Dear Readers, the gardeners of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery seem to have gone developed a passion for canna lilies this year, and very splendid they look too. They must have at least six varieties, in various shades of scarlet, peach, yellow and coral. Some have splendid stripy leaves as well.
It’s true that these plants aren’t great for pollinators, but they are bright and cheerful, And what do you think caused this very particular leaf damage?
Well, apparently it’s just a snail or slug, who made a deep hole in the leaf while it was still rolled up – when the leaf unfurls, it looks as if something has attacked it with a hole punch.
In other news, I was very taken by the multiple stems of this yew tree. I can just imagine what it will look like if it lives to be a thousand, like this one.
And then, who is this lurking in the wood?
A very handsome cat, that’s who. I imagine he lives in the flats that abut the cemetery.
The ivy is just coming into flower, so I had a look for ivy bees, but none so far.
Honeybee on ivy
My friend A had tipped me off about a potential new Wednesday Weed so I went to investigate, and sure enough there’s some very impressive white bryony (Bryonia diocia), a member of the cucumber family and again, very popular with the bees.
There were no foxes on the field this time, but I do love the way that the late-summer sun sometimes just touches a seedhead and illuminates it.
The Japanese Knotweed is in full flower. Someone asked me last week why there are only female flowers in the UK – in fact, nearly every Japanese knotweed plant outside Japan is a clone of the original mother plant. Japanese knotweed was a popular Victorian garden plant, and you can kind of see why when it’s in flower – it’s very architectural and requires very little upkeep. Presumably only female plants were imported, but in the US they are ‘lucky’ enough to have male and female plants. The males have brighter flowers and larger leaves, so I think it might just be luck that we didn’t get both sexes in the UK.
Female Japanese knotweed in full flower in the cemetery
And I do wish that people wouldn’t use balloons to decorate the graves or to celebrate parties. These two balloons are stuck in a tree where they’re a real hazard to birds.
So, after two weeks away it was great to be back in the cemetery. Autumn is coming on apace, and it’s my favourite time of year. But I couldn’t leave this post without sharing my most recent book purchase with you. I suspect that it might inspire some more adventures.
A Martian in Woking (Photo by Colin Smith ) This is a metal sculpture, based on H G Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’
Dear Readers, you might read a lot in the UK papers about ‘invasive aliens’, but would you recognise one if you tripped over it? Below are photos of some of the animals that the UK government is getting most worked up about. Most of the larger animals have been deliberately introduced into ponds or gardens or private wildlife collections, but have found the UK very much to their liking. The invertebrates are a bit more audacious, and have turned up without any invitation at all! Climate change is making our environmental conditions more conducive to many creatures, so who knows what will turn up next?
Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday please (17th September), and the answers will be posted on Saturday 18th. I will hide your answers as soon as I see them, but write them down first before you open the comments if you’re easily influenced (like me).
Dear Readers, we had a tie for first place this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove and Anne both getting 13 out of 15. I’m giving both you a half mark for saying 3 British mammals hibernate – if you include bats, though, you get up to 20 species. I’m also giving a half mark for King James’s birds – I was after peregrine falcon, but hawk is definitely in the right ball park. Thank you for playing, and let’s see what i can come up with tomorrow….
What do we call a baby alpaca? A cria
What is the most dangerous animal in England, in terms of deaths? The cow
What is Britain’s fastest land mammal? The brown hare
Which four groups of animals technically belong to the Queen? Swans, whales, porpoises/ dolphins and sturgeons
What is a group of pheasants called? A covey, bouquet, nide , nye or head of pheasants
Owls are zygodactyl. What does that mean? They have two toes pointing forwards and two toes pointing backwards.
The puffin’s scientific name is Puffinus puffinus. True or false? False! Puffinus puffinus is the Manx shearwater. ‘Our’ puffin’s scientific name is Fratercula arcticus. ‘Puffin’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘the fat tasty nestling of a shearwater’.
