C1 Advanced (CAE)
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Test 1 / 13

Scottish Wildcat

On my living-room wall I have a painting of a wildcat by John Holmes of which I am extremely fond. It depicts a snarling, spitting animal, teeth bared and back arched: a taut coiled spring ready to unleash some unknown fury.

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However, the physical differences are tangible. The wildcat is a much larger animal, weighing in some cases up to seven kilos, the same as a typical male fox. The coat pattern is superficially similar to a domestic tabby cat but it is all stripes and no spots. The tail is thicker and blunter, with three to five black rings. The animal has an altogether heavier look.

The Scottish wildcat was originally distinguished as a separate subspecies in 1912, but it is now generally recognised that there is little difference between the Scottish and other European populations. According to an excellent report on the wildcat printed in 1991, the animals originally occurred in a variety of habitats throughout Europe.

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It was during the nineteenth century, with the establishment of many estates used by landowners for hunting, that the wildcat became a nuisance and its rapid decline really began; 198 wildcats were killed in three years in the area of Glengarry, for example. However, things were later to improve for the species.

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The future is by no means secure, though, and recent evidence suggests that the wildcat is particularly vulnerable to local eradication, especially in the remoter parts of northern and western Scotland. This is a cause for real concern, given that the animals in these areas have less contact with domestic cats and are therefore purer.

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Part of the problem stems from the fact that the accepted physical description of the species originates from the selective nature of the examination process by the British Natural History Museum at the start of the century, and this has been used as the type-definition for the animal ever since. Animals that did not conform to that large blunt-tailed ‘tabby’ description were discarded as not being wildcats. In other words, an artificial collection of specimens was built up, exhibiting the features considered typical of the wildcat.

The current research aims to resolve this potential problem. It is attempting to find out whether there are any physical features which characterise the so-called wild-living cats.

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But what of his lifestyle? Wildcat kittens are usually born in May/June in a secluded den, secreted in a gap amongst boulders. Another favourite location is in the roots of a tree.

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Rabbits are a favourite prey, and some of the best areas to see wildcats are at rabbit warrens close to the forest and moorland edge. Mice, small birds and even insects also form a large part of the diet, and the animal may occasionally take young deer.

The wildcat is one of the Scottish Highlands’ most exciting animals. Catch a glimpse of one and the memory will linger forever.

The recruitment of men to the armed forces during the conflict in Europe from 1914 to 1918 meant there was very little persecution, since gamekeepers went off to fight. As the number of gamekeepers decreased, the wildcat began to increase its range, recolonising many of its former haunts. Extinction was narrowly averted.The wildcat waits for a while in rapt concentration, ears twitching and eyes watching, seeing everything and hearing everything, trying to detect the tell-tale movement of a vole or a mouse. But there is nothing, and in another leap he disappears into the gloom.The results, which are expected shortly, will be fascinating. But anyone who has seen a wildcat will be in little doubt that there is indeed a unique and distinctive animal living in the Scottish Highlands, whatever his background.They probably used deciduous and coniferous woodland for shelter, particularly in winter, and hunted over more open areas such as forest edge, open woodland, thickets and scrub, grassy areas and marsh. The wildcat was probably driven into more mountainous areas by a combination of deforestation and persecution.As the animals emerge, their curiosity is aroused by every movement and rustle in the vegetation. Later they will accompany their mother on hunting trips, learning quickly, and soon become adept hunters themselves.This is what makes many people think that the wildcat is a species in its own right. Research currently being undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage is investigating whether the wildcat really is distinct from its home-living cousin, or whether it is nothing more than a wild-living form of the domestic cat.It is a typical image most folk have of the beast, but it is very much a false one, for the wildcat is little more than a bigger version of the domestic cat, and probably shows his anger as often.
Test 2 / 13

Taking Dinosaurs Apart

Pulling apart limbs, sawing through ribs and separating skull bones are activities usually associated with surgeons rather than museum staff. However, that is exactly what is going on at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, USA. Renovations to the museum’s dinosaur hall, which started recently, have necessitated the dismantling and removal of its collection of dinosaur and extinct mammal skeletons, some of which weigh as much as five tons.

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One particular specimen which curator Matthew Carrano can’t wait to get hold of is a meat-eating Jurassic dinosaur called Allosaurus, which has been on display for 30 years. ‘Scientifically, this particular Allosaurus is well-known,’ he explains, because ‘for a long time, it was one of the only Allosaurus specimens that represented a single individual animal’.

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The Smithsonian’s five-meter-long Allosaurus, however, is definitely one unique individual. So once crystallized glue holding it together is removed, researchers and conservators can get a better sense of how the creature’s joints actually fitted together in life

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Another modification in the museum plans to make to its Allosaurus is removing a couple of centimeters from its tail, which is not original fossil but casts of vertebrae. ‘The tail on the Smithsonian’s specimen is too long’, says Peter May, owner and president of the company in charge of dismantling, conserving, and remounting the 58 specimens in the museum’s dinosaur hall. He explains that the skeleton on display has over 50 vertebrae, when it should have something closer to 45.

