A Microscopy Workshop: a great day out!

On the way to Wales this summer (see Teifi Marshes, home to the Welsh Wildlife Centre) I stopped off at Brunel Microscopes Ltd.’s HQ in Chippenham to look for a microscope that would suit me best. I bought a microscope mainly for looking at fungi spores and other fungal structures, but I also look at other things like the leaves of Fissidens spp., a genus of mosses which are absolutely tiny. I’m still getting used to using the microscope, so today I went to a beginner’s microscope workshop in Great Bookham run by the West Weald Fungus Recording Group.

I was asked to bring my microscope to the workshop, so I did, but I left the stuff like the prepared slides, pipettes, coverslips etc. behind thinking that I wouldn’t need them. However, that turned out to be a mistake as I took just a few minutes to set myself up, whereas others started unloading whole dissection kits, oil immersion, all the chemicals and stains… at least there was a plate of Jaffa cakes to keep me busy!

The day started with a talk by Maurice Moss, who used to be a professor at Guildford University. He brought in two microscopes, one a dissecting microscope for larger objects like feathers and moths and the other a standard one like the one I have to look at fungi. He taught us all about how polarising filters can be used to look at colours in crystals and the colours the filters produced were phenomenal. He also let us look at some of his prepared slides, such as a peacock head feather, which again had superb colour.

After Maurice’s talk we chatted amongst ourselves about fungi (and other things!) and some people were able to recommend some useful tools and books. Many were quite surprised that I had no books whatsoever, and they had no hesitation in recommending “Mushrooms” by Roger Phillips. This looks really good and I think it will be a good purchase if I can find a copy , as well as a key to the genus Russula (a tricky genus) by Geoffrey Kibby, who regularly comes along to WWFG meetings.

After lunch was a talk by Barry Hughes, the author and photographer behind the Collins Fungi Guide. Many of the photos included in the book are taken in Surrey and West Sussex! He did a talk on spores and he handed out a few spore prints for us all to look at. He then asked us to look at them under the microscope and decide what shape they were using a sheet he handed out. My spores were from the genus Inocybe and almond-shaped! I learnt that there are a few tests you can do on spores to help identify it. You can see if the spores are amyloid, dextrinoid or neither by applying iodine using Melzer’s reagent or Lugol’s solution. If the spores turn black to blue-black when exposed to the substance then they are amyloid and if they turn reddish-brown then they are dextrinoid.

Other tests you can do include:

  • Putting a few drops of household ammonia onto the flesh of the fungus. The fungus might or might not have a reaction; if it does then the colour the flesh turns aids an identification.
  • A fun one: the gills of the genus Lyophyllum turn blue with Paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde.
  • When potassium hydroxide (KOH) is applied there is a colour change in some fungi, including agarics and boletes.

At the end of the afternoon, I had a really informative day. I learnt lots of new skills which hopefully I will soon be applying back home. I also had the chance to meet some really great people who love to share their interests.

One of my spore photos, taken earlier in the year.

One of my spore photos, taken earlier in the year.

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Blackfish

I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit the lovely country of Canada over the summer holidays. We visited both Toronto and Vancouver during our stay, but most of it was spent at Knight Inlet lodge just north of Vancouver. This lodge is excellent for Grizzly Bear viewing, especially in autumn when they are actively fishing for salmon. However, definitely one of the highlights of the trip was the day we went whale watching in Johnstone Strait with a special focus on Orcas.

It was a long boat ride to the spot where the Orcas were last seen, but it was worth it when we got there. It took a while to actually locate the Orcas though, they are surprisingly hard to spot. Every breaking wave looked like an Orca to me! Even when we did finally catch sight of them they were easy to lose track of as they can hold their breath for as long as 12 minutes! They also move quickly; the synonym ‘Killer Whale’ is a misnomer as they are actually members of the dolphin family rather than the much slower moving whales. To give you an indication of size, the largest male we saw had a dorsal fin that measured around 6 feet! That’s more than 1.8 metres!

