Nature Notes 2019
Early 2019 found me confined to the kitchen, undertaking a long overdue revamp; the culmination of a lifetime's dabbling at DIY, so not much in the way of wildlife encounters to prompt an article, though there was one little beastie that I came across during the destruction phase.
I first encountered Silverfish in 1971 at a house in Colchester where I was a lodger and though I'm sure my landlady kept a clean and hygienic home, they did seem to be a permanent guest and I found them fascinating.
Silverfish are very primitive insects and the commonest species in the order Thysanura, the Three-pronged Bristle-tails. They like the dark and hide away in nooks and crannies during the day (until some DIY-er comes along and destroys them). They also like starch and sugar so kitchens, pantries and bakeries are favoured though I've come across them in bathrooms too.
They are perfectly harmless; they do not harbour or spread disease to humans but their appearance and behaviour might come as a surprise to anyone seeing Silverfish for the first time. About a centimetre long and shaped like a carrot, and they are of course silver coloured. They dash about like a slippery fish, so their name suits them perfectly – though it might create confusion.
Nearly all insects change in appearance as they grow older: caterpillar – pupa – butterfly for instance or in the case of Odonata, water-delling nymph to adult dragonfly but the Silverfish starts out as a tiddler and just grows bigger: It hasn't evolved wings and has maintained its appearance and presumably, behaviour for 400 million years since the early insects developed. If there are no evolutionary pressures, no selection of advantageous characters occurs and so evolutionary changes simply don't happen.
You too may have 'living fossils' in your home.
In 1974 I was the warden of a shingle beach nature reserve in Sussex on which ground-nesting birds, including rare Little Terns depended. Protection for them was mainly aimed at human egg thieves and more natural threats to their breeding success were mostly disregarded. Crows and foxes would have taken a share I'm sure but the only creature that I personally defended the terns from, was a Weasel.
They are the smallest member of a family of mammals grouped together as mustelids and share the genus Mustela with Stoats and Polecats. Otters, American Mink, Badgers and Martens are in different genera, the latter being Martes which is represented in Britain by one species, the Pine Marten - though you won't see one in Nottinghamshire, as they are confined nowadays to Scotland, parts of northern England and a tiny patch of central Wales.
Good evidence has recently been published in British Wildlife that Beech Martens formerly occurred in Britain. They preferred to live in association with people and so were easier to exterminate than the forest-dwelling Pine Marten.
Polecats are the wild version of the domesticated Ferret and seem to be making something of a comeback after a reprieve in their persecution with several verified sightings from Nottinghamshire during a recent national survey.
I'd think twice about grabbing a Polecat or even a Stoat but my encounter with a smaller cousin on the shingle beach resulted in fifteen minutes of me (a younger, fitter person then) pursuing the potential egg thief over the beach with its only hiding places being the occasional Sea Kale plant, until it was eventually more knackered than me and I managed to grab it. Of course I got a painful bite but strategic prising with a pencil got its jaws open and I carried it back into Rye Harbour for release.
When I was a child, wandering the fields around Keyworth, I would frequently come across gamekeepers' gibbets and both Stoats and Weasels were frequent exhibits, hanging in various states of decomposition from a fence or branch. I don't see them today but shoots are very protective of their pheasant releases and some may still treat them as vermin. Most people think Stoats, Weasels and Martens are beautiful, lithe hunters with a place in our countryside and are delighted to see one, even briefly.
If you are wondering how to tell weasels and stoats apart, well: Weasels are weasily identified and a stoat is stoatally different! can be difficult to keep pace with these changes but at least they should stabilise for the long term.
Few, if any of us, study Latin nowadays but in the 18th century anything scientific was in that language and so the works of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist born in 1707 followed that convention.
Linnaeus was just 23 when he published his first edition of Systema Naturae, in which he began to classify the vast diversity of life in a new way.
I am a fan of Gilbert White who was a contemporary of Linnaeus. His letters, published in 'The Natural History of Selborne' sometimes use the often cumbersome terminology of John Ray, where the Wych Elm is “ulmus folio latissimo scabro” (the elm with very broad, rough leaf) and the Lesser Grey Shrike is “lanius minor cinerescens cum macula in scapulis alba” (lesser ash-coloured butcher-bird with a white spot on the shoulders)!
Linnaeus developed a system over the course of many editions which uses a hierarchy where the plants and the animals form a fundamental tier known as a kingdom and other common denominators are used to sub-divide them further to the ultimate level of genus and species. The names are not always true Latin and use a lot of words of Greek origin as well as English but they have “Latinised” form and endings.
Thus the Wych Elm becomes Ulmus glabra and the Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor. All life on Earth now has a name consisting of two words, thus the system is known as the binomial nomenclature.
The system is essentially one of convenience for naturalists and the concept of what constitutes a species can be contentious. With increasing knowledge of the genetic make-up however, comes a better understanding of evolution and the classification fits in nicely with the evolutionary process.
Currently a great deal of research is taking place on the genetic make up of the world's flora and fauna and in many cases this is showing that organisms that appear to be similar are in fact not closely related – examples of convergent evolution – resulting in their re-classification and change of name.
It can be difficult to keep pace with these changes but at least they should stabilise for the long term.