WHAT DO ALLIGATORS EAT?




Not to be confused with crocodiles, alligators are only native to the United States and China. In America they are found in the southeast United States: all of Florida and Louisiana, the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, coastal South and North Carolina, Eastern Texas, the southeast corner of Oklahoma and the southern tip of Arkansas. The majority of American alligators inhabit the states of Florida and Louisiana, with over a million alligators in each state.

American alligators live in freshwater environments, such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps, as well as brackish environments. The Chinese alligator currently is found only in the Yangtze River valley and is extremely endangered, with only a few dozen believed to be left in the wild. Indeed, far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild.

So, just what do alligators eat?

What alligators eat will depend on its age and how big it is. When young, alligators will eat small fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms. As they mature into a larger beasts,  they will eat progressively larger prey. This will include larger fish such as gar, turtles, various mammals such as water birds and deer, and other reptiles.  They will even consume carrion if they are sufficiently hungry. Adult alligators can take razorbacks and deer and are well known for killing and eating smaller alligators!

In areas where human populations encroach on alligator territories larger alligators are also known to ambush dogs. Attacks on humans are rare but not unknown. Unlike large crocodiles, alligators do not immediately regard a humans as prey, but they may still attack in self-defence if provoked.

Due to the design of their teeth alligators are unable to chew their food so their stomachs also often contain gizzard stones which are used to help break down and digest their food . 

THE RAINFOREST



Rainforests are forests that are characterized by high rainfall, with definitions based on a minimum normal annual rainfall of 1750-2000 mm (68-78 inches). The monsoon trough - alternatively known as the inter-tropical convergence zone - plays a significant role in creating the climatic conditions necessary for the Earth's tropical rainforests.

Around 40% to 75% of all biotic species are indigenous to the rainforests. In fact it has been estimated that there may be many millions of species of plants, insects and microorganisms still undiscovered in tropical rainforests. Tropical rainforests have been called the 'Jewels of the Earth' and the 'World's Largest Pharmacy'. Why? Because over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered here.

Rainforests are also responsible for 28% of the world's oxygen turnover, sometimes misnamed oxygen production, processing it through photosynthesis from carbon dioxide and consuming it through respiration.

Rainforests support a very broad array of fauna, including mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. Mammals may include primates, felids and other families. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, chameleons and other families; while birds include such families as vangidae and Cuculidae. Dozens of families of invertebrates are found in rainforests.

Fungi are also very common in rainforest areas as they can feed on the decomposing remains of plants and animals. Many rainforest species are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation, habitat loss and pollution of the atmosphere.

The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the poor penetration of sunlight to ground level. This makes it easy to walk through an undisturbed, mature rainforest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees.

WHAT IS THE RAIN FOREST MADE UP OF?

A tropical rainforest is typically divided into four main layers, each with different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular area. These layers are as follows:

1. The Emergent layer

The emergent layer contains a small number of very large trees called emergents, which grow above the general canopy, reaching heights of 45–55m, although on occasion a few species will grow to 70–80m tall. They need to be able to withstand the hot temperatures and strong winds that occur above the canopy in some areas. Eagles, butterflies, bats and certain monkeys inhabit this layer.

2. The Canopy layer

The canopy layer contains the majority of the largest trees, typically 30–45 m tall. The densest areas of biodiversity are found in the forest canopy, a more or less continuous cover of foliage formed by adjacent treetops. The canopy, by some estimates, is home to 50 percent of all plant species, suggesting that perhaps half of all life on Earth could be found there. Epiphytic plants attach to trunks and branches, and obtain water and minerals from rain and debris that collects on the supporting plants. The fauna is similar to that found in the emergent layer, but more diverse.

A quarter of all insect species are believed to exist in the rainforest canopy. Scientists have long suspected the richness of the canopy as a habitat, but have only recently developed practical methods of exploring it.

3. Under-storey or under-canopy layer

The under-storey layer lies between the canopy and the forest floor. The under-storey (or under-story) is home to a number of birds, snakes and lizards, as well as predators such as jaguars, boa constrictors and leopards. The leaves are much larger at this level. Insect life is also abundant.

Many seedlings that will grow to the canopy level are present in the under-storey. Only about 5% of the sunlight shining on the rainforest canopy reaches the under-storey. This layer can be called a shrub layer, although the shrub layer may also be considered a separate layer.

4. Forest floor or shrub layer

The forest floor, the bottom-most layer, receives only 2% of the sunlight. Only plants adapted to low light can grow in this region. Away from riverbanks, swamps and clearings, where dense undergrowth is found, the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration. It also contains decaying plant and animal matter, which disappears quickly, because the warm, humid conditions promote rapid decay. Many forms of fungi growing here help decay the animal and plant waste.

