Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lots of new species

Very busy at the moth trap over the last few days. Not great numbers but a pile of new species for me - about 20 over the last week. Here are some of the prettier ones (i.e. the ones that didn't escape before I could photograph them):

Orange Footman

Ingrailed Clay

Common Wainscot
Red Green Carpet

Buff Ermine

Muslin Moth (female)


Small Angle Shades
Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)
Nicrophorous humator?

Calopteryx pop art

 The female Muslin is the first that I have seen. As only the males fly by night, I don't catch females. This one was hiding under some mint in the garden. Interesting mating strategy if the two sexes are active at different times of day!

The beetle is, I think, Nicrophorous humator, a Sexton Beetle. I am catching lots of these at the moment and they are generally covered in mites, smelly and boisterous. If it is that species, they feed on carrion which they bury to feed their larvae - nice. Also catching a lot of Cockchafer (do you think that the man who named Cockchafer was looking for a suitable name and decided to put one in his pants for inspiration?? I can only imagine that they do chafe!)

Finally, the Calopteryx is important. It is one of two species in SX54 that has not been recorded since the millenium. In three years, I have not see one there (although much of the square is sea and there is little suitable habitat) and can't believe that I have missed it before. The last pic shows one of my little gripes with the FZ150 - it is very slow to save photos and I often end up switching the camera off before it has saved. Normally this leads to a file error but this time I must have timed it just right as it was saving to generate some pop art.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


After catching a nice mimetic moth, I caught the classic example of a cryptic moth - Peppered Moth (Biston betularia).

It wouldn't sit still unfortunately but you get the idea. Against the right background, this almost disappears. Notice how the outline is nicely broken up with random dark and light. I am currently reading A Guinea Pigs History of Biology by Jim Endersby, a book that examines how various species have contributed to our understanding of genetics, heredity and evolution. It is a really good book as it takes you through how our understanding of genetics developed with time. It seems quite absurd to read some of the intermediate theories knowing what we know now but with the knowledge that the scientists had at the time, you can understand that their conclusions were valid. For scientists like De Vries and Gaulton who spent their lives trying to understand how evolution might work, an example like Peppered Moth would have been invaluable. If you have forgotten your GCSE/O-level biology, Peppered Moth also exists in a (currently) rarer dark form (carbonaria). The light form is obviously good at camouflage on tree trunks but not when they are covered in soot as they were during the industrial revolution. Thus the dark form had the advantage and the light form was eaten more frequently, changing the proportions of each form in the population. As the air and the trees have become cleaner, the darker form is selected against and the pale form now predominates. Very difficult to see evolution in action normally!

Monday, 28 May 2012

What Scientific Research is Really Like....

People always think that scientific research must be either glamorous or very geeky - this video explains what it is really like. For all those of you who started in labs today or are about to start......

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Poplar Hawk Moth

Lots of moths over the last few days with the good weather and warm nights - I'll get round to organising some photos soon. For now I'll leave you with some pics of the first Hawkmoth for the trap - a Poplar Hawkmoth.

Friday, 25 May 2012


These Buff Tip moths that I caught last night together with a poster on crypsis that I was reading yesterday have prompted this post.

There are many strategies that animals use for camouflage but they really fall into two categories: mimesis and crypsis. Crypsis is general blending in with the background in various ways and eliminating (or making it hard) to see outlines and shadows. Things like military camouflage with disruptive patterns make it hard to see a clear outline and this spot the wearer whereas species like Great White Sharks are pale below and dark above such that they are hard to pick out against the darkness of the depths or the light of the sky. Lots of animals use this strategy.

Mimesis is pretending to be something else. Some examples are rather clear as with Pygmy Seahorses but some are a little harder to work out. Here is one of the Buff Tips from last night.

Ok, it looks a bit like a twig but what is with the bright spot? The clue is in that little broken knot in the twig and becomes clearer if you look from the front.

The moth is mimicking a broken twig such that it can sit still on a twig and blend in. Notice that around the pale area, there is an obvious double line which looks like the ring of bark and that the pale area is quite textured again following the non clean break of the twig. This whole accessory is not actually the head but a structure above it.

Nature is pretty cool sometimes!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The infinite monkey theorum

Yesterdays post (now deleted) talked about the monkey hypothesis but I thought that it might give the wrong idea (sorry) and this seems more constructive and perhaps educational! I didn't think that my students read the inane rubbish I tend to write but it seems I was wrong and I claim temporary marking insanity! Bear with me.......... it does get more interesting towards the bottom

I am sure that most of us are quite happy with the idea that if you flip a coin once then the probability of flipping a head or a tail is 0.5 (or 50%). Most of us probably also know the classic concept of probability (mathematical) that if you set an infinite number of monkeys to work on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite length of time then one of them will write the complete works of Shakespeare flawlessly. With my head fried today, looking into this seemed like a better option than work - here goes:

This site suggests that there are 34896 lines in all of the works of Shakespeare and, making some gross assumptions, a word document has about 80 characters (including spaces and punctuation) per line. That makes 2,791,680 characters total in the works. My keyboard has 78 keys total and if we assume that for each of the characters, there is a 1/78 chance of the monkey hitting the right one, then the probability of the monkey writing the whole works flawlessly is 1 in 78 to the power of 2791680 (or 1/78 multiplied by itself 2791680 times). Needless to say it is a small number - the calculators I have available give up on it but it is a number that starts 0. and then has more than 4 million zeros before the next non-zero number...... I said it was small and this is what sensible mathematicians call tending to zero - or translated, it ain't happening. (In case you ever need to know, excel rounds down to zero at 10^-307 or after a mere 307 zeros)

However, biology and maths are not the same thing - would the monkey have an equal chance of hitting each key or would the central ones be favored as with my son? Would the monkey just get pissed off and go scratch its genitalia for a while? Has anyone tried this? Clearly we do not have access to infinite monkeys etc but it can, and has, been attempted with computers generating random keystrokes. After 2,737,850 million billion billion billion monkey-years equivalent, the closest they had got was this: "RUMOUR. Open your ears; 9r"5j5&?OWTY Z0d..." partly from Henry V, part II (from Wikipedia) so it seems like the mathematical probability was about right!

