!”
And let’s get something straight. Rats fuck. With an average litter size of about seven, a gestation period of about 20 days and reaching sexual maturity within 5 weeks, rats FUCK. It’s the hydra, you cut off one head and it’s already got six more shagging behind the bins ready to give birth to 42 tiny rats that within five weeks can be shagging themselves! Trying to ‘control the problem’ is almost useless. A rat population can go from one breeding pair into the tens of thousands within a year.
Rats are generalist omnivores. Like pigeons and gulls I’ve talked about before the ecosystem services they provide in terms of literally eating our waste probably save local councils millions of pounds. Millions of pounds they then waste poisoning and killing rats. Poisoning which can affect predators, reducing their numbers and, paradoxically, increasing the rat population.
But the true value of rats to humans is actually immeasurable. That’s not even hyperbole. As model organisms in laboratory settings, lab rats and mice have probably had such a significant impact on the development of modern human medicine that their value runs to numbers of dollars that there is not enough wealth in the world to pay.
Rattus norvegicus domesticus, the subspecies of the lab rats, or the pet (or fancy) rat, was bred from the brown rat. In that time we’ve forced them to have tumours, pumped them full of medications, applied topical lotions and potions, studied their behaviours, manipulated their genetics and furthered the cause of human psychological, anatomical, physiological, biochemical, genetic and medicinal understanding so significantly that human quality of life worldwide has improved. Many of these animals are subject to experiments, and then euthanized, to be cut open, dissected and studied.
In the development of the medicines that stabilise your heart, maintain your blood glucose, reduce your anxiety, help your depression, balance your hormones, and even assist in understanding and treating your addictions.
We pay it back for this invaluable service to the advancement of human knowledge with disgust, persecution and disregard.
Everything has its place, that’s for sure. I have species I like and I have species I dislike, but I respect every creature for what it does. Even the annoying one like cat fleas that have probably cost me thousands of pounds I didn’t have over the years! Mosquitoes and midges that cause me untold itchy, swollen misery. As for spiders – I’m literally more likely to square up to a seven-foot MMA-trained man-mountain with aggression before I even approach a long-legged, hairy house spider (again, that’s not even hyperbole, you can get confirmation from people who know me!).
But there are species out there whose uniqueness means it hurts when I find out they are persecuted, like the aye-aye. There are species that our associations with them are based upon past relationships or superstitions, like the wolf, or the bat. Every species has a reason for the hatred, no matter how much misunderstanding, no matter how misguided it may be.
The rat, though? There aren’t many animals that have put more of a shift in to help humankind and we still treat with disdain.
Yeah, that makes me angry, it makes me want to rant and rave but honestly what I mostly feel is sad.
I don’t think there is a single better way to show the selfish arrogance of humanity than the disregard we show to a species that has sacrificed innumerable individuals to the furthering of our own curiosity and yet, we hate them.
Honestly, we don’t deserve rats. They’re too good for us.
Or your native ‘nuisance’ gull species. Where I come from it is mostly the herring gull (Larus argentatus), possibly also the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis). In the US they have the American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus). In Australia, the silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae). There are lots of gull species and almost every inhabited area has its species that have found a way to exploit how crappy humans are.
I am lucky enough that I live in a coastal town. In fact I live right by the harbour in possibly the luckiest piece of social housing you could ever possibly find anywhere in the UK. At any given moment my car’s paintwork is likely 50% automotive paint and 50% gullshit. There has not been a screenwash invented yet that is efficient at removing it from a windscreen.
To the front of my house is a beautiful harbour vista, to the rear is a bank of vegetation rich in blackberries and, I can tell you gulls eat those too! I know because I’ve had the stains on laundry that has been left out to dry. Big, angry, purple splotches will spoil your beautiful, freshly washed sheets if the local birds have their way.
They have a wonderful habit of tearing bin bags open speculatively and basically trying to eat anything. I told a story in my last article about vultures, how I had fishy hands (I’d been eating a roll-mop, pickled herring and raw onion skewered into a roll, it’s quite nice) and threw a pebble. The pebble must have smelled a bit of fish because a gull tried to eat it. We’re not talking gravel here this was a sizeable stone, way bigger than a gull’s crop, so about halfway down you could see the “ABORT! ABORT!” look on the gull’s face as it decided this was not good eats. It regurgitated the stone and went on its merry way. Gulls will try and eat anything that remotely smells of food.
They can also be quite aggressive and steal food off of unsuspecting people. We will talk about that in more detail later.
But for all of this talk you might be wondering “Why do you like them? Why are they misunderstood?”
You probably wouldn’t understand until you’ve seen a gull level with the height of your window trying to fly into a strong wind and the confused look they have as they don’t move forward at all. People who see the litter strewn about the streets probably wouldn’t watch idly to see how curious, how intelligent and yet also how ridiculously silly gulls are when they’re doing it. Gulls stealing food is still one of the greatest joys I get to witness in my overly busy, tourist infested hell-hole of a town. I’m autistic so I don’t like loud noises, big crowds or people. Seeing idiots get their £6 slab of battered cod nicked out of their hands by a gull, the disbelief and anger on their face after the fact, the seeming innate desire to want to chase something that has literally flown away into the sky where a human can’t follow – it’s priceless! I love it.
Gulls get a bad reputation because they’re good enough and clever enough to fuck with us and that just rattles our delicate, crystal-fragile egos. We don’t like pigeons because they exploit our wastefulness, our disgusting habits and our artificial environments. But pigeons are small and relatively harmless, you could stomp a pigeon. People don’t feel threatened by pigeons. A single gull is a big enough and threatening enough experience but…It’s rare it’s just a single gull! They like gangs, they are legion.
So what’s the lowdown on the European herring gull (Larus argentatus)? For one thing it’s a damn beautiful bird. Anyone who wants to suggest they are ugly is letting their prejudiced opinion cloud their actual eyes. Gulls are gorgeous. A long, yellow beak, hooked at the tip, usually with a little red beard on the lower beak, fades into a snow-white head and breast. The back is a silver-grey with black at the wing tips. The European is very similar looking to the yellow-legged gull but, can you guess a tell-tale difference? If you guessed the yellow-legged gull has a cry that sounds more like “Awraaaaah” as opposed to the herring gull’s “Arawwwwh” you’d be needlessly complicating things for comic effect. The herring gull has pink legs, the yellow-legged has yellow legs.
Juveniles look slightly different, they have a piebald, black-white-grey colour scheme going on that gradually fades with age.
Since them eating our food and rubbish is such a problem behaviour let’s talk about their diet. Larus gulls, including our European herring gull are opportunists. Fully wild their natural prey is crustaceans like crab, echinoderms like sea-stars, around here they love muscles, bivalves, and crack open their shells by dropping them from height. Despite the name they do not have a preference for herring but they are also excellent fishers and perform plunging attacks into the water to catch aquatic prey, but unlike other sea birds they don’t go deeper than about 2m below the surface so fish would be a surface-catch. I actually got to watch, from a distance, a gull picking up and dropping a fish repeatedly. I don’t know why it was performing this behaviour. Possibly it’s a kind of fish that struggles to get down the crop and so they like to stun it or kill it before they swallow it. They are also known to clean food in water before eating it so maybe it had picked up a dirty, dead fish from elsewhere and was just giving it a rinse.
