Doctor Who: The Second Doctor Era (1966 – 1969)

patrick-troughton

“There’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton,” is what William Hartnell reportedly said with regards to his successor as the Doctor. 46 years old when he started in the role, Troughton was known as an experienced character actor; not wanting to simply copy Hartnell’s Doctor, his interpretation of the character was described as a “cosmic hobo”, more casual, eccentric and dishevelled-looking than Hartnell. Following his first brief on-screen appearance at the end of The Tenth Planet, the Second Doctor’s first full adventure – Episode 1 of The Power of the Daleks – aired on 5th November 1966.

The Second Doctor’s era consisted of 21 stories and 119 episodes. Unfortunately, 53 episodes are currently lost, having been deleted from the BBC archives with no copies having yet been found elsewhere; they can be watched only as reconstructions with audio and stills. Only seven of the Second Doctor’s stories can be watched as actual moving episodes in their entirety: The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Enemy of the World, The Dominators, The Mind Robber, The Krotons, The Seeds of Death and The War Games.

Notable firsts for the Second Doctor’s era include the first appearance of the Ice Warriors (who constantly made me feel uncomfortable with their asthmatic breathing), the Doctor’s first use of his sonic screwdriver, and the introduction of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), an organisation intended to oppose extraterrestrial threats on Earth. Nicholas Courtney – who had a small role in The Daleks’ Master Plan during the First Doctor’s era – would make his first appearance as Colonel Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart in The Web of Fear; Lethbridge-Stewart would go on to become a Brigadier, a commander in UNIT, and an important recurring character in Doctor Who. The War Games saw the Doctor’s first (unwilling) on-screen journey to his home planet; the planet itself was not given a name at this point, but the Doctor’s people were referred to as ‘Time Lords’ for the first time.

Accompanying the Second Doctor for almost his entire journey was an 18th-century highlander named Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines, who was actually from Yorkshire, though his mother was Scottish). Jamie holds the record for appearing in more regular episodes than any other companion – no less than 113 – though due to the different format of the revived series, Clara Oswald, Amy Pond and Rose Tyler surpass him in terms of numbers of regular stories.

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Tired out from the demanding filming schedule, and wanting to avoid being typecast, Patrick Troughton elected to leave Doctor Who after three years in the lead role. He made his final regular appearance on 21st June 1969, the final episode of The War Games, in which the Time Lords forced the Second Doctor to regenerate and exiled him to Earth for breaking their non-interference laws. Troughton would end up returning to the show and reprising the role of the Second Doctor three times: in The Three Doctors in 1973, The Five Doctors in 1983, and The Two Doctors in 1985. On 28th March 1987, while attending a science-fiction convention in Columbus, Georgia, Troughton died of a heart attack in his hotel room, aged 67.

My Thoughts

Honestly, I didn’t find the Second Doctor’s era to be quite as good on average as that of the First Doctor. There were many stories that I just didn’t find especially compelling; even The Tomb of the Cybermen and The War Games, both of which are generally well regarded by Doctor Who fans, didn’t do much for me personally. Nor did this era seem as imaginative as Hartnell’s. An awful lot of the stories revolve around some sort of base, with a team of humans ranging from helpful to annoying to part of the furniture, being attacked by monsters; this type of story has survived into the modern era, but here, it was used often enough to become repetitive. And while modern fans complained about the Daleks appearing too often when Russell T Davies was showrunner, the same could be said for the Cybermen in Troughton’s three seasons; they are the main villains in four of his 21 stories.

I found the Second Doctor to be good fun at first; both in his darker, more cunning moments, and in his quirky, eccentric ones, such as playing the recorder, or disguising himself as a German and a woman (not at the same time) in The Highlanders. But in later stories, he seemed to lose his charm, becoming all business and sometimes quite hard to deal with. At the end of The Web of Fear, for example, he loses his temper at his companions for inadvertently thwarting his plan to destroy the villain for good, even though they had no way of knowing about this plan and had every impression that he was about to have his brain drained.

Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills), the companions that Troughton inherited from his predecessor, still didn’t leave much of an impression in their subsequent adventures, aside from Polly going back and forth from competent to helpless depending on who was writing for her. The aforementioned Jamie was a safe and reliable companion for the Doctor and the audience: loyal, headstrong, and able to adjust to different surroundings incredibly well considering his 18th-century origins. Following the departure of Ben and Polly, the Doctor and Jamie adopted Victoria (Deborah Watling), who sadly was more of a drip than any female companion before her. Victoria was so soft and fearful that in her final adventure, Fury from the Deep, the sound-sensitive monster is defeated using the unbearably intense (and frequently heard) sound of her screaming. And while she liked the Doctor and Jamie well enough, she didn’t enjoy the actual adventures, with exciting and exotic experiences failing to make up for her life constantly being threatened. After spending much of Fury from the Deep complaining about this point, Victoria chose to leave the TARDIS behind. It’s not hard to understand why such a character doesn’t work too well as a Doctor Who companion. Thankfully, Victoria’s successor, Zoe (Wendy Padbury) was both more cheerful and more useful with her genius mathematics skills.

My Favourite Second Doctor Stories

The Power of the Daleks: I like the Daleks a lot better than the Cybermen, and this is a good story for them – they employ their more devious side here, gaining the trust of a human colony by pretending to serve them, while secretly building their army behind the scenes. The civil conflict going on within the colony only makes things more difficult for our heroes, and the story more twisting and interesting.

The Faceless Ones: This story, involving faceless aliens kidnapping tourists to steal their identities, feels more like something from later years with its mostly Earth-based setting, and the tense intrigue as the Doctor, his companions and a few other characters try to figure out what’s going on.

The Evil of the Daleks: This story was supposed to be the Daleks’ swan-song in Doctor Who itself, as their creator, Terry Nation, was trying to get them a spinoff on American television. Obviously things didn’t turn out that way, but The Evil of the Daleks would have been a worthy send-off; the Daleks themselves are used in fresh new ways (e.g. being influenced by ‘Human Factor’) and both the Doctor and Jamie are able to show off their best qualities.

The Mind Robber: An adventure where the Doctor and his companions are transported to a world populated by fictional characters was always going to be fun. One curious thing I noted was that it refers to Rapunzel as a princess, making this change from the original fairy tale decades before Disney’s Tangled did so.

My Least Favourite Second Doctor Stories

The Underwater Menace: The only thing that this story has going for it is the villain, a scenery-chewing mad scientist who wants to destroy the Earth (his own planet, no less) for no other reason than because he can.

The Wheel in Space: Boring, boring, boring. It’s six episodes long, but has just about enough story for two.

The Space Pirates: This story has far too much waffling, and is difficult to follow, not helped by the poor sound quality that makes much of the dialogue unintelligible.

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A Baby Snake in Amber!

Amber, or fossilised tree sap, has the ability to beautifully preserve the remains of animals and plants that become trapped in it. In the film Jurassic Park (and the novel it was based upon), the whole concept of bringing dinosaurs back to life is based upon the extraction of dinosaur blood from mosquitoes fossilised in amber. While it’s not actually possible to obtain usable dinosaur DNA in this way – the DNA would most likely break down, and also be seriously contaminated – real-life amber still turns up all sorts of interesting specimens, and not just insects. In December 2016, it was reported that the feathered tail of a small dinosaur, dating from 99 million years ago – the mid-Cretaceous period – had been found in amber from Myanmar. In June of this year, four Cretaceous frogs were also reported to have turned up in Myanmar amber. Now, just after World Snake Day (16th July), something else unique has been found in the amber: a baby snake!

baby-amber-snek(Ming Bai/Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Snake skeletons don’t tend to fossilise well, so there are a lot of gaps in their fossil record and most specimens that do exist are incomplete. This makes it difficult to figure out exactly how and when snakes evolved; in 2015, snake fossils dating from the Jurassic Period were reported – these were nearly 70 million years older than the previous oldest known snakes. So this new discovery, just by existing, makes an important contribution to knowledge about prehistoric snakes.

