Sunday, January 31, 2010

Knapweed nemesis...

This little barrel-shaped grub is the larval stage of a picture-winged fly Urophora jaceana, which spends the winter hidden deep inside the seed head of a knapweed plant. Late last summer the adult female fly would have....

...laid its eggs in a knapweed flower like this and since then the larvae have been feeding on the developing seeds inside. The larvae induce the formation of a hard, woody gall inside the seedhead so if you.....

... gently squeeze a seed head like this one you'll find some that are squashy and some that have a hard lump inside, which is the Urophora gall. If you carefully cut the gall open ...

.. the larvae are revealed in their chamber inside. Here, a fully-fed larva is on the right and one that has developed into a pupa is on the left.

By this stage most of the seeds (on the right here) have usually been eaten but sometimes you'll find a few survivors.

This pupa will hatch out early this summer, just in time to lay eggs in a new crop of knapweed flower buds.

European knapweed species were taken to North America and have since become noxious weeds there. In an attempt to control them Urophora species, which can have a major impact on the plants' reproductive capacity, were introduced too as a biological control agent. The gall fly hasn't  halted the spread of the knapweed but it has provided a nourishing food supply for North American deer mice in winter, to the extent that in Montana there has been a population explosion of well-fed deer mice. When the ground is covered in snow they climb the knapweed stalks and eat the Urophora grubs. The sudden population increase is causing some concern since they carry hantavirus, which is present in their urine and can be transmitted to humans - an unexpected consequence of a chain of events that started with Europeans carrying knapweed to the United States. It's also another example of how biological control techniques can have broader consequences than intended by those who introduced the biological control agents. Curiously, I don't think our local native field mice in Britain have yet discovered that there's a rich source of animal protein in the gall-fly infested knapweed seed heads - after the recent heavy snowfalls I couldn't find any evidence of field mice having foraged on knapweed seed heads around here. Maybe deer mice are just a bit smarter...........

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nature's Pole-vaulter

This engaging little animal is a springtail – a member of an ancient lineage of six-legged arthropods called the Collembola, that resemble insects but differ in having internal rather than external mouthparts. Springtails are everywhere and most live on detritus. This one, which was about half a millimetre long and just visible to the naked eye - and which I think belongs to a genus called Deuterosminthurus - was rambling over the surface of the soil in a flower pot in our conservatory. Lift up the lid of your compost bin and you’ll often see swarms of them scuttling around on the surface ........ and if you disturb them they leap into the air, using.......

... a specialised structure called a furcula attached to their tail and folded underneath the springtail. You can just see it in this photo, behind the set of legs closest to the camera, pointing towards the head. Springtails use their furcula much in the same way as a pole-vaulter uses their pole. It’s under permanent tension and when the animal releases it from the catch that holds it in place it flicks down instantaneously, catapaulting the animal into the air and away from danger. The tip of the furcula in this species is .....

forked – as you can see here, where it appears to be using it to scratch its mouth.

While I watched this particular animal gave itself a pedicure and rather remarkably you can see that it’s got all three legs on one side off the ground.... so why doesn’t it fall over? If your dog did that, lifting both legs on the same side, it would roll over.... but maybe if it had six-legs instead of four it wouldn't because.....

...... as you can see when the springtail tilted itself the other way and lifted all three left-hand legs off the ground, the right hand legs are acting like a tripod with feet evenly spaced at the points of a triangle.

There are numerous species of springtails that are fascinating to study, if you have a microscope. You can find a wonderful photoguide to many of the species in Britain here and you can see a wonderful movie, from David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth at showing these pole-vaulters in action.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some like it hot: the Firebrat Thermobia domestica

One of the pleasures of being a professional biologist is that people often bring things for me to identify that I might otherwise never see. This strange insect – a firebrat Thermobia domestica – arrived today in a jam jar. It was a little tattered – with a couple of broken tail spines and a damaged antenna, but still very much alive.


Firebrats are relatives of the much more familiar silverfish – primitive wingless insects belonging to an order known as the thysanura and commonly known as bristle-tails. One of their most curious features is that they’re totally covered with overlapping, iridescent scales rather like the scales on a butterfly’s wing.

Unlike silverfish, which tend to live in damp places like the space under baths and cupboards under stairs, firebrats can only survive in warm places and are very drought tolerant. They thrive at temperatures of around 37C and were once common inhabitants of crevices around bread ovens in bakeries. The name firebrat refers to the fact that crevices around hearths of open fires also suited then very well.

Thysanura, the name of the order to which bristletails belong, is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘fringed tail’ and you can see here the fringes on the central tail filament and its two flanking cerci. A large specimen is about a centimetre long, including the tail filament.

As soon as the insect was placed under the warm light of a microscope it perked up and demonstrated its ability to move like greased lightning. I’d rather like to get hold of a few more specimens, because I came across this fascinating description of their courtship in a book called The Living House by George Ordish, published back in 1960. “Firebrats have a curious courtship procedure”, he writes, ”not unlike that of the display of birds. The male dances in circles around the female and repeatedly touches her with his antennae. The actual mating is somewhat akin to that of spiders in that the male deposits a sperm bag in front of the female and then retires, while the female herself undertakes the necessary movements to absorb it, if she so desires”.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Hidden Secrets of Ferns

Fern spores are produced in vast numbers on the understide of fern fronds during the summer months. For details of how they are catapaulted into the airstream, take a look at

Each spore is less than a hundredth of a millimetre in diameter and can be carried vast distances on air currents. Ferns are often the first plants to colonise bare volcanic lava flows, carried there as spores on the wind.

All they need for germination is water and mineral salts. They swell, the brown spore case splits open and a hair-like rhizoid emerges, that anchors the spore to its substrate. Then a green photosynthetic cell emerges from the spore.

The photosynthetic cell divides longitudinally, forming the beginnings of a short chain of cells. The green blobs in the cells are chloroplasts.

The chain of cells continues to elongate until it reaches 6-7 cells long, dividing longitudinally and producing more rhizoids to anchor itself more firmly. At this stage the remains of the brown spore coat is still visible. During this stage of development the plant must be constantly wet - even a short period of drought will be fatal. I sowed these spores in September, so they've taken about four months to reach this stage, where they appear to the naked eye as a green film covering wet soil.

This is the next crucial stage in development and is about a millimetre long. The tip cell of the thread now begins to divide laterally and longitudinally, forming a flat plate of cells ....

... here you can see this two-dimensional tip division at higher magnification. The flat plate of cells that develops from this is known as the prothallus, and this is where fern sexual reproduction takes place..

These are two fully developed prothalli, each about 5mm. in diameter and only one cell thick. They are incredibly delicate and must remain permanently wet to survive. At this stage they are about six months old and male and female reproductive cells form on their surface.

These are the male antherozoids, enclosed in a structure called the antheridium. When this bursts the antherozoids are released in swarms and swim, propelled by lashing flagellae, like tiny spinning tops in the surface film of water, in search of a female egg cell inside a long-necked structure called an archegonium, which you can see here. After a successful fertilisation an embryo deveops which ultimately grows into a ....... miniature fern plant. In the early stages, as seen here, it's still attached to the prothallus formed by the germinated spore but that soon withers away and the new fern grows by producing a series of ever-larger fronds. It usually takes about a year after sowing to reach this stage.

Provided you have the required patience, ferns are not difficult to grow from spores. For detailed instructions, visit
For more on the fascinating world of ferns, visit