They’re clever in their foraging behaviours. As mentioned they will use height and hard surfaces to crack shells (I can walk you to the car park opposite my house and show you the fragments of evidence!), they wash salty or dirty foods before eating them, they have been seen using bait to catch goldfish in ponds, they have been seen (by myself, even) padding on soil with their feet to encourage earthworms to the surface. The behaviour is believed to mimic either the sound of rain upon the surface, or potentially the arrival and digging of moles, but either way it encourages earthworms to get the fuck out and straight into the waiting beak of a gull.
So, since we’re talking about feeding behaviour let’s get on to food stealing. As far as misunderstandings go this is one of the worst because it pisses you off. Obviously! You just got your grub nicked. But what you’re not thinking of is just how damn clever that gull has to be to outsmart what is possibly the most intelligent species on the planet.
To anyone who had their food stolen. Did you notice the gull? Did you see it coming? Was it a surprise?
I suspect the answers are no, no, yes.
That’s the behaviour. Gulls aren’t stupid in fact they’re so damn smart it hurts me when people think they’re dumb.
Gulls are so clever they respond to the human gaze. In a 2019 study it was found that gulls were less likely to approach a completely free bag of chips (fries) if they were being watched than if they weren’t. The food was placed in front of an experimenter, so they were not being held, and it was found only 26% of gulls approached. Of those that did they took significantly longer to approach and inspect the food if they were being watched than if the human was looking away.
So how did they get this behaviour? In the wild gulls are partially kleptoparasitic – It’s a fancy word for ‘they steal food off of others’. This can be other gulls (the herring gull is known to exhibit social and hierarchical behaviours, big boys may steal food from smaller gulls) or it could be other species entirely. They also steal eggs on the regular! Clever bastards.
For one absolutely amazing thing, this klepotparasitism with human targets seems to be…for want of a less anthropomorphic (humanising) word, cultural. Only certain populations do it, even then it seems it begins with only certain individuals who then teach, by demonstration, others how to do it. That, alone, is reason to love and respect gulls.
But so are their methods. A gull finding a way to pinch a chip from under your nose, when your chips are beside you, or unguarded on your lap, is one thing. Populations, however, are learning how to snatch stuff right out of our hands, on the wing! This is highly complex behaviour.
I can’t find the study but I’m fairly certain a study was done down in the south-west that demonstrated this dive-bombing, stealing, behaviour is just as, if not more complex than their ground-based thievery.
They need to know you can’t see them. You’re getting ambushed! It is doubtful a gull will readily get all up in your grill to pinch your sandwich. They surprise you. But they demonstrate this behaviour to their peers, to their young, and it spreads. They learn. That’s damn admirable. So we end up with these small pockets, these communities of gulls that have this remarkable behaviour of outsmarting the world’s smartest ape. Show some fucking respect!
Again, pop your fragile ego and the couple of quid cost to one side for a minute and what you see is a very clever bird. It is a bird that used to rely on aquatic ecosystems that we have over-exploited for ourselves for their lifestyle and have readily adapted to move inland and exploit us instead. We hate them for how good they are at it.
They win because they’re smarter than you. Because unlike you they have learned there is advantage to be gained in understanding and exploiting our behaviours. You, in your artificial bubble, surrounded by bricks-and-mortar, concrete and tarmac, you think you run this shit. You don’t. Humans don’t own the world, no matter how much our silly little minds might try and convince us. Gulls found an ‘in’, they found an ecosystem niche that involves exploiting the most dominant land animal, they’re good at it and they took the time to learn our behaviours to exploit them.
You want to deter gulls from being aggressive and robbing people?
Dealing with Potentially Aggressive Gulls
DO NOT FEED GULLS
Always be vigilant, gulls are averse to the human gaze, just looking at a gull is enough of a deterrent.
Be aware of gulls above you. Are there any on eaves or rooftops watching you?
If you are being hovered over by gulls in the air, or suspect you are about to be dive-bombed hold an arm up. Gulls are big birds, with a sizeable wingspan. Holding your arm in the air provides an obstacle that they have to manoeuver around. Do not wave your arms, just hold one or both of them above your head.
Deal with it. If you take all the precautionary steps and still get your food nicked, deal with it. You got outsmarted. Take a lesson from the gulls. Learn about them, study their behaviour, and do better next time.
DO NOT FEED GULLS! I can’t stress that one enough, humans feeding gulls is one the key reasons they end up stealing from people. They learn that we’re just marks.
So that must be it for gulls, right?
Newp! We haven’t even talked about communication yet. All evidence seems to indicate that those squawks, chirps, squeaks, pips and that long, laughing “Gyaaaaaaa-hyah-hyah-hyah-hyah!” noise they make is all complex communication. There are alarm calls, territorial calls, begging calls – Not just calls, have you ever seen a juvenile gull begging for food and it sort of bows its head and makes that squeaky-peep sort of sound? That’s the standard ‘beg for food’ posture and noise. Adult gulls, though, have you noticed they do it too when you’re feeding them (and shouldn’t be…)? They are literally exhibiting child-like behaviour, acting cute, to get food out of you.
In biology exhibition of traits, physical or behavioural, associated with juvenility is called ‘neoteny’. It’s a nice word. For example dogs have been bred for neoteny, not only in their appearance – developing big eyes, head shapes, sizes that are more puppy-like, but in their behaviours. Cats meowing at humans is an example of a neotenous behaviour, adult cats do not typically communicate with one another in meows so their use of that method of interaction with humans is neotenous. Likewise, adult gulls begging for food using short peep sounds and ducking their heads is a neotenous behaviour. It’s fascinating.
So gulls are able to notice a human gaze and respond to it accordingly, are intelligent enough to regularly outsmart people, have developed neotenous behaviours to encourage us to feed them willingly, have a complex set of communication behaviours both vocal and postural to send signals and messages to each other, use some of these things, along with teaching demonstrations, to form cultural grouping who have specific behaviours (e.g. ice cream thievery) that other communities may not have, are surprisingly effective hunters when not given easier food to nick, and yet their numbers are in decline! I can find pest-control websites that angrily, in all caps, state “GULLS ARE A PEST!” and, like with a group of animals coming up in this list, a whole diverse group gets thrown into that category because they look gull like.
I cannot find an evaluation of the ecosystem services provided by gull species to the UK. I can find lots of information about the costs of gulls, the money councils spend gull-proofing roofing, taking care of problem gulls etc. but I can’t find a single assessment of the value they provide. How much food waste is consumed by gulls that would otherwise just be landfill? How much less clean-up is there after a hot sunny day at the beach because gulls come by and take care of the edible mess? And let me tell you, I live in a seaside town. I know who causes more problems between gulls and humans!
I’ve read that they can harbour and spread Escherichia coli, a bacterium known as E. coli, that can cause gastro-intestinal upset, what we might call ‘food poisoning’. You have to ingest E. coli to get infected with it. Unless you’re petting gulls that’s not an issue and, if you are petting gulls…WASH YOUR FUCKING HANDS! The single greatest vector for E. coli in the human population is unhygienic humans and I don’t see pest companies saying “You got a neighbour who doesn’t wash his hands properly after a piss, cutting raw meat or resting his hands on a surface that may have bird droppings? Kill the fucker!” But that’s what we do with gulls. It’s any excuse to kill and I hate it.
