Saturday, 31 July 2010

Dangerous Beetle Discovered in the UK - Citrus Longhorn

OK, so he doen't have huge fangs and he doesn't carry a plague that is going to kill you and your loved ones, but this Citrus Longhorn Beetle is a serious, serious threat if it encroaches properly in to the UK.  So, here is the bad news - one was found in Leicestershire a week or so ago.  Assume that the person who found it wasn't really looking for it and you can pretty much guess it is not the only one in England.

The Citrus Long-Horned Beetle (Anoplophora chinensis to give it its Latin name) is found in the Far East where it is considered a serious pest.  Why?  It can lay two hundred eggs after doing the Discovery Channel thing and each one is deposited separately in to the bark of a tree.  Once hatched it chews in to the tree and makes itself a tunnel in which to pupate.  Once adult the cycle happens all over again.

The Long-horned beetle is posing a threat to the environment in the US like nothing before.  Why?  It attacks healthy trees and has no enemies there.  It has no regard for where it attacks, so your garden is just as likely a place as farmland - if it has trees in it. Oh - did we tell you?  It has a cousin which, like the smarties, comes in blue....

So, just one found in the UK?  What's the panic?  Let's put it in to perspective.  If you do the math here, you will realise that the Beetle, if allowed to spread could do untold damage to the environment.  No natural enemis means carte blanche to reproduce as much and as quickly as it can.

So, if you see one of the guys in your garden then call the Plant and Seed Health Inspectorate on 01904 465625.

Friday, 30 July 2010

The Oldest Species on Earth – The Horseshoe Shrimp

It was almost bound to be small and seemingly insignificant but the oldest species of earth is a shrimp, ironic given the connotations of its name in the English language.  Rather than being the runt, the squirt and the general nobody its name implies, this little guy (the Horseshoe shrimp to friends but Triops cancriformis rather more formally) has staying power.  It is almost the same now as it was two hundred million years ago.

So, this little chap wasn’t just around when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was around when they were evolving.  Now researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland have discovered two hitherto undiscovered colonies of the rare shrimp.  And they did so in quite an unusual manner.

The shrimp has a certain trick up its sleeve.  When the weather is dry the water pools in which they live dry up and the adults die.  However, the eggs can survive in the sand even through periods of extreme dryness – and for up to twenty years.

The researchers took mud that they suspected might contain shrimp eggs and placed it in to one of their aquaria.  Sure enough a few weeks later (after water had been added) they discovered a shrimp.  It is this ability which has seen the horseshoe shrimp occasionally marketed in a similar way to the Sea Monkeys in the US.

One of life's great - if not greatest - survivors.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Sand Dollar – the Animal that Can Clone Itself

This somewhat strange looking specimen is a Sand dollar. It is a sea urchin which burrows and comes from the order Clypeasteroida – and you can see why it gets its name, as it resembles a coin.  Some joke that it is the only stable dollar in the world at the moment.  Humor aside, it does have one trick up its sleeve that we can only wish would apply to real money.  It can clone itself – creating a perfect copy.

Bizarre, but true.  A few years ago scientists discovered that the larvae of the Sand dollar are able to clone themselves.  When they were exposed to the mucus of their natural enemies – fish – they demonstrated a unique defense mechanism.  They cloned themselves which meant more or less that they halved their size.  It is thought that this new smaller size helps them to avoid detection by fish and so increase their survival chances.

Of course, they are not the only animals who do this.  Starfish in their adult phase can clone themselves by literally tearing off a piece of themselves.  However, they now know that sea urchins and sea cucumbers can also pull of this feat.  Whenever they come across an abundance of food or temperatures which help them grow well they will create a gang of clones to take advantage of the conditions.

However, the sand dollar is the only creature known to do this for purely defensive reasons.   If they effectively halve their size then the fish cannot see them.  The cloning process does take a few hours but scientists speculate that it happens when the larvae detect the mucus of their predators rather than when they catch sight of the fish itself.  They start to split themselves as soon as they detect them mucus and by the time the fish actually arrive they are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

This does have a down side, of course. It does create a whole new set of enemies, such as crabs who prefer the smaller sized sand dollar.  The crafty sand dollar seems to have an answer for this too.  Sand dollars are group creatures and bunch up together where the little guys are afforded protection by their larger brethren.

The sand dollars that children collect are beyond this sort of strategy.  Those disks that looks so fragile are the skeletons of the sand dollars that have gone up to the fishy bank in the sky.  The skeleton of a marine animal like a sand dollar is also known as a test.  It has lost its spines by the time it arrives on the beach and has a bleached appearance.  No wonder children believe that the mermaids have lost their spare cash – they do not look as if they have ever been alive by this point.

Yet they certainly were alive.  Often found in large groups (we are not sure what the collective noun is for the species – perhaps a bank of sand dollars?) they stick together for reproductive purposes (they can only clone when juvenile, after all).  There are two sexes and the gametes are released in to the water and fertilised there.  Until the test forms the larvae swim around: after they retreat to the bottom and live there.

So, when you are next beach combing and come across the test of a long dead sand dollar, spare a thought for its troubles (even though they were never financial) and perhaps you might find its clone  too.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Octopi - Oscar Nominated Animation

or in the original language Oktapodi. This is a short, very funny animated movie about how resilient and faithful two creatures can be.

Oktapodi is a 2007 French computer-animated short film that originated as a Graduate Student Project from Gobelins L'Ecole de L'Image. The short is about a pair of love struck octopuses who through a series of comical events are separated and find each other. Oktapodi was directed by Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier, and Emud Mokhberi. Music was composed by Kenny Wood.

Oktapodi was well received, winning a number of awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film (Animated) for the 81st Academy Awards in 2009.

Sailfish Drama

Sailfish inhabit the warmer sections of every single ocean on our planet.  Blue to grey in color they get their name from the erectile dorsal fin which is known as a sail – this often stretches all the way down their back and gives these fish their incredibly cool but cruel air.  You will probably notice too their elongated bill which is reminiscent of a swordfish.  In fishing circles they are known as billfish for that reason.

This amazing Sailfish Drama was caught on film at Isla Mujeres, Mexico in February 2010. The footage was captured with a RED One camera, using a Tokina 10-17mm lens, in a Deep RED Gates housing.  There is some great musical accompaniment by Alan Williams to give the footage that extra thrill.  This is really superb film making.

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