How many species of UK mammal hibernate (closest answer gets a bonus point!) Hedgehogs, dormice and all of the bat species, so 20 species in total.
Fieldfares and redwings migrate to the UK every year, but where from? Scandinavia
Which UK thrush is named after its favourite food? The Mistle Thrush (named for its fondness for mistletoe)
James II paid over a thousand pounds for a pair of which birds? Peregrine falcons, for hunting.
Which species of bird, first seen in the UK in 1956, is now the 7th most commonly seen species? The Collared Dove
What is Britain’s commonest bird of prey? The buzzard
Which is the only UK snake that lays eggs? The grass snake – smooth snakes and adders give birth to live young.
The UK has only three native lizard species. Can you name them? Common and sand lizards and the slow worm.
A Wandering Turtle (Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)
Dear Readers, those of you of a certain age will remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze. The crime-fighting reptiles first appeared in a comic book in 1984, but have been resurrected occasionally ever since. The knock-on effect on real turtles, however, was not so benign – lots of people bought tiny terrapins as pets, only to discover that they grew to the size of a dinner plate, were extremely smelly if not cleaned out every day, and could be grumpy to boot. Many a terrapin disappeared into the local pond, where it set about eating frogs, toads, newts and even ducklings. I saw a very fine speciman sitting on a rock in the New River (Islington) a couple of years ago, so they can clearly also survive the winter.
The little chap in the picture below, though, was found wandering around the field at Martin’s school in East Finchley.
(Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)
Very sensibly, the terrapin was put into the school’s pond (though I’m not sure what the rest of the pond population thought about it). Then, the turtle went walkabout again and gatecrashed a PE lesson. I wonder how much of a homing instinct these creatures have? S/he was clearly trying to get somewhere.
Eventually the terrapin’s owner appeared – they’d been on holiday and had known nothing about their pet’s escapade – apparently the animal has a perfectly nice pond at home, and that is presumably where s/he was headed.
The whole episode does make me think, though. Tortoises were a common and popular pet when I was a girl – my grandmother used to have a tortoise that would bang on the door with his shell when he wanted to come in from the garden, and would positively run across the floor at the sight of a strawberry. Children’s TV programmes such as Blue Peter featured a tortoise who would be ritually put to bed in a box filled with straw when it was time to hibernate. But such was the trade in the Mediterranean species who were the most commonly kept that the animals became endangered, and it’s now against the law to offer them for sale or trade them without a special permit. How often humans over-exploit the natural world and end up spoiling it!
A wild Hermann’s tortoise, one of the most commonly-kept European species prior to the trade ban (Photo One)
The other thing that always worried me about pets like tortoises and parrots is their extreme longevity. What happens to these much-loved creatures when their owners die, or can no longer look after them? A puppy clearly isn’t only for Christmas, but a macaw or a tortoise can outlive a human easily. I know that people make provision in their wills, but I imagine that the transition, especially for a bird as intelligent as a parrot, must be extremely stressful and upsetting.
Still, at least the story of the East Finchley terrapin has a happy ending. I hope that s/he is soon back in the old, familiar pond, with a nice rock to sit on and lots of unsuspecting invertebrates to eat. And won’t they have some adventures to remember!
Dear Readers, at this time of year many people become terrified of the spiders that suddenly seem to ‘appear’ in their gardens, sheds and, worst of all, their houses. I have every sympathy with arachnophobes, but I wanted to add in a few facts that might help those of us with a milder antipathy towards these fascinating animals to enjoy their autumns a bit more. These are fascinating animals with extraordinary life histories, and it’s possible to cohabit with them quite happily, as I know.
I recommend ‘Charlotte’s Web’ as a way of rehabilitating small children who are starting to develop a fear of spiders. It really works as a way of inspiring empathy and curiosity, surely great attributes for life.
