Friday, 1 December 2017

Poles Apart

Dr. Michael Leach gave the first ‘The Nancy Loft Memorial Lecture’ on Friday 24th November 2018.

Nancy had been a long serving member of the Louth Group and kindly made a bequest to the Trust in her Will. To honour Nancy’s contribution to the Group over the years the committee has decided, with her husband John’s permission, to have a special speaker meeting in the November of each year.

There can have been few in the audience who have not seen photos and film taken by Michael, a zoologist whose professional career as a photographer has taken him to most environments around the globe. He has written a couple of dozen books and his pictures have featured in countless newspaper and magazine articles, his films seen on several television programmes.

Michael pointed out that of the nine million and counting non-microbial species only about fifty of them are interesting and popular enough to be commercially viable for the photographer. One can't sell pictures of the rest!  He skipped quickly over his experiences in the tropics, where he has photographed all the big cuddly or dangerous creatures and seen too many leeches and caught too many diseases previously unknown to science. Michael prefers the Poles, where it is too cold for the nasties.

Much of the talk contrasted the Arctic with the Antarctic. The geography is quite different, much of the Arctic being ocean surrounded by land while the Antarctic is land surrounded by ocean. Antarctica is remote, very hard to get to, nobody lives there permanently, and biodiversity is pretty meagre. Only a couple, Emperor and Adelie,  of the 20 species of penguin actually breed on the Antarctic mainland. A lot of people and a great diversity of animals, however, live north of the Arctic Circle. It is very easy to get to; one can drive a car from England to the Arctic and Michael told us that the first thing one encounters after crossing the Arctic Circle (a line painted on the road) is a speed camera and then a Spar shop.

Human impact on wildlife was a recurring theme of Michael's talk. Reindeer, known as Caribou in North America, have long been at least semi-domesticated in Europe and Russia and only small populations of truly wild animals remain. But the big impact is human caused climate change. The ever shrinking sea-ice is an existential problem for polar bears, which rely on the ice to force seals to come up to breathe in restricted spaces. Arctic foxes and ptarmigan change colour to camouflage themselves in the snow, but the timing of the change relates to day-length. As the snow season shortens a timing issue arises, leaving the animals with the wrong coloured coat.

And in the Antarctic waters overfishing of krill has the potential for devastating impacts on ecosystems. Human demand for ever more meat and farmed fish eating has produced a large market for krill as an animal feed. Management falls to CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Dr Michael Leach's talk was entertaining, informative and inspiring, a worthy beginning to what we hope will be a long series of Nancy Loft Memorial Lectures.