Discovered in Myanmar and dating from 99 million years ago (like the previously mentioned amber-preserved fossils), the snake has been named Xiaophis myanmarensis, and is the first fossil of a baby snake ever to be discovered. The fossil is headless, with 4.75cm of the rear body preserved. It appears to be quite similar to modern pipe snakes (Cylindrophis), relatively primitive burrowing snakes which are found in Myanmar and other southeast Asian countries. One especially interesting thing about this little snake is that it was undoubtedly living in a forest – confirmed by the presence of insects, and bits of plant, in the amber – whereas other snake fossils from around the same time have tended to be found in sediments from more aquatic environments. Indeed, the same paper notes that another piece of amber has been found containing a piece of snake skin; this came from a larger animal, possibly an older Xiaophis.

While this discovery has certainly filled in a gap and provided new revelations regarding the fossil record of snakes, it raises new questions too, and hopefully further discoveries will continue to expand our knowledge of the history of these fascinating reptiles!

Reference:
Xing, L., Caldwell, M.W., Chen, R., Nydam, R.L., Palci, A., Simoes, T.R. & McKellar, R.C. (2018), A mid-Cretaceous embryonic-to-neonate snake in amber from Myanmar. Science Advances 4 (7), EAAT5042.

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2018 World Cup: It’s Coming Home (But Only Metaphorically)

The 2018 World Cup in Russia has just ended with France deservedly taking home the trophy, twenty years after they won it for the first time. Like much of the tournament, the final match between France and Croatia was a pleasure to watch, with more excitement and goals than the finals of the last few tournaments have managed to produce.

England, meanwhile, finished fourth. I won’t say “only finished fourth”, because that’s still better than anyone but the most blindly optimistic fans expected them to achieve before the World Cup started.

It was very hard not to get too caught up in the excitement and cries of “It’s coming home!” stirred up by the English media, particularly after England beat Sweden in the quarter-final with far less tension than normal and without even conceding a goal. I had hoped and expected that they would beat Croatia in the semi-final, but despite my heart’s patriotic protests, my head was fairly certain that defeating either France or Belgium in the final would be too much to ask for. “Our team just isn’t quite there yet,” I told myself. And as it turned out, we weren’t quite good enough to beat Croatia either. It was a particular shame because we had a really comfortable first half against them – my family and I were jumping for joy when England went ahead in the first five minutes – but then Croatia started fighting back, England lost their spark, and ultimately, the better team won. Then we lost the playoff against Belgium too, in probably our least exciting match of the tournament – or maybe that was just because it was the playoff.

So England can still be considered good, but not that good. Yet I feel that the positive comments being made about the team, and how everyone should be proud, are more than just empty platitudes, as the most cynical people will claim.

Did we have an easy route through the knockout stages? On paper, yes. In practice, is there really any such thing? Russia looked like an easy win for Spain. Sweden, Mexico and South Korea looked like an easy group to get through for Germany. Japan – whom we would have played if we had won our group – came close to beating Belgium or at least taking them to extra time. Brazil would probably have been a more difficult prospect than Sweden, but because we didn’t play them in the end, nobody can say for certain what would have happened. The teams you play in the knockout stages are the ones that were good enough at that moment in time to get through the groups, and some teams historically known for being excellent simply weren’t good enough to even get to the quarter-finals this time around. England were.

Yes, our play wasn’t perfect. Yes, we scored a lot of goals from set pieces rather than open play. Yes, three of Harry Kane’s six goals were penalties. But the team still had to get into positions where they could win those set pieces and penalties in the first place – and scoring is not a guarantee from any set piece or penalty.

Here are the facts. One: England have had their best World Cup since 1990, and only their third where they finished in the top four. Two: Harry Kane has won the Golden Boot, the second English player in history to do so. Three: England won a penalty shootout at the World Cup for the first time ever. Four: in our last major tournament, just two years ago, we lost to Iceland in the last 16, and there is a big difference between that and finishing fourth at the World Cup. I believe that these are things to be proud of, and that Gareth Southgate and his players can build upon with a positive outlook.

Two years ago, I was expecting nothing but disappointment from England in the immediate future. Now, with measured optimism, I find myself looking forward to seeing what they do next.

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Film review: Incredibles 2

Incredibles

The Incredibles is both one of my favourite Pixar films and one of my favourite superhero films, and you’d think that coming up with a sequel wouldn’t be that hard, especially considering the number of other sequels that Pixar has made. And yet it’s taken fourteen years. Think about it: The Incredibles came out in the same year as (the original) Spider-Man 2, and four years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe got going – I don’t know about you, but I feel old. Anyway, is it worth the wait? Absolutely!