Firstly, as far as the garden and shed goes, the spiders have been there all along, as spiderlings or eggs. We only start to notice them when they get big enough to see, and when they start flinging their webs at head-height across our paths. In the garden, the vast majority are Garden Cross Spiders (Araneus diadematus), easily identifiable by the ‘cross’ on their abdomen. Many of them are females, who will lay their eggs in the autumn and then die – they can grow up to 15mm long, but the pregnant ones will also look extremely fat.
Garden Cross Spider (Araneus diadematus) – probably a male
Garden cross spider – fat enough to be a pregnant female!
What seems to cause people the most trepidation, however, is the sudden sight of a house spider creeping along the skirting board. There are two species that you’re likely to see in the autumn: the large house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) and the common house spider (Tegenaria domestica). Both have very long legs, which is probably one reason why they give so many people the willies, but then the males in particular have to do a lot of running around, as we’ll see. The common house spider is similar to its ‘large’ relative, but is naturally a bit smaller, and according to my book ‘Britain’s Spiders – A Field Guide’, it tends to be paler, sometimes without those impressive tiger stripes on the abdomen. The common house spider is known as the barn funnel weaver in North America.
The female is bigger than the male in both species. However, you are unlikely to see her (unless, like me, you tend to leave cobwebs in corners) – she makes a tube-like retreat which spreads out into a sheet, and there she waits for gentleman callers. In fact, if not wafted away with a feather duster, a web may be inhabited by several generations of house spiders, like an ancestral mansion out in the shires.
The males are looking specifically for a female who has not already been mated: they can tell if she’s receptive to their advances by pheromones that she secretes into her web. But life is extremely tough for a male house spider (you can tell that it’s a male by the ‘boxing gloves’ or pedipalps that are attached to their ‘jaws’, as in the photo above). They might get into fights with other males. They won’t eat, because they only have one thing on their minds. But they do get thirsty, and our homes are very dry environments – one reason why you often find the poor souls in the shower or bath tub.
When they find a female, they tug the web with their feet and fangs and dance up and down, to make sure the female knows that they are male and the right species. If they mess this up, they could be dinner. If all goes well they will move in with the female for a while, and it’s not unusual to find a pair snuggled up together in the web. The male is waiting for the female’s final moult, when she will be ready to reproduce: those palps act like hypodermic syringes to inject her with sperm. Then the male may stay with her, guarding her against other males and mating with her frequently. Sometime in the winter, though, the male dies, leaving the female alone.
The female doesn’t lay her eggs until the following spring, and the young take 30-50 days to hatch. Right from the start they are formidable hunters, eating tiny fruit-flies to begin with but soon graduating to houseflies, bluebottles and house moths. Spiders don’t have to eat often, but they have a feast or famine approach, storing up the sad little corpses when there are lots of flying insects about so that they have enough for a rainy day. However, the availability of food when young does impact on the size of the adult spider, and being big both helps with the number of eggs that can be produced (in females) and in the ability to protect your mate from other males. This might be one reason why we sometimes see ‘monster’ spiders of a whacking 10 cms to 14 cms long, though I imagine my readers from other parts of the world are having a good old chuckle at this moment, especially anyone in South Africa or Australia, where the arachnids are decidedly more substantial.
So, the poor old house spider doesn’t have an easy life of it, and all it wants to do, as it scuttles out from behind the sofa, is to find a mate, reproduce and die. Incidentally, although escorting the spider outside is undoubtedly a better option than dropping a hot water bottle on the animal from a great height like my grandmother used to, it still isn’t very helpful for the spider. Male spiders only want to find a female of the same species, and these are usually living in your house or shed, so if he can find a way back in, I’m sure he will. Otherwise, if at night you hear the sound of a tiny guitar being plucked by one of 8 hairy legs as a lady spider is serenaded from outside your house, I hope you feel very, very guilty.
