We are delighted to present an excerpt from wild and wonderfulthe new book by biologist, ecologist and animator Eanna Ni Lamhna, now in bookstores.
Glow-in-the-dark owls, boiling eggs in Icelandic hot pools, Devil Weevil gangster tactics… Éanna Ní Lamhna has seen them all!
Éanna explores the wonders of our wild world, from a safari in Tanzania to the cloud forests of Costa Rica, from rat hunting in Canada to whale watching in New Zealand. She draws on her experience as a diver to recount face-to-face encounters with fascinating worms, elusive sea hares and a murderous crab, and sounds the alarm about the environmental challenges we face.
Éanna also recounts with delightful gaiety the pitfalls and delights of being a communicator and a scientist. Of course, why would anyone want to be anything else?
Closest I’ll ever get to fly…
I always thought night divers were crazy. It’s pretty scary going down during the day when you can at least see and know which way to go down and which way to go up. But at night, the whole ball game changes. Just as different things come out in the garden at night when the great enemy of invertebrate life, the birds, have gone to bed, so a whole different collection of animals emerges underwater when it gets dark. Night diving to see them is something else. When I say dark, it’s really dark there. There is no ambient light from streetlights, no reflection from the sky – such weak light cannot penetrate the water. You are totally dependent on what you can see through the torchlight. All around is a wall of darkness. Don’t think too much about what might be out there just beyond the reach of the torch.
At night, the space seems much more enclosed. You are dependent on the quality of your scuba gear and the life of the torch batteries underwater. But the lure of the completely different selection of wildlife (and the fact that my buddy promised to hold my hand the whole time) was stronger than my perfectly reasonable fears, and that’s how I found myself a dark night in the back of the car putting on my suit and checking and rechecking the equipment – content gauge, life vest, torch and batteries, reserve valves, regulator, knife, gloves (would I wear them or not?), compass – my only hope of knowing where I was going… In the end, I couldn’t wait any longer and we went to the end of the jetty to jump on it.
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Listen: Wild And Wonderful – Eanna Ni Lamhna talks to Derek Mooney
And, first surprise, as we stared at the inky waters off this County Wexford pier, it wasn’t all dark there. Once something hit the water, a shower of sparks seemed to appear. There seemed to be tiny points of light in the water that only appeared when the water was disturbed and they were moved suddenly. These lights are, in fact, a kind of phosphorescent plankton called dinoflagellates, which glow with a cool light when suddenly disturbed. By dropping rocks from the pier, we could cause a shower of sparks where the rocks hit the water. The species in our waters is called Noctiluca – a nightlight, in other words. They are much more common in warmer waters where the wake of a passing ship can make a shimmering path through the water. Surprisingly, nowadays not much is known about how this light is actually produced. The wonderfully named substance luciferin is involved. Unfortunately, this does not mean direct interference from the lower regions of the afterlife. The fact that Lucifer was the name of one of the four archangels who occupied the highest levels of heaven, above the cherubim and seraphim, and who was later expelled for the sin of pride, means that the name is forever associated with hell. But Latin scholars will know, of course, that the name simply means “light bringer” and that is what the luciferin in Noctiluca does. When an enzyme in the cells of an organism that contains luciferin is oxidized, light is produced. Why he does this is another matter. Why would a large shoal of these tiny creatures draw attention to them in this way when disturbed? Surely they would provide a tasty bite to the filter feeders higher up the food chain, who would be attracted to their presence by the lights? But the study of evolution tells us that there must be something in it for the species itself, otherwise it would have caused its extinction long ago.
We couldn’t think about evolution anymore. Did I enter or not? And so we carefully descended the steps and entered very gently – no blazing jump back from the edge here. The chill of the water that filled the suit was somehow reassuring in its unwelcome familiarity. And then we went down. The dive involved swimming along the bottom just above the rocks off the coast to a depth of around ten meters and observing the night scene. And there was a lot to see.
There seemed to be an endless amount of crabs scurrying around the bottom, far more than during the day. We were looking for more exotic creatures: lobsters. They live in rock crevices and defend entrances with their large claws. During the day, if you were to spot a claw wriggling out of a hole in the rock, any investigation would make it come into clear view. Holes are always bigger than lobsters and they recoil at the slightest interference. But they are hunters, not filter feeders, so they have to go out to find food and they do it under the cover of darkness. It is truly an amazing sight to see a large dark purple lobster walking backwards along the seabed. They can only move backwards, but they can certainly move with strong tail twitches when disturbed.
They are in search of food and, like crabs, they are scavengers. They will eat dead food and thus play their part in cleaning up the seabed by mopping up any dead or dying creatures they come across. Fishermen use this knowledge when they bait and sink lobster traps to catch them. Bits of bait from mackerel or other fish can be smelled from a distance and the lobster is coming soon. It reverses through the opening of the jar and soon demolishes the tasty bait. But alas, he can’t turn around in the pot to go back, and he can’t move forward, so he has to stay there until the pot is up. He is not hurt or harmed in any way, just trapped. Crabs also enter the trap, as they too are fond of pieces of dead fish, and by the time the fisherman comes to lift it, the crabs may be so numerous that they fight among themselves.
wild and wonderful is published by The O’Brien Press