The film begins right where the first one left off, with the super-powered Parr family leaping into action to battle the Underminer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go terribly well and there’s an awful lot of property damage, leaving the government disinclined to make superheroism legal again. Without a home or income, things aren’t looking good for the Parrs – until they are approached by rich superhero fanatic Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, who are pursuing a more organised campaign to build support for super legalisation. Helen, aka Elastigirl, is chosen to spearhead this campaign (as she is considered less likely to destroy anything) and goes off to be a hero again; while Bob, aka Mr Incredible, is left minding the house and the three kids. Eventually, of course, the whole family gets in on the action once more, as a new villain called the Screenslaver makes their presence known.

The great thing about The Incredibles was that it had all the elements of a heartfelt family film – as you’d expect from Disney/Pixar – while also providing the thrilling action that audiences like to see in a superhero film. Fourteen years later, Incredibles 2 manages to get the approach and the tone more-or-less the same. All of the action scenes are great, with the heroes finding plenty of inventive uses for their powers. I particularly liked Elastigirl’s first solo outing – where she demonstrates just what you can do with an elastic body and a motorcycle that splits in two – and baby Jack-Jack trying out his new random assortment of abilities in a fight with a raccoon.

But as in any truly great superhero film, the action is only secondary; the real meat of Incredibles 2 is in the family element. The dynamic between all the Parrs still feels very real and relatable, given their unique position as supers; and rather than rehashing issues from the first film, we see them being thrown into new situations with new problems, particularly Bob who has to adjust to being the stay-at-home dad. Violet’s character certainly feels rather different: having overcome her shyness (and started wearing her hair back to symbolise it), she is now in the more egocentric phase of being a teenager, making overdramatic comments when she’s in a bad mood and dry ones when she’s calmer. Dash, admittedly, hasn’t changed much and doesn’t have a real arc, but he’s still enjoyable. And Jack-Jack is a lot more fun to watch than most cartoon babies.

The script and the dialogue are especially well done. The Screenslaver’s message about people wanting everything to be brought to and done for them – including having superheroes solve their problems – certainly feels relevant for the modern day despite the film apparently being set in the Sixties; I was half-expecting the Screenslaver to make a comment about YouTube reaction videos. My only real problem with the script is that when you’ve seen enough Pixar films, as soon as the protagonist’s rich, enthusiastic benefactor turns up, you start wondering when they’re going to turn out to be evil, and….well, go see the film. I was also a bit confused about the family being surprised to discover that Jack-Jack has superpowers, when I thought that they’d be able to figure that out at the end of the first film: even if they didn’t get a good look at him attacking Syndrome, what about the phonecall from the babysitter?

In summary, Incredibles 2 is an excellent continuation of the first film’s story, and provides a great deal of fun and heart – here’s hoping for an Incredibles 3 in the not-too-distant future. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Prehistoric Profiles: Stegosaurus

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Pictured: Sophie the Stegosaurus, at the Natural History Museum in London. Found in Wyoming, she is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton known to date. Photo taken by myself in February 2018.

Before I saw Jurassic Park, and Velociraptor captured my interest, my favourite dinosaur was a very different animal: Stegosaurus. It’s one of the most familiar of all dinosaurs, so I don’t know where I was first introduced to it: whether it was in my Children’s Encyclopedia of Prehistoric Life, or a dinosaur magazine, or watching with sadness as it put up a brave but futile fight against a Tyrannosaurus rex in Disney’s Fantasia. (Such a fight could never have happened in real life, as T. rex didn’t exist until 85 million years after Stegosaurus died out.) I probably liked it for its bizarre, unique appearance, and because there was a sort of nobility to it: this giant, mild-mannered herbivore might have been lacking in the intelligence department – my books frequently told me it had a brain the size of a walnut – but if faced with a malevolent predator like Allosaurus, it was ready to defend itself with its impressive spiked tail.