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Slicing a thin cross-section out of a leg or rib bone can help with that. By placing a slice under a microscope, researchers will be able to count growth rings on the bone, the number of which would have increased throughout the creature’s life, very much like the rings on a cross-section of a tree trunk.

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One example which Carrano wishes to investigate further is an apparent blow to the Allosaurus’s left side. ‘The shoulder blade looks like it has healed improperly,’ he explains. If the damaged shoulder blade can be fitted together with the ribs which are held in storage, paleontologists might be able to determine the severity and cause of the damage.

Finally, Carrano hopes to be able to compare the Allosaurus with another dinosaur in the collection called Labrosaurus. Labrosaurus is known only from a single bone – a lower jaw with a distortion which is believed to have been caused by disease or injury. ‘The two front teeth are missing and there’s an abscess there’, Carrano explains.

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But in order to confirm their suspicion, Carrano and his colleagues will have to wait a while. ‘A lot of what we hope to learn won’t be accessible to us until the exhibits have been taken down and we can have a good look at them’, he says. So he won’t be able to get his hands on the Allosaurus quite yet.

Dismantling the Allosaurus and removing the plaster and glue covering it can also reveal whether the animal suffered any injuries when alive.The Smithsonian’s team should be able to take it apart in large chunks in a single day, but even once they’ve dismantled it they’ll still have hours of work ahead of them, breaking the skeleton down further into individual bones and cleaning them.These endeavors will modernize a space which has never seen a major overhaul. It will also give researchers a chance to make detailed studies of the exhibits – some of which haven’t been touched in decades.There are also plans to slim it down a little. When the museum first displayed the Allosaurus, preparators decided to use plaster casts of the ribs instead of the actual specimens, which resulted in a heavier-looking skeleton. Curators hope that the final, remounted skeleton will more closely resemble the dinosaur’s natural shape.However, this dinosaur, previously classified as a separate species is now thought to be a type of Allosaurus. Both of the specimens come from the same quarry, and what’s more the Allosaurus is missing the exact same bone, so it’s entirely possible that it actually belongs to the Smithsonian Allosaurus.In addition to correcting mistakes such as this, made when the specimens were first displayed, Carrano would also like to determine the age of the Allosaurus.There are Allosaurus skeletons in museum collections across the world, but most consist of bones from a number of different examples of the species. This has made it difficult for scientists to work out how the entire skeleton fits together.
Test 3 / 13

Fieldwork in the rainforest of Ecuador

When I was at school, I was a huge fan of TV wildlife programmes, and at a certain point I realised that somehow the natural world would have to be part of my life. So here I am a few years later, in the tropical rainforest of eastern Ecuador, a novice field scientist. The word scientist evokes various images, typically perhaps ones of laboratories and white coats, test tubes and lab rats. But what does it mean to be a field scientist?

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I am currently spending a year at a small scientific research station in a remote patch of the Ecuadorian rainforest belonging to the Kichwa community of San Jose de Payamino. It is glorious – everything you would expect a tropical rainforest location to be, and a world away from my university in the UK. The air is hot and thick, the trees are densely packed, and everywhere is teeming with life.

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The local people own the land and govern themselves, but the Ecuadorian government also provides for them: a school complete with computer room and satellite internet, for instance. Each year, they vote for a new president and vice-president, who organise the democratic community meetings. Each family has a finca in the forest: a wooden home on stilts.

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But my normal life here as a work experience student revolves mainly around my personal research, which is a biodiversity study of frogs. I am trying to establish exactly which species are here, where and when I can find them, and what condition they are in.

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For most of the time, I am just crawling along looking at leaves. Much of field research is like this. It isn’t all finding new species and being transfixed by exotic wildlife behaviour. Have you ever seen the behind-the-scenes footage at the end of many nature documentaries, where it turns out a cameraman has been sitting in a tree for three days waiting for a bird to dance? Research is like this – laborious and monotonous – but it can be rewarding too.

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Being a field scientist basically means being an academic, collecting data and publishing scientific papers. It’s interesting but it doesn’t pay well, and getting started can be tough. When I was looking for work experience, there were plenty of openings with pharmaceutical companies, but very few matching my desire to explore and investigate wildlife.

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This is one reason I count myself lucky to be involved in this project. It’s largely funded by my university, so I can afford it. Then, by the end of this year, I will have acquired valuable skills, and I am hopeful that the experience will facilitate my progression into postgraduate study.

