Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Arachnophilia - Part deux

I'm not a big fan of cows. They are dirty, smelly and kill more people in Britain each year than almost any other animal. I have been threatened, bullied and chased by cows. When people moan about spiders, I think they just haven't met enough cows.

A small group of novice spider-chasers gave up their Friday night, joining in a search around Gatwick's ancient woodlands in the Land East of the Railway Line. We met up after sunset, carrying with us a selection of torches and camera flashes, as the majority of web-spinning folk come out at nighttime.

Fence Post Jumper (Marpissa muscosa) is the UK's biggest species of jumping spider. Photo by Joe Bicker

We began our search in the logpiles to the north of Ashley's Field. During the day there is usually much Wolf Spider action, but this evening were just a few lovely jumping spiders hiding out under the bark.
   Jumping spiders (Salticidae) are simply awesome with their brilliant patterning, large intelligent eyes and cute fuzzy palps. Anything which moves in stop motion must be some kind of supreme being. We coaxed one out of her silken cell and she turned out to be a veritable beast, over 1cm in length.

Marpissa muscosa. This species is probably under recorded and we find it regularly around Gatwick. 
Photo by Joe Bicker

Shining our torches on a patch of nearby nettles, there were lots of little white globes on almost every plant...

Candy-stripe Spider (Enoplognatha spp.) Photo by Joe Bicker

There were scores of them; some yellow and green, others white, some almost entirely pink.

Photo by Joe Bicker

Wooden fence posts and rails are great places for spids and tonight we had Missing-Sector Spider (Zygiella x notata) and this chunky Walnut Orb-weaver (Nuctenea umbratica).

Just hanging out... Photo by Joe Bicker

They are names for their lovely patterning and the polished wood-finish. Great camoflage against the wood chippings. Photo by Joe Bicker

Checking the dead-hedge in Upper Picketts Wood, we easily picked up 5 species including this lovely Neriene montana. A few spiders either do not have official common names, or just entirely forgettable ones, so I wont be bothering with all of them!

Neriene montana. It's abdomen kinda looks like a piece of chocolate. Photo by Joe Bicker

Not a spider but a centipede, probably a type of Lithobius. It doesn't look like chocolate. Photo by Joe Bicker

The dead-hedge was crammed with spids, several species even seemed to be overlapping webs (perhaps they are saving on rent). I forgot to check the species at the top of this picture, but the lower one was Labulla thoracica.

Photo by Joe Bicker

 Labulla thoracica juvenile

A giant, towering Marsh Thistle proved an impressive find, like a spider tower-block apartment. Several Metellina of an unknown species and another Enoplognatha were tucking into a late night feast.

Tiny but effective fangs. Photo by Joe Bicker

Lot's of Walnut Orb Weavers were out tonight and I must re-emphasise that these are darn good-looking spids... 

Photo by Joe Bicker

Not all of the arachnids out and about tonight were spiders; Harvestmen are also 8-legged hunters and belong to an order of invertebrates called Opiliones.

Not a spider: this Harvestman is tucking into a tasty fly. I haven't delved into Harvestman species yet. 
Photo by Joe Bicker

Our last stop was Goat Meadow, and plenty of large orb-webs were decorating the thistles and Agrimony plants. They mostly belonged to this handsome Furrow Spider (Lariniodes cornutus), with it's impressively striking markings.

Furrow Spider (Lariniodes cornutus). Photo by Joe Bicker

Not a spider: a sleepy female Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) curled up under the mat by the brash pile.
Photo by Joe Bicker

Another Furrow Spider, tucking into some fly prey

This dew-covered little beastie blends in well with the seed head of a rush; Agalenatea redii

Either the egg-sac or the retreat of a spider

A tiny wee thing with her spiderlings up in the top left. I think this might be a Theridion species, but I didn't want to disturb her complex web-nest

A juvenile Four-spot Orb Weaver (Araneus quadratus) on the Agrimony 

After midnight we were all spidered-out, so we retraced our steps back through Upper Picketts Wood. Lastly, we were lucky enough to catch a gimpse of this female Steatoda species (one of the False Widow spiders). These are incredibly shy creatures and she scarpered as soon as Joe took this single pic.