We don’t like gulls because they’re good. In many ways they are better than us. They can outsmart us, steal our things, they’ve walked into shops and nicked packets of crisps! I’ll try and include a YouTube video it’s awesome.
With so many of these animals, seen through an ignorant and selfish lens, it is easy to see why the dislike, the disregard and the hatred. It is a selfish lens, though, and when we learn to accept and understand the creature for what it is we realise there’s a lot more to them than just a begging pest.
Dr. David Shiffman, a marine scientist, shark scientist, marine ecologist and an excellent science communicator, recently put out a question asking us for our favourite sea bird. I said the European herring gull. It’s what started this whole list. A list I have thoroughly enjoyed writing, I have learned so much from doing, I have gained a greater, deeper understanding of how human relationships with animals are formed and – I want to be part of a solution to these negative opinions.
What’s my strength? I’m me, I’m We Lack Discipline. I don’t have a University to worry about offending. I don’t write for an organ I need to be concerned about getting sacked from. So I can say things like “If you don’t like gulls I wanna punch you in the face!” and I don’t have to worry about losing my job. The whole point of We Lack Discipline is to be that crude, brash, forceful voice. Science communication is, by necessity as well as by selection, informed, erudite and polite. I’m the man with the megaphone saying “FUCK THAT!” and begging for your attention.
Gulls are the kind of species that need a voice like that. From the most working-class of populations, all the way up to the best educated, richest people, they are hated. Some polls and surveys have put seagulls as the UK’s most hated bird, possibly the most hated animal. They are perceived as scavengers, thieves and thugs. People who are ‘attacked’ think they are needlessly aggressive. But those same people are usually, you know, carrying food. I bet a poll of gulls would find a lot of them don’t like us for stealing their crabs, robbing them of echinoderms and eating all the damn fish, but they don’t have The Daily Mail so they don’t have a voice! Other people who are attacked are usually interfering with young. Look, I don’t care how concerned you are for a baby gull, at worst it’s gull food, leave them be. Gulls go off and look for food and leave their young behind, those young end up cowering in corners making peeping noises to get their mother’s attention and if you, not matter how good naturedly, approach it and the mother notices, yeah you getting cut, son! You’re gonna get pecked and scratched! If you left your kid to one side to go grab some fish and chips or something and gull approached their pram and started prodding at them, you’d attack the gull too. You fucking idiots!
They are taken for granted as a common sight that regularly interacts with us. Just as we can hurt those closest to us the most, those species that are right up in our faces are at most danger of prejudice. We disregard them. But we’re also gullist, we spread that disregard to the lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus), the great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), the kittiwake (Rissa spp.), the common gull (Larus canus), the black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)! Many of these do not interact with us the same way our herring gulls do. A lot of them are seasonal visitors, migrating for food or to nest. Yet we toss them, unflinchingly, into the category of disregarded, unremarkable pests.
What we disregard is a bird in decline because of our persecution of it. A bird that we are rapidly overexploiting the resources it evolved to naturally rely upon, that was intelligent enough to adapt to our way of living, and that we begrudge it for that adaptation. We disregard a valuable coastal and, increasingly, inland waste disposal unit that recycles organic materials we would otherwise throw into landfill and sets them moving about the ecosystem again. We disregard a beautiful and intelligent bird that, when seen flying at full potential, is a majestic marvel to behold. When you see them diving into the sea, or delicately dancing in the sky dropping shells onto rocks you realise this is truly a special species.
According to data from the RSPB herring gull numbers in the UK used to be around 750,000 breeding pairs. That is down to around 378,000 breeding pairs – a near halving of the UK population. This disregard, this lack of understanding, this unwarranted hatred will make this situation worse. As I said, I can find no data on ecosystem services provided by gulls. The impact of a significant reduction in their numbers will only be felt once they are gone.
We disregard these amazing bird. Why? Because they’re loud, exploit the environment we built to dominate over other species and nick our chips? Grow up.
Last time out I talked about how we took the last remaining wild California condor into captivity, and rescued a species not from the brink of extinction but from certain extinction, thanks to education, adaptation and hard work.
The same change in outlook be done for gulls, and we can salvage a relationship with them. But it is going to take a lot of force from scientists, bird enthusiasts, the RSPB and so many others to stop this ‘attacker’ narrative, to stop this negative framing of standard, wild gull behaviours and to realise that gulls are the victims of the colonisation and over-exploitation of gull habitats by humans. Every species has a right to compete; it’s what drives genetic change. But humans are the only species supposedly smart enough to be able to consider everything’s place and realise when they’ve won the fucking competition!
The gulls are doing a great job living up to the necessities and expectations of their species. I think it’s time humans started doing the same.
CONTENT WARNING: This article will feature images of dead animals being eaten by vultures. May be quite gory, not for the squeamish.
I think I’ve got a decent understanding of why these guys have an historically bad reputation. We’ve already touched upon it with the bats and the aye-aye. It’s that unknown, it’s that darkness and it is thanatophobia, a fear of death.
Vultures are unashamed to associate themselves with death and decay. A ‘vulture’ is not an actual biological classification. Vultures come from two main families in the class Aves – the birds – and have a multitude of species. ‘Vulture’ then is just an arbitrary label given to a bird of prey that fulfils most of its dietary needs with carrion – Dead shit.
Humans don’t normally like dead shit. Partly this is a sensible reaction, decay is often a very good source of harmful fungi, bacteria and other parasites and diseases. Nobody ever died of nothing! If it’s dead, it’s dead for a reason and corpses are well to be left alone.
The other reason is psychological. Humans are conscious, the only animal confirmed as such in science at this time (though I suspect a few will test similar within the next 50 years). Consciousness seems to allow a species the benefit of predictive foresight, an ability to see and understand the future. It’s an excellent adaptation allowing us to set in motion a plan for now that will increase our success in a to-be-determined ‘then’. Unfortunately every life is also a death sentence and there is no species we know of more acutely aware of that than humans.
According to some psychological theories we have specific neuro-psychological mechanisms of denial. In our everyday lives we do not contemplate death, indeed we will never possibly die as far as our brains are concerned. No, that’s a thought that creeps up on you when you’re staring at the ceiling on a sleepless night, surrounded by quiet and dark, it’s a grim thought when you hold your grandmother’s withered, paper-skinned hand, it’s the kind of thing you think about when you see a dead body, human or animal, and it gives us a start. There’s a little heart flutter, a surge of adrenaline that says “One day – snap – that’s it. Time’s up!”
So death and its associated ephemera, unless the culture of the day permits it, is taboo. Sometimes it’s ‘in’, think memento mori, particularly in Victorian times – They were very morbid then, culturally inspired partly by the death of Prince Albert so it was almost fashionable to think about death. Some cultures deal with it better than others, some cultures have to face it head on more than others, but certainly across Europe and North America death is an abhorrent thought.
