06 December 2011

The Natural Explorer

I had an email newsletter today from The Natural Navigator website.

It would seem that Tristran is following up the brilliant book - The Natural Navigator - with another book on natural navigation.

Here's the description from Amazon:
The most rewarding travel experiences do not depend on our destination or the length of our journey, but on our levels of awareness. A short walk can compare with an epic journey, when we take the time to focus on the things that dramatically enrich each journey.

Combining the work of the some of the most insightful travellers of the past two thousand years with his own experience, Tristan Gooley, author of THE NATURAL NAVIGATOR demonstrates how it is possible to connect profoundly with the lands we travel through.

Exploration is no longer about hardship or long distances, it is about celebrating the sense of connection and discovery that is possible in all our travels.

For more information, visit the Natural Navigator website, here.

30 November 2011

Wild Britain: S02E05: North Uist

This week Ray is in the Outer Hebrides. Off of the North West of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides is a chain of islands, of which North Uist is one.

Beginning at Loch Maddy, the largest sea loch on the island, we see that the loch has a large tidal variance. This ensures a variance of environment too, with plants – such as seaweed – and animals having to make a living wherever they can. Seaweed is a massive part of our lives, containing minerals and vitamins, and also used to be used as fertiliser. Crustaceans also use the seaweed, but this time for hideaways, in an attempt to create a successful hideaway from the birds that graze on them.

Going under the water, we look at Bladder Rack, a type of seaweed that grows in deeper water. We see the array of life that exists on the seabed. This includes some sea lettuce that Ray snatches as an ingredient for his supper, along with some large scallops! The scallops are fried and then eaten with the sea lettuce which is eaten just as is.

There is much evidence of hunter gatherers on the island, along with the transition to farming. We see a burial chamber made of many rocks. Because the burial chamber has been left alone for such a long time, it is ideal for slower growing flora.

A quick lesson in tracking teaches us that when we find a trail, we need to look at where the animal may have been heading. Then to look for a trail, such as grass that has been worn down in one direction. Also to look for scat, which will also give you an idea as to what they have been eating.

Ray then goes cruising to see a 2003 reintroduction to the area. The White Tailed Sea Eagle, with a wing span of up to 8ft. Birds are plentiful on the islands and seem to thrive. Watching a playful otter is a fun part of the episode. As with everything with these 22 minute episodes, we see some great things – but always in doses that are just too short.

28 November 2011

Book Review: Ice Master

It's 1913. Your leader has gone on a 'hunting trip' promising to be back in two weeks - two months ago. Your wooden ship is trapped on an icepack and drifting. Your main source of food is pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein. While you kind of know where you're drifting, you also know there's nothing you can do to change what's happening. The key question that echos through the minds of the scientists and crew is, 'How will it end'...

Jennifer Niven has written a wonderfully readable account of this ill-fated mission. At over 400 pages (of small font size), I never once wanted the book to end. Jennifer has done a great job with the research and weaves the accounts of the crew and scientists together into a coherent story. One that has us rooting for the good guys and feeling, to put it midly, distain for the less than good guys.

Today has been the first real day of cold weather since last winter and it had me thinking that if I feel cold now - what would I be feeling like fighting for survival in the Artic environment. That's what this book does, it puts you in the mindset of being there. Willing these people on, even though these things happened nearly 100 years ago and you know there's nothing you can say or do to change the outcome. It then leaves you thinking about them and the situation, coming back to the story even when you've finished reading it. I feel for every person that was stranded with the Karluk.

Captain Bartlett truly was a Ice Master, without whom all hands would have been lost to what, at most times, was a frozen and desolate wasteland.

For anyone interested in adventure, cold places, or just a fasinating true story - read this book. You won't be disappointed.

Own or Loan:         Loan
Read Again:           No
Recommend:         Yes
Overall out of Five:3

Dundas Basin

23 November 2011

The Adventurer's Guide to Britain

A quick post to say that this might be a good watch:


20 November 2011

Wild Britain: S02E04: Norfolk

This time around Ray is exploring the wildlife of Norfolk, East Anglia. Specifically looking at the environment of a lowland river, looking in, on, and around the River Wensum. 

