Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Syrphid detail

Sometimes I have to hunt for specimens, sometimes specimens come to me - in this case the hoverfly (family Syrphidae) Helophilus pendulus - a common species, often seen in our garden, in this case found recently dead on a windowsill. It could have been swept into the bin, but not before treating it as an opportunity to look at external hoverfly anatomy in the following series of annotated images.

Helophilus pendulus, dorsal view - note the strong, almost semi-circular, loop in wing-vein R4+5 (about a quarter of the way in from the wing-tip), characteristic of the hoverfly Tribe Eristalini. The pattern shows that the species (and genus) is a wasp-mimic. The fainter 'false vein' or vena spuria can be seen running much of the length of the wing (approximately in the middle) and is only found in hoverflies.
Helophilus pendulus, front view - the 'face' is clearly seen with its dark vertical stripe in the centre, running across two protrusions - (1) the 'knob' and (2) the 'lip' above a strong indentation.
Underside of the abdomen showing the hind legs most clearly - the hind tibia is at least half pale in H. pendulus as shown by the red bar.
The black-and-white pattern of the thorax is visible here as well as the fine bristles around the compound eyes (note the row of four relatively large dark bristled pores just behind the centre of the rear margin of the eye) and the ocelli (simple eyes) on the top of the head (red arrow).
Dorsal view. The red arrow indicates the semicircular protrusion ('scutellum') behind the thorax which covers (and presumably protects) the upper rear of the thorax and delicate membranes between that and the abdomen. The short bar top-left indicates the yellow 'gap' between the characteristic black abdominal markings and the rear of the segment.
As in all true flies (Diptera), the 2nd pair of wings is reduced to a small drumstick-like 'haltere' which has a counterbalancing/gyroscopic function beating the opposite way to the wings in flight.

The large posterior spiracle (red arrow) near the base of each wing - used for breathing along with the anterior spiracle found just above the base of each front leg, just behind the head.
One of the 'feet' - the 5th (of 5) tarsal segments is shown by the red bar - there are two claws (solid arrow), each curving past a gripping pad (broken arrow).
At the base of the wing there are various tufts of hairs which help cover the various joints between body plates etc and prevent material getting in which might cause damage or interfere with movement.
The front of the 'face' - the central vertical stripe ends at the 'lip' above a deep indentation.
The antennae are short and consist of three segments (numbered here) - the 3rd is expanded and bears a long sensory bristle called the 'arista'.
The lenses of the compound eye.
The extended mouthparts which form a three-segmented sucking/licking structure including sensory apparatus (e.g. for testing potential food), muscular pumps and so on. Liquid food is taken - dried nectar or pollen must be dissolved/suspended in saliva before it can be consumed.
There is of course more that could be covered here (and I may expand some parts with more detail in future posts), even without dissection, but if you want to know more, the following are books I regularly use:

  • Rotheray, G.E. & Gilbert, F. (2011). The Natural History of Hoverflies. Forrest Text, Cardigan. Does what it says on the cover. More morphological detail/images would be useful, but still good coverage of natural history.
  • Stubbs, A.E. & Falk, S.J. (2002). British Hoverflies. BENHS, Reading. Keys to adults of British species, many plates, including dissections of genitalia, detailed species accounts, and useful background information.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Dead dragons

After a bit of a break, time to return to the Spot, and with another garden pond update... So far this year, I have counted 11 skins (exuviae) of common darter dragonflies (Sympetrum striolatum) that have emerged from our pond. I've only seen a few of the resulting adults, most appear to have left, presumably to find mates, but one did not get far and was found dead in the water. I don't know what happened (it appears to be hollow so scavengers were there before me I imagine), but it does provide an opportunity to look at some fine structure without killing a specimen.

The dead Sympetrum striolatum - note the fully extended wings and broken abdomen. Also, the colour has either faded aftre death, or was not fully developed.

A close-up of the abdominal segments - the last few are missing, exposing internal structures. Note the tiny teeth around the rear edge of each segment which presumably aid closure against the adjacent segment and/or membrane.

Wings clearly showing the veins and pleating, as well as basal structure and the small amount of basal yellowing/darkening.

The head showing the large compound eyes and small antennae (bottom-right, jutting forwards).

Side view of the thorax - when alive, the large white patches are yellow. Spiracles are visible, such as the elongate hole by the base of the wing.
I have not gone into much detail here - it should however provide a starting point for investigating your own specimens (after all, by far the best way!) - also, as with exuviae, specimens like this can be kept as long as needed and then passed onto others interested in investigating insect anatomy (which is what has happened to the exuviae I collected).

Finally, here are my personal 'top three' useful (and not too expensive) books covering identification of British and continental European dragonflies:

Brooks, S. (2004). Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland (4th ed.). BWP, Gillingham.
Dijkstra, K.-D. B. (2006). Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe. BWP, Gillingham.
Smallshire, D. & Swash, A. (2004). Britain's Dragonflies. WILDGuides, Old Basing