The world’s rainforests - and therefore the world at large - are already at risk from catastrophic climate change. In less than 50 years we have seen the destruction of over half of the worlds rainforest environment due to logging and ‘slash and burn’ farming. However the loss of the rainforest continues to progress at an alarming rate - equivalent to an area of two football fields every second!

What is often not realised is that rainforests benefit everyone, and not just the local populations of where they are found. Rainforests store water, regulate rainfall, and are home to over half the planets biodiversity, but more importantly they play a critical role in helping to limit the amount of fossil fuel emissions that build up in our atmosphere every year by absorbing CO2 as part of their normal photosynthetic process. The trouble is that when they are cut down and burned, not only are they then unable to absorb these emissions, they actually release yet more CO2 into the atmosphere. Currently, rainforest destruction accounts for 17% of global CO2 emissions which is more than the global transport sector releases.

Criminal Activity 

Nowadays, Brazil's laws on deforestation are extremely strict.

No-one who farms in the rainforest is supposed to be allowed to cultivate more than 20% of the land he owns. The rest has to be left untouched, as a way of preserving the forest and protecting the environment.

But sometimes, says Waldemar, people feel they have to break the law. What else can you do if there is no other way to survive?

‘…people say we're destroying the forest, we're not. We're protecting it, we depend on it. But we have to find a way so that both we and the forest can survive…’

The settlers complain that they need more help in finding ways to make a living while keeping on the right side of the law.

They say they need education, not punishment, if the government wants them to farm the land but protect the trees at the same time.

Within the next few months, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who came to office six months ago, will have to decide whether to veto proposals to relax the Forest Code, which restricts how much land in the Amazon region can legally be cultivated.

Farmers and big international agricultural business groups say they need to be able to farm more land to provide the food that the world demands.

Tough decisions

They want an amnesty for farmers who may have cleared forest land illegally in the past, proposing that - instead of being fined - farmers who have broken the law should be required to buy more forest, equivalent to what they have cut down, in return for an undertaking to leave it untouched.

Brazil now exports more beef than any other country in the world, and agriculture makes up a quarter of the country's entire economic output.

It is also the world's second biggest producer of soya, which is an essential ingredient in animal feed, and pressure from the huge soya producers south of the Amazon who are desperate to buy more land is pushing smaller farmers like Waldemar Vieira Neves deeper into the forest.

On the one hand, President Rousseff does not want to risk jeopardising Brazil's rapid economic growth by damaging its powerful agri-business interests. On the other, she is under intense pressure from environmentalists not to approve any law that could encourage more deforestation in the Amazon.

Before her election last year, she pledged to veto any plan that would weaken the Forest Code and, within the coming months, she is going to have to decide whether to honour that pledge.

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN


Brought to popular attention by the excellent 'Pirates of the Carrabian' franchise, the Flying Dutchman is now part of most peoples vocabulary. However, the flying Dutchman is not the figment of some faceless script writers imagination, it is in fact based on an old ghost ship legend that began over 400 years ago.

The legend of the Flying Dutchman

As the story is told, an ancient 17th Century Dutch sailing ship is occasionally seen by ship’s crews as their vessels battle the elements to clear the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. However, as with all good legends, the origins are clouded and in dispute!

It appears that the story has its origins in both Dutch and German legend. The most common is a tale about a Captain Hendrick Vanderdecken. He set sail in 1680 from Amsterdam to Batavia in Dutch East India and disappeared in a gale while rounding the cape.

It is said that Vanderdecken ignored the danger and pressed on into the teeth of the tempest. The ship foundered, sending all aboard to their deaths. As punishment for his foolishness Vanderdecken and his ship were doomed to spend eternity fighting the tempest at the Cape.

However there is a second version of the story. One that tells of a Captain Bernard Fokke who was infamous for the uncanny speed of his trips from Holland to Java. So fast was his ship that people believed he was in league with the devil!

A third version changes the name to van Straaten, and yet a fourth version claims the captain’s name was Ramhout van Dam. In all of the stories, the ship remains unnamed. It seems that the reference to the “Flying Dutchman” is used to describe the cursed captain and not the ship.

According to most versions, the captain refuses to retreat in the face of the storm. In yet other stories, some terrible crime occurs on the ship, or the crew is struck by the plague and is not allowed to enter any port. For whatever the reason, the ship and its crew are doomed to sail forever.

While there is general agreement that the Lost Dutchman is merely a legend, there have been actual reported sightings of a 17th Century sailing ship battling the elements at the Cape of Good Hope over the years.

The first reference in print to the ship appears in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) attributed to George Barrington (1755–1804):

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

Perhaps the first officially reported sighting occurred in 1835 when a crew of a British ship was rounding the cape and observed a “phantom ship” approaching in the shroud of a severe storm. The British crew said the vessel appeared to be on a collision course, but then it suddenly vanished.

