A discussion on the middle of nowhere.

Back in 2005, I was working for the Zoological Society of London and spent six weeks in Mongolia as part of the team assessing the conservation status of Mongolian mammals and fishes using the IUCN Red List categories and criteria. I was in charge of the fishes side of things. Naturally. This was before smart phones or social media – I didn’t even have a digital camera -so once a week I would go to the French cafe in Ulaanbaatar (UB) that had free WiFI, order myself a croissant and send group emails. Old-skool style.

I thought I’d bring one of my favourite “Missive from Mongolia” emails out of the archives to share here. I’d been in UB, the capital city, for two weeks and this was my first trip out of the city. I was about to find out how vast and ’empty’ this country was. And start a philosophical discussion about how there must be a somewhere for there to be a nowhere, that our family still mulls over at Christmas.

“‘A discussion on the middle of nowhere.’

Amarbayasgalant monastery, the middle of nowhere or the centre of somewhere?

I headed north out of UB (Ulaanbaatar) on Saturday morning in a rather sturdy people-mover van with three others and a driver and his girlfriend. We were heading for the Amarbayasgalant monastery five hours from UB. The first 4 hours were on sealed road, the last one was off-road. Though really most roads here are ‘off-road’, just tracks over the dust and grass. Generally if you want to go to that particular hill or forest, you just drive straight to it. My friend Nick would love driving here – off-roading, or on the road playing dodgems with cows, horses, and trucks over-laden with hays or pelts.

It just goes on and on and on…
Central Otago on loop, and with over-laden hay-carrying truck.

It was amazing – it makes the South Island, New Zealand look crowded. It’s just so vast, through massive valleys, with rolling hills in the distance. Imagine (if you’ve ever been there) driving through Central Otago in mid-summer for six hours, but driving in a straight line – like you’ve got Central Otago on a loop. Dry, brown, vast rolling hills and valleys. Punctuated with men on horseback, going somewhere, herding something, wearing what Mongolians have worn for centuries. And gers, just sitting there, like a house but with nothing around it – no apparent roads or attachments, or fences, maybe a beat-up car and a small child carrying water containers. In places like this, people have a different concept of rubbish, and it just gets dropped on the ground. There is enough space for it to be blown away and not bother you. But these days rubbish doesn’t biodegrade very well, and with concentrations of people occurring in particular areas, like roads and towns, it begins to become conspicuous.

Mongolia is known as the land of blue sky for very good reason, but let that go for one day to rain and then snow on my trip. But that made it scenic in a different way. The monastery was bizarre, as religious centres always are to me. Very beautiful and large, and quite important I’m sure, but this being the off-season there wasn’t anyone around to really explain it, just a few monks and sniffly boy-monks. But I was there for the view anyway. We stayed in a nearby ger, guarded by a rather friendly dog, US$3.50 for the bed, dinner and breakfast.

Inspecting the temple.

The thing is, you want to say that the monastery and these people are in the middle of nowhere. But to have a ‘middle of nowhere’, that implies that there is a ‘somewhere’. You could say ‘oh, it’s so far from UB’ – but UB is so far from anywhere itself that it’s not a good reference point. There is no ‘somewhere’ here. But then I found out that the monastery was built in 1737 in a country that had no buildings (apart from monasteries) until the Russians took over early in the 19th century and cities were only established in the ’60s. So, while to me there is no apparent reason to have the monastery there, maybe the monastery was the ‘somewhere’. I’m not in the middle of nowhere, but at the centre of somewhere!

Definitely somewhere.

Extra observations…

  • 33% of the population are still nomad herds-people, with summer and winter grounds.
  • Food-wise – the Mongolian’s don’t really go for flavouring, other than salt and they put that in the tea. So its lots of meat, which is generally quite tasty because it’s essentially organic, and lots of different things made from dairy.
  • Oh and the Mongolians have really gone for the open-all-hours thing. There are heaps of cornerstore-type places and banks open 24/7.
  • And I’ve got business cards!!!!! One side in English, the other in Mongolian – guess what ‘Жоан Окок’ means?!
  • I just got back to my room, and there was a horse grazing on the grass outside the main door with his rider sitting on a bench! So with my half dozen Mongolian words, a camera and an apple I went back outside to take some photos. I think he said the horse’s name was Kora.”
Rider and his horse, ‘Kora’, I think.

Putting frogs into freshwater food webs

A while ago, I wrote about looking for the end of the food-chain. My co-workers and I had dissected some common species of tadpoles from floodplain wetlands and inspected their gut contents under a microscope. We had found they eat a wide variety of things, from tiny crustaceans and other small insects to bits of aquatic plants and long strands of filamentous algae.

The long, long gut of a marsh frog tadpole.

But I wanted to know, what was the most important thing that they were eating? I’d had a feeling the answer was going to be “even smaller things”, and it turns out I was right!

To answer this part of the question, we did a chemical analysis that compared samples of tadpole muscle tissue with samples of food items such as wetland plants, tree leaves, algae, those teeny tiny crustaceans living in the water, and biofilm. It is a method called stable isotope analysis and it works along the lines that ‘you are what you eat’. And as we report in our new research paper, these results suggested that biofilm was most important. (Twitter summary here). (Full disclaimer, we’re mostly confident that it was biofilm, in some wetlands at some times for a couple of species… check the paper for all the details, DM me for a copy).

