Crawlies creep back into favour

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INSIDE a lecture theatre in Edinburgh Zoo at the moment there is a dead pig on a spit which is slowly being devoured by maggots.

An uncooked chicken, ready for roasting, has been expanding by the day as gases, produced by bacteria, are slowly blowing it up from the inside. And sexton beetles have been at work, devouring a dead rat.

While it’s not what you normally expect to find at the zoo – a place of conservation after all – the “rotbox” experiment set up by BBC Scotland for a documentary on the science of decay is morbidly fascinating. Especially for kids.

More than that though, hosting such an event feels like the zoo is finally moving forward and suggests that the massive focus there has been on bringing giant pandas to Edinburgh is abating.

Another shift in the right direction, and which gives an added boost to the idea that the troubles surrounding the organisation are in the past, is the announcement this week that an insect/amphibian/mollusc exhibition is to be moved into the old Rainbow Landings building.

Yes, giant pandas will be great when they finally arrive, and while the Budongo trail is also a brilliant investment, I know that, in my house at least, the kind of attractions that will ensure repeat visits are much smaller and generally covered in scales or slime.

Years ago the zoo used to have a reptile house which always proved a fascinating draw, particularly for small boys.

For too long that section of the animal world has been neglected in terms of what the public has been able to see – Butterfly World cornering the market – but now it seems the zoo is responding to what is, without doubt, a growing interest in reptiles, bugs and all things weird and wonderful.

Dr George McGavin, the Edinburgh-born entomologist turned BBC bug man – who is presenting BBC Four’s documentary Afterlife with the rotbox the main attraction – is perhaps a little to blame for making creepy crawlies interesting, while other TV presenters like Steve Backshall have introduced children to the wide world of deadly animals, with a huge emphasis on snakes, spiders and sharks. Terry Nutkins was never that exciting.

It feels like the zoo is now responding to that interest, and soon Partula tree snails, poison dart frogs, hissing cockroaches, tortoises and even a milksnake will all make an appearance (although it’s a shame that the two cornsnakes and two Royal pythons the zoo has will still not be on show).

The Partula snails in particular are a fascinating creature – and a prime example of the zoo’s conservation work at its very best.

The delicate snail comes from the idyllic South Seas island of Moorea, and is the island’s only native snail – and too little for the natives to bother about when it came to diet.

However, in the late 1960s a scientist introduced the giant African land snail in a bid to offer more protein to the islanders’ menu – only the breeding programme failed. He let the snails go wild, and ironically they became a pest, breeding all too well and destroying the vegetation.

To combat this, the South Pacific Commission introduced a cannibalistic snail from Florida to eat the giant African snails. Then it was supposed to die out naturally after its larder was exhausted. But the Euglandina snail didn’t care much for its big relations, preferring to snack on the little Partulas instead. Within months the Partula snails were almost wiped out . . . until Edinburgh Zoo’s international snail rescue team swooped in to save them from extinction.

After much trial and error, a successful breeding programme was established, and now there are even exclusion zones in French Polynesia to protect the native species from its cannibalistic cousin.

Yes it’s only a snail, but when it comes to fragile eco-systems, it’s survival has been vital and we should be proud that the expertise at Edinburgh Zoo was able to save the species.

Much of the ground-breaking work has been taking place in a garden shed in the zoo for almost two decades – but now the public will finally be able to see a rescued Partula for themselves – well, if they look hard enough anyway. My advice would be: take binoculars.

I vote for new blood

IT’S hard to know what to say about the tram situation at the moment – especially as it changes on a daily basis. One thing’s for sure though – democracy in Edinburgh is in real danger.

After all, the majority of councillors of every political shade who have been involved in the whole debacle will be putting themselves up for re-election next year. But why should anyone vote for any of them?

Unless you are convinced of a councillor’s worth as a local representative on a personal basis, then going by the shambles they are all party to you’d be hard pressed to want any of them in charge.

But then who do you vote for? And if you abstain, then you have no influence on the result at all.

What is needed in this city is new blood. Being a councillor is not easy, but more people need to be involved in the political process for things to change. All parties need a root and branch review of who they put forward to represent them, otherwise they’ll never shake off the tar they are brushed with: the councillors who failed Edinburgh.