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Into the Valley of the Millipedes, part 1

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.

Ghost Slug Selenochlamys ysbryda, the only species with a Welsh scientific name? Described from Wales in 2008 but thought to have been introduced from the Crimea.

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.

The harvestman Sabacon viscayanum under a log showing the extraordinary pedipalps. They're well camouflaged and they kept absolutely still for a long time after the log was rolled over.

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.

Pan-species listing at Knepp

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!

Hedobia imperialis (formerly Ptinomorphus imperialis), a distinctive and very memorable beetle from the woodworm family. Nationally Scarce (Nb).

Coleophora on Blackthorn. The possibilities seem to be coracipennella, prunifoliae and spinella: hopefully it will rear through to adult.

Lateral view of the same Coleophora.

Putoniella pruni galls on Blackthorn Prunus spinosa. A gall that's not in the first edition of the FSC galls book but was identified for me via the pan-species listers' facebook group.

Korynetes caeruleus. Always good to see a clerid. This one was beaten from a flowering Field Maple near a red-rotten oak; a Nationally Scarce (Nb) saproxylic. We also saw a few of the similar Necrobia violacea on carcasses (and Sarah and Jon had also found N. violacea on a dead Fox at Denbies Hillside the day before).

Calambus bipustulatus, another saproxylic beetle beaten from flowering Field Maple. This is also Nationally Scarce (Nb) and I'd only seen it once before - at last year's PSL meeting at Parham Park.

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).

Corticeus unicolor. The second Sussex record of this Rare (RDB3) beetle after it was discovered at Cowdray Park by Graeme Lyons and myself in 2011.

Dromius agilis, a tree-climbing "ground" beetle associated with ancient parkland and wood-pasture. This one was found by Neil Fletcher.

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.

Ye Olde Greene Man, a.k.a. Phellinus robustus. On oak. One of about 20 trees known to support this fungus in Britain.

Phellinus populicola on poplar. Another rarity with an important population at Knepp. Especially happy to see this as it was one Jo gripped me off on in Buckinghamshire a couple of years ago.

Ted Green and Phellinus populicola

Agathidium nigripenne: one of the delectable leiodids. This was one of three tapped from dead poplar branches. It has no conservation status but I'd only seen 5 singletons prior to this.

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.

No stone unturned

With much less of my time available for natural history since 24th December, I’m making the best of it by staying local and broadening my taxonomic horizons. In fact, today I have spent the whole day studying the wildlife of our back garden and didn’t even make it down to the far end until just before dark! But I have literally left no stone unturned. I have been spurred into action by Andy Musgrove’s “1000 1ksq challenge“: the challenge being to find 1000 species in your chosen 1km square during 2013. It’s a pan-species challenge: invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, fungi, the lot.

I’ve been seriously impressed at how many species people have already racked up for their squares, with Seth Gibson topping the table at the end of January with a mighty 248 species. I’ve also been seriously impressed at the way so many of the participants are taking a truly pan-species approach and boldly tackling Britain’s biodiversity in its entirety. So, the 1000 1ksq challenge has aroused my competitive spirit, and shamed me into trying to identify things that I normally ignore (like lichens, mosses, earthworms, springtails, etc.). Here are today’s results.

First a few photos, then my species lists for today.

My first attempt at identifying a springtail. Originally named as 'probably Pogonognathus flavescens' but Dr Peter Shaw has kindly put me right (23rd Nov. 2015) that this is probably Tomocerus minor (very common), though the teeth on its jumping organ would need to be checked to be sure. Pogonognathus flavescens was way off the mark - it is a northern species, yellow-brown in colour.

Yellow Slug Limacus flavus

Deroceras invadens Reise, Hutchinson, Schunack & Schlitt, 2011. A new name for the species previously known in Britain as Deroceras panormitanum.

Tandonia sowerbyi

A terrestrial flatworm Microplana terrestris. This was a tick, but through administrative oversight: I'm pretty sure I've identified it before.

An overwintering Woundwort Shieldbug Eysarcoris venustissimus (was E. fabricii).

I did manage to identify three species of earthworm from the garden but this was one of at least two additional species that I failed to name.

Just the ‘famous five’: Armadillidium vulgare, Oniscus asellus, Porcellio scaber, Philoscia muscorum and Trichoniscus pusillus/ provisorius.