A handy tip that Ray gives while looking at the river from one of the foot bridges is to take polarising lens glasses so that you can see into the river. Without them the glimmer of reflection of light on the surface of the river block any visibility.

The first creature we look at is the crayfish. The white clawed crayfish is the only crayfish that has adapted to the English rivers, having been native since the end of the ice ages. We need to watch out for the American crayfish, which carry a disease that is a plague for our native crayfish, as well as predating them. If the American crayfish do take over, it’s only a matter of 5 to 10 years before the English crayfish is wiped out. That’s the thing I like about this series, Ray talks to local experts, quite often experts from the Wildlife Trust of the area he is showing us. It really shows that he wants to give us the right knowledge, rather than just getting the information from Wikipedia and regurgitating it for the camera!

We hear that Wensum originates for the word winding. We next look at the plants of the river, from Woody Nightshade to Watercress – the deadly to the edible.

Looking at the little cliff edge of the river, we see Kingfisher nesting sites. Sticklebacks and Minnows would be its’ diet. Settling down into a hide and attempting to call a kingfisher, eventually works. The Kingfisher lands on the stick that Ray noticed mud deposits on, close to the nesting hole.

In part two we start with a traditional flood meadow, mowed by longhorn cattle. The cattle trample the ground, creating a diversity of plants and micro-environments for invertebrates. Southern marsh orchids, yellow rattle, ragged robin, and horsetails, are just a few of the plants that thrive in the flood meadow. This encourages a whole food web of animals. 

Bird netting is next, with Ray talking to people at a nature reserve along the Wensum. Apparently bird netting takes 2 years of training and requires a licence, but is important for understanding diversity and health of the birds along with the year on year rise and fall of numbers. We see that the Marsh Harrier has recently experienced a comeback of sorts. Over the past 10 years, more Marsh Harriers have been seen overwintering along the coast.

One animal that is still under threat is the water vole. Due to the American Mink and declining suitable habitats have lead to this. We have a wonderful sighting of the water vole, but are brought back down to Earth by the fact that over the past 40 years, the population has crashed by 94%. This is where the episode ends, but where our thinking about nature, the outdoors, and how to protect all of our wildlife should begin.

31 October 2011

Origins of Us: S01E03: Brains

In this, the final episode, Alice looks at Brains. How we grew them so big and why we’re the only type of human left on the planet. How we think, feel, and behave is due to the actions of our ancestors. Was it our brains that helped us survive when other human species died out?
Millions of years of evolution have shaped our amazing bodies. But really, we are just another species of Ape. Well, apart from our brain – we have the ability to think, imagine and create in a way that has changed the world. And the ability to think about all of these things – about how and why we’re here.

In East Africa is where our story begin, in the Out of Africa theory, so for Alice there’s no better place to start looking. Unfortunately we’re the last type of humans, but there have been many types in the past. Looking at the skulls of humans, we start at around 300ml: 7 million years ago. Moving on to the first homo genus at 500ml: 3.5 million years ago. Finally, ending up with us 200,000 years ago with 1466ml skull cases. This is nearly 4 times the volume of that of our earliest ancestors.
We need to look at what was happening to Earth during the time that our ancestors brains were expanding. The Rift Valley, it seems, created a harsh environment and a struggle to survive. This area was changing every few hundred years , making it necessary for behaviour to adapt – to find new ways of acquiring food and water. It seems that the fluctuating environment and the size of the brain are linked, so this increase in size is the skill of adaptation.

Like us Chimpanzees life in social groups. The reaction of the group when mixed with a Dutch group is to assess who’s who. Making and keeping allies is necessary – as is finding out who to bully! Which shows mental flexibility, a trait used to figure out how to get varying types of food.
Although we have things in common, something that we can do that no other animal can’t, is read someone by their eye gaze. We can read a whole host of emotions from people’s eyes.

