Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Meaning of Life

Foraminifera on a matchbox

While walking along a beach ten years ago we came across hundreds of jellyfish washed up on the sand. The kids were fascinated by them and proceeded to probe and examine them. My daughter, who was four at the time, was disgusted with these slimy, dangerous looking creatures. Being a zoologist I began explaining about their intricate, delicate morphology and their complicated life cycle. My little daughter was having none of this. She looked me in the eye, turned up her nose and hit me with a totally disarming and deeply philosophical response: What’s the point of jellyfish, they don’t even have faces? This stopped my in my tracks. After a while I feebly mumbled something about flowers not having faces but still being beautiful. Needless to say she wasn’t impressed!

The statement has mulled around in my head ever since - What’s the point of jellyfish, they don’t even have faces? The second part of the question is easy enough to tackle - they don’t even have faces. In the grand scheme of life, faces are pretty (excuse the pun) much in the minority. Bacteria, viruses, plants, protozoans, sponges, worms, echinoderms and most molluscs don’t have faces, so jellyfish need not feel so out of place. A face is not required in order to succeed in this world and if success is measured in the millions of years that a particular body plan has been in existence then facelessness wins hands down.

The first part of the question is much more difficult, if not impossible to answer - What’s the point of jellyfish? Of course the question can be expanded to include not just jellyfish: insects, spiders, humans, rocks, planets, galaxies, cheese makers, manufacturers of all dairy products - everything. What is the point? Answers on a post card please.

Just to finish off with a relevant quote from the great Groucho Marx:

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Prehistoric Bugs in my Garden

Millipedes (Arthropoda: Myriapoda: Diplopoda) and Woodlice (Arthropoda: Crustacea: Isopoda) look like creatures from the past and in fact they are ancient life forms. The body plan of both these groups of animals evolved millions of years ago and they have changed very little since. Obviously, these designs perfectly fit the habitats that these creatures inhabit and Mother Nature has decided to leave them pretty much alone. Woodlice date from around 160 million years ago and therefore walked with dinosaurs, which became extinct 65 million years ago. The ancestry of millipedes is even more impressive. In 2004 a fossil millipede was found near Aberdeen in Scotland. The fossil has been dated to 420 million years ago and is one of the oldest fossil land animals ever found. Humans, on the other hand, have only recently evolved with the first apes dating from 25 million years ago. Will we be as successful as the millipedes? Will we, or our evolved future family members, be around in 400 million years?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Creepy Crawlies in the Garden

Window Lace Weever (Amaurobius fenestralis)

Gardens are full of thousands, if not millions, of creepy crawlies. As children we were all (well boys were anyway) fascinated by these tiny secretive bugs. My childish side comes out when I am in the garden - I just can't resist turning over stones to see whats there. Maybe they are not pretty but to me they are absolutely fascinating. What forces sculptured these amazingly complex and highly technical designs, and why?

White Legged Millipede (Tachypodoiulus niger)

White Legged Millipede (Tachypodoiulus niger)


Lace Weever (Amaurobius similis)

Earwig (Forficula auricularia)

Earwig (Forficula auricularia)

Earwig (Forficula auricularia)

Common Rough Woodlice (Porcellio scaber)

Common Rough Woodlice (Porcellio scaber)

Centipede (Lithobius forficatus)

Bristletail (Petrobius maritimus)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The hills are alive with the sound of (bird) music

Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

Well the birds (feathered variety) are definitely enjoying this endless sunshine and they are bursting into song all around. Their plumage is particularly vibrant and eye catching at this time of year. The visitors are arriving en masse (no worries about volcanic ash) and setting up their territories and preparing nests. My swallows arrived 2 days ago - I thought they were lost. The local birds are well ahead of the visitors, with some of them with their first broods already out and about.

Female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ecology of the Lough Carra Limestone Region

Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)

The Lough Carra limestone region is one of those special places to take a walk, where you are likely to encounter many plants and animals which once filled the countryside but, sadly, in many areas, have long since disappeared. There are masses of flowers, many rare, of all colours and fragrances. Accompanying these is an abundance of butterflies and all sorts of interesting insects. The ecology and biodiversity of the area has been studied in great detail by Chris and Lynda Huxley and more information can be found on their website

Lough Carra, Co. Mayo, situated 5km north of the town of Ballinrobe, is one of Ireland’s best examples of a hard water marl lake. The lake is a Special Protection Area and is part of the Lough Carra/Mask Complex Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The underlying rock is Carboniferous limestone and the surrounding land contains quite large areas of open limestone paving. This limestone pavement represents the northern limit of the limestone of County Clare and Galway. Limestone pavement is classed as a priority Annex I habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.

Flowers of note are dense-flowered orchid (Neotinea maculata) and birds nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis). 17 species of orchid have been recorded. 23 species of butterfly have been identified, notably the dingy skipper (Erynnis tages), holly blue (Celastrina argiolus), marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) and grayling (Hipparchia semele). 14 species of Odonata have been recorded and of particular interest is a large population of black tailed skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum).

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamnii)

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Rustyback Fern (Ceterach officinarum)

Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum)

Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Puff Ball Fungus

Peacock (Inachis io)

Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)

Devils Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis)

Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris)

Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris)

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Fossil Ammonite

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Garden Birds

Male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

After a long, cold winter, spring is well underway now in this part of the world. Over the past few days we have had glorious sunshine and you soon forget those tough wintry days. My garden is a busy place at the moment with lots of birds carrying out their courtship rituals and collecting nest material. The bird feeders are attracting many different species and there is constant activity. I haven’t seen any wrens yet though. I thought my cat Lucky was retired but during one frosty night in January she managed to massacre 6 poor little wrens. The wrens had been nesting together, to keep warm, in a house martin nest at the apex of my house. They would gather in the evening and chirp and flit around the ground as they organised themselves for their nights sleep. And then the cat pounced!

Male Siskin (Carduelis spinus) and Male Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret)

Male Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret)

Male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Great Tit (Parus major)

Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Female Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret)

Female Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Coal Tit (Parus ater)

Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Inishmurray Island

Eider (Somateria mollissima)

Inishmurray is a mystical island 4 miles off the Sligo coast in Donegal Bay. A well preserved 6th century monastic settlement dominates the centre of the island. The last inhabitants deserted the island for the comforts of the mainland in 1957. Inishmurray is a low lying island composed of Carboniferous shale/sandstone rocks, 1 mile long and 0.5 mile wide at its broadest point, comprising of 233 acres. There are no trees and few shrubs on the island. Due to the fact that there are no people, foxes or rats living on the island, ground nesting birds breed successfully with minimal predation. The island is an important wintering ground for barnacle geese (100-500 individuals). During the summer the breeding population comprises of varying numbers of Arctic and common tern, shag (100+ pairs), herring gull (100+ pairs), great black backed gull (100+ pairs), and eider (100+ individuals), black guillemot (10+ individuals), storm petrels (100+ pairs), lesser black-backed gull (35+ pairs) and fulmar (80+ pairs).

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)

Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis)

Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis)

Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis)

Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis)

Eider (Somateria mollissima)

Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)