May, 2013

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Frogs: A tough adolescence

    Over the bank holiday weekend I was back home and as the pond sat dilapidated in my parents' garden, swamped with duckweed I was commanded to address the situation; my brother was quick point out I work for a charity that does ‘nature and stuff’. That I work mostly behind a desk didn’t seem to matter.

    While not much to look at this pond turned out to be full of life including water hog-lice, caddisfly larvae, leeches (still can’t bring myself to like those) and tadpoles.

    Tadpoles, duckweed and water lily

    Filling a wheelbarrow with duckweed till it overflowed, we could then observe the infant frogs as they munched at something on pond liner.

    When I saw an adult splashing about, I was struck by the massive differences between them, and wondered about the process that takes the frog from something similar to a fish to an animal equipped to live on land.

    It’s not even like the process takes place inside a cocoon, as with moths and butterflies, the little tadpoles have to deal with new changes to their bodies almost daily. Their small mouth growing a large jaw bone and guts rearranging in preparation for a totally different diet, whilst lungs develop and legs sprout seemingly out of no where!

    They gain skin glands to keep them moist out of the water and lose that tail which once made up more than half their length through a process of 'apoptosis', controlled cell death.

    Their nervous system also undergoes big changes. They lose their lateral line system (found in fish such as sharks) which detects movement in water, and their eyes adapt to see in the terrestrial world which includes gaining the ability to blink.

    File:Common Frog in Norway, 2007.jpg

    All in all a pretty spectacular change. Frogs and other amphibians are in global decline at the moment. If you have any tips or knowledge you'd like to share on helping them please do comment.

  • Tuesday's Magic Moment: rock or tree?

    It doesn't take much imagination to view this exposed wood grain as an aerial image of Arizona

    However these "craters and mountains" don't chronicle rock formation but the slow and uneven growth of the common oak (Quercus robur)

    Malcolm Hunt brought us this unusual perspective for our photo archive www.rspb-images.com 

  • Our weird and wonderful State of Nature

    Hairy snails, spiny seahorses and ocean quahogs; who knew these creatures lived here, in the UK?

    As well as charting the fortunes of the familiar ladybirds, golden eagles and otters, the groundbreaking State of Nature report features a whopping 3,148 species. However, only the hardcore enthusiasts know many of these. So, I decided it was time to give these unknown species their chance in the limelight. I’ve looked through the report to bring you what I think are the 10 weirdest and most wonderful species:

    German hairy snail

    One of our rarest molluscs, within the UK it’s found only along the River Thames in London and Oxfordshire, and the River Medway in Kent. Admittedly, they don’t actually look that hairy, but then it is only the size of your fingernail. I’ve researched how it gets its hairy name: it’s thought that small hairs grow through its shell, allowing it to sweat off moisture and therefore stick to plants better. You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty cool, if a little weird!

    Ladybird spider

    A look at the image of this species shows you exactly why it gets its name: it’s a spider that looks a bit like a ladybird. Thought extinct in the UK for over 70 years, in 1980 a colony was found clinging on to UK existence on a Dorset heathland. Despite an increasing population, they’ve not spread out since then, so back in 2011 we were involved in a partnership project, creating a new location for one of the UK’s rarest spiders.

    Ladybird spider. Image by Maarten Bos. http://www.flickr.com/photos/maartenbos/

    Spiny seahorse

    Did you know that there are actually two species of seahorse found in UK waters? With the spiny seahorse found as far north as Shetland? First things first, seahorses are fish. Admittedly pretty weird looking ones, but fish none the less. What is weirder is that the males give birth – the female transfers the eggs to the male, he self-fertilises them and then a few weeks later gives birth to the next generation of spiny seahorses.

    Spiny seahorse Jeff Whitlock - http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffwhitlock)

    Ocean quahog

    As well as being a fictional New England town in the TV animation Family Guy, a quahog is a big cockle, or clam. The ocean quahog lives buried in sand, with just a small tube extending up into the sea to filter out food. Living up to 400 years old, quahog numbers are taking a long time to recover from commercial fishing, because of their slow-growing nature.

    B*stard gumwood tree

    In St Helena, a remote UK Overseas Territory deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, the last b*stard gumwood tree left in the wild clings to a desolate cliff. Inspiring conservation work, including hand-pollinating this last surviving tree is now helping to bring this species back from the brink.

    (I've had to spell this tree with an asterisk, as its name can also be used as a term of offence. The software we use automatically strips out words like this. But hopefully the only thing that offends you here is that this species is on the brink of extinction).

    Hand-pollinating the b*stard gumwood tree. Image by Colin Clubbe.

    Large blue butterfly

    The largest and rarest of the UK’s blue butterflies, the large blue became extinct in the UK back in 1979. However, it’s now thriving again thanks to a re-introduction scheme. This elegant butterfly has a remarkable lifestyle, spending most of the year in the nests of red ants. How do they get there? Well, the larvae drop off plants and attract foraging ants with a sweet, honey-like liquid. The ants then pick up the butterfly larvae and take them back to the nest. Here they feed on the ant grubs, hibernate and, come May, the fully-grown adults crawl up through the ant nest, and emerge into the sunshine.

    Wart-biter

    Actually a bush-cricket, the wart-biter gets its name from the bizarre practice of Swedish peasants using the crickets to bite off warts! Although doubts remain how effective this treatment actually was!  Catching one to use as wart-remover might be tricky though, as there are just five small populations left in the UK, all living on southern England’s lowland heathland.

    Wart-biter - image by esapekka (http://www.flickr.com/photos/76198814@N00)

    Round-leaved sundew

    A carnivorous plant, it catches unsuspecting insects with its sticky hairs, before digesting them with acid. It’s one way to grab a bite to eat I suppose! It grows in marshes, bogs and fens, where the sticky dew on its bright red leaves has evolved due to lack of nutrients in the soil.

    Round-leaved sundew. Image by Ken-Ichi (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ken-ichi)

    Snowdon lily

    For the moment the Snowdon lily hangs on, living on the cold north-facing slopes of Snowdonia National Park. But for how much longer? Left behind after the last ice-age, and found only within the National Park boundaries, this arctic-alpine specialist still finds the climate up in the heights of Wales to its liking! Unfortunately, it also has the dubious honour of being named the first British plant likely to go extinct because of climate change.

    Snowdon lily - image by Mark Gurney (RSPB)

    Mottled bee-fly

    The last one on my list, the mottled bee-fly is another heathland creature that has seen its home shrink. It’s probably a parasite, with its larvae developing inside sand wasps or the caterpillars the wasps collect for their own larvae. When developed, the host dies and the bee-fly flies free. But this isn’t known for sure, which just goes to show that there’s so much more about the scarcer species in the UK that we just don’t know.

    What makes your top 10?

    There we have it, that’s my countdown of the ten weirdest and most wonderful creatures from the State of Nature report. Most of these elusive critters are in trouble. But, as the report shows, with targeted conservation work, there is a chance for them all.

    Are there any weird and wonderful creatures I’ve left out? What’s in your your top ten? Let me know my leaving a comment below.