Sunday, 31 August 2008

Hygrocybe intermedia

One of the few things that the UK seems to do really well is waxcaps (Hygrocybe sp.). They are one of the more spectacular groups of fungi, coming in a range of very vivid colours. In Europe they are associated with grasslands, though elsewhere in the world they tend to occur in woodlands.

The first time I encountered Hygrocybe intermedia was in 2000, on the sand dunes just a few metres from Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk. At the time, the species was listed on the provisional UK red data list for fungi. Although it has since been removed, it's evidently not that common, with only 410 records on the Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland.

This specimen was found at Brown Robin, a Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve near Grange over Sands, where H. intermedia was the most abundant fruiting fungus present. As fungi go, it is an unmistakable waxcap, in the Northern Europe at least, due to it's colour, squamulose pileus (cap) and fibrillose stipe (stem).

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Invertebrates from Leighton Moss

I visited Leighton Moss RSPB reserve on Saturday.

It wouldn't be surprising if over 99% of visitors go to Leighton Moss for birds, with the remainder going for dragonflies, but I'm afraid I tend to find this sort of birding boring. On the whole, I'd much rather have the birds up close and personal, even if it is just European starlings on a bird feeder. The one exception to the general reserve experience was when I visited Inner Marsh Farm for work on a day when it was closed to the public. On this day I ate my lunch in the hide in the absence of birders (who are a funny bunch) and had water rail and other waders literally metres away.

What excited me about Leighton Moss was the flora and the invertebrates.

One of the things that I've known about for a long time, but saw for the first time, was the alder moth caterpillar Acronicta alni (though I will admit that it was my brother that remembered the name). The alder moth is a widespread species, but the caterpillars are rarely seen, as they apparently spend much of their time in the canopy of various tree species, on which they feed. However, the final instars of the caterpillar are fantastic, looking like something more suited to the tropics than wet-and-dreary UK.

The other rather special observation was the bug Pictomerus bidens feeding on a caterpillar. I had seen this species before in Cornwall, but had never found it feeding. It actually came as quite a surprise, as I had not realised that it was carnivorous!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Mapping ant colonies

A colleague of mine forwarded this to me last week, but I went away and haven't had chance to deal with it properly until now.

Researchers at Texas A&M University used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to map a colony of Atta texana, producing a 3D model of the tunnels and chambers. It's all very clever and has the advantage of being non-invasive.

I've seen some of the models that Walter Tschinkel has produced and they are very attractive (and scientifically valuable). However, these models do result in the destruction of the colony and can be very time consuming to produce. By using GPR the colony is not destroyed.

Whilst I think that this is a great step forward, I doubt how well it can be implemented in the short term. The trouble is, whilst A. texana colonies are big, most ant colonies are small with narrow tunnels, and I doubt that the GPR would be sensitive to pick up all the finer details. Maybe in the future, if the sensitivity of the equipment improves, this technique will become more valuable. It's also much harder to visualise the colony without an actual physical model, though no doubt these could be created at additional cost if needed.

It will be interesting to see how this develops (and how the technology can be used in other fields - mapping European badger Meles meles setts for a start). More information is available on the project website.

I also followed a link from the BBC web page this was reported on and discovered that a friend of mine has made the news, again... (Show off.)