The H.M.S. Bacchante encountered the Flying Dutchman again in 1881, also at the cape. The following day one of the two men that made the sighting fell to his death from the rigging, thus enhancing the story to include a curse on those that see the ghostly vessel.

A more recent sighting was made by people on the shore in March, 1939. What was astounding was that it was seen by dozens of people who all gave a detailed description of a Dutch merchantman from the 17th Century.

The most famous witness ever to have seen the Flying Dutchman was the future King George V of England. His tutor, Dalton, recorded the sighting as follows:
At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her ... At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.
The last recorded sighting occurred at Cape Town in 1942 when four witnesses saw a sailing ship enter Table Bay and then disappear before their eyes.

HOW TO KILL MOSS IN LAWNS




Ok, you've got moss in your lawn and you want to kill it off. So why not put down some moss killer and do a proper job on it? Why? Because it will only grow back again! Unfortunately for lawn keepers everywhere, having moss in your lawn is just a product of your local environment. Put simply, what your lawn doesn't like -  the moss probably will. So if your lawn is struggling you can place a sure bet that moss is likely to be thriving. Remember the following guidelines:

Moss loves, shade, damp, acidic soil and poor drainage.

Lawns hate, shade, damp, acidic soil and poor drainage.

So, if you want to get rid of the moss in your lawn permanently, you will need to deal with at least one or more of the above environmental issues!

SHADE

Shade is the tricky one in the box, because to get rid of the shade you will need to get rid of what is causing the shade. Depending on what the obstacle is - your house for example - you could be onto a non-starter. But if is an overgrown hedge or broken-down shed you may be in a position to remove it (in the case of the shed), or lower it (in the case of the hedge).

If you cannot remove the obstacle responsible for causing the shade - and presuming there are no other underlying problems - you could always consider removing the existing turf from the problem area and then re-seed it with a lawn seed mix specially blended for use in shaded areas. Alternatively you could always extend your existing borders to encompass the shaded area - therefore eliminating the need to have any turf there in the first place!

DAMP

A damp soil is almost always associated with shade, but far easier to deal with. Lawns that grow on soils that are periodically waterlogged will be at risk from moss for similar reasons to that of lawn grown in shady areas. This can be partly due to compacted soil, or by the lawn being laid onto a heavy/clay soil.

The roots of the grass require air pockets in the soil so that the plant cells within the roots have access to oxygen. This oxygen is required for these cells to metabolise - without which the cells, and later the roots themselves, will die. Simply put, the health of your lawn can severely suffer in waterlogged conditions allowing the moss to take a foot hold. In extreme or prolonged conditions the moss will once again out-compete the turf.

To improve drainage within the soil you will need a 'Hollow Tine Aerator' - a simple device that removes cylindrical plugs of soil from the top few inches of soil. Simply spiking the soil with a fork - or as in the short film above - a shoe made of nails will not do the job. This is because the tine or nail simply pushes the soil apart to make a small gap. Give it a day of so and a touch or rain, and the soil will expand back into place rendering the work (you have just previously done) useless!

NOT ENOUGH WATER!

This may sound at odds with the previous statement but there is some sense to it- even though it may not be immediately obvious.

When lawns are left to fend for themselves over hot dry summers, they will tend to thin out and brown off. Unfortunately, these gaps within the turf can be all that is required for dormant mosses and their spores to take off.

All you need to do is wait for the autumn rains to arrive for your moss to take a clear advantage over these weakened areas. With that in mind - water you lawn!

THIN, SHALLOW SOILS

If your turf or grass seed was grown on soil that is less than four to five inches deep, it is not considered deep enough to grow and maintain a healthy, vigorous lawn. Of all the environmental conditions that can have a detrimental effect on your lawn, this is probably the one that is the most difficult to deal with.

Unless you are prepared to remove your turf and start again (with the addition of a few more inches of topsoil) it is probably going to take a few years to deal with. Why? Because other than periodically brushing thin layers of topsoil on to your existing turf there is not much else you can do.

As mentioned before, the better condition your grass is, the better it will be at fending off moss.

ACIDIC SOILS

Put simply, lawn grass does not care for acidic soil whereas moss will happily grow to its hearts content. In order to be sure that soil acidity is a factor you will need to carry out a soil test to assess the acidity of the soil. If your soil is indeed acidic then it is likely in need of adjustment. In order to rebalanced the soil, lime can be applied in the autumn.

CUTTING YOUR LAWN TOO SHORT

This is quite possibly one of most common reasons as to why moss is allowed to gain an advantage in lawns. Cutting your lawn as short as possible, may well make your grass look amazing but over time the constant removal of healthy growth will tire the grass and leave it in a weakened condition. As I am sure you know by now, a weakened lawn will allow moss to take advantage and establish itself.

WHERE IS THE RAINFOREST?


