Friday, 15 August 2014

Walking with cows at Figham Common


I had a pleasant outing to Figham Common with the Hull Natural History Society on Tuesday evening. Figham is one of the three commons of Beverley, which I had never visited before. As I arrived at 7 pm, a double rainbow glowed bright on the horizon and a group of swallows flew low over the fields. The weather was mixed, and we managed to avoid the rain for most of the time, except for a good shower at the end. There were good numbers of bullocks of various breeds in the common, and we were object of their attention (above) in between curious and nervous. What more obvious thing than looking for dung beetles in a common? After all, dung is one of the most abundant microhabitats there. I quickly armed myself with a suitable poo-stick and started poking into cow pats of a range of sizes and consistencies, while Robert Jaques predicted our chances of success remarkably well. These efforts were quickly rewarded with several beetles, which ended in the bug pot for later ID and photos. What!? dung beetles? I hear you say, in the UK!? but yes, not the large African dung ball-rolling beetle, but awesome little critters regardless, the largest about 2 cm long, which are involved in the processing of the tons of dung produced by cattle, horses and other mammals. Dung beetles, some aquatic beetles and their larvae live in the moist, rich environment of the cow pat, feeding on bacteria, fungi and decomposing vegetable matter. We also came across Yellow Dung Flies, early colonisers of fresh cowpats (below).
Robert brought me the beetles back today, nicely IDd and I had a session on them on white background. The first beetle, Aphodius fossor, a true dung beetle of the family scarabeidae, walks slowly, and when surprised in the dung, they played dead and were easy to collect. During the photo session they were quite obliging and after a few shots in the white bowl, I ended up placing it on a white sheet of paper as background, as it allowed me to get the right angle and try to portray its lovely shovel-shaped head.
Aphodius fossor, a dung beetle. The shovel-shaped head allows them to dig easily into the dung. Its species name 'fossor' means digger in latin.
a front view of A. fossor


The second species is a smaller, water scavenger beetle, Sphaeridium sp., I tried to use the same technique with this species, but it was a much more lively, fast beetle, and as shortly after coming out of the pot, it lifted the front of the body, antennae spread, like smelling the air, and it just flew off vertically, carrying its mite with it.
Water scavenger beetle, Sphaeridium sp. with mite
Sphaeridium sp. stretching its wings.
A Lesser Marsh Grasshopper
You can see the bird and plant list of this and other field visits at the Hull Natural History Society website.

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