Making tools is an important feature of being human. Homo Habilis, only had a brain half the size of ours – but he’s the first human that we know used tools. Over time tools became more complex and enabled our ancestors to get to larger, wider variety of, food.
With tools to butcher meat and protect themselves, our ancestors were able to live in new areas. Stone hand axes tell us about the behaviour of our ancestors and their minds. In order to make a stone tool, we need to have an image in our mind. It is thought that this ability is related to language. While language is a massively important feature of being human – we have no certainty of when language first occurred. We can’t even check the fossil record, as vocal tracts are soft tissue, so don’t remain. But we do know our species use language, which enables us to teach and learn at a complexity that no other animal can match. We language we can take the things we think and the images in our mind and share them.

Having such large brains means that we have to be born before our heads get too big. This means that we have to be born before our brains are really ready – 8 years before it gets to the maximum size and mid-teens before we can really use it properly. Back to the Hadza tribe of the last episode we see that they breastfeed for 3 years, compared to the 6 months that seems normal in the West. Which certainly seemed odd to the Hadza women. We see that the grandmother is a very important person in the rearing of children. This seems to have effected how long we evolved to live for – an example being the Hadza women who live into their 70s. By living longer we are able to breed much higher numbers of offspring – more than any other ape. Grandparents helping in the caring for grandchildren, extra knowledge is passed on and more children can be born.

We know that when Homo Sapiens travelled the world, other species of human were already living there. Like in Europe with the Neanderthals. With a fairly similar sized brain case – why did we survive when Neanderthals didn’t? Looking at Neanderthal DNA we can see that we are closely related with the same origin. Also that our Sapien ancestors did mate with Neanderthals and that they had the genes for speech. But to really see why they died out, we need to look at where they lived.
Gorham’s cave can tell us a lot about how the Neanderthals lived around the same time as Homo Sapiens lived. We see that they were eating molluscs, showing a wider diet than previously thought. Also using fine flake tools, which while different to ours achieved the same end. Going right back into the cave, we see where the Neanderthals of the cave lived and slept – with a camp fire radiocarbon date of 28,000 years ago. This is the most recent date of any Neanderthal site – possibly one of the last places that they lived in. Climate change seems to have been the end of the Neanderthals. Their lack of ability to adapt to a warmer climate and wider open spaces.

Well, unfortunately, that’s the end of this TV series. I’ve found it to be a brilliant series. I know that there are other points of view regarding different theories of our populating the world and also that of different religious aspects. But I really enjoyed this series– the story of our evolution, with the discussions of culture and technology that were successfully included. I enjoyed the inclusion of the Hadza tribe and felt that it added a lot to the series. I hope that Alice will continue her journey into the evolutionary past of humans. This series was a really good follow up to the Human Journey of two years ago.

28 October 2011

Wild Britain: S02E03: Sussex

Tonight Ray is looking at the Chalk habitat of Sussex, from the cliffs to the downs.

The Adonis butterfly has an intense electric blue colouring. The caterpillar of the Adonis is apparently very fussy, only feeding on Horseshoe Vetch. The Adonis also don’t disperse very well, preferring to stay close to the colony, making it thrive in some places and be in decline in others.

Peregrine falcons live on the cliff faces of Sussex, but this can make it difficult to understand Peregrine numbers. Specialist chalk climbers make their way to borrow chicks for tagging and measurements – including if the chick is male or female. This is important as the Peregrines died out in Sussex due to poisoning, the first nest was found in the 1990’s, so it’s really great to see them back – if you can; as they fly at speeds of up to 200 mph.

Thriving on the dry chalk soil, the Yew tree is called the tree of life and the tree of death. With the toxic parts of the tree now being used for soft tissue cancer treatment. The chick of the woods fungi is a happy camper on the bark of this tree.

We can see that the clematis climber can grow to such a thickness that look like rainforest vines. Ray shows us a block of clematis that he uses for making friction fire – along with King Alfred’s cake, a fungus that burns like coal and used to be used for foot treatments.

Finally, Ray hides out in wait of a badger. When we see the badger, it’s in the daytime and hunting for worms. I was going to post an Autumnwatch link for their Badger Webcam but unfortunately there’s a message saying that they’ll be back on 18 November – so if it’s Badgers again I’ll post the link here!

