Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Battling with beetles...

If the ground beetles (Carabidae) are like the European Knights of the 13th century - soldiers encased in ungainly, heavy steel plate armour...

Carabus nemoralis - Goat Meadow at Gatwick

...then the rove beetles (Staphylinidae) are the fearsome Mongolian warriors of the steppes, with overlapping scales of iron and flexible leather, allowing for furiously fast attacks on the enemy (I've been reading a lot of Conn Iggulden historical fiction of late).

Devil's Coach Horse (Ocypus olens) - Photo by W J Heeney

As mortal enemies, Carabids and Staphs will go into battle and the result comes down to the size of beast, which is highly variable. The biggest, baddest of the rove beetles is the Devil's Coach Horse pictured above, which makes Genghis Khan look like a lovable chap who'd give out free hugs.

Last Saturday was the Staphylinidae Identification Workshop with the British Entomological and Natural History Society, lead by Roger Booth and Peter Hodge. It was another excellent day of networking with beginner and expert entomologists alike, learning about the fearsome (and sometimes beautiful) variety of rove beetles.

Roger Booth lead the workshop on Saturday at Dinton Pastures

For me, it was throw back to entomology lessons at Royal Holloway University - Dr Angus was the lecturer who described invertebrate sexual strategy in such graphic detail, that his lectures became infamous (there's even a facebook page in his honour, with one lengthy thread on locust bits which is very NSFW).

A clumsy abdominal dissection

However, I'm not really sure how Dr A. would feel about this; my first attempt since uni at beetle genitalia dissection in order to determine the exact species... Needs a little more practice.

Tergites IX and X, plus one really mashed up aedeagus (male organ)

Aedeagi aside, all beetles at have the same basic body plan. Instead of iron, their exoskeleton is actually made up of a hardened material called chitin, particularly obvious in the solid wing cases (elytra). In Staphylinids, the wings are folded away and the wing case is particularly shortened, allowing for more flexibility in the body.

From Staphylinidae of Britain and Ireland

These are a few I've found about the place so far at Gatwick, usually lurking underneath reptile refugia and bits of bark...
Devil's Coach Horse (Ocypus olens) - a monsterous 30mm

This little bullet-shapped jobby is Tachinus rufipes - around 6mm in length

Drusilla canaliculata (some species names make even adult entomologists snigger), about 5mm

Mongol warriors, about 5ft 7"

Platydracus sp. Another large staph at around 20mm.
Photo by W J Heeney

There is something like 1,000 species of rove beetles in the UK, so lets just say I've got a few more to go! Thanks to Roger and Peter for a brilliant and inspiring workshop. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

Adastra - 2016

My top-tips for making it through an all-day seminar:

1. Curb alcohol intake the night before
2. Sip water constantly; keeps brain alert and banishes drowsiness (particularly if you disregarded point 1)
3. Ignore all the above if you're going to a Biological Recorders meeting; the talks will be riveting anyway and your day will fly-by!

The 27th Sussex Biological Recorders seminar took place on Saturday at Adastra Hall in Hassocks. This is a meeting of like-minded nature-explorers, open to people of all ages, abilities and interests in wildlife watching and recording.

The Royal Air Force motto - Per ardua ad astra

Adastra Park and Hall were named for members of the Royal Flying Corps who lost their lives in World War I. The motto roughly translates as 'to the stars through hardship'; rather fitting for present day biological recording with continual habitat loss, the decline of most species and funding cuts to wildlife organisations. Fortunately, events like the Sussex Biological Recorders Seminar light the way forward, inspiring conservationists to fight on.

A rabble of around 190 biological recorders arrives - this event books out every year

The day consisted of talks by different wildlife conservationists from around the county (plus a few from further afield), beginning with an update from the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre (SxBRC), summarising the victories and challenges of the year just gone. The main talks commenced with a presentation by Dr Nikki Gammans on 'The Plight of the Bumblebee'...

Next up was a talk on the variable state of our Local Wildlife Sites, formerly known as Sites of Nature Conservation Interest (we have one here at Gatwick: Horleyland Wood). We then delved into the hidden world of Ashdown Forest's rarest plants, followed by an exploration into the stunning variety of shield bugs to be seen around Sussex.

A particularly shocking message was that of the RSPB about Turtle Doves in the UK; only a handful now breed in Sussex and the south-east, with fewer returning each year. I'd no idea that in my lifetime this gorgeous bird could go extinct.

However, the message wasn't all doom and gloom. With the help of farmers and continued support of nature organisations in the years to come, Operation Turtle Dove hopes to reverse the decline of this beautiful, charismatic bird.

Coffee breaks between the talks gave people the chance for yearly catch-ups, exchanging ideas, endless questions, plus checking out some of the excellent display boards around the edges of the room...

Towards the end of the day, there was even a surprise guest appearance by one of our most famous Sussex naturalists... TinyBirder himself!

The overall message from this day is very clear - the hard work being put in by passionate wildlife observers provides evidence of a very clear trend of declining species, all easily observable in my lifetime (only just 3 decades).

Along with all county record centres across the UK, the SxBRC is the go-to place for local wildlife information, collecting historical and current distributions for hundreds of different species. This hot-pot of clever, kind, and welcoming staff act as a central point for other wildlife organisations and nature-novices to look to, for help and guidance with all our records and never-ending questions.

More pictures from the day on Twitter: #2016Adastra
A link to the full 2015 Adastra publication (you can read my piece on recording wildlife at Gatwick on page 44):