Methuselah's Zoo


Teaser, Chapter 1, Doctor Dunnet’s Fulmar

I am looking at two photographs of the Scottish ornithologist George Dunnet.  In the first, he is a slender, bright-eyed 23-year-old man with black, curly hair.  Cupped between his hands is a bird.  To the uninitiated, the bird would be indistinguishable from a sea gull.  Aficionados though will recognize it as a Northern Fulmar, a relative of the albatross that can be found during its breeding season nesting along the coastal cliffs and islands of the North Atlantic Ocean.  When not breeding, it spends its time far from land, soaring over the open sea.  The year is 1951 and Dunnet has just begun a study of an island colony of Northern Fulmars that he will continue for the rest of his life.   

The second picture was taken 41 years later.  The man now age 64 has changed fairly dramatically over that time as we all do.  He is stouter, grayer, a bit more weather-beaten.  He certainly no longer looks like he could carelessly bound among the cliffs of Eynhallow Island in the Orkneys, where his study was based.  He is staring at a sitting bird -- yes, it is the same bird – which doesn’t appear to have changed at all.   Not only is the bird still young looking (to a human eye),  Dunnet reported that his bird was still as reproductively active as ever – something I suspect you couldn’t say of  Dunnet himself.  The bird is still knocking out one chick per year as it had been for decades and as it would continue to do even after Dunnet’s death a few years later.  The bird is also still capable of working its tail feathers off.   In order to continue being reproductively successful, a Northern fulmar must make repeated foraging trips, some covering as much as 4,000 miles, over the ocean before returning with a stomach laden with fish, squid, and shrimp to nourish its growing chick.  

A number of bird species live a long time, some even longer than this fulmar as we shall see.  Perhaps even more astonishing than their long lives though is that they continue at an advanced age to meet the enormous energy demands that their lives requires, such as those long overseas flights.  Birds in nature somehow seem to remain physically fit to the very end of their lives.   Wouldn’t it be nice if people could do something similar?

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”  -Linus Pauling  


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I am a scientist/writer.  Look for my new book, Methuselah's Zoo, coming soon.  An assortment of my newspaper columns can be found below.

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