24 October 2011

Origins of Us: S01E02: Guts

Tonight’s episode is about guts. Well food and how we digest it. The search for food and how we behave because of food. The Sea Squirt, we see, is a distant relative of ours. With no arms, eyes, or legs; it can be a bit hard to see how we are related. It’s the gut that we’re looking at. Food in, waste out. And so the digestive system begins…

The digestive system that we have today, the digestive system that can get the best even out of junk food, has evolved over millions of years. Propliopithecoidea, an ancient primate ancestor lived off fruit and leaves. It couldn’t tell the difference between the colours of different food. 40 million years ago we started to see some variation in colour with 2 types of colour receptor. 30 Million years ago an adaptation opened up reds and greens – the third receptor – the adaptation that we still use today. This helps us to see when fruit is ripe and therefore, more likely to survive, as we can see up to 1 million colours.

From around 3 million years ago the world was becoming drier, forests shrinking and grasslands expanding. Apes adapted to this as we saw in the last episode. Around 6 different types of Apes were able to walk on 2 legs to embrace this new habitat – even though we don’t know how they relate to each other: or to us. The nut cracker man fed on nuts and seeds, as seen due to the massive muscle going through his skull to power some mighty snappers.

Lions were the predators that our ancestor has to share our environment with, in the grasslands. Why are we looking at Lions? Tapeworm larvae of course. We see that the lions eat animals with parasites and the tapeworm grows within the Lion and eats the Lion’s food. It seems that we have the same tapeworm since around 1.7 million years ago. This happened due to us eating the same food as the Lions – big game. Homo Erectus is the likely candidate hunting big game. His body was similar to ours and therefore deserved the name Homo, they also used tools to butcher their kills. 

We see that our changing diet affected our faces and teeth. As herbivores we had big teeth and chewing muscles. As Omnivores we developed smaller teeth and a flatter face shape. An experiment shows that our new narrow teeth are well adapted to cutting through meat, whereas the bigger teeth weren’t able to cut through the meat. We also see some teeth mapping from the pits and scratches on the teeth from the things it ate during its’ lifetime. Looking at the images we see that Homo Erectus had a massively varied diet of meat along with nuts, grasses and fruit.

Chimpanzee saliva, like ours, is packed with enzymes that start to digest the food as we eat it. The differences are in the amount of amylase, we have a lot and it breaks starchy foods down, showing that at some point it became a really important food type for us.

Alice then visits the Hadza People, a tribe that Ray Mears has previously camped with and learnt from. They are hunter gatherer nomadic people, hunting most days. The Hadza men usually hunt on their own, however today they hunt with Alice. Although with only 1 in every 29 hunts being successful, Alice goes back to camp empty handed to head out with the women to gather. Finding berries and tubers (probably a sweet yam) we see that plants provide a more reliable food source – with about 60% being from these sources and 40% from meat sources in calorific content. This means that our ancestors weren’t reliant on one particular type of food and could populate wide areas.
Chewing and digesting raw food can take 25 calories for 100 calories. The human capability to create and control fire with the ability to cook food allowed us digest food with fewer calories – we even unlock calories, sometimes 35% more calories, with cooking them.

Finally we look at behaviour. A hunter gatherers way of life shaped society, with the men hunting for meat and honey and the women gathering fruit, berries and tubers. We see with the Hadzas that men and women normally pair for life for the reason of coupling their collective resources.  We see that the women wear a bracelet to show that they are married. Typically having around 5 children and it taking 13 million calories from birth to weaning means that choosing the right husband is the most important decision a Hadza woman makes. With the woman having the decider on this means that testosterone can jump 40% when women are around, making us ‘show off’ or take risks to show our prowess as hunters. Even when there is nothing to actually hunter. In the programme this is shown by males skateboarders taking risks to complete tricks that they were struggling to get right. When women, rather than men, were watching, they took many more risks to stick with the trick and try to get it right. 

When we moved to farming, which enabled a population explosion and changed the face of our planet. A third of our land is taken over by farming. Enabling us to find food anywhere - because, as Alice puts it, we put it there.

From Homo Erectus expanding out and evolving to Homo Heidelbergensis with a larger brain, which in turn probably evolved into Homo Sapiens covering a large part of the globe. Over time our dietary flexibility, along with the ability to create fire and to cook food has allowed us to populate the desolate places of the world from some of the coldest in the Artic, to the hottest at the equator, as well as the temperate regions of the world.While this is an amazing feat, it is one that we are now coming to realise requires us to be responsible.