Thanks again to Donald, Megan, Joe and Sue for being so keen! Also a big thanks to the facebook group British Spider Identification for helping out with some of the idents. Our list from the evening:

1.       Larinioides cornutus
2.       Marpissa muscosa
3.       Zygiella x notata
4.       Nuctenea umbratica
5.       Araneus quadratus
6.       Labulla thoracica
7.       Tegeneria spp.
8.       Steatoda spp.
9.       Meta spp.
10.   Neriene montana
11.   Enoplognatha spp.
12.   Misumena vatia
13. Agalenatea redii
14. Zelotes latreillei
15. Theridion spp.

Monday, 7 July 2014

British fungal firsts at Gatwick!

We've had a pretty awesome update from local fungi expert, Nick Aplin... coming about 3 months late due to my email filter sending important things to my junkmail!!

Nick and the Sussex Fungi Group at Upper Picketts Wood, November 2013

You might bump into the affable Mr Aplin about the Gatwick woodlands, where he keeps a sharp eye out for unusual fungi species (which to me would be just about all of them). Some of these finds are extremely cryptic and I'm still blown away by how he does it. More incredibly, one of Nick's most recent findings has been previously unrecorded in Britain!

Arecophila striatispora growing on Pendulous Sedge. Photo by Nick Aplin

Ok, so it might be hard to know what we are looking at here...This is a fungus growing within the tissue of a plant, specifically Pendulous Sedge. Fungi which can be found within plants are called endophytes; they are not highly visible, but they can have very complex relationships with their host plant and we are finding out new things about them all the time. For example, some species might be harmful to their host, whereas others can share nutrients and may even protect them from disease.

Ascospores of Arecophila striatispora (Photo by Nick Aplin). Each ascus contains several spores

It is incredible to think how a relationship between two distinct organisms like this might have evolved, possibly one was coerced into becoming reliant on the other (in the world of psychotherapy this is described as codependency and is generally discouraged in humans).
   This particular fungus belongs to the group Ascomycota, as it produces reproductive spores in a little sac called an 'ascus'. This feature helps us to classify certain fungi and with clever tests such as staining the asci with iodine, we can narrow them down to the particular genus or species.

Nick's home lab set up: Brunel SP150 microscope. The scope at the top is a Nikon camera adapter which boosts the magnification, useful whether dissecting or simply photographing specimens

This species has been confirmed by the experts in Europe as Arecophila striatispora, previously unrecorded in our fair isles and so is a great achievement for Nick. Also, kudos to the guy for not slicing off his fingertips during some incredibly fiddly dissection work.
   But that's not the end of it, because Nick has recently discovered yet another first for Britain on our site! 

Gnomonia amoena fruiting body on the petiole of a Hornbeam leaf (Photo by Nick Aplin)

This rather disturbing looking thing is the fruiting body of a fungus (Gnomonia amoena), growing on the stem of a Hornbeam leaf. Have you ever seen the movie Dreamcatcher? It reminds me of the sinister (and gross) alien in that. 
   Apparently, this sinister looking thing belongs to a group of fungi which are very harmful to trees, but luckily this particular species is quite benign (unless you happen to be an individual Hornbeam leaf, then you should RUN.)
Gnomonia amoena ascospores, showing a reaction with iodine causing staining at the tips

As you can tell from the characteristic ascospores (you can, right?) this is another ascomycete species. It was found on leaves at the base of our very old and rather impressive Hornbeam tree in Lower Picketts Wood...

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). This beauty is a impressive size and the photo doesn't do it justice

The other cool thing is that Nick has yet another tricky specimen in the pipeline, which he is also waiting to get confirmed as a British first...

Cross-section of plant tissue, revealing the as yet unknown species (Photo by Nick Aplin)

...it is another ascomycete

I always look forward to the next update from Nick with his latest macro shots. You can check out more of the beautiful fungal underworld in this album: Nick's fungi at Gatwick.