To do this, I walk slowly along several paths in the forest, accompanied by a local guide, and at night equipped with a torch. When I spot what I’m looking for, I feel an intense adrenaline rush. Will I manage to capture it? Have I collected this particular species yet?Because of this, and having experienced fieldwork, I’ve decided it’s definitely something I would like to do as a career. Once this year is over, I will ask my lecturers to advise me what to do next.This morning, for example, a half metre square of mushrooms sprouted on the dirt floor of my kitchen. My favourite time here is in the early evenings. It’s finally cool enough to be comfortable, and the nocturnal creatures begin their nightly cacophony, while the setting sun paints the trees orange.The reality is, however, that to make your way you need to build up a range of contacts and a portfolio of work. Many of the initial work opportunities that do exist are voluntary – in fact, you often have to pay to join a scheme. A student job where you are paid expenses, let alone a basic salary, is quite rare.By and large, they work outdoors, and are interested in pretty much everything from discovering new species to the effect of obscure parasites on ecosystems. They explore and investigate, aiming to understand what they observe. Just two years into my undergraduate zoology degree, I don’t quite qualify as one yet, but hopefully I’m heading that way.They have their own traditions, too. One day, a local lady was bitten by a lethal snake; whilst I administered shots of anti-venom to her, the local traditional healer, was applying plant remedies to the wound and attempting to suck the venom from it. At least one of the treatments must have worked because she recovered.And the thing is to imagine being the person that has made a discovery – the person who first questions something, investigates and then contributes to the vast catalogue of information that is science. I find this concept inspirational.
Test 4 / 13

Close encounters of the wild kind

The rise of wildlife-watching experiences.

Wildlife observation has always proved inspirational for humans, it led Charles Darwin to provide us with a better understanding of how we evolved and it has inspired such everyday innovations as Velcro. US author Peter Matthiessen wrote: ‘The variety of life in nature can be compared to a vast library of unread books, and the plundering of nature is comparable to the random discarding of whole volumes without having opened them and learned from them’.

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‘What is interesting is how much people are willing to pay to be in a wilderness environment’, says Julian Matthews, director of Discovery Initiatives, a company which takes people on small-group trips to more than 35 countries. It’s still a small part of the tourism industry but it’s undoubtedly expanding. There are definitely more and more people seeking wildlife experiences now’.

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Matthews recognises the contribution that television has made to our knowledge of nature, but he says ‘there’s no way to compare seeing an animal in the wild with watching one on TV. While a filmmaker may spend six months shooting an animal and will get closer to it than you ever will, there’s no greater pleasure than seeing an animal in its own environment. On film, you’re only getting the visuals and the sound. As impressive as they may be, it’s not the real thing.’ And the good thing is that tourists can now watch wildlife ‘live’ while helping to protect it – a concept that comes under the broad label of ‘ecotourism’.

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In practice, this means that many tour operators, guided by ethical policies, now use the services of local communities, train local guides and have close ties to conservation projects. Tour operator Rekero, for example, has established its own school – the Koyiaki Guide School and Wilderness Camp – for Maasai people in Kenya.

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Conservation organisations have also realised that tourism can help educate people and provide a valuable source of revenue and even manpower. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, runs trips that give donors the chance to see for themselves how their financial aid is assisting conservation projects in the field, and some organisations even allow tourists to take part in research and conservation.

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Similarly, Biosphere Expeditions takes about 200 people every year on what its field operations director, Dr Matthias Hammer, calls an ‘adventure with a conscience’. Volunteers can visit six destinations around the world and take part in various activities including snow leopard, wolf and bear surveys and whale and dolphin research.

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Of course, going in search of wildlife doesn’t always mean you will find it. That sightings of animals in large wild areas don’t come automatically is a fact of life. Although potentially frustrating, it makes sightings all the more rewarding when they are made. And the opportunity to do something to help both the environment and local people can only add to the experience.

He is confident that, if done properly, this combination of tourism and conservation can be ‘a win-win situation’, ‘People have a unique experience while contributing to conservation directly. Local people and habitats benefit through job creation, research and an alternative income. Local wildlife benefits from our work.’While there is indeed much to learn from many species not yet known to science, it’s the already opened texts that attract the majority of us, however. And we are attracted in ever increasing numbers.As people are able to travel to more extreme places in search of the ultimate wildlife experience, it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to catch rewarding glimpses of animals. Indeed, some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities are on our doorstep.This growth has been stimulated by the efforts of conservation groups and natural history documentaries. Greater awareness of the planet has led to an increased demand for wildlife tours or the addition of a wildlife-watching component to traditional holidays. People want to discover nature at first-hand for themselves – not just on a screen.Despite being an important part of the population there, they have largely been excluded from the benefits brought to the region by tourism. This initiative is a concerted effort to enable them to take up jobs and run programmes themselves.Earthwatch is a non-profit international environmental group that does just that. ‘Participation in an Earthwatch project is a positive alternative to wildlife-watching expeditions, as we offer members of the public the opportunity to be on the front line of conservation,’ says Claudia Eckardt, Earthwatch programme manager.It is a term which is overused, but the principle behind it undoubtedly offers hope for the future of many endangered species, as money from tourism directly funds conservation work. It also extends to the consideration of the interests of people living in the places that tourists visit.