21 October 2011

Wild Britain: S02E02: Skomer

Off of the coast of Pembrokeshire, Skomer Island is a haven for Puffins and a whole host of other wildlife. Helped by the maximum of 250 people per day on the island.

The Wick, a North facing cliff edge, has Ray explaining the birdlife consisting of many bird including Guillemots, Puffins, Gulls, and sometimes buzzards. We hear that due to no predation on the island, the birds are ok with human contact. The largest mammal is the rabbit!

There is also a lot of plant life. The red Campion and other woodland flowers use bracken for shade, as the trees were cut down in the Bronze age – to make way for farming. We hear that the only truly native creature on the island is the Skomer Vole. We get to see some of these voles having been trapped in animal friendly traps – with lots of food.  The vole we see has been captured previously, as we see from the tag that it wears. This tagging has helped the conservationists estimate 20000 voles on the island. As the vole dashes for freedom, we hear that the short eared owl is the primary predator of the vole.

We watch a seal trying to have a nap on a small plot of rock during a rising tide. It closes its eyes and tries to keep out of the sun. After a short time though, the tide rises enough that the seal dumps itself unceremoniously into the water.

In part two Ray heads to Grassholme island, 8 miles distant from Skomer. Grassholme island is covered in guano making it look rather like an iceberg. This is the guano of the Gannet. A quite large and noisy white sea bird.

Back on Skomer we look at the great black backed gull trying to predate Puffins, even adults. We watch the gull eat a black rabbit. It’s a shame to see, but only because it’s the demise of one animal over another. But that is, of course, natural selection in action.

Manx Shearwater have been studied on Skomer for over 60 years. Looking at their burrows, we see that there is a kink at the entrance to try to prevent predation. The egg is incubated for around 50 days. When the chicks leave the nest they don’t come back for about two years – with nobody knowing what happens during the bird’s first two years of life. Manx Shearwater has their legs right at the back of their body, this is for power in the water. A beautiful bird.

Now we see the highlight of the episode. Puffins! Some of the 6000 pairs, at least. We catch the adults on their way back to their young after being out at sea all day fishing. The beaks of the puffin are evolved to hold many fish at one time – very efficient. Watching their courtship behaviour, we can see that they are a complex, but wonderful bird.

From this episode I can see that Ray was really effected by being on the island. It's a place that Lucy and myself saw in the distance as we walked some of the coastal path in Pembrokeshire. I'm glad that we didn't visit Skomer that time, as we had a great time on the mainland coast. Skomer though, is the place to be, Lucy and I agree. And we'll get there some day...probably for some camping near the island.

19 October 2011

All Roads Lead Home: S01E03: It makes a really nice tinkling noise

So for the final episode, Alison is leading the team through North Wales to Liverpool using natural navigation techniques. This episode is unique is that the team will have to navigate their way through the City of Liverpool by natural navigation alone.

Trek 1: Blaenau Ffestiniog - Mine

To begin the team need to find a waterfall to the North. They use an isolated tree at the mercy of the wind to find North. This takes a while and goes to show that natural navigation isn’t a quick fix, but a tool that can be used and learnt over time to help enjoy the land around us. Luckily they choose the right path and find the waterfall. We can use waterfalls and the flow of rivers as a marker for direction, even if it’s just that if you have to back track you know which way not to go!

The rugged landscape of North Wales is awesome to watch and really makes me want to go back there. But from the massive landscape, we look at the small webs of spiders to get an idea of direction. Spider’s webs normally face North East and from this you can find the direction you wish to travel.
Finally they make it to the old mine. The team did well as you can’t really see the entrance to the mine until you get close to it. It seems that their technique is getting better.

Trek 2: Betws-y-coed – Llandudno

Betws-y-coed is a place that brings back good memories for Lucy and myself. We spent a week there enjoying the wildlife along the River Conwy.

