Absolutely Conkers

A horse-chestnut tree leaf with the typical markings of miner moth Cameraria ohridella

Rejoice, for it is that time of the year once again, when the horse-chestnut trees are fully loaded with their shiny deep red bullets and conkers fall from their tired branches onto our heads, before rolling on the wet ground and bouncing gracefully over a bed of brown leaves.

We have spent quite some time observing and filming these trees recently, and our collection of conkers is starting to take over the house. It is sufficient to say I have even found conkers rolling through my bedsheets as I went to sleep...

As we followed the browning of the leaves and the falling of the conkers, we couldn't help but worry as we observed the destructive work of the tireless horse-chestnut leaf miners (Cameraria ohridella). These are very small moths that on the larval stage feed on the tree leaves, burrowing or mining their way through the green, and leaving streaks of brown destruction on their path.

Holding strong against the assault of miner moths

Once the caterpillars grow to full size (which is a mere few millimetres), they cocoon and emerge as micro-moths, which we could observe in millions during the past weeks, flying around the sad looking trees and shrivelled up leaves. These parasites are not lethal to the trees, but they cause their premature ageing, meaning the horse-chestnuts that are infested tend to shed their leaves and conkers as early as the end of August.

A quick search for these leaf-mining caterpillars and we discovered that they were first observed in 1984 in Macedonia. Since then, they quickly colonised new trees and new countries, and they are currently found living and thriving on horse-chestnuts of most European countries. As far as we could observe, every horse-chestnut tree in Bologna is affected but, to our surprise, when we inspected some trees in Hamburg a week ago, we couldn't find trace of their presence. The leaves of these healthy trees were still radiant and green and the chestnuts were strong, big, and heavy, still dangling from the branches.

A freshly fallen conker, in all her shiny and smooth beauty

But it looks like apart from a few healthy trees in northern Europe, the moth is spreading, and there isn't much we can do about it. What this means is that we'll have to get used to smaller and earlier conkers, and that rather than being a typical autumnal event, we'll have to get used to seeing conkers rolling at our feet as we walk back from the beach, at the end of summer. It's good news for the little birds though, as we found blue, great and coal tits, as well as black birds and thrushes, literally feasting on the larvae at the top of the trees. A welcome and hearty snack in preparation for the long, rainy autumn that will soon arrive.

Not the healthiest leaves, but still attractive in the first light of dawn

Nick, Oropendola Productions

Falling In Style - Gliding Ants of the Peruvian Jungle

Cephalotes atratus, King of Controlled Aerial Decent

We all know of Buzz Lightyears unquestioned ability to fall in style, but he may have a new rival in the form of the Gliding Ants from Peru. Cephalotes atratus is a species found in the canopy of many neotropical forests, but it is no normal ant, because it exhibits this fascinating, almost magnetic attraction to glide back to the trunk of the tree from which it came.  It was a researcher from Berkely who noticed this, whilst sat in the canopy of the Iquitos jungle, when he brushed off a number of ants that were investigating his presence on their tree. That's when he noticed that rather than dropping like dead weight and randomly falling into the undergrowth, a group of ants soared and planed around the tree, until finally cascading back onto the original tree trunk.

Following further investigation, he discovered that they free-fall on average for 3 to 4 seconds whilst slowing their decent and locking onto the tree, orientating their flattened head, hind legs and abdomen like wings to make a rapid adjustment to point towards the home tree. Finally, the ant turns upside down and extends its claws on the legs at just the right moment to grab onto the trunk before impact. In real time this as impressive as it sounds, like a mesmerising J-shaped glide back to the tree,  which you can watch in this video:

This video was created to compare a non-gliding and a gliding ant, both dropped from a tree. Video courtesy of Steve Yanoviak.

So what is the evolutionary driving force behind this adaptation? Well, being blind, they communicate through the ability to sense and release pheromones.  As such, when they fall off a branch straight onto the jungle floor it is likely they would be unable to find the chemical pathway back to the colony leaving them lost, alone and vulnerable to predation.

Further, in the depths of rainy season the forest floor can quickly turn into a river, so any ant knocked off the tree due to strong winds or even a passing monkey would be quickly carried away by the current, becoming tasty fish food. There is even some evidence that the ants jump in desperate yet calculated attempts to flee their predators, which would make Cephalotes atratus one of the coolest ants around of the jungle (as if ants weren't cool enough already!)

I was lucky enough to encounter a few in the jungles of Manu National Park whilst working last year. In fact, one is the star of the little video "The Tasty Wood"! Check out the dark flat head, spiny back, rounded yet flat abdomen and long back legs, all tools for Controlled Aerial Decent, also known as "falling in style".

