By Pat Foster-Turley
February 10, 2023
It was a whirlwind weeklong visit to Paris with my foodie brother, my history buff sis-in-law, and my walking explorer niece – a great combination for my first real trip to Paris, a place all three of them had visited many times before. I had briefly passed through Paris years ago on a business trip and never saw much beyond the Eiffel Tower. But wow, was this trip different.
My first four days were spent with the family visiting museums: the Louvre (way too crowded), the Musee d’Orsay (airy and relaxing), the Musee de la Chasse and Nature (man and nature); old churches: Eglise de Saint Germain des Pres (lofty) and Eglise St-Ephrem (piano concert); and sharing wonderful, but very rich, meals. Great. But where is the nature here in Paris? On a Sunday I struck out on my own to find it.
And find it, I did. I walked from our hotel to the Jardin des Plantes, a large botanical garden in the center of Paris, and strolled through a conservatory of tropical plants and down a wide boulevard surrounded by planted plots that were mostly dormant in winter, shaded by large mostly bare-branched trees. But there was plenty of life around me, especially crows. I noticed one crow with green leg bands and the number 100 on each. Great! With a few Google clicks I found a website to record it and soon learned that this bird has been hanging around this area of Paris for more than four years, and is one of the birds that has been recorded for the longest time. I am now part of the history of this bird (https://corneilles-paris.fr/corcv_en.php?code=G100). Fun stuff! Ah, nature at last.
And then I heard the parrots. Wild parrots! I followed their squawks to a tall tree with a bench nearby from which I could view them. Online I soon found out that these rose-ringed parakeets originated from about 40 birds that escaped from a pet shipment in the 1970s and now number more than 8,000 in the Paris area. Fascinating.
Another person was already on the bench near the parrots but she graciously moved over a bit to share it with me. Noticing my obvious interest in the parrots, she started a conversation and told me that she is a biologist connected to the Natural History Museum just behind us. I told her I was a Ph.D. zoologist too. We chatted in English (her second language) about various conservation issues, and learned we both had professional interests in common. Before long she said, “I live in a flat nearby. Do you want to join me for coffee?” Yes!
So, Chantal Conand and I set off down the road. When we entered her flat we surprised her husband, who was not expecting company but was very gracious about it nonetheless. Chantal Conand (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chantal_Conand) is a world-renowned expert on sea cucumbers and their echinoderm relatives and has done extensive studies in the French tropical islands of Reunion and New Caledonia. In fact, two sea stars are named after her, a remarkable accomplishment. Her husband, Francois Conand is a retired fish biologist, world traveled as well. We three spent some quality time drinking small cups of coffee, eating biscuits and talking about lots of things, biology and beyond.
Eventually, Chantal scooped stacks of research papers off a bookshelf to reveal a container with some dried sea cucumber specimens that she had not yet deposited in the museum’s collection. One she showed off was a specimen she preserved and dried many years ago, now a hard grey rock-like cylinder. But amazingly it is still edible once it is reconstituted. I jokingly pantomimed dipping it in my coffee and we all laughed. But actually, this edibility as a delicacy in Asia has led to the over-exploitation of a number of species worldwide, leading to the endangered status of some of them. I shared my own conservation story about Asian small-clawed otters (my original study animals) now being over-exploited by the Asian pet industry and gaining threatened status as well. Actually, if you are a conservation biologist like we are, there are a lot of things we have in common to talk about, and not nearly long enough to cover it all.
Chantal and I are now Facebook friends, and we have been sharing more stories ever since we met. We both feel lucky that we met each other on that bench in the Jarden des Plantes. And when I asked Francois if she often brings people home from the park he responded, “No, you are very special.” Well, they are very special too, and I’m glad they are now my friends.
So, if anyone asks me if there is nature to be seen in Paris, my answer is a resounding Oui!
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]