Dear Readers, this inoffensive little plant is my first ever member of the Orobanchaceae or Broomrape family, which includes a wide range of total and partial parasites. Bartsias are partial parasites – they can photosynthesise but they extract nutrients from the roots of other plants, grasses in the case of this species. Normally, these plants grow in nutrient-poor soil (hence the need to steal the resources they need from their hosts). These, however, were growing on a bridle path in Dorset, where you’d have thought that horse manure raining down would have provided everything that any plant could want (though judging by how overgrown the path was it would take a very intrepid rider to tiptoe through.
Red bartsia is native to Europe and Asia, but has become a bit of a pest in North America. The Latin word ‘Odontites‘ means ‘tooth-related’, and the plant has been used medicinally for toothache since the time of Pliny the Elder. ‘Vernus‘ means ‘of the spring’, but this is something of a misnomer as the plant flowers in summer and autumn. ‘Bartsia’ comes from the botanist Johann Bartsch, who worked with Linnaeus and was sent to Surinam by his mentor when he was only 29. Sadly, Bartsch caught a tropical disease on arrival and promptly died, whereupon Linnaeus invented the word ‘Bartsia’ and set about attaching it to various plants. You might have thought that he’d pick something a bit more flamboyant to honour his student, but there you go.
In one of those interrelationships between plants and animals, red bartsia has its very own solitary bee species, the red bartsia bee (Melitta tricintca). Red bartsia often grows on chalky soils, and chalk grassland is becoming rarer in the UK, taking its associated species with it as it disappears. The bee only takes pollen from the red bartsia, though it might occasionally take nectar from other flowers. The males hang around the plant looking for visiting females.
Red Bartsia Bee (Melitta tricincta) (Photo One)
This is also the main foodplant of the Barred Rivulet moth (Perizoma bifaciata). Have a look at the camouflage below. No wonder moths so often go unnoticed.
Barred Rivulet (Perizoma bifaciata) (Photo Two)
And finally a poem, by Emily Dickinson no less. The poet wanders about the winter village, asking who lies in the various ‘beds’ – in other words, which flowers will appear in the spring. Nature is depicted as a mother, rocking the various cradles where the plants are sleeping. Leontodon is dandelion, Rhodora the rhododendron. And how I love the ‘chubby daffodil’! Epigea is the trailing arbutus, a common vine in the USA, where Dickinson lived.
I think the whole poem begs to be illustrated and put in a book for children. It teeters on the edge of saccharine but, for me, it doesn’t actually fall in. See what you think.
Dear Readers, this week is a miscellany of random animal facts for you to test your wits against. Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 10th September, and as usual, I will disappear your replies as soon as I see them, but please do write them down first if you are easily influenced by other people’s brilliance (like me :-).
So, here we go!
What do we call a baby alpaca?
What is the most dangerous animal in England, in terms of deaths?
What is Britain’s fastest land mammal?
Which four groups of animals technically belong to the Queen?
What is a group of pheasants called?
Owls are zygodactyl. What does that mean?
The puffin’s scientific name is Puffinus puffinus. True or false?
How many species of UK mammal hibernate (closest answer gets a bonus point!)
Fieldfares and redwings migrate to the UK every year, but where from?
Which UK thrush is named after its favourite food?
James II paid over a thousand pounds for a pair of which birds?
Which species of bird, first seen in the UK in 1956, is now the 7th most commonly seen species?
What is Britain’s commonest bird of prey?
Which is the only UK snake that lays eggs?
The UK has only three native lizard species. Can you name them?
Dear Readers, Bank Holidays always get me confused, and this week was no exception, so, for one week only, the Wednesday Weed will be on Thursday. Normal service will be resumed next week (with any luck).
