Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Over 6th July 21 AS/A2 Biology students (and Dr Paul and I) set off to Snowdonia to study ecology as part of the A2 Biology course. 

North Wales

Staying at a Field Studies Council centre in Betws-y-coed, the first evening began with setting Longworth mammal traps (non-lethal) so that we could get an estimate of the population of small mammals in the centre grounds. After dinner we had a bonfire and a game of football on a pretty muddy pitch (it had rained most of the day whilst we travelled) but it was good fun.

The following day we checked our mammal traps before breakfast. Another school had also set mammal traps but they hadn’t gone to such great lengths to conceal them and subsequently the squirrels had raided the traps and eaten all the bait. 

Wood Mouse

Our traps however were untouched, and yielded 4 wood mice and 3 bank voles.

Bank vole

After letting them go we travelled by coach to Morfa Harlech, a nature reserve with a textbook-quality sand dune system. Walking across the dunes from the sea towards the land allowed us to record the changes in plant and animals species and the local environment, highlighting the process of succession. At the end of the dune system is woodland that was once bare sand but over time has been colonised by successive plant communities.

Sand dunes at Morfa Harlech

That evening the students worked in the classroom to process their results, and then we played another game of football.

Sunday saw us travelling to Penmon Point on Anglesey to study a rocky shore.

Penmon Point, with Puffin Island in the distance

Penmon Point

 Starting at the low water mark we moved higher above sea level, recording the changes in types of seaweed and plants, limpets, barnacles and crabs.

Velvet Swimming Crab

 Rocky shores exhibit something called ‘zonation’ – the distribution of the different organisms is heavily influenced by different local environmental conditions.

On the return from Penmon Point we stopped off briefly at Cwm Idwal, a spectacular corrie (bowl-shaped glacial valley) formed by over 2 million years of glaciation.

Cwm Idwal

The glacier is long since gone, although it has left a crystal-clear lake in its place. Cwm Idwal is special for many reasons, but particularly since it is home to the incredibly rare Welsh Tufted Saxifrage, an alpine plant that is a leftover from the time when Britain was much colder just after the last ice age.

Tufted Saxifrage – a survivor from the last Ice Age.

 The plant clings on to life on the cold backwall of the valley where few other plants can survive.

That evening didn’t see any football – instead the students dressed up as pirates and took part in a treasure hunt and then a piratey sing-song around a roaring fire!

Monday was our last day, but the morning was spent collecting invertebrates from a fast-flowing freshwater stream and then looking for a correlation between the different species and the velocity of the water.

A cased caddisfly larvae from a freshwater stream.

After that, we travelled by train back to London – rather tired but having had a really good trip. The students were amazing – they worked so hard, got really enthusiastic about everything and were a credit to themselves. Well done!

Welcome to part 2 of the Arthropods special, and today I’m giving you a whistle-stop tour of the myriapods. This group includes centipedes and millipedes (as well as a couple of less important relatives), with approximately 12,000 species currently known.

Centipedes and millipedes are common enough if you look through leaf litter or under stones and flowerpots in the garden. What’s the difference between centipedes and millipedes? Well, a common mistake is about the number of legs (i.e. 100 for a centipede and 1000 for a millipede – this isn’t true). The number of legs in a centipede varies between 20 to 300, and in millipedes ranges from 36 to 750.

The easy way to distinguish between a centipede and a millipede is to look for the number of legs per body segment. A centipede has 2 legs per body segment and a millipede has 4 legs per body segment. They also differ in terms of diet – centipedes are active hunters and carnivores whilst millipedes are detritivores (eating decaying leaves).

Centipedes and millipedes are a very successful group, and have been around on the Earth for at least 440 million years. An earlier relative of centipedes and millipedes called Arthropleura lived 300 million years ago and was able to reach lengths of 2.5m. This makes it the largest land invertebrate ever, and could grow this large due to higher concentrations of atmospheric oxygen at the time.

So, here are some interesting photos of centipedes and millipedes from around the world. Enjoy!

Arthropods are great. I love ’em!

What are arthropods, you might be thinking? Well, the term arthropod (from the Greek for ‘jointed foot’) describes organisms that have hard exoskeletons, segmented body and jointed limbs – animals such as insects and spiders.

