Friday, 24 July 2015

Fear of death

The colloquial expression of "having a death wish" is often applied to people who expose themselves to great danger, and especially to those who enjoy extreme sports.

The most dangerous extreme sport is BASE jumping (above), where an individual leaps from a cliff, bridge or a similar structure, and free falls before opening a parachute. BASE jumping carries a five to sixteen times greater risk of death than skydiving from an aeroplane or helicopter [1], and an even more risky variant of BASE jumping is proximity flying using steerable wing suits. These suits allow fliers to pass very close to terrain before moving out into a region where there is sufficient altitude to allow safe release of a parachute and return to the ground. Take a look at this video clip and you'll see what I mean:

The fliers are Jeb Corliss (in the black suit) and Jhonathan Florez (in the light suit) and one can sense their exhilaration in flying quickly and so close to the ground. However, it can go wrong. Indeed, Jhonny Florez was killed recently in Switzerland and he was a highly experienced wing suit flier who had made many jumps of the same type as the one that resulted in his death from "impact with terrain". For close proximity fliers, then, death is a real possibility, but their attitude towards it is different to that of the average person.

In a study entitled Personality Characteristics of BASE Jumpers, Monasterio et al. [1] found that, while many personality traits showed a range that was similar to that of their peers, BASE jumpers tended to have very low HA (Harm Avoidance) scores:

The finding of low HA is not surprising or counterintuitive, as individuals with low scores in this dimension are described as carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident. Their energy levels tend to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively and vigorous. The advantages of low HA are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress..

..In our study there was a high prevalence of witnessed and experienced serious trauma, and near misses among BASE jumpers; despite this participants persisted in the sport and this suggests that they are likely to possess considerable psychological resilience to the effects of trauma.

Far from being reckless, BASE jumpers are very careful in their preparation, as they are aware of the danger of things going wrong, but this awareness is exceeded by the pleasure provided in making flights and jumps. Close proximity wing suit flying can be regarded as the pinnacle of the sport when it comes to exhilaration and, in discussing a range of extreme sports, Brymer and Schweitzer [2] point out that:

Fear was intimately related to decision making in terms of decisions to engage in or not engage in activities and potential consequences of such engagement. That is, the future which involved the potential destruction of the physical self emerged in the present..

..participants live in relationship to fear. Extreme sport participants perceive the experience of fear as an essential element to their survival. Fear is spoken about as if it is a healthy, productive experience..

..they are also able to objectify fear. Fear is thus not something to be avoided, but embraced as contributing to personal survival. Fear 'keeps you alive', revealing an intimate relationship between fear and the living self.

There are shades of mindfulness in these statements and the fear faced by BASE jumpers and wing suit fliers is not unlike the paralysing fear of those suffering from severe anxiety as a mental illness. However, the jumpers and fliers look at fear as something that is felt, challenged and benefitted from and the result is a feeling of release. Further in their article, Brymer and Schweitzer [2] write:

Participation in the face of the fear offers considerable benefits as participants note how the experience changes their life..

..a BASE jumper related how BASE jumping was the 'ultimate metaphor for jumping into life rather than standing on the edge quivering'. She described an acceptance of the inevitability of death and development of an intimate connection to nature as if just 'a leaf in the wind': ' you're totally vulnerable and totally part of the environment at the same time'..

.. Working through fear in an extreme situation empowers everyday life.. ..Fear emerges as part of the experience and meaning of extreme sports. Participants are very clear about the intense feelings during the preparation and pre-activity stage. It would seem that participants consider those who do not feel fear are a danger to themselves and others.

In another paper, Brymer and Schweitzer make a telling statement [3]:

A number of participants described a sense of freedom in terms of peace or being at one as participants were immersed in the natural environment.

Immersion in the natural environment is important to mental health, whether one is a BASE jumper, wing suit flier or, like me, a Natural Historian. Perhaps the only difference comes in the scale of intensity of feeling?

