Monday, March 6, 2017

Cuttlefish 'bone'


This cuttlefish 'bone' - the internal shell of this common cephalopod - was washed up on Blast beach at Dawdon on the Durham coast today.
















When I was a kid living in Sussex I often saw these lovely animals swimming at East Head, in a warm sandy bay in Chichester harbour where I went sailing, and I frequently found their 'bones' on the shore. We used to collect them for our pet budgerigar, as a calcium-rich dietary supplement. 

I haven't seen cuttlefish 'bones'  very often here on the North East coast.


The first thing that strikes you when you pick these objects up is how light they are. They function as buoyancy aids and are full of tiny air chambers. You can find some wonderful images of their microscopic internal structure on this Wikipedia site - click here.




































Cuttlefish illustration from Shell Life by Edward Step (1901).Frederick Warne & Co.

Visit the ARKive web site - here - for more information about these animals and for some lovely movie clips

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Biodiversity in a kitchen waste recycling bin


Today's Guardian Country Diary is all about the contents of our garden kitchen waste compost bins.

We have been recycling all of the vegetable waste from the kitchen, together with garden weeds and fallen leaves, for about 30 years now, using three black compost bins. During that time we must have produced tons of compost that has all been dug back into the garden, which is now a very fertile plot.

These are some of the organisms that do all the recycling work.
















The first organisms to colonise the vegetable peelings and fruit skins are fungi. I suspect that this might be a Penicillium mould, which often grows on the skins of rotting citrus fruits.
















This is the rather lovely pin mould, Mucor mucedo, with glassy hyphae and sporangia that look like beads of polished jet.



















This, I suspect, is Botrytis, a common coloniser of dead vegetable matter.

















Currently there are thousands of these tiny moth-flies (also known as drain-flies or owl-midges) in one of the bins.

















They breed in vast numbers during the early stages of composting, when the bins are less than half full....























.... and provide a food source for some of the predators that live in the bins, like this small spider that has an egg cocoon under the bin lid.


















The bins are home to a lot of slugs, that consume decaying plant material and are useful all the time they stick to this diet, though in spring they become a nuisance if they consume seedlings in the garden. 

To minimise that risk I raise plants in posts until they are large enough to show some degree of slug resistance when I plant them out in the garden.
















A black snake millipedes, that feeds on the decaying plant material and probably on some of the fungi too.

















As the composting proceeds and the bin contents become drier the numbers of these minute springtails increase. When you lift the lids they pole-vault into the air, using the special structure called a furcula under their tail end.














And finally ...... the most important recyclers of all, brandling worms Eisenia fetida. When composting is at its peak there are hundreds of these in each bin. 





















Much of the compost that ends up in the garden has probably passed through the digestive system of one of these worms.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Feeding frenzy



















When we were walking along Whitburn beach in Sunderland this afternoon I noticed a dense flock of about 150 black-headed gulls on the tide line and as we got closer I could see ....


... that they were all picking something off the sand, in a real feeding frenzy.
















A closer look revealed many thousands of these tiny white maggots washed in by the incoming tide.




































Here they are - the larvae of the seaweed fly Coelopa frigida.




































About a week ago we had a spell of warm weather that must have been perfect for these flies to breed in the big piles of kelps and wracks that form natural compost heaps on the beach.

Then two days ago Storm Doris arrived, creating mountainous waves that would have washed the rotting kelps and the fly larvae into the sea.

Today the tide brought them back in again in enormous numbers on this short stretch of beach, providing a fantastic feeding opportunity for the gulls and also for waders like turnstones, sanderlings and redshanks.

As the old saying goes, 'it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good'.