Weathering is the next navigation technique. We can use signs, as an example, as they are likely to weather differently on each side. Bleaching for example would indicate which side of the sign is more Southerly. This leg goes swiftly and gives them enough time for some tree hugging. Apparently halving the diameters of a tree trunk in cm equals the trees age. I imagine that this has a grain of truth, dependent on the amount of growth each year, which in turn is dependent on the weather each year.
Next we look at tree stumps. The heart of the tree is not normally at the centre. As trees normally have additional growth on the South, the heart of the tree should compensate by being closer to the Southern side of the tree. Oh dear, next we watch the team deal with some horses narrowly making their escape. Well, probably making more of a meal of it than necessary really! Then quite quickly making their way to Llandudno.

Trek 3: Great Orme - Liverpool

The next navigation technique is looking at graves, with the head at the Western end and feet at the Eastern end. So the people rise to face East when the Day of Judgement. Apparently the clergy are facing West to rise towards their congregation. You learn something new every day.

Very quickly the land is covered in mist. This makes their next landmark hard to find as they’re looking for standing stones! This also removes the ability to see the sea, the biggest navigation aid in this part of Wales. Taking turns to take the Westerly path at each junction, a good challenge at the paths crisscross for a good distance,  they reach a road – and refuge in the form of a cafe.

They then catch a ferry to Liverpool. This takes us into the natural urban navigation phase of the trek. Starting at St. George’s Hall they check the statue of Queen Victoria for weathering, sunshine, or lichen. Needless to say they look for a sign that they can understand more reliably. Looking at signs again, we see that algae doesn’t like the sun as it then dries out, therefore if you see algae on a sign – that’s the Northerly side of the sign. 

The tree tick effect comes into play even in an urban environment. With a row of tress all leaning towards the South the team make their way. They see a compass in the ground and this really confuses the team as they really focus on it. Even to the point of Stephen going back to the compass later on to check direction!

We learn from Tristan that moss and lichen can be used together. Moss liking the North and golden lichen liking the South! This helps the team forget the compass and get along on their journey. Finding a church and feeling quite confident on the way forward. Using the idea of the prevailing wind coming from the South West, the team quite cleverly uses pollution on a building as an indicator of direction. This leads them to their final destination, at the Everyman theatre that Alison first began performing.

This ends the series. It was a really interesting series and solidifies some of the concepts in the book. This has helped to sustain my interest in natural navigation and I’ll continue to look at nature not just for interest, but to find my way home! Thanks team.

17 October 2011

Origins of Us: S01E01: Bones

6 Million years ago in an ancient African forest we meet Chimpanzees. We’re genetically close to Chimpanzees – but, Alice explains, we’re not related to them. This means that we haven’t evolved from them. But we can go back to a time 6 million years ago, the ancestors of the Chimpanzees remained in the forest, while ours, headed out – into different habitats.

Chimpanzees have very long arms and have grabbing feet with their big toes further out – with the ability to grasp branches. This is something that we’ve lost. To replace this, we have long legs, for walking. But what triggered this? And when?

We then meet Toumai. The differences between this skull and a Chimpanzee are that the Toumai spinal cord comes out directly below the skull, the Chimpanzee spinal cord comes out the back at an angle. This shows that Toumai was bipedal. We then look at the human spine, seeing that the lumbar region has massive vertebrae to cope with the weight of the body. But the discs wear away and the lumbar region is the biggest reason of back complaints. So why did we begin to walk upright if it causes so many problems?

Alice explains that the process from climber to walker was a slow process, that it’s hard to pin point when then change really occurred. There is a big clue in Dorsal Flexion. The angle at which we can point our feet towards our shins. For us, we don’t have much dorsal flex – for Chimpanzees it’s a lot. So much that they can literally have the sole of their feet on the truck of a tree while climbing up it!

2 million years ago, with Lucy, one of the very famous finds, we see that the ankle of ancestral humans already had the signs of a walker. The tibia joint to the foot for climbers is trapezoid. The same place in us Human walkers it square – as it was with Lucy. So although she looked more like an ape than a Human, she was paving the way for us and our bipedal fashion. This suggests that they were exploring – moving beyond the confines of the forest.

Every step involves the coordination of 200 muscles. As we grow and begin to walk, our bones change. We don’t know how much this is due to pre-programming and how much is due to our impulse to walk. What we do know is that it look millions of years for our ancestors to master standing and walking.