A sense of fear can be so overwhelming in beginners at free-fall parachuting that they have to make a first attempt by being strapped to an experienced parachutist who makes the decision of when to jump. This sense of impending danger also affects some bungee jumpers. Take a look at this clip (turn off the sound) and put yourself in the woman's position:

Bungee jumping and free fall parachuting are extreme sports with a good safety record, but fatalities do occur (the bridge in the above clip was the scene of a recent bungee jumping fatality). Yet the exhilaration of completing a jump often makes people want to make another attempt, just to see if the buzz is the same – and it usually is. In tackling the fear on a second, and subsequent, flight, the participant knows more about fear and that they can cope with it. Imagine that multiplied in BASE jumping and further magnified in wing suit close proximity flying and one sees something powerful at work [2]:

Participants in this study also report that facing fear in extreme sports and learning to participate despite the intensity of the fear facilitates the management of fears in other aspects of life. That is by facing our greatest 'true' fears whether they be death, uncertainty or something else and taking action despite those fears we transcend our own limitations and invite new possibilities into our lives.

Should we then encourage those with low HA scores in personality tests to take up the most dangerous sports because they provide a quite different perspective on life and one which is highly beneficial to the participant? Close proximity wing suit flying provides personal fulfilment and a great deal to the individual, but it is also selfish. If death results, the flier presumably knows little about it, but others have to cope with the trauma of recovery, and of bereavement, and this is the down side of the activity.

I don't know how many wing suit and proximity fliers believe in a supernatural force, but their sense of exhilaration in the face of death could be termed a religious experience, while providing tools to conquer day-to-day sources of anxiety and the fear of death. It all seems so much more real than the conventional religious approach to death, with the need to adhere to tenets throughout one's life, and the deep fear of judgement and retribution.

[1] Erik Monasterio, Roger Mulder, Christopher Frampton and Omer Mei-Dan (2012) Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 24: 391-400.

[2] Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer (2012) Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology 18: 477-487.

[3] Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer (2013) The search for freedom in extreme sports: a phenomenological exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14: 865-873.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Eating slugs – and a fascinating defence mechanism

Mention slugs to people and you are likely to get "Ugh!" as a response - and from gardeners a more hostile reaction. This is because slugs are slimy and they also eat plants, often in competition with humans when we are growing plants for food or decoration.

To a Natural Historian, slugs are fascinating, as they are gastropod molluscs that have lost their shell during evolution. Adult gastropods, with few exceptions, move using muscular contractions and expansions of the foot, sliding over a film of secreted slimy mucus. Production of mucus is also important in providing a body covering to prevent desiccation and as a deterrent to predators. Nevertheless, many slugs are predated and gardeners are encouraged to provide areas for hedgehogs or predatory birds. One solution to the pest problem that is rarely mentioned is the collection of slugs for food, just as we gather some types of snails (Roman snails, winkles, whelks, etc.). Here is a recipe adapted from one posted on the "eattheweeds" website [1]:

Allow slugs to feed on salad leaves and then kill them in a vinegar-water mixture before boiling them in water, repeating this three times. The prepared slugs can now be used to make patties.

Beat 3 eggs with 3 tablespoons of double cream and add the mixture to 3 tablespoons of flour, the same quantity of cornmeal, and 10 slugs (chopped into bite-sized pieces). Whisk, form into patties, and then fry in butter. Serve with bread and salad.

Some of you may find this low on your list of recipes to try, but slugs are attracting the interest of at least one celebrity chef [2] and they are a source of protein that is readily available. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends slugs cooked in a tomato sauce [2].

Less familiar to us than terrestrial slugs are those that live in the sea and these are not easily gathered in quantity, so are unlikely to be utilised widely as food. There are reports of sea slugs being eaten by humans, but these accounts arise from confusion with sea cucumbers (holothurian echinoderms) that are eaten in many parts of the World. Holothurians formed part of the famous dinner of the Acclimatization Society in 1862 where views on flavour and consistency were mixed [3]. However, true sea slugs are now finding their way on to speciality restaurant menus [4] – and note that the article refers to them as "trash from the sea". It is an unfortunate term for remarkable and beautiful animals.