Polydesmus coriaceus
Cylindroiulus britannicus

Stigmatogaster subterranea
Geophilus insculptus
– a tick! Common and widespread species.
Lithobius microps

Terrestrial flatworms
Microplana terrestris – identified by comparing to Brian Eversham’s photos on flickr. Pretty sure Brian has shown me this species in the past but it wasn’t on my list, so a tick!

Earthworms: identified using the iSpot keys. A completely new group for me and I was amazed at how many species occur in the garden. I identified three but saw at least two others which defied confident identification.
Lumbricus castaneus Chestnut Worm
Lumbricus rubellus Redhead Worm
Eisenia fetida Brandling Worm. A banded worm, common in our compost bin, and curiously malodorous when handled.

Slugs: the MolluscIreland site is very useful for slug identification, with Roy Anderson’s expert ID tips and his photos.
Limacus flavus
Tandonia budapestensis
Tandonia sowerbyi
Deroceras reticulatum
Deroceras invadens (was panormitanum) – thanks to Christian Owen for bringing me up to date!
Arion hortensis/distinctus
– still not sure about these.
Arion rufus – with a bright orange foot fringe. Exhibiting a rocking response, which should be less strong than Arion ater though I’m in no position to judge that.

Oxychilus cellarius
Discus rotundatus
Lauria cylindracea
Cornu aspersum
Hygromia cinctella
Vallonia costata
Vallonia excentrica
Trochulus striolatus

Leistus spinibarbis (Carabidae)
Notiophilus biguttatus (Carabidae)
Tachyporus hypnorum (Staphylinidae)
Lobrathium multipunctum (Staphylinidae)
Xantholinus linearis (Staphylinidae)

Eysarcoris venustissimus

probably Tomocerus minor (thanks to Dr Peter Shaw)

Bryum capillare – leaves became “corkscrew-like” when dry.
Tortula muralis

Common Frog

Brings me up to a mere 117 species for my square.

Recent ticks … and a tragedy

Nearly at the end of my field season so I should be able to reactivate my blog now. I’ve recently swapped my Panasonic Lumix FZ-38 superzoom camera for a FZ-48 so that I can fit it with a macro adapter. After some truly neanderthal attempts to use my new kit, I eventually sussed it out with help from Mark Skevington, so here are some of my ticks from the last fortnight.

Lopus decolor: a common mirid bug of grassland but the sort of drab mirid I've tended to ignore in the past. Seen in Luton on 14th August.

Lygus pratensis. Still officially Rare (RDB3) but it has spread and become much commoner. My first meeting with it was in Luton on 14th.

Calosirus terminatus. A Nationally Scarce (Nb) species of Wild Carrot. Found by suction sampling, Luton on 14th.

Paralaoma servilis (aka Paralaoma caputspinulae and Toltecia pusilla). I actually ticked this snail in Kent earlier in the year and then found it again in North London on 16th. The ribbing is reminiscent of Vallonia costata but that species is creamy white. First recorded in Britain from a plant nursery in Luton in 1985, and I think still establishing.

Isochnus sequensi. One of the hopping weevils (Rhamphini) but without conspicuously fat hind femora, though it can still hop. Disovered at Canterbury in 1952 and given Insufficiently Known (RDBK) status in 1992, it has spread across much of the south-east on Crack Willow and is on its way to being common. Seen in North London on 16th.

Killarney Fern gametophyte in the deep, damp shade of a rocky stream gully in Alfoxton Wood, Somerset on 20th August. It's the green felty stuff.

Great Scented Liverwort Conocephalum conicum sensu stricto, a common species. At the Killarney Fern site.

Corizus hyoscyami. I have been waiting to see this species for a while but it wasn't until a visit to Salisbury Plain on 21st August that I finally connected, thanks to Dave Gibbs who swept it and called me over.

In a 1972 paper on British ground beetles (Carabidae), Carl Lindroth predicted that Harpalus griseus could occur in Britain, perhaps as a migrant, but could be overlooked as a small Harpalus rufipes. And in July 1995, Lindroth’s prediction came true when a single specimen of Harpalus griseus was found at a moth trap in Wimbledon. And then in 2008, Marcel Ashby found three by pitfall trapping in an arable field margin on Croxton Hall Farm, Thetford. I was working nearby in 2009 so I spent quite a bit of time revisiting this field margin, as did Marcel, but despite finding a load of other interesting beetles, including Ophonus laticollis, Norfolk’s first Zabrus tenebrioides for over 100 years, and Norfolk’s second record of Xantholinus laevigatus, there was no further sign of Harpalus griseus. But this year James McGill decided to check it out again and found a single Harpalus griseus on the night of 20th August, the 5th British individual. On a fairly warm Thursday night, Dave Buckingham, Andy Schofield and I joined James to take another look. We did find another singleton Harpalus griseus but tragically it was dead.

