Dear Readers, I subscribe to way too many magazines about natural history (well I don’t drink or smoke so a woman has to have some vices). Every so often I think about cutting back, but then I spot something interesting and so on I go. And then I thought, why not share some of the highlights with you all?
So, first up here’s something that I at least found fascinating, from this month’s BSBI news. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland is THE magazine to read if you’re serious about botanising. Every so often it has a piece on alien plants that have been found in the UK, and so I naturally turn to the sections that cover London. And here is a new, and rather concerning plant, at least if the name is anything to go by – Panic Veldtgrass (Ehrharta erecta) has appeared in Wimbledon and in Kensal Town in North London. This plant comes originally from South Africa, and is thought to have appeared in this country via imports of wool and possibly also container plants or even bird seed. It is an invasive introduction in North America, Australasia and southern Europe, and the plant in Kensal Town was already in flower in January.
Looking at the plant, I suspect it could already be all over the place in the UK, because who would look at this and think ‘aha, a new grass’ except for a dedicated botanist?
Now, let’s turn to British Birds, another favourite magazine. In the October issue there was an account of sex and violence in a trio of dunnocks (Prunella modularis),non-descript little brown birds who have the most hair-raising of sex lives. In the account, by Nick Davies, two male birds and a female had apparently shared the same territory very happily, until one of the male birds was seen on top of the other, pecking it repeatedly on the head, while the female watched. Davies went outside to see what was going on, but the victim was already dead. When Davies went back indoors, the surviving male bird gave the deceased a few more blows on the head, just to make sure.
Davies had previously done a ten-year study on Dunnocks in Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and noted that in mating trios like this, the alpha male may punish the beta male for trying to mate with the female, but normally a couple of pecks to the head suffice. Obviously this male was in a murderous rage. However, in some mating trio setups, the two males will provision the female on the nest if they’ve both mated with her, so I do wonder if this will have an impact on the breeding success of the pair. It always intrigues me that animal relationships can be every bit as complicated and difficult to understand as human ones.
And finally, here is British Wildlife. This is such a cornucopia of good stuff that I’m not sure where to start: this month, for example, there is a stunning article on the insects that use dead wood, which I might use as the basis for a whole post.
But here is a snippet, from the Conservation News section of the magazine. I have long been concerned about the impact of light pollution on night-flying insects, particularly moths. The magazine reports on a joint study from Butterfly Conservation, the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Newcastle University (you can read the key findings here) which shows that streetlights can reduce the abundance of moth caterpillars in grass verges by almost a third (33%) and in hedgerows by almost half (47%) compared with comparable unlit roadside habitat. Furthermore, and this doesn’t surprise me one bit, the white LED streetlights that are replacing the old sodium lamps reduced caterpillars even further, by 43% on grass verges and 52% in hedgerows. This alone can’t explain the decrease in moth abundance (less than 1% of available habitat overall is lit), but it is yet another factor in the decline of our invertebrates. The authors of the study feel that the general increase in illumination (sky glow) may also have an impact, and have a hypothesis that female moths are reluctant to lay their eggs in illuminated areas, but further study is needed.
And so, what a treasure trove these specialist magazines are! I personally got a bit fed up with the more popular wildlife magazines, such as BBC Wildlife – they were never in enough depth for me, and seemed to throw their nets too wide. The three that I’ve featured here bring out my inner plant/bird/wildlife nerd, and in my opinion that is no bad thing. I love people who are enthusiastic about their subject, and who take pleasure in sharing what they’ve found with others, and there’s a plethora of this kind of material here. It’s been a pleasure to share a few snippets with you all.