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Nature Nuggets

Things you might not know about the natural world...
 


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Dung Beetle

If, as a dung beetle, you push a ball in front of you, you are likely to go round in circles back to the dung heap again, only to find that another beetle pinches your ball. To go straight you need a point of reference. For dung beetles, the Milky Way provides this.  They can sense the stars but even on cloudy nights as long as the strip of the galaxy is discernable, they can keep straight. When safe, they bury the ball, mate underground and lay eggs in it.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

 


Leafy Sea Dragon

Leafy sea dragons are more showy but weedies are perhaps better dancers as can be seen in this great video. (Much better viewed at full screen) They are found off the south coast of Australia and belong to the same family as sea horses and pipefish. The female produces up to 250 bright pink eggs but the males incubate the eggs, carrying them on a sticky bit on their tails for several weeks.
 


Capricorn

InThe Wonders of Instinct, Jean-Henri Fabrè tells the amazing tale of the Capricorn beetle (Cerambyx miles). Its larva spends three years tunnelling around in an oak tree. The beetle when hatched will be far too big to use this tunnel and it cannot chew through wood. So how will it escape? At the end of its journey, the larva seems to have a plan. “It stubbornly digs and gnaws to the very bark, of which it leaves no more intact than the thinnest film, a slender screen. Sometimes, even, the rash one opens the window wide. This is the Capricorn's exit-hole. The insect will have but to file the screen a little with its mandibles, to bump against it with its forehead, in order to bring it down”  It then uses wood shavings to pad the walls, “with a fine swan's-down, a delicate precaution taken by the rough worm on behalf of the tender pupa.” The larva then positions itself correctly. “Should the grub forget this little formality, should it lie down to its nymphal sleep with its head at the back of the cell, the Capricorn is infallibly lost: his cradle becomes a hopeless dungeon.”     Programming? Instinct? Survival tactic?
Fabrè  The Wonders of Instinct 1918


Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia


Long-tailed Tit

All of these are names for a Long-tailed Tit. Other local and vernacular names are: Hedge Mumruffin, Jack-in-a-bottle, Bum Towel , Prinpriddle, Feather Poke, Long-tailed Mag and Millithrum (Miller’s Thumb).  “All the Birds of the Air” by Francesca Greenoak gives examples for other birds.

Look out for family parties of 10 or more flipping along hedges in winter. Put out fat balls for them which you could buy here.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
 


Decoy Spider

On this video, you can see the exact moment when a tiny (5mm) spider in the genus Cyclosa was discovered. You can hear the scientists’ amazement as they realise that what they are looking at is not a spider but a decoy much bigger than its creator, fashioned  from debris and dead leaves to frighten predators. It even shakes its web where the decoy sits to make it appear live. This discovery happened last December at Tambopata Research Center on the Amazon in Peru.


 


Toad small Do frogs swallow their skin? And is that toad a frog? Strictly speaking, all toads are frogs but briefly, frogs are smooth and moist  with long stripey legs for jumping, toads are dry and warty with short legs for crawling. For more detail look here.  It's not difficult in Spring to find frogspawn (in clumps). Or is it toadspawn (in strings)? Only five in every 2,000 eggs will survive into adults, partly because tadpoles eat each other.  And yes, frogs pull their skin over their heads, like a jumper, every few weeks and eat it. Lovely, full of protein. Why don't more of us do this?

Photograph of Common Toad courtesy of Wikipedia.

Barn Owl by Brian Phipps

Barn owls, with their huge asymmetric ears (one high, one low) rely more on sound, not sight on very dark nights. They pounce where mice have caused leaves to rustle. But if we tie a leaf to the tail of a mouse, they will pounce on that rather than on the mouse itself, indicating that it is just the sound that counts. And their wing-beat has such a low frequency (about one kilohertz) that the mouse cannot hear its approach.
For local barn owl action, look here.

Information drawn, with his permission, from Tim Birkhead's book, Bird Sense.
Photograph © Brian Phipps

 


Dog Vomit Slime Mould

You could call it Scrambled Egg slime mould if you prefer. It starts as a single-celled organism which gangs up to form something the size of a pizza which moves towards and engulfs the bacteria it feeds on. Although it is said to be a delicacy in Mexico, in Derbyshire they call in the Council.

But its cousin, Physarum is even stranger. It behaves in ways which have led respectable scientists to suggest that it is intelligent. It can solve mazes; it makes sensible food choices for a balanced diet; if it takes its time over decisions it is more likely to get them right; it could even help urban planners make traffic decisions. Look here for a fuller description.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.


Marmalade Hoverfly
The Marmalade Hoverfly helps to ensure its survival by mimicking a wasp. Once a young bird or other predator has attempted to tackle a wasp, it learns to avoid any insect with similar markings. So the hoverfly is safe even though it presents no danger to the predator  -  it's a sheep not a wolf. So how can we tell the difference? Wasps have four wings, hoverflies two. Wasps are more wasp- waisted. What is less easy is differentiating between the 270 species of hoverfly in the UK. Look here for some advice on pollinators in your garden.

The hoverfly is on the left. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Wasp

Hat Thrower 180

No it 's not a cheetah or a peregrine or a swift. Pilobolus crystallinus var. crystallinus, commonly known as the "Dung Cannon" or "Hat Thrower", is a species of fungus which sticks its spores to vegetation, so as to be eaten by grazing animals. It then passes through the animals' digestive systems and grows in their dung.  Although these fungi only grow to be 2­ - 4 cm tall, they can shoot their sporangium, which contains their spores, up to 2 metres away, accelerating from 0 to ­20 mph in 2 millionths of a second.   For a video of this in action, look here


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