First described in 1877, Stegosaurus is known from many fossils found in the western United States – and, surprisingly, a specimen in Portugal. It lived in the Late Jurassic Period – from 155 to 150 million years ago – alongside a wide variety of other dinosaurs, including giant sauropods like Diplodocus. Growing up to 9m long and weighing 7 tons, it was the largest member of its family, the Stegosauridae. Its brain, incidentally, is now known to have been rather larger than a walnut, though undoubtedly very small compared to the animal’s body. Stegosaurus‘s simple, plant-eating lifestyle didn’t require an especially large brain.

There has been debate over what sort of plants Stegosaurus was physically capable of eating, with its narrow snout, horny beak, and small teeth placed further back in the mouth. A 2010 computer analysis of the skull suggested that it only had a weak bite and would have been limited to softer plant material and thin branches. However, a similar computer modelling study in 2016based on the skull of Sophie, pictured above – concluded that Stegosaurus had a stronger bite force and could therefore have handled a wider variety of plants. Due to the physical limitations of its head and neck, it would have mainly stuck to low-lying vegetation, though it might have been able to rear up on its hind legs.

The name Stegosaurus means “roof lizard”, as its describer, Othniel Marsh, originally believed that its famous bony plates lay horizontally on its back. Palaeontologists now know from better specimens that the plates stood upright in two rows, probably in an alternating arrangement along the back. Exactly what the plates were used for is uncertain. Given that they were permeated with blood vessels, relatively fragile, and offered no protection from a side-on attack, they would have had limited usefulness as defensive armour. A popular theory from the books and documentaries of my childhood is that the plates were used for thermoregulation, allowing the blood running through them to either absorb or lose heat, depending on how the animal oriented itself relative to the Sun. More recently, however, palaeontologists have questioned just how practically effective the plates would have been in this regard. As the plates were such conspicuous features, they could well have had a display function; indeed, one study indicates that they may have been sexually dimorphic, with males having larger plates.

The function of the four long spikes which pointed sideways from Stegosaurus‘s tail seems more obvious. They look very much like a defensive weapon, which Stegosaurus could have made good use of, given that it couldn’t move very fast and had to watch out for large carnivores like Allosaurus. Indeed, an Allosaurus vertebra has been found with a hole punched through it – the size of which corresponds with a Stegosaurus tail spike. This set of spikes, which can also be seen in other stegosaurs, has been dubbed a “thagomizer”. This name originally came from a 1982 cartoon by Gary Larson, in which a caveman is teaching his fellows about the Stegosaurus tail, explaining that the dangerous thagomizer is named “after the late Thag Simmons”.

As to how two Stegosaurus managed to mate with all those plates and spikes – well, palaeontologists aren’t sure about that. One suggestion is that the female would have to lie down on her side to make things as simple as possible for the male, but until we can observe a living Stegosaurus, all we can really do is speculate.

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2018 World Cup: How’s It Going So Far?

For nearly three weeks now, much of my free time has revolved around watching – or at least keeping an eye on – the World Cup. While commitments have kept me from watching as much football as I’d like, I’ve fitted it in wherever I can, and most of it has been solid entertainment with a decent number of goals. Certainly a highlight has been the more unpredictable results. Hosts Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, scored eight goals in their first two matches and are in the quarter finals after knocking out Spain, who I originally predicted would win the whole thing. Argentina only got out of the group stage by the skin of their teeth, to be subsequently eliminated by France; I was certainly pleased about that one, as well as Portugal going out to Uruguay. Then, of course, Germany didn’t get out of the group stage at all, the fourth time in the last five World Cups that the defending champions have fallen at the first hurdle.

The quarter finals are looking pretty open, with the likes of Russia, Croatia, Belgium and Sweden in the mix. Brazil stand out as the most traditionally successful team still in the competition, but they haven’t been too impressive – except in the field of amateur dramatics, in Neymar’s case – and France looked strong when they beat Argentina.

So what about England?

Well, in many ways, it feels like more of the same – and yet this young and more grounded team are giving cause for optimism. An earlier England squad would probably have drawn 1-1 with Tunisia instead of snatching a victory at the last minute, or put two or three goals past Panama instead of six. Team captain Harry Kane has scored six goals, putting him in a very good position to win the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer – which only one English player, Gary Lineker, has achieved before. But while seeing England beat anyone 6-1 is definitely a pleasure, we are still waiting to see the main squad put in a really good performance against worthy opposition.

