Science underpins most of what we cover in BBC Wildlife. How do we know why, when and where animals migrate? Or how bats orientate in the dark? Or when species are teetering on the brink of extinction? It’s all down to science.
The simple fact that we know the chiffchaff, willow and wood warbler are three separate species is because someone – Gilbert White – bothered to study the birds and record his observations. While not a ‘scientist’ in the modern sense of the word, White was preparing the ground for scientists to come.
So we decided to celebrate the role science plays in what is known about wildlife, and have chosen what we think are the 10 greatest zoological discoveries ever made.
But how do you compare the discovery of photosynthesis with that of the skeleton of the first bipedal ape? To help with this task, we assembled an expert judging panel.
The results of the judges’ deliberations are presented here – it’s not a comprehensive assessment, but we hope it gets you thinking.
MEET THE JUDGES
- Mark Carwardine
A zoologist and tv presenter, Mark has travelled the globe to work on conservation projects. He even finds time to write a column for BBC Wildlife.
- Glyn Davies
Glyn Davies worked at the European Commission and ZSL, before joining WWF-UK as director of programmes. Tackling climate change is at the top of his in-tray.
- Matt Walker
Matt is a former news editor of New Scientist magazine and is now the editor of BBC Earth News, a website that provides daily updates about wildlife and the environment.
- Richard Jones
A regular contributor to BBC Wildlife, Richard writes about bugs and all kinds of other downtrodden lowlife. He is a former president of the British Entomological Society.
- James Fair
Environment editor James dreamed up this feature: “I wanted to celebrate all of the forgotten scientists whose work has helped to unmask the natural world.”
THE GREATEST WILDLIFE DISCOVERIES OF ALL TIME - FROM 10 TO 1
10. Chimps using tools
The discovery that our closest cousins use tools made us reconsider what it means to be human.
Dolphins carry sponges on their beaks to flush out fish from the seabed. Capuchin monkeys crack palm nuts with rocks. New Caledonian crows shape twigs to probe for insects in dead wood. A species of octopus has even been observed transporting coconut shells for use as a lair. Yes, other animals – not just humans – make and use tools.
But Jane Goodall’s discovery, in 1960, that the chimps of Gombe Stream inserted grass stems into termite mounds, and stripped leaves from twigs to make tools for the same purpose, rocked the scientific world.
As anthropologist Louis Leakey observed, since humans were defined as ‘man the tool-maker’, “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Researchers have since shown that chimps also possess culture. Those in Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest use tools differently to those in Gombe, and pass their skills onto the next generation.
“Indeed,” says primatologist Christophe Boesch, “once we observe how a chimpanzee behaves, we can identify where the animal lives.” Perhaps none of this should be surprising: though the line that gave rise to chimps and humans split about six million years ago, that’s just 250,000 generations between you and a chimpanzee.
- Honeybee waggle dance
Its purpose was unravelled by the Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Karl von Frisch.
- Bat sonar
Discovered in an exhaustive series of experiments by Donald Griffin.
- Chimps eat meat
Jane Goodall again.
9. Symbiosis in coral
The revelation that coral is in a partnership with algae unlocked the secrets of a vital marine ecosystem.
The subject of symbiosis sounds complicated, but it’s worth persevering with and understanding, because it is probably responsible for the existence of all complex life forms – including us. What exactly is it, though?
The German mycologist Heinrich Anton de Bary first defined symbiosis in 1879 as “the living together of unlike organisms”, yet this scarcely does justice to the sheer wondrousness of it all.
Take coral. Most people understand coral to be the hard shells of animals called polyps, and that’s true, but the polyps would not survive without their symbiotic relationship with photosynthesising algae known as zooxanthellae (a relationship first described by Hilbrand Boschma in 1924).
The zooxanthellae are ingested by, and live inside, the cells of the polyps, and here they ‘share’ the fruits of their photosynthesis – so the polyps get a supply of food, while the algae receive protection, in a mutually beneficial relationship.
If one organism is effectively exploiting the other, however, then symbiosis becomes parasitism. Indeed, some researchers argue that this is the true nature of the relationship between the coral polyps and their algae.
Large blue butterfly
Jeremy Thomas discovered that the breeding cycle of large blues depends on a species of ant.
The theory that most multicellular life evolved as a result of single-celled organisms absorbing bacteria.
8. How the giant squid hunts
Underwater photos of the monster solved a long-standing mystery.
It’s the world’s largest invertebrate and the source of the myth of the kraken: a terrifying beast up to 18m long. This marine monster has eight arms, two grasping, lightning-quick tentacles, the biggest eyes of any known species and a giant parrot-like beak that carves up its prey alive before ripping off hunks of meat with an extraordinary, rasping radula.
And yet very little is known about the giant squid (or its smaller but heavier cousin, the colossal squid). None had even been seen alive until scientists Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori captured a sequence of 50 shots about 900m below the surface of the sea off Japan’s Ogasawara Islands in September 2004.
What’s more, the photos cleared up a long-standing debate about whether these beasts simply drifted through the ocean depths waiting for something tempting to turn up, or actively hunted down their dinner.
“Architeuthis appears to be a much more active predator than previously suspected, using its elongated feeding tentacles to strike and tangle prey,” the researchers wrote, following the discovery. Probably best not to go diving too deep, then.
- Gladiator insects
In 2002, Oliver Zompro discovered an entire new suborder of insect, the Mantophasmatodea – a find that is almost akin to discovering the existence of moths and butterflies.
- The coelacanth
Until 1938, this fish had only been known from 65-million-year-old fossils, so when a live one was caught off the coast of South Africa that year, it was hailed as the “zoological find of the century”.