The day before that the tide had been higher than they had ever seen. They watched from the stone wall as people prepared canoes and sails. Then that morning the news reports said 26 pilot whales had beached themselves just a few miles away. People came to help but were told to go away, and they came back again with sandwiches they prepared for the coastguards and marine specialists.

The storm began during the night soon after that and kept going the whole of the next day. By the time they got back to the beach the starfish collectors had been and there were just pointed marks left in the sand.  You couldn’t see the sand at first – it looked like the whole seabed had been ripped up onto the beach.

There was a smell like warm plastic, a salty sweet smell in your mouth. The seaweed had been dragged up by its roots, and lay in glistening black and brown mountains. Weaved into it and around it on the sand were dead black and white seabirds, some of them stuck into the sand halfway by their beaks like speckled storm totems. Then ripped branches from the forests nearby and a whole fir tree, luminous pale green against all the monochrome. Plastic bottles and glass and pieces of twisted metal and some salt-rusted machinery parts. Nobody was there at all that day, the sky was completely without colour and they walked between the mounds, curious about seeing the birds and trying to find a starfish left behind.

Birds eggs and minerals

A few weeks ago on a wet yellow autumn day, I met the scientist who holds the same chair that D’Arcy Thompson once did in Dundee University; the Boyd Baxter Chair of Biology.  He is a molecular microbiologist who researches transformations of metals and minerals.

We climbed to the top of the building and past laboratories to his office – carpeted and piled high with papers and calendars. I saw visualisations of the transformations he studies – luminous, cold, beautiful and unreal – the result of microorganisms, bioweathering and bioremediation. The conversation moved back and forth and we spoke about the oily blue puddles you find when you are walking in the countryside, about tombstones with fallen faces, girls names and bone chessmen.

We talked about the museum, and the wild delight of acquisition that seems to underpin the collection here, the passion of the huntsman and the scientist combined. He told me about collecting bird’s eggs when he was young, describing an elaborate system of moss, broken sticks and markers that he and other children would operate to lead each other to a full nest. To take all the eggs and not leave some for somebody else was bad manners, so you would hopefully be rewarded for your intrepid spirit by having courteous visitors before you who left enough behind.  He said at some point when he was growing up he and the others suddenly realized the whole activity of collecting eggs was terribly wrong, and they all stopped around the same time. Still, I think of the bird’s eggs waiting to be found, and the mineral formations appearing under the microscope – perhaps they are similarly precious.

I told him about a book where the father loses his mind and hatches out exotic birds in his attic – cranes, peacocks, pelicans and a shrunken ancient condor. Today, the tobacco stubble fields are being ploughed and crows with their long claws are swooping up and down and I have been thinking of another story about a man who lives not too far from here and walks imaginary dogs.

Nile Cat-Fish

“Nile Cat-Fish, Synodontis

In this cat-fish, as in salmonids, there is an adipose fin. The first ray of the dorsal and pectoral fins is transformed into a hinged, unbranched, serrate spine. The swim-bladder is constricted forming a fore and hind part and the wall of the former is partially ossified and acoustically connected through Weberian ossicles with the ear. The name OSTARIOPHYSI, to which order the carp and cat-fish belong is derived from the form of the hindmost ossicle which is expanded; this is the tripus.”

Chameleon (for Janina)


She said that in their new house there were no chameleons in the garden. They were both missing them, so one day they drove back to their old house and climbed quickly over the fence and took a few of the smallest chameleons they could find. She says that their new garden feels better and the chameleons are breeding now.

Crocodile and Snake


The parasite theme that Vanessa began seems to be continuing. The second text I wrote for her was about pentastomids, or tongue worms, which primarily inhabit the lungs of snakes. Then last week I met a biologist in Dundee who told me about a professor who had specialized in parasitism, at one stage studying rattlesnakes and their lung parasites in the basement of one of the departments there. He described going into that room and that the moment you stepped inside they all began to rattle inside their perspex walls. He said that inevitably as you crossed the room one would strike out, hitting the side of the case sharply, and at this point he found it impossible not to leap backwards. He said that the professor never jumped, and in fact was bitten several times, until even the anti-venom became extremely toxic and he could no longer use it.

