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Archive for August, 2011

We are not alone.

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Old Macdonald was fascinated to find the information below on the BBC Website in an article by Richard Black, their Environmental Correspondent. Old Mac wanted to share this with you, and add his tuppenceworth too. Richard Black tells us that the natural world contains about 8.7 million species, according to a new estimate described by scientists as the most accurate ever. But the vast majority have not been identified – and cataloguing them all could take more than 1,000 years. Old Macdonald, as you will find on these pages, has started to give lots of information about his farmyard favourites, and that seems to be taking him a long time too, but not 1000 years!

The number comes from studying relationships between the branches and leaves of the “family tree of life”, or Circle of Life as Old Mac will have it. The team warns that many species will become extinct before they can be studied.

Although the number of species on the planet might seem an obvious figure to know, a way to calculate it with confidence has been elusive. In a commentary also carried in PLoS Biology, former Royal Society president Lord (Robert) May observes: “It is a remarkable testament to humanity’s narcissism that we know the number of books in the US Library of Congress on 1 February 2011 was 22,194,656, but cannot tell you – to within an order of magnitude – how many distinct species of plants and animals we share our world with.” Now, it appears, we can.

“We’ve been thinking about this for several years now – we’ve had a look at a number of different approaches, and didn’t have any success,” one of the research team, Derek Tittensor, told BBC News. “So this was basically our last chance, the last thing we tried, and it seems to work.”

Dr Tittensor, who is based at the UN Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (Unep-WCMC) and Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, worked on the project alongside peers from Dalhousie University in Canada and the University of Hawaii.

The vast majority of the 8.7 million are animals, with progressively smaller numbers of fungi, plants, protozoa (a group of single-celled organisms) and chromists (algae and other micro-organisms). Creepy crawlies maybe but vitally important to our lives. The figure excludes bacteria and some other types of micro-organism. About 1.2 million species have been formally described, the vast majority from the land rather than the oceans.

The natural world in numbers

  • Animals: 7.77 million (12% described)
  • Fungi: 0.61 million (7% described)
  • Plants: 0.30 million (70% described)
  • Protozoa: 0.04 million (22% described)
  • Chromists: 0.03 million (50% described)

The trick this team used was to look at the relationship between species and the broader groupings to which they belong. In 1758, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus developed a comprehensive system of taxonomy, as the field is known, which is still – with modifications – in use today. Groups of closely related species belong to the same genus, which in turn are clustered into families, then orders, then classes, then phyla, and finally into kingdoms (such as the animal kingdom). The higher up this hierarchical tree of life you look, the rarer new discoveries become – hardly surprising, as a discovery of a new species will be much more common than the discovery of a totally new phylum or class.

The researchers quantified the relationship between the discovery of new species and the discovery of new higher groups such as phyla and orders, and then used it to predict how many species there are likely to be. “We discovered that, using numbers from the higher taxonomic groups, we can predict the number of species,” said Dalhousie researcher Sina Adl. “The approach accurately predicted the number of species in several well-studied groups such as mammals, fishes and birds, providing confidence in the method.” And the number came out as 8.7 million – plus or minus about a million. Who is going to argue about a piddling figure like one million? Not us.  If this is correct, then only 14% of the world’s species have yet been identified – and only 9% of those in the oceans.

Kunstformen der Natur - spiders
The rate of species discovery has remained about even ever since Haeckel compiled his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) a century ago

“The rest are primarily going to be smaller organisms, and a large proportion of them will be dwelling in places that are hard to reach or hard to sample, like the deep oceans,” said Dr Tittensor.

“When we think of species we tend to think of mammals or birds, which are pretty well known.

“But when you go to a tropical rainforest, it’s easy to find new insects, and when you go to the deep sea and pull up a trawl, 90% of what you get can be undiscovered species.”

At current rates of discovery, completing the catalogue would take over 1,000 years – but new techniques such as DNA bar-coding could speed things up. The scientists say they do not expect their calculations to mark the end of this line of inquiry, and are looking to peers to refine methods and conclusions.