If we take this back tens of thousands of years to everyone’s native homeland in Africa. A hunting party has been sent out but they didn’t return when you expected them to. You are worried. What is going to be one of the first noticeable signs, one of the portents, that something has gone terribly wrong? You won’t see if someone has been injured from the ground. You won’t see if a predator has got to them. You won’t hear their cries from that distance. But up in the sky you will see the circling of vultures.
You shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but if they only ever bring you bad news you will start to think ill of them.
That is where I suspect this negative view of vultures began. They would have been one of the first visible signs of a tragedy, of a massacre, of an accident, of that thing we so desperately want to avoid, death.
In my article about hyena (another species that would have made it on the list if I hadn’t covered them prior) we already talked about how things perceived of as thieves and scavengers are ill-thought of. There’s almost a human perception of nobility to hunting, and shame towards opportunism. We think of carrion feeders as being desperate, diseased, corrupted in some way. The truth is that’s a valuable service they’re performing! You’d be surprised how long it takes to break down a corpse with, versus without, carrion carnivores. I mean, bugs, fungi and bacteria might work fast-ish, but two spotted hyena could probably vanish a whole antelope, bones and all, in 15 minutes.
What’s the benefit of scavengers, though? Surely bodies would just break down eventually anyway. Yeah, of course they would, there are plenty of other organisms that will take care of that but, as I mentioned, they’re not all good – especially in large numbers – for the other animals and critters around. Never mind what the animal they’re scavenging potentially died of.
The internals of most vultures is incredible and it has to be. When you’re eating carrion, you’re eating danger. There’s a reason humans don’t do it and that is the risk of foodborne diseases. Vultures, they don’t give two shits. They have incredibly hostile, very acidic stomachs, strong enough to dissolve bone. Things like rabies, tuberculosis, anthrax and botulin – They’ll gobble it all down gladly with little-to-no ill effects.
Of course their internals might be pretty hardy but they are wild animals, prone to nicks and cuts and thus there is the potential for skin infections or getting a blood-borne disease (that’s a disease carried by or into blood, not becoming infected by FromSoftware’s 2015 PS4 exclusive) so surely they’re not so tough right. Well you would be correct if not for urohidrosis.
“What the fuck is urohidrosis?” you ask! Well I’m glad you did because like all of our favourite things here at We Lack Discipline it is gross, inappropriate, hilarious and cool as hell.
Many vulture species live in very hot climates, arid deserts, scorching plains, equatorial regions. What’s more they have dark feathers and spend all their day flying up in the air not huddling under the shade of trees. They can get very, very hot. As a method of assisting cooling themselves down they…
…They piss on themselves! Not just vultures, a lot of birds do it.
I know, it’s brilliant, imagine if we did that.
“Oh it’s a bit hot out today Susan, I think I’ll just wee on me own face, cool me down.”
But, as I mentioned, vulture internals are hostile. Their piss itself is highly acidic, so this urohidrosis serves a dual function, they can not only cool themselves down but also disinfect themselves with their acid piss.
Given that vultures are nothing if not diverse let’s give a good account of their basics and then I’ve got a couple of specific things I want to discuss. It’s birds, though, so get ready for some ridiculous Latin names.
Vultures fall into two families;
The Accipitridae includes the bulk of the Old World birds of prey, eagles, kites, harriers, hawks etc. Old World vultures, then, are not too different from your standard birds of prey. Quite hefty, muscular, keen vision, decent legs with long talons, a hooked beak for rending flesh, that sort of thing.
These old-world vultures of the Accipitridae fall into two subfamilies;
The Gypinae are probably what you think of when you think vulture. Large birds, big wingspans, bald heads and necks, long, hooked beaks. Species like the griffon vulture, the white-rumped vulture, Rüppell’s vulture – these are the species that look like ‘a vulture’, that have that stereotypical look you might find in a political satire or a Disney cartoon.
The Gypaetinae are less typical, but no less vulture. They include the bearded vulture, the palm-nut vulture and the Egyptian vulture. Unlike many of the Gypinae, these vultures often have feathers up the neck and sometimes even on the face. In the case of the palm-nut vulture, as its name suggests, it is also able to feed off of fruits, nuts and seeds and so does not have an exclusively carrion diet.
The other family of vultures is the Cathartidae. These are exclusively vultures (so no eagles and hawks in this family) and are the New World vulture species of the Americas, the condor family. They are not closely related to Old World vultures, so this is another example of the phenomenon of ‘convergent evolution’, where different species evolve similar traits to fulfil a similar niche in their ecosystem.
This means I don’t need a long complex description! They are large birds, similar in form to birds of prey, long hooked beaks, clawed feet and big wings.
This family includes some of the most obnoxiously beautiful and majestic birds in the world. We’re talking jealousy-inducing birds here. Species like the Andean condor which is probably up there for birds with the largest wingspan (2.5-3m, around 8-10 feet) which it uses to catch currents of warm air, thermal updrafts and soar for hours using its keen senses to find signs of nearby carrion. They are beautiful. I wish I could carry myself with a tenth the grace and majesty that a condor has.
In selecting species for this list I had a few in mind where they are personal favourites, things I like that are hated, and I knew I just wanted to talk about them enthusiastically.
For the rest of them, though, I have looked into animals that have interesting stories with their interactions with people. The wolf, for instance, is an excellent example. They have not been a significant danger to human populations for close to 500 years and yet the fear, rooted in folk-knowledge, passed through fairy-tales, this mythology, persists. Many people oppose reintroduction of wolves not because of any clear danger they pose to our wildlife, livestock or people but because they’re scared they’re going to dress up like grandmas and try to eat Little Red Riding Hood.
With the aye-aye I wanted to explore the notion of how we might perceive other cultures and how they persecute their native species. To get us questioning what could easily become a racist narrative and understand, instead, that just as we have our wildlife mythology and superstitions, they have theirs.
By the mole/pika instalment I brought this to a head! I presented both eastern and western species both persecuted in similar ways for similar reasons.
So (besides their beaks) what’s the hook with vultures?
Well whilst vultures have a bad reputation, are wildly misunderstood, and are definitely persecuted in some of their territories, most of the reason for their endangerment is not primary persecution (people deliberately killing the species itself) but the knock-on effect of human interference in the environment in other ways.
It ties in to my discussion in the last article about the need for foresight in the ways in which we plan our own endeavours. We need to ensure what we do fits in with the wider, wilder world, but also with the way we manage and deal with wildlife, ecology and livestock management issues. The people involved in the introduction of the cane toad to Australia did not do this, and are idiots.
Everything is interconnected. You cannot escape that no matter how much you try, you might pen your animals in but you’re tripping if you think they’re not going to have a knock-on effect on the environment outside that pen.
So let’s start by talking about the Indian vulture crisis – by no means the only crisis of a similar nature to have occurred regarding vultures but definitely an excellent case study.
Until recently (1970s, 1980s), India had a massive population (we’re talking 10s of millions into 100s of millions!) of vultures across a wide range of species, mainly of the Gyps genus which includes things like the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus). These are likely the two main species that inspired the iconic vultures in the Disney animated feature ‘The Jungle Book’ (the ones that are a send-up of The Beatles).
