Alien Shrimps

Alien Shrimps

Back in January I dug a few pitfall traps in my garden. These are simply plastic cups set flush with the ground and covered with a lid to keep rain out. The lid also serves to block larger animals – vertebrates like mice or frogs – for what I’m interested in catching here is ground-dwelling invertebrates. The traps can be filled with preserving fluid, but in my garden I’ve kept them dry so I can retain any specimens I particularly want to look at whilst letting anything else go.

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A cunningly concealed pitfall

Beetles are the most common target of a pitfall trap. So far, all three traps have added species of beetle to my garden inventory. On the one occasion the trap set in the middle of the lawn* flooded, an individual of the mostly subterranean ground beetle Clivina fossor was floating in the top. It’s a curious looking mole-legged creature that twists around what almost looks like a ball-and-socket joint between abdomen and thorax, all the better to contort through small gaps in the soil.

My latest trap round turned up no beetles whatsoever, but when I tipped out the contents of the raspberry bed trap I immediately noticed something pinging about like a rubber ball, much too large to be one of the usual springtails. Flattened from side to side and with a variety of legs and other appendages sticking off seemingly at all angles, this was an amphipod crustacean. Wait: a shrimp, in the garden?!

It turns out there is one species of terrestrial amphipod in Britain, Arcitalitrus dorrieni. It’s an introduction from the forests of New South Wales that was first found in this country back in 1924 on the Isles of Scilly. Common names include landhopper, woodhopper and (my favourite) lawn shrimp. They’ve been well established in the south and west for some years now, mostly on the coast, but seem to be spreading. I first discovered the existence of this creature when I found them under flowerpots in our garden in Twyford, just to the east of Reading. They’re established in the London area, and have clearly made their way along the Thames valley as far as Newbury. Of course this latest leap may have been made in one go by hiding out in a plant pot in our removal van! Perhaps that’s a clue to how this species gets moved around.

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By ‘Sarah’ on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The British Myriapod and Isopod group are collating records of this species and also published an informative paper last year updating the landhopper’s U.K. distribution and providing information on how to separate it from other (less common) introduced terrestrial amphipods. Dave Hubble also provides more detail on his blog. I presume it is fairly under-recorded, so why not go pick up some pots in the garden and search for this rather entertaining skipping shrimp?

*Or what I will hopefully be calling the meadow later in the year.

Coffee update (see previous entry):

Somebody at Waitrose customer service replied to say they’ve passed on my enquiry to a colleague for a full response. Nothing for a week or so. In the meantime we’ve discovered that Riverford, from whom we order a weekly vegetable box as well as milk and other bits and bobs, have just started selling a shade-grown Fairtrade coffee produced by Equal Exchange. We’ll order a bag and give it a go! 

Looking for nature at Nature Matters 2016

From the outside, the David Attenborough building – home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – is unpromising. Not so much an ivory tower as a concrete one. But the building has a quite literal green heart, for a four-storey living wall takes centre stage in the building’s atrium. Sir David himself abseiled down it at the centre’s official opening earlier this year: not bad for a 90-year-old. The CCI incorporates staff from RSPB, Birdlife, Fauna & Flora International and the IUCN, as well as Cambridge University scientists, so perhaps the true green heart of the building is provided by its human occupants. The reason for my visit was the 2016 Nature Matters conference, hosted in Cambridge this year to add another node to the CCI network.

Arriving early for the second day, I was struck by the irony of the Attenborough building’s surroundings. From the multi-storey car park across the road to the impressively extensive cycle storage facility out the back, there was not a plant to be seen. Not much space for nature, but still, wildlife is often surprisingly resilient. Surely I could find something of interest lurking even here?

I had a short poke around. On the east side of the building, fronds of spiderweb dangled from gaps in the Fibonacci-spiral-themed slate wall. They appeared to be gathering no flies, only a thick grey dust reminiscent of volcanic ash. These spiders must have been early colonising pioneers, but by their current absence had perhaps not been rewarded for their optimism. On a ledge across from the west side, a pair of feral pigeons flapped and jostled. One maintained the higher ground and kept dislodging the other, which would regain a perch further along each time only to be knocked right off again. High wildlife drama? Perhaps not.

