A corner of County Kerry in a Kentish Cave

Saturday saw me attending another excellent field trip run by the South-East group of the British Bryological Society. This time we were headed to a private site just inside Kent called Hungershall Rocks. The sandstone at Hungershall Rocks is part of a large number of these outcrops stretching across the Weald from Tunbridge Wells to Ardingly and all along the ridge there are sites with a wealth of rare bryological flora.

Hungershall Rocks is a private site just outside Tunbridge Wells near High Rocks which we were lucky to get access to. Plenty of excellent bryologists have visited the site in the past and the records stretch back over more than 150 years. It has been interesting to see how the bryological flora of the site has developed over such a long time, with new species being discovered but equally species that were here in the past being lost from the site.

The rocks themselves are mainly under tree cover, however some are more exposed. Some patches are dripping wet due to the clay within the rocks and others bone dry. There are a plethora of nooks, crannies, ledges and some caves too. This wide range of rock features leads to a very diverse set of mosses and liverworts that can be found on these rocks.

It wasn’t only mosses and liverworts that were in abundance either. There were many different vascular plant species inhabiting the rocks, especially ferns. One of the best finds of the day was this beautiful, eye-catching and impressive-looking plant:

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It’s stunning, isn’t it?

It wasn’t too easy to get to. It was growing on the wall of a small cave, where very little sunlight penetrated. There was only really room for one person inside the cave and that person had to be in a crouched, uncomfortable position. So why was this rather underwhelming (to be honest) plant worth such an effort to get to?

It is Trichomanes speciosum, the Killarney Fern. Killarney is a small town in Ireland’s County Kerry, the county where half of Ireland’s known populations of this fern are found. As you can see from the map below, this species has a predominantly Western distribution in the UK and is quite unusual in the East, being recorded in only a handful of sites in the South-East:

Killarney Fern

NBN Gateway map for Trichomanes speciosum

You might be thinking that it doesn’t look like a normal fern usually does and you’d be forgiven for thinking so because this is not the most commonly seen fern life-stage. The life-cycles of ferns are very complex and unusual and this is a seldom noticed part of it.

The green felty stuff that you can see in the image are the rhizoids of the gametophyte (also known as the prothallus), the gametophyte being the life-stage before the recognisable adult sporophytes that we most commonly come across; the rhizoids being filaments attached to the gametophyte which conduct water.

On the undersides of the fronds of adult ferns there are small, usually brown, sporangia which contain spores. These spores are released and when a suitable site is found, they grow into a gametophyte like the one shown in the image. The word gametophyte comes from the word gamete – the male and female reproductive cells (the ova and the sperm cells) that they produce.

The gametophyte features an archegonium and an antheridium. The archegonium is the female reproductive organ, which contains a single ovum. The antheridium is the male reproductive organ, which releases lots of sperm. The sperm swims through a thin film of moisture and into a nearby archegonium where the ovum is waiting to be fertilised.

Once the ovum has been fertilised, it becomes a zygote and later an embryo. The embryonic fern relies on the prothallus (gametophyte) from which it grows for its water and nutrients. Soon the embryonic plant grows into a sporophyte (the large leafy plant we most regularly recognise as a fern) and the prothallus dies.

That is fern reproduction explained as simply as I could (I can only just understand some of it myself) and there is a lot more to it. This link explains fern reproduction in much more detail, however as a warning there is certainly a lot of scientific jargon used: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~joyellen/fernreproduction.html

The following diagram is a representation of the fern life cycle, from the same website:

Fern_life_cycle2copy

So, that felty green stuff on the wall of a cave might not look like much. However clearly there is a lot of interesting information and a very complex life-cycle behind it.

Starting a Herbarium

For centuries botanists have been collecting specimens of the plants they observe. If done correctly, botanical specimens can last for a very long time. For example, the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum has specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Specimens can be very useful in documenting regional variation and how a species has changed over time.

Last weekend I was out with the South-east branch of the British Bryological Society recording mosses and liverworts at Devil’s Dyke, north of Brighton. As is often the case, however, one of the highlights of this field trip was in fact not to do with the subject of our search! Once we had passed through a section of Ash woodland on our walk we came to a lovely crystal-clear chalk pond. Despite few bryophytes around the pond’s edges the pond was full of life, including several water plants. Most common was the Ivy-leaved Duckweed, Lemna trisulca, and there were also a few Potamogeton natans plants as well. However what really caught our eye was a very beautiful looking pondweed with a lovely texture and colour that was unfamiliar to me but not for the other members. They identified the pondweed as Groenlandia densa, otherwise known as the Opposite-leaved Pondweed.