It was a sea slug, Marionia sp, that I "adopted" at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology [5]. It is mounted with the foot facing the viewer and this was done to allow students, and other observers, to see the dimensions of the foot and thus the area in contact with the substratum (see above left).  Unfortunately, preservation in spirit removes pigment and the living specimen would have been light orange in colour, providing camouflage (see above right). Reference to the Sea Slug Forum [6] shows the range of sea slugs and some of their extraordinary adaptations and beautiful colours. These colours are not for our appreciation, of course, although a Creationist might disagree, but to provide warning or camouflage. Warning of what? I'll come to that question, but first we need to know a bit more about the body plan of sea slugs and how they are different to snails.

During evolution, some of the internal organs of gastropods underwent torsion, with the gut opening forward into the mantle cavity at the shell entrance. Slugs, including sea slugs, have undergone de-torsion, with the anus being towards the rear, nearer to their ancestral positions. The anterior end of the gut of snails and slugs features a rasping tongue, or radula, and this is used to remove food from the surface of stones or vegetation, or for scraping away the tissue of living plants and animals. Marionia feeds on corals [7] and the Grant Museum specimen, labelled Marionaria quadrilatera (but actually Marionaria blainvillea) would have fed on these colonial animals while living in the Mediterranean Sea.

A characteristic of corals is the ability of individual polyps to retract and to use stinging cells as a means of catching food, just like their relatives the jellyfish (many corals also generate their own food by harbouring algal cells within their tissues). The stinging cells, or nematocysts (see below), have a trigger that releases a thread through which toxins are injected to immobilise prey, a series of small barbs holding the thread into the tissue. They also serve in defence and a grazing sea slug will be at risk of being attacked by these stinging threads as they eat the coral tissue, even when polyps are retracted. The evolution of stinging cells in coelenterates is an amazing adaptation, but there are some sea slugs that eat coral tissue without the nematocysts discharging. Not only that, intact cells can be moved to extensions of the body, called cerata, on the back of the sea slug through branches of the gut that extend into the projections. Any animals attacking these sea slugs now receive stings from coral nematocysts and the bright colour of the molluscs probably acts as a warning.

Slugs may not appeal to everyone, but we should all be amazed at some of their adaptations. How these evolved can only be speculated upon, but there are few examples in nature as extraordinary as the evolution of nematocysts by coelenterates, followed by their hijacking by some sea slugs. It's worth thinking about if you feel tempted to eat some.

[3] G.H.O.Burgess (1967) The Eccentric Ark: The Curious World Of Frank Buckland. New York, The Horizon Press.

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology gave permission for me  to use the photograph of the preserved Marionaria specimen.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Two wonderful Museums – and mention of another

As a child, I was fascinated by a box that was kept in a back room of our house and which contained "curios". I cannot remember all the bits and pieces in the box, but there was a claw (from a tiger?) and some coarse hair that was said to come from a giraffe's tail. It was our family's cabinet of curiosities, like those kept by Nineteenth Century collectors and Natural History enthusiasts, but I've no idea where the claw and hair came from. Perhaps they were given to my parents by a contact who, unlike us, had travelled widely? I now think the source was more likely to be Paignton Zoo, within easy walking distance of where we lived.

It is possible that my interest in Natural History Museums developed from my fascination with the curios, although I also enjoyed looking at plants and animals while walking in the countryside, or looking in rock pools and streams. It certainly grew when I went into the Sixth Form of Torquay Grammar School and began studying Botany and Zoology at A-level. For some reason, our classes in those subjects were held at the local Technical College, that shared the same campus as the school, and this brought much more freedom. Instead of going to the School Library, a group of us now spent time collecting animals on the shore during our free time, something that was completely against school regulations. Occasionally, we made trips to Exeter to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and little did I know then that the RAMM was to provide a delightful surprise over fifty years later when a Curator, Holly Morgenroth, kindly let me see their collection of drawings by Henry and Edmund Gosse [1,2] – and to think they were there during my schoolboy visits all those years before (although not on display).