Nick, Oropendola Productions

South American Chronicles: Bandanas and Chainsaws

A sleepy prince

(If you haven’t already, click here to read the previous chapter)

The days passed, but no sign of Dante and Karina or more importantly food and gas. Once or twice a day, a boat sailed past Amaru Mayu. When these were going upstream, you could sometimes hear the roar of the engine before the boat became visible from our cabin. When that happened, we would all run to the terrace and wait with hope and a pinch of disillusion. As soon as the boat made its way around the corner of the mountain, ten to fifteen white/pink tourists would usually become visible, in spite of their full camouflage suits, pointing lenses longer than my arm at us, disappointed members of the same species. But apart from providing these brief moments of excitement, the absence of Dante and Karina meant we had no eggs, bananas nor bread. Which are basically the food staples when you live in the jungle, without a fridge. We weren't worried though, we had some reserves of rice, dry beans and yucca in the kitchen, which we knew could last us for a little while longer.

Occasionally, an odd character made his appearance in the camp. His name was David, quickly nicknamed Rambo, due to his habit of wearing a bandana and proudly sporting a testosterone fuelled perfectly sculpted body, whilst usually holding a chainsaw in one hand and a machete in the other. All this, whilst relentlessly chewing on coca leaves. He was macho, very macho, and he knew it. But he was also very quiet and made me wonder many times whether he was an incredibly wise man or just a very arrogant one. He hardly ever spoke to the others and definitely never spoke to us, but apparently he was a friend of Dante's and for this reason he would share his food with us. This in practice meant that he would appear in the camp every other morning with some freshly killed fish, cook himself some overly salted rice and then disappear with his chainsaw, to go and "maintain" the paths, leaving just the fish heads behind for us to eat. We would then probably not see him again until the following day, but we could hear the angry cry of his saw from most places in the reserve. We eventually nicknamed this "the sound of conservation".

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Ruben, who managed to extract some information from him, told us he was a local, a "man of the forest". He worked for Dante, the reserve manager, and had been sent there on this occasion to look after us, the white men and women who can't look after themselves otherwise. We weren't too sure at first how to interpret this weird character and his huge chainsaw, but we didn't give it much importance and carried on with our work.

In those first few days, everything was a new and exciting discovery. Since Dante wasn't there, we decided we would spend all of our time getting the video and sound recordings for ourselves, trying to make the most of the few charged batteries we had left. We made our first encounters with capuchin and squirrel monkeys, got to know a few hairy caterpillars, dozens of butterflies and spent a huge portion of our time filming and recording the sound of the ubiquitous, but still wonderful and fascinating, leaf cutter ants. At night there wasn't much to do, apart from staring at the flame of a candle and discussing at length all the possible reasons, factual and fictional, as to why moths are the most suicidal of all creatures. This, and watching the Moon raise with dignity over the river Madre de Dios, brighter than any other Moon I had ever seen before.

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Just your average night landscape in the jungle!

 Greta, Oropendola Productions

The Urban Naturalist: Yellow-Bellied Slider Turtles (Trachemys scripta)

  Yellow-Bellied Slider Turtles (Trachemys scripta)

We are currently in Bologna, Italy, my hometown.

I've not been back for an extensive amount of time in probably six years, so my memories of some of the most important places of my childhood had begun to fade. However, one thing that I remembered clearly was that in the public gardens "Giardini Margherita" there was a pond packed full of turtles.

So as soon as I could, I decided to go back to the same garden, hoping the turtles would still be there after so many years. This time I brought my camera and a couple of faithful lenses with me, to record whatever wildlife I could hope to encounter.

You can imagine my shock when I found myself in front of not a few little pond turtles, but an entire army of them! From giant, old sedate ones who had become tired and bored of this world and looked like they had spent far too much time in the pond, to the tiny, curious and carefree new generations, who were paddling around in zig-zag patterns. Amazed and amused, I ran to the pond and started snapping a few pictures of what I believe are yellow-bellied slider turtles (Trachemys scripta).

Big Slider Turtles with even bigger fish

Looking carefully at the pictures, I think I am seeing at least a couple of subspecies of Trachemys: the Trachemys scripta scripta and Trachemys scripta elegans, with the beautiful red markings.

The attractive colours and adaptability to different climates makes them typical in the pet trade, where they are often referred to as Slider Turtles. Their average life span is of 30 years and, once they reach sexual maturity, females can lay three times a year, between five and twenty eggs per clutch. No wonder the pond got so crowded in the past decade!

The pond is getting crowded

 

Trachemys scripta says hello

 

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 Greta, Oropendola Productions