So, this week’s plant was spotted in my local cemetery, but Sea Buckthorn is by nature a plant of sand dunes and coastal areas. It is quite an impressive-looking plant once the berries come out, but the rest of the time it’s just a mass of long, narrow, silvery leaves and rather nasty thorns. It’s a native plant, Nationally Scarce in its wild state, but becoming increasingly common both as an ornamental and as a method of stabilising sand dunes. Here, though, I must quote from my pal Liz Norbury who lives in Cornwall and has first-hand experience of the plant:
“Much of our local sea buckthorn was planted around 30 years ago to help stabilise the sand dunes, but it can be extremely invasive, and in recent years, our conservation group, Friends of the Towans, has been cutting it back. It’s not the most pleasant task – I’ve found sea buckthorn to be even more vicious than gorse! We’re now involved with the national Dynamic Dunescape project), which aims to restore life to dunes by encouraging natural movement – a complete reversal of the old stabilisation policy – https://friendsofthetowans.co.uk/archive/funding-boost-for-west-cornwalls-dynamic-dunescape/ “
In fact, it’s the extensive root system of sea buckthorn that makes it such a boon in the east and such a pest elsewhere – the roots bind the sand dunes together, and also enrich the soil with nitrogen, a fairly unusual attribute as the plant is not a legume but a member of the Oleaster family.
The genus name Hippophae means ‘shining horse’, and comes from a belief that feeding horses with sea buckthorn would improve their condition and give them glossy coats. The plant was also believed to be the favourite food of Pegasus, the flying horse. One particularly gruesome bit of folklore comes from the time of Genghis Khan, when boiling your enemies alive in oil was apparently a popular entertainment. Recommended oils were olive oil and animal fat, but not sea buckthorn oil which was supposed to have such an array of curative powers that any enemy brought to a simmer would be healed rather than fried.
Sea buckthorn is remarkably hardy, capable of withstanding temperatures of -43 degrees Centigrade, which is handy when you consider that its native range includes the Baltic Coast and the chillier parts of Russia, Ukraine and Mongolia.
Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, anyone who watches ‘The Great British Menu’ will remember the sharp intake of breath when a chef mentions that they’re going to incorporate sea buckthorn into their dish.
“The judges don’t like sea buckthorn”, some clever-clogs will say, and they will usually be proved right. Having never tasted it, I suspect that the berries are probably quite astringent, though Liz says that they remind her of passionfruit. What do you think, Readers? I am happy to be educated, and indeed I would taste the ones in the cemetery were it not that they are right next to the North Circular Road and therefore probably dripping with pollutants, poor dears.
There can be no doubt about the food value of the berries, though – they are richer in Vitamin C than citrus fruits. However, they are notoriously difficult to harvest – the bushes are thorny, the berries are reluctant to disengage from the branches to which they are attached, and the crop is small. One for the dedicated forager, I suspect, though apparently if the fruit is frozen (as it frequently is) it could be removed by a ‘trunk clamp-on vibration harvester’, whatever that is. Even then, there is a danger of leaf and wood contamination and so the berries need to be cleaned by hand.
When pressed, the berries separate into three layers – a thick orange layer, an oily middle layer and then the juice. The top two layers are frequently used for skin lotions and cosmetics, and the juice is popular in some countries, though presumably mixed with something to offset the sourness.
The berries do, however, make for very pretty, orange-tinted food. No wonder the chefs love them.
A surprising variety of rather splendid moth caterpillars feed on the plant, including the Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus), who you might reasonably expect to prefer oak.
Oak Eggar – photo by Ben Sales
The Sharp-angled Peacock moth (Macaria alternata) is something of a coastal specialist, often feeding on tamarisk as well as sea buckthorn.
Sharp-angled Peacock moth, photo by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia
And, finally, here’s a poem. It’s a bit lateral this week:there is a lovely poem by Helen Cruickshank called ‘Sea Buckthorn‘ which is in Scots dialect, and very fine if you can understand it. But I was also very taken by this poem by the Irish poet Frank Kavanagh, called ‘Pegasus’. When I was a child, Pegasus was easily my favourite mythical creature – when we went out in the car I would often imagine him running and jumping and flying alongside us, leaping over motorway bridges and outrunning police cars. So here it is. See what you think.
