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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Into A Dark, Dark Place

The next obstacle on our route to the Milonas Waterfall would appear to be a densely wooded slope but before we venture down into the sylvan gloom just listen to the birds this morning. The descending trill of the chaffinch; the harsh dzeee of the greenfinch; the machine gun rattle of the Sardinian Warbler all coming from the trees and bushes around us whilst up above the ravens are cronking and a buzzard is mewing. What a lovely start to the day.




Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees as the saying goes but all too often we fail to see the trees for the wood so let’s take a closer look at the woodland make up. The majority of trees are the familiar needle leaved, cone bearing pines but we also some with thin branching, rather scaly leaves and cones that look a bit like footballs. These are cypress trees, named after Cyparissus, Apollo’s young boyfriend who’s grief was so strong after he accidentally killed his pet stag that he turned into a tree. These are both coniferous trees but we also have some Kermes Oaks in here which are deciduous and bear acorns rather than cones. All three are going to be invaluable in stopping us tumbling down this precipitous slope faster than we intend.

The majority of what we are walking on is pine litter and you can see great clumps of it wedged into crevices in the rocks. The good thing about these clumps is that you can wedge a stick underneath and lift them up in one go. Let’s see what’s underneath this one. A couple of mushrooms growing in total darkness and a julid millipede. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the organism of course but by far the greatest mass of the fungus is the mycelium made up of white threads called hyphae which you can see working its way through the dead pine needles. These hyphae secrete enzymes which break down the litter and convert it into fungus food. They are also the reason that we could pull the clump off in one go.






This bank will give us a chance to have a look at the soil profile if I just scrape it back with my trowel. There are three distinct layers and we’ll take a sample and see what we can find. The top layer of recently fallen needles is home to this tiny Goblin Spider on the hunt for even smaller prey such as this Snout Mite that I’ve just liberated from the second partly decomposed layer called the acid mor, a slowly decaying  type of humus particular to coniferous woodlands and moorland. Snout mites are also predatory on things like springtails and nematode worms. The third, paler layer is called the leached horizon where most of the nutrients have been washed out. We’ll take some back to the lab and look at it more closely later.

We seem to have come into a clearing and it’s nice to see the sun again. You don’t see so many flowers in the depths of the conifer wood but up here we have a nice little Romulea, a flower that looks like a crocus but isn’t – they just evolved along similar lines. Have you noticed that many flowers have different coloured centres? This is thought to help guide the pollinating insects in to the food source. The same with those buttercups that we found in the gorge a couple of weeks back. Yes, I know that they look all yellow but that’s because you’re not an insect (not the last time I counted your legs anyway). Being human your colour spectrum only ranges from red to violet (see Inside The Rainbow) but if you were an insect you could see down into the ultraviolet and the buttercup would look something like this – give or take my lousy artwork. Our senses are rather dull compared with most animals and in nature you can’t always believe what you see.

I can hear the roar of the waterfall quite strongly now and I’m pretty sure that will be our destination next week. Unless we find something else to divert our attention on the way.


The Extra Bit

I’ve finally managed to get around to a project that I’ve been meaning to undertake for some time and that is to put all of our little walks onto an interactive map. By clicking on to any of the green hiker icons you can view the blog post for that particular location. Don’t forget that you can also use the search engine on the right hand side of each blog to search for anything in particular. For instance if orchids are your particular thing then just type ‘orchid’ into the search box and your browser will display all the blog posts that feature orchids. You can then use the map to find the exact location of that post. Neat huh? Interactive Hiking and Nature Map

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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A Recipe For Life

We seem to have taken quite a detour last week to get down to this level and the waterfall should be over there somewhere. We’ll follow our ears and get there somehow but first, that looks interesting. There’s probably a correct technical term for these shallow erosions but I just call them cavelets. Let’s climb up and take a look. As you can see from the staining of the rock face, water is leaching minerals from the rocks and if you look up there you can see small stalactites forming. There are also white deposits blooming on the walls which my geologist friends tell me is probably gypsum/selenite.  They contain calcium and sulphur so, along with the limestone rocks which contain calcium and carbon, and the water, we have carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (the basic elements of life) plus at least a couple of others to add to the recipe. We’ll push our way up through these bushes using this tumbling water course as our stairs and see what’s going on.

And up here, below the dripping stalactite, if you look carefully you can just see some threads of green algae forming. There’s a whole world of wonder in this little splash pool which began when large molecules of dissolved organic substances from the stalactite attached themselves to the wet rock. These neutralised the electrical charge of the water surface and allowed bacteria to colonise and they, in turn, secreted sticky strands that formed a nutrient trapping matrix. This matrix, known as the biofilm to periphytologists (people who study slimy rocks – yes, there really are such people), then served as a base for more bacteria to expand and diversify the biofilm and then for our green algae to grow. The algae, in its turn, will provide a home for microscopic life forms such as the ciliate we found in Life In The Olive Grove .

Algae are very basic life forms but we also have some higher forms of plant life up here. These fig branches, tenaciously clinging to the underside of this crack are just coming into bud and down in the damp crevices we have some lip ferns whilst out on the dry, stony ground, the beautiful but dangerous mandrakes are coming into flower. Their relative simplicity or complexity is reflected in their evolution: the flowering plants which include the fig and mandrake have been with us for about 120 million years, the ferns about 320 million years and the green algae maybe as long as 500 million years. Us? Well, as primates about 55 million years but as Homo sapiens only a couple of hundred thousand years.

Have you noticed these cottony threads in amongst the berries of this lentisc bush here? Alongside the evolution of plants came the evolution of insects and these threads look like the work of woolly aphids. Pass me the field microscope and I’ll see if I can find one for you. There’s one look, if you study him closely you can see him sucking up the sap from the plant. And where there are insects there are predators; there’s a minute spider that has his eye on stuffed aphid for lunch. Talking of which, let’s see if we can find some cave spiders lurking in the deeper recesses.

Do you think that you can wedge yourself up into that crack and see if there’s anyone about? Plenty of webs? That’s a good sign. You’ve found one? Good, I’ll squeeze in beside you and take a look. Hmm. It’s not a cave spider but he is rather interesting. Do you remember me telling you that you don’t have to worry about spiders in Crete because we only have one venomous one and you’re unlikely to come across it? Guess what? You’ve found one. Sorry, probably not the best time to impart that information when you’re perched precariously thirty metres up a cliff face, but don’t worry they’re pretty shy creatures and he won’t bother you unless you threaten him. All the same I think we’ll climb down. That was a Mediterranean Recluse Spider and although his bite can cause nasty skin lesions, a condition known as loxoscelism for which there’s no known treatment, it is rarely fatal. Having said that, there was a fatality last year in Italy but I believe that the unfortunate victim was already suffering from some sort of immune deficiency, which would have been a contributing factor.

Still, venomous spiders aside, a pleasant little diversion and a different angle from which to look at this wonderful thing called life. Now how are we going to get down from here?

The Extra Bit

Last week I glibly said that there is “only one authentic palm lined beach on the whole continent [of Europe]” and that was at Vai on the east coast of Crete. I am indebted to Jackie Strasis for reminding me that Phoenix theophrasti also lines Preveli Beach in southern Crete and I have also learnt that there are yet more at Ayios Nikitas in Heraklion Prefecture. Further research has turned up one other native European palm, The Mediterranean Dwarf palm, Chamaerops humilis, which lives in south west Europe. Just goes to show – you can’t believe a word that I say. Thanks for correcting me Jackie.

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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)