Groenlandia densa is not a very common species and is sadly declining in Britain. This is mostly due to urbanisation, and therefore it is missing from the vast majority of London. It has also declined due to a factor known as eutrophication which is the presence of excessive nutrients in a water body. This is most commonly caused by run-off from the nearby land, and it creates a dense growth of plant life which can potentially displace species that cannot compete. Due to this decline, it was suggested that I collect a piece of the pondweed, in case it becomes a very rare species and little material for herbariums could be found without damaging a population.

It is easy for anyone to start preparing plant specimens; little specialist equipment is needed. This is all that is needed for a beginner to make a good quality specimen:

  • newspaper
  • heavy books
  • a dry environment
  • good quality card
  • PVA glue
  • printed labels

And these are the steps I went through to create my pondweed specimen:

  1. Lay out the specimen on half of a full double page spread of newspaper in a way that should show as many features as possible.
  2. Once the plant is in a good position, fold over the other page of the double page spread.
  3. Add some more sheets of newspaper to the top and bottom of the folded newspaper with the specimen inside.
  4. Put the newspaper on a hard, flat surface.
  5. Place a few heavy books on top of the newspaper.
  6. Leave the specimen until it is sufficiently dry and flat, this could take a few weeks or only a few days, but don’t overdo it and don’t leave it for too short a period.
  7. Once the specimen is ready carefully take it out from the newspaper and lay it out on your piece of card making sure that it shows the necessary features. Remember to leave room for a label!
  8. Using PVA glue or any other glue recommended by botanists, stick the specimen down on the card. PVA glue dries clear so don’t worry too much if you get some on the card where you don’t want it.
  9. Fill in a label. Ideally the label should show as much information about the plant as possible: species; family; collection number; locality (grid reference, name of site, nearest town, county etc.); habitat; collector’s name; date of collection; and also note down features of the plant that may have been lost in the drying process.
  10. Finally, and optionally, you could also attach a small paper envelope to the specimen containing dried fruit/seeds that would have been ruined in the pressing process.

And there you have your specimen! This is what my pondweed looked like before and after collecting, pressing and mounting:

This is not the only specimen I have so far collected. At the beginning of the summer, as part of my interest to record the slightly trickier-to-identify species, I collected a couple of Bramble (Rubus) species. These were the first specimens I collected and I was quite pleased with the result. However, they weren’t good enough. After I had dropped them off at the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum, Dr David Allen kindly looked at them for me. Unfortunately they were lacking some necessary features vital in identification, such as a section of the first year growth. Using his advice, I went out recently and collected a specimen of a particularly late-flowering Bramble, and this was the result:

bramblespecimen

I will also attach with the specimen a couple of photos of the plant before it was collected:

This shall hopefully even further aid identification and maybe contribute to the understanding of this poorly known group.

Many groups are overlooked, because they are tricky to identify or they are too small or they need specialist equipment to collect. Some examples are dandelions, a nightmare of identification; desmids, microscopic algae; and parasitic wasps, also very difficult to identify. This results in these groups being little-known as few people are willing to try to find and identify them. This leads to under recording of species that are probably common, creating deceptive data. One of my aims is to try and master these very difficult groups and hopefully make a difference.

Moth #300

After my recent trip to Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset, I added a fair few nice moth species such as the rare Scarce Bordered Straw. Then, following a couple of new additions from my garden light trap, my moth life list was left on 299. I was very close to a big number!

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting my 300th species until I next put out the light trap which would be in another few weeks. However, it was much sooner than that and very unexpected! My mum let me know that she had found a large moth on the wall, my first thought was ‘probably just another Large Yellow Underwing’ as they are very common at this time of year.

Although when I saw it I was quite surprised! It was indeed very large but definitely not a Large Yellow Underwing as I had expected. The abdomen was projecting beyond the wings, which were sandy-brown with black dots and markings. I was able to get it in a pot and with the help of my Concise Guide it was identified as a Bulrush Wainscot, Nonagria typhae.

It is widespread in the British Isles, but usually only encountered in suitable habitat. For the Bulrush Wainscot, this is reedbeds and marshy areas. We don’t live in a marshy area (or a reedbed!) however we do have some in our local nature reserve, Hedgecourt. The larvae of the Bulrush Wainscot feed inside Bulrush (Typha) stems which has only recently started to really colonise Hedgecourt and is greatly outnumbered by Common Reed (Phragmites australis). The very helpful website UK Moths also says that this species can sometimes wander quite far away from suitable habitats, so we can’t be certain that my moth came from Hedgecourt.

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The Bulrush Wainscot that I found inside my house.

Every species is bringing me closer to my Pan-species Listing target of 2000 by the end of the year. I need just over 200 more species to reach this tough target, so every species counts!

