A small rock in the Atlantic

All about the island of La Palma, in the Canaries.

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Saturday, 16 February 2008

Giant Lizards

Giant Lizard
Photo EFE

Yesterday I clean forgot that in December last year they found out that the giant Canarian lizard, Gallotia auaritae, isn't extinct after all. José Antonio Mateo, a reptile expert, only found the one, but he believes there must be a colony within a kilometre of the one he found. In this case, "giant" means 30 cm (one foot) long. Extinct specimens are larger.

Twenty-five years ago, they thought
Gallotia lizards only survived on Gran Canaria (Gallotia stehlini). Since then, species have been found on several other islands. The ones on La Gomera (Gallotia bravoana) and El Hierro (Gallotia simonyi) grow to a whacking 60 cm long, while the one on Tenerife (Gallotia galloti) grows to 40cm long.

Like so many animals these days, the whole lot are on the endangered list, except for the one on Gran Canaria.

I'd love to go looking for one, but they haven't told the public the location, probably very deliberately. After all, hundreds of tourists trampling all over their habitat probably would send them extinct.

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Friday, 15 February 2008


We have two kinds of lizards here, both of which grow to about 15 cm long. The top shot is the blue-throated lizard, and the lower one the brown lizard.

Like lizards everywhere, they're cold-blooded, so they like to sun themselves first thing in the morning. After that, they move really fast, particularly when you point a camera at them.

Even so, they're a favourite snack for cats.

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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Barranco de las Angustias

Angustias Ravine

This is the Barranco de las Angustias the Ravine of Anguish. The name comes from the conquest of the island, back at the end of the fifteenth century. Most of the tribes on the island took one look at the heavily-armed Spanish, and gave up without a fight. Four tribes fought briefly, but soon surrendered. After all, the original inhabitants, the Benhoaristas, had only stick and stones to fight against men with muskets and body armour.

But the tribe in the Caldera fought on, and on, and on. People in Madrid started asking embarrassing questions, like "How come you can't sort out a stone age tribe?"

The terrain had a lot to do with it. There are only two ways into the Caldera, and both are at the bottom of a valley. It must have been rather easy to organise an ambush: you'd just have to sit higher up with a big pile of rocks. And it would be a nightmare to try to bring a canon into the Caldera.

Eventually the Spanish changed tactics. They arranged a peace conference.
And when the Benhoaristas came out, lead by their king, Tanausú, they were attacked in the Barranco de ls Angustias. It was a bloodbath.

Tanausú was badly injured and captured. He taken on board a ship in chains, and died before he reached Spain.

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Monday, 11 February 2008

The Caldera

La Caldera de Taburiente

The heart of the island is the Caldera de Taburiente.

Caldera is a technical geological term for the crater at the top of a volcano. In fact the term comes from La Palma: all the volcanic calderas in the world were named after ours. So it's really a pity that, since then, the scientists have found out that the Caldera de Taburiete isn't a caldera. It was actually formed by erosion and a gigantic landslide.

However it was formed, the Caldera is spectacular. In most places it's eight kilometres (five miles) across, and many of the rim walls are 1,500 metres high and almost sheer. I haven't seen the Grand Canyon yet, but people who've seen both frequently say that the Caldera looks bigger. You see the Caldera is just on the edge of what your brain can understand, whereas it just gives up when faced with the Grand Canyon.

The Caldera is surprisingly hard to photograph well, because you loose the sense of scale. This photo was taken from the observatory late one morning, and the scale mostly comes from the aerial perspective - the way distant objects are bluer. On this day there was just the right amount of dust in the air to give a sense of scale without hiding more distant details. I like the way the sunlight catches the cloud waterfall.

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Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Observatory

Twinkling stars are pretty, but astronomers would much rather they didn't. The twinkle is caused by movement in the air above you (the same as a mirage on very hot days) and it stops the astronomers getting a clear view. The Hubble Telescope gets such wonderfully clear images because it's out of the atmosphere altogether. But there's only one Hyubble, and it cost a fortune.

So they build ground-based telescopes wherever the airflow is really smooth, which means that the stars twinkle less. Of course, they also need to be away from city lights and clouds. The three best places in the world are La Silla in Chile, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma. They each have observatories.

The La Palma observatory has twelve operational telescopes. From the largest aperture to the smallest, they are:

• MAGIC (17 m) a gamma-ray imaging Cherenkov telescope, which has the biggest telescope mirror in the world.
• William Herschel Telescope: (4.2 m) reflecting telescope
• Telescopio Nazionale Galileo: (3.5 m) reflecting telescope
• Nordic Optical Telescope: (2.56 m) reflecting telescope
• Isaac Newton Telescope: (2.5 m) reflecting telescope
• Liverpool Telescope: (2.0 m) robotic telescope (also reflecting)
• Mercator Telescope: (1.2 m) reflecting telescope
• Swedish Solar Telescope: (1.0 m) refracting vacuum solar telescope (the best in the world)
• Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope: (1.0 m) reflecting telescope
• Dutch Open Telescope: (0.45 m) reflecting solar telescope
• Carlsberg Meridian Telescope: (0.18 m) refracting telescope, used for measuring star positions.
• SuperWASP: (8 wide angle cameras with 0.11 m diameter lenses) surveying for extra-solar planets.

Plus GranTeCan (pictured), which is under construction and which has a huge 10.4 m mirror.

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