So, I think I can safely say that the most engaging vision of nature present during Nature Matters was not the real thing, but that running through the minds and hearts of the conference participants. Through one evening and two days of main sessions and workshops we listened, we watched, we debated, we laughed, we ate, drank and socialised, maybe one or two of us shed a tear or two.

Perhaps it was the presence of the great Sir David himself, but the atmosphere was electric in the final session. Our theme was hope. Contributions from the panel on stage were kept brief, leaving plenty of time for conference delegates to offer their own positive stories from the floor. Attenborough rose to offer some closing remarks, and when he finished, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for the address he had just given – though it was a fine one – but for the fact of who he was, for his life’s work. And perhaps it was for ourselves too, for each other. A needed fillip, a defiant statement that yes, nature does matter, and what is more, it is within our grasp to secure its future.

A Record A Day (January)

A record a day…keeps the New Year’s resolution guilt away?!

Though I deliberately set my sights low this year, I did make the somewhat ambitious pledge to submit at least one biological record for every day of the year.

So far, one month in, I’ve missed a single day: the 29th January is blank. Only two days ago, so I ought to be able to remember something – surely I saw a woodpigeon on campus! – but that would be cheating. It would also be against the spirit of biological recording. Good records are thought through carefully and contain all the minimum information: what, how many, when, where, by-whom. Records of a higher quality still will contain information about life stage, behaviour, activity, host, etc.

For January, birds make up the overwhelming part of my biological record-keeping. Noting what was in flower ensured I threw in a few plants at the beginning of the month, and a few random finds coupled with moth trapping mean invertebrates are starting to get a look in. Hopefully as the year progresses future monthly breakdowns like this will look a bit more balanced. So, here’s the graph. Days of January on the X axis, number of species recorded on the Y.

Continue reading “A Record A Day (January)”

So It Begins

It took me until January 10th to record any invertebrates this year. In bright sunlight what looked like dung flies (Scathophagidae) were basking on the noticeboard at Hosehill Lake LNR, whilst on a neighbouring fence rail numerous springtails were leaping about, among them the distinctive species Orchesella cincta

My first hastily pinned specimen of the year is, as I suspected when I caught it, the Yellow Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria. I haven’t had a go at nearly as many fly keys as I have beetle keys. I tend to find flies (besides hoverflies and other distinctively marked ones) all come down to tricky arrangements of bristles poking out of miscellaneous unfamiliar bits of anatomy. Still, there’s something wonderful about all those bristly hairs.

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My first yellow dung fly of the year, but by no means the last. This is an enormously common – and variable – species. 

Hidden Hunter Revealed

Hidden in plain sight in yesterday’s picture (right hand side, about halfway down) is indeed a jumping spider. Well done and welcome to the blog, Fen!

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It is on a roof, but a very small one. This was actually the roof of a fibreglass box containing an outdoor power supply in the experimental grounds / greenhouse area behind the building I work in. By a trick of the lens it becomes a plain stretching off into the distance, all the habitat this remarkable and frankly rather endearing predator needs. As far as I can make out it is Sitticus pubescens,  but I’m not that good at spiders so I’m happy to be corrected by more expert arachnologists.

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To 1500, and beyond!

A quick update on that most pointless and yet strangely satisfying of natural history enterprises: the keeping of personal lists! A flurry of mothing at Whiteknights these past couple of weeks – facilitated by the arrival of some replacement bulbs for our variously out of action moth traps – has seen my moth total creep up to 267, now the clear leader over plants (257) and birds (251). I’ve also added some very pleasing species elsewhere in the animal kingdom, chief among them woodland grasshoppers at the Warburg reserve in Oxfordshire and a rather handsome fungus weevil. Not to mention a cheeky tansy beetle twitch whilst visiting friends in York!

I think my next target will be to get both moths and plants to 300, which coincidentally would also take me past 1500 overall. Once I’ve eventually identified what is now a three year stash of beetle specimens collected for my PhD, 2000 in 2016 might be looking possible. Provided, that is, I keep an open mind and open eyes for any and all wildlife that crosses my path.