Poor old Gilbert is getting restless. Despite the fact that there is more interest in wildlife than ever before, it seems that most of the so-called conservation organisations are losing interest in species. Instead they prefer to babble on about landscape scale conservation and ecosystem services (whatever they are). Could this be because most of their staff don't have any knowledge about species if they don't have four legs?
This is my attempt to encourage an interest in good old-fashioned natural history.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The day I found out that I'm no badger

The geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that 'if he exists, god has an inordinate fondness for beetles', due to the fact that there are more species of beetles than any other group. I have never developed such a fondness, preferring moths, flies, true bugs, etc. and only really bothering to take beetles when there were few of my favoured groups around. I think that this was at least partly due to the relative lack of identification resources but that is improving and they are starting to grow on me.

Last night I was working through my large backlog of unidentified insects. Having slogged though keys for several hours, for the last specimen of the evening I thought I'd look for something a bit easier. A small red beetle caught my eye and under the microscope it had a distinctive net pattern on the wing cases and an oddly shaped thorax. This should be easy.

Scanning through Brock's insect guide led me to the family Lycidae - the net-winged beetles. There are only four species in this family and three are illustrated in Brock. Platycis minutus occurs in the south but that has an all-black thorax and yellow tips to the antennae. Brock states that Dictyoptera aurora is the only member of the family with the thorax red but that is confined to Caledonian pine forest and my specimen came from deciduous woodland in West Sussex! Now I know there is still much to be learnt about the ecology and distribution of many invertebrates but this seemed a stretch too far.

I resorted to Google to see if there was any variation in the appearance of any of the species but could find no matches so checked the Coleoptera checklist to find out what the name of the 4th species in the family was. This was Erotides cosnardi and bingo, that's the one. Further Googling revealed that this is a very rare (or at least rarely recorded) species but it is known from the Downs in West Sussex. I sent a picture to a proper Coleopterist to check that I'd got the identification right but couldn't resist further research into the small hours and by the time he replied today I was already convinced.

My thanks to Mark Telfer for sending me a copy of his report on Erotides cosnardi for the Species Recovery Trust, from which the following information is derived. The larvae of E. cosnardi develop in the white rot heartwood of Beech trunks, presumably large dead trees. There are only 11 verified records of the species in Britain, from the Wye Valley and the South Downs in West Sussex. My specimen was from a new site but within the wider landscape from which it had previously been recorded.

This is another important find resulting from the Pan-Species Listing approach. Would I have retained the specimen, resulting in discovery of a new site for this very rare species, if it hadn't been for PSL? Probably not. Some people are a bit sniffy about PSL, probably due to a misconception that it is all about twitching, rather then the reality that for most people it is about improving your natural history skills. This approach has already resulted in the discovery of at least one new species to Britain and one new species to science. Hopefully such finds will convince the doubters of the value of PSL.

So why the blog title? The day that I found cosnardi I was taking habitat photographs for an imminent funding bid. It's quite a long walk from one end of the project area to the other and when I'd got all the images that I wanted I found myself on the wrong side of a deer fence which meant I had to walk in the wrong direction before I could start heading back. I spotted a place where Badgers had pushed up the bottom of the deer fence and decided that I could squeeze through there and take a short cut back. I'll leave the rest of the story to your imagination.