The world’s rainforests - and therefore the world at large - are at risk from catastrophic climate change. In less than 50 years we have seen the destruction of over half of the worlds rainforest environment from logging and ‘slash and burn’ farming. However the loss of the rainforest continues to progress at an alarming rate, equivalent to an area of two football fields every second!

What is often not realised is that rainforests benefit everyone, and not just the local populations of where they are found. Rainforests store water, regulate rainfall, and are home to over half the planets biodiversity, but more importantly they play a critical role in helping to limit the amount of fossil fuel emissions that build up in our atmosphere every year by absorbing CO2 as part of their normal photosynthetic process. The trouble is this, when they are cut down and burned not only are they then unable to absorb these emissions they actually release yet more CO2 into the atmosphere. Currently, rainforest destruction accounts for 17% of global CO2 emissions which is more than what the global transport sector releases.

So where are the rainforests?

Many of the world's rainforests are associated with the location of the monsoon trough, also known as the inter-tropical convergence zone.

As the name suggests, tropical rainforests are rainforests in the tropics, and they are mainly found in the equatorial zone (between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn). However, tropical rainforests are also present in south-east Asia (from Myanmar (Burma) to Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and north-eastern Australia), Sri Lanka, sub-Saharan Africa from Cameroon to the Congo (Congo Rainforest), South America (e.g. the Amazon Rainforest), Central America (e.g. Bosawás, southern Yucatán Peninsula-El Peten-Belize-Calakmul), and on many of the Pacific Islands (such as Hawaiʻi). Tropical rainforests have been called the "Earth's lungs", although it is now known that rainforests contribute little net oxygen addition to the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

What is a rainforest?

Rainforests are forests that are characterized by high rainfall, with definitions based on a minimum normal annual rainfall of 1750-2000 mm (68-78 inches). The monsoon trough - alternatively known as the inter-tropical convergence zone - plays a significant role in creating the climatic conditions necessary for the Earth's tropical rainforests.

Around 40% to 75% of all biotic species are indigenous to the rainforests. In fact it has been estimated that there may be many millions of species of plants, insects and micro-organisms still undiscovered in tropical rainforests. Tropical rainforests have been called the 'Jewels of the Earth' and the 'World's Largest Pharmacy'. Why? Because over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered here.

Rainforests are also responsible for 28% of the world's oxygen turnover, sometimes misnamed oxygen production, processing it through photosynthesis from carbon dioxide and consuming it through respiration.

Rainforests support a very broad array of fauna, including mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. Mammals may include primates, felids and other families. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, chameleons and other families; while birds include such families as vangidae and Cuculidae. Dozens of families of invertebrates are found in rainforests. Fungi are also very common in rainforest areas as they can feed on the decomposing remains of plants and animals. Many rainforest species are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation, habitat loss and pollution of the atmosphere.

The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the poor penetration of sunlight to ground level. This makes it easy to walk through an undisturbed, mature rainforest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees.

WHO WAS CHARLES DARWIN?


Charles Darwin was a gifted naturalist, a prolific writer and author, and one of the most important figures in the history of science. Born on February 12th 1809 in Shropshire, England, he was grandson to Erasmus Darwin - a famous natural philosopher, and Josiah Wedgwood - known for the industrialisation of the production of pottery.


Darwin's scientific career began in 1825 as an apprentice doctor moved home to Scotland in order to study medicine at Edinburgh University.

However, Darwin became disinterested in this subject and neglected his medical studies to spend time on his latest fascination for taxonomy - the classification of living things, and marine invertebrates.

In 1828, Darwin was sent to Cambridge with the intention of studying for a Bachelor of Arts, but once again his focus became diverted, concentrating his energies on beetle collecting, botany, geology and natural philosophy.

Perhaps the cornerstone event of Darwin's life was a five year voyage around the world on the ship HMS Beagle.

This voyage took place between 1831 and 1836, and while the ship's primary mission was to survey and chart coasts  to survey and chart the South American coastlines,

At this time, most Europeans believed that the world was created by God in seven days as described in the bible.

On the Beagles historic voyage, Darwin read Lyell's 'Principles of Geology' which suggested that the fossils found in rocks were actually evidence of animals that had lived many thousands or millions of years ago. Lyell's argument was reinforced in Darwin's own mind by the rich variety of animal life and the geological features he saw during his voyage. The breakthrough in his ideas came in the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles west of South America.

Of these, the most important and best known, was his theory of evolution by natural selection. Although, evolutionary ideas had been common since at least the 18th century, Darwin was able to describe how the process of natural selection (Darwins theory of how which evolution occurred) by presenting overwhelming arguments and clear evidence of his position. This path of scientific discovery was backed by extensive 'evolution-based' experimentation.

On his return to England in 1836, Darwin tried to solve the riddles of these observations and the puzzle of how species evolve. Influenced by the ideas of Malthus, he proposed a theory of evolution occurring by the process of natural selection. The animals (or plants) best suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on the characteristics which helped them survive to their offspring. Gradually, the species changes over time.

