Today we are featuring a guest blog from marine & coastal ecology expert and TV presenter, Maya Plass. Find out what amazing creatures are hiding beneath the waves!
Maya Plass on our brilliant seas
Last week I had the pleasure of a shore dive in our UK waters. My eyes feasted on all the stunning sights around me – Cushion Stars decorated a rocky reef and Corkwing Wrasse darted in and out of view using the swaying fronds of kelp as refuge. On one stem of seaweed I saw a cushion star tightly wrapped around the “stipe” or stem of the bladder wrack. Momentarily, in its curled state it resembled the very recently discovered mollusc Simnia hiscocki - although this lives in deeper waters on the delicately branching sea fans. Incredibly this species of mollusc was only recently discovered off Plymouth waters, such is the nature of our marine environment where new species are still to be found. This got me thinking about the chances of discovering new marine species.
Cushion stars on a tyre. Photo: Maya Plass
Coincidently, when we emerged on to dry land I had a call from a radio producer to ask about the recently reported marine news - scientists had clarified and estimated the age old question of just how many marine species there are in our seas and oceans. They discovered that a whopping 482, 000 to 741,000 marine species are yet to be discovered bringing our total estimate for marine species to approximately 1 million! Quite how they extrapolate these figures from their data is quite beyond my statistical know-how. However, it is obvious to see that this really tells a clear story of just how much, or how little, we know about our seas and oceans and how much we have yet to discover.
Not long ago, it was reported that a “faceless, brainless fish” had been discovered in our Scottish waters off Orkney. Alongside this a group of research scientists discovered vast beds of horse mussels, fan mussels (my personal favourite and the largest UK mollusc) and also the striking flame shells. The news of new marine species is always exciting and testament to our increased ability to explore our seas and oceans. In times gone by scientists would have discovered deep sea creatures by examining the stomach contents of fish. Today, we have vastly improved our ability to explore our marine environment. We have submersibles, underwater “Remotely Operated Vehicles” and divers even have rebreathing kit allowing for longer periods of submerged exploration. We have the potential, if we have the funding, to discover one new marine species every day for at least the next 1320 years.
Flameshell. Photo: Calum Duncan
That is if our seas were to remain in a healthy and stable condition for the next 1320 years. A potentially impossible aspiration knowing what we do about the modern pressures on our seas and oceans. I find it disturbing to imagine how our seas might look in the next 50 years when we have already witnessed huge decline over the previous 50 years. We are witnessing mass extinctions at an unprecedented rate which we are responsible for. Coastal habitats are being lost due to development, siltation and pollution while our open and deep seas are being overfished, polluted with plastic and a cocktail of chemicals or exploited for aggregates, minerals, gas, coal and oil.
As a mother it saddens me to think that in my daughter’s lifetime there will be many marine creatures which we will lose to extinction before we have the chance to discover them. But I hope she continues to have the chance to enjoy our coast. I want her to be able enjoy rockpooling for shore crab and Blenny. Perhaps, when she’s older, she might get to see the rocky reefs of the deeper seas where the rocks are thick with species from the “fluffy” Plumose anemone, to delicate feather stars and our own soft and hard corals – all to be discovered in our very own British waters.
Snakelocks anemone. Photo: Maya Plass
We do have a glimmer of hope for our seas, if our politicians take on the responsibility of creating and supporting a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. This means formally protecting a collection of important marine habitats and species, representing the remarkable biodiversity of our seas. We are at a vital tipping point in our seas where our action now will ensure their future health. This quality and health of our seas and oceans will directly reflect and impact the quality of our own lives here on land.
Marine biodiversity is essential for many reasons including ensuring the long term sustainability of fisheries. Marine species also harbour an array of medicinal properties which have, like our marine sponges, the potential to cure cancers and other diseases. If we continue to plunder our marine environment for short term economic gain we will start to see environmental degradation which will only limit our ability to benefit from the valuable resources that are found in our seas in the future. We need our seas for the oxygen (equivalent to every second breath!) which plankton provides, for associated recreation, tourism and the economy which is driven by a healthy ecosystem.
Scotland is a jewel in the British Isles’ natural history crown with some diverse and important coastal and marine habitats from vast colonies of sea birds and marine mammals to deep sea cold water coral reefs. Now is the time for politicians to protect this resource which can provide an endless source of wonder, enjoyment and economy for years to come.
Follow Maya on Twitter @MayaPlass
*To see more brilliant photos from Maya’s dives- visit our Facebook page.
Tracey Stewart, RSPB Scotland School Links Officer, tells us about a brand new Youth and Education Award in Scotland.
The Nature of Scotland Awards returns for a second year to celebrate excellence, innovation and outstanding achievement in Scottish nature conservation. This year, the awards also include, for the first time, a category recognising the important work that schools or youth groups undertake to nurture and protect Scotland’s special places and iconic species.The Youth and Education Award is open to any school or youth group who can demonstrate that they have been involved in making a real difference to protecting and conserving Scotland’s habitats and wildlife. If you have been involved in fundraising for a conservation programme, working independently or in partnership to deliver practical conservation work, or helping to connect young people with the natural environment through outdoor learning or natural play, then this could be your chance to gain national recognition!
