For those who don’t follow The Ponking Chronicles, “ponking” is what Wil Heeney and John Lamin do when they go out in the field trying to identify as much wildlife as they can across all the groups. I met Wil and John through facebook and last Sunday I drove up to Lincolnshire to meet them in person, having been invited to come and look for an extremely rare beetle. I also got to meet Rowan Alder for the first time, another fellow coleopterist and pan-species lister.
I wasn’t actually blind-folded but after weaving through the country lanes of Lincs behind John’s car, I’m not really sure where we ended up. I was taken to the tree – a single standing dead oak of no more than 6 inches in diameter, shaded out by surrounding oaks and larches in a bit of ancient woodland that was cleared and replanted in 1959. It really doesn’t look like a very special place but it is one of only two modern localities for Platydema violaceum, a violet-coloured darkling beetle. We didn’t find it on this first tree but we did find one on the third tree we checked and it is a stonker!
There may only be three suitable trees in this bit of wood – I certainly didn’t see any others. And finding Platydema requires pulling bark off so it would be all too easy to destroy a significant proportion of the habitat. So if you want to see this beetle for yourself, and you do, you need to find your own somewhere else. Look under very loose bark, curling away from the trunk of small, standing, dead oaks. I was really surprised to discover that this is how John and Wil find it. It’s the sort of place I might not bother looking – where you generally just find a lot of debris, spiders’ webs and woodlice rather than interesting beetles. I expect the beetles are just hiding there during the day and at night they roam about on the tree trunks feeding, so torchlight searching might be an even better way to find it. We could almost have tested that prediction on the day as it got so dark and gloomy in the afternoon that I was using a headtorch to examine the beating tray!
It was really good to meet up and I’m really glad to have been given the chance to see this beetle. I tried to repay the favour by finding them a few other beetles by beating and sieving but it was mostly small fry which are difficult to do in the field. Best of the beetles were Phloiophilus edwardsii and Cis festivus, both off the same self-shaded lower branch of an oak with the fungus Peniophora quercina. I was also shown quite a few interesting fungi and four of them were new for me: Yellow Stagshorn Calocera viscosa, Fenugreek Stalkball Phleogena faginea, Brown Cup Rutstroemia firma and Tripe Fungus Auricularia mesenterica.
Check out Wil’s more detailed blog about the day and look out for the forthcoming paper by he and John in The Coleopterist about Platydema in Lincs.
Part 1 tells the story of 3 hours in the field with Chris Owen and Dave Gibbs. This story begins at the microscope a week later, keying out some millipedes from the beech wood.
Firstly, by sieving just a couple of handfuls of leaf-litter, I not only found Lithobius tricuspis (which is what I was after) but 30 or more small whitish millipedes. They must be very abundant at this site. I pooted 11 to give myself a good chance of getting an adult male, and Dave took a few as well. I guessed they were a species of Melogona in the field but under the microscope it was clear they had blunt paranota (bumps at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock) on the body segments rather than being smoothly cylindrical. Unfortunately they were all immature so I put them aside and moved on.
Secondly, I had found a single specimen of what I thought was Craspedosoma rawlinsii under a log. I’d called Dave and Chris over to see it before pooting it for later checking. As well as being one of the few species with blunt paranota, and quite a strikingly patterned species, C. rawlinsii is quite a scarcity, occurring in wet, shaded habitats. There were loads of the little whitish immatures under the same log so I guessed they were the same species.
That “Craspedosoma rawlinsii” turned out to be an adult male. It keyed out as Craspedosoma rawlinsii but the gonopods and paragonopods (the highly modified 8th and 9th pair of legs used in mating) looked completely different to the pictures. I only had two female rawlinsii in my collection for comparison but they were bigger animals (my Bargoed specimen is just 10 mm long) and clearly different in other respects. What else could it be? It clearly wasn’t Nanogona polydesmoides and I could rule out Anthogona britannica and Anamastigona pulchella from the gonopod illustrations in BMG Bulletin 12.
So I arrive at that “Eureka moment” – I’ve discovered a millipede new to Britain! But in reality, rather than leaping around my study punching the air, a large part of me is thinking I’ve probably just made some daft mistake – after all, I’m no expert when it comes to millipedes. It is time to seek advice. Next day, Steve Gregory confirmed it was something new to Britain and recommended asking Des Kime in France if he could put a name to it. Des replied straight away suggesting genus Rhymogona and that I send my photos to Jörg Spelda in Munich. Jörg too was incredibly prompt and helpful, and after I’d carefully dissected the specimen and photographed and sketched the gonopods and paragonopods, he was able to recognise it as Ceratosphys confusa Ribaut, 1955, currently regarded as a variety or subspecies of Ceratosphys amoena Ribaut, 1920. Time to punch the air!