One who has already looked through the paper is Professor Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). “I think it’s definitely a creative and innovative approach, but like every other method there are potential biases and I think it’s probably a conservative figure,” he told BBC News. “But it’s such a high figure that it wouldn’t really matter if it’s out by one or two million either way. It is really picking up this point that we know very little about the species with which we share the planet; and we are converting the Earth’s natural landscapes so quickly, with total ignorance of our impact on the life in them.”

So there you are, the Circle of Life is unthinkably large, but do not forget that our actions are making many species extinct at a faster rate than any time in history, and we must all protect the environment so each and every species in this vast 8.7 million can continue to thrive, as we are all connected to everything, large and small!

Great Guinea Pigs

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Continuing his tour of his empire, Old Macdonald would like to tell you a bit more about those fascinating Guinea Pigs that you will find alongside the rabbits in our special enclosure. You can also look at our website under Fun Animal Facts to tell you more! See how Old Macdonald spoils you

Guinea pigs live wild in areas of South America and the Moche people used to worship them as Gods because they were so important providing food and fur. The ancient Incas began to farm them for this reason. Even today you can enjoy fried Guinea pig in South America. Do not tell our Guinea Pigs this, they will get very upset.

They are also used in medical cures being rubbed up against the bodies of people who have rheumatism, arthritis and other painfull diseases. Not sure you can get this on the NHS in this country and Old Macdonald has no intention of opening a private Guinea Pig massage parlour either, though he might if there was money in it.

Guinea Pigs appeared in Europe in the 1500′s. Queen Elizabeth (the first that is, not the current one) was very fond of them. Their name is shrouded in mystery but is nothing to do with the old coin, the Guinea, as this did not arrive in circulation for years after the little creatures got here. It is more likely that their name is a combination of the old word for Rabbit which was “Coney” which later became “bunny” and that the pig bit comes from their voracious appetites. So they are really Bunny Pigs!

If you are looking after them you must know that Guinea pigs, like humans, don’t make their own vitamin C, so they must always eat fresh vegetables. They love carrots, greens and cabbage as well as fresh grass and hay. They also are allergic to straw so must sleep in hay.

Like with all animals, if you are keeping them as a pet you must learn all about them to make sure you give them a good, long and happy life and they will reward you. Believe Old Macdonald when he tells you, they don’t half eat a lot though! Also, they are friendly animals and love to have company so do not have one, have two or more. However if you do make sure you do not have a male and female together or they will have lots of pups.

In the wild they live in groups of 5-10. Wild Guinea pigs are most active at night.A young Guinea pig can run when it is only three hours old! In America Guinea pigs are called Cavies which is from their breed name, Cavidae.

They are often used for medical research. That’s where we get the term “Guinea Pig” from to describe somebody who volunteers to take part in a test. Mind you, Guinea Pigs never volunteered but were just put for this work. Another thing not to tell our ones.

Some species of wild Cavy can be as long as a metre. The best known of these is the Capybara.

So now you know a lot more about these fascinating animals, useful for over 7000 years, possibly helping as an arthritis cure, loved by Queen Elizabeth the First and pets for millions over many years. Not just another animal on the farm.

In Praise Of Our Farm Cats

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Whenever Old Macdonald asks visitors to his farm for their favourite farmyard friends, we always find that it is our collection of farm cats who come top of the poll, much to the dismay of the Meerkats and the Otters, as well as the rest. So we thought we would tell you a little bit about cats to keep them happy! After all they are as much part of the farm as the goats, sheep, Llamas and even Old Mac himself. So do read on!

The domestic house cat is a small carnivorous mammal. Its most immediate ancestor is believed to be the African wild cat. The cat has been living in close association with humans for around 9000 years, and were first tamed in North Africa. Of course the ancient Egyptians loved them so much that they worshipped them! The cat goddess Bast became the deity representing protection, fertility and motherhood.

As a revered animal and one important to Egyptian society and religion, some cats received the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast and in 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb with mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan had eighty thousand cat mummies, dating to 1000-2000 BC. That is a lot of cats!

Cats spread to other parts of the world by ship. The crew members would always keep extra cats aboard the ship to kill any mice that might be aboard. Cats spread quickly, and soon were part of many religious beliefs and dieties. One such goddess, Freya, a Norse goddess during the middle ages, had the head of a cat and the body of a woman. They were loved in many parts of the world, and in China were particularly adored by the Song Dynasty which was over 1000 years ago. They particularly liked long haired cats so some of ours would have got on very well there!

