A host of unusual loveliness
Where to begin? Firstly, a quick apology for the hiatus of last week, a sheer volume of events through the week and the previous three weekends meant that I was unable to meet the copy deadline and sadly missed our weekly wildlife rendez-vous.
However, the upshot of all these events is an amazing collection of unusual wildlife sightings, all shared with families and friends throughout the district. And the good news for me is that many of the participants had smart phones or cameras (how charmingly retro) with them and happily shared the picture prizes.
Most recently a grey and mizzly morning rockpooling at Sidmouth’s Jacobs Ladder beach turned up not one, not two, or indeed three, but four amazing arthropods. Sea spiders. I remember first encountering these gangly little creatures in a marine zoology unit of my degree course, they are so strange that once met they will never been forgotten.
Despite being called spiders, and belonging to the arthropod group, these animals are not arachnids and their eight-legged resemblance to the terrestrial and aquatic true spiders is purely chance. The odd thing about sea spiders is that they have no respiratory system, instead they make use of their high surface area to volume ratio to allow passive gaseous exchange to provide oxygen. This means that they must have extremely clean skin, and indeed their exoskeleton is unusual in being sterile, something which many scientists are interested in studying; being able to find out how they maintain bacteria-free skin in the sea could have huge benefits for shipping.
Sea spiders in our waters tend to be found in rockpools, hanging on to tiny tree-like algae, on which they hunt for tiny anemone prey. However, they are not found often, in seven years rockpooling the East Devon coast with schools and families, I have only found one before now. On thursday morning we found four!
Last weekend was Escot’s annual “Messing about on the River” event, a feast of old-fashioned netting for sticklebacks and eels, while Alan Bruford indulges in a spot of gold panning with families. We smile and nod enthusiastically, but know this is merely a ruse to satisfy Mr B’s appetite for getting muddy!
A good haul of fish were caught by Jim and myself, including young brown trout, which the river Tale has been praised for this year. Amongst the bullheads, stone loaches, sticklebacks and eels were two fish which looked like eels. On closer inspection they had no eyes, pores rather than gills and no complex fins. These weren’t fish, but the larvae of a fishy-type animal called a Lamprey; these were ammocoete larvae!
Lamprey were once common and prized for the table, indeed King Henry I was so fond of the meal he contracted food poisoning ascribed to consuming “a surfeit of lampreys”. They have become far less common since 1069, though and this was the first time I had seen one of these animals! Lamprey are put in a group alongside fish, rather than being a true fish, and apart from having a free-living large larva they are very different to fish in a number of ways.
Firstly they have no jaw, just a round mouth covered in amazing rows of sharp teeth. They live for many years as larvae, before heading off to sea to grow into adulthood. They are the most primitive vertebrate and all animals with backbones are thought to have evolved from a lamprey common ancestor, which means us!
Finally the previous weekend saw a mammoth natural history survey of the Axe Estuary Wetlands, with a variety of experts assisting us with a BioBlitz! The Field Studies Base provided our HQ for the day, while experts spent the day rootling and tootling about the wetlands identifying their particular groups.
We have reams of records now to show for the efforts, all of which will be added to what we know about the site and help in our efforts to improve them for biodiversity into the future. A first for Devon in 60 years was discovered with the discovery of a larval 13-spot ladybird by ladybird expert Richard Comont. This rare ladybird dies out in Britain each year and is thought to recolonise from the continent. A breeding colony in Stafford Marsh would indeed be a turn up for the books!
Richard also found the poster child for the day, by discovering a fabulous puss moth caterpillar in the accompanying photo. This larva of the white fluffy puss moth (puss as in kitten rather than putrified mucus!) looks like it should live in the tropics, and it is seldom seen here despite being quite common.
The thing is, even though they are lime green with a pink face, purple back and two red tendril tails, they spend their time feeding in willow, sallow or poplar trees and are normally well out of sight. These caterpillars were feeding on a willow sculpted maze constructed on the wetlands and played amongst by hundreds of children this year. All the while we were unaware of the presence of this wonderful caterpillar. After we spotted these two the maze was given further scrutiny whereupon poplar hawkmoth and eyed hawkmoth caterpillars were found too!
Its amazing what is there, living under your nose, if you just stop a while to look!