Saturday, 30 April 2011

How to solve a problem like Mycologia

Behold the bacteria of the genus Prochlorococchus, the most abundant organism on this planet and largely responsible for the production of the majority of organic matter in the ocean. Without it the foodchain would collapse and we’d likely have a (bigger) mass extinction on our hands.

So when did we discover Prochlorococchus? Was it those hoity-toity Victorians? Or the stern-faced biologists of the Fifties? No, incredibly it was as recently as 1988. Have you ever heard of it? No. (Me neither).

That’s because many of us (including me) only want to hear and learn about the bigger life forms on Earth. Case in point: did you know that this week scientists mapped out the biodiversity of British soil for the first time? Or that other scientists are finding out the biodiversity of human bellybuttons? Nope.

Don’t worry, I’m the same. If someone tells me they’re a microbiologist my brain races to find something to say or an interesting question to ask. Yet, if they were a herpetologist or a shark wrangler I’d be positively salivating. It should be that, as people with a shared interest in life on Earth, microbiologists and I should have loads to talk about. It troubles me, being sizist in this way.

There’s a serious point to this you see. We’re seeing a drought in young people wanting to study the small stuff, and lack of public interest is a factor behind this. In 2008 we saw reports that were only eight fungi experts left in the whole of the UK. And sadly I have a feeling that one of them died last year.

This is serious. If we don’t have the experts here in the UK then other countries stand to make the most out of scientific discoveries (remember penicillin?). And there’s a conservation viewpoint to this too. If our experts understand the infrastructure of things like soil or leaf-litter then the potential to wield this knowledge to create stronger ecosystems has fascinating and encouraging ramifications.

The sad truth is, though we produce excellent big animal conservationists, we’re a long way off understanding and protecting the smaller stuff. I’d like to see British scientists at the forefront of this micro-frontier.

What can we do to create more micro-zoologists then? Three words. Invest in microscopes. Every classroom should have a handful.

Invest in microscopes

I'm actually not that sizist. Although I have trouble exciting myself about bacteria and fungi I love the minutae of pond life. In fact my earliest memories of looking through microscopes were pond-based.

One of the first things I remember looking at was phantom midge larvae. To the normal eye they look like nothing more than translucent, and very nippy, maggots. Get them under the microscope though and you can see everything that makes this animal tick. Look carefully and you’ll see a balloon puppet brain, and a balloon puppet digestive system (including a little balloon puppet gizzard) all contained within a larger balloon puppet body. Very weird. And it’s angry. Oh so angry.

As my 1880 edition (get me, eh) of Natural History Rambles: Ponds and Ditches puts it:

“Their quietude is like that of an eagle, for like that bird, they are watchful and ready to pounce in a moment on any object moving beneath them. Our phantoms are, I fear, not so innocent as phantoms should be… a glance at the cruel armature of the mouth will satisfy you of this fact.”

It's incredible how microscopes can bring alive something most people (including me) would barely register while walking by a pond, or any wildlife habitat. Microscopes got me, and a generation of pond-enthusiasts, really interested in smaller life. And that was then, when microscopes (and slides) were unwieldy, inaccessible and relatively expensive.

No more is that the case. I mention above the three words “invest in microscopes”. Now how about three letters: USB.

Praise be to USB

Thankfully microscopes are now more accessible and cheaper than ever and can easily plug into any laptop. Personally I’m pleased to see how many primary schools have these now (microscopes used to be restricted to secondary schools).

The ones I use are Dinolight microscopes (which range from £100 - £300), and they are the only ones I know of that have microscopes with a polariser (which means you can see clearly into water, without the light of the microscope reflecting off the water surface back into the lens). The microscope stands seem really pricy though (£50!), so since mine broke I’ve just been holding the microscope with my hands, which is actually fine.

If you (or your school) haven’t got this sort of money handy then there is a cheaper alternative which I got to try out recently. It’s called a Veho microscope and it comes with a stand, and at £36.00 it’s very reasonably priced. Although it doesn’t have a polariser I must say it was almost identical in quality to many of the more expensive USB microscope models on the market. I’m going to get a handful ready for the summer term…

Oh of course, once you’ve got your microscope it takes a while to get into the mindset of using it. You have to always be looking out for opportunities to see things up close. Hangnails, tick larvae off the cat, split ends, dirty jeans, ladybird jaws, harvestman heads and the hairy bottoms of backswimmers. All of these (and more) have been under the glare of my microscope in recent weeks. It’s just a case of always remembering it’s there.

