Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Scientist who discovered his wood teeming with life

PROFESSOR Richard Fortey is used to visiting far flung destinations to bring to life the world’s weird, wonderful

PROFESSOR Richard Fortey is used to visiting far flung destinations to bring to life the world’s weird, wonderful and endangered creatures.

But the Henley naturalist and paleontologist is focusing on a subject much closer to home in his latest book.

He spent more than three years researching life on a four-acre plot in Lambridge Woods on the outskirts of the town, which he bought in 2011.

The Wood for the Trees: A Long View of Nature from a Small Wood, which will be published in May, documents a notional year in the life of the woodland.

Prof Fortey, 69, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, discovered more than 600 species in the area, which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, including flowering plants, animals and fungi.

His discoveries included a plant with no chlorophyll, a dormouse nest, seven species of bat and a jewel beetle, which is normally associated with the tropics, in the canopy of the trees.

He also found a number of scarce, listed species including a tiny beech bark beetle.

“It is all in our little wood,” said Prof Fortey, who lives in St Andrew’s Road with his wife Jackie.

“I always rather fancied owning some woodland. I didn’t think about the book at first but it sort of grew as a possibility.

“The fun thing is doing the finding out. The writing is a matter of self-discipline.

“I was able to apply my own areas of expertise to it but I got my colleagues from the museum to identify all the things that I couldn’t.”

The book, which took him six months to write, will detail the wildlife he found in the woodland, its history and his notes on it.

His wife spotted the land for sale online and he used his earnings from his TV series Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures, which was broadcast in 2012, to buy it.

Prof Fortey has lived in Henley for about 30 years and leads woodland walks three or four times a year in the area.

He has also been back on TV with a new three-part series on BBC 4 called Nature’s Wonderlands: Islands of Evolution, which ended this week.

He investigated why islands are natural laboratories of evolution and studied the lifecycle of islands, from their birth and colonisation, through the flowering of abundant new species to the changes an island endures as it grows old and nears its end.

He encountered wild lemurs in the rainforest of Madagascar, acid-resistant shrimps in the rock pools of Hawaii and giant wolf spiders in Madeira. In the first episode, Prof Fortey was in Hawaii to investigate how life colonizes a newly-born island.

He encountered honeycreeper birds, carnivorous caterpillars and giant silversword plants that thrive in the parched volcanic soil at 10,000 ft.

Prof Fortey said: “It offers an insight into the way evolution really works on the ground and how it leads to many different species. You can watch evolution playing out in isolation.

“It’s not a bad job going to these islands and receiving a pay cheque at the end of it but it’s extremely interesting too.

“What I try to do on these shows is show things people haven’t seen before. I don’t think the carnivorous caterpillar of Hawaii has been portrayed on TV before.

“It’s a great place to study phenomena like co-evolution, which has happened quite fast. It was great to tell the story of these animals and introduce them to people. That’s my passion now.

“There’s a view that nature’s a show that’s put on for human entertainment. I feel very strongly that every organism, every species, has its own extraordinary biography that needs to be told.

“I feel it’s morally wrong to let a species go extinct, particularly if it hasn’t even told you its story. What has surprised me is that people seem to react quite well to me doing it.”

Television has come fairly late to Prof Fortey, who normally splits his time between writing and working at the museum, where he is a leading authority on trilobites.

Since 1970 he has worked in the museum’s paleontology research department.

He said: “I had previously done a PhD and got my doctorate working on the island of Svalbard. I went there as an undergraduate from Cambridge and when I was there I discovered the most amazing collection of trilobite fossils that people had never seen before. I had a handmade PhD in front of me.”

His love of the ancient and long extinct creatures stems from childhood when he used to collect the fossils in Wales.

He discovered his first at the age of 14 near St David’s in west Wales.

“There was a map on the wall where we were staying,” he said. “It was a geography map and it said‘trilobites can be found here’. I went to the place and found my first one.”

So what is the appeal of trilobites?

“They were so old, so ancient and also quite complex — they had eyes.

“It seemed to me the older the fossil, the more fascinating it was because they took you back into the realms of geographical time you could not imagine.”

In 1982 he published his first book on popular science called Fossils: The Key to the Past. In 1993 he released The Hidden Landscape, which put him on the map as a science writer.

He said: “I felt I wanted to reach a wider audience. I then had two careers, if you like, which were running in parallel and the writing  continued.”

He followed this up in 1997 with Life, an official bestseller, and a US book deal followed.

Prof Fortey says: “Because Life was so successful it gave me a chance to write a book called Trilobite!

“Trilobites were a large group of organisms that were very varied and were one of the most important marine organisms for two million years so I thought they should have their place in the sun and some of them are truly extraordinary looking creatures.

“They really are the most bizarre and wonderful creatures. They first appeared in fossil records that have been dated 542 million years ago and last appeared 250 million years ago.”

In his spare time Prof Fortey is an amateur mycologist and has a small laboratory on the top floor of his home where he studies fungi.

As a result he has become known for his fungi expertise and even provided an on-the-spot diagnosis on one occasion when a man showed up on his doorstep after eating some mushrooms he’d picked.

The professor recalled: “He said‘I’ve been sick, what have I eaten?’ He still had one left in the bag, maybe two, and I said‘I bet I know where you found those? Drawback Hill, I saw them growing and wondered if anyone would pick them up’.

“I’d never met him before but someone had said‘you’d better take these to Richard Fortey!’.”

His work has brought him much acclaim and in 1997 he was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science.

Prof Fortey said: “It is an amazing thing because you sign this book and the first page has Isaac Newton’s name on it.

“You’re bloody nervous and when I signed it the first thing that came out was large ink blob so it was not a very beautiful signature!

“Charles Darwin is in the book and Stephen Hawking. Even though I consider myself to be small beer compared to these people, it’s great to be in the same book as them.”

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