Darwin worked on his theory for 20 years. After learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas, the two made a joint announcement of their discovery in 1858. In 1859 Darwin published 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection'.

The book was extremely controversial, because the logical extension of Darwin's theory was that homo sapiens was simply another form of animal. It made it seem possible that even people might just have evolved - quite possibly from apes - and destroyed the prevailing orthodoxy on how the world was created. Darwin was vehemently attacked, particularly by the Church. However, his ideas soon gained currency and have become the new orthodoxy.

Darwin died on 19 April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

DARWINS THEORY OF EVOLUTION

Based on a transcript written by the brilliant Sir David Attenborough


Our Earth is the only known planet that sustains life, and it does so in abundance.The sheer number and variety of plants and animals is astonishing. Estimates of the number of different species vary from 6 million to 100 million, and there are often a multitude of variations on a single pattern. For example, there are nearly 200 different kinds of monkey, 315 hummingbirds, nearly 1000 bats, and around 350,000 species of beetle. Not to mention a quarter of a million different species of flowering plant!

Even in one small English woodland, you might see four or five different kinds of finches! Why should there be such dazzling variety, and how can we make sense of such a huge range of living organisms?

200 years ago, a man was born who was to explain this incredible diversity of life, and in doing so he revolutionised the way in which we see the world and our place in it. His name was Charles Darwin.

The Bible explains how this wonderful diversity came about:

'...on the third day after the creation of the world - God created plants. On the 5th day, fish and birds and then, on the sixth day mammals and finally man...'

'...and when God had finished, he said to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl in the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"...

This made it clear that according to the bible, humanity could exploit the natural world as they wished, and this explanation was believed - literally - by most of western Europe for the best part of 2000 years!

In 1831, a British survey ship 'The Beagle' set off on a voyage around the world. On board, as a companion to the captain, was a 22 year old Charles Darwin. They crossed the Atlantic and made landfall on the coast of Brazil. There, the sheer abundance of tropical nature astonished the newcomer. As a boy, Darwin was a fanatical collector of insects and here he was enthralled almost to the point of ecstasy. In one day - and only in a small area, he discovered 69 different species of beetle. In his journal, he wrote

'...its enough to disturb the composure of the entomologists mind to contemplate the future dimension of a complete catalogue...'

They went south, rounded Cape Horn and so reached the Pacific. Then in September 1835 - after they had been away for four years, they landed on the little known islands of the Galapagos. Here they found creatures that existed nowhere else in the world. Cormorants that had lost the power of flight, and lizards that swam out to the surf to graze on the bottom of the sea.

Darwin,who had studied botany and geography at Cambridge university collected specimens of the animals and plants, and as usual, when he went ashore to investigate he described what he found in his journal.

'...my servant and self were landed a few miles to the north-east in order that I might examine the district, mentioned above - as resembling chimneys, volcanic chimneys presumably, the comparison would have been more exact if I had said the iron furnaces near Wolverhampton...'

The British resident in the Galapagos claimed that he knew from the shape of the giant tortoises shell, which island it had come from. If it had a rounded front to its shell, it came from a well watered island where it fed on lush ground plants. Whereas one from a drier island had a peak at the front which enabled it to reach up to higher vegetation. Were these tortoises - each on their separate islands - different species, and if so, was each one a separate act of divine creation?

The differences that Darwin had noticed amongst these Galapagos animals were of course all tiny, but if they could develop, wasn't it possible that over the thousands or millions of years a whole series of such differences might add up to one revolutionary change?

On his voyage home, Darwin had time to ponder on such things. Could it be that species were not fixed for all time, but could in fact slowly change? On his return, he sorted out his specimens and sent them off to relevant experts so that each could be identified and classified. Most of the mammal bones and fossils he sent to Richard Owen.

Owen was one of the most brilliant zoologists of his time. He was the first to recognise dinosaurs and was indeed the very man who invented their name.Owen would later become the creator, and then director of the Natural History Museum in London.

Many of the specimens that Darwin collected are still preserved and treasured at the Natural History Museum amongst the 17 million other specimen housed in the museum that Owen founded.

Soon after his return from his voyage, Darwin made his home at Downe House in Kent. Here, he wrote an account of his travels and worked on detailed scientific treatises about corals and barnacles, and the geology and fossils of South America. But he also pondered deeply on what he had seen in the Galapagos and elsewhere. Maybe species were not fixed!

Every day, Charles Darwin took a walk down to a small spinney which was planted at the end of his garden, and it was here that he came to ponder on the problems of natural history, including that mystery of mysteries. How could one species turn into another?

