Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uninvited house guests

The rain might be lashing down outside but there's still plenty of wildlife to track down much closer to home. Unless your house is hermetically sealed and doused in deadly chemical cleaning agents, any or all of these could be lurking in the shadows.

If you settle down to read a good book and the punctuation seems to be moving around, then you could be looking at one of these tiny booklice. They are not much bigger that a full stop and feed on fungi that grow on damp paper, and also eat the glue that holds the pages together. Old damp paperbacks are prime habitat but they also like nothing better that feeding on wallpaper paste behind loose wallpaper. If your wallpaper makes clicking noises, it may be because they are headbutting it during their courtship.

Silverfish. You might have these most ancient of insects, that move like greased lightning, in a damp corner of a kitchen cupboard where they like to feed on starchy foods like flour.

Silverfish Lepisma saccharina are covered in tiny scales that rub-off easily, making it easier for them to wriggle out of the grip of a predator - which might go some way to explaining why they've been around for 400 million years.

This is the firebrat, the silverfish's larger and hairier cousin. It likes warmer conditions and used to be common in bakeries. Give yourself a pat on the back if you provide a home for these - they are not very common.

And finally, the daddy long-legs spider Pholcus phalangioides. Whatever you do, don't throw these out of the house as they can't survive anywhere else. They are humans' constant companions, only ever found inside our homes and outbuildings in our northern latitudes. They are useful to have around, preying on other household invertebrates - even on the fearsome house spider that comes into our homes during cold weather. This daddy long-legs spider is showing her maternal instincts by carrying her eggs around in her jaws.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The man who turned down the job of naturalist on HMS Beagle

On August 13th. 1831 Reverend  John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, received a letter asking him to recommend a suitable gentleman ship’s naturalist to accompany Robert Fitzroy, Captain of HMS Beagle, on a circumnavigation of the world.

Henslow, the finest field botanist of his day, would have been the prime candidate but family responsibilities stood in his way. His next thought was to nominate his brother-in-law, Reverend Leonard Jenyns but he declined in favour of tending to the spiritual needs of his parishioners.

So by the end of August Henslow had offered the job to Charles Darwin, his student protégé at Cambridge. The rest is (natural) history.

But what if Henslow, a creationist until the day he died in 1861, or his cleric brother-in-law Leonard Jenyns, had sailed with Fitzroy? It seems unlikely that they would have come up with a theory of evolution. If Charles Darwin’s date with destiny had never arrived it would have been left to some other scientist, in another place and at another time, to provide the theory that underpins all of modern biological science. 

But Jenyns, in his own way, made a lasting contribution to science too – a contribution that is very relevant to the turbulent climatic times that we live in.

It can be found in this little book, A Naturalist’s Calendar, published in 1907 and edited by Francis Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son.

Stay-at-home Jenyns, who by this time had changed his name to Leonard Blomefield in order to claim an inheritance, was curate of Swaffham Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire from 1823 to 1849 and during that period kept detailed phenological records of natural events in his parish. While Charles Darwin, whom remained a life-long friend, was pondering on Galapagos finches and giant tortoises, Jenyns was recording the annual date when local frogs spawned or primroses bloomed.

Phenology, the study of the timing of natural events, is an important science today because observing the changes in ways in which the life cycles of plants and animals respond to climate provides some of the best evidence that the climate really is changing. Jenyns’ meticulous records, for scores of familiar plants and animals, record the earliest and latest dates of phenological events and also the mean dates. They provide a reliable datum point for comparisons in today’s warmer world.

Nature's Calendar the citizen science phenology web site where we can all monitor the natural changes brought about by climate change, is a modern day manifestation of Jenyns' work.

When Jenyns made his observations it must have seemed like a simple pastime for a parson-naturalist with time on his hands – the kind of observational recording that is often today sneered at by experimental scientists. As it has turned out, the results of his curiosity and dedicated recording have become highly relevant to our modern predicament.

