Wednesday 7 October 2015

Fruits of Autumn

The vernal equinox has passed and it’s time we got down to some serious exploring after all our loafing about at the Porto Belissario for the last two weeks. We spent the earlier part of the year to the west of the village, predominantly in the Milonas Valley, so let us strike out east and see what we can find.

Plants have many methods of seed dispersal
It’s a beautiful early morning and just look at how the sun is catching the sandstone giving it a rich, golden glow. Many of the plants, like this lentisc or mastic bush, are throwing out their fruits just now, which is the equivalent of animals having babies. It’s a similar process involving eggs and sperm but somewhat more complex as flowering plants undergo double fertilization; the first producing the seed and the second producing the surrounding food storage tissue which nourishes the seed during development. So when you eat a grape and spit out the pip you are consuming part one of the process and ejecting the second. This is just what the grapevine wants you to do as by the time the grape is sweet enough to eat the seed has developed sufficiently to start an independent life and you are merely the chosen agent of seed dispersal (ever felt you were being used?). Some plants, like this Greek Spiny Spurge, positively explode their seeds away from the parent plant like ejecting a stay-at-home teenager from the family home with a cannon while these cistus plants on the other hand just drop their seeds where they fall. This seems a strange thing to do but the plants are full of volatile oils and burn easily in a wildfire. The seeds are cunningly designed to germinate after such a fire. 

Spotted Flycatcher, Muscicapa striata
Many bird species are involved in the dispersal of plant seeds as well being great consumers of berries but not so this little fellow perching, guardsman straight, on the telephone wire. He’s a spotted flycatcher and, as his name suggests, his diet consists mainly of flying insects such as flies, beetles and wasps. These birds pass through on their way from northern Europe to Africa between August and October returning between mid April and mid May although I have seen the odd straggler in February and March who didn’t see the necessity to go any further south. He’s watching that patch of open scrub down there so let’s go down and see if we can disturb a few insects for him.

Grasshopper habitat
Watch the stones here they’re looooooooooose. Well, that’s a new personal best – pitched onto my posterior within the first half hour of our first hike. However, not without waste, there’s a nice little grasshopper down here. Magnificent little animals, grasshoppers, they can jump twenty times their own body length and pull twenty gees when they take off. How they do this involves a clever bit of mechanics. When we jump we use muscles in our upper and lower legs that extend and contract and the world record for the long jump is around five body lengths. Grasshoppers get four times this distance by using a special pennate extensor muscle in the lower leg that can store energy like an elastic band. When it jumps it stores and releases this energy in less than half a second and catapults itself into the air. There he goes…boing!

Slime mould, Arcyria nutans
We’ll make our way across this bit of scrub and head for those pines over there. Plenty more grasshoppers pinging their way from under our feet, mainly red wings as far as I can see. The huge jump is a defence mechanism of course and that flash of orange from the underwing is another one – it aims to startle and confuse predators. Quite a few dragonflies darting around; the flycatcher should have a decent breakfast. Ah, what have we here – a rotting pine branch. Let’s see who’s at home. Quite a number of holes and tunnels, probably made by beetle larvae, but otherwise about as lively as the Marie Celeste. We do have an interesting slime mould though. The words slime and mould tend to conjure up rather revolting images in the mind but this one is rather pretty. We’ll put the log back as these little life forms have the same aversion to light as Count Dracula and the sun is getting a little on the strong side now. I suggest we try and find a route down to the sea and cool ourselves off a bit.

Sea Cucumber, Holothuria foskali
Ah, that’s better. Quite a nice little reef, I wonder what’s sheltering in the cracks and crevices? This is a nice find, it’s a sea cucumber. Superb animals that do a great job recycling nutrients on the sea bed, rather like worms do in the soil. Pity they’ve become such a delicacy on the Asian menu. Back in the 1950s we more or less left them alone, these days we’re harvesting 16,000 tonnes of them a year and in places where we’ve stripped the sea bed of them completely we’ve made it totally uninhabitable for other organisms1. Not that they are without defences; this one, as you can see, squirts sticky filaments at its attacker – in this case me and if I hadn’t moved sharpish I’d have spent the rest of the morning trying to get the stuff off of my hand and camera. I love reef snorkelling; you never know who you’re going to meet next.

Until next week – happy hunting.

See all the pictures including insets in detail on Flickr

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  1. Grrrrr, Blogspot dosn't have a handy reblog function so I did it the long way on I hope it gains you a couple of new followers. Best wishes, Yvonne x

  2. I always love reading your accounts and reminding myself of my two cretan visits long ago

  3. Isn't it the little things in life that mean the most. So nice to read about these little guys. Thanks for writing.

  4. In the USA, we have a bit of clover weed that gets a seed pod. When the pod pops open, the seeds shoot - often 3 feet from the mother plant.

    That Mastic bush is beautiful! To appreciate the beauty of nature, we need to appreciate all the creatures of nature. One without the other would not exist!


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