Every Flower Counts

This month’s blog comes to us courtesy of Chris Foster and Jonathan Mitchley, lecturers in the School of Biological Sciences.

Pollination is one of the most important ecosystem services and a great example of plant-animal interactions which are essential for maintenance of biodiversity. On the University of Reading campus there are hundreds of different wild and cultivated plants pollinated by a wide variety of insects.  In recent times, modern agriculture and other land uses have reduced the variety and abundance of pollinators through use of pesticides and inappropriate management and increasingly, conservation organisations are encouraging people to be more aware of the importance of pollinators.  

For example, the conservation charity Plantlife has been running the ‘No Mow May campaign for some years now, encouraging the public and local authorities to cut back on mowing to allow wild flowers to bloom. Letting flowers bloom on your lawn helps provide a vital source of nectar for bees and other insects, and at the end of the month you can count the flowers on your lawn to take part in Plantlife’s Every Flower Counts survey. You’ll then get your own Personal Nectar Score, which tells you how many bees your garden is helping to support.   

The University of Reading campus is home to a wide variety of grassland habitats and last spring Chris Foster and Jonathan Mitchley from the School of Biological Sciences decided to check out this Plantlife method to quantify the potential for pollinators on Whiteknights campus.  Starting last year several amenity grassland areas have been left as unmown ‘pollinator lawns, providing additional flower-rich habitat to the well-established flowering meadows, and we surveyed both of these habitats. This video introduces one of the areas and the map shows the grassland areas of different sizes which were. surveyed. 

Survey locations across Whiteknights campus

In June 2021 we counted the flowers in 1m x 1 m quadrats and following the Plantlife method the number of quadrats was calculated according to the size of the area – bigger areas sampled with more quadrats.  Twenty-four flowering species were recorded overall and the six commonest flowers recorded (in order of abundance) were Meadow Buttercup, Common Daisy, Hairy Vetch, Bulbous Buttercup, Red Clover and Common Mouse ear. 

Once the quadrat work was done the data were collated and the flower numbers for each species were input into the Plantlife online tool.  The results from tool output are shown in the table below.  Remember these are predicted numbers of pollinators using Plantlife’s algorithm, not actual pollinator measurements, but they provide a useful guide to the pollinator potential of the campus grasslands. The headline result was that the most pollinators per unit area were supported in the amenity grassland areas with lots of daisies and dandelions which are great plants for pollinators.  However, these areas tended to be smaller than the bigger less flowery meadows, so overall it was the larger areas that are likely to support the greatest number of pollinators.  

The outputs of the Plantlife online tool estimating how many pollinators each area supports

The analysis showed that the greatest number of pollinators was supported by meadow #22 (ca. 4 bees m-2) which was ca. four times as many as meadow #11 though both areas had roughly the same number of flowers (ca. 60 m-2).  This result is likely because meadow #22 had the largest numbers of the most nectar-rich plant species such as Buttercups and Red Clover.  

These results support the results of bee data collected on campus a few years back, which showed the amenity grasslands hosting slightly more bee species than the meadows, but a particularly high abundance of some of the commoner bumblebee species in the meadows once they were in full flower. More work by staff and students in the future should reveal in more detail how pollinators are using the varied flower rich habitats on Whiteknights campus throughout the year.  

Keep an eye on the Plantlife website to participate in this year’s ‘Every Flower Counts’ survey: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/everyflowercounts/ 

Many thanks to Chris and Jonathan! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights blog, please get in tough with Vicky Boult: v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk.

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Guide to five common millipedes on Whiteknights Campus

This month’s blog comes to us courtesy of Dawid Martyniuk, a Zoology student at the University of Reading.

One may come into contact with millipedes when moving logs and stones or uncovering leaf litter. Whatever the encounter, chances are that it was by accident (unless you study soil invertebrates) so you may not have had a good look at them, which can be forgiven considering their small size, usually dull colouration, and tendency to run away from light. I hope that this simple guide to five of the most common and easily identifiable millipedes on Campus will encourage readers to pay more attention to these creatures, as only with willingness to look closer can one appreciate their complexity and diversity.