I’m typing this on a mid-December evening when the temperate outside is warmer than many a spring day, after one of the warmest Novembers on record. I wonder what Jenyns would have made of that. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Vere Lucy Temple (1889-1981): a forgotten, gifted entomologist and illustrator

These very attractive plates are from a book called Butterflies and Moths of Britain, written and illustrated by Vere Lucy Temple and published in 1945. 

I bought a copy in a second-hand bookshop about fifty years ago and have always liked the way that the plates were drawn, with the coloured butterflies portrayed against line drawings of their food plants, usually with the larvae and pupae.

It's difficult to find much information about Temple, who was born in 1898 and is thought to have died in 1981. She specialised in natural history and animal painting and seems to have been in demand in the 1920s and 1930s, when she exhibited in leading galleries.

She wrote and illustrated seven books and illustrated five others. All her original work seems to have been auctioned in numerous lots after her death. On the strength of these attractive butterfly and moth illustrations, she deserves to be more widely known. 

Vere Lucy Temple was a Fellow of the Royal Entomology Society, which explains why the text of her book is so full of perceptive detail, but it's also a very lively, personal and engaging account that conveys her passion for butterflies. 

In her preface she acknowledges help and advice from several eminent lepidopterists and scientists of her day and also refers to what was, then, cutting-edge research on insect vision and behaviour.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Waxing lyrical about dung fungi

After a lifetime as a professional scientist, I have to admit that scientific research papers constitute one of the most tedious forms of literature ever devised. The science might be exciting but the words are usually unspeakably dull. That isn't just my opinion .... here's what Nobel laureate James Watson, discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, had to say about the matter:

“There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper”.

Francis Crick. 1994. The Astonishing Hypothesis

But it wasn't always this way.

This is a line illustration of the dung fungus Pilobolus, taken from this research paper:

W.B. Grove (1884) On the Pilobolidae, with a synopsis of the European species, and a description of a new one. Paper read at a meeting of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical society, 17th. April 1883.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case I much prefer a thousand words because I have never read a scientific publication that so vividly conveys the author's sheer delight at a discovery. 

Here is his description of the fungus (bear in mind that in Grove's day scientific papers like this were routinely read aloud to an audience. For fullest effect stand tall, preferably in evening dress, and read it aloud while grasping your lapels or making extravagant gestures. Reading scientific papers was performance art in those days)

"Imagine an oval translucent vase of exquisite outline, carved from a single diamond, not indeed of the finest water, but brought from South African Fields, tinged with a delicate yellow colour. Place beneath this a gracefully curved slender stem, of crystal clear, and where they join let a circlet of the purest gold lie coiled within the tube. Then let a beautiful and limpid light radiate from every part. To enhance its effect, take a piece of blackest jet, shaped into a perfect hemisphere. Polish its surface until it shines like a Venetian mirror, and gently poise this sooty crown over the mouth of the transparent vase. Let glistening strings of orient pearls hang around in graceful festoons, and imagine the whole of this priceless work reduced in size till the total height exceeds not a twentieth of an inch. To complete the contrast, thickly strew these fairy jewels over the half-dried surface of a cake of cow dung, and you have imitated nature as far as your powers allow. To mortals this treasure is known by the name Pilobolus, and the particular species I have pictured is called Pilobolus kleinii."

Click here for a movie of Pilobolus and click here for a photograph and information and you'll see why he found it so beautiful.

W.B.Grove wasn't just a describer of nature - he was an experimentalist, gifted with curiosity too. Here's what he did next.

"Once, when I was examining a tuft with a lens I heard a faint sound proceeding from another tuft six inches off, and at the same instant felt myself struck near the middle of the forehead; the blow was accompanied by a sensation as if a tiny drop of water had fallen there. On looking in  a glass I could see a little black sporange [sic] adhering where it struck, and it remained there for several hours. I immediately took the patch of P.kleinii from which it came (and I should mention that the stems of these specimens were bent almost at a right angle under the influence of the one-sided light beneath which they had grown) into an empty room, where I placed it with the upper portions of the bent stems pointing towards the window. I then laid a number of sheets of white paper around it, in the same horizontal plane; carefully closed the door and left it for an hour. This was just about midday. On returning I found all the sheets covered with a multitude of black dots, which a lens revealed to be the sporangia; each sporangium was surrounded by a brownish stain, produced by the liquid ejected at the same time. On measuring the distances to which the sporangia were thrown I found that a majority lay between three and four feet, but nearly a score lay at a greater distance than four feet, and the farthest that I could find at a distance of 4ft. 10in. When we consider that the utmost height of the individual fungi from which these bomb-shells proceeded did not exceed one tenth of an inch, and that therefore the last mentioned sporangium was thrown to a distance of nearly 600 times the height of the plant which threw it, we can form some idea of the enormous force exerted in this instance. It is as if a man of average height were able to throw his own head to a distance of nearly two thirds of a mile."

As I say, they don't write 'em like that anymore. I rest my case.

Something strange slithered here

This beautiful little packhorse bridge carries the footpath over Thorsgill beck beside Egglestone abbey in Teesdale. It probably dates from the 17th. century and countless feet must have passed over it since it was built. But when you stand on the top there is evidence of something else that slithered over its stones, around 300 million years ago.

One of the capstones carries this strange serpentine marking. Some long-extinct invertebrate left its trail when it wriggled across the tropical sea floor back in the Carboniferous, before the sediment turned to limestone.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Durham Cathedral in Lego Bricks

If you happen in be in Durham city take a moment to have a look at this wonderful model of the cathedral built from Lego bricks, which is well on the way to completion.

Click here for more information

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is all about medlars, the fruit of Mespilus germanica. There is only one tree that I know of in Durham city and this year it produced a bumper crop.

For the first time ever we've been able to collect enough to make medlar jelly, a conserve that was popular in Victorian and Edwardian times and is said to go very well with cold meat. 

Medlar is an attractive small tree, with large white flowers in spring and bright autumn foliage that stays on the tree well into November. It's not native to the UK and comes from Asia Minor but it's certainly hardy enough to survive our winters up here in North East England. The trees are usually grafted onto quince, hawthorn or pear rootstocks.

The fruits resemble giant hawthorn berries and don't look very appetising. The French call them cul de chien, dog's arse; I'll leave you to decide why ........

Aside from their appearance, the other problem with medlars is that you can't eat them until they have softened - well, rotted really. The process is called bletting and our medlars are doing just that in our conservatory as I type.

Despite their appearance, I rather like the taste of these strange fruits. The texture of a well bletted medlar is like fudge and the flavour is like stewed apple with a hint of lemon. Traditionally they're eaten with port but they are said to go well with whiskey too - but then, so do most things. I'll be checking out this combination very soon.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Ground-breaking Experiments with Grass

Sometimes second-hand book shops can produce some real gems. A few years ago I found this copy of one of the most notable early 19th. century agricultural works, Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis, hidden in a scruffy, nondescript binding

George Sinclair, the author, was gardener to the 6th. Duke of Bedord at Woburn Abbey from 1807-1825. Under direction from the Duke, and with scientific guidance from Sir Humphry Davey (one of the most famous chemists of the age and inventor of the Davey Lamp, designed to reduce the incidence of explosions on coal mines) Sinclair laid out a large grass garden at Woburn, designed to compare the yields and nutritive qualities of over 200 grass species, and also designed to see how they responded to different soil types and fertilisers.

The introduction to my copy (an 1840s reprint of the 1829 4th. edition) describes how important this research was:

"The time has been in this country (writes the anonymous author of the introduction) when providing  sufficient forage for livestock, in winter was a matter of the greatest difficulty, and great losses were sustained, and many advantages given up, on account of the absolute want of winter fodder. Old turf, suitable either for grazing or the scythe, was supposed to be a creation of centuries; and that a farmer who wished to lay down a meadow in his youth, must see the end of his ‘threescore years and ten’ before he could possibly possess a piece of pasture capable of keeping a score of sheep, or a couple of cows."