He noted that most, if not all, animals produced many more young than was required than live and breed themselves. A female blue tit for example may well lay a dozen eggs a year, and perhaps 50 or so in her lifetime. Yet only two of her chicks needed to survive and breed themselves in order to maintain the numbers of the blue tit population. Those survivors of course, are likely to be the healthiest and best suited to their particular environment. Their characteristics are then inherited so perhaps over many generations, and particularly if there are environmental changes, species may well change. Only the fittest survived and that was the key. Charles Darwin called this - Natural Selection!

This observation would explain the differences that he had noted in the finches that he had brought back from the Galapagos. They were very similar except for their beaks.

One species had a thin, delicate beak which it used to catch insects, while another - on the other hand - came from an environment where there was a lot of nuts, has a big heavy beak that enables it to crack them. So maybe over the vastness of geological time, particularly is species were invading new environments, those changes would amount to very radical changes indeed.

Darwin drew a sketch in his notebooks to illustrate his idea, showing how a single ancestral species might give rise to several different ones, and wrote above it a tentative:

             I think!

Now, Darwin had to prove his theory and he spent years gathering abundant and convincing evidence. He was an extraordinary letter writer. In fact he wrote as many as a dozen letters every day to scientists and naturalists all over the world.

He also realised that when people had first started domesticating animals, they had been doing experiments for him for centuries. All domestic dogs are descended from a single ancestral species, the wolf! Dog breeders selected those pups which had the characteristics which happened to please them. Nature of course, selects those young animals that are best suited to  a particular environment, but the process is essentially the same and in both cases it has produced an astonishing variety.

In effect many dog breeds could be considered to be different species, because they do not and  indeed they cannot interbreed. For purely mechanical reasons, there is no way a Pekingese could mate with a Great Dane! Of course, it's true that if you used artificial insemination you could get crosses between almost any breed of dog, but that is because human beings have been selecting dogs for only a few centuries. Nature has been selecting between animals for millions of years, tens of millions of years, in fact even hundreds of millions of years. So what might have started out as we would have considered breeds, have now become so different, they are species.

Darwin, sitting in Downe House, wrote to pigeon fanciers and rabbit breeders asking all kinds of detailed questions about their methods and results. He himself, being a country gentleman and running an estate knew about breeding horses, sheep and cattle and he also conducted careful experiments on plants in his greenhouse. But Darwin knew that species could appear without Divine intervention would appal society in general and it was also contrary to the beliefs of his wife Emma who was a devout christian. Perhaps for that reason, he was keen to keep the focus of his work scientific.

He made a point of not being drawn in public about his religious beliefs, but in the latter part of his life he withdrew from attending church. Perhaps because he feared that his theory would cause outrage in some quarters,  he delayed publishing it year after year after year - but he wrote a long abstract of it. Then, on July 5th 1844, he wrote this letter to his wife:


My dear Emma, I have just finished this sketch of my species theory, I therefore write this in case of my sudden death that you would devote £ 400 to its publication.

He then goes on to list his various naturalist friends who would be asked to edit and check it, and he ends the letter charmingly:


My dear wife, yours affectionately, C.R. Darwin.

He continued to accumulate evidence and refine his theory for the next fourteen years, but then his hand was forced. In June 1858, 22 years after he got back from the Galapagos, he received a package from a naturalist who was working in what is now Indonesia. His name was Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace had been corresponding with Darwin for some years, but this package was different! It contained an essay that set out exactly the same idea as Darwins - of evolution by natural selection! The idea had come to Wallace as he lay in his hut semi delirious in a malarial fever. But although his idea of natural selection was the same as Darwins he had not spent twenty years gathering the mountain of evidence to support it as Darwin had done, but whose idea was it?

In the end the senior members of the Linnean Society decided that the fairest thing was for a brief outline of the theory from each of them would be read out one after the other at a meeting of the society in Burlington House, London. The Linnean, then as now, was a place where scientists studying the natural world held regular meetings to present and discuss papers about their observations and thoughts.

The one held on July 1st 1858 was attended by only about 30 people, and neither of the authors were present. Wallace was 10,000 miles away in the East Indies, and Darwin was ill and devastated by the death  a few days earlier of his infant son,so he was still at his home in Kent. As a consequence, the two papers had to be read by the secretary and as far as we can tell they made very little impression on anyone!

Darwin spent the next year writing out his theory in detail, then he sent the manuscript to his publisher John Murry whose firm, then as now, had offices in Picadilly, London. Murry was the great publisher of his day, and dealt with the works of Jane Austin, and Lord Byron.

Darwin regarded his work as simply as a summery, but even so, it is 400 pages long! It was published on November 24th 1859, and changed forever how humans see themselves and the world in which we live.




PANDA BEAR




The panda, or more accurately known as the Giant Panda is a true bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognizable by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body.

The western world first learned of the giant panda in 1869 when the French missionary Armand David received a skin from a hunter on 11 March 1869. The first living giant panda to be seen outside China was by the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. In 1938, five giant pandas were sent to London, but no more to follow for the next half of the century due to the Second World War and its repercussions.