The same professor made a field trip several years ago to the mangrove swamps of Democratic Republic of Congo, to study pygmy crocodiles and their parasites.  The crocodiles are now facing extinction, because of their size and the fact they are not enormously strong and they can be easily hunted. The Congo river floods annually, replenishing pools in savannah regions with fish – the crocodiles live in these pools and feed off the fish stocks. When the waters recede, they burrow into litter and earth at the bottom and eat crustaceans and eventually have to wait out the dry season. This means that they are quite easy to find and catch. Hunters wrap their legs and jaws and tie them onto their backs. They live off their fat stores and can be carried like this for several weeks, then sold as fresh meat at markets.

Unexpectedly the next day I had an email from a naturalist and beekeeper who has been sending me fascinating information on bees and pesticides, and he told me a story about bird parasites too. One day walking, Graham found a gannet on the beach, healthy but unable to fly. He said that he learned that they are often found in that region, in Dunbar, exhausted after their migration from Africa. He wrapped the bird in a dog blanket and drove it home. The man from the SSPCA who collected it parted the bird’s feathers to show him lice that live in the web of the feathers, and can easily jump onto humans hosts, and even though they won’t live on them for long, they can bite.

On bird lice, he told me, “Almost every species of bird has its own specific species of louse – and the evolutionary relationship is extremely ancient; each species has hosted its own commensal parasite for millions of years.”

Apparently DNA analysis of the lice revealed entirely unexpected evolutionary information. It had always been assumed that bird with similar forms and habits could be related, like swifts, swallows and martins. However, when the swift lice were examined, against all expectations they found that the swift louse was closest in evolutionary terms to the peregrine falcon. And so, they came to understand that swifts descended from hawks which evolved to eat flying insects.

List 1. Objects from the Museum and Nearby


List 1. Objects from the Museum and Nearby

(certain animals and objects are included)

1. A house in the woods
2. Silk worm
3. Sun in the trees
4. The beach obscured by mist
5. Hippocampus/seahorse
6. A fish head on the beach
7. Lamprey
8. Crocodile
9. Crab meat
10. Corals
11. Whale scapula
12. Seal skin
13. Almonds (brain and bee)
14. Pink cloth on the beach
15. Otolith-
16. Coloured glass models
17. Gym hall
18. Snake skin coil
19. Turtle shell
20. Ostrich pelvis/seal skeleton
21. Bees
22. Sail
23. Sawfish
24. Cycle
25. Cabinet (the smell of whale bones)
26. Sailors bringing down sails after dark
27. Man looking for something in the sand.

Helminths, symbiosis and parasitism

The Wedding Present

Along one wall of the museum are a series of mounted and labeled specimens, which unintentionally and exquisitely demonstrate some of nature’s persistent biological interactions: Symbiosis and parasitism.

In the corner, inside a Victorian glass bell jar is a Venus Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum) – a light transmitting sponge found in the deep waters around Japan. It is composed of glass fibres that are constructed from silicic acid extracted from seawater. Traditionally, the dried sponge was given as a wedding gift, as inside it is home to a pair of small symbiotic shrimp that live in the body of the sponge and feed on its waste. Young shrimp pairs search for their own basket to live in, and once they have grown they cannot leave.

Two cases along, past the corals and bryozoa and close to the floor are a few taller vessels containing ominous pales stretched forms – Helminths, or parasitic worms.

Pentastomids, or tongue worms, are blood-consuming parasites that live the pulmonary and nasal cavities of predatory vertebrates, usually snakes. When the predator host eats the intermediate host (a fish or small mammal) the nymph of the tongue worm is released into the digestive tract and then bores into the lungs where it matures. They are rare in humans but can be transmitted by eating raw goat or sheep meat, and result in severe itching the ears and throat, and eventual death if not removed or dislodged by coughing or sneezing.

You hope that your gaze will hold them still in their glass coffins.


Golden Marmoset

Last week Alan described a strange virus that swept through all of the animals in his village – the squirrels died first, then the dogs, and the brindled monkey became quieter and weaker and then finally closed its eyes too. He buried it with his stepson, and they put chrysanthemum flowers on the top of he grave.