Arthropods are a remarkably successful group,  tracing their history back to a common ancestor that lived aabout 500 million years ago. Thanks to their hard waterproof exoskeletons they did very well in the sea, and were in fact the first animals on land. They later diversified into at 5 main groups:

  • Myriapods – including centipedes and millipedes
  • Chelicerata – including spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs and mites
  • Trilobites – an extinct group of marine animals (looked a bit like woodlice, but weren’t related)
  • Crustaceans – including crabs, lobsters, shrimp, barnacles and woodlice
  • Insects– including ants, bees, beetles and butterflies

    The arthropod family tree

There are at least over 1 million known species, and they make up 80% of all living species (that means if you took 100 random species from anywhere on the Earth, approximately 80 of them would be arthropods). They are incredibly populous – a conservative estimate of the number of insects alone (currently alive) is 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 10 quintillion). That’s quite a lot.

So, in celebration of these fascinating and diverse organisms, this is part 1 of 5, each focusing on a different arthropod group. First up is Chelicerata – enjoy!

 

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Charles Darwin, happy birthday to you!

Happy Birthday Darwin!

On this day in 1809 Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most important scientists ever, was born in Shropshire. Charles Darwin is famous for his book On the Origin of the Species where he introduced ideas to explain the origin and diversity of all living species via Natural Selection and Evolution. Darwin was interested in most things, and his work as a geologist and naturalist gave him to opportunity to travel around the world on a 5-year voyage aboard the ship HMS Beagle. Keeping careful notes and making copious observations during the expedition, Darwin saw great biodiversity and it allowed to him to begin considering the origin of this. When he returned to England he began to formulate his idea of Natural Selection.

HMS Beagle

What is Natural Selection?

Darwin had noted that nearly all the species he had encountered were perfectly adapted to a variety of different habitats, diets and lifestyles. His visit to the Galapagos Islands (near Ecuador) had allowed him to study a group of birds (now known as Darwin’s Finches). He was amazed at the variety of different beak shapes and sizes, each adapted to a different way of life.

The Galapagos Islands

How did this happen? Natural selection requires three factors. The first is variation (differences) between individuals. The second is competition between organisms (e.g. not enough food to feed every organism) and finally an environmental change.

Darwin postulated that originally a group of finches arrived at the Galapagos islands from mainland Ecuador. There was variation of beak size within this group of finches. Because there were different food sources on the island (seeds, fruit, insects etc) different beak sizes were more suitable for different diets. For example, large beaks would be able to break open seeds that smaller beaks wouldn’t. If there were plentiful seeds, the larger beaked birds would find more food, have more offspring and therefore pass on the genes for the larger beak. This would continue as long as larger beaks gave a survival advantage. Eventually, with successive generations and continued ‘selection’ for a certain feature, the original population of birds diversified into many different species.

Darwin's Finches

Darwin realised that this same process, occuring over millions of years, could explain the diversity of all living (and extinct) species.

The Theory of Evolution has shaped our understanding of diversity, formation of new species and our position in the Tree of Life. So, thanks Darwin, and Happy Birthday!

The Tree of Life

 

Big Schools Birdwatch 2012

Posted: February 1, 2012 by Mr Bilton in Animals, Biology, Field Work
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Last week every member of Year 7 and 8 took part in the RSPB’s ‘Big Schools Bird Watch’ event. Having placed hand-made bird feeders around the school the previous week, students spent a lesson outside, armed only with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and an ID guide, trying to spot some of the common (and more elusive) birds in the school grounds.

Birdwatch 2012 - The school ground support a large variety of different bird species.

It was certainly an eye opener, and the graph shows the variety of different species seen. The students were recording the maximum number of any given type seen at the same name. As you can see, we’re very lucky to have such biodiversity in the school grounds and we’re looking forward to comparing our results when we participate in the event again, next year.

If you’re interested in finding out about birds, have a look at the RSPB site http://www.rspb.org.uk/.

65 million years ago, the Earth suffered an extinction event which removed around 50% of all living species on the Earth, including all non-aviandinosaurs (more on that little detail later). The K-T extinction (or recently renamed the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction) occured over a geologically short time span (between 100,ooo and 2,000,000 years) but left almost no major animal group without some casualties. The non-avian dinosaurs are the most famous, but a whole range of other important groups went extinct.

Allosaurus - a large carnivorous dinosaur

So, what didn’t make it through the event?

Non-avian Dinosaurs – Having been the dominant group of organisms on land for the past 135 million years, the dinosaurs were a very diverse and highly evolved group. Present on every continent, they occupied very complex food webs and ecologies. They were almost certainly warm-blooded (endothermic – generate their own body heat via respiration) and this would have made them reliant on a good and steady food supply. Dinosaurs had already been in decline for approximately 10 millions years before the K-T event, but what was the last straw?