This vulture population was incredibly important and not necessarily ill thought of in the Indian cultures. Given the huge Hindu population and their reverence for cattle, there are hundreds of millions of cows in India and very few people willing to eat them. Bovine corpses are not really disposed of and so they are left for the vultures to take care of. It gave these vultures a huge source of food, not only in rural areas but there were huge populations of urban and suburban vultures too.
Decreases in numbers started to be noticed in the 1990s, and scientists began looking for a reason. People looked at all the usual suspects, pesticides, bacteria, pollutants, novel viral infections and nothing came up. By this point most of the Indian vulture species had seen something ridiculous, like a 95% decline, in their populations. For example in the 1980s there were an estimated 80 million white-rumped vultures in India, it is now suspected they number only in their thousands! It’s dramatic, and yet nobody could pinpoint the cause!
It wasn’t until 2003 and an investigation by The Peregrine Fund, an international non-profit dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey, and their international team of scientists, studying the effects on vultures in Pakistan found a culprit.
So what was responsible for this drastic decline? The drug diclofenac.
It is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID); think a slightly stronger, prescription-only ibuprofen (Nurofen or Advil if you need a brand).
It was being used to treat livestock suffering from pain, inflammation or wounds. Except the problem was it is toxic to vultures, causing renal (kidney) failure.
The drug began to be used widely in India in the 1990s, and this compassionate treatment of injured, wounded or just old and arthritic livestock indirectly led to an extinction-level crisis in vulture populations as well as the knock on effects to the wider ecosystem.
As I’ve explained above, vulture guts are a very, very hostile environment. They are basically a pathogen end-zone! Without the vultures eating diseased carrion, animals like rats and dogs could get to them. Without the vultures to compete with them, their populations grew from all this food. But they aren’t a kill-zone for these pathogens, they are carriers! Plague, anthrax, rabies – these common diseases that would have met their maker in the guts of the vulture are instead picked up and carried by dogs, rats, cats etc.
This has a knock on effect to the human population. Cases of rabies in humans in India shot up in the same time period, made worse by increasing populations. An estimated 30,000 deaths occur from rabies each year in India, an estimate half a million people per year are treated. The economic cost has been staggering! We’re probably talking tens of billions of dollars spent on research and study trying to find the cause of the vulture decline, treatment of humans affected by disease preventable with sufficient vulture numbers, management of disease carrying animals like rats and feral dogs that would otherwise not be a problem with good vulture numbers – it all adds up!
The increase in easily available carrion, along with potential prey species like feral dogs, has also brought humans and India’s leopard population into conflict, as they encroach closer to human population centres.
It’s a cascade of effects, a road to hell paved with the good intention of alleviating the suffering of pained livestock.
Diclofenac has since been banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan for veterinary use and a replacement was quickly developed.
But the cost is clear to see. This otherwise innocuous, indeed thoroughly compassionate and thoughtful, act of giving animals anti-inflammatory drugs disrupted the whole balance of an ecosystem and brought billions of dollars’ worth of problems in its wake.
When I talk about foresight in ecology this is the stuff I am talking about. Life is chaos, true chaos, where chaos is defined as a ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. The dramatic effects changing those initial conditions can have must be carefully considered beforehand. Before we release a drug, no matter how harmless it might seem, into a wild ecosystem, we first need to examine what animal it is being administered to and what animals or other organisms it might affect.
It took around 20 years to reduce vulture numbers by – depending on species, between 90-98%. It will likely take significantly longer to get them back.
How hard is it to get them back? Well let’s look at our other species for a good case study on that, shall we?
On Easter Sunday 1987 the last known wild California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was taken into captivity.
Finding estimates of their pre-20th century population numbers is like trying to find Jimmy Hoffa riding on the back of Shergar whilst Lord Lucan rides side-saddle clutching Hoffa’s waist.
At one time they were widespread across the entirety of North America, with fossil bones having been found as far East as Florida. The extinction of the megafauna in the Quaternary extinction, around 12,000 years ago, likely caused a significant reduction in range and population, moving them towards the Mid-West and Western North America. A remark from October 29th 1805 in the Lewis and Clark journals states “rained moderately all day. Saw the first large Buzzard or Voultur of the Columbia.”
Further descriptions in the same journals, including a sketch of a shot specimen, would indicate that this was the California condor and thus, in the early 19th century their distribution was as far North as the Columbia River and likely covered the whole Pacific North West. Again, numbers are hard to pin down but with a distribution that wide you could give them a ball-park ‘healthy’.
So why the decline? Well, not quite as accidental or good intentioned as the case of the Indian vulture crisis but still not primary persecution. Yes, there was some shooting and poaching of condor going on and evidence seems to indicate the earlier mentioned ideas about species close to death and decay hold true. People thought they were grim scavengers who spread disease, so they shot them.
The California condor, though, has been barraged by accidental and incidental problems. The biggest suggested cause for their decline is lead poisoning. Lead shot was often used in hunting across their habitats. Where species killed are either killed for sport or because they are perceived to be nuisance or pest species the hunters are unlikely to collect the bodies. The condors eat them and the strong digestive capabilities of the California condor mean the lead becomes dissolved in their system. Condors are a long-lived species (up to 50-60 years) and so accumulation of lead is not merely an acute problem but one that continues to be problematic over time.
The other massive problem they have is eating trash. Now you might be thinking “Well they’re dumb and they deserve it then!” but that would be failing to understand why birds such as the condor may eat rubbish items to begin with.
It’s my understanding there are three theories. One concerns standard large bird behaviour of seeking high-mineral content items for the purposes of egg production. Producing an egg, particularly the calcium-rich, hard shell takes a lot of resources and some birds specifically seek out minerals or bone chips as, effectively, a supplement.
There is another well-known bird behaviour that could account for the rubbish gobbling. Birds have highly specialised digestive and waste systems, by necessity. They need to keep their weight down to ensure flight and so carrying around excess food or liquids is inefficient. What cannot be digested and fit into their narrow intestines is generally held in the stomach until enough of a mass is formed to be expelled as a pellet, these get regurgitated up.
In the case of certain vultures these pellets would be, for example, keratinous tissues, hair, nails that sort of thing. Owls are the textbook example of pellet-making birds because they basically get rid of everything including the skeleton. As mentioned, vultures are pretty good at digesting bone and California condor are not necessarily eating hairy animals and their skin so much, so it takes a while to form enough of a mass to regurgitate. Therefore, one reason they may be eating inorganic matter is to aid in building up a sufficient mass of waste product so they can regurgitate it.
Finally, it could just be curiosity. I live by the coast, I once had fishy-residue on my hands, threw a pebble with them, and witnessed a European herring gull attempt to eat the stone, ditch the attempt half-way through, struggle to regurgitate it, get it out and move on. Plastic wrappers, bottle-caps, nuts, bolts, screws, bits of pipe, shards of glass with residue on them – maybe the condor is just curiously looking for something new to eat.
So, anyway, regardless of how or why condors end up eating trash they end up with it in their systems. If it doesn’t cause digestive problems, stomach perforations, blockages in the crop or digestive tract, it often gets regurgitated when they are feeding their young and a study on California condor chicks did put a significant amount of infant mortality down to this trash-munching issue.
