The Glue Pistons

For a long time I’ve been wanting to be involved in a recording scheme. Yet I had not quite appreciated the amount of work that is involved in managing what is often a massive collection of records. Over the past few months I’ve been collating the records of springtails (Collembola) from Surrey, which has been a big challenge, even with springtails being one of the least recorded invertebrate groups in the country.

Springtails are often tiny arthropods with six legs. Whether they’re insects or not is up to debate however. Most authorities currently class them as Entognatha, with reference to their internal mouthparts; in contrast to the external mouthparts of insects. However, the other two members of the Entognatha – Protura and Diplura – are just as closely related to springtails as they are to insects.

Another anatomical feature of springtails is the collophore located on the underside of the abdomen, after which they get their scientific name, which means ‘glue piston’. It takes the form of a tube pointing downwards from the ventral side of the first abdominal segment. Originally, it was thought to help to stabilise the animal, although it is now believed to play a part in maintaining the water content of the body.

Springtails get their common name from the furca, a long, forked organ which originates from the end of the abdomen and is often bent under the body. It is used primarily to escape predators, and can fling the springtail at incredible speeds away from danger. However, where and how the animal lands is unpredictable. Some species, such as Ceratophysella bengtssoni, have an inflatable sac on the antennae with which the springtail can adhere to the surface it lands on. Some species have only vestigial furcas or lack one entirely, often in species which live in habitats such as compact soil where the furca would inhibit the movement of the springtail, or those which live near the sea or flowing water, where an unpredictable jump could land them in an even more dangerous situation.

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Brachystomella parvula. Springtails can vary greatly in shape, this being one of the stout, pudgy Poduromorphs.

The best literature for identification is the FSC key written by the late Steve Hopkin, A Key to the Collembola (Springtails) of Britain and Ireland. This provides a complete key to all the described species thought to be present in the British Isles and is relatively recent (2007). Otherwise, there are a few good websites that can be found online, such as www.collembola.org, which has many good-quality images.

If anyone finds and identifies any springtails, I’m sure the co-ordinator of the Collembola Recording Scheme, Dr Peter Shaw, would be happy to receive any records. His details can be found here. And if anyone records any from Surrey, I’d love to hear from you so I can add the records to my growing database. You can contact me using the form under the ‘Feedback/Contact’ page on my blog. I’d also be happy to receive any unidentified specimens in need of ID.

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Willowsia platani (possibly var. nigromaculata). One of the Entomobryomorphs: comparatively long, slender springtails.

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Goldeneye, in lichen form

Running backwards into the Devils Dyke Pub to get out of the fierce hail certainly wasn’t the intended end to today’s outing. We had been caught out on a grand scale; a band of completely unforecast precipitation left our clothes so sodden that not even a hot chocolate and four-cheese pizza could warm me up. But was it worth it?

Birders may be used to the sight of a goldeneye floating out on a windswept gravel pit or reservoir at this time of year. Although the diving duck breed in trees, the nesting sites are solely in cavities in larger trunks and at latitudes further north than the UK. So, how many British birders can say that they’ve seen a goldeneye in a tree? I doubt many of them – yet as of this morning I can, but not sensu stricto.

The goldeneye lichen, Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, is named after the bright orange apothecia borne on blue-tinged stalks. The apothecia are disks containing the asci, which in turn contain the spores which will be carried on the wind to colonise new sites. Indeed, this is likely to be how the goldeneye lichen arrived in the UK. In the 19th century there were several sporadic records along the South Coast, and this decreased to only two in the 20th century. Yet, since 2007, recolonisation has been in full swing and there have been records from most South Coast counties along with an outlier in Herefordshire. It is still a fairly rare species, but definitely on the increase. It is not completely known what might be driving the recolonisation. Increasing temperatures could be a factor, yet in the early 19th century when well-established populations could be found in the south, it was relatively much colder than modern times.

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The bright orange apothecia really stood out on this drab, dull day

For this sighting I am indebted to @apeasbrain who first found the lichen last weekend and who provided brilliant directions (only the one individual plant has been found so far, like a needle in a haystack). However, it turned out that despite the lichen being the main instigator for my visit to Devils Dyke, it was not the only highlight. Just past the Hawthorn on which the lichen is growing, the path descends into a copse of Ash trees. On one of these trees I managed to spot some movement, out of the corner of my eye. At first glance I took it to be a ladybird larva, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. On arrival home, I realised it was in fact a pre-adult Endomychus coccineus, known vernacularly as the False Ladybird. This was a species I’d been wanting to see for months, so it’s a bit embarrassing that I didn’t recognise it immediately – but coupled with the Teloschistes, the incredibly painful scramble back to the pub once the hail set in was absolutely worth it.

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Teloschistes chrysophthalmus becomes my 100th lichen and Endomychus coccineus my 250th beetle. Together they put me on 69 new species for the year so far, a good pace I think!

Chui

Walking along the sandy track among the luscious wet-season vegetation just outside Tandala Camp, near Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, our accompanying Maasai taught us the Swahili names for some common African animals. Impala is swalapala, elephant is tembo and you might recognise simba, meaning lion, from The Lion King. Tandala itself means kudu.

The one sighting that we had during our long stay at Tandala that will stay with me for a long time, however, was of a male chui. We were lucky enough to see four feline species in the ten days we were there, including simba, African wildcat and serval. Chui was the other, and we were fortunate to have two sightings of the same individual, on Christmas Eve and 29th December. Chui is a widely-distributed but declining and elusive cat, and unlike most African cats can climb trees deftly. The Leopard.

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We were lucky to have prolonged views of the serval, my first for a long time.

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For most of the time, the serval was obscured by long grass, however we were fortunate to have seen one at all. We were even treated to one of their famous pounces: they can jump over six-and-a-half feet in the air (2 metres) before coming down on their prey feet-first.

Leopards are extremely tolerant of a wide range of habitats and climates. Most authorities recognise 8 Leopard subspecies, which inhabit the Middle East (Arabian and Persian Leopards); Asia & Russia (Sri Lankan, Indian, Javan, Amur and Indochinese Leopards); as well as the African Leopard. Throughout their global distribution they can be found in semi-arid landscapes, rainforests, grasslands, cities (in India particularly) and they can even tolerate temperatures as low as -25 °C in Russia. They are much better climbers than Cheetahs and Lions, and the habitat in which we saw the Leopard in Ruaha was fairly typical: boulder-strewn bush with some large trees up which they can haul their kills.

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The Leopard sat for ages on this shady rock as the midday heat intensified. This photo allows you to appreciate the impressive paws, vital for gripping tree trunks.

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The pattern of spots on each individual leopard is unique. I was able to compare the markings around the left eye to ascertain that the two leopard sightings we had were both of the same male.

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One of the ways to separate the sexes is to look at the neck, as male leopards will on average have thicker necks than females. However, a possibly less subjective method would be to look near the derrière…

Despite a few vehicles being present, this leopard remained remarkably unperturbed by the attention. It even managed to hunt successfully, catching a rock hyrax right in front of our eyes, before proceeding to eat it under a bush just metres from our car. Although leopards have the strength to tackle large prey, they mainly favour prey with a lower mass than themselves. The day before our first sighting we came across an Impala that had been killed by a leopard just a few hours before; small to medium-sized antelopes that don’t prefer open plains are typical prey.

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The leopard chomps down on the innards of the rock hyrax.

It was brilliant to have such superb sightings of a leopard, easily among my favourite large mammals. They are often shy, particularly where other large carnivores are present such as tigers and lions. Despite the competition between these large cats, all are heading towards a similar fate. Many of the leopard subspecies are on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. The Javan, Amur and Arabian Leopards are all thought to have fewer than 250 individuals surviving and there are not that many more Persian, Sri Lankan or Indochinese Leopards remaining.

Pan-species Listing: Top 10 New Species of 2018

I’m very fortunate to be flying to Africa in a couple of days, so this year-in-review is slightly early. However, it’s great to be celebrating what has been another excellent year of natural history. It has been hard to condense the hundreds of species I’ve added this year to just 10!

10. Sea Mouse

In November, I gratefully hitched a lift with Brad Scott to Dungeness for a meeting of the South-east group of the British Bryological Society. It was my first visit, and we were treated to several rare bryophytes including Porella obtusata. After the meeting, we decided to look for some marine springtails to add to the site list. Although we weren’t successful, we did come across some bizarre organisms that had been washed up following a storm. Sea Mice, Aphrodita aculeata, are, unbelievably, closely related to earthworms despite appearing like some sort of iridescent marine slug.

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9. White-rumped Sandpiper

New birds are already becoming hard-to-come-by these days without going many miles out of my way. Therefore, when a White-rumped Sandpiper – a species that certainly wasn’t on my radar for December – arrived at Pulborough Brooks just last week, it was a rare opportunity to add to my British bird list. This is the fifth species of Nearctic (American) bird to make it on to my list, following Long-billed Dowitcher, Horned Lark, Pectoral Sandpiper and Bonaparte’s Gull. Sadly, it was incredibly distant – I hope you weren’t expecting needle-sharp photos…

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8. Frog Orchid

Admittedly, Frog Orchids are not the most beautiful of orchids (their name is not all that glamorous either), however the time of year I saw these rare plants was remarkable. By mid-October, most flowering plants, let alone high-summer specialities like orchids, are long gone. But not this peculiar population of Frog Orchids which had definitely not read the books.

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7. Water-soldier

Stratiotes aloides, commonly known as Water-soldier, may be a garden escapee in this part of England, but it was my 3000th species and therefore worthy of recognition. It was found on 14th July, on a field meeting to the Pevensey Levels with the Sussex Botanical Recording Society.

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6. Rootless Duckweed

Featuring on this list has to be one of the coolest plants I’ve seen. Wolffia arrhiza – Rootless Duckweed or Spotless Watermeal – is the smallest flowering plant in the world. It looks just like a tiny clump of algae, but it can produce minuscule flowers in a small depression on the plant. This, along with the Water-soldier, was found by the SBRS group on the field-meeting to the Pevensey Levels.

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The whole extent of an average-sized plant of Wolffia arrhiza.

5. Black Darter

From the world’s smallest flowering plant, to Britain’s smallest dragonfly. The Black Darters I saw at Thursley Common in July were certainly smaller than I expected, and a new addition to my pan-species list.

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4. Common Clubtail

To continue the dragonfly theme, almost exactly a month earlier, I was watching a completely different species of Odonata. Despite its name, the Common Clubtail is not common, and one its main British strongholds is along the River Arun in West Sussex. Here I managed to make a double-figure count of these striking dragons.

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3. Black Hairstreak

Like birds, new butterfly species for my list are becoming much harder to find. However, this year, an amazing discovery was made in the heart of Sussex. A population of Black Hairstreaks appeared to have established itself at Ditchling, a long way from known populations of this localised species. I was fortunate to see a handful of them when I visited in June. Hopefully this population will prosper!

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2. Early Spider Orchid

Unlike the Frog Orchid, this delicate plant did appear at the right time of year. However, it certainly makes up for the beautiful colouration that Frog Orchids are sorely lacking. Between revision sessions I was fortunate to be able to appreciate the variety in patterning that this scarce orchid exhibits, not a hundred miles away on the South Downs.

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1. Beluga

This was the undoubted highlight of my year. In January, I would never have guessed that I would be watching this near-mythical Polar whale just outside Greater London.

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It’s been another fantastic year, it’s amazing what can be found with minimum travelling – everything on this list was encountered in the South-east of England! I’m looking forward to an even better 2019, can I progress towards 4000 species? Only when GCSEs are over though…

From Asia with devastation

Hawaii was first to be invaded in the shadow of the Cold War, in the 1980s. Just under a couple of decades later, an attack was launched upon mainland USA. The first troops made landfall in 2008, in California. Over the next two years the front line progressed eastwards and now the whole of the USA is enemy territory. Meanwhile a stealthy attack was being launched on Europe, with many Western countries such as Italy, France, Belgium and Spain besieged. Six years ago, in 2012, the UK fell under fire. Drosophila suzukii had arrived from South-east Asia, with consequences.