And what is biofilm? Biofilm is basically a super nutritious mix of very small things like bacteria, microbes, fungal hyphae, and teeny-tiny invertebrates, that looks like a filmy, fuzzy goo growing on the surface of leaves and branches and anything underwater.

Biofilm – the filmy, fuzzy goop growing on surfaces under water.

Our results were interesting because when we compared what was in the muscles with what we had seen in the gut contents, it looked like tadpole diet is more a case of ‘you are some of what you eat and not necessarily the most obvious or biggest thing’.

The small end of the food web… biofilm supports marsh frog tadpole growth in some Murrumbidgee floodplain wetlands (NSW, Australia)

So, while pieces of plants or long strands of algae were often jam-packed in the tadpoles’ guts taking up a lot of space, they were not contributing much nutritionally. It looks like the really small and least obvious thing growing underwater is a high quality, nutritious snack supporting the growth and health of bigger lifeforms!

Lots of algae, not so much nutrition!

There is definitely more to know before making strategies for wetland management that will support lots of good tasty biofilm and in turn support tadpole growth, but we’re starting to build evidence for what we only suspected before. For example, see Altig et al 2007, Schiesari et al 2009, Schmidt et al 2017. And I definitely suggest doing both gut content dissection and stable isotope analysis, if you want to find the important end of the tadpole food-web.

A glorious Lower Murrumbidgee wetland… good tadpole habitat.

That time I went to Komodo Island…

I visited the Komodo National Park last year (April 2018), cruising the islands on a six-day boat trip with some very good friends. Our main purpose was to find as many skinks, geckos, snakes, lizards, and frogs that these islands could offer up (all things herpetological). Plus, all the birds, bugs, slugs and ocean-dwelling creatures that we might see while doing so. It was, simply, the best.

So many things could be said about Komodo NP and the infamous Komodo dragons, or the other animals that we saw, the snorkelling we did, even the food we ate, that since returning from that holiday I didn’t know where to start, so I just avoided saying or writing anything. Plus, I didn’t think any of my photos were that great. But I’ve just had a reminisce through the pictures I took and many of them made me smile with the memory or the story behind it. So, I decided that is what I want to share…here are three of my favourite photos from my trip to Komodo NP not because they are the best photos, but because they have the best moments attached to them.

Gates on the toilet block to prevent dragon access.

This photo is from when I realised that the visitor toilet facilities on Komodo Island have something similar to a child-barrier-gate to stop the dragons getting in. Like this but less fancy. It’s those low dark brown doors on the concrete building, see the inset. Because you wouldn’t want to go in and find a dragon backed into a corner annoyed that you’re blocking the exit. And you also don’t want to be in there enjoying the facilities and have one come in after you, because then you are staying in there until the dragon decide it’s time to leave, and that could be the next day! And as our guide explained, that has happened…!

A very elegant solution to a problem I hadn’t thought existed, using child-sized barrier doors to stop dragons disturbing tourists on the toilet, marvellous.

They are big and loud and angry, but adorable and colourful.

This is from our third night, and I remembered it being very relaxed as we spread out to search through the open grassy woodland in the dark, coming together when someone’s excited voice indicated they had found something.

I have good frog-spotting eyes, but it turns out they are less good at finding skinks and lizards at night compared to my pro-friends. So I was particularly thrilled when I found this cutey before anyone else did. It’s a tokay gecko (Gecko gecko), and a small one at that, about 15 cm nose to tip, so probably a recent hatchling or juvenile. It wasn’t the first tokay we’d seen on our trip or the first that night. But it was the first I’d seen first, and I had spotted a baby one, and baby anything is just much cuter and more special. So I snapped a few photos first (this was the best one!), before calling the others over. Tokays are the boss. They have spectacular blue and orange colours, a very distinctive call that echoes through the forest or around your cabin, and they grow to be one of the largest geckos in the world getting up to over 30 cm long. Boss.

Tokay reading: trade in wild tokay geckos

Komodo dragon quits modelling

It’s actually quite easy to get a photo with you and a komodo dragon. Which seems ridiculous, as they are a mildly venomous, extra-large dragon that can actually run quite fast. However, the ones in the most visited area of the National Park seem quite used to people being around, so nearly everyone who goes to the island ends up with a group photo that includes a komodo dragon. It’s just about finding one looking very ‘dragon-y’ (generally lying down), then standing a few metres behind it, while your guide snaps off your iconic Komodo Island new profile photo. While I have a couple of those, I like this one the best. After getting the classic shot, the dragon decided it wasn’t keen for more modelling and started to lumber away, but we kept moving with it and our guide kept snapping away and we got this great action shot!

Also I have the best friends and I love how happy we look.

Komodo science: where the dragons came from

Huge thanks to our guide Ajis and his crew. Tourism in busy places can be a fraught affair, so do your homework and make sure you tourism responsibly by supporting local and sustainable.

Group shot!