The final slather of sadness on this shit sandwich is pollutants. The strength of their eggs, the thickness of the shell and the structural integrity seems to be a problem with the coastal population of California condors. Mercury poisoning, the old pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs – a multi-use chemical group used in various fluids, lubricants, electronic components like capacitors etc. that seems prone to building up in the tissues of fish or aquatic mammals – these chemicals all seem to affect the structural integrity of the condor egg.
The result of all this misfortune was that by the early 1980s numbers of condors were estimated to be around 25. Not 25 hundred. Not 25 thousand. 25.
By 1985 this was reduced to fewer than 10 wild birds remaining and by this point serious discussions were had about the future of the California condor. It was decided that it would be best for the condor if all wild specimens were taken into captivity. This decision would have been helped by the first successful captive hatchling in San Diego Zoo in 1983.
A huge amount of investment; mental, monetary and presumably emotional, went into the California Condor Recovery Program (CCRP). In 1987 the population was 27 individuals, 10 former wild, 17 reared in captivity.
The following year successful captive mating was recorded, eggs were laid and temporary releases of the Andean condor into the California condor range (to ensure viability of survival for a wild population) took place. Those Andean condors were later recaptured, and re-released in their native South America, having done their job and shown it should be possible to reintroduce California condor once individuals were ready.
By 1992 birds were being re-released into California.
It was noticed by 1995 that a lot of birds were dying due to inferring with power lines. As a result the ways in which condors were being behaviourally conditioned were adapted to make them more averse to humans, human habitations and power lines.
A year later in 1996 releases took place in Arizona.
By 2001 nests of re-introduced condor were being noticed in Arizona and Southern California, and there were a known 58 California condors living in the wild. Over double their 1980s numbers!
By 2008, continued problems with lead shot were being noted and lead ammunition was banned in the condor’s range in California. This was extended to all of California in 2019.
The current estimated population of the California condor is 435. Of that, 268 are known wild individuals and 167 are captive. In 2017 the species was re-introduced in Mexico.
So you might be thinking, “I thought animals raised in captivity couldn’t go back to the wild because they’re too used to humans?”
This is where I’m so happy I could cry because for once this project had some damn foresight, used caution, was tentative, took little steps, learned lessons, adapted and succeeded.
Yeah, it was a problem to start with, the condors were getting too close to human habitations and clipping themselves or frying themselves on damn power lines. So the conservation teams came together and figured out ways to completely remove humans from the equation. But how do you raise a chick in captivity without interaction with people?
I’m not even joking – where condors have to be raised by humans they have cages half-blocked off so they can’t see the humans and they are fed by an imitation condor-head puppet.
When they first took them into captivity do you know what they did? Exactly what I would have done! Split them up.
Why? For genetic diversity. You capture these birds and the first thing you’re going to want to do is make sure the most distantly related and genetically diverse individuals are mating with each other. By separating the populations you then create splinter communities. Then what happens? Well we’ve got Captive Male A over here with his sister Captive Female A. You don’t want those two mating! Meanwhile you’ve got Captive Female B and Captive Male B? Swapsies! You can have Male A and Female B and Male B and Female A get together and that way you can encourage the genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding depression effects.
They noticed lead-poisoning effects (and both adults and nests are regularly monitored to check their levels of lead) and initiated a lead-shot ban.
They noticed problems with interactions with power lines so they trained the birds to avoid them!
Life succeeds by increments, by adaptations in small steps. Sometimes giant leaps do seem to occur, but they are usually facilitated by disaster, and at the expense of a dying breed. Ecology needs to operate on the same principles.
It took a long time to figure out the reason for the Indian vulture crisis, but we did come together and figure it out, before it was too late. There are likely enough vultures in India that they don’t need dramatic intervention like the California condor in order to begin thriving again, but their improvement will be slow, steady, as life is wont to do.
The California Condor Recovery Program is still, to my mind, the single greatest ecological project humans have ever performed. We took a species that without drastic intervention would have been made extinct, we came together, came up with remarkable, innovative ways to ensure its survival and success. When I say the way the team went about it makes me so happy I could cry I’m not even kidding.
It may be too early to suggest it has, truly, been a success yet. But there are around 20 times as many California condors in the wild now than there were 40 years ago. That’s a very rare pattern and a testament to the hard work of all those who worked on the project.
When we see vultures portrayed in popular media they are done so as scruffy, diseased scavengers. They are reflections of greed, of picking-the-bones. They clutch tightly with their talons on to those age-old, primal feelings that death is something best buried and ignored.
Yet they are themselves the very essence of life, environmental cleaners, and protectors of us, of other animals, of the environment, from life-threatening toxicity, sickness and disease. In the cultures where they are common they are respected as such. The condors have much significance to Indigenous and ancient cultures in the Americas. The ethno-religious Parsi of India would place their dead upon a Dakhma, a raised tower, so that they vultures could consume the body and free the soul. They no longer do that due to the lower number of vultures and how long it takes for the bodies of their loved ones to disappear.
Vultures are an excellent example of how we, deliberately or accidentally, can cause havoc on our local ecosystems. They are also a remarkable example of how, by working together, by investing, by recognising the value of our environment and our ecosystems, by working within them, we can actually all be better off.
Not only that but vultures are a perfect example of how, in having made a mistake, in having thought ill of an animal, we can apologise, we can attempt to make amends, we can realise that we were wrong and change our minds and our hearts.
For all their connotations of death, vultures are not the ominous bony reapers. They are Charon, the Ferryman, compassionately carrying us across the Styx.
Without species like that we are an environment of decay and lost souls.
I wanted to find some more international species for this list. Otherwise it would just be a list of ‘Britain, Europe and Temperate North America’s Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ and the title is bloody well long enough as it is without having to be so specific.
The other thing is I didn’t just want to look at it through the lens of my own nation. There is so much cultural capital that is taken for granted by us in the Northern Hemisphere and Western World. Much of our global science is centred on institutions based in these locations and even projects in the ‘Global South’, the Indian Subcontinent or Asia have Western scientists attached to them.
I don’t want to be part of that problem, I’d rather be, as much as I can as a white British guy, a part of the solution and expand people’s horizons a little.
Last time out we talked about the aye-aye, for example, a species endemic to the island of Madagascar which, internationally, is considered lovely – if a little…special – but, as far as we knew, was considered evil on Madagascar. Using recent survey research from Madagascar it was found that actually, at least within the communities studied, reception of the aye-aye was mostly neutral or positive. It also found that proximity to the aye-aye, having seen them, was the most positive correlate with a neutral or positive opinion. Those who had not seen the aye-aye were most suspicious of it.
This makes sense, build up the reputation of teddy-bears as boogeymonsters to people and they’ll freak out when they see a teddy-bear. People brave enough, or not superstitious enough, to approach the teddy-bear will realise it is an inanimate tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff and hug it.
What does this long-winded introduction have to do with today, though?
As I talked about in the aye-aye article, it is easy for us here in the West to look at other cultures, their treatment of their local species and gasp and go “Ooh, isn’t it awful!” and take what is, basically, a racist opinion of them. We consider the aye-aye as a rare and unique lemur species, a nocturnal bug-muncher and wonder how people could possibly consider it wrong. But that’s easy to do at a distance, not having grown up in the culture that has vilified this creature for potentially hundreds of years.