Invasion!

There is a very long list of species that are non-native to the UK, many (if not most) are harmful to our native wildlife. I am regularly finding non-native species in my garden as well as further afield, Grey Squirrels are one such example. They were introduced to the UK nearly a century and a half ago from North America and since then they have severely affected our native species, through the severe population decline in Red Squirrels to the predation of young birds and eggs.

You might remember that last year I found several individuals of the slug Ambigolimax nyctelius. It was the first record of this non-native species in Surrey and had most likely come from the nearby garden centre. Well, a few weeks ago I found a small black slimy flatworm under one of the logs in my garden, which upon closer inspection appeared to have two pale lines running down its body. I used this character to identify it, which wasn’t as tricky as I thought it might be. There are 14 species of terrestrial flatworms in the UK, however many are really distinctive, coloured bright yellow or with distinctive head shapes.

Looking through the species in this very helpful PDF, I could see only two species that looked similar to mine: Kontikia ventrolineata and Australopacifica coxii. I originally thought it might be Australopacifica coxii however when I looked closer I could see that on my specimen the two lines were grey and not blue as is more commonly found in that species. So I concluded that my flatworm was most likely to be Kontikia ventrolineata, however as I have never identified any flatworms before I sent a couple of photos to the leading expert on flatworms, Hugh Jones. To my delight he replied and said that there was no doubt that it was indeed Kontikia ventrolineata. He also sent two distribution maps, one before my record had been added and one with my record on the map. I am very pleased to say that this is the first time Kontikia ventrolineata has been recorded in Surrey!

Ever since I found that first Kontikia ventrolineata I have been seeing more and more under logs and stumps in my garden. This isn’t very good news, as this species is believed to prey on our native small snails and possibly slugs. Therefore the flatworms will be in competition with the thrushes and the hedgehogs, reducing the amount of food for them. They might be insignificant at the moment but if the numbers keep on increasing like they have already, then they will be a major blow for the hedgehog population especially.

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Only a week after I found the first Kontikia ventrolineata I found another alien species! This time it was found in our new beetle trap which is baited with bananas. It is tub shaped with a hole in the bottom through which the beetles enter and stay until I check it a few days later. The trap was full of many different types of fruit flies and several wasps but only one beetle, which would have been disappointing if it wasn’t an interesting species.

The beetle was tiny, but identification was aided by the interesting shape and the markings. After a lot of research I was able to narrow it down to a family, Nitidulidae, and from there I eventually reached species level and identified it as Carpophilus hemipterus, also known as the Dried Fruit Beetle. Its favourite food is overripe fruit, which explains its presence in the trap. Although it is native to Asia, it has spread all around the globe on exported fruit and now inhabits all continents apart from Antarctica! map

However, looking at the NBN Gateway map for this species (above) it doesn’t appear very common but seems widespread, at least in England. The NBN Gateway doesn’t always show all of the records of a species on the map, so I don’t know if this might be the first record for this species in Surrey outside of London, however it certainly isn’t common!

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Carpophilus hemipterus. Not the best photo: the beetle was really tiny!

Golden Robber

Diptera, the true flies, are not one of the most glamorous groups I must admit. However, they are one of my favourites because of the sheer diversity of shapes, sizes and colours. I recently added my 100th fly species to my Pan-species List, a figure I have been working towards for quite a while now. The fly species that I am writing about today was my 103rd.

Yesterday I went on another Hedgecourt Invertebrate Survey trip to try to add more species to my list. There was lots about and only about 10 metres into the reserve I was distracted by the many invertebrates I was recording. These included a White-legged Damselfly and a snipefly (Rhagio tringarius) that voluntarily flew into my net. I was so distracted that at first I didn’t notice a medium sized black fly that had landed on my hand. Annoyingly it was on my right hand, my camera hand, so I found it difficult to take a photo. Then I realised that it was strangely placid, and I coaxed it onto my left hand where I was able to photograph it.

The fly had its wings folded back, which made it look like a Bibio. However, when I blew the wings apart and off from the abdomen it clearly wasn’t a Bibio. It had a long abdomen with a ring of golden hairs between each tergite (segment). To identify it I posted the photo on the identification forum on the Dipterists Forum website. The Dipterists Forum is a society set up for the study of flies. The Dipterists Forum run regular field meetings, such as the current one in Canterbury, curate Diptera-related Wiki pages and a whole host of online forums and run recording schemes for different fly groups. I received an identification for my fly very quickly: it was the Golden-haired Robberfly.

