Wednesday, 30 April 2008
The Red valerian (Centhranthus ruber) is coming into flower on a wall in Mumbles. The hoverfly Syrphus ribesii was flitting in this area and Oak trees had both Oak apples (galls of the wasp Biorhiza pallida) and Current galls (caused by the the sexual generation of the gall wasp Neuroterus quercusbaccarum).
Tuesday, 29 April 2008
It must be high summer as we already have a report of a 'crocodile' being seen in Pluck Lake on Swansea Enterprise Park by a local fisherman (http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk/displayNode.jsp?nodeId=161366&command=displayContent&sourceNode=258861&home=yes&more_nodeId1=161375&contentPK=20490119). It is possible that one of these reptiles (Caiman, Alligator and Crocodiles are all closely related) could have been illegally released by an owner who found that the 'cute' baby was getting too big for its container and too expensive to feed (as has been the case in some US cities where the animals apparently turn up in the sewers) but these cold-blooded animals would find it difficult to survive even at this time of the year (they slow down, making feeding difficult- such animals reportedly stop eating around 22 degrees Centigrade). Although water does retain heat, they certainly would not survive a winter. It seems more likely to have been a long and scaley fish, half hidden in the water (some exotic lizards and snakes will also swim in fresh water). It could even be a log or an otter. Either way, we will not have a viable population of these ancient reptiles grabbing joggers and small dogs as they pass the lake. If it was a crocodile, it is not long for this world! Excitement was such that this item reached the august pages of the Sun (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1110358.ece). Please note how the actual 'facts' are changed in relation to this posting (never let anything stand in the way of a 'good' story!).
Sunday, 27 April 2008
The Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) twig in Loughor is green for go! Apple (Malus domestica) is in blossom in that locality along with Black medick (Medicago lupulina) and Yellow oxalis (Oxalis corniculata). Ground nesting bees in my garden were revealed as Dasypoda altercator. The Honey bee (Apis mellifera) was busy on Dandelion here. The introduced Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), the Field maple (Acer campestre) and Elder (Sambucus nigra) are in leaf and in flower in Bynea. The Bumble bee Bombus lapidarius was active here on Red clover and a hunting spider on the water surface.
Friday, 25 April 2008
Changing forgetmenot (Myosotis discolor) was spotted in Bynea. The escapee Hoary stock (Matthiola incana) and Lilac ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) were seen in Loughor. Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) was prominent in Swansea and Holly blue (Celestrina argiolus) and Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) butterflies were in flight. The latter was also in Bynea.
There seems to be quite a debate brewing about the news that the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth Devon (http://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/site/1/Donkey_Watch.html) apparently receives about £20m in annual donations from the UK public and around 160,000 visitors per year. It has been pointed out (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/25/gender.charitablegiving) that this means that the UK public apparently feels more willing to support a body largely devoted to the welfare of a domesticated animal species (although they also encourage 'therapeutic riding' for special needs children) than all the charities concerned with dealing with violence to women. The UK obsession with animals is, however, nothing new. We have had for more than 100 years a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that receive rather similar levels of public support. Charity is actually a very competitive business. It is easy to dismiss the British support for the donkey as a national quirk but many of the retired folk with cash (and these are major donors) may have remembered donkeys from their childhood seaside holidays (the first big animal they had actually touched or even ridden?). Perhaps there are religious echos from bible lessons or even rememberings of Nina and Frederick's most famous record. There also seems a prevailing view in some circles in this country that charity should be directed to the genuinely voiceless, with government financing issues concerned with human welfare. It would be instructive to gain a better understanding of the reasons why people make charitable donations.
Thursday, 24 April 2008
Lots of the trees around Swansea University seems to be further advanced than those in Bynea and Loughor. Black poplar (Populus nigra) and Penduculate oak (Quercus robur) have both leaves and catkins. The Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) have impressive leaf displays. In addition to the usual suspects, Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), Mouse-ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea), Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and French cranesbill (Geranium endressii) are in flower.