The inclusion of cats with religious gods became the cat’s downfall. When Christianity spread, it condemned false gods, and cats were viewed as a manifestation of the devil. This led to 100 years of pure torture to the cat. Many were killed, tormented, burned at a stake, or else roasted alive. Consequently, the cat population declined tremendously, and cats became scarce.Just goes to show how ignorance about animals can be so harmful and stupid, which is why you visit us to learn more!

They certainly had problems in the Middle Ages in Europe where they were often associated with witchcraft and during festivities were sometimes burnt alive or thrown off tall buildings. We do not tell ours about this! However a medieval King of Wales,  Hywel Dda (the Good) passed legislation making it illegal to kill or harm a cat. They like him here!

The Muslim religion also has a special place for cats. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) had a pet cat, Muezza, and the most famous story about Muezza recounts how the call to prayer was given, and as Muhammad went to put on one of his robes, he found his cat sleeping on one of the sleeves. Instead of disturbing the cat he cut off the sleeve and let him sleep. When Muhammad returned, Muezza awoke and bowed down to him, and in return, Muhammad stroked him three times. This is said to be why tabby cats have an “M” on their foreheads.

Cats were seen as good luck charms by actors, and the cats often helped cure the actors’ stage fright. Not quite sure how, but it is a nice story. Actors are a strange lot though! Also, of course, cats feature in many famous plays and stories such as Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington!

So you see, our cats carry on a tradition that has seen them worshipped, burnt, loved and protected in Wales. So no need to worship ours, but if they are in the mood give them a quick rub….they will love it!

Remarkable Rabbits

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Old Macdonald is continuing his tour around his farm to tell you more about the creatures you will see, and to show he knows just a little bit about something other than the state of his bank balance. First of all have a glance at the Animal Funfacts on which will tell you lots of things about these long eared farmyard friends, and then read on.

Rabbits were first living only on the Iberian Peninsula, or Spain and Portugal as you will know it better, and were found there over 3000 years ago by the Phoenicians who learned what useful creatures they were and how easy it was to raise lots of them (you try and stop them!) as well as that they provided good meat and warm fur for clothes.

The Romans took them all around their empire too as rabbits were so useful.

However it was the Normans who brought them to Britain. They also shot poor old King Harold in the eye and built the Tower of London.

Rabbits were taken all around the world by sailors who loved them as pets, as food and as clothing and because they were so easy to look after.

Unfortunately rabbits eat so much grass that when they got into other countries they became a pest and are in fact one of the most destructive creatures you will find at Old Macdonald’s Farm. So whilst you may love them, and quite right too, they are not popular with farmers anywhere in the world! They live underground in warrens with up to 30 rabbits in them, in long deep tunnels that they dig out themselves. That is a lot of grass eaten if you are a farmer.

If you have a rabbit as a pet you should make sure they get lots of exercise and lots of fresh vegetables as food including carrots, greens and cabbage, but not lettuce as this is very bad for rabbits despite what people think.

Although there are millions and millions of rabbits all around the world, some types are in great danger. For instance there are the Black Jackrabbit from Mexico, European Rabbit (who are the direct descendents of the original rabbits from Spain and Portugal)  Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit from Florida in the USA,   Pygmy Rabbit from the USA and Canada and the   Riverine Rabbit from South Africa. All of these are endangered because of excessive hunting.

So when you look at our rabbits, think of how they have been part of people’s lives for over three thousand years and through all that time have provided food and clothing as well as comfort and fun. How they have spread all around the world, even if not very popular everywhere, and how they deserve a good home and good food. They link you with the great historic empires of Phoenicia and Rome as well as the conquering Normans and the sailors of old. They are not just another animal. None of your farmyard favourites are just another animal!


Friday, August 12th, 2011

Today at Old MacDonald’s Farm, Mary Martin (school teacher) has been running a series of fantastic art activities for the families and groups visiting. These art workshops are known as ‘Artbound’. Artbound aims to link up projects whilst teaching and helping to develop the creative skills of all age groups. Children have enjoyed making foam animal masks, drawing and colouring. Artbound has been a fantastic success, so keep your eyes peeled for more dates in the future if you have missed out today!