There is a universality to ignorance of our ecosystems and the role of species within them. There is a universality to the creation of a mythos, the formation of reputations about our local wildlife and nobody escapes that ignorance. Potentially not even scientists themselves! I am learning that species that are disliked in general are species it is often difficult to get funding for research on! The scientific establishment is not immune from that prejudice. It takes special people to struggle to study unpopular species, to beg for funding time after time, to find their papers languishing in the ‘do not publish’ piles not because of the quality of their science or the importance of their findings but merely for the lack of popularity of their subject.
We’re all shit!
So today we are going to focus on two species, one eastern (the Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae)) and one western (the European mole (Talpa europaea)) and how they effectively each fulfil similar roles in terms of ecosystem services to soil, but also each have a reputation for ruining crops, and plants, damaging livestock and spoiling the soil and are thus both persecuted, killed or poisoned as a result.
Most of my readers probably know what a mole is so let’s start with them because it’ll be pretty simple.
The European mole is a small, underground dwelling mammal that loves to dig and tunnel and eat a lot of insects and earthworms. They are usually around 10-15cm long, give or take, the females being slightly (like, 5% slightly!) smaller than males. They are also very difficult to sex because they have very similar looking genitals.
Their body form is as close to cylindrical as you could possible get. In fact they basically look like a cute, fat, fuzzy drill bit. They have shortish fur that unlike a lot of mammalian fur does not have a ‘grain’ or a direction in which it grows. This allows moles to easily move forward, or backward, without discomfort, in their narrow tunnels.
They are mostly an ashy-brown sort of colour, although other colour morphs are known, including white, tan, completely black or even piebald (black and white) specimens.
They are fairly widespread across Europe, avoiding the arid, dry soils of the south, areas like the Iberian peninsula, Italy, Greece, but are found as far north as Denmark and as far east as Russia.
They are not, as is often suggested, blind. Since they live underground they don’t tend to use their eyes much and their eyes demonstrate regression (so whatever species the mole evolved from would have had better eyesight and used their eyes more). They can discriminate between light and dark, as has been demonstrated in the lab by seeing their reaction to bright light. So there is some purpose to their vision, although the difficulties of observing moles in their tunnels in the wild means we have little clue as to what they use it for. It is suggested that potentially spotting signs of predators in their tunnels is one function of it.
Moles have…Odd hearing. Consider their environment and it makes sense. In fact, do a little experiment if you like. Take a long piece of tubing, have a partner at the other end and then tap the tube (or sing down it…Or shout your favourite swear word). See how clearly your partner can hear (or even feel) the waves of air, the sound. It should be pretty clear because the waves of pressure can deflect themselves off the wall of the narrow tube, thus the noise carries quite effectively compared to in open air where the waves can disperse, or even meet other waves from other noises in interference.
So it seems moles are more attuned to lower frequencies which could be useful for hearing any potential disturbances from above in their tunnels (such as hearing predators trying to dig into them). In fact, despite their reputation for being blind, compared to most mammals moles are also functionally deaf. Although as with their eyesight, they are actually well-adapted for what they need.
The truly remarkable sense in moles, though, is touch. They have exceptionally sensitive whiskers and very sensitive hairs on their paws, and using those they are able to sense a great deal about disturbances within their tunnels, even from things as delicate as air-flow! What they also have is a special extra organ, Eimer’s organ, on their little snoots. It utilises the same neurological systems as their sense of touch, so moles have incredibly touch-sensitive noses. This is an organ unique to moles.
So, European moles are great then! They are amazingly adapted, have a unique touch organ, big flipper feet so they basically swim through soil, they eat lots of earthworms (in fact earthworm density in soil is both a correlate to presence and population of moles as well as health of the soil), they aerate soil by digging their tunnels, possibly assisting in maintaining a healthy water table by facilitating flow from their preferred medium-damp soil (they dislike wet soil, or dry soil) to the wetter lands, rivers and streams. What’s the problem?
Ooh, this is gonna hurt.
They make garden not look nice.
Moles are considered a domestic pest because where they tend to dig they leave behind mounds of earth on the surface, known as mole hills, that ‘spoil’ lawns. They may also dig and disrupt roots of plants and flowers. In a fully natural habitat this is probably a good thing and a valuable ecosystem service but when it churns up some gardener’s narcissus bulbs they tend to get a bit aggy. It has been suggested they eat some bulbs, roots and tubers but it is exceptionally rare to find plant matter in the stomach of moles, with estimations of about 10-30% of their daily diet being vegetable matter.
In terms of agriculture the concern is that livestock can get their legs stuck in holes and tunnels left by moles and injure themselves but, again, the ecosystem service provided by the mole enriches the soil and thus improves the quality of the pasture so, has anyone done a cost-benefit analysis on how much is gained versus how much is lost? How common is it, even, for a cow to break its leg in a mole hole?
So, here in Europe, particularly in the UK, we go to great measures to persecute our moles. The most humane ways of dealing with them involve trapping and releasing, but moles travel overground to find good food sources so unless you know a good, wild area to put them you’re basically just making them someone else’s problem. I know there are ‘humane’ solutions that effectively involve torturing the animal’s senses until it desperately wants to leave, usually with a sonic (sound based) device. Traps are incredibly common, but professional services tend to just use poison. I’m sure pumping poison into underground tunnels in the soil beneath your garden is great for keeping the plants and the ecosystem nice and healthy. A lot of people probably still do it the old fashioned way and dig them up and hit them with a shovel. Welcome to the ‘civilised’ West.
So what about the plateau pika?
Pikas are cute little bastards in the order lagomorpha, the same order as rabbits and hares. No, they are not rodents. Though they share some similarities (specifically the ever-growing incisors), and pika, rabbits etc. are often confused as rodents, the lagomorphs are a completely different.
In terms of size and weight the plateau pika and the European mole are not dissimilar. Pika are probably a little larger, 15-18cm in length, around 140g in weight. They are almost uniformly an amber-tan colour fading into a white belly, so do not have the variation in coat colours that moles do.
This is likely because of the moles subterranean lifestyle, the mole spends most of its time underground, only coming to the surface to move territory, search for a mate, or find nesting materials. Pika spend a lot more time above ground where they can be potential out-in-the-open prey for foxes, cats and birds of prey, so they have a coat colour adapted to blend in with their steppe, meadow and grassland habitat, namely earth-coloured.
There are many species of pika but the plateau pika lives across the Tibetan plateau, with their territory potentially crossing from Pakistan, through India, Nepal and into China.
Unlike the mole the pika doesn’t have a lot of unique senses or biological weirdness going on. Very much like the mole the pika is a burrowing species and this behaviour has led to it being considered a crop, livestock and soil-ruining pest.
Now, since I didn’t get to use 700 words describing the pika to you because it’s basically a spherical rabbit with smaller ears, I’m going to tell you a story from my uni days again.
It was during an ‘Ethics in Biology’ workshop – being an obnoxious, self-righteous, opinionated contrarian it was both my most, and least, favourite class. We were discussing invasive species and the conversation was about the introduction of the cane toad into Australia in the 1930s to control beetle species that were detrimental to sugar cane crops.