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Before I saw this one, I hadn’t seen a robberfly for a surprisingly long time although they are very interesting insects. They belong to the family Asilidae, with about 5000 species worldwide. The alternative name ‘assassin fly’ is very appropriate as they are very effective hunters that tackle difficult prey like wasps and occasionally even dragonflies. They are very fast flying, allowing them to outpace most of their prey. They are also patient, sitting on a sunny plant or log waiting for suitable prey to fly past. Even robberfly larvae are formidable predators, feeding on other insect larvae and eggs beneath the soil.

This robberfly wasn’t the only interesting invertebrate I found on my survey trip. I also found two caterpillars that I have been wanting to see for a long time: Mullein Moth caterpillars. They are very impressive and, as the name suggests, they usually feed on Mullein. However, some other plants are sometimes also fed on. I found mine in a habitat I really wouldn’t expect to see them in. I have never seen Mullein growing in Hedgecourt at all… let alone a wet reedbed! Still, there they were, a pair of them. They were large, well grown, and stunningly coloured.

If they weren’t feeding on Mullein, then what were they feeding on? Water Figwort has been recorded at Hedgecourt, and is apparently a known foodplant. Unfortunately at the time I didn’t note down what they were feeding on but I will look to see if there is any Water Figwort where the caterpillars were feeding the next time I visit.

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Not always straightforward

During my Garden Bioblitz of the the 6th June, I found a moth case on a cotoneaster leaf. I tried to identify it by using this webpage and I thought it looked most like Coleophora trigeminella. I was very excited by this as the species hasn’t been recorded on Cotoneaster in the UK before, only in Europe. Could I have discovered a new foodplant for this species in Britain?

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I emailed the Surrey moth recorder, Mr Graham Collins, with news of my finds. I asked him whether it was likely to be Coleophora trigeminella or something else. He kindly responded saying that he didn’t think that the larval case belonged to this species but Coleophora serratella which is ‘probably the commonest species of British Coleophorid’ according to the UK Moths website. I was quite disappointed!

However, why was it on a cotoneaster leaf? The larvae usually feed on hazel, birch, elm or alder. It is most likely that the larvae fell from the foodplant (there is a birch tree straight above the cotoneaster) on to the leaf where it formed the case, or the larvae wandered off the leaf looking for a better place to create its case.

When I returned to the same leaf nearly a fortnight later, on the 18th June, I was given a huge surprise. The adult moth had emerged from the case overnight and was resting parallel to the case! It was so fresh in fact that the antennae were not resting forward in the typical coleophorid fashion but running backwards along the body! I sent this photo to Mr Collins.

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I thought that it was too light for Coleophora serratella and the ochre colour matched Coleophora trigeminella. Could I have found a species of moth that hasn’t been seen in Surrey for nearly half a century? Unfortunately that was not to be the case. Mr Collins responded writing that he now thought that the moth is either Coleophora flavipennella or Coleophora lutipennella. The larval stages of both of these moths feed on oak leaves, which makes sense as there are several large oak trees which also have branches above the cotoneaster bush. The larva probably fell from the leaves.

However, it is not possible to separate moths of those species without examination of the genitalia. For this I sent the moths off to Mr Collins by post and he kindly looked at them under the microscope. The genitalia point to Coleophora flavipennella, which I think might be the least common of the pair although I am not certain. The genitalia of C. flavipennella look like this:

flavi

Compared to the genitalia of C. lutipennella:

Coleophora lutipennella

There is quite a lot of difference! This is a new species for me and I hope this blog post shows that often identification is not that straightforward.

(genitalia photos from http://www.mothdissection.co.uk)

The NBN Awards 2016

Last year I was very lucky to receive the Gilbert White Youth Award for Terrestrial and Freshwater Recording, which you can read about here.

I have been passionate about nature for as long as I can remember, and I visit my local reserve or just comb my garden for interesting bugs at every opportunity. Winning an award for what I love doing was such a surprise, but it has inspired me to take an even greater interest in the natural world that is everywhere around us. The Gilbert White award demonstrates the importance of biological recording and highlights the importance of the records collected for the future of biodiversity on this planet! I am proud to have been the inaugural winner.

So, this year, for the second time, the National Biodiversity Network is presenting awards for biological recording and information sharing. There are 6 awards this year, which are:

  • Gilbert White youth award for terrestrial and freshwater wildlife
  • Gilbert White adult award for terrestrial and freshwater wildlife
  • David Robertson youth award for marine and coastal wildlife
  • David Robertson adult award for marine and coastal wildlife
  • A group award
  • John Sawyer NBN Open Data Award

All of the awards apart from the John Sawyer NBN Open Data Award require nominations of people who you think are suitable for the award. The youth awards are for people under 18 years of age by the deadline. If you know someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the world of biological recording, please nominate them here before the 31st July.