Our guide, Paul, seemed to have predicted where the Orcas would be and had no hesitation when zooming at full speed towards the spot where they were. However, he was actually heading towards a position relayed to him from an Orca watch team, which watch an area of the strait for quite a lot of the year. You must be patient for that job! There is also a team which act as a sort of ‘Orca police’, which go around in a speedboat making sure everyone is sticking to the rule that you can’t be within 100 metres of an Orca unless it comes to you.

Once we were into the groove of Orca watching, they seemed to be everywhere. They kept on surfacing around the boat and it seemed like there were hundreds of them! There turned out to be only thirty or so, but due to their ability to hold their breath so long they kept on appearing at completely different positions from when they were last seen.

You may be wondering why the title of the post is ‘Blackfish’. Well, coincidentally the lodge had a talk on Orcas the following evening and I learnt a lot. I found out that there was a movie called Blackfish made about a particular Orca that was held captive at SeaWorld for a long time called Tilikum. He was caught near Iceland in 1983 measuring 13 feet, but he now measures 22 feet and is the largest Orca in captivity. He was taken away from his home and family at only 2 years old and was kept in a tiny holding tank where all an Orca could do is float and swim in small circles. He was eventually transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a rundown park in British Columbia where his pool was only 100 by 50 feet and was just 35 feet deep. He relentlessly performed every hour, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and when the park closed he was crammed into a tiny round module with 2 other female Orcas until the next morning.

The rundown park closed after Tilikum and the two other female Orcas dragged a trainer down to the bottom of the pool and tossed her around until she drowned. Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld for a captive breeding programme. For 21 years Tilikum lived in SeaWorld, in a tank that contained only 0.0001 percent of the amount of water that he would travel through in only a day in the wild. This was clearly stressful for the Orca, and he started chewing on the edges of the tank, which wore down his teeth substantially. He also had a collapsed dorsal fin, which is very common in captivity but rare in the wild. He even killed 2 more people! After the last death he was put in isolation in such a small tank that he couldn’t swim. He would float aimlessly for hours at a time. In the wild, even when an Orca is sleeping it never stops moving!

We watched the Orcas for around 2 and a half hours and I never got bored. If the Orcas weren’t showing (which was rare), we still had Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals and even a group of male Steller’s Sealions to entertain us! Birds were amazing too, the highlight being a lone Cassin’s Auklet among hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes combing the water’s surface.

Orcas

Orcas

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes

Steller's Sealions

Steller’s Sealions

 

3 West Sussex firsts in one summer!

This summer has been a productive one, with my first three vice-county firsts all being found in my garden. I find out whether a species is a vice-county first or not by emailing the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, who are really kind and give me all the information I need. These are the three species:

Orius laevigatus – I came across quite a few of these small bugs on various bushes in my garden including Yew and our Buddleja. They may be small, but they are also predatory, and will feed on small invertebrates like bug nymphs and so on. There are 12 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database for this species, but believe it or not they are all from East Sussex! Most of the records are concentrated around nature reserves like Rye Harbour, so I’m really pleased to have found it in the garden!

Entomobrya nivalis – Entomobrya nivalis is a species of springtail, which are tiny invertebrates you can sometimes find hopping around among leaf litter. However, this is quite a conspicuous species and is covered in stiff bristles and has greyish mottling all over. This time there are only 9 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database, but again they are all in East Sussex!

Entomobrya nivalis

Entomobrya nivalis

Now, I’ve saved the best for last – Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii) – The Bright Four-spined Legionnaire is a fly with not only a great name but is quite colourful too. It has a yellow abdomen with black stripes running horizontally across it as well as a beautiful iridescent blue-green thorax. I was very surprised to find it on my kitchen window while I was having lunch, and even more so to find out that there are only records for Sussex and neither of them in West Sussex!

RSCN6471

Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii)