Myrmecomorphy in action!

Sunday the 15th October was the date of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society field meeting at Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. It’s not often that I do a focused invertebrate hunt at this time of year, so I was looking forward to seeing what we found.

The field meeting was unexpectedly good on the arachnid side of things. I had no idea that the reserve was so rich in numbers and species of spider. We spent most of our time in a compartment of saltmarsh and shingle, where the shingle was really shallow. The layer of shingle was about two stones thick, and the soil beneath it was compact. This meant that the spiders could not escape deeper into the shingle as they would at most shingle sites.

One of the highlights of the field meeting spider-wise was the fantastic Myrmarachne formicaria. As the scientific name suggests, this species of spider is an ant-mimic (the prefix ‘myrm’ means ‘ant’ and a formicarium is an ant farm). The mimicry of ants in the animal kingdom is known as ‘myrmecomorphy’ and is quite common across a number of invertebrate orders. Invertebrates that are known to be ant mimics include young grasshoppers, true bugs (Hemiptera), flies, beetles and of course spiders.

But why do so many invertebrates mimic ants? Ants are known among the predators of invertebrates to be aggressive or distasteful, so they are avoided. And the predators will also avoid any insects that look like them, but lack any means of defence such as the young grasshoppers. This is known as Batesian mimicry, as it was first described by H W Bates. Some ant mimics have even gone as far as to mimic the ants chemically as well, by emitting ant-like pheromones, which is referred to as Wasmannian mimicry.

However, Myrmarachne formicaria may mimic ants for a different reason. It is thought that some spiders mimic ants not only for protection against predators but also so that they can hunt the ants themselves. Ants will overlook the spiders as one of their own colony, giving the spider the perfect opportunity for a meal. This type of mimicry is aggressive mimicry. As you can see from the photo below, the spider has a long abdomen, which helps it to resemble an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria male by Evan Jones

Myrmarachne formicaria, photo by Evan Jones, one of the field meeting attendees.

Myrmarachne formicaria really was a fantastic sight, and I hadn’t personally seen anything like it before. It was fascinating to learn how and why so many different invertebrates mimic ants. The sheer number of ant mimics must indicate that ants are one of the most successful of all invertebrates.

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Technology: Help or Hindrance?

My recent blog post – Youth & Nature: Is There Hope? – sparked a lot of interesting discussion on the role that technology plays in connecting and inspiring young naturalists. I mentioned in the blog post that screens tend to consume hours of young people’s time that could profitably be spent outdoors. However technology clearly has many benefits as well. In this blog post, I’ll mention some of the many ways in which technology is aiding the development of young naturalists.

July 2016, the incredibly popular game Pokemon GO was released. The objective of the game is to go in search of Pokemon characters, and ‘catch’ them. This got hundreds of millions of people outside, doing an activity which could be equated to geocaching. But the problem was, were they really interacting with the natural world, or were they too engrossed in their screens to pay attention?

In my opinion geocaching is much better for getting children outside. It’s like a treasure hunt, where families can follow co-ordinates through wild landscapes to find hidden boxes. Many nature reserves and other wild spaces have geocaches hidden inside, and the fact that you are actively looking for a box in real life rather than on a screen means that you are far more attuned to the natural world around you. And when you’re out there, exploring, looking for geocaches, the chances are that you will bump into some brilliant wildlife.

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Furthermore, technology has been incredibly important in connecting most of the young naturalists I know today. Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, young naturalists have been able to share their work and discuss ideas. Without a doubt, social media has given many young birders, botanists and all-round naturalists the support they need from others to get them going.

It may be, for some naturalists, that the daunting prospect of identifying things that they see is off-putting. One used to have to spend hundreds of pounds on literature to  master even a single group like fungi before technology. Now on social media like Twitter and Facebook there are accounts, groups and pages especially to help people identify what they have found. One example is the @MothIDUK Twitter page set up by Sean Foote, which answers many ID queries from puzzled naturalists every day. Without a doubt accounts, groups and websites like this are making naturalists’ lives far easier, and allowing them to enjoy nature that extra bit more.

Collins Bird Guide is one of several apps that have increased people’s connection with and knowledge of the natural world.

Finally, there’s no way that I would be writing this blog post without the help of technology. I wouldn’t be able to raise the issues of youth & nature, and the benefits of technology. I’d like to thank people like Calum Urquhart, Dara McAnulty, Megan Shersby, Josie Hewitt and others who reminded me that technology, although it can distract from the natural world, can also be incredibly useful for connecting existing naturalists and inspiring new ones. There are probably several points I’ve failed to mention here; and as technology advances I’m sure that the number of ways in which it benefits naturalists will increase. 

Youth & Nature: Is There Hope?