Though it was brilliant that a pan-species listers’ field meeting had resulted in a first for Britain, and brilliant to get it named so quickly, I couldn’t help feeling gutted for Chris, who’d had a first for Britain pinched from right under his nose. But while all this was going on, Chris was busy returning the favour …
Chris recognised that those abundant whitish immature millipedes were not Ceratosphys amoena but ANOTHER millipede new to Britain! Something so mind-fryingly improbable that I hadn’t considered for a moment that they were anything other than immature Ceratosphys. I think only one millipede (Brachyiulus lusitanus) has been added to the British list from outdoors (i.e., excluding greenhouses) since 1996 so to turn up two firsts for Britain in one day is simply incredible!
By checking his reference specimens, Chris found that he’d seen both Ceratosphys amoena and “Chris’s millipede” a few times in his area but had identified them all as Craspedosoma rawlinsii, having never seen the true rawlinsii! He soon located some adult males and enlisted the help of Steve, Des and Jörg to try and name it. This one was more difficult and whereas we’d had a name for Ceratosphys amoena within a few days, this time we had to wait a couple of weeks. I even started to wonder whether “Chris’s millipede” could be new to science. After all, the Ghost Slug was discovered new to science in the same part of the world. Why not a millipede?
In the end, Des recognised “Chris’s millipede” from Steve’s drawings and photos as Hylebainosoma nontronensis Mauriès & Kime, 1999. So not new to science but quite a recently described species. Jean-Paul Mauriès has also seen the images and has written: “C’est magnifique de retrouver cette espèce au Pays de Galles!”
We’ll be writing a paper on these two millipedes new to Britain in due course. Chris has found both of them in several more sites since but also drawn a blank at a few other sites further afield: map here.
Keep an eye on the Pan-species Listing website for news of a return visit to the Valley of the Millipedes in 2015.
It is a tradition of the Telfer family to hold a biennial gathering in the Brecon Beacons. The naturalist in me wishes that this family tradition had come to be based in a hotspot for wildlife like Purbeck or the New Forest. But the pan-species lister in me knows that I can find species I’ve never seen before wherever I go. Last time I tackled the whitebeams of the Brecon Beacons. This time I got in touch with Chris Owen to see if it might be possible to meet up and look for two of his local specialities: the Ghost Slug Selenochlamys ysbryda and the harvestman Sabacon viscayanum. Chris gave it the thumbs up and I’m so glad he did because the three hours we had in the field on Sunday 28th September will be long remembered.
Jo, Bradley and I pulled in to the car park in Bargoed to meet Chris for the first time. Dave Gibbs was there too which was a nice surprise and made it a proper pan-species listers’ gathering. In emails, Chris had mentioned a few other highly desirable species that he might be able to show us and after dropping down the valley into a jungle of Japanese Knotweed we were soon seeing one of them, the flat-back millipede Propolydesmus testaceus, in good numbers. Ghost Slug took a bit more work, turning logs and stones and rummaging in leaf-litter but Dave eventually found a tiny one, before Chris located a couple of adults. They are uncannily like shelled slugs but from an unrelated family, with an extremely reduced shell and with a bizarre narrow foot like a monorail train. Bradley got this one on his “Poked it!” list.
Chris is very good on his slugs and also showed us presumed individuals of Arion distinctus, hortensis and oweni which gave Dave and I some dissection work for later. But with no sign of Sabacon, Chris decided to take us on to a nearby woodland where he was more confident of finding it. We just rolled a couple of logs and there it was! It’s one of the more unusual harvestmen and one with a restricted range.
Deeper into the wood, we searched in beech leaf-litter for the Lemon Slug Malacolimax tenellus and the centipede Lithobius tricuspis. We saw both species in some numbers. Dave and I were reeling with all these new species in such a short space of time, and all the while Chris kept mentioning other highly desirable species we might find: the three-pronged bristletail Dilta chateri, the slugs Arion cf. iratii and Arion cf. fagophilus (both recent additions to the British list) and the nemertine worm Argonemertes dendyi. My limited time was running out but I already knew that Chris’s patch was worth a much longer visit and that I’d be back to do it justice.
Driving home, I reckoned Chris had shown me 7 or 8 ticks, and I was well pleased with that. I had a few specimens to confirm or identify but no inkling at this stage that my tubes contained two species new to Britain! Read on in part 2.