Thursday, 30 October 2014

Pan-species listing

A very interesting article appears in the latest (October 2014) issue of "British Wildlife". In it the author, Graeme Lyons, writes at length on the value - and sheer fun - of pan-species listing. 

The idea is to record, not just mosses, beetles, birds or whatever, but all organisms noted by an individual. In Graeme's life he claims to have recorded 5,436 species, and I have no reason to doubt this figure. Graeme's total is the result of recording species across a range of habitats over many years but arguably pan-species recording can involve recording all species within a limited area. For some people, the problems of age, disability or tight finances may place a limit on the number of sites accessible but even on a smaller scale some fascinating work is possible. I have in mind the remarkable figures resulting from surveys made in Jennifer Owen's Leicester garden. In her lovely book, "Wildlife of a Garden" she shows how she managed to record in excess of 2,673 species in her not-very-large garden between 1972 and 2001. Inevitably she called upon expert help to identify tricky or obscure groups, and that is a sensible precaution, preventing errors from creeping in.

I have identified 55 species from my garden.

In fairness to myself I should state that I moved to my present address barely two very busy months ago and I have not recorded anything other than insects and a few spiders. 

It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person, if he or she so wishes, should be able to record several hundreds of species from an average garden. The basic requisites are:  
          1. Access to the literature. The internet has helped enormously in this respect                       although some organisms, eg. tardigrades, still pose problems. (I note that                         Jennifer Owen's book contains no reference to these remarkable creatures.)

          2. A decent microscope. When I think of the equipment purchased by anglers or                   golfers the cost of a good instrument is relatively little.

          3. Patience. An infinite capacity for careful examination of a specimen.

          4. Common sense. Working through the couplets of which most keys are based is                   not rocket science and if they are incomprehensible then it may be that the                     author needs to re-think those criteria causing problems.

Camera, a hand lens and binoculars are useful add-ons but not always essential, whilst some would claim that in this day and age a computer is indispensable. What is essential is a field notebook and a good record-keeping system.

Having said all this, records are of no use unless the information is passed on. This may be a species recording group or, in my case, the local Wildlife Trust. The records can then be stored on a database for other naturalists or future generations.

Love-in-a-mist seedlings in my Daventry
garden. 26 October, 2014

Regarding the garden, what does one include? Clearly there is a problem with cultivated plants. To list, for example, Dahlias would be absurd. But what of those garden plants which have a tendency to spread and so escape into other gardens or on to waste ground? My inclination is to include them. This photograph shows a small thicket of Love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, seedlings in our garden. It is not native to Britain but comes from south Europe and is a frequent escape on to rubbish tips, waste ground and so on. I intend to list it, but in brackets.

Red Valerian plants are well established on waste
ground around Daventry. 26 October, 2014
Alongside the Nigella is Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber, also from south Europe. This is so well-established on railway banks, walls and cliffs that it behaves just like a native, competing well with other indigenous plants. It will be listed in the same way. Young plants of the Centranthus are occupying cracks in nearby paving slabs and seem likely to persist.

So, in a pan-species spirit I've recently had a go at identifying organisms as diverse as fungi, slugs, harvestmen, lichens, centipedes, moths and wasps. I even, a few months ago, invested in a book on springtails (collembola) - but I haven't got around to using it yet. Maybe I'm stupid to try and deal with all these things, but it means my life is never boring!

Of course,  trying to cover such a diverse range of organisms a person could end up as a 'jack of all trades'. In answer to that criticism I would simply point to people such as Brian Eversham. Those of us who know Brian, or are aware of his work, will be aware of his extraordinary breadth of knowledge. As examples I have beside me, as I write, Brian's papers on the identification of lichens, willows and soldier beetles; you can't get much more diverse than that. We can't all emulate Brian - but we can give it our best shot. 

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