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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.
This grasshopper has climbed to the top of a Wild Carrot stem, then hugged it tight with all six legs and waited to die. Grasshoppers never normally do that but this one was zombified by a fungus: Entomophaga grylli. Once infected, the fungus somehow made it climb and cling before killing it in a nice high spot from which it could disperse its spores. The fungus fruits from between the segments of the insect and in this photo, the fruiting is over and the fungus isn’t very obvious. But the position and pose of the grasshopper is diagnostic. And as far as I know, E. grylli is the only entomophagous fungus that infects British Orthoptera.
I saw this a lot when I was doing my PhD on Chorthippus brunneus so I’m pretty sure this is a common fungus. However, officially there are only 5 British records but I think it is just massively under-recorded: http://www.fieldmycology.net/FRDBI/FRDBIrecord.asp?intGBNum=47709
I still think this is one of the most fascinating biological interactions I’ve ever heard of. How does the fungus get the grasshopper to do that, when it is not even something in the normal behavioural repertoire of grasshoppers? Imagine if there were human infections which could change our behaviour like that …
The Knepp Estate in Sussex is my new favourite place in England. This is a landscape of woodlands, copses, rambling hedgerows, veteran trees, streams, ponds and lakes with herds of Longhorn Cattle and Exmoor Ponies wandering throughout. A place without fences, where a naturalist can wander through beautiful habitat to the accompaniment of Nightingales, where a picnic may be interrupted by a hungry Tamworth Pig coming grunting out of the undergrowth, where you can dream of what England would have been like in centuries past.
I was there on 1st and 2nd June, for a recording weekend organised by Penny Green of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, and to which the pan-species listers were invited. Inspiring company in an inspiring place and superbly hosted by Charlie Burrell, whose vision it was to “re-wild” Knepp.
Pan-species listers are, by definition, interested in all wildlife. But somehow on this occasion it all gravitated towards invertebrates on dung and carrion – luckily somebody brought some latex surgical gloves! Respite was provided by some lovely beetles on log-stacks and veteran trees, as well as some rare fungi.
With the field season in full flow, I’ve not had time to identify everything yet but this post is just to show a few photos. The rest may have to wait until calmer times!
Peter Hodge discovered several Pyrrhidium sanguineum on a stack of oak logs in the car park. It’s a red longhorn beetle newly arrived in Sussex from its historic range on the Welsh borders and was one of the highlights of the weekend. Torchlight searching of the log-stacks and surrounding tree trunks was productive with several Dromius agilis (an uncommon carabid), a single Corticeus unicolor (Tenebrionidae) and a single specimen of “Xyleborus species A”, a recently arrived bark-beetle (from the Orient?) discovered in Richmond Park by Peter Hammond and also known from Cowdray Park (discovered by Graeme Lyons and myself).
After a disappointing catch of moths on Sunday morning, most of the pan-species listers took the opportunity to join a fungal tour with Ted Green and Jill Butler. I think Ted quickly got the measure of his audience and showed us some extremely rare species.
Really enjoyed a weekend binging on biodiversity in fab weather and great company. I could do it every weekend, if only I could spend all week identifying specimens and photos and making sense of my notes! I learned so much from other people. My main regret is of having taken hardly any photos of people and landscapes … but it’s nice to have a reason to return.