Pill millipede (Glomeris marginata)         adults ~1.5cm

One of the most distinct, most common, but also one of the most overlooked millipedes on campus. Pill millipedes may look like the well-known ‘Pill bug’ (Armadillidium spp.), but these are crustacean, while Pill millipedes are of course, millipedes.
The most reliable way to distinguish them is to look at them from the side and see how many legs they have. Woodlice such as Pill-bugs all have 7 pairs of legs, while Pill millipedes have many more (17-18 pairs). Another way to tell the difference is to look at the colours and patterns. Pill bugs tend to be grey, many with faint patterns, whereas adult Pill millipedes are usually black or dark brown with distinct pale outlines on each segment.

 

Flat-back millipede (Polydesmus angustus)       adults ~2cm

In my opinion, the most common millipede on campus, the flat-back millipede is known for its flat, clearly segmented appearance. They are brown with a bumpy texture and have close to 30 pairs of legs that can be seen from above.
There are many species of flat-back millipedes (Order Polydesmida) which are difficult to distinguish without microscope examination, but Polydesmus angustus is the most common woodland species on Campus so we can assume an individual is Polydesmus angustus unless proven otherwise. All flat-back millipedes do not have eyes, so a hand lens/good camera may be useful in identification.

 

Blunt-tailed snake millipede (Cylindroiulus punctatus)       adults ~2cm

This millipede has a shape typical of most millipedes: long and cylindrical, with many small legs. It is pinkish brown, with a pale underside and has spots along its side. The most important feature is the rounded/blunt ‘tail tip’ (tail telson) which is unique to this species (and two others, but they are significantly larger). You may need a hand lens or good camera to check this, but this can be vital in identification as there are other species such as Cylindroiulus britannicus that look identical but lack such a ‘tail tip’.

 

White-legged snake millipede (Tachypodoiulus niger)      adults ~3cm

A distinct and relatively large species, this millipede is shiny black with white legs and a pointy ‘tail tip’ (tail telson). As with most other millipedes, you can sometimes find them resting in a curled position. Juveniles might not be as dark in colour and therefore be confused with species of similar shape and size, such as Ophyiulus pilosus but this species is hairier and browner. White-legged snake millipedes also have the very end of the tail tip bent slightly upwards, but this can only be seen with a good hand lens or microscope.

 

False flat-back millipede (Nanogona polydesmoides)       adults ~2cm

These millipedes resemble the flat-back millipedes, but in truth they are from a completely different order (Chordeumatida). Unlike flat-back millipedes, these millipedes have conspicuous eyes and are generally more shiny or iridescent in the light. Other differences include thinner antennae and 30 body segments when adult (true flat-back millipedes only have 20).
Again, it may be useful to have a hand lens/ decent camera to see such details.

 

I hope that now, with this new knowledge, finding a millipede will be a much more interesting experience. You can submit your findings to irecord.org.uk to contribute to the National Recording Scheme.

For information on more species and how to identify them, see the BMIG millipede species list: https://www.bmig.org.uk/checklist/millipede-checklist

Many thanks to Dawid! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights blog, please get in tough with Vicky Boult: v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk.

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Pollinator Lawn

The average lawn contains many more plant species than you might think, and where rich in flowers like Ground Ivy, Daisies, Dandelions and Birds-foot Trefoil can be important habitat for pollinating insects. Additional selected areas of short grass on campus are now being left uncut for longer through the spring and summer to provide habitat for bees, hoverflies and many other groups of flower-visiting insect. Some are left uncut specifically to protect flowering Bee Orchids, which can be seen in grass verges near the Hopkins and RSSL buildings. Short grass can provide valuable habitat for pollinators too as regular cuts trigger repeated flowering cycles, and short swards tend to have more bare patches which are ideal nesting habitat for solitary bees. The best overall approach is to provide habitat heterogeneity, boosting the total number of plant and insect species present on campus.

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Wooded Meadows

Whiteknights is home to a diverse collection of trees, some dating back to ownership of the estate by the Marquis of Blandford in the early 19th century. There are numerous veteran trees, mostly oak, which are especially notable landscape features where they grow in the open in wooded meadows. Dead branches and other decaying features on these trees provide fantastic invertebrate habitat, as do standing dead trunks of trees felled for safety reasons. Directly behind you is one such area, featuring some spectacular Lebanon Cedars, standing dead and decaying oaks, and patches of scrub which provide good habitat for breeding birds. These are rotationally managed to provide a diversity of habitat structures.