Whilst the releases were limited the problems were two-fold. One, the cane toads were shit at hunting the beetles, in fact they ate a bunch of other stuff instead. Two, despite the limited release it turned out they really liked fucking in Australia and they spread rapidly.
I might tell this story in more detail another time so I’ll leave it there for now but my response was.
“Surely someone should have thought about this beforehand?”
To which I received the reply.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight.”
And thus I responded.
“BUT THIS IS BLOODY FORESIGHT I’M TALKING ABOUT HERE!”
The point is I’m naturally cautious as a biologist. I am aware of the delicate balance nature holds itself in and any disruption of that balance, even if the intention of that disruption is good, needs to be carefully considered. Not only do the immediate effects need to be carefully considered, but the non-immediate ones. Not only do the proximal effects, the effects close in proximity to this disruption, need to be considered, but the radial effects, how this disruption spreads outward, needs to be considered as well. Not only do you need to think about the disruption on the target species, but all the species in the immediate area that could be affected by the disruption to the target species need to be considered as well.
Any potential disruption to an ecosystem that does not consider all of these things with due respect for the tangled, chaotic mess that life and biology are, gets in the fucking bin! You just don’t do it!
Well much like idiots with moles in the UK and Europe, the Chinese government disagreed, and set about a plan for almost exterminating the plateau pika across various parts of its territory in China. One of the means of doing this was by feeding pika rice infected with Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism. Do you know how many preliminary investigations I can find into the potential impact of this on species that eat pika? None. Do you know how much data or impact assessment I can find for exactly how this has affected any predatory species eating botulin infected pika? None. SOMEONE IS NOT DOING THEIR FUCKING JOB AND IT MAKES ME FUCKING ANGRY!
Subsequent studies have found pika have an effect similar to moles, their aerate the soil, improving soil fertility, improving grass growth, they probably help with seed dispersal, they are very useful in terms of ensuring adequate water retention from their upland habitat, preventing it from flowing into the lowlands too rapidly, thus preventing flooding and a more constant water balance to many of Asia’s most important rivers such as the Yangtza, the Mekong and the Indus, they are also a vital food for birds of prey and, specifically the Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata) which a study showed was pretty much entirely dependent on the plateau pika for food within that habitat. It’s like Bob Marley only instead of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ it’s ‘No Pika, No Fox.’
Their burrows are also used by various other species (birds and lizards especially) for their own nesting or housing needs…yadda, yadda, yadda.
They’re a keystone species. A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its resident habitat and ecosystem. They are a glue that holds an ecosystem together and a disruption to them is a disruption to the whole damn thing.
And these pika are poisoned, regularly. Why? Well because the Tibetan highland habitat started to degrade and it was noticed that there were a lot more pika than there used to be so therefore the problem must be that pika are degrading the habitat, right? And absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the habitat degradation coincided with the increased use of upland meadows for livestock pasture, and the pika merely moved in because they are capable of exploiting a slightly degraded habitat? Of course they spread like wild-fire, too. Obviously this is because they are a ridiculous, over-breeding pest and nothing to do with persecution of predatory species like brown bears, Tibetan fox, wild cats, birds of prey, owls, etc. by the same farmers who fucked up the ecosystem.
It’s all one big fucking blindspot and it infuriates me, it really does. Talk about moles being blind, humans can’t see what’s right in front of their fucking stupid faces sometimes.
So here we go again! Isn’t this just another Asian-bashing, anti-China, racist hate story!?
That’s the point of contrasting the mole and the pika! I could add the US prairie dog, like the mole another pika analogue that is regularly poisoned across its habitats at the expense of tax-payers with the full support of local government. I could talk about the UK badger cull, a ridiculous proposal to reduce bovine tuberculosis numbers by killing the badgers that were alleged to be spreading it that has been demonstrably ineffective and had little to say about the fact that livestock farming has become increasingly intensive and the single biggest vector of bovine tuberculosis comes as no surprise to anyone with a functioning fucking brain because it’s bloody cows! It’s like trying to stop human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 by killing the fucking bats it is suggested to have originated in! IT’S STUPID AND USELESS! It won’t work, it takes a modicum of predictive power, it takes just a tiny bit of doubtful foresight, just a little, actually achievable, human cognitive prescience to go “Eh, that might not work…” and yet time after time we persecute an animal for our own failures under the guise of “we’re helping!”
Over the course of these articles as much as I am interested in exploring the amazing animals involved and offering them some sort of redemption from these negative opinions we have of them what has really been sucking me in, mentally, cognitively and emotionally, is our relationships with the natural world and how they are formed. Also, how we express those relationships that have developed.
The humble little mole, this worm-munching half-blind, half-deaf burrower is considered a ‘pest’ in the UK when it enriches and aerates the soil, provides valuable services to the fertility of the soil, doesn’t bite people, doesn’t bother people, doesn’t spread diseases and, in fact, doesn’t cause any ‘trouble’ at all. No, the humble little mole is considered a pest because it makes people’s gardens and flowers not look as nice and neat as they want.
What the fuck!?
The pika, a species that took advantage of a habitat over-exploited by humans, that revelled in the persecution of its natural predators and the sheer explosion in numbers that can follow that is persecuted not because it ruined the habitat (it was blamed for it, but people did it), not because it killed off all of its competition and then ran rampant (people did that), not because it ruins the soil, not because it disrupts the ecosystem, not because it causes significant flooding from its activities on a plateau that supplies the sources of fresh water to approximately 20% of the global population and not because it did anything wrong. It’s the opposite! Some governments (Mongolia, for example) have listened to national and international communities calling for a rethink on the treatment of Pika. China hasn’t.
When looking at animals like aye-aye or wolves we are looking at species that have a long, storied history of interactions with people. Their reputations have been built up over a long time and our fears of them, our aversions to them, no matter how unfounded, how non-real, can at least be considered in a greater context than “they’re just inconvenient, or a scapegoat.”
But most of the species mentioned today, the mole, the pika, the prairie dog, the badger. These are scapegoats, these are little more than inconveniences being blamed for nuanced problems that require well thought out, compassionate and science-based solutions.
The persecution of pika did not start until the 1950s. It’s a good reminder to us that our ideas about animals, our relationships with them, the stories about them we tell ourselves, and the actions we perform relating to those stories, are not all fixed or innate. Humans are scared of snakes and there is sufficient evidence to suggest this is justifiably so based upon historical predation of primates by snakes. This may be a legend, a tale of a species and our interpretation of it, that may be so old it’s genetic! But there’s no such history for the pika. Pika did not eat our pre-human, primate ancestors. This is a new relationship, a new opinion and a perfect demonstration of how attitudes can and do change over time.
In this case it is unfortunate to the health of the Tibetan plateau ecosystem, to the pika itself, and to us and our relationship with biodiversity, that the change in attitude was for the negative. But it also demonstrates change is possible for the positive too. We can change our minds. We can reframe our relationships with the species that surround us and develop a new respect for them, understanding for them, and create new legends, new stories, new reputations to pass down to future generations so that they can avoid making the foolish, foresight-lacking mistakes that we and the generations before us have made.
Moles and pika, they enrich their natural worlds. Humans, we’re sadly in the habit of cheapening it.