My soul was an old horse Offered for sale in twenty fairs. I offered him to the Church–the buyers Were little men who feared his unusual airs. One said: ‘Let him remain unbid In the wind and rain and hunger Of sin and we will get him– With the winkers thrown in–for nothing.’
Then the men of State looked at What I’d brought for sale. One minister, wondering if Another horse-body would fit the tail That he’d kept for sentiment- The relic of his own soul– Said, ‘I will graze him in lieu of his labour.’ I lent him for a week or more And he came back a hurdle of bones, Starved, overworked, in despair. I nursed him on the roadside grass To shape him for another fair.
I lowered my price. I stood him where The broken-winded, spavined stand And crooked shopkeepers said that he Might do a season on the land– But not for high-paid work in towns. He’d do a tinker, possibly. I begged, ‘O make some offer now, A soul is a poor man’s tragedy. He’ll draw your dungiest cart,’ I said, ‘Show you short cuts to Mass, Teach weather lore, at night collect Bad debts from poor men’s grass.’ And they would not.
Where the Tinkers quarrel I went down With my horse, my soul. I cried, ‘Who will bid me half a crown?’ From their rowdy bargaining Not one turned. ‘Soul,’ I prayed, ‘I have hawked you through the world Of Church and State and meanest trade. But this evening, halter off, Never again will it go on. On the south side of ditches There is grazing of the sun. No more haggling with the world….’
As I said these words he grew Wings upon his back. Now I may ride him Every land my imagination knew.
Dear Readers, today we decided to take a look at Golders Green Crematorium, and its memorial gardens. This is the first crematorium to built in London (it was opened in 1902): cremation only became legal in the UK in 1885, with the first crematorium being built in Woking in 1878 as part of the cemetery there. Cremation was championed by the Cremation Society of Great Britain – it was believed that the burning of remains was much healthier than burial, and as many city cemeteries were full, it was seen as a more practical way to deal with the dead. A declaration stated that
“We, the undersigned, disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements, by a process which cannot offend the living, and shall render the remains perfectly innocuous. Until some better method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation.”
Some of the undersigned included Anthony Trollope, John Everett Millais and the illustrator John Tenniel, along with the president of the Cremation Society, Sir Henry Thompson.
Since it opened, Golders Green Crematorium has held more than 323,500 cremations, more than any other crematorium in the country. In an average year there are 2,000 cremations, with three chapels being available for the services. The crematorium is secular and open to people of all faiths and none.
I was struck by how different the memorial gardens are: without any graves, people are remembered by plaques which might accompany rose bushes, or trees, or shrubs. The gardens are remarkably peaceful, even on a Bank Holiday.
The Lily Pond in the Memorial Gardens
I loved this purple magnolia, its flowers just about ready to open. At least, I think it’s a magnolia. Enlighten me if not, readers!
I liked this statue of G.D. Birla, an Indian businessman, writer and philanthropist who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.
Statue of G.D. Birla
And here is a memorial bench to Marc Bolan, who died in a car accident in 1977 at the age of 29. For those of you too young to remember, the swan refers to the T-Rex hit ‘Ride a White Swan‘, a big favourite when I was, ahem, 10 years old.
There are some stunning acers…
…some fine Japanese anemones…
and a very fine pond, with a magpie happily trawling for titbits on the plants.
I was very taken by this sculpture by Henry Pegram, called ‘Into the Silent Land’. It was gifted to the crematorium by the Royal Society of Arts in 1937, the year of Pegram’s death.
This extraordinary building is the Philipson Mausoleum, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in 1914. It was built originally to house the remains of Florence Philipson, and when her husband RH Philipson died, he stipulated that his money should be given to a home for boys in his birthplace, Newcastle, with any remainder being used to preserve the mausoleum. It’s an extraordinary design – roses were to be planted between the inner and outer walls, and originally the oculus in the dome was open to the sky (like the Pantheon in Rome), with an upturned basin underneath to catch rainwater. Sadly, today it’s padlocked, and the dome (the oculus is now glazed) looks increasingly like the hanging gardens of Babylon.