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Rewilding Areas

This area of grassland (to the right of the path from here down to Friends Bridge) received its last hay cut in August 2019 and has since been left unmanaged. Although rewilding is the current buzzword – hence our use of it on this sign – non-intervention on a small area of land does not fit stricter definitions of rewilding, so what is happening here is perhaps better described as ‘wilding’. In the campus habitats management plan it is described as a ‘Succession Area’, and it will indeed provide an ideal living laboratory site for Ecology students on campus to study habitat succession and other natural processes. Most of the small trees you see close to the path are poplars which have ‘suckered’ from the mature specimens on the other side. A study of spiders and beetles in the Whiteknights grasslands conducted in 2021 shows that this area is already starting to diverge in character from the other grasslands.

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Meadows

Whiteknights has around (ha) of species rich semi-natural grassland, an increasingly rare habitat in Berkshire and indeed nationwide. The areas of grassland to the east of Whiteknights Lake have a drier character, while those on the west side of the lake are lower lying and have a correspondingly damper nature, with some good ancient grassland indicator plants like Pepper Saxifrage and Adder’s Tongue Fern. There are also some recently established meadows that have been sown with wildflower mix, one close to Car Park 3 and another in the Harris Gardens. All are managed with a single hay cut each year, usually taken in August, with some patches cut later to provide shelter for late summer invertebrates such as crickets and grasshoppers. At the height of summer the meadows are rich in plant and insect life, with butterfly species including Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Marbled White, Ringlet, Common Blue and Brown Argus. Perhaps the most important invertebrate, in conservation terms, is the ground beetle Carabus monilis which is a priority species under the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) act.

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Whiteknights Lake

Whiteknights Lake is believed to have been created in the mid-17th century by damming the natural springs which occur in the area.  The lake was further enhanced by the Marquis of Blandford and is now approximately 5.85 hectares in size. The size and length of the lake provides a degree of separation between the north and south of the campus grounds.

Eutrophic in nature, the lake lies towards the centre of Whiteknights. It is a dominant landscape feature and is an important habitat. The lake edges were dense with trees and scrub, but where Laurel and Rhododendron have been removed or trees lost improvement in colonisation and variety of marginal plants has been observed. Yellow Flag Iris and Common Reed are establishing successfully. Due to safety concerns and to provide more opportunities for “wilding” a new strategy of minimal intervention has been implemented since 2020.

There are four pedestrian crossing points that link into a footpath network around the perimeter of the lake and the core academic areas beyond.

Overwintering ducks and gulls are a particular feature of the lake during the autumn and spring terms, particularly on the main lake. Species to look out for include Shovelers, which can be seen swishing their broad spatulate beaks through the water to filter out small invertebrates and seeds. Tufted Duck is the most regular diving duck, along with occasional Pochards. A large flock of gulls winters on campus, dividing their time between resting on the lake and feeding on the playing fields. Among 50 – 100 Black-headed Gulls (which only have their chocolate brown – not black – heads in the breeding season) there are usually a few Common Gulls, which are slightly larger with a pale green-yellow that has a dark smudge about two-thirds of the way to the tip. Little Egrets are increasingly regular in the winter, and a Grey Wagtail can sometimes be seen on the small dam by the pumping station near Stenton Hall.

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The Wilderness

The surprisingly extensive woodland on the east edge of the campus developed on the footprint of the old Whiteknights Estate’s ‘Wilderness’ garden, which would have had a more formal layout. Remnants of the original Wilderness can still be seen – for example if you look to the right soon after passing this sign you can see a row of mature Yew trees. Management includes removal of low-value invasive shrubs such as Laurel and Rhododendron and their replacement with new planting of native tree species. Other work such as coppicing is carried out to encourage ground flora. Dead wood is retained either as standing trunks or in stacks, both of which are fantastic habitat for invertebrates including several notable species of beetle.

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Moving a Museum

This month’s blog was kindly contributed by Tara Pirie, postdoctoral research fellow, and Amanda Callaghan , Lecturer in Zoology and Curator of the Cole Museum.

