Monday, 30 September 2013

Pete and Scott publish a scientific paper

Writing scientific papers is not a natural ability, or, if it is than only for a fortunate few. Academic papers are a tortuous challenge as you write to explain what you did in as concise and precise a manner as possible, justify why what you did matters to the wider world and ultimately discuss the significance of the findings.  Such writing is by its nature an arcane technical exercise. There are scientists who can turn the sparest of language into a pleasing phrase but most of the time I’d happily let a machine do the writing. Nonetheless academic papers are the gold standard of what we produce, their status as peer-reviewed and eventually (maybe) accepted for publication furnishing them with a credibility and place in the cannon of science that is a privilege to be part of.  Pete and Scott have just had their first paper accepted. The sheer effort to write so exactly and economically came as a surprise to them. The need to check the precise format of references to meet a journal’s house style, the unexpected questions and encouragement provided by thoughtful referees, the increasingly picky arguments over the precise line widths on a graph...... all this was new territory for Scott and Pete and they should be proud. Suddenly their names are there, a unique addition, their own work, something that would not exist if they had not done it. These days academic papers are caught up in the wider pressures of rating research excellence, funding streams, and career CVs, but I can still remember the day my first publication was accepted and the shock and delight this caused me. It pays to remember that science is done by men and women, not just a string of names et al. So here is Pete submitting the paper a few months ago. Standing behind is Mike Deary, one of Pete’s supervisors, probably offering more advice which Pete is evidently ignoring.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The pondweed's great time and space escape

Two inches of rain fell over parts of north east over the last week. Flash floods had motorists scrambling onto car roofs and the torrents carved out a gentle stream in the petite seaside resort of Saltburn into a mini canyon, ripping up tarmac and turning cars into dodgems. The end of august had seen most of the smaller ponds along Druridge bay dry and baked, with grim results for some animals and plants. For example the small leaved pondweed, Potamogeton berchtoldii, that had established in an isolated pond in the middle of an oil seed rape field in the wet summer of 2012 seemed lost (left hand photo, Blog, 2nd September). However the key to pond ecology is not to think of  a site in isolation, either in space or time. Pond-life has always had to come and go across the pondscape, finding entirely new sites as old ponds fill in or, over a shorter time scale, colonising or wiped out as the seasons and climate vary. The pond weed may have been lost from the arable pond (...although the real test will be next summer in case fragments of root or seeds sprout again from the apparently barren mud) but has turned up a kilometre away, this time in a pond in the middle of grazing pasture (right) , one of the few ponds to survive the summer drought due to an adjacent spring line.
This new site has been checked repeatedly over the preceding two years and the pondweed has not been found before, so this looks like a genuine colonisation. Repeatedly visiting sites over the years can feel like very mundane science, lacking the glamour of genetic code breaking or atom smashing, but long term monitoring is needed or else all we have are snap shots which may give a poor representation of the ecology.  The pondweed is doing perfectly well if you look across the years, but one year alone is too static; which year is representative? 2012,all pond inundated and the pondweed in amongst the arable crops or  2013, the ponds drying out, the pondweed in the pasture pond? No single year does this site justice

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The pond skater's lunch

There may not be much open water in the early autumn warmth but where the ponds stay wet life and death goes on. Pond skaters are very conspicuous right now. These are members of the true bugs, the Hemiptera, with sucking mouthparts drawn out into a stiletto-like proboscis, all the better for sucking the juices out of hapless victims. Watch the pond skaters for a while, there is an elegance and simplicity to their movement, a single stroke of those long pairs of legs is enough to catapult them across the water, then, propped on their cantilevered second and third pairs of legs, wait perfectly still on the surface. They are skittish, slightly nervous creatures when fully grown, as in the picture. Newly hatched young in mid-summer are pin-pricks perched on tiny cross hair legs.

Their fidgety nature hides a murderous intent. These are predators, specialising in other insects trapped in the surface film. The skaters’ impressive water geometry is a patrol in search of prey. They react to the vibrations of water logged wings or twitching legs by sidling up, ever so nonchalantly, inspecting their target for signs of danger. Then, if they sense no risk, they move in for the kills. Once a prey item has been stabbed they find a raft or bankside refuge to which they  retreat and enjoy their meal.  Sometimes several skaters home in on one victim, resulting in a flurry of skips and hops, legs seeming to go all over the place as they jostle for position. The skater in the picture has harpooned a Bibionidae fly, and there are other flies and a frog hopper mired in the surface tension nearby, as well as smaller flies perched on the water surface in search of their own, tiny prey. The skater is using the feather as a platform on which to finish its meal. Stylish, but deadly

Monday, 2 September 2013

The pondweed's doom

The wet summer of 2012 saw many more of the temporary ponds stay full all year long, especially the shallow flashes and pools in the arable fields. The bare mud may not look an inviting habitat but for the few species that can cope these ponds are a productive refuges. Some more unlikely inhabitants turned up too, notably some plants typical of more permanent water. The left hand picture shows a dense clump of small pond weed, Potamogeton berchtolidii, flourishing in the  exposed shallows of a large pool in the middle of what should have been an oil seed rape crop.

This particular pool fills every year, a distinct dimple at Blakemoor farm not far east of the A1063 road. How the pondweed got there I do not know, although black headed gulls, shelduck, red shank and avocets all loaf around on the muddy margins and may be the vectors. The summer of 2013 has been drier, in fact the warmest, driest since 2006. The middle photo shows the same view in May as the water level falls. Fragments of small pondweed were still scattered across the bed of the pond, hard to see but there is a clump in the red circle. However by the end of August the water had receded leaving the mud to crack and gnarl (right hand image). No pondweed could be found on the crisping surface. Perhaps buried roots will allow the pondweed to re-grow and the pond refills over winter; it will take until next year to find out. It is not often you witness these moments, whether the unusual arrival in 2012 or grim fate of 2013, but pond wildlife is surprisingly mobile and small pondweed is a common plant of many of the permanent ponds. The drying out bowl of the pond is now ringed by chickweed, Stellaria major, and Orache, Atriplex prostrata, much more typical plants of these sun baked field pools.