A man’s world

Kat's Cosmos

How  many women do you notice on the news winning Nobel prizes for science? How many women do you know who have gone onto study physics? Here is my experience of being in a male dominated world.

I’ve thought long and hard about what I want my first post to be about. Astronomy? Particles? Special Relativity?

And actually I realised that I want to give something personal, my own experience in the scientific community. I want to talk about being a female in a heavily male dominated environment.

Before you groan, and think ‘oh god, not another feminist’, I encourage you to read on. I am not on here to talk about negative experiences, when in fact, the scientific part of my life has been mostly positive.

I’ve always been fascinated with stars. For as long as I can remember, my Dad and I would sit and discuss, and wonder…

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Behaviour roundup

Find out what’s been happening in the world of animal behaviour and natural history this week.

British Bumblebees

It’s finally done! Earlier this year I decided to learn how to properly use Illustrator to make infographics and redesign some of my previous Piktochart made graphics. I thought it took forwever to draw these bees the first time round but between learning how to do this and keeping the bees as easy to identify as possible while making sure the details were right… oof. But I did it, and now I can move on to other ideas I have on how to use these bees.

This guide was originally a project for my MSc. The bee theme random and, honestly, I didn’t know very much about them before-hand. Now I think people are starting to get tired of my bee trivia. Did you know that bees understand the concept of zero as a number?

The bees illustrated here are based off the queens of the species. Workers and males may differ slightly in appearance.

What is Happening to the Ebro Delta?

A hoard of flamingoes, half obscured by the haze rising from the warm waters, lounge and preen in the afternoon sun. Purple herons stalk through swathes of tall grass. Great crested grebes, cormorants and several species of duck and other waterfowl compete for space on the water, dipping with the steady ebb and occasionally disappearing beneath the surface to dive for weeds and fish. The sky is alive with murmurations and birds of prey. On one side the wetlands stretch for miles, uninterrupted save for a few small stone huts and old, twisted trees until they reach the Mediterranean sea. On the other looms the pale blue shadow of the mountains. It’s a beautiful scene, but sadly, one that is under threat.

Pink greater flamingoes roosting in the marhses of the Ebro Delta, surrounded by reeds.
A large colony of Greater Flamingoes calls the Delta home and is one of very few breeding in the Medeterranean.

This is the Ebro Delta (or Delta del Ebro). The largest wetland in Catalonia. At an impressive 320 square kilometres, this incredible landscape is an important habitat for many resident and migratory species. Declared a National Park in 1983, the Ebro Delta supports hundreds of species, including plants, fish, turtles, and, most famously, around 300 species of birds. It’s importance as a breeding ground and migratory stop-over for these birds, around 60% of species found in Europe, is internationally recognised.

The charcteristic lay of the delta was formed over hundreds of years by shifting sediments and changes in the flow of the Ebro River which drains down from the Iberian Penninsula. These nutrient-rich waters made the area ideal for both wildlife and human agriculture. In particular, rice is grown in abundance. The flooded paddies stretch out for miles, lush and green. However, in recent years the pressure put on the area, by increasing the amount of land used for agriculture and redirecting water, has begun to take its toll on the wildlife.

There are now more than 180 dams on the Ebro River, implemented by the
Spanish National Hydrological Plan (NHP). The NHP was first adopted in 2001, with the intention to build around 120 dams and redirect water from the Ebro and Rhône rivers to other areas of Spain. Those advocating for the NHP maintain that these measures are being taken to ensure that urban areas are not impacted by seasonal water shortages.

A view over the reed beds and an estuary of the Ebro River, towards a mountain range. At the base of the range is a small city and to one side of the estuary is a small group of greater flamingoes.
The Ebro River brings sediment down from the mountains into the sea, forming the Delta wetlands.

The dams now trap the sediment which once shaped the delta, preventing them from passing through the wetlands and into the sea. This is causing changes to the geographical composition of the area as the river mouth recedes, reshaping the marshes and dykes that provide habitat for many species. Paired with the rising sea levels seen globally, which threaten to submerge around 40 percent of the wetlands by 2100, some species are already disappearing from the area. The once large colony of pipistrelle bats that called the delta home have sharply declined, as have populations of sturgeon, turtles and various frogs.

In 2015, the resident colony of greater flamingoes did not breed. Even though this species is considered of Least Concern by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), this is the only known breeding colony in Catalonia and one of very few in the Mediterranean, making the failure to breed worrying. Thankfully the birds did resume breeding, but it’s thought that the interruption may have been due to redistribution of populations of interacting birds and predatory mammals. Monitoring of these populations was increased in following years.

A close up visual of a juvenille great crested grebe on calm water.
Great Crested Grebes, like this juvenille, are just one of the many species found in the Delta.

The impacts of changes to this delicate landscape are not just felt by wildlife though. Agriculture in the area will also be affected. Rice farming has been well suited to the wetlands due to the plant’s resilience to the high salinity of the waters and its need for flooding. Soon, however, even this will become unsustainable as damage caused by redirections and dams on the Ebro River under the NHP, threaten to restrict water and sediment flow even further.

