Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Well fishy

After the recent cold snap, the weather returned this week to a mild theme and encouraged me out into the garden. As I climbed the steps to the upper garden, my ‘peripherals’ caught a movement in our well. The well sits in a cobbled courtyard and appears to be fed by local groundwater,  and with over a foot of rain in recent weeks has got very full. Since we moved into our new home this summer I have frequently peered into the dark depths of the well, never expecting and never seeing any obvious life in the crystal clear water. I was therefore curious about the water movement – had an animal fallen in and was struggling to get free? At first glance I could not see anything, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the grey gloom I noticed a fishy tail poking out from the side wall. After a few minutes the tail moved gently and a head appeared, followed by the long slender body of an unmistakeable Eel (Anguilla anguilla), at least one and a half feet long (see images – not an easy photograph to take). Gracefully it swam around the well, appearing to search for an escape from its surprise prison until it disappeared through a fissure, not to be seen again and to where underground I can only puzzle.

The questions this observation poses are as deep and dark as the well. This mysterious fish will have started its incredible life far away in the Sargasso Sea (van Ginneken & Maes, 2006). This is “the earth's only sea without a land boundary”, defined instead by biological characteristics and oceanic conditions to determine its location and extent within the North Atlantic sub-tropical “gyre”, and so named after the abundant presence of Sargassum, a “brown drift algae” (Sargasso Sea Alliance, 2011). It is within this unique ecosystem that the young eel larvae feed, develop and drift using the inherent currents, such as the Gulf Stream to migrate the huge distances to freshwater European and North African rivers. Unusually for fish they can travel over land if necessary, and perhaps it is this ability to move out of the confines of purely aquatic environments enabled it to find its way via groundwater channels into our well. Living for up to 30 years, you can only wonder at the adventures such a creature can have, but I am glad that one of them resulted in it appearing in our garden well - I can only hope that it is able to fulfil its destiny and return eventually to breed in the Sargasso Sea and bring its life full circle.

Sargasso Sea Alliance (2011) [online] About the Sargasso Sea.   [Accessed 21/12/11]
van Ginneken, V.J.T, and Maes, G.E (2006). The European eel (Anguilla anguilla, Linnaeus), its Lifecycle, Evolution and Reproduction: A Literature Review. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 15 (4): 367-398

Friday, 2 December 2011

The commonly anonymous Euonymus

When I lived in Nottinghamshire and botanised with my friend Mary, one of the plants that gave her a lot of pleasure was the Spindle (Euonymus europaeus). She proudly showed me the last remnant specimens along a stretch of a local hedge. It is an easy to miss shrub amongst Hawthorn, Blackthorn and other hedgerow plants. Its innocuous greenish-white flowers do little to make it stand out in the spring. It does however have an interesting and chequered history – Due to it being the winter host for two important crop pests, particularly the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae) which feeds on field beans and sugar beet, it led in the past to widespread removal from hedgerows and woodlands (Thomas. et al., 2011). I guess this explains some of its fragmented occurrence in Britain depending on how zealous and relevant this pest hosting was to local farmers. It did have some historic economic importance due to the wood being very hard, enabling it to be cut to a very sharp point and used in the making of spindles for spinning wool - Any guesses as to how it got its name!

Roll forward to Devon, our new home, and lazy summer strolling along local lanes. There in the hedge appeared many four lobed coral-pink fruits, sculptured almost unnaturally like trendy buttons or sweets (see image above). These are the charmingly characteristic products of the Spindle, no longer blending into the background but colourfully and querkily brought forward. As summer has merged into autumn, and flowers and leaves have eventually withdrawn from hedgerows, these spectacular fruits have come further into prominence, advertising a more abundant presence than I had realised. They are now fading as we approach winter, but not without a final flourish of secondary colour and confectionary mimicry, as they expose bright orange sheathed seeds (see image below). In the next week or so the Spindles will have retreated back to being that highly anonymous shrub.

Thomas, P.A., El-Barghathi, M. and Polwart, A. (2011) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Euonymus europaeus L. Journal of Ecology, 99 (1): 345-365