On the way back from our expedition into The Arms of Giants last week my attention was drawn to a piece of ground that we last visited together in January of last year. This was part of a hillside that had been levelled for development back in 2005 and then, for some reason best known to the Cretan mind but totally unfathomable to the English, the project was abandoned. The subsequent development of a whole new ecosystem we documented in Nature Fights Back.
In the past fifteen months the only human intervention has been from my neighbour, who occasionally tethers a few goats up there, so I think it’s time to take another look. The foreground is now covered with a lush, green covering of Wild Oats on the dry side to our left whilst to our right the reed bed around the little spring is tall and vibrant. Plenty of insects buzzing around today and whoops! I nearly trod on a small lizard right under my feet. Unfortunately he’s plunged into deep cover but it’s good to see that we now have reptiles in our new ecosystem.
In the centre the tamarisk trees haven’t grown much taller but they have certainly grown thicker and there are various finches and a blackbird regaling us with song. But look up to the skies: the Hooded Crows are mobbing our poor local Buzzard again. They do this with monotonous regularity and I’m surprised that the beleaguered bird puts up with it. It has nothing to do with protecting the nest or the young as it happens at all times of the year. It could be territorial but I think that the crows, who certainly have an air of devilment in their make-up, just do it for fun. Just showing off to their mates as it were.
Now, if we can just force a passage through these Tamarisks (says he, trying to disentangle the sweep net from a host of flowering branches and getting covered in fluffy seeds in the process) we’ll see what arthropods we can find. Arthropods? – mostly little animals with their skeletons on the outside containing the soft squishy bits -as opposed to Chordates like ourselves who hang our squishy bits from an internal skeleton and keep the lot together in a bag of skin. We seem to have quite a haul so let’s see what we have here. Firstly, a Great Green Bush-cricket (notice the long whip-like antennae); then the nymph of one of the short-horned grasshoppers (you can tell it’s a nymph as the wings have not developed). They usually come in green or brown but pink forms like this, although not common, are far from rare. Over on the far wall we have a lovely powder blue Southern Skimmer dragonfly taking in the sun and finally a beautifully marked little Orb Web Weaver spider. A delightful little crew.
Listen. Did you hear that soft croaking? Not only do we have reptiles in residence up here now, we also have amphibians. Let’s plunge into the pools and see if we can find the owner of the croak. There he goes! Coming your way. My but he moved quickly. No, don’t chase him any further, just let him be. Come and have a look at these black, squiggly things in this puddle instead. Remember last week we were discussing complete and incomplete metamorphosis in the insect world? All the two winged insects in the world (flies, midges, gnats, mosquitoes and so forth) belong to the insect order Diptera – from the Greek meaning (unsurprisingly) two winged. The Diptera is one of those orders that undergo complete metamorphosis (egg-larva-pupa-adult) and here you can see both larvae and pupae. Here in the puddle it’s difficult to tell what they are exactly but if we take some home with us, let a couple hatch and then put them under the microscope we should be able to find out what they are.
|A mosquito wing under the microscope|
You can tell a lot about an insect from its wing venation (the pattern formed by the veins on the wing) and this particular pattern is that of a mosquito. “What use are mosquitoes?” you ask. Well, they’re very good at producing more mosquitoes which is the whole point of life surely? Oh, I see, what use are they to us? Do they have to be? As it happens, without them and their other dipteran relatives we’d probably starve to death. Not all of those squiggly blobs will make it to adulthood. The greater majority will finish up on the dinner plate of other insects or higher animals such as that frog that skipped off nimbly into the reeds. Those that do survive, and many of the insects for which they provide essential nutrition, will go on to pollinate the plants that we and our livestock eat. Life on Earth is a series of large interconnected processes of which we are but a small, if somewhat destructive, part. Unfortunately that may be our legacy in the great panoply of existence. Evolution thrives on periodic mass extinctions and there have been five already in the planet’s history. We are currently engineering the sixth. That’s a rather sobering thought. Come on, let’s go down to the Carrot Club. There’s an orgy going on and we’re invited.
Welcome to the Carrot Club. The beautiful purple flower centrepiece is one of the ways in which you can distinguish a wild carrot from similar looking plants such as the deadly poisonous Hemlock (for total security look for three-forked or pinnate lower bracts). We’ll grab ourselves a carrot juice and have a look to see who’s in today. Over in the top left corner I see we have a wasp, finely turned out in glossy black with a white shoulder wrap (one of the Scoliid wasps I think). Moving round we have a Flower Chafer Beetle, also decked out in shiny black with fetching white blotches. The tall, thin guy in black (seems to be the ‘in’ colour this week) and the iridescent, silvery wing cloak is one of the sawflies – a close relative of the wasps and the couple in reds and browns over there in the corner, defying the dress code and exhibiting the sort of behaviour that certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in the better London clubs, are Soldier Beetles. In fact, looking around, there seem to be a lot of soldiers in today. Well, it IS the Carrot Club; nature’s own and totally uninhibited. Cheers everyone!
Until next week – happy hunting.
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)