Scientists, political parties and environmental NGOs have strongly opposed the NHP over the years, due to its conflict with sustainable development goals. Several reports by academics outline the potential impacts continued construction of dams could have on the delta. Many also refute the need to redirect water to those areas which have been highlighted as vulnerable to seasonal water variations. As a result, the plan has been raised and dropped repeatedly since 2001, perhaps buying vital time for the people and wildlife the Ebro Delta supports.

Why is it illegal to own a lone guinea pig in Switzerland?

Did you know that it’s illegal to own fewer than two guinea pigs at a time in Switzerland? Apparently this got a little bit of media attention a few years ago but I did not get the memo, resulting in some disbelieving looks when my girlfriend brought it up casually the other day. At first, I was taken aback but on further thought, it makes sense and should perhaps be applied to social animals in other countries too.

Two white and tan and white and brown guinea pigs eating salad leaves sitting beside one another on a red background.
Guinea pigs are highly social and need to be kept in pairs or groups to live hapily as pets.

Guinea pigs are highly social animals and form tight bonds with those they live with. When separated, or a member of their group dies they can get lonely and become distressed. This is not unusual in social animals. Rats, rabbits and even cats, whom not everyone would consider social, can express loneliness if left without a playmate. While rescue shelters and vets in the UK will recommend owners ensure their furry companions have a friend, it is just that – a recommendation (although some stores will refuse the sale of some single animals like rats unless the owner already has some at home).

Switzerland’s ban on single guinea pigs was just one aspect of a larger reform of animal welfare legislation in 2008 that emphasised the ‘social rights’ of animals. In fact, it doesn’t really single out guinea pigs at all, they just became a popular example. As a result of the legislation, in order to keep guinea pigs and other animals from falling into loneliness once a companion dies, it became possible to rent a replacement pet. Yes, rent a replacement pet. It was this that sparked media attention previously. As with most pets, it’s unlikely that your two furry companions will live to the same age so it can be useful to have the option to rent a friend for your lonely rodent rather than be caught in an endless cycle of buying or adopting again each time a pet passes on.

The Swiss welfare ordinance is pretty strict on its take on allowing species-specific behaviours. It states that behaviour specific to your pet’s species must not be restricted in any way. While this mostly refers to foraging and physical behaviours it includes comfort behaviours and social interaction with conspecifics – others of the same species. This means that if any aspect of keeping a pet, be it through handling, housing or feeding, unnecessarily deviates from that which is considered an essential aspect of its species-specific behaviour, it is considered illegal. This is great because species-specific behaviours haven’t always been well understood, let alone taken so seriously.

Even animals you may not think are social can get lonely if not kept in pairs.

But why is all this so important? Does it really matter if a guinea pig lives with other guinea pigs? What if its owner spends a lot of time playing with it? Would that be enough to prevent loneliness?

Probably not. You may love spending time with your pet and may even say you prefer it to seeing other people, but spend too long in isolation from other humans and problems start to arise. It’s no different for our pets.

While some animals may not get along well with others of their kind, this is usually due to a bad experience that has made the animal fearful. The wild relative of the guinea pig (Cavia aperea f. porcellus), the Cavy (Cavia aperea) are usually found in close family groups which occasionally form larger colonies when living in the same area with other family groups.

Social behaviours like communal feeding, grooming and sleeping are common in the wild.

Such social animals, especially rodents, tend to raise young communally, engage in play to learn vital skills like how to fend off an attacker, communicate resource locations and many other behaviours that through ensuring the survival of the group, ensure the survival of the individual. Grooming and huddling together to sleep help to reinforce social bonds – hence the term ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. When an individual is isolated from its group and can’t perform these behaviours it can become lethargic and display symptoms not unlike those of depression in humans. They may stop eating or drinking, explore less and can even turn to over-grooming (often called barbering in pet rats) where they can end up with bald patches and painful sores.

It’s true that we may look at our single cat or rabbit and think they’re doing fine on their own and are perfectly happy, but consider that, without seeing your pet interact, you may not be aware of how happy your pet, could be with a friend. Switzerland has realised the importance of these behaviours to their social pets, and we would do well to do the same. So next time you consider getting a pet that would naturally live in groups, remember – the more the merrier!

Resources

  • Asher, M, de Oliveira, E, S and Sachser, N, Social System and Spatial Organization of Wild Guinea Pigs (Cavia aperea) in a Natural Population (2004) Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 85, no. 4, 16, Pp. 788–796, https://doi.org/10.1644/BNS-012
  • Berger J. and Stevens E. F, (1996) Wild mammals in captivity – principles and techniques  (Kleiman D. G. Allen M. E. Thompson K. V. Lumpkin S. Harris H., eds.). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.
  • Künzl, C and Sachser, N, The Behavioral Endocrinology of Domestication: A Comparison between the Domestic Guinea Pig (Cavia apereaf.porcellus) and Its Wild Ancestor, the Cavy (Cavia aperea) (1999) Hormones and Behaviour, Vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 28-37, https://doi.org/10.1006/hbeh.1998.1493
  • Sachser, N. Naturwissenschaften, Of Domestic and Wild Guinea Pigs: Studies in Sociophysiology, Domestication, and Social Evolution (1998) vol. 85, no. 7, pp.307-317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s001140050507
  • Swiss Animal Welfare Ordinance (2008) and Animal Welfare Act (2005)