Pterosaurs– Often thought of as dinosaurs or early birds, pterosaurs were in fact a group of winged reptiles that had their heyday in the Jurassic period, but were still present right up until the end.

Pteranodon - a large pterosaur

Marine reptiles– large marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and icthyosaurs didn’t make it through.

Mosasaur - large marine reptiles that went extinct at the K-T event

Ammonites – these large marine molluscs, easily found as fossils across Britain, had been very common right up until the K-T event, and then the entire group went extinct. Their closest cousins, nautiloids, survived however.

Which groups got through?

Avian Dinosaurs – Avian dinosaurs, or birds as they’re usually called, survived the event relatively intact. There were some species that didn’t make it, but the vast majority did.

Crocodiles – a distant relative of dinosaurs, crocodiles and alligators survived the mass extinction event, probably because their feeding habits and ability to burrow a little helped them through tough times.

Mammals– Luckily for us mammals made it through. At the time mammals had yet to diversify, and would have resembled rat-sized and rat-shaped animals. Whilst some groups took a hit (for example, marsupials), on the whole the group survived well.

Morganucodon - an early mammal

Fish – the vast majority of fish survived the K-T extinction, although sharks did a little worse than bony fish.

Amphibians – Frogs, newts and salamanders seem to have gotten through relatively unscathed, although their rather incomplete fossil record makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions.

There were other groups of course, but I’ve just focused on the main ones. So, what exactly happened to cause the loss of so many species, in such a short space of time? And why did some groups go extinct whilst others were able to cling on? Palaeontologists and geologists have found evidence of three major environment changes that occur around the K-T event. How could they have caused an extinction?

The Chicxulub Impact

65 million years ago, the Earth was struck by an asteroid, hitting the ocean in what is now part of Mexico. The asteroid was approximately 15km wide and released the 420 ZJ of energy (that’s the same as 1 billion atomic bombs).

Chicxulub - map of impact

This would have caused mega-tsunamis, massive wildfires across the Americas and the complete destruction of any large living things within 2000km of the impact. The most significant event however was the large amount of sulfur dioxide and other debris flung up into the atmosphere. This would have blocked the sunlight completely for about a year, and then reduced the amount of sunlight arriving by 20% for 10 years.

Artwork of the Chicxulub asteroid impact

This would have had a huge and very detrimental effect on any plants trying to photosynthesis, and would have severly disrupted any food chains. Evidence such as the crater, global layers of iridium (a metal rarely found on Earth) and deposits from mega-tsunamis show this event definitely happened, and currently most palaeontologists think that it is the main contributor to the extinction.

Chicxulub - Gravity anomaly map showing crater, now buried under sediment

The Deccan Traps

The Deccan Traps are flood basalts (a rock formed from volcanic eruptions) from before the after the K-T event near Decca, India.

Deccan Traps - map showing location

Produced by over 800,000 years of eruptions, these rocks show that there was massive volcanic activity at the time and this would have contributed to any gradual decline, as well as hindering any recovery. Producing large amounts of ash would reduce sunlight, and therefore photosynthesis, and there is evidence that chemicals released during the eruptions (e.g. selenium) may have interfered with the production of eggs in dinosaurs). However, recent evidence has suggested that whilst the Deccan volcanism would have cause signficant problems, it wasn’t enough to cause the extinction.

Deccan Traps - kilometers of basalt from the massive eruptions

Marine Regression

Towards the end of the Cretaceous, sea levels dropped considerably and this mean that large stretches of coastline were lost, along with the species that lived there. This would have severely stressed marine ecosystems, as well as organisms that lived near the coast (including dinosaurs).

So, what happened to the dinosaurs then?

The likely scenario is that sea-level changes and massive volcanism was causing environmental stresses globally. Reduced photosynthesis and loss of habitats meant that food chains became stressed and more vulnerable. Large demanding animals, such as non-avian dinosaurs, felt the effects first and struggled to find enough food. The same went for large organisms in the oceans. If you were small, or could scavenge and get by on detritus (dead organic matter) you had a better chance. Then, when the asteroid hit at Chicxulub it was enough to add that last bit of environmental stress, and pushed many already-vulnerable groups over the edge and into extinction.

So the dinosaurs are well and truly extinct then?