Only a few decades ago, before the advent of time-consuming technologies such as laptops and phones, getting out and enjoying nature was a thing of normality. Although many young people wouldn’t have considered it in that way, they were exploring the countryside and discovering the environment for themselves, which is what’s important.

In my view and that of many others, technology is the greatest factor that has caused the young people of this millennium to become sheltered from nature. Eyes just cannot be peeled from screens; young people are more often than not interacting with their phone or device rather than the natural world. Quality time needs to be spent away from one’s phones or tablets, however that so rarely happens.

Young people need to look (and be fascinated by) the intricate detail of all living organisms.

Another major reason for the decline in young people making connections to the natural world is over-protective parents. It is clear that there is a difference between the parenting styles of the 20th century to those of the 21st; as the years have progressed so has the reluctance of parents to let their children explore on their own. This has in many cases restricted children’s opportunities to get out and discover.

Ironically, phone technology allows today’s parents to keep a closer tab on their children by means of messaging and trackers. And children who are allowed to roam outside will roam outside. Young people have a natural tendency for exploration, and together with fascinating discoveries such as a bird’s nest or a badger sett, this can cement an interest. This interest will then stay with them, stimulating them to make positive changes later in life for the benefit of our planet.

Exploration allows young people to understand the world around them and build a better connection with nature.

The lack of opportuities for people to positively influence the environment is the aspect that most worries me in the recent decline in young people interested in wildlife. The more people are on their screens the less they can explore, and the less they can learn about how amazing nature can be. Without them realising how fascinating the natural world is, they feel no urge to protect it.

Therefore, I believe that the priority of people interested in the conservation of nature and the environment should be educating the youth of today. They need to be taught the weird and wonderful ways of wildlife so that they can see that nature really should be conserved. Obviously young people are the future of this planet; the future of this planet lies in their hands. We don’t want to see the environment neglected and disrespected in the decades to come, so we need to make it in the best interest of the next generation to preserve it.

Amazing and intimate encounters can stay with a young person for life.

But what can we do to help? We need to ensure that young people are inspired to cherish the world around them. We need to make sure that they are motivated to protect all living things no matter how seemingly insignificant they might be. We need to get them off their screens and instead we need to get them outside and exploring!

Slime Moulds: Fascinating and Complicated

It is without a doubt that the vernacular name ‘slime mould’ is not the most appealing, although the slime moulds themselves are often not the most appealing organisms to look at either. However, what they may lack in aesthetics they do make up for in pure ‘bizarreness’.

Taxonomy is the science of classifying living things into groups such as phyla, families and genera. And slime moulds, scientifically known as Myxomycetes (or ‘myxos’ for short), are a taxonomist’s worst nightmare. Their taxonomy is so poorly understood that even which kingdom they should be classified under is unclear. Some still class them as fungi, however others think they’re protists.

The reason why I find them so interesting is their behaviour when food is not plentiful. When there is a decent availability of nutrients, they will live single-celled lives; yet whenever food becomes hard to come by they will congregate together. Once they are in this state they will become able to detect food sources. When they congregate, they become noticeable, as they produce fruit bodies which release spores much like fungi. This helps these fascinating moulds to colonise new areas.

Yesterday, the last day of September, I was at a Sussex Fungus Group foray at Tilgate Park in Crawley. The diversity of fungi found was incredible, and we also came across this slime mould. It was identified as Stemonitopsis typhina, and what you can see in the photo are the immature fruit bodies. Given a short while, these fruit bodies will mature and release spores.

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However, not all slime moulds produce fruit bodies like this. Slime moulds can reproduce using gametes, asexually or a mixture of both. Far too complicated for me to understand at the moment! Perhaps as complicated as the fern reproduction I explained in a previous blog post. I think that there’s a lot still to learn about slime moulds.

 

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Sigiriya

A few weeks ago I was embarking on a trip I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I was heading on a fortnight-long Naturetrek tour around Sri Lanka with a focus on the nation’s fantastic mammals and vast array of endemic birds. After an afternoon and a morning of familiarising myself with the birdlife around the Airport Hotel gardens, the tour formally began and we were setting off on the long drive from Colombo to Sigiriya.

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A White-breasted Waterhen with a chick, seen at the pond in the hotel gardens.

During our stay in Sigiriya we were based at Hotel Sigiriya, near Sigiriya Rock. On two of the three days we resided here we would do an early morning bird walk in the area around the hotel, including a lotus-filled lake next to the rock itself. It was here where most of the birds were, including Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Jungle Prinia.

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Jungle Prinia

However, I think that the highlight of this area was this beautiful bird:

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Sri Lanka Junglefowl

The reason that the photo isn’t excellent is because there was poor light in the strip of waste-ground between the tiny local market and the dry scrub next to it – a favoured site of the Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl is the national bird of Sri Lanka and as the name suggests, it is an endemic. This means that its global distribution is limited to Sri Lanka. It is one of four species of Junglefowl and one, the Red Junglefowl which is very similar in appearance, is likely to be the ancestor of domestic chickens.

On the second day of the tour, we visited the nearby Minneriya NP. This park is famous for its large gatherings of wildlife and especially elephants. These elephants come from all around to drink at the huge tank at the centre of the park, however they sometimes have a little trouble getting there.

We were taken around the park in Jeeps, and I was surprised at the number of vehicles within the park at one time. Although it was great to see all the elephants congregating in such large numbers (often up to 300), it was hard not to notice that the elephants were getting a little hindered by all the vehicles that would suddenly rush to where the elephants were leaving the forest to go and drink. Although they must be used to the numbers of vehicles, a couple of times their route to the tank was blocked by Jeeps. Once, an elephant got quite aggravated and rammed into a Jeep, damaging the vehicle and pushing it many metres away. I personally think that limiting the number of Jeeps entering the park per day might be a good idea, perhaps by making pre-booking compulsory, however I understand that the logistics behind this must be complicated.

Otherwise, the birding was excellent especially around the quieter sections of the tank. Huge numbers of Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans and Spoonbills congregated around the edge, with a Lesser Adjutant mixed-in and loads of Black-winged Stilts a bit more spread-out. Other waders were also present with species including Kentish Plover and the bizarre-looking Great Thick-knee. Meanwhile, on the open grasslands of the park it was enjoyable to watch and listen to the display flight of Oriental Skylarks, and to see the Paddyfield Pipits attending to their nests.

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A small group of Painted Storks. There was a huge group just behind these ones!

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The Paddyfield Pipits would often allow close approach in the Jeeps

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We came across a number of Indian Peacocks and Peahens in the park, the first of the trip.

The following day, after a morning of birding around the hotel, we had lunch at a great local restaurant on the banks of a small river. Immediately after our arrival, the chefs threw some fish onto the bank of the river, although it wasn’t clear what they were for. However, we soon found out when a huge Water Monitor, which must have been at least 5 feet long, lumbered out of the water and swallowed the fish. It wasn’t long before others arrived, however the first monitor was the largest and fiercely protected its lunch. The smaller monitors got a few scraps but the largest one wouldn’t budge. It even tried to whip the chef with its very powerful tail every time it was given more fish, which was incredibly dangerous!

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Our next stop on our tour around Sri Lanka was Kandy, nearer to the hills and within the wet zone. There would be quite a change in landscape and wildlife! I’ll end this post with a slideshow of some of the highlights of our stay in Sigiriya.

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The Wild Wolves of Sussex

Last weekend, 1-2 July, I was fortunate enough to be attending a two-day bee workshop led by pollinator expert Steven Falk at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve near Rye in East Sussex. Throughout the weekend we were blessed by an incredible diversity of solitary and social bee species alike, with around 50 species of the Apoidea being found during the weekend.

However, one species that caught my eye wasn’t in fact a bee. Covering the sandy paths at some points were a multitude of wolves, excavating burrows and looking for their next meal. They prowled along the tracks and up the sandy slopes, concentrating their efforts on the path-side bramble bushes. This is where their prey is most often found feeding, unaware of the wolves sneaking up behind them until they latch on with a relentless bear-hug.

Of course, the wolves I’m talking about aren’t the canids that roam remote areas of Eurasia and North America. Just as fierce, however slightly smaller, are Bee Wolves, Philanthus triangulum. Bee Wolves are the largest solitary wasp in Britain and they need to be in order to tackle their favoured prey: honey bees.

Bee Wolves used to be not only the largest but also the rarest solitary wasp in Britain. However, since a couple of decades ago, their population has been on the increase and they’ve spread to a number of new sites. Their numbers are not as large now as they were a few years ago, however there are still more about than there were 25 years ago. It’s great that these fascinating insects are more widespread now as they’re incredible to watch.

They weren’t too scared of humans at all, in fact we were able to watch with such proximity that on a couple of occasions one actually landed on Chris Glanfield’s phone while he was trying to take a photo!

Being solitary wasps, they each dig their own long burrow. These burrows contain many small chambers, as many as 30, each containing several bees. In each chamber an egg is laid, and when it hatches the larva feeds upon the bees inside the chamber before emerging as an adult Bee Wolf. The bees are not dead but paralyzed as it helps them to keep fresh and juicy for the developing larva.

We were lucky to be able to watch several wasps excavating and entering their burrows as well as carrying their prey around. This was the first time I had ever seen a bee wolf and I’m hoping I get another opportunity to watch them before too long!

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An adult Bee Wolf on the path

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a Bee Wolf outside a burrow it has only just started to excavate

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A Bee Wolf proudly outside an unfinished burrow I watched her excavate in only about 10 minutes!

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Adult Bee Wolf

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Bee Wolf