The awards are free to enter, and are open now. Entries must include a report illustrating why your project is head and shoulders above the rest, and can include up to five pieces of supporting evidence, which must be emailed to the judges. Supporting evidence can include work from the children and young people involved in your project, and guidance for all entries is available on the Nature of Scotland Awards website. An impressive judging panel, including Director of RSPB Scotland, Stuart Housden, and TV and radio presenter, Euan McIlwraith, will have the tough job of short-listing the award entries down to a select few, with the overall winners announced at an award ceremony and dinner to be held in October.Connecting children and young people to nature is high on many people’s agendas, and it’s great to see an award that recognises the importance that this generation can have on Scotland’s environment, both now and in the future. With such amazing work going on in schools and youth groups all over Scotland, I’m sure we’ll have some great entries to the awards this year, and I can’t wait to hear all about them.
12 Days or Christmas Challenge
The holidays are rapidly approaching and it may be tempting to curl up in front of the TV and watch your favourite Christmas film or enjoy a festive drink with friends and family, but this year why not set yourself a new challenge? Instead of spending the season indoors, wrap up warm and treat yourself (and a few lucky* family & friends) to the wildlife spectacles of the season!
Here are 12 fantastic animals to add to your winter wishlist:
1. Red squirrel- everyone’s favourite! Why not try to snap a photo of these little guys at Abernethy in Cairngorms National Park or our Ken Dee Marshes in Dumfries and Galloway.
Red squirrel by Peter Cairns
2. Knot- They may not be particularly distinctive on their own, but when these winter visitors band together in large flocks, they are spectacular! Try Udale Bay or Nigg Bay for the best opportunity to see these birds in big numbers.
Knot by Chris Gomersall
3. Waxwing- These little birds are often referred to as “supermarket birds” because of their preference for the berry-laden trees and shrubs found in large car parks. Waxwings arrive from Scandinavia in late autumn and will stay through the winter. Look out for them while you do your last minute shopping!
Waxwings by Andy Hay
4. White-tailed eagle- These awe-inspiring birds have been reintroduced to Scotland over the years and are becoming a more familiar sight in our skies. Lucky visitors to Loch Leven and Loch of Strathbeg have spotted them when the temperatures begin to drop. If you are lucky enough to see a White-tailed eagle, take note of its wing-tag colour and unique number and report to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your sightings help us monitor their movements.
White-tailed eagle by Chris Gomersall
5. Red kite- These stunning birds of prey are particularly active in winter as they take advantage of the feeding tables at Tollie Red Kite Centre, Argaty Red Kites and Galloway Kite Trail. Visit the websites for feeding times and events schedules.
Red kite by Chris Gomersall
6. Geese- whether they have pink feet, white fronts or are of the barnacle variety, seeing 10,000+ lift off en masse is a noisy and unforgettable experience. Try Loch Leven, Lochwinnoch, Mersehead, Loch Gruinart, or Loch of Strathbeg.
Barnacle geese at Mersehead by Kaleel Zibe
7. Whooper swan- As graceful in the air as on the water, these large swans arrive with the geese in the autumn and will stay right through the winter. The sound of their wings flapping when taking off is truly impressive. Look out for them at Loch Leven, Insh Marshes, Mersehead, Lochwinnoch, Loch of Strathbeg.
Whooper swan by Ben Hall
8. Nuthatch- These lovely little birds have slowly made their way north to Scotland in recent years. Their spread north is thought to be linked to an increase in suitable woodland and also an increase in the use of nest boxes and bird tables. Try our Kenn-Dee Marshes reserve in Dumfries and Galloway for a chance to spot nuthatch.
Nuthatch by Ray Kennedy
9. Fieldfare- Like the waxwing the arrival of these little birds traditionally signals the beginning of winter. Fieldfares are highly social birds, spending the winter in flocks of a dozen to several hundred strong! They are often spotted feasting on windfall apples and late season berries.
Fieldfare by Kaleel Zibe
10. Starlings- A large flock of starlings is called a murmuration and is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles (in our humble opinion). Gretna in the Borders is a famous site and lucky visitors to Loch of Strathbeg reserve have also spotted the phenomenon. Here is an incredible video of a murmuration in Ireland to give you a taste of the experience.
Starling murmuration by David Kjaer
11. Rooks- Usually associated with Halloween rather than Christmas, rooks are fantastic and misunderstood birds. Their appearance may bring to mind a crow but closer inspection reveals fascinating behaviour and history.
Rooks by David Tipling (RSPB-images)
12. Set yourself a garden birdwatch challenge- Our Big Garden Birdwatch is coming up in January. Why not brush up on your ID skills in preparation? Treat your garden birds to a special Christmas lunch and see how many species you can identify. If you get a few snaps, post them on our Facebook page!
Robin by Andy Hay
So, don’t let frosty air, snow and, let’s face it, FREEZING cold rain put you off. Winter is a great opportunity to see some of our incredible wildlife. We’d love to hear what’s on your wildlife wishlist!
*Disclaimer- they may not consider themselves lucky if the weather does not cooperate!