How do you move a museum? With a lot of help from experts and volunteers!

With 3000+ specimens including taxidermy, skeletons, fossils, and models, not to mention the extensive fluid collection with preserving agents which can be flammable or toxic, it is a mammoth task to relocate an entire museum 600m across campus! The museum in question is the Cole Museum of Zoology, founded by Professor Francis Cole in 1907 to teach zoology and comparative anatomy to undergraduate students. Originally housed at the London Road campus, the entire collection had already moved up from London Rd to the Physiology, Biochemistry and Zoology Building (thereafter AMS) on Whiteknights campus in the early 1970s. It has been used extensively for teaching zoology for 115 years at the University of Reading.

London Road Cole Museum – Special Collections, MS 5305 (Photo: University of Reading)
Norman the elephant at the Cole Museum in the AMS (Photo: University of Reading)

Planning the move to the new Health and Life Science building started as early as 2015, with plans and ideas evolving as the building plans changed. The Cole Museum would change from one with 35 cases to a smaller space containing only 14 new cases (plus 3 from the old museum). Before a single bone was packed, the curator, Professor Amanda Callaghan, was engaged in planning the museum concept from which the design and content would evolve. By early 2019 the concept of the new Cole Museum became “Life adapts and evolves” and Amanda began writing content for the 14 new cases in earnest. Work on the new bespoke cases and with a designer was halted by Covid-19 in early 2020. Despite the pandemic, the museum slowly emerged and both cases and backboard panels were in place by the end of 2020.

Before the museum design and content was even begun, we knew we had to pack up the entire collection, beginning with items on display in AMS. Staff and undergraduate volunteers had training from conservator Nigel Larkin on how to pack specimens from the small and delicate, through to the bulky and heavy. We had to source packing materials and decided to be as sustainable as possible, finding discarded items from Warp-It, other museums, and private donations; Tara even re-used the bubble-wrap from the new cases! The University’s museums conservator Fred van de Geer made bespoke boxes for some of the larger skeletons and fluids, and sourced second-hand ones for others. Meg Cathcart-James organised a system for identifying specimen location during each phase of the packing, move and unpacking, to ensure we didn’t lose a anything.

Nigel Larkin discussing how to remove the mammoth tusk (Photo: Tara Pirie)
Fragile tamarin skeleton (Photo: Tara Pirie)
Fruit bat skeleton – “I feel we have become expert in packing awkward specimens!” (Photo: Tara Pirie)
Badger skeleton (Photo: Tara Pirie)

Prior to packing, specimens were conserved; fluids were checked for any leaks, topped up if required and lids were replaced by Claire Smith and Rachel Smith and their volunteers. Taxidermy was brushed and vacuumed (we kid you not!), skeletons were cleaned, fossils were dusted, jars were painted or paint was removed; we all pitched in with whatever was required each day; volunteers actually queued to have a go at vacuuming an elephant’s ear!

Reticulated python being removed (Photo: Amanda Callaghan)
The largest spider crab in the collection (Photo: Tara Pirie)

One of the move highlights was removing the large specimens such as the python and spider crabs from their wall hangings and rehousing them on pristine new walls. Our iconic 19th century Asian elephant named Norman had to be dismantled and was lovingly and carefully strapped to a frame for his short journey to HLS. Once specimens were safely packed in boxes or crates the next task was getting them out of the building via a purpose-built ramp and across campus in a van to the new building! On the day of the move a food market appeared, without warning, in the car park adjacent to AMS meaning we had to navigate paths to access the building.

Preparation for moving the False Killer Whale (Photo: Tara Pirie)
Nigel Larkin moving the False Killer Whale to the new HLS (Photo: Tara Pirie)
The new position of the False Killer Whale in the Trilobite Café (Photo: Tara Pirie)

It was so exciting to see the first specimen in position which was the false killer whale, now hanging in Café Trilobite (Do Look Up) and it really felt we had finally made it after all the years of planning and packing! New specimens include three models by Bob Nicholls, including a large protoichthyosaur on the wall, as well as our camel who has been in hiding for decades, covered as he was in a thick grime. Thanks to Nigel Larkin he looks wonderful.