It was during the Sixth Form that I joined the Torquay Natural History Society and this allowed me free access to talks and also to their Museum. It was rather musty and dark at that time, not like the welcoming place it is today, and I spent hours in the Library, with its smell of dust and old leather, and volumes going back to the Seventeenth Century. One I remember was printed in London in 1666 and that set me thinking whether this was before, or after, the Great Fire and what a story that book could tell. Being free to look through the exhibits and the books was just like being given a very large box of curios to me. 

The Torquay Museum is housed in a building dating from 1874 (see above), collections previously having been in more temporary quarters [3]. The secretary of the Torquay Natural History Society from 1851 to 1890 was William Pengelly who was made an FRS for his many contributions to palaeontology, especially after the excavation of caves in the Torbay area.  A quote from a biography of Pengelly by his daughter [4] emphasises the central role he played in the development of the Society and I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude, for my love of museums started in Torquay:

It was indeed mainly due to Mr Pengelly's energy that the autumn of 1844 witnessed the foundation of the Torquay Natural History Society. Over its early fortunes he exercised the most watchful care, and in 1851 he was induced to accept the office of honorary secretary, an office which he continued uninterruptedly to hold, to the unspeakable advantage of the Society, for no less than nine-and-thirty years.. ..Year after year he lectured there, tincturing the locality with his own enthusiasm; and from the Society there ultimately sprang the Museum in Babbacombe Road, with its admirable local collections. In the reading-room attached to the Museum there fitly hangs an oil-painting of the man whose individuality is unmistakably marked upon the entire institution – William Pengelly

Pengelly, unlike the "other Torquay  FRS", Henry Gosse, was a regular visitor to London and he was acquainted with E. Ray Lankester, the eminent Zoologist who held the Jodrell Chair at University College London, attending conversazione that were held by that great academic. Lankester had a wide circle of friends and contacts, extending to Karl Marx, H. G. Wells and Anna Pavlova, so he wasn't just well known in his own field. In their monograph on Lankester [5], Lester and Bowler state that, although they mainly communicated through correspondence, he "much admired" Gosse and Edmund Gosse writes [6]:

Among the younger zoologists of the day, few of whom were personally known to my father, there was not one in whose discoveries and career he took a livelier interest than in those of Professor E. Ray Lankester, for whom, from his earliest publications, he had predicted a course of high distinction.

As Jodrell Professor, Lankester inherited the Zoology Museum built up by his predecessor Robert E. Grant (for whom the museum is now named), adding considerably to the collection. The museum is still used for teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, but it is also open to the public and all who visit appreciate its wonders as it has a powerful atmosphere of the glory days of the Nineteenth Century [7]. Its current location, that shows off the collections so well, is the latest in a series and one hopes that it will remain there for a long time. Of course, the Grant Museum of Zoology is not just about teaching and connecting with the heyday of Natural History; it is also very contemporary, with some wonderful displays to attract and fascinate visitors [8] and a blog that is always worth reading [9]. One novel approach to develop interest is a scheme to adopt a specimen and I did this eagerly, choosing a sea slug Marionia quadrilatera (see below, with the adoption certificate). I chose it as I taught Aquatic and Invertebrate Biology, and a sea slug is appropriate for both. Interestingly, it was part of the collection added to by Lankester and may well have been one of the many specimens brought back from Naples in 1885 [5] by Alfred Gibbs Bourne, a student of Lankester's (note that the jar is labelled "Naples").

While a member of staff at UCL, I listened to one neophyte colleague chatting about the destiny of the Museum of Zoology and how much better it would be to use space for laboratories and contemporary biomedical research. I found this sad and was delighted to serve on the UCL Museums and Heritage Committee where there were never discussions of this kind and where we focussed on the marvellous collections held by the University. Heritage is so important and I'm delighted that Lankester still looks out at the Museum (albeit from a photograph – see below - with specimens of Limulus, about which Lankester wrote an important essay [5]), just as Pengelly looked out in the Library of the Museum in Torquay. I like those connections.

[4] Hester Pengelly (1897) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, F.R.S., Geologist. London, John Murray.

[5] Joe Lester and Peter J. Bowler (1995). E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern British Biology. British Society for the History of Science Monograph 9.

[6] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

Photographs were taken with the permission of the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology.