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Field work with Nature Live

6 Posts tagged with the jon_ablett tag
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With the weather still glorious on Sunday I was very happy to hear that Mark had arranged a trip to the island of Bryher, north west of St Mary's.

 

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Bryher

 

The habitat here was a lot more sandy and less rocky than previous sites and also there were beds of sea-grass which provide an excellent nursery ground for young fishes. With the seine net we soon managed to get some nice specimens; a 15-spined stickleback (a marine relative of the 3-spined variety often found in freshwater), some sandeels, some baby plaice and a female dragonet. This last specimen was beautifully camouflaged and we were lucky to spot it.

 

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Dragonet (not sure which species yet)

 

After we had denuded the sea-grass of its inhabitants we transferred our attentions to some of the large stones amongst the seaweed. Lifting a few of these uncovered a wealth of invertebrates, including the most furious crab I've yet seen. As soon its rock was raised it scuttled forth with claws snapping and, although I have seen a lot of crabs come and go, this particular one really spooked me.

 

I mentioned it to one of the locals who had come to see us collect and they immediately asked, did it have red eyes? Yes, I said and they laughed and told me it was a velvet swimming crab - aka the devil crab - and they are renowned for being especially radge (dangerously mad) as they say in Scotland. Very gingerly I managed to grab both its claws and thus obtained the photograph below (you can see its swimming paddles on its lower legs):

 

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Devil crab (Necora puber)

 

Thankfully we managed to get some nice fish specimens too, including our first rockling and some butterfish.

 

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Shore rockling (Gaidropsarus mediterraneus)

 

 

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Butterfish (Pholis gunnellus) and head of 15-spined stickleback (Spinachia spinachia)

 

The following day Andreia Salvador and I stayed on St Mary's and went to the town beach near Hugh Town to look for molluscs, fishes and anything else interesting. As always, the first fish I found was a shanny but with a bit more effort a few nice rock gobies were captured.

 

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Rock gobies (Gobius paganellus) - how many can you see in this picture? *

 

After some more boulder hefting I found another fish that at first sight I thought was just another shanny but turned out to be the much more elusive Montagu's blenny.

 

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Montagu's Blenny (Coryphoblennius galerita)

 

These can be distinguished from the shanny by the small bristles on the top of the head, which shannies don't have.

 

On our final day of collecting, we went to Porth Wreck and back to Porth Hellick on the south-east of St Mary's. Porth Wreck was fairly barren apart from a decent sized rockling and a clingfish but Porth Hellick was much more productive. Using the seine net with deadly effect we got sand gobies, two-spot gobies, baby pollock and a big sandeel.

 

Previously sandeels never really meant that much to me other than as fishing bait and something that puffins like to eat but I have a whole new respect for them now. Firstly, they are beautiful to look at, a dark blue top blending into iridescent green and shining silvery flanks, but also extremely tenacious. Our specimen took a long time to capture as every time we had it cornered it would burrow down into the sand and we would have to dig it up and go after it again. Of all the fish I collected this trip, apart from maybe the wrasse, this was the one I felt saddest about consigning to the collecting pot. The photograph below doesn't begin to do it justice.

 

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Lesser sandeel (Ammodytes tobianus)

 

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Pollock (Pollachius pollachius)

 

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Two-spot goby (Gobiusculus flavescens)

 

And a couple of non-fish pictures to finish on. Maybe I really am getting too sentimental but I found the parental care shown by this centipede (I think) rather touching. We found it while helping my friend and colleague Jonathan Ablett look for snails.

 

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A centipede demonstrating rather touching parental care

 

 

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One of our toilet swallows, who will be very happy to see us go

 

So that's about it from me, it's been a pleasure and a privilege to take part in this field trip and have seen so many amazing things, not all of which were fish. If anything interesting turns up when I go through all the specimens back in London I'll let you know.

 

* There are 10 gobies in the picture

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7.30 am and the beginning of another beautiful day. While most of the scientists were preparing for a collection trip to the nearby island of Bryher, the molluscs curators were preparing to talk live via satellite link with visitors attending one of our daily Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

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Meet the scientists: Jon Ablett (left) feeling the heat and covered in sun screen, me - Ana Rita (middle) - shivering in the mild climate of the Isles of Scilly, and Andreia Salvador (right) feeling confident before her first ever Nature Live.

 

In the Attenborough Studio, Miranda Lowe, Invertebrates Collections Leader and Senior Curator of Crustaceans, showed some gems from the Museum's collection: huge barnacles studied by Darwin himself, pretty shells from the Isles of Scilly collected more than one hundred years ago, and a cute hermit crab (that steals the shells of dead molluscs to live in). And, live from Scilly, we showed some of the highlights’ of what curators have been finding:

 

P1020629nl (Custom).JPGAmazing coloured marine snails, periwinkles, which paint the white sand with red, black, green, yellow

 

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Blue rayed limpets collect from the inside of very big kelp

 

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Dino-slug, a species that has been around since the time of T. rex, and still displays a small vestigial shell, that most species of slugs have lost

 

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Left: The garlic snail, which smells of garlic when disturbed. Right: The dinner table in the evening.

 

We also talked about the joy of the evenings in our field work headquarters, with scientists sorting out their catches of the day and preserving the specimens for the collections. Every evening Jon Ablett needs to overcome the challenge of trying to make his snails and slugs crawl across a special paper designed to preserve DNA from their mucous. Jon also deep freezes part of his land molluscs in a container at -200 degC, which is not good fun on very cold evenings ... but the vapours coming out of the container look really cool!

 

The visitors at the Attenborough Studio asked lots of interesting questions. From big, to slow and tasty slugs and snails and tips about what to look for in rock pools, to how to become a scientist and, finally, why and how collections at the Museum are used by researchers from all over the world - we hope that everyone has had a slugtastic and a shell of a good time!

 

P1170550 (Custom).JPGA moment's relaxation turns into an opportunity to showcase the size of a kelp

 

Ana-Rita

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After all that build up in my first post, the Scillionian boat trip wasn't that good and it wasn't that bad. So no sharks, whales, sunfish, etc but also no vomiting and I ended up spending most of the journey asleep.

 

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The Scillonian after our arrival at St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

 

[I'm going to have to go off at a tangent slightly now and say that I've just this second been recognised by a small blonde lad as I sit here in the pub typing this. I will explain why in a bit.]

 

Anyway, we disembarked and trudged up and over a hill to the most western part of St Mary's which is called the Garrison or Woolpack. I've stayed in a few interesting places in my time but our current lodgings are the first that look like they could withstand a direct hit from a scud missile, being in an old military bunker. However, they are comfortable enough and we soon feel at home, although I can't help but feel sorry for the poor swallows who foolishly decided to raise their family in the corridor leading to the showers and toilets.

 

[I've just been recognised again, this 'fame' will start to go to my head if it carries on.]

 

Once we'd settled ourselves in, Mark Spencer, experienced botanist and exhibition leader took us for a walk around the island in the sunshine and points out all the parts of it that we can graze upon. Particularly nice are plants called three cornered leeks which have a spring onion/garlic taste.

 

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The lighthouse at Peninnis Head.

 

The next day we rise early as one of my first obligations is to help with three talks for children (who seem to still remember me, hence the recognitions tonight as I write this) at the local Five Islands School. These go really well and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs, steals the show with his squid dissection.

 

I don't have any props myself (apart from a baby pollock which is deemed unsuitable for hacking up in front of six-year olds, having proper red blood as opposed to the squid's green variety) so we find a few pictures of deep-sea anglerfish and sharks and I tell the children about those, and then attempt to identify various fishes that they tell me they've seen. I'm also getting a bit worried about the success - or potential lack of it - of my fish collecting at this point so I ask them to bring anything they can find up to our lodgings and give it to me.

 

My worries increase later as we spend a couple of hours fishing beside a sewer pipe with no results. Meanwhile everyone else is gathering buckets full of material - molluscs, plants - and diligently sitting around scribbling in notebooks and writing labels. Determined to get something - anything - of the fish variety, Jon, Tom Simpson and I head down to the beach at Hugh Town with our seine net, and after a lot of mucking about we finally catch our first, a baby sandeel. I hope things improve tomorrow...

 

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Jon and Tom attempting to seine

 

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My first fish, a sandeel

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As well as taking part in video conferences with schools back on the mainland this morning, we visited the local The Five Island School, to talk to some of the classes about our trip and why we we’re here. James Maclaine and Jon Ablett are seasoned Nature Live speakers but three classes of thirty 6-10 year olds is a daunting prospect for anyone. However, the pupils were superb - enthusiastic and interested and full of great questions.

 

I don't have any photos of the sessions to put up here, but I think it is safe to say that the the pupils enjoyed hearing from our scientists. I saw that two of them, Hafwen and Amelie, had drawn a quick (but very detailed and accurate) picture in the playtime after we had finished and had to get a picture of it. Well done to them for doing such a good picture and to Jon; the mollusc message clearly struck home.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGAmelie and Hafwen's brilliant molluscs

 

I spent the rest of the day with Jon, back at the bulb fields head-down looking for snails and slugs.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGSnail and slug hunt

 

This was really hard work but great fun. Finding a slug in a field of bulbs can be a harder task than finding a needle in a haystack. However, I did fin myself getting extraordinarily excited by the tiny molluscs, and they are very beautiful close up.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGWe have a winner

 

If you look closely you can see the breathing hole. All slugs and snails breathe through a hole in the side of their body and - in slugs - the position of this hole can determine what family they are in.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGLook closely and you can see the hole in the slug that it uses to breathe

 

After a good search we had found some really cool stuff, including Oxycailus alliarius.


 

 

Collecting slugs and snails

 

It is interesting in itself that there are any terrestrial molluscs on the islands. The soil here has very little naturally occurring calcium in it and molluscs require this element to build their shells. In Scilly, the high winds and high humidity mean the calcium is effectively ‘blown’ across the islands and dissolved into the soil, and it is this that allows the molluscs to build their shells.

 

Back at the ranch Jon explained some of techniques he uses to preserve the specimens.

 

 

 

How to join the snail preservation society

 

Today was also my birthday, and the team prepared a great meal and baked me a cake which was brilliant.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGMy birthday cake ... thanks guys!

 

We had (foraged) watercress soup to start, then an amazing fisherman's pie - I caught the pollock and Vanessa turned them into this spectacular creation complete with (foraged, again) samphire.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGMy catch of pollock

 

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGFisherman's (pollock) pie made by Vanessa Pike, yum!

 

Thanks so much to all the team but especially Mark and Vanessa for making such a lovely meal!

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGWhat better way to end my birthday than a sight like this?

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Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.

 

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Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.

 

In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.

 

The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.

 

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Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!

 

Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!

 

The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.

 

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Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?

 

The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!

 

Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!

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The rest of the team arrived today - in total there are now 11 of us and over the next few days I’ll introduce you to them so that you can get a idea of the full range of work and research that will going on during trip.

 

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Standing (l-r): Tony Vinhas (media tech), Jonathan Fenn (molluscs), Holger Thues (lichens), Daniel Whitmore (flies), Jon Ablett (molluscs-terrestrial), Mark Spencer (team leader and botanist), James Maclaine (fishes).

Sitting (l-r): Andreia Salvador (molluscs-marine), Ana Rita Rodrigues (Nature Live) and Vanessa Pike (helping with all of the above!)

 

We’re staying in the south west corner of St Mary’s in a building called The Woolpack. It’s a rather unique structure, a former gunning station that has been converted into accommodation for up to 14. Tony and I made a short film to give you an idea...

 

 

 

Where we're staying on St Mary's - the Woolpack

 

We’re beaming back live to the Museum's Attenborough Studio for four days of Nature Live events starting on Sunday (see the listing on the right had side of the blog homepage) using a satellite we have set up on the roof of an out-building. You can come to the Museum to see them in person, but if you can't make it, the Wednesday's will be webcast live online.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGLive and direct (via a satellite)

 

Within 10 mins of arriving, the scientists had spread out in the green area around the building and were bringing back things for us to look at.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGScilly slugs

 

Jon Ablett (molluscs, terrestrial) found a couple of beautiful slugs but the sharp-eyed quick-fire award goes to Holger Thues, who found a new record for the Isles of Scilly. It’s a parasitic fungus that lives inside the fungal fruiting body of a lichen. We have no records for this kind of fungus from the Isles of Scilly and it shows how important trips like these are in order to enhance our understanding of the islands’ biodiversity.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGHolger found this new record just a few metres away from the Woolpack on his first day on St Mary's

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGYou’re looking for the black ‘pepper’ bits within the rest of the lichen

 

The group then headed off to have a look around the local town before beginning the serious work of collecting tomorrow.