He then mentions that " ... farmers, who, becoming slowly sensible to the bad practice of trusting to the sweepings of hay-lofts for their grass seeds …. had begun to purchase pure seeds. " but the varieties and quantities available were limited by the difficulties in collecting them in large quantities. The first to become available was rye grass (Lolium perenne) because its seeds were relatively easy to collect, soon followed by meadow cat's tail Phleum pratense and Cock's foot Dactylis glomerata

Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis describes the results of Sinclair's experiment to compare the agricultural merits of forage grasses and is illustrated with attractive hand-coloured lithographs, showing key recognition features of the most important species described. The first edition, published in 1816, used pressed specimens of the grasses but was far too large and expensive to be of any use to those who would benefit most from the knowledge, so subsequent editions were more compact and illustrated with lithographs.

Aside from the scientific results, Sinclair's text sometimes contains some fascinating snippets of information that give an insight into lost aspects of rural life. He mentions, for example, that culms of crested dog's-tail grass Cynosurus cristatus (above) " are valuable for the manufacture of straw bonnets."  

Embedded image permalink

Anyone walking today through a meadow with an abundance of this grass might notice how stiff it's culms are (see picture above) - certainly suitable for plaiting into hat material. 

There's an interesting article on straw hat makers of the day on the Jane Austen web site - click here to view. - although I suspect that the hats that Sinclair refers to are much more rough-and-ready affairs.

The original introduction to the first edition spells out the motives for Sinclair's work:

"Grass..........vulgarly forms one idea; and a husbandman, when he is looking over his enclosure, does not know that there are three hundred species of grass, or which thirty of forty may be at the moment under his eye............... Of the one hundred and thirty-three distinct species and varieties of grass, natives of the British isles, many are of no value to the farmer, while others constitute the foundation of his riches …."

..... and it was these that Sinclair identified in his ground-breaking comparative experiments. He identified the species that were most productive and most nutritious but, perhaps more importantly, recognised that combinations of species in a pasture or meadow can be more productive that single-species monocultures - a finding that has been reinforced by modern research. Darwin referred to these findings in his Origin of Species and in 2002 a research paper in the journal Science (see below for reference) described Sinclair's research as the 'world's first ecological experiment'. 

Sinclair, who conducted much more agrobotanical research (including work on weeds, which I'll write about later) , was highly esteemed in his day and became a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He died at the young age of 47, in 1834. 

There's one more interesting insight in my copy of Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis, pasted inside the front cover. The book was originally part of the lending library of Newcastle upon Tyne Farmers' Club, and the notice sternly warns of the penalties and draconian fines for not returning the book on time.


A.Hector and R.Hooper (2002) Darwin and the First Ecological Experiment. Science 295: 639-640.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


In tropical rainforests strangler fig seeds germinate in the tree canopy and send roots downwards until they reach the soil. Then, as their roots grow they strangle the tree that originally supported their seedling stage. You can watch a video of the whole process by clicking here.

Here in our temperate woodlands we don't have anything quite that dramatic, but we do have honeysuckle that sometimes strangles trees from the ground upwards.

When honeysuckle seeds are voided by birds that eat the berries they often germinate close to trees that the birds were perching on. If they can't twine around the tree honeysuckle stems will twist around each other, becoming mutually supportive as these three have, forming a rope-like trunk but ....

... if they can find a sapling tree to coil around, so much the better. This one coiled around a young rowan and its grip is so tight that it has already distorted the swelling trunk of its host, which is still growing rapidly, so .....

.... if you fast forward a few years, this is the result. This swelling rowan trunk, distorted into a spiral by the tight grip of the honeysuckle, has grown out over the climber's stem, so that it's now embedded inside the trunk of the rowan along part of its length. The rowan has engulf the honeysuckle, but both are still growing well.

One day this might make a good walking stick!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Unusual Bloomers

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about this November-flowering dog rose that we found blooming amongst the rose hips, on a bush growing at Hawthorn Dene on the Durham coast.

The recent record-breaking spell of warm late-autumn weather has extended the flowering period of many plants and even induced some to flower for a second time. Recently we've found holly in bloom and also elder flowers opening alongside berries on the same branch, as well as the usual late-blooming suspects like yarrow, hogweed and clovers. 

This rose was one of two fully-open flowers on a bush covered with ripe rose hips on leafless stems. None of the other roses around it had any flowers. Presumably this individual plant was genetically predisposed to reacting to warmer-than-normal November temperatures. I've seen burnet rose flowering at Christmas in a couple of mild winters but have never seen this kind of behaviour in dog roses.

It seems unlikely that these late flowers will produce seeds because there were no bee pollinators around and the plant had almost no leaves to provide sugars to fill seeds, unlike ...

... the late-flowering yellow-wort that was blooming at the same site. These flowers were being visited by small fly pollinators that are quite numerous at this time of year and especially attracted to yellow flowers. This species is a fast-growing annual and I suspect that the late-bloomers that we saw might have been second-generation plants themselves, benefitting from the unusually long growing season this year.

Like many annuals, yellow-wort is one of those plants that can grow large and carry scores of flowers in good soil conditions but can also survive in tiny pockets of soil, producing very small plants with just a few flowers and setting seed rapidly when conditions are challenging. Thanks to those fly visitors, the tiny plants flowering in limestone fissures that we found might well produce some viable seeds before winter finally bites.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fungi in Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland

Found some lovely toadstools in Auckland Park at Bishop Auckland last week. I'm pretty sure this is the trooping funnel Clitocybe geotropa - this was the largest in a ring of eleven under a beech tree. Beautiful arrangement of gills under that funnel-shaped cap.

I think this must be hairy curtain crust Stereum hirsutum .......

.... and this is probably the same species, perhaps paler because the rain had washed out some of the pigment.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Visit to a tropical coral reef

Bollihope, just south of Frosterley in Weardale, can be a bleak place at this time of year. Acres of brown heather and withered bracken, with a few small conifer plantations. But if you follow some of the burns that flow down into the bottom of the valley you soon find yourself standing on a tropical coral reef, albeit a 325 million year-old one.

This is the subject of Thursday's Guardian Country Diary

This is the rock known as Frosterley marble, which is not a true marble at all but a fine grained, dark limestone full of fossil Dibunophyllum bipartitum coral. In this slab you can see one almost complete piece of the horn-shaped coral in longitudinal section and two pieces in transverse section. The contrast between the fossil and the stone matrix becomes much greater when you make it wet or polish the surface. 

The state of preservation of the coral structure is astonishing.  This particular specimen is embedded in a slab that must have once been a small waterfall until the burn changed course. It has been worn smooth by flowing water.

Medieval craftsmen spent months cutting and polishing the rock by hand to achieve a smooth, marble like black surface that revealed the fossils in this detail. Their work can be seen in pillars of the Chapel of the Nine Altars in Durham cathedral and in the pillars in the Bishops' Palace at Auckland castle in Bishop Auckland, as well as in smaller objects like the font in Frosterley church. 

It's also in the flagstones on the floor of the bar of the Black Bull pub in Frosterley.

Frosterley marble floor decoration in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Friday, October 30, 2015

Beside the Seaside: What Mr. Gosse did on his holidays

Over the years I've acquired a small collection of Victorian and Edwardian natural history books. This one, without doubt, is my favourite.

The book is an account of the Gosse family's six weeks 'holiday' spent in the summer of 1854 on the Welsh coast at Tenby. Each chapter is written in the form of an extended letter home, to an un-named correspondent addressed as Dear E-, describing days spent exploring the caves and rock pools for marine life. Each chapter is dated, beginning on June 22nd.1854, with the last on August 17th.

It's written in an elegant, chatty style, brimful of enthusiasm, overflowing with natural curiosity and packed with natural history information and astute observations..  

"PhilipHenryGosse,1855" by Maull & Polybank - Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PhilipHenryGosse,1855.jpg#/media/File:PhilipHenryGosse,1855.jpg

It's Gosse's infectious enthusiasm that I found so charming about this book. From the beginning he's so clearly excited at the prospect of a summer holiday on the coast. Tenby was recommended to him 'as the prince of places for a naturalist' by fellow naturalist and Islington resident James Scott Bowerbank, a leading authority on the sponges that are found around Britain's coast.