In last night’s match with Colombia, they were certainly tested, but not in the way that supporters would like. It was less about playing good football and more about being the better men and not rising to the bait of the Colombians, who acted even more disgracefully than Panama with wrestling English players and ganging up on the referee. Being on the brink of victory, only to concede a goal in stoppage time, felt depressingly like same old England. And yet, in a way, it would have been less satisfying if England had won in normal time – because as it was, they got the chance to prove that despite all evidence to the contrary, they can in fact win a penalty shootout! That will surely be a big psychological boost.

I really thought that I could keep calm and unexpectant for this tournament, but it just hasn’t turned out that way. It’s certainly harder when England actually win a game or two. I was really worked up watching last night’s match, so much so that I spent much of extra time listening to relaxing music to try and calm down. At least I know it’s not just me: with England winning their first two group games and avoiding the bigger teams in the draw for the knockout rounds, expectations across the country have risen from rock bottom, to optimism, to even a sincere hope by some that this time, football really could be coming home.

Writing this at my computer chair, without any football on the TV, I find it easy to state that I can’t see England winning the tournament and that I’m happy enough with them getting to the quarter finals, particularly at the expense of Colombia who really didn’t deserve to go through with how they chose to play. But when England play Sweden on Saturday, I can’t expect to retain a logical state of mind. That’s just not how it works. Despite everything, I’ll probably be cheering them on with unbearable butterflies in my stomach, desperate for them to actually pull it off.

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Nature Profiles: The Common Cuckoo

Most people are familiar with how the common cuckoo’s (Cuculus canorus) life cycle works, and as a result, it is widely regarded as one of the villains of the animal kingdom. This bird is an obligate brood parasite, which reproduces solely by having other species raise its offspring. A female cuckoo lays an egg in the nest of another bird; once the baby cuckoo hatches, it throws the other eggs or chicks out of the nest and takes up all the attention of the foster parents, who then slave away to raise a chick that isn’t even their own species. In our eyes, such behaviour by the cuckoo appears downright underhanded, not to mention lazy. But personally, I find this behaviour – hijacking the life cycle of another species – to be really interesting.

There are some obvious advantages: for example, without the burden of raising their own chicks, cuckoos are able to produce a relatively high number of offspring – up to 25 eggs have been recorded for one cuckoo in a single year. Also, adult cuckoos – which spend the majority of their year in Africa, migrating north each spring to breed – are able to head south again earlier than other migrants, as early as July or August. Meanwhile, being a brood parasite isn’t as easy as simply dropping an egg into the first convenient nest and calling it a day. Birds which get the most attention from cuckoos respond by evolving more vigilant and discriminatory behaviours, so they can hopefully avoid wasting their breeding season on somebody else’s chick. In turn, the cuckoo evolves to try and get around these defences.

First, the right target is required. Different lineages of cuckoo specialise in different hosts – in Britain, dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers are favourites – and most of these lineages have evolved so that their egg visually matches that of their particular host. (Dunnocks are an exception as unlike other hosts, they haven’t yet learned to reject unfamiliar eggs.) The female cuckoo has to defend a territory containing a suitable number of host nests, and she has to closely monitor when her targets start laying. If she jumps the gun and lays her egg in a fresh, empty nest, the owners will definitely reject it – but she can’t leave it too late either, or the resident eggs will hatch before hers. When she does make her move, she also has to be as fast as possible, replacing an existing egg with her own in seconds; again, parent birds are more likely to abandon their nest if they actually see a cuckoo in the vicinity.

If the cuckoo egg survives long enough to hatch, however, the foster parents won’t desert the chick, and won’t even stop it from throwing out their own clutch. Alone in the nest, the cuckoo uses a secret weapon to ensure that it gets enough to eat. Its begging call has evolved to sound like a whole nest of chicks – so the parents are compelled to bring in enough insects for a whole nest of chicks. Through their misplaced efforts, the young cuckoo quickly grows to be many times their size, while taking significantly longer to leave the nest and become independent than their real offspring would have done. Once it is big enough, it will make its first migration to Africa, relying on instinct since all the adult cuckoos will have already gone by then.