As the emblem of the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and more recently the main characture in the hit Kung Fu Panda films, the Giant Panda is among the world's most adored and protected rare animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.


Panda Facts

The giant panda is an endangered species because it is threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, the giant panda has been a target for poaching by locals since ancient times and then by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Thankfully, starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas still remained a source of soft furs for the locals. The population boom in China after 1949 created further stress on the pandas' habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including the Giant Pandas.

Worse was to come because during the Cultural Revolution, all studies and conservation activities on the pandas were stopped. Then after the Chinese economic reform, demand for panda skins from Hong Kong and Japan led to illegal poaching for the black market - acts which were generally ignored by the local officials at the time.

The Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda population, but few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, due to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of Giant Panda ecology. Many believed that the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered further from the terrible conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural habitat, along with segregation due to caging, reproduction of wild pandas was severely limited. But things began to change in the 1990s, when several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped the chances of survival for pandas. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, even though they still are classified as a rare species.


In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000. Although the species is still endangered, it is thought that the conservation efforts are working. In 2006, there were 40 panda reserves in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.

Not all conservationists agree that the money spent on conserving pandas is money well spent. Chris Packham has argued that breeding pandas in captivity is pointless because there is not enough habitat left to sustain them. He argues that the money spent on pandas would be better spent elsewhere, and has said that he would eat the last panda if he could have all the money that has been spent on panda conservation put back on the table  to do more sensible things with, though he has apologized for upsetting people who like pandas. He points out that "The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."

Where do pandas live?

Giant Pandas are solitary animals confined to the highly fragmented mountain forests found only in remote China. And because a panda’s diet consists mostly of bamboo shoots,  pandas are usually found in bamboo rich forests situated 1500 meters above sea level. However, recent research from Chinese Academy of Sciences  has managed to find out a wholelot more about where pandas live.

They generally avoid the higher peaks - as bamboo has difficulties growing in the higher altitude, as well as the lower areas which are now dominated by people.

They also tend to limit their movements to high altitude conifer forests and mixed forests, as well as historically clear-felled forest. Why? Because such areas are better for raising their young. Furthermore, female pandas are now known to be selective about the choice of their den sites and often make their dens in stands of large conifer trees more than 200 years old. Furthermore, it also turns out that they prefer habitats that slope at an angleof between 10 and 20 degrees, and abandoned logging trails - though this could be an artefact of the number of roads of this type that crisscross the region. Conversly, male pandas have been found to frequent habitat close to roads used by vehicles, perhaps due to their need to move greater distances to find prospective female mates.

The discovery could inform strategies for conserving wild pandas and releasing them back into the wild.

Dunwu Qi and Fuwen Wei of the Institute for Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues studied the movements of giant pandas within the Liangshan Mountains of south central China.

They conducted transect surveys recording the presence of pandas by sight or by their droppings. By studying the DNA in these faecal samples, the researchers were able to determine the sex of the pandas encountered.

That means they are likely to be disproportionately affected by habitat loss and people exploiting the forest.
It should also be taken into account when breeding programmes release giant pandas back into the wild.


LAVENDER



Lavender is without doubt one of the most popular of all hardy shrubs, and why not? Tolerant of drought, heat, poor soils and most pests and diseases, not only does will lavender flower its heart out, it is a fantastic source of nectar for pollinating insects!

However, you can't just plant lavender anywhere and they can easily be killed by too much kindness.

So, just how do you successfully plant lavender?

Lavender is a genus of 39 species of flowering plants that are native to Africa, the Mediterranean, South-West Asia, Arabia, Western Iran and South-East India. And this is important because knowing where lavender comes from will allow you to - at least in part - mimic the conditions that they have evolved to survive.

Lavenders flourish best in dry, well-drained, sandy or gravelly soils in full sun. All lavender species need little or no fertilizer and good air circulation. This is particularly important in areas of high humidity as root rot due to fungus infection can be a problem. Avoid organic mulches as this can trap moisture around the plants' bases, again encouraging root rot. Instead, use pea gravel, decomposed granite, or sand instead.

How to take cuttings of lavender?

Taking cuttings from lavender is surprisingly very easy so long as you take them at the right time of year. Luckily you will get two bites of the cherry regarding this as you can take lavender cuttings either in the spring - just before the plant comes into flower, or in the autumn around august time.

Lavender has been propagated by cuttings for thousands of years so I will keep the technique 'old school' because I know this way works. Using 3 inch terracotta pots, fill with a good quality compost such as John Innes 'Seed  and Cutting' or you can make your own by mix approximately 3 parts peat moss with 1 part horticultural grit or vermiculite. The most important thing here is that the compost is well drained. Dampen the mixture then poke a small hole about 1 to 1½ inches deep into the soil  into which you will plant your 'freshly -cut' cuttings.

