Monday, November 22, 2010

Arabian Oryx

A guest post by Ken.

During a recent bout of 'dune-bashing' in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, I came upon a herd of Arabian Oryxes (Oryx leucoryx). Our guide, a man from Burundi (where they have all the usual African wildlife except for elephants he informed me), who had been giving the safari for ten years was quick to spot them. He said this was a rare sight. The Dubai desert plains can reach temperatures of up to high 40's. However, by the time I was there in November it was down to low 30's. It had also just rained heavily, another unusual sight in the Emirate of Dubai in the U.A.E. This maybe why we were graced with a glimpse. I quickly grabbed my sister's camera to take a few pictures.
Dune Bashing
O. leucoryx are the most easterly-ranging oryxes and are native to Arabia and Iraq. They usually live in deserts, arid plains and rocky hill-sides. Both sexes have straight horns with the female's horns usually being longer and more slender. The mane extends from the shoulders and they possess a slightly tufted tail. The head and body are pale with definite markings of black or brown. They roam in herds of two to a dozen and are always alert and vigilant. If injured or confronted by their natural predators they attack with lowered heads with the horns pointed dangerously forward. They eat primarily grasses and shrubs using streams and waterholes as a source of water. However they can obtain water from desert fruit or succulent bulbs (1).
A herd of wild Arabian oryxes (Oryx leucoryx)
The species was eradicated entirely from the Arabian Peninsula by 1972 due to over-hunting and poaching. Prior to the extirpation, however, several captive breeding programs were started with the intention to reestablish them in their native habitats. Ismail et al. show that the frequency of reproductive activity was significantly related to daytime, temperature and radiation with significant reduction during a drought period. Also extreme climatic events, suitability of habitat aswell as carry capacity must be taken into account when managing introduced populations of desert ungulates in fenced protected areas (2).
Check out my white socks!!!
And then they were gone. Although we slowed down so as not to frighten them too much, we eventually went our separate ways. And for now, at least, we can be certain that the Arabian Oryx is alive and well.

  1. Biological Conservation, Volume 1, Issue 2, January 1969, Page 129
  2. K. Ismail, K. Kamal, M. Plath, T. Wronski, Effects of an exceptional drought on daily activity patterns, reproductive behaviour, and reproductive success of reintroduced Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), Journal of Arid Environments, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 29 October 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hermit Crabs Prefer Winkle Shells

Pagurus bernhardus, the Common Hermit Crab
Pagurus bernhardus, the Common Hermit Crab, is a scavenger of sheltered shores, and is the most common hermit crab in Irish waters. It can often be spotted in rock pools, seen as a seashell with legs scurrying into corners. It has, along with all the hermit crabs, the last thoracic plate on the ventral side free of the carapace (1) and because of this, P. bernhardus lives inside the empty shells of molluscs, exchanging the shells for larger ones as the animal grows. The fifth pair of walking legs are also reduced to allow it to fit into the shell which also allows the animal to grip the inside of the shell (2) and the right handed pincer is larger than the left to block the shell entrance when the crab retreats inside (3). It has been suggested that hermit crabs originated from crevice dwlling ancestors, which had progressively lost their abdominal calcification, and took to using empty mollusc shells due to their mobility (4).
Pagurus bernhardus emerging from Edible Periwinkle (Littorina littorea) shell
Young P. bernhardus individuals have a marked preference for winkle shells, both Littorina littorea (Edible Periwinkle) (5) and L. obtusata (Flat Perieinkle) (6) over Gibbula spp. (Whelk) shells. This preference may be due to a number of factors, such as greater ease of locomotion and ease of manipulation during mating, and does have an effect on the overall performance of an individual. A 1995 survey of female P. bernhardus individuals showed that those living in the preferred shells produced eggs earlier in the season, produced more eggs in the first brood, and produced a second brood more often than did females in the less preferred shells (6). However it was unclear whether this reflected a reduced capacity for mating or if competition for the best shells resulted in low quality crabs occupying the less preferred ones.
Pagurus bernhardus, the Common Hermit Crab. Note the difference in size of the pincers


  1. Lancaster, 1988 Field Studies 7 pp. 189-238
  2. Challinor et al., 1999 A Beginner's Guide to Ireland's Seashore p. 142
  3. Sterry, 2004 Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildilfe p. 168
  4. McLaughlin, 1983 Journal of Crustacean Biology 3 608-621
  5. Elwood et al., 1979 Animal Behaviour 27 pp. 940-946
  6. Elwood et al., 1995 Marine Biology 123 pp. 431-434

