ExplorersBio

Rory Wilson

Zoologist

Expeditions Council Grantee

Photo: Rory Wilson

Photograph by Javier Ciancio

Current City: Swansea, Wales, U.K.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was unsure, except that knew I wanted to work with animals. (I did have the "train driver" phase but I think that disappeared when I was about 4.)

How did you get started in your field of work?

Hard question, because I got started when I was about 4, simply being interested in animals in a general sense. I progressed to being allowed to study biology at school and then specialising increasingly in zoology at university until I ended up doing a Ph.D. on the marine ecology of the African penguin. By that time there was no turning back, although there probably never had been.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to nature?

We think that we, as humans, are complex, with our clever contraptions allowing us to travel, and listen to music as we walk in the park, and walk on the moon. But in that very same park, which we may walk through with our heads bowed, concentrating on our own fabricated world of sound, the smallest aphid, in an army of aphids, on any one of a million leaves, has multiple microscopic muscles contracting perfectly in its armoured legs, as it negotiates hairs produced by the plant to deter it. And all the aphids on that leaf, in that park, in our world, are doing something, similar, but surely different. The complexity of the simplest of things is staggering, but when I think of the incredible diversity of life, from amoebae to aardvarks and beyond, and the way each intricate organism interacts within itself and with others sharing our common space, it is as difficult for me to encompass as the limitlessness of the universe. How could I not be inspired?

What's a normal day like for you?

The hard part is always getting up. I have problems getting sensory systems to function and there is really no evidence of proper neuronal activity until after midday (though some would say it never happens). Most days I wander into the university through the sublime local park. I love to watch the seasons change in this park, and how the wildlife changes with them. The university day is filled with students, and lectures, and admin, and students, and meetings, and students, But it also has moments that allow me to play with data that I have collected from wild animals. This information is collected using smart tags that tell me things about animals that nobody knows. It's not so much Peeping Tom as the honour that I have conferred upon me to be able to access some of animal's greatest secret. The thrill of all that sometimes keeps my sensory systems going until far too late in the night (which may explain the morning problems)!

Do you have a hero?

Personal hero? That's easy. Newton. What he achieved, in the belief backdrop of his life, was nothing short of phenomenal. I don't think there's been a mind to match his ever.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favourite, at least most memorable, experience was when I first saw a wild penguin. I was sitting on the rear section of a fishing boat travelling up the Namibian coast. The sea was stunning but the severe ocean motion was interacting with my normally one-way digestive system. Then I saw a single, juvenile African penguin, in the water, rolled almost completely onto its back, concentrating wholly on preening feathers on its breast as it bounced around in the huge swell and vicious chop. Many would shriek in water like that but my bird was as at home as a child listening to a goodnight story from the depths of its bed.

The most challenging experience came soon after that. How to figure out what penguins get up to when they are at sea. The glimpse of my bird for those few seconds was really a drop in the ocean.

What are your other passions?

I love learning, and speaking, languages. I find it unutterably cool that we can squeak and squawk and trill in so many different ways and mean the same thing. I also consider it fascinating to try and comprehend words or notions in foreign languages that have no adequate translation in English. Mind-bending indeed.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time! Ha. The term "university professor" is not synonymous with free time. Actually, I love swimming. Not the solemn plowing up and down a pool, but the silly frolicking kind of swimming, especially if it involves a kind, gentle sea like the Mediterranean where sea creatures may gawp but few actually do unpleasant things to invaders.

If you could have people do one thing to help improve the planet, what would it be?

I would have people just put their litter in a bin!

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In Their Words

I love learning, and speaking, languages. I find it unutterably cool that we can squeak and squawk and trill in so many different ways and mean the same thing.

—Rory Wilson

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