The Philipson Mausoleum, designed by Lutyens
Intriguingly, there is a ‘Communist’s Corner’, where the plaques of communists past and present are collected together.
What a wonderful vista along the cloisters!
One feature that I hadn’t seen before is a columbarium: this is a room that stores the funerary urns in niches. The range of choices that have to be made when someone dies can sometimes be overwhelming – to cremate or to bury? To scatter or to store? The variations on each theme multiply like a particularly complex flow chart. It’s really helpful to know what the loved one wanted in advance, so thanks to Mum and Dad for their foresight.
And finally, on the way out I was much taken by this plaque. ‘Mors janua vitae’ means ‘Death is the Gateway to Life’. Historic England describe it as ‘a plaque in Art Nouveau style’, which indeed it is, though I can’t find out if there is anything that links those who are commemorated on it. Nonetheless, it’s another sign of how much there is to explore at the crematorium and the memorial gardens. I shall certainly be visiting again. For one thing, I completely missed the ‘Freud Corner’, where the funerary urns of Sigmund Freud and his family are held, and it would be good to find and pay my respects to Joyce Grenfell, one of the funniest comedians of her (and any) generation.
Photograph: Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA)
Dear Readers, I was completely devoid of inspiration for today’s post until I came across this little gem in The Guardian. It’s actually nearly a year old, but then I’m often the last to know anything exciting. Two raccoons apparently crawled through the air ducts (eat your heart out Tom Cruise) and broke through the ceiling into the bank. I love the photo above – one of the raccoons seems to be checking the coast is clear while the other is acting as lookout. They were spotted by a customer who was withdrawing some money, and after ten minutes the Humane Society was able to usher the animals outside. I just hope nobody had left their lunch around in their desk drawer.
Photograph: Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA)
And there’s more! Scientists from the University of Sydney have been studying a population of octopuses who live in Jervis Bay, off the coast of Australia. This is a small area of sandy, silty soil suitable for den building, and so octopuses gather there in unusually large numbers to make their homes. This can lead to social friction, as you might expect. Scientist Peter Godfrey-Smith had observed the animals ‘throwing’ silt at one another, but wasn’t sure until recently if the behaviour was intentional. However, after a lengthy study Godfrey-Smith is sure that it is, and that the females in particular hurl silt at males who are irritating them.
“In 2016, for instance, one female octopus threw silt 10 times at a male from a nearby den who was attempting to mate with her. She hit him on five occasions. “That sequence was one of the ones that convinced me [it was intentional],” says Godfrey-Smith.
On four of these occasions, the male tried to “duck”, though he didn’t always succeed. In two cases, he anticipated the throws from the female’s movements and started dodging before the silt was propelled at him”.
Normally the octopuses just squirt out the silt, but I absolutely love this.
“On one occasion, the researchers did see an octopus throw a shell at – and hit – another octopus by flinging it with a tentacle like a frisbee, rather than by propelling material with its siphon”.
And it’s not just other octopuses that are getting walloped.
“On two occasions, an octopus hit a fish, though one of these collisions appeared to have been accidental. The animals also seemed to target the camera on occasion, hitting the tripod twice.”
The scientists also believe that the octopuses might throw things about when they get frustrated.
“What’s more, some throws that happen after intense social interactions aren’t directed at another octopus but into empty space, suggesting the animals might be venting their frustration.
In one case, after a male’s advances to a female were rejected, he threw a shell in a random direction and changed colour.”
A Sydney Octopus (Octopus tetricus) (Photo from Nature Picture Library / Alamy)
There is nothing about this story that I do not love. It sounds as if we are only at the very start of our understanding of the emotional lives of these remarkable animals.