Gosse begins by describing their seven hour journey on the Great Western Railway, marvelling at the 'rushing flight of the express-train, fifty miles an hour.....' and then describes the landscape from the train window as they leave London and steam through the countryside.

As they pass Stroud, a major centre for cloth dyeing at that time, he notices 'canals and rivulets tinged blue' with the industry's effluent. They pass the rocky cliffs of Chepstow, meander along tracks through the Wye valley until they can see the 'ever-widening [river] Severn', and pass the ruins of Neath abbey.

There are reminders that this was the height of the industrial revolution. Between Neath and Swansea they see yellow sulphurous smoke from copper smelting furnaces 'like a huge pall over the earth' that turns to sulphuric acid when it rains and then pass hills of 'coaly-looking material - copper slag,' before Worms Head in Carmarthen Bay hoves into view and they finally roll into their destination.

Then comes the excitement of arrival. "Narberth Road and Tenby" shouts the guard as he runs along the train; and up we jump, snatch up umbrellas, cloaks and carpet bags...."

Even then their journey isn't complete, because they need to catch the coach to the Coberg hotel in Tenby: ".... off we dashed, four in hand, four capital horses as ever drew a vehicle". he writes that on that summer day in June as they speed past "oaks and ashes over our heads" heads, past foxgloves, dog-roses, campions, honeysuckle.

And they arrive in time for tea, and for a visit to the seashore before bedtime. 

"The tide was out, enabling us to reach St.Catherine's Island, and to peep through its perforated caves, and to take such a glance at its honeycombed rocks, and dark weedy basins, as was full of promise for tomorrow".

During this 'holiday' Gosse spent an enormous amount of time on the seashore, and then even more examining his finds, writing about them and illustrating them. The book's lithographs are exquisite. This (above) is the barrel jellyfish Rhizostoma pulmo, whose swimming he describes as being like 'the pulses of an enormous heart'.

Gosse was the son of a miniaturist portrait painter and seems to have inherited his father's eye for fine detail, an invaluable asset for a naturalist. His portrayal of transparent animals and their internal organs is exceptional, as in the case of this light bulb sea squirt (above).

He became a skilled microscopist, which allowed him to explore the minute planktonic stages of marine life: this (above) is the larva of a squat lobster and ....

... this is the bryozoan Bowerbankia, attached to part of a frond of the red seaweed Corallina officinalis. You can view a modern photograph of the same animal here.

Gosse's greatest passion for seashore animals was reserved for sea anemones - the anthozoa or 'flower-animals' - many of which are described in the text. The book frontispiece (above) features them, as does ....

... the final plate. There was a reason for this.....

Gosse, an astonishingly prolific author, was already working on his book about sea anemones, entitled Actinologica Britannica: a history of British Sea-Anemones and Corals that would be published in 1860. He needed help in collecting specimens that he could illustrate and this (above) is an advert, bound into the back of the book, which is an early example of what has now become known as 'citizen science' - enlisting the help of an informed public to collect information about the natural world for scientific purposes. 

You can download an e-book copy of Actinologica Britannica , with its exquisite illustrations by clicking here. It's a classic of Victorian natural history publishing.

Gosse did more than anyone else to inform the public about the wonders of marine life, both in his books and also in the field. At the end of his book there is another advert, this time sounding out interest in a Marine Natural History Field Class that he planned to run.

Gosse's 'holiday' came during a period in his life when he was suffering from severe headaches and his trips to the coast were, in part, intended as a sea cure. If this book is any indication, his six weeks in Tenby were hardly a holiday. The amount of seashore natural history that he crammed in was prodigious and the adverts show that he had much more planned.

Philip Henry Gosse (1856) Tenby: A Sea-side Holiday. John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, London can be downloaded in various e-book formats by clicking here

You can also read and download a superb, entertaining  account by Margaret Davies of Victorian Naturalists in Tenby by clicking here. It was originally published in The Pembrokeshire historian : journal of the Pembrokeshire Local History Society in 1981.