So the real question is "has anyone ever tried with real monkeys?" And the answer is yes. You may be surprised to learn that this fundamental piece of research was done right here in the arts department in Plymouth! They gave 6 Celebes Crested Macaques at Paignton Zoo a keyboard for a month. So what did they manage to write in a month? 5 pages of crap as might be expected (honestly, this link takes you to a pdf of the masterpiece). Most of it consisting of the letter S perhaps due to a male squashing a testicle on the keyboard for a while....... They also started bashing it with a stone and then urinating and defecating on the keyboard too (photos here but not of the defecation/urination bit if you were hoping). Let the statisticians work all of that into a probability calculation! You cannot always explain biology with maths.......

If you have not lost the will to live is there a point to all of this drivel? Not really apart from the fact that I thought that it was quite a fun story. Here's a monkey:

Photo - Romana Klee (CC)

Some new species

Three new species last night:

Setaceous Hebrew Character

White Ermine

Flame Shoulder with Green Carpet

Sunday, 20 May 2012

This week

Not a bad week. Moth trap has been reasonably busy compared with previous weeks. Quite a lot of new species - mostly geometrids.

19/5/12 - 16 of 10 species including my first Small White and Riband Waves and a Heart and Dart

Wave sp. (see comments below)

Heart and Dart

20/5/12 - 18 of 6 species including 12 Treble Lines, Shuttle-shaped Dart and Flame Carpet

Treble Lines - 70% of my catch!

Monster Cockchafer

Shuttle-shaped Dart

Flame Carpet

A few other bits and pieces: A Wembury tick in the form of Sedge Warbler thanks to warbler finder extraordinaire Andy; a pregnant? Common Lizard and some very late first Bombus pascuorum.

Bumpy enough to be pregnant?

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi

Have been looking for these Ant Woodlice for a while now. I didn't really want to dig into an ants nest to find one so finding a bit of a nest between some stones in the garden was a bit of luck. They always seem to live with ants and perhaps are tolerated as they eat ant droppings. Living underground, they are white and blind too. Some quite poor photos as these are small!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Troublesome Carpets

Pretty poor on the moth front recently and that was highlighted by friday's catch of 2 of 2 species! Small numbers but some new species - mostly troublesome Carpets! The first of the Common Marbled Carpets had me searching for IDs on the internet but the second was a bit easier.

Red Twin Spot Carpet

Common Marbled Carpet


Treble lines

Common Marbled Carpet

Monday, 7 May 2012


Went to visit my mother in Somerset this weekend. They may have stopped talking about it but there is still plenty of flood water!

Most of the ground-nesting birds will have lost their nests. Better news in the form of a new garden breeding record.

Also a couple of interesting things:

just a gingery pascuorum?

Back in Devon and there were 50+ Whimbrel at Wembury beach this morning (plus two over the house last night) although there was not much else. Apologies to the Plymouth Birder as I nicked the only good moth from the toilet block this morning - a new moth for me, Red Twin Spot Carpet. Evaded the camera though.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Most boring organism?

Despite unpromising looking conditions, I stuck the moth trap out last night.

Brimstone 1
Angleshades 1

Hebrew Character 4
Muslin 3
Common Quaker 2
Dotted Border 1
Garden Carpet (garden tick) 1

Some Pugs I'm yet to ID and this:

Given that I am still learning about variation in moths, I had always been worried that I might be overlooking these. The sages of Birdforum said that I would just know when I found one - and they were right! I was very happy but others might call this moth a bit dull. Indeed, it has the dullest name of any organism I can think of: Clouded Drab not only is it drab, it is also clouded suggesting grey boring and rainy. When you get to the latin name, it doesn't get much better - Orthosia incerta - the uncertain Orthosia. Almost ranking with one of the most apt scientific names: Sylvia borin(g), Garden Warbler - cute but dull.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Tick and run

Events eventually conspired for me today. After sitting reading about biblical falls at Beer and Portland (and regretting having to go to work on a day when a bit of a backlog of migrants pushed through) I thought I had missed out. A slightly gripping text was received (cheers Andy) about a Reed/Sedge Warbler singing at the point mid afternoon followed by a call confirming Reed Warbler - a patch tick - as I was on the way home. Luckily, my wife pulled up just as I was getting off the bus with a still sleeping baby. To the Point! Reed Warbler safely bagged for the patch list along with (embarrasingly) my first Wheatear of the year (before today, there had only been 3/4 Wheatears here this year). Back home in time to catch the end of In The Night Garden keeping the baby happy too! Also had my first House Martin of the year early this morning.

What are things coming to when you have to wait until the 1st of May for Wheatear and House Martin? Hopefully, the next few days will bring some more stuff through.

Fickle wind.....

Three views of the wind from magicseaweed - the first two when I was able to do some seawatching and the last while I was at work. As I sat in my office in Plymouth, I imagine that Skuas were doing a can-can along the beach!