A big driver for walking was the change of climate that brought grasslands such as the Savannah. This saw an influx of new Hominids, with only 1 eventually surviving. Hominids didn’t just survive though, they thrived. A skeleton of 1.5 million years ago, that of ‘Nariokotome boy’ shows long leg bones. But it also shows big knees and hips with a narrow waist along with a ligament attachment in the skull. These are signs that the body is trying to stabilise the trunk, something we apparently don’t need for walking. So why did this skeleton need stabilising?

We find that it’s because nariokotome boy was running. When we run we’re much less stable, which is where our long narrow waist comes in. It allows us to twist as we run. We also have a ligament that attaches to our skull, this stops our head pitching forward as we run, and this is the nuchal ligament. The gluteus maximus also comes into play when running, without it, we couldn’t run. We are endurance runners, that’s the body that was given to us by our ancestors, as it was essential to our survival. It means that we could compete with other scavengers for meat and hunt prey over long distances, sometimes known as persistence hunting.

Another adaptation that was developed for our new bipedal way, especially our running. This meant that we needed to lose our fur – so that the heat could be evaporated effectively.

2 million years elapsed between Toumai and nariokotome boy. 2 millions years between being climbers and walkers. The first stone toolmaker, as far as we currently know, was Homo Habilis around 2 million years ago. We see Alice with some Chimpanzees, watching the termite fishing. We see that they hold the rod in a different way to us. Us between thumb and fore finger and the Chimpanzees with their whole hand – a less dexterous way. But why, when we have the same bones and the same muscles, do we choose to hold tools in a different way to the Chimpanzees?

This is due to a larger thumb that evolved around 2 million years ago, with Homo Habilis. In comparison the Chimpanzee thumb is quite small and weak. This big thumbs seems to be important, not when making tools, but actually when using them. The pressure of the thumb is much higher than with the fingers when using tools, for instance when cutting with a knife.

This all goes to show that our bones developed as our habits, not just our habitat, changed. Our creativity, not just our surroundings lead to this evolution.

Without this, Homo Sapiens, could never have been so successful. Sometimes it seems that our creativity to alter the world around us is limitless. Especially with the virtual worlds we are now creating online. I wonder what adaptations this will lead to. Only time will tell.

16 October 2011

All Roads Lead Home S01E02: The trouble is…you can’t see where the trouble is.

So today's programme takes us on Stephen‘s journey through Ireland. We begin where Stephen proposed to his now wife, giving her the option of saying yes or having a tumble down the adjacent cliff!

Trek 1: Minoun Mountain
Shape of the land, if the first natural navigation principle of this episode. Looking at hills and valleys, we can get to know the lay of the land over time. In this situation we can see that the Atlantic is to the West with the land to the East. This helps our intrepid explorers find South West.

Upon finding the Virgin Mary they use the idea of temperature. Feeling the difference in temperature of things like headstones. The Southern aspect of objects is likely to be warmer than the Northerly aspect. This is a really good technique as we see that the weather is closing in and there’s no sun to be seen.

A really good idea, and one that they use on this trek, is that of looking where you’ve come from. This is really important when wandering in places such as woodlands. It really helps when you’re on the return leg as you’ll recognise groups of trees as you come back across them. As they find on this trek, the statue of Mary helps them find direction by looking back at her.

Looking at buildings, Tristran explains that some buildings are built to avoid having an end pointing directly at the South Westerly winds.

Leg 2: Ballycroy National Park / Peat Bog
Quickly getting their direction between a short break in the cloud, the became walking on their way to Callaghan House. Storm-felled trees are the next natural navigation technique.

Apparently the only wind that really gets into the woodland is storm wind. If we can see lots of trees felled in the same direction, we can use this over distance to keep track of the direction that we’re going.

At the fork in the road they need to head South West…but which way is that? The ‘Private No Entry’ sign signals that they shouldn’t go down the left path – but after what seems a long time – they start to look to their natural navigation techniques. Eventually they do head towards the ‘Private No Entry’ sign and glimpse Callaghan House. A little joke regarding the weather vane, shows that not only solar panels can be used for navigation by buildings.