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Delicate Beauty

Tunbridge Filmy Fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense)
Hiding among the moss, blending in to such an extent that it can be easily mistaken for one of them, the Tunbridge Filmy Fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense) has a diaphanous magnificence. It grows in shady habitats, forming a mat when growing, either vertically or at an incline, against rocks or tree trunks by streams or under dripping water (1). It has numerous, overlapping leaves which have multiple pinnae. These arise from slender rhizomes which are much-branched (2). Tunbridge Filmy Fern is very similar in appearance to Wilson's Filmy Fern (H. wilsonii), but both are found at different elevations: Wilson'd Filmy Fern tends to be found on mountain tops, while Tunbridge Filmy Fern inhabits lowland or slightly elevated wooded glens (3). This difference in locality is due in part to the different light requirements for the two species, with Tunbridge Filmy Fern having a lower light requirement than Wilson's Filmy Fern (4). Tunbridge Filmy Ferns is a very long lived species, with some colonies being 200 years old.
Tunbridge Filmy Fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense)
  1. Phillips, 1980 Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland p. 108
  2. Richards and Evans, 1958 Journal of Ecology p. 245
  3. O'Mahony, 2009 Wildflowers of Cork City and County p. 323
  4. Proctor , 2003 Annals of Botany 91 pp. 717-727

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Brown Seaweeds of Kelp Beds

Laminaria hyperborea
Laminaria hyperborea

Holdfast of Laminaria hyperborea
Laminaria digitata
Laminaria digitata

Holdfast of Laminaria digitata
Saccharina latissima
Saccharina latissima

Frond of Saccharina latissima

Holdfast of Saccharina latissima

Saccorhiza polyschides

Saccorhiza polyschides

Holdfast of Saccorhiza polyschides

Flight of the Butterfly

Red Admiral, Vanessa atlanta
One of the larger butterflies top be seen in Ireland, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atlanta) is a common sight of meadows, hedgerows and gardens with red bands and white spots contrasting boldly with its black upperwings (1). V. atlanta can be seen from May onwards in Ireland, with some individuals hibernating through the winter (2). Most, however, migrate from central and southern Europe to escape the summer droughts of these areas (3). Nettles (Urtica doica) are the food of choice of the larvae and these have begun to wither when migration begins. When the butterflies arrive in the north, there is a plentiful supply of food. Most adults will return south in late September to mid November when nettles are again in good supply.
Red Admiral, Vanessa atlanta
When returning south, V. atlanta engages in a high elevation return at a reported altitude of 2000 meters (3), riding on cool northerly winds. While flying it generates large forces that cannot be accounted for by conventional steady-state aerodynamics, as do all insects. Investigations into V. atlanta flight using wind tunnels and smoke-wire flow visualisations show that they use a variety of unconventional aerodynamic mechanisms to generate force, often different mechanisms in successive strokes (4)


  1. Sterry, 2004 Collins Complete Guide to the Irish Wildlife p. 104
  2. Chinery, 1987 Field Guide to the Wildlife of Britain and Europe p. 234
  3. Mikkola, 2003 European Journal of Entomology 100 pp. 625-626
  4. Srygley and Thomas, 2002  Nature 420 pp. 660-664

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blennies Seek Out the Dark

The Blenny (or Shanny, Lipophyris pholis) is a very common fish of the the North East Atlantic from Norway to Mauritania and the Atlantic islands, with some records in the Western Mediterranean (1). It is particularly widespread on the Western coast of Ireland. Found among stones and seaweeds in rocky gullies on the lower shore, it often becomes trapped in rock pools at low tide where the specimen pictured was spotted. While this is a small (c. 4 cm) example of the species, they can reach 10 cm in size (2).
Blenny, Lipophyris pholis, in a rock pool

Blennies show a preference for rocky over sandy substrata from an early age (3). The reason for this is unclear, but in such environments, Blennies will immediately make for the first dark area as soon as possible. Dodd et al. (4) have shown that in an artificial novel environment, they will move towards a black screen, pressing themselves up against it. Once they have gained experience of this environment, they will us the positions of large objects around them to relocate a refuge.

  1. Steffani et al., 2006 Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 39 pp. 282–287
  2. Sterry, 2003 Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 102
  3. Almada and Faria, 2000 Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the UK 80 pp. 1143-1144
  4. Dodd et al., 2000 Behavioural Processes 49 pp. 69-75

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sponge Repair

The Breadcrumb Sponge, Halichondria panicea
Probably the most common sponge to be seen on Irish seashores is the Breadcrumb Sponge, Halichondria panicea. It can be seen on the lower shore, varying in colour from yellow to green, with crater like openings dotting the surface (1). These are the exhalent openings through which seawater passes.
The Breadcrumb Sponge, Halichondria panicea
H. panicea is predated by a number of organisms, generally molluscan (2). It is also prone to wave damage due to its frequent position on rock faces on the lower shore and these two destructive forces pose a real problem for the sponge. Yet it persists, often in large amounts. This is due to its incredible regenerative abilities. Simulation of feeding in H. panicea by creating grooves in the sponge resulted in high growth rates in these areas, with most of the damaged area being recovered within 4 weeks (3).