The Dromedary Camel and Manatee skeletons which were in storage are now on display in the new look Cole Museum of Zoology (Photo: Tara Pirie)
Bob Nicholls placing the most up to date model of the Archaeopteryx in the new bird case (Photo: Tara Pirie)

The Cole Museum is an undergraduate teaching collection and although is a fascinating museum for children of any age, it has not been designed for the general public. The text has been written to allow our undergraduate students to use it as a resource throughout their degrees, supporting zoology and biological science modules. Aside from the taxonomy of the specimens, you will find evolutionary and adaptation information which we hope both students and visitors alike will find interesting and useful!

This may seem like the end, but we have not finished moving. The HLS display is approximately 20% of the total collection. We are currently packing, organising and moving the rest of the collection to new storage facilities which we hope will be finished this year. The Cole team may be small and part-time, but we are mighty and we couldn’t have got this far without the invaluable help from all the museum volunteers and supporters; thank you!

For more information about the museum and opening to the general public please visit: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/cole-museum/

Entrance to the new Cole Museum of Zoology at the Health and Life Sciences building, with Norman the Asian elephant (central), Giant spider crab (right) and the new protoichthyosaur (left), Whiteknights campus, University of Reading

Many thanks to Tara and Amanda! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog, please email v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk

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The Insects Christmas

This month’s blog was kindly contributed by Chris Foster, Lecturer in Animal Ecology and Chair of the Biodiversity Working Group.

As we count down to Christmas, colleagues are busy once again with the brilliant Advent Botany series. With a little thought, anyone can think of plants that evoke the season, from spruce or fir Christmas trees to the cinnamon, ginger and cloves that spice our festive treats. Advent entomology is perhaps a harder sell, with few obvious associations, but I’d like to propose a few insect stars of the season – some more tenuous than others.

You certainly don’t expect to see clouds of insects on the wing at this time of year since many adult insects are short-lived, future generations persisting through the cold months as motionless eggs or pupae. For example, populations of the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly, occasionally reported on campus in the adult form in the summer, can be detected in winter by searching for eggs near the tips of elm twigs. They wait, still lives, for the right light and temperature cues to resume development in the spring. Other species keep developing right through winter as active larvae, especially in soil and leaf litter, which provides some insulation against fluctuations in temperature.

But there’s another group of species that are my first Christmas champions: those that wait out the winter in their final, glittering adult forms. The diverse ornamental conifer plantings on Whiteknights campus provide excellent winter habitat for these, from hirsute cypress dwelling ladybirds to the Juniper shieldbug, whose shining forewings are veneered like an old walnut dashboard. I wrote about the joys of searching in conifers in a short piece that was included in the Wildlife Trust’s Seasons series back in 2016, but it is only recently that we’ve contemplated a more systematic look at the use of ornamental trees on campus by overwintering insects. This year a Biological Sciences project student is collecting some data, and there is lots of potential for future student work either through formal research projects or simply getting involved with ad hoc recording of insects on campus.

Once the sun sets over our Christmassy conifers, my second festive insects come into their own. A small handful of moth species are active as adults in the heart of winter (as are surprisingly many small flies – midges and gnats), seeking out mates and laying eggs. One is the December Moth, a gorgeous fuzzy animal whose elegant brown cloak is edged with gold. The Winter Moth is, by comparison, unremarkable in appearance but notable for its unusual flightless females and important place in woodland food webs. Winter Moth eggs hatch in spring right around budburst, and the caterpillars provide vital nourishment for blue and great tit chicks. This link is threatened by climate change, which through phenological asynchrony risks separating peaks of caterpillar abundance and hatching dates of the chicks.

Finally, some insects that are difficult to find at Christmas still deserve a place in our festive fauna. The Holly Blue butterfly, for example, has two generations that feed on Holly and then Ivy – what could be more Christmassy? The Red-green Carpet is another we should be seeing on cards or decorations, with its attractively mossy green wings streaked with a red blush. Nowadays we see few insects represented in seasonal culture, but this charming animated film (see video below) from 1913 has beetles and crickets receiving gifts from Father Christmas before skating on a pond. With the looming threat of insect population collapses, maybe there’s no better time to revise Christmas as a time for celebrating the charm of our six-legged friends.

Many thanks to Chris! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog, please email v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk

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