The only thing that takes longer than figuring out directions is which vintage vehicle they get to travel in on their way to the destination. Sue ends up driving a tractor, with Stephen in a Meercedes, and Angela in a Morris Minor!

Ballycroy leads them towards the destination bog. The wind guides them this time. Sue makes a really good point that while the wind can die down and the sun be blocked by cloud – the landscape is the only constant. Using the mountains they walked yesterday, they keep an eye on the direction in conjunction with other techniques.

The next navigation technique is that of the Gorse bush. We see that the sheep shelter in the Gorse on the North Eastern side. This can be seen by the wool stuck to the branches of the bush. This helps them to their destination and some experience of Peat cutting.

Leg 3: Peat Bog – Stephen’s parent’s houses.
This seems to be the hardest walk to navigate so far. We don’t seem to be seeing many natural navigation techniques. Sue and Stephen seem to spend ages looking for a fence post, while Alison has a break.

We finally get to a navigation technique – Spider webs! There’s no point in a spider spinning a web that will be immediately blown away. We see the team use a spider’s web in a tuft of grass to find North East. This replaces the fence post and they’re off again.

14 October 2011

Origins of Us

Just a quick post to say that this coming Monday - 17 October 2011 - sees the new series presented by Alice Roberts. The Origins of Us will look at how we evolved and how we can do what we do. This is relevant to all outdoors-ers as our ancestors, especially our early ancestors were outdoors all the time. By understanding them, we can understand how to make the most of our time outdoors. Well that's my view anyway!

Happy watching!


Wild Britain: S02E01: Caledonian Forest Scotland

Well, to my surprise, good old Ray Mears is back is a second series of Wild Britain. He explains that the Caledonian forest is part of the Boreal forest – a woodland that stretches around the Northern Hemisphere. Birch, Aspen and Oak, as well as the expected Pines form a wonderful forest. The forest was formed at the end of the last Ice Age and has a handful of trees that were starting to stretch their way towards the sun at the time of the Great Fire of London.

Jumping quickly into looking at the signs that nature gives us, we see that we can see semi-destroyed pine cones and that by looking closely (and with a heck of a lot of knowledge) we can see ‘who dunnit’ . In this case – a Red Squirrel.

Moving on we learn that a strategy is being formed to safe guard the Red Squirrel in the Caledonian forest. Squirrel pox, is just one of the problems that Grey Squirrel bring to Red Squirrel populations. They’re hoping that the rivers that are running through the forest will help to keep the Reds and Greys separate.

Being led to a secret location, we get a few minutes looking at a nesting site of the Osprey, a raptor that’s sometimes called the Sea Eagle. We learn that there are around 240 nesting pairs in Scotland. They’ve had a lot of help, with the creation of lots of nesting sites by the RSPB. This just shows that from a single breeding pair 50 years ago – conservation done well is worth doing.

After the break we look at the Horse hoof fungus, Ray shows us how to make tinder from this fungus. By scraping away the tough outer layer, we see the soft inner layer. Eventually removing the hard layer under the soft layer, we have the very soft part of the fungus. This seems to look like paper when torn.

We now look at the large mounds of pines needs that are the wonderful creation of the Wood Ant. The Ants take the pines shed by the trees and they also help the tree out by eating the parasites that can harm the tree. I remember in the Wild Food programme, Ray and Gordon Hillman raid one of these nests to get the grubs, which can apparently be done twice a year without damaging the nest beyond repair. Probably not worth doing unless you’re at death’s door though – I can’t imagine that they’re very sustaining!

Capercaillie Grouse are the next feature, and this sees Ray and the cameraman camping until the next morning in the hope of seeing the courtship rituals of the Capercallie. The males are displaying around their territories! After hearing of a bit of a scrap between two cocks, the birds have dispersed…or have they? It seems that they were just biding their time and we see two cocks shouting clopping sounds and a brawls ensues. It’s brief and the winner leaves to take his females.

Unfortunately, this is where the programme ends. It was a shame, this episode was much tighter than the whole of the previous series. It feels much more like Ray when he was at the BBC. Like Ray back at the top of his game. I’ll be looking forward to episode two.