In a letter from D’Arcy Thompson to his grandfather –
“Additions to my museum are numerous. Within the last week I have had a porpoise, two mongooses, a small shark, an eel 8ft long and 150lb in weight, a young ostrich and two bagfuls of monkeys: all dead of course.”


Bees II

A text written for a series of podcasts curated by Vanessa Bartlett for Liverpool Biennial 2012. Based on the research of Dr Chris Connolly and his team’s research at the Division of Neuroscience at the University of Dundee.

The Scapegoat Parasite

Almost 100 years ago, on On Growth and Form Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson described the mathematical principals of honeycomb, likening bee construction techniques to cell division in embryology.  Like all insects that weave webs and spin cocoons, bees represent interconnectedness; an individual colony is a microcosm of human society, or a mirror of electrical systems within the brain.

Worldwide, there is a decline in swifts, swallows and other birds, frogs, toads, bats and all species of insect including bumblebees and honeybees.

Researchers from the Division of Neuroscience at Dundee University are studying declining bee colonies in Scotland, and various factors involved, including the use of industrial pesticides, particularly the controversial group of neonicitinoids. The team’s research hives were stolen last year; it seems that this research is unpopular. Their research reveals an east/west divide in the loss of hives that doesn’t correspond to climatic or geographic expectations – unsurprisingly the greatest losses are occurring in regions of arable farmland.

They have also found the microspordian Nosema ceranae present in over 80% of Scottish hives, suggesting that pesticides are lowering the immune system of the bees leaving them susceptible to attack from this and other pathogens and parasites such as the varroa mite.

Two years ago in the UK, 73,578kg of neonicitinoids were applied over almost 3 million acres of farmland.

In the mammalian brain the hippocampus is involved with memory function and spatial navigation. In insects the equivalent brain structure is the mushroom body. Mushroom bodies exist as dense networks of neuronal processes, with excitation and inhibition receptors, which the Neonicitinoids specifically target. In honeybees a dose equivalent to 1 teaspoon in 1000 metric tonnes of water produces chronic changes in navigation and feeding activity, leaving bees stranded and unable to return to their hives, and in turn, the hives are unable to generate heat or energy to sustain life.

Continue reading “Bees II”


He sits in his office, talking into the phone. His wife would have to take the dogs out, because he couldn’t get home early that day because the bees had been stolen. I wondered if that was the way it had happened, and tried hard to imagine the figures covering and moving the hives at night. How did they manage to take them all away without being seen – they must have had a van, and smoke.  White-van-white-veiled-ghost-man. Transporting the hives right in front of everyone – didn’t the visitors see, or the ambulance drivers? There must have been sleepless patients looking out of the windows.

But that was last year, even before their research had begun and now there are new hives, in the same place but guarded by a prison, just beside the hospital car park, far up the hill.

He was given a gift, a book about bees. A neuroscientist reading about bees. A hive behaves like electrical systems in the brain where the individual bees dancing are like neuronal processes involved in information transfer. He talks in a language of bees, parasites, pathogens, pesticides. Neonicitinoids, mushrooms bodies and microspordians.

In the basement of the hospital is a tunnel of empty corridors, pipes, spare beds and old furniture. It is uncomfortably warm even coming in from the sun, and there is total darkness. Automatic lights flicker on after a few seconds but the pause before that makes everyone laugh.  In his office his computer has changing glowing screen savers; Japanese islands, Scottish sea birds, whales, moors and flowering plants. He describes coming to the hospital the first time with his car full of the hives, not knowing anything.

We spent the day in our white space suits, tending the bees. In two hives we found the queen and marked her – clipping the tips of her wings and painting a green paint mark on her back. One hive had lost its queen because all the bees roared and had nothing to defend. There was a small brush to brush away the bees that sit in between the box edges as we put the hives back together, and I think we all apologised when we squashed one. Their bodies move away softly under our yellow gloves.

The sun was so warm that day and we took a break at lunchtime and ate fish and chips and coffee in the hospital canteen, and our fingers and hair and clothes smelled like honeycomb and smoke.