One thing that has puzzled me, since seeing a video on YouTube, is what happens if a cuckoo lays its egg in a nestbox, where the chick will have a harder time pushing away the host eggs. In fact, a long-term study in Finland has examined this, looking at how cuckoos parasitise common redstarts, which naturally make their nests in cavities and will make use of nestboxes. According to Samas et al.’s 2016 paper on the project, just over a third of cuckoos that targeted a nestbox managed to successfully place their egg in the central nest cup. Although a cuckoo chick in a nestbox could eject at least some eggs from the cup, it did sometimes find itself having to share with redstart chicks, though this didn’t significantly affect whether the cuckoos survived. Another paper by Grim et al. in 2014 describes one incidence of great tits using a nestbox parasitised by a cuckoo; one great tit chick managed to stay in the nest cup and, despite spending most of its time stuffed underneath the larger cuckoo, survived to fledge.

Unfortunately, while the common cuckoo is globally widespread – with a breeding range across Europe and Asia – it has suffered significant declines in Britain over the past few decades, possibly due to a reduction in the caterpillars which make up most of its diet.

If you would like to learn more about cuckoos, I recommend Nick Davies’s book Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, which goes into great detail about the stages of the cuckoo’s annual reproduction, and the observations and experiments involved in learning about it.

References

Davies, N. (2015), Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Grim, T., Samaš, P., Procházka, P. & Rutila, J. (2014), Are tits really unsuitable hosts for the common cuckoo? Ornis Fennica 91: 166–177.

Samaš P., Rutila, J., & Grim, T. (2016), The common redstart as a suitable model to study cuckoo-host coevolution in a unique ecological context. BMC Evolutionary Biology 16: 255.

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Adding to my adder count

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This morning, I drove up to South Cumbria again to go for a walk around Roudsea Wood & Mosses NNR. It was a hazy morning, quite cool at first in the woodland, but it had certainly warmed up by the time I got out into the open to walk along the bog boardwalk.

I got a pleasant surprise when I happened to look to the side at the right moment and recognise the distinctive zigzag of an adder, sunbathing on top of the dead leaves – the second adder I’ve seen this year. I managed to get one photograph without being able to see its head; but before I had even begun to move to try and get a better view, it slithered under the leaves and out of sight, hissing as it went.

Adder

And on the way back, there was a common lizard sunning itself on the boardwalk too.

Lizard 2

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Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall

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On Friday, my dad and I went down to London together to see the show Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a one-night-only event, and had been presented as a blend of “science, music, comedy and wonder” – neither of us really knew what to expect.

It was my first time inside the Royal Albert Hall, and it certainly felt fancier than other venues I’d been to. We ate our dinner at Verdi, an Italian restaurant inside the venue, which meant we didn’t have to worry too much about finishing in time. Our pizzas – mine was folded over and stuffed with ham, mushroom and mascarpone – were delicious, and the staff were both friendly and professional, usually holding one or both hands behind their backs when they spoke to you. Then it was time for the show, where we found ourselves seated in a box!

The show itself, chiefly presented by comedian Robin Ince and former astronaut Chris Hadfield, was a collection of different presentations and acts, each very different apart from being themed around space. Even the science presentations were on individual topics without an overall story. This wasn’t a bad thing, though; the variety on offer worked very well, and almost all of it was entertaining. The performance by Stewart Lee – a moaning comedy act making fun of astronauts – was the only thing I couldn’t get into; Robin Ince’s segments, looking over the over-optimistic predictions for future space travel in old space books, and the contents of 1969 newspapers and TV guides, were funnier – plus his impression of Brian Blessed. It was a real treat to see Chris Hadfield in person, and he also did an excellent job at presenting, particularly when paying tribute to the late Professor Stephen Hawking and Alan Bean.

