Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Discoveries by enthusiasts are helping build a comprehensive picture of the UAE's natural history

From birds and insects to meteorites, the spirit of inquiry is contributing to our expansive knowledge

Explorer Max Calderan during his journey along the Tropic of Cancer. Around 337 km of the length of the notional line that forms the Tropic is in the UAE. Courtesy Mauro Grigollo
Explorer Max Calderan during his journey along the Tropic of Cancer. Around 337 km of the length of the notional line that forms the Tropic is in the UAE. Courtesy Mauro Grigollo

A little-known fact is that the Tropic of Cancer crosses the roads leading southwards from Abu Dhabi's coastline towards Liwa. In all, about 337 kilometres of the latitudinous nothern hemisphere line that forms the tropic fall in the UAE – all in Abu Dhabi emirate.

An Emirati friend recently reminded me of this on WhatsApp. He had an idea: perhaps an information centre could be built at one or more of the places where the line crosses a main road. “An outdoor area with information about space would be perfect for school trips,” he suggested. He has now fired off a message to Al Dhafra municipality and I will observe with interest to see whether authorities there pick up on the idea. It would be nice if they do, not least because that is the area from which Hazza Al Mansouri, the Emirates' first astronaut, hails.

There is a whole host of people, both men and women, Emiratis and expatriates, many young, but by no means all, who have a passionate desire to delve into aspects of this country beyond our cities and the often humdrum nature of day-to-day life

The day before he messaged me, my friend had sent me a video from Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre in Dubai, displaying a massive meteorite collected from the southern deserts of Abu Dhabi. The video claimed this was the first meteorite ever to be found in the UAE. In fact, the first to be recorded was found in 2005 during an archaeological survey, with others discovered in 2009 during a survey I organised with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi in collaboration with British and German scientists.

My friend and I agreed there was scope for more such surveys, especially as the UAE moves forward with its space programme. This programme is intended not just to establish a colony on Mars a century from now but also to learn more about space itself. A study of meteorites can yield much valuable information on that and – as it happens – the first meteorite found here was one of the rarer types, a ureilite. Such types are of enormous interest as they can contain amino acids, some of the most primitive building blocks of life.

Perhaps in this there is the germ of an idea for a terrestrial research project that can be grafted onto our space programme. Is there more to learn about space from wandering the deserts of Liwa than we had ever imagined?

Over the past year or so, I have derived great pleasure from the way in which my friend and I bounce ideas and thoughts for research off each other. With that process involving discussion of various aspects of the UAE’s culture, heritage, natural history and much else besides, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before we started exchanging messages about the extra-terrestrial world.

My friend is, perhaps, a little unusual in the enormous breadth of his curiosity, some of which overlaps with mine. He is also in a position to be able to bring the attention of the country’s leadership to his ideas and his enthusiasms. However, he is far from unique in the sense of being someone who likes to think outside the box and whose mind is forever straying down relatively unfrequented paths.

Certain areas around Jebel Hafeet may be home to hundreds of species of insects. Silvia Razgova / The National
Certain areas around Jebel Hafeet may be home to hundreds of species of insects. Silvia Razgova / The National

There is a whole host of people, both men and women, Emiratis and expatriates, many young, but by no means all, who have a passionate desire to delve into aspects of this country beyond our cities and the often humdrum nature of day-to-day life.

That passion might sometimes be a little difficult for others to comprehend. Ten days ago, for example, a Dubai expatriate keen on birdwatching was visiting a remote area in the mountains with his daughter when they found one of the country’s rarest birds, a white-crowned wheatear. There had only been 13 previous records in the UAE, with 10 of those being on Das Island, off limits to most.

He announced the discovery on WhatsApp and within an hour or two, other keen birdwatchers were converging on the spot from far and wide, including one dedicated fellow who drove all the way from Jebel Dhanna. More visitors arrived to see the bird over the next few days with others the following weekend.

Another friend of mine has delved deep into archives to study what was happening in the UAE during the Second World War. Another has devoted years to an incredibly detailed study of a little patch of trees near Jebel Hafeet, recording hundreds of species of insects. In so doing, he has added substantially to knowledge of UAE natural history.

Similar dedication to a spirit of inquiry can be found in other spheres. After all, that is the source of most innovations. Moreover, it is not something that can easily be harnessed. It is most effective when, like rainwater spreading across the desert, it is free to find its own path.

If we are truly to create an innovative, inventive society, we must not only encourage those I mentioned above – and many others – to pursue their curiosity. We also need to devise ways of responding effectively to the ideas they put forward and to the discoveries they make.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Updated: November 18, 2019 04:06 PM

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