  1. Challinor et al., 1999 A Beginner's Guide to Ireland's Seashore p. 71
  2.  Knowlton and Highsmith, 2000 Marine Ecology Progress Series 197 pp. 285-291
  3. Knowlton and Highsmith, 2005 Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 327 pp. 36-46

Monday, November 8, 2010

Antimicrobial Synergism and the Spindle Tree

Fruit of Spindle Tree, Euonymus europaeus
Though the fine weather of the summer has given way to storm warnings and cold, dark mornings, its memory still lingers in the fruit of the Spindle Tree (Euonymus europaeus). This native shrub usually produces very distinctive, shocking pink, three to four lobed fruit from September to October (1) that is quickly eaten by blackbirds. This year, the summer has given a plentiful harvest of fruit that has until now meant many E. europaeus berries have gone untouched.
Spindle Tree, Euonymus europaeus
E. europaeus has proved to be quite useful: its hard timber was used to make skewers and spindles for spinning wool (hence the common name (1)). It has also been shown to produce secondary metabolites with remarkable antimicrobial abilities. Van den Bergh et al. (2) isolated a hevein-type antimicrobial peptide in 2002 from the bark of E. europaeus that show excellent antimicrobial activity against plant pathogenic fungi such as Fusarium oxysporum, Pythium ultimum and Rhizoctonia solani and Gram-positive bacteria such as Bacillus megaterium. This E. europaeus chitin-binding protein or Ee-CBP was also shown to be very stable as activity was not affected by boiling for ten minutes or prolonged storage.
Bark of Spindle Tree, Euonymus europaeus
A  further chitin binding protein was also isolated (3) that acted as a classical class I chitinase (Ee-chitinase) which was not as potent as the Ee-CBP. However, the Ee-CBP and Ee-chitinase displayed a pronounced synergistic effect in assays against fungal activity. These proteins have potential to be used in genetic engineering for biological control of plant diseases.

  1. Phillips, 1978 Wild Flowers of Britain pp. 58 and 172
  2. Van den Bergh et al., 2002 FEBS Letters 530 pp. 181-185
  3. Van den Bergh et al., 2004 Planta 219 pp. 221–232

Roman with the Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer, Dama dama
The Fallow Deer (Dama dama) is the most common deer in Ireland. It is not a native species, having been introduced by the Normans to the Royal Deer Forest in Glencree, Co. Wicklow in 1244 (1). The deer is originally from the Eastern Mediterranean, and has been transported by humans throughout Europe, Africa, America and Australasia (2). One of the earliest translocations has been traced to the Neolithic period when animals were introduced to Rhodes (3). Movement of the animals throughout Europe has been attributed to the Normans (4), but Sykes et al. (5) suggest that the Romans were also a force in distributing D. dama across Europe. Analysis of remains found in 2003 at a Roman settlement at Monkton on the Isle of Thanet, Kent in England showed that it was highly likely that herds of D. dama existed here during Roman times.

Fallow Deer, Dama dama
  1. Nolan and Walsh, 2005 Wild Deer Management in Ireland: Stalker Training Manual
  2. Chapman and Chapman, 1975 Fallow Deer: Their History, Distribution and Biology
  3. Masseti et al., 2006  Human Evolution 21 pp. 167–176
  4. Sykes, 2007 British Archaeological Report, International Series 1656
  5. Skyes et al., 2011 Journal of Archaeological Science 38 pp. 156-165

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Ability of Nostoc commune to Resist Dessication

Nostoc commune
The cosmopolitan cyanobacteria Nostoc commune is found on all continents, in all conditions, from tropical rain forests to the poles (Whitton and Potts, 2000 Ecology of Cyanobacteria: their Diversity in Time and Space). It is a common pest of gardens, associated with areas of poor drainage and/or poor nutrients, often forming masses of gelatinous, globular, brown-green colonies. These are composed of filaments of cells surrounded by a sheath. In the past, these colonies were believed to have fallen from the sky and were referred to as, among other things, “Sternschnuppen” (shooting stars) (Potts, 1997 International journal of Systemic Bacteriology p. 584).
Nostoc commune in a dessicated state

N. commune shows a remarkable capacity to resist desiccation, being able to survive storage at -400 MPa (0% relative humidity) for centuries (Potts, 1994 Microbiology Reviews 58 pp. 755–805). Prior to rehydration, N. commune appears as a brittle crust which increase in size rapidly upon the addition of water.