Harpalus griseus, aka "The Brazilian"

The pronotal shape is a good character to separate from H. rufipes, which has slightly concave pronotal side-margins towards the base, and more distinct, less blunt, hind-angles. On the underside, the last three abdominal segments provide the clincher: whereas rufipes is punctate and pubescent at the sides but smooth and hairless in the middle, griseus has a stripe of pubescence down the middle only. Or to put it another way, it has a Brazilian.

Harpalus griseus underside by James McGill, illustrating the medial pubescence on the abdominal segments

Harpalus rufipes underside by James McGill

I am pretty gutted to have only found one dead griseus on the night, despite collectively checking what must amount to well over 100 Harpalus rufipes. But at least we know that it has been established in that field for at least five years now.

Maiden voyage of the Autokatcher!

I received the custom-made Autokatcher net from B&S Entomological Services during the week, in time to give the Autokatcher its maiden voyage around Parham Park during the first Pan-species Listers’ Field Meeting on Friday. I’ve just put the meagre haul of eight beetles that I caught on the first spin under the microscope and, incredibly, the first one I look at is Litargus balteatus (Mycetophagidae). A first for Sussex and a new beetle for me!

The Autokatcher

Colin Welch summarised the status and distribution of this beetle in a 2009 paper. 14 specimens were found in Sherwood Forest in 1907. It wasn’t seen again until 1982 when 3 were found in Leicestershire, followed by one in Norfolk in 2003, another one in Norfolk and one in Cambs in 2007, one in Huntingdonshire and one in Dorset in 2008. The first Irish record was of one in Co. Armagh in 2010. No doubt there have been a few other records as yet unpublished. It’s a non-native species from North America and despite a slow start, it seems to be spreading in Britain now.

The test run of the Autokatcher was a complete success and I’ll post full details soon for anyone else who fancies getting one. But meantime here’s some footage of the maiden voyage!

Welch, R.C. (2009). Litargus balteatus Le Conte (Mycetophagidae) outdoors in Cambridgeshire (Vice County 31, Hunts.). The Coleopterist, 18, 130.


A non-native endemic!

I love seeing a beetle in the field and not having a clue what it is, other than the certainty that it is something I’ve never seen before! Graeme Lyons found this amazing weevil at Parham Park, West Sussex on Friday …

The Fern Weevil Syagrius intrudens playing dead

After a suitable amount of colourful language, I suggested Graeme googled for an image of Syagrius intrudens – and it’s a match, subsequently confirmed under the microscope. With another few minutes’ work with the sweep-net targeting bracken, we had recorded four individuals. But we were left wondering how it could be that Syagrius intrudens has no conservation status when none of the 18 assembled pan-species listers had ever seen it before?!

Syagrius intrudens is definitely a rare species, previously known from six sites: Co. Dublin (Dublin Botanical Gardens), West Cornwall (Tregithy Woods area), East Sussex (Leonard’s Lee), East Kent (Hothfield Common), Glamorgan (Bridgend) and Guernsey (Fermain Bay). As a flightless species, it must be getting around with the help of gardeners moving fern plants around.

Syagrius is an Australian genus with 8 species known from the coastal plain between Sydney and Brisbane. As a non-native species in Britain it is ruled out from inclusion in the Red Data list but Syagrius intrudens has never been recorded away from Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands, and Parham Park becomes the seventh known site for the species in the world! As Theodoor Heijermann and Mike Morris have already written, we should surely be giving this fabulous weevil some conservation status in Britain. It may never be discovered in its native range, and could even be extinct in Australia?

Pan-species listing milestones

Jonty Denton’s still not letting up, with 289 species added since mid-May taking his record-breaking list through 10,500 to stand at 10,535.

Dave Gibbs isn’t ready to submit an update yet but has added about 250 species during 2011 and reckons he’ll get to 10,000 by about the end of 2012.

Graeme Lyons and Martin Harvey have both broken 3,500 during the year. Graeme retains a slender lead.

Jon Newman, Steve Gale and Sarah Patton have all had very good years and all broken through 3,000 during the autumn. Sarah has pulled well clear though, by finishing the job of gleaning records from old notebooks to take her list to 3,327. Jon and Steve are neck-and-neck on 3,013 and 3,012 respectively!

Seth Gibson has just passed his target of 2,500 and has his sights set on 3,000.

Mark Skevington will be passing 2,000 before much longer.

Most of the pan-species listers have been spurred into tackling new groups, and fungi especially have been a rich source of new species, along with mosses, liverworts and beetles. Despite this fine example set by others, I seem to have spent most of the year concentrating more and more on beetles. Despite the fact that I’ve only seen a little over half the British and Irish beetle fauna and there’s still almost 2,000 species to go, it does seem to be getting harder and harder to find new ones – and more and more rewarding each time I do!

Confessions of a pan-species lister …

Why do I want to see a big list of species and what makes me think other people might also want to be pan-species listers? I’ve had to think hard about the answers to these questions in recent months following the Twat-gate affair and various thought-provoking and satirical blogs from the North Downs and beyond.

I get a thrill every time I see a species for the first time: it’s a tick! It’s a unique and unrepeatable moment, whether you go on to become intimately familiar with the species or never see one again, the first encounter is usually the most memorable.

8th June 2008

I have to identify the things I see. I know there are naturalists who can appreciate wildlife without feeling the need to identify it. And I admire those who can enjoy nature for its purely aesthetic appeal. I try to do this when I’m abroad, where I’ve little hope of being able to identify everything, but not very successfully. For me, identifying wildlife is as much of a buzz as seeing it, if not more so.

I love making discoveries. So I’m always keen to be out looking for wildlife and keen to scrutinise what I find to check for anything unusual. I’ve discovered 5 beetles new to Britain so far. One of these (Acupalpus maculatus) had already been collected on several occasions but everyone had overlooked it as A. parvulus, assuming that they’d found a species already on the British list. Even in my utterly unremarkable back garden, I have discovered numerous beetles new to Bedfordshire.

Acupalpus maculatus by John Read

With pan-species listing, I’ve found a way of enjoying the thrill of seeing things for the first time, of making discoveries and finding rarities. In some ways it’s the opposite of twitching. I don’t have to chase after anything: I can just go out in the field locally whenever I like and be sure that I will see something I’ve never seen before! Despite a certain nostalgia about twitching birds in the 80s, I’m mightily glad to be able to get my nat hist kicks much closer to home now. And at the same time, most importantly of all, I can make a contribution to conservation and to the promotion of natural history.

All-round naturalists are important. There are about 70,000 species in Britain and most are poorly-known and poorly-recorded. Lots of birders in recent years have been spreading their interests into butterflies, dragonflies, moths, orchids, cetaceans and many other groups, generating lots of valuable records. I think it would be a terrific boost to natural history and conservation if this trend continues into ever more neglected groups of British wildlife. I have entered all 50,000+ of my invertebrate records into my MapMate database, all of which I make available to national recording schemes, county records centres, etc.

I was interested in wildlife from a young age but, like most keen naturalists, it was birds that first got me really fired up. I used to love everything about twitching: ringing the grapevine, driving through the night, service stations at 3 am full of familiar faces, dawn in some new and distant part of the country, once-in-a-lifetime birds from Siberia or North America. I’ve hitched to many parts of Britain for birds including Shetland and Scilly, and for a while in the 80s I didn’t miss much. But to be a good twitcher you need commitment, deep pockets and a flexible lifestyle. I am not a good twitcher but twitching has given me some great experiences (and still occasionally does!). It was a brilliant gateway into nat hist for me and a superb training ground for developing rigorous ID skills. But I really wish I’d cottoned on to the rest of biodiversity at a younger age. I didn’t identify a single beetle until I was 22!

Conservation in Britain is a democracy. For much of the early part of the 20th century it was a two-party system and many of our NNRs, SSSIs and Wildlife Trust reserves are primarily of botanical interest. But in recent decades, the ruling party has been the birdwatchers. They do their best to cater for other wildlife but inevitably birds come first. Ultimately, the more people in this country who care about each and every species of British invertebrate, the more chance we have of conserving them and their habitats. And they need all the help they can get.

I wish I’d been born to be the next David Attenborough. I wasn’t, but if I can help a few more people to get more enjoyment out of Britain’s wildlife and to put more back in, I will be a happy man.

Pan-species listing: the race for 10,000

There’s a good article in today’s Sunday Telegraph about pan-species listing and our two top listers: Jonty Denton and David Gibbs. There’s a few good laughs in the article but it is also a tribute to their contribution to British natural history and conservation. And there’s an encouraging editorial here.

For more about pan-species listing and to see the full rankings, click here. And to read the recent BirdGuides webzine article, click here.