The butterfly that stamped… Buglife sees off Royal Mail at West Thurrock?

The most ironic marketing gaffe ever, and then an apparent u-turn by Royal Mail: did plucky little conservation charity Buglife really pull off this campaign coup? For those who haven’t been keeping up, see this post – or here’s a summary: Royal Mail have been planning to build a depot on a marshland full of scarce invertebrates in West Thurrock, and invertebrate charity Buglife has been campaigning to stop them. But a High Court bid by the charity to have the development halted was rejected in February. Buglife have been considering whether or not to appeal.

Spider stamp © Buglife

Buglife made their own alternative stamps showing species threatened by the Royal Mail development

Continue reading The butterfly that stamped… Buglife sees off Royal Mail at West Thurrock?

Endangered fly rediscovered on unusual ‘crabitat’

In 1966, 21 specimens of a new type of fly were collected from an unusual habitat in the Caribbean by a fly expert called H.L. Carson, who was intrigued to find three separate species of fly all living solely on (and in) tropical land crabs – two in the Caribbean and one on Christmas Island, half a planet away. He speculated that the flies’ use of the strange ‘crabitats’ had evolved separately in all three cases. Since that time, nothing more has been seen of these curious creatures – until now.

Drosophila endobranchia

Male Drosophila endobranchia fly courting a female fly under the watchful eye of their host (a yellow morph black crab Gecarcinus ruricola) © Stensmyr et al

In 2007 another study was undertaken by Marcus C. Stensmyr of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany. Stensmyr and colleagues wanted to find out more about Carson’s flies and their odd way of life. Continue reading Endangered fly rediscovered on unusual ‘crabitat’

Invasion of the giant hornets… or is it?

There’s a buzz going about… and it’s created by a load of hornets. Regular readers will know about the Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia, which has been causing a bit of debate. Quite a few people emailed The Ranger or posted to the blog, worried (or interested) that they might have found a specimen of V. mandarinia in their house or garden. One of these was Ranger reader Dave Wall, who said:

I have just seen a massive hornet in my garden. It was hovering just above an ants nest. It only stayed around for a few seconds before flying off. I have seen ordinary hornets fairly commonly in and around our house, but nothing like this. It was not the European Hornet ! I would estimate it to be about 60mm in length. It’s bright yellow head and huge abdomen were the most striking features. We are in a very rural fruit growing area in Warwickshire.

The Ranger rather optimistically requested photos, and splendidly, Dave was able to comply. A few days later he gamely captured one of the beasts and took some great photographs – here’s one:

European hornet (c) Dave Wall

Dave Wall’s hornet – the ruler has been added in from another part of the photo, but the scale is correct.

We can see from Dave’s ruler that the body length of this creature is a somewhat less scary 35mm, which is well within the range of the European hornet V. crabro. Indeed, this is no Asian monster but our native European hornet, and as such is little to worry about. If you need convincing perhaps the simplest way to tell them apart is the colour of the thorax (the bit of the body between the head and the abdomen) which is very clearly brown in UK hornets (less so in other European races), but definitely black in the Asian one. This one, as you see, is quite gingery-brown. This is a worker although it’s on the big side. Queens and workers have seven segments to the abdomen, whereas males have only six. The queen can be up to 50mm in length, so quite possibly that’s what Dave saw the first time. The European hornet is actually less aggressive than the common wasp, and although it looks fearsome, is less likely to sting. And although it will nest in urban and suburban situations, it prefers the countryside. So you don’t need to be too worried, if you leave them alone they will probably not bother you and go away. Interestingly, it’s not just The Ranger who has had these enquiries. The Ranger’s correspondent Stuart Hine, who is manager of the Natural History Museum’s Insect Identification Service, explains more:

The Insect Identification Service at the Natural History Museum is receiving unprecedented enquires from the public about the insect. Most people are concerned that they are seeing the giant Oriental hornet or the Asian ‘killer’ hornet, probably due to recent media attention these species have received. But this is not the case. What people are seeing are queens of our native European hornet, Vespa crabro, our largest species of social wasp. Queen hornets are formidable looking insects with a body length of up to five centimetres. In the UK emerging queens are not usually seen until about early-mid May. However, the unseasonable mild spring we have experienced this year appears to have roused them from their slumber earlier with the first sightings in early March.

You can also see a great video of Stuart talking about this, with some (dead) examples of both the European and Asian hornets. Read this post if you think you have got an Asian Hornet.

Check out this massive wasp

We heard you wanted to see a picture of a simply gigantic wasp. So here it is.

The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia
The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia

 

Q. Have I got one of these?

A. Lots of people have emailed and commented (see below) worrying that they have a specimen of V. mandarinia in their garden or house. Unless you live in temperate or tropical Eastern Asia the answer is “definitely not!”. Continue reading Check out this massive wasp

Deep underground, something stirs… the ants awaken

A few weeks ago The Ranger was visiting Parkhurst Forest to inspect the excellent squirrel hide there when he came across one of the many sites where, later in the summer, Britain’s largest ants, the wood ants (Formica rufa) build their remarkable fortresses out of pine needles, tiny twigs and sticks. Much to his surprise he discovered that, even in the middle of March, the ants were already at work, starting to build their palace. A few hardy souls were already carrying vegetation to rebuild the pile.

A wood ant carries a pine needle (c) Cat James

This worker holds a pine needle in her strong jaws – one of many that will soon make up the nest. It was whilst the Ranger’s companion was taking this first picture that the observers suddenly became aware of something else that was going on – just a few centimetres away was a seething mass of ants, basking in some early springtime sunshine.

Wood ants basking in the sun (c) Cat James

The workers were out gathering heat for the nest – after a chilly winter they need all the warmth they can to get going and start building. The sun on their dark bodies must warm them up significantly. Certainly it seemed to have worked with these ants – they were very lively, as this close-up shows:

Wood ants at Parkhurst Forest (c) Cat James

Amazingly, within a few minutes of taking these pictures, in contrast to the warm springtime sun a hailstorm hit the forest and the photographers ran for cover under the nearby trees. The ants vanished – not surprising, as a hit from one of those hailstones would undoubtedly have done some damage even to these seemingly invincible creatures. No doubt within a few hours they were back on top, patiently dragging pine needles towards their nest, getting ready for a summer of fighting off the ants next door.

The Ranger eats Mopane worms – but avoids weasel coffee

Mmm! A party invitation arrived recently at Ranger Towers, inviting The Ranger and his companion to an evening meal… of invertebrates! Intrigued? The Ranger certainly was. With the possibility of combining two of his great interests, food and bugs, this was one night out that he certainly was not intending to pass up. The evening, hosted by the Isle of Wight’s most convivial archaeologist, proved to be a great success – at least, from the human point of view. Some of the arthropods involved may have had other views. The entire thing was inspired by the online shopping website Edible.com which sells all sorts of bizarre things which it asserts to be edible. Some are obviously novelty items, but others are less so. After a hearty meal of a conventional nature, The Ranger and the other guests gathered around the intriguing little hamper of goods from Edible.com and prepared to dive in. First on the menu were dried mopane worms – the caterpillar of Gonimbrasia belina, a moth found in much of southern Africa and an important source of protein and for millions of Southern Africans, as well as being of considerable economic importance. So, no novelty item here – people live on these things.

Mopane worms

Each dried caterpillar was about 5cm long, and The Ranger dove straight in and crunched one up. Let’s hope he never gets to live in the African bush because it was not good eating. ‘Like charcoal’ was how he described it. Wikipedia tends to agree, saying:

…the dried mopane worm has very little flavor and is some times compared to eating dried wood.

To follow was a dish of Giant Toasted Ants. The Edible.com website chirpily says:

The Guane Indians believe that these Ants have youth giving and Aphrodisiac properties…[they] taste similar to crisply fried bacon with an earthy taste, and make the perfect alternative party snack instead of nuts or olives!

Giant Toasted Ants

The Ranger had a good go at a couple of these little fellows, and it’s certainly fair to say that they are pretty big ants. Whether the rest of their description stands up to such scrutiny is doubtful, though. They tasted not dissimilar to the mopane worms, with the addition of little spiky legs. And if they had either youth giving or aphrodisiac qualities these were not immediately effective – which, on reflection, was perhaps not entirely a bad thing under the circumstances, as it could well have disrupted the party. Finally, the piece de resistance, a scorpion in a vodka-flavoured lollipop. No mumbo-jumbo about the life-giving emanations and the remote tribes this time – just a scorpion in a lollipop.

Scorpion in a lollipop

Crunchy? Yes, certainly. Sweet, well, kind of. The website helpfully suggests:

…take them clubbing or you can enjoy them at home.

It’s always something to bear in mind, if you were wondering about the etiquette of scorpion-lollipop consumption. A most enjoyable and adventurous evening was had by all – and later exploration of the Edible website revealed one treat which could have rounded off the meal but, not being invertebrate-based, was not on offer this time: Weasel Coffee. Edible.com coyly says:

This Coffee is first eaten by Weasels which then regurgitate it, no one knows why they do this.

Intrigued, The Ranger had to investigate this unlikely tale. It turns out to be almost true, except that the coffee isn’t eaten by weasels, but by the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphoditus); and it is not regurgitated but defecated – yes, that’s the other end – and that some people do know this. It also seems almost certain, given the scarcity and high price of the real Weasel Coffee, that the stuff on offer is in fact the comparable Trung Nguy√™n’s ‘Legendee’ coffee, which does not involve any weasels at all. But who would want to spoil such a great story?

Giant cave spiders found down malodorous hole

A photo story for your entertainment. On a training day this week, The Ranger and his colleagues discovered a small hole in the ground near a little-used public footpath; on investigation the hole led to an intriguing tunnel.

A hole in the ground

A hole in the ground… but what’s inside?

Imagining himself too sensible or, perhaps more honestly, acknowledging himself a little more portly than his companions, The Ranger declined to go down – but when they returned with tales of massive spiders, his interest was kindled. On examining the photos they brought back he was delighted to identify Meta menardi, the cave spider, a fairly common but hardly-ever recorded spider which lives almost exclusively in complete darkness, and so is rarely seen and often thought of as very rare. So, the next day, armed with camera and slightly more appropriate gear, he arrived on site and prepared to enter the grotto.

Preparing to descend

Preparing to descend

The first thing that he noticed was a tiny rocky tunnel with water in it, and a nice plastic bag floating there, too. The second thing was the smell – that place stank.

A plastic bag in a hole

The Ranger was glad he’d shed all his jumpers and fleeces, and was wearing his slippery Barbour oilcloth coat, as he then had crouch, walking bent-kneed in Groucho Marx-style, to squeeze down the tiny, slimy tunnel, splashing through the stagnant water. You’ll probably have spotted that he also swapped his normal hat for a more expendable one! Manipulating both the torch and the camera was a challenge, but whilst doing that he spotted a tell-tale sign of Meta menardi – the characteristic egg sac suspended from the ceiling, on a stalk about 20mm long:

Meta menardi egg sac

Stunning! After dropping one torch into the filth and having to retrieve it with his bare hands, The Ranger finally came face to face with his quarry – the slow-moving gentle giant of the UK spider world; with a body about 15mm long, and a awesome leg span of about 60mm (more than two inches).

Meta menardi (c) Karl Dyson

Meta menardi (c) Karl Dyson

On further inspection, there were probably a dozen mature specimens, and probably some immature ones. The Ranger gazed at these cave-dwellers in wonder. What a treat!

Emerging

Eventually, the stench and crouching became too much, and the spell was broken. The Ranger had to reverse clumsily away from his new spider friends and re-enter the real world. He was delighted with the success of his mission. But there was one task remaining!

That smells!

That smells!

The spiders probably don’t get many visitors, but some passer-by had let a plastic bag fall into their cave, and The Ranger brought it out as mitigation for having disturbed the silent darkness. He emptied the filthy water from the bag, and found it to be one of the rankest-smelling objects he’d ever encountered. It didn’t help that he was covered in the slime himself, either. Far from the nearest bin, he had to carry the reeking bag at arm’s length back to the car park, shunned by his companions. At last he was able to pay his debt to the spiders, and put the bag in a bin; then the party could retire to the pub to sip restorative shandy and boast about the size of ‘the ones that got away’…

Scientist: spitting worms have really weird sex

Years ago The Ranger was being trained to be a zoologist. No, it’s nothing to do with zoos. The students were gradually marched through all the different phyla of living things, and occasionally got to draw one, and even more occasionally got to cut up a dead one in formalin. With the benefit of hindsight, readers will be able to conclude that The Ranger did not go on to become a zoologist or other scientist – this laboratory life did not please him. All he really wanted to learn about was his beloved spiders, and they got about 3 hours sometime in the middle of the second year. But it wasn’t all bad news. One of the by-products of this very thorough grounding in obscure invertebrate phyla was the discovery of an entirely new group of animals – those animals created specifically to illustrate some useful zoological point. Such an animal was the proto-chordate amphioxus, another was the neotenous salamander, axolotl. If you’ve heard of either of these creatures before, The Ranger will wager that it was during a biology lesson of some sort. A prime member of that exclusive set of illustrative animals was the velvet worm, Peripatus. A bizarre intermediate between annelid worms and the jointed arthropods such as insects and crabs, this animal looks like nothing more than a great big caterpillar. It is a member of the phylum Onychophora, the velvet worms, also known as spitting worms and walking worms, all three of which describe well some unusual characteristics of these odd animals.

Velvet worm

All The Ranger used to know about onychophorans was that they looked a bit like caterpillars. Zoology training didn’t extend to finding out much about what these creatures actually did. But, my, how much more interested we all would have been if it had – these worms are pretty bizarre! Onychophora live in groups, defend territories and subdue their prey with sticky goo. Research at the University of Arizona now suggests that the worms are more closely related to spiders than anything else. Attracted by the spider connection, when The Ranger was reading about this he was intrigued by the comments of Prof Nicholas J. Strausfeld of The University of Arizona:

“The animal looks simple, but the brain is not simple. Onychophora have pretty complicated behaviors. Colleagues in Australia have discovered that they have fascinating rivalry behaviors, interesting group behaviors and group interactions. Their ecology and genetics are fascinating, and they have really weird sex.”

Really weird sex? Tell us more! But tantalisingly, Professor Strausfeld does not tell us more. A good scouring of the web later, and a few clues emerge. A tease from this German original article translated by machine into English:

As previously mentioned comes within the kind Paraperipatus a penisartige structure forwards, however yet in function to be observed could not, while with many Australian kinds with the males special structures at the head exist, those the sperm cells transfer to likewise serve seem.

Transferring sperm with their heads? Yes, that’s a bit curious. But we’re all grown-ups here, surely there’s better than that. Wait – what’s this?

…the male in the diameter about a sperm cells package at the flanks or on the back of the female, large, puts down a millimeter. Special one Amoebozyten cells mentioned, in the blood of the female are contained, separate thereupon enzymes off, aimed the skin underneath the sperm cells package and at the same time its covering dissolve. As consequence sperm cellses by these arrive produced “wound” into the body concavity of the female and penetrate from this from to the ovaries, their wall it penetrieren. In this way they arrive at the Eizellen, to be now fertilized can.

Now that does sound weird. But does it really mean what it seems to say? Sperm burns its way into the female? Is this an artifact of translation? Apparently not – the English Wikipedia says this, which is more comprehensible but infinitely duller:

Velvet worms have an unusual method of transferring sperm. The male onychophore attaches a sperm packet to the female. They tend to be fairly indiscriminate where on the female they attach the packet. The tissue beneath the packet dissolves and the packet melts into the female’s body.

Yeah, it’s confirmed as weird. What must it feel like? The worms seem to like it, as our German text goes on about a different onychophoran species:

Both animals are so firmly connected in this mating position, that even the handling did not lead by the examining scientists to a task of the mating position.

The Ranger is delighted to have at last gained a tiny insight into the crazy sex life of the creatures he half-heartedly drew all those years ago in a dusty laboratory. These colourful, lively, bizarre, animals are unphased by the examining scientists – and no doubt, if they knew a few of the curious habits of our species, the worms themselves would shudder and waggle their own stumpy little legs in disapproval. On reflection, how weird we all are.