The genus Drosophila is massive, with around 1,500 species described. One species, Drosophila melanogaster, is famous for its use in genetics and developmental biology experiments; they are “lab flies”. When one uses the phrase “fruit flies”, one is usually referring to this genus. Despite their frugivorous (fruit-eating) habits, they are, on the whole, fairly harmless to the fruit industry. This is because the vast majority of them lay their eggs in rotting fruit, while fruit pickers obviously tend to choose fruits that are ripe or not yet ripe. Therefore, Drosophila species have no impact on fruits prior to harvesting. Except for Drosophila suzukii, that is.

Drosophila suzukii has one minor difference in its lifecycle that has earned it the infamy of being one of North America’s most prolific crop pests. The females possess on their ovipositor (from which the eggs are laid) a serrated knife-like structure which can slice through the skins of fruits like cherries and blueberries. This allows the species to thrive in and damage fruits prior to harvest, while other species have to wait until decomposition has rendered the fruits soft enough to lay eggs in without relying on cutting into them.

Finding this species in my very own garden really drove this worldwide colonisation home (almost literally). It is amazing to think that, having lived in the same house for my entire life, if I’d hung some banana slices from our plum tree – like I did last week – up until I was nine in 2012, I probably wouldn’t have found this prolific invader. Yet, sometime between then and now, Drosophila suzukii has winged its way into our village and begun to breed. Below is an image of the tiny fly, around 2.5 mm in length, which has hitched a series of lifts aboard ships and other vehicles around the world from its native home in South-east Asia to appear at my doorstep. Little does it know about the billions of dollars of crop damage its species has caused along the way.

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The male of Drosophila suzukii is distinguished by the black spots near the apex of the wings

 

 

Beluga in the Thames!

Contrary to my normal style, this blog post’s title is a little more self-explanatory than usual. This is so that when I’m scrolling through the archives in fifty years time I’ll be able to instantly recognise what this post will be about: something I’d never even considered possible.

If I was looking ahead to today from this point last week, I would probably be wondering how I’d managed to book a flight to Greenland or Svalbard at such short notice, and why it was a mild 17 degrees at such high latitudes. At the very least, I would be curious as to where I’d sourced my drugs from. I cannot believe that this morning I was enjoying a plate of chips in the warm sun at a table outside the Ship & Lobster on Mark Lane in Gravesend, Kent, while behind me a Beluga surfaced, just behind a barge with the words ‘Working for the Tidal Thames’ inscribed on its side.

The whale was first found by Dave Andrews on Tuesday, and I imagine he must have had the shock of his life when he spotted it. I certainly would have, with this record constituting one of the most southerly records of this species in the world. Belugas have a circumpolar distribution, with the nearest populations to the UK being over 2500km away. I was surprised to find out that this is the 19th sighting of Belugas in UK waters, although they have chiefly been seen in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney, with outlying locations being off Northumberland and Northern Ireland, both in 2015.

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The stretch of the Thames where we saw the Beluga

Belugas are interesting among whales as they can easily tolerate brackish and even freshwater. They are quite at home in estuaries and during summer often travel hundreds of kilometres up rivers in search of fish. In the remote polar regions they usually inhabit, this is fairly risk-free. The Thames is something else, however. As you can see from the above photo, residing in the Thames is not without its dangers. During the short while we were watching the sub-adult Beluga, about half-a-dozen vessels passed right over where the Beluga was seen just minutes before including a couple of massive ships.

Although, ship strikes are not the only danger this whale may have to face. There is also, of course, a higher concentration of plastic in the river than it will be used to. If it ingests too much it will die a slow and painful death. No doubt the overall relatively balmy climate will have an effect, although I’m not sure exactly how. But if Belugas weren’t affected by warm temperatures, then they wouldn’t be restricted to such icy climes.

It will be interesting to see how this Beluga’s slight wander will pan out. The best case scenario is that it will be seen swimming downstream and into the North Sea, where its instincts will kick in and it will swim back north to where it ought to be. To finish this blog post, here is a video of the couple of times I managed to record ‘Benny the Beluga’ coming up for air (email subscribers may have to click through to the blog to view the video):

Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

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I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

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The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!