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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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!

Gilbert White Youth Award… what an award!

Firstly, a bit about Gilbert White. As the NBN are saying, Gilbert White has become synonymous with biological recording. Having lived in the 1700s, he’s far from a modern-day recorder. He lived in the parish of Selborne, near the Sussex-Hampshire border and recorded all of the natural history in the parish in his most well-known publication: The Natural History of Selborne. A book review will appear in the Book Reviews page on this site as soon as possible.

So, a few months ago, the NBN launched a new awards scheme to help celebrate biological recording in the UK. There are four main awards:

  • The Gilbert White youth award, for terrestrial and freshwater recorders under the age of 18
  • The Gilbert White adult award, for terrestrial and freshwater adult recorders
  • The David Robertson youth award, for coastal and marine recorders under the age of 18. The marine and coastal awards are named after David Robertson, who died in 1896 but founded the University Marine Biological Station at Millport which now goes by the name ‘Millport Field Centre’.
  • The David Robertson adult award, for adult coast and marine recorders.

Tony Davis, my ringing trainer and an inspirational pan-species lister, nominated me for the Gilbert White youth award. However, I had no idea about it, it was done completely behind my back! I only found out when I received an email from the NBN with a subject line reading ‘Gilbert White youth award winner’! I was invited to the awards ceremony, which took place last Thursday evening (19/11/15).

The awards were presented at Merchant Taylor’s Hall in York. Just before the awards were announced I was able to chat to a few people, including two members of the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre, Bob Foreman and Clare Blencowe. I was already in a good mood: Bob had told me that the only record he could find for a Closterium species I had recorded was in Romania! We’ll have to wait and see, but it looks like it might be my first ever first for Britain!

My award was the first to be announced and it had a long introduction. The Earl of Selborne was presenting my award and he was quoting from my nomination. Several times I heard him say ‘the winner is…’, at which point I would make a sudden movement in the direction of the front of the hall, but he actually only went on to say ‘the winner is a…’. It was a nerve-wracking experience! Finally the Earl of Selborne said ‘The winner is…. James McCulloch’ and I was kind of relieved!

It was very interesting to see who the other winners were:

  • The winners of the Gilbert White adult award were a husband and wife partnership, Ian and the late Pat Evans.
  • The winner of the David Robertson youth award was Callum Ullman-Smith, a 13 year old who has conducted impressive research on Palmate Newt populations in saline waters near his home in Scotland.
  • The winner of the David Robertson adult award was David Fenwick, a great photographer as well as a recorder.

There were also two other awards:

  • The Open Data award, which went to the Mammal Society.
  • The Special Award, which was another posthumous award and went to Nigel Jee.

Congratulations to all the winners!

After a bit of site-seeing around York (mainly lichen hunting for me!) we had to leave. My first plant tick for a while was a worthy end to the trip: Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) on the edge of the car park near the city station!

Unfortunately, John Sawyer, who came up with the idea to create these awards, sadly died of a heart attack recently. He was the CEO of the NBN. He was very young and will be missed by all who knew him and many who didn’t. These awards are a fitting tribute to him.