Many UK butterfly species appear to be in a parlous state after the washout summer of 2007 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7363411.stm). The rain didn't give these ephemeral insects sufficient time to feed and breed, leading to the suggestion that some marginal populations will need a good summer in 2008 to recover their numbers or they may well disappear. The needs of most butterflies are many and varied generally including basking areas, flowers for the adults to refuel on nectar, periods of calm sunshine so they can fly to locate and interact with a mate, plants on which the female can lay eggs for the resulting hatched larvae to consume, pupation sites etc. Some, like the Large blue (Maculinea arion), depend on complex relationships with host Red ant colonies (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3568321.stm). The point is, that untimely weather can have a serious impact on these much appreciated animals. They also have to deal with urbanisation, fungal infections, spiders, insect-eating birds, parasitic wasps etc etc. It's presumably why they are regarded as sensitive indicators of environmental change.
Wednesday, 23 April 2008
The news report (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7358384.stm) that first time mothers who have a high calorie diet are more likely to give birth to a boy than a girl is a simple extrapolation from animal studies with beasts like the Red deer. In such animals, it has been shown that dominant does (who are presumably well-nourished) are more likely to produce a stag rather than give birth to another female. The (rather speculative but intriguing) presumed reason for this is that a successful male offspring in this polygynous species (stags compete for entire herds of females) will pass on more copies of his mother's genes by fertilising them all than a female offspring ever could (she generally would produce only one offspring per year of her breeding life). So it pays for the female to invest more in rearing a male offspring. There are one or two difficulties in the interpretation of this recent human data. The first is that it is not absolutely certain that the animal phenomenon depends only on nutrition (there could be hormonal influences). Secondly, humans (unless they have a harem) are not generally such obviously polygynous species as are Red deer (you could get the same effect by producing promiscuous male offspring who were attractive to females in general). It used to be claimed that more male children were initially implanted than girls but that the mortality in boys was higher. Perhaps the good diet reduces this male mortality to produce an apparent surplus of boys? It would be interesting to see if the phenomenon applies also to subsequent pregnancies.
Monday, 21 April 2008
The first Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) was in flower in Loughor and Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) buds were bursting. In Bynea, saw my first Red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and Common vetch (Vicia sativa) of the year. In Swansea, Field pennycress (Thlapsi arvense) was both fruiting and flowering and the Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is doing its candelabra impersonation.
Sunday, 20 April 2008
It appears initially strange to me that, in the same week that a meta-analysis suggested that our 'health' obsession with vitamins causes, in some cases, more harm (including fatalities) than good (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/apr/16/medicalresearch), there has apparently been a £200m boost on spending on 'natural' therapies in the UK(http://lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/health/story/0,,2275099,00.html). This keenness for 'alternative' therapies is apparently particularly expressed by women over 35 and may be linked to policies that have directed people to discuss some of their health issues with their local pharmacist (many of these 'chemists', in addition to dispensing, do sell vitamin tablets, herbal remedies etc). I have never really quite understood why people assume that 'natural' means good and synthetic means bad. Many toxins (from bacteria, scorpions and snakes) are 'natural' but I wouldn't routinely dose myself with them. Its also weird that people always assume that, if one pill is good for you, 2 will be twice as good etc (this is of particular relevance to the vitamin issue where over-dosing, especially with some of the fat-soluble agents, appears to be a real problem causing liver damage etc). The 'take-home' message on vitamins and necessary trace elements (like selenium) seems to be that the healthiest option is to eat a balanced diet (it will contain all that you need) and, if you can't or don't do that, to go easy on the vitamin tablets. It is recognised that a minority of the herbal remedies do have actual beneficial effects (hardly surprising, as a number of our medical drugs were derived from them) but, even here, it is difficult to know what amounts of active ingredients the preparations contain, to be fully briefed on potential side-effects or be certain that their ingestion does not impair the effectiveness of prescribed clinical agents (especially if you don't tell our doctor that you are taking them). New European legislation on herbal remedies is coming on stream and may prove helpful. It is even odder that homeopathic medicines remain resolutely in vogue when there seems to be no possible biological mechanism for their claimed actions (many contain less active ingredient than distilled water). Placebo actions (that may actually be helpful to some individuals) and the endorsements of supporting celebrities seem to have powerful effects on human behaviour. I am not certain that these are always benign when it comes to health and commerce.
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