Well, actually, no. You’ll notice that I’ve referred to dinosaurs as ‘non-avian’ dinosaurs, and to birds as ‘avian’ dinosaurs. Birds actually share a direct, unbroken lineage to small carnivorous dinosaurs. This is supported by excellent fossil evidence (of feathers, bone structure, sleeping posture and more) and also DNA evidence that shows that birds are dinosaurs. In fact, the classification that birds belongs to (Avialae) is actually part of the Dinosaur superorder. So, the next time you watch a crow walking across the lawn, imagine it without any feathers and you’ll see exactly how similar they are to their ancestors. So, to answer the question ‘What happened to the dinosaurs?’, the answer is they grew feathers, wings, and started chirping!

Falcarius utahensi - a feathered dinosaur

Nature at Loreto

Posted: January 16, 2012 by tvineloreto in Animals, Biology
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As you stroll from building to building or sit out on the front lawn on a warm sunny day have you ever taken the time to stop and look around at the school grounds. We are blessed with beautiful grounds which are a haven for wildlife. The well established trees, lawns, flowerbeds and new pond provide a wide range of habitats and hidden within is an amazing array of animals, you just need to know where to look.

You cannot have failed to notice the bin-diving squirrels or heard the noisy cackling of the magpies but what else is there to see if you just take the time to look and listen?  We have a large variety of birds visiting or living in our grounds and during the week of 23rd Jan – 28th Jan, students at Loreto will be taking part in the Big Schools Birdwatch organised by the RSPB, an annual event used to collect wildlife data on a national scale.

If you would like to find out more about the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch 2012 or take part in your own survey clink on the link       www.rspb.org.uk

Here are just a few of the birds you might see around Loreto College

The Robin

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

The Robin ( Erithacus rubecula)

Probably the best known British bird, both the male and female have the distinctive red face and breast, white underside and brown plumage. Juveniles are brown. Robins are highly territorial and signal their presence with a beautiful, melodic song.

 They are a gardeners companion, following a gardener to snatch up any worms or insects disturbed whilst they work.  Often spotted in the flowerbeds by the main school entrance

 
 
 

Blackbird

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

A very common sight in parks and gardens. Males are glossy black with a yellow beak and yellow eye-rings,females are brown. They have a rich and beautiful song and sing from high points such as rooftops  and aerials.    A common sight on the school front lawn and by the Mary Ward Block.

 
 
 

Dunnock

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

 Small, with brown plumage but has a greyish hue on the sides of the head and on the breast.

Often mistaken for a sparrow as it is similar in size and colour but Dunnocks have a much slender beak. Seen  in the flowerbeds by the main entrance and in the fenced off area by the pond.

 

Blue Tit

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

 Small, colourful garden bird and a regular visitor to bird tables. It has a distinctive ultramarine cap, wings and tail and a yellow breast. Face is mainly white with a horizontal black line through the eye. Breast is yellow with a small black vertical stripe

 Another gardeners favourite due to its love of small insects and caterpillars. Its acrobatic antics on bird feeders and fat balls make it an entertaining bird to sit and watch.

 Seen throughout the school grounds especially the magnolia trees in front of the school office.

Great

 
Great Tit (Parus major)

 Not to be confused with a blue tit, it is slightly larger and has a black cap which extends down the side of its head as far as the eye socket. It has white cheeks and a yellow breast with a large black central stripe.

 Seen throughout the school grounds.

Mallard

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

 Male has an emerald-green head and blue and white band on wing. Female is predominantly brown but with the same blue and white plumage on the wing.

A spring time visitor to Loreto often seen strolling across the front lawn or taking a nap in the middle of it.

Song Thrush

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Named after its wonderful song. A medium-sized garden bird with brown plumage and a very characteristic pale breast with v-shaped dark spots on.  Another gardeners friend due to its love of snails. It is common for a thrush to have a preferred “anvil” , a large stone used to smash open the snail shells.

 Seen on the main lawn and in the shrubs along the main school wall.

There are many more species of birds living in our grounds, why not see what you can spot?

The most endangered cat – from Iberia

Posted: January 5, 2012 by Mr Pimentao in Animals, Biology
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Just over 100 animals make up the remaining population of the Iberian Lynx

The loss of their habitat to farming and tourism development in southern Portugal and Spain, added to shortages in rabbit availability due to myxomatosis have brought this species close to extinction.

For 30 years, conservation efforts have managed to save the species from extinction, but it has been very hard to maintain stable breeding populations. Today it is estimated that there are only 38 breeding females in the wild.

Links:

Saving the Endangered Iberian Lynx in Europe – video from National geographic

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) video

WWF