This remarkable ability is due to the presence of a viscous extracellular polysaccharide that is excreted by the cells. This glycan consist of a 1-4-linked xylogalactoglucan backbone with D-ribofuranose and 3-O-[(R)-1-carboxyethyl]-D-glucuronic acid (nosturonic acid) pendant groups (Helm et al., 2000 Journal of Bacteriology 182 pp. 974-982). Prevention of dessication is achieved by a number of processes. The glycan inhibits fusion of membrane vesicels during dessication (Hill et al., 1997 Journal of Applied Phycology 9 pp. 237–248). It also provides a structural and/or molecular scaffold with rheological properties which can accommodate the rapid biophysical and physiological changes in the community upon rehydration and during recovery from desiccation. The glycan matrix contains both lipid- and watersoluble UV radiation-absorbing pigments which protect the cell from photodegradation (Hill et al., 1994 Protoplasma 182 pp. 126–148). Finally although epiphytes colonize the surfaces of N. commune colonies, there is no penetration of the glycan due in part to a silicon- and calcium-rich pellicle and inherent resistance of the glycan to enzymatic breakdown.

Production of such an extracellular polysaccharide as this by N. commune may explain why microfossils of cyanobacteria are preserved so well from more than 3.5 billion years ago (Schopf and Klein, 1992 The Proterozoic Biosphere p. 185–193).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Snuff Said

Candle Snuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon
To be found throughout the year, Candle Snuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) is most visible now as most ground cover in the deciduous woodlands it is associated with has died back for the winter. It is cylindrical to flattened in shape, branching into an antler formation. The upper stromal surface is white and powdery and becomes black tipped at maturity. The lower, sterile parts are black and downy (Jordan, 2004 The Encyclopedia of Fungi of Britain and Europe p. 78).
Candle Snuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon

Carabid Controller

The carabid beetle, Pterostichus madidus is a very common ground beetle that although being mainly active at night, is often seen in the day time if disturbed from under stones of logs. It is readily identified by its shiny, black body, the fine grooves in its elytra and its typically reddish legs (Sterry, 2004 Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 146). P. madidus is sometimes called the strawberry beetle as it feeds on strawberries as well as other fruit, but it is mainly carnivorous (Chinery, 1997 Collins Gem Insects, p. 129).
Pterostichus madidus
Quantitative ELISA analysis of crop content of the beetle has shown that quite a large proportion of its diet has consists of molluscs (Symondson and Liddell, 1993 Bulletin of Entomological Research 83 pp. 641-647). This feeding habit was shown to posit P. madidus as a potential biological control agent for slugs and snails by a glasshouse experiment (Asteraki, 1993 Entomophaga 38 193-198). This demonstrated that it controlled slug (Deroceras reticulatum) populations in a grass/clover sward. However Mair and Port (2001, Agricultural and Forest Entomology 3 pp. 99-106) have shown that the original serological tests may have been misleading as they showed that dead slugs were consumed by P. madidus in preference to live ones in laboratory conditions. Live slugs that were killed and consumed were quite small (<0.11 g). Yet the use of P. madidus to control molluscan pests is still a viable alternative to chemical means, as long as it is combined with methods to control the larger individuals.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ascent of the Ascidians

Star Ascidian, Botryllus schlosseri
Phylogenetics is slowly rewriting our ideas of relationships between many organisms. Take for example the Ascidians. These tunicates (urochordates) were beliveved to once be a sister group of the vertebrates, due in part to the presence of characteristics such as segmented muscle (Lemaire et al., 2008 Current Biology 18 R620–R631). The lancelets (cephalochordates) were assumed to be the most closely related to the vertebrates as there are overall morphological similarlties and an increased complexity between these two groups when compared to the seemingly simpler tunicates. However in 2006, Delusc et al. (Nature, 23 pp. 965-968) analysed data from the sequencing of the tunicate Oikipleura dioica genome and found that tunicates represent the closest living relatives of vertebrates. Indeed, Delusc suggested that the lancelets be grouped with the echinoderms rather than than the tunicates or vertebrates.
Star Ascidian, Botryllus schlosseri
Botryllus schlosseri (Star Ascidian) is a cosmopolitan, colonial ascidian that is found encrusting on rocks, shells and large brown seaweeds (Challinor et al., 2003 A Beginner's Guide to Ireland's Seashore p. 74). It has been used for over 50 years in the laboratory as a model system for the study of blastogenesis, colony fusion and regeneration (Manni et al., 2007 Developmental Dynamics 236 pp. 335-52). It forms free living, pelagic larvae by sexual reproduction that attach to a substrate and in turn reproduce asexually to form colonies of numerous genetically identical zooids. Individuals are arranged around a common cloak siphon, thus forming the “star” of the common name.