Monday, 31 August 2009

Seeing the Changes 228

A Knot grass (Acronicta rumicis) visited the light in Loughor.

A Weapon in the Sperm Wars

There was an odd article in the Sunday Times ( maintaining that DNA paternity testing had robbed women of one of their holds over men. The author (Melanie McDonagh) claimed that this ability to establish paternity really did no one any good. She cited the example of a millionaire who was suing his former wife for £300,000 towards the costs of bringing up two children who were proved not to be his. The sum is not an unreasonable estimate as the average cost of rearing one child to independence (irrespective of private schooling or university costs) in the UK is around £200,000 ( McDonagh argued that it was unlikely that the man was any happier for his 'improved' knowledge and that the children would certainly be confused by the change of 'father'. DNA technologies have revealed that female birds seeking genetic advantages by seeking genes superior to those in their mate is surprisingly common. McDonagh comments on how hosts of the cuckoo chick "rather stupidly" provide care to the much larger parasite, without her seeming to appreciate that birds are generally 'programmed' to feed the largest chick-like object in their nest (size, in such species, is often taken to reflect viability). The 'sex wars' seem to be no less evident in our own species and, in a direct sense, 'conning' a man into rearing children who are not his own is stealing his (often limited-not everyone is a millionaire!) parental investment. Her major gripe appears to be the fact that paternity tests can negate a major advantage to the female mammal- namely that only the mother knows for sure/to a certain extent "who is the daddy". Regardless of paternity, her genes are always represented in the child so women were ahead in the 'sperm wars' until this development. I suspect that aplication of the technology will not change much for the majority of folk.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Dignitas Cows?

The recent report that more than 20 cows appear to have committed suicide by leaping off high cliffs in a lemming-like fashion in the Swiss town of Lauterbrunnen ( deserves a little more analysis. The first thing to note is that 'suicide' is not common in the Animal Kingdom. Even the lemmings have been misinterpreted as their cliff-leaping is actually a reflection of their powerful migratory urge to local overcrowding and the topology of Scandinavia ('V'-shaped valleys, leading down to fjords). Animals may take risks when they have to (e.g. prey attacking predators that have cornered them or starving birds ignoring the cat) but they are mostly concerned with passing on copies of their genes to subsequent generations. It seems much more likely that the cows are falling from the ski-slopes because of some other factor such as erosion of pathways, a need to roam further to more exposed locations to obtain grasses or disturbance within their habitat. I really doubt that they have the 'blues'.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Seeing the Changes 227

In the thunder and lightening at Bynea, a Elephant hawk moth (Deilephilia elpenor) larva scuttled in the rain. In Loughor, Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) caterpillars carried on eating nettles and visited at home by a Flame carpet moth (Xanthorhoe designata).

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Conservation in the City

Paid a visit to north London where I was impressed by some of the attempts to incorporate the natural world into the fabric of the area. Stayed across the River Lee from Walthamstow Marsh Nature Reserve (a SSSI). The river is much used for house boats and sculling but is also popular with Moorhen (Galinula chloropus), Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mother Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). It clearly is also home to the Eel (Anguilla anguilla). The marsh was a site of early aviation developments with A.V. Roe. The Reserve now has boggy places with Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Branched bur reed (Sparganium emersum) and Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus). There are concentrations of Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Michaelmas daisy (Aster spp hybrids) but also lesser clumps of Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Marsh pea (Lathyrus palustris), Greater plantain (Plantago major), Annual wall rocket (Diplotaxis muralis), Lesser burdock (Arctium minus), White deadnettle (Lamium album) and Field woundwort (Stachys arvensis). Spotted a Harlequin beetle locked in an embrace with a Pine ladybird (Exochromus 4-pustulatus) and lots of Garden spider (Araneus diademata) activity. Dogs can be somewhat problematic (as is human disturbance) but the whole thing (including annual cutting) appears to work well. On the same visit, went to nearby Epping forest where all the trees are labelled and got good shots of a pink bracket fungus, Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum) and a Robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis). The whole development seems to have encouraged environmental campaigns such as one by Thames Water to encourage people to drink tap rather than bottled water.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Seeing the Changes 226

The Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was in flower in Gowerton and the NWCW. At the latter location (Penclacwydd), Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) was in acorn and some Elder (Sambucus nigra) berries were ripe. On the trees, the larvae of sawflies (probably Croesus septentrianalis) chomped away. Sadly, a Gold-ringed dragonfly (Condulegaster boltonii) had come off worse in a collision with a car. In Loughor, a scorpion fly (probably Panorpa communis) waited and butterflies (probably Common blue) had deposited eggs.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Birder's Bonus 57

In Bynea, there were gatherings of Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) on the telephone wires.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

It Doesn't Add Up!

The Swansea Evening Post has carried letters about the University endangering the Gower tourism trade by 'releasing dangerous adders' in that protected area of 'outstanding natural beauty'. This 'story' is based on an occurrence some 30 years ago. Lionel Kelleway was carrying out a PhD on adders (Vipera berus) at Swansea University that involved transferring wild snakes he captured near Reynoldston to a state of the art snake pit (unfortunately long gone) in the Botany Gardens behind the Wallace building. The adder (the UK's only poisonous snake) uses its poison to subdue its prey (rats, mice and frogs etc) and in defense when it feels under attack. The snake is also deaf and has poor vision so it is likely to strike if people or dogs charge through the undergrowth and virtually tread on it. There is no malice in this response and the snake actually wastes the poison that it could use in hunting. The adder actually has the widest geographical range of any reptile. It achieves this by the females becoming mobile incubators and giving birth to live young (rather than laying eggs, like most snakes). All Mr Kelleway did was to take the baby snakes back to the location where their mother would have released them. The snakelets are very vulnerable in early life and are likely to have a high mortality. He was consequently minimising the effects of his activities on the natural populations which are important to the specific ecology of the Gower. One is many times more likely to be killed by lightening than the snakes (their venom is about as toxic as bee sting- there is just more of it) and cars are actually the biggest danger to humans in that locations. The Gower ponies are also much more likely to bite tourists! Lionel was featured in a BBC Wildlife on One film suggesting that we totally misinterpret these animals ( Attempting to eradicate adders would be a very bad move for the Gower's ecology and for tourism.

Seeing the Changes 225

In Penclacwydd, the Common reed (Phragmites australis) is in seed. In Bynea, some interesting grasses appeared to be in flower. The Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was fully in flower in Loughor. It has taken forever but, in that location, spotted the first tiny larvae of the Peacock butterfly on nettle.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Planet as a Garden?

I have somewhat mixed responses to the up-dating of news ( that the National Trust nearing the end of its hi-tech survey (using GPS and even some DNA techniques) to record all its trees and major plants. The obtained data will be combined with similar information from other parts of the world, before being stored in a database in Chicago. I appreciate that the material and information might prove useful in terms of restoring threatened species to their original locations (the Victorians collected many plants from exotic regions and they now survive in parks, gardens and scientific plant collections) in the event of ecological 'disasters'. One hopes, of course, that Chicago will be immune from any such events. A concern, however, is the view that things are just perfect now. It was suggested that, in the event of an occurence like the 'great storm' of 1987 that blew down many trees in the south of England, one could replace like with like. This is a bit too much like gardening for my taste. Some of the effects of the tree felling eventually proved beneficial in a biodiversity sense. I do hope that things will sometimes be 'allowed' to change.

Mama Chicken?

Great excitement on BBC Breakfast Time about footage from Jersey Zoo showing a 'mother' Mountain chicken frog (Leptodactylus fallax) feeding its tadpoles on unfertilised eggs within a defended foam 'nest' ( The scene was described as 'alien' (I guess, and I may have a minor responsibility here, that this term now means anything that looks a bit unusual to the 'person in the street'). Parental care is, however, surprisingly common in fish, amphibia and reptiles as relatively modest improvements in the survival of young can greatly increase its parent's chances of passing on its genes to the next generation (so it makes good evolutionary sense to use resources for this where animals have the capacity). Somewhat more concerning was the report that chytridiomycosis (the fungal infection decimating amphibia populations in all parts of the world) has now reached the two remaining island locations (Dominica and Montserrat) of this very large frog, perhaps restricting its survival to zoos.

Seeing the Changes 1222

More changes in Bynea with the mass flowering of Water mint ( Mentha aquatica ) and a late appearance of Peacock butterfly larvae ( I...