We’ve mentioned few times that the animal characters of Message in a Bottle book have been handpicked by an evolutionary biologist. In our series of introducing the faces behind Message in a Bottle, it’s now Szymon (or Simon) Drobniak’s turn. And he certainly has an exciting job!
1. Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Simon (for Polish folks – Szymon, for friends – Szymek). I’m an evolutionary biologist – which means that I study the coolest and the most rewarding field of biology: evolution. In my work I try to find ways life used to create all the amazing forms and behaviours we see around us today. I’m also a graphic designer – I create infographics and scientific illustrations, sometimes ‘just’ illustrations. Recently I’ve finished my first two books: one for adults (about the deadly traps world’s cities can use to ‘hurt’ us) and one for kids (about how animals produce their kids and find their girlfriends/boyfriends).
2. How did you search for the animals of Message in a Bottle?
Many animals I used were either studied or seen by me during my travels. It’s always easier to talk about things that we could experience ourselves. Sometimes I needed to find some species ‘in between’ the others to fill gaps e.g. while the characters cross intercontinental waters (e.g. regrettably I haven’t seen the sailfish so far). In such cases I looked for inspiration in the marvelous TV shows by David Attenborough, or just thought of the right habitats, reviewing the coolest species I remembered inhabiting them.
3. How did you find Kiki and why did you choose her (Scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper)?
From the very beginning, Hawaii was the origin of our journey. As amazing as it is – Hawaii is very special from a zoological point of view: there are only few species of mammals and reptiles there, and not so spectacular anyway. But birds – that’s a different story. I knew we had to use one of bird species as a start – and of course this character would become the ‘principal’ carrier. What could be a better choice than a red, long-billed bird that looks like a little gem, and is endemic (which means – special and exclusive) to Hawaii? Observing honeycreepers in Hawaii I had a funny observation – they always seemed a bit sloppy. Initially this seemed a brilliant idea as the carrier should not be perfect – a hint of sloppiness would only add to the charm of the main character.
4. What is your favourite animal?
It’s a very difficult question, I think I cannot decide about one – so let me choose three. One – the blue tit, a tiny passerine with fluffy blue and yellow feathers. I love them because I’ve been studying them for 10 years learning more and more amazing things about them. Secondly: the echidna, a charming cross of a hedgehog and a long-billed bird. It’s a mammal but lays eggs and produces pink milk. And thirdly – kakapo, an extremely rare parrot inhabiting mysterious forests of the New Zealand’s Fiordland. It’s large, green, resembles and owl and is really bad at flying. The species for the past years has been balancing on the brink of extinction and efforts are still made to save it.
5. What was your biggest challenge in this project?
The biggest problem was finding the right species so that the biological reality would be retained. We needed spectacular characters but at the same time we had to make sure they could meet in the described habitats. The most challenging was finding the right intercontinental carriers – not surprisingly they were usually chosen to be well known migrants that are able to cover huge distances in their travels.
6. Why don’t Barbary macaques have tail?
It’s true that Barbary macaques (and drills) are the only monkeys that do not have a tail. It’s not so unique of course – all apes (e.g gorillas, chimps, and of course humans) also do not have tails. In fact the tail exists (in the form of the tail bone) but is reduced to a vestigial organ. Explanation is not easy but probably, as in the case of apes, the tail was lost because it was not so necessary. Both drills and Barbary macaques are semi-terrestrial, so do not rely exclusively on trees as their habitats. No need for tail means it can be reduced in the course of evolution – some of its function was taken over by front and hind limbs.
7. What has been your most interesting field project so far?
All of my projects are equally interesting! 😉 I love my long-term study of blue tits on the Swedish island of Gotland – mainly because it’s a magical place, very calm, far from the noise and clutter of big (or even small) cities. So far the most rewarding was my field trip to the Costarican jungle where I could study the smallest birds in the world – hummingbirds. They are like tiny flying gems, very delicate, and their biology is extremely interesting.
8. What has been your most amazing journey?
So far two places I visited stole my heart: misty rain forests of the New Zealand’s Fiordland (because of their nature of course but also because they were used as the scenery for the three The Lord of the Rings movies), and the Outer Hebrides, windy and rocky islands off the western shores of Scotland. In my travels I often find that places I visit are of the ‘go there once and no more’ type – meaning they are unique, beautiful but I don’t feel the need to visit them for the second time. Scotland and New Zealand (and e.g. Japan or Swedish Gotland) are some of the exceptions: I could never have enough of them.