Wednesday 2 April 2014

Cretan Fortress Invaded by Nature

Ierapetra Port and Fortress

After last weeks exertions up mountains and down caves I thought we’d take it a little easier this week with a pleasant stroll around Ierapetra harbour and up into the fort.  The fortress was built by the Venetians back in 1626 when they were on the island. Everyone’s had a go at dominating Crete; Turks, Romans, Italians, Germans… the Greeks have had it for the last hundred years or so but whoever is nominally in charge Crete remains resolutely Crete and the islanders (who’s forebears date back to the Stone Age) are proudly Cretan.

But enough of the history for the moment, I want to show you a bit of old rope. There, between those two fishing boats. Do you see those strange, almost fungal-like growths between the seaweeds? They are sponges, curious little creatures with a unique way of feeding in the animal kingdom. They absorb water through small pores in their body walls, filter out any tasty morsels and then sweep the water back out through those large openings at the end. They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years which makes them considerably older than the Cretans.

A flash of azure skimming low over the water like a dart of blue lightning. I often see a Kingfisher down here, perching on the boat rails or sat on the edge of the quayside. Back in England I’ve always known them as birds of the rivers (although they occupy a number of different habitats around the world) but down here they seem to be predominantly coastal birds. Once, when I was lazily floating on my back in the summer, I had the pleasure of watching one repeatedly dive into the water around me from an overhanging cane. A quite delightful way to spend an afternoon.

Bugloss and Painted Lady
Here we are at the fort. It was built to afford protection against Arab pirates which is somewhat ironic as it is supposed to be built on the site of an old pirate fort. It’s not used nowadays of course which is quite useful to us as nature has invaded more successfully than any human force. Up above the barracks and store rooms we have Phagnalion, Goosefoot, Crown Daisies and this splendid plant called Bugloss. The name has nothing to do with it being harmful to bugs incidentally, it comes from the old Greek  bouglōssos meaning cattle tongue and is one of the host plants where the Painted Lady likes to lay her eggs. The tender shoots of Bugloss contain omega-3 fatty acids similar to those found in oily fish and in Crete the shoots of a sister plant, Italian Bugloss, are eaten boiled or steamed.

Ladybird Larva
Talking of insects, take a look at this little fellow. This is probably one of the world’s most recognisable beetles, or will be when he grows up. Like butterflies, beetles undergo  complete metamorphosis. That is they hatch from an egg into a larval form like this (or a caterpillar in the case of a butterfly) during which they do little else but eat. After this they rest for a bit in a hard case called a chrysalis or pupa before emerging into a completely different form as a winged adult. In this case our childhood friend, the Ladybird.

Snakelock Anemone and Ornate Wrasse
Glancing around the harbour I see that the sun is well over the yard arm so I suggest we repair to that little ouzeri down there, have a little libation and see what we can see amongst the rocks.  That little fish down there is an Ornate Wrasse and is quite common in these waters. You only have to stand still on a rock for a while and they will come and investigate you. Those green strands with purple tips apparently growing out of the rock beside him are called Snakelock Anemones. Their colouration is due to a symbiotic relationship with algae which provides them with energy from sunlight.  This gives them a very plant-like appearance but they are in fact animals. If ever you find yourself in the Andalusia region of Spain look out for Ortiguillas on the menu; they eat them deep fried in batter over there.

There are two great delights in being an amateur naturalist. Firstly, you can pursue your interest anywhere, even in a man-made environment like this and secondly, absolutely anyone can be one. So until next week – Good hunting and if you find anything strange that defies identification or explanation post it to the Naturalists Group and we’ll see if we can shed some light on the subject.


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