There were some really fascinating scientific lectures; it was a shame that each one couldn’t go on for longer than it did. Professor Jim Al-Khalili gave a summary of the origins and ultimate fate of the Universe, which made me want to look up more of the details I didn’t already know. Dr Helen Czerski was joined by Hawaiian elder Kimokeo Kapahulehua, on his first trip to the UK, to talk about how Pacific natives navigated using the stars. Professor Monica Grady talked about the Rosetta probe, and Professor Lucie Green went from explaining observations of the Sun to the crash landing of the Skylab space station in Australia. (Dad told me how, in 1979, with nobody knowing for certain where Skylab would come down, “Skylab helmets” were on sale in Blackpool.) I would have liked to see more of Dr Suzie Imber – the space scientist who won the Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes show – who was part of a Q&A at the beginning of the second half. Probably my favourite of the science presentations – though they were all excellent – was by Festival of the Spoken Nerd, who performed an experiment to calculate pi using a pendulum with an actual pie as the weight. With the length of the pendulum being 9.8 metres – equal to the force of gravity in metres per second squared – the time of each swing was expected to equal to pi, i.e. 3.14 seconds. Chris Hadfield was responsible for recording the total time of 10 swings, which came out at 31.7 seconds; not bad!

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The musical acts were good, too. There was “Stargazing” by She Makes War, some of which wouldn’t have felt out of place over the opening credits of a Bond film; Grace Petrie with “The Golden Record”; and Sheila Atim giving a great rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”. Public Service Broadcasting would close the show with some tracks that featured their own music accompanied with historic audio on Yuri Gagarin, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11; I liked this unique style a lot once I had time to get into it. (Plus they’ve produced similar work based around the Titanic.) Especially cool was Hadfield bringing out his guitar to perform “Space Oddity”, as he did on the ISS.

A few more segments fell into more miscellaneous categories. Hadfield spoke to Rusty Schweickart, veteran of the Apollo 9 mission which performed the first manned test of the lunar module in Earth orbit. Schweickart talked about how the spacewalk he performed during Apollo 9 widened his perspective of the world and humanity, and how future developments in space flight could progress, particularly to become more cost-effective than the Apollo program. Seb Lee-DeLisle then demonstrated his giant laser projection of a lunar landing arcade game, which Schweickart was able to complete admirably. It didn’t work so well when a setting was enabled so the applause of the audience would control the lander’s thrust; the audience eventually started laughing and sent the lander flying out of sight. Then Reece Shearsmith gave a reading of Carl Sagan’s writing on the Pale Blue Dot, the picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from six billion kilometres away.

Sagan’s words, talking about the loneliness and fragility of Earth conveyed by the image, definitely lent themselves well to a wonderful and stimulating evening. I was sad when the event came to an end, and I left with a renewed appreciation of what we’ve learned about the Universe and what could come in the future with the right attitude.

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My first badgers!

I had an exciting time yesterday evening, when I was able to go out to a hide to watch for badgers – which would be the first time I had seen a badger that wasn’t roadkill.

We started watching at about 7:30pm. It proved to be a busy spot in terms of wildlife; there were several nervous rabbits, a couple of grey squirrels having the occasional disagreement, and a colourful jay. Finally, around 8:30, came the moment we had been waiting for: the black-and-white face of an adult female badger emerged from the bushes, hanging around in the open for less than a minute before going back the way she had come.

I wondered if that brief glimpse was all we were going to get, but within the next 45 minutes, a lone badger appeared a couple more times, hanging around the entrance to the sett. Then, at about 9:15, we got a proper look: first the female and one cub emerged and began foraging, before being joined by a second cub, while a second adult started moving around a few metres away. This adult eventually seemed to startle the family, who retreated back into the sett. They spent some time poking their noses out of the holes, before coming out to feed again, this time staying out for nearly half an hour. During an interval, a fox also made a brief appearance, silhouetted among the trees in the background. Definitely a worthwhile evening!

Now here are some badger facts:

  • Nobody knows for certain where the word ‘badger’ comes from; it might originate from the French word becheur, meaning ‘digger’.
  • The Eurasian badger (Meles meles) is the largest terrestrial carnivore in Britain, ‘carnivore’ being the order of mammals to which they belong. In terms of diet, they are actually omnivores: their preferred food is earthworms, but they will also eat insects, smaller mammals (including hedgehogs), fruits and cereals.
  • According to Guinness World Records, the largest badger sett on record contained half a mile of tunnels and had 178 entrances.
  • Badgers make an effort to keep their setts clean, regularly changing their bedding, and defecating in designated outdoor latrines.
  • Badgers can mate at any time of the year: the female can retain fertilised eggs for months before they implant in the wall of her uterus, allowing her to give birth in early spring.
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