With microscopes more freely available in schools we might well see more up-and-coming conservationists with their eyes on the smaller things. I hope so.

Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll have an enough fungi experts to fill a football team. Hopefully many more. Maybe we’ll be celebrating a BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner with a penchant for the cellular. It’d be great if so.

“Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope.” said someone. Hopefully having more accessible microscopes will help more people to hear them.

Funding round-up

There's lots going on this week if you’re looking for ways to fund school wildlife projects…

Deutsche Bank Small Grants FundUp to £5000 available for voluntary and community organisations undertaking projects for education and community development in areas of London.

John Jarrold TrustGrant for community and voluntary organisations undertaking a variety of charitable activities in Norfolk, including those relating to the environment and education.

Grassroots Grants Grassroots Grants is a three-year programme that is funded by the Office for Civil Society and administered locally in the London Boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Haringey, Havering and Redbridge by the East London Community Foundation. The grant helps voluntary organisations, including schools.

Community Greenspace Challenge
The GrantScape Community Greenspace Challenge is a c. £500,000 grant programme designed to support local communities in creating enjoyable new outdoor greenspaces, including by transforming existing unloved areas. This grant scheme specifically designed to benefit the environment both for people and for wildlife, supporting people’s health, well-being and access to nature. Grants are available for amounts between £20,000 and £75,000

Right, that’s it for me this week. Here comes the busy summer term. Brace yourself wildlife, we’re coming for you…

All the best, Jules

Monday, 18 April 2011

Nature’s amazing feats (appearing now at your local service station)

Student exchange trips at our school were hell. Weren’t they for every pre-pubescent teenager? Well, the bit where you had to go abroad was. Living with a complete stranger, with little idea whether, and to what degree, his non-English-speaking family were maniacs.

Thankfully at our school we also had exchanges with people who could speak the same language - namely Americans and South Africans, on tour for football and rugby. It was one of these visits that woke me up to something striking about local nature.

Here’s the scene: it’s a small kick-about at the park. Us vs. the Americans. We’re one-nil up and the the ball goes into some long grass. One of our American opponents rushes in after it. Seconds later he’s back, without the football, screaming and clutching his bare legs in shocked agony. Stinging nettles. The look on his face was one of panic, his eyes flinging across each of our faces, seeking reassurance that he wasn’t actually going to die a long drawn out death there and then. He was utterly shocked. Well, I thought. Interesting…


It was my first recognition of the fact we have plants that can defend themselves just as well as the plants I had seen on the Life of Plants (which was on TV at the time). And this bloody plant was everywhere now I think about it (weirdly, they’re also native to North America – perhaps our American friends didn’t get out much).

Nettles. A stinging plant, armed with tiny barbs capable of deterring animals. Under a microscope these barbs are actually hairs (called trichomes), but if you ramp up the magnification you’ll see that each hair is more like a hypodermic syringe, each one loaded with a tiny dose of histamine.

And they can grow to triffid size (2 metres if you’re asking), just like those ones on telly.

I’d never really thought of this plant as an impressive spectacle, a fascinating example of adaptation to foil herbivores, yet here it was before my very eyes, deterring humans from another continent.

Urtica dioica: Stinging bastards*

“European wasp!”

I got this awe-struck feeling again a few years later at a service station, when watching Australians encounter our wasps for the first time. Their tourist bus had parked next to a bin, from which wasps were coming to and fro, and the foreign passengers were viewing the bin like there was some sort of vicious bear in there. Those that did pass chose to run, and did so with great cries of “European wasp! European wasp!”.

Could they really have been Australians, you ask? A nationality possibly more at home with venom than any other - could they really be fearful of our lowly wasps? But then, to be fair to Australians, our wasps are actually quite scary and have a wily resourcefulness about them when you think about it. Plus, they are quite inquisitive (dare I say nasty seeming) at times, unlike their family’s representatives in other climes (like Australia).

Just like with stinging nettles, we’re lucky to have such impressive feats of evolution so close to us (and our bins)…

Are European wasps really that impressive? Well, yes. It’s a resourceful and highly social insect that we’ve become rather blasé about – in reality we have a neat little product of evolution we’re talking about here. A species capable of building nests the size of a VW Beetle (or a Beatle come to think about it). A social insect capable of building such intricate nests, armed with knowledge of one thing: an inordinate fondness for hexagons. An insect with a yearly cycle of societal profligacy and societal decay (picture those drunk wasps at year-end). We could learn a lot from them.

