Written by Adam Cook
My parents first knew my love for wildlife when I was three years old. Mum would always tell the story of when I went to Marwell Zoological Park and I went around correcting people when they miss identified animals. One example was when a lady said to her children “look at those kangaroos” and being the polite three year old I tugged on her arm and said “excuse me, they are wallabies” and ever since that day my family knew my world would revolve around animals.
My name is Adam Cook (Homo adamtalkswildinia), I’m 21 years old and have just graduated from the University of South Wales after studying International Wildlife Biology, BSc Hons. I have always been fascinated with the world we live in and the animals we share it with. From watching documentaries by the legendary Sir David Attenborough or a true crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin, I have always loved learning about wildlife.
I have never enjoyed being in education. I did well at school but felt the whole time this isn’t where I want to be. I am dyslexic and hate writing (don’t know why I’m composing this blog due to my dislike for writing) and being talked at. It wasn’t until I went to university and started my course that I knew this is what I’m meant to do. My degree was based on learning about ecology, anatomy and ways to research and study wildlife and the surrounding ecosystems. The best part about my degree were the opportunities it gave me to travel.
At the end of my first year I went to South Africa as part of a field course, set up by the university. I spent two weeks learning about the flora and fauna of two different biomes, grassland and savannah. I also spent time improving research skills such as camera trapping, tracking, body condition scoring of the different game – to name just a few. The whole time I was out there I couldn’t stop smiling, I mean who wouldn’t? Waking up to a misty scene with the king of beasts, the lion (Panthera leo), roaring and staking his claim over the savannah, to being sat round a fire listening to the sound of fiery-necked nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) echoing through the night. I was in wildlife heaven. This trip was my first experience of the South African bush and the mysteries it holds.
The reserve I spent most of my time at was Selati Big Five Game Reserve and this was where my love for Africa started. During the day I spent many hours walking through the bush tracking elephants (Loxodonta Africana), lions and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). My favourite thing about walking in the bush was coming across some amazing sights; such as walking with a breeding herd of elephants and them coming within 10m of the rocks we were standing on, and yes I did cry with joy when they came so close. Whilst tracking I spent my time with one eye on the bush and my other eye scanning the floor, searching for any treasures. Back at camp after a long trek, I’d empty my bag and specimen tubes to study and identify the plants, insects and feathers I would find. I have books filled with different feathers and plant specimens that I have collected. I would spend hours talking to the field guides and searching through books trying to identify these specimens.
The next opportunity my course gave me was to explore marine ecosystems. During my second year I did a module called ‘Tropical Ecology’ and this allowed me to go to Mexico to not only study the terrestrial world, but also the more mysterious underwater world. I spent 11 days researching in the jungle of Calakmul and 11 days diving off the coast of Akumal. This was where I experienced the two different extremes of living the life of a researcher. Akumal is a well-developed, coastal resort with first world luxuries such a fresh running water, flushing toilets, WIFI and, as the English say, chips (fries). This was a complete contrast to Calakmul which was in the centre of a jungle with a hole in the ground for a toilet; of which we had to cover up our waste with dirt to help make it degrade, light charged by solar panels and once it runs out of battery its pure darkness and the biggest scare to some of my friends was no telephone signal! My time in the jungle was amazing. I learnt about how the Mayans cultivated and cared for the jungle, how to do behaviour studies on spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) and howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) and mist netting of birds and bats. It was here in the jungle that I created the method for my first ever mini project and research paper called “Association Between Dawn and the Birds of Calakmul”. The study aim was to see if there was an association with the dawn chorus and the birds of Calakmul and whether birds are singing at the same time each day. For this study I spent a few mornings going out early to identify the vocalisation of the different bird species at twenty minute intervals for five minutes. It was doing this mini project that increased my fascination with research.
Akumal was a very different story. There I spent hours conducting many research dives studying the benthic composition, identifying the different fish species and learning about the importance of reefs and why we need to protect them. One thing I learnt was how coral reef phase shifting and overfishing is a massive threat to our reefs. A phase shift is when the slow growing, hard corals (Scleractinian), which are the building blocks of the reef, are pushed out by faster growing macroalgae. So when an area is overfished and all the herbivorous fish species, such as spotfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon ocellatus) are removed, these macroalgaes are allowed to encroach on the reef. I loved spending time under the water, observing green turtles (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and barracudas (Sphyraena). It was this trip that made me question whether I want to work in the terrestrial or marine ecosystems.
The final opportunity given was to go back to South Africa as part of my dissertation research. My research was about human hunting and the effects it has on behaviour. My title was “How does human hunting affect the behaviour of mammals, specifically five key ungulates, both hunted and not hunted”. The study consisted of using quadrats to record mammal tracks in order to understand animal movement in and out of an area and I used drive counts to look at animal behaviour in relation to a vehicle to see if people had been using a car to hunt from. I found it fascinating learning about the ethics that hunting groups require hunters to live by and the different hunting statistics, specifically within South Africa. This controversial topic really did open my eyes on how hunting could be used as a form of conservation, butif used, it needs to be managed properly.
Whilst on these trips I managed to take lots of photographs of the different animals I have studied. I also wanted to share these photos but instead of just seeing a photo I wanted to add some information and facts about the stars of each shot, so I created Adam_talkswild. This account is dedicated to sharing my photos with people whilst hopefully allowing them to learn something new. Ever since I was young I have wanted to learn about wildlife and I hope the photos I share can give other budding biologists optimism that it is possible to follow your dream and see the animals you’ve loved on television in real life.
For more of Adam, check out @adam_talkswild on Instagram