Natural History

Errol Fuller has played a key role in documenting historical extinctions of birds, notably the Great Auk and the Dodo. In the course of this work he has accumulated a fascinating collection of photographs of now extinct animals, many of them unique and not previously published.

... (read more)

I’ve interviewed Stephen Hawking twice. On both occasions it was in his old office in Silver Street, Cambridge – in front of his huge poster of Marilyn Monroe. The first time, in 1989, I was a little anxious, not because I was with the world’s best-known scientist, but because I found the awkward silences waiting for his answers hard to manage. What do you do, having asked a question, during the two or three minutes it takes him to put together a sentence on his machine? You can’t stare at him for that long – we’re not equipped to do that with anyone for more than seconds. Ignore him? The way we ignore other crippled folk, without realising it? Hardly!

... (read more)

In an age of YouTube piglets and puppies, when animals are images and those images are everywhere, the interior lives of animals have scant authority. The triumph of the animal welfare lobby has been to widen, in the public imagination, our definition of what types of bodies can suffer. But who can guess what goes on inside animals’ heads? Only poets are petitioned on that subject. Meanwhile, animals cast inscrutable glances to the camera, engaged in the pratfalls, serendipitous encounters, and twee feats that so fascinate a digital audience. What animals know is not for us to wonder. Watch now, what the animals do.

... (read more)

Words matter, and there can be few more misleading ones in Australian history than ‘settlement’, as used to describe the period immediately following the arrival of the First Fleet. It connotes understanding and agreement. In Sydney Cove, by contrast, five distinct groups were present: Governor Phillip and his immediate entourage; naval vessels and their crews; a detachment of Royal Marines; a group of convicts; and the Indigenous people of the area whose home it had been for tens of thousands of years – all of them at some stage profoundly misunderstanding each other and often in major disagreement or conflict; all of them decidedly unsettled.

... (read more)

Curious Minds sets out to explore the naturalists and scientists who brought Australia’s flora and fauna into the public consciousness: on the face of it a laudable aim, but one not totally fulfilled. From the title onwards the book seems confused in its aims and in its style. Is the book intended to be about people (the curious naturalists), flora and fauna (their discoveries), or both? Does it aim to provide new insights about the twenty-six selected naturalists and the culture within which they worked, or is the intent to provide a popular, even slightly scurrilous, account of the lives of selected individuals?

... (read more)

Why would a famous virologist and immunologist (and Nobel laureate) write a book linking birds, human diseases, and ecological degradation? The answer is partly that Peter Doherty obviously has a soft spot for birds and birdwatching. He argues that anyone with an enquiring mind and a natural history ...

... (read more)

Fernando Nottebohm has been interested in birdsong since early childhood. By 2001 he had spent thirty years at Rockefeller University in New York studying how birds learn to sing, concentrating on canaries who are capable of learning new songs each year. His interest has been to study birdsong as ‘a model for the brain’. He studied the brains of caged birds and birds in the wild. The birds that needed to forage and escape predators produced more neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is essential to memory.

... (read more)

On 18 January 1773, less than twenty-four hours after first entering Antarctic waters and concerned by the ice gathering around the Resolution, Commander James Cook surveyed the waters. A few hours later he wrote in his journal: ‘From the mast head I could see nothing to the Southward but Ice, in the Whole extent from East to WSW without the least appearance of any partition.’

... (read more)

When the English zoologist John Gould died in London in February 1881, he was renowned for his scientific and descriptive studies, principally of birds – those found in his native Britain, the Himalayas, Europe, Australia, North America, and New Guinea – but also of Australian mammals. In the course of his self-made career, Gould produced forty-one large volumes, handsomely illustrated with 3000 plates. These were the work of several artistic collaborators, including, importantly, his wife, Elizabeth, and – early and briefly – Edward Lear, famous later in his own right for his limericks and as a masterly writer of nonsense verse and prose. In addition to his great published works of natural history, Gould was the author of many learned papers and the recipient of high honours from scientific societies. As a leader in his field, he interacted as an equal with aristocratic men of science and affairs; the members of the governing class of his day.

... (read more)

When the first specimen of the Platypus reached Europe in 1798, it was received with incredulity by zoologists. With anatomical and morphological characteristics seemingly belonging to reptiles, birds, and mammals, it simply did not fit into the existing classifications. Further, it appeared to lack mammary glands and therefore could not be classed as a mammal, yet it had obvious mammalian characteristics such as fur and a single bone comprising the lower jaw. It was also noted that there was only one external body opening, the cloaca, into which the uteri, the gut, and the kidneys empty. Hence the name Monotreme (having one hole) applied by English anatomist Sir Everard Home in 1802. Put simply, the Platypus created more than its share of headaches for taxonomists.

... (read more)
Page 2 of 3