How to take lavender cuttings

Taking a cutting from a healthy mature lavender plant will not harm it, and besides - it will need to be cut back hard at the end of summer anyway to encourage strong healthy growth in the spring.

Using a sharp, sterilised knife or secateurs, cut a small branch off the lower half of the plant that is about 3-5 inches long. Make sure that the branch is soft and not woody. Strip the bottom half of the cutting of leaves, place in the hole in soil that you prepared earlier then close the hole with soil. There is no need to use rooting hormones on lavender cutting, but no harm will be done if you are addicted to using it.

Water your new plant thoroughly after planting. For the first couple of weeks keep the soil damp, but then water less frequently. At this point water when the soil begins to get dry, but before the plant displays any distress. Too much water will kill your new lavender plant. When attempting to propagate lavender, this is the most common mistake.

After about 6 weeks you can move your new lavender plant to a larger pot or into the ground. If planting lavender in the ground, dig the hole about 1 ft wide and about 8 inches (20 cm) deep. Prepare the soil by mixing sand, peat moss or compost, and your native soil. It's most important that the soil drain very well. Fill the hole far enough with your soil mixture that the plant will be at the proper level when the hole is filled the rest of the way. Before filling add a teaspoon full of bone meal or another slow release fertilizer. After removing the plant from the small pot, pour a small amount of root stimulator on the roots, then cover with soil.

When do you prune back lavender?

When should you cut back your lavender plants? Not sure? Well, get it wrong and you risk leaving your plants a weak and sorry-looking bag of sticks.

Get it right and next year your plants will be vigorous and full of soft, succulent, and healthy growth. Make sure you get it right by pruning your lavender plants back in August.

Why August? Because August is the hottest month of the year - at least is is where I live. And the reason why this is important is because the plant will be naturally dormant during this time, but ready of a second seasons flush of growth during the on-coming autumn.

Of course if you don't live in a European climate and August is not the hottest month of your year then I am sure you will know which one it is for your location and therefore prune back in that month.

How to prune back lavender

You prune English lavender Lavandula angustifolia by cutting it back by two thirds of its overall height, you can even cut into the bare wood, if needed. New shoots will quickly appear at the base of the bush and these will have enough time to grow and harden up before winter comes.

This pruning regime will keep an English lavender plant compact for many years and a well-pruned plant can last for twenty years or more without becoming woody.

You can give English lavender another tidy in April to delay flowering time. This is particularly useful close to roses, because the main flush of lavender follows the June flush of roses.

With less hardy lavender varieties you never cut back hard into the bare wood. Shape them with shears in late August, aiming for a rounded mound of foliage.

Lavender stoechas varieties have a flag-like petals at the top of each thick flower spike and they are often labelled Spanish or French lavenders. They flower in much earlier, often in May, but are much less hardy than most garden lavenders. Give them a very gentle trim after the first flush of flowers has faded, often in late June, but never cut them back hard as this can kill them off.

CAN DOLPHINS KILL SHARKS?




Dolphins and many shark species are similar in shape and size, and inhabit the same regions and depths of the ocean. Sharks have a reputation for being fierce predators. hardly surprising when they are armed with rows of sharp serrated teeth that can easily bite through flesh and bone. Unlike dolphins, sharks have a very tough, sandpaper-like skin that is not easily punctured.

Dolphins, on the other hand, are seen as intelligent, playful creatures. They only have a single row of peg-like teeth which is mainly used for catching smaller fish. Their skin is soft, flexible and can be cut easily.

So at face value, it would seem that sharks would have the edge over a dolphin in a face to face fight - but all is not as it seems!

Since dolphins normally travel together in a group - known as a pod, if one of them is threatened by a shark, the other members of the group will join in to defend the dolphin that is in danger.

The dolphin's main weapon is their snout, otherwise known as their beak. It is made of very strong and thick bone, and has a hard, rounded end.

If the pod decides to defend against a likely shark attack, the dolphins will circle the shark very rapidly from different directions. This causes the shark to become confused and is then unable to choose a specific dolphin to chase.

When a dolphin becomes suitably positioned below a shark - usually at a distance of several meters, the dolphin will make a sudden rush at the shark's softer underbelly ramming it with his snout. This has the effect is like an extremely powerful punch. The shark can be seriously injured with a single blow, and they are often stunned or knocked unconscious. The dolphins will sometimes repeatedly ram a shark that has been very aggressive, and are quite capable of killing a large, dangerous shark.

However, attacking dangerous sharks clearly has an element of serious risk and so dolphins are often unwilling to attack the 'bigger boys' such as white sharks, tiger sharks, mako sharks and bull sharks, unless of course they have good reason to ie. protecting pregnant females, calves or injured individuals.

However, if a pod has no good reason to stay and fight then they will, more often than not, swim away.