Just like stinging nettles, wasps are wildlife examples worthy of any TV rainforest drama.

So, wasps and stinging nettles. These are impressive feats of nature, and I suspect that that if we looked at them with fresh eyes every now and then (like my exchange colleagues or Australians) we’d be better able to inspire our UK audiences about the impressive nature we have outside the back door, or in school grounds.

Sometimes it takes someone from another country, screaming wildly in a service station car-park, to remind you.


Allow me to term a new phrase then. Incredimals: animals that provide us with fascinating insights into the complexity of nature’s diversity, but that we overlook because, well, they’re all over the bloody place. Here’s five off the top of my head…

Woodlice – turn over a bit of wood and you will see these animals, crustaceans (we all remember this from school). What’s always impressed me though is that this crustacean is such an important decomposer – yet it’s an imposter, an aquatic astronaut (terranaut?) still at the top of its game in The Age of Insects. Bravo.

Woodpeckers – here you have a beak evolved for picking insects out of bark, but that later evolved into a tool for drumming, for declaring territory and sexual prowess. I love how sex has picked up on this behaviour and used it to meet its ends. The noise certainly carries better than some birdsongs.**

Aphids – sex is pretty central to the theory of natural selection, but aphids like to mix things up by also practicing parthenogenesis. If one finds a nice uninhabited plant, then they multiply to conquer. You would if you could.

Swifts – animal migration is an incredible thing but don’t forget that swifts, maybe more than any other bird, have evolved to become masters of the air - they eat, drink, mate and sleep in the atmosphere above.

Mallards – sure, peacocks tails are impressive examples of sexual selection, but you can see the same iridescence on mallards at this time of year, and for the same reason. Very nice too.

So there it is. Let us come together, as people who love wildlife, and spread the word about these incredible examples of evolution, that you can find just outside the backdoor.

Turn off the telly, log-out from YouTube and scream it from the rooftops: “European wasps! European wasps! European wasps!…”

Egg hunting…

So what else is happening this week? I’ll tell you: newts.

If you have a garden or school pond now is great time of year to find out more about the newt species that may be present. The best way to do this is with a torch. Go out before bed and carefully scan the pond edges with your torch looking for this amphibian in the midst of its courtship rituals.

Unlike the raucous mating of the common frog and common toad, newt mating behaviour is a much more measured affair. Males stand proudly in the open, near the bottom of the pond and when they see a female they carefully waft pheromones towards her with sensual flicks of the tail. Patient observers may even see the gentle transferral of a spermatophore from male to female. He drops it, she picks it up. The female uses this packet of sperm to fertilise her eggs internally, before laying more than 500 eggs individually on submerged pond plants.

You can report your sightings to The Great Easter Newt Hunt –

Funding opportunities for wildlife projects…

Here’s some funding schemes that might help you with school ground development projects. Check the deadlines though – they’re approaching…!

SITA Trust Enhancing Communities Programme - Fast Track Fund (Max. Value: £ 10,000) -

Support is provided for community projects in qualifying areas of England, Scotland and Wales. The type of projects supported include improvements to nature areas and community spaces (allotments, school grounds, village halls).

Bernard Matthews Fund (Max. Value: £ 2,000)

Financial assistance is available to voluntary and community groups for projects that address a clear need and where they will make the most impact. I’ve never used this one – if anyone has used this scheme, and would like to provide feedback please do so below!

Lastly, I just wanted to apologise for the gap in blog posts recently – I have no excuses, except excuses. I hope to get back in the swing with updates each week or two!

Enjoy what nature’s got out there for you – this blog has been written to a wonderful melodious background provided by dunnocks, blackcaps, swallows and blackbirds in the backyard. What a lovely time of year this is.


* It doesn’t really mean that. The genus name Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning 'to burn,' because of these stinging hairs, and the dioica means 'two houses' because the plant usually contains either male or female flowers.

**What I really love is that at some point in the woodpeckers’ early evolution, female proto-woodpeckers must have started getting more interested in the noise of male woodpeckers pecking the bark, rather than their ‘songs’. Can any ornithologists elaborate perhaps? Their early birdsongs must have been truly awful if so.